Politico

It’s 2023. Why are militaries still using spy balloons?


The Pentagon says that a Chinese high-altitude balloon has been soaring above the U.S. this week, adding that it’s carrying surveillance equipment and is violating sovereign airspace.

Spy balloons have been around since the late 1700s, but why are militaries around the world still flying them in 2023? 

First, these high-altitude inflatables can conduct surveillance missions for a lower cost than satellites and can carry more payloads than a drone. Modern high-altitude inflatables ride on wind currents and can travel well above commercial air traffic.

Another reason: Spy balloons can travel great distances without needing to be refueled.

“It’s also a reminder of the air defense needs of the United States that today it’s a balloon, tomorrow it’s a cruise missile,” said Tom Karako, senior fellow for the International Security Program and Missile Defense Project director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Chinese spy balloon spotted this week could contain a camera, or a device used to capture electronic signals such as cell phone traffic, Karako said.

Besides cost, another advantage spy balloons have over satellites is they can hover over a specific point longer than the orbital pass of a satellite. Orbital passes can be tracked by adversaries, and the U.S. or another country could schedule around satellite monitoring, Byron Callan, Capital Alpha Partners managing director, said in a client note Friday morning.

Cause for concern

High-altitude balloons can also more easily pose as civilian in nature. For example, if a Chinese military drone was flying over U.S. airspace, it is obvious the government sent the aircraft.

With a spy balloon, foreign governments can claim it is used for a civil purpose, such as monitoring weather patterns. Beijing made that claim on Friday, saying the airship was being used for meteorological pursuits.

Over the past few years, spy balloons have flown over the continental U.S. a “handful” of times, a Defense Department official said on Thursday. But the distinguishing factor of the Chinese high-altitude balloon compared to other instances is the inflatable was “hanging out” for a longer period, said the official, who asked not to be named in order to discuss sensitive issues.

The high-altitude balloon was tracked flying over Malmstrom Air Force Base, home to silos containing intercontinental ballistic missiles.

“Clearly, they're trying to fly this balloon over sensitive sites,” the official said.

New uses

Using spy balloons dates to the late 1700s during the French revolutionary wars. The Union also flew them in the 1860s during the U.S. civil war to gather information about Confederate activity.

NASA began flying helium-filled stratospheric balloons in the 1950s, and the Army in the mid-2010s experimented with them at lower altitudes.

The service invested in a spy blimp program that it canceled in 2017. The effort is known as the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS.

Unlike high-altitude balloons, the blimp was tethered and was designed to track boats, ground vehicles, drones and cruise missiles. One of the blimps broke loose over Maryland in 2015 and had to be brought down.

In 2019, the Pentagon worked on a project called the Covert Long-Dwell Stratospheric Architecture, designed to locate drug traffickers. At the time, the Pentagon launched 25 surveillance balloons from South Dakota as part of a demonstration.

The Pentagon confirmed to POLITICO last year that the project has transitioned to the military, but would not disclose details because the effort is classified. The airships could eventually be used to track hypersonic weapons from Russia and China.

Judge demands answers after Jan. 6 defendant recants guilt


A Jan. 6 defendant’s boast in an interview this week that he had no regrets about his role in the Capitol riot — just days after he acknowledged his guilt in a federal courtroom — may upend the man’s efforts to resolve the criminal case against him.

U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta issued an order Friday instructing defendant Thomas Adams Jr. and prosecutors why the guilty findings the judge entered on Tuesday following a brief, “stipulated” bench trial should not be overturned in light of Adams’ comments to a reporter the following day.

"I wouldn't change anything I did," Adams told the State Journal-Register Wednesday outside his home in Springfield, Ill. "I didn't do anything. I still to this day, even though I had to admit guilt (in the stipulation), don't feel like I did what the charge is.”

In a brief order Friday morning, Mehta gave both sides one week to explain “why the court should not vacate Defendant's convictions of guilt in light of his post-stipulated trial statements” included in the article. The judge also attached a copy of the news report.

It is unclear how the article in the Illinois newspaper","link":{"target":"NEW","attributes":[],"url":"https://www.sj-r.com/story/news/crime/2023/02/01/thomas-b-adams-jr-was-convicted-for-breaching-u-s-capitol-on-jan-6/69863729007/","_id":"00000186-18f2-dd7d-ade7-f8ffbc39000a","_type":"33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df"},"_id":"00000186-18f2-dd7d-ade7-f8ffbc39000b","_type":"02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266"}">the article in the Illinois newspaper came to the attention of Mehta, who sits at the federal courthouse near the Capitol.



Judges handling Jan. 6 cases have been repeatedly and increasingly irked by defendants appearing to be apologetic and contrite in court, only to make public statements days later minimizing their guilt and sounding cavalier about their actions. And judges are loath to accept what effectively amounts to a guilty plea from any defendant who doesn’t sincerely believe in their own guilt.

Adams, who told the Illinois newspaper he was recently fired from his job as a lawn care worker, acknowledged under oath Tuesday that he had committed the conduct Mehta ultimately found him guilty of. He acknowledged walking over broken glass as he went inside the Capitol and that he told the FBI his intent was to “occupy” the building for days, if necessary. Adams also acknowledged that he “knew that he did not have authorization” when he went into the Senate chamber and walked among the senators’ historic desks.

Entering the Senate chamber has been a sort of red line for prosecutors, with them insisting on felony guilty pleas or convictions to resolve cases against those who went inside, even briefly.

And so far they’ve been nearly unblemished in their prosecutions, though a judge recently acquitted a defendant of an obstruction charge","link":{"target":"NEW","attributes":[],"url":"https://www.politico.com/news/2023/01/13/judge-finds-jan-6-defendant-who-breached-senate-chamber-not-guilty-of-obstruction-00077971","_id":"00000186-18f2-dd7d-ade7-f8ffbc39000c","_type":"33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df"},"_id":"00000186-18f2-dd7d-ade7-f8ffbc39000d","_type":"02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266"}">acquitted a defendant of an obstruction charge despite his presence in the chamber.

Adams was on the Senate floor for about seven minutes before he was kicked out of the building, according to the statement of facts","link":{"target":"NEW","attributes":[],"url":"https://storage.courtlistener.com/recap/gov.uscourts.dcd.231143/gov.uscourts.dcd.231143.49.0.pdf","_id":"00000186-18f2-dd7d-ade7-f8ffbc3a0000","_type":"33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df"},"_id":"00000186-18f2-dd7d-ade7-f8ffbc3a0001","_type":"02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266"}">statement of facts prosecutors and the defense agreed to in his case.

Stipulated trials have been used in recent months to seek to resolve about a dozen Jan. 6-related criminal cases where the defendant faced a felony charge of obstruction of a congressional proceeding. Almost 1,000 people have been charged criminally in connection with the unrest at the Capitol, which prompted a delay in the congressional session to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election.

One of Mehta’s colleagues, U.S. District Court Judge Carl Nichols, ruled that the obstruction charge did not apply","link":{"target":"NEW","attributes":[],"url":"https://www.politico.com/news/2022/03/07/judge-obstruction-charge-jan-6-defendant-00014843","_id":"00000186-18f2-dd7d-ade7-f8ffbc3a0002","_type":"33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df"},"_id":"00000186-18f2-dd7d-ade7-f8ffbc3a0003","_type":"02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266"}">ruled that the obstruction charge did not apply unless prosecutors could prove that a defendant intended to tamper with or damage the actual electoral vote documents being tallied that day.

No other judge to consider the issue has agreed with Nichols. Meanwhile, prosecutors are appealing his decision to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Unlike the guilty pleas typically offered in deals with prosecutors, stipulated trials allow defendants in other cases to preserve their ability to wipe out their obstruction convictions if the D.C. Circuit sides with Nichols. The obstruction charge carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence, although no Jan. 6 defendant has received a sentence close to that in a case not involving violence.

The harshest sentence to date — 10 years — was delivered by Mehta to retired New York City cop Thomas Webster, who took his case to trial. Webster was convicted of a brutal assault of a Washington Metropolitan Police officer outside the Capitol, and Mehta found that Webster lied on the stand about his actions.

Adams also admitted Tuesday to the facts needed to convict him on a misdemeanor charge of entering and remaining in the Capitol without permission. That carries a one-year maximum sentence. Mehta has set sentencing in the case for June 16.

The FBI appears to have zeroed in on Adams after he said on the day after the Capitol riot that he enjoyed the experience. “It was a really fun time,” Adams told Insider","link":{"target":"NEW","attributes":[],"url":"https://www.insider.com/men-who-broke-into-the-capitol-describe-a-carnival-atmosphere-2021-1","_id":"00000186-18f2-dd7d-ade7-f8ffbc3a0004","_type":"33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df"},"_id":"00000186-18f2-dd7d-ade7-f8ffbc3a0005","_type":"02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266"}">told Insider. He has since said he did not know of the violence taking place elsewhere in the building and on the Capitol grounds.

New U.S. aid package includes longer-range bombs for Ukraine


The Biden administration is providing Ukraine with a new longer-range bomb as part of the $2.2 billion aid package announced Friday, but the new weapon likely won’t arrive until much later this year.

The weapon, the Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bomb, is made up of a precision-guided 250-pound bomb strapped to a rocket motor and fired from a ground launcher. It’s normally launched from the air and the ground-launched version does not yet exist in U.S. military inventory. It could take up to nine months for U.S. defense contractors to do the necessary retrofits.

The rest of the aid package includes weapons drawn from U.S. stocks as well as funding to contract for new equipment through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, a vehicle set up by Congress to fund aid for Ukraine. The package includes spare parts and munitions for air defense systems, a critical need in blunting the Russian drone and missile attacks on civilian targets across Ukraine.

Russian forces have moved some of their most sensitive command-and-control centers out of range of Ukraine’s current rockets, frustrating Kyiv’s military commanders, who have asked for longer-range munitions to stay on the offensive.

Specifically, they’ve asked for the U.S.-made Army Tactical Missiles Systems that have a range of about 190 miles. But the Biden administration has said the weapon is out of the question, citing concerns Ukraine would use them to attack targets inside Russia.



The new rockets announced on Friday, which can travel over 80 miles, will help Ukrainian forces “conduct operations in defense of their country, and to take back their sovereign territory in Russian occupied areas," Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters.

They will not be drawn from existing American stockpiles however, meaning it will take months for Boeing and the U.S. government to agree on the terms of the contract and get them to the battlefield. That timeline means they will likely not be available for the warm-weather offensives Ukraine is planning this year.

Another issue is that the bomb can’t be launched by any of Ukraine’s current equipment. Ukrainian engineers have been working on retrofits for ground launchers for several months.

Much to the disappointment of some in Kyiv, the last few tranches of aid have not included the weapon.

