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For the week 1/18-1/22
[Posted 9:30 PM ET, Friday]
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This column is exceedingly long due to the historic nature of the week and my wanting to get down for the archives as much thought from others for future historians to dig into when they examine this era we’re living in. I’m hoping next week we get back to some semblance of normalcy, i.e., pre-Trump, which was the first 17 years of this column.
We learned late today that while the House is sending over the single article of impeachment to the Senate on Monday, the impeachment trial won’t begin until Feb. 8, allowing the Biden administration to work on getting some form of its Covid relief package through Congress, while the Senate also works on clearing some of the president’s top cabinet nominations.
We should also get an idea next week on just what the power-sharing arrangement between Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer will be and if the Democrats will agree as part of it not to gut the filibuster for at least the next two years. Democrats say such a demand doesn’t belong in an organizing deal. But you need a deal to not only set the guidelines in a 50-50 Senate, but also come up with committee assignments.
For now, Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States amid huge security, due to threats of violence from Trump supporters, as exhibited at the Capitol on Jan. 6; the minimal crowd socially distanced due to the still raging pandemic.
“Through a crucible for the ages, America has been tested anew, and America has risen to the challenge,” Biden said as he began his inaugural address. “Today we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate but of a cause: the cause of democracy.”
“We’ve learned again that democracy is precious. And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”
“We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this – if we open our souls instead of hardening our heats.”
“Here we stand, just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work of our democracy, to drive us from this sacred ground. It did not happen. It will never happen, not today, not tomorrow, not ever. Not ever.”
“We will press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and significant possibilities. Much to repair. Much to restore. Much to heal. Much to build. And much to gain. Few people in our nation’s history have been more challenged or found a time more challenging or difficult than the time we’re in now.”
Commentary on Biden’s speech follows below. But one of the most talked-about moments of the inauguration was National Youth Poet Laureate, 22-year-old Amanda Gorman, who summoned images dire and triumphant as she called out to the world… “even as we grieved, we grew.”
With urgency and assertion, Gorman began by asking “Where can we find light / In this never-ending shade?” and used her own poetry and life story as an answer.
“We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
Of such a terrifying hour.
But within it we’ve found the power
To author a new chapter,
To offer hope and laughter to ourselves.”
Gorman had begun writing her poem to America when Jan. 6 hit. She originally planned to combine a message of hope for President Biden’s inaugural without ignoring “the evidence of discord and division.”
But with the siege of the Capitol on Jan. 6, “That day gave me a second wave of energy to finish the poem,” Gorman told the AP. She didn’t mention the day specifically, but her reference was unmistakable:
“We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it,
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
It can never be permanently defeated.”
Gorman in recent years had made clear her desire to appear at an inaugural, an ambition she stated firmly in her poem.
“We, the successors of a country and a time,
Where a skinny black girl,
Descended from slaves and raised by a single mother,
Can dream of becoming president,
Only to find herself reciting for one.”
In his first executive orders, Wednesday, Biden showed his commitments to an ambitious strategy to combat climate change and the promise to redraw the nation’s immigration system, including a path to citizenship for those here without documentation. And understanding who helped get him elected, and the swearing-in of Kamala Harris as the first female, Black and South Asian vice president, Biden noted that cries of racial justice “400 years in the making…will be deferred no more.”
Biden’s task is a difficult one. According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 73 percent of voters say the country is on the wrong track, compared with 21 percent who say it’s headed in the right direction.
The wrong track number is up by 13 percentage points from where it was right before the election, and it’s the highest percentage for this question since July 2016.
An equal 73 percent believe the nation will remain divided over the next four years, compared to 24 percent who think it will be able to unite.
In the early days of his presidency, when he’d hold a rally (“There’s nothing better than a Trump rally!”), Donald Trump used to say: “I can be more presidential than even Abraham Lincoln…Honest Abe…a lot of people don’t know he was a Republican…”
Oh brother, I’d muse. [This became a running joke at Dr. Bortrum’s house. “Ah yes, Honest Abe…” “Did you know he was a Republican?”]
But this was tame. Donald Trump used repetition to spread his lies and from the day he rode down the escalator at Trump Tower, he sowed hate and division. As General Jim Mattis said, he never met a leader who never once attempted to unite the people.
Trump’s false claims about election fraud started with his first campaign in 2016 and he never let up, sowing doubt in our democracy, and so many of us ate it up.
When Covid hit, he lied about that, too…he told Bob Woodward he was lying to the people about the seriousness of the virus because he didn’t want people to panic. He then never brought the people together to mourn, there was no empathy, which had he shown it would have been a reminder to everyone to wear a mask, to support one another. But as Sanjay Gupta of CNN said this week, there was never a “center of grief.” So many family members and friends dying alone.
And never once did Donald Trump take responsibility for anything…anything!
But his final move, The Big Lie, was designed to overthrow a free and fair election and had we not had some courageous state officials, and a vice president who finally realized what his true duty was, to uphold the constitution on his end, Donald Trump may have succeeded.
He deserves to be convicted at his impeachment trial.
Now, though, as Jeffrey Goldberg, Editor in Chief of The Atlantic put it: “A catastrophic presidency is over.
“It will take us a while to understand the long-term consequences of this calamity. We know where we are today, however.”
George Packer / The Atlantic, from an op-ed last month:
“America under Trump became less free, less equal, more divided, more alone, deeper in debt, swampier, dirtier, meaner, sicker, and deader. It also became more delusional. No number from Trump’s years in power will be more lastingly destructive than his 25,000 false or misleading statements. Super-spread by social media and cable news, they contaminated the minds of tens of millions of people. Trump’s lies will linger for years, poisoning the atmosphere like radioactive dust.
“Presidents lie routinely, about everything from war to sex to their health. When the lies are consequential enough, they have a corrosive effect on democracy. Lyndon B. Johnson deceived Americans about the Gulf of Tonkin incident and everything else concerning the Vietnam War. Richard Nixon’s lifelong habit of prevaricating gave him the nickname ‘tricky Dick.’ After Vietnam and Watergate, Americans never fully recovered their trust in government. But these cases of presidential lying came from a time when the purpose was limited and rational: to cover up a scandal, make a disaster disappear, mislead the public in service of a particular goal. In a sense, Americans expected a degree of fabrication from their leaders. After Jimmy Carter, in his 1976 campaign, promised, ‘I’ll never lie to you,’ and then pretty much kept his word, voters sent him back to Georgia. Ronald Reagan’s gauzy fictions were far more popular.
“Trump’s lies were different. They belonged to the postmodern era. They were assaults against not this or that fact, but reality itself. They spread beyond public policy to invade private life, clouding the mental faculties of everyone who had to breathe his air, dissolving the very distinction between truth and falsehood. Their purpose was never the conventional desire to conceal something shameful from the public. He was stunningly forthright about things that other presidents would have gone to great lengths to keep secret: his true feelings about Senator John McCain and other war heroes; his eagerness to get rid of disloyal underlings; his desire for law enforcement to protect his friends and hurt his enemies; his effort to extort a foreign leader for dirt on a political adversary; his affection for Kim Jong Un and admiration for Vladimir Putin; his positive view of white nationalists; his hostility toward racial and religious minorities; and his contempt for women….
“To his supporters, his shamelessness became a badge of honesty and strength. They grasped the message that they, too, could say whatever they wanted without apology. To his opponents, fighting by the rules – even in as small a way as calling him ‘President Trump’ – seemed like a sucker’s game. So the level of American political language was everywhere dragged down, leaving a gaping shame deficit.
“Trump’s barrage of falsehoods – as many as 50 daily in the last fevered months of the 2020 campaign – complemented his unconcealed brutality. Lying was another variety of shamelessness. Just as he said aloud what he was supposed to keep to himself, he lied again and again about matters of settled fact – the more brazen and frequent the lie, the better. Two days after the polls closed, with the returns showing him almost certain to lose, Trump stood at the White House podium and declared himself the winner of an election that his opponent was trying to steal.
“This crowning conspiracy theory of Trump’s presidency activated his entitled children, compliant staff, and sycophants in Congress and the media to issue dozens of statement declaring that the election was fraudulent. Following the mechanism of every big lie of the Trump years, the Republican Party establishment fell in line. Within a week of Election Day, false claims of voter fraud in swing states had received almost 5 million mentions in the press and on social media. In one poll, 70 percent of Republican voters concluded that the election hadn’t been free or fair.
“So a stab-in-the-back narrative was buried in the minds of millions of Americans, where it burns away, as imperishable as a carbon isotope, consuming whatever is left of their trust in democratic institutions and values. This narrative will widen the gap between Trump believers and their compatriots who might live in the same town, but a different universe. And that was Trump’s purpose – to keep us locked in a mental prison where reality was unknowable so that he could go on wielding power, whether in or out of office, including the power to destroy.
“For his opponents, the lies were intended to be profoundly demoralizing. Neither counting them nor checking facts nor debunking conspiracies made any difference. Trump demonstrated again and again that the truth doesn’t matter. In rational people this provoked incredulity, outrage, exhaustion, and finally an impulse to crawl away and abandon the field of politics to the fantasists.
“For believers, the consequences were worse. They surrendered the ability to make basic judgments about facts, exiling themselves from the common framework of self-government. They became litter swirling in the wind of any preposterous claim that blew from @realDonaldTrump. Truth was whatever made the world whole again by hurting their enemies – the more far-fetched, the more potent and thrilling….
“How did half the country – practical, hands-on, self-reliant Americans, still balancing family budgets and following complex repair manuals – slip into such cognitive decline when it came to politics? Blaming ignorance or stupidity would be a mistake. [Ed. I make zero apologies for doing same.] You have to summon an act of will, a certain energy and imagination, to replace truth with the authority of a con man like Trump. Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, describes the susceptibility to propaganda of the atomized modern masses, ‘obsessed by a desire to escape from reality because in their essential homelessness they can no longer bear its accidental, incomprehensible aspects.’ They seek refuge in ‘a man-made pattern of relative consistency’ that bears little relation to reality. Though the U.S. is still a democratic republic, not a totalitarian regime, and Trump was an all-American demagogue, not a fascist dictator, his followers abandoned common sense and found their guide to the world in him. Defeat won’t change that….
“(But) two events in Trump’s last year in office broke the spell of his sinister perversion of the truth. The first was the coronavirus. The beginning of the end of Trump’s presidency arrived on March 11, 2020, when he addressed the nation for the first time on the subject of the pandemic and showed himself to be completely out of his depth. The virus was a fact that Trump couldn’t lie into oblivion or forge into a political weapon. …As hundreds of thousands of Americans died, many of them needlessly, a crucial number of Americans realized that Trump’s lies could get someone they love killed.
“The second event came on November 3. For months Trump had tried frantically to destroy Americans’ trust in the election – the essence of the democratic system, the one lever of power that belongs undeniably to the people. His effort consisted of nonstop lies about the fraudulence of mail-in ballots. But the ballots flooded into election offices, and people lined up before dawn on the first day of early voting, and some of them waited 10 hours to vote, and by the end of Election Day, despite the soaring threat of the virus, more than 150 million Americans had cast ballots – the highest turnout rate since at least 1900. The defeated president tried again to soil our faith, by taking away our votes. The election didn’t end his lies – nothing will – or the deeper conflicts that the lies revealed. But we learned that we still want democracy. This, too, is the legacy of Donald Trump.”
Thomas L. Friedman / New York Times
“Folks, we just survived something really crazy awful: four years of a president without shame, backed by a party without spine, amplified by a network without integrity, each pumping out conspiracy theories without truth, brought directly to our brains by social networks without ethics – all heated up by a pandemic without mercy.
“It’s amazing that our whole system didn’t blow, because the country really had become like a giant overheated steam engine. What we saw in the Capitol last week were the bolts and hinges starting to come loose. The departure of Donald J. Trump from the White House and the depletion of his enablers’ power in the Senate aren’t happening a second too soon.
“Nor is Joe Biden’s inauguration, but he has his work cut out for him. Because we haven’t even begun to fully comprehend how much damage Trump, armed with Twitter and Facebook and leveraging the bully pulpit of the presidency and the cowardice of so many who knew better, has done to our nation’s public life, institutions and cognitive immunity.
“This was a terrible, terrible experiment.
“It’s not that Trump never did anything good. It’s that it was nowhere near worth the price of leaving our nation more divided, more sick – and with more people marinated in conspiracy theories – than at any time in modern history. We need to be simultaneously reunited, deprogrammed, refocused and reassured. The whole country needs to go on a weekend retreat to rediscover who we are and the bonds that unite us – or at least once did….
“To me, the most striking feature of Trump’s presidency was that year after year he kept surprising us on the downside. Year after year he plumbed new depths of norm-busting, lying and soiling the reputations of everyone who entered his orbit. But he never once – not once – surprised us on the upside with an act of kindness, self-criticism or reaching out to opponents.”
Gerard Baker / Wall Street Journal
“President Trump’s greatest achievement will have been the elevation of the legitimate concerns of perhaps half the U.S. population, an improbable, physics-defying reversal of the political tides that had eroded much American self-confidence in the preceding generation.
“But leadership involves more than simply articulating the fears and aspirations of those who need leading. People follow leaders, heed their words, absorb their example. Leaders not only reflect the ideals of the led; they reflect back to them the values by which the country should be governed. By this leadership standard Mr. Trump must be judged too.
