Running Behind

At every crucial moment, American officials were weeks or months behind the reality of the outbreak. Those delays likely cost tens of thousands of lives.

– “How the Virus Won
The New York Times (6-25-2020)


The president thinks so much about what he’s doing in terms of the show he’s putting on that there’s been very little attention paid to how the government is functioning. … What does the dog do when it catches the car? Turns out the dog just keeps running and barking. I had this thought in the Lafayette Square madness. Trump puts on this show. And then he gets there and has nothing to do. He’s just standing there. His whole presidency is like that.

Yuval Levin

This week’s featured post is “Back to Square One“. The reason there was no Sift last week was that I was virtually talking to churches in Illinois and Wisconsin (which answers the Firesign Theater question: “How can you be in two places at once when you’re not anywhere at all?”). The topic was “Hope and Realism in Difficult Times”. You can read the text and watch my dress rehearsal.

This week everybody was talking about the virus breaking loose again

That’s the topic of the featured post. Here are some extras that didn’t make it into that post.

A reporter at Oklahoma Watch tested positive for Covid-19 after covering Trump’s Tulsa rally. Ever the objective observer, the reporter says, “I can’t say definitively that I got it at the rally.”

McSweeney’s provides “A Message from Your University’s Vice President for Magical Thinking“.

Our university will proceed as if everything will be okay because we really, really want it to be.

It goes on from there.

Wednesday night was an interesting lesson in the divergence of American news bubbles. If you watched any of the major evening news shows on CNN or MSNBC, the main story was that the number of new Covid-19 cases in the United States had hit a new high that day, with new state records in the biggest states: California, Florida, and Texas. The second major story was that whistleblowers had testified to the House Judiciary Committee about political interference in Bill Barr’s Justice Department. (See below.) Those two stories dominated the conversation.

Throughout the evening, though, I would occasionally jump over to Fox News to see what stories Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham thought were most important. I didn’t watch any of those shows end-to-end, so I can’t definitely say they never mentioned the two stories that were dominating the other news networks. But I never caught them talking about either one. Instead, they wanted to talk about the excesses of the protests that were still going on in many major cities: statues being pulled down, the CHOP autonomous zone in Seattle, and so on. These were presented as very scary developments; our cities are dissolving into chaos.

To see if I was hearing this right, I bopped over to And yes, there was a story about the rising coronavirus case numbers — down in the third level of headlines. The impression I got was that, if you really must know about the spread of the virus, they would tell you; but they weren’t going to insist that you pay attention.

The image below was Thursday morning. There are no stories about either the virus-case spikes or the Justice Department whistleblowers in the top two rows of headlines, or near the top of the two sidebars. The sidebar headlines you can’t make out are “Iraq War vet on destroying statues: ‘We don’t solve problems via mob rule'”, “Trump touts powerful alliance and relationship with Poland”, “Dr. Nesheiwat: ‘Exciting’ experimental COVID vaccine proved ‘robust immunity'”, and “Ari Fleischer: ‘We’re having the summer of violence’, you’re seeing one-sided lawlessness”.

In the main column, you had to go down to the 13th headline to find “L.A. mayor reveals ‘troubling trend’ after uptick in coronavirus cases“. (I’ve noticed this since: If Fox does talk about the rising case numbers, it focuses on blue California rather than red Texas or purple Florida.) And your reward for going that far was a 2fer in the 14th story. You could vicariously indulge both your virus-denial and your racism by reading: “Arizona councilman chants ‘I can’t breathe’ before ripping off face mask“. Thursday morning

and Russia offering bounties to kill American troops

The New York Times broke the story Friday:

American intelligence officials have concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan — including targeting American troops — amid the peace talks to end the long-running war there, according to officials briefed on the matter. …

Islamist militants, or armed criminal elements closely associated with them, are believed to have collected some bounty money, the officials said. Twenty Americans were killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2019, but it was not clear which killings were under suspicion.

The intelligence finding was briefed to President Trump, and the White House’s National Security Council discussed the problem at an interagency meeting in late March, the officials said. Officials developed a menu of potential options — starting with making a diplomatic complaint to Moscow and a demand that it stop, along with an escalating series of sanctions and other possible responses, but the White House has yet to authorize any step, the officials said.

Several other news organizations have independently corroborated parts of this scoop. CNN was told a similar story by “a European intelligence official”. ABC got it from “a military official”, The Wall Street Journal from “people familiar with” a “classified American intelligence assessment”, The Washington Post from “officials”, and so on. So nobody is willing to identify a source, but it’s pretty clear the NYT didn’t just make this up; other news organizations looked for a source and found one.

