• Who needs Russia when the Democrats can hack themselves?
• Iowa’s complicated caucus procedure combined with unvetted technology to produce a debacle. Full results have still not been released as we go to press two days later. The Biden campaign is saying that all the data are too unreliable to count, which tells you how badly the former vice president seems to have done. Voters of the center-left and the hard Left were roughly equally matched, but the former group was split among more candidates. If that pattern continues, the debacle will also be a portent.
• If President Trump meant his State of the Union address to be the de facto kickoff for his presidential campaign, he could hardly have done it better — or picked better timing. The Democrats were still sorting out their mess in Iowa, and a Gallup poll came out showing a record 49 percent approval for the president. The address ticked off some of the reasons he has achieved that rating: Wages are up, deaths of despair are down, and nearly every other indicator is pointing in the right direction. The major counterexample is the national debt, and Trump’s spending-heavy speech offered no hope for changing its trajectory. But on that issue, as he pointed out, the fans of Medicare for All would hardly be an improvement. Optimism was the theme White House aides promised, and Trump delivered, and for the president right now there is a lot to justify it.
• In the fourth quarter of the impeachment saga, details leaked from John Bolton’s book on his tenure as President Trump’s national-security adviser. Bolton, who submitted the book for a routine White House security review, reportedly detailed Trump’s desire to hold back aid to Ukraine until it agreed to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden. He also reportedly described the president’s obsession with conspiracy theories, fed to him by his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, about Ukrainian aid to Hillary Clinton in 2016. Bolton is a prickly presence who wants (like all authors) to sell his book. But he is a man of rigid integrity, with a record of devotion to the cause of freedom in the Soviet and post-Soviet world that runs through his service in every Republican administration going back to Reagan’s. The impeachment trial has come to a close, but his account of the machinations of Trump with respect to Ukraine should be heard by the public, and by Congress.
• Hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Washington, D.C., in late January for the annual March for Life, marking the 47th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion on demand across the entire nation. President Trump delivered remarks at the rally before the march, making him the first president in history to attend, and he deserves praise for having done so (as Ramesh Ponnuru discusses elsewhere in this issue). Though media coverage fixated on Trump’s presence at the “anti-abortion” rally, the March for Life was not a rally in support of the president. It was, as it always is, primarily a protest of the fact that hundreds of thousands of unborn human beings are killed in the U.S. each year, under a regime sanctioned by the undemocratic, anti-constitutional decisions of our courts.
• Pete Buttigieg was asked at a pre-Iowa town hall to address the status of pro-life Democrats (there are millions of them). Would he, asked Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for life, support “more-moderate platform language” to ensure that the party of inclusion “really does include everybody”? Buttigieg replied: “If we can’t agree on where to draw the line, the next best thing we can do is agree on who should draw the line. And in my view, it’s the woman who’s faced with that decision in her own life.” Translated from townhall-speak, Buttigieg believes the law should afford no protection to the unborn, and that his party should welcome only those who agree. And he’s supposedly a moderate in the race.
• Asked at an Iowa campaign event how she would approach sex-education and LGBT-history curricula in public schools as president — what happened to enumerated powers? — Elizabeth Warren assured the crowd that, as ever, she had: A Plan for That. A “young trans person,” Warren said, would vet her nominee for secretary of education on her behalf, in order to ensure that the nominee was “committed to creating a welcoming environment” in the nation’s public schools. The full context of Warren’s remarks suggests that she was making an oblique reference to a nine-year-old transgender child called “Jacob” who had asked her a question at CNN’s LGBTQ town-hall event. For the country’s sake, we hope Warren never gets the chance to appoint an education secretary. If she does, however, we can only hope that Jacob, or whichever “young trans person” is called on to vet her nominee, is also a school-choice enthusiast.
