Wake Up To Politics - September 16, 2021
Good morning! It’s Thursday, September 16, 2021. Election Day 2022 is 418 days away. Election Day 2024 is 1,146 days away.
Today is the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. For those of you who don’t know, Yom Kippur is when Jews atone for anything they may have done wrong in the past year. In that vein, I’d like to offer my apologies for any errors I may have committed in this newsletter or in my reporting.
- I try to do my best each morning, but obviously I’m only human: mistakes can fall through the cracks, and there are always stories that I could cover better or more fully. I apologize for any shortcomings, and commit to doing better in the year ahead. I’m so honored to have you as a reader of Wake Up To Politics and I hope to continue living up to your trust. To anyone marking Yom Kippur today, I hope you have an easy fast.
Explainer: Why is Gen. Milley facing calls to resign?
It’s that time of year: Washington is once again buzzing about a new book by its longest-tenured chronicler, the veteran journalist Bob Woodward.
Woodward’s newest tome, “Peril,” covers the end of Trump’s presidency and the beginning of Biden’s. The book, co-authored with Washington Post reporter Robert Costa, comes out September 21 but its biggest scoops began to dribble out this week via the Post, the New York Times, CNN, and other outlets.
Every Woodward book has a few heroes (and a few villains): roles often thought to be correlated with which sources spoke to him the most. But which one is Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff? It depends on who you ask.
What we know: According to media reports about the book, Woodward and Costa reveal that Milley was so concerned about Trump’s mental state in the final months of his presidency that he a) instructed senior officers to make sure he be included in the decision-making process before a nuclear strike and b) twice called the top general in China to assure him the U.S. had no plans to launch an attack.
“General Li, I want to assure you that the American government is stable and everything is going to be okay,” Milley reportedly told his Beijing counterpart. “We are not going to attack or conduct any kinetic operations against you.” He also apparently promised Li he would call him “ahead of time” if Trump was planning to attack China.
How Washington is reacting: A number of top Republicans immediately responded that Milley had gone outside of the military chain of command and called for him to resign. “These actions by General Milley demonstrate a clear lack of sound judgement, and I urge you to dismiss him immediately,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) wrote in a letter to Biden. “He should be court martialed,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) wrote on Twitter. Trump suggested on Newsmax that Milley had committed “treason.”
Democratic reactions were more mixed. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), for one, praised Milley and said he “did the responsible thing to keep America out of war.” But one leading Trump critic, retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman (a star witness from the former president’s first impeachment), echoed the calls for Milley’s resignation. “He usurped civilian authority, broke Chain of Command, and violated the sacrosanct principle of civilian control over the military,” Vindman tweeted. “It’s an extremely dangerous precedent.”
What the White House is saying: The Biden administration is standing by Milley. “I have great confidence in Gen. Milley,” Biden told reporters on Wednesday. Asked about the Republican lawmakers calling for Milley’s ouster, White House press secretary Jen Psaki had a retort ready: “I don’t think the president is looking for the guidance of members of Congress who stood by as the leader of their party fomented an insurrection,” she said Wednesday.
What Milley is saying: A spokesperson for the four-star general released a statement insisting that Milley’s “calls with the Chinese and others in October and January were in keeping with [his] duties and responsibilities conveying reassurance in order to maintain strategic stability.”
The spokesperson also added that Milley’s calls were “coordinated and communicated” with Defense Department leadership. Indeed, Fox News correspondent Jennifer Griffin reported Wednesday that Milley’s calls were not one-on-one: There were 15 others on the line, and notes from the conversations were shared throughout the government.
Politico similarly reported that Woodward and Costa had “exaggerated” the Milley-Li calls, adding that the general had asked for permission from acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller before making the calls and briefed Miller’s office after doing so. (Miller told Fox News that he “did not and would not ever authorize” such calls and said Milley should resign.”
Some background for the situation: The conflagration around Milley has quickly escalated since reports about the Woodward book began to come out. Axios, for example, has already labeled it a “crisis.” How did a four-star general immediately inspire such outrage?
For one thing, this isn’t the first Trump-era tome that Milley plays a starring role in. He also appeared frequently in books such as “I Alone Can Fix It” by Post reporters Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, leading to speculation that he spoke to a slew of authors on background (on the condition that his name not be used) to disseminate his side of the Trump years.
In addition, for a supposedly apolitical actor, Milley played an unusually central role throughout Trump’s tenure, angering Democrats by appearing with the then-president at his famed Lafayette Square photo-op and then angering Republicans by apologizing for it. (He has also generated headlines by tangling with GOP lawmakers earlier this summer over critical race theory.)
