POLITICO Playbook: What the right gets wrong about Big Tech and the Capitol coupJanuary 16, 2021
Happy Saturday morning, Playbook readers. I’m KARA SWISHER (or, as I like to be known as, NOT BEN SHAPIRO), your guest host today.
It’s become one of the most irritating aspects of the exceedingly complex issues surrounding the role tech played in the coup last week at the Capitol.
Which is to say, amid all the entirely avoidable destruction, a relentless and bizarre focus by some in the GOP and elsewhere on perhaps the most pointless part of the crisis: Their loss of Twitter followers and gnashing of teeth over censorship by Big Tech.
Since this me-me-also-me crew — led by laughables like Rep. MATT GAETZ (R-Fla.), who seems to live in a permanent state of inaccuracy and way too much hair gel — seems to be persistently unable to read the room, allow me.
1. The most important part of the equation is that, in the case of de-platforming President DONALD TRUMP, tech companies did the right thing in this instance, especially given the tense and dangerous situation that was unfolding at the Capitol.
After years of violations by Trump — especially on Twitter, but also on Facebook and YouTube — that were allowed due to his being “newsworthy” and followed by a weird and ineffective system of labeling, the companies moved quickly after weeks of fallacious election fraud claims escalated to incitement of violence. Along with child pornography and terrorism, this is among the brightest of red lines for these platforms and Trump clearly crossed it.
This was not a First Amendment issue as some like to claim, but a simple case of private companies not wanting to help along an insurrection. Trump deserved what he got and, frankly, his absence has lowered the twitchy and reactive temperature by a lot, at least online. Well done, tech.
2. And yet, while some have described Trump to be the digital arsonist in this case, I would posit that he was only following the rules set for him and it was entirely the fault of the tech companies for giving him the kind of latitude that allowed him to go that far. Like a parent who gives a child endless bowls of sugar and then wonders why their kid is batshit crazy, tech has pretended to be obtuse to the consequences of their products and the choices that have been made about them.
For years I have written that these companies have turned themselves into the digital arms dealers of the Internet age, amplifying and weaponizing everything. They might have cleaned up the Trump mess, but they also made the Trump mess possible by architecting systems that thrive on enragement.
Most of all, they have tried to duck responsibility. I have always been amazed by Facebook CEO and founder MARK ZUCKERBERG’S statement that he did not want to be an “arbiter of the truth.” My question for him: Why then did he build a platform that requires it?
3. Even more importantly, we must examine the power that these companies wield and how to deal with that going forward. In the case of stifling Trump, it was a good thing and perhaps a one-off — can you imagine there will be another Tweet Mussolini as effective anytime soon? I do not. But while justifiably putting a sock in Trump’s toxic pie-hole, they also showed how swiftly they could end whole businesses, as was the case with the right-fave social media platform Parler.
I am the one who did the disastrous interview of its CEO JOHN MATZE, which led in part to this turn of events. And by disastrous, I mean he was arrogant, ill-prepared to answer questions about its moderation at a critical time and truly tone-deaf to legitimate concerns about the way he ran his service and what was allowed to thrive there. It gave others who had power over Parler, like the Apple and Google app stores and, most significantly, its server vendor, Amazon Web Services, ample proof of mismanagement needed to dump Parler.
That said, there is nothing that Parler was doing that companies like Facebook were not guilty of too and in larger measure and for a very long time. While I would not go as far as calling the company a scapegoat, as it did allow its system to be used in dangerous ways, it certainly got a lion’s share of the hurt that rained down on tech and that others probably deserved even more.
4. This brings us to the issue at hand: Power. Tech companies have too much of it, but it should be looked at through the lens of market concentration that results in the dampening of innovation needed to inevitably upend the leaders. Such a situation demands substantive and bipartisan action to deal with each company differently and with different remedies, which include fines, enforcement of existing laws, new regulation and, yes, antitrust action. That has already started, which is good, as has a series of dopey attempts to repeal Section 230, which provides broad immunity to digital platforms. What it needs is reform, which will only come when know-nothings like Gaetz hush their exhausting bellyaching and the real legislators sit down and sort it out in a measured way.