“The damage his unpardonable behavior – throughout his presidency, but especially since the election – has done to the bonds that hold a fragile nation together is incalculable. His refusal to accept defeat, and the steadily escalating insistence to his followers that they should never accept it, is for many a defining conclusion that bears testimony to his unfit character and invalidates whatever other argument can be made for his presidency.
“There is much to this. The loss of civic trust from his promotion of ever-larger falsehoods has widened, rather than helped close, the divide, risking further alienation from constitutional politics of those who voted for him and – not incidentally – paving the way for a potential undoing of much of what he did achieve.
“Perhaps Joe Biden will prove a judicious leader. We can hope. Perhaps he will remember to heed the voices of those who voted for Mr. Trump and not dismiss them as domestic enemies, as many of his now ascendant allies are doing. Perhaps he will resist the powerful voices around him who want the last four years to be written off as an aberrant sideways pause in the march of progress.
“That would be unwise. Learning from Mr. Trump’s success is as essential as disavowing his misdeeds.”
The Inauguration…and reaction…
John Podhoretz / New York Post
“No politician in U.S. history has shown the consistency and discipline displayed over the past 22 months by the once profoundly undisciplined Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. His inaugural address was a reiteration of the very same themes with which he began his run for the presidency in April 2019.
“We were, he said then, ‘in a fight for the soul of America,’ and he urged the country to choose ‘hope over fear, unity over division and, most importantly, truth over lies.’ He repeated words like these throughout his quest for the Democratic nomination and then through the election season.
“And then, in his first speech as president, here was Biden: ‘My whole soul is in this, bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause….Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war. And we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.’
“You are free to consider this mere blather, meaningless drivel, sadly naïve. You can also consider it unexpectedly inspiring, surprisingly beautiful, ineffably wise.
“Biden….won the presidency in 2020 because he found and dug in on a subject more serious than his resume: a mission larger than his wants.
“It wasn’t just that he wasn’t Donald Trump, though not being the incumbent is always the key to the success of a candidate who ousts a one-term president. And it wasn’t just that he pointedly separated himself from his woke Democratic rivals, whose urge to be lefter-than-thou made them seem fiscally deranged and culturally bonkers.
“Biden looked for a sweet spot, and he found it. The sweet spot was ‘America is better than this.’
“His argument was that Trump had become the voice of an attitude toward the United States that, for the first time in our history, didn’t seek to appeal to ‘the better angels of our nature’ (Abraham Lincoln’s phrase).
“In Biden’s view, Trump didn’t just accept that America was divided. His foe encouraged the division and sought to deepen it for his own naked political advantage.
“Biden’s view resonated exactly where he needed it to resonate – among suburban swing voters whose very late break to Trump in 2016 in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin changed those states from blue to red and handed Trump the presidency.
“Then those voters turned on the GOP in 2018 in sufficient numbers to flip 40 seats in the House to the Democrats in the largest midterm vote tally America had ever seen.
“Trump had created a countermovement of force and power from the moment of his election that generated money and determined negative enthusiasm on an unprecedented scale. But they weren’t the telling factors in 2018 – or 2020, for that matter.
“What Biden understood in a way no other Democrat really did was that while the voters who loved Trump’s divisiveness continued to love it, there was buyer’s remorse among those who had voted for him in spite of it.
“He not only promised to be different in word, he was different in deed. A man legendary for not being able to shut up. He spoke only when necessary. He took advantage of the isolation required by the pandemic to keep himself contained and to allow the political conversation in the country to revolve almost entirely around Trump.
“And when he did speak, he spoke quietly, a little haltingly and with a gentleness that was almost entirely new to him. The gentleness was, I’m pretty sure, an act. But what an act.
“Most impressive was just how determined he was to play the long game. At this point, one can look at it and say maybe it really isn’t a game. Maybe this message is really his message. Maybe he does think he can do something to bridge the national divisions, that he can quiet the political wars.
“It may seem like a sucker’s bet, but give our new president credit: He has played his hand brilliantly so far.”
Editorial / New York Times
“Joe Biden began his presidency on Wednesday with the same animating philosophy that guided his campaign: The center can hold.
“That’s a big wager. American society is more brittle now than it has been in years. It is unequal, unhealthy and politically radicalized. A pandemic is raging nearly unchecked. The economy is in tatters. The climate is in crisis. Residents of red and blue America can’t even agree on the reality before their eyes, let alone demarcate the common ground they share.
“Mr. Biden, now the 46th president, acknowledged all that in his Inaugural Address, calling for comity. ‘Let’s begin to listen to one another again, hear one another, see one another,’ he said. ‘Show respect to one another. Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war, and we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.’
“It was a sanguine message to deliver from the steps of the U.S. Capitol, two weeks to the day after the building was sacked by a mob trying to overturn the results of the election….
“Mr. Biden spoke to the bleak gravity of the moment, noting that democracy is as precious as it is fragile. ‘Without unity, there is no peace,’ Mr. Biden said, ‘only bitterness and fury, no progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos.’
“The past four years have been nothing if not exhausting and chaotic. Donald Trump began his term from the same rostrum in 2017, decrying the ‘American carnage’ caused by urban poverty, lost manufacturing jobs, drugs and crime. After four years of Mr. Trump waging ceaseless battle against his political opponents, the country is still shot through with all those maladies and is even more unmoored from the political traditions that once bound it together….
“Mr. Biden’s call for unity was not a demand that Americans agree, but rather that they live in mutual tolerance, recommitted to the democratic process and to peacefully adjudicating their differences until the next inauguration. All Americans should be able to agree on that.”
Editorial / Wall Street Journal
“Whatever their partisan affiliation, all Americans can take pride in Wednesday’s inaugural proceedings for President Joe Biden. The peaceful transfer of power from one party to another is a sign of underlying democratic strength no matter our current political distemper.
“The ceremony at the Capitol had an unabashed patriotic feel that is all too rare these days. Traditional anthems and prayerful invocations were the order of the hour. Former Presidents were on hand from both major parties as usual, even if Donald Trump wasn’t. No one took a knee when Lady Gaga sang the national anthem.
“And it was especially moving, at least to us, to see new Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband walk down the Capitol steps escorting Mike Pence and his wife to their waiting car. Mr. Pence in particular deserved this traditional show of respect after his role on Jan. 6 when he refused to reject the state electoral votes as President Trump demanded. He should be getting more praise than he is for that display of constitutional principle.
“These rituals send a message to a diverse country, and to the world, about America’s fundamental institutional strength despite a bitter election campaign and the turmoil of recent weeks. In China the transfers of power are from one Communist Party cadre to another, and public political rites are limited to unanimous acclamation. Enemies have often misjudged America’s raucous politics for national weakness – to their eventual regret.
“Mr. Biden struck many good notes in an Inaugural Address that will be remembered more for its moment following the Capitol riot than for its words. The speech had a personal flavor with touches of his Catholicism, such as quoting St. Augustine and praying for the dead. In this and in other personal manners, the new President is refreshingly unwoke.
“The overall theme was ‘unity,’ which he called ‘our path forward.’ His best note on that point was a call to ‘start afresh’ and listen to one another. ‘Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire,’ he said. ‘Disagreement should not lead to disunion.’
“Yet in this call to unify there was also too much of a suggestion that we are obliged to unite around one point of view. ‘I know that the forces that divide us are deep and they are real. But I also know they are not new,’ Mr. Biden said. ‘Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we all are created equal, and the harsh ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization have long torn us apart.’
“So our political differences are between those who believe in American ideals and those who are racists and nativists? This sounds too much like Barack Obama’s habit of casting differences of ideology or policy as divisions between enlightenment and bigotry. This is divisive in its cultural and moral condescension, as the Obama years proved in creating the political opening for Mr. Trump.
“Mr. Biden is right that there is a difference between ‘truth’ and ‘lies,’ and too much political discourse is strewn with falsehoods. But that fault rests with partisans on all sides. Most political differences aren’t between truth and lies. They are debates about the tradeoffs between core principles like freedom and equality, or over the best means to achieve good ends.
“On that point we heard too little in Mr. Biden’s speech to reassure conservatives now being purged and ostracized that he will call off the emboldened progressive censors. If his pursuit of social justice becomes a drive to blame every inequity in American life on racism, he will divide more than unite. If he insists that those who disagree on climate change are ‘deniers’ who care nothing for the planet, he will alienate millions.
“The test of Mr. Biden’s unity pledge will be in how he governs. We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, which is what every new American President deserves.”
Fox News’ Chris Wallace had effusive praise for Biden’s inaugural address. He invoked Biden’s memorable “we must end this uncivil war” line and said, “I thought it was a great speech. I’ve been listening to these inaugural addresses since 1961. John F. Kennedy, ‘ask not.’ I thought this was the best inaugural address I have ever heard.”
Wallace referred to it as “part-sermon, part-pep talk” and even picked up on what the president said about truth to make this point;
“There’s one other thing he said that I think especially us in the media must note. He said that there is truth and there are lies, lies that are told for power and lies that are told for profit. I think it was a call to all of us, whether it’s us on the air, on cable or broadcast, whether it’s us on social media, on our Twitter accounts, understanding that we have to deal from facts, from the truth, to hear each other out, as he said, a right to disagree, but not a right to violence.”
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga: “Congratulations to President @JoeBiden and Vice President @KamalaHarris on your inauguration. Japan and the United States are allies tied firmly by bonds and shared universal values. I look forward to working with you and your team to reinforce our alliance and to realize a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen: “The United States is back. And Europe stands ready. To reconnect with an old and trusted partner, to breathe new life into our cherished alliance. I look forward to working together with @JoeBiden.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, speaking to parliament: “I look forward to working with him (Biden), and with his new administration, strengthening the partnership between our countries and working on our shared priorities: from tackling climate change, building back better from the pandemic and strengthening our transatlantic security.”
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in a video statement: “Today is a good day for democracy. In the United States of America, it has faced tremendous challenges and endured. Despite the attempts to tear at America’s institutional fabric, election workers and governors, the judiciary and Congress, have proven strong. I am greatly relieved that, today, Joe Biden is being sworn in as president and will be moving into the White House. I know many people in Germany share this feeling.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, in a tweet: “Best wishes on this most significant day for the American people! We are together. We will be stronger to face the challenges of our time. Stronger to build our future. Stronger to protect our planet. Welcome back to the Paris Agreement!”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a statement; “Congratulations President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on your historic inauguration. President Biden, you and I have had a warm personal friendship going back many decades. I look forward to working with you to further strengthen the U.S.-Israel alliance, to continue expanding peace between Israel and the Arab world, and to confront common challenges, chief among them the threat posed by Iran.”
The Biden Presidency’s First Days
--Joe Biden was the first president in modern times not to have a single cabinet nominee approved when he took office and that isn’t good, but then Wednesday afternoon the Senate voted 84-10 to confirm Avril Haines as the new director of national intelligence, while Lloyd Austin was approved 93-2 today to become the first Black secretary of defense.
This afternoon, after Biden had said in his inaugural address: “America has been tested, and we’ve come out stronger for it,” promising to “repair our alliances and engage with the world once again,” Lloyd Austin’s first phone call was to NATO Sec. Gen. Jens Stoltenberg to assure him all was good in the relationship and that it was time to work together as true partners again.
Despite a stumble or two, by week’s end, confirmation hearings on other key positions, such as treasury and secretary of state, were proceeding nicely.
--Biden on his first day unveiled an ambitious immigration plan on his first day in office, pledging to present a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants living in the country.
The U.S. Citizenship Act 2021 considers an eight-year path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented people living here.
Biden also revoked his predecessor’s 2017 ban on immigrants from certain Muslim-majority nations.
And the new president committed to rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate change and the World Health Organization.
But the biggest executive order from Wednesday, at least in the short term and politics was the suspension of licenses for the Keystone oil pipeline, a project that is opposed by environmental campaigners, that runs from Canada through the U.S. Joe Biden’s first call with a foreign leader was Friday to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. I have yet to see a readout from it as I go to post (the call was taking place this evening) and I don’t want to say too much until I see what Trudeau is saying after.
I supported this project, not just from an energy security standpoint, but just being a good neighbor with Canada. The 1,700-mile pipeline would carry roughly 800,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast, passing through Montana, western South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma.
The project is meant to expand critical oil exports for Canada, which has the third-largest oil reserves in the world.
It’s complex. I understand the environmental issues, but, again, this was a time to cooperate with our good neighbor to the north. [I’ve also traveled extensively through the area where the pipeline crosses and I ‘get it’…from both sides.]
***Literally I just saw a brief readout as I was about to post. For now, Biden, as partial compensation for Keystone, should immediately remove duties on Canadian lumber. More next time. The two leaders are getting together next month. That’s good.
--On the coronavirus front, Biden quickly extended travel restrictions barring travel by most people who have recently been in much of Europe and Brazil after President Trump lifted those requirements effective Jan. 26, in a totally nonsensical late move. Other international travel measures were being instituted to further mitigate the spread.
President Biden issued a slew of Covid-related executive orders designed to ameliorate the spread and get vaccines into arms, invoking the Defense Production Act for much of the latter (including the production of protective gear), while imposing a mask mandate on federal property, a break in approach from Trump, who repeatedly downplayed the coronavirus.
On his first full day in office on Thursday, Biden reinforced he sought a coordinated federal response, focused on boosting vaccines, increasing testing, reopening schools and addressing inequalities thrown up by the disease.
President Trump had left much of the pandemic planning to individual states, which has resulted in a patchwork of policies across the country.
Among Biden’s executive orders was a move to rejoin the WHO, which Dr. Fauci said was a critical step in helping to fight the outbreak. “When you’re dealing with a global pandemic you have to have an international connectivity,” he said.
