Discover more from Letters from an American
July 31, 2023
At Ukraine’s request, Saudi Arabia will host peace talks with up to 30 countries next month about negotiating an end to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The meetings will include the United Kingdom, Poland, and the European Union, as well as the United States. Brazil, India and South Africa—all three members of BRICS, the economic group made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—will attend, but Russia is not invited. Laurence Norman and Stephen Kalin of the Wall Street Journal report that diplomats picked Saudi Arabia to host the talks in hope of persuading China, which has close ties to Russia, to participate.
The basis for the talks will be Ukraine’s ten-point plan, which includes the removal of all Russian troops from Ukraine, but Norman and Kalin report that the plan will be adopted only if it is broadened into a widely shared set of principles that reinforce a rules-based international order. That ten-point plan calls for nuclear safety, food security, energy security, the release of all prisoners and deportees, territorial integrity, withdrawal of troops, justice, prevention of environmental damage, military security, and a firm end to the war.
While Ukrainians have the specific examples of the current war in mind—the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, which is now occupied by Russia, for example, and Russia’s destruction of food supplies and energy infrastructure, as well as Russian kidnapping of children—these principles have universal appeal.
“The Ukrainian Peace Formula contains 10 fundamental points, the implementation of which will not only ensure peace for Ukraine, but also create mechanisms to counter future conflicts in the world,” the head of Ukraine’s presidential office, Andriy Yermak, said in a statement. “We are deeply convinced that the Ukrainian peace plan should be taken as a basis, because the war is taking place on our land.”
At home, as David Smith noted today in The Guardian, quoting Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg, Republican talking points against Biden and the Democrats “are having a really bad summer.” Republicans have centered their attacks on what they insist is a crisis at the southern border, crime in cities, and inflation. But in fact, as Smith points out, there is relative calm at the border (unlawful crossings dropped by more than 70% when Biden’s policies went into effect in early May) and violent crime has fallen (while Republicans are in the awkward position of explaining away Trump’s own apparent lawbreaking and threats of violence).
And inflation is down to 3%, lower than in any other major economy, while employment is at its strongest rate in half a century. On Friday, Yale School of Management professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and Steven Tian, a former quantitative investment analyst, wrote an article in Fortune titled: “Bidenomics’ Critics Are Being Proven Wrong. Happy Days Are Here Again.”
Sonnenfeld and Tian wrote that the economic theories of the past were proved wrong long ago and “[t]he U.S. economy is now pulling off what all these experts said was impossible: strong growth and record employment amidst plummeting inflation. And just as importantly, thanks to Bidenomics, the fruits of economic prosperity are inclusive and broad-based, amidst a renaissance in American manufacturing, investment, and productivity.” They conclude: “Bidenomics is proving to be the most impactful and transformative public investment program since FDR’s New Deal, with even Morgan Stanley acknowledging that economists broadly underestimated the positive effect of Bidenomics.”
As Smith wrote, the relative weakness of attacks on policy positions means that Republicans are pivoting to attacks on Biden’s character, not a bad move considering their own front runner appears to be weak on that front. Hence today’s House Committee on Oversight closed-door hearing with Devon Archer, Hunter Biden’s former business partner.
Committee chair James Comer (R-KY) told reporters that the hearing reaffirmed their questions—perhaps because they didn’t like the answers—about Joe Biden’s knowledge of his son’s foreign business dealings. Representative Dan Goldman (D-NY), who said he was the only committee member who stayed for the whole testimony (suggesting that the Republicans weren’t really interested in it), said that “Archer testified that Joe Biden NEVER discussed any business with Hunter and his associates” and that “there was no bribe from Burisma to Joe or Hunter.”
Representative Andy Biggs (R-AZ) confirmed that Archer “didn’t know anything about” the supposed $5 million bribe to Biden that Republicans have made much of. Goldman concluded: “This investigation has uncovered ZERO evidence connected to President Biden.”
But there is another story that would have been a scandal in any other era, when we weren’t completely exhausted by scandals: the giant trucking company Yellow is on the verge of bankruptcy and is shutting down, throwing 30,000 people, including 22,000 Teamsters union members, out of work.
Just three years ago, the Trump administration overruled the Pentagon to certify that Yellow was critical to maintaining national security, qualifying it for a $700 million federal loan during the pandemic. Both White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin were personally involved in the deal, which Trump’s 2020 campaign used to suggest Trump was friendly to workers.
According to Yeganeh Torbati and Jeff Stein, who covered the story in April 2022 for the Washington Post, the $700 million loan “was by far the largest provided to any company through the program for businesses critical to national security.” Yellow has repaid $55 million in interest on the loan, but just $230 in principal. In May the company owed $729.2 million to the U.S. Treasury.
Still, the first New York Times/Sienna College poll of the 2024 campaign shows Trump winning 54% of the votes of likely Republican primary voters. The next closest challenger is Florida governor Ron DeSantis, at 17%. It appears Trump still has a lock on his base, and it is that base, the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent points out, that is demanding that House Republicans, led by House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) do more to protect Trump and bring down Democratic president Joe Biden.
For all that the base is in Trump’s camp, Peter Nicholas and Megan Lebowitz of NBC News note that of all the dozens of people who served in Trump’s cabinet, only four have said publicly they support his reelection and many are openly opposing him. Semafor’s Washington bureau chief Benji Sarlin noted that while “[e]veryone has thoroughly absorbed it already, it is 100% insane to have a president opposed by basically his whole cabinet—some of whom actively are or considered running against him themselves.”
Journalist Brian Beutler points out that Republican leaders could get together and fix their Trump problem by being honest with their voters about Trump’s behavior, “but refuse to.” Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne adds: “There is a vicious cycle here. Republican leaders who know how dangerous Trump is fear speaking up because Trump is strong with their electorate. They stay silent. Trump gets stronger. They become even more fearful. Rinse and repeat.”
Trump’s political action committee, which theoretically is supposed to give money to political allies, has spent $40 million on legal fees for the former president and his aides in the first half of 2023. His allies are creating a new legal defense fund to keep the money coming in as his legal troubles get worse. Trump spokesman Steven Cheung said: “In order to combat these heinous actions by Joe Biden’s cronies and to protect these innocent people from financial ruin and prevent their lives from being completely destroyed, a new legal defense fund will help pay for their legal fees.”
But there are signs that the era that celebrated strongmen is coming to an end as people recognize the danger of such centralization of power. A study by New York Times reporters on Friday noted that Elon Musk has steadily come to dominate satellite internet technology with the Starlink technology made by his SpaceX rocket company, and that he has used that dominance to restrict the activities of Ukraine’s military. Musk began to launch satellites into space in 2019, and currently has in position more than 4,500 of the 42,000 satellites he plans. He controls more than 50% of the globe’s working satellites.
The federal government contracts with SpaceX for its rockets and the technology that reaches into areas other companies don’t yet reach. Ukraine, for example, depends on the 42,000 Starlink terminals across the country. Late last year, Musk restricted the use of Starlink on the battlefields, leaving Ukrainian troops without the ability to communicate in a way that suggests he was conducting his own foreign and military policy that conflicted with that of the United States. But a number of countries worry that no one man should have such power, and U.S. officials noted his proposals for a peace plan that would have given Russia Ukrainian land.