ALEX, ALEX, PANTS ON FIRE — Amid all the news that continues to flood the zone, perhaps the story that deserves the most attention is about outgoing Health and Human Services head ALEX AZAR. In this unshockable age, the report from the Washington Post was shocking: that the Trump administration lackey lied to the states about the reserves of Covid-19 vaccines available for new patients. Instead of getting new shipments to expand those getting shots, the cupboard is revealed to be bare beyond those in need of a second dose under the two-shot treatment plan. This happened on the day that it was reported Azar issued his resignation letter (effective Jan. 20), creating yet another mess the Biden administration will have to clean up.
According to the Post: “Nirav Shah, the director of Maine’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said he learned only Friday, by calling his state’s designated contact at Warp Speed, that the reserve no longer existed.
“Maine still plans to broaden vaccination next week to those 70 and older. ‘Who is in line will not change,’ Shah said. ‘The velocity of that line will change because this bolus of doses that we intuited was coming based on Azar’s comments is not coming.’”
This is stunning in its incompetence and mendacity. I have done several interviews on this topic for my New York Times Opinion podcast called Sway, including with a pair of married German scientists whose company BioNTech that created the Pfizer vaccine, and also with Dr. MONCEF SLAOUI, the chief scientific adviser for the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed. Slaoui, the 30-year pharmaceutical industry veteran and registered Democrat, was in a particularly dicey jam, since he did not “want to get into the politics” even though Trump and his team had politicized the federal response to the pandemic beyond recognition.
At one point earlier this year, there was a possibility of also talking to Azar, but I had long thought his inability to answer questions truthfully made any interview worthless on every count. From the stifling of NANCY MESSONNIER, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after her accurate assessment of how the pandemic would unfold to his rosy take that 100 million doses would be delivered by the end of 2020 to yesterday’s appalling departure, he has turned out to be the most damaging member of the Cabinet, given the Covid death toll.
And that is saying a lot.
Why-not-use-a-crisis-to-get-members is the Twitter jam of the other right-leaning platform called Gab, which touts itself as the free-speech wing of the free-speech party. To do so, it posted the most bizarre tweet I have seen in a long while (it feels like an ad to attract users to the site) and then — ding, ding — limited comments. (Where’s that popinjay Gaetz to claim censorship when you need him?)
American Thinker did a 180 on what it published about Dominion Voting Systems, the voting machine company that has been the subject of a series of specious conspiracy theories from SIDNEY POWELL, RUDY GIULIANI and Trump. There have been mea culpas from Fox News and others, but American Thinker’s took the cake IMHO. I did a podcast with Dominion CEO JOHN POULOS recently and, let me say, it will not be enough to escape the litigation headed its way.
I have two words: Cobra Kai. The hit Netflix series, based on the iconic Karate Kid movies from the 1980s, was first a YouTube Red offering in 2018 and 2019. After the Google unit exited scripted TV, the more popular streaming service picked it up and now it is on fire. I am interviewing its star RALPH MACCHIO this week, so would love any questions sent my way on Twitter [@karaswisher], as long as they are not about the crane move. Also watch it as a gift to yourself in this dire time, as it is surprisingly poignant and complex, as well as very funny. Cobra Kai, never die.
Back to the Playbook team …
VAX AMERICANA — “Biden warns of challenges ahead as he rolls out new vaccine plan,” by Alice Miranda Ollstein, Adam Cancryn and Sarah Owermohle: “The Biden team plans to send vaccines to federally qualified health centers in disadvantaged neighborhoods and wants to set up mass vaccination sites in sports stadiums, community centers and churches. That would provide new outlets for communities that lack hospitals and pharmacies.
“But the administration will still need ‘to move heaven and earth’ to hit Biden's goal of 100 million vaccinations in the first 100 days, the president-elect said in a speech in Wilmington, Del., Friday afternoon that was calibrated to temper expectations. … Biden's team envisions a billion-dollar national ad campaign … [T]he plan depends on convincing a divided and shellshocked Congress to quickly approve tens of billions more dollars for the effort. State and federal officials are also already grappling with a litany of challenges.”
CORONAVIRUS RAGING … National numbers are starting to show a bit of improvement the past few days, and testing is at an all-time high. Still, the U.S. reported 3,679 Covid-19 deaths and 244,000 new coronavirus cases Friday.
