As August dawns, we present a curated snapshot of the week that was with thoughts courtesy of Heather Cox Richardson, the Financial Times, Politico, The Economist and The Washington Examiner:
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) blitzed the Sunday shows to talk about the surprise reconciliation deal. | J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo | J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo
A few sticklers have written in to say that JOE MANCHIN’s five-Sunday-show marathon this morning is not actually a full Ginsburg because he did it via remote, which is no big deal compared to the challenge of getting from studio-to-studio in D.C. to do all five hits.
“The OG full Ginsburg was in-person interviews, not one remote after another,” one Sunday show pedant texted us.
SEAN SPICER wrote in to note that while at the RNC he was once attacked on Twitter after calling it a full Ginsburg when a GOP guest did five shows via remote. “It’s only a full if in studio — modified if done remote,” Spicer insisted.
It’s true that the in-town full Ginsburg presents some knotty logistical issues considering the scattered layout of the network and cable TV studios. “Toughest leg of the Ginsburg is getting across town from @FaceTheNation to the multiple shows at North Capitol,” Ryan McKenna pointed out on Twitter .
More seriously, the Manchin-a-rama had the effect of preventing the White House from getting its people out today to push a very different political message. While Manchin wanted to shape perceptions of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 — It’s a centrist deficit-fighting pro-West Virginia coal country bill! — the White House wanted to blast Republicans for filibustering the burn pit bill in the Senate on Wednesday night .
On Saturday, the White House offered VA Secretary DENIS MCDONOUGH to Sunday shows but some had to decline because they were already booked up. (McDonough did end up on CNN’s “State of the Union.” )
So what did Manchin actually say? First of all, the man seemed a little tired — he’s recovering from Covid — and proved that one of the tricky parts of doing five shows is getting everyone’s name right. He called CNN’s Jake Tapper “Chuck.”
To the real Chuck — Chuck Todd — on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” he made some news when asked if he wants Democrats to retain Congress:
“I'm not making those choices or decisions on that. I'm going to work with whatever I have. I've always said that. I think the Democrats have great candidates that are running. They're good people I've worked with. And I have a tremendous amount of respect and friendship with my Republican colleagues. So I can work on either side very easily.” Watch the 1:28 clip
On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Manchin told Jake (not Chuck) that “hopefully” Sen. KYRSTEN SINEMA will support the bill, which affirms the fact that Manchin, Majority Leader CHUCK SCHUMER, and the White House made no effort to get the enigmatic Arizona senator on board before the secret deal was announced:
“I think that, basically, when she looks at the bill and sees the whole spectrum of what we’re doing and all of the energy we’re bringing in, all of the reduction of prices and fighting inflation by bringing prices down, by having more energy, hopefully, she will be positive about it. But she will make her decision. And I respect that.”
Manchin was also surprisingly magnanimous about all the attacks on him from the left. “I take none of that personally at all,” he told Tapper. “I understand the frustrations they had.”
On CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Manchin addressed the attacks from the other side, Republicans saying he somehow double-crossed them by making this deal:
“I never told anybody that I wasn't going to do something. If I had a chance to fix the energy policy of the United States of America, and I didn't do it, shame on me. If I had the chance to reduce the amount of inflation of people in West Virginia and across the country are enduring right now, shame on me. … This is solutions Americans want. We were able to provide these solutions, let's not make them political.”
Finally, on ABC’s “This Week,” Manchin was asked whether he would support JOE BIDEN in 2024. Seems like a pretty simple question for a Democratic senator, but Manchin wouldn’t endorse the president’s reelection and instead changed the subject:
“Everybody’s worried about the election. That’s the problem. It’s a 2022 election, 2024 election. I'm not getting involved in that. … This type of legislation wouldn’t happen unless the president of the United States was involved. And he gave – he gave his blessing and signed off on it. I can assure you that. And I appreciate that more than anybody knows, because this has been tough.”
