Letters From an American

The News Today Was Awful… Except When It Wasn’t

Today juxtaposed the worst of America and its best.

The News Today Was Awful… Except When It Wasn’t

Democratic Presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) (L) speaks with U.S. congressman John Lewis (D-GA) before addressing a crowd gathered for the commemoration of the 1965 Voting Rights March at Brown Chapel AME Church March 4, 2007 in Selma, Alabama. During the 1965 march, which was to go from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, police used tear gas and beat back the marchers when they reached the Pettus Bridge. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

July 30, 2020

Today juxtaposed the worst of America and its best.

The day began with the news that, as bad as we expected the second-quarter’s economic news to be, it was worse. Gross domestic product (GDP) which measures goods and services produced, fell 9.5%, equal to a 32.9% annual rate of decline. The last three months have been the worst since economists began keeping track. NPR noted that “The economic shock in April, May and June was more than three times as sharp as the previous record — 10% in 1958.” The last three months wiped out the economic growth of the past five years. And that crisis is despite the fact the government has pumped trillions into an attempt to shore up the economy.

Also in the news was the story that Herman Cain, a prominent Trump supporter and former candidate for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, has died of Covid-19. Cain was co-chair of “Black Voices for Trump,” the Trump campaign’s outreach to Black voters, and attended Trump’s June 20 indoor rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma without a mask. The 74-year-old was hospitalized with Covid-19 in early July.

Then Trump tweeted: “With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, secu rely and safely vote???”

Trump’s tweet was incorrect, of course: mail-in voting and absentee voting are exactly the same thing, and there is no evidence that they create voter fraud. The first secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, a Republican who served under President George W. Bush, recently told ABC News: “There is absolutely no antecedent, no factual basis for [Trump’s] claim of massive fraud in mail voting.”

The president has no authority to delay the timing of an election, which is set by federal law. An act of Congress could change that date, but it is unlikely the Democratic House of Representatives would do so.

The tweet was pretty transparently an attempt to distract from the dire economic news, the death of Herman Cain, the outrage over yesterday’s announcement that he is withdrawing 12,500 U.S. troops from Germany, and Representative John Lewis’s funeral, where three former presidents were giving eulogies and he was not even going to attend. It also advanced his attempt to sow doubt about the safety of the 2020 election.

But at a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to defend his politicization of the State Department, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threw gas on the fire. When asked by Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), “Can a president delay the November presidential election, Mr. Secretary?,” Pompeo answered, “Senator, I’m not going to enter a legal judgment on that on the fly this morning.” Surprised, Kaine listed Pompeo’s impressive legal training, then asked again. Pompeo replied: “In the end, the Department of Justice, and others, will make that legal determination. We all should want–I know you do, too, Senator Kaine–want to make sure to have an election that everyone is confident in.”

“NO. THEY. WON’T,” University of Texas Law Professor Steve Vladeck tweeted before listing the relevant laws. Still, one legal expert noted that it was possible Attorney General William Barr was giving the administration different advice. “Because this is not a thing he can do unilaterally or lawfully, the Justice Department should disclose any formal advice or guidance to the contrary,” Christian Farias tweeted.

Trump perhaps misjudged the reaction to his suggestion that the election be postponed. After all, in May, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner floated the idea of delaying the election, and reaction was muted (When asked about whether or not it could be held on schedule because of the pandemic, he said: “I’m not sure I can commit one way or the other, but right now that’s the plan.”) Today, though, the outcry was universal. In the New York Times, a co-founder of the rightwing Federalist Society and formerly staunch Trump supporter Steven G. Calabresi called the tweet “fascist,” and said it is “grounds for the president’s immediate impeachment again by the House of Representatives and his removal from office by the Senate.

By afternoon, Trump was trying to pass off the tweet—which he had briefly pinned to the top of his timeline—as an attempt to protect the vote. “Glad I was able to get the very dishonest LameStream Media to finally start talking about the RISKS to our Democracy from dangerous Universal Mail-In-Voting (not Absentee Voting, which I totally support!).” His campaign said he was just asking a question.

Other stories continued to drop.

Vanity Fair ran an article by Katherine Eban about how the administration fumbled the ball so badly on its response to the coronavirus pandemic, noting that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner was the key decision maker in the process, and that his team first set up, and then dropped, a plan for national coordination to fight the virus. They abandoned the plan after Trump began to downplay the virus out of concern that it would hurt his chances for reelection, and because it appeared the virus was largely confined to cities. According to one public health expert who worked with Kushner’s team “The political folks believed that because it was going to be relegated to Democratic states, that they could blame those governors, and that would be an effective political strategy.”

This afternoon, we learned that in December 2019, Representative Devin Nunes (R-CA), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, received a package of “information” about Joe Biden from Andrii Derkach, a Ukrainian lawmaker linked to Putin. Derkach claims to have sent packages to Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC), as well as former White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, but it appears there is actually a shipping receipt for the package to Nunes.

The Senate adjourned today until Monday at 3:00, although federal unemployment benefits that have added $600 weekly to state unemployment benefits expire tomorrow. Republicans have been unable to agree on a bill. They tried to pass a week’s extension of the $600 benefit, but Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) blocked it, while Republicans blocked Schumer’s effort to pass a full bill.

Tonight, a judge ordered nearly 2000 documents from the 2015 defamation civil lawsuit of Virginia Giuffre against Ghislaine Maxwell, the companion of Jeffrey Epstein, accused of sex trafficking of young girls, to be made public. The documents claim that retired Harvard law professor, Alan Dershowitz, raped Giuffre repeatedly.

The news today was awful… except when it wasn’t.

Today, Representative John Lewis’s family and friends held his funeral in Atlanta, Georgia, where they remembered the civil rights icon with speeches honoring his conviction, courage, and compassion. Lewis’s life, former President Barack Obama said, “vindicated the faith in our founding, redeemed that faith, that most American of ideas: The idea that any of us, ordinary people without rank or wealth or title or fame, can somehow point out the imperfections of this nation and come together and challenge the status quo.” Lewis, he said, would someday be considered a founding father of a “fuller, fairer, better America.”

Still, it was to Representative Lewis that the last word fell. In a New York Times op-ed he wrote to be published the day of his funeral, he gave us a benediction:

“Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”

“Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key.”

“Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”

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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.