Dispatch from Washington: May 2024

Election Day is now less than six months away, and all signs point to a very close contest. President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have agreed to debate twice, with the first debate set for next month. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy expressed gratitude following the passage of a long-delayed assistance package by the US Congress, saying it would save lives and “bring a just end” to the war with Russia. House Speaker Mike Johnson survived a motion to vacate. Amid heightened economic tensions, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was the latest senior US official to visit China. Despite an up-tick in high-level contacts, the Biden administration announced an $18 billion package of additional tariffs on Chinese imports, fueling further tensions. Inflation cooled slightly last month but proves to remain a stubborn challenge for Federal Reserve policymakers. The New York criminal trial against Donald Trump is underway, but the timing of Trump’s other criminal trials is uncertain. Democrats enter panic mode as protests erupt on college campuses across the nation over Israel’s war in Gaza.

State of the race—6 months out

 Election Day is now less than six months away. In some states, voting will begin in just over four months. In spite of countless speeches, electoral analysis, social media posts, and interviews, there has been little change to the basic structure of the Presidential contest. According to the RealClearPolitics amalgamation of national polls, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have been running neck-in-neck for months. In the battleground states a troubling picture is emerging for Biden, which reveals an erosion of support for the president among young and nonwhite voters. How those races break will depend on whose voters turn out and whose stay home.  The discontent among young, Black and Hispanic voters threaten to unravel the president’s Democratic coalition. In a recent set of polls from The New York Times, Siena College and The Philadelphia Inquirer, Trump is leading in many key states. Surveys in Michigan, Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin found that Trump was ahead in five of the six states among registered voters in a head-to-head matchup. These results are very similar to the last series of Times/Siena polls in battleground states in November – but since then, Trump’s criminal trial in New York has started and the stock market has gained twenty-five percent – this shows that neither the criminal trials, nor positive news for the economy are influencing voter perspectives and preferences. Rather, frustration about inflation, immigration, the war in Gaza, and a desire for change, are a drag on the president’s standing among key constituencies of Biden’s coalition. Judging by the polls, the trajectory of this race is not favorable to Biden. Nevertheless, two wild cards in this race could significantly influence the results—abortion and third-party candidates. In several recent congressional and state-wide races since the US Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, Democrats have outperformed what pre-race polls predicted. The presence of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Jill Stein, and Cornel West in the race could also help determine the outcome. Kennedy, in particular, has broad name recognition and surprising strength in the national polls. There are always outside events that could shake the foundation of the race, and Trump and Biden just agreed to a debate schedule (see next section), but six months out this looks to be one of the closest, and most divisive presidential contests in American history. 

The Debate Stage is Set

The schedule for the Trump-Biden debates were announced on May 15. Biden and Trump agreed to debate on CNN on June 27, weeks before early voting begins and just ahead of the summer conventions, with the Republican National Convention opening in Milwaukee on July 15 and the Democratic National Convention starting in Chicago on August 19. Anchors Jake Tapper and Dana Bash are set to moderate. The second debate will take place on September 10 and be hosted by ABC. Notably, the candidates themselves agreed to the debate schedule, shunning the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has hosted debates since 1988. In 2022, the Republican National Committee announced that it would quit the Commission due to of concerns about the timing of debates and over accusations of bias. Biden campaign chair Jen O’Malley Dillon also criticized the Commission saying it is “out of step with changes in the structure of our elections and the interests of voters.” 

Sweeping Foreign Assistance Package Finally Cleared

 Eight months after President Biden requested tens of billions of dollars in emergency funding for Ukraine, he finally signed the $95 billion package into law on April 23. After much handwringing, House Speaker Mike Johnson finally decided to advance the legislation, a move that put his Speakership at risk (see next section) and was the culmination of a remarkable personal and political arc.  The measure passed with broad bipartisan support, while being sharply criticized by hard-right Republicans who have vowed to sack the Speaker. The package includes $60 billion in aid to Ukraine that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said would give his country “a chance at victory.” Arms began flowing to Ukraine within days of the President signing the bill into law. The legislation also provides $26 billion in assistance to Israel and humanitarian relief in Gaza, as well as $8 billion for security for Taiwan and the Indo-Pacific. The legislation also had provisions requiring the parent company of the popular social media platform TikTok, ByteDance, to divest itself and find new ownership of the company within nine months.

