Mississippi struck down entire ballot initiative process to prevent medical marijuana

In a brutal loss for direct democracy in Mississippi, the state's supreme court struck down a ballot amendment on Friday that legalized medical marijuana in the state. But the ruling didn't stop there. Invoking a technical flaw in the law, the court invalidated the entire process for amending the state's constitution by popular vote.

"The killing of our ballot initiative process means that Mississippi is, definitively, the state with the least democracy, the most restricted ballot access, and where voters' voices matter least when it comes to the deciding our future," said Ashton Pittman, a reporter at the Mississippi Free Press.

"The Mississippi Supreme Court just overturned the will of the people of Mississippi," read a statement from Medical Marijuana MS, which organized Initiative 65 that would legalize the use of the drug. "Patients will now continue the suffering that so many Mississippians voted to end."

About 73 percent of voters support legalizing medical marijuana, according to Pittman.

At the heart of the court's decision is a crucial flaw in the process that gives voters the power to amend the constitution by popular vote. According to the law, organizers for ballot measures have to collect signatures from the five different congressional districts in the state. But since the 2000 census, Mississippi dropped from having five districts to having only four.

So in the court's understanding of the ballot approval process, it's now impossible to legally get an amendment on the ballot, because the requirements demand organizers obtain signatures from a district that no longer exists.

"This is absolutely stunning," said lawyer Tyler Quinn Yeargain. "In the face of an outdated constitutional provision, the Mississippi Supreme Court just threw up its hands, killing the state's voter-initiated amendment process."

In the 6-3 majority's ruling, the court acted as though it was completely bound to reach its conclusion. It even suggested that the drafters of the ballot process may have intended to render it invalid should the state ever lose a congressional district, a claim that strains credulity to the breaking point:

Pursuant to the duty imposed on us by article 15, section 273(9), of the Mississippi Constitution, we hold that the petition submitted to the Secretary of State seeking to place Initiative 65 on the ballot for the November 3, 2020, general election was insufficient. Because Initiative 65 was placed on the ballot without meeting the section 273(3) prerequisites for doing so, it was placed on the ballot in violation of the Mississippi Constitution. Whether with intent, by oversight, or for some other reason, the drafters of section 273(3) wrote a ballot-initiative process that cannot work in a world where Mississippi has fewer than five representatives in Congress. To work in today's reality, it will need amending—something that lies beyond the power of the Supreme Court.

It said that for the process to be fixed, the state's constitution must be amended. But of course, that's now impossible to do by ballot measure, so it will only happen if the legislature permits it.

Despite the majority's suggestion, this result was not inevitable. The minority argued in a dissent that Mississippi law still has five congressional districts on the books, even though they are not recognized by the federal courts. But since they exist under state law, and the requirement that ballot amendments garner signatures from each of the five districts is also a matter of state law, the dissent argues that it would be reasonable to uphold the ballot process as lawful.

"I respectfully suggest we look to Mississippi law. With this novel approach in mind, I point out that under current Mississippi law—whether we like it or not—there are five congressional districts," wrote Justice James Maxwell in the dissent.

He criticized the majority for doing exactly what it claimed to oppose: "The majority confidently and correctly points out that '[n]owhere therein does the Constitution allow amendment by the Supreme Court.' ...Yet the majority does just that—stepping completely outside of Mississippi law—to employ an interpretation that not only amends but judicially kills Mississippi's citizen initiative process. While the majority admits that our Constitution should not be 'expanded or extended beyond its settled intent and meaning by any court[,]' it actively injects a federal court's injunction into our Constitution—an injunction that was in no shape, form, or fashion aimed at the initiative process."

Pittman, the reporter, noted on Twitter that the decision is already inspiring outrage: "There is A LOT of anger among conservative and liberal Mississippians on my social media feeds right now. I'm not seeing any regular Mississippians who are happy about this. A lot of cross-partisan outrage, though."

Observers worry this decision will completely block hoped-for amendments that would expand voting access and Medicaid eligibility.

This paragraph from a Clinton-to-GOP voter shows America has reached a dark place

A new piece from the New York Times published this weekend and focusing on the rightward shift of south Texas politics included a remarkable quote from a voter highlighting the deep divides in the U.S. over basic understandings of social reality.

Reporter Jennifer Medina peered into Hidalgo County, which contains the city of McAllen. Democratic U.S. Rep. Vincente Gonzalez represents the area, and his is considered one of the most at-risk seats in the party heading into the 2022 midterms. He explained the Republicans' recent strength in the area by pointing "in part to misinformation, particularly on YouTube and other forms of social media."

And then the Times quoted 40-year-old voter Elisa Rivera, who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 but turned to the GOP in 2020, to clearly illustrate Gonzalez's point:

"I was following along the family tradition, my dad is a hard-core Democrat, my father was really for unions, and I thought the Democrats defended the union," Ms. Rivera said, before adding: "But then I started to research myself and found out the Democrats are supporting witchcraft and child trafficking and things like that, things that get censored because they get labeled conspiracy theory."

Oddly, the Times report does nothing to point out that her specific claims are completely false. Democrats do not support witchcraft and child trafficking — these are complete delusions.

Rivera is clearly a believer in QAnon, misled by the sprawling conspiratorial fiction into accepting truly bizarre and baffling claims about American politics. They have no connection to reality, but as Rivera's claim that she "started to research myself" indicates, they're tied into a web of liars, scammers, and deluded people who spread these malicious myths online. The fact that someone could go from voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016 to believing in QAnon now is a stark reminder of how quickly these lies can spread and have an impact on political reality.

Even beyond her particular case and the specifics of QAnon ideas, the deep well of misinformation poisoning the right wing and dividing the country into separate epistemic hemispheres is truly alarming. In recent days, Donald Trump has been more openly discussing his lie that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent and stolen, a belief shared by more than half of Republican voters, according to a recent Ipsos poll. Misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines, mostly influencing Republicans, is also impeding efforts to eradicate the Covid-19 pandemic.

Governing and living in a country where so many voters are completely disconnected from reality on central matters of political concern is likely to be an escalating problem for the foreseeable future.

Something smells rotten in the new report on the Rudy Giuliani case

While the federal raid on Rudy Giuliani's home has attracted the national media's attention, there's a thread in the story leading up to the issuance of the search warrant that may be underplayed.

The New York Times story that initially reported the news on Tuesday noted that the investigation into Giuliani has been ongoing for years, growing out of his conduct implicated in the first impeachment of former President Donald Trump. He was instrumental and deeply involved in Trump's 2019 effort to induce Ukraine to announce an investigation into Joe Biden, who they perceived as the president's likely 2020 rival. As part of the effort, Giuliani sought to disparage the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, and eventually, Trump had her removed from office.

This piece of the puzzle, the Times reported Thursday, is key to the current investigation. One central question is whether Giuliani sought to have Yovanovitch removed while illegally working as a lobbyist for foreign interests, according to the report. These allegations aren't particularly new — they've been looming over Giuliani since the impeachment story first broke.

But what's particularly interesting is that the search warrant for Giuliani's home and office was issued now, under the Biden administration. The Times reported that the Trump DOJ, under then-Attorney General Bill Barr, blocked previous efforts by prosecutors to get the search warrant:

The United States attorney's office in Manhattan and the F.B.I. had sought for months to secure Justice Department approval to request search warrants for Mr. Giuliani's phones and electronic devices.
Under Mr. Trump, senior political appointees in the Justice Department repeatedly sought to block the warrants, The New York Times reported, slowing the investigation as it was gaining momentum last year. After Merrick B. Garland was confirmed as Mr. Biden's attorney general, the Justice Department lifted its objections.

CNN confirmed this reporting:

And the search warrant for multiple electronic devices comes at an interesting time for Giuliani and Trump. Last year, prosecutors in New York tried multiple times to obtain approval from Justice Department officials in Washington for the search warrant, including in advance of the 2020 election, but did not receive it.
They ultimately did receive it at some point after Trump left office, and as a result of the delay, the seized material may include all sorts of records and communications that prosecutors might not have received if the warrants were approved earlier.

This looks on its face suspicious. Why was Biden's DOJ willing to approve search warrants on Giuliani, but Trump's DOJ — under his ally Barr, who he nominated specifically to protect himself — wasn't? Perhaps this question answers itself.

