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Lawmakers Seek to Upgrade Federal Aviation Administration 
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Lawmakers Seek to Upgrade Federal Aviation Administration 

Plus: The growing risk of political violence.

Happy Tuesday! North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum said yesterday he would not be interested in serving as Donald Trump’s vice president, just in case you were wondering.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Ukrainian officials said on Monday the country’s forces have retaken Robotyne—a village in the southeastern Zaporizhzhya region of the country—and are making progress on Kyiv’s plan to reach the Sea of Azov and split Russian forces in the south. Ukraine hopes the slow progress of the counteroffensive will begin to pick up speed as troops puncture the most well-entrenched Russian positions. 
  • Meanwhile, as Ukraine angles for additional aid from the U.S. and Europe, President Volodymyr Zelensky is proposing a plan to treat graft and corruption as high treason during wartime. The plan is partly a response to two senior ministers being named as suspects in an aid procurement embezzlement scheme last week. But some Ukrainian officials fear the proposal will shift oversight from anti-corruption agencies to security services under Zelensky’s control, potentially compromising the independence of investigations of high-ranking officials. “I don’t know whether Ukrainian MPs will support my idea, but I will definitely propose it,” Zelensky said Sunday evening. “I understand that such a weapon cannot operate constantly in society, but during wartime, I think it will help.” 
  • An estimated 1.87 million excess deaths were recorded in China during the two months after the country lifted its “zero-COVID” policies, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last week. China experienced a huge COVID surge in January and February, but the Chinese government has not released numbers on the death toll—though cremations, in one province, rose more than 70 percent during the first quarter of the year.
  • Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo spoke with her Chinese counterpart, Wang Wentao, yesterday during the first meeting of her trip to Beijing. The four-hour meeting produced agreements to establish new lines of dialogue on commercial and trade issues—particularly U.S. rules on exports of advanced technology like semiconductors to China—including a working group involving U.S. and Chinese officials. Raimondo’s visit follows visits by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.
  • French President Emmanuel Macron has refused to recall France’s ambassador to Niger, in defiance of a 48-hour deadline levied by Nigerien coup leaders Friday after the ambassador refused to meet with them. France has condemned the coup and continues to back the country’s deposed President Mohamed Bazoum. “I think our policy is the right one. It’s based on the courage of President Bazoum, and on the commitments of our ambassador on the ground who is remaining despite all the pressure, despite all the declarations made by the illegitimate authorities,” Macron said in an annual speech to French diplomats yesterday. Macron did not comment on the September 3 deadline that the putschists made for the 1,500 French troops in Niger to leave.
  • The judge overseeing special counsel Jack Smith’s case against former President Trump over his attempts to overturn the 2020 election set a trial date for March 4, 2024. Judge Tanya Chutkan rejected the push by Trump’s legal team for an April 2026 trial date, setting the date only two months later than what Smith had requested. “The public has a right to a prompt and efficient resolution of this matter,” she said. Trump’s former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, took the stand yesterday in a hearing over moving his case in the Georgia indictment to federal court. The judge deciding on the request said he would make a ruling by September 6, the same date all 19 defendants in the case including Trump will be arraigned.
  • U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Calabretta granted Google’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the Republican National Committee (RNC) claiming the company’s Gmail spam filter unfairly suppressed RNC messages. “While it is a close case,” the judge wrote, “the court concludes that … the RNC has not sufficiently pled that Google acted in bad faith in filtering the RNC’s messages into Gmail users’ spam folders, and that doing so was protected by section 230.” As Sarah wrote last year, Republican fundraising appeals are likely flagged by spam filters at higher rates due to abuse of email lists.

A Summer of Close Calls

An American Airlines Airbus A319 airplane takes off past the air traffic control tower at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, January 11, 2023. (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/ Getty Images)
An American Airlines Airbus A319 airplane takes off past the air traffic control tower at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, January 11, 2023. (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/ Getty Images)

There are lots of reasons why we don’t ever want to hear the phrase “skin to skin” in the context of an airplane. But the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) introduced a less obvious—but no less unpleasant—image when it suggested that was an accurate description of the distance between two planes during a “near miss” encounter on a San Francisco runway last month.  

After several years of wonky pandemic travel, the airline industry is on a rocky footing, still suffering from serious shortages of pilots, air traffic controllers, and other staff. In the wake of a sobering New York Times investigation revealing the incredible frequency in recent months of close encounters between commercial airplanes on runways across the country, the Senate will pick up its version of a bill to reauthorize funding to the FAA when it reconvenes in mid-September. The Senate and House will then have to iron out the differences in their respective versions, something one Republican congressional aide—who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about the process—tells TMD will almost certainly require more time than the looming September 30 deadline allows.

