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The big question looming over the debate

Presented by Climate Power: POLITICO's must-read briefing on what's driving the afternoon in Washington.
Aug 16, 2023 View in browser

By Eli Okun

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The GOP presidential candidates will have to face Donald Trump's indictments head on at the Milwaukee debate next week. | Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo

REALITY BITES — The criminal charges against DONALD TRUMP out of Fulton County, Ga., are still rocketing around the presidential campaign trail and political firmament today. In the latest bit of 2024 reckoning with 2020, MIKE PENCE forcefully acknowledged the reality that JOE BIDEN won the 2020 election in his first public comments since the latest indictments, even as Trump continues to push the lie that it was stolen.

“The Georgia election was not stolen, and I had no right to overturn the election on Jan. 6,” Pence said, the Indianapolis Star’s Kayla Dwyer reports from the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Legislative Summit in Indianapolis. Though Pence said Trump and the other defendants are innocent until proven guilty, he’s clearly not backing down from this fight.

Nor is Georgia Secretary of State BRAD RAFFENSPERGER: “The most basic principles of a strong democracy are accountability and respect for the Constitution and rule of law,” he posted today on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. “You either have it, or you don’t.”

All the candidates, not just Pence, will have to face the matter head on at the Milwaukee debate next week, Fox News co-moderator MARTHA MacCALLUM tells Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein in a debate preview. “It will absolutely be incumbent upon them to address” Trump’s indictments, MacCallum says. “Voters need to hear how they see it, and the option that they’re trying to provide. It’s very tricky territory for these candidates … [T]hey’re gonna have to be clear on where they stand on it.”

MacCallum also indicates that foreign policy, the economy and abortion will be on the docket, with perhaps less emphasis on other culture-war issues. She and co-moderator BRET BAIER tell Kelly Garrity that they’re preparing for scenarios with and without Trump on stage.

WHAT YOU TALKIN’ BOUT, WILLIS? — DA FANI WILLIS’ proposed timeline to get to trial within half a year might not be realistic, NYT’s Richard Fausset, Danny Hakim and Shaila Dewan report. Racketeering cases can stretch out for quite some time, especially with a lineup of 19 defendants, and experts tell the Times that the process could take years, not months. There won’t just be political delays: The simple logistics will eat up a lot of court dates.

KNOWING SCOTT McAFEE — “Scott McAfee Has Been a Judge Six Months. He Is Now Assigned Trump’s Georgia Case,” by WSJ’s Cameron McWhirter: “McAfee, 34 years old, has spent much of his career as a prosecutor, first for the Fulton County district attorney and later for the U.S. attorney’s office in Atlanta. McAfee was randomly assigned the case, but he has worked for key people involved in the events of 2020.”

MEANWHILE, IN WASHINGTON … The latest federal criminal charges against Trump for trying to subvert the 2020 election have landed among Americans much in the same way previous cases have: An outright (albeit narrow) majority of U.S. adults think Trump broke the law in Georgia, according to a new AP/NORC poll, while much smaller percentages think he either acted unethically but within legal bounds or did nothing wrong.

And though the survey again finds Trump’s standing strong among Republicans, 64% of Americans say they definitely (53%) or probably (11%) would not vote for him in November 2024. On the other hand, Biden does only a bit better: His numbers are 43% and 11%, which also adds up to a majority of the country.

TANYA CHUTKAN’S CONUNDRUM — “‘Biased.’ ‘Corrupt.’ ‘Deranged.’ Trump’s Taunts Test Limits of Release,” by NYT’s Maggie Haberman, Jonathan Swan and Alan Feuer: “Some lawyers have said that if Mr. Trump were an ordinary citizen issuing these attacks, he would be in jail by now. The question is whether Mr. Trump will face consequences for this kind of behavior ahead of a trial.”

Good Wednesday afternoon. Thanks for reading Playbook PM. Drop me a line at [email protected].


