Politico

Deborah Birx: ‘Parallel set of data’ on Covid-19 was delivered to Trump


While Deborah Birx served as the White House coronavirus response coordinator under President Donald Trump, “outside advisers” were bringing him “parallel” sets of data on the Covid-19 pandemic, she said in an interview that aired on Sunday.

“I saw the president presenting graphs that I never made,” Birx said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “So, I know that someone — or someone out there or someone inside was creating a parallel set of data and graphics that were shown to the president.”

Birx said that she didn’t know at the time who exactly was bringing the parallel data to the president, but that looking back, she now believed that Scott Atlas had provided some of the data. Atlas, a physician with no previous experience fighting infectious disease who became Trump’s former coronavirus adviser, contradicted scientists on mitigation efforts, including the wearing of masks and practicing social distancing.

“I don’t know who else was part of it, but I think when the record goes back and people see what I was writing on a daily basis that was sent up to White House leadership, that they will see that — that I was highly specific on what I was seeing and what needed to be done,” she said.

Birx said she took “extensive notes” from every White House meeting and wrote more than 310 daily reports that were sent to senior leaders. When asked in the interview whether Trump read the reports, Birx said she wasn’t sure.

“I had very little exposure to President Trump,” she said.

In his Covid-19 response, Trump often broke with scientific guidance from his own administration’s health officials. He downplayed the threat of the virus from the start of the pandemic, and as the death toll increased, Trump continued to decline to wear a mask — even while holding large-scale campaign rallies with thousands of supporters.

Birx, who will retire from her position after assisting the Biden administration’s transition to the White House, also said she frequently thought of quitting her position in the Trump administration.

Bernie Sanders happy to have gone viral


Sen. Bernie Sanders said the photo of him from Inauguration Day that became a viral meme and exploded across social media has turned out “to be a good thing, and not only a fun thing.”

The photo from President Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday features the Vermont senator sitting cross-legged in a chair and decked out in a coat, mask and mittens — sitting at a social distance from other spectators. The image almost immediately caught the internet’s attention.

The image was not only spread far and wide as a meme, but it eventually led creative people to Photoshop that image of Sanders sitting in the chair onto different backgrounds, placing him in setting such as movie scenes, famous paintings and historical moments.

When asked by CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” on Sunday about the photo and subsequent memes, Sanders said he’s “having fun” with the viral moment. He added that he’s turned the image into sweatshirts and T-shirts, which he’s selling in his campaign store, with 100 percent of the proceeds going toward Vermont charities focused on fighting hunger.

“What we're doing here in Vermont is, we're going to be selling around the country sweatshirts and T-shirts. And all of the money that's going to be raised, which I expect will be a couple of million dollars, will be going to programs like Meals on Wheels that feed low-income senior citizens,” Sanders said. "So, it turns out, actually, to be a good thing, and not only a fun thing.”

Dick Durbin calls absolute protection of Senate filibuster 'a non-starter’


Sen. Dick Durbin on Sunday said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s demand for absolute protection of the filibuster in the deal to run a 50-50 Senate is a “non-starter.”

“If we gave him that, then the filibuster would be on everything, every day,” the Illinois Democrat told NBC’s Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press” on Sunday morning.

McConnell has pressed Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in recent days to keep the 60-vote threshold as they forge a deal on how to organize the Senate. While Senate Democrats have no plans to gut the filibuster further, they have signaled they would reject McConnell’s effort to protect the filibuster, noting its usefulness in driving compromise with Republicans.

Durbin said although Schumer offered McConnell “word for word” the same agreement as the last time there was a 50-50 Senate, McConnell came back still wanting absolute protection for the filibuster.

“Well, that's a non-starter,” Durbin said.

The Senate last stood at 50-50 at the beginning of 2001, with Vice President Dick Cheney, a Republican, casting tiebreaking votes. That lasted until May, when Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords left the Republican Party and began to caucus with the Senate's Democrats to give them a 51-49 edge.

Durbin said a change in the rule should be considered if the filibuster becomes too common — ultimately preventing the Senate from acting. But he said Democrats will first need to “see if we can initiate a real bipartisan dialogue and get something done.”

He added that the Senate should pass the organizing resolution without the additional McConnell language on protecting the filibuster so that the focus can switch to passing President Joe Biden’s massive Covid-19 relief package.

“Let's get down to business, roll up our sleeves and pass this rescue package that deals with getting these vaccines out across America as quickly as possible, giving help to people who are unemployed and giving businesses a helping hand,” Durbin said.

Biden health officials express concern about short-term vaccine supply crunch


Top Biden administration health officials on Sunday expressed concern about limited vaccine supplies but offered measured optimism that the worse-than-expected rollout would be improved, while warning that the current crunch for doses posed a pressing threat.

“I think that the supply is probably going to be the most limiting constraint early on, and we’re really hoping that after that first hundred days we will have much more production,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said on “Fox News Sunday.”

State and local officials across the country have warned in recent weeks of dwindling vaccine supply, saying they are on the brink of running out of doses. Walensky said the federal government was working with manufacturers to ensure that supply issues do not continue to hamper the rollout, adding that officials needed to “make sure that the supply gets to pharmacies, that we have enough vaccinators, that we have enough places and outreach to do the vaccinations.”

Asked on ABC’s “This Week” whether President Joe Biden’s promise of 100 million Americans vaccinated in his first 100 days was good enough, Surgeon General pick Vivek Murthy said that goal was a reflection of the realities the rollout faces.

“That's a floor; it's not a ceiling,” Murthy told host George Stephanopoulos. “It's also a goal that reflects the realities of what we face, what could go right but also what could go wrong.”

Both officials said the potential approval of a Johnson & Johnson vaccine could be a positive future development, but Murthy noted that Biden’s 100-million-vaccines promise is not reliant on that happening.

“The goal of achieving 100 million shots in 100 days is one that is achievable with the supply that we have and that we're anticipating from Pfizer and from Moderna,” he said.

Experts have pointed out that vaccinating 100 million Americans in 100 days will still leave the nation far short of herd immunity as the nation's caseload continues to grow. The total number of diagnosed coronavirus cases in the United States surpassed 25 million. More than 417,000 people have died in the U.S.

Walensky said that the data she had seen so far indicated the current supply problems were an immediate concern, rather than a long-term issue.

“We have every indication that over time we will get more and more vaccine, so we certainly can't predict any of the obstacles that would come in our way here,” she said, later adding that she hoped the supply concerns would ease by March.

The Biden officials said that in the Trump administration's rollout, local governments were not given sufficient guidance or resources to effectively give doses to hard-hit communities. They said they were working to address the lack of supply and lack of coordination between the federal government and the states.

It's not enough to merely increase supply, Murthy said. "We've also got to set up the kind of distribution channels, like mobile units, like strategically placed community vaccination centers, that can reach people who traditionally are hard to reach and don't have access to health care,” he added.

Appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Biden Health and Human Services pick Xavier Becerra echoed the calls for coordination.

“What we have to do is show people how it can be done. You can't just tell the states and the local governments, here's some vaccines, now you go do it,” Becerra said.

Bernie Sanders: Dems will use reconciliation to pass Covid relief ‘as soon as we possibly can’


Sen. Bernie Sanders on Sunday said Senate Democrats would pass a Covid-19 relief bill as soon as possible through budget reconciliation, which would allow the package to pass with a simple majority vote rather than with the support of 60 senators.

“We are going to use reconciliation, that is 50 votes in the Senate plus the vice president, to pass legislation desperately needed by working families in this country right now,” the Vermont senator told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” on Sunday. The new Senate stands on 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tiebreaking vote when needed.

Bash pointed out that Sanders had previously criticized Republicans’ use of reconciliation, saying the process should not be used “to enact major changes in social policy.” But he defended the decision to use reconciliation now, stating that Americans’ need for stimulus aid is emergent, while Republicans in 2017 used reconciliation “to give tax breaks to billionaires.”

“Yes, I did criticize them for that. And if they want to criticize me for helping to feed children who are hungry or senior citizens in this country who are isolated and alone and don't have enough food, they can criticize me,” Sanders said.

Budget reconciliation is used at times on certain tax, spending and debt limit bills to reconcile different legislation from the House and Senate — a process that effectively prevents a legislative filibuster in the Senate.

Sanders said Democrats cannot wait “weeks and weeks and months and months to go forward” on the $1.9 trillion relief package proposed by President Joe Biden, which Republicans have shown early opposition to and have vowed will not get 60 votes. When asked about the timeline for pushing the bill through, Sanders said "as soon as we possibly can."