But there's real appetite on Capitol Hill to provide Ukrainians with longer-range munitions, along with tanks and other weapons. A senior congressional aide argued the administration had been holding up the process of approving the bomb despite overcoming "the mental hurdle of the range and escalation dynamics" of a longer-range munition because of the need to retrofit it.

"It's a timeline that's measured in months," the aide said of adapting the weapon to a ground launcher. The aide asked not to be named in order to speak candidly.

House Armed Services Chair Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) had accused the Biden administration of dragging its feet on providing the system to Ukraine.

“GLSDB should have been approved last fall," Rogers said in a recent statement. "Every day it’s not approved is a day it’s delayed getting it into the hands of a Ukrainian ready to kill a Russian."

Lee Hudson and Connor O'Brien contributed to this report.

Spartz won't seek elected office in 2024


Rep. Victoria Spartz (R-Ind.) delivered a surprise announcement Friday, saying she would not seek Indiana's open Senate seat or reelection to the House next year.

"I won a lot of tough battles for the people and will work hard to win a few more in the next two years," she said in a statement. "However, being a working mom is tough and I need to spend more time with my two high school girls back home, so I will not run for any office in 2024."

Spartz's announcement removes another obstacle to Rep. Jim Banks' (R-Ind.) quest for the open Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who's running for governor of their home state. Her decision-making was one of the biggest remaining open questions in a Senate field that winnowed earlier this week when former Gov. Mitch Daniels (R-Ind.) passed on a bid.

The Indiana Republican only arrived on Capitol Hill in 2021, but she's cut a peripatetic path since getting there. Just last month, she voted "present" multiple times as Kevin McCarthy struggled to win sufficient support for the speakership, a switch after initially supporting him.

Then she issued a strong statement opposing the removal of House Democratic members from their panels, citing due process concerns, before backtracking amid party leaders' non-binding concessions and supported yanking Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) from the Foreign Affairs Committee.

The first Ukrainian-born lawmaker elected to Congress also drew cringes from within her own party after intense criticisms of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy amid the country's struggle against a Russian invasion. Many feared Spartz's comments would be used to undermine the U.S.-Ukraine alliance at a crucial point in the conflict.

Spartz has also drawn scrutiny for her poor staff retention rate. Several of her former aides described to POLITICO a hostile work environment where the boss wielded an unpredictable and volatile temper.

Her district, Indiana's 5th, was made significantly more Republican-friendly during redistricting, so the GOP will be favored to retain it next fall.

Biden on robust jobs numbers: The ‘critics and cynics are wrong’


President Joe Biden took a victory lap Friday amid a blowout jobs report, telling Americans his economic plan is working.

“For the past two years, we’ve heard a chorus of critics write off my economic plan. They said it’s just not possible to grow the economy from the bottom up and the middle out. They said we cannot bring back American manufacturing. They said we can’t make things in America anymore, that somehow adding jobs was a bad thing,” Biden said, speaking in the South Court Auditorium of the White House.

“Today’s data makes crystal clear what I’ve always known in my gut: These critics and cynics are wrong.”

The president’s last-minute remarks were added to his schedule Friday morning after the Labor Department announced the U.S. economy created a whopping 517,000 jobs in January, a shockingly high number that underscores a growing and resilient labor market. The unemployment rate fell to 3.4 percent, the lowest level since 1969.

Biden cheered the report as evidence the economy has bounced back after the pandemic — and that economics’ predictions of an incoming recession are overblown. The data also arms the White House with another line of defense against Republicans’ attacks over the Biden administration’s spending policies.

And the timing doesn’t hurt either, with the president set to deliver his State of the Union address before Congress next week. “But today, today I’m happy to report that the state of the union and the state of the economy is strong.”

The president’s public remarks were more giddy than West Wing reactions behind closed doors, as officials had hoped for a less-robust figure.","link":{"target":"NEW","attributes":[],"url":"https://www.politico.com/news/2023/02/03/employment-report-biden-powell-00081067","_id":"00000186-1843-d0d5-aba6-fbc7aaa60004","_type":"33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df"},"_id":"00000186-1843-d0d5-aba6-fbc7aaa60005","_type":"02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266"}">officials had hoped for a less-robust figure. Inflation continues to plague the economy, and Friday’s numbers mean Fed Chair Jerome Powell will have to blunt growth in order to curb prices. Powell is concerned that a hot jobs market will drive high wages, further fueling inflation.

But asked whether he should take blame for inflation rates, Biden was definitive: “No, because it was already there when I got here.” He noted that when he took office, “jobs were hemorrhaging, the inflation was rising, and we were not manufacturing a damn thing here, and we were in real difficulty.”

In December, inflation continued to steadily trickle down to 6.5 percent, falling from the Consumer Price Index’s June peak at 9.1 percent. Powell is working to get inflation down to the central bank’s target range of 2 percent, and the Fed raised interest rates by a quarter of a percent on Wednesday — the eighth straight increase.

He warned on Wednesday that more rate hikes were coming, noting that “the job is not fully done.”

Ben White contributed to this report. 

Blinken's China trip postponed over Chinese balloon


Secretary of State Antony Blinken's Beijing trip has been postponed due to concerns over the suspected Chinese spy balloon flying over the U.S., the State Department said Friday.

Blinken had been scheduled to meet with top officials in China Feb. 5-6 in a follow-up to President Joe Biden’s meeting with Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping in Bali in November, in which Biden pledged to “maintain open lines of communication” with Beijing at a time of worsening bilateral tensions.

But that was scuttled after the Pentagon announced Thursday that it had discovered a Chinese airship hovering over Montana, saying it had “very high confidence” the balloon had been sent to the U.S. to collect sensitive information.

The balloon’s intrusion constituted a “clear violation of our sovereignty” and prompted the State Department to indefinitely delay Blinken’s visit until “conditions are right,” a senior State Department official said in a press briefing.

The official slammed the incursion of a suspected Chinese spy balloon into U.S. airspace as an “unacceptable and irresponsible incident.” The official gave the briefing to reporters on condition of anonymity.

Beijing said Friday it “regrets” that its balloon violated U.S. sovereign airspace and said it’s a civilian airship used primarily for meteorological purposes. China’s Foreign Ministry said it had strayed from its original course due to winds that affected its steering capabilities.

The State Department wasn’t buying that explanation. “There is a Chinese high altitude surveillance balloon currently over the United States," official said, adding that it is a "clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law, and it is unacceptable that this has occurred."

The incident undermined the purpose of Blinken’s trip, the official said, adding that “this issue would have narrowed the agenda in a way that would have been unhelpful and unconstructive.”

Jobs blowout: What the employment report means for Biden and Powell


The U.S. economy generated 517,000 jobs in January, a surprisingly strong number that underscores the remarkable resilience of the labor market but could stiffen the Federal Reserve’s determination to squeeze the economy to fight 40-year-high inflation.

The unemployment rate fell to 3.4 percent, the lowest in more than a half-century, the Labor Department reported Friday.

The number blew away the Wall Street consensus of 190,000 jobs and suggests that the Fed’s efforts to cool the labor market by hiking interest rates at the fastest pace in decades are not yet having the desired impact.

President Joe Biden celebrated the report as evidence the economy is continuing to hum along, and the number is likely to blunt attacks from Republicans over the administration's spending policies. But senior officials in the West Wing were privately hoping for a less-robust number. So was Fed Chair Jerome Powell.

Here’s how the number is likely to play with four key political and economic figures.



Biden — The White House can view the report as evidence that economists’ predictions of an imminent recession are off-base. But inflation is Biden’s biggest enemy on the economy, and the report will cause some unease within the administration, given that it could mean the Fed will crack down harder on growth to curb prices.

Still, the report clashes with the expectations of many economists and Wall Street CEOs that the U.S. will fall into a recession this year. And it was quickly embraced by Biden's allies. "Sometimes good news is just good news," outgoing White House chief of staff Ron Klain emailed POLITICO. "And this time it's great news."

Biden often describes the recent slowdown in job growth that preceded Friday’s number as a good thing as the economy transitions from the rapid Covid-19 comeback to a period of what he calls more “steady and stable growth.

Senior White House aides have said they are happy with declining numbers — as long as they stay positive — making it easier on the Fed to end the rate increases as soon as possible. They believe the decline in inflation is already well underway, with consumer price growth slowing for six straight months.

But Biden took a victory lap, arguing that the report shows his policies are working.

“For the past two years, we’ve heard a chorus of critics write off my economic plan," the president said in remarks before leaving the White House for a trip to Philadelphia. "They said it’s just not possible to grow the economy from the bottom up and the middle out," he said. "Today’s data makes crystal clear what I’ve always known in my gut: These critics and cynics are wrong.”

Nick Bunker, head of economic research at Indeed Hiring Lab, said that while Friday's report will get a lot of attention, we've been seeing “a juggernaut of the labor market” for several months.

“Employers have added an average of 356,000 jobs a month over the past three months, and the unemployment rate dropped to a level not seen since before Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon,” he wrote in a note. The economy added a robust 4.8 million jobs in 2022.




Powell — The report is likely to come as a jolt to the Fed chair. Powell said in a recent speech that the economy only needs to gain about 100,000 net jobs a month to keep up with the number of new people entering the workforce.

He’s strongly committed to bringing inflation to the central bank’s target range of 2 percent. Since the Consumer Price Index peaked last June at 9.1 percent, inflation has steadily fallen, hitting a still-high 6.5 percent in December.

Powell and the Fed on Wednesday again raised rates by a quarter of a percent, the eighth straight increase. But it was the smallest bump since March. He cautioned at his press conference that more hikes lay ahead, saying “the job is not fully done.”

Any single report can be an outlier and is unlikely to sway the Fed. But Powell is worried about the hot jobs market driving up wages, fueling inflation. So any news showing the market heating rather than cooling could be unwelcome.

“My base case is that the economy can return to 2 percent inflation without a really significant downturn or a really big increase in unemployment,” Powell said Wednesday. “I think that's a possible outcome. I think many, many forecasters would say it's not the most likely outcome, but I would say there's a chance of it.”

In one positive sign for Powell, wages rose 0.3 percent in January, down from 0.4 percent in December. What the Fed chair fears most is a “wage-price spiral” in which higher wages drive prices and create a dangerous inflation cycle. That is not evident in this report.

There is also a chance that seasonal factors, which often make January jobs figures hard to read, helped trigger the surprising number.

“The blowout 517,000 increase in total employment was almost certainly a function of seasonal noise and traditional churn in early year job and wage environment and exaggerates what is already a robust trend in hiring,“ Joe Brusuelas, chief economist at consulting firm RSM US, said in a client note.

The survey week that produces the jobs number was also unusually warm, something that could have boosted the total, said Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics. “My guess is February will be back down around 200,000 because the trend is still slower.”

Economist Larry Summers — The former Treasury secretary under former President Bill Clinton has long been saying that more Fed rate hikes will be needed to rein in the labor market. This report could offer more fodder for that argument.