The San Francisco “skin to skin” incident was by no means the only close call in the last month, a frightening development during an era when so-called “swiss cheese” safety measures—intentional redundancies meant to catch human error and system failures—have basically eliminated deadly commercial plane crashes in the U.S. The last fatal commercial crash in the U.S. came in 2009, when an aircraft from the now-defunct Colgan Air crashed into a house in Buffalo, New York, killing 49 people on the plane and one on the ground. In response, Congress increased the number of flight hours required to qualify as a commercial captain from 250 to 1,500 and boosted pilot rest requirements.

There’s an old adage that the most dangerous part of a plane trip is the car ride to the airport—and that’s still true. But the 46 near misses across the U.S. in July are making us wonder if we should retire the axiom to avoid jinxing our next flight. On July 2 in New Orleans, for example, a Delta flight was taking off just as a Southwest flight was attempting to land on the same runway, forcing the arriving pilot to abort the landing mere seconds from a possible crash. In late July, an air traffic controller mistakenly directed a United Airlines flight onto a collision course with an American Airlines flight over north Louisiana, sending the American flight rapidly climbing more than two football fields worth of altitude to avoid a crash.

July wasn’t the only month rife with close calls, either: After January and February, the United States was on pace to surpass in one year the total number of near misses of the last five years combined. Last week, the FAA—lacking a Senate-confirmed leader since the Trump administration, after President Joe Biden’s nominee withdrew his name from consideration in March—announced it would hold safety meetings at 90 airports across the country. Frequently, these almost-crashes are judged to be the result of human error—and standard human fallibility may be exacerbated by serious staffing shortages, particularly among air traffic controllers. 

The understaffing problem is no secret: The Department of Transportation watchdog published its report in June calling out the FAA for its serious shortfalls. Data reviewed by the inspector general’s office showed the number of air traffic controllers tumbling every year from 2012 to 2020, bottoming out during the pandemic before rebounding slightly in 2021 and 2022. The review found that 20 of the FAA’s 26 “critical” facilities—towers at several key points across the U.S.—were not staffed to the agency’s own preferred threshold of 85 percent of what it considers “fully staffed” for each facility. New York’s Terminal Radar Approach Control, which manages approaching air traffic for several major airports, including JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark, is only 53 percent staffed. Ninety-six percent of critical facilities lacked the requisite number of supervisors to oversee the control-room floor. To keep planes moving, many facilities were requiring controllers to work six-day weeks plus mandatory overtime. It’s not hard to see how a job that is so mentally strenuous that it has a mandatory retirement age of 56 might become difficult to perform under such circumstances.

The IG audit points to mismanagement as one reason for the FAA’s continued shortfalls, saying the agency failed to hire fast enough to replace the waves or retirements and “lacks a plan” to address the shortages. But the agency also paused all of its training during the pandemic, creating a backlog for certifying new employees—and it’s still trying to dig itself out. Last week, the FAA announced it had hired 1,500 new air traffic controllers, reaching its annual hiring goal. Depending on each controller’s level of certification, varying by the size of the airport where they’ll work, training and certification could take from 18 months to two years.  

COVID-19 didn’t just handicap air traffic control towers: The pandemic also exacerbated a pilot shortage that was years in the making. The seeds of the shortfall were planted before the pandemic as the industry struggled to keep up with record-high travel in 2019. The military has long been a source of ready-to-fly commercial pilots. But even as the Pentagon needed fewer and fewer pilots anyway, as drones become more sophisticated, the military was having trouble meeting even those lower benchmarks, running a deficit of about 2,000 pilots at the end of 2019.  

Then a global pandemic hit, leading U.S. airlines to carry 60 percent fewer passengers in 2020 than 2019. With that dramatic drop-off in travel came a massive congressional bailout of the industry, allocating more than $50 billion to keep airline employees on the payroll. But as that money ran out at the end of the 2020 fiscal year, airlines offered contract buyouts and early retirements—which worked even better than they’d intended. Delta, for example, saw 20 percent of its workforce take the deal in 2020. The compounding shortfalls may be forcing younger and younger pilots into the captain’s seat of bigger and bigger planes—the ingredients for human error and ever closer calls. “Due to the pilot shortage, inexperienced pilots are being forced into these captain positions at a faster rate than their experience will allow them to get,” Barry Kendrick, head of a grassroots pilot group seeking to raise the mandatory retirement age, told Uphill last month. “Experience matters.”