• Warren has a plan to stamp out foreign and domestic “disinformation” campaigns: punish those who disseminate misleading online posts about elections. The Massachusetts senator’s proposal would also hold firms such as Facebook and Twitter criminally and civilly responsible for platform users who spread information intended to undermine voter turnout. This is just the latest in politicians’ troubling trend of targeting free speech. Even if Warren’s idea could overcome constitutional scrutiny — as far as we know, there is no exemption in the First Amendment relating to speech about elections — it would still be both impractical and hopelessly subjective. The state would be impelled to hire an army of fact-checkers, who would not only dictate what speech was acceptable but monitor billions of daily interactions on social media. One wonders whether Warren, who has had her own public struggles with the truth, realizes that the plan could be used by future Republican presidents to redraw the parameters of acceptable speech. One wonders, in fact, whether Warren thinks through her plans at all.
• Bernie Sanders released a “disability rights” platform that, in effect, takes aim at America’s most severely disabled citizens. Sanders’s plan, concocted in tandem with a coterie of higher-functioning “self-advocates” with disabilities, includes a pledge to repeal Section 14(c) waivers under the Fair Labor Standards Act. These waivers have historically allowed those with severe mental or physical disabilities, who would otherwise be priced out of the labor market entirely, to work for a rate below the federal minimum wage commensurate with their productivity. Removing this protection would be yet another example of real harm wrought with good intentions.
• Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, was irritated by questions from Mary Louise Kelly, of National Public Radio. She was asking about Ukraine. Later, he dressed her down, privately. Among other things, he said, “Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?” They may or may not. But Ukraine is important nonetheless, and Pompeo is secretary of state. He should expect questions about foreign policy. Additionally, Pompeo had an unmarked map brought out. He demanded that Kelly point to Ukraine. By her account, she did. Pompeo later implied that she had pointed to Bangladesh. Those who know Kelly said that this is impossible: She has worked as a foreign correspondent all over the world. President Trump congratulated his secretary of state on his performance, saying it was “impressive.” “I think you did a good job on her,” said Trump. We think that Pompeo has done better jobs in the past, and will again in the future.
• Economic growth was slower in 2019 (2.3 percent) than in 2018 (2.9 percent). That’s still a decent showing, especially in what has become our longest economic expansion in history. One reason for the reduced growth rate seems to be the intensification of trade conflict over the course of last year, which has contributed to a manufacturing slowdown. It’s not really President Trump’s fault that we have not hit his administration’s often proclaimed target of sustained 3 percent growth, which may be beyond the power of government policy to achieve. But some of his policies have been taking us farther away from that goal.
• Life expectancy dropped in the U.S. in 2015, 2016, and 2017 — but resumed its usual upward march in 2018. Deaths from drug overdoses have declined, probably as a result of more widely available treatments such as naloxone. But we are still below our peak life expectancy of 2014, and suicide and overdose rates remain much higher than they were two decades ago. Policymakers have to keep focused on these problems, as do churches and families.
• The Congressional Budget Office projects that the federal deficit will average $1.3 trillion over the next decade. Annual deficits exceeding 4.3 percent of GDP will raise the level of debt held by the public to 98 percent of GDP by 2030: the highest level since World War II. While the debt is not currently a cause for alarm, debt-servicing will become more burdensome if interest rates rise over the next few years. It appears that Washington will not act until a crisis is upon us, and maybe not even then.
• Medicaid encourages states to spend as much money through it as possible: For every dollar a state puts up, the federal government kicks in at least a dollar more — and nine dollars more for those covered by Obamacare’s expansion of the program. Republicans failed to reform this dysfunctional system during the first half of Trump’s term, so now the administration is asking states to control their spending on able-bodied adults voluntarily and offering waivers in return. The waivers will grant participating states a lot of flexibility to control costs, by limiting drug formularies, requiring some modest cost-sharing from enrollees, and imposing work requirements, among other things. States could also keep a share of the savings in the form of additional Medicaid money for other projects (including programs they are already running at their own expense). This is a good policy, but its reach is limited to states that want to control costs, and it pushes the boundaries of what the statute authorizes the executive branch to do on its own. (The waiver authority is broad, but it does not include the ability to rewrite the program’s funding structure, and critics charge that the administration’s plan crosses the line.) We hope this brings down expenses on the margins, but ultimately the issue still cries out for a real fix from Congress.
