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The Most Interesting Guests at Biden’s State of the Union Address

Members of Congress use guests at the State of the Union to send a message. This year, here’s where their priorities are.

Kris Connor/Getty Images

Joe Biden will deliver his second State of the Union address Tuesday night, reflecting on a mixed bag of a year.

His Democrats delivered historic wins in the 2022 midterms, and the economy is improving, but Biden’s approval ratings are still low.

Here is a list of notable guests who will attend the president’s speech.

Tyre Nichols’s parents

The parents of Tyre Nichols, a young Black man who was brutally beaten to death by police officers in Tennessee, will attend the speech. RowVaughn Wells and Rodney Wells were invited by Steven Horsford, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Five officers have been arrested and charged with multiple crimes, including second-degree murder. Two other officers were fired in connection with the incident.

Nichols’s death has reinvigorated calls for police reform, but it’s unclear if that is possible given how divided Congress is.

Brandon Tsay

Brandon Tsay, 26, disarmed the Monterey Park shooter before he could open fire on a second ballroom dance hall. He was invited to attend the State of the Union by California Representative Judy Chu. According to Chu, Biden also invited Tsay just an hour after she did.

Huu Can Tran had just attacked a ballroom in Monterey Park, California, on January 21—killing 10 people and wounding several more, one of whom would later die from gunshot wounds—when he arrived at Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio. Tsay’s family owns the ballroom, and he helps run the ticket office. Tsay struggled with Tran and was able to wrest the older man’s gun away from him.

Roya Rahmani

Also in attendance Tuesday night will be Roya Rahmani, who served as Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States from 2018 to 2021. The first female Afghan ambassador to the U.S., Rahmani served until July 2021, one month before the Taliban swept back to power in her home country.

Since taking control of Afghanistan, the Taliban continues to tighten its grip on the country’s society, including in a huge crackdown on women’s right to education and work.

Rahmani was invited by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul, who said he hoped her presence would “send a signal to the women of Afghanistan that they have not been forgotten.”

Michael Brown Sr.

Missouri Representative Cori Bush invited Michael Brown Sr., whose son was killed by police in 2014, to the State of the Union.

Michael Brown Jr. was 18 years old when he was stopped outside a 7-Eleven in his hometown of Ferguson, Missouri. Officer Darren Wilson said Brown attacked him, while Brown’s friend, who was there, said Wilson initiated the scuffle. Wilson ended up shooting Brown dead.

Brown’s death, and later a grand jury’s refusal to indict Wilson, sparked widespread unrest in Ferguson. The killing helped spur the Black Lives Matter movement.

“The police killing of Michael Brown in 2014 is what propelled me and many others into lives dedicated to building a world where Mike would still be here with us,” Bush told Politico. “A world where Tyre Nichols and the thousands of other Black people killed by police could live long, healthy lives full of joy.”

Amanda Zurawski

First Lady Jill Biden has invited Amanda Zurawski, a woman from Austin, Texas, who nearly died when her state’s abortion ban forced her to wait for treatment for pregnancy complications.

Zurawski and her husband Josh Zurawksi first told their story in one of Beto O’Rourke’s final campaign ads for Texas governor. The pair had been trying to get pregnant for more than a year before they finally succeeded. But when she was 18 weeks pregnant, Amanda was diagnosed with an “incompetent cervix,” a condition that causes almost a quarter of second-trimester miscarriages. Her cervix was opening too early and putting the pregnancy at risk.

Texas, however, has banned abortions in all cases except when the pregnant person’s life is at risk. Her doctors were not allowed to terminate Zurawski’s pregnancy and instead had to tell her to come back when she developed a life-threatening infection. Over the next three days, Zurawski developed a bacterial infection that sent her body into sepsis. Doctors were finally able to induce the miscarriage, but she still has mental and physical health complications as a result.

The couple is clear that they blame Texas politicians for the law, not the doctors who feared the repercussions of breaking it.