Summers was among the few who predicted fairly early that inflation would soar and stay high for a long period of time. At the time of his initial call last February, the Fed, the White House and other Democrats were still assuring Americans that the inflation spike would be “transitory.” It wasn’t.

Summers has also repeatedly irritated the White House by suggesting that the trillions in new spending approved by Democrats in Congress and signed into law by Biden over the last two years played a role in the inflation spike.

He also maintained for months that the Fed’s rate-hiking campaign, while necessary, would almost certainly lead to significant recession and a near doubling in the unemployment rate. He has more recently softened his tone and been more receptive to the idea that a soft landing is even possible.

"I'm still cautious, but with a little bit more hope than I had before,” Summers said last month. “Soft landings are the triumph of hope over experience, but sometimes hope does triumph over experience.” This number is likely to get Summers to tilt back toward experience.




House Speaker Kevin McCarthy — The stunning jobs report will undercut the argument by McCarthy and other Republicans that Biden’s economy is fading fast under the weight of inflation, which they say is driven by big spending bills.

Still, the more aggressive the Fed feels it has to be in killing inflation, the higher the risk that the central bank will push the economy into recession. A slumping economy would give the Republicans ammunition to use against Biden and the Democrats in the 2024 campaign.

China: ‘No intention’ of violating U.S. airspace after spy balloon spotted


Beijing said it is looking into reports that a Chinese spy balloon is hovering over the western United States, causing the Air Force to scramble fighter jets and prompting lawmakers to demand briefings over the Biden administration’s handling of the incident.

“China is a responsible country,” Mao Ning, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said in a Friday press briefing. “It has always strictly abided by international law and has no intention of violating the territory and airspace of any sovereign country. As I said just now, we are learning about the verification situation and hope that both sides can handle it calmly and cautiously.”

The Pentagon assessed it had “very high confidence” the balloon was Chinese and had been sent to the U.S. to collect sensitive information.

A senior Defense Department official told reporters Thursday that the U.S. prepared fighter jets to shoot down the balloon, but senior Pentagon leaders opted against it due to fears of falling debris hurting people on the ground.

An official said the balloon has “limited value” compared to what intelligence China is able to gather using satellites, although the department is taking “steps” to protect against possible foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information, without elaborating. The official requested anonymity in order to discuss sensitive issues.

The news of the balloon sighting surfaced Thursday, angering lawmakers including Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who called for an intelligence briefing.

“China’s brazen disregard for U.S. sovereignty is a destabilizing action that must be addressed, and President Biden cannot be silent,” McCarthy tweeted. “I am requesting a Gang of Eight briefing.”

The balloon was spotted over Montana, including over Malmstrom Air Force Base, which houses ground-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Montana Sen. Steve Daines demanded a briefing from the Biden administration Thursday night.

“Given the increased hostility and destabilization around the globe aimed at the United States and our allies, I am alarmed by the fact that this spy balloon was able to infiltrate the airspace of our country and Montana," the Republican said in a statement.

The incident comes as Secretary of State Antony Blinken prepares to make his first visit to Beijing. No changes to the trip have been announced following the development.

No going back: Canada’s work-from-home MPs fight to preserve virtual Parliament 


OTTAWA — Canada’s Parliament gave its members the option to work from home during the pandemic, adopting a hybrid model that allowed lawmakers to deliver speeches and vote remotely. Now, the system that was crafted out of necessity may become permanent.

A federal committee this week recommended to the Liberal minority government that hybrid proceedings and an electronic voting app in use since 2021 be maintained indefinitely. It’s a far cry from the situation in Washington, where House Speaker Kevin McCarthy officially put an end to the Covid-era practice of proxy voting last month.

A permanent option to work from home would mark a profound shift in the job description for Canadian legislators, many of whom have long faced grueling treks to the nation’s capital and extended periods away from family. Not everyone thinks it’s for the best. But some MPs — especially younger ones — say this is their new normal, and they’re not going back.

“Imagine if… [your] employer said you're allowed to see your kids on Saturday. And we need you to work that day. That's the current life under the old system,” said Liberal MP Terry Beech, who represents a riding in the western province of British Columbia. “I don't think any Canadian would see that as reasonable.”

Since the height of the pandemic, when working remotely was the rule, many members of Parliament have returned to Ottawa on a regular basis, preferring to stand in the House of Commons than to appear on a screen.



But some have not. POLITICO reached out to a group of MPs who’ve chosen to mostly stay home, based on an analysis of travel expense reports since the last federal election in September 2021.

Some have had serious health problems, and say working remotely was their only option. Some still worry about contracting Covid. But some, like Beech, say they don’t plan on returning to the way things were.

Beech and Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, both Liberal MPs with young children, are open about choosing to spend more time away from Ottawa.

“I’ve spent a large majority of my time in the constituency,” said Erskine-Smith, who lives in Toronto. “If you want serious people, younger people, people who want to be good spouses and be good parents to do this job … there has to be a certain level of flexibility to work remotely.”

If Parliament went back to fully in-person proceedings, he added, “there is no chance I would run again.”

This may be a moot point, given that Erskine-Smith is seriously considering a run for the leadership of the provincial Liberal party in Ontario. But he’s not alone. Last fall, NDP MP Laurel Collins, who has a young daughter, told the parliamentary committee considering the future of hybrid Parliament that she wasn’t sure she’d run again after the next election if virtual appearances weren’t an option.

Beech said the pre-pandemic system was particularly unfair for MPs from western Canada, who travel long distances to Ottawa. As a parliamentary secretary — essentially an assistant to a Cabinet minister — Beech had to be in the House of Commons on Fridays, while many MPs head back to their ridings on Thursday evenings. After arriving home late Friday night, he would have Saturday to see his family and do constituency work, before heading back to Ottawa on Sunday.

The hybrid Parliament has changed all that. “Managed correctly, you have more time to hit the gym, kiss your wife and pick up your kids from childcare,” he said in written comments to POLITICO. “I have to say I really enjoy attending national caucus meetings on my treadmill from time to time.”

Beech said his new schedule also allows him to spend more time attending events in his constituency.

Others view things differently, however. The opposition Conservatives have long called for a full return to in-person proceedings, claiming the hybrid option allows the government to dodge accountability. Still, some within their ranks have relied heavily on virtual appearances and remote voting.

Conservative MP Todd Doherty said he wants to be back in the House of Commons full-time, but a serious injury has prevented him. Shortly after the 2021 election, he had knee-replacement surgery. Then, during the first week of the parliamentary session, he slipped on a wet floor and damaged his leg so badly he was at risk of losing it. He’s now recovering from a second surgery last December.

“I took full advantage of hybrid because it was out of necessity,” he said.

Despite a 17-hour commute between Ottawa and his northern B.C. riding, Doherty said he wants to get back to the way things were. “There's not many Canadians that can say that they've been able to deliver speeches on the floor of the House of Commons,” he said. “And I think there's nothing that will ever take that place.”

If hybrid proceedings hadn’t been an option, he said, “I would have made it work. There’s no two ways about it — I would have done the best I could.”

A few other Conservatives have also been conspicuously absent. Manitoba MP Ted Falk, one of a small group of Conservatives who disappeared from the House of Commons after a Covid vaccination requirement was imposed in the fall of 2021, appears to have spent very few sitting days in Ottawa between the election and the following summer break. Falk did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Other MPs say illness or fragile health has kept them on Zoom and out of Ottawa. Liberal MP Parm Bains, who has spent almost no time on Parliament Hill since he was elected as a rookie in 2021, has spoken openly about the dialysis treatment and kidney transplant that have kept him home in Richmond, B.C.

“If it were not for the hybrid Parliament provisions, I could not have safeguarded my health and kept my commitment to represent my constituents in Parliament,” he wrote in a recent op-ed.

Hedy Fry, another Liberal MP from B.C., told POLITICO she’s immunocompromised and has been staying home in Vancouver to avoid catching Covid. But Fry, 81, said it isn’t the same as being on the Hill, where she’s been an MP for nearly 30 years. “It has been difficult not to see [my] colleagues,” she said. “You can't build relationships, either with your constituents or other people, when you're always on a Zoom with them.”

Erskine-Smith said there’s likely a “distinction on generational grounds” when it comes to how MPs view remote work.

Tracking the physical presence of legislators in Parliament is challenging. Unlike with the American proxy voting system, data on remote voting in the House of Commons is not publicly available. Travel expense reports shed light on when MPs are in Ottawa, but they aren’t always up to date and can be difficult to interpret.

Still, there are other cases that stand out. Liberal MP Serge Cormier, who represents a riding in Atlantic Canada, appears to have spent roughly five sitting days in Ottawa between the fall of 2021 and the summer of 2022. He did not respond to multiple interview requests. Neither did Toronto-area Liberal MP Shaun Chen, who seems to have spent about 10 sitting days in the capital.

NDP MP Niki Ashton, who represents a remote riding in northern Manitoba, also appears to have been in Ottawa for about 10 sitting days. She did not respond to POLITICO’s requests, though she has previously proclaimed that “a family friendly Parliament means a hybrid Parliament.”

The decision of some lawmakers to spend much less time in Ottawa raises other questions. Many of the MPs who’ve been more often in their home ridings, including Beech, Erskine-Smith, Doherty, Fry, Chen and Ashton, still claim expenses for apartments or condos in the nation’s capital, often charging between C$1,000 and C$2,500 a month.

Erskine-Smith said he’s been trying to sell his condo for more than a year. Beech said he needs to keep his home base in Ottawa, even though he’s spending less time there, so that his wife and kids have somewhere to stay when they join him.

But Doherty said it weighs on him. “It is definitely something that you think about all the time,” he said. “These dollars aren't ours. These dollars are taxpayer dollars.”

The Liberal government must now decide whether to propose permanent changes to the rules governing the House of Commons. But in a possible indication of the direction it will take, Government House leader Mark Holland has spoken out forcefully in favor of hybrid provisions. He told the committee last fall about the impact that being a parliamentarian had on his personal life early in his career, including a failed marriage and a suicide attempt.

Divorce and mental health issues are all too common among federal politicians, Beech told POLITICO. “I am so happy to still be married to my wife… to be able to watch my kids grow up,” he said. “Hybrid needs to stay… the country will be better for it.”

Pompeo vs. the Post: The Politics of Jamal Khashoggi


Has it become popular among Beltway insiders to disparage the memory of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident and Washington Post contributor who was murdered and dismembered by agents of the Kingdom in 2018?