The Times report gestured at a possible answer, but it was unconvincing:

As the investigation into Mr. Giuliani heated up last summer, prosecutors and F.B.I. agents in Manhattan were preparing to seek search warrants for Mr. Giuliani's records related to his efforts to remove the ambassador, but they first had to notify Justice Department officials in Washington, according to people with knowledge of the matter.
Federal prosecutors must consult Justice Department officials in Washington about search warrants involving lawyers because of concerns that they might obtain confidential communications with clients. The proposed warrants for Mr. Giuliani were particularly sensitive because Mr. Trump was his most prominent client.
Career Justice Department officials in Washington largely supported the search warrants, but senior officials raised concerns that they would be issued too close to the election, the people with knowledge of the matter said.
Under longstanding practice, the Justice Department generally tries to avoid taking aggressive investigative actions within 60 days of an election if those actions could affect the outcome of the vote.
The prosecutors in Manhattan tried again after the election, but political appointees in Mr. Trump's Justice Department sought once more to block the warrants, the people with knowledge of the matter said. At the time, Mr. Trump was still contesting the election results in several states, a legal effort that Mr. Giuliani led, those officials noted. [emphasis added]

This only gives us more reason to think the Trump Justice Department was corruptly protecting the president's ally. And it's frankly perplexing that the Times include the bolded sentence above in the piece, given that Bill Barr was prominently insisting in 2020 that he did not believe the DOJ has a policy "to avoid taking aggressive investigative actions within 60 days of an election if those actions could affect the outcome of the vote."

Barr was clear that he thought the policy was narrower than that.

"The idea is you don't go after candidates," Barr said in a widely discussed interview. "You don't indict candidates or perhaps someone that's sufficiently close to a candidate, that it's essentially the same, you know, within a certain number of days before an election."

Perhaps Giuliani was "sufficiently close to" Trump, in Barr's view, to limit any investigatory steps, but Barr made clear he thought he had wide discretion. And Barr found exceptions when it was convenient for him. As ProPublica reported, the DOJ told prosecutors of a new "exception to the general non-interference with elections policy" months before the 2020 election if they suspect election "fraud that involves postal workers or military employees." And the Justice Department announced an investigation of allegedly discarded ballots in September ahead of the election. Bizarrely, the statement said that the nine ballots had been cast for Trump — an odd claim to include in such a release, and one that had to be subsequently corrected when it was realized only seven of the ballots were found to have been cast for Trump. Barr reportedly brought news of the investigation directly to Trump. Legal experts widely condemned the announcement as inappropriate, and no charges were brought in the case.

Barr was clearly willing to make up rules on an ad hoc basis to get the outcome he wanted around an election. He spoke endlessly of John Durham's probe into the origins of the Russia investigation, despite guidelines against such public disclosures, and he indicated strongly that he sought to release a report on the case, likely before the election — though it didn't live up to his hopes.

But even if it could be justified to block the Giuliani warrants before the election, it's ridiculous to suggest no overt steps could be taken against Giuliani after the election was over because he was part of the effort to contest the result. Such an instantiation of the policy is quite far afield of its purpose and prone to obvious abuses.

Of course, some Biden critics have made the opposite case, that Democrats and the current administration are going after Giuliani for political reasons and that it was Barr who was behaving appropriately. Fox News host Jesse Watters, for example, said of the raid on Giuliani: "Democrat prosecutors are waging political warfare for the benefit of the Democratic party just to purge Trump because he challenged the system." (There's no indication that the investigators in the case are predominantly Democrats.)

He added: "This is a thin predicate and everybody knows it."

These claims are far less plausible than the proposition that the Trump DOJ was protecting Giuliani. When asked about the raid, Biden said Thursday: "I made a pledge: I would not interfere in any way, order, or try to stop any investigation the Justice Department had, no way. I learned about that last night when the rest of the world learned about it, my word. I had no idea this was underway."

Trump, on the other hand, made no secret about his desire to direct the DOJ to investigate his enemies, he defended his right to do it, and he did so explicitly and in public many times.

Any DOJ approval of the Giuliani warrants would be overseen by Attorney General Merrick Garland, who has been widely respected across the board for years. He was confirmed by a vote of 70-30 by the Senate, winning the votes of 20 Republican senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. There's no indication that he's a rabid partisan.

And of course, Garland doesn't have the final say. An independent judge has to approve the warrant prosecutors are seeking. We don't know what evidence that judge saw, which is why it's so preposterous for Watters to claim we know the predicate for the investigation is "thin." Andrew Giuliani, Rudy's son, slammed the judge as an Obama appointee in comments on Thursday, but he provided no evidence that any other judge would've ruled differently. And even if the warrant wasn't approved under Bill Barr, the investigation itself still occurred under his leadership, making it even less persuasive to argue the whole case is a partisan witch hunt.

The anatomy of a spin job: How Fox News tried to smear George Floyd protesters after a peaceful night

Despite the fact that Derek Chauvin's murder of George Floyd was captured on film and widely denounced even by fellow police officers, right-wing commentators had a bizarre collection of reactions to the jury's finding on Tuesday that the former cop was guilty of the three charges against him. One common theme was to suggest that despite the guilty verdict in the trial, Black Lives Matter protesters who were outraged by the murder would still not be satisfied and would riot in response.

For example:

As it happened, the response to the verdict from protesters featured a mix of emotions, some celebrating, some still grieving. As the Associated Press reported:

With that outcome, Black Americans from Missouri to Florida to Minnesota cheered, marched, hugged, waved signs and sang jubilantly in the streets. The joy and relief stood in stark contrast to the anger and sometimes violent protests that engulfed the country following Floyd's death.

But Tuesday's celebrations were tempered with the heavy knowledge that Chauvin's conviction was just a first step on the long road to address racial injustices by police.

But the danger and unreasonableness of Black Lives Matter and progressive activists is a central part of right-wing messaging, especially on Fox News. So they weren't going to let the facts get in the way of the narrative. That's how on Wednesday, we got a Fox News story by reporter Danielle Wallace with the headline "Portland protests post-Derek Chauvin guilty verdict result in 2 arrests, bike officer punched in head," and an opening two paragraphs that explained:

Portland was rocked by violent demonstrations Tuesday – even after a Minnesota jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of the murder of George Floyd.

At least two people were arrested and video first published by The Oregonian and retweeted by police showed a demonstrator dressed in all black punching a bicycle officer in the head before more officers piled on top of the suspect. Police also released photos showing shattered windows at local coffee shops and graffiti of the anarchy symbol and ACAB, an acronym meaning "All Cops Are B*******."

The opening sentence sticks with the story they wanted to tell all along — the one previewed by Lahren on Tuesday. Except even the details in the headline don't seem to support the idea that the city "was rocked by violent demonstrations" — how rocked could the city be if there were only two arrests?

It's true the linked video appeared to show a civilian assaulting a police officer after another officer brushed by the civilian from behind on a bike. Assault can be a serious crime, but it is not typically national news, and it is not clear how this incident "rocked" the city of Portland. There's also no sign the assault itself was a part of "violent demonstration"; rather, it may have just been the result of a tense interaction with police. And it's hard to tell from the angle of the video whether the police officers' response to the civilian's punch was proportionate and appropriate — a question Fox News doesn't even seem to consider.

The other event Fox News discussed was small-scale anti-cop vandalism. The extend of vandalism appeared to be two business windows, one shattered and one intact. Fox News included three photos from three different angles of the same windows in its article. (There's also a reference to a dumpster being set on fire and then extinguished, though there's no claim this was caused by a protester). Minor vandalism is a crime, but it occurs all the time without much wider implications.

What's particularly notable about the article, though, is a note at the bottom which explained that Associated Press content is used in the Fox News piece. This is a common industry practice — outlets pay to license AP stories for their own use, which sometimes they reprint verbatim, and sometimes they use AP content interspersed with original writing and reporting. The AP story Fox News drew from included the paragraph I quoted above, noting that the reaction to the verdict "stood in stark contrast to the anger and sometimes violent protests that engulfed the country following Floyd's death." Fox News chose not to include this paragraph in its story, and why should it? That's not the story it wanted to tell.

