Jenner has hangar pains after Hannity interview

OAKLAND — Move over French Laundry, there's a new social media obsession: Hangar Guy.

GOP recall candidate Caitlyn Jenner may have played right into Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s hands when she lamented on Fox News that a neighboring private plane owner at her airport hangar is abandoning California because he “can't take” seeing homeless people anymore.

In her first interview as a political candidate, Jenner told Fox News host Sean Hannity on Wednesday that she liked how former President Donald Trump "shook up the system," supported his border wall effort and hasn't agreed with anything President Joe Biden has done this year.

But it was her plane anecdote that went viral. “The guy right across, he was packing up his hangar,” Jenner said during the sitdown in her own Southern California plane hangar. “And he says, ‘I’m moving to Sedona, Ariz. I can’t take it anymore. I can’t walk down the streets and see the homeless.'"

In less than 24 hours, that comment has drawn more than 5 million views on Twitter and prompted a caustic string of rebukes, potshots and one-liners mocking the TV reality show star as out of touch. It raised the more serious question of whether — in one brief moment — the candidate disarmed one of the Republicans’ most effective caricatures of the wealthy Democratic governor as a tone-deaf leader who dined at the French Laundry during the pandemic.

LGBTQ activist Charlotte Clymer tweeted, "Caitlyn for California: Put the Poors Where I Can't See Them." Comedian Kathy Griffin joked, “When you lost the private airplane hanger crowd…”

Some said the quip delivered a flashback to Jenner’s uber-upscale “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” persona — not exactly a gubernatorial profile.

“It was a disaster, one which placed Jenner in exactly the same mold ... of the French Laundry thing," GOP strategist Robert Molnar said of the hangar comment. Except this time, it was “my elite wealthy friends are jumping into their private jets and shutting down their hangars and moving to Arizona because they don't like homeless people."

“Homelessness is a problem — and you need to solve it," he said.

Jenner, 71, has spent plenty of years in the limelight, from her gold medal win in the 1976 Olympic decathlon to her years on reality TV and high-profile interviews on being transgender. But she has never before run for office and has only a few months to convince voters she can lead the world's fifth largest economy — one burdened by natural disasters and a severe housing shortage along with the ever-changing Covid-19 crisis.

After the Fox News interview, Jenner’s GOP competitors saw an immediate opening to underscore her status as a neophyte who has never dirtied her hands wrestling with the issues affecting average Californians. For weeks, they've been desperate to find a foothold as Jenner's candidacy drew national attention — so desperate that Republican hopeful John Cox brought a live Kodiak bear to a campaign stop in Sacramento this week.

“It just shows the world that she lives in," said Steve Puetz, a spokesperson for Republican candidate Kevin Faulconer, the former San Diego mayor. “She’s a celebrity and social media person, and extremely wealthy. And her friends and experiences are a little different than most Californians."

Puetz said voters will see the clear difference with such moments. Faulconer “has been dealing with trying to make an impact in the homeless crisis in San Diego for years," and has discussed at length "what works and what doesn’t" to address the problem, Puetz said.

But other Republicans were willing to give Jenner more leeway. Conservative radio host Jennifer Kerns, a former spokesperson for the California Republican Party, said the reality star merited an “A-” for her Hannity appearance, saying she is “getting her sea legs” and effectively introducing herself to voters — especially GOP voters who will be crucial to her political fortunes.

Jenner's appearance was a concerted appeal to Republican voters considering the Fox News venue alone, where Hannity said he was broadcasting from "the united Socialist state" of California. She admired Trump for being a "disrupter" though she said there were "some things I didn't agree with," acknowledging her past criticism of how Trump handled transgender issues.

She also aligned herself with Republicans on immigration.

"I am all for the wall, I would secure the wall. We can't have a state, we can't have a country, without a secure wall," Jenner said.

While professing empathy for immigrants, Jenner noted, "I mean, some people we're going to send back, OK, no question about that." Asked if she would eliminate sanctuary status of California, Jenner told Hannity, "I would do my absolute best to do that."

Dan Newman, a Newsom campaign spokesperson, said the most revealing moment in Jenner’s interview — and the ones that will haunt her even more in coming months — was her embrace of the former president who remains historically unpopular with California voters.

“When you say that you oppose every single thing that Joe Biden is doing and believes in — stimulus payments, accelerating the vaccine, infrastructure improvements. support for schools, just across the board — it really makes it clear that this [recall] is all Trump."

But Kerns said Jenner’s point on the hangar comment was “not that people don't want to look at the homeless — it's that the politicians and the elected officials in California who are in charge aren't actually doing anything about the homelessness crisis."

Republican consultant Dave McCulloch said in an interview said that Jenner's initial appearance achieved her goal of "making that transition from celebrity to politician," arguing that she can lay out more detailed policy prescriptions as the campaign unfolds. McCulloch argued that Jenner openly talking about her wealth is preferable to Newsom downplaying his affluence.

"It wasn’t relatable to the average Californian going through economic hard times but in terms of electing a politician it’s less of an issue than ever before — look at Donald Trump," McCulloch said.

At the very least, Jenner missed an opportunity in the Fox News interview to lay out what she would do to solve homelessness in California. Her campaign website this week added an issues page, where she said she would work with local leaders to remove restrictions and "revisit" any regulation that blocks affordable housing construction. She also said she would push large employers to help build housing and come up with a plan addressing physical and mental health challenges.

But all she said to Hannity on homelessness was the hangar anecdote.

“That interview was more Kardashian than California," observed Christine Pelosi, the daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a California Democratic Party women's caucus chair.

“I guarantee that, as much as people don’t want to look at homeless people, homeless people don’t want to be homeless,’’ she said, “and they don’t want to be looked at as a nuisance or problems that you can fly away from."

Jeremy B. White contributed to this report.

Biden Cabinet nominee's meetings with Epstein in 2012 spanned 90 minutes, document reveals

Biden Cabinet nominee Eric Lander’s past meetings with the late convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein spanned approximately 90 minutes over two events in the spring of 2012, according to a document obtained by POLITICO.

Lander, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology biology professor and President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the White House tech policy office, has faced scrutiny from Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike over a pair of events he attended nearly a decade ago with Epstein and other prospective donors.

The document reveals details that largely align with Lander and the White House’s descriptions of the meetings as brief interactions, including during his recent nomination hearing. But the controversy could still imperil his confirmation, which has also faced questions about allegations he downplayed female scientist's contributions to his field and about other past interactions with controversial figures.

Lander, tapped to lead the Office of Science and Technology Policy, is the only outstanding Biden Cabinet nominee yet to be confirmed.

Members of the Senate Committee Committee pressed Lander at a nomination hearing late last month to provide the panel with additional information about his interactions with Epstein, which were unearthed by news reports in 2019.

That response, submitted by the White House and obtained by POLITICO, says Lander's first such encounter was at a 60-minute lunch meeting with other scientists and “three or four donors or prospective donors” including Epstein on April 15, 2012.

Lander and other faculty members “made presentations about the state of research in their respective fields, and answered questions from the group, including Epstein," according to the document. It stated Lander attended the entire event.

The second interaction took place at a reception on May 12 of that year ahead of a dinner with “about forty people” consisting of faculty, donors and prospective donors, including Epstein. Lander did not attend the dinner but spent about 30 minutes at the reception and spoke to Epstein, among others.

“After these two events, Dr. Lander never saw or spoke to Epstein again,” states the document, which offers one of the fullest accounts of the events made public to date. Lander "neither ever requested or received any funding from [Epstein] or his foundations," the document reads. A 2019 BuzzFeed investigation found that Epstein donated millions to other researchers.

A spokesperson for OSTP declined to comment, and the Senate Commerce Committee did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Epstein had been a convicted sex offender since 2008. He was later arrested on federal sex trafficking charges in 2019 before killing himself.

At his April nomination hearing, Lander called Epstein an “abhorrent individual” and said he “chose to have no association whatsoever with him,” including never receiving funding from the financier.

“The sum total of my interactions was that I met him briefly at two events within the span of three weeks in the spring of 2012,” Lander testified, adding that he wasn’t aware of Epstein’s “sordid history” at the time.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said at the session that she was “troubled” about those meetings among other incidents that called into question his handling of race and gender issues. Other members, including Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), have privately expressed concern as well, as POLITICO has reported.

The OSTP director post has been elevated to Cabinet level for the first time under Biden, in a nod to what he called the importance of scientific innovation.

Diplomats to Biden: Don’t give the plum Europe posts to donors and allies

As President Joe Biden finalizes his first batch of political nominees for ambassadorships, veteran diplomats are offering a warning: don’t make Europe a playground for wealthy donors and longtime friends and allies.

So far, it appears the president isn’t keen on listening. As in past administrations, political appointees are the leading contenders for ambassadorships in France, Belgium and Ireland, according to two people familiar with the process. And career diplomats are not likely to fill posts in Ukraine and at the European Union, even after Donald Trump’s first impeachment raised concerns about the treatment of such diplomats there, and spotlighted the dangers that can come when the positions are viewed as political outposts.