That’s the somewhat surprising claim from Karen Attiah, the Post foreign-affairs columnist who shared a 2019 George Polk Award for her writings about Khashoggi’s ghastly killing, which the CIA has deemed to have been perpetrated on the orders of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“It seems like people in Washington maybe feel safe enough now that it’s almost five years after the murder, to say how they really feel about Jamal, or to try to take potshots at the media for our role in trying to push for justice,” Attiah told me this week, days after the latest scrum over the legacy of the man whose shocking death threatened to upend the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

Attiah is no disinterested essayist. She was Khashoggi’s editor at the Post as well as his friend, and since his death has been blistering in her criticisms of the Saudi autocrat known as MBS — as well as of people closer to home who underemphasize the murder when thinking about how Washington should deal with Riyadh.

You wouldn’t know about the turn against Khashoggi from a glance at Attiah’s journalistic home on the Post’s opinion team. The organization has loudly celebrated Khashoggi’s legacy and the righteousness of speaking truth to power, an effort that has included everything from traditional editorials to full-page house ads — which honor the late columnist but also serve as a billboard for the sanctity of a great newspaper’s mission. (Post spokeswoman Shani George says the ads are crafted by a separate team and should be seen as representing the publisher and the organization.)

That public veneration occasionally draws eye rolls from fellow journalists who think there’s something a bit off about a news organization so energetically embracing the role of bereaved family member in what remains an ongoing story whose tentacles touch everything from the Saudi-Qatar rivalry to last fall’s Saudi-led effort to hike oil prices.


But if the embrace prompts occasional purist tut-tutting among media insiders, it triggers downright ugly displays on the part of folks whose political identities are wrapped up in antagonizing the media.

Hence the hook for Attiah’s assertion: Khashoggi is back in the news thanks to a new memoir by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In the book, which devotes a lot more ink to flaying American journalists than to criticizing the Saudi monarchy, Pompeo says that overwrought reporters falsely described Khashoggi as a “Saudi Arabian Bob Woodward,” when in fact he was a political activist who occasionally penned op-eds, a category that includes everyone from Karl Marx to Alexander Hamilton to Mike Pompeo himself.

Though Pompeo describes the killing as “an unacceptable and horrible crime,” he goes on to say that it was essentially par for the course in a neighborhood where politics is a violent business, and where Khashoggi had his own unsavory allies. Praising the crown prince as a reformer, Pompeo writes that the media’s one-of-us embrace of Khashoggi blew the crime out of proportion in the name of tanking the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Pompeo also brags that President Donald Trump was jealous that “I was the one who gave the middle finger to the Washington Post, the New York Times, and other bed-wetters who didn’t have a grip on reality” when he made his first post-murder visit to MBS. It’s all in keeping with the chest-thumping, invective-spewing tone of Never Give an Inch, which is very much a campaign book by a possible presidential candidate — and not at all like a measured, for-the-historians memoir by a former statesman.



It would have been easy enough to ignore the book as such. Instead, in a turn of events that must have pleased Pompeo’s publisher, the passage prompted a quick and very public backlash, driven largely by the Post. An editorial denounced the former secretary as “revolting.” Publisher Fred Ryan released a statement saying that “it is shameful that Pompeo would spread vile falsehoods to dishonor a courageous man’s life and service” as part of what he called “a ploy to sell books.”

In the end, Pompeo’s Never Give an Inch","link":{"target":"NEW","attributes":[],"url":"https://www.amazon.com/Never-Give-Inch-Fighting-America/dp/0063247445","_id":"00000186-16e7-d581-a9f6-7fe709f10009","_type":"33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df"},"_id":"00000186-16e7-d581-a9f6-7fe709f1000a","_type":"02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266"}">Never Give an Inch sold a solid 34,630 units over the course of the week, according to data from Bookscan. If you’re a potential Republican presidential candidate trying to sell books to a conservative audience, there’s nothing that moves product quite like a tussle with a mainstream news organization.

But in Attiah’s more provocative telling, Pompeo was less a rebel against legacy-media shibboleths than an emblem of something widespread and sordid in the capital’s power corridors, a pseudo-sophisticated stance that dismisses Middle Eastern murder as inevitable and suggests Khashoggi had it coming. “Why does there now seem to be a backlash against Jamal in Washington’s elite circles?” she asked in her newsletter last week. (The piece had plenty of criticism of Pompeo, but I suspect nothing will hurt his feelings more than being cast as a tribune of the Washington elite.)

Can it be true? When we spoke this week, the only other example of alleged Beltway-insider anti-Khashoggi sentiment she cited was a 2022 Atlantic cover story on MBS that Attiah had lambasted for what she saw as its scant attention to the murder and insufficient pushback against the crown prince’s lame denials. At the time, the story’s author, Graeme Wood, shot back that his piece was plenty damning, and said complaints that he’d given MBS a “platform” ran counter to the values of journalism, which by definition involves quoting problematic people saying problematic things.

One other place that has produced some unflattering reporting: The news pages of the Post, which reported that an executive at the Qatar Foundation had filed","link":{"target":"NEW","attributes":[],"url":"https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/jamal-khashoggis-final-months-an-exile-in-the-long-shadow-of-saudi-arabia/2018/12/21/d6fc68c2-0476-11e9-b6a9-0aa5c2fcc9e4_story.html","_id":"00000186-16e7-d581-a9f6-7fe709f20003","_type":"33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df"},"_id":"00000186-16e7-d581-a9f6-7fe709f20004","_type":"02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266"}">shaped some of the columns Khashoggi filed to the paper. But that report was four years ago, soon after the murder.

In fact, while the far-right media is full of vitriol about him, there’s not a lot of straight-up anti-Khashoggi sentiment in “elite” outlets. In my experience, that’s also true of the chatter among the sorts of people who read those outlets or write for them.

That’s not for lack of effort by some of his foes: I, and a number of other Washington reporters, have over the years gotten off-the-record pitches from publicity operatives urging us to look into how Khashoggi was no angel. The most obvious motivation for this is trying to launder a Saudi reputation that was rightly sullied by an appalling crime. But it’s also a reminder that, as an advocate for democracy in the Arab world during his life — and as someone treated as a martyr for that cause today — Khashoggi leaves behind a legacy that a lot of folks have a real interest in either muddying or elevating all these years later.

Which is why the Pompeo-Khashoggi flap, though it probably didn’t change a lot of minds on the question of whether Khashoggi was a freethinking truth-teller or (as Pompeo repeats in the book) a sneaky Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer, is worth paying attention to. Four years after the murder in Istanbul, the ongoing politics of Khashoggi’s memory do say something interesting about Washington.

Start with Pompeo. Playing to the far-right primary electorate, the former secretary engages in the sort of too-clever-by-half logic that plays better on cable TV than in the pages of a book.



On the one hand, much of what he writes is patently true: Khashoggi had strong opinions; he founded an advocacy group pushing for democracy in the Middle East. Notwithstanding the Post’s embrace of him as a colleague, he wasn’t a career Postie who reached the opinion page after working his way up from being a cub reporter covering the Fairfax County Police Department. He was one of scores of people whose writing shows up in top U.S. media outlets by virtue, one way or another, of already being a player.

On the other hand, Pompeo never engages with the most obvious response to this information: So what? Should media revulsion at the murder and mutilation of a critic be limited to cases where the critic had a lengthy journalistic pedigree? Or to cases where the critic is a devotee of Edmund Burke, whose allies include only admirers of the United States? By that logic, we should never have columns by anyone the least bit complicated — or by someone able to evolve as a person. Let’s accept, for a minute, Pompeo’s dubious implicit argument that the killing of Khashoggi was a case of brutality against political opposition rather than brutality against journalistic inquiry. Who cares? It’s a distinction without a difference.

To use a gruesome hypothetical: What if a foreign governmenttried to do violence to Mike Pompeo? Would it be any more horrible if the violence were strictly in response to his book, or actually in response to his “activism” on the world stage? Of course it wouldn’t.

Every administration in the history of the United States has dealt with unsavory foreign governments and grappled with where to draw the line. There’s nothing inherently disqualifying about Pompeo saying that a grisly murder is not a sufficient reason to treat someone like a pariah given the various things we need from his country. But whatever your views on engaging with the current Saudi leadership, there’s something awfully gross — and all too contemporary — about a former secretary of state exulting in how something that’s clearly a violation of American values has enraged a domestic constituency he dislikes.

But the reaction of Khashoggi’s admirers is also telling.

At DAWN, the nonprofit Khashoggi founded to push for democracy in the Arab world, leadership quickly denounced Pompeo for justifying a murder because Khashoggi “did other things” beyond journalism. “I think he was signaling to Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Salman more, or as much as, he was signaling to the right wing,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the organization’s executive director, told me. “It’s like he’s saying, hey, remember me? I was the one who came to see you in Riyadh, after you killed Jamal. I was the first one there, you know, and we covered your ass.”

Yet the organization’s deployment of Khashoggi’s image also invites critics to take swipes at those other things Khashoggi did. The organization’s list of problematic regimes includes Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but not Qatar, which is also a non-democracy. Even if the roster is shaped by budget limitations or by sound calculations about which government most deserves scrutiny, that’s a choice that puts them on one side of a regional rivalry. Which, in turn, will prompt the other side to tear down the organization’s icon — a motivation that may be untoward and unkind, but remains different from excusing a murder.

And as for Khashoggi’s journalistic home in Washington, I was struck by the way Attiah recoiled at Pompeo’s use of the word “activist,” as if accepting that description somehow lessened the veracity, independence or bravery of Khashoggi’s criticisms of the Saudi regime.

“To label someone like that means there’s a somewhat subtle justification for their elimination,” she told me. “Whether it’s from a public sphere, a discourse, as if to say, ‘We shouldn’t listen to them,’ or whether it’s to literally physically assassinate them.” She said she’s been called an activist, too, for her criticism of the Saudi regime, a description that’s deployed in an effort to shut someone up.

When it comes to Khashoggi, I’m not sure I buy the idea that the term is slander — and I suspect most ethicists wouldn’t see a difference between assassinating a journalist and assassinating an activist (or assassinating someone who does a bit of both). I also can’t actually think of a better term for someone who literally started a nonprofit called Democracy for the Arab World Now. It seems the world of journalism, too, is perhaps unwittingly invested in the idea that to move out of the realm of pure words is to somehow deserve danger in a way that full-time journalists don’t.

It’s human nature, not to mention good institutional leadership, to clap back at someone who criticizes a murdered colleague and friend. Especially someone who does so in Pompeo’s vulgar way. But for better or worse Khashoggi’s legacy is going to remain a factor in the region, which means the politics of his memory will be a perpetually tricky thing — and the Washington conventional wisdom about whether he was a hero or a villain or a subject of media preening or a victim of far-right smearing is going to remain relevant.

One person who will continue to be a player in shaping that wisdom: Attiah, who has a book on her late friend expected next year. She said she’s talked to Khashoggi’s admirers as well as detractors. But don’t expect dispassion.

“I think there’s always an element of emotion, whether it’s anger, grief, sadness,” she says. “I don’t see those things as separate from our work. I don’t have the luxury, honestly, of seeing that as separate from the work that we do.”