Consider also this paragraph from Fox News:

Demonstrators have also set fires, broken windows and vandalized buildings, including a church, a Boys & Girls Club and a historical society in recent days over the deaths of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, and Adam Toledo in Chicago, as well as a fatal police shooting in Portland last week.

This is taken almost verbatim from the AP, except that instead of "Demonstrators," the AP said "Small groups of protesters." Fox News clearly wanted to play up the nature of the menace and avoid any language that differentiated violent protesters from other activists. (In fact, the Fox News story didn't use the word "protesters" at all.)

Elsewhere on its website, Fox News a story about a sign in Minneapolis at George Floyd Square that has a sign offering advice "For White people in particular," urging them not to make the protesters about themselves. In a caption on the story, Fox News asked of the story: "IS THIS 'HEALING'?"

So here's what basically happened: After a broadly peaceful and mournful reaction to the Chauvin verdict across the country, Fox sought to feed into its pre-arranged narrative by blowing up a couple local police stories in Portland into a larger crisis. The story ignored reporting about the peacefulness of the national reaction and chose to try to stoke conflict and find ways to fan the flames. However, at the very end of the article, the author included a quote that actually seemed to give away the game about the events that supposedly "rocked" the city of Portland:

"One thing to note, the area affected by the criminal activity was contained within few blocks of downtown Portland," the bureau added. "This is not to minimize the impact to those who were victimized by the property damage, as we take any damage seriously. But the overall geographical area that was impacted was relatively small."

Federal judge offers an unprompted warning for Trump: 'Legal consequences' for Jan. 6 may be coming

In a ruling on Wednesday in the case of one of the accused Capitol rioters, U.S. Judge Emmett Sullivan offered a provocative aside about former President Donald Trump's role in the attack.

Sullivan ruled that Jeffrey Sabol of Colorado is too dangerous and too much of a flight risk to be released prior to his trial. Sabol is accused of beating a cop during the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, which sought to prevent Congress from officially counting the Electoral College votes that made Joe Biden president.

The judge rejected the argument that Sabol was prompted to engage in the insurrection in the heat of the moment, spurred on by Trump's rally. Evidence suggests, instead, that Sabol engaged in "prior planning" ahead of the attack, Sullivan found, which distinguishes him from rioters who are not being held pre-trial.

"He brought tactical gear, including a helmet, steel-toe boots, zip ties, a radio and an ear piece," Sullivan said. "He later admitted to law enforcement that he had equipped himself with this gear because he anticipated encountering counter-protesters. ... He also maintained, even days after the riot when he believed he was wanted by the FBI, that he had been "fighting tyranny in the D.C. Capitol."

He continued: "The Court is ultimately unpersuaded by Mr. Sabol's argument that he did not plan to commit violence or disrupt the electoral process on January 6, 2021, but rather was caught up in the "frenzy" that was created in part by then-President Trump's, and his associates', words and actions."

Then, in a section of the ruling flagged by journalist Marcy Wheeler, Sullivan indicated he believes Trump and his allies may have significant legal exposure for their roles.

"To be sure, to what extent President Trump's words and actions led to the violent and shocking storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 is an important question, and one that could still have legal consequences for the former President and his prominent supporters," Sullivan wrote, citing a civil lawsuit against the former president. "But President Trump's culpability is not before this Court."

He continued, noting that Trump's own role in spurring the attack would not exonerate Sabol:

To the extent Mr. Sabol raises this issue to suggest he has a complete defense to the criminal charges he faces based on President Trump ostensibly or actually giving the rioters permission to use violence to interfere with the peaceful transition of power, that argument fails for the reasons clearly and thoughtfully articulated by Chief Judge Howell ... Indeed, "even if former President Trump in fact . . . 'told the assembled rabble what they must do' (i.e., attack the Capitol and disrupt the certification of the electoral vote count) and 'ratified their actions,' . . . he acted 'beyond [his] power' as President, . . . and his statements would not immunize defendants charged with offenses arising from the January 6 assault on the Capitol from criminal liability."

While the judge's remarks on their own don't have any legal significance for the former president, they're a useful reminder of a fact that is far too quickly being swept under the rug. The former president had a clear role in the most direct attack on American democracy in memory, and he has not yet been held legally responsible for it. Many others who believed his lies about the election, on the other hand, are suffering dearly. And while there's been significant attention paid to the ongoing investigations of Trump in New York and Georgia, his most egregious violations took place in the American capital.

Tucker Carlson's revealing slip of the tongue stuns observers: 'Every day he becomes more and more explicit'

On Wednesday evening, Fox News host Tucker Carlson let slip a fleeting but surprising turn of phrase that promptly stunned many of his critics.

While discussing the treatment of a man charged as a part of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, Carlson tried to draw a comparison to the case of Bree Newsome, a filmmaker and activist who tore down the Confederate battle flag at the South Carolina statehouse in 2015, leading to her arrest.

But when Carlson described the incident, he didn't describe her tearing down the "Confederate flag," but simply "the flag" — a phrase that in American English typically refers to the American flag.

It was noteworthy for at least two reasons. First, Carlson seemed to be downplaying the commendable political motivations behind Newsome's act of protest. And second, it seemed to suggest his sympathy for and alliance with the Confederacy.

This second point is even more salient when considering the fact that his broader point was a defense of the Capitol insurrection — an event he has consistently tried to downplay — which included a man wielding the flag of the Confederate traitors through the government building as the mob tried to stop the counting of presidential votes.

Many argued that Carlson was quite clearly showing where he stands: with the insurrectionists.

Molly Jong-Fast🏡 on Twitter

Molly Jong-Fast🏡 on Twitter www.twitter.com

“It feels like Tucker is getting worse https://t.co/xWCmAZYT74”

Chuck Schumer just found a new way to circumvent Republican obstruction in the Senate — here's how

On Monday evening, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's spokesperson put out a seemingly dry statement that actually contained major news.

The New York Democrat has found a new way to avoid Republican senators' obstruction on budget-oriented legislation:

The Parliamentarian has advised that a revised budget resolution may contain budget reconciliation instructions. This confirms the Leader's interpretation of the Budget Act and allows Democrats additional tools to improve the lives of Americans if Republican obstruction continues. While no decisions have been made on a legislative path forward using Section 304 and some parameters still need to be worked out, the Parliamentarian's opinion is an important step forward that this key pathway is available to Democrats if needed.

It's a somewhat esoteric point, but it could have significant implications for the Democrats' agenda. From the start of Joe Biden's presidency, Democrats knew that either they'd have to eliminate or significantly modify the Senate filibuster to pass major bills, or else find ways to work around Republican obstinacy. As the filibuster currently functions, 60 votes are needed to pass a bill through the Senate, which means at least 10 Republicans would have to join with all of the sitting Democrats to enact legislation. However, the budget reconciliation process allows the Senate to pass a bill on a pure majority vote, which is how Democrats passed the nearly $2 trillion American Rescue Plan in March. It was also crucial in passing Obamacare in 2010 and the Trump tax cuts in 2017.

Usually, though, Senators have believed that reconciliation could only happen on a limited basis — there's only one budget per fiscal year. But Schumer concluded — and crucially, he got the Senate parliamentarian to agree — that it's also legitimate to revise a budget using the reconciliation mechanism. This would allow the Senate to pass additional bills with a simple majority vote, thereby circumventing the filibuster and Republican opposition.

This "could enable Democrats to bypass a filibuster and use reconciliation once more in fiscal year 2021 (and several more times next year)," explained CNN"s Sahil Kapur.

This is something of a game-changer. It means passing laws will be easier through the Senate. But there are still major restrictions on what this procedure can be used for — most notably, the rules dictate that reconciliation bills can only include provisions that are directly, rather than incidentally, related to the budget, i.e., taxing and spending. This means that many of the Democrats' priorities, such as securing voting rights, will still have to overcome the filibuster to become law.

One might think that it doesn't really matter if Democrats can pass many reconciliation bills or just a few, because they can just stuff as many fiscal provisions as they want into a single package and pass it as a whole. This is true, but as Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said Monday night on MSNBC, the ability to "revise" the budget will give Democrats more "flexibility" to enact their agenda.

