Letters From an American

The Disastrous Axios Interview and So Much More!

The Disastrous Axios Interview and So Much More!

August 4, 2020

Today, the major domestic news was last night’s Axios interview, in which reporter Jonathan Swan challenged Trump’s assertions and revealed just how shallow the president’s understanding of the pandemic, mail-in voting, and so on, really are. The interview showed little that we didn’t already know, but to see the president dismiss the 156,000 deaths from coronavirus, for example, by saying “it is what it is,” was nonetheless shocking.

Everything else today was about partisanship. Trump followed up last night’s interview with another gaffe this morning. At a press conference, he demonstrated that he could not pronounce “Yosemite,” one of the nation’s best known national parks. Trying to read it from a sheet of paper, he tried twice to come up with the right pronunciation—Yoh-sem-it-ee—and instead settled on “YO-se-MIGHT” and then “Yo-se-min-NIGHT.”

Yosemite is quite a common word in America, and observers expressed surprise that Trump was apparently not familiar enough with it to recognize it, especially since he was saying the word to publicize the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, which he claimed rivaled the accomplishments of President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt did not initiate the federal protection of conservation land but broadened it so dramatically he is known as the “conservation president.”

The new law provides up to $9.5 billion over five years to begin addressing long-overdue maintenance at national parks, and it passed on a bipartisan vote. Representative John Lewis (D-GA) who passed away last month, introduced the bill last year. Trump came around to the bill only after two Republican Senators, Corey Gardner (R-CO) and Steve Daines (R-MT), told him it would help their reelection bids.

Nonetheless, Trump claimed all credit for the bill for Republicans. He invited no Democrats to the signing, and when reporters asked Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, why Democrats had been excluded, she said “the only thing we’re recognizing about congressional Democrats right now is how appalling it is that there are Americans… who are going without paychecks because they refuse to partner with Martha McSally, Republicans and the president to make sure those payments go out.”

This is political spin. The reality is that the Democrats passed a coronavirus relief bill in May and the Republican Senate refused to take it up. Senate Republicans turned to the construction of their own bill too late, and now cannot agree on their own package. So now Democrats are negotiating directly with the White House. While the two sides are apparently making some progress, it’s slow going.

While he could not find a way to put together a coronavirus relief bill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has continued to push through judicial nominations.

The political calculation behind the Republican attack on mail-in voting was also clear today. Republicans have previously endorsed mail-in voting, but Trump’s insistence that mail-in voting will cause fraud and the “most corrupt election” in American history has apparently discouraged Republican voters from applying for ballots. Republican leaders are panicked.

So today the president did an abrupt about-face, at least for the Republican state of Florida. “Whether you call it Vote by Mail or Absentee Voting,” Trump tweeted today, “in Florida the election system is Safe and Secure, Tried and True. Florida’s Voting system has been cleaned up (we defeated Democrats attempts at change), so in Florida I encourage all to request a Ballot & Vote by Mail!”

Today the New York Times also reported that at least four of the people involved in trying to get Kanye West on the ballot this fall are prominent Republican political activists, suggesting that they are hoping the rapper and artist West will be a spoiler for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Trump himself retweeted a post suggesting that West could “siphon black votes away from Biden.” There are some signs that this political gambit is not in West’s best interest. His family members have apologized for West’s recent erratic behavior and noted that he suffers from mental illness.

Tonight Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) tweeted “Shocked & appalled—I just left a 90 minute classified briefing on foreign malign threats to our elections. From spying to sabotage, Americans need to see & hear these reports…. Protect our democracy from destruction by declassifying key intel describing the danger of foreign subterfuge to our elections. Congress has been briefed, but sworn to secrecy—unacceptably.”

He said no more than this, but it is noteworthy that Blumenthal sits on the Committee on Armed Services, where he sits on the Subcommittee on Cybersecurity.

On July 24, less than two weeks ago, the four Democrats on the Gang of Eight—the leaders of both parties in both houses of Congress who deal with national security—demanded that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence accurately warn Americans of the foreign threat to our elections.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA), and ranking member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Mark Warner (D-VA) were clear that foreign actors are attacking us. “Almost exactly four years ago, we first observed the Russians engaging in covert actions designed to influence the presidential race in favor of Donald Trump and to sow discord in the United States. Now, the Russians are once again trying to influence the election and divide Americans, and these efforts must be deterred, disrupted and exposed,” they wrote.

The director of the United States National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC), William Evanina, tried to suggest that China, Russia, and Iran were equally responsible for attacking the 2020 election. They are, he says, using “influence measures in social and traditional media in an effort to sway U.S. voters’ preferences and perspectives, to shift U.S. policies, to increase discord and to undermine confidence in our democratic process.”

The NCSC is part of the office of the Director of National Intelligence, now overseen by Trump loyalist John Ratcliffe. Trump, of course, dismisses the idea that Russia intervened on his behalf in 2016, despite findings to the contrary by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee.

The four top Democrats were alarmed at Evanina’s attempt to make it look like there was simply a general attack on the US election rather than one that called out what appears to be evidence that Russia, especially, is at work again to shape the election.

“A far more concrete and specific statement needs to be made to the American people, consistent with the need to protect sources and methods,” wrote Pelosi, Schumer, Schiff, and Warner. “We can trust the American people with knowing what to do with the information they receive and making those decisions for themselves. But they cannot do so if they are kept in the dark about what our adversaries are doing, and how they are doing it. When it comes to American elections, Americans must decide.”

We are pleased to be presenting daily posts from Heather Cox Richardson’s “Letters From an American” email newsletter. You can sign up to receive it in your inbox here

Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.