‘The Party May Have to Die to Be Reborn’



PHOENIX — In a megachurch where the Arizona Republican Party met over the weekend to chart its course following heavy losses in the midterms, a package of resolutions was up for consideration, including one to censure Republican officials involved in running past elections.

The question on the floor was how.

Stepping to the microphone in the sanctuary, a man who introduced himself as a combat Vietnam veteran suggested that the way the party censures politicians — a punishment previously slapped onthe late Sen. John McCain, his widow, Cindy, former Gov. Doug Ducey and former Sen. Jeff Flake, among others – was insufficient for the times.

Instead, he said, “We should duct tape people to a tree in a dog park, so the dogs can pee on them. And then, when they’re there for a few hours and they have to crap in their pants, they can wallow in their own shit.”



Take pictures of them, he said. When I reached him later by phone to make sure I understood, the veteran, a man named Mark Del Maestro, told me the point is “public humiliation.”

On stage, Tyler Bowyer, a conservative activist and Republican national committeeman, deadpanned that Robert’s Rules of Order would let the body “censure anyone however you want.” But, he said, tongue in cheek, “I don’t know how much duct tape we have here.”



What he didn’t mention was that the way things are going in the Arizona GOP, it would need a lot.

In Washington, the lesson many Republican political professionals expected their party to draw from a less-than-red-wave midterm was that the most hard-right politics of the Trump era were weighing them down – that general election voters were tiring of election denialism and, if not Donald Trump himself, his grievances about the 2020 election. Many high-profile candidates the former president rammed through the primaries last year lost in November, and in Arizona, the wreckage was particularly severe.

Kari Lake, a former TV anchor and one of the GOP’s most prominent election deniers, had become such an electrifying candidate that she was compelled to tamp down speculation about a vice presidential run. But then she lost. So did the hard-liners running for U.S. Senate, state attorney general and secretary of state. For too many independents and moderate Republican voters, they were a turn-off.




Arizona was a “perfect political science experiment” for the GOP nationally, Stan Barnes, a former state lawmaker and Republican consultant in Arizona, told me.

“We had the best candidate in anyone’s lifetime in Kari Lake, and she had the Republican wind at her back,” he said. “Yet, Kari lost. And I think the post-mortem is, you can’t stand on, ‘The whole system’s corrupt’ and ‘Elections are stolen’ as a platform for why people should vote for you.”

He said, “No matter what you or I think of the reality of it, if you want to win the election and you want to change things, it’s not the way to win.”

Yet denialism and its attendant conspiracies animate a large swath of the Republican Party — still. And if Arizona is any example, it suggests that a not insignificant percentage of the national electorate is determined to run the same doomed experiment again in 2024.



Inside the cavernous Dream City Church, where a conspiracy movie about the 2020 election called “The Deep Rig” premiered in 2021, and where the GOP now gathered in early 2023, there was no reckoning with midterm losses, at all.

Addressing the rank-and-file, the outgoing state party chair, Kelli Ward, said, “Things at the party are going great.”

In “Ultra MAGA” hats and pins that read “Don’t California My Arizona,” about 2,000 convention-goers streamed into a sanctuary with red and blue backlighting and large screens flanking the stage. They wanted audits of the last election, or the one before that, or of the state party’s finances itself. Some complained about voting machines, including those Arizona Republicans had used themselves that day to elect the new party chair, Jeff DeWit, a former state treasurer and former Trump campaign chief operating officer.

Upstairs, an activist DeWit defeated, Steve Daniels, was sitting alone in the balcony with his unsubmitted ballot on the floor beside him. “Machines are fraud” he’d printed over it by hand in black ink.

Yet if it’s hard to hold your own elections when election denialism is your thing, DeWit was such a consensus choice that his victory was never really in doubt. It’s the elections Democrats won that the assembled Republicans assembled still have problems with. The party rejected a proposal to accept the results of the 2020 election and “not belabor or try to overturn old elections, but work to win upcoming ones.” It rejected a proposal to honor John McCain for being a "dedicated Arizona statesman and a lifelong Republican who embraced bipartisanship." And it voted by a large margin to censure Republican elected officials in Maricopa County, including Stephen Richer, the county recorder, and Supervisor Bill Gates, for their part in overseeing previous elections.

Distinct from procedural disputes about voting ID or mail voting, majorities of Republicans in poll after poll still adhere to Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was rigged. In the more than two years since Trump lost, as allegations of fraud have repeatedly been shown to be unfounded and nonfactual, it persists as an article of faith—– more an assertion of a belief that Democrats could not possibly have beaten them, even if they did.

In the courtyard, Sally Kizer, who, with her husband, Carl, started a tea party group in Yuma County, told me Lake “was robbed.”

The election “stinks,” said M.J. Coking, a state committeewoman from Chandler.

“Throw out the election and run it again,” said Chad Moreland, a Republican in an American flag blazer.

There were things Republicans could do better, they were sure. They could raise more money or run more sophisticated turnout operations than they had last year. A candidate like Lake could learn to “pivot” more effectively for a general election audience, one strategist told me.

But these were tactical concerns. There was no reason for a more wholesale overhaul if — as nearly everyone I came across maintained — Republicans didn’t really lose.

Trump, Coking told me, is “the only one who can fix anything.”



She said, “I’m waiting for marching orders.”

For true believers, said Barrett Marson, a Republican strategist in the state, “it’s this whole chicken-and-egg thing. Did we lose the election because of denialism, or did Democrats fix the election?”

It doesn’t matter that it isn’t true, he said. “How do you combat that?”

Like many more traditionalist Republicans, Marson had thought the party’s losses in November might result in some introspection. But he wasn’t counting on it, anymore.

At this point, he said, “the party may have to die to be reborn.”




When I visited Arizona just before the November election, it seemed to many political observers of both parties that Lake might win the governorship and that if American democracy fell apart — no small consideration, after 2020 and the riot at the Capitol — it would probably happen here first. Lake had said she would not have certified the 2020 election, and she was hedging on whether she’d accept the result of her own race — only “if we have a fair, honest and transparent election.” Republicans were camping out in front of ballot drop boxes. Near one, masked men in tactical gear were seen.

When Lake lost, it didn’t take long to find the reason.

In an analysis of the vote in Maricopa County, where a majority of Arizona’s votes are cast, a group of elections experts, including Benny White, a former data analyst for the state Republican Party, found Lake and other hard-right candidates had turned off thousands of voters who otherwise leaned Republican. In the governor’s race, about 40,000 voters who favored Republicans in other races on their ballots did not vote for Lake; about 33,000 of them actually voted for the Democrat, Katie Hobbs, instead.

At least part of the reason so many Republican-leaning voters defected, White told me, was Lake’s insistence on feeding the base’s addiction to election denialism.



“All of that is nonsense for the most part, but it’s very hard to discredit it,” he said. “Once people begin to think in those terms … it gets ingrained in their thinking about things, and it’s hard to dissuade them with facts and logical presentations of actual records.”

He said, “I’m not a psychologist or a psychiatrist. I have to deal with reality most of the time, and it just, it confounds me.”

One problem is that losing may not be enough to shift the perceptions of conspiracy-minded Republicans. If anything, it may make it harder — not easier — for them to let go.

Last month, the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research released polling by Echelon Insights, a Republican firm, that showed Republican voters had become more confident in elections administration nationally than they were following the presidential election, especially when asked about elections in their home states, where 82 percent overall said they were run well. But in states where Republicans lost significant races — like Arizona — fewer Republicans expressed confidence in the process. In Arizona, just 56 percent of Republican voters said they were confident about how elections here were run.

On a call with reporters, I asked David Becker, the group’s founder and executive director, if there was one state more than others that he worried about election denialism in the run-up to 2024.

“Yeah,” said Becker, a former attorney in the Department of Justice’s civil rights division. “This is not going to shock anyone, but Arizona.”

In the wake of the 2020 election, it was the site of the farcical “audit” that served as a destination for election truthers from across the country. Now, it is where Lake is still refusing to concede, appealing a failed legal case to overturn the results of her unsuccessful midterm campaign.



“The election denialism,” Becker said, “has really taken hold.”

It’s easy to read too much into a party gathering. State conventions attract the most fervent members of a party — the kind of people who not only know who their state party chair is or what resolutions they’re passing, but care. Most voters don’t.



But what Republicans saw unfolding in Arizona last year was something close to a convergence of the hard-right politics of its convention-going class with its primary electorate. This was no longer the party whose fringe loathed McCain but couldn’t stop him from winning primaries in which non-activist conservatives cast ballots, including in 2016 against Ward. In Lake, they found someone who could beat the traditionalists — in her case defeating a credible centrist candidate, Karrin Taylor Robson. Even after losing the general election, she remains at the center of the Republican universe here.

The reason for her appeal was evident on the night after the convention, when a large crowd of supporters wedged into a swelteringly hot room and spilled out into the lobby at a golf resort in Scottsdale for a campaign-style rally for Lake. One of her warm-up acts referred to her as a “winner.” And Lake, while she was on stage, took a call from Trump, who despite a slumpy start to his 2024 campaign is still a frontrunner to win the nomination. When Lake brought up Richer and Gates, the two Maricopa County officials the party censured, the room responded with jeers.

Gates was expecting the censure. Election deniers, he told me when I met him for coffee the day before the state party convention, “control the institutions of the Arizona Republican Party.”



Before he gained a national profile for his resistance to election disinformation in Arizona — so much so that that he was forced to leave his house temporarily, and with a security detail, following the midterms — Gates had been part of the institution, too. He started a teenage Republican club at his high school with Republican Gov. Jan Brewer’s son Michael in the 1980s. He went on to serve as a precinct committeeman and a state committeeman in the party. But now he was a pariah in party circles.

He told me, “They call us the establishment. We are literally not … Within the party, they’re the institution. We are now on the outside looking in.”

He said, “I thought after losing all these races, we would have a reckoning. But it’s going in the opposite direction.”




Over and over at the state party convention, Republicans suggested they were aware of the splintering in their party. When Rep. Paul Gosar, the far-right Republican, led convention-goers in the Pledge of Allegiance, he asked them to “particularly emphasize the word ‘indivisible.’” DeWit called Democrats the party’s shared, “real enemy.” And in the courtyard, Tim Rafferty of Riders USA, a gun rights group promoting a rally in Arizona a few weeks later, said there had to be something Republicans could do to win over “normals” — if not the members of the party often derided as “Republicans in name only,” or “RINOs,” the “many people in the [political] middle.”

“That’s a tough nut to crack,” he said.

The condition of the party, said Mac Rojo, a state committeeman, is “tenuous, because we have too much infighting.”