“The truth of the matter is we’re just going back to business as usual,” said Brett Bruen, a former U.S. diplomat with many contacts inside the State Department.

Biden is in the final stages of vetting some political nominees and expects to announce his first such batch in the coming weeks, according to four people, including donors and former administration officials.

Dozens of ambassadorships are expected to be given to campaign donors, supporters and longtime friends of the president in the next several months, though names could still change based on the vetting process, they say. Ambassadorships almost always require Senate confirmation.

Leading contenders for Europe include longtime Biden friend and former Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut in Ireland; donor and real estate developer Michael Adler in Belgium, Women for Biden leader Denise Bauer in France, and Biden friend and adviser Mark Gitenstein for the European Union, according to the two people familiar with the lists. Bauer and Gitenstein served as ambassadors for former President Barack Obama.

No one expects Biden to give the majority of posts in Europe to career diplomats, who often find themselves instead competing for challenging roles in less developed parts of the world. But current and former U.S. diplomats said they were hoping for Biden to name career employees as ambassadors in countries such as Germany and Poland to, at a minimum, send a message that he values the Foreign Service and recognizes that even those countries face difficult challenges today. Those challenges include a seemingly more aggressive Russia, an increasingly influential China, as well transnational tests like climate change, energy supply chains, and migration.

“Right now, every post has significance,” said Kenneth Yalowitz, a former career Foreign Service officer who served as ambassador to Belarus and Georgia.

Between 1960 and mid-2016, more than 70 percent of people nominated for ambassadorships in Western European countries were political appointees, according to the American Foreign Service Association, the diplomats’ union. The number was roughly 20 percent for Eastern European countries.

Biden has been considering an array of names to fill the roughly 190 available ambassador slots, including Cindy McCain, widow of Sen. John McCain, as ambassador to the U.N. World Food Programme, a mission based in Rome; former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for Japan; Comcast executive and donor David Cohen for Canada; and former senator and Interior secretary Ken Salazar for Mexico.

Other potential nominees include: former career diplomat Nicholas Burns for China; banker Tom Nides or former Florida congressman Robert Wexler for Israel; and Julie Smith, a longtime Biden adviser, to represent the United States at NATO.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who co-chaired Biden’s 2020 campaign, is being considered for ambassador to India, according to four people familiar with the position. He was passed over for several posts in administration, including Transportation secretary, and had been interested in a high-profile post, with one close ally saying he angled for ambassador to Mexico. (Garcetti is half-Mexican and half-Jewish.) But another person close to the process cast doubt on the possibility, saying Garcetti’s problems in Los Angeles — including harassment allegations against a longtime former political adviser — made an appointment of that type exceedingly difficult.

“They want to stick him somewhere” further away — a place that doesn’t get as much attention as Mexico City, the person said.

Most presidents in recent decades have given 30 percent of ambassadorships to political appointees, including major campaign donors. Trump increased that number to roughly 44 percent, which included posts in some countries that usually went to career diplomats, such as Thailand and Kenya. That’s why the pressure is on Biden to revert to a smaller number.

A White House official said Thursday the administration expects the percentage of political ambassadors to be lower than that of the previous administration and closer to the traditional amount. Earlier this week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to comment this week when asked about ambassadors at her daily briefing. “Hopefully we’ll have some more formal announcements on ambassadors soon,” she said.

Biden has tasked several aides to help in the process of filling out the ambassador ranks: Steve Ricchetti, counselor to the president; Cathy Russell, director of the White House presidential personnel office; and Katie Petrelius, special assistant to the president for presidential personnel.

Biden refused to rule out the practice of rewarding donors and allies with ambassadorships during the Democratic primary but said that anyone he appointed would be qualified. So far, Biden has nominated 11 ambassadors, including career diplomats for Vietnam, Somalia and Algeria, as well as Chris Lu, Obama’s former deputy Labor secretary, to be ambassador to the U.N. for Management and Reform.

“The Foreign Service has been hurt in a way it hasn't been hurt in modern times and you have to build it back up and these countries are demanding it,” said a longtime Democratic donor.

Past political ambassadors defend their nominations, arguing they often have their own money to spend on diplomatic events in expensive countries where U.S. taxpayer dollars are limited and have closer relationships with the president, White House officials, and members of Congress.

“There was a sense when they were talking to me that they were also talking to Barack Obama and the poor career Foreign Service officer has probably never met these people, no ability to call Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi or the White House and make something happen,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), a Democratic fundraiser who served as ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein.

Career diplomats acknowledge that there have been some excellent political appointee ambassadors in the past. They note that not all political appointees are campaign donors; some are subject matter experts. They also concede that not all career diplomats make good ambassadors.

But when POLITICO reported that the State Department recently circulated a list of postings reserved for career employees, it did not go over well in some corners of the Foreign Service, where people had hoped it would be longer and more substantive. There was specific disappointment among some that positions like ambassador to Ukraine and ambassador to the European Union may be reserved for political appointees.

Marie Yovanovitch, the career diplomat who served during the Trump years in the Ukraine position, was forced out of the job amid pressure from the then president and his allies who were trying to push Ukraine’s government to investigate Biden and his son, Hunter. The European Union role was held by Gordon Sondland, a hotel executive who donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee. Sondland, who intervened in Ukraine policy, was a key impeachment witness, during which he said that he was part of a quid-pro-quo operation orchestrated by his boss’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.

A Biden State Department official stressed that the list that has been circulated is not final, and that additional positions may still become available to career employees instead of being given to outside political appointees.

Eric Rubin, president of the American Foreign Service Association, said overall he has been encouraged by the number of career diplomats who have been nominated to senior policymaking positions and ambassadorships so far.

“We hope to see many more nominated, and to see the traditional balance between career and political appointees restored,” he said. “We also believe it essential that all nominees be fully qualified as required by the Foreign Service Act of 1980, and not nominated solely as a reward for political contributions, a practice prohibited by law. That has not always been true in the past, and we hope it will be the norm going forward."

Christopher Cadelago contributed to this report.

MAGA world pans Stefanik

Donald Trump has called Elise Stefanik “a new Republican star,” a “smart communicator” and — perhaps his highest praise — “tough.”

But the MAGA faithful aren’t so sure.

Within minutes of Trump’s endorsement of the New York congresswoman for GOP conference chair on Wednesday, top MAGA voices erupted in anger — a rare break with the former president. The invective aimed at Stefanik, who was perceived to be insufficiently conservative and a relative newcomer to the Trump cause, continued to zoom through the MAGA-sphere on Thursday.

The Columbia Bugle — an anonymously-run Twitter account with nearly 179,000 followers, including high-profile Trump movement influencers — described Stefanik as “a slightly less annoying America Last Republican.” Lou Dobbs, the former Fox Business show host who was one of Trump’s fiercest cable television supporters, dismissed her as a “RINO.”

Others, like pundits Ann Coulter and Raheem Kassam, editor in chief of the populist online outlet National Pulse, went on a retweeting spree, highlighting writer after writer, tweet after tweet, questioning Stefanik’s commitment to the Trump movement’s core tenets, particularly on immigration.

.@RepStefanik? Comment?” Jenna Ellis, formerly Trump’s senior legal counsel, pointedly asked on Thursday, retweeting a thread highlighting Stefanik’s record.

Popular MAGA news and opinion sites were less sparing, with Revolver calling her a “neocon establishment twit”, and Big League Politics, founded by Breitbart alumni, slamming her for only getting on the Trump defense train in 2019 and characterizing her as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Though she received praise and support from some MAGA-friendly members of Congress, it was a hostile grassroots reception for the congresswoman pitched as a Trump-approved option to replace Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney in GOP leadership.

Cheney’s ouster from the no. 3 Republican position in the House appears almost certain following her sustained criticism of Trump and his baseless claims of election fraud, a politically suicidal position in a party where the former president remains popular with the GOP base.

“[Stefanik] is the identity of a swamp creature, and she has probably the most liberal voting record of anybody who represents a strong Republican district,” said Ryan James Girdusky, a conservative political consultant and the author of the National Populist newsletter.

While Stefanik is seen within the party as a rising star and prolific fundraiser — particularly after aggressively defending Trump during his impeachment trials — Trump’s populist base views her quite differently. If they don’t eventually come on board, that could mean a limited tenure for Stefanik as a member of the leadership team.

Several MAGA news sites cited Stefanik’s voting record, where she backed the then-president’s position only 78 percent of the time, making Cheney’s record of 93 percent look slavishly loyal in comparison. Stefanik compiled that record despite representing a comfortably Republican district that Trump won easily in 2020.

Even worse, she started her career working in the George W. Bush White House. “I’ve heard from several conservative members of Congress this same concern over her voting record. We need answers,” Ellis tweeted Wednesday.