Sanders noted that reconciliation was used by Republicans under President Donald Trump in 2017, once in a failed attempt to repeal Obamacare, and again to pass large tax cuts.

“You did it, we're gonna do it, but we're gonna do it to protect ordinary people, not just the rich and the powerful,” he said.

Rand Paul spars with ABC host over election integrity


Sen. Rand Paul on Sunday got into a heated exchange with ABC host George Stephanopoulos over the disproven claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen — days after President Joe Biden was inaugurated.

Asked on ABC’s “This Week” whether the election was stolen, the Kentucky Republican responded: “What I would say is that the debate over whether or not there was fraud should occur. We never had any presentation in court where we actually looked at the evidence.” He argued that the rulings were based on the legal status of the claims, not the validity of the arguments — something that was true in some cases but by no means all of them.

Paul, an ally of former President Donald Trump who ultimately voted to certify Biden’s Electoral College win in the wake of the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol aimed at stopping the count of those votes, went on to accuse the ABC host of “coming from the liberal side” and calling the disproved claims lies rather than giving them treatment as a “both sides” debate.

Stephanopoulos interrupted Paul after he went on to say that there’s still a chance that some challenges in states whose election officials changed voting rules without legislative approval would make it to the Supreme Court — and that there was a possibility that ballots were cast under the names of dead people or by undocumented immigrants.

“Sen. Paul, I have to stop you there,” Stephanopoulos said. “No election is perfect. But there were 86 challenges filed by President Trump and his allies in court, all were dismissed. Every state certified the results after investigations, counts and recounts. The Department of Justice led by William Barr said there was no widespread evidence of fraud. Can’t you just say the words ‘This election was not stolen’?”

Paul responded by alleging a majority of Republicans believe the election was stolen, at which point Stephanopoulos retorted: “Seventy-five percent of Republicans agree with you because they were fed a big lie by President Trump and his supporters who say the election was stolen.”

Marco Rubio: It's 'arrogant' to impeach Trump to ban him from running again


Sen. Marco Rubio on Sunday said the argument that former President Donald Trump should be impeached so that he can’t seek public office again is “an arrogant statement for anyone to make.”

When “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace asked the senator about the idea that Trump should be impeached to ban him from running for office again, the Florida Republican quickly shot down the argument.

“I think that's an arrogant statement for anyone to make. Voters get to decide that. Who are we to tell voters who they can vote for in the future?” Rubio said. Trump's second Senate impeachment trial starts Feb. 8, and a conviction would disqualify him from running for president ever again.

Legal scholars, including members of the conservative Federalist Society, have presented this disqualification argument, countering Republicans who say that impeaching Trump after he has left office would be unconstitutional. The scholars wrote in a letter on Thursday that the Constitution’s impeachment power must be extended to former officials who could try to run for reelection.

Senate Democrats are expected to vote to convict Trump, arguing that he incited deadly violence after a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6. But at least 17 Republicans would need to join all Democrats for Trump to be convicted, and GOP senators have recently united around a bid to shut down the impeachment trial.

Rubio echoed that argument on “Fox News Sunday,” saying the impeachment trial is “counterproductive” and will “continue to fuel these divisions that have paralyzed the country.”

“The first chance I get to vote to end this trial, I will do it, because I think it's really bad for America,” he said.

Impeachment trial to keep National Guard troops at Capitol


Former President Donald Trump’s upcoming Senate impeachment trial poses a security concern that federal law enforcement officials told lawmakers last week requires as many as 5,000 National Guard troops to remain in Washington through mid-March, according to four people familiar with the matter.

The contingency force will help protect the Capitol from what was described as “impeachment security concerns,” including the possibility of mass demonstrations coinciding with the Senate’s trial, which is slated to begin the week of Feb. 8.

Despite the threat, the citizen soldiers on the ground say they have been given little information about the extension, and wonder why they are being forced to endure combat-like conditions in the nation’s capital without a clear mission.

“Quite frankly this is not a ‘combat zone,’ so combat conditions shouldn’t apply,” said one Guard member on the ground in D.C. who has deployed twice to Afghanistan.

Several National Guard units have been seen their deployments extended involuntarily, though a majority of Guardsmen remaining in Washington will do so on a volunteer basis. Around 7,000 troops will continue to provide riot security through the beginning of February, with that number decreasing slightly to 5,000 by the time Trump’s impeachment trial begins.

“We are not going to allow any surprises again,” said one Guard member, referring to the widespread lack of preparedness for the insurrection on Jan. 6.

There is also some concern over potential unrest surrounding March 4, the date some QAnon conspiracy theorists believe Trump will be inaugurated for the second time.

A Capitol Police spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

National Guard troops were deployed to the capital city in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol, when supporters of Trump stormed the building while Congress was certifying President Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory. The House impeached Trump a week later, charging him with “willful incitement of insurrection.”

By Inauguration Day, around 25,000 troops were in Washington, where unprecedented security measures were put into place to prevent similar attacks.

Now, thousands of Guard members will remain in Washington far longer than they initially expected when they packed their suitcases for what they believed to be a short-term mission on Jan. 6. The rank-and-file have so far been given no official justifications, threat reports or any explanation for the extended mission, said two Guard members — nor have they seen any violence thus far.

“There is no defined situation, or mission statement … This is very unusual for any military mission,” said one member, who has deployed twice to Afghanistan. “We are usually given a situation, with defined mission perimeters, and at least a tentative plan on how to execute those objectives.”

“Some don’t even know how long they’ll be here,” said another Guard member.

A fourth Guard member confirmed that the troops had not been told of any specific threat, rather that federal authorities were concerned about the potential for continued unrest. Far-right militias remain the biggest cause for concern, he said.

Morale is low among the troops, who described having to stand guard for hours at a time in full gear with limited access to food and water, waiting for hours to be transported to and from their hotels, and very little sleep. Many are washing socks and cold-weather undergarments in hotel bathroom sinks because they do not have access to laundry facilities.

Some have been forced to purchase their own food out-of-pocket to supplement the sparse meals they have been provided, which do not provide enough calories to sustain the long days. Even meals-ready-to-eat are hard to come by due to logistical and transportation issues.

“Even if they do arrive all on time, the calories are just not there for the amount of work we put in and time we're spending on our feet, in the cold, in full gear,” one Guard member said.

The vast majority of Guard members are not full-time soldiers but also hold civilian jobs. Many are law enforcement officers, firefighters and small business employees with families struggling to juggle bills and childcare during the pandemic. For many, the D.C. deployment means losing weeks of higher pay in their civilian jobs.

One of the Guard members, who has deployed to the Middle East, described “extremely austere conditions” and compared the D.C. mission to “invasion operations.”

“We essentially invaded and occupied a city,” the person said. “It was certainly an experience I didn’t think I’d have in an American city, much less the capital.”

Trump has not commented publicly since leaving office four days ago, but he has been assembling his defense team for the upcoming trial. If the former president urges his supporters to protest on his behalf, it could seriously strain law enforcement resources. Already, officials have set up a perimeter around the Capitol using 10-foot barricades with razor wire.

The renewed security concerns come amid intensifying tensions between Capitol Police and the National Guard. Last week, Capitol Police officials forced troops to vacate congressional office buildings, where they were taking rest breaks during their shifts that often last 12 or 14 hours. POLITICO first reported that approximately 5,000 troops were packed into a parking garage on the Senate side of the Capitol, with temperatures dropping as the sun went down.

The move prompted outrage from lawmakers from both parties, many of whom intervened with Capitol Police officials. The Guardsmen were eventually allowed back inside.

Moreover, the National Guard has struggled to contain Covid-19, with no clear testing regime and some troops being forced to break their quarantines. At least 200 Guardsmen have tested positive for Covid-19, and several hundred additional troops are in quarantine due to exposure.

The compounding troubles for the National Guard have caused lawmakers to step in to mediate the myriad disputes within the federal bureaucracy. Members of both parties had already been calling for investigations of the security failures on Jan. 6, when pro-Trump rioters overran officers from the Capitol and D.C. police departments.

Arizona Republicans censure Cindy McCain, GOP governor


PHOENIX — Arizona Republicans voted Saturday to censure Cindy McCain and two prominent GOP members who have found themselves crosswise with former President Donald Trump.