But today two things became clear. The UK variant, which is gradually spreading all over, including the United States, and which some health experts here say could become the dominant strain, has Britain extremely worried tonight, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying that they are seeing signs the variant is potentially more deadly, when we already know it is more transmissible.
We’re also learning that the likes of Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca are falling far short of their production promises to the world, specifically Europe and the United States, which scarfed up a lion’s share of the initial contracts. AstraZeneca informed the European Union today it would cut deliveries of its vaccine to the bloc by 60% in the first quarter of the year due to production problems. Pfizer and Moderna are having the same issues. Part of the problem is they can’t find qualified workers to handle the needed expansion in capacity.
Covid-19 death tolls, as of tonight….
U.S. daily death tolls…Sun. 1,846; Mon. 1,422; Tues. 2,768; Wed. 4,374; Thurs. 4,363; Fri. 3,886.
The U.S. is now well past the 405,000 U.S. fatalities from World War II. Only the 1918 flu pandemic – which killed about 675,000 in this country, and the Civil War, which killed an estimated 618,000-750,000, were deadlier events in U.S. history.
“What’s so troubling about this loss of life is it was preventable,” Dr. Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University, told USA TODAY. “This is an infectious disease we knew how to prevent, and as difficult as it is, far easier to solve than defeating Nazi Germany. And yet, we did not mount a response to wage war against this virus as we have in these other situations.”
Thomas Whalen, an associate professor at Boston University and an expert on the American presidency, is even harsher in his assessment. Whalen cited reporting by journalist Bob Woodward, who taped Trump on Feb. 7 acknowledging how dangerous the virus was even though he repeatedly downplayed its severity publicly.
“He has, you could say, blood on his hands,” Whalen said of Trump. “He knew this was a threat and really did not do what was necessary to respond to it in a thoughtful and resourceful way.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, in an interview this morning, admitted as much as well.
--Mexico had its deadliest week, and Portugal’s cases, and deaths, are skyrocketing. What’s so tragic, but incredible, is how so many nations thought they had beaten it down, yet they let down their guard, and, bam! They get hit….and that’s Portugal.
--Johnson & Johnson has sufficient data from its late-stage Covid-19 vaccine trial to begin analysis soon. The J&J vaccine is critical, as it’s one shot and doesn’t have special storage demands.
--The CDC says it has distributed 39.9 million doses of vaccine (as of Jan. 20), with 19.1 million administered (16.2 million of which have received one or more doses).
--Related to Japan’s attempt to stage the Tokyo Olympics (more below), Japan’s vaccine program chief walked back on a goal to secure enough targeted supplies of Covid-19 vaccines by June, one month before the planned start of the Games. Taro Kono, the newly installed head of Japan’s innoculation push, said, “At the moment, we are making preparations to start vaccination in late February. We would like to provide information on what will come after that as things firm up.”
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has pledged to have enough shots for the Japanese populace by the middle of 2021.
--The European Union is heading towards tougher restrictions on travel both from outside and within the bloc amid rising concerns that new variants of Covid-19 could scupper hopes of reining in the pandemic through vaccination campaigns.
“There’s a lot of concern about the variants across the member states, people are really worried about it,” Taoiseach Micheal (sic) Martin told the Irish Times.
The issue is it’s tough to come up with restrictions that all 27 EU states can agree to, so some may press ahead with their own measures at their borders, though the idea of border checks has met resistance from member states that are dependent on tourism or have a high number of cross-border commuters.
--British Prime Minister Boris Johnson dismissed calls for an inquiry into his government’s handling of the pandemic as the UK’s death toll neared 100,000 (with record daily death tolls this week) and his chief scientist said hospitals were looking like war zones. Johnson has been accused of reacting too slowly to the crisis, failing to supply sufficient protective equipment and for bungling the testing system, although the UK has been swift to roll out a vaccine.
Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, said there was enormous pressure on the National Health Service with doctors and nurses battling to give people sufficient care. ‘It may not look like it when you go for a walk in the park, but when you go into a hospital, this is very, very bad at the moment with enormous pressure and in some cases it looks like a war zone in terms of the things that people are having to deal with,” Vallance told Sky News.
Wall Street and the Economy
Treasury Secretary nominee Janet Yellen, in her confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday, made the case for another sweeping economic aid package, saying the priority is to relieve suffering caused by the pandemic, including aid for families, businesses and communities hardest hit by the downturn as well as spending to bring the virus under control.
“We need to make sure that people aren’t going hungry in America, that they can put food on the table, that they’re not losing their homes and ending up out on the street because of evictions,” Ms. Yellen said. “We really need to address those forms of suffering, and I think we shouldn’t compromise on it.”
Yellen, who later cleared the Finance Committee by a 26-0 vote, will become the administration’s top economic-policy spokesperson responsible for selling Biden’s $1.9 trillion proposal, which includes another round of stimulus payments, extended jobless benefits, grants for small businesses and a nationwide vaccination program. After that, Yellen said, long-term investments will be needed in areas such as infrastructure and workforce training to help make the U.S. economy more competitive and productive.
Delayed or inadequate support, she warned, could lead to a more-protracted economic recovery and cause long-term economic damage in the form of permanent job losses and business closures that could weigh on growth for years to come.
While she sailed through in committee, nonetheless some Republicans balked at Yellen’s call for further spending on top of the trillions of dollars Congress authorized last year, including a $908 billion package enacted in December. And they questioned her about the limits and risks of additional government borrowing and the wisdom of tax increases while the economy remains weak.
“The only organizing principle that I can discern is it seems to spend as much money as possible, seemingly for the sake of spending it,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) of the latest plan.
Yellen acknowledged the government’s mounting debt load, which stands at $21.6 trillion – or roughly 100% of a year’s economic output. But she urged lawmakers to put those concerns aside for now. Interest rates are at historic lows and expected to remain there for some time, making borrowing more affordable, she said.
“To avoid doing what we need to do now to address the pandemic and the economic damage that it’s causing would likely leave us in a worse place fiscally,” she said, “than taking the steps that are necessary and doing that through deficit finance.”
Yellen assured senators that the Biden team doesn’t immediately plan to pursue tax increases but would consider them as part of a later package that focuses on long-term investments.
One thing that Yellen will focus on that her predecessor, former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin didn’t, is her approach to financial regulation and protecting the economy against systemic risks.
Michael Boskin, a Stanford University economist who served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s, the last time a Republican administration cut deficits, said, “At some point we’ll start paying a price for this,” which I’ve been crying wolf on for years and years. But it’s true.
Ruchir Sharma, Morgan Stanley Investment Management’s chief global strategist / Financial Times
“New U.S. president Joe Biden arrives at the White House on Wednesday with splashy plans for $1.9tn in new stimulus, buoyed by a solidifying consensus in the American elite that deficits don’t matter.
“Warnings that rising deficits will reignite inflation and undermine the dollar have proved wrong for decades, so deficit hawks are increasingly easy to mock as crotchety old scolds. The new view, expressed by leading figures from the IMF, academia and media, is that with inflation long dead and interest rates at record lows, it would be unwise, even irresponsible, not to borrow to boost the economy. The amounts – billions, trillions – hardly matter, especially not for the U.S., which still has the world’s most coveted currency.
“Mr. Biden captured this elite view perfectly when he said, in announcing his spending plan: ‘With interest rates at historic lows, we cannot afford inaction.’
“This view overlooks the corrosive effects that ever higher deficits and debt have already had on the global economy. These effects, unlike roaring inflation or the dollar’s demise, are not speculative warnings of a future crisis. There is increasing evidence, from the Bank for International Settlements, the OECD and Wall Street that four straight decades of growing government intervention in the economy have led to slowing productive growth – shrinking the overall pie – and rising wealth inequality….
“We calculate that last year the U.S. and other developed nations committed a median sum equal to 33 percent of their gross domestic product to stimulus, shattering the mark of 10 percent set back in 2008. Those figures do not include the Biden plan, which will bring total U.S. fiscal stimulus to fight the pandemic to more than $5tn, more than the GDP of Germany or Japan. That’s a lot for an economy to absorb in less than a year, and Mr. Biden plans a second, more ambitious spending proposal next month.
“The incoming administration argues that low rates liberate governments to borrow and spend in unlimited amounts for the foreseeable future. But this claim gets the story backward. Instead of a path to freedom, low rates are a trap. They encourage more borrowing and rising debt, which drags productivity lower and slows growth. That makes the economy financially fragile, forcing central banks to keep rates low. Given today’s very high levels of debt, only a small increase in interest rates would make the debt burden unsustainable….
“As the era of constant stimulus gained momentum, average wealth in the past three decades has risen about 300 percent for U.S. families in the top 1 percent, 200 percent for the next 9 percent, 100 percent for the next 40 percent, and zero percent for the bottom 50 percent. One out of 10 families in the bottom 50 percent have negative wealth (they owe more than they own)….
“(Recent) studies show that easy government money has ended up supporting the least productive companies, including heavily indebted ‘zombies’ that would otherwise fail. The support also favors monopolies that have expanded not because of their innovation but by lobbying governments for favors and sidelining smaller rivals. The OECD warned, in a 2017 study linking falling productivity to easy money, that these trends will make it harder for societies to deliver ‘on their promises to current and future generations.’
“BCA Research recently demonstrated that nations with big spending governments tend to suffer slower per capita GDP growth. Similarly, Ned Davis Research found that, since 1947, U.S. government spending above 22 percent of GDP is correlated with periods of slower economic growth. It warned that this share has risen above 34 percent during the pandemic….
“Even those arguing for unlimited new borrowing agree the money would be best invested in roads, green energy and other projects that would boost productivity and future growth. Nonetheless, comforted by the faith that deficits don’t matter, Biden-backers are supporting a plan stuffed with cash transfers, including a $1,400 check for most Americans.
“Like many in the no-worries camp, Mr. Biden says more stimulus is urgently needed to limit the damage from job losses and bankruptcies. There was a case for that while the economy was in decline. But as vaccines roll out and normalcy returns, injecting more stimulus into a recovering patient is no free lunch. The path to prosperity cannot be so easy as to just print and spend. If he relies on low rates to fund further massive government spending increases, Mr. Biden will double down on policies that have magnified the problems he aims to fix: weak growth, financial instability and rising inequality. Decades of constant stimulus have left capitalism weaker, less dynamic and less fair, fueling angry populism. Deficits matter for the damage they are already inflicting.”
On the economic front, this week we had more strong data on housing, with December housing starts up 5.8% to 1.669 million, well above expectations. Today we had a release on existing home sales for December, courtesy of the National Association of Realtors, and they too were up, 0.7% for the month, but up 22.2% on the year. The median sales price was $309,800, up a strong 12.9% year-on-year. Sales of 6.76 million represent the highest level since 2006, which happened to be the peak of the housing bubble. The momentum is expected to carry into this year, with more buyers entering the market, especially as mortgage rates, while ticking up, continue to hover near record lows.
December’s national price increase marks 106 straight months of year-over-year gains.
Inventory, though, is a big issue, down 23% in December from a year ago, with unsold inventory sitting at an all-time low 1.9-month supply at the current sales pace. Which means more new home construction in 2021 and 2022, good for the economy, albeit affordability is a separate issue.
I missed last Friday that the National Retail Federation had released its final reading on holiday sales, up a massive 8.3%, after the NRF had forecast a broad range of 3.6% to 5.2%.
The gains show how the pandemic has caused a major shift in spending away from restaurants and travel and more toward buying goods that focus on activities around the home like furnishings, food and activewear. That trend has benefited retailers. The retail sales figures exclude sales from autos, restaurants and gas.
But with all the good news, the weekly initial jobless claims was at a still distressing 900,000, down only slightly from a revised prior week figure of 926,000.
The Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow for the fourth quarter is at 7.5%, with one more report next week prior to our first official look at GDP, as released by the government.
Europe and Asia
We had our preliminary/flash PMI data on economic activity in the eurozone for January.
The flash Eurozone composite reading for January was 47.5 (50 the dividing line between growth and contraction), a 2-month low, with manufacturing at 54.7, services at 45.0, both of these also 2-month lows.
Germany had a flash manufacturing number of 57.0 vs. 58.3 in Dec., while services came in at 46.8, a tick down from last month’s 47.0.
France recorded a flash manufacturing reading of 51.5, a 6-month high, with the service sector at just 46.5.
In the UK, the flash readings for Jan. yielded a 40.6 composite, vs. December’s final 50.4. Manufacturing was at 52.9, compared to December’s 55.9, services at 38.8 vs. 49.4, as the coronavirus restrictions hit hard, ditto restrictions on trade brought on by Brexit.
[All the above courtesy of IHS Markit]
Chris Williamson / IHS Markit
“A double-dip recession for the eurozone economy is looking increasingly inevitable as tighter Covid-19 restrictions took a further toll on businesses in January. Output fell at an increased rate, led by worsening conditions in the service sector and a weakening of manufacturing growth to the lowest seen so far in the sector’s seven-month recovery.
“Some encouragement comes from the downturn being less severe than in the spring of last year, reflecting the ongoing relative resilience of manufacturing, rising demand for exported goods and the lockdown measures having been less stringent on average than last year. There are also some signs that companies and households are finding ways to adapt behavior to the pandemic and its associated restrictions. The roll out of vaccines has meanwhile helped sustain a strong degree of confidence about prospects for the year ahead, though the recent rise in virus case numbers has caused some pull-back in optimism.