The Post added this important detail: actual American deaths.

Russian bounties offered to Taliban-linked militants to kill coalition forces in Afghanistan are believed to have resulted in the deaths of several U.S. service members, according to intelligence gleaned from U.S. military interrogations of captured militants in recent months.

Trump and various other top officials spent the weekend using a Sergeant Schultz I-know-nothing defense. Sunday morning — what took him so long? — Trump tweeted:

Nobody briefed or told me, @VP Pence, or Chief of Staff @Mark Meadows about the so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians, as reported by an “anonymous source” by the fake-news @nytimes. Everybody is denying it and there have not been many attacks on us.

Marcy Wheeler points out that Mark Meadows wasn’t Chief of Staff at the time, which “makes it clear that whoever wrote this tweet didn’t actually refer to any records.

Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe tweeted:

I have confirmed that neither the President nor the Vice President were ever briefed on any intelligence alleged by the New York Times in its reporting yesterday.

Ratcliffe himself was took office at the end of May.

The Times insisted otherwise on Saturday:

But one American official had told The Times that the intelligence finding that the Russians had offered and paid bounties to Afghan militants and criminals had been briefed at the highest levels of the White House. Another said it was included in the President’s Daily Brief.

John Bolton happened to be on Jake Tapper’s Sunday show anyway to promote his book, so he got to comment:

The fact that the President feels compelled to tweet about the news story here shows that what his fundamental focus is, is not the security of our forces, but whether he looks like he wasn’t paying attention. So he’s saying well nobody told me therefore you can’t blame me

CNN national security analyst Samantha Vinograd described this as “gross incompetence any way you cut it”.

It would be disastrous not to get to the bottom of this. Either someone sat on this intelligence, or the President didn’t pay attention, or he decided to do nothing about it. Worse than doing nothing, Trump has continued to carry water for Putin internationally: At the beginning of this month, Trump was still pushing to get Russia invited to the G7 meetings. And regardless of who knew what when, Trump has heard about it now. Is he going to once again take Putin’s word over US intelligence and say it’s not true? Is he going to do anything about it?

and Justice Department corruption

An appeals court ruled 2-1 that the judge must accept the Justice Department’s decision to drop the Michael Flynn case, in spite of all the reasons to think that undue political influence was at work. So: obstruction of justice works.

In addition, Attorney General Barr got rid of the US attorney heading SDNY, which has been investigating several Trump-related cases. Rudy Giuliani is rumored to be under investigation, and the trial of his former friends Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman  is supposed to begin in February. Barr had previously gotten rid of the US attorney in DC, which is how Roger Stone’s sentencing memorandum got rewritten.

Congress heard testimony from two Justice Department whistleblowers. Prosecutor  Aaron Zelinsky testified that “What I saw was that Roger Stone was being treated differently from every other defendant. … This leniency was happening because of Stone’s relationship with the president.” And John Elias alleged political interference in antitrust cases.

and Biden’s huge lead

Biden has held a lead over Trump in head-to-head national polls more-or-less from the beginning of this race, but those leads almost always came with two caveats:

  • It’s way too early to take polls seriously.
  • Even if he wins the national popular vote by as much as 5%, he might still lose in the Electoral College.

But in recent weeks Biden’s lead has extended to 9.4% in 538’s polling average and 9.2% in Real Clear Politics’ differently weighted average. The most recent NYT/Siena poll has him ahead of Trump 50%-36%. That’s enough to put the Electoral College out of reach. 538’s state-by-state analysis now has Florida as the “tipping point”, the state that puts Biden over the top. He leads there by 7.4%.

In addition to the polls, there are anecdotes, like 2016 Republican presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina supporting Biden over Trump.

Democrats are constantly reminding each other not to be complacent, so I’ve been seeing references to Mike Dukakis’ 17-point lead over George Bush in July of 1988, a race Bush ultimately won by nearly 8%. That’s not a compelling parallel, though: Dukakis was relatively unknown compared to Biden, so his public image was easier to tar with negative ads. Also, Bush’s approval had been near 90% during the First Gulf War, so most voters could at least remember a time when they thought he was a good president. Trump, conversely, has never had majority approval.

The real reason to maintain focus, though, is that Trump bound to try to cheat. His claim that mail-in ballots are inherently unreliable is false, but it justifies his followers in whatever shenanigans they can come up with. The bigger Biden’s margin is, the harder it will be for fraud to take it away.

