Happy Monday! The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has declared the Northern Cardinal the “best holiday season bird” on the grounds that “it just makes sense.”
This is blatant Snowy Owl erasure, and we won’t stand for it. (Particularly just days after the St. Louis Cardinals pried away longtime Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras—a development that makes some of us happier than others.)
Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories
- National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told ABC News on Sunday that the United States is still negotiating for the release of Paul Whelan—former Marine detained in Russia since 2018 on espionage charges that he and the U.S. dispute—after Whelan wasn’t included in last week’s swap of WNBA star Brittney Griner for arms dealer Viktor Bout. In exchange for Whelan’s freedom, Russia reportedly demanded the release of spy Vadim Krasikov, who is serving a life sentence in Germany for a 2019 assassination of a Georgian citizen. Germany’s government was reportedly opposed to the idea of releasing Krasikov, leading the U.S. to float instead Alexander Vinnik and Roman Seleznev—Russian nationals charged with money laundering, hacking, and cyber-crime.
- Department of Justice and Scottish officials said Sunday the United States has taken custody of the former Libyan intelligence official accused of making a bomb that in 1988 detonated on Pan Am flight 103 above Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 people on the plane and 11 on the ground. The DOJ charged Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi in December 2020 when he was in Libyan custody, and hasn’t yet specified how he came to be in U.S. custody. He would be the first of three Libyan intelligence officers charged in connection with the attack to face prosecution in the United States.
- U.S. Central Command announced yesterday Special Operations troops killed two Islamic State operatives in a helicopter raid in northeastern Syria early Sunday, including an official known as Anas accused of plotting terrorist attacks. CENTCOM officials said commandos tried to capture Anas before killing him and an associate in a firefight.
- Belgian federal police on Friday raided 16 locations and detained five people—including European Parliament Vice President Eva Kaili—accused of criminal organization, corruption, and money laundering as part of an investigation of Qatar’s alleged illicit lobbying. One of Parliament’s 14 vice presidents, Kaili had become a vocal defender of Qatar, calling it a “frontrunner in labor rights” despite evidence of widespread worker abuse in the run-up to the World Cup.
- NASA’s uncrewed Orion spacecraft splashed down in the Pacific Sunday after traveling more than 268,000 miles from Earth—the farthest a spacecraft designed to carry humans has traveled—and skipping off the earth’s atmosphere before reentry in a successful “skip entry” maneuver. The Orion flight is the first of NASA’s Artemis missions testing technology to send people back to the moon, and Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, said yesterday the agency plans to announce the spaceflight crew for the Artemis II mission early next year.
- The Federal Trade Commission has sued to stop Microsoft’s $69 billion acquisition of video game developer Activision Blizzard, arguing the purchase would allow Microsoft to “suppress competitors” to its Xbox gaming consoles and cloud-gaming business by manipulating prices and making leading games exclusive to its platforms as it has done before. Microsoft has recently announced deals—like pledging to make “Call of Duty” available on Nintendo—aimed at quieting regulators’ fears, which may make the FTC’s suit an uphill battle.
- The Labor Department reported Friday that the producer price index—a measure of what suppliers and wholesalers are charging customers—rose 7.4 percent year-over-year in November, down from October’s 8.1 percent. The lower price growth hints at easing inflationary pressures, but the market had anticipated a greater drop and stocks slumped slightly, with the S&P 500 slipping about 0.7 percent.
- Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona announced Friday she has changed her party registration from Democrat to independent, reflecting her previous willingness to buck the party on portions of President Joe Biden’s agenda and on procedural grounds like the abolition of the filibuster. The move—which protects the polarizing senator from a Democratic primary challenge in 2024 but could produce a bruising three-way general election—likely won’t affect Democrats’ slim Senate majority much, as Sinema said her “values” and “behavior” will remain unchanged.
Trump 2024’s Terrible Start
The internet has grown littered over the years with thinkpieces incorrectly forecasting Donald Trump’s political demise. Whether they’re in response to his comments about John McCain’s military service, or the Access Hollywood tape, or the January 6 attack on the Capitol, the former president has an uncanny ability to render those political epitaphs obsolete. But the prognostication will definitionally have to come true at some point—and, at the risk of adding to that pile, it may be happening as we speak. (Another person whose career has been prematurely written off for years, Tom Brady, lost 35-7 yesterday to a rookie quarterback selected with the very last pick in the seventh round of the NFL draft.)
The weeks since Trump announced his third presidential campaign have seen the former president buried under a particularly thick blizzard of embarrassing headlines and unforced errors.
There was the campaign launch itself, which Trump delayed until just after the midterms following sustained pleading from Republicans nervous that his early reentry could juice Democratic turnout. The timing was soured by the evaporation of the expected congressional red wave: Rather than the afterglow of a triumph he’d helped engineer, Trump’s announcement speech—a remarkably low-energy one by his standards that barely elicited a spike in campaign donations—landed with a thud amid widespread Republican grumbling that Trump’s weak candidates had cost them the Senate and limited their gains in the House. That grumbling grew louder last week when Trump-endorsed Herschel Walker lost handily to Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in Georgia’s Senate runoffs. That same night, Trump appeared at a QAnon-adjacent event hosted at his Mar-a-Lago club.