The censures of Sen. John McCain’s widow, former Sen. Jeff Flake and Gov. Doug Ducey are merely symbolic. But they show the party’s foot soldiers are focused on enforcing loyalty to Trump, even in the wake of an election that saw Arizona inch away from its staunchly Republican roots.

Party activists also reelected controversial Chairwoman Kelli Ward, who has been one of Trump’s most unflinching supporters and among the most prolific promoters of his baseless allegations of election fraud.

The Arizona GOP’s combative focus has delighted Trump’s staunchest supporters and worried Republican insiders who have watched the party lose ground in the suburbs as the influence of its traditional conservative establishment has faded in favor of Trump. A growing electorate of young Latinos and newcomers bringing their more liberal politics from back home have further hurt the GOP.

“This is a time for choosing for Republicans. Are we going to be the conservative party?” said Kirk Adams, a former state House speaker and chief of staff to Ducey. “Or is this a party ... that’s loyal to a single person?”

It’s a question of Republican identity that party officials and activists are facing across the country following Trump’s 2020 loss, and particularly after a mob of his supporters laid siege on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Nowhere is the question more acute than Arizona, where the state GOP’s unflinching loyalty to Trump stands out even in a party that’s been remade everywhere in the image of the former president.

Ward has relentlessly — but unsuccessfully — sued to overturn the election results. The party has used its social media accounts to urge followers to fight and perhaps even to die in support of Trump’s false claims of victory. Two of the state’s four Republican congressmen are accused of playing a role in organizing the Jan. 6 rally that turned violent.

After dominating Arizona politics for decades, Republicans now find themselves on their heels in the state’s highest offices. President Joe Biden narrowly eked out a victory here, becoming just the second Democrat in more than five decades to win the state. Consecutive victories in 2018 and 2020 gave Democrats control of both U.S. Senate seats for the first time in nearly 70 years.

Ward, a physician and former state legislator who lost two Republican primaries for the U.S. Senate, defeated three challengers to win a second term.

In a brief interview, Ward acknowledged “disappointment at the top of the ticket” but said she and many other Republicans still question the results showing victories for Biden and Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly. Judges have rejected eight lawsuits challenging Arizona’s election results.

Ward pointed to GOP successes down the ballot, noting Republicans defied expectations in local races.

Ward said she’s a “Trump Republican” who will “always put America first, who believes in faith, family and freedom.” The way forward for the GOP, she said, is keeping Trump’s 74 million voters engaged.

“Yes, I will be radical about those things because those are the things that keep this country great,” Ward said. “The people who are complaining are the people who actually put us in this spot where we are in Arizona, people who have been mamby pamby, lie down and allow the Democrats to walk all over them.”

The censures target some of Arizona’s most prominent Republicans,

Cindy McCain endorsed Biden and became a powerful surrogate for the Democrat following years of attacks by Trump on her husband. After the vote, she wrote on Twitter that “it is a high honor to be included in a group of Arizonans who have served our state and our nation so well.”

“I’ll wear this as a badge of honor,” she wrote.

Also after the vote, Flake tweeted a photo of him with McCain and Ducey at Biden’s inauguration and wrote: “Good company.”

Flake was one of the few congressional Republicans who was openly critical of Trump for failing to adhere to conservative values. He declined to run for reelection in 2018 and endorsed Biden in last year’s election.

“If condoning the President’s behavior is required to stay in the Party’s good graces, I’m just fine being on the outs,” Flake wrote on Twitter before and after the vote.

Ducey is being targeted for his restrictions on individuals and businesses to contain the spread of COVID-19. While it’s not mentioned in the proposed censure, he had a high-profile break with the president when he signed the certification of Biden’s victory.

“These resolutions are of no consequence whatsoever and the people behind them have lost whatever little

U.S. reaffirms Taiwan support after China sends warplanes


BEIJING — The U.S. has reaffirmed its support for Taiwan following China’s dispatch of warplanes near the island in an apparent attempt to intimidate its democratic government and test the resolve of the new American presidential administration.

The U.S. State Department on Saturday said it was concerned by China’s “pattern of ongoing attempts to intimidate its neighbors, including Taiwan.”

“We urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan and instead engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan’s democratically elected representatives,” Ned Price, a spokesman for the department, said in the statement.

Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said China on Saturday sent eight bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons and four fighter jets into its air defense identification zone just southwest of the island. The ministry said China on Sunday sent another 16 military aircraft of various types into the same area.

The ministry said Taiwan responded by scrambling fighters, broadcasting warnings by radio and “deploying air defense missile systems to monitor the activity.”

There was no immediate Chinese comment on Sunday.

The overflights were part of a long-standing pattern of incursions aimed at pressuring the government of President Tsai Ing-wen into caving to Beijing’s demand that she recognize Taiwan as a part of Chinese territory.

They come on the heels of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, emphasizing the island’s enduring position in the panoply of divisive issues between the sides that also include human rights, trade disputes and, most recently, questions about China’s initial response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden’s administration has shown little sign of reducing pressure on China over such issues, although it is seen as favoring a return to more civil dialogue.

The State Department statement on Saturday said Washington will continue to deepen ties with Taiwan and ensure its defense from Chinese threats, while supporting a peaceful resolution of issues between the sides.

In another sign of support for Taiwan, the island’s de-facto ambassador to Washington, Hsiao Bi-khim, was an invited guest at Biden’s inauguration.

And in a final swipe at China, the Trump administration’s outgoing U.N. ambassador tweeted that it’s time for the world to oppose China’s efforts to exclude and isolate Taiwan, drawing sharp criticism from Beijing.

Ambassador Kelly Craft accompanied the tweet with a photo of herself in the U.N. General Assembly Hall where the island is banned. She carried a handbag with a stuffed Taiwan bear sticking out of the top, a gift from Taiwan’s representative in New York, Ambassador James Lee.

Taiwan and China separated amid civil war in 1949 and China says it is determined to bring the island under its control by force if necessary. The U.S. switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, but is legally required to ensure Taiwan can defend itself and the self-governing democratic island enjoys strong bipartisan support in Washington.

Tsai has sought to bolster the island’s defenses with the purchase of billions of dollars in U.S. weapons, including upgraded F-16 fighter jets, armed drones, rocket systems and Harpoon missiles capable of hitting both ships and land targets. She has also boosted support for Taiwan’s indigenous arms industry, including launching a program to build new submarines to counter China’s ever-growing naval capabilities.

China’s increased threats come as economic and political enticements bear little fruit, leading it to stage war games and dispatch fighter jets and reconnaissance planes on an almost daily basis toward the island of 24 million people.

One of Trump's final acts will allow former aides to profit from foreign ties


President Donald Trump’s last-minute move to scrap his administration’s own ethics rules will make it easier for his former aides to lobby on behalf of foreign interests — the same line of work behind so many Trump-era scandals.

In the final hours of his presidency, Trump revoked the ethics pledge he’d signed four years earlier, which, among other things, had barred those who’d served in his administration from lobbying for foreign governments and political parties for the rest of their lives.

With those restrictions gone, former Trump administration officials will be free to represent foreign powers — exactly the kind of swamp-like behavior Trump had promised to eradicate in his 2016 campaign.

Michael McKenna, a former lobbyist who worked in Trump’s White House legislative affairs office, said he had no intention of lobbying for foreign governments but thought other former Trump administration officials would jump at the chance.

“I’m pretty confident that a bunch of people would absolutely love to represent Monaco, France, the United Arab Emirates,” he said.

Trump’s “lifetime ban” on former officials in his administration representing foreign governments was part of his 2016 campaign pledge to “drain the swamp” in Washington. He even criticized President Bill Clinton for revoking his own ethics rules right before leaving office two decades ago, arguing Clinton had “rigged the system on his way out.”

“He is undoing really the only example of policy that was supposed to evidence his commitment to drain the swamp,” said Robert Weissman, the president of Public Citizen, which advocates for tougher ethics rules.

The Foreign Agents Registration Act requires those who lobby for foreign governments and political parties — along with some other foreign interests — to disclose their work with the Justice Department. Several prominent Trump allies failed to do so, ensnaring them in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and other federal investigations. .

Paul Manafort, Trump’s 2016 campaign chair, was sentenced in 2019 to 7 ½ years in prison for failing to register as a foreign agent, among other crimes.

Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, admitted to lying to investigators about his role in a lobbying campaign on behalf of Turkish interests, though Flynn wasn’t charged with violating FARA.

