The Ukraine War is core to our American domestic politics

I attempted to run this story last Thursday, but a nasty site bug ate most of it, so readers only saw the first couple of paragraphs. Normally, I go into comments to check reaction and note any corrections, but unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do so that day. So ultimately, the comments were full of confused “this is the shortest Ukraine Update ever!” Sorry about that. Unfortunately, Ukraine is still a big factor in our domestic politics and the original story is still timely, so we’re running it in full. 

It might not be obvious, but the war in Ukraine has always been an issue of utmost domestic importance to the United States.

Ukraine was at the center of Donald Trump’s first impeachment, and featured heavily in internal Republican machinations. Remember, the one change that the Trump camp made to the 2016 Republican Party platform was watering down support for Ukraine.

And then there are the strategic considerations. Russia is a big part of the reason that the United States’ defense budget is north of $800 billion … and fast approaching $900 billion. Not only does Russia’s battlefield defeat have budgetary implications, but it will inform whether we have to fight a hot war against either China or North Korea that would cost trillions of dollars, claim untold lives, and  destroy the world economy.

This is all quite clear to Democrats and old-guard Republicans. But Trump’s MAGA cult has lined up behind their authoritarian pro-Putin leader, rupturing the Republican Party and leading to a seemingly inevitable government shutdown at midnight on Sept. 30. [Edit: the shutdown was averted, but only after all Ukraine aid was stripped from the legislation.]

In my list of Republican presidential debate winners and losers Wednesday night, I listed Ukraine as one of the few winners. It started with the running of this excellent ad from Republicans for Ukraine:

It got even better when the moderators adopted the ad’s narrative when asking the assembled candidates about Ukraine.

“So, Governor DeSantis, let me go to you. Experts say President Putin has ordered assassinations across Europe, cheated on arms control treaties with the U.S., and seeks to work with China to force our decline,” former White House press secretary and debate moderator Dana Perino asked Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. “President Reagan believed that if you want to prevent a war, you better be prepared to fight one. Today the Republican Party is at odds over aid to Ukraine. The price tag so far is $76 billion. But is it in our best interest to degrade Russia’s military for less than 5 percent of what we pay annually on defense, especially when there are no U.S. soldiers in the fight?”

DeSantis, hack that he is, had nothing. “It is in our interest to end this war, and that’s what I will do as president,” he answered impotently, spewing empty words. “We are not going to have a blank check.” He then awkwardly pivoted to border border border. But it did open up the field to more forceful defenses.

“[O]ur national vital interest is in degrading the Russian military,” said South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott. “By degrading the Russian military, we actually keep our homeland safer, we keep our troops at home.” Former United Nations Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley added, “A win for Russia is a win for China.”

After tech bro Vivek Ramaswamy claimed that supporting Ukraine was “driving Russia further into China’s arms,” former Vice President Mike Pence made the obvious point that, “Vivek, if you let Putin have Ukraine, that’s a green light to China to take Taiwan. Peace comes through strength.” Remember, China and Russia declared they had a “friendship with no limits” right before Russia invaded. It would take an ignoramus conspiracy theorist like Ramaswamy, who has admitted to not knowing anything about foreign policy until six months ago, to think that supporting Ukraine would bring those two countries further together. They’ve been using the BRICS framework to try and balance out U.S. and Western power for years—since 2001, actually. China and Russia are already allies.

After that exchange, moderator and Fox Business host Stuart Varney teed up a softball for the rest of the pro-Ukraine candidates, asking, “[Former New Jersey Gov. Chris] Christie, President Biden’s first two years have brought China, Russia, and Iran closer together. Are we focused too much on Ukraine, and not enough on this threat from the new world order?” Christie smashed it out of the ballpark: “No, they’re all connected, Stuart. They’re all connected. The Chinese are paying for the Russian war in Ukraine. The Iranians are supplying more sophisticated weapons, and so are the North Koreans now as well, with the encouragement of the Chinese. The naivete on this stage from some of these folks is extraordinary.”

He wasn’t done. “And the fact of the matter is, we need to say right now that the Chinese-Russian alliance is something we have to fight against. And we are not going to solve it by going over and cuddling up to Vladimir Putin,” Christie added. “Look, Donald Trump said Vladimir Putin was brilliant and a great leader. This is the person who is murdering people in his own country. And now, not having enough blood, he’s now going to Ukraine to murder innocent civilians and kidnap 20,000 children.”

This isn’t hard. Ramaswamy is clearly trying to ingratiate himself with the MAGA seditionist crowd, so perhaps his willful ignorance makes sense. But DeSantis? This is one of the most momentous issues facing the world community today, and rather than deliver a forceful defense of the international rule of law and America’s clear interest in defeating Russia, he pulled a Trumpian “I’ll immediately bring peace” and tried to pivot to something else. His weakness permeates everything he does and says, and he can’t mask it with hateful attacks against trans and gay people. He is a small and scared man, and people see through him. That’s why he’s gone nowhere but down in the polls.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has been on an on-again, off-again merry-go-round on whether to include new Ukraine aid in the defense budget, and it is currently out. The House Freedom Caucus’ MAGA-aligned nihilists wanted it stripped out, but there’s no indication that they’ll vote for the clean spending bill anyway, so no one knows how things will proceed without cutting a deal with Democrats.

One person losing patience is Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who must really regret not impeaching Trump when he had the chance. “We’re lined up here against China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran,” McConnell said while speaking at the Center for European Policy Analysis think tank on Sept. 27. “That ought to tell you right from the beginning that you’re on the right side. If Putin is to win this, some NATO country will be next. And I think it’s a lot smarter to just stop this invasion, to push him back.”

It’s smart to message the new China-Iran-Russia-North Korea axis. The MAGA cult pretends that focusing on Ukraine and Russia somehow detracts from China, but they are all one and the same fight. Any future Chinese war against Taiwan would feature strong Russian support, if not outright participation. North Korea would similarly need strong Chinese and Russian support for any sustained war against South Korea.

