Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories
The Justice Department charged three North Korean hackers on Wednesday with conspiracy to commit computer fraud and conspiracy to commit wire and bank fraud for their alleged attempts to steal more than $1.3 billion from banks and businesses around the world. “North Korea’s operatives, using keyboards rather than masks and guns, are the world’s leading 21st-century nation-state bank robbers,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers.
The Albany Times-Union reports that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration is being investigated by the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office for its alleged mishandling of COVID-19 nursing home deaths. Democratic New York Assemblyman Ron Kim told CNN yesterday that Cuomo called him last week and told him “he can destroy me.”
President Biden on Wednesday spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the first time since assuming office last month. According to a White House readout of the call, the two discussed Iran, normalized relations between Israel and Arab and Muslim countries, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Rush Limbaugh, the groundbreaking and controversial conservative talk-radio host who dominated the industry for decades, died on Wednesday at the age of 70 after a battle with lung cancer.
The United States confirmed 71,235 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 5.4 percent of the 1,061,463 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 2,520 deaths were attributed to the virus on Wednesday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 490,447. According to the COVID Tracking Project, 63,398 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1,061,463 COVID-19 vaccine doses were administered yesterday, bringing the nationwide total to 56,281,827.
Republican Leaders Back January 6 Commission
Half of Republicans believe that Antifa was behind the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, according to a poll conducted by the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life. Twenty-eight percent of independents believe the same. The same survey found that 66 percent of Republicans believe Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election was not legitimate; nearly 1 in 4 independents hold a similar view. Other polling has produced similar results.
These views are mistaken. And their perpetuation portends growing instability in an already polarized and volatile electorate. What’s to be done?
One obvious step currently being discussed on Capitol Hill: a bipartisan, independent commission to investigate, report, and publicize the truth about January 6 and the events that led to it. But the very partisanship and polarization that such an authoritative investigation would potentially blunt might keep such a commission from becoming a reality at all.
In the aftermath of the acquittal of Donald Trump last weekend, discussion about an independent commission ramped up on both sides of Capitol Hill. Some Republicans are adamantly opposed. For this group, the assault, the impeachment, and the trial are something they survived—both literally and politically. The sooner it’s behind them, the better.
Other Republicans, including many who voted against impeaching or convicting the president, favor establishing a commission as an instrument of fact-finding and, perhaps, a means of making clear to their constituents what happened in the election and at the Capitol.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has kept almost entirely mum on the issue of a bipartisan fact-finding mission—his office did not respond to a request for comment. But sources familiar with his thinking say he is open to one provided it’s truly bipartisan and truly independent. Rep. Liz Cheney, the third-ranking Republican in the House, strongly favors establishing a commission. “It needs to have subpoena power, should be made up of retired officials from both parties— should look at the 2020 Presidential election, the efforts to challenge the election between November 4 and January 6, the certification and counting of state electoral votes, the ‘Save America’ Rally, and the ensuing insurrection against the United States of America,” she tells The Dispatch. “Legislation should also compel federal agencies including DOJ to cooperate to the maximum extent allowed by law.”
And in a statement provided to The Dispatch, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy reiterated his earlier support for such an investigation. “Republicans put forward a proposal for a fact-finding commission over one month ago,” he said. “It is our responsibility to understand the security and intelligence breakdowns that led to the riots on January 6 so that we can better protect this institution and the men and women working inside it. A commission should follow the guidance of Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton to be ‘both independent and bipartisan’, and to preserve that integrity it must be evenly split between both parties.”
An assumption underlies all of this: The election wasn’t rigged, and Trump supporters assaulted the Capitol. With a small number of voluble exceptions—Reps. Matt Gaetz, Mo Brooks, their fellow Freedom Caucus members, and Sen. Ron Johnson— few Republicans in Congress actually buy the conspiracies the president pushed and, in many cases, they themselves amplified. In the most optimistic interpretation, a bipartisan commission would provide the kind of cover they could use to disclaim their earlier pronouncements.
Earlier this week, as Republicans who favor a commission discussed privately how best to bring one about, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi unilaterally declared that she would be forming one, potentially blunting momentum on the Republican side. Sources tell The Dispatch she did not consult Republican leaders in either chamber before moving forward with her announcement, which she made in a letter she sent only to Democratic colleagues. (Politico later reported, sourcing Democrats, that Pelosi “is conferring with fellow senior Democrats on the proposal before seeking GOP input.”)