• The Trump administration has announced a new rule cracking down on “birth tourism”: the practice of coming to the U.S. for the specific purpose of giving birth there, which under this country’s policy of “birthright citizenship” makes the child a citizen. In essence, the new rule says that birth tourism doesn’t count as traveling for “pleasure” when it comes to tourist visas, and it directs consular officers to determine whether birth tourism is the primary purpose of a visit. These officers have been instructed not to ask women whether they are pregnant unless the officers “have a specific articulable reason to believe [the visa applicant] may be pregnant and planning to give birth in the United States” — but when there are signs that birth tourism is afoot, the burden will fall on the traveler to prove that there is a different reason for the trip. The rule’s effectiveness remains to be seen; among other limitations, it applies only to one type of visa. But it’s a commonsensical policy: If someone is coming to the U.S. merely to game our citizenship rules, that person should be denied a visa.
• The Supreme Court has decided to allow the Trump administration’s “public charge” rule — which bars immigration by those who are likely to receive means-tested government benefits on a regular basis — to take effect while challenges to the rule proceed through the lower courts. The rule is a fair interpretation of the underlying statute and a sensible policy as well, so it is likely to be ultimately upheld in full. But at this early stage of the process, the main problem was that several judges had issued “nationwide injunctions” blocking the rule across the country. As Justice Neil Gorsuch laid out in a blistering concurrence, this increasingly common practice not only endows district-court judges with the power to set policy for the entire country but also is inconsistent with the judicial role, which is to resolve disputes among parties to a case. Lower courts are now on notice: The Supreme Court is becoming less tolerant of such abuses.
• The Republican-dominated South Dakota House of Representatives voted 46–23 in favor of the Vulnerable Child Protection Act, which bans doctors from prescribing hormones and sex-change surgeries to supposedly transgender minors under the age of 16. There are more than 40 gender clinics for youths in the United States. Girls as young as 13 have had healthy breast tissue removed because they identify as boys. Boys as young as 15 have had their penises inverted because they identify as girls. And children as young as eight have had their puberty stunted through hormone blockers. The bill’s primary sponsor, Representative Fred Deutsch, said that children “are being chemically castrated, sterilized, and surgically mutilated.” Republican legislators in Florida, Colorado, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Kentucky have filed similar bills, which should be considered a minimal standard for medical ethics.
• Harvard chemistry-department chairman Charles Lieber was charged on January 28 with lying to the Defense Department about receiving funds from the Chinese government. Lieber allegedly took $1.5 million to open a research lab in China, as well as $200,000 monthly in cash and living expenses to conduct research for the Wuhan University of Technology. This funding was part of Beijing’s “Thousand Talents Plan,” which has lured 7,000 foreign professionals to China since 2008. Chinese cash carries none of the requirements of U.S.-government grants, such as lengthy applications, environmental regulations, and safety protocols. But there is one string attached: In return for the money, researchers must turn over valuable intellectual property. The Chinese government runs 200 such talent-recruitment programs, which have allowed China to piggyback on American innovation. While Lieber’s arrest signals that U.S. authorities are taking this threat more seriously, law enforcement alone will not combat IP theft. Policymakers must take a comprehensive approach to China’s nefarious practices, which should include not only strengthening laws against collaboration with China but also decreasing the regulatory burden on researchers.
• Thomas Friedman of the New York Times memorably wrote that a one-party autocracy “led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today,” can “have great advantages.” Tell that to the Chinese infected with coronavirus. When the disease first spread to humans, seemingly from bats being sold for consumption in a food market in the Yangtze River city of Wuhan, Chinese officials sat on the information. They admitted the outbreak only as their efforts to contain it were exposed on social media. Now they are in a combination of theatrical response — building a hospital overnight — and continued denial. Former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb guesses that the official Chinese number of cases — 4,700 as of the end of January — is low by an order of magnitude. Let us christen coronavirus “Xi’s disease,” in honor of the man and the system whose rigidities nurtured it. There have been cases in America, where, pace Friedman, an open society (and lower population density) should make them easier to combat.