It's easy to see why by thinking back to 2017, when the GOP controlled the House and Senate. Republicans had two major priorities to push through reconciliation: Repealing Obamacare and cutting taxes. They could have put their entire agenda into one major package, but they didn't — for a good reason. Both issues were highly complex and involved a lot of negotiation and consideration of divergent interest groups. Balancing these needs and the positions of the caucus members can be exceedingly complex. By separating the issues, they were able to better manage the competing interests and keep the caucus together. Ultimately, their Obamacare repeal plan failed — but their tax cuts were able to become law. Had they tried to pass it all at once, they might have gotten nothing accomplished at all.

Of course, sometimes breaking up legislation into smaller packages can have disadvantages. If the party is counting one large bill to pass, it becomes harder for any single lawmaker or small group of members to torpedo the bill — they don't want to be the only reason a major priority failed. This encourages everyone to compromise. When the bill is broken up into smaller parts, different individual lawmakers may decide to take a stand against different components, and in the end nothing might pass.

But what Schumer has achieved expands the options available to his caucus. If he and Biden think one big bill is the best way to pass the infrastructure package, they can still move forward with that. But now they'll also have the opportunity to break it up into separate bills over a longer period of time, if that serves their needs. And they'll also be able to respond to any unforeseen fiscal emergencies with party-line votes, if need be, and it could be easier to enact legislative fixes to laws that have already passed, which can avert major implementation challenges.

Here are 7 new bombshell details from the complex and unraveling Matt Gaetz investigation story

After a report from the New York Times about an investigation into Rep. Matt Gaetz's potentially illegal sexual relationship with a girl who was 17 years old broke on Tuesday, the story began evolving and developing at an exceptionally rapid pace.

His appearance on Fox News Wednesday night only further muddled the narrative.

But on Thursday, several new news reports emerged, offering more corroboration, context, and details to further fill in the gaps. While the truth of the matter and the full story are far from clear, a partial image of the events seems to be coming into focus.

Here are seven new details in the story that help make sense of it all:

1. The Washington Post confirmed two separate Justice Department investigations

As we already knew, Gaetz has been under investigation for months under suspicion of a sex crime. But after this news broke, he revealed the existence of another federal investigation — an investigation of an attempt to "extort" him for $25 million over the sex crime allegation.

The Post confirmed the claim that two men approached the Florida Republican's father, Don Gaetz, with a request for money and an offer to help Matt Gaetz out of legal peril.

A separate report from the conservative news outlet the Washington Examiner, which appeared to get documents straight from Gaetz himself or his family, included an email from David Goldberg, an assistant U.S. attorney in Florida. It appeared to confirm that Don Gaetz is working with the FBI "to determine if a federal crime has been committed."

2. The request for $25 million relates to an Iranian prisoner

The Post reported that the request for money from the Gaetz family was driven by a need to fund an operation to save Robert Levinson, a man who was imprisoned in Iran and who the U.S. government reportedly believes is dead. Former Air Force intelligence officer Bob Kent has reportedly been a driving force behind the rescue effort.

Interestingly, despite Gaetz's claim that he is being "extorted," the Examiner report describes the documents requesting the $25 million as a request for a "loan." And the Post found that $25 million is the exact amount the U.S. government has offered as a reward for information on Levinson. It's possible, then, that $25 million requested from Gaetz would be reimbursed if the operation were successful and the reward was paid out.

However, many of the details surrounding this part of the plot remain obscure.

3. The incentive in the so-called "extortion" plot is highly dubious

According to the document obtained by the Examiner, the plan was for Gaetz to get a presidential pardon if the rescue plan were successful:

In exchange for the funds being arranged, and upon the release of Mr. Levinson, the team that delivers Mr. Levinson to the President of The United States shall strongly advocate that President Biden issue a Presidential Pardon, or instruct the Department of Justice to terminate any and all investigations involving Congressman Gaetz.

This makes little sense. There's no reason to believe Biden would pardon Gaetz or shut down an investigation into an unrelated matter even if he were somehow single-handedly responsible for rescuing an Iranian prisoner. It's hard to see why anyone would think this is even a plausible form of enticement for the Gaetz family.

The Examiner report also says that documents suggest the president was aware of this plan, which seems even less plausible.

4. The document obtained by the Examiner suggests a wider probe of Gaetz than has been reported

Though the reports of the DOJ investigation into Gaetz have focused on the sex crime, the document reportedly given to the Gaetz family proposing the funding of the rescue operation suggests the Republican lawmaker is facing scrutiny for a wider range of conduct. In addition to the suspicion of sex trafficking, Gaetz is also supposedly being investigated for "political corruption, public integrity, and other criminal allegations."

Of course, there's no way to verify the document or its claims at this point. But if it's genuine — and it seems like it was provided by the Gaetz family to the outlet — it's worth noting that even in Rep. Gaetz's version of events, the men who approached his father already knew about the sex crimes allegation before they became public.

5. The document also indicated the sex crime investigation into Gaetz is well-developed

Again, it's hard to say whether the documents' claims are at all reliable, but it asserts that the FBI knows there are pictures of Gaetz and another "Elected Official" in a "sexual orgy with underage prostitutes." This would be a bizarre claim to make while trying to falsely extort someone — if they knew such pictures didn't exist, they'd have no reason to go along with the scheme. But so far, what we can see of this plot doesn't point to a sophisticated effort. The document is poorly edited and, as argued above, makes an implausible offer of a presidential pardon.

Gaetz had referred to the claim about pictures with underage prostitutes on Fox News Tuesday night, baffling many observers.

The document also said that there is a grand jury investigation into the matter, that one underage girl testified that Gaetz paid her for sex, and that other people facing charges have "agreed to testify against Congressman Gaetz."

6. It's not clear if there's actually evidence of an extortion scheme

The reports do somewhat bolster Gaetz's allegation that he's facing an extortion scheme. But scrutinizing the documents and claims published by the Examiner, it's actually not clear if all the components of extortion fit the facts of the case.

While the report does find Gaetz's wealthy family was approached with the extreme request for a "$25 million loan," it's not clear there's any implied retaliatory threat if the loan is not given. Rather, it presents the plot as an "opportunity" for Gaetz with the presidential pardon as the pay-off. Of course, criminals often cloak threats in other language, so this word choice isn't exonerating. But the problem with the extortion theory is it's not clear David McGee — the lawyer for the Levinson family who Gaetz claimed was trying to extort him — had any power over the investigation that threatens Gaetz. If really all he was doing was presenting a plan to Gaetz that he thought would be mutually beneficial, it's not clear there's any extortion-type crime involved.

In comments to the Post, McGee confirmed he talked to Don Gaetz, but said only: "It is a pleasant conversation of a dad concerned about his son, and the trouble his son was in." He denied to the Daily Beast that there was any extortion scheme, but he stopped answering the outlet's calls after the Examiner published the documents.

So what is Gaetz up to? One possibility was suggested by a notable moment in his Fox News interview with Tucker Carlson. When Carlson asked Gaetz when he first became aware of the sex crimes investigation into him, he refused to answer the question. The New York Times reported that the investigation began sometime around the end of the summer in 2020. But Gaetz instead said he wanted to focus on the middle of March 2021, when he first became aware of the so-called extortion scheme. He also tried to suggest that the FBI is trying to cook up false charges against him. And yet, if Gaetz really thought the FBI was trying to frame him for a crime, why would he go to the FBI when he thought he was being extorted?

Gaetz may be trying to conflate the bizarre request from McGee, which he claims is extortion, with the investigation into his potential sex crime, to muddle the waters and protect his reputation. But since the highest levels of the Trump Justice Department were aware of the investigation into Gaetz, it's hard to believe it was an entirely fabricated charge. It seems more plausible that it's a serious investigation (though its unclear if charges will result) that happened to spur a bizarre (and potentially though not clearly criminal) request from a separate party.

Gaetz seems to be taking a page from Trump's playbook and litigating his defense in the media, rather than sticking with the advice most lawyers would give: keep your mouth shut and only speak when necessary. That means he wants to wage a propaganda war against any potential charge coming. So if he can make the public think he's being targeted as part of an extortion plot, all the better.

7. Gaetz claimed he's looking into job opportunities from conservative outlets — but two denied any interest

"There is not a single conservative television station I haven't had a passing conversation with about life after Congress," Gaetz told the Daily Beast. "I have neither received nor solicited offers from any of them. But yes, I've talked to either executives, producers or hosts at Newsmax, OAN, Fox, Fox Business, Real America's Voice and probably others I'm forgetting in this moment as I focus intently on refuting false accusations against me."

