“The Big Steal.”
May 24, 2022
[Audio version here]
During a visit to Japan, President Biden said that the US would get “involved militarily” if China attacked Taiwan. Biden’s unequivocal answer stands in stark contrast to prior US statements about Taiwan, which were deliberately ambiguous about a US response to an invasion by China. The US does not have a formal military assistance agreement with Taiwan, so asserting that the US would get “involved militarily” offers security assurances beyond official US policy. More to the point, the official US policy is that there is “One China” that includes both “mainland China” and Taiwan. See generally, NYTimes, Biden Pledges to Defend Taiwan if It Faces a Chinese Attack.
As soon as Biden made his statement, members of his staff attempted to walk-back the statement, claiming that it did not signal any change in US policy. But, as the NYTimes reports, Biden has committed to intervene militarily in defense of Taiwan on at least two prior occasions—which were also walked back by his staff.
What’s going on?
Biden is a man of little artifice who speaks plainly. It could be that he is “saying out loud” what US military leaders and foreign policy strategists are thinking privately. If so, the question remains whether that is a good practice, given the global stakes. See The Guardian, Biden’s Taiwan vow creates confusion not clarity – and raises China tensions. I don’t know if Biden’s direct approach is a good practice, but “getting out ahead” of the policymakers is reminiscent of Biden’s remarks suggesting regime change in Russia over Ukraine (“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power”). If Biden chooses to answer reporters’ questions more directly than other presidents, he should exercise appropriate restraint in disclosing confidential strategic thinking.
On the other hand, it seems unusual that a president’s staff would need to correct him on the same subject repeatedly. Indeed, the fact that his staff feels the need to “correct” him suggests that they view the statements as mistakes on Biden’s part. Speaking of “gaffes,” Biden is a politician known throughout his career for making “gaffes,” so perhaps this dynamic is nothing new.
Although one might expect the Fox News disinformation machine to be hyping Biden’s latest statement as evidence of dementia, reporting on the Fox News site has been supportive of Biden’s comment—because it aligns with a long-held GOP focus on the threat from China. Per an op-ed on Fox’s website regarding Biden’s statement, “Biden and the US have a major national security interest in seeing Taiwan’s democracy continue.”
Whatever is going on, it isn’t the preferred way to make foreign policy. If Biden wants to change US policy, he should do so in an organized, thoughtful way. Biden has increased global trust in US leadership significantly. He should guard against squandering that newfound trust by making off-the-cuff remarks that surprise his staff, allies, and hostile nations.
Putin is losing the disinformation war.
Like Trump, Putin can’t admit defeat—even as he is being defeated. Putin has attempted to prevent the truth about Ukraine from reaching the Russian people. That is a foolhardy task, and Putin is losing. He is now being simultaneously attacked by the right-wing nationalists and anti-war agitators.
The Institute for Study of War reports on May 23rd that Russian bloggers and nationalist influencers are “increasingly criticizing the failures of Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine and are calling for further mobilization that the Kremlin likely remains unwilling and unable to pursue in the short term.” As Putin is being attacked by the right, “unidentified assailants continued attacks against military recruitment offices in Russia on May 23, indicating growing discontent with conscription.”
But the biggest blow came on Monday when “a diplomat at Russia’s mission to the United Nations in Geneva resigned over the war in Ukraine, writing that he has never been “so ashamed” of his country, in a rare public rebuke of the war from within the Russian government.” See WaPo, Russian diplomat to U.N. Boris Bondarev resigns over Putin’s Ukraine war. The statement by Bondarev is remarkable and deserves to be read in full. Bondarev says, in part,
For twenty years of my diplomatic career, I have seen different turns of our foreign policy, but never have I been so ashamed of my country as on February 24 of this year.
The aggressive war unleashed by Putin against Ukraine, and in fact against the entire Western world, is not only a crime against the Ukrainian people, but also, perhaps, the most serious crime against the people of Russia, with a bold letter Z crossing out all hopes and prospects for a prosperous free society in our country
Bondarev’s brave proclamation is another sign that Putin miscalculated his ability to control information and squelch internal criticism.
The biggest financial scandal of Trump’s administration gets worse.