STAFFING UP — The Biden transition announced Francis Collins will continue as NIH director. Eric Lander, president of the Broad Institute, will be nominated as director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and be the presidential science adviser — a position Biden is elevating to the Cabinet level. Alondra Nelson, Kei Koizumi and Narda Jones will also join OSTP, and Frances Arnold and Maria Zuber will be external co-chairs of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
THE LATEST ‘WHY I LEFT NEW YORK’ … “NRA declares bankruptcy, plans to incorporate in Texas,” AP: “The NRA filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in federal court in Dallas and said it planned to incorporate in Texas, where records show it formed a limited liability corporation, Sea Girt LLC, in November 2020.”
IS MY PILLOW GUY RUNNING THE COUNTRY? … CNN: “MyPillow CEO hints at scrapped plan to replace CIA director with Trump loyalist”: “A Trump ally’s notes visible as he visited the West Wing on Friday revealed a suggestion to replace the current CIA director with the current acting chief of staff at the Pentagon. But according to multiple sources, it was not the first time the idea was broached inside the White House.
“MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a Republican donor who has informally advised President Donald Trump, was seen leaving the West Wing on Friday carrying pages of notes that appear to outline a series of recommendations. Among those that are visible are the words, ‘Move Kash Patel to CIA acting’ a reference to the current chief of staff to acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller.”
— “Even the Guy the MyPillow CEO Wanted to Enlist for a Coup Is Confused,” New York magazine: “In bold at the top [of Lindell’s paper] reads: ‘Frank Colon as acting National Security.’ … Intelligencer spoke with a person fitting that exact description — a cyber attorney based out of Fort Meade — who expressed confusion on Friday afternoon at apparent plans for him to be involved in a coup. This Frank Colon described himself as ‘just a government employee who does work for the Army.’ He seemed befuddled why he would [be] floated to the president in any senior role and said that he never met Lindell.”
SPEAKING OF KASH PATEL: “Scoop: Gina Haspel threatened to resign over plan to install Kash Patel as CIA deputy,” Axios: “The revelation stunned national security officials and almost blew up the leadership of the world’s most powerful spy agency. Only a series of coincidences — and last minute interventions from Vice President Mike Pence and White House counsel Pat Cipollone — stopped it. …
“Trump planned to name Patel deputy director of the CIA on Dec. 11 — in fact, the paperwork had already been drafted to formalize Patel’s appointment. That same day, Haspel decided for the first time in weeks to attend the president’s daily intelligence briefing. … During the briefing that day, Haspel deftly reminded Trump of what had initially impressed him about her: As Trump often put it, she was tough, and good at killing terrorists.”
NOT SO FAST — “Feds back away from claim that Capitol rioters were looking to capture and assassinate officials,” by Josh Gerstein and Kyle Cheney
HOW THE CAPITOL RIOTS CAME TO BE — “Capitol Police intelligence report warned three days before attack that ‘Congress itself’ could be targeted,” WaPo: “In a 12-page report on Jan. 3, the intelligence unit of the congressional police force described how thousands of enraged protesters, egged on by Trump and flanked by white supremacists and extreme militia groups, were likely to stream into Washington armed for battle.
— “Top Lawmakers Not Told of Police Request for Backup Before Riot, Aide and Others Say,” NYT: “The Capitol Police asked the sergeants-at-arms to request that the National Guard be placed on standby. But the sergeants-at-arms, Michael C. Stenger of the Senate and Paul Irving of the House, rejected the request without raising the issue with either the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, or Speaker Nancy Pelosi, according to the aide and another person familiar with the matter.”
HELPFUL VISUAL … How D.C. is preparing for the inauguration, via WaPo
A FACE IN THE CROWD — “Top FEMA official attended Trump’s ‘Stop the Steal’ rally,” by Natasha Bertrand and Kyle Cheney
— “Two rioters claim Capitol officer told them, ‘It’s your house now,’ FBI says,” WaPo
THE BACKLASH CONTINUES — “Senate Dems eye punishing Hawley and Cruz for election objections,” by Andrew Desiderio: “Some have called on them to resign or be expelled from the Senate altogether, which is unlikely to happen; but others are coalescing around an official rebuke in the form of a censure.”