Stefanik’s office did not respond to a request for comment. But on Thursday morning, the congresswoman made an appearance on Steve Bannon’s podcast War Room to tout her most important MAGA bona fides: supporting the Arizona recount and promising to investigate false claims of election fraud. “We want transparency and answers for the American people — what are the Democrats so afraid of?” she said.

The backlash against Stefanik didn’t surface out of nowhere. For years, she’d been viewed with suspicion by hardcore elements of the MAGA base, with Big League politics running several pieces slamming her for her disloyalty to figures such as provocateur Laura Loomer. She criticized Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate accord and failed to pass the MAGA smell test on several key issues: immigration, border control, abortion and the war in Afghanistan.

“She ties with a couple other Republicans for the worst career voting record on immigration in New York,” said Mark Krikorian, director of the anti-immigration Center on Immigration Studies, ticking off a few of her previous positions: a yes on H-2B visas, the Farm Workers Modernization Act, and the Hong Kong Refugee bill, and a no on Trump’s child border separation policies.

“Obviously, Republicans in New York are likely to be more liberal, just because that's the environment they're in,” Krikorian said. “I think everybody understands that. But even by the standards of New York state Republicans, she's bad on immigration.”

Another issue that could harm Stefanik among MAGA supporters is her record on Afghanistan. As recently as 2019, she co-sponsored a bill with Cheney to keep 10,000 troops in the region for a year and stop troop reduction — a bill that was highly controversial among anti-war MAGA voices, who had backed Trump’s talks with the Taliban at the time.

“I understand that everyone hates Liz Cheney. I am not a fan of Liz Cheney. She should have never been in House leadership,” said Girdusky. “However, we are exchanging Liz Cheney, who at least votes correct, even though she bashes Trump publicly, [for] somebody who doesn't bash Trump publicly but votes with them almost none of the time.”

Representatives for both Trump and McCarthy did not respond to requests for comment.

Krikorian, whose institute is not weighing in on the conference chair election, noted that while Cheney’s downfall was sparked by her criticism of Trump, what had truly tanked her was her ideology, bolstered by her family name: The Wyoming congresswoman’s neoconservative beliefs have no place in today’s GOP.

Stefanik’s positions weren’t much more palatable to the party base, in Krikorian’s view.

“Trump, in his gut, does think we should get out of Afghanistan, he does think there's too many illegal aliens coming over the border,” he observed. “It's not that he doesn't believe any of that stuff. It's just that he's kind of a narcissistic guy. And if people flatter him, he's for them, regardless of what they believe. And so the question is: Do you go for Trumpism? Or do you go for Trump?”

Millions head back to work amid employer confusion over masks, vaccines

Millions of people are flooding back to work as the coronavirus ebbs, but businesses say the federal government's failure to answer pressing questions over masks and vaccinations are complicating their reopening efforts.

Despite President Joe Biden’s new goal of getting 70 percent of Americans vaccinated by July 4, and his call for every employer to offer paid time off for workers to recover from the shot, the government has yet to answer whether it’s legal for businesses to offer vaccine incentives to their staff.

While some employers have already offered paid time off, swag or other perks, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency in charge of policing federal anti-discrimination law, hasn't clarified whether such incentives could "coerce" employees into getting the shot or disclosing their vaccination status in order to get the benefits.

And although the CDC said last month that vaccinated Americans only need to wear a mask when gathering in indoor public places, it’s unclear how that applies to private workplaces like factories and offices.

At the same time, the Labor Department is finalizing long-delayed Covid-19 emergency workplace safety rules that would last through November, which many expect to require workers to wear face masks, among other measures.

“How they handle the vaccine issue, the high number of people getting vaccinated, is one of the central questions around the [emergency temporary standard],” said Marc Freedman, vice president of employment policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The uncertainty comes at a crucial time for the economy, as hundreds of thousands of people are heading back to work. Nearly 1 million new jobs were created in March, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The latest jobs report out on Friday is expected to show that job growth accelerated even further in April, as more Americans got vaccinated and warmer weather began across the nation.

Worker safety advocates question the business community’s concerns, countering that worker safety rules will provide clarity and are essential to getting the economy back to normal.

Biden instructed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to decide whether to issue emergency Covid-19 workplace safety rules by March 15. After weeks of delay, OSHA sent the rules to the Office of Management and Budget for review at the end of April, the first step before they are made public and go into effect.

“I think that industry is going to find every excuse they can to fight against the rule, and to raise that whatever it is that OSHA does is going to be an unbearable burden,” said Debbie Berkowitz, an adviser at OSHA during the Obama administration.

“I find that disingenuous, at best, because I think what's really needed to get workers back into the economy, and to get the economy open, is that workers know there are requirements that employers have to meet to protect them," added Berkowitz, now with the left-leaning National Employment Law Project. “And whatever OSHA does is going to be a minimum.”

Safety experts also point out a new report from the CDC this week concluded that if businesses were to slack off on taking workplace safety precautions outside of ensuring workers are vaccinated, it “could lead to substantial increases in severe Covid-19 outcomes, even with improved vaccination coverage.”

But business groups caution that whichever way the Biden administration falls when it comes to the protections employers must provide to their workers could reverberate throughout the economy.

“It could conceivably have a very significant negative impact, depending upon what it expects employers to do, and how much they have to change what they've been doing all along, to protect their employees,” Freedman said of the emergency temporary standard being finalized by OSHA, which is not yet public.

“There are cost issues associated with that, there are operational issues associated with that," he added, "if it requires employees to be out of the workplace for extended periods because of certain quarantining or exposure questions, then that will certainly affect the ability for companies and employers to maintain their operations. “

Some business groups say they are frustrated over the daylight between the latest recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the requirements expected out of the forthcoming safety rules from the Labor Department.

In December, the CDC clarified that all workers should wear masks in accordance with federal recommendations. But last month, the CDC’s latest guidance said fully vaccinated people could gather indoors with other fully vaccinated individuals without a mask or social distancing. The agency also said vaccinated people could gather in small groups outdoors without masks even if a group includes unvaccinated individuals.

The agency didn’t specify how the new rules should be applied in the workplace, only cautioning that people “will still need to follow guidance” at their job.

Safety advocates and business groups expect that the Covid-19 workplace safety rules currently being finalized by the Biden administration will include a mask mandate for workers.

“The biggest challenge employers are going to face without question is going to be some sort of mask requirement,” said Eric Conn, a management side attorney at the firm Conn Maciel Carey, adding that there’s “tension” between a potential workplace mask mandate and what the CDC has been issuing in guidance related to vaccinated individuals.

A “really big tension that employers are going to face is, even if the rule does allow for some relaxation of mask or distancing requirements based on vaccination status, how do you get reliable information about your employees vaccination status?” Conn added, “that has been a big challenge that employers have faced.”

Inquiring about someone’s vaccination status also raises concerns about employers’ liability under federal discrimination and privacy law, business groups say.

The EEOC said that asking an employee to show proof of a Covid-19 vaccination wouldn’t violate disability law, but cautioned that any follow-up questions “such as asking why an individual did not receive a vaccination, may elicit information about a disability.”

Edwin Egee, vice president of government relations at the National Retail Federation, cautioned that if OSHA’s workplace safety standards also differentiate how businesses treat vaccinated and unvaccinated workers “it immediately creates a problem for employers because we’ve got to know the difference between who's vaccinated and who's not vaccinated.”

“You can ask,” Egee said, “but you’ve got to be really careful that you don't implicate the ADA when you ask,” he said, referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The EEOC hasn’t updated its Covid-19 vaccine guidance for employers since December, when Donald Trump was still president. The differences between the CDC and the Labor Department, Egee says, could “slow down the entire overall recovery.”

Dozens of organizations including the National Retail Federation and the National Association of Manufacturers sent a letter to the EEOC in February demanding guidance on vaccine incentives.

During a public meeting last week, the commission raised several questions about the issue to members of the business and worker advocacy communities, including whether cash vaccine incentives would be more coercive for lower-wage workers.

The commissioners also questioned whether providing swag like T-shirts or "I'm vaccinated" stickers would pressure employees unable to get the vaccine to disclose a disability or medical condition to colleagues.

The agency confirmed in April that it would provide guidance soon; but it has yet to do so.

“That’s a big question that manufacturers have asked,” NAM’s director of labor and employment policy, Drew Schneider, said. “We’re looking forward to [the guidance] so our folks know they’re on solid legal footing.”

Some employers are already providing incentives nonetheless.

"The reality of the situation is that employers are moving ahead, absent any kind of assurances from EEOC Freedman said. "They have been doing this as as they feel they can or need to."

Eleanor Mueller contributed to this report.

Biden plan could save California high-speed rail — if state leaders can ever unite

SAN FRANCISCO — President Joe Biden's infrastructure plan could be a sudden lifeline for California's vexing high-speed rail project — if the state can get its own house in order.

Biden has given California high-speed rail leaders new hope with his trillion-dollar infusion for infrastructure and a focus on climate change and jobs. That's a marked reversal from former President Donald Trump's attempts to withdraw federal dollars from the project envisioned to run from the San Francisco Bay Area to Southern California.