This move prompted GOP lawmakers to wonder aloud whether she really wants a bipartisan commission at all. “I think she’d rather have the issue,” said one GOP representative who favors a commission.
With former President Trump’s behavior leading up to the January 6 riots coming under intense scrutiny in recent days, some Republicans have sought to deflect by accusing Pelosi of not adequately preparing the Capitol for the mob Trump whipped up. “Here’s what I want to know,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said on Fox News last week. “What did Nancy Pelosi know and when did she know it?” That might be dramatic, and Graham has earned the skepticism he often gets these days about his motives. But there are real questions.
The Washington Post reported last month that an FBI office in Virginia had “issued an explicit warning” on January 5 “warning that extremists were preparing to travel to Washington to commit violence.” Former U.S. Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund—who resigned after the attack—said last month he had talked to then-House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving about having a National Guard presence at the Capitol, only to be turned down, reportedly over concerns of “optics.” Several leading Republicans wrote to Pelosi earlier this week pressing her on these and other questions.
Beyond Pelosi and inadequate security ahead of the attack, questions remain about Donald Trump’s behavior on and ahead of January 6. There have been numerous reports that Trump was pleased with the assault on the Capitol, the most compelling of which emerged over the weekend and, at least momentarily, looked like it might lead to witnesses being called in Trump’s impeachment trial. GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler released a statement about a discussion she’d had with Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, in which McCarthy shared details of a conversation he’d had with Trump the afternoon of January 6. According to her account, when McCarthy told Trump to put out a statement asking the rioters to stand down, Trump falsely claimed Antifa was responsible for storming the Capitol. McCarthy responded by pointing out that Trump’s own supporters were conducting the assault. Trump reportedly replied: “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”
The public hasn’t gotten detailed accounts from top Trump aides who watched the carnage alongside the president that day, including Keith Kellogg, Mark Meadows, Kayleigh McEnany, and others. Why did Trump repeatedly attack Mike Pence, even as news reports indicated he was being threatened by rioters and might be in danger? And what about the White House’s involvement in planning the rally and the decision to urge rallygoers to march to the Capitol? “At the turn of the year, Mr. Trump decided to join the rally himself, and the event effectively became a White House production, with several people close to the administration and the Trump campaign joining the team,” according to the New York Times.
There are also persistent questions about the conspiracy theories about the vote, amplified by the former president and his team. (Those conspiracies continue. In a conversation yesterday on Fox News after the death of Rush Limbaugh, Trump once again suggested that the election had been stolen.) We know about some of those efforts, including Trump’s call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, urging Georgia’s top election official to find the requisite number of votes required to declare Trump the state’s winner. What was Trump’s role in trying to overturn results elsewhere? Were there similar calls to Arizona’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey?
Congress passed on the opportunity to explore these issues and many others when it declined, on a bipartisan basis, to hold hearings and call witnesses during the impeachment proceedings. Establishing a serious commission, designed to uncover the truth about this ugly episode and empowered to conduct a real investigation, would be a helpful step to make up for those misjudgments.
Power Outages Sweep Across the Lone Star State
More than 1 million Texans are still without power due to a winter storm that has blanketed large swaths of the southern United States this week; at least 24 have died because of the fallout. The deployment and administration of coronavirus vaccines has been significantly slowed, and up to 7 million residents are being told to boil any tap water before drinking it as water treatment plants across the state struggle to remain open.
While Texas politicians continue to point fingers about who is to blame for the outages, millions are going to extremes to weather the weather, often without electricity, water, or heat.
After his power went out on Monday, Austin resident Brian Stiles went to stay at a friend’s house, where he has been staying ever since. “I woke up and I could see my breath,” he told The Dispatch. Driving to his apartment on Tuesday to check on whether his power had been restored, Stiles passed the grocery store, where he saw people lined up for half a mile just to buy food. He also reported there being “quite a few people just sitting in their cars” in his apartment complex’s open air garage.