Read more on Manchin’s morning, via our colleague Burgess Everett
On Friday, Axios began to publish a deeply researched and important series by Jonathan Swan, explaining that if former president Trump retakes power, he and allies like his former chief of staff Mark Meadows, Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH), and head of Trump’s social media network Devin Nunes are determined to purge our nonpartisan civil service and replace it with loyalists. In a normal administration, a new president gets to replace around 4000 political appointees, but most government employees are in positions designed to be nonpartisan. Trump’s team wants to gut this system and put in place people loyal to him and his agenda.
When he campaigned for the presidency, Trump promised to “drain the swamp” of officeholders who, he suggested, were just sucking tax dollars. Once in office, though, Trump grew increasingly angry at the civil servants who continued to investigate his campaign’s ties to Russia, insisting that figures like former FBI director Robert Mueller and former deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller as special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, were Democrats who wanted to hound him from office. (They were, in fact, Republicans.)
Trump’s first impeachment trial inflamed his fury at those he considered disloyal. The day after Republican senators acquitted him on February 6, 2020, he fired two key impeachment witnesses: U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, the top expert on Ukraine at the National Security Council. Ironically, Vindman had testified in the impeachment hearings that he had reassured his father, who had lived in the Soviet Union and was worried about Vindman’s testifying against the president, not to worry because in America, “right matters.” Trump fired Vindman’s twin brother, Yevgeny, at the same time, although he had nothing to do with the impeachment.
A Trump advisor told CNN the firings were intended to demonstrate that disloyalty to the president would not be tolerated.
Within days, Trump had put fierce loyalist John McEntee in charge of the White House office of personnel, urging him to ferret out anyone insufficiently loyal and to make sure the White House hired only true believers. McEntee had been Trump’s personal aide until he failed a security clearance background check and it turned out he was under investigation for financial crimes; then–White House chief of staff John Kelly fired him, and Trump promptly transferred McEntee to his reelection campaign. On February 13, 2020, though, Trump suddenly put McEntee, who had no experience in personnel or significant government work, in charge of the hiring of the 4000 political appointees and gave him extraordinary power.
Trump also wanted to purge the 50,000 nonpartisan civil servants who are hired for their skills, rather than politics. But since 1883, those jobs have been protected from exactly the sort of political purge Trump and McEntee wanted to execute.
A policy researcher who came to Trump’s Domestic Policy Council from the Heritage Foundation, James Sherk, found that employees who work in “a confidential, policy-determining, policy-making or policy-advocating” job can be exempted from civil service protections.
On October 21, 2020, Trump signed an executive order creating a new category of public servant who could be hired by agency heads without having to go through the merit-based system in place since 1883, and could be fired at will. This new “Schedule F” would once again allow presidents to appoint cronies to office, while firing those insufficiently loyal. One Trump loyalist at the Office of Management and Budget identified 88% of his agency as moveable to Schedule F.
Biden rescinded Trump’s executive order on January 22, 2021, just two days after taking office.
According to Swan, Trump has not forgotten the plan. Since the January 6 insurrection, he has called those former colleagues who did not support his coup “ungrateful” and “treasonous.” In a new administration, he would insist on people who had “courage,” and would reinstate the Schedule F plan in order to purge the career civil service of all employees he believes insufficiently loyal to him.
The idea of reducing our professional civil service to those who offer loyalty to a single leader is yet another fundamental attack on democracy.
Democracy depends on a nonpartisan group of functionaries who are loyal not to a single strongman but to the state itself. Loyalty to the country, rather than to a single leader, means those bureaucrats follow the law and have an interest in protecting the government. It is the weight of that loyalty that managed to stop Trump from becoming a dictator. He was thwarted by what he called the “Deep State,” people who were loyal not to him personally but to America and our laws. That loyalty was bipartisan.
Authoritarian figures expect loyalty to themselves alone, rather than to a nonpartisan government. To get that loyalty, they turn to staffers who are loyal because they are not qualified or talented enough to rise to power in a nonpartisan system. They are loyal to their boss because they could not make it in a true meritocracy, and at some level they know that (even if they insist they are disliked for their politics).