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HORROR IN HAWAII — The Bidens will travel to Maui on Monday in the wake of the country’s deadliest wildfire in more than a century, the White House announced today. They’ll survey the devastation and meet with officials who are leading the recovery efforts.


MAJOR MILESTONE — As the Inflation Reduction Act turns one, with Biden leading a White House celebration this afternoon, an array of stories today try to take stock of its impact on America. One new Energy Department report forecasts that the IRA and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law together will save Americans from $27-38 billion on electricity costs by the end of the decade, The Hill’s Zack Budryk scoops. It also forecasts a 41% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2030, compared to 27% if the laws hadn’t passed. (Biden’s goal is 50%.)

— The IRS has boosted its headcount to almost 90,000, its highest number in more than a decade, with the infusion of IRA cash, NYT’s Alan Rappeport reports. As the agency has grown in the past year, it’s also been able to digitize more operations and improve customer service.

— And the drug pricing debate has changed for good, experts tell Axios’ Tina Reed and Jason Millman. Even though the outcome of forthcoming Medicare negotiations is unclear — and court challenges loom — “the political terms the IRA set will be enshrined in future health policy debates.”

— “New Tax-Credit Market Aims to Funnel Billions to Clean Energy,” by WSJ’s Amrith Ramkumar: “A government plan to let companies cut their taxes by financing clean-energy projects kicked off with a deal to help fund a $1.5 billion wind-energy transaction that officials hope will spur tens of billions of dollars in climate financing. The tax-credit plan is part of the climate legislation.”

The political fallout: To mark the anniversary, the Senate GOP-aligned One Nation is launching a six-figure digital ad buy criticizing Sen. JOE MANCHIN (D-W.Va.) for the law, NBC’s Bridget Bowman scoops. The ad says Manchin “played a pivotal role in writing President Biden’s green energy scheme. … Now, 100,000 West Virginia jobs are at risk.”

Manchin tells a very different story, of course. In a new statement today, he celebrated the IRA as a “historic” boon to ordinary Americans. “Make no mistake, the IRA is exactly the kind of legislation that in normal political times both political parties would proudly embrace,” he added, while slipping in pointed digs at both parties and the White House.

The other author: Sen. RON WYDEN (D-Ore.) was the less public “godfather” of the law, Semafor’s Jordan Weissmann writes. In an interview, Wyden says the IRA’s investments are “beating expectations,” and reflects on how it evolved over time out of the ashes of cap and trade.

WHAT’S THE HOLDUP — “White House inaction forces another FAA leadership change,” by Alex Daugherty: “The Federal Aviation Administration is poised to get its third acting chief in a year and a half [KATIE THOMSON] — prolonging the uncertainty at the top of the air safety agency as the Biden administration struggles to name a permanent leader. The FAA’s current leader, acting Administrator POLLY TROTTENBERG, will have to step down on Oct. 25.”

BUREAUCRACY STRUGGLES — A massive backlog of Americans trying to get new/renewed passports has turned into a major post-pandemic challenge for Secretary ANTONY BLINKEN and the State Department, NYT’s Michael Crowley reports. “The State Department says its goal is to reduce processing times to about six to eight weeks for routine service,” from 10 to 13 currently.


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WHERE THE GRASS IS GREENER — Rep. MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE (R-Ga.) blasted Georgia Gov. BRIAN KEMP for criticizing Trump’s false election fraud claims, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Adam Van Brimmer, Tia Mitchell, Patricia Murphy and Greg Bluestein report. And Greene indicated that she could be up for a primary contest against Kemp in a potential 2026 Senate race — or for joining Trump’s ticket as his running mate next year. She said she’d consider being his VP “very, very heavily.”

YOWZA — Ohio Secretary of State FRANK LaROSE, who hopes to land Trump’s endorsement in the Senate GOP primary, fired his press secretary, ROB NICHOLS, for having tweeted critically about Trump, NBC’s Henry Gomez reports from Cleveland.

