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The Morning Dispatch: The Vice President Under Siege
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The Morning Dispatch: The Vice President Under Siege

Plus: Mitt Romney revives his child benefit plan.

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Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis traveled to Kyiv on Thursday to meet in person with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for the first time since Russia invaded. The four European leaders formally endorsed Ukraine’s bid to join the European Union and pledged additional weaponry to the country’s cause. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba thanked the countries—and the United States—for the continued military support, but maintained his country “urgently need[s] more heavy weapons delivered more regularly.”

  • One day after the Federal Reserve hiked the target federal funds rate by 75 basis points, the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee opted for a more modest 25-basis-point increase, despite prices in the United Kingdom rising even faster than in the United States. Policymakers at the Swiss National Bank also raised interest rates on Thursday—for the first time since 2007—to -0.25 percent. 

  • The Defense Department announced this week that coalition forces in Syria captured a senior Islamic State leader on Thursday in a mission that it claimed resulted in no civilian casualties or damage to coalition assets. The Pentagon didn’t identify the ISIS leader other than as an “experienced bomb maker and facilitator.”

  • The Senate voted 84-14 on Thursday to advance legislation expanding healthcare benefits for U.S. military veterans dealing with medical conditions possibly tied to toxic burn pit exposure during overseas deployment. The House is expected to pass the measure—which will cost approximately $300 billion over the next decade—in the coming days, at which point President Joe Biden has said he will sign it into law.

  • Discussions on bipartisan gun violence legislation appear to have hit a snag, with Sen. John Cornyn—the lead Republican negotiator—knocking Democratic indecision and telling reporters it’s time for lawmakers to “fish or cut bait.” Cornyn is facing pushback on the deal from some conservative members of his conference, but other negotiators—Republican Sen. Thom Tillis and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy—still believe a deal is within reach.

  • The Labor Department reported Thursday that initial jobless claims—a proxy for layoffs—decreased by 3,000 week-over-week to 229,000 last week, remaining slightly above historic lows.

  • The latest COVID-19 surge appears to have leveled off in recent days, with the average number of daily confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States declining 6 percent over the past two weeks. The average number of daily deaths attributed to COVID-19 continues to fall as well, down 10 percent over the same time period.

  • The Golden State Warriors defeated the Boston Celtics 103-90 on Thursday to secure their fourth NBA championship since 2015. Sharpshooter Steph Curry was awarded his first Finals MVP. 

Pence in the Lion’s Den

A gallows on the grounds of the Capitol on January 6, 20201 (Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

The January 6 Select Committee has used its series of hearings over the past week to establish a number of points about former President Donald Trump’s efforts to stay in power after losing the 2020 election, but two stand out more than the rest: Most of those in Trump’s inner circle—and likely Trump himself—were well aware his theories of massive voter fraud were “bulls—,” and they were well aware their plan to act on them was likely unconstitutional. Thursday’s hearing—focused on the pressure put on Vice President Mike Pence to disrupt Congress’ ceremonial role counting electoral votes—strengthened both those narratives.

On Jan. 6, 2021, Pence’s chief legal counsel, Greg Jacob, hid in a basement-like secure location within the U.S. Capitol with the vice president, who refused to leave the building, according to Jacob, because he “did not want to take any chance that the world would see the vice president of the United States fleeing the United States Capitol.”

That was just one harrowing detail about that day Jacob revealed in his testimony before the committee on Thursday. He remembered Secret Service officers evacuating them to the room as a mob calling for Pence’s hanging breached the Capitol, and told lawmakers they had heard the din of the crowd as they fled. Rep. Pete Aguilar—a Democratic member of the committee—claimed assailants came within 40 feet of the Vice President and his team. 

During that time, Jacob said he took out his Bible and read Daniel 6, the story of the prophet thrown in the lion’s den, and emailed constitutional law professor John Eastman, architect of the plan for Pence to reject the electoral votes Congress certified. “Thanks to your bullshit, we are now under siege,” he wrote.

“The siege is because you and your boss did not do what was necessary,” Eastman replied.

Throughout the day yesterday, witnesses—including Jacob—eviscerated the legal arguments underpinning Eastman’s plan, while lawmakers laid out evidence that Eastman and other Trump allies knew full well the flaws in their strategy—but forged ahead with a pressure campaign urging Pence to go along anyway. After the riot, Eastman was so fearful of legal consequences he emailed Rudy Giuliani that he’d “decided that [he] should be on the pardon list, if that is still in the works.” Trump never gave him one, and according to committee members, he’s pleaded the Fifth Amendment 100 times in his testimony before them.