But a Fox official told the Beast: "No one with any level of authority has had conversations with Matt Gaetz for any of our platforms and we have no interest in hiring him."

And OAN CEO Robert Herring said: "Right now, I'm not really hiring anybody for talk shows. I think he is a great congressman..."

Update: The story has been corrected to clarify that it was Kent that the Examiner said was pushing the rescue effort.

Decoding the mysteries of Joe Manchin's cryptic statement on one of the Democrats' top priorities

Will Democrats actually be able to pass the For the People Act, a sweeping bill aiming to protect and strengthen voting rights across the county? Like with so many other questions, the answer almost certainly comes down to one person: Sen. Joe Manchin.

The West Virginia Democrat is the only member of the caucus not to endorse S. 1, the Senate's version of the bill. But on Thursday, he released a ponderous, meandering, and cryptic statement about the bill — one that didn't give supporters of the bill too much optimism.

The top-line analysis is pretty simple. Passing any significant version of the For the People Act will require eliminating or significantly altering the Senate filibuster, something which Manchin has repeatedly insisted he doesn't want to do. Though some of his statements leave him some wiggle room on supporting reform, Manchin's statement about S. 1 is hardly a rousing endorsement that would suggest he's willing to upend a feature of the Senate rules that he has long defended in order to pass it. So it looks unlikely Manchin will go along with any plan to circumvent the filibuster to enact For the People.

The deeper analysis is more complex. It's possible Manchin will come around to weakening the filibuster on another issue under separate circumstances, which would open the door to passing S. 1. And there are features of the bill he enthusiastically endorses:

As our lives become more complex and dominated by technology, the notion of restricting voting to a single 8 or 12-hour timeframe is not indicative of how most voters live. Expanding voter access to the polls by requiring at least fifteen days, including two weekend days, of' early voting in every state will increase turnout and help individuals, especially those who have traditionally not been able to participate, cast their votes. We can also do more to help those groups that have been historically disenfranchised and underrepresented in our federal elections through bipartisan solutions like those included in the Native American Voting Rights Act that would authorize additional, dedicated resources for Native American and Alaska Native voters.
Our country must also improve the security and reliability of our election infrastructure. Foreign adversaries continue to contribute to misinformation during elections and recent hacks into software used throughout the federal government show that such attacks are growing increasingly advanced. There are multiple bipartisan bills included in the For the People Act that would greatly enhance our ability to combat these evolving threats, including the Secure Elections Act and the Prevent Election Hacking Act.

Manchin also threw his support behind efforts to force disclosure of political spending.

At the same time, he clearly resisted some of the bill's efforts to intervene in local election administration, saying: "As a former Secretary of State, I know, firsthand, the importance of local decision-making around voter accessibility and election security." (He correctly pointed out that, as others have reported, many election officials feel that parts of the bill as written do not provide enough time to implement some of the changes it requires, even if those changes are desirable.)

The statement also mentioned the idea of bipartisan compromise multiple times, even though the notion that there could be a significant bipartisan compromise on an issue as fraught as voting rights is farfetched. Republicans are increasingly convinced they need to suppress the vote in order to stay in power.

In one line, Manchin even seemed to give some credence to the GOP talking point that Republican voters' distrust of election results is a reason to be hesitant about pushing forward with reforms, even though that distrust comes from Republican lawmakers spreading misinformation and false fears about voter fraud:

Even though our democratic institutions have survived foreign interference and a violent attempt to enter the United States Capitol during the counting of Electoral College votes, America's declining trust in the government and each other makes it harder to solve key problems. That trust will continue to diminish unless we, as members of Congress, transcend partisanship to strengthen our democracy by protecting voting rights, implementing commonsense election security reforms, and making our campaign finance system more transparent.

Unmentioned in the statement at all was the single-most consequential part of the For the People Act: redistricting reform. The Brennan Center for Justice explained the importance of this provision:

Last decade saw some the most aggressive partisan gerrymandering in U.S. history. Democrats gerrymandered where they could, but Republican success in the 2010 midterms gave them control of the process in far more states — and they used it, gerrymandering to create a net bonus of 16 to 17 seats in the House.
Without reform, this decade could be even worse. The Supreme Court's 2019 ruling that partisan gerrymandering does not violate the Constitution means that would-be gerrymanderers now have license to use new mapping technology and powerful analytics about voters to create even more durable and pernicious gerrymanders. And as historically has been the case, much of this gerrymandering invariably will target communities of color.
The For the People Act responds by barring maps that have the intent or effect of giving a party an undue statewide advantage. To measure effect, the For the People Act sets out an easily applied two-part statistical test. If a map fails the test, it must be redrawn, regardless of intent. Inclusion of this straightforward test means that it will it be easier to identify bad maps and that biased maps can more quickly be thrown out by courts.

Whether Democrats are able to keep their majority in the House in 2022 may come down entirely to the passage of this single plank of the bill. Even if Biden pulls off a historically successful first two years of his presidency and earns a wave of popular support, the effect of the coming gerrymandering and redistricting could mean that Democrats will nevertheless lose control of the House — thus hindering the second half of Biden's term.

It's not clear whether Manchin knows or cares about these dynamics — the issue is just conspicuously missing from his statement. As is any acknowledgment that bipartisan compromise on this issue is almost certainly impossible.

So what is Joe Manchin thinking? Does he really believe Republicans will come around, or is he just talking about bipartisanship for show?

It's hard to say. But he has seemed to engage in performative bipartisanship before only to abandon it when push came to shove.

"We're going to make this work in a bipartisan way," Manchin said in early February about Biden's coronavirus relief bill. "My friends on the other side are going to have input. And we're going to do something that we agree on. I'm not just going to do it just down the lines of, just saying party-line vote."

Manchin ended up voting for the bill in a purely party-line vote after he extracted a minor concession from his Democratic allies reining in spending on unemployment insurance. The senator appears to be making similar noises around Biden's upcoming infrastructure push. He claims he wants the plan to be bipartisan, but his clear enthusiasm for a giant spending bill makes it seem likely he'll follow the same path he took on the relief package.

Is that where he'll end up on the For the People Act? It's possible. Perhaps he's trying to turn down the temperature around the bill, which could make it easier for him to eventually take aggressive steps to pass it. On the other hand, reading the tea leaves of his most recent statement, there's not much sign he's as enthusiastic about voting rights as he was about spending on economic relief and infrastructure. And while spending bills can be passed with a simple majority through budget reconciliation, passing S. 1 demands 60 votes or changing the filibuster — a much heavier lift. That means we're left in a position that is increasingly familiar — with Manchin holding all the cards.

Trump is exploiting a journalist's mistake to whitewash his potentially criminal conduct

Former President Donald Trump and his allies tried to use a new correction in the Washington Post on Monday to paper over some of his most egregious conduct after the 2020 election.

Here's what happened. Back in January, the Post reported on a call Trump had with elections investigator Frances Watson in Georgia. Trump had been openly trying to discredit the results of the election and enlist other officials to help him overturn his loss to Joe Biden in key states, including Georgia. The Post reported that when he spoke to the investigator, he told her to "find the fraud" in the Georgia ballots and that it would make her "a national hero."

We now know that's not precisely true — Trump didn't use the words in that quotation, based on a new recording of the call published by the Wall Street Journal. The Post updated the original story with a lengthy correction on Monday, noting that instead Trump told Watson she'd find "dishonesty" in her investigation and that she had "the most important job in the country right now." He also said: "When the right answer comes out, you'll be praised."

It's a good thing the Post and reporter Amy Gardner issued a correction. The recording indicates that Trump did not use the exact quotes the outlet attributed to him. As far as I can tell, no one was demanding the Post issue this correction, and doing it has drawn fire to the outlet, so it wasn't an easy decision to make — but clearly the ethical and responsible one.