Yet a partisan split in the Central Valley and a dissatisfied group of powerful Los Angeles Democrats could discourage the Biden administration from investing political capital on California's system. Its high costs and political messiness were enough to discourage a House Transportation rail subcommittee from inviting California officials to a high-speed rail hearing this week in a glaring omission.

"Nobody's going to want to jump in the middle of that fight," said Dan Richard, a former board chair of the high-speed rail authority, urging state leaders to resolve their differences before they lobby Washington.

California's ultimate ambitions are to deliver rail passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in less than three hours. Amtrak runs trains between the Bay Area and Southern California, but scheduled routes can take anywhere from nine to 12 hours and may involve a bus transfer — making them impractical for anybody without a leisurely schedule.

The state has long dreamt about a north-south train of the sort pioneered by Europe and Japan, and voters in 2008 were sold on that vision when they approved $10 billion for the project in 2008. While California has an abundance of cheap flights that connect most points in roughly an hour, state leaders have portrayed high-speed rail as an environmentally friendly alternative that avoids the hassles of navigating airports or roadways.

But as high-speed rail costs have risen and momentum has waned, state and local officials have lost faith that the project will ever come to full fruition, and many have shifted to looking out for their own communities. Even the ambitious Gov. Gavin Newsom doused hopes in his first State of the State speech in 2019 when he said there "isn't a path" to complete the full line — a stance that further fueled Washington skepticism about the project.

For now, the state plans to complete just 171 miles of track between two smaller Central Valley towns over the next nine years — a far cry from the 525 miles for the full line that voters once committed to.

Project officials know this is their moment to strike in Washington. Brian Kelly, CEO of the High-Speed Rail Authority, estimates that California's project could vie for some $70 billion in federal funding between Biden's proposed pots of money for intercity rail, "transformative" infrastructure projects and other types of competitive grants for transportation.

"I see tens of billions that are in this program that we can compete for, and candidly we're going to compete for," Kelly said.

The in-state tensions are the result of steadily rising costs, limited funding and decisions based on topography, economics and politics.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown chose to start construction in the Central Valley in order to stanch the region's economic bleeding during the Great Recession. It was also the easiest place to begin construction, with lower property values and less development, and it didn't require immediately tunneling through either of the mountain ranges that frame the valley: the Tehachapis to the south and the Pacheco Pass, which separates the Central Valley from Silicon Valley, to the north.

State lawmakers fear that high-speed rail will never have enough money to fulfill the original San Francisco-to-Los Angeles vision. The price tag more than doubled from $33 billion in 2008 to $68 billion in 2012 — and is roughly $80 billion to $100 billion now.

Between the $10 billion bond, existing federal funds and an annual flow of about $500 million from the state's cap-and-trade auction, California projects it has just enough funding to complete the 171-mile segment, at around $23 billion.

That sense of financial scarcity has prompted some to try to redirect some of the money toward regional rail in Southern California and the Bay Area. Officials plan to ask state lawmakers this month for the rest of the bond money to finish the project's first usable segment in the Central Valley. Approving that request will commit the state to the Central Valley, without a guarantee that there will be funding for the rest of the system.

"It would be hard to expect an all-out federal grant that would get us through the Pacheco tunnels, and certainly not through the Tehachapis," said Lou Thompson, a longtime rail consultant who chairs a Legislature-established peer review group examining the project. "One way or another, you have to come up with a new state matching program or you have to say, 'This still won't get us there.'"

Los Angeles lawmakers, who now control both the Senate and Assembly transportation committees, aren't quite ready to commit. They argue that more of the early spending should go toward the state's big population centers and local rail systems that will eventually link to the high-speed line. They say that by focusing on the Central Valley, the state is sapping the political appetite to support funding for the overall project.

"How do we do a project in such a way that we have the political will to finish it? Because it's going to take a lot of money," said Assemblymember Laura Friedman (D-Glendale). "We need to have a conversation about the next tranche of money and how we actually do all these things and what is the order by which we do it."

The more conservative Central Valley is also far from unified even though the project has created several thousand union jobs there. Despite bipartisan support in 2008, high-speed rail became a political football for Republicans after former President Barack Obama embraced it in his economic stimulus package. Trump stoked divisions when he seized on Newsom's retrenchment and attempted to withdraw nearly $1 billion of the $3.5 billion that it received under Obama. Central Valley Republicans like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who supported the project as a state lawmaker, are now diehard opponents.

“California Democrats and the Biden administration are fixated on a failed project that is saddling billions of dollars of debt on hardworking Californians," McCarthy said in a statement. "California High Speed Rail represents everything that is wrong with Democrat priorities that cost too much and deliver so little."

At the least, Biden's win has helped spare the project from Trump funding cuts. The new administration is expected to restore the federal funding that Trump moved to withdraw and is likely to extend a deadline to complete a usable segment by 2022.

But Biden officials have been holding the project at a rhetorical arm's length when it comes to new funding, careful to speak only in general support of high-speed rail nationally. Kelly wasn't invited to testify at this week's House hearing on high-speed rail, despite being in charge of the only publicly funded high-speed project in the country that's actually under construction.

"It's been something that President Biden is very familiar with and Secretary Buttigieg is also quite interested in, but whether it will be the cavalry coming in over the hill to rescue the California high-speed rail project is another question entirely," Thompson said. "If there is any support for high-speed rail, I'm sure California will have a solid claim on a share of it, but what that share might be and what it would be a share of, I don't think anybody knows right now."

State lawmakers hold the purse strings on the remaining $4.2 billion in state bond money, which Newsom plans to ask them to approve in next month's budget negotiations, according to the High-Speed Rail Authority's latest business plan. It's their big opportunity to shift funding from the Central Valley to the "bookends," similar to what happened in 2012 when Brown agreed to spend $1.1 billion of high-speed rail money on electrifying a commuter line in the Bay Area, remodeling Los Angeles' Union Station and elevating a segment of railroad in Los Angeles to reduce traffic.

"What is going on now with some members of the Legislature I think is old-fashioned leverage," said Rep. Jim Costa, a Fresno Democrat who has sponsored a bill (H.R. 867 (117)) that would authorize $8 billion annually for high-speed rail through 2025. "What's taking place in terms of the debate among some of the Southern California folks is really they don't see the immediate benefit to them at this point of high-speed rail, and they see money at the state level and the federal level and so they want to get money now."

Costa also wants to create an annual high-speed rail authorization similar to roads, ports, harbors and other transportation infrastructure.

Friedman said she'd like federal funding for Los Angeles rail projects ahead of the Olympics in 2028. "I would love to see the Biden administration help us complete our rail goals in Los Angeles with an eye toward the Olympics," she said. "I think we should at least have a discussion about the best way to complete the project, and it could be that the Biden infrastructure package helps make up our mind," she said.

The influx of federal funding could smooth over short-term conflicts. But whatever lump sum the project might win wouldn't likely be enough to get it through mountains that divide the Central Valley from Los Angeles and the Bay Area. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo estimated getting through Pacheco Pass would take most of Biden's $20 billion for intercity rail. "We need to connect the affordable housing in the Central Valley to all the jobs in Silicon Valley, and to do that it's going to take about $13-14 billion," he said last week.

More realistically, federal funding could help the project finish the initial Central Valley segment and complete environmental permitting along the entire route from San Francisco to Anaheim by mid-2023, which might get it to a place where private investors would be interested. But the state still projects that Central Valley service will require an operating subsidy of about $50 million per year, and the legislative analyst has warned that subsidizing service could violate the terms of the 2008 bond.

"The project is so complex, it's a political Rubik's cube," said Martha Escutia, a former Democratic state lawmaker from Los Angeles who sits on the rail authority's board. "All the pieces are twisting and turning, and it'll take a while before you get it all bingo, wham."

Twitter boots account mimicking Trump’s new blog

Twitter has suspended an account replicating posts from former President Donald Trump’s new blog, saying it violated the company’s rules against ban evasion.

Why it's a big deal: The incident shows that even after Trump's suspension, Twitter is still having to make calls about his postings in other ways.

Fake Trump gets the boot: The account profile for @DJTDesk — an abbreviation for the former president’s new “From The Desk of Donald J. Trump” web page — was taken down after tweeting posts identical to his messages on the blog, according to screenshots tweeted by NBC News and other users. The account featured branding identical to Trump's website, including the same profile picture and banner, according to the images.

Twitter and other social media platforms largely prohibit users from trying to circumvent bans by setting up alternative accounts for suspended individuals.

“As stated in our ban evasion policy, we’ll take enforcement action on accounts whose apparent intent is to replace or promote content affiliated with a suspended account,” Twitter said in a statement Thursday regarding the account.

It was not immediately clear if the account was officially linked to the former president’s team or his Save America coalition, which funds the blog. Twitter declined comment on the matter.

How we got here: Trump unveiled a new blog Tuesday that provided links for users to share his latest statements directly on Twitter, where he’s permanently banned, and Facebook, where he’s indefinitely suspended.

