Finally, Something Interesting Is Happening in the Election

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Slate’s guide to the most important figures in politics this week.

Welcome to this week’s edition of the Surge, the newsletter that digests the previous seven days of Slate’s coverage of Lansing, Michigan.

This will be the last edition before the end of normalcy next week, when Donald Trump and Joe Biden enter CNN’s Atlanta studios and get permanently lost looking for a Snickers bar. Either that or they’ll be citizen-arrested by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. We have a new megadonor—a reclusive Gilded Age scion, like all the others—to put on our “hot list” and an update on the always bustling intersection of Matt Gaetz and ethics.

First, a preview of hell.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Scott Olson/Getty Images and Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images.

1. Joe Biden and Donald Trump

Finally, some action.

Next Thursday, for the very first time in this presidential election, something interesting could happen. Barring a last-minute dropout, President Biden and former President Trump will meet for their first of two debates, this one in CNN’s Atlanta headquarters, with no studio audience seats behind moderators Jake Tapper and Dana Bash. After a coin toss that the Biden campaign won (rigged?), Biden chose to be on the right side of viewers’ screens, because of science, leaving Trump to get the debate’s last word. What will the Surge be watching for? Drool, mostly—which candidate has more, and what’s the consistency? More seriously: whether Trump can avoid his usual pitfalls. Two come to mind. The first is that he’s too angry and rude, relentlessly hectoring Biden, which lets Biden off the hook. This marred Trump’s first debate in 2020, but he improved by the next one, his demeanor having cooled after he nearly died of COVID. The second trap that Trump, and all other Republicans, repeatedly falls into is lowering expectations for Biden beneath the floor, allowing the president to score a “win” through the simple act of maintaining a pulse. Trump seems to be aware of this risk, and he said this week, “I assume he’s going to be somebody that will be a worthy debater, I would say, I think. I don’t want to underestimate him.”

2. Matt Gaetz

A rare update from the Ethics Committee.

On Monday afternoon, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz posted on social media that the House Ethics Committee was “opening new frivolous investigations” into him, calling the ongoing matter “Soviet” and adding, “Kevin McCarthy showed them the man, and they are now trying to find the crime.” The following day, the Ethics Committee issued a very, very rare update on its ongoing investigation. The investigation, it said, had begun in April 2021, was paused at the Justice Department’s request, and had resumed in May 2023. (Keep in mind, this resumption was just a few months before Gaetz led McCarthy’s ouster, which McCarthy has blamed on Gaetz wanting him to nix the ethics investigation.) The committee wrote that certain allegations “merit continued review” and that new allegations arising from the investigation also merit review. Among those allegations: that Gaetz “engaged in sexual misconduct and illicit drug use, accepted improper gifts, dispensed special privileges and favors to individuals with whom he had a personal relationship, and sought to obstruct government investigations of his conduct.” So it’s “unethical” to have a good time? Is the nerd committee going to “investigate” whether he brushes his teeth for the full two minutes? But really … it sounds bad (allegedly). The Surge is still not taking Gaetz’s primary challenge that seriously. We are, however, taking it seriously enough that we just googled the date: Aug. 20.

3. Bob Good

And the winner of the MAGA Civil War is …

… to be determined! The closely watched primary between Virginia Rep. Bob Good (the House Freedom Caucus chairman endorsed by most of the Freedom Caucus) and state Sen. John McGuire (backed by Donald Trump, former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, and Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene) remains too close to call, several days after the vote. Out of 62,000-plus votes cast and counted, McGuire held a lead of 313 as of Friday afternoon, quite possibly sending the race into a recount. One lesson to take from the closeness of this race is how congressional primary polling has a tendency to be a racket, especially publicly disclosed internal numbers. In a pathetic scene recounted by Politico, Good and McGuire argued about whose polling was better—in front of Trump—the day they both visited Trump’s New York trial in May. McGuire said that his polling showed him up by 14 points, and Good “shot back” that his internal polling showed him up by 25 points. Just taking a stab here, but could it be that these polling numbers were reverse engineered from the idea of impressing Trump before he had made an endorsement? Now, if McGuire’s and Good’s polling had showed them up 14 and 25 total votes, respectively, the polling would have been spot-on.