In a rare example of the House of Representatives being more on top of things than the Senate, the lower chamber passed its version of the five-year FAA funding bill on a bipartisan basis in July. The measure seeks to address some of those staffing problems by raising the mandatory retirement age for pilots from 65 to 67 and requiring the FAA to hire air traffic controllers to its maximum training capacity every year.

The measure also addresses a technological deficit that, had it been updated, may have helped prevent one of the “scariest” near-misses this year, a Republican congressional aide familiar with the process tells TMD. In a February incident in Austin, Texas,  a FedEx cargo plane came within 100 feet of landing on top of a Southwest flight carrying 128 passengers after the tower cleared it to land on the same runway. While the air traffic controllers could see the FedEx plane on their radar, they didn’t have the technology to position it relative to the Southwest flight on the ground. That program—which tracks all ground-level movement on the tarmac—was installed in around 40 airports in 2003, “based on traffic and other considerations,” the aide says. “The airports that were busy in 2003 are not the airports that are busy today.” The House version of the bill directs the FAA to commission the installation of these systems at medium and large hub airports around the country.   

The Senate is running way behind the House in its own effort to pass a version of the reauthorization bill, with a fractious controversy over increasing flights in and out of Reagan National Airport in D.C. and debates over consumer protections partly responsible for the delay. Another key sticking point is a proposal from Republican Sen. John Thune and independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema that would allow regulators to apply up to 250 hours logged on flight simulators to their 1,500-hour requirement, up from the 100 hours currently allowed. “The FAA should have the authority to investigate and evaluate new technologies, including state-of-the-art flight simulators that can mimic extreme flying conditions not always experienced during 1,500 hours of standard flight training times, and determine if these technologies make pilot training more effective and our skies safer,” the two wrote in an op-ed last week. 

Debate over the amendment in June caused the bill to stall in committee. “A vote to [change the training rules] for pilots will mean blood on your hands when the inevitable accident occurs as a result of an inadequately trained flight crew,” Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a former Army helicopter pilot, said of the effort. Sinema has received more than $100,000 in donations from political action committees affiliated with five airlines, though she argues the airline industry is opposed to the reform. 

The Senate and House versions of the bill are likely to look very different, steered, as they were, by two different parties’ priorities. That makes reconciling them—once the Senate passes its version—a time-consuming job. “I think it’s pretty clear we’re going to need to have some sort of extension for the FAA,” the Republican congressional aide tells TMD. “We were hoping to avoid that, but even if the Senate agreed on everything today, they’re big bills that just require time to hash out.”

‘A Bad Combination’

“Do you think it’s possible that there’s open conflict, we seem to be moving toward something,” Tucker Carlson asked former President Donald Trump at the end of their interview last week—billed as a counterprogramming to the GOP presidential debate. “I don’t know,” Trump replied. “There’s a level of passion that I’ve never seen, there’s a level of hatred that I’ve never seen, and that’s probably a bad combination.”

Trump surrendered to the authorities in Fulton County, Georgia, the day after the interview aired, resulting in an already infamous mugshot. After four indictments of the former president, more voices on the right are casting the criminal cases against Trump as an explanation for—in some cases, a justification of—political violence as political figures on both the left and the right face increasing threats. 

Since Trump’s first indictment in New York, a growing chorus of figures on the right have raised the specter of civil war in response to the charges against the former president. “We have now reached a war phase,” Arizona GOP Rep. Andy Biggs said after Trump’s June indictment in the classified documents case. “Eye for an eye.” Former Alaskan governor and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin said Thursday, “Those who are conducting this travesty and creating this two-tier system of justice, I want to ask them what the heck, do you want us to be in civil war, because that’s what’s going to happen.” 

“We’re not going to keep putting up with this,” she added, “We need to get angry, we do need to rise up and take our country back.”

But others invoke the Founders to paint a more harrowing picture. “How would Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers respond to our government right now,” Matt Walsh—a conservative talk show host at the Daily Wireasked following Trump’s arraignment on August 3 over charges related to his attempts to overturn the 2020 election. “If Thomas Jefferson came back from the dead and looked at our government now, he would turn to us the citizens, and say, ‘What are you people doing? You haven’t invaded Washington yet and killed all these people. What are you waiting for.’” 