In the end, though, the errors don't affect the substance of the original story. Trump's overall message to Watson was the same, even if the precise wording differed from what was reported. He told the investigator what he wants her to find (something he'd already made clear publicly) and suggested she'll be rewarded, at least by the public, if she does so, as a part of his effort to undo a legitimate election. This is corruption, plain and simple. The mistake the Post and Gardner made was taking the source — described as "an individual briefed on the call" — too literally when describing Trump's words, and using the source to put words directly in Trump's mouth. This is incredibly common in journalism but should probably be avoided in most instances. Recalling exact wording of conversations is surprisingly difficult, as anyone who transcribes recordings knows, and reporters shouldn't rely on sources for verbatim recounts of others' words unless there's corroborating evidence or the uncertainty is made clear.

Trump and his allies have seized on this mistake by the Post and blown it entirely out of proportion, using it to rewrite the history of a saga that is undeniably damning for the president. In a statement, the former president said:

The Washington Post just issued a correction as to the contents of the incorrectly reported phone call I had with respect to voter fraud in the Great State of Georgia. While I appreciate the Washington Post's correction, which immediately makes the Georgia Witch Hunt a nonstory, the original story was a Hoax, right from the very beginning. I would further appreciate a strong investigation into Fulton County, Georgia, and the Stacey Abrams political machine which, I believe, would totally change the course of the presidential election in Georgia.

North Carolina Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn, a freshman member of Congress and staunch supporter of the former president, pushed a similar line on Twitter:

Both of these statements are wrong — Cawthorn's even more so than Trump's. With somewhat more subtlety, Trump elided the difference between two recorded phone calls he had with Georgia officials. By referring to a "reported phone call I had with respect to voter fraud in the Great State of Georgia," he conflates the call with Watson with a separate call he made to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. That call was reported prior to the Watson call, on Jan. 3, by the Post. And the Post had the full recording when it published that call, so it didn't suffer from any of the inaccuracies described in the report on the second call (which were, nevertheless, not sufficient to alter the substance or meaning of the call).

Trump's claim, therefore, that the Georgia investigations into his efforts to influence elections officials are a "Witch Hunt" and a "Hoax" is false. Many legal commentators have said there is more than enough evidence for investigators to justify launching a criminal investigation into his conduct.

The former president is almost certainly creating this confusion on purpose to discredit any potential charges or allegations that may arise out of the Georgia case. Cawthorn, on the other hand, just seemed uninformed and confused as he incorrectly identified the person who Trump was talking to on the call in question. He also falsely claimed that the Post "admits that they LIED" — which is not true, since a mistaken claim is not the same as a lie. Trump, at least, acknowledged that the Post did the right thing in issuing the correction. Cawthorn, on the other hand, didn't seem to realize that the fact of the correction undercuts the idea that the press is working with Democrats to lie. Instead, the most reasonable interpretation is that reporters like Gardner are doing a complicated job, and sometimes they make mistakes. But they're trying to get the facts right — unlike the congressman from North Carolina.

The worst senator in the country lets slip his bigoted thoughts about the Capitol attack

Who is the worst member of the U.S. Senate? There's certainly a lot of fierce competition. But for my money, there's a clear answer: Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson.

One reason to be confident in this choice is that I've been mulling making this argument directly for several months now, and there's been no shortage of news events to build the thesis around. His latest missive against decency in an interview on the conservative Joe Pags Show, though, is particularly ghastly.

"On Jan. 6, I didn't feel threatened," Johnson said, referring to the day of the Capitol insurrection. "Mainly because I knew that even though those thousands of people that were marching to the Capitol were trying to pressure people like me to vote the way they wanted me to vote, I knew those were people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law, so I wasn't concerned."

This claim, of course, is obviously false. Five people died directly from the events of that day, including a cop, and two more police officers took their own lives in the subsequent days. More than a hundred officers were reported injured, many of them seriously. Every person who invaded the Capitol was guilty of trespassing, at least, and many have been charged with much more serious crimes. Even the action Johnson himself describes — pressuring lawmakers to vote against a lawful election — is potentially a crime in the context and is certainly a violation of the Constitution.

Johnson's remarks got even worse when they turned from a blatantly partisan defense of insurrection to outright racism and bigotry.

He continued: "Had the tables been turned, and President Trump won the election and those were tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter and Antifa protestors, I might have been a little concerned."

What's so remarkable about these claims is that there's no clear incentive for him to be making them — it's hard to see how they help him politically. It seems they just reflect what he really thinks. But they're obviously incorrect, and he should recognize as much. He was in danger on Jan. 6 — there were literally bombs planted near the Capitol. His claim that it would have taken to Black Lives Matter to really scare him, even when the actual threat he faced was dire, just highlights his open embrace of irrational bigotry.

Johnson has been out on a limb on Capitol riots for a while, far further than many other Republicans are willing to venture. During a Senate hearing on the Capitol attack, Johnson read into the record an account from the far-right outlet The Federalist pushing the debunked notion that the Trump-supporting rioters were framed. This was obvious nonsense from the start, and anyone with a shred of credibility recognized as much — but there was Johnson, pushing obvious misinformation from the Senate itself.

Of course, Johnson's not the only Republican to have a disturbing relationship with the events of Jan. 6. Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri arguably helped incite the attack by being the first of the chamber to join Donald Trump's call to oppose the counting of the Electoral College votes for Joe Biden on that day. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas later joined along, and even after the Capitol was assaulted and lawmakers forced into hiding, seven Republican senators still cast votes against certifying the election. Johnson, it should be noted, wasn't among them.

But despite the other strong competitors in the race to be the worst senator, Johnson's cumulative turpitude surpasses them all. Sure, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham utterly debased himself with his about-face on and fealty to Trump. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton is a warmonger at home and abroad. And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been the bane of Democrats for years, standing athwart many of their greatest hopes and plans.

Yet what McConnell did, he mostly did as a representative of his party's larger goals. That doesn't exonerate him, of course, but it casts him as more of a cold functionary than a malevolent monster.

Meanwhile, Johnson seems to go out of his way to be as devious as possible.

Before the 2020 election, he took up the call from Trump to attack Biden by launching an investigation into Obama-era intelligence activities. And he didn't hide his motivation at all.

"The more that we expose of the corruption of the transition process between Obama and Trump, the more we expose of the corruption within those agencies, I would think it would certainly help Donald Trump win reelection and certainly be pretty good, I would say, evidence about not voting for Vice President Biden," he said.

Such "corruption" never came to light, because it was based on lies and distorted facts. But that never mattered for the Wisconsin senator — what mattered was harming Biden.

These remarks followed another investigation from Johnson and Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley into allegations about Biden and supposed corruption in Ukraine. That investigation found no wrongdoing on the part of the former vice president, though it attacked his son Hunter Biden. Johnson had been warned that in pursuing the Biden probe, he was following a trail of Russian propaganda and disinformation. He didn't care.

Despite his vigorous pursuit of these hollow allegations, Johnson, of course, showed no interest or curiosity about Trump and his family's massive conflicts of interest.

And when Johnson and Trump's efforts to tarnish Biden failed to defeat him, the Wisconsin Republican used his Senate seat to hold a hearing on debunked claims of voter fraud and election rigging. This fed into the bogus narratives pushed by the then-president, helping lead to the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Even more bizarrely, Johnson used a hearing on Dec. 8 to promote bogus claims by medical quacks about Covid-19. The New York Times reported:

So on Tuesday, for not the first time, Mr. Johnson lent his committee's platform to the promotion of unproven drugs and dubious claims about stemming the spread of the coronavirus while giving prominence to a vaccine skeptic.
In a move that led even most members of his own party on the committee to avoid the hearing, Mr. Johnson called witnesses who promoted the use of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin. The National Institutes of Health guidelines recommend against using either drug to treat coronavirus patients except in clinical trials.

Trump himself, a popularizer of dubious ideas about hydroxychloroquine, had long dropped his advocacy for the drug. When he personally fell ill with the disease, he didn't take it as a treatment. But Johnson was still wasting committee time pursuing these avenues while he had control. Another witness that day argued, falsely, that social distancing and masks aren't helpful in reducing the spread of the virus.

Whenever a controversial issue arises, Johnson seems determined to get on the wrong side of it. He was a major advocate against a December round of direct payments to individuals for economic relief during the pandemic, despite the wide popularity of the policy and its ability to help people suffering from the crisis.

If all this is making you frustrated or angry at Johson, just know this: He knows people don't like him. And it only makes him worse.