“The survey data therefore add to the view that the eurozone will see a soft start to 2021, but that the economy should pick up momentum again as the vaccine roll out gathers pace.”
Separately, Eurostat released its December inflation data, -0.3% annualized for a fourth consecutive month in the eurozone, owing largely to lower energy prices. [The impact of last spring’s collapse in prices will eventually wear off in the coming months in terms of the Y/Y comparisons.]
Germany -0.7% (ann.), France 0.0%; Italy -0.3%; Spain -0.6%.
The German government expects Europe’s largest economy to grow 3% this year, according to a report, which is a downward revision from last autumn’s estimate of 4.4% due to the second shutdown to fight the spread of the pandemic. An official report from the government is being released next week.
Lastly, Eurostat released its survey of government debt for the third quarter of 2020 in the euro area and EU. For the eurozone, the percentage of debt to GDP rose to 97.3%, from 85.8% in the first quarter, before the impact of the spending programs related to the coronavirus and lockdowns first hit in earnest.
Germany 70.0%; France 116.5%; Italy 154.2%; Spain 114.1%; Netherlands 55.2%, Austria 79.1%; Greece 199.9%.
Brexit: The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, said this week that businesses, north and south, must deal with the consequences of Brexit and accept that it cannot be “business as usual” for trade with Britain; Barnier ruling out any relief or derogations from EU rules to ease border controls that are causing food and supply shortages and disruptions on trade to Ireland from Britain.
“Let me be frank and repeat what I said more or less every day during the last four-and-a-half years: Brexit means Brexit,” Barnier said.
Barnier said Brexit “cannot be business as usual” and the “challenges” from new rules on EU-UK trade were “linked mechanically, automatically to Brexit” and the UK’s exit from the EU customs union and single market has led to “many, many changes.”
He added that the EU would continue to maintain a “spirit of solidarity” with Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The “rules of origin” regulations have severely disrupted supply chains for goods flowing between Ireland and mainland Europe through Britain, but Barnier said the rules must be respected in order to protect consumers, businesses and jobs. “[They are] the rules and it is a consequence of Brexit,” he said.
Lorry drivers in Ireland have delivered letters to the European Commission addressing their complaints that Brexit border controls will bring trade to “a complete standstill” if not addressed.
The truckers say that State agencies were not prepared in terms of their operating systems, protocols and procedures that were not properly tested before implementation.
Northern Ireland’s trucking industry said the situation will get worse after its initial “grace period” on imports from Britain ends.
Italy: Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte won a confidence vote in the upper House Senate on Tuesday allowing him to remain in office after a junior partner quit his coalition last week in the midst of the raging Covid pandemic. Conte overcame a similar confidence motion in the lower house on Monday. Had he lost either vote he would have had to resign.
The Senate vote was 156-140, with 16 abstentions, falling short of the 161 votes he needed for an absolute majority, so while Conte’s 17-month-old administration can remain in power, it will struggle to implement any meaningful policy program in a deeply divided parliament, unless he can get more lawmakers to join his coalition.
Germany: Centrist Armin Laschet was elected chairman of Germany’s Christian Democrats (CDU) on Saturday, succeeding Angela Merkel and putting him on course to run as the conservative party’s candidate for chancellor in federal elections in September.
Laschet is the premier of the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia – Germany’s most populous – won a runoff vote against Friedrich Merz. Merkel had said she would not run for chancellor again, a position she has held since 2005.
Laschet is presenting himself as the Merkel continuity candidate.
Turning to Asia…China reported GDP rose a strong 6.5% in the fourth quarter, propelling growth to 2.3% for the full year, the National Bureau of Statistics revealed Monday, both figures slightly ahead of expectations. China’s economy had risen by 3.2% and 4.9% in the second and third quarters of the year, respectively, after suffering an historic 6.8% contraction in the first.
Economists are looking for 8% growth in China in 2021, continuing to outpace global peers even as they begin to recover due to a roll-out of vaccines.
Industrial production in December was up 7.3% year-on-year (2.8% for all of 2020), with retail sales increasing 4.6% Y/Y (down -3.9% in 2020). Fixed-asset investment (big ticket items) rose 2.9% for all of 2020. The December unemployment rate was 5.2%.
China’s coal output hit a record high in 2020 despite Beijing’s climate change pledge to reduce consumption of the dirty fossil fuel and months-long disruptions at major coal mining hubs, the NBS reported.
But, as usual, some experts question just how well China actually did. Michael Pettis, a finance professor at Peking University, said that in turning to its old playbook of growth, China had prioritized a “worsening of the healthy parts of its economy by unleashing enough of the unhealthy, non-productive growth it has long tried to constrain,” namely real estate and infrastructure.
“It performed badly, like the rest of the world, and it is only because Beijing sharply increased all the things it has been trying to rein in that the GDP measure was able to rise,” Pettis tweeted. “To say that China was the only major economy to grow in 2020, in other words, is only to say that we are unable to distinguish between GDP and the economy.”
Others point to the political expediency of the numbers, which were inflated by regular, timely downward revisions of historical data, meaning 2020’s figures were growing from a lower base level. [South China Morning Post]
Japan’s exports for December rose for the first time in two years, up 2.0% year-over-year, with exports to China up 10.2%, mostly due to raw materials.
But auto exports were down 4.2% for the month, and down 32.7% to the European Union. Toyota and Nissan announced they were cutting production due to the semiconductor shortage (more on this below).
For the full year, Japan’s auto exports fell 20%, the biggest decline since the Great Recession.
Japan’s flash PMI reading for January showed a manufacturing figure of 49.7 vs. 50.0 in December, while services were at 45.7 vs. 47.7.
The Bank of Japan warned this week of escalating risks to the economic outlook, including the possibility that measures taken to contain the spread of the coronavirus could inflict broad damage on consumption beyond the directly-hit service sector.
So related to this last item, the big story in Japan the last few days concerns talk the Tokyo Olympics will be called off due to the pandemic. Friday, the government was beating back such reports. But the Japan Times reported that Japanese officials had privately met and that they felt there was no way the Games could go on….which is what I’ve been saying for some time now.
The government’s focus apparently is now on securing the Games for Tokyo in the next available year, 2032, the Times reported.
--The traditional way of looking at a presidency and the stock market is inauguration day to the last day in office and from Donald Trump’s inauguration day, the Dow Jones rose from 19827 to 30930 on Tuesday, a 56 percent increase.
That is below the 73.2 percent rise the Dow saw in Barack Obama’s first term, or the 105.8 percent increase under Bill Clinton’s first term.
The S&P 500 gained 67.8 percent under Trump, rising from 2263 to 3799. It gained 84.5 percent in Obama’s first term, and 79.2 percent in Clinton’s first term.
Of course President Trump frequently touted the stock market’s performance as being the best ever, and it was indeed good…just not the best.
Trump of course liked to track his performance from Election Day 2016, but if you do that, you have to run it through Election Day 2020, and the S&P return was 57.5%. Under this definition, the returns since the close on Nov. 3, 2020, are Joe Biden’s, not Trump’s, as he nonetheless bragged the last two months.
For this holiday-shortened week, stocks hit new highs, mostly because of talk of further stimulus. Certainly the Covid news wasn’t good, on balance, and earnings were mixed; in the case of IBM and Intel, lousy.
That said the Dow Jones rose 0.6% to 30996, while the S&P 500 surged 1.9% and Nasdaq 4.2%, the latter closing at a new high today. [The Dow hit a new record on Wednesday, before stumbling Thursday and Friday, while the S&P set a new high Thursday before a slight pullback today.]
--U.S. Treasury Yields
--6-mo. 0.08% 2-yr. 0.12% 10-yr. 1.09% 30-yr. 1.85%
No movement in Treasuries this week.
--The International Energy Agency (IEA) said this week that oil demand recovery will take a hit from a spike in new coronavirus cases before vaccine roll-outs and stimulus measures help in the second half of the year.
“Border closures, social distancing measures and shutdowns…will continue to constrain fuel demand until vaccines are more widely distributed, most likely only by the second half of the year,” it said in its monthly report.
“This recovery mainly reflects the impact of fiscal and monetary support packages as well as the effectiveness of steps to resolve the pandemic,” the IEA said.
Noting that an improvement to global oil demand went into reverse in December, the IEA lowered its forecast for the first quarter by 580,000 barrels per day and its outlook for 2021 by 300,000 bpd.
Supply and demand are on track for recovery this year, and efforts by major producers to balance the market by reining in output are helping draw down oil stocks worldwide.
But given the expected increase in the second half, “much more oil is likely to be required.”
--French energy giant Total SE said it would pay $2.5 billion for a 20% stake in the world’s largest solar developer, the latest move by an oil major to expand in renewable power.
Total said the investment in Adani Green Energy Ltd. would help it meet its targets for generating more power from low-carbon sources amid a continuing global transition away from fossil fuels.
The Adani deal gives Total exposure to a leading renewables business in India, one of the world’s fastest-growing markets for energy demand. Adani has 54 wind and solar projects in operation across the country. Based on existing generating capacity and the projects in its pipeline, Adani is the world’s largest developer of solar power, Total said.
I have to admit, never heard of the company.
Other major oil companies have been investing in the solar industry. BP took a stake in Lightsource Renewable Energy in 2017 and has since boosted its holding. The same year, Shell invested in Singapore-based Sunseap Group Pte Ltd., followed by an investment in Cleantech Energy Corporation Pte Ltd.’s solar business in 2018.
--United Airlines Holdings Inc. reported a fourth straight quarterly loss owing to the pandemic, United saying it aims to cut about $2 billion of annual costs through 2023 as it charts a recovery plan.
Airlines are counting on Covid vaccines to boost travel demand later this year but warn that the strength of the rebound will largely depend on the pace of vaccine rollouts, particularly as coronavirus cases keep rising, or stabilize at high levels.
United’s adjusted net loss was $2.1 billion in the fourth quarter, compared with a profit of $676 million a year earlier. Total operating revenue fell 69% to $3.4 billion, in line with forecasts. In the current quarter, the airline said it expects revenue to fall by 65% to 70% from a year ago and its flight capacity to shrink by about 51%.
United burned through about $33 million per day in the fourth quarter. The company furloughed thousands of employees last October when an initial round of payroll aid for airlines expired. UAL brought back those workers following a fresh $15 billion in payroll aid for the sector through March but warned the recall could be “temporary” as travel demand remains depressed. Rival Delta Air Lines last week said it expects to halt its daily cash burn rate of about $12 million in the spring.
United has the biggest exposure to international travel, the sector hardest hit by the pandemic and the one likely to be the slowest to recover. President Biden plans to maintain a ban on travelers from Europe and Brazil, after Donald Trump had signed an order in his final days to lift the restrictions beginning on Jan. 26, which was absurd.
--Average U.S. airfare prices in the three months ending in September fell to the lowest inflation-adjusted price since the government began tracking the issue in 1995, the Transportation Dept. said Tuesday. The average ticket price was $245, down 30% over the same period in 2019 and down 7% over the second quarter, when average prices were $262 a ticket.
Prices have declined as air demand has fallen sharply, especially for business travel.
Speaking of which, the latest TSA checkpoint travel figures….
1/21…35 percent of 2020 levels
There hasn’t been a day with 1,000,000 travelers since Jan. 4.
--Meanwhile, as the Wall Street Journal’s Doug Cameron and Eric Morath reported the other day:
“The coronavirus pandemic delivered a lingering, and possibly permanent, hit to business travel that is likely to weigh on employment and economic growth in some communities for years.
“Beyond the blows to airlines, hotels, travel agents and rental-car companies, the drop in business travel is rippling through whole ecosystems of related commerce, including airport shops, downtown bars and restaurants, construction companies building convention stages, entertainers, taxi drivers and aircraft-parts manufacturers.
“Domestic and international business travelers in the U.S. directly spent $334.2 billion in 2019, supporting 2.5 million jobs, according to the U.S. Travel Association. But when considering the follow-on effects, it estimates the economic output and jobs supported by business travel were roughly double those figures before the pandemic.”
You just have to picture that with every large event in a city, you have business for florists, dry cleaners, coffee shops…whole downtown areas have been geared towards such business.
It’s just very sad.
--Canada lifted its near two-year flight ban on Boeing’s 737 MAX on Wednesday. Regulator Transport Canada said in a release that it had issued an airworthiness directive on Monday, along with an interim order that outlines requirements for airlines on additional crew training.
--Morgan Stanley posted a 57% rise in fourth-quarter profit on Wednesday, as the bank’s trading business benefited from coronavirus-induced volatility in financial markets. Net income rose to $3.27 billion in the quarter ended Dec. 31, compared with $2.09 billion a year earlier, far exceeding expectations.
Morgan Stanley also confirmed plans to buy back $10 billion of shares this year, more than three times the figures announced by its retail banking peers. While profits from JPMorgan, Bank of America and Wells Fargo have all suffered from the fallout of the crisis for Main Street, Wall Street’s big investment banks had had to make only minimal allowance for a coming wave of mortgage and consumer loan defaults.
High trading volumes during the quarter benefited Morgan Stanley’s trading unit, with the bank’s revenue from sales and trading rising to $4.22 billion from $3.19 billion.
Net revenue rose to $13.64 billion in the quarter, from $10.86 billion last year, even as CEO James Gorman has been taking steps to insulate the bank from its reliance on trading, and engineered two large back-to-back acquisitions, those of Eaton Vance and E*Trade, to bolster its investment management and brokerage arms. Equity underwriting revenue soared 81% from a year earlier, driven by high-profile IPOs and follow-on offerings. The bank was among underwriters for IPOs of companies including Airbnb and Snowflake Inc., among others.