Mary Kay Henry

Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, will attend the State of the Union as a guest of House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries. Jeffries’s invitation comes after Biden, who promised to be “the most pro-union president” in history, dealt a major blow to unions by calling on Congress in December to block a rail workers’ strike.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is also hoping to make a statement about labor Tuesday night: he invited Pedro Gamboa Bermudez, a baggage handler at New York’s JFK Airport. Bermudez co-founded the SEIU chapter at JFK and helped negotiate the first collective bargaining agreement for the airport workers.

Michael Weinstock

A former firefighter who did rescue work at ground zero during 9/11 will attend the State of the Union—as the guest of George Santos, whose mother famously did not die in the terrorist attack.

Santos, who represents New York, has come under fire and investigation for apparently fabricating the bulk of his background and credentials. In addition to saying his mother survived 9/11 (she was not even in the country), he also seems to have lied about his grandparents fleeing the Holocaust and four of his employees being killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting.

But Michael Weinstock explained he accepted the invitation because he wants to raise awareness about the health of 9/11 responders. He suffers from a neurological condition as a result of his time as an emergency worker.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that I’ll be able to stay focused enough on the issue of 9/11 responders receiving the health care that they need without being sullied by George Santos,” he said.

Sheriff Jeff Smith

New York Representative Elise Stefanik will bring Jeff Smith, a sheriff for one of the counties she represents, to the State of the Union.

Stefanik, who has remained one of Donald Trump’s most loyal supporters in Congress, said she had decided to bring Smith to make a point about rising crime in the United States, which she blames on “Joe Biden’s failed policies.”

The nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice has said that the rise in crime during 2020 and 2021 was due in part to the proliferation of guns—which Republicans such as Stefanik routinely refuse to restrict—and the extreme socioeconomic instability brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. Data for 2022 is limited but indicated that violent crime did go down that year.

This post has been updated.

Neo-Nazi Leader and Accomplice Arrested for Plot to “Completely Destroy” Baltimore

The pair planned to conduct sniper attacks on electrical substations in the majority-Black city.

Screenshot via DOJ

A neo-Nazi leader and his accomplice have been arrested for allegedly conspiring to attack electrical substations, with the ultimate goal to “completely destroy” the city of Baltimore, Maryland, law enforcement officials said Monday.

The two suspects, Brandon Clint Russell of Florida and Sarah Beth Clendaniel of Maryland, were arrested last week for their ploy to conduct “sniper attacks” on substations in order to disable power in the majority-Black city.

Authorities found the plot was “racially or ethnically motivated.” Baltimore has the fifth highest population of Black people in the country, with some 61 percent of residents being Black.

Russell had previously founded a neo-Nazi group in Florida called “Atomwaffen,” which was known to authorities for targeting minorities, Jews, LGBTQ people, the government, journalists, and infrastructure. In 2017, as police investigated his roommate murdering their two other roommates, Russell was discovered to be harboring neo-Nazi paraphernalia, a photo of the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, explosives, and more. In an interview at the time, he admitted to being a Nazi and that he had manufactured the recovered explosives.

Meanwhile, Clendaniel allegedly had what resembled a manifesto on her computer that references the Unabomber and Hitler. “I would sacrifice **everything** for my people to just have a chance for our cause to succeed,” the document said.

The pair were intensely devoted toward carrying out the attacks, according to the case’s affidavit. “Putting holes in transformers … is the greatest thing somebody can do,” Russell messaged an FBI informant.

The informant had been in contact with Russell since at least June 2022. Russell had allegedly been urging the informant to carry out attacks against infrastructure in service of violent extremist ends, for example, encouraging the informant to read a white supremacist publication that shared instructions on attacking critical infrastructure.

Last month, Clendaniel allegedly told the informant she was expecting to die of a terminal illness in her kidneys in the coming months and asked the informant to purchase a rifle for her, as she had unsuccessfully tried to in the past. She allegedly said she wanted to “accomplish something worthwhile” before dying, and if she were to get the rifle “within the next couple of weeks,” she would be enabled to “accomplish as much as possible before June, at the latest.”