"I think it's obvious that I'm target number one here," Johnson told CNN in a recent interview. "People are out to destroy me."

I wonder why?

Johnson is up for re-election in 2022 — or at least, he will be if he chooses to run again. He hasn't made up his mind yet, though Trump has reportedly encouraged him to stick around.

All the criticism he's taken, he said, just makes him likelier to run again: "If anything it makes me feistier."

Could he win again? It's certainly possible in Wisconsin. Trump won the state in 2016, and he only barely lost it by 20,000 votes in 2020. If Biden faces the typical midterm backlash, keeping the seat might be an easy task for Johnson.

But Wisconsin isn't a straightforward place. One of the key factors that truly clinches Johnson's role as the worst senator in the country is that his state can do so much better. Its electorate doesn't require its representatives to act the way Johnson does. It has also sent Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a stalwart progressive, to the upper chamber in a seat once occupied by the infamous Joe McCarthy — himself a shameless demagogue with many similarities to Johnson.

That may mean Wisconsin is open to kicking the worst senator in the country to the curb — if he doesn't slink out of his own accord.

Susan Collins throws herself a pity party — here's why she's really upset

Sen. Susan Collins is clearly not happy with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and she hasn't been for a long while.

In an interview this week with Politico, she called his recent criticisms of her "extraordinary" and said: "Why Chuck seems to be going out of his way to alienate the most bipartisan member of the Senate is a mystery to me."

She was focused on Schumer's recent comments during a CNN interview. Asked by Anderson Cooper whether Democrats should have tried harder to get Republican votes on the COVID relief bill, he said: "We made a big mistake in 2009 and '10. Susan Collins was part of that mistake. We cut back on the stimulus dramatically, and we stayed in recession for five years. And what was offered by the Republicans was so far away from what's needed, so far away from what Biden proposed, that he thought that they were not being serious in wanting to really negotiate."

It wasn't even that harsh of a statement — he was criticizing his own failings, and saying Collins was a part of that.

Collins didn't have much of a substantive response to Schumer's claims in the Politico interview, but she pivoted to a grievance she's been nursing against Schumer for over a year.

"It must just reflect his extraordinary frustration at having wasted $100 million in the state of Maine in an attempt to defeat me," Collins said. "And for me to win by a strong margin."

Point, Collins. Schumer really did seek to take her down in 2020, and he failed miserably. She was seen as one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the Senate, but the polling in her race turned out to be way off. As it happens, she's still wildly popular in her state and likely knows Maine better than anyone else. A lot of her critics, including this writer, were wrong about her vulnerability.

But while she can rightly tout her victory over those who tried to take her down, her indignation over the attempt is pretty galling. She knows she's in politics, she knows she's a Republican. She should expect that Democrats will want to replace her — yet somehow finds herself shocked and appalled at the prospect.

"If I had been in his shoes, I would have acted differently and done outreach to say: 'Well, I tried to knock you off three times. It didn't work. I hope we can still work together,'" she told Politico.

Other Republicans chimed in for the piece to defend Collins and criticize Schumer's remarks. But the whole thing comes off oddly childish. It's certainly true, of course, that lawmakers' feelings matter and poisoning a relationship in politics can result in worse outcomes for one's side. But it's frankly shocking to see a politician herself centering these issues in the narrative, acting as if it's reasonable if the votes she casts on issues of national importance are appropriately decided based on how nice Schumer was to her that day.

The response a politician might give if they weren't trying to make the story all about their own personal feelings would be something like this: "Schumer can say whatever he wants about me, what ultimately matters is that I serve the American people and the people of my state to the best of ability."

So what's actually going on here? And why does any of this really matter?

It does matter for the country whether Schumer can or can't get enough votes in the Senate to pass his party's priorities. But the problem for Collins — and probably part of the reason she's so mad — is that her vote just isn't that crucial. The writer of the Politico article doesn't seem to understand this, claiming that "unless Senate Democrats can muscle through a unilateral rules change to end the legislative filibuster, Collins' vote will probably also become a sought-after prize for Schumer."

But this isn't right at all. Schumer has 51 votes in the Senate, including the vice president's tie-breaking vote, which is enough to pass anything that needs a simple majority with no Republican votes. Because of the current filibuster rules in place, of course, many important measures need 60 votes to pass the Senate.

It's highly unlikely, then, that Collins' vote will ever be crucial in the next two years. Along with Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Collins is among the most likely members of her party to break ranks to vote for a bill. But if the bill needs 60 votes, that means Schumer will have to find ten Republicans to vote in favor of it. It's hard to think, though, that there will be any measure that can get nine Republican Senate votes with Collins being the only one still up for grabs. More likely, if nine other Republicans are on board for a particular bill, then Susan Collins is already supporting it, and other GOP votes will be on the table. Part of her brand back home is being a centrist in the Senate, so a bill with that kind of wide bipartisan support is almost something she'd want to sign on to, regardless of her feelings about Schumer.

It's possible that Collins could be a crucial vote if Schumer loses a single Democratic colleague's support on a particular measure. But that's not really likely to happen, either. If even one Democrat opposes a bill, Collins is almost certain to conclude that it's too far left for her to support, too. And if it's a completely idiosyncratic issue without clear partisan divides, then Collins' vote is just in play as much as any other.

This is probably why Schumer didn't hold back in openly criticizing Collins (though he doesn't seem inclined to repeat his remarks.) He's done the math, he knows the history, and he knows he's not likely to need her, unless the make-up of the Senate party split changes in an unforeseen way.

Collins got that message, too. And that's why she's so rankled. When Barack Obama was president, he frequently had 59 Democratic seats in the Senate — making her vote potentially crucial for any 60-vote measure. That made her feel important and special.

Not anymore. Schumer doesn't think that situation worked out all that well for the Democrats, and he's happy he doesn't have to repeat it. That means he doesn't have to worry so much about Collins' feelings.

Trump just hit the Republican Party where it hurts

Though some reporters still follow the actions of former President Donald Trump obsessively, his quirks and daily mood swings are generally much less significant and newsworthy than they were when he was in control of the American nuclear arsenal. He's a private citizen, and while he may still be good at attracting attention, he's simply not as important as he was quite recently.

But on Monday night, he sent out a missive reminding the country — and the Republican Party most importantly — that he still has considerable influence and can wield power in American politics, especially among conservatives.

In the new statement, written like a Tweet that he can no longer send, he suggested his supporters to cut off the Republican Party broadly and support him instead.

Donald Trump's tweet-like statement.Screengrab.

This message is especially pointed and provocative after Trump sent letters to the Republican National Committee, National Republican Senatorial Committee, and the National Republican Congressional Committee telling them to stop using his name and image in fundraising.

For the Republican Party apparatus, this amounts to a devastating threat. In the new message, he didn't specifically name any specific organs of the GOP, simply attacking "Republicans In Name Only" — but that just makes the threat more all-encompassing. He's essentially telling his supporters that instead of supporting the party, they should support him personally. If a substantial portion of Republican Party donors takes his call seriously, the GOP could find itself having trouble raising funds on its own.

"He didn't start his own party, which is complicated to do and be competitive, but Trump is trying to set himself up as the place where money for Republicans should go as opposed to GOP committees," said New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman.

Election law expert Rick Hasen added on Twitter: "And also to personally enrich himself through very loose requirements for spending that apply to leadership PACS."

Of course, Republicans have no one to blame but themselves. They embraced him, and most refused to endorse the impeachment effort that could have barred him from running for political office again. Even after he incited the Jan. 6 insurrection, most of the party is behind the idea that he'll remain a leading figure in its ranks. They shouldn't be surprised that he wants the power and the money that flows to the party to be under his control.

Kamala Harris has a big role in Biden's administration — and a new report may explain why

A new report from Politico this week tried to shed light on a phenomenon many observers have noticed in the White House. Vice President Kamala Harris seems to have a more central and emphasized role in the new administration than is typically afforded to her position — more significant than even Joe Biden's role in the early days of President Barack Obama's first term.

According to Politico, this is completely deliberate on President Biden's part — because he wants to treat Harris better than Obama treated him:

Some aides from his time as vice president say Biden is also trying to avoid early missteps that he believes BARACK OBAMA made in their relationship.
"It's all about how he was or wished he was treated during the Obama years, especially in the beginning," said an aide to Biden from when he was vice president. "To the extent there was rockiness in the relationship it was mostly in the beginning."