And Elliott Broidy, a prominent fundraiser for Trump’s 2016 campaign, pleaded guilty in October to failing to register as a foreign agent even though he knew he should’ve done so.

Trump pardoned all three men before leaving office.

There’s nothing illegal or even unethical about lobbying for foreign governments, but many lobbyists try to avoid representing countries that have tense relationships with Washington or troubled human rights records. Two lobbying firms cut ties with Turkey late last year after Turkey aided Azerbaijan in a controversial conflict with Armenia, and several prominent firms quit lobbying for Saudi Arabia in 2018 after the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

But lobbying for foreign governments is one of the most lucrative niches on K Street, and Trump-connected lobbyists who registered as foreign agents thrived in Washington during his administration, earning millions of dollars lobbying for the governments of countries such as Turkey, Zimbabwe and the Dominican Republic.

Gotham Government Relations & Communications, a New York lobbying firm that once counted Trump as a client, capitalized on the connection after Trump’s 2016 victory, opening a Washington office and signing clients including the Libyan government. Like others on K Street, the firm is now trying to reposition itself for the Biden era.

Earlier this month, the firm sent a memo to several foreign governments and other potential clients highlighting its ties to a different New York politician: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

“Our Washington D.C. office stands ready to advocate for you with the Senate Majority office of the Honorable Charles Schumer!” the memo reads.

Trump’s ethics rules never barred former administration officials from lobbying entirely. Those who left the administration were allowed to lobby Congress, and loopholes also let them lobby the administration in some cases. At least 84 former Trump administration officials registered as lobbyists while he was in office, according to a POLITICO analysis of disclosure filings.

But the rules did include significant limitations, prohibiting former Trump administration officials from lobbying the agencies in which they served for five years after leaving the government.

Now that Trump has revoked his ethics pledge, they’re mostly free to lobby the executive branch. (Those who’ve left within the past year are still prohibited by law from trying to influence their former agencies.)

Some on K Street have cheered Trump’s decision. “It puts a number of people who were on the sidelines [back] in the game,” said one lobbyist whose firm has hired former Trump administration officials.

But others are skeptical staffers from the previous administration will have much sway.

“I’m not sure the Biden people are going to want to be lobbied by us,” said one former Trump administration official who’s now a lobbyist, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Former Trump administration officials are also now free to lobby Republican lawmakers on behalf of foreign interests — but demand for such work will be softer with Democrats in control of Congress, said Ivan Zapien, who leads Hogan Lovells’ government relations and public affairs practice.

“There’s not many world leaders who are trying to figure out how to deal with Republicans right now,” Zapien said.

Some ethics lawyers said Trump’s lifetime ban on foreign lobbying might have been excessive. (The ethics rules Biden debuted on Wednesday only bar those who serve in his administration from representing foreign governments until Biden leaves office or for two years after they leave government, whichever is later.)

Would the contacts former Trump administration officials made in government still give them a lobbying edge in 20 or 30 years?

“It sounds really good, there’s no doubt about it,” said Tom Spulak, a Washington lawyer who’s advised clients on the Foreign Agents Registration Act and has also lobbied for foreign interests himself. “But is it really serving a purpose?”

But Paul Light, a New York University professor who has criticized lengthy lobbying bans in the past, said he couldn’t support Trump’s last-minute repeal after all the ethics scandals during his administration.

“I don’t think Donald Trump is the right person to undo any ethics rule,” he said.

State Republicans push new voting restrictions after Trump’s loss


Republican legislators across the country are preparing a slew of new voting restrictions in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s defeat.

Georgia will be the focal point of the GOP push to change state election laws, after Democrats narrowly took both Senate seats there and President Joe Biden carried the state by an even smaller margin. But state Republicans in deep-red states and battlegrounds alike are citing Trump’s meritless claims of voter fraud in 2020 — and the declining trust in election integrity Trump helped drive — as an excuse to tighten access to the polls.

Some Republican officials have been blunt about their motivations: They don’t believe they can win unless the rules change. “They don’t have to change all of them, but they’ve got to change the major parts of them so that we at least have a shot at winning,” Alice O’Lenick, a Republican on the Gwinnett County, Ga., board of elections in suburban Atlanta, told the Gwinnett Daily Post last week. She has since resisted calls to resign.

The chair of the Texas Republican Party has called on the legislature there to make “election integrity” the top legislative priority in 2021, calling, among other things, for a reduction in the number of days of early voting. Jason Miller, a top Trump adviser, told the conservative site Just The News that Trump plans to remain involved in "voting integrity" efforts, keeping the issue at the top of Republicans' minds. And VoteRiders, a nonprofit group that helps prospective voters get an ID if they need one to cast a ballot, said it is expecting a serious push for new voter ID laws in at least five states, while North Carolina could potentially implement new voter ID policies that have been held up in court.

Voter ID laws are usually very popular among the general public — a 2018 Pew Research poll found that three-quarters of Americans surveyed supported laws requiring voters to present a photo ID — but activists say they are problematic for several disparate groups of voters.

“They are students and other young people, they’re communities of color, they’re older adults who are no longer driving, people with low income, people with disabilities,” said Kathleen Unger, the founder of VoteRiders. VoteRiders estimated that up to 25 million voting-age Americans lacked a government-issued photo ID.

Georgia Republicans, in particular, are intensely focused on their state’s election laws, after the state became the epicenter of Trump’s attempts to undermine confidence in the 2020 election results. Georgia Republicans have proposed a bevy of changes, from imposing limits on who can vote by mail to limiting the use of dropboxes, which allow people to return absentee ballots without using the postal system.

The Republican state Senate caucus has endorsed ending no-excuse absentee voting in Georgia, which was disproportionately used by Democratic voters in the 2020 elections. (More than one-third of Biden’s votes in Georgia were cast by mail, versus just 18 percent of Trump’s votes.) Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who has rejected Trump’s fraud claims, also said he supported scrapping no-excuse mail voting because the system was too taxing on local election administrators.

However, the state’s GOP legislative leaders have yet to agree on exactly what to change. Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who is the president of the state Senate, told 11Alive News that he wouldn’t support ending no-excuse absentee voting, and state House Speaker David Ralston also sounded skeptical of ending the practice. Republicans are more universally aligned behind requiring absentee voters to submit a copy of an ID either when they request or return a ballot, which would replace the state’s signature verification system. Georgia already requires voters to show a photo ID when voting in person.

“I think that has the most likelihood of being signed into law,” said state Sen. Larry Walker, the vice chair of the Republican Senate caucus. Walker said he would be “very supportive” of that change and said his constituents were deeply concerned, saying he has gotten thousands of emails, letters and texts.

“A large percentage of my constituents have lost faith in the integrity of our election system,” he said. “So we're going to try to address some things that we feel like can restore the public's confidence in the system.”

He also rejected that claim that changes would disenfranchise voters, citing the state’s high turnout. “I don’t think any of these ideas are burdensome or overly restrictive or lead to what I would consider voter suppression,” he said.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan organization, 36 states have some form of voter ID law in place. The NCSL classifies Georgia as a “strict photo ID” state, meaning voters without approved ID must vote on a provisional ballot and take steps after the election to get their ballot counted.

But Georgia is unique among the closest 2020 battleground states in that Republicans control the governorship and both houses of the state legislature. That boxes out Democrats, who are broadly opposed to voter ID laws or other proposed electoral changes, like limiting absentee voting. Democratic governors in states with Republican legislatures, like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, could veto changes to election laws if there isn’t bipartisan agreement on what to alter.

“Looking at the disposition of the governments in them, I’m not sure that really a lot of them are going to be able to go the distance the way that Georgia will,” said Jason Snead, the executive director of the Honest Elections Project, a conservative group. “But I think that there is certainly a lot of interest in Pennsylvania, in Michigan, in Wisconsin.”

In Pennsylvania, Republicans lawmakers have signaled their intent to introduce voter ID laws and try to repeal the state’s bipartisan law allowing no-excuse mail voting, though Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf stands in their way. The issue could percolate through the 2022 midterm elections, when Republicans will try to retake the governorship.

“It isn’t a secret that further election law changes must be made,” Pennsylvania state Rep. Seth Grove, a Republican who chairs the House State Government Committee, said at a hearing on the state’s election laws on Thursday afternoon, noting that both Democrats and Republicans have proposed changes to Pennsylvania election laws. Thursday’s hearing was the first of a planned 14 total hearings on election laws.