--Goldman Sachs Group Inc. posted a blockbuster fourth-quarter profit a day before Morgan Stanley, dwarfing Wall Street estimates as its fourth-quarter profit more than doubled, powered by another blowout performance at its trading business and a surge in fees from underwriting a series of blockbuster IPOs.
Revenue from global markets, which houses the bank’s trading business, registered its best annual performance in a decade as investors churned their portfolios at the end of a volatile year for financial markets.
Trading, Goldman’s main revenue-generating engine, surged 43% annually, with revenue in Q4 up 23% to $4.27 billion. Investment banking revenue jumped 27% to $2.61bn during the quarter, driven mainly by equity underwriting, which was up 195% from the same period last year.
Goldman’s shares hit a record high of $307 last week, giving it a market cap of over $100 billion. Total revenue climbed 18% to $11.74bn. The bank’s net earnings rose to $4.36 billion in the quarter.
Unlike larger peers JPMorgan and Bank of America, Goldman has a relatively small consumer business, which has limited its exposure to loan defaults amid the pandemic and allowed it to focus on its core strength of closing deals. At the same time, CEO David Solomon is doubling down on Marcus, its consumer bank, making it a cornerstone of his broader strategy to make Goldman look more like a typical Main Street lender, but the business is minimal thus far vs. other sectors of the bank.
--Bank of America Corp. posted a drop in fourth-quarter profit that still topped expectations and pointed to signs of an economic recovery as the pace of consumer spending gathers steam.
“In the fourth quarter, we continued to see signs of a recovery, led by increased consumer spending, stabilizing loan demand by our commercial customers, and strong markets and investing activity,” CEO Brian Moynihan said.
The second-largest U.S. bank by assets, however, reported a 13% fall in consumer banking revenue to $8.2 billion, citing a hit from lower interest rates. Lower rates have limited how much banks can charge for their lending services, while at the same time there has been flagging consumer confidence which softens loan demand. Net interest income, a key measure of how much it can make from lending, tumbled 16%.
BofA reported a 10% fall in overall revenue, net of interest expense, to $20.1 billion. Net income fell to $5.21 billion from $6.75bn a year earlier. Sales and trading revenue, however, rose to $3 billion from $2.8bn a year ago.
--Bank of New York Mellon posted fourth-quarter earnings of $0.96, down from $1.01 a year earlier, but above forecasts. Revenue was $3.84 billion, down from $4.78 billion in the year ago quarter, though in line with the Street’s expectations.
In a statement, CEO Todd Gibbons said that although the impact of low-interest rates will be a “significant headwind” in 2021, the company ended 2020 with momentum in its core franchise.
“The combination of our capital generation, revenue growth and good cost control gives us the ability to drive meaningful EPS growth over time,” Gibbons said.
But the Street is focused on the low-interest rate environment and the lack of a major catalyst for BK stock and the shares fell in response.
--Wells Fargo unveiled an $8 billion expense-reduction plan that is expected to take up to four years to complete, with nearly half the cost savings to be achieved this year.
Among the steps is to eliminate “one to two layers of management across business and functions,” and closing about 580 branches by end of 2021.
Wells Fargo has dropped from about 6,600 branches in 2009, when it acquired collapsing Wachovia Corp. and gained an East Coast presence, to 5,032 as of Dec. 31.
The 2020 branch closings reduced the bank’s branch workforce by 20%.
--Procter & Gamble on Wednesday generated sales of $19.75 billion, up from $18.2 billion in the year-ago quarter, with fiscal second quarter core earnings of $1.64 per share, up from $1.42 in the same period last year; both beating consensus.
Organic sales rose 8%, and looking ahead, P&G sees all-in sales growth of 5% to 6%, up from its prior outlook of 3% to 4%. It’s the second time the consumer products giant raised its full-year sales forecast as it continues to benefit from a sustained high level of demand for its home care and cleaning products due to the pandemic.
Households have continued to clean their homes and wash their clothes more frequently and have also shown their willingness to pay for more premium brands over store-branded goods. In P&G’s cases shoppers splurged on everything from Downy laundry beads to Swiffer mops and surface cleaners, the company said, with sales in its fabric and home care division up 12% in the second quarter.
--Netflix Inc. said on Tuesday its global subscriber rolls crossed 200 million at the end of 2020 and projected it will no longer need to borrow billions to finance its broad slate of TV shows and movies. Shares soared in response as the financial milestone validated the company’s strategy of going into debt to take on big Hollywood studios with a flood of its own programming in multiple languages. The world’s largest streaming service had raised $15 billion through debt since 2011.
From October to December, Netflix signed up 8.5 million new paying streaming customers as it debuted widely praised series “The Queen’s Gambit” and “Bridgerton,” a new season of “The Crown” and the George Clooney film “The Midnight Sky.” The additions topped Wall Street’s estimates of 6 million. For the year, Netflix gained another 37 million subscribers, a 22 percent increase from 2019. The stock rose 67 percent in 2020.
Fourth-quarter earnings missed the consensus, but that didn’t seem to matter. Revenue rose to $6.64bn during the quarter compared with $5.47bn a year ago, slightly ahead of forecasts. Net income fell to $542.2 million, from $587 million a year earlier.
Netflix still faces challenges in the coming years from a bevy of deep-pocketed rivals, including Walt Disney. Disney Plus has accumulated nearly 90 million subscribers in its first year, emboldening the company’s management to predict that it will boast as many as 260 million subscribers at some point in 2024.
--UnitedHealth Group Inc. recorded a smaller profit for the fourth quarter as the company saw rising medical costs tied to Covid-19.
The parent of UnitedHealthcare as well as the Optum health-services business said the pandemic dragged on revenue growth from commercial insurance customers last year as its economic fallout disrupted the labor market. But revenue grew overall for the company’s insurance business amid expansion of its programs to serve communities and seniors.
Q4 revenue for UNH climbed to $65.47 billion, up from $60.9 billion in the same quarter a year earlier, better than expected.
UnitedHealth’s revenue from premiums grew to $50.58 billion, from $47.63 billion a year earlier.
As more people returned to medical providers for care that they had avoided or postponed earlier in the pandemic, UNH’s costs rose, plus the company had rising medical expenses tied to Covid.
UNH posted fourth-quarter net income of $2.21 billion, compared with $3.54bn in the same period a year earlier.
During a call with analysts, UnitedHealth said it expected overall Covid care costs in 2021 to be similar to the total for 2020.
--The incoming chief executive of Intel Corp. said on Thursday that most of the company’s 2023 products will be made in Intel factories, but he sketched a dual-track future in which it will lean more heavily on outside factories. The lack of a strong embrace of outsourcing from new CEO Pat Gelsinger drove shares down 4.7% after hours.
Shares had risen late Thursday afternoon when the earnings results were released ahead of the close. The company said it was investigating a potential hack of the results.
Intel has been considering since last July whether to drop its decades-old strategy of both designing and making chips by turning for help on its central processing units to “foundry” manufacturers such as Taiwan Semiconductor and Samsung Electronics.
Meanwhile, as for its results for the fourth quarter, Intel regained some momentum in the PC market, with volumes of PC chips rising 33% faster than the 26% rise for the overall PC market, according to data from IDC. But sales to cloud computing customers, some of the largest and fastest-growing purchasers of data center chips, were down 15% in the quarter.
Overall, fourth-quarter revenue of $20 billion beat Wall Street targets, as did adjusted earnings of $1.52 per share.
--IBM Corp. missed Wall Street estimates for quarterly revenue on Thursday, hurt by a rare sales decline in its software unit as clients shied away from longer-term deals due to pandemic-induced economic uncertainty. The 109-year-old firm is preparing to split itself into two public companies and the namesake firm will focus on the so-called hybrid cloud, where companies use a combination of their own datacenters and leased resources to manage and process data.
Revenue from its cloud-computing business rose 10% to a record $7.5 billion in the fourth quarter, with IBM saying it is confident of returning to sales growth in 2021 and expected revenue to grow in mid-single digits after the separation. But that was not enough to convince investors as the company’s shares plummeted 8% at Friday’s opening.
Total revenue fell 6.5% to $20.37 billion, missing the Street’s forecasts. Ex-items, IBM earned $2.07 per share, above estimates.
The chipmaker said it expects fiscal first-quarter adjusted sales of $17.5 billion.
--The auto industry and makers of semiconductors badly missed their supply and demand calculations, which is causing some automakers to shut or slow production because of a lack of chips.
Germany’s Audi, owned by Volkswagen AG, is delaying the production of some of its high-end vehicles, for example, because of what the company called a “massive” shortfall, as noted in an interview with the Financial Times. The firm has furloughed over 10,000 workers and reined in production.
It’s a further blow to an industry that has been slowly recovering from the Covid-19-induced shutdowns, as well as the growing regulatory push toward greener cars.
When it comes to semiconductors, demand isn’t just about the number of automobiles, but how many chips each car needs. The cost of electronic parts and components account for 40% of the cost of a new, internal combustion engine car, up from 18% in 2000.
At the same time, consumer electronics are sucking up chip supply.
--Investors have been buying up shares of Ford and General Motors recently, Ford shares up 30% in January, GM’s stock at a record high since shares began trading in 2010, post-bankruptcy a year earlier. It’s all about prospects for electric vehicles with both of them.
--FedEx Corp. plans to cut up to 6,300 jobs in Europe as it completes the process of combining its Express network with the package-delivery operations of its TNT unit.
The delivery company said Tuesday it will lay off between 5,500 and 6,300 workers in operational and back-office roles as it seeks to address the overlap resulting from operating two European networks connecting similar geographies.
FedEx bought TNT, a Dutch company, in 2016. At the time, FedEx had a sizable air-express delivery operation in Europe, but it lagged behind in the ground-delivery business. Acquiring TNT gave it an established door-to-door network in Europe, eliminating the need to build one from scratch.
But the integration has taken forever, in no small part due to a serious 2017 cyberattack on its operations.
--A cargo ship operated by A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S lost hundreds of containers in the Pacific Ocean while sailing through heavy seas from China to Los Angeles. The company said the Maersk Essen, which has a capacity for more than 13,000 containers, lost an estimated 750 of them on January 16 about halfway through its trans-Pacific sailing from China’s Port of Xiamen.
It seems that several ships have lost hundreds of containers in recent months. The One Apus container vessel, operated by a Singapore-based company, lost around 2,000 boxes in November when it hit a storm off Hawaii on its way to Long Beach, Calif., also from China.
Insurance claims from the One Apus could reach more than $220 million.
Lots of fun toys for the fishes, no doubt. But I can’t help but add that my first job out of college, working for an insurance brokerage firm in New York, I spent a good deal of my time typing up insurance binders for cargo ships as we had some clients in the field. I can’t imagine being a broker on one of these claims.
--Being a hog in China is not a good career path. The National Bureau of Statistics reported this week that China’s pork output fell 3.3% from a year earlier to 41.13 million tons, as the impact of a devastating epidemic in its hog farms continued to be felt. But still China slaughtered 527.4 million hogs in 2020.
Swine flu was great for exporters of hogs to China, but the epidemic is basically under control and China’s pig herd is back on the rise.
--Jack Ma resurfaced for the first time since China’s government began clamping down on his business empire nearly three months ago, appearing in a live-streamed video that sent Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s stock soaring but left plenty of unanswered questions about the billionaire’s fate.
Ma spoke briefly on Wednesday during an annual event he hosts to recognize rural teachers. In one video of the event circulated online, China’s most famous entrepreneur can be seen touring a primary school in his hometown of Hangzhou. Ma has stayed out of public view since regulators suspended the initial public offering of his fintech company Ant Group Co. Ma told the teachers he’ll spend more time on philanthropy and didn’t mention his run-ins with Beijing.
--Donald Trump’s empire has been hit hard by coronavirus closures, according to his last financial disclosure form as president. Revenue from his Washington and Las Vegas hotels was down more than half.
Trump detailed the damage at a time when many tourism businesses are suffering from a lack of travelers, with revenue from the Trump hotel in Washington, which he had been trying to sell, falling to $15.1 million from $40.5 million a year earlier, according to the disclosure posted Wednesday. In Vegas, hotel-related sales were down to $9.2 million from $23.3 million. Another important property of Trump’s, the Doral Golf Resort in Miami, also saw revenues drop to $44 million from $77 million a year earlier.
Trump’s golf courses in Ireland and Scotland saw revenue drop by roughly two-thirds, part of a 27% overall decline in golfing revenues from the prior year.
Trump’s total income fell to between $273 million and $308 million, according to the form, which covers 2020 and the first 20 days of 2021. In his first financial disclosure in 2017, Trump reported making more than $528.9 million over 15 ½ months, including this first three months as president.
One bright spot in Trump’s empire is his Mar-a-Lago resort, where revenue for the club hit $24.2 million, up from $21.4 million a year earlier; seemingly unaffected by the pandemic.
--My Pillow is reportedly getting dropped by retailers including Kohl’s and Bed Bath & Beyond after its founder, Mike Lindell, showed up at the White House last week to discuss alleged election fraud with President Trump. Lindell told the conservative Right Side Broadcasting Network that “two companies dropped out” of selling his bedding products, though he did not identify them. But then he conceded these two had indeed dropped him in a conversation with a CBS affiliate in Minneapolis, where My Pillow is based.
It also seems that J.C. Penney has now dropped My Pillow.