It even recounted an early event from Obama and Biden's relationship that painted the picture of a tense relationship:

When Biden said during the campaign that U.S. adversaries would likely test Obama's mettle in the opening months of the presidency, Obama called Biden and told him he didn't need such public tutoring. "I don't need you acting like you're my Henry Higgins," Obama snapped, Biden would tell his aides later, according to former adviser JEFF CONNAUGHTON. (Higgins being the character in the musical "My Fair Lady" who teaches Eliza Doolitte about polite society—yes, we're huge MFL fans.)
Biden's private reaction, he told people, was, "Whoa. Where did this come from? This is clearly a guy who could restrict my role to attending state funerals or just put me in a closet for four years." According to Connaughton's book "The Payoff," Biden concluded: "I'm going to have to earn his trust, but I'm not going to grovel to this guy. My manhood is not negotiable."

It's not clear how accurate this account of Biden's motivations is, or if the version of his relationship with Obama is overly one-sided. But it is clear that the current administration is going out of its way to emphasize that vice president's role — something that happened even before their election. As Politico reported, administration officials frequently refer to the "Biden-Harris administration," even though it's more typical to refer to the administration using only the president's name. The report even notes that officials largely refer to the predecessor administration as the "Trump administration" — and generally, the term "Trump-Pence administration" was much less common.

Harris is frequently seen alongside the president in the Oval Office during public meetings and events, and her views are frequently highlighted by the White House.

One amusing part of the report noted:

PETE BUTTIGIEG's Transportation Department, however, hasn't been as consistently on-message. After Buttigieg's swearing in, the department initially referred to it as the "Biden administration." On Feb. 25, a department press release quoted Buttigieg hailing "the Biden-Harris" administration's commitment to clean transportation, but elsewhere the release referred simply to the "Biden administration." Buttigieg's office declined to comment.

Though the observation may seem trivial, it hints at the real stakes here. Buttigieg wants to be president. As does Harris. And by highlighting Harris's role prominently, Biden may be quite intentionally molding her in the public's eye as his natural successor. This was my interpretation when it became clear the Biden administration would be consistently highlighting Harris's role.

The choice makes sense. Vice presidents often run for president, and they often become president. That is, of course, how Biden — who had previously been unsuccessful in his bids for the White House — came to occupy the Oval Office. So it's reasonable to assume Harris has a decent chance at becoming president someday, and Biden may intend to give her the best shot at reaching the goal. Presumably, he only picked her as his running mate because he thought she'd be good at the job. Making her already seem presidential could indeed be a big help in her efforts, especially since Harris will have to fight against misogynistic and racist prejudice in order to win.

Hanging over all of this, of course, is the undeniable fact that Biden is not a young man. Because of his age, it can't be assumed he'll run again in 2024, or even that he'll be healthy enough to make it through a full first term. Harris may have to take over for him sooner than expected, making it all the more important to ensure there will be a smooth transition if it happens. That's certainly easier if Harris is deeply involved in the everyday work of the president — not shunted to the sidelines like the fictional Vice President Selina Meyer, portrayed by Julia Louis-Dreyfus in HBO's "Veep."

There may indeed be truth to Politico's reporting that Biden is actively trying to be a better president to Harris than Obama was to him. Despite the fact that Biden and Obama were perceived as and often played up the image of being close friends, some reporting has cast doubt on their bond, including a recent story in The Hill that suggested the former president was not enthused about his vice president's 2020 campaign.

But there's a key difference in the Biden-Harris relationship that may make it more congenial than the Obama-Biden partnership. Obama came into office with a huge wave of enthusiasm, but he also faced deep wells of skepticism because of his youth and race. He had picked Biden as his running mate to balance out some of these concerns from the public and commentariat, and perhaps because he falsely thought Biden's own age meant he would have abandoned his own presidential ambitions.

It's not hard to see, though, how this would make Obama guarded around Biden and eager to put him in his place. Obama likely felt that he needed to prove that he deserved to be where he was, and that meant he didn't want to be seen as relying on Biden.

Biden, whatever his faults, likely lacks any similar insecurity. On the first day of his presidency, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Biden "felt like he was coming home." After eight years as vice president and decades in the Senate, he thinks being president is exactly where he belongs. Without the self-doubt, it's easy for him to make a prominent place for his vice president.

The most revealing thing Joe Manchin said about his power in the Senate

A lot of people aren't happy with Sen. Joe Manchin.

This shouldn't come as a surprise. As soon as it became clear that President Joe Biden's party would have the slimmest of majorities in a 50-50 Senate, the West Virginian Democrat was transformed into the most influential member of Congress. As the furthest right senator in the caucus from the reddest state of any Democrat, he is the most likely candidate to defect from any of the party's priorities.

Now, he's making trouble for all sides. His decision to come out against Neera Tanden, Biden's Office of Management and Budget nominee, over past mean tweets has threatened to sink her, and many argue it displayed a sexist and perhaps racist double standard on his part. Tanden doesn't have many friends on the left wing of the party, but Manchin has wasted no time in alienating that faction, too, by opposing raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Depending on how negotiations with the Senate parliamentarian fall out, that position could put him on a collision course with Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York in a stand-off over the COVID relief bill.

Manchin even seemed hesitant to support Deb Haaland as Biden's Interior secretary nominee, a favorite among progressives and a historic choice as the first Native American Cabinet pick, though he has since come around and offered his endorsement.

With all this drama over a single senator, some Democratic critics wonder whether Manchin is even any better for their party than a Republican like Maine Sen. Susan Collins.

But a revealing quote from Huffpost article a few weeks back, when it was less clear whether Manchin would be willing to support Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, should provide an answer to any Democratic allies.

While he wouldn't say whether he supported using budget reconciliation to pass the bill, he repeatedly told reporters: "We're going to make Joe Biden successful."

It's likely the most important and informative thing he's said since Biden's election.

Because it's not always obvious what Manchin's motivation is. He has cast himself as a fierce defender of the filibuster, which usually requires 60 votes to pass legislation in the Senate, but his comments fail to make clear how much he really understands about its history or its effects. And while he's cast as a staunch partisan West Virginia, it's an open question how much these considerations drive his day-to-day choices. Do his home state voters really care about Neera Tanden's mean tweets? Why pick that hill to make a stand on over a Biden nominee?

It's not even clear if Manchin, at 73, will run for re-election 2024, when he'll be 77.

Some argue that Manchin just likes being the center of attention, and being the pivotal senator in the Democratic caucus certainly accomplishes that aim. Or maybe he's just genuinely trying to do what he thinks is right from his perspective.

But we should probably take him at his word when he says that he wants to make Biden a successful president. That doesn't mean he won't give his party a lot of heartburn, and that doesn't mean he won't stand in the way of valuable goals Democrats would like to accomplish. He almost certainly will. But if he wanted to undermine Biden, the easiest way for him to do that would be to switch parties and make Mitch McConnell the Senate majority leader again. There's no sign that's happening, though. Love him or hate him, he's a Democrat, and that does mean something to him.

It should mean something to his critics, too. Manchin's most important vote for the Democrats is making Chuck Schumer majority leader, giving the party unified control of Congress. When Democrats are tempted to think Manchin isn't worth it, and he might as well join the GOP, they should imagine what it would be like if McConnell controlled which nominations and which bills got a vote on the Senate floor.

And they should also remember that when it comes to West Virginia, Democrats don't have a prayer for any senator better than Joe Manchin. The state voted for Trump over Biden by nearly 40 points in 2020. Manchin has only survived as a Democrat in the state at a time of increasing polarization because he's a skilled politician who knows his electorate and has built a durable and independent brand. It's quite likely that there's not a single Democrat alive other than Manchin himself who could win his seat.

And without that seat, Democrats would be in the minority. If they're frustrated that Manchin is the pivotal vote in the Senate, there's not really much use in getting mad at him. That would be like getting angry at the sea. Manchin doesn't care, and it won't change the way he votes. He's a West Virginian force of nature. The only hope Democrats have of ending their reliance on Manchin's approval is to elect more Democrats to the Senate in seats currently held by Republicans.

If Manchin makes them mad, that's where they should put their energy.

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