The committee has already taken pains in previous hearings to demonstrate that Trump and his advisors knew—as soon as Election Night—that his fraud claims were baseless. Trump ignored his campaign manager Bill Stepien, former attorney general Bill Barr, and others telling him he’d lost, deciding instead to latch onto Giuliani’s fraud claims. Earlier this week, Rep. Zoe Lofgren noted the Trump campaign collected about $250 million—purportedly to investigate said fraud—but went on to spend the money on a string of unrelated activities.

But Thursday’s hearing dialed in on the previously reported plan Eastman concocted to stop the Jan. 6 certification. The theory—which rested on an unclear sentence in the Constitution—called on Pence to reject electors in states Trump lost, returning them to the House or the states and preventing Biden’s win from being certified. Pence consulted Jacob and retired conservative judge Michael Luttig—a former father figure to Sen. Ted Cruz and for whom Eastman once clerked—on the plan’s legality.

Pence and his team never came close to going through with it. “The vice president does not have the authority to reject the slate of electors, there is no suggestion of any kind,” Jacob said he concluded after an investigation into the question. “Part of my discussion with Mr. Eastman was, ‘If you were right, don’t you think Al Gore might have liked to have known in 2000 that he had authority to just declare himself president of the United States? Did you think that the Democrat lawyers just didn’t think of this very obvious quirk that he could use to do that?’” Per Jacob, Eastman responded, “Absolutely. Al Gore did not have a basis to do it in 2000; Kamala Harris shouldn’t be able to do it in 2024. But I think you should do it today.”

Luttig was equally dismissive of Eastman’s scheme. “There was no basis in the Constitution or laws of the United States at all for the theory espoused by Mr. Eastman,” he said, describing the plan as constitutional mischief. “I would have laid my body across the road before I would have let the vice president overturn the 2020 election” based on Eastman’s various claims.

To hear them tell it now, many Trump White House officials were equally concerned behind the scenes at the time. White House lawyer Eric Herschmann said he told Eastman he was “going to cause riots in the streets,” but Eastman purportedly shrugged it off: “There’s been violence in the history of our country.” 

Former Trump campaign aide Jason Miller said others in that orbit also believed Eastman’s plan to be crazy. Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows agreed Pence couldn’t follow Eastman’s plan, former Pence chief of staff Marc Short said in video testimony—though he noted Meadows was changing his story frequently at the time. According to Herschmann, even Giuliani admitted the morning of January 6 that Eastman’s critics were “probably right.” Asked about this after Thursday’s hearing, Guiliani demurred. “I shouldn’t really talk about that,” he told reporters before dismissing the committee as a witch hunt.

One of Eastman’s biggest doubters may have been Eastman himself. According to Jacob, the constitutional lawyer conceded to him that his own gambit would likely lose unanimously before the Supreme Court, and the lawmakers on the House committee revealed an October document in which Eastman debunks the very theory he later espoused.

Unwilling to let facts get in the way, Eastman, Trump, and other allies continued the pressure campaign on Pence. The committee played clips featuring Trump, Giuliani, Miller and others calling on Pence to reject the electors. On January 6, before the riot, Trump reportedly called Pence himself to pressure him one last time and denigrate his courage, various aides said. 

As the riot was unfolding, aides pushed for Trump to tweet something de-escalatory, White House staffers testified. Instead, at 2:24 p.m., Trump tweeted Pence didn’t have the courage to do what was necessary. “It felt like he was pouring gasoline on the fire,” White House press aide Sarah Matthews told the committee. Lawmakers released several photographs from that time, including one of Pence in a secure location with his daughter, watching Trump’s remarks praising the very people who were trying to harm him. The committee claims to have evidence Trump said as the riot was ongoing that Pence “deserved” to be hanged for his disobedience.

At 11:44 p.m., Eastman emailed Jacob again. “Now that the precedent has been set that the Electoral Count Act is not quite so sacrosanct as was previously claimed, I implore you to consider one more relatively minor violation,” he wrote, asking Pence to adjourn Congress for 10 days for more fraud investigations. “That’s rubber room stuff,” Jacob said Pence told him. Giuliani called a senator that evening—after the violence at the Capitol—to ask that Congress delay the certification, The Dispatch reported at the time.

