The Morning Dispatch: Fiasco and Failure in Iowa

Plus, dotting the "i" and crossing the "t" on impeachment.

Happy Tuesday! Well, that was … interesting! After months of rank media punditry and years of actual, on-the-ground work by campaign staffers, the 2020 race kicked off with a thud. At the time of this writing (which is very, very early), the Iowa caucuses had not yet crowned a victor—or even reported any precinct data—due to technical difficulties and “inconsistencies.”

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • President Trump will deliver his annual State of the Union address at 9 p.m. ET.

  • Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie fired his deputy, James Byrne, “due to loss of confidence in Mr. Byrne’s ability to carry out his duties.”

  • Conservative talk radio icon Rush Limbaugh revealed that he has been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. Our prayers go out for a quick and full recovery. 

Chaos—and Not Much Else—in Iowa

The Iowa caucuses failed Monday night, leaving television networks with dead air, campaign parties with nothing to celebrate, voters with no results, and candidates with no clue. The meltdown—a technical problem with the Iowa Democratic Party’s results-reporting app and human error for hours afterward—meant that after waiting for years to formally begin their challenge to Donald Trump’s re-election, Democrats would have to wait some more.

Andrew Egger spent Monday evening reporting on what to that point seemed like a normal caucus process. We await the results, but we’ve still got the report:

For the most part, candidates were forced to spend Monday night doing something unusual for an election night, yet perfectly appropriate to our fragmentary political age: rolling out a version of their victory speeches despite no news of victory, trying to build their own New Hampshire momentum out of pure spin. No candidate leaned into this more shamelessly than Pete Buttigieg.

In fairness, Buttigieg really, really needed a win in Iowa to keep his campaign chugging along. Yet it was a bizarre sight to see the former South Bend mayor go into full triumphalist mode at his campaign party before a single precinct had been officially counted. 

“Tonight, an improbable hope became an undeniable reality,” Buttigieg told his supporters in Des Moines. “We don’t know all the results, but we know by the time it’s all said and done—Iowa, you have shocked the nation. Because by all indications, we are going on to New Hampshire victorious.” 

There’s already a lot of Democratic chatter saying Iowa should scuttle its unusual process altogether after this debacle. Social media and the cable networks were full of reports of local officials sitting on hold for lengthy spells to report results by phone, even saying they would give up and report their numbers Tuesday. 

Iowa’s prized first-in-the-nation caucus has long been targeted by critics who claim it’s quirky and unrepresentative. Expect those growing complaints to reach a high-decibel roar in the coming days.

The failure comes at a time when Americans are already on edge about the integrity of our elections. The U.S. intelligence community found that Russians had attempted to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential elections—a finding supported by top intel officials in the Trump administration. Donald Trump famously complained throughout the 2016 election that the process was “rigged” against him and suggested he wouldn’t accept results he deemed flawed. Bernie Sanders and his surrogates offered similar critiques of the process for Democrats. Georgia Democrats, amplified by prominent voices in the national party, have insisted without evidence that Stacy Abrams had the gubernatorial election stolen from her by now-Gov. Brian Kemp.

On Monday, the conservative-leaning Judicial Watch alleged that there were more voter registrations than voters in some Iowa counties—a claim quickly and authoritatively disputed by Iowa’s Republican Secretary of State.

As the problems for Democrats persisted through the night Monday and into the early hours of Tuesday morning, top advisers to President Donald Trump sought to sow further doubts about the process. Shortly after 10 p.m. ET, as the extent of the Democrats’ screw-ups was becoming apparent, Frances Brennan, director of strategic response for Trump’s re-election campaign, tweeted a video of MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki with an explanation from Iowa Democrats. Brennan added a hashtag hinting that the problems may not have been accidental.

"We've heard from the Iowa state Democratic Party... They say that they are doing, quote, 'quality control on the results that they've received.' They say they are doing it, quote, 'out of an abundance of caution." #RiggedElection?

Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager, raised the same possibility.

On the Democrat side, Rep. Ilhan Omar retweeted a tweet hinting that something untoward may have benefited Pete Buttigieg.

The mistakes that led to this uncertain first step will no doubt exacerbate these concerns. And it seems near certain that the claims of electoral shenanigans over the last 24 hours will be with us throughout what will be a fraught election cycle.

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Dotting the “i” and Crossing the “t” on Impeachment

When we last checked in on the impeachment saga, Sen. Lamar Alexander had just announced his intention to vote against subpoenaing any additional witnesses, and the trial seemed to be barreling toward its inevitable conclusion. Then, another in a long series of delays.

But don’t let Trump’s lack of a formal acquittal—that’ll come Wednesday—convince you the trial is anything but over. Once Alexander foreclosed the possibility of hearing from John Bolton, this thing got put on the fast track to senatorial exoneration. 

The body voted 51-49 on Friday against further witnesses. Sen. Mitt Romney and Sen. Susan Collins defected, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s ‘nay’ averted a tie that presiding officer John Roberts would have faced pressure to break.

Murkowski will also vote “nay” on the articles of impeachment themselves, she announced Monday night. “I cannot vote to convict,” Murkowski concluded after a stemwinder of a speech chastising Trump, Republicans, and Democrats alike. “The president’s behavior was shameful and wrong. His personal interests do not take precedence over those of this great nation,” she said. “The House failed in its responsibilities. And the Senate should be ashamed by the rank partisanship that has been on display. … For all the talk of impartiality, it is clear that few in this chamber approached this with a genuinely open mind.”