It is U.S. and Western pressure, and the threat to China’s rickety economy, that is keeping them from overtly supplying Russia with military support. But make no mistake, those repressive expansionist regimes are all working to undermine Western democracies and national self-determination. And even if it refuses to provide direct (and overt) military aid to Russia, China has still offered a lifeline and sanctions evasion to keep Russia’s economy from completely collapsing.

At the other end of the Republican spectrum, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene has gone off the deep end into nutso conspiracy land. “And over in Ukraine, Charlie, by the way we haven't even talked about this, the country that Mitch McConnell and Schumer and Lindsay Graham and Tom Cotton and everybody can't wait to give another 100 billion dollars to, Ukraine is one of the worst countries on the Earth for child sex trafficking and they're harvesting children's organs over there,” she said on Charlie Kirk’s radio show, amplifying one of the more bizarre Russian-spread conspiracy theories.

At some point, reason will likely prevail and Ukraine aid will pass through both chambers with overwhelming bipartisan support. But that doesn’t mean the issue will be domestically dead. Expect the MAGA crowd, fueled by an aggrieved Trump, to keep agitating against Ukraine and building more opposition to further U.S. assistance. How it plays in the 2024 presidential election remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t assume it plays to President Joe Biden’s advantage, particularly given how reluctant he and many of Ukraine’s European allies are to provide Ukraine everything it needs to win quickly and decisively.

Slow-rolling Ukraine aid hasn’t served anyone’s interests except for Russia’s, using the delays to further entrench itself in occupied territory.

Ukraine Update: The Ukraine War is a core American domestic political issue

It might not be obvious, but the war in Ukraine has always been an issue of utmost domestic importance to the United States.

Ukraine was at the center of Donald Trump’s first impeachment, and featured heavily in internal Republican machinations. Remember, the one change that the Trump camp made to the 2016 Republican Party platform was watering down support for Ukraine.

And then there are the strategic considerations. Russia is a big part of the reason that the United States’ defense budget is north of $800 billion … and fast approaching $900 billion. Not only does Russia’s battlefield defeat have budgetary implications, but it will inform whether we have to fight a hot war against either China or North Korea that would cost trillions of dollars, claim untold lives, and  destroy the world economy.

This is all quite clear to Democrats and old-guard Republicans. But Trump’s MAGA cult has lined up behind their authoritarian pro-Putin leader, rupturing the Republican Party and leading to a seemingly inevitable government shutdown at midnight on Sept. 30.

Romney reveals what he really thinks about Trump, GOP senators, but it’s too little, too late

McKay Coppins, a journalist and staff writer at The Atlantic, is the author of a forthcoming biography about Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney. That book, “Romney: A Reckoning,” appears to dovetail quite well with the senator’s plans to retire, announced Wednesday. Also on Wednesday, Coppins published a piece in The Atlantic featuring some excerpts from his book. They are eye-opening, to say the least, not so much for what they reveal about Romney himself, but for their frank and brutal assessment of Romney’s Republican colleagues in the U.S. Senate, particularly their slavish fealty to Donald Trump.

According to Coppins, when he and Romney began to meet privately for the book in 2021, the senator had not advised any other senators that he’d begun working with a biographer, meeting most often at Romney’s Washington, D.C., residence. Coppins acknowledges that he didn’t expect the level of candor Romney exhibited towards him.

From acknowledging that a “very large” segment of the Republican party “really doesn’t believe in the Constitution,” to his frank accounts of other Republican senators’ true feelings about Donald Trump, Romney doesn’t appear to have held anything back from his biographer, often providing unedited texts, emails and documents for Coppins’ thorough perusal. Even though Romney had privately advised Coppins early on that he wasn’t going to seek reelection, Coppins came away with the impression that there was something “beyond his own political future” that accounted for his startling honesty.

That “something,” Coppins believes, was “not just about the decomposition of his own political party, but about the fate of the American project itself.”

RELATED STORY: Romney is rare Republican who bucks Trump, but he's no hero

It appears that the greatest catalyst for Romney’s pessimism was the events of Jan. 6, 2021.

Coppins notes that Romney became noticeably preoccupied with world history and the fall of global empires after he witnessed the insurrection of Jan. 6. Romney concluded, in large part, that it was history repeating itself, noting that the rise of particularly oppressive tyrants inevitably preceded the dissolution of empires. According to Coppins, Romney said, “Authoritarianism is like a gargoyle lurking over the cathedral, ready to pounce.”

It’s clear that Romney sees Trump as that gargoyle. In one incident Romney shared, he reached out via text message to then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after a concerning phone call.

“In case you have not heard this, I just got a call from Angus King, who said that he had spoken with a senior official at the Pentagon who reports that they are seeing very disturbing social media traffic regarding the protests planned on the 6th. There are calls to burn down your home, Mitch; to smuggle guns into DC, and to storm the Capitol. I hope that sufficient security plans are in place, but I am concerned that the instigator—the President—is the one who commands the reinforcements the DC and Capitol police might require.”

According to Romney, McConnell never responded.

A significant section of the book addresses the evolution of Romney’s own feelings toward Trump, which apparently rapidly descended into complete disgust, culminating in Romney writing a 2019 opinion piece in for The Washington Post excoriating Trump as unfit to lead the nation. He emphasizes to Coppins that this sentiment was and is shared by almost all of his Republican Senate colleagues.

Romney and Trump’s famous dinner after the 2016 election

From Coppins’ book:

“Almost without exception,” he told me, “they shared my view of the president.” In public, of course, they played their parts as Trump loyalists, often contorting themselves rhetorically to defend the president’s most indefensible behavior. But in private, they ridiculed his ignorance, rolled their eyes at his antics, and made incisive observations about his warped, toddler­ like psyche. Romney recalled one senior Republican senator frankly admitting, “He has none of the qualities you would want in a president, and all of the qualities you wouldn’t.”