Jenny Heath, who hails from Dallas, said she began minimizing her electricity usage after her electricity provider began charging astronomical prices because of the shortage. “We don’t have anything plugged in,” Heath told The Dispatch on Wednesday. “We don’t have lights on. We’re just trying to conserve just so we don’t get charged outrageous amounts.” She said her brother, who lives in Lewisville, Texas, has not had electricity or water since Monday at 1 a.m.
Houston resident Dr. Lauren Walker said she has spent the week bouncing between her house and a friend’s place because of unpredictable power outages. “We did finally get it back yesterday for a couple of hours, and we lost it again,” she said Wednesday afternoon. “But I came back home today and it just got restored again. So I am hoping that it lasts.” She said she turned off her water because her exterior pipes are frozen.
“The first night was really hard psychologically, just because there was a lot more unknown and it was the first night,” Walker said. On Tuesday evening, she was able to sleep on the floor in the living room next to her friend’s gas fireplace. “It kind of feels like you’re camping,” she said—minus the fun.
Countless are in even direr straits. The Garcia family in Killeen, for example, is having to ration oxygen tanks for their infant son who was born several weeks premature. Angel, the mother, tearfully recounted having to burn her daughter’s wooden blocks for warmth. “A lot of people don’t know the severity of what’s going on. People are tearing down their fences to burn,” she said. “We started burning my daughter’s little wooden blocks because it was just too cold.”
As Texas residents continue to suffer through the now days-long ordeal, Texas politicians are working overtime to apportion blame for the predicament.
“The energy capital of North America cannot provide enough energy to warm and power people’s homes,” former congressman and presidential aspirant Beto O’Rourke told MSNBC. “We are nearing a failed state in Texas. And it has nothing to do with God or natural disasters. It has everything to do with those in positions of public trust who have failed us.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, meanwhile, is arguing that this week demonstrates the endemic failures of renewable energy. “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” Abbott told Fox News host Sean Hannity on Tuesday. “Our wind and our solar got shut down, and they were collectively more than 10 percent of our power grid. And that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis. … It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary.”
Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw also laid into renewable energy for this week’s outages. “West Texas, where most of the wind energy is focused, had wind turbines that had to be de-iced. The little energy that power regulators planned on wind to supply was now gone,” he tweeted Tuesday afternoon. “This is what happens when you force the grid to rely in part on wind as a power source. When weather conditions get bad as they did this week, intermittent renewable energy like wind isn’t there when you need it.”
Alec Dent, The Dispatch’s lead fact checker, dug into the data on Texas’ electrical grid, and found that some claims about the situation—including from Fox News’ Tucker Carlson—greatly exaggerate the role wind turbines play in powering the state.
“According to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas—which manages 90 percent of the state’s electricity—in 2020 wind provided 22.8 percent of the energy use in Texas, with natural gas providing 45.5 percent, coal providing 17.9 percent, and nuclear providing 10.9 percent. ERCOT labels the other 2.9 percent of energy sources in 2020 as ‘other.’”
“The wind turbines are not to blame solely,” Bruce Bullock—director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University—told The Dispatch. “About half of them did ice up and weren’t able to be in use, but we don’t plan on a lot of wind energy in the winter down here because the wind just doesn’t blow that much. It was a contributor to the problem, but a relatively minor contributor.”
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT)—which ordered rolling blackouts overnight Sunday to minimize widespread outages—said Wednesday that around 45 gigawatts remained offline: 18 of the missing gigawatts stemmed from renewable resources like wind, while 28 came from thermal sources like natural gas, nuclear energy, and coal.
“Texas is just not set up for this,” said Dr. Joshua Rhodes, a research associate at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in smart grid and the bulk electricity system. “Our grid is set up for a summer peak on August afternoons at 4 p.m., when it’s 105 degrees outside and everybody wants air conditioning. … That’s where our grid is built to shine.”
As we wrote yesterday, snow and cold weather alone typically do not sink an entire state’s electricity infrastructure. Chicago was a good 15 degrees colder than Houston last night, and its grid is holding up fine. But because such low temperatures are so rare in the Lone Star State, power companies have, for the most part, opted not to invest in “winterizing” facilities, ensuring they can continue to operate in times like these. Such processes “are not mandatory, it’s a voluntary guideline to decide to do those things,” Dan Woodfin, a senior director at ERCOT, told the Texas Tribune. “There are financial incentives to stay online, but there is no regulation at this point.”