In the remaining hearings, the committee aims to explore Trump’s efforts to bend the Justice Department to his will, his pressure on state officials and legislatures, and his role in fomenting the mob that stormed the Capitol. “It is a one sided, highly partisan Witch Hunt,” Trump said of the hearings on Truth Social Thursday, demanding equal time to make voter fraud claims.

Thursday, Luttig underscored why he doesn’t think the threat that January 6 posed to constitutional order has passed. “Donald Trump and his allies and supporters are a clear and present danger to American democracy” because they plan to overturn the 2024 presidential election if they lose, Luttig claimed. “I don’t speak those words lightly. … The former president, his allies are executing that blueprint for 2024 in open, in plain view of the American public.”

Romneybucks for the Whole Family 

With U.S. birth rates near an all time low, some social conservatives have in recent years begun to advocate for the federal government to do more to incentivize marriage and family formation. Last February, those conservatives got an unlikely congressional champion: Sen. Mitt Romney. His Family Security Act proposed to consolidate and beef up financial support for American children, replacing the child tax credit and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program with a single regular payment administered through the Social Security Administration: $350 a month to each American family for each child age 5 and under, $250 a month for each child 6 and up, gradually phased out for very high earners.

Nothing came of the plan. The White House was already forging ahead with its own child benefit, funded for one year through the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which would be signed into law the following month. And Romney’s plan was opposed even by many right-of-center advocates of a stronger federal family policy, who criticized it for making benefits eligible even to children of nonworking parents. Oren Cass, founder of the pro-family think tank American Compass, lamented in the New York Times that the lack of a work requirement “violates the principle of reciprocity at the heart of a durable social compact.” Sens. Marco Rubio and Mike Lee, who had helped get a boosted Child Tax Credit into 2017’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, also panned the proposal: “That is not tax relief for working parents; it is welfare assistance.”

Now Romney is trying again, with an updated version of the bill that seems more deliberately targeted to lure in these skittish Republicans. The package no longer calls for the elimination of TANF, the grant program that gives states money to spend on poverty relief for poor families. But it also no longer covers the very poor itself; a family would need to earn $10,000 or more per year to be eligible for the full benefit, with families receiving a proportional benefit on every dollar earned beneath that threshold. (Make $5,000 a year between yourself and your spouse; receive half the benefit.)

This arrangement would be significantly more generous to nearly all low-earning families than the pre-2021 child tax credit, which was disbursed according to a relatively complex formula: Most tax filers could have up to $2,000 per child knocked off their annual tax bill, and if they owed less than that to begin with, they could receive up to $1,400 per child as a “refundable” credit—cold cash. But there was also a minimum threshold to qualify for the credit: $3,000 a year in family income. (The pre-2021 credit is pertinent because it has again become law following the expiration of the benefits in Biden’s COVID bill; Democratic attempts to make the program permanent ran aground when the administration failed to pass the Build Back Better plan last year.)

The Romney plan has no absolute minimum threshold, and so is somewhat more generous than the pre-2021 status quo for the poorest earners, and by the time a family is making $4,000 a year the proposal becomes more generous than the status quo as well. (There’s a brief window in there where the situation is flipped: a family making exactly $3,000 in a given year would lose out in the Romney math by about $140.)

Still, adding income thresholds to the plan has brought an end to the strange-bedfellows situation we saw last year, where some progressive economists praised Romney’s plan as superior even to Biden’s. Matt Bruenig of the People’s Policy Project groused yesterday that “Romney came out with a perfectly fine policy and then came out with a second version of it that is the same thing as the first one except with the poor carved out.”

But the inclusion of even a modest phase-in structure seems to have been the secret sauce Romney needed to win over at least some Republican pooh-poohers who subscribe to the welfare-reform-style logic that entitlements without work requirements are ipso facto bad. The bill has picked up two significant co-sponsors who sit on the Senate Finance Committee: Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Steve Daines of Montana.

Daines’ embrace of the bill is particularly interesting, given another aspect of Romney’s intended pitch this time around: as a piece of pro-life policymaking in a country awaiting the likely fall of Roe v. Wade. Republicans have long resented Democrats’ attacks that their ideology is “pro-birth, not pro-life”—interested in ensuring children can enter the world but losing interest in them once they’re here. Pro-family policies like this, proponents argue, send the opposite message, and one that in this case explicitly validates fetuses in utero as children too: The benefits kick in four months prior to birth. A number of major pro-life organizations, including National Right to Life, Live Action, and the Family Research Council, have applauded the latest version of the bill.