According to Coppins’ account, when Romney would criticize Trump, his fellow GOP senators would “express solidarity” with him, sometimes saying they wish they had a constituency that would allow them to express their true feelings. As Coppins reports, Romney also described an incident where Trump attended a private meeting with Republican senators, who remained “respectful and attentive,” only to burst out laughing when Trump exited the room.

Campaign Action

Romney also quoted McConnell as calling Trump an “idiot,” and saying Romney was “lucky” he could say what he actually thought of Trump. According to Coppins, McConnell denied this conversation. Romney also confirmed what many of us have already assumed: His Republican colleagues were cynically dismissive of the (first) impeachment proceedings against Trump. 

“They didn’t want to hear from witnesses; they didn’t want to learn new facts; they didn’t want to hold a trial at all,” Romney told Coppins. Romney also claimed that McConnell warned that a “prolonged, polarizing Senate trial would force them to take tough votes that risked alienating their constituents,” something that McConnell felt would lead to a Democratic Senate majority. As Romney told it to Coppins, he was appalled that there was not even the slightest pretense of impartiality in Republicans’ strategy to handle Trump’s impeachment.

RELATED STORY: McCarthy is sealing the fate of both House and Senate Republicans

Coppins report, quite honestly, paints a picture of a Romney desperate to actually do the right thing and approach the Trump impeachment as an impartial juror would, and as he felt his constitutional duty demanded—an approach which led Romney to conclude that Trump was guilty. Even so, he spoke to his 2012 running mate and former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan on the phone, and Ryan apparently did his level best to convince Romney that he’d be killing his future political prospects by voting to convict Trump. According to Coppins, after Romney cast that vote—the lone “guilty” vote cast by a Republican senator in Trump’s first impeachment—he “would never feel comfortable at a Republican caucus lunch again.”

Coppins’ biography also examines Romney’s reaction to the Jan. 6 insurrection, describing in detail Romney’s reactions to the Capitol being attacked, even as he and his fellow senators were being evacuated.

At some point, Romney’s frustration and anger appears to boil over. As Coppins writes:

He turned to Josh Hawley, who was huddled with some of his right-wing colleagues, and started to yell. Later, Romney would struggle to recall the exact wording of his rebuke. Sometimes he’d remember shouting “You’re the reason this is happening!” Other times, it would be something more terse: “You did this.” At least one reporter in the chamber would recount seeing the senator throw up his hands in a fit of fury as he roared, “This is what you’ve gotten, guys!” Whatever the words, the sentiment was clear: This violence, this crisis, this assault on democracy—this is your fault.

Coppins confirms that Romney was aware of and disapproved of his GOP colleagues’ plan to reject electoral slates and thus perpetuate Trump’s hold on power. Late into the evening on Jan. 6, he had believed that the harrowing Trump-incited assault on his own colleagues’ safety would prompt them to abandon their plans. He was surprised when the unctuous Josh Hawley nevertheless stood up and delivered his speech supporting Trump’s position, a decision that Romney attributes to pure “political calculation.”

But one of the most telling passages excerpted by Coppins addresses not Trump’s first, but his second impeachment, and the refusal of Romney’s fellow Republicans to convict Trump for instigating the insurrection of Jan. 6.

According to Coppins’ account, Romney attributes this to his colleagues’ fear for their personal safety.

But after January 6, a new, more existential brand of cowardice had emerged. One Republican congressman confided to Romney that he wanted to vote for Trump’s second impeachment, but chose not to out of fear for his family’s safety. The congressman reasoned that Trump would be impeached by House Democrats with or without him—why put his wife and children at risk if it wouldn’t change the outcome? Later, during the Senate trial, Romney heard the same calculation while talking with a small group of Republican colleagues. When one senator, a member of leadership, said he was leaning toward voting to convict, the others urged him to reconsider. You can’t do that, Romney recalled someone saying. Think of your personal safety, said another. Think of your children. The senator eventually decided they were right.

Coppins emphasizes that Romney believes his colleagues’ fear was—and is—well-founded. Romney says he began to observe an increasingly “deranged” quality in Republican voters, even among his most loyal constituents back in Utah. As the 2022 election approached, Romney grew increasingly appalled by the MAGA fanaticism exhibited by his party’s senatorial candidates. He regarded J.D Vance of Ohio, whom, as Coppins writes, Romney felt “reinvented his whole persona overnight,” as particularly loathsome.

According to Coppins, “[w]hat Romney couldn’t stomach any longer was associating himself with people who cynically stoked distrust in democracy for selfish political reasons.”

By that point, according to Coppins, Romney had begun to gradually let his colleagues know that he wouldn’t be running again. He briefly toyed with the idea of making a third-party run for president in 2024, but abandoned it after concluding it would more than likely siphon votes from President Joe Biden and possibly lead to a Trump victory. Since then, he has had some discussions about forming a quasi-political party with like-minded “centrists” such as West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, with a view toward ultimately endorsing whichever party’s nominee—Democrat or Republican—aligns most closely with their own views.

Coppins suggests this idea is still in the “brainstorming” stage.

By taking himself out of the running, it appears Romney’s quest for political relevance may be quixotic. But Coppins’ piece in The Atlantic may be the closest thing to a fair assessment of what the modern Republican party actually thinks about Trump, and why it behaves in the sycophantic manner it does.

RELATED STORY: Cheney's jab at 'Putin wing' of the Republican Party is an electoral masterstroke … for Democrats

Romney prepares for post-Senate career by showing he was no hero

On Wednesday, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah announced that he would not be running for reelection to the Senate in 2024. Well-known bus owner and patriarch of his own micro-state, Romney is now garnering praise for his willingness to bring down the “demagogue” axe on Donald Trump as he heads for the door.

In an Atlantic excerpt from an upcoming biography, released following Romney’s declaration of no mas, there is a story that takes place in the days just before Jan. 6, 2021. Romney was contacted by independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, who had a warning about “online chatter among right-wing extremists.” King was mostly giving Romney a heads-up because Romney’s lack of vocal support for Trump had placed him closer to the Nancy Pelosi/Mike Pence threat territory than to the Jim Jordan/Matt Gaetz safe zone. Romney’s name was “popping up in some frightening corners of the internet,” according to McKay Coppins, who authored the biography.

