Good morning! It’s Monday, February 13, 2023. The 2024 elections are 631 days away.
A tip to politicians: Learn from Donald Trump’s mistake and don’t congratulate “the Great State of Kansas” today.
Four flying objects in nine days: What’s going on?
The U.S. has now shot four flying objects out of the sky in the past nine days, a mysterious pattern that remains largely unexplained. Here’s a quick primer on the four shootdowns:
- Object No. 1 is the only one that U.S. officials have confidently identified, describing it as a Chinese spy balloon. China has confirmed its provenance but insists it was a civilian airship conducting meteorological research that blew off course. The balloon floated over Alaska and much of the continental U.S. before being shot down off the coast of South Carolina on February 4. It was about the size of three school buses.
- Object No. 2 was much smaller; officials say it was roughly the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. It also flew much lower: at an altitude of about 40,000 feet, compared to the first balloon’s 60,000 feet. Few other details are known about this object, which was shot down Friday over the coast of northeastern Alaska. It was only disclosed by the White House in response to questions from reporters.
- Object No. 3 was shot down on Saturday over Canada’s Yukon territory. The operation was completed by a U.S. aircraft, in coordination with the Canadian military. Again, no other details have been released about its origins, but officials have said it had a similar altitude and size as Object No. 2. Its shape was described by Canada as being “cylindrical in nature.”
- Finally, Object No. 4 was first spotted on Saturday, leading to a brief closure of the airspace over Montana. The object — flying at about 20,000 feet — was then downed by the U.S. on Sunday while it floated over Lake Huron. A pair of Michigan lawmakers were the first to disclose the shootdown, which was then confirmed by the Defense Department.
The first three objects were shot down by F-22 Raptors; the most recent one was downed by an F-16. Majority Chuck Schumer has said that Objects No. 2 and 3 were also balloons, like the original, but the Pentagon has yet to go that far in describing them.
One explanation: It’s possible that the more recent shootdowns are happening simply because the U.S. is being more cautious. According to the New York Times, the first spy balloon led NORAD to adjust its radar system to increase its sensitivity.
“As a result, the number of objects it detected increased sharply,” the Times reported. One theory, then, is that the U.S. is simply seeing more unidentified objects because it’s started looking for them, and that the later objects weren’t as suspicious as the original Chinese spy balloon. “We basically opened the filters,” a U.S. official told the Washington Post.
One senior U.S. official told ABC News that Objects No. 2, 3, and 4 actually were meteorological balloons, not spy devices, but the government has not publicly said as much — and the “open filter” explanation remains just a theory. “I haven’t ruled out anything at this point,” Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck told reporters Sunday when asked if the objects might have extraterrestrial origins, although officials have said the government does not believe that is the case.
China’s response: After U.S. officials said last week that the first object was part of a broader Chinese program that has sent spy balloons to 40+ countries, China claimed this morning that the U.S. does much the same thing.
“It is also common for U.S. balloons to illegally enter the airspace of other countries,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters. “Since last year, U.S. high-altitude balloons have illegally flown over China’s airspace more than 10 times without the approval of Chinese authorities.”
Biden administration spokesperson John Kirby flatly denied China’s allegation in an interview on MSNBC this morning. “Not true. Not doing it,” Kirby insisted. “Just absolutely not true.’
What’s next: The series of unidentified flying objects have sparked a furor on Capitol Hill, with lawmakers — many of whom have had constituents see the objects overhead — clamoring for more information.
Several members of Congress have criticized the Biden administration for its lack of transparency: the Chinese spy balloon was not acknowledged by the U.S. until it had already been seen by civilians, while the later objects were also reported by news outlets or lawmakers before being confirmed.
Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) told Fox News that Biden’s “lack of communication” has been “unacceptable,” calling on the president to offer an “immediate and full explanation.”
With many questions swirling around Washington — and the world — it’s possible that Biden or another high-level official will offer a more detailed explanation this week, filling in some of the holes. It’s also certain that there will be officials hauled before Congress for hearings, as lawmakers demand answers on the UFOs.
More news to know.
President Biden did not submit to a pre-Super Bowl interview. Traditionally, the president grants an interview to the network carrying the Super Bowl, to be aired during the pre-game show. This year, that would have meant an interview with Fox News; the White House decided against it. Brief efforts to set up an alternative interview with Fox Soul, a sister channel aimed at Black audiences, were eventually scrapped as well.
- Analysis: Democrats were crowing after Biden’s ad-libbed back-and-forth with Republicans at the State of the Union last week. But the White House apparently remains unsure that the president could hold his own against questioning from a Fox anchor (even someone from the network’s news, not opinion, side). At this point in his presidency, Barack Obama had sat down for more than eight times as many interviews as Biden.
Sensitive records continue to pop up at former officials’ homes. Donald Trump’s legal team recently turned over a folder with classified markings found at Mar-a-Lago to the feds, as well as an aide’s laptop with classified records copied onto it. Meanwhile, an FBI search of Mike Pence’s Indiana residence on Friday turned up one additional classified document.
- Related: “How the Hasty Packing of Biden Papers Led to a Special Counsel Inquiry” NYT // “Jack Smith, Special Counsel for Trump Inquiries, Steps Up the Pace” NYT
- For the Washington Post, Josh Dawsey reveals that the Trump campaign paid an outside firm to research its claims that the 2020 election was stolen. Spoiler: The firm found no evidence of widespread fraud, and the campaign buried the report.
- For the New York Times, David Lat and Zachary Shemtob embark on a fascinating analysis of the differences between Trump’s three Supreme Court nominees — who have repeatedly landed on opposite sides of key cases and surprised their critics by breaking with conservative orthodoxy.
- For New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait notes that President Biden has failed to achieve his promise of expanding the social safety net but has succeeded in funding massive public investments in infrastructure and manufacturing. “He has turned out to be a mediocre liberal,” Chait argues, “but a surprisingly competent nationalist.”
The day ahead.
All times Eastern.
President Biden has nothing on his public schedule besides receiving his daily intelligence briefing.
Vice President Harris has nothing on her schedule either.
First Lady Jill Biden and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona will visit Mesa Community College in Mesa, Arizona, to highlight the Biden administration’s career-connected learning initiative.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre will brief the press. (Watch at 1 p.m.)
The Senate will hold a confirmation vote on Cindy Chung to be a U.S. Circuit Judge for the Third Circuit and a procedural vote to advance Gina Mendez-Miro to be a U.S. District Judge for the District of Puerto Rico.
If confirmed, Chung will be the 99th Biden-nominated federal judge to be approved. (Watch at 3 p.m.)
The House is out for the next two weeks.
The Supreme Court has no oral arguments this week.
Before I go...
Here’s a fun fact: More than 18 million employees across the U.S. are expected to call in sick to work today.
That’s why lawmakers in at least one state — Tennessee — have introduced a bill to make the day after the Super Bowl a state holiday, to avoid this mysterious annual onset of illness. (“Super Bowl Monday” would replace the state’s celebration of Columbus Day).
A Change.org petition pushing for the Super Bowl to be moved to Saturday also recently received nearly 150,000 signatures, but the NFL has said they have no plans to make any adjustments.
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