“The more MAGA a candidate was, the more they tended to underperform even in their own states,” Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said. “We can’t nominate candidates who are completely unable to expand beyond a very narrow base. That’s never been a good strategy politically.”
For someone ostensibly still considered the leader of the Republican Party, Trump rolled out a remarkably threadbare list of early endorsements following the campaign announcement. Congress’s MAGA kook caucus was well represented: Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, Paul Gosar, and a handful of others all signed on, as did Rep. Elise Stefanik, Sen.-elect J.D. Vance, and some of the brightest stars in the election-integrity constellation, including failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. All the exercise really showed was that, out of the gate, most elected Republicans are keeping their 2024 options open.
One week later, Trump had dinner at Mar-a-Lago with his friend Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West who had spent the past few months descending into anti-Semitic fever swamps—though he didn’t hit his “I like Hitler” nadir until after his dinner with the former president. But what really raised eyebrows was Ye’s tagalong guest: the risible white nationalist livestreamer and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes, who is now an aide to Ye’s own 2024 campaign. Fuentes said he praised Trump as his “hero,” and, in a video, Ye said Trump was “really impressed” with the 24-year-old troll. When news of the meeting broke, Trump said he hadn’t known who Fuentes was—a dubious claim which, even if true, doesn’t exactly speak well to the level of organization within his camp. (NBC News later reported the campaign is “instituting new vetting procedures and gatekeeping efforts” in an apparent effort to head off any future contact between the former president and his most bigoted fans.)
The snafu drew some protests from a group usually adept at ignoring Trump’s transgressions: elected Republicans. “That’s just a bad idea on every level,” said Senate GOP Whip John Thune. “I think it’s ridiculous he had that meeting,” Sen. Joni Ernst added. “Just ridiculous.” Some of Trump’s would-be 2024 rivals—Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, Chris Christie—offered rebukes of their own, with varying degrees of candor. David Friedman—Trump’s hand-picked ambassador to Israel—argued his “friend” was “better than” accepting a visit from Ye and Fuentes. “I condemned [Barack] Obama associating with Louis Farrakhan and Jeremiah Wright,” Friedman wrote. “This is no different.”
Then there were the legal headaches. The biggest, from Attorney General Merrick Garland, came just days after Trump’s announcement: He would appoint a special counsel, attorney Jack Smith, to oversee ongoing criminal probes into Trump related to his alleged improper handling of classified information after leaving office and his involvement in the January 6 riot. It was the proper move on Garland’s part: With Trump explicitly running to unseat his boss, continuing to oversee those investigations himself would have raised legitimate concerns about conflicts of interest. But it also thrust Trump’s legal woes back into the headlines, and, at least in the mind of some independent voters, blunted Trump’s inevitable attacks on the investigations as politically motivated.
Other legal woes piled up too. The Supreme Court refused Trump’s request to block the IRS from giving six years of his tax returns to the House Ways and Means committee, foiling his efforts to run out the clock on a key investigation of the Democratic House as Republicans prepare to take over next month. An appeals court overturned a lower-court ruling, favorable to Trump, that would have imposed various procedural restrictions on the government’s ability to review classified documents seized in the FBI’s August search of Mar-a-Lago. And last week, a jury found the Trump Organization guilty of 17 counts of tax fraud and related crimes for giving executives tax-free, off-the-books perks like company apartments and cars for more than a decade.
Finally, there’s the damage Trump continues to inflict on himself with his increasingly manic relitigation of his 2020 election loss to Biden. The issue is a political loser on every level. Voters want to hear about what a candidate’s going to do for them, not endless grievances about how poorly he thinks he was treated in the past. Beyond that, most Americans simply don’t believe Trump’s lies on the subject—and there’s growing evidence that even Trump’s loyal base doesn’t care about it to the extent they once did. In last month’s midterms, election-denying Trump allies lost winnable races in Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—all 2020 battleground states.
And yet here he was, posting on his social media platform Truth Social last week, calling for the Constitution to be suspended to right the supposed wrong of 2020: “Do you throw the Presidential Election Results of 2020 OUT and declare the RIGHTFUL WINNER, or do you have a NEW ELECTION? A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution.”
This last inanity earned a rare admonishment from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: “Let me just say that anyone seeking the presidency who thinks the Constitution can somehow be suspended or not followed, it seems to me, would have a very hard time being sworn in as president of the United States.”