So Romney wrote a note to then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, warning him that there could be violence on Jan. 6, that Trump was the instigator, and that there were plans to storm the Capitol. McConnell did not reply. And when it came down to it, Romney did nothing else.

Here’s the text that Romney reportedly sent to McConnell on Jan. 2, 2021.

“In case you have not heard this, I just got a call from Angus King, who said that he had spoken with a senior official at the Pentagon who reports that they are seeing very disturbing social media traffic regarding the protests planned on the 6th. There are calls to burn down your home, Mitch; to smuggle guns into DC, and to storm the Capitol. I hope that sufficient security plans are in place, but I am concerned that the instigator—the President—is the one who commands the reinforcements the DC and Capitol police might require.”

Romney gets full marks both for outlining the scope of the threat and for predicting, accurately, that Trump would both encourage the insurgents and fail to provide resources to the police.

Campaign Action

But no one is a hero in this story. McConnell never responds to Romney and, as far as we are aware, never makes a move to ensure that additional security is in place. It also doesn’t seem that McConnell took any of these concerns to Trump or brought this information to others who were endangered by the violence Trump was summoning.

Romney doesn’t appear to have done anything more. He didn’t confront Trump. He didn’t step in front of a camera to give a warning. He kept what knowledge he had to himself and—very notably—doesn’t seem to have provided the text he sent McConnell to either the Jan. 6 investigation committee or the representatives conducting Trump’s second impeachment trial.

It’s also worth noting that King doesn’t seem to have taken action beyond warning Romney. That’s in spite of telling Romney that he had heard rumors about “gun smuggling, of bombs and arson, of targeting the traitors in Congress.” Maybe King called others. If so, those others have not spoken out. He certainly didn’t make any kind of public statement, and he also doesn’t seem to have taken this information to investigators, because his communications with Romney were unrevealed until the fragment of the biography was published.

Likewise, King’s Pentagon sources appear to have been content to sit on their discovery of plots to assault the Capitol and threaten the lives of lawmakers. Those sources may have a better following-the-chain-of-command excuse than either McConnell, Romney, or King. But if they were content to merely report a coming insurrection among Trump supporters to Trump, that excuse isn’t a good one.

There aren’t any heroes in this story. There are just a lot of Washington insiders who knew the storm was coming but whose concerns seemed to be limited to whispering about these threats among themselves. When the chips were down, Romney had a chance to go public with his concerns, to warn the nation of what was about to happen and express his disdain for Trump’s role in instigating violence. He didn’t do that.

So don’t hand him any accolades now.

What do you do if you're associated with one of the biggest election fraud scandals in recent memory? If you're Republican Mark Harris, you try running for office again! On this week's episode of "The Downballot," we revisit the absolutely wild story of Harris' 2018 campaign for Congress, when one of his consultants orchestrated a conspiracy to illegally collect blank absentee ballots from voters and then had his team fill them out before "casting" them. Officials wound up tossing the results of this almost-stolen election, but now Harris is back with a new bid for the House—and he won't shut up about his last race, even blaming Democrats for the debacle.

The Senate appears to be uniting against right-wing House extremists

The Senate appears to be uniting against right-wing House extremists, subjecting Speaker Kevin McCarthy to possibly the biggest test to his leadership to date: averting a government shutdown while responding to this year’s catastrophic natural disasters and maintaining assistance to Ukraine. The two top Senate appropriators have an agreement on a spending bill that will come to the floor next week, and Republican leader Mitch McConnell has been using his bully pulpit to keep aid flowing to Ukraine.

Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who together lead the Appropriations Committee, announced Wednesday that they have reached a deal on a spending package that will include funding for Military Construction and Veterans Affairs; Transportation; Housing and Urban Development; Agriculture, Rural Development, and the Food and Drug Administration, as well as agencies under those larger umbrellas.

That could be the first of a handful of “minibus” bills the Senate pushes in the next few weeks, Sen. Jon Tester told Politico on Tuesday. If the Senate shows a united front on passing these funding bills, it would significantly increase pressure on McCarthy to pass a stopgap funding bill and avoid a government shutdown. That’s not a sure thing: The Senate is famously slow when it comes to legislating. To get these bills considered quickly, they’ll have to be advanced by unanimous consent. That avoids the lengthy process of cloture votes and hours of debate time. Any single senator—like the infamously obstructionist Republican Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, for example—could derail that with a simple objection.

So far, however, there hasn’t been much in the way of government-shutdown cheerleading from the usual subjects in the Republican Senate conference. In fact, as Murray and Collins noted in their announcement that “we worked with our colleagues in a bipartisan way to draft and pass out of Committee all twelve appropriations bills for the first time in years—and did so with overwhelming bipartisan votes.” There appears to be little appetite among Senate Republicans for picking this particular fight.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is intent on keeping the conference united on this one. Last week, he reiterated that the Republicans in the Senate were not going to emulate the House and renege on the budget deal that McCarthy struck with President Joe Biden earlier this year to resolve the debt-ceiling standoff. “The House then turned around and passed spending levels that were below that level,” McConnell said. “Without stating an opinion about that, that’s not going to be replicated in the Senate.”

McConnell has also set down a marker on continuing funding for Ukraine, another factor in a potential deal to avert a shutdown. The administration’s request for supplemental funding to Ukraine will likely be attached to a short-term funding bill, as would its request for emergency disaster relief. Funding for disaster relief should be a no-brainer for Republicans politically, as well as a top priority. Tying it to Ukraine assistance and keeping the government open should keep a healthy majority on board.

McConnell is doing his bit to keep up the drum beat. He has spent the last two days hammering on the need to keep funding flowing to Ukraine. “It is certainly not the time to go wobbly,” he said in a floor speech Wednesday. “It is not the time to ease up."

McConnell from Senate floor on more Ukraine aid:“Helping Ukraine retake its territory means weakening 1 of America’s biggest strategic adversaries w/o firing a shot & deterring another one in the process. It means investing directly in American strength,both military & economic."