The failure of Trump’s Tulsa rally made me think of the entertainment term “jump the shark”. Trump is trying to run his old playbook in a different world, and when confronted with that fact he just tries to push it harder.

In 2016, the country was facing no immediate crises, so culture-war messaging and identity politics could carry the day for Trump. But in 2020, the world looks grim, and the public wants to know that the next president has some idea what to do about it. Trump clearly does not. Witness the word salad Sean Hannity evoked by asking the softball question: “What are your top priorities for a second term?”

As Yuval Levin put it in the quote at the top: Trump is the dog who caught the car, and all he knows to do now is keep running and barking.

and abortion

Just this morning, the Supreme Court blocked a Louisiana law that would have had the effect of closing every abortion clinic in the state. John Roberts crossed over to vote with the Court’s four liberals.

Legally, the case should have been a slam-dunk, because a nearly identical Texas law was thrown out four years ago. The only thing that has changed since then is the composition of the Court, particularly Justice Kavanaugh replacing Justice Kennedy. So this should have been a 9-0 decision: Quote the precedent and move on.

This is the third recent victory for the Court’s liberals, joining the LGBTQ-rights case and the DACA case.

This may sound paranoid, but I have the feeling John Roberts is setting up something awful in the remaining big case concerning Trump’s taxes. Roberts has some control over the order in which decisions come out, and it would fit his pattern to buffer the pain of a horrible decision by releasing more popular decisions first.

Meanwhile an appeals court held that Trump’s emergency seizure of otherwise allocated funds to build his border wall is invalid.

The panel held that the Executive Branch lacked independent constitutional authority to authorize the transfer of funds. The panel noted that the Appropriations Clause of the U.S. Constitution exclusively grants the power of the purse to Congress. The panel held that the transfer of funds violated the Appropriations Clause, and, therefore, was unlawful.

… The Federal Defendants cite drug trafficking statistics, but fail to address how the construction of additional physical barriers would further the interdiction of drugs. The Executive Branch’s failure to show, in concrete terms, that the public interest favors a border wall is particularly significant given that Congress determined fencing to be a lower budgetary priority and the Department of Justice’s own data points to a contrary conclusion.

and Trump’s push to invalidate ObamaCare

The Justice Department has filed a brief in a case about ObamaCare that the Supreme Court will decide in its next term. It argues that the whole law is unconstitutional, and would have the immediate effect of throwing tens of millions of people off of their health insurance, as well as making tens of millions of other people worry about their pre-existing conditions.

Naturally, Trump claims these horrible outcomes would never really come to pass, because once ObamaCare has been tossed aside he will finally reveal the magic replacement plan he has been talking about for five years without revealing any details.

In his entire first term, we have seen no sign of the “beautiful” health plan that Trump promised would replace ObamaCare, the one that would “cover everybody” and leave nobody worse off financially.

By now it should be obvious that Trump never had a plan; he was just stringing words together. Republicans in general have no plan. That became obvious when they tried to “repeal and replace” ObamaCare in 2017. “Replace” was just a word that polled well; it meant nothing.

If Trump gets his wish and the Supreme Court invalidates ObamaCare, no fairy godmother will tap a pumpkin and turn it into a Republican healthcare plan. ObamaCare will just be gone and nothing will replace it until Democrats get back in power.

BTW: If you’re a young person who has recovered from Covid-19, or who imagines that recovering from it would be no big deal: Decades from now, you would still have a pre-existing condition. Your insurance company might point to any subtle scarring on your lungs or other long-term organ damage as a reason not to cover whatever health problem you might have then.

Biden responded to Trump’s attack on ObamaCare with a good speech on health care.

and DC statehood

The House voted to make Washington D. C. a state. The bill is expected to go nowhere in the Senate and Trump has promised to veto it.

This is a voter suppression issue. The District of Columbia has a population over 700K, which makes it bigger than Wyoming or Vermont, and not far behind Alaska and North Dakota. But DC is 49% black and only 44% white. It would be a reliably blue state with two Democratic senators and a congressperson. (Let’s not even get into Puerto Rico, which would be the 31st-largest state, between Utah and Iowa. But, I mean, they’re Puerto Ricans! Can’t give them a say in how the national government is run.)

It doesn’t take much interpretation to see that the Republican opponents are saying those people shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Here’s Mitch McConnell:

They plan to make the District of Columbia a state—that’d give them two new Democratic senators—Puerto Rico a state, that would give them two more new Democratic senators. […] So this is full bore socialism on the march in the House. And yeah, as long as I’m the majority leader of the Senate, none of that stuff is going anywhere.