In Arizona, another swing state that Biden narrowly carried, Republicans in the state Senate have advanced legislation that would result in more automatic recounts. Some Republicans also introduced legislation to abolish the state’s permanent early voting list — which a supermajority of voters are registered for — although a cosponsor of the legislation told the Arizona Republic, “It can’t pass and I don’t want to waste my time with it.”

And in North Carolina, the state's delayed voter ID policy could go into effect before the 2022 midterm election. In 2018, voters approved a constitutional amendment requiring voter ID, but it was blocked by a federal judge from taking effect for the 2020 cycle. A federal appeals judge overturned a order effectively blocking its implementation, but there is an ongoing legal battle in both state and federal courts over the law.

“Election integrity, election security, these issues aren’t going anywhere,” Snead said. “And I firmly believe that if a legislature in a particular state does not pass a reform this cycle, it does not mean it’ll never pass a reform, right?”

House majority may hinge on the Rio Grande Valley


Former President Donald Trump's surge among Latinos and rural voters along Texas' southern border has given Republicans a surprise opening that could help decide control of the House of Representatives in 2022.

Democrats spent millions in 2020 in Texas’ suburbs, hoping to capitalize on anti-Trump fervor and grow their majority. But not only did that effort not yield any new Democrats in Congress, Democratic support also cratered in three traditionally deep-blue districts in the Rio Grande Valley. Now, House Republicans are eager to invest in the region for the first time in years.

In the danger zone are Reps. Vicente Gonzalez, Filemón Vela and Henry Cuellar, whose three adjoining districts stretch from the southern tip of the state up toward the San Antonio-Austin corridor. Hillary Clinton won them with margins between 17 and 22 points in 2016. But Joe Biden carried them all by just a few points in 2020 — the largest rightward swings of any Texas congressional districts.

“I think it was a wake-up call for everybody,” Cuellar said in an interview. The nine-term incumbent fared the best of the Democratic trio, winning nearly 60 percent of the vote, while Vela scraped 55 percent — the worst showing of his five terms — and Gonzalez barely got a majority. But Cuellar said the tight presidential race in his region was a sign the national party was not heeding warnings.

“Don't take border areas for granted. Don't take Hispanics for granted,” he said. “It's been done for so many years. The Democratic Party has not paid attention to the Hispanic population.”

The region — and the state — could very well decide control of the House in two years. Texas will gain as many as three congressional seats in redistricting, and it will be a critical part of Republican’s strategy to retake control of the chamber. The GOP is just six seats short of the majority, and any additions to the traditional battleground map are important with the House margins so low.

The looming redraw may boost GOP odds because state Republicans control the process. Republicans are already discussing how a new map could create two deep-red districts in the southern half of the state, one shoring up freshman Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas) to the west and another imperiling one of the three Rio Grande Valley Democrats.

Now, both parties are scrambling to determine whether Republicans’ surprising appeal in the region in 2020 will endure when Trump is no longer on the ballot or in office. Democrats are betting the answer is no.

“This wasn't about the Republican party or any Republican candidate. This was about Donald Trump,” said Vicente Gonzalez, who beat an underfunded GOP challenger by about 3 points. “He was the rock star — I say in Spanish: lucha libre candidate, if you will — that Latinos love,” he added, invoking a Mexican style of wrestling that's achieved a cult following.

Democrats attribute their shrinking margins in the region to a one-two punch. They were saddled with a national message that didn’t appeal to the culturally conservative border areas. And they missed a swell of support for Trump that they still struggle to explain after the fact.

Many of the Trump supporters Gonzalez said he encountered did not know much about the president's policies. “They just love the excitement of having this character running for president.” Trump found little support in the Rio Grande in his 2016 run, but in Gonzalez’s assessment, Trump’s time in office made him more popular to some in his district — the opposite of his trajectory in affluent suburbia.

“They had a four-year reality show. That could be very appealing to a certain segment of society and certainly a certain segment of the Latino community,” he said.

With Trump off the ballot, Democrats think the GOP will have less sway because the new voters he activated may be less likely to turn out. But Republicans are investing in the region to build on the progress Trump drove last year.

The House GOP campaign arm has already begun recruiting a challenger to take on Gonzalez, a three-term member whose district includes a large chunk of Hidalgo County and the city of McAllen. That's a sign they believe him to be the most vulnerable in redistricting. For his part, Gonzalez says he is considering hiring a lawyer who specializes in redistricting to help him advocate for himself.

He already has one challenger and could get more. Monica De La Cruz-Hernandez, his 2020 opponent, has already launched another run. She said her last campaign was motivated by a Democratic lurch to the left that was unappealing to the district, and she said local voters liked Trump's rhetoric on immigration.

"Everybody down here on the border knows someone or has family or relatives that are working in Border Patrol," De La Cruz-Hernandez said. "Border Patrol has already publicly stated if you are against the border wall, you are against Border Patrol."

Traveling his district shortly after the election, Cuellar — whose brother is the Webb County sheriff — was besieged by worried constituents asking if Democrats would take money away from their police forces. “I certainly don’t support that,” Cuellar said of the calls to defund the police. But “we have some of my progressive colleagues saying that, and then they’re going to equate that to all Democrats.”

Yet the progressive platform — including the "Green New Deal," which worries some voters in region that depends on oil and gas — has some resonance among voters in Cuellar's base. In 2020, he came within 3,000 votes of losing his primary to a more liberal challenger, immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros, who could run again in 2022.

There are concerns for Republicans too: They have control over the redistricting process, but they need to figure out which data will be most predictive to draw new lines. Relying on the 2020 election results assumes that Republican candidates will continue to perform well in Latino areas when Trump isn’t on the ballot. And in some districts, that data diverge sharply from previous elections.

Texas’s only true swing district for most of the last decade was another rural, majority-Latino district that spans the massive Western border of the state. Many thought it would be an easy Democratic pickup in 2020 when the popular GOP incumbent retired after winning by less than 1,000 votes in 2018.

But Republican Tony Gonzales, a former Naval cryptologist, managed an impressive win, as did Trump, who won that district in 2020 after losing it in 2016. Gonzales described an uptick in interest from infrequent voters drawn to Trump.

“Trump's message resonated, and the message was really, almost, ‘You're not forgotten. We haven't forgotten you.’ And it spoke to a lot of people," Gonzales said. "And they weren't 18-, 19-year-olds, they were older voters that had kind of just been disenfranchised, that were ignited again.”

In drawing Gonzales's current district last decade, GOP mapmakers swapped out Latinos who vote regularly with Latinos who don’t typically turn out, increasing the strength of white voters who tend to favor Republicans while keeping the district’s overall Latino population numbers high.

Democrats have decried that process as an illegal manipulation of the Voting Rights Act. But they concede that, if given the chance, Republicans could employ the tactic again to create a GOP-leaning seat in South Texas.

"If they get away with that, that’s the only way that they would get a toehold on the border," said Matt Angle, a longtime Democratic operative in the state.

Big money and a big stumble mark first year of Illinois' recreational weed law


Illinois’ coffers have enjoyed a boost in tax revenue approaching the amount generated by booze sales thanks to the year that recreational marijuana has been legal there. But that success is dampened by the fact that the program’s loftier goal of bringing social equity to an industry dominated by wealthy white men hasn’t been met.

Sales of highly taxed marijuana that have topped $1 billion are popular in a state with a $3.9 billion budget deficit. But other states are watching Illinois’ experiment that promised to ensure people of color could reap revenue in a rapidly growing, multi-billion dollar industry.”

That’s not happening.

In the first round of applications for one of the 75 licenses to sell recreational weed, not a single majority owner among the 21 entrants who made it to the license lottery is a person of color.

During the first round of licensing, each applicant could seek up to 10 of the 75 initial dispensary slots. The original plan was for all of those licenses to be allocated through a lottery.

But the state’s plan was thrown into disarray when only 21 applicants secured all the lottery slots and none of them were for minority-owned businesses. Now state officials are considering holding a second lottery, though that would need to be approved by the Legislature. A move to make that happen failed in the legislation that ended Jan. 13. Ultimately, the state could license as many as 500 dispensaries.

“Are we going to meet our diversity goals? Yes we are, but we’re going to have to fight for it every step of the way,” Toi Hutchinson, an architect of the Illinois law who now serves as an adviser to Gov. J.B. Pritzker, said in an interview. “This is an ongoing, amazingly big task. I know we’re going in the right direction because people are demanding it.”