Days later, Clendaniel told the informant of numerous potential targets, one of which was “literally like a life artery,” that, if destroyed, would “definitely cut out a lot of shit.”

On or about January 29, Clendaniel allegedly texted the informant that it “would really be ideal, for us both to have 30 round mags. Especially for what we’re doing.”

“Please get us each like, 4 of them. For what I’m hoping to do, we will need them,” she added. “If we can pull off what I’m hoping … this would be legendary. This is MAJOR tier, and definitely doable.”

During a voice conversation later that day, Clendaniel said that if they destroyed the “cores” of all five of their targets, they “would probably permanently completely lay this city to waste.”

The pair face a maximum possible prison sentence of 20 years if convicted on their charge of conspiring to destroy an energy facility.

“Driven by their ideology of racially motivated hatred, the defendants had allegedly schemed to attack local power grid facilities,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security Matthew G. Olsen.

The pair had allegedly been corresponding since at least 2018, while they both were incarcerated in separate facilities. Along with devising plans to destroy Baltimore and foment chaos, the two had sent text messages about having kids together, as well as “warfare” and “illegal things.” Russell once messaged Clendaniel that “going to prison was worth it because I might not have met you otherwise.”

The arrests follow nationwide attacks on power stations over the past year, many of which are feared to be tied to terrorists and white supremacist groups attempting to foment chaos.

In February 2022, three men pleaded guilty to plotting to attack substations with firearms; the trio was alleged white supremacists who had for years strategized how to incite civil unrest, a potential race war, and subsequently the second Great Depression.

The Chinese Balloon Inflated America’s Dumbest Political Mannerisms

The Defense Department said similar balloons flew over the United States numerous times in the Trump years. You wouldn’t know that from the media coverage.

Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

While the Chinese balloon floated overhead this past week, the right found yet another way to focus on anything but their nonexistent productive political project.

First it was that the balloon, an unprecedented incursion on American soil, should be shot down immediately; any delay by the Biden administration to take down something the size of three buses was unacceptable (shoot first, ask questions later—an apparent ritual of the conservative brain).

Concurrently, some Republicans posted photos proudly pointing their firearms to the air, signaling their hunger to just shoot the darn thing down themselves!

The message was stirring enough that sheriff’s departments had to plead their residents not to be dumb enough to shoot in the air, and let gravity do the rest.

Fox News host Jesse Watters found a way to bring Covid—a virus that apparently matters when you can ding China on it, but doesn’t matter when it means asking someone to wear a mask or get a vaccine—into play. Watters suggested the balloon might be a bioweapon.

After the United States military shot down the balloon on Saturday, the Defense Department revealed similar balloons flew over the U.S. numerous times during the Trump administration.

But Republicans conveniently ignored that information. When asked about that report, Senator Tom Cotton instead blamed Obama, while Marco Rubio claimed the flight paths were different, so this time is definitely worse.

The reports came after former Trump secretary of state and presidential hopeful Mike Pompeo said he “can nearly guarantee” that the balloon would not have been flying “if we were still there,” and former Army lieutenant general and Trump administration official Keith Kellogg suggested a step-by-step procedure the Trump administration would have apparently used in a similar situation.

Despite any predictable absurd right-wing responses to the balloon, there’s more to consider. Even if the balloons were surveilling the country, such an operation does not present the kind of immediate risks to Americans that should prompt an all-out whip-up of nationalistic fervor. Interstate relations are fragile enough; an overblown frenzy is the last thing we need when dealing with other states—especially when we ourselves have such an outsized presence throughout the rest of the world.

The moment put nearly every broken facet of American politics on full display: sensationalizing and politicizing Republicans; a media apparatus ready to dedicate more concentrated attention on a balloon than to, well, anything from climate catastrophe to meaningful policy implementation; and the broader American security state that helps propel such irrational responses at all.