And then, of course, Milley had already been in hot water — and facing calls to resign — over his handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal. Add all that up and you get the “crisis” that Milley finds himself in today.
Mark your calendars: Milley is scheduled to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on September 28. The hearing will be mainly focused on Afghanistan, which lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have been vocal about wanting to grill him on, but it will be safe to expect at least a few questions on the revelations from Woodward’s latest bestseller-to-be.
More headlines driving the news this morning.
Reconciliation update. “A trio of centrist House Democrats threw their party’s health care agenda into disarray Wednesday by blocking a plan that would have authorized direct government negotiation of drug prices and help pay for a $3.5 trillion social spending bill.” Politico
Booster shots. “The Food and Drug Administration said vaccines cleared in the U.S. currently provide sufficient protection against severe disease and death from Covid-19 without additional doses, potentially complicating the Biden administration’s deliberations over the need for booster shots.” Wall Street Journal
America in the world. “President Biden announced Wednesday the United States and Britain will share highly sensitive nuclear submarine technology with Australia, a major departure from past policy and a direct challenge to China in its Pacific neighborhood.” Washington Post
Policy Roundup: Legal
The top legal stories to know this week, by Wake Up To Politics contributor Anna Salvatore.
A week after Texas enacted the strictest abortion law in the country, the Justice Department has asked a federal judge to temporarily block the law. Pausing the enforcement of Senate Bill 8, wrote the department’s attorneys, “is necessary to protect the constitutional rights of women in Texas.” They argued that although the law was designed to be difficult to challenge, the government still “has the authority and responsibility to ensure that Texas cannot insulate itself from judicial review for its constitutional violations.”
- The department’s decision comes just days after it officially sued
Texas over the law, which bans nearly all abortions after six weeks and encourages private citizens to take part in enforcing the prohibition.
As the Supreme Court prepares to hear “the most important abortion case in decades” out of Mississippi, the state’s only abortion clinic asked the court to uphold Roe v. Wade. The upcoming case — not to be confused with the one from Texas —concerns a Mississippi law that virtually bans abortions after 15 weeks. According to the clinic, a ruling for the law would “scuttle a half-century of precedent and invite states to ban abortion entirely.” The clinic’s brief also noted that “there is no special justification” to undermine Roe and Casey v. Planned Parenthood, two decisions that affirm women’s right to an abortion.
- Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Flitch, a Republican, referred to Roe and Casey in her brief as “unprincipled decisions that have… plagued the law,” urging the justices to overturn them altogether. The increasingly conservative-leaning Supreme Court will likely hear the case in December.
In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, four Team USA gymnasts accused the FBI of mishandling their complaints against former team doctor Larry Nassar. Just two months ago, a report by the Justice Department’s inspector general revealed that the FBI had left Nassar’s abuse of at least 40 girls and women “largely unexplored.” Agents had failed to follow up on interviews, transfer their investigation to the proper city, or take steps to stop Nassar while he was still molesting women.
- In the words of Team USA athlete McKayla Maroney, the FBI chose to “protect a serial child molester rather than protect not only me, but others.” FBI Director Christopher Wray apologized Wednesday and said that he had fired one of the agents who failed to properly investigate Nassar. The FBI’s errors, he added, were “totally unacceptable.”
More legal headlines, via Anna:
- Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in July. According to the country’s chief prosecutor, the prime minister might have played a role.
- The New Yorker covered the prosecution of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of the last 9/11 suspects to stand trial at Guantanamo Bay.
- The 10th Circuit ordered Southeastern Oklahoma State to re-hire Rachel Tudor, a transgender professor who was fired because her gender identity had offended an administrator.
- Pro-choice advocates protested in front of Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s home on Monday night.
What’s happening in Washington today. (All times Eastern, unless otherwise noted.)
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris receive their daily intelligence briefing at 10 a.m. Biden will deliver remarks at 1:45 p.m. on “leveling the playing field” in the economy by bringing down costs and boosting the middle class.
- White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki will hold her daily press briefing at 2:30 p.m.
The Senate will convene at 10:15 a.m. for a brief pro forma session. No business will be conducted.
- The Senate Armed Services Committee will receive a closed briefing at 9:30 a.m. on Defense Department support for Afghan nationals who have left Afghanistan.
- The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will hold a hearing at 9:30 a.m. on the homeland security landscape and threats 20 years after 9/11.
The House is not in session.
The Supreme Court is not in session.
Virginia gubernatorial candidates Terry McAuliffe (D) and Glenn Youngkin (R) will square off at 7 p.m. for their first general election debate. The debate will be held at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Virginia, with moderator Susan Page of USA Today.
- The two candidates are currently scheduled to face off only one other time before the November 2 election.
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