• On January 31, Britain left the European Union. The EU was the dream of a generation horrified by the material and moral carnage of two world wars. But the implied analogy with the United States was always faulty. The 13 states shared a common language, a common history as English colonies, and a common revolutionary struggle. Europe had none of these things. Lacking the cement of union, the EU became in practice a bureaucracy on autopilot, with a parliament whose impotence paradoxically nurtured demagogues. One of these, Nigel Farage, created a British pro-Leave party whose success forced a political choice on the Tories. Congratulations to Prime Minister Boris Johnson for making the issue of Brexit his own and his party’s, marginalizing Farage, and reaching out to Labour constituencies that had not gone Tory in eons. He has problems ahead: negotiating relations with the Continent; the Irish question; pleasing the big-state Labourites whose support he momentarily won. These will be addressed as sovereign matters: a jewel rightly restored to Britain’s crown.
• President Trump casts his loudly heralded proposal for peace between Israelis and Palestinians as a deal, “the deal of the century,” no less. Actually it is the sixth peace proposal offered to the Palestinians in the last 40 or so years, and like every one of them it rests essentially on agreement to partition the land, something that the Israelis invariably endorse but the Palestinians have rejected every single time. They are being asked to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Fed up with constant warfare, the Palestinian man (and especially the woman) on the street might well agree to deal with Trump, but the Palestinian leadership still represents all or any lasting partition as a shameful insult that force of arms has to put right. Israel is now encouraged for security reasons to annex the Jordan Valley as well as the controversial West Bank settlements, and for emotional reasons to have Jerusalem as an exclusive capital. Fatah on the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza are at war with one another but come together to denounce the Trump deal and almost certainly to resist Israel with all the means at their disposal. In that case, though, the deal of the century will stand as an unheeded warning that the more Palestinians reject peace, the greater will be the eventual cost to them.
• A U.N. investigation has concluded, with “medium to high confidence,” that Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman personally infected the phone of Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the owner of the Washington Post. MBS did this by sending to Bezos’s phone a video containing a piece of code that allowed the Saudis to extract massive amounts of information from that phone. The Trump administration, hostile as it may be to Bezos and friendly as it may be to the Saudi government, should not take this lightly. And the Post, whose columnist Jamal Khashoggi the Saudis murdered, should wear the regime’s hostility with pride.
• Jeanine Cummins is the author of a new novel, American Dirt, about a Mexican woman whose family is gunned down on the orders of a drug-cartel boss, forcing her to flee with her remaining son to America in a treacherous overland journey. Billed as a page-turner that humanizes the plight of migrants, the book received glowing pre-release praise and the imprimatur of Oprah Winfrey and debuted on the best-seller lists. Then it became embroiled in “controversy” of a depressingly familiar sort. Online critics denounced Cummins for practicing cultural appropriation (Cummins’s ethnic background is part Puerto Rican, part Irish), for capitalizing on the suffering of a marginalized people, and for crowding out more-authentic “Latinx” voices. A group of writers penned an open letter to Oprah informing her that “the book is widely and strongly believed to be exploitative” and imploring her to withdraw her endorsement (which she has so far declined to do). Cummins’s publisher canceled what was left of her national book tour, citing “concerns about safety” following “threats of physical violence.” Cummins herself has said she hopes that people will judge American Dirt “on its own merits” — which, since the book’s sales remain strong and the average reader unwoke, they are likely to do.
• A report in the Yale Daily News jolted the conservative world. (As you remember, William F. Buckley Jr. edited that publication before he edited National Review.) “Yale will stop teaching a storied introductory survey course in art history,” the report said. “This change is the latest response to student uneasiness over an idealized Western ‘canon.’” And so on and so forth. The YDN said that “the final rendition” of the old course would “seek to question the idea of Western art itself.” So, another step in the suicide of a great civilization? Elsewhere in the issue of NR that you are holding, Brian T. Allen says no. The changes Yale is instituting are salutary, he says. We trust that this is so. But we will continue to glance warily at Yale, as we have since our founding . . .
• Since the last year of the Reagan administration, Rush Limbaugh has forged an insoluble bond with his millions of listeners, who are entertained, encouraged, and mobilized every day by the greatest broadcast talent of our generation. On February 3, he informed his listeners that he has been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. “I wish I didn’t have to tell you this,” he said. “I don’t like making things about me.” He said that he would be absent some days but aimed to make it to the microphone on schedule as much as possible. Godspeed to him, and a swift recovery.