Earthquake Kills More Than 2,300 People in Turkey, Syria, as Death Toll Quickly Rises

This was the worst earthquake the two countries have seen in nearly a century.

Residents search for victims and survivors amid the rubble of collapsed buildings following an earthquake in the village of Besnia near the town of Harim, in Syria’s rebel-held northwestern Idlib province on the border with Turkey, on February 6.

The United States prepared Monday to send aid to Turkey and Syria in the wake of the worst earthquake the two countries have seen in almost a century.

The 7.8-magnitude quake occurred in the early morning near the border between the two countries, leveling swathes of towns and killing more than 2,300 people. The tremor, which was felt as far away as Greenland, was followed by more than 50 aftershocks, including a 7.5-magnitude earthquake that rattled ongoing search and rescue operations.

We stand ready to provide any and all needed assistance,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement. “President Biden has directed USAID and other federal government partners to assess U.S. response options to help those most affected.”

Thousands of people are injured, and emergency responders are rushing to rescue people trapped under the rubble of buildings. Officials are unsure how many people are caught in the debris. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at least 5,300 people had been injured and more than 2,800 buildings had collapsed. He warned that he had no clue how much the death toll would rise as rescue efforts continued.

Rescuers search for victims and survivors amid the rubble of a building that collapsed in Adana, Turkey, on February 6.
Can Erok/AFP/Getty Images

To make matters worse, the region is being buffeted by biting winter weather, hindering rescue attempts and also endangering people who are now without shelter.

Many of the Turkish cities that were affected were filled with Syrian refugees who had fled the civil war in their home country. In Syria, where the war has taken a heavy toll on infrastructure, officials had to cut off natural gas and power supplies throughout the affected region. An earthquake expert at Turkey’s Academy of Sciences urged Syrian officials to check the region’s dams for cracks, which could lead to devastating flooding.

“Truthfully the situation is disastrous,” Raed Saleh, the head of Syria’s civil defense group the White Helmets, told NPR. “The hospitals are all completely full.”

“We can’t estimate the damages or know how many people have been killed.”

Other countries, including Ukraine, as well as NATO, have also sent condolences and offers of aid to Turkey and Syria.

Ron DeSantis Is Now Attacking the Orlando Philharmonic Because It Once Hosted a Drag Show

In an administrative complaint, the Florida governor accused the Orlando Philharmonic Plaza Foundation of putting on a “sexually explicit show.”

Ron DeSantis speaks at a podium
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis stripped the Orlando Philharmonic Plaza Foundation of its liquor license Friday for allowing children to attend a Christmas drag show.

DeSantis, who has been cracking down on LGBTQ rights, filed an administrative complaint through the state department of business and professional regulation accusing the Philharmonic’s foundation of putting on a “sexually explicit” show where minors would be present.

The governor had previously warned any venues that hosted the touring show A Drag Queen Christmas that his administration would seek legal action against them. He has also mentioned the possibility of having child protective services investigate parents who take their children to drag shows.

Civil rights attorney Alejandra Caraballo pointed out that DeSantis couched the administrative complaint in language about morality, at one point saying that businesses that host drag shows are a “nuisance,” which is defined as something that “becomes manifestly injurious to the morals or manners of the people.” By framing drag shows as a morality law issue, Caraballo said, DeSantis strips the performances of free speech protections.

DeSantis has gone to all-out war with anything he deems “woke,” and with LGBTQ rights in particular. He enacted the state’s now infamous Don’t Say Gay law, banned transgender women from playing women’s sports, and vowed to defund diversity, equity, and inclusion programs on college campuses. He also unconstitutionally forced out Andrew Warren, a state attorney who said he would not unilaterally criminalize cases involving personal medical issues, such as abortion or trans health care.