TRUMP’S LEGAL TROUBLES — “Atlanta Prosecutor Appears to Move Closer to Trump Inquiry,” NYT: “Prosecutors in Georgia appear increasingly likely to open a criminal investigation of President Trump over his attempts to overturn the results of the state’s 2020 election, an inquiry into offenses that would be beyond his federal pardon power.
“The new Fulton County district attorney, Fani Willis, is already weighing whether to proceed, and among the options she is considering is the hiring of a special assistant from outside to oversee the investigation, according to people familiar with her office’s deliberations.”
MEANWHILE — “Trump weighing a pardon for Steve Bannon,” by Anita Kumar, Josh Gerstein, Gabby Orr and Quint Forgey
THE PEACEFUL TRANSITION — “Pence calls VP-elect Kamala Harris to offer congratulations,” AP
A RETURN TO NORMAL — “Psaki: Biden White House will make visitor logs public,” by Matthew Choi
WHAT’S EXCITING THE LEFT — “Democrats ready immigration push for Biden’s early days,” by Laura Barrón-López and Sabrina Rodríguez: “Biden has said he plans to ‘immediately’ introduce an immigration bill after taking office on Wednesday. And top Latino and immigrant advocacy groups who’ve seen details of the coming package said they were stunned by the boldness of Biden’s plan.”
WATCH OUT, LIDDLE MARCO! — “Ivanka’s political future comes into sharper focus,” by Meridith McGraw, Marc Caputo and Sam Stein: “The senior White House adviser is set to decamp to Florida after her father’s presidency comes to a close. And though talk of her launching a primary challenge to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has given off the faint whiff of political [fan-fic], in reality, Trump officials say, there have been machinations behind the scenes.”
TRUMP INC. — “Palm Beach County looking for a way to end lease with Trump's West Palm Beach golf course,” The Palm Beach Post
BEYOND THE BELTWAY — “Trump blows up the Arizona GOP on his way out,” by David Siders and James Arkin
AP SCOOP: “Maduro ally presses for dialogue with Biden”: “A close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said Friday he’s hopeful the Biden administration will roll back a ‘cruel’ sanctions policy and instead give room for diplomacy that could lead to the reopening of the U.S. Embassy and the release of several jailed American citizens.”
TRUMP’S SATURDAY — The president has nothing on his public schedule. Pence and first lady Karen Pence will depart from Joint Base Andrews on Air Force Two at 11:35 a.m. They’ll arrive at the naval air station in Lemoore, Calif., at 2 p.m. Pacific time. Pence will deliver remarks to sailors at 2:15 p.m.
— Biden and VP-elect Harris will introduce key members of their White House science team at 1:30 p.m.
CLICKER — “The nation’s cartoonists on the week in politics,” edited by Matt Wuerker — 16 keepers
GREAT WEEKEND READS, curated by Ryan Lizza:
— “Everything Is Broken,” by Alana Newhouse in Tablet magazine: “If the medical industry was comprehensively broken … and the media was irrevocably broken, as we knew it was ... Was everything in America broken? Was education broken? Housing? Farming? Cities? Was religion broken?” (h/t Kyle Plotkin)
— “The American Abyss: A historian of fascism and political atrocity on Trump, the mob and what comes next,” by Timothy Snyder in the NYT Magazine (h/t Addisu Demissie)
— “The Rise and Fall of the ‘Steele Dossier’: A case study in mass hysteria and media credulity,” by Aaron Maté in The Nation (h/t Eliana Johnson)
— “Dancing in the Dark: How Dua Lipa ignored the trends, turned herself into a ‘female alpha,’ and delivered the modern disco classic we didn’t know we needed,” by Alex Morris in Rolling Stone (h/t Galia Slayen)
— “John Sullivan, Who Filmed Shooting of Ashli Babbitt in Capitol, Detained on Federal Charges,” by Robert Mackey in The Intercept: “The enigma of ‘Activist John.’ Why did an anti-Trump protester viewed with suspicion on the left follow Trump’s cult into the Capitol?” (h/t Jack Shafer)
— “The Crisis Opportunity: What It Will Take to Build Back a Better Economy,” by Jason Furman in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs (h/t Myles Nuzzi)
— “The Hollywood Escape Economy Is Just Around the Corner,” by Janice Min in Time (h/t Shawn McCreesh)
— “‘After Me, Baby, You’re Gonna Be Ruined For Anyone Else’: Donald Trump Refused to Take ‘No’ From Women—And Then From American Itself,” by E. Jean Carroll in Vanity Fair (h/t Joe Pompeo)
— “These Precious Days,” by Ann Patchett in the January issue of Harper’s (h/t Aloise Phelps)
Send tips to Eli Okun and Garrett Ross at [email protected].