A Twitter spokesperson told POLITICO earlier this week that while users are generally permitted to share posts from Trump’s site onto its platform, they could still face enforcement action from the company if the posts break any of Twitter’s rules.

And accounts could face restrictions if they try to imitate Trump's banned account and their sole intent is to replace a suspended account, the spokesperson said.

Not their first go-around: After Trump’s prolific personal Twitter account @realDonaldTrump was permanently suspended by Twitter on Jan. 8, his aides sought to circumvent the ban by posting messages identical to his tweets on his campaign account and the official White House account. Twitter responded by permanently suspending the Trump campaign account and removing the White House tweets.

New Jerseyans still giving Murphy high marks for his handling of the pandemic, poll finds

Two-thirds of New Jerseyans say Gov. Phil Murphy is doing a good job handling the coronavirus outbreak, and nearly as many say the restrictions he‘s imposed to slow the spread of Covid-19 have been appropriate, according to a Monmouth University poll released Thursday.

While the 66 percent who approve of Murphy’s handling of the outbreak may be a strong number, it’s down significantly from the 79 percent who said the same thing a year ago, just after New Jersey suffered the worst of the pandemic. At the same time, 27 percent of those surveyed said Murphy has done a bad job dealing with the pandemic.

Murphy, a progressive Democrat, is up for reelection in November. Other results released Wednesday from the same poll showed his general approval rating at 57 percent. Other than California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who’s facing a recall, Murphy is the only incumbent governor on the ballot this year.

Although New Jersey has the highest coronavirus death rate in the country — much of it from early in the pandemic — 53 percent of those surveyed think the state is doing better than others in dealing with coronavirus, while 23 percent say it’s doing worse and 23 percent say it’s doing about the same.

The poll also found that majorities of New Jerseyans support the easing restrictions placed on businesses and support opening schools for full-time in-person instruction in the fall. New Jersey residents are also less likely to refuse to get the Covid-19 vaccine than the nation as a whole, according to the poll.

Overall, 58 percent of New Jersey residents say the measures Murphy took to slow the spread of coronavirus have been appropriate, while 27 percent say they went too far and 14 percent say they didn’t go far enough. Seventy-three percent said they support earlier-announced plans to loosen restrictions on outdoor gatherings while 60 percent felt the same regarding indoor gatherings.

The poll was conducted largely before Murphy announced earlier this week that he would lift indoor capacity limits for restaurants, gyms, businesses and churches, though still require social distancing.

Republicans have been critical of Murphy in recent months, arguing he has been slow to ease restrictions on businesses and schools and have gone after him over deaths in long-term care facilities.

On other issues, 63 percent of residents surveyed reported receiving at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, while 7 percent said they hope to get one soon. Fourteen percent said they want to “see how it goes” before getting the vaccine and 14 percent said they “likely will never get a vaccine.”

A Monmouth University survey from last month found 21 percent of the nation’s residents outright opposed vaccines.

Thus far, nearly 7.3 million vaccines have been administered in New Jersey and more than 3.2 million residents have been fully vaccinated. Murphy has said he wants 4.7 million people, or 70 percent of the state’s eligible population, fully vaccinated by the end of June.

The New Jersey survey did not find a significant difference in vaccine hesitancy between white residents and those from minority backgrounds, but 66 percent of whites reported getting the vaccine compared to 58 percent of people of color, suggesting a discrepancy based on access instead of attitudes.

“Looking at the differences in attitudes among New Jersey’s diverse communities, we may need to focus more on access than opposition to explain the varying vaccination rates,” Monmouth University Poll Director Patrick Murray said in a statement that accompanied the survey results.

According to the poll, 79 percent of New Jerseyans are either somewhat or very satisfied with the way the vaccine has been rolled out. At the same time, 52 percent say the pause in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has not made them less comfortable about getting inoculated while 32 percent said it made them less comfortable about that specific vaccine. Just 14 percent said the J&J pause has made them less comfortable with all of the Covid-19 vaccines.

Despite the general acceptance of the vaccine, 65 percent of the parents surveyed said they would oppose requiring it for children to attend school if the vaccine is approved for them. New Jerseyans as a whole, however, narrowly favor requiring vaccines for schoolchildren, 50 percent to 46 percent.

Fifty-three percent of residents and 57 percent of parents of children under 18 say school should be fully in-person in the fall, while 33 percent and 37 percent, respectively, want schools to operate with a hybrid model. Just 7 percent of residents and 9 percent of parents want schools to operate remote-only. Fewer than 20 New Jersey school districts are still offering remote-only learning.

The Monmouth University Polling Institute surveyed 706 New Jersey adults by telephone from April 29 to May 4. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.

Stefanik bashes Twitter after aide’s account suspended in ‘error’

Rep. Elise Stefanik blasted Twitter on Thursday after the platform briefly suspended the account of one of her aides, a move a company spokesperson later said was an error the site has since reversed.

Stefanik (R-N.Y.) used her campaign Twitter account to rail against the suspension of Karoline Leavitt, her communications director in the House, calling it an “unconstitutional overreach SILENCING our voices and freedom of speech.”

A couple of hours later, a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement that the “account was suspended in error.” It was not immediately clear how long the aide’s account had been suspended.

“This has been reversed, and the account has been reinstated. The account's followers will take 24-48 hours to fully restore,” the spokesperson said.

The company did not elaborate on what prompted the initial suspension and declined to comment on Stefanik’s remarks. After being reinstated, Leavitt called the brief suspension "another purge in their ongoing effort to silence conservatives voices!"

Stefanik also rejected Twitter’s explanation for the suspension during an appearance on Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast later Thursday morning. “They said it was a mistake, but again, it only happens to conservatives,” she said.

The action by Twitter, Stefanik added, “is a reason why we need to break up big tech” and repeal Section 230, the 1996 law which offers legal immunity to a wide range of online companies.

A timely attack against tech: The dust-up arrives as Stefanik is making a play to move up the leadership ranks in the House GOP, at a time when its leaders are rallying around former President Donald Trump’s attacks on Silicon Valley over allegations its companies are biased against conservatives.

And it comes a day after Republicans hammered Facebook’s oversight board for upholding Trump’s suspension from that platform, a move that could galvanize the party as it looks to retake control of Congress in 2022.

Stefanik has emerged as a likely successor to Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming as the No. 3 House Republican. Cheney has faced broadsides from Trump and other Republican officials since voting to impeach Trump in the wake of the deadly attack on the Capitol by his supporters on Jan. 6.

Quint Forgey contributed to this report.

DeSantis gives Fox 'exclusive' of him signing election bill

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, continuing his ongoing feud with most of the “corporate media,” on Thursday signed into law a contentious election bill during an event where only Fox News was allowed to observe.

DeSantis’s decision to sign the measure, which puts in restrictions on mail-in ballot collections and the use of drop boxes, was already well-known ahead of time. Over the last several days, the Republican governor publicly touted the measure, which the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature approved by a largely party line vote last week.

Before DeSantis approved the legislation, his staff barred other reporters from attending the West Palm Beach event that also included some of the legislators who backed the bill as well as political supporters.

One reporter, Steve Bousquet with the South Florida Sun Sentinel, tweeted that DeSantis’s newly-installed communications director, Taryn Fenske, told him that the signing was a “Fox exclusive.” Other news outlets also complained about being blocked from observing the bill signing.

DeSantis — and previous governors before him — often hold closed-door bill signings, but not as an exclusive news event for one media outlet. The decision to invite only Fox News comes as DeSantis — an ally of former President Donald Trump — continues to advance a combative strategy with the media. He recently held press conferences where he lashed out at 60 Minutes over a story it did on Florida vaccine distribution, and he frequently spars with reporters at news conferences.

“This keeps us ahead of the curve,” DeSantis said after signing the bill during a seven-minute segment on Fox & Friends. He contended that signing the bill meant that “your vote will be cast with integrity and transparency.”

DeSantis also said the new law would prohibit the mass mailing of mail-in ballots even though that was already illegal before legislators took action.

DeSantis, after he signed the bill, was caught by local television reporters outside the hotel where it took place. "It was on national TV, it wasn't secret," he said when pressed about the decision to bar other media.

Democrats reacted sharply to both the bill signing and the governor’s decision to bar other news media from observing it.

“This is the difference between @GovRonDeSantis and me,” Rep. Charlie Crist, a Democratic candidate for governor said on Twitter. “He locks out the public and caters to FOX News. When I was Governor, everyone was invited in — Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. And when I'm Governor again, this will be a Florida for all.”

Within minutes of the bill signing, an alliance of voting rights and civil rights groups announced they had filed a lawsuit in federal court in Tallahassee to block the new law. Shortly after that, the NAACP Legal and Defense Fund filed a similar lawsuit on behalf of the Florida NAACP, Disability Rights Florida and Common Cause.