A Bed Bath & Beyond spokesperson signaled that My Pillow sales have been weak.
--Former Fox News host Shepard Smith excoriated his old colleagues for spreading what he called “disinformation,” and said he stuck with the network in order to combat their efforts.
“If you feel like the Fox viewers were getting mis- or dis-information, I was there to make sure that they got it straight,” Smith said in an interview with PBS News’ Christiane Amanpour. “There were a lot of others in there who I thought were trying to do the same thing. But I thought that to just abandon it, and to deprive those viewers of…to deny them that, with the thought that they might replace it with opinion instead, seemed a little selfish. So I stuck with it as long as I could.”
Smith, who joined the network in 1996, left in 2019 amid tension with primetime host Tucker Carlson. He joined CNBC with an hour-long weekday program in September and has struggled to draw viewers, though I watch it.
Of some of the people he worked with at Fox, Smith said, “I don’t know how some of them sleep at night, because I know that there are a lot of people who have propagated the lies, and have pushed them forward over and over again who are smart enough and educated enough to know better.”
--Meanwhile, Fox News has lined up six rotating hosts for its new 7 p.m. opinion program aimed at feeding the appetite of conservative viewers in the hour.
The new show called “Fox News Primetime” launched this week with “Fox & Friends” morning show co-host Brian Kilmeade, with others lined up to helm the program being Maria Bartiromo, Katie Pavlich, Rachel Campos-Duffy, Mark Steyn and former congressman Trey Gowdy.
As I noted before, “The Story with Martha MacCallum” was demoted from 7 p.m. to 3 p.m.
Bartiromo has become a joke.
--Coca-Cola Co. said it won’t run television commercials during this year’s Super Bowl, pulling out of one of the biggest advertising events of the year.
“The difficult choice was made to ensure we are investing in the right resources during these unprecedented times,” the company said in a statement last weekend.
Coke joins PepsiCo Inc., which said it would cut traditional ads to focus instead on its sponsorship of the game’s halftime show.
I said last time I’d give my thoughts on Trump’s foreign policy this week…well, with everything else going on, I’ll do that next time. For now the following two pieces summarize some of what the new administration will face on this front.
Walter Russell Mead / Wall Street Journal
“Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Ali Khamenei, Nicolas Maduro and Kim Jong Un doubtless were gleefully munching their popcorn as the violent fringe of a large pro-Trump demonstration stormed the halls of Congress earlier this month. The rioting in Washington and the militarization of the capital for this week’s inauguration telegraph American instability and weakness – something that cheered every U.S. adversary and alarmed every friend around the world.
“That said, the national and global doom-mongering is overdone. President Trump’s false claims and incendiary rhetoric ignited an ugly incident, not a constitutional crisis. Mr. Trump is too weak and American democracy too strong for any other result. Fundamental U.S. constitutional structures were never in peril. Up and down the line, state election officials from both parties followed the appropriate procedures, at times in the face of bullying and threats.
“Distinguished lawyers of impeccable Republican and conservative credentials declined to lend their reputations to the weak claims that the president’s campaign sought to litigate. And when those cases came up for judicial scrutiny, courts filled with Trump appointees decided them according to the law. Even those representatives and senators who failed in their duty by echoing the president’s unfounded, inflammatory claims did so secure in the knowledge that their cynical grandstanding wouldn’t overturn the legal process. The American military’s commitment to constitutional order never wavered.
“The weary capital could still see more violence on Inauguration Day, but the republic stands. The momentary frenzy of a mob or the histrionic demagoguery of a defeated president and his most opportunistic allies notwithstanding, there has not been a moment when there was a real possibility that Mr. Trump’s terms of office would extend past its constitutionally mandated close.
“Counterintuitively, the real message of the 2020 election is that the U.S. remains strong. Voters elected, electors voted, and the transfer of power proceeds apace. A perfect storm – a destructive pandemic, an economic maelstrom, a crisis in race relations, a bitter election campaign and, in the end, the effort of a defeated president to foment all the trouble he could – still couldn’t prevent the constitutional process from taking its course.
“But strong as America remains, one cannot call our nation serene. Even as foreign adversaries consider how to exploit U.S. divisions, and allies wonder how the political shenanigans affect their security, it’s important to analyze calmly how far our domestic polarization will undermine the Biden administration’s ability to carry out its foreign-policy agenda.
“Here there is cause for concern. The American foreign-policy consensus has grown thin. Hamiltonian and Wilsonian globalists believed that the end of the Cold War gave the U.S. a precious chance to promote a democratic, liberal and capitalist world order. Jeffersonian and Jacksonian nationalists saw the end of the Cold War as an opportunity for America to stop spending so much effort on nation building at home. Over time, as ambitious foreign-policy initiatives fell short – from the war in Iraq to the effort to democratize China through economic integration – the nationalist case gained adherents.
“Mr. Trump, the first American president since World War II to pursue a nationalist foreign policy, did not cover himself in glory abroad, but populism in U.S. diplomacy and military planning will survive the ignominious close of his term. Foreign observers will now wonder whether President-elect Biden’s commitment to globalism marks a permanent return to the old consensus, or whether 2024 will bring a new and perhaps more skillful nationalist to the White House. Is the Biden administration the opening of a new era of respectable dullness in American politics, or is it the last gasp of the old guard? How seriously foreign leaders take Mr. Biden will depend largely on their perceptions, not only about his electoral prospects in 2024, but about the future of antiglobalist populism in the U.S.
“There is much to be said for a ‘restorationist’ approach to American foreign policy after four years of Trumpian disruption. But don’t forget that perceived failures of the old foreign-policy consensus helped open the White House doors to President Trump.
“With Democrats in control of both houses of Congress and Republicans reeling from the death throes of the Trump presidency, the Biden administration for now will enjoy a relatively free hand. But this is no guarantee of success. A formidable collection of foreign adversaries hope to bring the long era of U.S. global predominance to an early end.
“In the Obama Years, Messrs. Putin and Xi routinely scored wins against an often-confused White House policy team. Mr. Biden, who has staffed his foreign-policy team with Obama veterans, must improve significantly on Obama’s record if American foreign policy and the world order are to stabilize on his watch.”
Editorial / Washington Post
“It remains to be seen if President Biden can find common ground with Republicans, but foreign policy may be one place to start. Judging from the confirmation hearings Tuesday of the new administration’s national security team, there is – in the absence of former president Donald Trump – substantial bipartisan consensus on the major threats facing the United States.
“Mr. Biden’s Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and Secretary of State-nominee Antony Blinken are veterans of the Obama administration, while Defense Secretary-nominee Lloyd J. Austin III was appointed by President Barack Obama as chief of the Pentagon’s Central Command. Yet the nominees found broad areas of agreement with Republican senators who were Trump administration loyalists.
“Mr. Blinken, who for decades has been Mr. Biden’s chief foreign policy adviser, told Sen. Lindsey O. Graham that he agreed with the outgoing administration’s determination that China’s repression of its Uighur minority constituted genocide and that any U.S. agreement with the Afghan Taliban should be ‘conditions-based.’ He assured Sen. Ted Cruz that the United States would leave its embassy to Israel in Jerusalem and seek to prevent the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany. In response to Sen. Marco Rubio, Mr. Blinken called Venezuelan ruler Nicolas Maduro ‘a brutal dictator’ and said the new administration would continue to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s rightful leader.
“More important, the incoming Democratic officials confirmed a bipartisan consensus about the mounting challenge to the United States from China. ‘President Trump was right in taking a tougher approach on China,’ said Mr. Blinken, later adding that Republican Sen. Mitt Romney had been prescient in seeing ‘the challenge presented by Russia across a whole series of fronts.’ Ms. Haines said ‘China is a challenge to our security, to our prosperity, to our values across a range of issues’ and pledged to Sen. Ben Sasse to ‘make it a priority from my perspective to make sure we are allocating the right resources’ to it.
“Mr. Blinken stressed that he disagreed with Mr. Trump’s tactics for addressing Beijing. But on that, too, he may find agreement with many Republicans, who quietly squirmed when the former president heaped praise on Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin and excused or ignored their human rights crimes. Mr. Trump vetoed bipartisan congressional legislation mandating an end to U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen; Mr. Blinken said the new administration would act on that ‘in very short order.’ For her part, Ms. Haines said the intelligence community would comply with another law defied by Mr. Trump, which mandates a public report on who in the Saudi regime was responsible for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“The greatest area of potential disagreement between the Biden administration and congressional Republicans, judging from the hearings, is policy toward Iran. Mr. Blinken confirmed that if Iran came back into compliance with the nuclear accord repudiated by Mr. Trump, the United States would, as well. However, both he and Ms. Haines said they believed Iranian compliance was ‘a long way’ off; and Mr. Blinken offered none of the Obama administration’s hope for Iranian moderation, agreeing that Tehran remained the world’s greatest sponsor of terrorism and should face sanctions accordingly.
“No doubt Republicans will find other objections to Mr. Biden’s foreign policy. But there is a clear basis for bipartisan agreement on the need for the United States to stand up to China, as well as Russia and other autocracies – and on the principle that coddling their dictators is not the way to go about it.”
Bottom line, I agree with the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. “When it comes to foreign policy, Biden will find that everything is new – and everything is the same. Trump’s disruptive approach made a mess, but not every policy stance should be discarded just because it bears his name.”
Russia: Opposition leader Alexei Navalny was taken into custody Sunday after a dramatic airport arrest in Moscow that prompted condemnation from the West and calls for his immediate release. Navalny returned to Russia from Germany for the first time since he was poisoned with a nerve agent in August and flown to Berlin in an induced coma. His flight was scheduled to arrive at Moscow’s Vnukovo, but after a large crowd assembled to welcome him home (in bitterly cold weather), authorities decided to divert the flight to Sheremetyevo airport to thwart them.
Russia’s FSIN prison service said it had detained him for violating the terms of a suspended sentence he was given in 2014, on fraud charges he says were politically motivated.
Monday, Navalny called for his supporters to take to the streets after a hastily organized court ordered him jailed for 30 days.
The makeshift court – set up in a police station on the outskirts of Moscow where Navalny was being held – agreed to a request from prosecutors for Navalny to be kept in custody until Feb. 15.
In a video released by his team shortly after the ruling, the 44-year-old anti-corruption campaigner urged his supporters to protest.
“Do not be silent. Resist. Take to the streets – not for me, but for you,” Navalny said.
Navalny’s team later released a nearly two-hour video describing Putin’s $1 billion palace on the Black Sea.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon who fell foul of the Kremlin, said on Monday the arrest of Navalny was an attempt by Vladimir Putin to show he is still “top dog” in Russia. Khodorkovsky said the West should act rather than talk if it wanted to have any influence on the 68-year-old president after Navalny’s arrest and that Navalny could face a decade in prison, as Khodorkovsky did after challenging the Kremlin. Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003 and jailed for tax evasion and fraud, charges he denied, and he was released in 2013 after spending 10 years in custody. He said Navalny did the right thing in going back to Moscow to fight.
The head of Navalny’s regional network said preparations were underway for protests to be organized across the country on Saturday, tomorrow. We’ll see.
Editorial / Washington Post
“President Vladimir Putin of Russia put on a show of arbitrary power this weekend in the airport seizure of Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader who was the target of an assassination attempt using a nerve agent last August by Mr. Putin’s security service. Mr. Navalny, returning to Moscow after recuperating in Germany, was arrested upon arrival under an entirely bogus legal pretense. Mr. Putin makes himself look more desperate by the day.
“Russia’s prison service said Mr. Navalny violated probation terms from a suspended sentence on a 2014 conviction, which Mr. Navalny and the European Court of Human rights have said was politically motivated. Mr. Navalny was ordered to be held for 30 days. The whole show was a mockery of law, which provides in the case of a probation violation only for the prison service to appeal to courts for a different sentence, not an arrest. But in today’s Russia, Mr. Putin is the law. His Federal Security Service attempted to murder Mr. Navalny only five months ago. The airport arrest was just another day’s work for his thugs.
“When they attempted to kill Mr. Navalny with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok, Mr. Putin’s cronies violated an international treaty Russia signed – and helped bring into existence – prohibiting the use of chemical weapons. Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) have introduced bipartisan legislation to hold those who poisoned Mr. Navalny accountable. Mr. Navalny’s latest arrest also should draw international condemnation. As Jake Sullivan, national security adviser-designate in the incoming Biden administration, said in calling for his immediate release, ‘The Kremlin’s attacks on Mr. Navalny are not just a violation of human rights, but an affront to the Russian people who want their voices heard.’
“Mr. Navalny has managed to become a singular challenge to Mr. Putin. He made a series of brilliant video documentaries, posted on YouTube, exposing the mysterious wealth of Mr. Putin’s cronies. The videos have been seen by millions.
“Just two days after his return to Russia, Mr. Navalny struck again. Even as he languished in jail, his team released a devastating new video, one hour and 52 minutes long, focusing on Mr. Putin’s accumulation of wealth and that of his friends since his KGB days. The video, narrated by Mr. Navalny, exposes in remarkable detail the $1.35 billion palace built for Mr. Putin on the Black Sea coast, complete with an underground hockey rink, lavish grounds, a teahouse, amphitheater and more. The mansion is fit for a king – and the scale of excess may shock Russians who are already well acquainted with government officials who become billionaires.
“Mr. Navalny has now become the most potent opposition leader Mr. Putin has faced in two decades in power. ‘I am not afraid,’ Mr. Navalny said at the airport. Mr. Navalny has highlighted the moral and political bankruptcy of Mr. Putin’s regime. The despot is fighting back the only way he knows how, with a police state reception at the airport.”