“I’m not advocating for that. I’m just telling you what Jefferson would say,” he added.

Some Republican legislators with ties to the efforts to overturn the 2020 election claim the government is out to get conservatives and predict that will inspire violence. “Someone’s going to get so pissed off, they’re going to shoot someone,” said Michigan State Rep. Matt Maddock, whose wife, Meshawn, is one of the 16 Michigan false electors indicted earlier this summer. “That’s what’s going to happen. Or we’re going have a civil war or some sort of revolution.” Maddock also claimed that prosecuting the false electors is a strategy to prevent people from questioning the 2024 election. “They’re gonna cheat again,” he said. “You are going to shut the f up and you are gonna walk into that gas chamber. That’s what they want because that’s what’s coming for us.” 

Several individuals have been arrested or charged by law enforcement this month over threats made to officeholders. A man from upstate New York was sentenced to three months in prison last week for threatening phone messages he left to GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green. “I’m gonna have to take your life into my own hands,” he said in one message, according to prosecutors. In another, he threatened to “pay someone 500 bucks to take a baseball bat and crack your skull.” A Canadian woman was sentenced to 21 years in prison earlier this month for mailing letters with ricin to President Trump and eight Texas law enforcement officials in September 2020. A man from Montana was also sentenced last week to two and a half years in prison for death threats against his state’s Democratic senator, Jon Tester. Plus, FBI agents shot and killed a man in Utah earlier this month while attempting to serve a warrant concerning violent threats the individual made against President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and other federal officials. 

Commentators often point out that the U.S. has seen periods of intense political violence in the past—most recently, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But a recent analysis of political violence by Reuters suggested that attacks in the 1970s—most of which were bombings—targeted property whereas  contemporary violence more often targets political figures. FBI Director Chris Wray told lawmakers at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this month that violent incidents related to political issues are almost a daily phenomenon. “I feel like every day I’m getting briefed on somebody throwing a Molotov cocktail at someone for some issue,” Wray said. 

Some Republicans are trying to lower the political temperature. “I think [Trump] absolutely needs to tell all Americans to stand down and allow the judicial system to take its course,” Republican Rep. Ken Buck told MSNBC Thursday. “I think that sending a very clear message, and also having a surrogate send a very clear message, that violence will not be tolerated is appropriate.”

Worth Your Time

  • Hunter Biden’s foreign business dealings may or may not run afoul of the law, but that’s no defense of their corrupt nature, argues Sarah Chayes in a piece for The Atlantic. “There is absolutely no evidence that Joe Biden, as vice president, changed any aspect of U.S. foreign policy to benefit Burisma or any of its principals,” Chayes writes. “But Hunter Biden’s position on that board of directors served to undermine the very U.S. anti-corruption policy his father was promoting.” She argues that the sort of influence signaling described by Hunter’s business partner Devon Archer is common in developing countries plagued by political corruption. “Biden was supposed to be different,” she writes. “Yet his unconditional public support for everything his son has done serves to sanitize and reinforce a business model that provides image-laundering services for foreign kleptocrats and monetizes access to power—or the appearance of such access. For a president and a political party whose brand stresses integrity, that’s a self-inflicted wound.”

Presented Without Comment

Fox News: 18-year-old Vivek Ramaswamy Asks Al Sharpton About His Lack of ‘Political Experience’ in Resurfaced 2003 Clip

Also Presented Without Comment

Wall Street Journal: Pope Francis Praises Historical Russian Imperialism Amid War in Ukraine

Toeing the Company Line

  • It’s Tuesday, which means Dispatch Live (🔒) returns tonight at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT! Declan will be joined by Mike Warren, Audrey, Harvest, and Mary to discuss the news of the week and, of course, take plenty of viewer questions! Keep an eye out for an email later today with information on how to tune in.
  • In the newsletters: Kevin shares some thoughts (🔒) about Mike Pence, the Dispatch Politics crew talks with GOP donors still looking for a Trump alternative in the wake of the primary debate and Nick breaks down (🔒) reactions to Trump’s mugshot.
  • On the podcasts: David Lat returns to Advisory Opinions to discuss a First Amendment case about terrorism and COVID zombies before jumping into the latest on Trump’s various legal woes.
  • On the site today: Charlotte explores Wagner Group’s role in Africa now that Prigozhin is (likely) dead and Chris unpacks the debate around Trump and whether he’s ineligible to be president under the 14th Amendment.

Let Us Know

How worried are you about the specter of political violence heading into 2024?

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.