Johnson Survives Move to Sack Him from Right-Flank

 Over a month ago, after expressing frustration at Speaker Mike Johnson for moving critical legislation with Democratic votes, far-right Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) introduced a measure to remove the Speaker from power–the “motion to vacate.” The motion was a dark cloud hanging over the Speaker’s head as Greene, having been joined by several other far-right members, kept threatening to bring the measure up for a vote. That move was finally triggered on May 6 when Greene officially filed her motion, starting a two-day clock for lawmakers to decide his fate. The House overwhelmingly voted to kill the move by hard-liners, with 196 Republicans supporting Johnson. Democrats also overwhelmingly voted to save the GOP speaker. The overall vote was 359-43. Johnson also had the backing of former President Donald Trump, who posted on Truth Social that Johnson was “a good man who is trying very hard.” Trump further said “We’re not in a position of voting on a Motion to Vacate. At some point, we may very well be, but this is not the time.” The House rules still maintain that any single Member of Congress can file a similar motion to remove the Speaker. Following the vote, Speaker Johnson said, “Hopefully, this is the end of the personality politics and the frivolous character assassination that has defined the 118th Congress.” This chapter of Johnson’s six months in power also illustrates an interesting dynamic that has defined Johnson’s speakership—each time the Republican leader has been faced with a critical task, such as averting a government shutdown or a catastrophic default on the nation’s debt, he has relied on a bipartisan coalition of mainstream lawmakers to steer around far-right opposition and provide the votes to accomplish it. While the far-right flank may be loud, hold a combative political brand and a willingness to fight with the establishment of their party, it is clear that their relative political power has been diminished. 

Secretary of State Visits China In An Effort to Smooth Ties

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken traveled to the People’s Republic of China in late April—his visit came very soon after his counterpart at Treasury, Secretary Janet Yellen visited the country as part of a concerted effort to stabilize relations between the world’s two largest economies. This is Blinken’s second visit to China within the last year—he visited in June after a prolonged period of frozen high-level talks and intense friction due to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022 and the Chinese “surveillance balloon” incident. The Blinken and Yellen visits are part of a series of high-level engagements including Biden’s meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in San Francisco in November 2023, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s resumption of military dialogues with his Chinese counterpart, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s frequent meetings with Foreign Minister Wang Yi over the last several months. 

Although no major breakthroughs came out of the trip, it demonstrates that both sides want to prevent bilateral ties from sinking any lower and responsibly managing competition, even in areas where our two countries disagree. Nevertheless, the visit occurred at a point of heightened tensions and reports that that the Biden administration is drafting sanctions that could choke off access for some Chinese banks to the global financial system in response to Beijing’s commercial support for Russia’s war effort. China’s foreign ministry also expressed opposition to the foreign aid package which was recently signed into law due to the inclusion of assistance for Taiwan (see previous section). Despite the higher frequency of contact, the bilateral relationship is still marked by deep-seated tensions and intensifying strategic competition.

Biden Imposes New Tariffs on Goods from China

On May 14, the White House announced plans to introduce a new wave of tariffs on Chinese imports, citing “unacceptable risks” and unfair competition from Beijing. Approximately $18 billion of imported goods will be affected, including electric vehicles, semiconductors, steel and aluminum, critical minerals, medical products, and solar panels–imported Chinese electric vehicles will face a 100 percent tariff, while solar cells will see a 50 percent rate. The move comes after a four-year review on China trade policies. In announcing the new import duties, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who recently returned from China (see previous section), said the moves are designed to “make sure that we have healthy and active firms.” During an event hosted by the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, National Economic Council Director Lael Brainard said the tariffs were intended to avoid more economic turbulence from unfair trade practices and prevent a “second China shock.” US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said these tariffs were justified to combat Chinese efforts to steal US intellectual property. Beijing vowed retaliation. China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin criticized the measures, saying they go against a consensus reached at November’s bilateral meeting between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in San Francisco.

Inflation Cools, Economy Slows

 President Biden has stated that “fighting inflation and lowering costs is my top economic priority,” and the April Consumer Price Index (CPI) was welcome news showing that inflation slowed for the first time this year. The report released on May 15 found the overall consumer price index increased 3.4% over the last 12 months, compared to 3.5% in March. The slight cooldown in price increases comes after several months of data showing inflation had stopped slowing after big declines last year. Nevertheless, Federal Reserve officials are increasingly worried about lingering inflation, which now appears more difficult to tame. Beyond the slight cooling reflected in the most recent CPI, there are other indicators that show inflation’s persistency. The Bureau of Labor Statistics gauge of US labor costs, another closely watched indicator by the Federal Reserve, accelerated in the first quarter by more than forecast, illuminating persistent wage pressures that are keeping inflation elevated. 

The most recent numbers on US economy growth also underwhelm. At the end of April, the Commerce Department said that the economy grew at a 1.6% annualized rate in the first quarter of 2024. By comparison, gross domestic product (GDP) increased at a 3.4% annual rate in the fourth quarter of 2023 and rose 4.9% in the three-month period before that. Analysts had expected a 2.5% pace of first-quarter growth, but the latest numbers are a sign that the US economy has slowed significantly and may be entering a more moderate period of growth.