It’s a failure that has sent state lawmakers scrambling to repair the application rules before the next licensing round. The state is considering adding a second lottery for those minority hopefuls who didn’t make the first round. And that’s led to another uproar — and legal fights.

Some social equity applicants who are angry about the first round scoring sued the state, stalling the lottery process — which in turn prompted lottery winners to file suit because the state wasn’t moving the process forward. Now most of the lawsuits are on hold while state officials try to figure out a solution.

Meanwhile, the state’s existing medical dispensaries, which have been around since 2015, have been selling recreational weed to anyone at least 21 years old since the start of 2020 — solidifying their dominance in the rapidly growing market.

Further complicating the rollout of Illinois’ cannabis law is the pandemic, which state officials say slowed down the application process and hindered oversight on scoring applications.

“It’s been incredibly frustrating,” said Democratic state Sen. Heather Steans, another architect of the law. She said state lawmakers are working to adjust the rules that unintentionally shut out minorities from the first round to get in the lottery. Allowing “just 21 applicants” is too few when there are 75 dispensaries at stake, she said.

A national model?

The drama is particularly striking because Illinois took unprecedented steps to ensure that people who were disproportionately affected by criminal enforcement of past drug laws are able to reap the benefits of legalization.

“There is particular national interest in Illinois from an equity perspective because it was the first to pass legalization through the legislative process rather than by referendum, which other states haven’t had,” said Shaleen Title, a former commissioner of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission and a leading advocate for robust social equity programs.

Illinois has been more successful in implementing other social justice elements of its law. That includes plans to expunge more than 700,000 cannabis-related arrest records. The state already has wiped clean about 500,000 of those.

And last week, Illinois announced $31.5 million in grants generated from weed sales would be doled out to organizations in communities hit hardest by the war on drugs. The law requires that 25 percent of marijuana tax revenues go to those communities.

But the stumble to get to the first lottery is raising concerns about whether true social equity can really be achieved in the booming marijuana industry.

How the licensing works

During the first round of licensing, each applicant could seek up to 10 of the 75 initial dispensary slots. The original plan was for all of those licenses to be allocated through a lottery. But the state’s plan was thrown into disarray when only 21 applicants secured all the lottery slots and none of them were for minority-owned businesses. Now state officials are considering holding a second lottery, though that would need to be approved by the Legislature. Ultimately, the state could license as many as 500 dispensaries.

“The application process was extraordinarily exhaustive and one of the hardest applications in the country, which was antithetical to the kind of folks you say you want to let into the industry,” said Ron Holmes, a former aide to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and now a consultant to some of the social equity candidates.

Social equity applicants typically don’t have as much disposable income as big corporations, Holmes added. Companies already in the cannabis industry, whether in medical or adult-use, had a leg up on the competition to get in the lottery. They have the $2,500 for each application, money to secure property for a dispensary and cover the legal costs of making sure their applications were flawless.

The 21 candidates who made it to the lottery correctly filled all the boxes required by the state for social equity status. That meant meeting at least one of three criteria: 51 percent ownership by one or more individuals who have lived at least five of 10 years in an area disproportionately impacted by criminal marijuana enforcement; a past arrest for a drug offense that is now eligible for expungement; or 51 percent of employees live in disproportionately impacted areas. They also included a veteran, which some candidates didn't realize was a criteria, costing them five points.

The rules didn’t require applicants to be minorities. Wealthy white candidates could still pull together a team that met all the criteria.


State officials are taking steps to boost the chances that subsequent lotteries will have more minority owners in the mix. The state is offering help to lower licensing fees and low-interest business loans to help promote diversity in the industry.

Some are skeptical that it’s enough to help small businesses get off the ground.

“There’s a small section of people who have cash and control of the money. When you have an industry and emerging market, and you can only join if you have cash, you’ve already eliminated Black people,” said Democratic state Rep. La Shawn Ford, a member of the state Legislative Black Caucus.

Eric Berlin, co-head of the Dentons law firm's cannabis group, is among the skeptics who say it’s difficult to achieve true social equity in a capitalist society. Consumers, after all, typically care about finding the best products, service and price points — not necessarily who owns the shop.

Given the stumbles and subsequent lawsuits in Illinois and other states, Berlin said he wondered whether the competitive application process should be scrapped. Establishing minimum standards to qualify for license lotteries might work better.

“We have to ask ‘What do we want to accomplish in social equity?’” Berlin said. “It’s not to just enrich one person, but to try to take a step forward on equalizing the gross disparity that has negligibly affected certain communities along the way.

"It’s hard to make that right for all those people. So you try to make it right for communities.”

The pandemic could devastate mass transit in the U.S. — and not for the reason you think


Mass transit might eventually rebound from the worst economic trauma of the coronavirus pandemic. But it still may never be the same, due to the vast changes the outbreak is triggering in the way Americans live and work.

Transit ridership had been falling for years before the pandemic shut down much of the U.S. economy last spring, and it's likely that the virus will only accelerate some of the trends behind that decline. Those include hastening the migration of jobs and people away from dense cities, where transit works best, as well as a newfound enthusiasm for letting employees work from home.

For now, transit leaders are clamoring for additional short-term aid from Congress and the Biden administration, calling financial help critical to ensuring that their trains and buses will be ready to take people to work whenever the economy reopens. But they’re also exploring ways to reshape their systems to stay ahead of their monumental long-term challenges — fearing impacts that could reverberate through their budgets for years.

"Many of these big urban areas have seen a complete shift of where people are living right now,” said Jim Derwinski, CEO of Chicago's Metra system and chair of the Commuter Rail Coalition.

The ongoing shock to the system could wipe out the main justifications for transit's existence — rush hour congestion and pricey downtown parking — even after ridership on buses, subways and commuter trains rises from its current abyss. (Ridership was down 62 percent from pre-pandemic levels as of the third quarter of 2020.)

Companies everywhere are reducing their office footprints amid the pandemic, with more people expected to work from home for at least part of the week for the foreseeable future. Office space vacancy rates are near 15 percent and commercial real estate prices have dropped 8 percent below pre-pandemic levels.

Meanwhile, as many people gain the freedom to work from anywhere, home sales in suburbs and small towns have risen to 85 percent of total sales, up from 80 percent before the outbreak. That's accelerating an overall shift away from the hub-and-spoke model that transit systems were built on, after years in which suburban office parks have pulled rush hour traffic away from urban cores.

“Even a 5 percent decrease in commuters in a major metropolitan area is going to have massive impact,” said Scott Bogren, executive director of the Community Transportation Association of America. “That tends to be, from what I’m reading from economists, on the low side of what they expect to be ‘permanent.'"

Plummeting revenues — both from the farebox and the state and local tax base that supported them — have had transit systems contemplating devastating service cuts, with New York City MTA considering cutting bus and rail service by 40 percent and Washington, D.C., planning to eliminate nighttime and weekend rail service before federal aid finally came through at the end of the year.

Private commuter bus companies are also struggling. New Jersey’s DeCamp Bus Lines, in its sixth generation of ownership by the same family, suspended operations in August, saying it couldn’t sustain the ridership drop from 7,000 riders a day to fewer than 400. It was among the more than 500 bus companies to shut down — at least temporarily — in 2020.

In Silicon Valley, where more than 1,000 “tech buses” used to shuttle employees from the Bay Area to work each day, Google and Facebook are telling employees they don’t need to come back to the office until September and July, respectively, and that increased flexibility to work from home will remain.

Transit agencies got a temporary lifeline in the form of December's $900 billion coronavirus relief bill, which contained $14 billion for transit — less than half of what the industry says it needs but enough to stave off draconian cuts. Combined with the $25 billion transit got from the CARES Act last March, nearly all transit systems in the country will have received at least 75 percent of a normal year’s worth of operating expenses.

More help could be on the way. President Joe Biden has proposed a $1.9 trillion supplemental aid package, with $20 billion for transit, and down the line he’s pushing for an ambitious infrastructure package with big money to upgrade transit systems around the country.

His plan would also provide a $350 billion infusion to city and state governments, which together pitch in more than half of transit’s operating funds and didn’t get any aid from the December stimulus bill. After the passage of the CARES Act, at least some states reduced their payments to transit. North Carolina, for instance, zeroed out $51 million worth of transit funding in July.

But cities will be under tremendous pressure to ensure that transit systems are ready to go when people are ready to go back to work, at the risk of slowing down the economic recovery by keeping people from getting to their jobs.