• The commercials weren’t bad. The game turned out to be better. On Groundhog Day, the San Francisco 49ers and their lights-out defensive line went to Hard Rock Stadium in Miami to face young quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV. The 49ers scored a field goal and a touchdown to take the lead in the third quarter. Early in the fourth quarter, Tarvarius Moore intercepted Mahomes. Was that the nail in the coffin? With less than ten minutes to go, the 49ers were motoring to the sixth championship in franchise history and the first since 1994. Then their defense took a nap, or the Kansas City offense woke up. On their next three drives, the Chiefs scored three touchdowns. Final score: KC 31, SF 20. The Super Bowl MVP award went to Mahomes, who deflected the glory to head coach Andy Reid: “The work he puts in, day in and day out,” Mahomes said. “I don’t think he sleeps.” The Chiefs’ last Super Bowl win had been exactly half a century ago. They now add 2020 to their trophy case, and everything’s up to date in Kansas City.
• When Chicago Bulls great Michael Jordan retired for the third and (we assume) final time, in 2003, the Los Angeles Lakers were the threepeat reigning NBA champions. Was it fair to say that their young shooting guard Kobe Bryant was now the world’s greatest active basketball player? Bryant, a high-school phenom and the son of a former NBA player, had entered the NBA in 1996, directly from high school, and hit the ground running. By the time he retired, in 2016, he had appeared in 18 All-Star Games and won an MVP award (2008) and five championships with the Lakers. In 2003, he was accused of sexual assault. He settled out of court, admitting to an adulterous sexual encounter but denying that it was an assault, and then apologized. He turned a leaf after this incident, in part with the help of a Catholic priest, and devoted himself to his family. When LeBron James passed him last month on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, moving up to third place, Bryant tweeted to him, graciously: “Much respect my bro.” The next morning, on January 26, Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, six friends, and a pilot boarded a helicopter that crashed shortly afterward into a mountain in Calabasas, Calif. None survived. Bryant was 41. R.I.P.
• Accused by Stephen Colbert of being wishy-washy, Jim Lehrer responded, “I’m wishy-washy for a living, sir.” Lehrer began his journalism career with newspapers in Dallas and covered the JFK assassination. In 1972, he moved to PBS in Washington, D.C. There he covered the Senate Watergate hearings, with Robert MacNeil. The two were soon co-anchoring the nightly PBS news program, which had a run of 20 years and earned praise for its balanced reporting and depth of analysis. Lehrer hosted it solo (for the most part) for another 14 years. As the moderator of a dozen presidential debates, he found himself under a spotlight that critics said exposed a liberal bias, although he emerged from the experience with his reputation for fair-mindedness largely intact. “I learned that the major missions of journalism are to collect, report, and explain,” he wrote of his experience in J-school in the 1950s. The son of a bus driver and bus-company operator, Lehrer collected bus memorabilia in his spare time. Where he found the time to write 20 novels, three volumes of memoirs, and a handful of plays and screenplays remains a mystery. Dead at 85. R.I.P.
A Sorry Spectacle
The impeachment saga has drawn to a close.
As we went to press, the Senate was prepared to vote to acquit President Trump, delivering the verdict everyone knew was inevitable from the beginning.
The only uncertainty during the trial was whether the Senate would hear from witnesses. But Lamar Alexander, a swing vote on witnesses, foreclosed the possibility when he came out against them. In his statement, Alexander expressed the correct view on the underlying matter — one we have been urging Republicans to publicly adopt since impeachment first got off the ground.
The Tennessee Republican said that it has been amply established that Donald Trump used a hold on defense aid to pressure the Ukrainians to undertake the investigations that he wanted, and that this was, as he put it rather mildly, inappropriate. But this misconduct, he argued, doesn’t rise to the level of the high crimes and misdemeanors required to remove a president from office. If the Senate were to do so anyway, it would further envenom the nation’s partisan divide. Besides, there is a national election looming in which the public itself can decide whether Trump should stay in office or not.