DeSantis is also part of a larger trend of Republicans demonizing drag queens and trans people, accusing them of being pedophiles as a way to fearmonger about the LGBTQ community. Drag shows, Medicaid funding for gender-affirmative care, and even children’s hospitals have all come under attack.

What Were the Miami Police Thinking With That “Black History Month” Cop Car?

Miami police unveiled a new cop car emblazoned with the words “Black History Month” and covered in images of Africa and raised Black fists.

A black Miami police car painted in green, red, and yellow. On the side are the words "Black History Month" and several close fists raised in the air.
Screenshot/WISN TV

On Thursday, in the dawn of Black History Month and amid nationwide calls for police reform after another flashpoint of police brutality in the killing of Tyre Nichols, the Miami Police Department unveiled its latest expense: a Black History Month–inspired cop car.

The pan-African colored vehicle, adorned with images of Africa and raised Black fists, was in honor of the history and legacy of the Black police precinct—a separate station that closed in 1963—and the officers who served there, reported the Miami Herald.

Mayor Francis Suarez also used the occasion to boast a decrease in complaints made against officers in the past year.

“I’m very proud of the way our officers behave,” Suarez said, according to the Herald. “We embrace our history. We know where we came from.”

Meanwhile, Miamians are gathering on Saturday to protest the police killing of Antwon Cooper, a Black man. Officials, who have changed their story about whether Cooper was armed, shot the 34-year-old as he attempted to flee a traffic stop. Video does not indicate him carrying a weapon.

Miami’s police department, like every other’s, is rooted in a history not worth embracing. As Vice pointed out with a poignant example, in 1967, Miami Police Chief Walter Headley coined the phrase “When the looting starts, the shooting starts”—his standing orders to his officers should they face any “civil uprising.” Former President Donald Trump paid homage to that phrase in the aftermath of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by the Minneapolis and Louisville police departments, respectively:

Indeed, one might hope that police departments everywhere would not “embrace” their history but rather shed themselves of it; after all, even if Suarez was referring specifically to the history of Black cops, the nation just witnessed five of them kill another.

Elon Musk Says Twitter Will Share Ad Revenue With People Who Pay Him

Musk announced that users will be able to share in some of the company’s ad revenue, but only if they subscribe to Twitter Blue.

Elon Musk
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Elon Musk seems to be scrambling to make more money at Twitter, as the company this week unveiled a series of plans aimed to cut costs and increase ad revenue.

Musk announced Friday that Twitter will start showing ads in replies to tweets. If the original poster pays for the company’s controversial Twitter Blue subscription plan, they could share some of the ad revenue. Musk did not specify how much that share would be.

This decision came the day after Twitter announced it would get rid of its free application programming interface, or API, in favor of a “paid basic tier.” An API allows multiple separate computer systems to communicate. Twitter’s API, as explained by Wired, “allows third parties to retrieve and analyze public Twitter data, which can then be used to create programmable bots and separate applications that connect to the platform.”

Removing the free API would put a stop to bot-controlled accounts that share, say, hourly cute animal photos, but it would also end automated severe weather alerts, and throttle research and activism on the platform.

Musk also announced he would phase out Twitter’s “legacy Blue Verified” check marks. After the initial Twitter Blue rollout was flooded with disinformation, the company tried again in December with a series of color-coded checks to denote different statuses. Confusingly, both Twitter Blue subscribers and legacy verified accounts—significant accounts that had been verified pre-Musk—had blue checks.

All of these changes come just days after Twitter made its first interest payment on the $12.5 billion in debt that Musk took on when he bought the social media platform.

The Tesla CEO took the Twitter reins in late October for $44 billion, about a third of which he borrowed from a group of banks. Since taking over, he has aggressively slashed costs, including firing employees, auctioning off everything in Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters, and apparently just not paying rent.

But advertisers have also left the platform en masse, turned off by Musk’s lax approach to content moderation and apparent penchant for letting Nazis back online.