But Rojo, a retired sheriff’s detective who was walking two Maltese-Chihuahua mix dogs into the church in a stroller, said the solution was not for Republicans to moderate — or to let the 2020 election go. There was the practical point that Republicans, in his view, were losing elections they’d really won. And then there was the moral argument — the party’s responsibility to “fight evil” in the Democratic Party and the elections that put them in power, which he thought of as crimes not unlike “if somebody shot their mother or raped their daughter.”



It’s possible that a Republican might come along — either a presidential nominee or a candidate for statewide office in 2024 — who could appeal to Republicans like Rojo, and to more moderate members of the party, as well. DeWit, the party chair, might be evidence of that. Rojo was wearing a DeWit sticker on his shirt. DeWit was widely viewed as the most palatable candidate to traditionalist Republicans. But he also had Trump’s endorsement and appeared at the Lake rally — “all the proper credentials to be the mayor of Crazy Town,” as one Republican strategist put it to me.

DeWit, said Marson, is “absolutely not crazy,” just “crazy-adjacent.”

That might be a winning formula for candidates for public office, too. It will almost have to be to survive a Republican primary here. But it is a difficult line to walk in a party that has not gotten over 2020. Or, now, 2022.

“That’s where it gets complicated,” Barnes told me. “I think folks that want to lead the party going forward, perhaps even folks who want to run for office, are trying to have it both ways. They don’t want to let go of the fervor that they find in audiences that react to the smashmouth, America First rhetoric.”

But that fervor comes at a cost that party leaders appear to be contemplating. “These are not dumb people,” he said. “I think someone’s going to break out and start changing that personality of the party so that it goes back to attracting the majority in Arizona.”

When I asked him who that might be, he replied, “I don’t know. There are seven million people here. We’ve got to have somebody.”

For now, even after losing, it’s Republicans like Lake. Inside the convention hall, cheers went up when she was referred to as “the legitimate governor,” while traditionalist Republicans like Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell were loudly booed.

For Del Maestro, there was a mix of laughter and applause.

Del Maestro, who made the local news in 2020 when he said at a rally that he didn’t want to “have to shoot” anyone again, said he made his duct tape proposal at the convention in an effort to “lighten it up” inside. The laughter in the room suggested he’d succeeded. The whoops and applause suggested they liked the idea, even if they weren’t serious about it. Someone told him afterward, he said, that it would be illegal to tape someone to a tree without their permission — that law enforcement officers would view it as kidnapping.

Still, he told me, there’s what’s legal and there’s what “you can get away with.”



“It’s like, who’s counting the votes?” he said.

“If you did that a couple of times,” he said, “the RINOs would go away.”



All shook up: Why Dems see sliver of opportunity in deep-red Mississippi


Republicans have had a lock on the Mississippi governorship for decades. But Democrats hope that a candidate with one of the most famous last names in America can change that.

Democrats are coalescing around Brandon Presley, a public service commissioner and a distant cousin of Elvis Presley to challenge Republican Gov. Tate Reeves. Reeves has middling poll numbers and clashed with some other state Republicans, but he secured his party’s nomination since several potential primary challengers bowed out, after sniffing around Reeves’ campaign for weakness.

Presley’s appeal for Democrats goes well beyond his connection to The King. Democrats believe that his record as a public official — combined with what would need to be a strong campaign and a weakened incumbent — gives them a chance to break the GOP’s streak of dominance over state government. It would follow a similar path to other recent Democratic governors elected in red states like Louisiana, Kentucky and Kansas.

“He's a great retail politician and a real good campaigner,” former Clinton-era Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, a Democrat who ran for Senate in 2018 and 2020, said of Presley. “He will probably raise enough money.”

Reeves, the incumbent governor, may be unusually vulnerable for a red-state Republican. Democrats point to months-long rumblings of potential primary challengers — which never ended up materializing — and a recent poll from Mississippi Today/Siena College that found that a majority of registered voters surveyed wanted a new governor. Reeves took a narrow 4-point lead over Presley, 43 percent to 39 percent, in the survey.



Reeves has at times relished public fights, including with members of his own party, that has created enemies in the state. Still, it’s a mark of how deep Democrats’ deficit is in Mississippi that they still trail in the polls even with better-than-usual starting position.

Democrats and Republicans alike still believe that Reeves is the clear favorite early in the election. Former President Donald Trump, who endorsed Reeves in the 2019 race, won the state by 16 points in 2020 — and defeating an incumbent governor also happens to be one of the toughest things to do in politics.

Reeves’ allies were undisturbed by the poll, arguing that a survey of registered voters in January is nothing like who will actually show up in an off-year November election, and they dismissed the idea that Reeves would have any problems rallying Republicans in the state.

Several prominent Mississippi Republicans — including Secretary of State Michael Watson, state House Speaker Philip Gunn and former state Supreme Court Justice Bill Waller, who Reeves comfortably beat in a runoff for the GOP nomination in 2019 — all floated runs, but all of them ultimately decided to sit out the race. (Reeves is facing a nominal challenge from an anti-vaccine mandate doctor.)

The relatively clear primary path will be a rarity for Reeves, who has won hard-fought nominating fights at every step of his political ascent — something his allies said is a sign of his strength in the state.

And Reeves is also sitting on a significant campaign warchest of nearly $7.9 million across his accounts, filings earlier this week revealed.

Republicans also pointed to similar chatter four years earlier, when then-Lt. Gov. Reeves faced off against Democratic state Attorney General Jim Hood, who was first elected in 2003 and by 2019 was the only Democrat serving in statewide elected office in Mississippi.

Hood was considered the strongest candidate the party put up in decades — a truck driver without a campaign was the party nominee in 2015 — and the Democratic Governors Association poured millions into the race. But Reeves ended up beating Hood by about 5 points — both the closest Mississippi gubernatorial race in 20 years and, at the end of the day, not that close to actual victory.

“The proof is going to be there in the pudding. It wasn’t there in ‘19 with a similar type of candidate,” said Austin Barbour, a Mississippi-based GOP political strategist and nephew of former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

Still, Presley may be a better candidate than Hood was, by the estimation of both Democrats and Republicans who cited his strong on-the-trail presence. Presley also has the potential to be a strong fundraiser in a state with relatively cheap advertising rates in its media markets.

Presley is also a novelty for a Democrat seeking statewide office in 2023: He has repeatedly described himself as “pro-life.” Democrats also plan to lean into Presley’s history as a public service commissioner and former mayor in his hometown of Nettleton, which is in the state’s northeast.

Presley’s campaign signaled it planned to hammer Reeves for the state’s sprawling welfare corruption scandal that has entangled high profile figures like football Hall of Famer Brett Favre and former professional wrestler "The Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase.

“Tate Reeves is a man with zero conviction and massive corruption,” Presley said in his launch video. “He has been caught in the middle of the largest public corruption scandal in state history.” Democrats note that Reeves fired an attorney investigating the scandal, which Reeves defended at the time because he said the attorney was acting in a partisan manner.

Reeves’ team pushes back against the attacks more broadly, insisting the scandal falls on his predecessor’s shoulders — then-Gov. Phil Bryant — and not his.

“He is trying to run against the previous governor, because he knows Tate Reeves’ record is too good on jobs, education and taxes,” said Brad Todd, a longtime political adviser to Reeves.

Presley’s campaign will come down to his ability to engage and turn out Black voters in Mississippi, especially in the capital city of Jackson and its south. Black voters make up nearly 38 percent of the state, but Black registration and turnout has lagged.

“In order for Brandon to get the Black vote, he really needs to be better-known, with more money put in infrastructure to re-register Black voters,” said Espy, who commissioned a report after the 2020 election detailing some of the gaps.



Espy added that Presley is not well known in Jackson, which is outside his public service commission district, but that the candidate has been putting in work to meet with Black leaders in the state. Notably, Rep. Bennie Thompson — the state’s lone Democrat in Congress, who succeeded Espy in the House and represents Jackson — endorsed Presley right after he launched.

This week brought a small preview of the campaign to come. Reeves delivered his State of the State address on Monday, and Presley was selected by Democrats to give the response.

Presley delivered his speech from a “closed-down emergency room in a shutdown hospital,” highlighting another issue Democrats are likely to target Reeves on: Medicaid expansion and rural hospitals closing in the state. “Under Tate Reeves’ leadership, we are moving in the wrong direction,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, Reeves painted a dramatically different picture of the state in his own State of the State, touting Mississippi’s budget surplus, the economy and increases in the state’s graduation rate.

“I have to thank the 3 million Mississippians who have helped our state usher in an unprecedented period of economic growth, educational achievement, and freedom,” Reeves said. “2022 was perhaps the best year in Mississippi’s history.”

Old Bay melee: Maryland Dems circle as Cardin weighs reelection


Sen. Ben Cardin is still assessing whether to run for another six-year term in 2024. In the meantime, ambitious fellow Democrats are preparing campaigns that can strike ASAP if the genial Marylander retires.

At least three politicians are looking at potential runs to succeed the 79-year-old Cardin. Angela Alsobrooks, the Prince George’s County executive, is staffing up for a potential bid, according to four people familiar with her planning. And two House Democrats with very different profiles could take the leap: Rep. Jamie Raskin, a progressive leader on the Jan. 6 investigation, and moderate Rep. David Trone, a wealthy wine magnate who represents Western Maryland.

None would challenge Cardin — but Democrats think his retirement is a real possibility. And from California to Maryland to Delaware, the pent-up ambition of younger Democrats is clashing awkwardly with the slow decision-making processes of veteran senators. As announcement time looms and incumbent fundraising slows to a trickle, a crop of Senate hopefuls is beginning to hire up and build out statewide campaign teams.



In an interview, Cardin made clear he’s not calling it quits yet. He cracked about those raising money with the Senate in mind: “If they raise money now, they can turn it over to me, can’t they?”

“I guess they're ahead of themselves,” Cardin said, reiterating his end of March timeline. “I’m not concerned about what other people might be doing.”

Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) are getting most of the attention in the latest edition of the chamber’s biennial retirement watch. Yet blue states like Maryland can earn even more scrutiny than battlegrounds within the Democratic Party, because a primary win in an open race can turn into a long and cushy Senate tenure. And Cardin is hardly the only one under pressure.

Two members of the California House delegation are launching Senate bids without bothering to wait for a retirement announcement from 89-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein, with a third on the way. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) is open to succeeding Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) if he decides to retire. And though Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) is running for a third term, everyone’s quietly keeping an eye on Vacationland — just in case.

That jockeying is drawing particular attention in Maryland — because Cardin might actually run again.

“There's a lot of people talking about it,” said Rep. Glenn Ivey, a freshman Democrat who represents part of Prince George’s County. “You got a deep bench in Maryland, too. So there's a lot of people who could, I think, be strong candidates.”

First elected to Congress in 1986, Cardin has drawn notice after raising less than $30,000 over the last three months and ending December with just over $1 million in the bank. That has many Maryland politicos betting that his deep-blue seat will open up.