IN MEMORIAM — “Ex-EPA press aide, PR exec dies,” E&E News: “Russ Dawson, a former top EPA press aide and public relations consultant, has died. … He was 72 years old. Dawson served at EPA from 1983 to 1990. He was press secretary for Administrator Lee Thomas and later head of the agency's communications and public affairs office. … Dawson left EPA and joined Potomac Communications Group in 1990.”
MEDIAWATCH — “CBS News Sets D.C. Lineup: Nancy Cordes Tapped As Chief White House Correspondent; Ed O’Keefe And Weijia Jiang Also On POTUS Beat,” Deadline
TRANSITION — Marisol Samayoa is now deputy comms director for Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.). She previously was deputy comms director and Hispanic media adviser on his campaign.
BIRTHDAYS: Rep. Troy Balderson (R-Ohio) is 59 … Maria Hatzikonstantinou, SVP at CRC Public Relations … Rob Goad … Vincent Frillici, managing director at Kivvit (h/t Jon Haber) … former Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta is 52 … Bracewell’s Frank Maisano, also a GWU professor … Clay Dumas of Lowercarbon Capital … former Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen is 72 … Iulia Gheorghiu … Dan Hill … Cassie Menn of FleishmanHillard … Andrew Mountain … Kelly Allen … Greg Polk is 45 … former Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) is 7-0 … Maureen McGrath … Sally Ericsson … Doug Haynes … Matt Herrick, SVP of public affairs and comms at the International Dairy Foods Association, is 45 … Daily Beast reporter Kelly Weill …
… Luke Knittig, senior director of comms at the McCain Institute … Cameron Poursoltan … Andrew Straky … Rob Goodman … Bruce Collins … POLITICO’s Jerry Gray … NYT’s Sheera Frenkel … Anne Fauvre-Willis, COO at Oasis Labs … Dontai Smalls, VP for global public affairs at UPS … Kelley Williams ... Microsoft’s Sirin “Teddy” Bulakul ... Stephen Szypulski ... Alicia Preston ... Ruth Reichl is 73 … Yun Kim … Jeff Skoll … Paolo Liebl von Schirach ... Jackie Huelbig ... Linda Semans ... Edward Cafiero, SVP of public affairs at Edelman ... Cathryn Donaldson ... Debbie Berger Fox ... Mitch Dworkin is 54 ... Norman Podhoretz is 91 … Elaine Baxter … Sam Pritchard … Stella Shaw (h/ts Teresa Vilmain) … Eric Dick … Rob Glaser … Dana Mishoe Black
THE SHOWS (Full Sunday show listings here):
“State of the Union”: Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) … incoming White House chief of staff Ron Klain … H.R. McMaster … Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
“Fox News Sunday”: Incoming National Economic Council Director Brian Deese … Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Panel: Karl Rove, Kristen Soltis Anderson and Juan Williams. Power Player: Tim Cook.
“Meet the Press”: Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) … Anthony Fauci … Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) … Pete Williams. Roundtable: Rich Lowry, Claire McCaskill and Kristen Welker.
“This Week”: Incoming White House communications director Kate Bedingfield … Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) … Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.). Panel: Chris Christie, Rahm Emanuel, Sara Fagen and Karen Finney.
“America This Week”: Megyn Kelly … Raz Simone … Daniel Lippman … Peter Navarro.
“Full Court Press”: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) … House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) … Jon Decker.
“Face the Nation”: West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice … Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) … incoming CDC Director Rochelle Walensky … Saint Paul Mayor Melvin Carter ... Scott Gottlieb.