These economic indicators frustrate Fed policymakers’ plans to cut rates. Following its most recent policy meeting, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) kept its target interest rate between 5.25% and 5.5%. Fed officials have warned in recent weeks that defeating inflation may require the central bank to hold interest rates at a two-decade high for a longer period. The Fed’s policy statement said that inflation had cooled over the past year, though it remains high, noting: “In recent months, there has been a lack of further progress toward the Committee’s 2% objective.”  At a press conference following the policy meeting, Fed chair Jerome Powell confirmed that recent inflation data means they won’t cut interest rates as soon as it had previously signaled.

Trump’s First Criminal Trial Underway, Timing for Others in Question

For the first time in American history, a former President sits in the dock in a criminal trial. The proceedings in Trump’s trial for 34 felony counts of falsifying business records for actions related to hush money payments made to porn actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal in the closing days of the 2016 presidential campaign has officially commenced. Thus far, multiple witnesses have testified against the former President, including Daniels, former White House aid Hope Hicks, and former Trump attorney and “fixer” Michael Cohen, among others, while Trump has been forced to sit at the defense desk. Trump has also been found in contempt of court ten times, with Justice Juan Merchan saying he’ll consider jail time going forward. The proceedings are expected to last around six weeks. 

While the New York “hush money” case proceeds, the timing of Trump’s other criminal trials are in question. On May 8, a Georgia court agreed to consider Trump’s appeal of a crucial decision in his state election interference case. The same day, Judge Aileen Cannon delayed the classified documents case indefinitely. These two trials will now likely be pushed back until after the November election, a major win for Trump whose strategy has been to delay these legal proceedings.

Campus Protests Prompt Anxiety Among Dems

 Democrats’ anxiety is spiking as pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses around the country continue to grab headlines, cause chaos on campuses, and draw attention to Biden’s handling of Israel’s offensive in Gaza. In recent weeks, protests on college campuses from New York to California have escalated in severity with law enforcement clashing with demonstrators (some of whom are not students at those colleges and universities). Colleges in Utah, Virginia, Arizona, North Carolina and Florida have also collectively seen hundreds of protesters arrested. President Biden is rejecting calls from student protesters to change his approach to the war in Gaza, while insisting that “order must prevail” on college campuses across the country. Nevertheless, this presents a political problem for the President and fellow Democrats – Republican operatives are already cutting ads tying Democrats to the chaos. As pro-Palestinian demonstrations continue on college campuses around the country, there are concerns that this summer’s Democratic National Convention could be hit by protests and scenes of chaos that undermine the President’s reelection campaign. Dozens of organizations in Chicago and elsewhere have formed a coalition to “March on the DNC” when it opens there on Aug. 19. History could repeat itself in Chicago where, in 1968, a violent police crackdown on anti-Vietnam War protesters created indelible scenes of chaos widely blamed for weakening the eventual party nominee, Hubert Humphrey.

“Who’s Who” – Personnel Updates from the Biden Administration

Department of CommerceKate Canavan is now Deputy Chief of Staff at Office of the Under Secretary, International Trade Administration. Tonya N. Williams is Chief of Staff in the Office of the Deputy Secretary.

Department of DefenseTonya Parran Wilkerson is the nominee for Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security. Deborah G. Rosenblum is the Acting Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment.  

Department of InteriorShannon A. Estenoz has been nominated to be Deputy Secretary.

Department of StateHannah E. Suh his now a Senior Advisor to the Undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. Courtney Diesel O’Donnell was confirmed as the US Permanent Representative to UNESCO. Ambassador Amy Gutmann has announced she is leaving her post as the US Ambassador to Germany in mid-July. The following Ambassadorial nominations have been transmitted to the Senate: Abigail L. Dressel for the Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe; James Holtsnider for Samoa; Christopher J. Lamora for the Central African Republic; David Meale for Bangladesh; Curtis Ried for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. 

The White HouseBryan P. Segraves is a Special Advisor to the Vice President for the Middle East, Defense and Technology at National Security. Rob Friedlander is Chief of Staff and Senior Advisor for Communication on the National Economic Council. COL Matt Hepburn, USA, is a Senior Advisor at Office of Pandemic Preparedness and Response. On the National Security Council staff, Dr. Frances Z. Brown is now the Senior Director for African Affairs, Alexandra M. “Ola” Craft is Director of Strategic Trade and Nonproliferation and Nadia J. Farra is Director for Democracy and Human Rights. Megan F. Doherty is now Senior Advisor on Foreign Policy at Office of the First Lady.



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