"He's a mentor to me. And I've been here a long time," quipped Democratic Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger about Cardin, adding that he hoped the senator wouldn't retire.

An early frontrunner could be the 51-year-old Alsobrooks, the first woman ever to serve as executive of her native Prince George's County and the youngest person ever to be elected as state's attorney there.

Alsobrooks is a proven fundraiser who considered running for governor in 2022 but chose instead to seek reelection to her county post. Asked about a Senate run in a WJLA interview that aired Thursday, Alsobrooks said she would consider it if the seat was open: "It would be an amazing opportunity to represent the state."

She has taken perhaps the most concrete steps toward a run. Dave Chase, who managed former Rep. Tim Ryan’s 2022 Ohio Senate campaign, has joined Alsobrooks’ political operation, which has also begun engaging with consultants.

Trone is having conversations with potential senior staff hires who could help him mount a statewide campaign, according to three sources familiar with his preparations.

The owner of the Total Wine & More empire, Trone would bring nearly unlimited cash to any race, after investing over $13 million of his largesse in a failed 2016 House bid. Raskin ultimately won that seat and Trone ran and won a different district in 2018, which he has held since.

Both Trone and Alsobrooks declined to comment through spokespeople.

Raskin, a constitutional law scholar, gained national prominence for his lead role in former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment. But he is also currently battling lymphoma and is undergoing chemotherapy treatments. In an interview with POLITICO, he said he would not rule out a Senate run but that his focus is on his health.

"When people call me, I tell them, 'Thank you,'" Raskin said. "But I just got to get through this. And then I'll be able to think about the future."  


He may decline the statewide run for another reason: His recent ascension as the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee.

The current shadow field lacks geographic diversity. All three Democrats are from the D.C.-area — and some will want a Charm City Democrat to succeed Cardin, who speaks with a notable Baltimore accent. Johnny Olszewski Jr., the Baltimore County executive, has been floated for a Senate bid but is seen as more likely to eventually replace Ruppersberger in the House, should he retire.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) advised other Democrats to buzz off while Cardin decides: “Everyone should give him room.”

One state away on I-95, Carper says he’s doing everything he needs to win reelection. He raised about $180,000 in the final quarter of 2022, significantly more than Cardin, Feinstein or King. A fourth-term senator, Carper has served in politics since the 1970s. And he’s not super eager to start his next campaign — or talk about it.

“Campaigns are too long and too expensive,” Carper said. “I shorten the campaigns as much as I can. So, I’m doing what I need to do to be able to run. That’s all I’m going to say.”

Carper, 76, faced a primary challenge in 2018, winning the nominating contest with 64 percent of the vote. His state is much smaller than Maryland, and thus there are fewer people jockeying to succeed him. But there are obvious contenders: Democratic Gov. John Carney and Blunt Rochester, who in 2016 became the first woman to represent Delaware in Congress.

“If the seat was open, I would definitely consider it,” Blunt Rochester said. She said she was focused on serving Delaware in the House but would “be prepared for whatever comes.”

Maine, meanwhile, has small benches for both parties. And King’s $56,000 in fundraising has raised eyebrows. But the 78-year-old senator is batting away any suggestion he might not run.

“I could be struck by lightning. But I am running,” King said of those who say his slow fundraising points to a possible retirement. “I’m doing all the mechanical things. It is two years away. Olympia Snowe once said, ‘there are only two ways to run: Scared and unopposed.’”

Snowe, of course, blindsided the GOP with her retirement in 2012 and opened the door for King’s election.


And while shadow races often form in states where an aging senator seems ripe for retirement, California has been the most active.

Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff and Katie Porter launched bids for Feinstein's seat, which she has held since 1992. The incumbent has not said whether or not she will step down at the end of her term. A third colleague, Rep. Barbara Lee, is preparing to join the field.

“It is definitely awkward, but I believe that people are predicting what could happen in the future,” said Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.).

It’s all a little much for Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who runs Democrats’ campaign arm. Given that even primary elections are more than a year away, he said: “Folks should be respectful to the person who is in office.”

Meet the border-district Republican at the immigration fight's 'epicenter'


Many House Republicans are trying to impeach the Homeland Security secretary. Tony Gonzales had a productive breakfast with Alejandro Mayorkas instead.

The swing-seat Texan met with the Department of Homeland Security chief last month to discuss a Border Patrol station in his district’s tiny border town of Cotulla. Operations in Cotulla got shut down six months ago due to staffing shortages after 53 migrants were found dead in a tractor-trailer in nearby San Antonio due to a reckless smuggling attempt, but the Biden Cabinet official ultimately agreed to reopen the station by the end of his meeting with Gonzales.

“A very popular guy in the Republican Party, right?” Gonzales quipped of Mayorkas during an interview in his Washington office. Despite the “risk in all this” outreach to a figure contentious among Republicans, he added, what matters is the “tangible result.”

You might call Gonzales a political rarity, wading into the kind of huge policy fights that would terrify most swing-district members — but he’s been like this for a while. The Navy veteran and father of six has flouted GOP orthodoxy time and time again as his sprawling border district makes national news for the darkest reasons possible.



Before the smuggled migrant deaths came the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, which hit as another part of his district dealt with a refugee crisis of 12,000 Haitians fleeing political turmoil back home. And now the 42-year-old is clashing with conservatives on immigration, crusading against a draconian immigration bill from fellow Texas GOP Rep. Chip Roy, while also warning his party against big spending cuts that could hurt military bases like those in his district.

“Whether I want it to or not,” Gonzales said of his district, “it has been at the epicenter.”

That’s not set to change anytime soon. His latest intraparty tension is spiking over an immigration bill that Gonzales fears would effectively ban asylum claims outright — an interpretation that Roy fiercely disputes.

“The bill is the bill, and it ain't rocket science. Three pages. You either support enforcing laws and ensuring that the American people are protected and migrants are protected and that in fact, asylum is preserved — which the bill does — or you don’t,” Roy said in a brief interview. His proposal would severely curtail migration by seeking to bar illegal border crossings.

While Roy said the two Texans have had some “long conversations” about the bill, initially slated for early action in the new GOP majority, he said he’s still waiting to hear a “substantive” disagreement beyond “broad brush statements in the press.” (Gonzales, for his part, called Roy's bill a "bad idea" and delivered a jab to non-border members: "While some people may parachute in and parachute out, we live it every single day.")

Asked about the Gonzales-Roy disagreement on Thursday, Speaker Kevin McCarthy told reporters that “a lot of members have a lot of different positions” on immigration and that any legislation will ultimately go through committee: “I know members are working together to try to find a place to get there.”

Gonzales has long pushed the GOP to adopt a more nuanced view on its single most politically explosive issue. As he’s ferried over 100 fellow lawmakers to his district since 2018, the self-described border hawk has implored other Republicans to look beyond headlines and consider an immigration system that also “welcomes those through the front door.”

One of Gonzales' strategies: Set up meetings for his colleagues with tough-talking sheriffs whom he’ll later reveal are Democrats, or conservative ranchers whom he’ll point out later actually support loosening some immigration laws.

After eking out perhaps the most shocking victory of the 2020 midterms, he's warned other Republicans that if they want to hold onto their threadbare majority in two years, they need to protect battleground seats.

"We can't just throw bombs and rhetoric and expect people to reelect us over and over again," he said.

Several of his colleagues say they understand and are willing to listen to his perspective on bills like Roy’s.

“Nobody wants to put him in a difficult position,” said GOP Rep. Dan Crenshaw, who also hails from the Lone Star State. “We understand that our border reps are in a more difficult political situation. If they have concerns, let’s hear them out.”



Sometimes, though, the rest of Gonzales' party can't abide his particular breed of bipartisanship.

Gonzales appeared alongside Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar during the anti-abortion centrist Democrat's fierce fight to hold his seat in November's midterms. That display of camaraderie irked some senior Republicans who were dumping money to oust Cuellar. His GOP opponent, Cassy Garcia, even conveyed her frustrations to Gonzales, according to two people familiar with the exchange who addressed it candidly on condition of anonymity.

Cuellar later won reelection by over 13 points. (Gonzales won by 17.)

“He's not a political guy,” Cuellar later said, speaking broadly about his South Texas neighbor. The two became fast friends after they realized they attended the same school in Camp Wood, Texas (population 700), roughly two decades apart. “He's willing to take certain stands that are right, and sometimes might not be the most politically expedient thing to do, but he's willing to do that.”

Gonzales is still speaking out as his party starts to govern with the smallest of margins. This week, he criticized the party’s removal of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) from the Foreign Affairs Committee, despite ultimately voting for it. Last month, he was the sole Republican to oppose the GOP rules package after McCarthy made an agreement with conservatives over concerns about potential defense cuts.



“It may not make them right, but at least he's got the courage to say, ‘Hey, here's my perspective on this,'” Rep. Mike Garcia (R-Calif.) — a fellow battleground Republican and Navy veteran — said of his colleague’s party-bucking tendency. “A lot of people would just kind of roll over and go with the herd.”

So far, despite his rebelliousness, Gonzales has mostly remained in good standing with McCarthy and his team.

Gonzales and fellow battleground Rep. Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa) were the only two freshmen to land on the coveted House Appropriations Committee when they first arrived on the Hill in 2021. They were also tapped to co-lead the House GOP’s "Young Guns" program to work with top campaign recruits.

But Gonzales has also inserted himself into leadership races that risked major consequences after his preferred candidate lost. Late last year, he threw himself behind Rep. Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.) in the GOP whip race, despite clear signals that McCarthy opposed the chief deputy whip’s campaign for that position.

Gonzales shrugged off any possible blowback from his party, on that and other matters: “I'm a big boy. This is a big institution. You're gonna make friends. You're gonna make enemies. That’s part of the deal. I’m not worried about it.”

It’s perhaps that attitude that propels Gonzales’ work on various bipartisan groups, including the Problem Solvers Caucus. Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.), who co-led that group’s immigration talks last year, said of his Texan counterpart: “I think if there's anybody that can really help bridge the divide, and come up with reasonable, decent immigration policy that both parties can work on, it’s Tony.”

And even though few in either party are counting on much immigration action this Congress, lawmakers might be forced to move anyway. The Supreme Court is set to rule this spring on a pair of presidential orders — Trump’s pandemic-era border expulsion policy and Obama’s “Dreamers” protections — that previous Congresses have punted on.

“In this Congress, five votes equals 100,” Gonzales said on possible action on immigration issues. “There's opportunity there for those that want to govern and not allow the place to get hijacked.”

Progressive Rep. Delia Ramirez set to give State of the Union response


Rep. Delia Ramirez, afirst-term Democrat from Illinois, is set to give a progressive response to the State of the Union address next week.

Her speech on Tuesday, given on behalf of the liberal Working Families Party, is expected to address President Joe Biden’s speech and rebut the Republican responses given by Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Rep. Juan Ciscomani of Arizona.