— Craig Caplan (@CraigCaplan) September 6, 2023

The stakes are high for McConnell. He wants Republicans to regain the majority in 2024, and avoiding a government shutdown is vital to that goal. He’s walking the usual tightrope between keeping the increasingly MAGA-like base happy, while not giving Democrats any additional fodder to hammer Republican opponents.

That’s nothing compared with what McCarthy faces, however. For him, the outcome is more politically existential: whether he keeps his speakership. He’s getting pressure from his supposed ally Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who won’t vote for any government funding, or support for Ukraine, or really anything until she gets an impeachment inquiry, as she recently detailed in a long, unhinged tweet thread.

McCarthy’s more vocal adversaries are taking direct aim at his speakership. Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz threatened a challenge in a tweet Tuesday, writing, “We’ve got to seize the initiative. That means forcing votes on impeachment. And if @SpeakerMcCarthy stands in our way, he may not have the job long. Let’s hope he works with us, not against us.”

Texas Rep. Chip Roy, a Freedom Caucus leader, has piled on with a series of tweets, retweets, and replies firing up the MAGA base for a shutdown. That includes retweeting a post exclaiming, “Chip for Speaker!!!”

That’s a direct message to McCarthy that either of them—or anyone else in the extremist bunch—would be willing to use the tool they extorted from him in his leadership bid in January: the motion to vacate the chair. That allows any single one of them to bring the equivalent of a no-confidence vote to the floor at any time. It’s not the first time Roy has made this veiled threat.

This is the biggest test for McCarthy’s ability to lead, one that everyone paying attention knew would happen if he didn’t stand up to the extremists at some point. He scraped by in the first test on the debt ceiling by striking a deal with Biden—the deal which the extremists forced him to renege on. He’s facing a choice again: Will he stick with the Trump MAGA minority, or try to protect his slim majority—particularly the “Biden 18,” the freshmen Republicans holding districts Biden won in 2020?

It’s also, of course, a test for those supposed moderates, one they’ve failed before. They have the power to block the minority of extremists, if they’re willing to use it.

Sign and send the petition: Pass a clean funding bill. No GOP hostage taking.


Nancy Mace and the myth of the moderate Republican

McCarthy's speaker deals come back to haunt him

McCarthy caves to rebels for temporary truce

McCarthy is screwing over swing-district Republicans

It’s the Ukraine Update episode! Kerry interviews Markos to talk about what is happening in Ukraine, what needs to be done, and why the fate of Ukraine is tied to democracy’s fate in 2024.

Hypocritical Republicans follow the new script in the wake of Trump’s latest indictment

When it comes to Republican lawmakers, hypocrisy knows no bounds, especially when it comes to Donald Trump. With rare exception, they either loudly support the MAGA cult, or are afraid to challenge it—so much so that the GOP should probably be renamed POT (Party of Trump), as in “the GOP has gone to POT.”
In the wake of Trump’s fourth criminal indictment—brought Monday by Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney Fani Willis, charging Trump and 18 associates with racketeering in a plot to overturn the 2020 presidential election—elected Republicans have predictably jumped to Trump’s defense. The Georgia indictment follows the federal indictment brought by special counsel Jack Smith on Aug. 1, charging Trump with conspiring to subvert American democracy by scheming to reverse Joe Biden’s presidential victory.
Incredibly, the latest talking point for Trump defenders is that if Democrats want to ensure Trump, the current GOP frontrunner, isn’t elected president in 2024, they should let it happen at the ballot box rather than in the courthouse.
This script ignores entirely that so many of Trump’s legal issues stem from the fact that he wouldn't concede that the previous presidential election had been decided at the ballot box.

Nearly three years after Americans voted him out of the White House, Trump continues to push the Big Lie. He’s even hosting a press conference Monday, promising a “complete EXONERATION” that will prove his tired claims of fraud. Trump has also backed election deniers in races for key state offices (fortunately, most have lost) that could help undermine voters in 2024. Americans have no guarantee that he wouldn’t push the replay button on the well-documented “fake electors” scheme of 2020 in the face of another loss to Joe Biden in 2024.

Nevertheless, in a Wednesday appearance on The Hugh Hewitt Show, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas embraced the script.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR): “It would be much better from [the liberals’] point of view…if they try to stop [Trump] the ballot box…as opposed to having rabid zealots like Jack Smith or partisans like Alvin Bragg and the woman in Atlanta…try to take him out of contention.”

— The Recount (@therecount) August 16, 2023


“I understand that the Democrats and liberals in the media can’t stand Donald Trump and they’ll  do anything to stop him. But it would be much better from their point of view and the point of view of the country if they try to stop him on the campaign trail and at the ballot box. And let the American people make these choices as opposed to having rabid zealots like Jack Smith or partisans like Alvin Bragg and the woman in Atlanta make these decisions for them — to try to take Donald Trump out of contention.”

Notice how Cotton dismisses and disrespects DA Willis, not even referring to her by her name or title. 

Campaign Action

But Cotton was not sharing an original thought. His comments echo those made by other GOP lawmakers who have rushed to use similar talking points to defend the indefensible Donald Trump, without even considering the details of the indictments against him.

As South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told Fox News on Tuesday:

“The American people can decide whether they want him to be president or not. This should be decided at the ballot box and not in a bunch of liberal jurisdictions trying to put the man in jail. They are weaponizing the law in this country. They are trying to take Donald Trump down and this is setting a bad precedent.

Are we going to let county prosecutors start prosecuting the … former president of the United States? You open up Pandora’s box to the presidency. This whole exercise of allowing a county prosecutor to go after a former president of the United States will do a lot of damage to the presidency itself over time. To my Democratic friends, be careful what you wish for.”

RELATED STORY: Lindsey Graham makes the most moronic Trump defense yet and gets slammed

It’s possible Graham’s position as a U.S. senator saved him from being among the many co-conspirators indicted by Willis. Fulton County’s Trump investigation did look into a November 2020 phone call that Graham made to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, where Graham attempted to cast doubt on the state’s signature-matching law for mail-in ballots.