Paul Skoutelas, president and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association, acknowledged that the crisis is “painful” and “longer than we’d like.” But he said he is firm in his belief that “our cities will bounce back, and they need transit to do that.”

Still, he said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s going to take a couple years or more, as we get the workforce back.”

The workforce may be a lot different from what it was before the pandemic — and it may not be traveling in the same way it once did.

“I see the rush hours opening up wider,” Chicago's Derwinski predicted. “I see the ridership patterns becoming more fluid — where it used to be your traditional 7:30-9:00, I see it now going maybe 6:30-10:00, because people will be like, ‘Yeah, when I have to come downtown I’ll come downtown.’”

For transit, that means the “traditional five-day-a-week rider” could give way to workers who come to the office only occasionally for meetings, and “we now may need three different people to fill that seat five days," Derwinski said.

The pandemic has also changed how transit agencies think about the value they create — for instance, the critical role they play for society in ensuring that other essential workers can get to their jobs.


“We’ve always equated the value of transit with ridership,” Bogren said. “Ridership is going to be down ... What may end up being the better way to [measure value] is economic output from the trips we’re creating, health care indicators and output from the trips we’re creating, climate and environmental output.“

Behind the scenes, transit agencies have been accelerating innovations that were already in progress before the pandemic. Philadelphia recently contracted with a major urban planning firm for a comprehensive redesign of its bus network — something Houston and several other cities have done in recent years.

Transit will also continue to shift away from an exclusive focus on work trips.

“That has changed as we have seen an expansion of bus rapid transit, light rail systems,” said APTA's Skoutelas. “Those are systems that have really looked to make available transit as an option for other activities — going to the ballpark, going to a show, making it a part of normal travel itineraries, not just the work trip.”

The shift to contactless fare collection, a longtime efficiency goal of transit agencies, has become a reality in many places, accelerated due to the pandemic. Some systems have rolled out other user-friendly changes, like real-time arrival information and mobile apps.

But transit agencies have repeatedly found that bells and whistles don’t attract and retain riders as much as frequent, reliable service. And reliability could suffer if federal aid dries up.

Alex Clifford, CEO and general manager for the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District in California, noted that many of his riders are hospitality and tourism industry workers who depend on transit to get to work.

“When their jobs come back, I need to have the service there for them,” Clifford told POLITICO. “And if it’s not there, guess what — they’re either going to lose their job, or they’re going to find another way to get to work.

“And once they figure out that other way to get to work, they’ll probably never come back,” he said. “They’re lost for good.”

Democrats Have a Values Problem. But Here’s How They Can Fix It.


As Democrats begin their unified control of Washington with the slimmest possible majority in the Senate and barely a majority in the House, they must accept and address a difficult truth: Republicans have won the fight to define American ideals.

In the fall of 2017, I set out on a 9,000-mile road-trip to talk to people about what it means to be an American and a good citizen. Stopping in churches and on college campuses, in rural towns and large cities, I spoke with over 200 Americans, liberal and conservative and in between. I talked to 60 Clinton voters, 55 Trump voters, and a significant number of people who could not vote because of immigration status, voter disenfranchisement or age. My goal was to figure out what values, if any, unite Americans.

My conversations contained bad news for Democrats. When I asked the people I spoke with about a value that matters to their identity as a citizen or the country’s culture, more than 60 percent of them discussed the importance of “freedom,” the ideal Republicans push relentlessly. But less than 5 percent talked about “equality,” the ideal at the core of Democrats’ priorities and policies.

To be clear, the challenge for Democrats is not their policies, which are far more popular than the GOP’s free-market ideology. People much prefer the Affordable Care Act and Medicare-for-All to Republicans’ efforts to stop government from helping people get health care, for example. President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan has more than 60 percent support as he takes office. And although increasing corporate tax rates is slightly under water in terms of its popularity, it has more support than the Republicans’ 2017 tax bill did.

The challenge for Democrats, rather, is rhetorical. If Americans prize “freedom” more than “equality,” Democrats need to find the right words to convince people to support equality-furthering policies. With such a tenuous grip on both parts of Congress and without Trump as an easy foil to turn out Democrats’ base and turn independent voters away from the GOP, the success of the party’s long-term agenda and their hold on power will depend on their doing so. It also might just help unify the party in the process.

***

The parties’ respective relationships to the values of “freedom” and “equality” take on different forms. Republicans have made freedom front-and-center to most every political conversation, from saying any limitation of gun rights is a disregard for freedom to framing critiques of government-run health care around the danger these program would pose to Americans’ freedom. In the GOP’s telling, it is the defender of Americans’ freedom from Democratic attacks.

The Democrats’ relationship to equality is more complex. During the Civil Rights Era, Democrats became the party of rights and equality as activists marched through the streets demanding justice for Black Americans. The party passed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act while Republicans rallied around the anti-rights, anti-equality messaging of Barry Goldwater. Democrats also launched the Great Society, an effort to alleviate the suffering and economic inequity that affected millions of Americans.

In the decades that followed, the party largely abandoned the language of and commitment to equality. Calls for equal rights and a fairer economy were replaced with Bill Clinton’s freedom-driven Third Way and an insistence on the power of markets and opportunity. In choosing freedom rather than equality as the party’s defining value for a time, the Democrats helped Republicans define the political conversation for decades.

Even today, the party avoids explicitly owning equality as their defining value. The party’s leadership and voters rejected Bernie Sanders, the most explicitly pro-equality candidate in decades, in the primary despite the popularity of much of his agenda, while many of Democrats in purple states, like Mark Kelly, ran on pro-tax cut agendas. Biden, in his inaugural speech, did not mention equality as a defining value for his agenda or for the country.

But essentially all of the party’s current goals—health care for all, workers’ rights, voting rights, equal rights for women and members of the LGBTQ community, lowering student debt and college tuition, an economy and justice system free of systemic racism—would further equality. And achieving these goals without significant political backlash depends upon people believing in equality as a core American value.

Of course, the choice between equality and freedom is on some level a false one. For freedom to exist there must be a baseline of equality. But these values are often treated as in competition in American political discourse—in the debates about taxation to address income inequality, and religious freedom versus the obligation to serve LGBTQ individuals equally, for example. And most Americans I met, both Republicans and Democrats alike, reserved their most aspirational words and beliefs for just one of them: freedom.

Terri, the owner of a Christian candle shop in Waukesha, Wisc., exemplified the celebration of freedom that was common in my interviews. “I feel very blessed to be an American,” she said. “It means freedom—freedom of religion, freedom of choice, freedom of speech.” Dolly, a self-described “Trump-lover” in Pittsburgh told me, “This, to me, is the greatest country on Earth. … This is the country of freedom.”

That Republicans would use this language was not surprising. But this rhetoric appeared in conversations with Democrats, too. Take Taj, a Sudanese refugee from Dubuque, Iowa. Though Taj declined to share whom he voted for in 2016, our conversation suggested that his politics lean left. When I asked what he sees as America’s core values, he told me, “This country works well for me because of the liberty.” He also discussed how the founders “created a world that didn’t exist yet—in terms of freedom of speech.” In fact, most anyone who mentioned the Founding mentioned only freedom as a founding ideal.

Melvin, then and still a city council member in Jackson, Miss., is the type of person Democrats might expect to prize equality as much as freedom. Melvin, who is Black, is a staunch Democrat who spoke at length about the need for change in America. He grew up in Jackson, attended Harvard, and returned to serve his community in a deep red state.

When I asked Melvin what it means to be an American, he told me a sense of optimism, a belief in rights—a potential nod to equality, though revealing that he didn’t use the word itself—and the law, and a certain pride. Core to all of those and to American life? Freedom. He said: “I believe that being an American means you believe in freedom or liberty, even if you disagree with other people’s use of them.”

National polling suggests my anecdotal observations were not a coincidence. The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute undertook an American values survey in 2012 in which they asked people, among other questions, “Which, if any of these factors, do you think contributes to America having stronger values than other places in the world?” Participants were asked to select all the ideas listed that applied. Fifty percent of over 2,000 respondents cited “Principles of equality,” tied with free enterprise and the system laid out in our Constitution for third. Ranking ahead of it? “Freedom of speech” with 67 percent and “freedom of religion” with 61 percent.

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But my interviews—and policy shifts over the past several years—indicate that there might be a way for the Democrats to rebuild the party’s and build the country’s rhetorical and philosophical commitment to equality while also helping their policies’ popularity and candidates’ electoral chances in 2022. That path requires Democrats to focus on two values that my conversations suggest are still widely embraced and also are essential parts of an enduring national commitment to equality: fairness and community.