“Social Security, Medicare, abortion rights and comprehensive immigration reform are not political talking points. They’re essential to our nation’s well being,” she said in a statement. “We must also show working people how Democrats will deliver for them if they put us back in the majority. That’s our path to a working families majority in Congress.”

Ramirez said Sanders’ selection marked a doubling down of Republican “extremism,” pointing to her record as White House press secretary defending President Donald Trump and as a conservative governor.

“That gives Democrats an opportunity — if we can seize it,” Ramirez added.

The progressive minor party has offered responses to the presidential speech in recent years, with appearances by high-profile liberals generating more interest in the alternate address. Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), both members of the progressive “squad,” gave the response to Biden’s speeches in 2022 and 2021, respectively.

Ramirez, who represents a heavily Latino district in the Chicago area, also plans to address concerns that Democrats need to do more to win over working-class Latino voters.

“Delia will be laying out a vision for how Democrats can win working-class voters of all races and nationalities, by fighting for a government that has working people’s backs,” said Rep. Greg Casar (D-Texas), aWorking Families Party colleague.

She’s also going to urge the Biden administration to take executive action on liberal priorities like drug pricing and raising a threshold to make more workers eligible for overtime pay. Republican control of the House and the tiny Democratic majority in the Senate is likely to stymie most attempts to pass progressive-oriented policy this Congress.

Last year, Tlaib’s response, which had drawn a contrast with Biden’s remarks, had drawn criticism from other Democrats who saw her message as undercutting the president. This year’s speech could strike a conciliatory tone.

“We want to make a contribution — productive, in coalition, with the president to ensure that Democrats focus on the issues of working people,” Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party, said in an interview ahead of the speech.

In addition to the response from the opposing party, last year’s State of the Union also drew a Congressional Black Caucus response and one with a “bipartisan perspective” for the centrist group No Labels. Neither group has announced a speech yet this year.

Federal appeals court strikes down domestic violence gun law


A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that the government can’t stop people who have domestic violence restraining orders against them from owning guns — the latest domino to fall after the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority set new standards for reviewing the nation’s gun laws.

Police in Texas found a rifle and a pistol at the home of a man who was the subject of a civil protective order that banned him from harassing, stalking or threatening his ex-girlfriend and their child. The order also banned him from having guns.

A federal grand jury indicted the man, who pled guilty. He later challenged his indictment, arguing the law that prevented him from owning a gun was unconstitutional. At first, a federal appeals court ruled against him, saying that it was more important for society to keep guns out of the hands of people accused of domestic violence than it was to protect a person’s individual right to own a gun.

But then last year, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a new ruling in a case known as New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen. That case set new standards for interpreting the Second Amendment by saying the government had to justify gun control laws by showing they are “consistent with the Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.

The appeals court withdrew its original decision and on Thursday decided to vacate the man’s conviction and ruled the federal law banning people subject to domestic violence restraining orders from owning guns was unconstitutional.

Specifically, the court ruled that the federal law was an “outlier that our ancestors would never have accepted” — borrowing a quote from the Bruen decision.

The decision came from a three-judge panel consisting of Judges Cory Wilson, James Ho and Edith Jones. Wilson and Ho were nominated by former Republican President Donald Trump, while Jones was nominated by former Republican President Ronald Reagan.

The U.S. Justice Department Thursday night issued the following statement from Attorney General Merrick B. Garland following the decision: “Nearly 30 years ago, Congress determined that a person who is subject to a court order that restrains him or her from threatening an intimate partner or child cannot lawfully possess a firearm. Whether analyzed through the lens of Supreme Court precedent, or of the text, history, and tradition of the Second Amendment, that statute is constitutional. Accordingly, the Department will seek further review of the Fifth Circuit’s contrary decision."

Thursday’s ruling overturned the federal law and is not likely to impact similar state laws, including one in California. Still, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, called the judges who issued the ruling “zealots” who are “hellbent on a deranged vision of guns for all, leaving government powerless to protect its people.”

“This is what the ultra-conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court wants. It’s happening, and it’s happening right now,” Newsom said. “Wake up America — this assault on our safety will only accelerate."

Chuck Michel, president of the California Rifle and Pistol Association, said the problem with laws like the one the federal appeals court struck down is that they are too broad and don’t take into account the details of each case.

He offered as an example a client of his whose neighbor filed a restraining order against them because they had pointed a security camera on their property.

“They lost their gun rights,” he said. “When they do a blanket prohibition without considering individualized circumstances, they shoot the dogs with the wolves.”

Thursday’s ruling demonstrates the far-reaching impacts of the Bruen decision. In California, the decision has prompted lawmakers to overhaul their law regarding permits to carry concealed weapons.

Wednesday, Newsom endorsed a bill in the state Legislature that would ban people from carrying concealed guns in nearly all public places, with an exception for churches and businesses who put up a sign saying guns are OK.

McCarthy calls for intel briefing on Chinese spy balloon over Montana


House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Thursday night called for a briefing of the “Gang of Eight” — the group of lawmakers charged with reviewing the nation’s most sensitive intelligence information — following reports of a Chinese spy balloon flying over Montana.

“China’s brazen disregard for U.S. sovereignty is a destabilizing action that must be addressed, and President Biden cannot be silent,” McCarthy tweeted. “I am requesting a Gang of Eight briefing.”

The Pentagon said Thursday it had detected and was tracking a Chinese surveillance balloon flying high over the United States. The balloon is floating at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a threat to people on the ground, Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said in a statement.

Ryder declined to say where the balloon came from, but a senior Defense Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive talks, said the Pentagon has “very high confidence” it belongs to China.

The Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to a request for comment.



President Joe Biden was briefed on the situation and asked for military options, said the senior DoD official. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin convened senior Pentagon leaders on Wednesday while he was traveling in the Philippines, and discussed the possibility of shooting it down.

Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley and Gen. Glen VanHerck, chief of U.S. Northern Command, strongly recommended against bringing it down due to the risk that falling debris could pose a hazard to people on the ground, the senior DoD official said.

“We had been looking at whether there was an option yesterday over some sparsely populated areas in Montana, but we just couldn't buy down the risk enough to feel comfortable recommending shooting it down yesterday,” the official said.

Officials also assessed that the balloon did not pose a threat to the people on the ground or to civilian aviation, the official added.

The Pentagon also determined the balloon has “limited value” over what China is already able to collect through its satellite capabilities, the official said. But it is flying over a number of sensitive sites, including Malmstrom Air Force Base, home to some of the nation’s silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Still, the department is taking “mitigation steps” to protect against possible foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information, the person said, declining to give details. At the same time, officials are gaining “insights” into the balloon’s capabilities.



“We know exactly where this balloon is, exactly what it is passing over and we're taking steps to be extra vigilant so that we can mitigate any foreign intelligence risk,” the person said.

At Billings Logan airport on Wednesday, flights ground to a halt as the U.S. military scrambled F-22 fighter jets in case the decision was made to take down the balloon.

Revelations about the suspected spy balloon sparked angry reactions among lawmakers, beyond McCarthy.

“Biden should shoot down the Chinese spy balloon immediately,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) saidin a tweet","link":{"target":"NEW","attributes":[],"url":"https://twitter.com/RepMTG/status/1621294190041636864","_id":"00000186-157b-dd7d-ade7-fdffca5d0000","_type":"33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df"},"_id":"00000186-157b-dd7d-ade7-fdffca5d0001","_type":"02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266"}">in a tweet. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)tweeted that the balloon","link":{"target":"NEW","attributes":[],"url":"https://twitter.com/marcorubio/status/1621295667040722944","_id":"00000186-157b-dd7d-ade7-fdffca5d0002","_type":"33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df"},"_id":"00000186-157b-dd7d-ade7-fdffca5d0003","_type":"02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266"}">tweeted that the balloon highlighted how “intense & brazen” Chinese espionage efforts targeting the U.S. have become.

Montana Sen. Steve Daines demanded a briefing from the Biden administration Thursday night.

“It is vital to establish the flight path of this balloon, any compromised U.S. national security assets, and all telecom or IT infrastructure on the ground within the U.S. that this spy- balloon was utilizing,” he said in a statement. “Given the increased hostility and destabilization around the globe aimed at the United States and our allies, I am alarmed by the fact that this spy balloon was able to infiltrate the airspace of our country and Montana."

Sen. Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Pentagon owes a “full and accurate accounting” of what happened.

“Information strongly suggests the Department failed to act with urgency in responding to this airspace incursion by a high-altitude surveillance balloon,” the Mississippi senator said. “No incursion should be ignored, and should be dealt with appropriately.”

Not all the criticism came from Republicans. The bipartisan leaders of the newly formed House committee on China issued a joint statement","link":{"target":"NEW","attributes":[],"url":"https://www.politico.com/f/?id=00000186-1504-df27-abcf-9d6d3eb90000","_id":"00000186-157b-dd7d-ade7-fdffca5d0004","_type":"33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df"},"_id":"00000186-157b-dd7d-ade7-fdffca5d0005","_type":"02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266"}">issued a joint statement declaring the balloon incursion a “violation of American sovereignty.”

They hinted it had implications for Secretary of State Antony Blinken’strip to Beijing next week","link":{"target":"NEW","attributes":[],"url":"https://www.politico.com/newsletters/politico-china-watcher/2023/02/02/blinken-braves-bilateral-deep-freeze-in-beijing-00080787","_id":"00000186-157b-dd7d-ade7-fdffca5d0006","_type":"33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df"},"_id":"00000186-157b-dd7d-ade7-fdffca5d0007","_type":"02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266"}">trip to Beijing next week. “Coming only days before Secretary Blinken’s trip to the PRC … it also makes clear that the CCP’s recent diplomatic overtures do not represent a substantive change in policy,” Committee Chair Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) and ranking member Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill) said in the statement.

That suggests there may be a growing chorus of congressional voices over the next 24 hours calling for Blinken to reconsider his trip to China to protest the spy balloon’s intrusion into U.S. airspace.

“The timing of this provocation is troubling to say the least … it is very difficult to see how Blinken’s trip can proceed as planned,” said Craig Singleton, senior China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “If he does decide to go, this spying incident will almost certainly overshadow any hopes Blinken may have harbored about stabilizing the fraught U.S.-China relationship.”

This is not the first time DoD has tracked a Chinese spy balloon flying over the continental U.S. This kind of activity has happened “a handful of other times” over the past few years, including before the Biden administration, the senior DoD official said. However, in this instance the balloon loitered for a longer period of time.

The U.S. has engaged its Chinese counterparts “with urgency” through multiple channels, both through their embassy in Washington and the U.S. embassy in Beijing, the senior DoD official said.

“We have communicated to them the seriousness with which we take this issue,” the person said. “We have made clear we will do whatever is necessary to protect our people and our homeland.”

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