But back to the script. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas had this to say in a social media post on Xwitter:

“The indictments of Donald Trump are all about how Democrats don’t value democracy & the democratic process. Dems fear that if the voters can decide fairly in 2024 they will reject Joe Biden’s disastrous record.”

Sure, Rafael.

Cruz even went so far as to play reporter from outside the Fulton County courthouse Monday night (and promote his podcast) on Fox News’ “Hannity” show. Cruz chased soundbites with a stick mic as he waited for indictments against Trump and his co-conspirators to be handed down.  

Ted Cruz reacts to the Georgia grand jury indictments: "I'm pissed...We've never once indicted a former president...This is disgraceful...It is an abuse of power by angry Democrats who've decided the rule of law doesn't matter anymore."

— Republican Accountability (@AccountableGOP) August 15, 2023

Cruz, of course, led the Senate effort to reject electoral votes for Biden from Arizona and Pennsylvania on Jan. 6, 2021.

Meanwhile, HuffPost reports that Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, the lead manager in the House’s second impeachment trial of Trump, ridiculed the notion that the justice system should step aside while Trump seeks a second term in 2024.

Raskin told HuffPost:

“Wouldn’t it be great if you could never prosecute anyone for trying to overthrow an election that they lost, because then they can keep trying to overthrow elections? Didn’t Ted Cruz go to Harvard Law School? Gee, you would have thought he would have had a little more faith in the American justice system than that.”

Raskin noted that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution bars from office anyone who has “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the United States. Even some conservative legal scholars have concluded that the language disqualifies Trump from holding office, though their scholarship has obviously had no effect on Trump’s 2024 campaign.

RELATED STORY: Conservatives want to bar Trump from ballot under the 14th Amendment? Get in line

Let’s check in with Republican congressional leadership!

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California again reverted to his cherished talking point about the “weaponization of government” against Trump, overlooking the fact that weaponizing the government is exactly what Trump did with Attorney General Bill Barr’s Justice Department during his administration—and Cotton hinted to Hewitt that Democrats could expect as much from Republicans in the future. 

McCarthy was up late Monday night, and took to Xwitter when the Fulton County indictments dropped. “Biden has weaponized government against his leading political opponent to interfere in the 2024 election,” McCarthy wrote. “Now a radical DA in Georgia is following Biden’s lead by attacking President Trump and using it to fundraise her political career.”

Justice should be blind, but Biden has weaponized government against his leading political opponent to interfere in the 2024 election. Now a radical DA in Georgia is following Biden’s lead by attacking President Trump and using it to fundraise her political career. Americans…

— Kevin McCarthy (@SpeakerMcCarthy) August 15, 2023

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, however, has put his head in his tortoise shell.

Roll Call reported Tuesday that McConnell has remained quiet regarding Willis’s indictment; Spectrum News in Kentucky noted the same on Wednesday.

Recall what McConnell said when he decided to vote to acquit Trump after his second impeachment trial in February 2021.

“President Trump is still liable for everything he did while he was in office as an ordinary citizen,”  McConnell said. “He didn’t get away with anything. Yet.”

"We have a criminal justice system in this country. We have civil litigation," he continued. "And former presidents are not immune from being accountable by either one."

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, both New York Democrats, issued a joint statement Monday evening.

“As a nation built on the rule of law, we urge Mr. Trump, his supporters and his critics to allow the legal process to proceed without outside interference,” they said.

HuffPost offered this reaction from Democratic Rep. Nikema Williams, whose district includes most of Atlanta.

“We fully intend to beat the former president at the ballot box but this is about accountability, giving the people who show up to vote confidence that their will be counted,” Williams said Tuesday on a press call organized by the nonprofit Public Citizen.

The last word goes to Willis, who rejected claims by Trump and other Republicans that her prosecution was politically motivated.

"I make decisions in this office based on the facts and the laws," Willis said. "The law is completely nonpartisan. That's how decisions are made in every case."

Patriotic Republicans helped save the country 49 years ago. Will any step up in 2023?

On Aug. 7, 1974—49 years ago this week—three powerful Republican lawmakers met with then-President Richard Nixon and told him he wasn’t going to find a reprieve through them: He was going to be impeached. Within two days, Nixon resigned.

That intervention by Sen. Barry Goldwater, House Minority Leader John Rhodes, and Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott earned an almost-mythological status that all three legislators downplayed in later years. They were loyal Republicans, they knew the jig was up for Nixon, and they knew that the right thing for the country—and their political party—was to end the “long national nightmare.”

No Republicans were actual heroes during the Watergate scandal: They were just patriotic civil servants. Sen. Howard Baker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Watergate committee, started out as something of an ally to Nixon. He even secretly met with Nixon at the outset of the hearings to let him know the committee’s strategy. He drew the line, however, at working with Nixon to subvert that strategy.

Baker asked the famous question, “What did the president know and when did he know it?” He thought he was going to get a very different answer, that it was Nixon’s underlings who engineered the plot without Nixon’s involvement. Oops. To Baker’s credit, however, when he got the answer he wasn’t expecting from White House counsel John Dean, he followed the path it opened and the nation was spared the worst constitutional crisis since the Civil War.

From that point on, Republicans have taken the wrong lesson from Watergate. In the past 49 years, they’ve focused on the landslide elections in 1974 and 1976, and on revenge against the Democrats, instead of recognizing that they saved the country.

Fast forward to 2023, and just one Republican has dared to stand up for the rule of law after Donald Trump’s third indictment. It’s not anyone in House leadership. It’s not Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. It’s Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

Additional evidence presented since then, including by the January 6 Commission, has only reinforced that the former President played a key role in instigating the riots, resulting in physical violence and desecration of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.

— Sen. Lisa Murkowski (@lisamurkowski) August 2, 2023

Murkowski went on to say that Trump is “innocent until proven guilty and will have his day in court.”