Editorial / The Economist
“In a democracy the battle for power involves elections, media skirmishes and the occasional metaphorical stab in the back. In Russia it is literally a matter of life and death. To oppose President Vladimir Putin requires not only charisma and clear vision but also physical stamina and courage. Alexei Navalny possesses these qualities in abundance.
“The Kremlin has tried hard to neutralize him. Prosecutors have levelled a series of trumped-up criminal charges against him. State propagandists have amplified them, and added imaginary calumnies to the mix. Last year Russia’s security services slipped him a nerve agent in a botched attempt to murder him. Mr. Putin no doubt hoped that after all this Mr. Navalny would be scared into permanent exile. Instead, on January 17th, five months after falling into a coma and being evacuated to Germany on a stretcher, Mr. Navalny boarded a low-cost airline Pobeda (Victory) and flew back to Moscow.
“He was grabbed at the border, spirited off to a police station and put on trial there at one minute’s notice. The charge was violating parole – while lying in a German hospital, he had been unable to check into a police station in Russia. He was found guilty, of course, and sentenced to 30 days’ imprisonment. He awaits a second trial scheduled for February 2nd that could see him locked up for three and a half years and possibly much longer.
“Yet still he torments his tormentor. On January 19th he released a two-hour film about Mr. Putin’s billion-dollar secret palace on the Black Sea, set on an estate 39 times larger than Monaco… This was bought with ‘the biggest bribe in history,’ Mr. Navalny’s team claimed. (The Kremlin denies that the palace belongs to Mr. Putin.) In less than a day the video had clocked up 20m views on YouTube.
“Mr. Navalny’s conviction has plunged Russia to a new nadir of lawlessness. In the room where he was tried, there was even a picture on the wall of the head of Stalin’s secret police. The violence unleashed by the Kremlin on its opponents is a threat not only to Mr. Navalny, but also to ordinary Russians. A kleptocracy and repressive regime cannot go into reverse and requires new fodder to keep itself in power. What happens next depends largely on how the population and the elite respond. A nationwide protest called by Mr. Navalny on January 23rd, ahead of his new trial, will be a critical test.
“A lawless Russia is a threat to the outside world, too. Repression at home is rarely isolated from aggression abroad, as Mr. Putin has repeatedly shown. His arrest of Mr. Navalny, who was treated as Angela Merkel’s personal guest while he was in Germany, is a slap in the face for the German chancellor and the West. It also presents a challenge to the incoming administration of President Joe Biden who, unlike his predecessor, sees Mr. Putin’s Russia as one of the biggest threats to American security.
“Mr. Biden’s incoming national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, set the right tone by issuing a sharply worded demand for Mr. Navalny’s release within hours of his arrest. But words are not enough. Mr. Biden should lead a coalition to grapple with Russia’s corruption and its Western enablers….
“Mr. Navalny is risking his freedom and his life to stand up to a brutal, crooked regime. Mr. Putin may command an army, the security services and a nuclear arsenal. But he is still afraid of the truth. Mr. Navalny’s courage has captured the world’s imagination and put the Kremlin on the defensive. He deserves support. What becomes of him matters not only to Russia – a vast, talented country captured by rapacious ex-spooks – but to the world.”
On a different issue, President Biden is seeking to extend the New START arms control treaty with Russia for five years. Biden’s secretary of state nominee, Antony Blinken, on Tuesday told Congress the administration would seek to extend the key nuclear treaty that expires Feb. 5. The Kremlin said it would welcome an extension. This is not a bad thing.
China: Josh Rogin / Washington Post
“Four minutes past noon on Wednesday, while President Biden was still delivering his inaugural address, the Chinese government announced sanctions against 28 former U.S. officials and their families. Beijing was not simply kicking the Trump team on its way out the door; the Chinese leadership is trying to bully and threaten the incoming administration into reversing course. But it won’t work.
“By commencing the new bilateral relationship with provocative escalation, Beijing is attempting to warn incoming Biden administration officials they could suffer personal costs if they dare run afoul of the Chinese Communist Party’s delicate and paranoid sensibilities. China sanctioned former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, two of former president Donald Trump’s national security advisers, outgoing deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger, former UN ambassador Kelly Craft and several other officials. Beijing justified the move by claiming that its targets ‘have planned, promoted and executed a series of crazy moves which have gravely interfered in China’s internal affairs.’
“Substantively, the sanctions are meaningless. There’s little chance John Bolton or Stephen K. Bannon – both of whom called the sanctions a badge of honor – will be harmed by a ban on traveling to or doing business in China. The true intent of the sanctions is to target incoming officials – an audacious attempt to intimidate them against continuing any of Trump’s policies….
“Pompeo’s final sin was to declare Tuesday that the Chinese government is committing genocide and crimes against humanity against Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang province. China’s foreign ministry called his determination ‘nothing but paper,’ and said he ‘is making himself a laughing stock and a clown.’ But if China’s leaders were paying better attention to their new Biden administration counterparts, they would recognize this strong-arm strategy is doomed to fail.
“On Tuesday, incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified to the Senate that he agreed with Pompeo’s genocide determination. He was not freelancing. The Biden campaign made that decision after a full internal debate back in August, my sources said. Blinken, whose opening statement recounted his family’s history of escaping the Holocaust and Russian pogroms, is not likely to reverse course and ignore a genocide after being threatened. In fact, Beijing’s bullying makes it more difficult to do so. That was the CCP’s first major miscalculation….
“China’s opening salvo leaves no room for doubt: Contentious competition will be the focus of the U.S.-China relationship for the next four years. Beijing’s greatest fear is that the Biden team will be better at it than Trump.”
North Korea: Secretary of state nominee Blinken said on Tuesday the incoming administration planned a full review of the U.S. approach to North Korea to look at ways to increase pressure on it to come to the negotiating table over its nuclear weapons.
“This is a hard problem that has plagued administration after administration, and it’s a problem that has not gotten better, in fact it’s gotten worse,” Blinken said at his nomination hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Blinken added, “We do want to make sure that in anything we do, we have an eye on the humanitarian side of the equation, not just on the security side of the equation.”
Iran: Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Sunday dismissed a claim by France that Tehran was in the process of building up its nuclear weapons, calling it “absurd nonsense.” French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, in an interview published Saturday, said Iran was building up its nuclear weapons’ capacity and it was urgent that Tehran and Washington return to a 2015 nuclear agreement.
“Dear colleague: You kick-started your cabinet career with arms sales to Saudi war criminals. Avoid absurd nonsense about Iran,” Zarif said in a Twitter post, in which he tagged his French counterpart.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s government has drawn criticism from some countries and rights groups over its support of Saudi Arabia’s actions and allowing weapons it has sold to Riyadh potentially to be used in its Yemen operations.
Le Drian said it was urgent to “tell the Iranians that this is enough” and to bring Iran and the United States back into the accord. Biden has said he will return the U.S. to the deal if Iran resumes strict compliance with it. Iran says sanctions must be lifted before it reverses its nuclear breaches. However, Le Drian said that even if both sides were to return to the deal, it would not be enough. “Tough discussions will be needed over ballistic proliferation and Iran’s destabilization of its neighbors in the region,” Le Drian said.
Also last weekend, France, Britain and Germany warned Iran against starting work on uranium metal-based fuel for a research reactor, saying it contravened the 2015 nuclear deal and stressing that it had no civilian use but serious military implications.
Iraq: Two men blew themselves up in a crowded Baghdad market on Thursday, killing at least 32 people in Iraq’s first big suicide bombing for three years, authorities said, describing it as a possible sign of the reactivation of Islamic State. At least 110 were wounded. One eyewitness told Reuters, “One (bomber) came, fell to the ground and started complaining ‘my stomach is hurting’ and he pressed the detonator in his hand. It exploded immediately. People were torn to pieces.”
Since ISIS was defeated in 2017, life had largely returned to normal in Baghdad. The market was the same place the last big attack occurred, Jan. 2018, when at least 27 were killed.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi held an urgent meeting with top security commanders Thursday and sacked some key officials.
Afghanistan: Unidentified gunmen killed two female judges from Afghanistan’s Supreme Court on Sunday morning, police said, adding to a wave of assassinations in Kabul and other cities while government and Taliban representatives have been holding peace talks in Qatar.
A spokesman for the Taliban said its fighters were not involved.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani issued a statement condemning attacks on civilians by the Taliban and other militant groups.
“Ghani said “terror, horror and crime” was not a solution to Afghanistan’s problems and beseeched the Taliban to accept “a permanent ceasefire.”
I’ve been writing how it is sickening that government officials, journalists, and activists have been targeted in recent months, stoking intense fear particularly in Kabul. It’s targeted, but also random. That’s the ultimate in terror.
While the Taliban has denied involvement in some of the attacks, it has said its fighters would continue to “eliminate” important government figures, though not journalists or civil society members.
We’re supposed to believe them.
So much for these fake peace talks. Yet another big problem for the Biden administration, which needs to make it clear just what it’s policy is going to be. The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is down to 2,500, the lowest level of American forces there since 2001.
--The final Gallup approval rating for President Trump was a low, 34%, 62% disapproving, both a marked difference from a 46-52 split Oct. 16-27.
82% of Republicans agree (down from 95% in Oct.), 30% of independents (41% in Oct.).
The final Rasmussen daily tracker poll, Tuesday, showed Trump with a 51% approval rating, 48% disapproval; a totally unrealistic split. According to Rasmussen, Donald Trump’s approval rating improved since a 45-54 split on Dec. 31.
Back to Gallup, Trump’s 34% matches that of George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, who also stood at that level when they exited the White House in 1993 and 1981, respectively. Only Harry Truman, 32%, ended his presidency at a lower level in 1953.
Trump received a higher approval rating in some other polls, such as 43% in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll and 41% in a USA TODAY/Suffolk University survey. Trump was at 38% in a final ABC News/Washington Post poll, and 34% in last week’s Quinnipiac survey.
Pew Research Center had Trump at just 29%.
--In a CNN/SSRS, 66% of Americans approve of the way Joe Biden is handling the transition. 70% disapproved of Trump’s handling of the time since the election, and 66% give similarly negative reviews of his fellow Republicans in Congress. About half (51%) approve of the way Democrats in Congress have handled the transition.
Overall, 61% of adults expect Biden to do a very good or fairly good job as president, more than said so about Trump in 2017 (48%), but well below the share who expected good things from Obama before he took office (79%).
96% of Democrats expect Biden to do well as president, but among Republicans, the share expecting Biden to do a good job is 40 points lower than the share who said the same about Obama (57% of Republicans said Obama would do a good job, while 17% say Biden will).
The 79-point chasm between Democrats and Republicans on Biden is identical to the gap between Republicans and Democrats in January 2017 over whether Trump would do a good job as president (93% of Republicans said he would do a good job vs. 14% of Democrats).
Overall, 51% have a favorable opinion of Kamala Harris, 39% an unfavorable one; 90% of Dems do, vs. 9% of Republicans.
The Republican Party’s favorability took a 9-point hit since before Election Day, with just 32% viewing it favorably.
--The above-noted NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey on ‘right track/wrong track’ also showed that 60 percent of voters approve of Biden’s handling of the transition and his preparations for becoming president, compared to 32 percent who disapprove.
But only 37 percent express high confidence that he has the right set of goals and policies, and just 43 percent have high confidence that he has the right set of personal characteristics to be president.
--A new USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll found that by a wide margin, Americans say the police response to the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol would have been harsher if the rioters had been mostly Black rather than mostly white.
A 55% majority says law enforcement would have employed harsher tactics against the melee than they did, almost double the 28% who say the response would have been the same.
Among whites, 49% say the police response would have been harsher, 32% say it would have been the same; 10% say it would have been less harsh.
Among Blacks, an overwhelming 85% say the response would have been harsher.
A majority of Republicans, 53%, say police behavior would have been the same.
--Karl Rove / Wall Street Journal
“President Joe Biden’s inauguration marks not only a new administration’s beginning but also a new chapter for the loyal opposition.
“The Grand Old Party lost the White House while picking up U.S. House seats, holding half the Senate, and adding to its numbers in state legislative chambers. These conflicting outcomes leave Republicans facing the difficult task of cementing blue-collar Trump voters into their ranks while regaining strength in the suburbs and making inroads with an increasingly diverse electorate.
“To rebuild, Republicans must decide what their party stands for. The way forward begins with clarifying what the GOP’s answers should be to the nation’s challenges, with an eye to the 2022 elections.
“This won’t be easy. Tensions between the party’s various elements are difficult to navigate, but it’s important to remember that President Donald Trump’s most popular achievements were conservative: originalist judges, a pro-growth tax cut, regulatory relief, strong national defense, recognition of the global threat posed by China, secure borders, and respect for life and religious liberty.
GOP officeholders, candidates and party leaders should offer ideas that apply timeless conservative principles to America’s changing circumstances. As Republicans oppose the Biden administration’s agenda, they should contrast their new initiatives with the Democrats’ approach. The key is to remember that what they’re for is as important as what they’re against. The values underlying Republican initiatives are crucial, too. There are more conservatives in America who believe in traditional values, family, faith, personal responsibility, patriotism and law and order than there are liberals who don’t.
“This will require forbearance, which is in short supply in some quarters of the party. Republicans should be guided by President Ronald Reagan’s rule: ‘The person who agrees with you 80% of the time is a friend and an ally, not a 20% traitor.’