Socialism on the march … yeah, it must have been Karl Marx who described governments as “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed“.

And Tom Cotton:

Yes, Wyoming is smaller than Washington by population, but it has three times as many workers in mining, logging and construction, and ten times as many workers in manufacturing. In other words, Wyoming is a well-rounded working-class state.

So people in Wyoming work for a living, unlike all those bureaucrats and welfare mothers in DC. The WaPo’s Karen Tumulty responds.

Wyoming is an interesting example. Nearly half of Wyoming’s territory is federal acreage — a much higher proportion than in the District (less than one-third). And among states, Wyoming ranks top in the nation when it comes to the percentage of its workforce employed by federal or local governments.

Which makes you wonder what, precisely, is the senator’s criterion for deeming a group of people “well-rounded.”

Cotton also raised the argument that the kind of people who live in DC are just not ready for self-government.

Would you trust Mayor Bowser to keep Washington safe if she were given the powers of a governor? Would you trust Marion Barry?

Why not just go ahead and use the N-word, Tom? You know you want to.

you also might be interested in …

The New York Times does a great job of annotating video to show how police over-reaction in Seattle turned a peaceful demonstration into a violent encounter.

It looks like Mississippi is going to remove the Confederate stars-and-bars from the state flag.

#ByeIvanka is a bit harsh, but you have to wonder at the administration’s decision to make her the face of skills-based hiring. The implication seems clear: The federal government is doing away with “outdated career or licensure requirements” so that it can hire more relatives of well-connected people.

I’ve written before about defunding the police: It makes sense to divert some large portion of local police-department budgets to fund other kinds of first-responders, who can answer 911 calls that don’t require guns or handcuffs, like marital disputes or mental health problems. Those incidents might get handled better, and fewer people will wind up dead.

However, we need to watch out for a trap: The Covid-19 crisis and the ensuing economic collapse have made a shambles of local budgets; expenses are up and revenues are down. There’s going to be pressure to cut across the board, including laying off teachers and not fixing potholes.

In this environment, the path of least resistance is to substantially cut the police budget, as protesters have been demanding, but not to fund any alternative first-responders. That scenario looks like the nightmare painted by right-wing critics of police defunding — you call 911 and no one answers. When that turns out badly, as is bound to happen somewhere, it will be easy to convince the public that the defund-the-police approach has been tried and discredited.

and let’s close with a marching tune

March, March” from the trio formerly known as The Dixie Chicks. Here are the lyrics.

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  • jane0429  On June 29, 2020 at 1:41 pm

    Trump will continue to skirt the important issues because he is caught between a rock and a hard place. All he can do is stay off course and cause disruption everywhere he goes, takes the emphasis off of him. Like you say, PATHETIC

    Jane Sergi

  • Phillip Daulton  On June 29, 2020 at 1:55 pm

    All hail John Lennon and Groucho Marx! That was my favorite Firesign album!

  • Diane Romito  On June 29, 2020 at 2:36 pm

    Bush Sr. ran against Dukakis while he was VP to Reagan. The first Gulf War occurred in Bush Sr.’s term as President. Therefore the good ratings he received for handling the first Gulf War would have affected his re-election contest that he lost to Bill Clinton, not the election he won against Dukakis. I’m old enough to remember, unfortunately.

    • weeklysift  On July 6, 2020 at 8:24 am

      Of course you’re right. I don’t know how mental glitches like that happen.

  • brainwane  On June 29, 2020 at 3:46 pm

    Enjoyed your Firesign Theatre reference here.

  • Guest  On June 29, 2020 at 4:04 pm

    This was the first time getting to actually see/hear you deliver a sermon, Doug, so thank you for sharing. It was nice and even comforting to see your considered, gentle, and ultimately hopeful demeanor come through a different media.

    One the theme of hope, no ink available this week for the apparent ouster of Eliot Engel, the resounding reaffirmation of AOC, Mondaire Jones poised to take Nita Lowey’s seat as the would-be-first openly gay black congressman, McGrath suddenly in a competitive primary, etc? Or am I mistaken that you would take these as points of hope rather than fear?

    • weeklysift  On July 6, 2020 at 8:30 am

      In the sermon I was trying to stay away from rivalries within the Democratic Party. In general, I’ve never bought into the theory that a progressive will run a stronger race in the general election, so progressive primary victories raise both my hope and my fear.

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