CRUZ CONTROL — “Could Ted Cruz Lose Reelection?” by RealClearPolitics’ Sean Trende: “[T]his may well be another 2018 environment for [Sen. TED] CRUZ. Given the shifts in Texas over the past four years, he seems unlikely to survive such an environment. Regardless, Cruz definitely can win this election. But, unlike most other Texas races, his fate is in many ways out of his hands. There are enough things that could go wrong for him that the race should be considered genuinely competitive at this point.”


RUSSIA’S PRESS CRACKDOWN CONTINUES — POLITICO reporter EVA HARTOG, who’s covered Russia for a decade, is being kicked out of the country, our colleague Claudia Chiappa reports. Hartog was told, without an explanation, that her visa would not be extended. “We are extremely disappointed by these actions, but they do not diminish POLITICO’s unwavering commitment to covering the Russian government and its war in Ukraine,” POLITICO Europe editor-in-chief Jamil Anderlini said.


TROUBLE IN ISRAEL — “Milley to visit Israel as U.S. concerns grow over Israeli military crisis,” by Axios’ Barak Ravid

DANCE OF THE SUPERPOWERS — As all sorts of ties fray between the U.S. and China, the U.S.-China Science and Technology Agreement could be the next domino to fall, WSJ’s Karen Hao and Sha Hua scoop. Rep. MIKE GALLAGHER (R-Wis.) wants to allow the landmark 1979 agreement to expire without being renewed for the first time this month, as national security minds worry about China exploiting the cooperation to muscle ahead of the U.S. militarily. “Many scientists warn, however, that Washington would be severing ties as China is making its greatest contributions to scientific advancements, and cutting it off risks slowing American progress in critical areas.” The White House declined to detail its plans.

It’s not just scientific research, of course: In the business sector, China has forced U.S. behemoth Intel to abandon plans for a $5.4 billion merger with an Israeli semiconductor company, Reuters’ Anirban Sen reports. Chinese antitrust regulators took too long to sign off on the deal, and the companies called it off.

DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I DO — “For Ilhan Omar, not all foreign influence spending is bad,” by Jewish Insider’s Matthew Kassel: “[W]hen she visited Qatar last November to watch the World Cup, it was unclear who had paid for the trip, which the progressive lawmaker neglected to clarify. Her office did not answer questions from The New York Times in December about the funding source after she had returned. It turns out that the trip was funded by the Qatari government.”


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2024 WATCH

DeSANTIS OPENS UP … A BIT — “Ron DeSantis on Fatherhood, Parents’ Rights, and the 2024 Campaign,” by Time’s Molly Ball in Des Moines: “As a father, [Florida Gov. RON] DeSANTIS says, he’s not the primary disciplinarian in the family, but he’s capable of bringing the hammer down when needed. ‘I’m kind of the good guy most of the time — I bring the presents, I bring treats, especially when I’m on the road,’ he tells me. ‘Day to day, CASEY does more of the disciplining.’ …

“DeSantis’s attempt to personalize these issues has limits. When I ask how he was parented, he talks about where his parents were from — Youngstown, Ohio, and Aliquippa, Penn. — but says nothing about them as people. When I ask whether his view of the primacy of family comes from his faith, he responds in generalities rather than give a window into his personal spirituality.”

GREAT SCOTT — Sen. TIM SCOTT (R-S.C.) still seems to be on the rise in Iowa, where he enjoyed a large and positive reception at the State Fair yesterday, NYT’s Anjali Huynh reports from Des Moines.


TRANSITION — Dan Valencia is joining DLA Piper’s patent litigation subgroup as a partner. He previously was a partner at Covington & Burling and is an International Trade Commission alum.

ENGAGED — Michael Murphy, treasury manager at the NRCC, proposed to Danielle Grosse, senior strategic planner on the LM Evolve team at Lockheed Martin, in Hilton Head, S.C., while on vacation during August recess. They met while they were students at the University of Florida. Pic

BONUS BIRTHDAY: New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy

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The big question looming over the debate


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