“Despite being the bedrock of our country, there’s perhaps never been a more challenging time than today to raise a family,” Romney said in announcing the plan. “It’s no coincidence that fewer and fewer people are getting married and having children. We must do better to help families meet the challenges they face as they take on the most important work any of us will ever do—raising our society’s children. This proposal proves that we can accomplish this without adding to the deficit or creating another new federal program without any reforms.”

Worth Your Time

  • Should we be ringing more alarm bells about China’s military expansion? Josh Rogin thinks so. “China is building the capability to use nuclear blackmail to deter a U.S. intervention if it invades Taiwan, following Russia’s model,” he writes in his latest Washington Post column. “China’s regional military presence is expanding, including a secret naval base in Cambodia and a secret military cooperation agreement with the Solomon Islands. China has developed new technologies, including hypersonic missiles and antisatellite lasers, to keep the U.S. military at bay in a Taiwan scenario. And now, China no longer recognizes the Taiwan Strait as international waters.” All that spells trouble for the international order—and Taiwan. Adm. John C. Aquilino, the head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, “wouldn’t volunteer an exact date for when China might surpass U.S. military power in Asia, but he called the 2020s ‘the decade of concern,’” Rogin writes. “His predecessor at Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Philip S. Davidson, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in March that the threat of China invading Taiwan will become critical in ‘the next six years.’ With 2027 being the final year of Xi’s expected (and unprecedented) third five-year term, it gives him a personal deadline for attempting reunification.”

  • For better or (almost assuredly) worse, Twitter plays an outsized role in our political discourse—so it’s worth understanding how the platform operates and the makeup of its users. To that end, the Pew Research Center is out with new data this week reinforcing just how unrepresentative the conversations happening on Twitter are of the country as a whole. “Of the nearly 1 million tweets examined in this analysis, 33% are estimated to include some form of political content. It also finds that political posting is fairly widespread across the Twitter population, as 65% of U.S. adults on Twitter posted or retweeted at least once about politics over the year under observation,” the report’s authors find. “At the same time, political posting is an infrequent practice for most users. The typical (median) U.S. adult Twitter user posted just three posts containing political content over the course of the year—or approximately one political tweet every four months. This seeming contradiction—that a majority of American Twitter users have tweeted about politics, and political content makes up one-third of all tweets from this group, but most users only tweet about politics occasionally—is explained by the fact that most Americans on Twitter tweet rarely, if ever, about any topic.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Has one of Google’s artificial intelligence systems become so advanced it’s sentient? In this week’s edition of The Current, Klon unpacks a recent allegation from an engineer at the tech giant. “LaMDA is harvesting a ginormous amount of language from the web and can identify and mimic nuances in speech that make it sound realistic and appear self-aware,” he concludes. “The machine isn’t alive, but it can generate sentences that convincingly sound like a living person. I don’t believe this is ‘sentience,’ but I must admit that programmers, psychologists, and philosophers frequently disagree on what ‘sentience’ even is.”

  • The January 6 Committee hearings aren’t going to salvage Democrats’ chances in November, but they may help establishment Republicans steer the 2024 GOP nomination away from Donald Trump. “The Democratic-led investigation into January 6 and the 2020 election is doing a service to Republicans,” Chris writes in Thursday’s Stirewaltisms. “That must be unpleasant for some on the blue team, but is probably unavoidable if they want to do the work they have set out to do.”

  • On today’s roundtable episode of the Dispatch Podcast, Sarah, David, Jonah, and Andrew discuss takeaways from this week’s primary elections across the country, break down the details of a proposed framework for a possible gun violence bill in the Senate, and dive into the details unveiled in the January 6 Committee hearings thus far.

  • On the site today, Price, who’s been inside the hearing room covering the January 6 committee proceedings, offers his breakdown of yesterday’s testimony. And Hussain Abdul-Hussain and David Adesnik detail how Qatar, the small country on the Persian Gulf, is spending billions of dollars in Washington to try to buy influence.

Let Us Know

In honor of Father’s Day this weekend, what do you consider the most important lesson your dad taught you?

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Declan Garvey

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

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Esther Eaton

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.

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Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.