The League of Women Voters of Floridan along with Black Voters Matter Fund, Florida Alliance for Retired Americans and a handful of voters filed a lawsuit that contends the newly-enacted legislation impedes “every step of the voting process in Florida.”

“The legislation has a deliberate and disproportionate impact on elderly voters, voters with disabilities, students and communities of color,” said Patricia Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. “It’s a despicable attempt by a one party ruled legislature to choose who can vote in our state and who cannot. It’s undemocratic, unconstitutional, and un-American.”

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is expected to challenge DeSantis in 2022, said at a press conference Thursday that she was directing her department's lawyers to file an amicus brief in the League of Women Voters lawsuit.

Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat, said she had only read part of the lawsuit, but said she has no doubt "there is merit behind it, this will be deemed an unconstitutional bill and a complete infringement upon people's rights."

Florida’s elections in 2020 went relative smoothly and DeSantis himself boasted about that the state had finally “vanquished the ghost” of the 2000 presidential election recount that subjected the state to international ridicule. But then the governor in late February called for many of the changes that are outlined in the bill he signed.

One of the most significant changes in the law would place a two-ballot limit on how many mail-in ballots someone could gather and turn in on behalf of the elderly or sick and disabled voters. There is an exception for immediate family members, but some Democrats predicted this would lead to older voters being less able to participate.

The measure would impose new restrictions on when drop boxes could be used and would bar outside groups from giving out grants to help local and state election officials administer elections. This was done as a response to a Chicago-based non-profit handing out millions in aid ahead of the 2020 elections. Most of the money from that non-profit came from Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan.

Despite the avalanche of criticism from Democrats and critical international coverage of Florida’s legislation as “Jim Crow 2.0,” Florida remains one of the easiest states for a registered voter in which to cast ballots. In addition to Election Day, voters have about a month to cast vote-by-mail ballots or they can cast ballots in-person for at least eight days in all counties — and for as many as 14 days in counties that elect to do so, mainly in large urban areas where Democrats congregate.

Still, the pressure for the election changes and restrictions was premised on Trump’s baseless claim that widespread and systemic voter fraud cost him his reelection. Trump carried his newly adopted home state by a bigger margin in 2020 than former President Barack Obama did in 2008.

Bruce Ritchie contributed to this report.

Pfizer, BioNTech agree to send doses to vaccinate Olympic delegations

Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech have hatched an agreement with the Olympics’ governing body to help vaccinate participants in the Tokyo games set for July.

Under the deal between the companies and the International Olympics Committee, they agreed to donate additional vaccine doses to ensure that those going to the games have access to them. Those shots will be separate from contracts already in place to secure doses for a country’s general populace and will be determined in coordination with individual countries’ Olympics organizations.

“We are inviting the athletes and participating delegations of the upcoming Olympic and Paralympic Games to lead by example and accept the vaccine where and when possible,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in a release on Thursday. “By taking the vaccine, they can send a powerful message that vaccination is not only about personal health, but also about solidarity and consideration of the wellbeing of others in their communities.”

Pfizer and BioNTech said the side deal will not meaningfully affect the global supply of its vaccine doses, but did not indicate how many doses they expect to send out as part of this agreement.

The IOC has previously said it will not mandate vaccinations to participate in this year’s Olympics, which combined with limited supply across much of the globe — particularly in less affluent countries — has raised concerns about the safety of the international athletic showcase.

The size of a country’s representation at the Olympics and Paralympics varies widely, sometimes from a single competitor to several hundred athletes in the case of large, wealthy countries like the United States. Each country typically sends along coaches, athletic trainers and others as part of their delegations.

This summer’s games, which were postponed from last year due to the pandemic, is expected to be a comparatively slimmed-down affair with the opening ceremony scheduled for July 23. (A handful of events are set to be held in the days prior to that.)

That leaves a relatively narrow window to get countries’ Olympics delegations fully vaccinated within the two-dose schedule needed for Pfizer and BioNTech’s product, which includes three weeks between the first and second shot and two weeks to reach full immunity.

The companies plan to send out the first doses under the agreement at the end of the month “to ensure participating delegations receive second doses ahead of arrivals in Tokyo,” according to the news release.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said the games are “a monumental moment of world unity and peace after a grueling year of isolation and devastation.”

The agreement comes less than a day after the Biden administration said it supports waiving patent protections for the Covid-19 vaccines as a way to expand worldwide production — a significant blow to drugmakers who have staunchly resisted encroachments on their lucrative intellectual property.

‘He was packing up his hangar’: Jenner says wealthy Californians are moving to avoid the homeless

Caitlyn Jenner, a Republican candidate for California governor, lamented on Wednesday that her wealthy friends were leaving the state in droves, recounting the story of one man who decided to pack up his private airplane hangar because he was tired of seeing homeless people.

The remarks from Jenner came in her first major media appearance since announcing her gubernatorial bid last month: a sit-down interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity, conducted in Jenner’s own Malibu-area hangar.

“My friends are leaving California,” Jenner said. “Actually, my hangar, the guy across … he was packing up his hangar. I said, ‘Where are you going?’ And he says, ‘I’m moving to Sedona, Arizona. I can’t take it anymore. I can’t walk down the streets and see the homeless.’”

“I don’t want to leave,” Jenner added. “Either I stay and fight, or I get out of here.”

Jenner’s complaints about her friends’ exodus from California were criticized by some on social media as tone-deaf and unhelpful to her developing campaign. As of Thursday morning, “Sedona” was still trending on Twitter.

The comments also seemingly undercut Republican efforts to portray Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is facing a recall election, as an elite career politician who remains out of touch with the state’s residents amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Jenner and other Republicans have particularly sought to highlight Newsom’s attendance last November at a multi-person birthday dinner at California’s upscale French Laundry restaurant, as Newsom was urging constituents to stay home and avoid congregating in groups.

In her interview with Hannity, Jenner also offered praise for former President Donald Trump, describing him as a “disrupter” who “shook the system up” and saying she was “all for the wall” Trump pledged to construct separating the U.S. and Mexico.

Over the past two weeks, however, Jenner largely eschewed public appearances after formally launching her gubernatorial campaign, provoking concerns among state Republicans who were broadly skeptical of her bid.

A notable exception to Jenner’s silence came last weekend, when she announced her opposition to female transgender athletes competing on all-girls school sports teams. “It just isn’t fair, and we have to protect girls sports in our schools,” she told TMZ.

Jenner, a socialite and reality television personality, is herself one of the most high-profile transgender Americans and a former Olympic gold medal-winning decathlete.

In a campaign video introducing herself to California voters on Monday, Jenner showed footage of her athletic achievements and transgender activism, while also flashing images of Newsom, homeless tents and a bin of discarded needles.

“California was once the envy of the world,” Jenner said in the video. “We had what everybody else wanted. The American Dream grew up here. Yet career politicians and their policies have destroyed that dream.”

She also vowed to serve as “a compassionate disrupter” for the state if elected.

Biden hits 100-day school reopening goal, but reopening difficulties persist

President Joe Biden hit his 100-day goal of reopening the majority of K-8 schools for in-person learning in March, statistics from a White House-ordered school learning census indicated on Thursday. Yet the data also underscores the administration’s myriad challenges: repairing racial disparities, reopening schools and reassuring parents that classroom learning is safe — all as the country starts looking ahead to summer learning and the fall semester.

Close to 90 percent of public K-8 schools offered hybrid or full-time in-person instruction by the end of March, the government said. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said 54 percent of K-8 schools were open in-person on a full-time basis.

“The data released today reaffirms that we reached President Biden’s goal of reopening the majority of K-8 schools ahead of schedule,” he said in a statement.

Public school K-8 students of color returned to in-person classes at higher rates between February and March, according to the latest estimates from the school reopening survey Biden commissioned. But federal data released Thursday continued to show enrollment gaps for in-person learning between white students and their peers from other racial groups.

“We are still seeing a much lower percentage of Black, Hispanic, and Asian students enrolled in full time in-person learning compared to their White counterparts,” Cardona acknowledged. “And even when offered in-person options, many Black, Hispanic, and Asian students, as well as multilingual learners and students with disabilities, are still learning fully remote.”

By the numbers: Nationwide, 58 percent of white fourth-graders were back inside public schools full time by the end of March, according to data from the Education Department’s research branch. But at least 45 percent of Black, Hispanic and Asian fourth-graders were still enrolled in remote instruction by March. Seventy-two percent of Asian eighth-graders were in remote classes by that time, along with more than half of Black and Hispanic eighth-graders — but just 24 percent of white eighth-graders.

Each of those numbers represent a notable improvement from earlier in the year, but students of color still attend remote-only classes at disproportionate rates.

“We are seeing higher percentages of students enrolled in full-time, in-person learning, though there are still gaps,” said Lynn Woodworth, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, in a statement. “Most Black, Hispanic and Asian students are still not attending school in-person at all.”

What’s next: Cardona said officials “must act with urgency and bring every resource to bear” to get more schools reopened full-time this spring and address persistent disparities.