That may be changing at some point in the not-so-distant future. “Far too many Texans are without power and heat for their homes as our state faces freezing temperatures and severe winter weather. This is unacceptable,” said Abbott, a Republican. “I will work with [the state House and Senate] to enhance Texas’ electric grid and ensure that our state never experiences power outages like this again.”
President Biden declared the situation in Texas an emergency last weekend, authorizing FEMA to “identify, mobilize, and provide at its discretion, equipment and resources necessary to alleviate the impacts of the emergency.” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said yesterday that FEMA has sent generators, blankets, and water to Texas, and “is preparing to move diesel into the state to ensure the continued availability of backup power.”
Worth Your Time
“This is where they’ll find my body,” thought a police officer and combat veteran as mobs cornered him by the entrance of the U.S. Capitol. “I don’t trust the people above me to make decisions to bring me home safe,” said another. ProPublica’s Joaquin Sapien and Joshua Kaplan spent weeks interviewing 19 current and former members of the U.S. Capitol Police to piece together the events of January 6 and uncover why the chain of command crumbled so detrimentally. “Combined,” they write, “the information makes clear how failures of leadership, communication and tactics put the lives of hundreds of officers at risk and allowed rioters to come dangerously close to realizing their threats against members of Congress.”
In Ripon, Wisconsin, the 1854 birthplace of the Republican Party, the local GOP is a microcosm of the party nationwide. Can those derogatorily labeled “RINO” (Republican In Name Only) live under the same roof as proponents of “Stop the Steal?” Or is the party schism irreversible? Looking to Ripon, Politico’s David Siders posits that reconciliation—or at least “papering over”—is possible. “In Wisconsin, there are reasons to think that at least some segment of the Republican electorate is prepared to look past Trump. They may already have been looking past him in November,” Siders writes. “Of the state’s five Republican-held House seats, the Republican running—and winning—in each district in November outperformed Trump in his district. And Republicans fared relatively well down-ballot nationwide.”
Former President Donald Trump stayed largely out of the public eye during his impeachment trial. But he re-emerged on Tuesday with a statement calling Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell a “dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack,” among other insults. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Karl Rove picks apart Trump’s most acidic barbs: that McConnell lacks credibility on China because of his wife’s family’s business dealings, and that it was McConnell’s fault that the GOP lost the Georgia runoffs. “Since the Senate’s first meeting in March 1789, only a handful of leaders have demonstrated a mastery of the upper chamber that matches the bespectacled Kentuckian’s,” Rove writes. “His achievements are legion, including skillfully maneuvering Mr. Trump’s legislative accomplishments and judicial appointments through the Senate.”
Presented Without Comment
Toeing the Company Line
Tune in to this week’s Dispatch Podcast for a discussion of Andrew Cuomo and COVID, K-12 school reopening efforts, the Senate’s acquittal of Donald Trump, Tim Alberta’s Nikki Haley piece in Politico, and their Myers Briggs test results.
In Wednesday’s G-File (🔒), Jonah reflects on the life and legacy of the sometimes brash, sometimes controversial, but always entertaining talk radio giant, Rush Limbaugh. “Limbaugh also knew what he was doing,” Jonah writes. “He was a master at floating trial balloons—performatively bold but intellectually tentative statements—to see how they would play out. If they backfired, he could say that the joke was on the losers and fools who took him either literally or out of context. If it didn’t, he’d press ahead or he’d relish the liberal tears he evoked.”
Now that former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial is over, Congress can get back to the fun stuff: coronavirus stimulus negotiations! Even though Biden’s “America Rescue Plan” likely has enough votes to become law through the budget reconciliation process, the bill is still facing opposition from congressional Republicans because of its $1.9 trillion price tag. In his latest Capitolism newsletter (🔒), Scott Lincicome helps us answer some basic questions: What, exactly, are we rescuing here? And does Biden’s plan risk overheating the economy by continuing to throw money even at those who haven’t been financially harmed by the pandemic?
Let Us Know
Do you favor a bipartisan, independent commission to investigate January 6 and the events that led to the assault on the Capitol? If we get one, will it help to correct the misperceptions around the legitimate winner of the election and who conducted the attacks?
Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Haley Byrd Wilt (@byrdinator), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).