Matt Gaetz’s Brilliant Idea for the Debt Ceiling Crisis: Medicaid Work Requirements

The Florida representative wants to force people to work to get health care.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Matt Gaetz is apparently rallying his colleagues to force work requirements on people in order for them to get health care.

The Florida representative told Semafor that he’s been pitching the idea of tightening Medicaid eligibility on “able-bodied working age adults” as part of a potential deal to raise the debt ceiling. Semafor reported Gaetz has been garnering “a very positive reception” to his pitch, including from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

“Work requirements are proving to be a very unifying concept with my colleagues,” Gaetz said.

Gaetz doubled down on Friday and added to his pitch, tweeting that “work requirements on means-tested programs (like Medicaid & food stamps) will curtail inflationary government spending and increase labor participation.”

On its face, these reports are concerning, given how much Gaetz and his fellow far-right colleagues have already secured from McCarthy. After dragging out the speaker vote, they were able to force him to modify the House rules package and give them highly sought-after committee seats. For Gaetz’s proposal to gain “very positive” favor with other Republicans, including McCarthy, is not a good sign.

But, realistically, this is a project most, if not all, Republicans would happily sign onto. Work requirements for social services like Medicaid have long been part of the conservative project; Gaetz is just more publicly pushing for what most of the caucus wants anyway.

As of October 2022, over 84 million people were enrolled in Medicaid, many of whom are elderly, children, pregnant, and/or low-income. Six states have held ballot measures on whether to expand Medicaid coverage; all six voted to do so, five of them being red states.

Political popularity has not stopped Republicans from persisting before, however, so the real-life stakes should not be understated. Imposing work requirements on millions of people just so they can receive health care—or even put food on the table—is draconian.

Value judgments aside, the punitive logic does not even work: A 2019 study on Arkansas’ Medicaid work requirements found 18,000 people lost health care coverage before a judge put the policy on hold, but there was no notable increase in employment. And the more problems one has to deal with—like an inability to obtain health care or medicine—the less one is able to live fully, let alone work sufficiently. So not only is the policy undesirable morally, it is not even effective economically.

YouTube Contractors Lead First Strike in Google History

The YouTube Music contractors are protesting a forced return to the office, after most of them were hired remotely to begin with.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On Friday, in Austin, Texas, over 40 YouTube Music contractors are striking in what is believed to be the first time a group of Google workers will go on strike.

The workers—who are technically employed by Cognizant, a subcontractor of Google’s parent company, Alphabet—are striking in response to an order to return to the office in Austin by February 6. They argue the mandate is an unfair labor practice as many of them cannot afford to pay for relocation (travel, childcare, and beyond) while they’re paid just $19 an hour. A majority of them were hired remotely, nearly a quarter not even based in the state.

The workers, responsible for managing music content for YouTube’s 2.1 billion monthly worldwide users, argue the forced return is an unfair labor practice and retaliation to their organizing. A supermajority of the YouTube Music workers, members of Alphabet Workers Union-CWA, filed for union recognition from the National Labor Relations Board in late October.

Workers are awaiting the NLRB to rule on their union recognition and on recognizing Alphabet and Cognizant as joint employers—forcing both companies to negotiate. The union sees the return to office order as a violation of labor law that mandates fair union voting conditions, and says workers would negotiate return to office policies after a successful union election.

As of now, the union says both companies scapegoat the other for policies like the return to work mandate, muddying the waters of which entity is actually pushing the mandate and where exactly workers can seek accountability. And while Alphabet still exercises control over companies like Cognizant, subcontracting enables them to treat workers worse.

“The result of this two-tiered system is that full-time Google employees receive dramatically higher pay benefits, while contractors are treated as second-class workers,” Music Generalist Sam Regan explained to The New Republic.

Workers attempted to express their objections on numerous occasions. They conducted a mass email campaign, collecting testimonials as to how the policy would negatively impact workers. On January 20, workers submitted a letter to Cognizant CEO Ravi Kumar, demanding that he honor his previous support for flexible work arrangements. Receiving no response, workers filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB. And now they are striking.