Cheney faces the boot in Washington. Wyoming isn’t looking much better.

Rep. Liz Cheney’s colleagues are set to boot her from House GOP leadership this month. Now Republicans back in her home state of Wyoming are plotting how to remove her from Congress entirely.

There is no shortage of Republicans eager to take on Cheney in a 2022 primary since her vote to impeach President Donald Trump and her subsequent criticism of him tanked her popularity in Wyoming. But the crowded field is also a risk for the anti-Cheney forces, making it more possible for her to win with a plurality.

That might be the only path back to Washington for Cheney, barring a drastic change of fortune: Internal polling conducted for Trump’s PAC in January and, more recently, for the pro-Trump Club for Growth show a majority of Wyoming Republicans disapproving of Cheney and continuing strong support for Trump.

The collapse in support is a remarkable fall from grace for Cheney, who just last year passed on an open Senate seat in her state to remain in House leadership instead. After ascending to GOP conference chair — the same post her father once held — she was touted as a future House speaker. Now, it’s impossible to call her anything other than an underdog in her own congressional seat.

Trump and his orbit have taken a strong interest in the race, and an endorsement could help clarify the field, which already features four Republicans who have filed to run against Cheney. But more contenders are waiting on the sidelines, and Trump’s political team, according to two people familiar with the efforts, has shown early interest in recruiting a pair of Republicans who aren’t already in the race: attorney Darin Smith, who ran for the seat in 2016, and Wyoming Secretary of State Ed Buchanan.

“I think anybody who's a decent Republican is going to get behind whoever Donald Trump eventually endorses,” Smith said in an interview. “He's gonna look under every rock and look over the lay of the land, and he's going to determine who that person that he's going to get behind is.”

He said he’s been approached about entering the race and is seriously considering it. "We need somebody, for sure, that will export Wyoming's values to Washington and not the other way around,” Smith said.

Smith placed fourth in Wyoming’s Republican congressional primary in 2016, when the seat was open, and appears more likely to enter the fray than Buchanan, who would have to forgo reelection as secretary of state to challenge Cheney. The two are unlikely to both jump into the primary, and people close to Buchanan said they think he is leaning against a run.

There are two other candidates already running who have raised a significant amount of money, state legislators Chuck Gray and Anthony Bouchard, and others are interested, but the field is not settled, and there’s desire among Trump allies in Wyoming and Washington to sort out the race quickly. Besides the president’s team, the anti-tax Club for Growth is also eager to get in the race and has been vetting prospective candidates.

“We would have a desire to try to line up with the president’s endorsements and our spending and super PAC to help that candidate really make it a two-person race,” said David McIntosh, the Club for Growth's president. “If you get a half-dozen different people in the race, then whoever gets to 25, 30 percent wins. Liz Cheney could do that — she's got a ceiling at about 30 percent.”

The Club polled in the state in late April and found her favorable rating underwater by 36 points, with 52 percent of those surveyed saying they would not back Cheney regardless of who ran against her. Only 14 percent said they would support her under any circumstance.

Support from the Club and the president would arm any candidate with a powerful list of small-dollar donors and, more importantly, the most powerful endorsement a candidate could have in Wyoming. Trump carried the state with roughly 70 percent in both 2016 and 2020.

But there’s still an open question about just how much the field will coalesce after the former president weighs in. In her 2016 run, Cheney got 40 percent of the vote in a nine-way race.

Bouchard has raised some $330,000 since entering the race after Cheney’s vote to impeach Trump in January. Gray has raised less but both had $164,000 on hand at the end of March. Meanwhile, others are considering a run, including Perry Pendley, an acting director of the Bureau of Land Management during Trump’s time in office.

In an interview, Gray agreed Republicans need to unite behind one candidate. His campaign said he would consider the president's wishes but declined to say for certain whether he would get out of the race if Trump endorsed someone else.

“Wyoming Republicans are ready to rally around the most proven conservative legislator,” Gray said, touting his work on curbing abortion rights and energy issues. “My record shows that I'm that leader.”

While Cheney is not currently whipping support to beat back the challenge to her House leadership role, she still has formidable political advantages at home and will not be easy to beat. Cheney has a massive network of donors and $1.4 million in the bank. Her father, a former congressman and vice president, is still popular in the state. Former House Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan both helped raise money for her, and her donor disclosures are peppered with recognizable names, from former Bush-era Labor Secretary nominee Linda Chavez to political strategist Mary Matalin to Wal-Mart heiress Christy Walton.

While some in Wyoming still grouse that Cheney is a carpetbagger, having moved from Virginia for an aborted 2014 Senate run before winning her House seat two years later, Cheney also has a strong connection with the associations and groups that make up Wyoming’s oil and gas industry, an important sector of the state.

“Whether she's in leadership, or wherever she’s at, she has a Rolodex of contacts that are pretty impressive. And she can actually move the needle for Wyoming,” said former state Rep. Amy Edmonds, a former Cheney staffer. “She has some powerful industries behind her here in the state, and they're sticking with her.”

She will also have support from another of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in January: Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.). His leadership PAC sent a fundraising plea for Cheney this week, and the new Kinzinger-aligned super PAC is also committed to defending Cheney. A person close to the group, which was formed to aid Republicans willing to buck Trump, said its donors view Cheney’s reelection as a top priority.

And then there’s Wyoming’s election law that allows voters to change their registration on the day of the primary. There are not many Democrats in Wyoming — Joe Biden got less than 27 percent of the vote there in 2020 — but that rule would allow Democrats and independents to boost Cheney in her proxy fight with Trump, should they wish.

“There's no question that crossover takes place, and, to some degree, influences elections,” said state Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss, a Democrat.

Rothfuss said he won’t be switching his registration to back Cheney, but he suspects some family, friends and colleagues will.

“I know an awful lot of Democrats, myself included, that gained a great deal of support for her integrity due to many of her recent decisions, votes and statements over the past few years,” he said.

‘Doomsday scenario’: Lagging vaccine rates stir fears of dangerous variants

Health officials are worried that pockets of the country slow to get vaccinated against Covid-19 could turn into breeding grounds for more dangerous virus variants, mimicking the experience in South Africa and Brazil.

Vaccination rates have been falling for weeks in parts of the South and mountain West, prompting the White House to rethink its vaccination strategy to reach those reluctant or unwilling to get the shots.

Nearly 45 percent of all Americans have at least one dose compared to 33 percent of Alabamans. The rates are roughly the same in Mississippi and Louisiana and only slightly better in Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Tennessee and Wyoming, where hospitals are no longer overrun but case counts have plateaued. Officials say the virus remains a persistent enough threat to kill hundreds each day and potentially mutate into something that puts even vaccinated people at heightened risk.

Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday it is essential to quickly get vaccination rates to 70 percent in each community to cut chains of virus transmission, because "variants are a wildcard that could reverse this progress we have made and could set us back."

But with doubts growing about the ability to reach the 70 percent target, the question is whether the country’s luck curbing the pandemic will hold out. Sequencing of the virus to detect mutations may be one of the best public health tools for warding off a potential disaster. But the actual sequencing being done in the U.S. is still below ideal levels, and there are no guarantees that it can provide enough early warning that the stealthy, evolving virus won’t turn into something far more dangerous.

“Every successive transmission is an opportunity for a new variant to emerge,” said Joseph Kanter, Louisiana’s state health officer. "We have been quite fortunate that the variants that have emerged remain fairly good matches to the vaccines we have. We are not guaranteed to be so fortunate in the future.”

While all viruses mutate as they spread, the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19 has evolved relatively slowly compared to HIV and influenza. But occasionally one or more mutations — or random changes — will produce a new variant that behaves differently than existing strains of the virus. The huge number of Covid cases worldwide has fueled numerous "variants of concern," so named because they appear to be more transmissible, more virulent or render vaccines less effective.

The highly contagious variant B.1.1.7, first identified in the U.K, is now the dominant strain in the U.S. and has been blamed for rising hospitalizations among younger people. Variants that originated in hard-hit places like New York, California and India have also been identified.

“Every time there is a new variant, there is a nervous question we ask: 'Is this the doomsday scenario?'" said Shereef Elnahal, CEO of University Hospital in Newark, N.J., and a former state health commissioner.

The U.S. to date has been fortunate that all three vaccines authorized for use appear to work relatively well against the known variants, even though the one first identified in South Africa has posed a challenge for some other shots in use elsewhere or still under development.

Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, told POLITICO Wednesday that the risk of dangerous variants may already be diminished because of the recent pace of vaccinations.

“If an overwhelming portion of the population is vaccinated, it’s unlikely you’ll see the kind of surge like we saw in January,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to get to that end game.”

The states struggling the most to vaccinate are the same ones that have a host of poor public health outcomes, particularly in rural communities. Local and state officials point to conservative-leaning populations often skeptical of government, as well as spotty health infrastructure that leaves lower-income residents struggling to access a medical provider. Mississippi state health officer Thomas Dobbs last week said many rural residents are unaccustomed to seeking care until they are sick, and that it’s going to take more than a few public service announcements to change the culture.