“The party should also increase efforts to recruit candidates who are female, Hispanic, Asian-American, black and younger. More diverse candidates were key to the GOP’s surprise gains in the House and the states.
“The GOP must also disavow QAnon, the Proud Boys and militia elements that have infiltrated its ranks. The first is a cult organized around bizarre conspiracy theories and directed by unknown cranks, the second is a gang of violent thugs, and the third is a group of secessionists and extremists. Nothing good will come from tolerating such kooks and fanatics.
“Republicans should also encourage GOP secretaries of state and state lawmakers to develop a model election code. The job of proposing electoral reforms shouldn’t be based on the unsupported claims of widespread fraud peddled by Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell. Instead, the goal should be to suggest measures that restore public confidence in our democracy. How do states with extensive mail-in and early voting like Florida and Texas get it right?
“Looming over any effort to rebuild is Mr. Trump, who was backed by 74 million voters but angered 81 million others, driving many to the polls to vote for Mr. Biden. Some were independents, and others were Republicans who could no longer stomach the president. [Ed. i.e., me.]
“Mr. Trump leaves Washington with historically low approval ratings, but he’ll be formidable if he decides to be a one-man wrecking crew in 2022, supporting primary challenges to Republican candidates he feels have crossed him. And if he seeks the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, he could win.
“But if Mr. Trump couldn’t prevail in November with all the advantages of incumbency, a strong pre-Covid economy and a lackluster opponent, he’s unlikely to do so in 2024, when he’d be 78 – especially after hundreds of those charged for participating in the assault on the Capitol are heard in court saying how they came to Washington and did what they did because they thought Mr. Trump told them to.
“Mr. Trump has already done damage to the GOP by convincing some followers that our democratic system is so rigged that it isn’t worth voting. Look at the Jan. 5 Georgia Senate runoffs: Turnout in the most-Trump friendly congressional districts dropped more from the general election than the statewide average.
“If Republicans are to win in 2022, new prospects for the 2024 presidential nomination must have space to road-test messages and show who does better at bringing together traditional Republicans and working-class Trump supporters. That’s a very tall order.
“Fortunately for Republicans, the Democratic Party is also fractured. Its traditional liberal wing is intellectually exhausted; the ideas and energy are all coming from the party’s hard left. Still, Republicans can’t count on Democratic overreach and mistakes alone to hand them back Congress and the White House. The GOP needs a strong message and effective messengers to deliver it. Today they have neither.”
--Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse wrote a fiery editorial on the impact of QAnon. Titled “QAnon is Destroying the GOP From Within” the lawmaker states that the riots that took place at the Capitol were not a result of a “few bad apples” but rather a “seed” that Republicans allowed to grow in the party over time, including these theories.
Sasse mentioned that officer Eugene Goodman, who was seen on video leading a mob away from the Senate chamber during the riots, was being chased by a man wearing a shirt with the QAnon theory logo. The FBI has said that the man, identified as Douglas Jensen, “wanted to have his T-shirt seen on video so that ‘Q’ could ‘get the credit.’”
“It is the blossoming of a rotten seed that took root in the Republican Party some time ago and has been nourished by treachery, poor political judgment, and cowardice,” Sasse wrote.
Sasse said with Trump gone, the GOP has a choice to uphold the Constitution or “become a party of conspiracy theories.”
“When Trump leaves office, my party faces a choice: We can dedicate ourselves to defending the Constitution and perpetuating our best American institutions and traditions, or we can be a party of conspiracy theories, cable-news fantasies, and the ruin that comes with them,” he said.
“We can be the party of Eisenhower, or the party of the conspiracist Alex Jones,” Sasse continued.
Sasse also accused some of his Republican colleagues of “winking” at conspiracy theorists while continuing to “preach” the Constitution. “Until last week, many party leaders and consultants thought they could preach the Constitution while winking at QAnon. They can’t,” Sasse wrote. “The GOP must reject conspiracy theories or be consumed by them. Now is the time to decide what this party is about.”
Sasse also criticized House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy for not disavowing QAnon supporter and new Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s campaign and called the first-year lawmaker “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.”
“During her campaign, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had a choice: disavow her campaign and potentially lose a Republican seat, or welcome her into his caucus and try to keep a lid on her ludicrous ideas. McCarthy failed the leadership test and sat on the sidelines,” Sasse opined.
Sasse added that Greene will “keep making fools out of herself, her constituents, and the Republican Party.”
Sasse concluded that in order to play a “constructive party” in America’s future, the GOP must “repudiate the nonsense that has set our party on fire” and “rebuild itself” by offering a “genuine answer to the frustrations of the past decade.”
“In a standoff between the Constitution and madness, both men picked a side,” Sasse said. “It’s the GOP’s turn to do the same.”
Sasse, in addition, called efforts by his Republican colleagues to object to the election results, such as those of Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, “really dumbass.”
--George F. Will / Washington Post
“Standing where his predecessors decried what he subsequently delivered – ‘American carnage’ – Joe Biden on Wednesday promised a recuperative presidency. His call for Americans to heed the better angels of their nature – ‘each of us has a duty and responsibility’ – recalled an admonition 160 years ago. In 1861, when seven of the 34 states had already voted for secession, the 16th president said in his inaugural address that the nation’s fate was ‘in your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine.’ Today, too, ultimate responsibility for the republic’s trajectory resides in the citizenry….
“(Five days before)…commenting on Republican members of Congress who refused to wear masks while crowded into protected rooms during the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Biden said: ‘It’s time to grow up.’….
“Progressives yearning for New Deal 2.0 will notice that Biden did not speak as Franklin Roosevelt did in his first inaugural address about perhaps seeking ‘broad Executive power’ as great as he would need ‘if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.’ Biden’s grown-up respect for institutional proprieties might be infectious, encouraging temperateness among his dissatisfied countrymen, 74 million of whom voted for four more years of infantilism.
“Among the legislators in attendance on Wednesday was Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who four days earlier had published in the Atlantic a call for Republicans to choose adulthood. Their House caucus now includes Georgia’s Majorite Taylor Greene, who was one of those who would not wear a mask when closely confined on Jan. 6. She welcomed the previous presidency as ‘a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles out.’ She has vowed to try to impeach Biden on Thursday. Another first-term representative, Greene’s Republican colleague from Colorado, the pistol-packing Lauren Boebert, recently posted a long video of herself preening about how admirable she is because she carries her Glock on Capitol Hill.
“Why are strange people proliferating? And why did 450,461 of our dissatisfied fellow countrymen vote to transform these two into lawmakers?
“One reason, Sasse said, is ‘America’s junk-food media diet,’ the ‘underlying economics’ of which involve ‘dialing up the rhetoric’ to increase ‘clicks, eyeballs, and revenue.’ Another reason is ‘institutional collapse’ as ‘the digital revolution erodes geographic communities in favor of placeless ones. Many people who yell at strangers on Twitter don’t know their own local officials or even their neighbors across the street.’ And the susceptibility of a significant portion of the citizenry to irrational rage reflects ‘the failure of our traditional political institutions and our traditional media to function as spaces for genuine political conversation,’ creating ‘a vacuum now filled by the social-media giants.’
“Biden’s address, the essence of which was the admonition to ‘stop the shouting and lower the temperature’ and end the ‘exhausting outrage,’ had the unadorned rhetoric of a teacher telling disorderly pupils to sit down and buckle down. In tone, it was pitch-perfect for intimating to his dissatisfied fellow countrymen that they should not be self-satisfied. In their hands, not his, is the responsibility for mending the social fabric that they have played a large part in fraying.”
--Peggy Noonan / Wall Street Journal…on Liz Cheney
“Liz Cheney’s was a moment of real stature. Addressing the issue of impeachment, the third-ranking member of the Republican leadership said, of the events of Jan. 6: ‘The president of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack. Everything that followed was his doing. None of this would have happened without the president. The president could have immediately and forcefully intervened to stop the violence. He did not. There has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.’
“And so she would vote to impeach. Her remarks implicitly urged others in her party to do so, and the bluntness and power of what she said offered them cover: They could be tough too. But most couldn’t. They were stupid and cowardly….
“Ms. Cheney’s stand seemed brought by conviction, and given that she is the only woman in the House Republican leadership, took some guts: She operates within an environment that is dumb, male and clubby. She courted danger by giving them more reason to want to suppress her down the road.
“They didn’t wait for down the road. Rep. Jim Jordan quickly announced she should be stripped of her leadership position. Others showed up on Hannity to drum up momentum. Having a GOP House leader vote for impeachment is ‘untenable,’ Rep. Matt Goetz said, showing he knows the word untenable.
“The distinguishing characteristic of the House Republican Caucus right now is that whenever you say, ‘Could they be that stupid?’ the answer – always – is, ‘Oh yes!’
“That is how to kill the party in American national life – the men make it clear that the woman can’t be brave, that they rough her up because she stood on principle. This week, before the vote, Mr. Jordan was awarded the Medal of Freedom. I am not sure that great honor will ever recover. No press was allowed, but I’m sure the ceremony was elevated, like P.T. Barnum knighting Tom Thumb with a wooden sword in the center ring of the circus….
“For the senators who will try the impeachment, a thought: It’s time to demystify Donald Trump. He leaves the presidency disgraced. He is a diminishing asset: postpresidential power always wanes, and will especially in this case. He can’t tweet his insta-attacks. Not all of his supporters are rocked and disheartened, but some are: What happened on 1/6 was wrong, has been seen by the country as wrong, and people are going to go to jail for it. Thousands turned up that day, but only thousands, in a nation of 330 million. The more time passes, the more we will learn how sinister it was. Evangelicals are having true and meaningful arguments about the meaning of the past five years. So much of Trump’s mystique rests on his wealth and worldly success, but they too are diminishing. Other, newer, younger candidates will draw attention. Just as establishment Republicans have known they cannot win without the Trump base, the Trump base is about to learn they cannot win without non-Trump Republicans. To come together eventually, in coming years, the Normals will have to agree to a party with more-populist inflections. The populists will have to cede something too. Quietly, over time, that will be Mr. Trump himself.”
--Regarding President Trump’s final pardons, the guy who told his supporters he was “draining the swamp” awarded some classic swamp creatures with pardons and commutations. At this point, though, whatever…except in the case of Steve Bannon. As the Wall Street Journal opined:
“(Why) pardon Mr. Bannon? He was charged with fleecing Trump supporters in a scheme to build a private wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. The fund raised $25 million, the indictment says, and donors were told every penny would go to the project.
“The indictment says Mr. Bannon ‘received over $1,000,000,’ which he used ‘to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars’ in ‘personal expenses.’ Payments were covered up by ‘fake invoices and sham ‘vendor’ arrangements.’ If true, Mr. Trump should be furious at his ex-adviser for turning his signature issue into a grift.
“Mr. Bannon pleaded not guilty, so the way to find the truth is to go to trial. The White House summary of the pardon was among the tersest on its list and offered no names in support: ‘Prosecutors pursued Mr. Bannon with charges related to fraud stemming from his involvement in a political project. Mr. Bannon has been an important leader in the conservative movement and is known for his political acumen.’ It’s hard to top that for sheer moral obfuscation.
“Mr. Trump granted more clemency petitions overall than President Obama did in his first term, and more than George W. Bush did in eight years. He had the guts to finally pardon Scooter Libby and Conrad Black. But what gives the pardon power a bad name is using your last hours in office to help a political ally like Mr. Bannon who was charged with ripping off your own supporters.”
Bannon is a classic case of a man who will rot in Hell.
--Idiotic statement of the week…from South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, addressing Joe Biden: “If you don’t stand up against the impeachment of Donald Trump after he leaves office, you’re an incredibly weak figure in American history. President Trump is trying to heal the nation.”
--On the other hand, three former presidents, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, delivered a pre-recorded message for the inauguration concert from the Lincoln Memorial Wednesday night.
“We need to listen not just to people we agree with, but people we don’t,” said Obama, acknowledging the “grace and generosity” Mr. Bush and his wife showed the Obamas after his election in 2008. “Mr. President, I’m pulling for your success. Your success is our country’s success and God bless you,” Bush said to Biden.
--Pope Francis’ message to Joe Biden and the nation:
“Under your leadership, may the American people continue to draw strength from the lofty political, ethical and religious values that have inspired the nation since its founding,” Francis said.
“I likewise ask God, the source of all wisdom and truth, to guide your efforts to foster understanding, reconciliation and peace within the United States and among the nations of the world in order to advance the universal common good,” he said.
--Finally, congratulations to my Uncle C., a longtime professor at the University of Delaware. When I was a kid, we drove down to Newark, DE, to stay with his family, my cousins, and I remember him telling me, ‘Watch this guy, Joe Biden. He’s got talent.’ That was a long, long time ago. And Uncle C. lived to see his guy become president. Pretty cool.
Pray for the men and women of our armed forces…and all the fallen.
We pray for our healthcare workers and first responders.
And we pray for the Biden Administration.
God bless America.
Returns for the week 1/18-1/22
Dow Jones +0.6% 
S&P 500 +1.9% 
S&P MidCap +1.6%
Russell 2000 +2.2%
Nasdaq +4.2% 
Returns for the period 1/1/21-1/22/21
Dow Jones +1.3%
S&P 500 +2.3%
S&P MidCap +6.8%
Russell 2000 +9.8%
Bears 16.7…not updated this week
Hang in there. Mask up…wash your hands.
Let’s hope for better times…as Kenny Chesney sings:
Happy is as happy does….
Drink a beer just because….