Campaign Action

But, she added, “As that process begins, I encourage everyone to read the indictment, to understand the very serious allegations being made in this case.”

She’s the only one among four Republicans still serving in the Senate from the handful who voted to convict Trump in his Jan. 6 impeachment to make a significant statement. Utah’s Mitt Romney issued a bland statement, saying, “My views on the former president’s actions surrounding January 6th are well known. As with all criminal defendants, he is entitled to due process and the presumption of innocence.” Susan Collins of Maine and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana are the other two, and they haven’t said anything.

But the loudest silence is coming from McConnell, the supposed great institutionalist who should be leading his party now, as his predecessor Hugh Scott did 49 years ago. McConnell was the one who stood on the Senate floor that day, when he refused to vote to convict Trump in the impeachment, and made this proclamation.

“Former President Trump's actions preceding the riot were a disgraceful dereliction of duty,” McConnell said. He accused Trump of creating “an intensifying crescendo of conspiracy theories, orchestrated by an outgoing president who seemed determined to either overturn the voters' decision or else torch our institutions on the way out.” But still, he wouldn’t vote to convict on the flimsy excuse that Trump was already out of office. Never mind that his impeachment would prevent him from holding that office ever again.

"We have a criminal justice system in this country,” McConnell said. “We have civil litigation. And former presidents are not immune from being held accountable by either one.”

The criminal justice system has taken over. Now would be a good time for McConnell, the “great” institutionalist and the only Republican who can remotely claim a leadership position in the party, to break his silence.

Conservatives cried about how the “woke” (whatever that means) “Barbie” movie would fail. It didn’t. In fact, the film has struck a chord with American and international audiences. Daily Kos writer Laura Clawson joins Markos to talk about the film and the implications of the Republican Party’s fixation on mythical culture wars, which is failing them in bigger and bigger ways every day.

Does McConnell still think Trump is ‘liable for everything he did while he was in office’?

Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell voted not to convict Donald Trump during his second impeachment—the one prompted by Trump endangering the lives of all members of Congress and trying to overthrow the government. Despite his “no” vote, McConnell had some pretty tough words. 

“There is no question—none—that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day,” McConnell said. “The leader of the free world cannot spend weeks thundering that shadowy forces are stealing our country and then feign surprise when people believe him and do reckless things.”

He was voting against impeachment but not letting Trump off the hook, he suggested, because there were still legal remedies.

"President Trump is still liable for everything he did while he was in office as an ordinary citizen. Unless the statute of limitations is run, still liable for everything he did while he was in office. Didn’t get away with anything, yet. Yet.

"We have a criminal justice system in this country. We have civil litigation. And former presidents are not immune from being held accountable by either one.”

So we should expect a statement from McConnell shortly, congratulating the Justice Department for holding Trump accountable. Right?

Sign the petition: Disqualify Trump from running for public office

Senate Republicans’ path to majority is riddled with landmines of their own making

If the Republican Party was even remotely normal, Senate Republicans would be counting down the hours until Election Day 2024, when they would almost assuredly win the two seats they need to retake control of the upper chamber.

Instead, they are biting their tongues and ducking for cover as they face incoming hits from every corner of the Republican Party.

The latest debacle keeping Senate Republicans up at night is the House GOP’s push to impeach President Joe Biden over, well, they're not exactly sure what … but they may or may not bother to find out.

After House Republicans voted Thursday to refer an impeachment resolution over border security to the committees of jurisdiction, Senate Republicans started to review their life choices.

RELATED STORY: Republican disarray is somehow, miraculously, getting worse

"I don't know what they're basing the president's impeachment on. We'll see what they do. I can't imagine going down that road," Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia told Axios.

Capito even added the most obvious yet damning observation: "This seems like an extremely partisan exercise."

Senate Minority Leader John Thune would prefer his caucus’s attention and energy be directed toward pretty much anything else. “I’d rather focus on the policy agenda, the vision for the future and go on and win elections," the South Dakotan—and Mitch McConnell’s #2—explained to Axios.

Sounds smart. But does anyone have any clue at all what the GOP "vision for the future" is— other than rounding up all of Donald Trump's perceived enemies, locking them up, and contemplating whether to throw away the key or worse?

The Senate Republican chairing the effort to retake the chamber, Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, also chimed in, saying he hadn't "seen evidence that would rise to an impeachable offense," before conceding that’s what trials are for.

Sure—assuming House Republicans bother to conduct an investigation. That little hiccup appears to have occurred to Sen. Thom Tillis of South Carolina.

"Impeachment is a serious process. It takes time. It takes evidence," he noted. Now, there's one to grow on.

As former Harry Reid aide Jim Manley tweeted about the House GOP's impeachment scheme: "As a so-called democratic strategist—thank you."

But House Republican plans for impeachment (not to mention a potential government shutdown, abortion ban push, or effort to yank aid to Ukraine) aren't the only things keeping Senate Republicans awake at night.

They're a tad uncomfortable with the fact that the party's current 2024 front-runner and possible nominee stole state secrets, refused to return them, and then obstructed justice during a federal probe of the matter.

Several weeks ago, On June 13, Minority Leader McConnell was asked during a press gaggle whether he would still support Trump as nominee if he were convicted. He dodged.

"I am just simply not going to comment on the candidates," McConnell responded. "I'm simply going to stay out of it." He has said anything on the matter since.

Finally, when looking toward 2024, so-called candidate quality is still a sticking point for Senate Republicans. Though they have had some wins on candidate recruitment to date, they have also suffered some missed opportunities. Further, many of their candidates—even the good ones—will be haunted by their extreme anti-abortion views on the campaign trail.

Voters across the battleground tilt heavily pro-choice and largely believe Republicans will try to ban abortion if they gain control of Washington/Congress. Driving these strong views is a fundamental belief that women should make their own decisions, not politicians.

— Senate Democrats (@dscc) June 23, 2023

Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher, Senate Republicans top pick to challenge Democratic incumbent Tammy Baldwin, announced earlier this month that he’ll be taking a pass on a run. The Badger State’s GOP primary promises to be a mess, but former Milwaukee County sheriff and conspiracy theory enthusiast David Clarke has looked dominant in polling.