Since we already knew the core of what happened, Alexander explained, there was no need to hear from additional witnesses in the Senate trial. (On this theory of the case, the Senate in effect acted like an appellate court, rendering a judgment on a threshold question of law, rather than a trial court sifting through the facts.)
In the wake of Alexander’s statement, other Senate Republicans endorsed his line of analysis, which, it must be noted, is superior to the defense mounted by the White House legal team in the Senate.
Because the president refused to acknowledge what he did, his team implausibly denied that there had been a quid pro quo and argued that one hadn’t been proven, since there were no firsthand witnesses. Obviously, this position was at odds with the defense team’s insistence that no further witnesses be called. It also raised the natural question why, if people with firsthand knowledge had exculpatory information, the White House wasn’t eager to let them come forward.
Additionally, the White House maintained that a president can’t be impeached unless he’s guilty of a criminal violation. This is an erroneous interpretation of the Constitution, although it is true that past presidential impeachments have involved violations of the law and that such violations provide a bright line that’s missing if the charge is only abuse of power. Alan Dershowitz argued this position most aggressively for the president’s defense, and made it even worse by briefly seeming — before walking it back — to argue that anything a president does to advance his reelection is properly motivated.
As for the House managers, they were at their strongest making the case that the president had done what they alleged, and at their weakest arguing that he should be removed for it.
They tried to inflate the gravity of Trump’s offense by repeatedly calling it “election interference.” In the end, though, what the Trump team sought was not an investigation of Joe or Hunter Biden, but a statement by the Ukrainians that they would look into Burisma, the Ukrainian company on whose board Hunter Biden sat. The firm has a shady past and has been investigated before. Trump should have steered clear of anything involving his potential opponent, but it’s not obvious that a new Burisma probe would have had any effect on 2020 (the vulnerability for Biden is Hunter’s payments, which are already on the record) and, of course, the announcement of an investigation never happened.
They said that Trump’s seeking this Ukrainian interference was in keeping with his welcoming of Russian meddling, implying that Trump had been found guilty of colluding with the Russians in 2016, rather than exonerated. (Part of the complaint here is that Trump made use of material that emerged via Russian hacking. Then again, so did Bernie Sanders in his fight with the DNC.)
They alleged that the brief delay in aid to Ukraine somehow endangered our national security, a risible claim given that the Ukrainians got the aid and that Trump has provided Ukraine lethal assistance that President Obama never did.
They accused the president of obstruction of justice for asserting privileges invoked by other presidents, and for not producing documents and witnesses on the House’s accelerated timeline, a charge that White House lawyer Patrick Philbin dismantled effectively.
Finally, they insisted that a trial without witnesses wouldn’t be fair, despite having made no real effort to secure the new witnesses during their own rushed impeachment inquiry.
As for the Senate trial being a “cover-up,” as Democrats claim, there is nothing stopping the House — or the Senate, for that matter — from seeking testimony from John Bolton and others outside the confines of the trial. This would be entirely reasonable congressional oversight (despite the White House’s arguing otherwise) and there is still a public interest in knowing as much as possible about this matter, even if Trump isn’t going to be removed.
If nothing else, the trial was a forum for extensive discussion about the respective powers of the two elected branches of government. We are sympathetic to the view that the executive branch has too much power. If Congress seeks to remedy this imbalance by impeaching and removing presidents, though, it will be sorely disappointed, since the two-thirds requirement for a Senate conviction is an almost insuperable obstacle to removal (as both House Republicans and House Democrats have experienced in the last 20 years).
It would be better if Congress undertook a more systematic effort to take back prerogatives it has ceded to the executive branch and the courts. But we aren’t optimistic on this score, since the same Democrats who claim to be sticklers about congressional power on the Ukraine matter won’t say a discouraging word about Elizabeth Warren’s and Bernie Sanders’s promised adventures in unilateral rule as president.
At the end of the day, Nancy Pelosi impeached knowing that the Senate wouldn’t convict, and so here we are — with nine months to go until voters get to make their judgment: not just about Ukraine, but about the last four years and Trump’s eventual opponent.