An acquittal completely along party lines on Wednesday—after the State of the Union address—remains a distinct possibility. Sens. Romney and Collins are the only Republicans thought to be considering convicting Trump; Sens. Joe Manchin, Doug Jones, and Kyrsten Sinema are the only Democrats believed to be weighing acquittal.

A few other impeachment threads we’re following:

Censure: The aforementioned Joe Manchin, senator from West Virginia, is in a tough spot politically. As a Democrat representing a state Donald Trump won by 42 points in 2016, Manchin often finds himself in positions where he is torn between party loyalty and his voters’ support for the president.

Manchin announced a resolution Monday intended to split the baby: Censure. “Whereas Donald John Trump used the Office of the President of the United States to attempt to compel a foreign nation to interfere with domestic political affairs for his own personal benefit,” the resolution reads, “the Senate does hereby censure Donald John Trump ... and does condemn his wrongful conduct in the strongest terms.”

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would have to agree to bring such a resolution to the Senate floor (highly unlikely), and early indications are that Republican senators, even those bold enough to gently criticize the president, have little interest in doing so with a formal censure. So Manchin’s calculus here may be to provide himself some political cover if he votes to acquit Trump tomorrow.

From the Washington Post’s Robert Costa and Mike DeBonis:

“Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)—who said in a statement Friday that ‘just because actions meet a standard of impeachment does not mean it is in the best interest of the country to remove a President from office’—said Monday that he was not interested in pursuing censure and prefers to ‘just move forward.’

‘We have an election in nine months, and that’s, in may [sic] mind, the appropriate way for people to take into account how they feel about what they think the president did or didn’t do,’ he said. ‘It’s the ultimate accountability.’”

Reciprocity: After only one impeachment in the first two centuries of the American experiment (President Nixon resigned before he was officially impeached), we’ve now witnessed two in just the last 20 years. Are we in the early stages of a political arms race? Recent comments from Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst seem to suggest so.

“I think this door of impeachable whatever has been opened,” Ernst told Bloomberg News on Sunday. “Joe Biden should be very careful what he’s asking for because, you know, we can have a situation where if it should ever be President Biden, that immediately, people, right the day after he would be elected would be saying, ‘Well, we’re going to impeach him.’”

Impeach him for what? “For being assigned to take on Ukrainian corruption yet turning a blind eye to Burisma because his son was on the board making over a million dollars a year,” Ernst said, referencing the case we fact-checked over the weekend.

Ernst walked back her comments in an interview with The Hill yesterday, saying “The point is that the Democrats have lowered the bar so far that ... regardless of who it is, if you have a different party in the House than that of an elected president, you can have just random comments thrown out there with folks saying we’re going to impeach.”

But her initial impulse—to predict impeachment of the next Democratic president—may prove prescient, provided Republicans take back the House. Many in the GOP have—justifiably or not—felt railroaded by the Democratic-led impeachment process these past several months, and would presumably jump at the opportunity to exact political revenge if presented with one. 

The actual removal of a president will remain elusive given the steep two-thirds threshold required. But a world in which House-led impeachments become a glorified censure could be here earlier than you think.

Invincibility: Axios’ Jonathan Swan reported over the weekend that Trump’s survival of the impeachment process is the latest in a series of fortuitous events that have broken in the president’s favor and bestowed upon him a sense of “invincibility.”

“Everything we've heard from Trump's aides over the last month suggests he will give less and less credence to voices urging caution. Per a senior White House official, Trump feels every major gamble he’s taken has succeeded despite advisers who were Chicken Littles. The ‘Whoa, there’ types—including Mattis, Rex Tillerson, Dan Coats and Gary Cohn—are gone. And their replacements tend to trust Trump's gut.”

Trump may believe Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is “the most racist movie” he has ever seen, but we’re about to live through Trump Unchained—if we aren’t already.

Worth Your Time

  • What’s the point of being depressed about the Iowa disaster when you could look on the sunny side instead? One more day of not knowing how the caucuses shook out means one more day for full-throttle speculation about What’s To Come and What It All Means, which means one more day to appreciate this great Politico piece from John F. Harris. 

  • The latest impeachment editorial from National Review is well worth a read, digging into the argument Sen. Lamar Alexander made as he decided not to vote to call additional trial witnesses: That the facts of what Trump had done wrong with regard to Ukraine had already been amply proved, and that the barrier to his removal from office was not a lack of information about his conduct but a judgment that that conduct did not rise to the level of impeachment. Read the whole thing here.

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Toeing the Company Line

  • Steve joined Jonah on The Remnant this week to provide a “State of the Dispatch” update. The pair discuss Iowa and the final days of the impeachment trial before providing a glimpse behind the curtain of life at a media startup. Give it a listen here!

  • In this week’s episode of Advisory Opinions, Sarah and David talk Iowa, the 17th Amendment, and Apple TV’s The Morning Show. You can download, rate, and review here!

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Sarah Isgur (@whignewtons), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photograph of a Bernie Sanders supporter at a caucus in Carpenter, Iowa, by Steve Pope/Getty Images.