In response to Gallagher's June 9 news, Clarke, who's eyeing a bid, tweeted of his rivals, "None of them energizes or excites the base voter like I do."

He's not wrong—and that is some very bad news for Senate Republicans hoping to put Baldwin's seat in play.

Republicans also have extreme hurdles in other top-tier target states, such as Montana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. As Daily Kos previously reported, even their best candidates hold downright radical positions on abortion:

  • Senate Republicans’ top choice in Montana, businessman Tim Sheehy, who has accused Democrats of being "bent on murdering our unborn children";

  • Another Senate GOP darling, Pennsylvania hedge fund CEO David McCormick, doesn't support exceptions for rape and incest, and only approves of "very rare" exceptions for the life of the mother;

  • In Ohio, MAGA diehard Bernie Moreno, who's earned the endorsement of freshman Sen. J.D. Vance, is "100% pro-life with no exceptions," according to HuffPost. During his failed Senate bid last year, Moreno tweeted, “Conservative Republicans should never back down from their belief that life begins at conception and that abortion is the murder of an innocent baby";

  • and then there’s West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, who McConnell has convinced to run for the seat of Sen. Joe Manchin. He signed a near-total abortion ban into law last year.

Whether it's Trump, House Republicans, or abortion—the issue that turned the midterms upside down in 2022—Senate Republicans face an uphill battle to recruit and present candidates with broad appeal in a party that thrives on alienating a solid majority of the country.

RELATED STORY: No Republican can escape their party's rancid brand

Joining us on "The Downballot" this week is North Carolina Rep. Wiley Nickel, the first member of Congress to appear on the show! Nickel gives us the blow-by-blow of his unlikely victory that saw him flip an extremely competitive seat from red to blue last year, including how he adjusted when a new map gave him a very different district, and why highlighting the extremism of his MAGA-flavored opponent was key to his success. A true election nerd, Nickel tells us which precincts he was tracking on election night that let him know he was going to win—and which fellow House freshman is the one you want to rock out with at a concert.

House passes debt ceiling deal

UPDATE: Thursday, Jun 1, 2023 · 1:34:30 AM +00:00 · Joan McCarter

Yep. They hate it. 

Biggs is not happy that debt deal passed with more Democrats than Republicans "We were told they'd never put a bill on the floor that would take more Democrats than Rs to pass. We were told that."

— Sarah Ferris (@sarahnferris) June 1, 2023

UPDATE: Thursday, Jun 1, 2023 · 1:26:52 AM +00:00 · Joan McCarter

The deal passed easily, 314 to 177, with more Democratic than Republican votes. The best thing about a vote that big is that it will make Mike Lee and Rand Paul look more ridiculous when they try to hold it up in the Senate. Also that McCarthy owes so much to the Democrats. The Freedom Caucus guys are going to HATE that,

UPDATE: Thursday, Jun 1, 2023 · 12:39:59 AM +00:00 · Joan McCarter

Ugh. Yeah, they’re still yammering. 

Mike Lee is on the House floor, huddling with Andy Biggs and Chip Roy

— Jake Sherman (@JakeSherman) June 1, 2023

UPDATE: Wednesday, May 31, 2023 · 10:12:12 PM +00:00 · Joan McCarter

The closed rule—no amendments allowed, passed pretty easily 241-187. There were 52 Democratic yes votes, and 29 Republican noes. There might not be as many Dems in support when it comes to final passage, and they’ll probably hold out, letting Republicans go first and then determining how many of them will be needed to help pass it. The House is scheduled to pick up again at 7:15 PM, ET to proceed to final passage.

The debt ceiling/budget bill worked out between President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy will hit the House floor Wednesday afternoon, in a massive blow to the Freedom Caucus maniacs who have been rooting for the nation to default on its debt and for economic catastrophe. Their short rebellion fizzled, and McCarthy may get at least 150 Republican votes on the plan.

The major part of the drama was over once Rep. Tom Massie, a Kentucky Republican, said he would vote the bill out of the Rules Committee. Freedom Caucus Reps. Chip Roy of Texas, and Ralph Norman of South Carolina couldn’t convince him to play spoiler, despite histrionics from Roy throughout the day and his dire warning that “The Republican conference has been torn asunder.”

SIGN: End the Debt Limit game of blackmail. Pass real reform.

What has been torn asunder is the control the Freedom Caucus thought they had over McCarthy. That was clear once members of the group started downplaying their one big card: the motion to vacate the chair. It takes only one member to start the ball rolling on ousting McCarthy from the speakership, and it became clear quickly that there was little appetite among the rebels to even try. Even “firebrand” Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene will likely vote for the bill in the end.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene likens raising the debt ceiling to a “shit sandwich” but is a lean yes. “I'm a dessert girl. Everyone loves dessert and that's impeachment, someone needs to be impeached,” she adds.

— Juliegrace Brufke (@juliegraceb) May 30, 2023

The deal pretty effectively neuters the Freedom Caucus and limits the damage House Republicans can do between now and Jan. 1, 2025. They can’t take the debt ceiling hostage again in the next year and a half, and they can’t shut down the government by refusing to complete spending bills without doing serious political damage to themselves.

From a progressive perspective, the bill isn’t great, and most in the Progressive Caucus probably won’t support it. They don’t have to. There will be enough Republican votes and votes from other Democrats to pass the bill. From a political and economic stability perspective, the bill is fantastic. It averts economic catastrophe and neutralizes the Freedom Caucus in one go. In other words, Biden wins in a big way.


Republican unity on debt ceiling crumbling fast

House Freedom Caucus neutered by debt ceiling deal

McCarthy's speaker deals come back to haunt him

We have Rural Organizing’s Aftyn Behn. Markos and Aftyn talk about what has been happening in rural communities across the country and progressives’ efforts to engage those voters. Behn also gives the podcast a breakdown of which issues will make the difference in the coming elections.