Welcome to your weekly run-down of all the big news, strange rules and interesting happenings from the world of US politics.
It’s been six months since the election, but down in Arizona, they’re still counting ballots — 2.1 million of them, to be exact.
The Republican-led state legislature subpoenaed them from Maricopa County. Following Donald Trump’s 10,457-vote loss in the state, there were widespread claims of fraud circulating among Republicans. Dozens of journalists and two official audits could not substantiate such claims.
But the legislature went ahead and handed the ballots over to a company called Cyber Ninjas (yes, really), which is headed by a man who has tweeted unverified election rumours.
All day, a hundred or so hired contractors search the ballots for the stuff of conspiracy theories, like secret presidential watermarks and bamboo fibres that could mean the ballots were shipped in from Asia (again … yes, really).
The only journalists initially given access were from the highly partisan One America network, which is hosting a fundraiser to pay Cyber Ninjas. And one of Cyber Ninja’s ‘vetted’ counters was photographed on the steps of the US Capitol during the January 6 riot.
The whole approach is such a spectacle that even one of the Republican legislators said it “makes us look like idiots”. The federal Department of Justice sent a letter warning things might be getting illegal.
As of last week, about 500,000 of the 2.1 million ballots have been checked, meaning the whole kit and caboodle is likely to drag on for months.
The counting has been on a little pause this week, as the ballots get moved to make room for a few high school graduations and a gun show in the huge, heavily guarded arena. Space, which is normally used for NBA games, is fittingly nicknamed “the Madhouse”.
Key point: Even if they did find fraud, this wouldn’t change the election outcome. Biden beat Trump by 74 electoral college votes, and Arizona is worth 11. And this review has no legal power no matter what it finds.
But the expensive, lengthy and altogether questionable process could set a precedent for how states handle election distrust moving forward. A recent poll found that nearly two-thirds of Republicans don’t believe Joe Biden won the election fairly.
Of course, these Arizona happenings have not gone unnoticed by the man whose name is on the ballot.
Donald Trump is reportedly “fixated” on the count in Arizona, and has been issuing statements about the process. A recent one was so verifiably false that the county’s top Republican elections official called it “unhinged”.
Two more Republican-backed bills aimed at tightening voter restrictions are working their way through statehouses in Texas and Arizona. At the federal level, the Democratic-backed bill aimed at nationalising voting rights is progressing to a Senate floor vote, but it’s not likely to pass given current filibuster rules.
Stay tuned on this one folks. Once the graduation banners have been packed away this weekend, the count resumes.
Only 1.6 million votes to go…
Postcards from Mar-a-Lago
The former president is resuming his signature rallies, according to media reports and the language coming from his official fundraising committees.
But, no, this still doesn’t necessarily mean he’s running again. Trump, who’s stayed away from cameras and remained banned from social media, still hasn’t given a direct answer.
It’s still not clear where, when and why the rallies are happening, but, in all likelihood, he’ll use the stage to stump for allied midterms candidates, sussing out whether his platform is still popular enough to win.
The timing of the rally announcement feels bigger though. He’s testing his hold on the Republican Party following Liz Cheney’s ousting last week (head here if you need to get up to speed).
It’s still 2020
Speaking of Trump’s hold over the Republican party, Thursday brought us yet another test of it.
The US House of Representatives voted in favour of creating an independent commission to investigate the deadly January 6 attack on the US Capitol.
The majority of Republicans, including the Republican House leadership, voted against the bill despite bipartisan negotiations that eventually secured most of their demands in the final product.
People climbing up a wall leading to the US Capitol building
The US Capitol was besieged by Trump supporters angry about the former president’s loss(AP: Jose Luis Magana)
Trump explicitly told Republicans in a statement they “should not approve the Democrat trap” in a post the evening before the vote, and all but 35 House Republicans obeyed.
That’s many more than House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (and the defacto Republican leader Trump) would have liked, but a long way short of the kind of revolt against the former president conservatives like Liz Cheney are hoping to spark.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell effectively killed the chance of this particular commission ever becoming a reality when he also said he’d block the bill in the Senate.
The same Mitch McConnell who told the Senate in February that Trump’s actions that day were a “disgraceful dereliction of duty”, that Trump was “practically and morally responsible for provoking” the attack, and called the actions of the Trump supporters “terrorism to try to stop a specific piece of democratic business they did not like.”
The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case concerning a Mississippi ban on abortions after 15 weeks.
It’ll be the first big test of the 50-year Roe v Wade abortion precedent since Trump’s new appointees tipped the court to a 6-3 conservative majority.
The newest justice, Amy Coney Barrett, has spoken out about “abortion on demand” in previous legal writings, but we won’t know for sure how she feels until we get a ruling on this case in 2022. Arguments will start in October.
The Centers for Disease Control issued new guidance late last week, saying that fully vaccinated Americans can go without a mask in most settings.
It should be a huge turning point in a country where the simple cloth coverings became a controversial political symbol. But after 14 months of tragedy, Americans of all political stripes are still shy about trusting federal authorities. Read more here.
Three little morsels for you this week.
1) In his ongoing effort to make America normal again, Joe Biden released his tax returns. No big bombshells.
2) Speaking of taxes, an investigation that recently got its hands on the returns of the previous occupation of the White House could lead to Trump’s worst-case scenario.
The New York attorney-general’s office, along with the Manhattan District Attorney, announced that it was “actively investigating the Trump Organization in a criminal capacity”.
Republican House representative Matt Gaetz
3) Speaking of worst-case scenarios, an associate of high-profile Republican Representative Matt Gaetz pleaded guilty to sex trafficking of a minor and agreed to fully cooperate with investigators and testify in court.
Lawyers for Joel Greenberg told journalists that they were “sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today,” and that their client was “uniquely situated” to help prosecutors investigating the congressman.
Gaetz has not been charged with any crimes, has denied any allegations he was involved with Greenberg and has said he won’t resign from Congress while under investigation.