Trump and Bloomberg trade petty insults as 2020 election begins.

Plus, a question about conflicts of interest in Congress.

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Today’s read: 9 minutes.

This is a huge day in news, and today’s newsletter reflects that. 2020 voting begins tonight, the Trump-Bloomberg drama is at an all-time high, a reader asked a great question about corruption in Congress and there are big changes happening to Medicaid.

Michael Bloomberg speaking at a gun safety town hall. Photo: Gage Skidmore | Flickr

This week.

  • Monday: Voting begins in Iowa and closing arguments in the impeachment trial.

  • Tuesday: President Trump’s State of the Union address.

  • Wednesday: Final remarks on impeachment and the vote on both articles of impeachment (Trump is expected to be acquitted).

  • Thursday: Trump speaks at the National Prayer breakfast.

  • Friday: The eighth Democratic debate will be held in New Hampshire. There will be three debates in the month of February.


Tonight.

The 2020 election truly begins. That’s right: Iowa voters will be caucusing today, and by this time tomorrow we should have an idea of who has come out on top in the first state to vote in the Democratic primary. Iowa caucuses are a unique and archaic American tradition. It’s not just people punching ballots in a booth. Instead, voters show up at polling places across Iowa and stand with representatives for the candidates of their choice. Candidates try to gather up at least 15% of the assembled room to collect delegates in each county, and then try to collect the most delegates across the whole state. If a candidate doesn’t gather 15% of the room, then the voters move to their second-choice. Recounting happens throughout the night, and when it’s all over there is a big announcement about who earned the most delegates. The Associated Press explained how caucuses work here and you can see a breakdown with their graphic below:


Who is the favorite?

It’s hard to say. The most recent polls show Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden jockeying for first place, but Bernie owns the enthusiasm and momentum. Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg have both had strong showings as well. But the Des Moines Register, Iowa’s premier paper, said it wasn’t releasing its famous final poll of voters because a respondent reported one of the candidate’s names was missing from their survey (some reporting indicates the name was missing because a telephone poll operator zoomed in too far on their computer). That set off loads of speculation and accusations that the paper was hiding a Sanders lead. Because Iowa is so white and its system is so unique, there’s been a lot of criticism about the outsized attention it gets. But hate or love it, tonight is a huge night for building momentum in the election — and though there may not be a clear winner, whichever campaigns have a good night will try to sell America on their path forward. Over the weekend, former Secretary of State John Kerry was overheard in an Iowa hotel mulling the possibility of entering the race because Bernie Sanders could be “taking down the Democratic Party — down whole.”


What D.C. is talking about.

The Michael Bloomberg-Donald Trump dogfight. For months, Bloomberg has been buying television ads trashing the president on Trump’s favorite channel, Fox News. This weekend, Bloomberg got a huge break when the DNC announced new rules to qualify for the debate stage. Part of the changes say that a candidate no longer has to meet a grassroots funding support threshold, which means Bloomberg — who is self-funding — could make the debate stage this month. Trump went off on a Twitter tirade starting Sunday morning, calling Bloomberg “Mini Mike” and deriding his size (Bloomberg is 5’8”). Bloomberg’s camp responded by mocking Trump’s “obesity.” Then the Super Bowl happened. In a pre-game interview with Sean Hannity, Trump talked about how Bloomberg “wants a box for the debates to stand on” and said, “I would love to run against Bloomberg.” During the game, Trump ran a $5 million ad after kickoff, featuring the clemency release of Alice Marie Johnson. Bloomberg responded with an ad of his own, this one costing $11 million for 60 seconds of airtime, also prominently featuring an African-American woman, but about the threat of gun violence.


What the right is saying.

Trump went after Bloomberg in his typical fashion: he nicknamed him and then attacked him on his looks. But he also tried to tap into the anger and frustration the left has with the Democratic Party, noting that the rule changes seem clearly designed to benefit Bloomberg. Many liberals are disgusted by the idea of a billionaire entering and dominating because he simply has more money to spend, and Trump’s political instincts recognize that. Trump advisers told Axios that the president was legitimately concerned about Bloomberg, as he understands politics is a business and fears the unlimited funding Bloomberg has for his campaign. Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to Trump, got in on the Bloomberg bashing: "His outsized wealth and outsized ego are matched by his overwrought jealousy and spitefulness towards the president,” she said. Lots of conservatives reacted to Bloomberg’s Super Bowl ad by saying how ridiculous it was that a rich man surrounded by armed bodyguards is telling Americans they need to give up their guns to help the country.


What the left is saying.

When Trump accused Bloomberg of wanting boxes or a lift to stand on for the debate, Bloomberg’s national press secretary Julie Wood responded: “The president is lying. He is a pathological liar who lies about everything: his fake hair, his obesity, and his spray-on tan.” Bloomberg also answered on his own. “I will stand on my accomplishments of what I’ve done to bring this country together and get things done,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for a long time. I stand twice as tall as he does on the stage, on the stage that matters.” There are a lot of mixed feelings about Bloomberg on the left. Some moderate, centrist Democrats view him as a better alternative than Joe Biden. He’s got more money, he can seem more put together, and — in some ways — he’s got better progressive credentials. The establishment views him favorably because he’s done so much to support Democrats in presidential and congressional races. But there’s serious angst in the progressive wing over the way Bloomberg is essentially buying his way into the race, over his record on stop and frisk in New York, the money he’s donated to Republicans and about past comments he’s made toward women.


My take.