4. Jeff Landry

Next season on Maybe the Supreme Court Will Go For This?

The Republican Louisiana governor signed into law this week a bill requiring that a poster of the Ten Commandments, “printed in a large, easily readable font,” be displayed in every classroom of every school that receives state public funds. Not allowed to display it—required to display it, with the poster being no smaller than 11 by 14 inches. If this sounds a bit as if Louisiana might be pushing it, well, that’s the point. As Landry himself said, “I can’t wait to be sued.” This law, which would appear to directly violate a 1980 Supreme Court precedent, is the latest volley from the religious right to see what the new, more conservative SCOTUS will let it get away with. Maybe the justices will let this one stand; maybe they won’t! But if it’s not this, it will be something else. This is just what the federal court system is now: a relitigating of fights that the religious right lost toward the end of the 20th century. Isn’t this kind of weird?

5. Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Not in the debate and taking it very well, very normally.

The independent candidate will not make the first presidential debate, falling one poll short of the requirement to earn at least 15 percent in four qualifying national polls, and not currently making enough ballots to theoretically be elected president. So he’s taking it graciously, suggesting that only the CNN employees working on the debate should go to jail. His argument is that by excluding Kennedy with flimsy criteria, the debate amounts to a campaign contribution for Biden and Trump. “This means CNN, and every member of CNN who is participating in planning, executing, and holding this debate, is at risk of prosecution, as happened to Michael Cohen, for violating campaign finance laws,” the Kennedy campaign said in a statement. “This risk is now acute given that any further violation would be knowing and willful, and thus could carry with it serious jail time.” We’ll just leave that there and pivot to the next question: Does Kennedy have a chance of making the second debate in September, hosted by ABC News? The network hasn’t released its qualifying criteria, so we’re not yet sure whether it wants to join CNN in jail.

6. Timothy Mellon

If we do a felony, can we get $50 million too?

National polling since Trump’s guilty verdict in New York a few weeks ago has shown a small boost of a point or two in Biden’s favor. The biggest impact the verdict has had thus far on the race, though, would have to be the explosion of cash that Trump has received. His campaign, which fundraised heavily during Trump’s trial and in the immediate aftermath of the verdict, said it raised $141 million in May, to the Biden campaign’s $85 million. The once-daunting fundraising gap between Biden and Trump has now been wiped out. But just as interesting this week was a disclosure from the predominant pro-Trump super PAC MAGA Inc. In its latest filing, it revealed that Timothy Mellon—heir to the Mellon fortune—wrote a casual $50 million check to the PAC the day after the Trump verdict. Mellon had already given tens of millions to the PAC this cycle, and he’s also the largest benefactor to the super PAC of RFK Jr. He’s now, as the New York Times wrote, “the first donor to give $100 million in disclosed federal contributions in this year’s election.” Mellon has become a major Republican donor only in the past five or so years, and he’s described in the Times as “hard to reach.” (He lives in Wyoming, where there are many places to hide.) We do know, however, that he has described the social safety net as “slavery redux.” Hey, someone’s got to maintain Gilded Age values.

7. Aileen Cannon

Maybe the suggestion could have been stronger?

Beginning Friday and lasting into early next week, Judge “Come On” Aileen Cannon will be hearing a series of pretrial arguments—i.e., outlandish claims from the Trump defense that normal judges would’ve dismissed by now—in Fort Pierce, Florida, in the classified documents case against Trump. Cannon, who biffed her handling of the classified documents investigation before she later received the case itself, has been heavily criticized for allowing the Trump team to delay the trial with such ease. This week, we learned a little bit more about the consternation over Cannon on the federal bench itself. The New York Times reported that two more experienced judges in the Southern District of Florida had recommended that she decline the case, with the chief judge suggesting that it would be “bad optics” for her to take it given her handling of the investigation. Cannon, needless to say, did not follow this advice. And that’s why we’re here, a year after the indictment, reading about her holding a pretrial hearing about how special counsel Jack Smith was improperly appointed.