The strike joins other action from the Alphabet Workers Union-CWA nationwide. On Thursday, workers rallied outside Google’s New York City office in response to Alphabet laying off 12,000 employees. On Wednesday, Google Raters—workers who train, test, and evaluate algorithms that drive Google’s reportedly 81 percent revenue-generating search function—delivered a petition demanding better working conditions. Namely, these workers are excluded from Alphabet-wide minimum standards ($15/hour, health care, tuition reimbursement, and more). The so-called “ghost workers” driving Google’s profits behind the scene are demanding to be compensated at least to the bare minimum.

While the workers are part of an ongoing story of tech companies mistreating their workers, this incident is unique as the workers are not exactly “tech” workers. “We’re actually all musicians and music industry workers. So our culture is really built around the love for music,” Regan explained. “For me, this is the most interesting and inspiring team that I’ve ever worked with at a job. And we think that over the past three years, since we began working remotely, our team metrics have been incredible. We’ve more than proven that we’re capable of delivering excellent work at the highest level.”

The workers are holding a press conference outside the Google Austin office at 12 p.m. E.T., which can be viewed here.

“SHOOT DOWN THE BALLOON!”: Republicans Lose Their Minds Over Reported Chinese Spy Balloon

Defense officials say the balloon does not pose a military or physical threat, and shooting it down could injure civilians.

Larry Mayer/The Billings Gazette/AP Photo
A high-altitude balloon floats over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday, February 1. The U.S. is tracking a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that has been spotted over U.S. airspace for a couple days. The Pentagon would not confirm that the balloon in the photo is the surveillance balloon.

Republicans are lashing out at President Joe Biden, urging him to shoot down what is believed to be a Chinese spy balloon that has been spotted in U.S. airspace, a move that would be dangerous for both civilians and diplomacy.

A large white balloon was spotted over Montana earlier this week, just days before Secretary of State Antony Blinken was supposed to make his first visit to Beijing. Pentagon officials identified the balloon as a Chinese surveillance tool and said it had flown over one of the three U.S. nuclear missile silo fields located near the Malmstrom Air Force Base. Blinken has now postponed his trip indefinitely even though Chinese officials said Friday that the balloon was for weather research and had simply been blown off course—a claim the U.S. rejected.

Either way, Brigadier General Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon’s press secretary, said the balloon is high enough that it will not interfere with commercial air traffic and “does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.” He noted that there had been similar balloons over the past several years, but the United States has taken steps to make sure they were unable to collect sensitive information. A senior defense official also told the AP that the balloon has “limited” value in providing China with intel that it couldn’t collect via other means.

But by the wee hours of Friday, Republicans were already demanding a more drastic approach: shooting the balloon out of the sky. They were led by Donald Trump, who insisted on Truth Social the U.S. should “SHOOT DOWN THE BALLOON!”

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy requested a briefing for the members of Congress cleared to receive classified information, slamming China’s “brazen disregard for U.S. sovereignty.” Senator Marco Rubio said it was a “mistake” not to shoot the balloon down while it was over a sparsely populated area, while reported Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley said that not only should the U.S. shoot down the balloon, it should also cancel Blinken’s upcoming trip.

Biden had already considered shooting the balloon down but was strongly advised not to. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned him that doing so would create debris that could injure civilians. Even while the balloon was over low-population areas, it would have created a debris field large enough that people could have been hurt.

Blinken’s trip, which had not been publicized much, was supposed to kick off Sunday. The decision to call it off came just hours before the secretary was due to leave and came at an incredibly tense time for U.S.-Chinese relations. Beijing and Washington are locking horns over the diplomatic status of Taiwan, trade relations, and China’s human rights record. The U.S. is also frustrated with China’s tacit support for both Russia’s war on Ukraine and North Korea.

Who knows what also shooting down the balloon could set off?

This post has been updated.