We’re watching two grown, adult, rich men call each other fat and short through national press secretaries and highly paid staff. It’s embarrassing. Embarrassing for the country, embarrassing for both the candidate and the president, and should be embarrassing for the people supporting either of them. The fact that Donald Trump, the most powerful man in the world, feels compelled to mock a low-polling candidate because he is 5’8” is just beyond parody. It would have been unthinkable for a president a few years ago. That Michael Bloomberg, one of the wealthiest men alive, thinks the way to voters’ hearts is to return in kind with fat-shaming and jokes about spray tans is equally stupid. It’s a great encapsulation of the degradation of this moment and makes me deeply resent the system — the media, the government, the fundraising, the elections — that make this kind of stuff relevant. Especially when you pause to consider how many Americans are looking desperately for real change. Happy Monday!


McConnell wins again.

On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell managed to keep the party in line and voted to kill a motion that would have allowed witnesses in the impeachment trial of President Trump. It was one of the most significant victories in his time as majority leader and means Trump is on a fast-track to acquittal in a trial that will never hear from a single witness. It could all be over as early as Wednesday. Click.


Tweet of the night.


Your questions, answered.

Reminder: I love reader questions. To submit one, just reply to this newsletter and write in to me!

Q: I would be interested in what other senators and House members have children/family members that have board positions in companies in countries that the U.S. has international relations with?

- Ed, West Chester, PA

Tangle: The short answer is that there are more conflicts of interest in Congress than we can reasonably keep track of. That’s one of the reasons why so many reporters have scoffed at the seriousness of allegations around Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. It’s not because those reporters are liberal hacks, it’s because the Joe-Hunter Biden story is really about an appearance of a conflict of interest; there’s no evidence Joe Biden ever acted in his capacity as Vice President to benefit his son, as I’ve explained.

On the other hand, numerous members of Congress have active conflicts of interest that are far more eyebrow-raising to me. You don’t even have to look at the family members of many of these people. Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) and Rep Chris Collins (R-NY) bought $1 million of discounted shares in Innate Immunotherapeutics in 2017. Price was Trump’s nominee to lead the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (he resigned a few months later after he was caught using private charters and military aircraft to travel). Both Price and Collins received private placement offers for discounted stocks and simultaneously sat on House committees who could advance the firm’s interests. Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA) and his wife invested money in drug-device companies while Peters helped lead the opposition to a bill that would have imposed new restrictions on patent infringement lawsuits (these restrictions would have hurt the bottom lines of the companies he and his wife were invested in).

In 2012, The Washington Post wrote an entire article about all the members of Congress who trade in companies while simultaneously making laws that impact those same companies. In 2017, Harvard Business Review broke down how those investments are still impacting Congress today. Even more, HBR looked at the success of members of Congress’ investments and they found something that may or may not surprise you:

Firms where a greater percentage of lawmakers invest have significantly higher performance in the subsequent year — with each percentage of congressional membership owning stock worth about a 1% improvement in ROA or Tobin’s Q — suggesting that politicians may be privy to nonpublic information about future regulatory or legislative actions that may prove helpful to these companies. It’s also possible that members of Congress use their influence to benefit the firms in which they invest.

HBR added that this is consistent with previous research showing members of the House and Senate generate “abnormally higher returns on their investments” compared to typical investors. The examples, again, are endless. In 2012, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) stopped a vote from coming up that would have impacted the stock she owned in Visa. Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA) has also faced questions for his voting and stock portfolio.

There are other, different, more overt conflicts as well. Elaine Chao is the Secretary of the Transportation Department. She’s also the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). In June, Politico wrote a feature article about how Chao has paved the way for grants totaling at least $78 million for the favorite projects of McConnell. All this is happening in a year he’s campaigning for re-election and is desperate for domestic political wins in Kentucky.

All of these things happen in Congress, and you don’t have to look to a member’s family to find them. This is to say nothing, of course, of President Donald Trump and the laundry list of conflicts of interest he and his children have. I hope this gives some context to the question of conflicts of interest, how prevalent they are, and how they impact the very people currently investigating both Donald Trump and calling for investigations into Joe Biden. It’s one of the reasons I nod my head in approval when Trump talks about “draining the swamp,” and his conflicts are why I have no faith he’ll be the one to actually do it.


A story that matters.

The Trump administration has quietly proposed changes to Medicaid that could have huge impacts on states across the country. Reminder: Medicaid is the state and federal program that helps provide health care to lower-income Americans (Medicare is the federal program for people over 65 or with a disability). It’s a very technical series of proposed changes including block grant proposals and oversight changes. The upshot is governors, health insurance groups and Medicaid directors say the new rules could cost various states billions of dollars and negatively impact their ability to serve the most vulnerable people. According to Axios, the oversight changes mean “Medicaid payments to hospitals could be reduced by $23 billion to $31 billion a year, or by 12.8%-16.9%, per the American Heart Association.” The Texas Hospital Association reacted to the oversight changes, too: “The proposed rule would collapse Texas’ already fragile rural health care infrastructure.” The Trump administration says it’s trying to shine a line on payment arrangements that mask or circumvent existing rules and cost taxpayers money. It also proposed a Medicaid alternative to red states that it says will reduce spending on public insurance, giving states the option to receive their Medicaid funding as a lump sum “block grant.” Critics say this will limit benefits offered and decrease enrollment for a program currently serving 70 million Americans. You can read more here.


Numbers.


Have a nice day.

A group of Thai doctors say they have successfully treated the coronavirus with a cocktail of flu and HIV medicines, according to Yahoo News. The Bangkok doctors said the treatment has significantly improved the status of patients — including one 70-year-old woman — in even the most extreme cases of the virus. "This is not the cure, but the patient's condition has vastly improved. From testing positive for 10 days under our care, after applying this combination of medicine the test result became negative within 48 hours," Dr. Kriangska Atipornwanich, a lung specialist, told reporters. 475 people have recovered from the virus in China so far, and 361 people have died. Click.


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