Between 1829 and 1881, all but the very highest positions throughout the government were filled by the president on the recommendations of officials in his party, so every change of administration meant weeks of office seekers hounding the president. After the Civil War, the numbers of federal jobs climbed, until by 1884 there were 131,000 people on the federal payroll. Assignment of these jobs was based not on the applicants’ skills, but on their promise to bring in votes or money for their party. Once a man scored a government job, he was expected to return part of his salary to the party’s war chest for the next election.
And then, on July 2, 1881, a man who had expected a government job and didn’t get it retaliated for his disappointment by shooting the president, President James A. Garfield, in the back as he walked up the stairs of a train station in Washington, D.C. The assassin expected that Garfield’s successor, Chester A. Arthur, would reward him with a job.
Horrified, Americans recognized that a government that was for sale by the political party in charge created men who saw government only as a way to make money and were willing to tear the entire system down to get their cut. Even though they hoped no one else would go so far as Garfield’s assassin did, they could see that such a system attracted those who could not get a decent job on their actual merits.
So in 1883, Congress passed and President Arthur signed An Act To Regulate and Improve the Civil Service of the United States, more popularly known as the Pendleton Civil Service Act. It guaranteed the government would have skilled workers by requiring applicants for positions to pass entrance exams, and then protected them from being fired by an incoming president of the opposite party. At first, only a few jobs were covered, but presidents expanded the system quickly. Our government employees became highly qualified, and loyal to the country rather than to a president.
That seems likely to change if Trump gets back into office.
No, it's not fair.
1. The R-Word
William Cohan has a long discussion about our near-term economic future:
That emphasis is mine, but it’s something I keep coming back to: Joe Biden is going to get blamed for this economy.¹ That’s just reality. But whatever you want to call this thing happening now, the responsibility for it starts with the Fed and the former presidents who increased spending even during the boom cycles. The American Rescue Plan’s $1.9 trillion stimulus isn’t what did this.
Anyway, back to Cohan doing his impression of the philosopher Clubber Lang²:
700 basis points? I doubt there are many people in America prepared for what that would look like. Yikes.
Anyway, Cohan then moves on to the question of the stock market, which keeps rallying. Despite everything:
Read the whole thing. It’s worth subscribing to Puck just to get Cohan. He’s very smart.
I wish I had something positive to say here, but I don’t. The economics of this moment are not great. The politics of it could be murderous for Democrats.
If they somehow manage to hold Republicans to modest gains in the House (meaning < 30 seats) and keep the Senate, it will be nothing short of a miracle and a signal of something important.
2. The Law Is The Law
Ian Bassin and Erica Newland have a long, interesting piece in the NYRB about Merrick Garland’s responsibilities:
Over at the Reddit Bulwark community (r/theBulwark) I’ve been criticized by readers for suggesting that Garland choosing to prosecute Trump followed by Biden choosing to pardon him might be the best of a batch of very bad outcomes.
The reddit response has been that such a choice would split the Democratic party and cause Biden to lose the 2024 election.
That is absolutely one possible—even likely—outcome and I would view it as a very bad one.
But here are three other possible outcomes:
(1) Garland declines to prosecute, establishing that sitting presidents can attempt coups.
(2) Garland prosecutes and establishes a precedent that the DoJ can use criminal law against former presidents and current candidates for president—a precedent which I would not trust a Trump or DeSantis administration not to abuse wildly. This would be the case irrespective of whether or not a jury convicts Trump.
(3) Garland prosecutes and a jury acquits Trump—thereby establishing for a fact that the law is impotent and incentivizing future presidents to pursue the same actions Trump took.
These aren’t the only three possible outcomes, but they do seem to be the most likely.
Compared with them, Biden losing reelection because a pardon splits the Democrats seems like it might be both (a) the least-terrible and (b) the easiest for the country to recover from. It’s an imperfect analogy, but Republicans recovered from Nixon’s pardon pretty damn quick.