Fairness is an ideal central to the American Dream. The notion that every American deserves “a fair shot at a better life” was frequently seen as a foundational part of American society in my conversations, even among conservatives I met. By focusing on fairness, Democrats can move an equality-driven agenda forward while simultaneously providing a popular competing ideal to Republicans’ arguments about economic and legal freedom.

When it comes to civil rights, the sense that our justice system has not been working fairly led majorities in both parties to say in 2018 that they supported prison and sentencing reforms. Voters act on this belief, too: In Florida in 2018, more than 60 percent of people voted to restore former felons’ voting rights. In a country whose criminal justice system is still in many ways defined by systemic racism, emphasizing legal fairness may well be a pathway to broader discussions of societal equality.

The idea that there should be a degree of economic fairness has broad support, too. Even as Florida voted for Trump this cycle, its voters also supported a ballot measure for a $15 minimum wage, while a wealth tax—a way to ensure the wealthiest Americans pay their share—has support from even a near majority of Republicans. And when it comes to health care, Americans believe that every American should have a baseline of care: At least 70 percent of Americans approve of a Medicare for All who want it-type plan. An appeal to the idea that every American needs certain things to build a better life can move the needle for Democrats against Republican policies and rhetoric.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, Democrats need to affirm the importance of community. More Americans will believe everyone deserves political and economic security and equality when they see one another as members of the same political community.

Community was the only ideal that came up in more of my interviews than freedom. Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs talked about how good citizenship means serving one’s community and about how their communities are struggling and need help. Polling suggests this trend is consistent nationwide: More than 60 percent of Americans say community involvement is very important to them. And policies that strengthen community foundations like public internet and infrastructure investment hold broad appeal, too.

The challenge to using the idea of community to build political coalitions is that many people see their community as those who are only like them. On my travels, many white Americans implied immigrants and Black Americans need to “assimilate” for communities and the country to thrive. This isn’t surprising given America’s history of racism and anti-immigrant sentiments. Nor is it surprising that many people I met believed members of the other party would not see them as good Americans given increased inter-party animosity.

The Democrats’ task then, if they want to build a deep and broad support for equality, is to expand more voters’ notion of the American community. In his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama declared, “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America.” Democrats need to revive this sort of rhetoric, not to win empty points for bipartisanship from pundits, but because appealing to a shared sense of community will help them connect with Americans now and increase support for equality-based messages and policies later.

For Democrats, there would likely be short-term benefits to these new rhetorical and policy focuses given the work both wings of the party need to do. Moderate Democrats need to rebuild the credibility they lost in failing to fight for equality and need to find a defining message. The left wing of the party needs to develop a strategy to build long-term, wider-spread support for their ideas. Fairness and community may well be the ideals that unite the party’s two wings rhetorically, give the party a clear identity and sustain popularity for their policies. If Biden wants to heal the soul of the nation and build back better, he has a place to start.

Biden and Boris Johnson talk alliance, climate, Covid


President Joe Biden spoke with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday, with trade, climate and Covid discussed among other topline issues.

“Great to speak to President @JoeBiden this evening,” Johnson wrote in a tweet Saturday. “I look forward to deepening the longstanding alliance between our two countries as we drive a green and sustainable recovery from COVID-19.”

Johnson congratulated Biden for his inauguration and praised Biden's decision to reenter the Paris climate agreement, the COVAX program on expanding vaccine access and the World Health Organization, Johnson’s office said in a readout of the call.

“They also discussed the benefits of a potential free deal between our two countries, and our Prime Minister reiterated his intention to resolve existing trade issues as soon as possible,” Johnson’s office said in the statement. “Building on the UK and US’ long history of cooperation in security and defence, the leaders re-committed to the NATO alliance and our shared values in promoting human rights and protecting democracy.”

Johnson, a conservative populist and one-time firm ally of former President Donald Trump, had sought to put distance in their relationship after Biden won the presidential election, with Johnson releasing a statement condemning Trump's actions amid the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol.

Johnson-backed Brexit has altered the longstanding "special relationship" between the U.S. and the U.K.

“When you wanted to get something done with Europe, you made the first or perhaps second call to London,” Charles Kupchan, who served as a senior National Security Council European affairs official in both the Obama and Clinton administrations, previously told POLITICO.

In 2021, “you’re still going to call London, but that call will be lower down in the queue. Britain doesn’t have a seat at the table anymore,” due to Brexit, he said.

“Biden is seeking to strengthen and renew ties with the EU, and Britain is not going to be a part of that,” a person familiar with Biden’s thinking previously told POLITICO.

Trump and former U.K. Prime Minster Theresa May famously had a difficult relationship. May said recently she ”never knew what to expect” from Trump, who was also a frequent critic of the EU bloc before the U.K.'s ultimate exit Jan. 31.

Trump abruptly canceled a planned trip to London with May in January 2018. When he visited May for the first time, he was highly critical of May in an interview with a tabloid published during the trip. Johnson succeeded May as leader of the Conservative Party and prime minister in July 2019.

On Friday, Biden spoke with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The calls come as Biden attempts to begin his quest to “restore dignified leadership at home and respected leadership on the world stage” after Trump's America First approach to international relations.

Feds: Texas man charged in Capitol riots threatened to kill AOC


A Texas man charged with illegally storming the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6. threatened to kill Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and a Capitol Police officer, according to federal prosecutors.

Garret Miller, of Dallas County, Texas, posted often on social media about his involvement in the deadly riots during which insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, including sending a tweet saying “Assassinate AOC,” according to charging documents.

Miller was charged with several federal crimes and arrested Wednesday in Texas, Department of Justice filings show. He appeared in federal court in Dallas on Friday for an initial hearing and has a bail hearing Monday.

Miller allegedly posted a selfie of himself in the Capitol, to which a Facebook user said "bro you got in?! Nice!," according to charging documents.

“just wanted to incriminate myself a little lol,” Miller replied.

“Well you did!” Ocasio-Cortez clapped back at Miller on Twitter.

“On one hand you have to laugh, and on the other know that the reason they were this brazen is because they thought they were going to succeed,” she said in a subsequent tweet.

Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive and one of the most high-profile lawmakers in Congress, has said that death threats are “a normal part of [her] existence.” Ahead of the House’s vote to impeach then-President Donald Trump, the New York congresswoman said that GOP lawmakers fearing voting to impeach Trump after the riots are privileged to not face threats more often.

“I get it, but some of us just spent the last 2 years taking stances that have led to repeated attempts on our lives - for demanding guaranteed healthcare, immigrant justice, etc,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote in a tweet. “Sorry if this lacks empathy, but it’s a privilege if this is their first time. They can do one vote.”

Trump was impeached for inciting an insurrection and faces a Senate trial slated for the week of Feb. 8. At a rally before the riots, Trump spoke to supporters.

“You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong,” Trump said at the time.

Trump has defended his comments as "totally appropriate." Just 27 percent of respondents in a recent POLITICO/Morning Consult poll said Trump acted “appropriately” and that the Senate should not remove him from office.

Miller’s arrest comes as federal officials fear hundreds of cases of rioters being charged could clog the court system, leaving them weighing potentially not charging some Capitol rioters to ease the burden, the Washington Post reported Saturday.

The FBI got a tip from law enforcement about Miller posting a video from inside the Capitol on Twitter. On Jan. 2, he said on Facebook that he was going to drive cross-country "for this trump sh-t," according to charging documents.

“civil war could start . . . not sure what to do in DC,” he said in a Facebook post Jan. 2.

He posted a photo of himself on Facebook wearing a Make America Great Again hat on Jan. 11 from inside the Capitol, according to the filings. In a tweet Jan. 6, Miller said "next time we bring the guns."

On social media, Miller also discussed a woman who was shot by Capitol police on Jan. 6, saying Jan. 10 that “We going to get a hold of” the officer and “hug his neck with a nice rope,” according to the filings.

“On Jan. 6, he also tweeted that "we acted with honor and we where [sic] not armed. We where [sic] gentle with the police” in a reply to Ocasio-Cortez.

He also said on Instagram that he had a rope in his bag on the day of the Capitol riots.

“We stormed the capital [sic] as peacefully as we could without weapons ... The congress building,” Miller wrote on his Instagram, according to the documents.

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