Worth Your Time
- Art Cullen, editor of northwest Iowa’s Storm Lake Times in Iowa, argues in the New York Times that Democrats’ bid to deprioritize Iowa’s caucus is another symptom of the party’s neglect of rural voters. “Discarding Iowa is not a great way to mend fences in rural America—where the Democratic brand has become virtually unmarketable,” Cullen writes. “Despite all the attention, nothing really happened to stop the long decline as the state’s Main Streets withered, farmers disappeared and the undocumented dwell in the shadows. Republican or Democrat, the outcome was pretty much the same. At least the Republicans will cut your taxes. So it’s OK that South Carolina goes first. Iowa can do without the bother. The Republicans are sticking with Iowa; the Democrats consider it a lost cause. No Democratic state senator lives in a sizable part of western Iowa. Republicans control the governor’s office, the Legislature and soon the entire congressional delegation. Nobody organized the thousands of registered Latino voters in meatpacking towns like Storm Lake. Democrats are barely trying. The results show it.”
- Longtime soccer reporter Grant Wahl died unexpectedly over the weekend after collapsing while covering the World Cup match between Argentina and the Netherlands in Qatar. He was just 48 years old. “He wanted Americans to love soccer the way he did and his eagerness to share the sport with anyone even mildly interested was boundless,” fellow sportswriter Joe Posnanski writes of his friend. “Over the coming days, you will hear so many stories from soccer newbies, like myself, who spent way too much time asking countless dumb questions and having them answered, one by one, by an endlessly patient Grant Wahl. You’d be surprised how rare that is in the sportswriting world. Throughout my life in this business, alas, I’ve found it more common for sportswriting experts to hoard their hard-won knowledge, to guard their enthusiasm, to view anyone new and curious as a potential rival. Grant didn’t see it that way. He celebrated the triumphs of other soccer writers. He invited young writers to lean on him. He encouraged those who concentrated on baseball and football and basketball and hockey to give soccer a try. He was a fountain of soccer knowledge for anyone who wanted to know. The way he figured it, the more Americans who wrote and talked about soccer, the more Americans would hear about this glorious sport.”
- It’s mid-December, so cue the end-of-year best-of roundups and accompanying debates about what should have made the lists. At The Atlantic, Derek Thompson kicks off the year-end fun with an encouraging and thought-provoking look at the year’s top 10 scientific breakthroughs, from astonishing AI tools to revived pig organs. Our personal favorite isn’t the flashiest, but could reshape the fight against malaria. “In September, a new malaria vaccine developed by Oxford University scientists was found to be extremely effective,” Thompson writes. “A trial involving 450 children in Burkina Faso found that three doses of the vaccine, plus a booster shot, were up to 80 percent effective at preventing infection. Malaria, which kills more than 400,000 people each year, is caused not by a virus, but rather by a shapeshifter called plasmodium, which has so far eluded widespread vaccine attempts. But the latest trials of this Oxford vaccine are among several thrilling efforts bringing us closer to taking on one of the world’s leading causes of child mortality.”
Presented Without Comment
Also Presented Without Comment
Also Also Presented Without Comment
Toeing the Company Line
- In Friday’s Stirewaltisms (🔒), Chris chooses political winners and losers from the last week. Sinema’s defection from the Democratic Party is a win for Sen. Joe Manchin’s maverick status, he writes, while Herschel Walker’s loss in a “$500 million quagmire” of a Senate race is a tough break for Donald Trump and his wing of the Republican Party.
- Congress is soldiering on with its annual defense funding bill, and Haley has the details in Friday’s Uphill (🔒). “One of the biggest priorities for lawmakers was addressing the United States’ low stockpiles of essential equipment,” she writes. “The coronavirus pandemic gutted weapons supply chains, and America’s security assistance to Ukraine for its defense against Russia this year has dwindled stockpiles even more.”
- Why did Sinema—a rare recognizably human member of Congress—leave the Democratic Party? Nick dissects several potential motives for the move in Friday’s Boiling Frogs (🔒), highlighting both the most and least charitable interpretations. “Having already rendered herself unelectable in a primary by resolving to do what she thought was right, she has nothing left to lose,” Nick concludes. “She might as well keep doing what she thinks is right and let the electoral chips fall where they may.”
- Vampires and werewolves and cultural decline: It’s all on the menu in Friday’s G-File as Jonah explains why, given the choice, becoming a werewolf is morally superior to becoming a vampire—and what our cultural preference for vampirism suggests about our souls.
- If the “Twitter Files” have revealed anything, it’s that Twitter execs didn’t master the longstanding challenge of upholding ideologically diverse free speech while maintaining a safe, commercially-viable platform. In Sunday’s French Press, David argues tech companies can learn from universities’ speech code woes and take cues from First Amendment jurisprudence.
- On the site this weekend, Charlotte asks a former Defense Department official about last week’s Griner/Bout exchange, John Guaspari reviews a book about the Marines who stormed Okinawa, and Alec introduces an under-appreciated Christmas classic, The Bishop’s Wife.
- And on the site today, Chris Stirewalt examines the demographic trends shaping America’s “no-majority” future and the challenges they pose both for the census and for race-based partisan affinities.
Let Us Know
After reading Derek Thompson’s roundup of the year’s scientific advances, what discovery or invention are you most excited about?