The NYTimes reported on Monday that Jared Kushner and Steve Mnuchin may have used taxpayer subsidized travel to influence the Saudi government to invest in an investment funds created by Kushner and managed by Mnuchin, respectively. See NYTimes, Kushner’s and Mnuchin’s Quick Pivots to Business With the Gulf. Per the Times, “the two men’s travels toward the end of the Trump presidency raises other questions about whether they sought to exploit official relationships with foreign leaders for private business interests.”
Jared Kushner and Steve Mnuchin should be investigated and prosecuted if they solicited investments for their post-White House careers while still employed by the federal government. When this story first broke in April, here is what I wrote:
This is possibly the most significant political scandal in American history but has been forgotten in the 12-minute news cycle that passes for journalism in the US.
If Republicans gain control of either chamber of Congress, they will spend years investigating whether private citizen Hunter Biden was given access to legal business opportunities because his last name is Biden. Democrats can’t let “Jared’s $2 billion payoff scandal” die. Demanding accountability is the right result for legal and moral reasons—and has the virtue of being the politically smart thing to do. When people ask about Hunter Biden’s laptop, we should respond, “We’ll trade Hunter’s laptop for Kushner’s encrypted texts with Mohammed bin Salman soliciting investments in Kushner’s private equity fund while Kushner was on government payroll.”
The reactionary majority kills another constitutional right.
In a 6-3 vote, the reactionary majority declared that indigent defendants cannot raise “ineffective assistance of counsel” when seeking a new trial—even if the ineffective assistance of counsel prevented them from timely raising the issue on appeal. See Leah Litman in Slate, The Supreme Court just gutted the constitutional right to effective counsel. The procedural and legal issues are complicated, but the reactionary majority has essentially ruled that some innocent people wrongly convicted have no remedy under federal law. That result applies even if their court-appointed counsel failed to provide an adequate defense at trial and then failed to raise that issue on appeal. Justice Thomas wrote the majority opinion. Of course, he did.
Florida’s social media law held unconstitutional.
Governor Ron DeSantis tried to punish social media companies for moderating extremist posts on their platforms. Florida passed a law telling social media companies what speech they must permit on their private platforms—a clear violation of the First Amendment. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s ruling that the Florida law violates the First Amendment prohibition against government control of speech. See HuffPo, Appeals Court Rules Florida Law On Social Media Unconstitutional.
This issue is headed to the Supreme Court. Texas passed a similar law, which a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit found to be constitutional. Social media companies have asked for a stay of the 5th Circuit’s ruling. We should learn in a few days if the Supreme Court will allow each state to dictate what speech social media platforms must publish. If the Court refuses to stay the 5th Circuit’s ruling, expect chaos to ensue.
I received many comments that disagreed with my analysis of Senator Bill Cassidy’s statement “if you correct our population for race” then ‘Louisiana’s maternal death rate among Black women isn’t as bad as it looks.’ Every reader claimed that Cassidy was making a statistical argument, not a point about race. One reader said I improperly inferred racist intent on Cassidy’s part, and another reader said that “correcting” data is a standard term used to describe the process of converting raw data into a form that could be compared across populations.
I don’t agree with the readers’ defenses (or explanations) of Cassidy’s statement, but when I receive significant disagreement from readers on a point I make in the newsletter, you deserve to know that fact.
I receive reader suggestions every day for better communication strategies for Democrats. Many suggestions essentially say that Democrats should try harder, be more organized, and do better. Agreed on all counts, but we need a bit more specificity if we expect to see improvements.
Today, a reader sent a note that seemed to have a kernel of truth with the pith and punch to resonate with voters. The reader suggested that Democrats label the Republican platform for 2022 as “The Big Steal.” Here is his suggestion, with edits and additions by me:
Vote Republican, and you vote for the “Big Steal”:
Your Social Security will be stolen.
Your Medicare will be stolen.
Your prescription drugs will be stolen.
Your affordable health care will be stolen.
Your right to privacy will be stolen.
Your control over reproductive choices will be stolen.
Your voting rights will be stolen.
Your right to elect leaders will be stolen.
Our democracy will be stolen.
It’s not perfect, but you get the idea. Iterations are endless. Republicans want to take things away (The Big Steal), including personal liberties and equal protection under law. Democrats want to provide Americans the things they need to lead safe, healthy, productive lives—including personal liberties and equal protection under the law. Somewhere in there is a winning message.
What do you think? Let me know in the Comments section or “reply” to this email.
Talk to you tomorrow!