In Alabama, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, cases have increased slightly over the last month, concerning public health officials who fear it’s only a matter of time before a variant of concern emerges.

“It’s a very real threat,” said Jeanne Marrazzo, director of the infectious disease division at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. “If you have a population that is not well vaccinated and you combine that with a lot of activity likely to spread the virus — where things could take off.”

The Biden administration is still grappling with how to address these pockets of the country with stubbornly high Covid caseloads and low vaccine uptake. During the recent coronavirus spike in Michigan, federal personnel helped with sequencing, testing, tracing and offered more therapeutics in an effort to quell the worst outbreak in the country. The CDC is spending $3 billion to help local officials expand their vaccine programs and, in March, the federal health department sent $250 million to states so they could partner with community organizations to get out the message that the vaccines are safe and effective.

The government is also working to significantly increase sequencing capacity in the coming months with the infusion of $1.7 billion for variant surveillance and response measures included in March’s Covid relief package. The money will help the CDC, state labs and academic researchers develop new ways to sequence the virus and better share information on where and how variants are spreading.

“Our biggest threat to progress would be a variant that was capable of eluding the therapeutics and vaccines that we currently have,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the lead author of the funding provision. “That's why I feel like we have to be so vigilant.”

For now, though, public health officials have been reluctant to mandate the vaccine or set up any kind of government passport system to verify a person's vaccination status. Instead, they’re stressing that the country break down vaccine resistance incrementally and not resign itself to pockets of unvaccinated Americans where Covid spreads.

“This laissez-faire attitude is not the right one,” said Oscar Alleyne, chief of programs at the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

Laws banning transgender student athletes splinter GOP

Republicans saw a ready-made wedge issue to rally the GOP’s base when, soon after Joe Biden took office, he moved to expand protections for transgender people, including in school sports.

The president and his Democratic allies, conservatives said, were ruining women’s athletics, and Republican lawmakers across the country advanced a raft of bills designed to keep transgender women and girls from playing on female teams.

Yet what once promised to be a galvanizing force for the Republican Party ahead of the midterm elections and 2024 has instead devolved into a source of division within the GOP, hobbling one potential presidential contender — Kristi Noem — and pitting other Republican governors against lawmakers of their own party.

First Utah’s Republican governor, Spencer Cox, bucked the GOP’s conservative base, declaring in February that he wouldn’t sign a bill banning transgender women and girls from playing female sports. Then Noem, the South Dakota governor, waffled on transgender legislation in her state, infuriating conservatives. In late April, the Republican governor of neighboring North Dakota, Doug Burgum, vetoed a similar bill.

Most recently, Caitlyn Jenner, a California Republican who announced her bid for governor last month, voiced support for the bans. The former Olympic gold medalist, who came out as transgender in 2015, told TMZ that banning transgender women and girls from competitive sports was "a question of fairness."

Far from a unifying new fixture in the GOP’s culture wars, the question of how to treat transgender student athletes is instead inflaming rifts within the party — and quickly becoming a litmus test for Republicans who aspire to higher office.

“For those who dream about a 2024 future, starting with Kristi Noem,” said Bill McCoshen, a Wisconsin-based Republican strategist, “you don’t want to be in a position to be against your own party, which all of those governors have done so far.”

He said: “It will help certain voters decide who the conservatives are in the race.”

The crush of legislation advanced by Republicans in states throughout the country blocking transgender youths from joining sports teams that match their gender identity has been extraordinary. Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama and West Virginia have all passed such bans this year. Meanwhile, several other bills in states with Republican-dominated legislatures and GOP governors are moving toward passage. Bills in states where Republicans have a government trifecta — Florida, Montana, Oklahoma and Texas — have already cleared at least one chamber, though efforts in Texas appear to be headed for defeat.

The Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ advocacy group, is tracking at least 66 state bills that restrict transgender youths’ access to sports teams, part of a wave of legislation that advocates say has been introduced and, in some cases, adopted with unprecedented speed.

“This is one of the worst — maybe the worst — state legislative sessions we’ve had for transgender people,” said Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, deputy executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.

The issue has made unlikely allies of some women's advocacy groups and social conservatives, who have jointly pushed states to adopt laws restricting participation to athletes assigned female at birth. Though advocates have denied accusations that the state bills are a coordinated effort, groups like the Alliance for Defending Freedom have circulated principles they believe lawmakers should adopt.

LGBTQ advocacy groups, including the ACLU, have responded by recruiting transgender youth and their families to speak at press conferences and testify in state capitals, aiming to highlight for both lawmakers — and the public — that these bills ultimately ostracize real students.

“They’ve had no compunction in putting trans youth and their well being front and center in order to try to score political points,” said Cathryn Oakley, state legislative director at the Human Rights Campaign. “When people understand what has happened, they are going to respond very negatively, and the folks who have thought that this was a winning political strategy are very quickly going to learn that they were wrong.”

For proponents of the bills, the expectation was that the dual focus on transgender people and women’s sports would not only rally the conservative base, but also appeal to suburban women who fled the Republican Party during the Trump era.

In late February, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, former President Donald Trump warned attendees that Democratic policies to protect transgender people from discrimination could “destroy” women’s sports. Potential 2024 candidates like Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) echoed that rhetoric during a Judiciary Committee hearing on the Equality Act in March. Cruz argued that the federal legislation, if passed, would effectively eliminate girls sports.

In an interview shortly before Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed into law a transgender sports ban in March, Republican state Attorney General Leslie Rutledge told POLITICO the focus was maintaining a fair and level playing field for girls. But she also nodded to a political calculation.

“For decades, we have talked about how the liberal left does not view women as anything other than a voting bloc, and they treat women as single-issue voters,” Rutledge said. “Well, now, as it turns out, it’s actually Republicans who have … been supporting women and their rights, and this particular issue highlights that.”

The conservative group Heritage Action for America pointed to Biden’s executive order preventing discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation as a rallying force against transgender girls competing in girls sports. In 2019, the group conducted a poll on a variety of social issues, including transgender athletes. The group’s survey found that 62 percent of Americans opposed transgender girls being permitted to play high school and amateur sports on girls teams.

“We really go where the movement is, so it’s more about what are the American people talking about, what do they care about, what are they engaged in?” said Jessica Anderson, executive director of Heritage Action. “I don’t think we should be afraid to tackle and discuss complex issues that are about civil society and that reflect the biology of a girl and the biology of a boy. Conservatives shouldn’t run away from that.”

'You guys did a bad job'

But even among Republicans, public polling is far more mixed, with one recent measure finding that while Republican voters overwhelmingly say transgender students should not be allowed to play on teams that match their gender identity, they do not support legislation enforcing a ban.

In addition, Republican governors have come under pressure from corporate America and the NCAA not to enact discriminatory bills. Noem, who issued a partial veto of a transgender sports ban before signing weaker executive measures, told Fox News’ Tucker Carlson under blistering questioning last month that she feared the NCAA would “bully” South Dakota. She even suggested the NCAA would pull tournaments from the state if a ban was enacted.

When Carlson accused Noem of “caving” to the NCAA, she said: “We’re a small state, Tucker. We’ve had to fight hard to get any tournaments to come to South Dakota.”

Her concerns were not empty. In an April 1 letter to HRC President Alphonso David, NCAA President Mark Emmert expressed concern over “the numerous bills that have been filed across our country related to sport participation.”

“[T]his legislation is harmful to transgender student-athletes and conflicts with the NCAA’s core values of inclusivity, respect and the equitable treatment of all individuals,” Emmert wrote. “The NCAA continues to closely monitor and assess state bills and federal guidelines that impact student-athlete participation.”

Still, Noem came under fire from conservatives who accused her of both going back on her word and abusing her power as governor. Headlining a fundraiser for the Kansas Republican Party last month, she was compelled to defend her position to Republican activists. And she is still suffering for her position in her home state. South Dakota state Rep. Rhonda Milstead, who sponsored the bill that cleared the legislature, said she was shocked Noem sent it back with recommended changes.

Indeed, Noem's partial veto was a walkback from her earlier stance. On International Women’s Day, March 8, Noem tweeted that her state was celebrating “by defending women’s sports!” “I’m excited to sign this bill very soon,” she wrote of Milstead’s bill after it cleared the state Senate. But then she partially vetoed the bill and asked lawmakers to exclude collegiate sports for fear of angering the NCAA.

“It’s disappointing that somebody who was so excited to sign something would come back and say that it was poorly written,” said Milstead, who insisted the bill was well vetted and months in the making.

Milstead said Noem didn’t participate in any discussions when lawmakers reached out on the front end before the bill was introduced. And her veto, Milstead added, sent the message to the legislature that “you guys did a bad job, but I can do a better job.”

“Style and form is your punctuation, your grammar, maybe a code change,” Milstead said, explaining the governor’s veto. “It’s not content. It’s overreach on the part of the executive branch.”

Instead, Noem signed two executive orders in March in both K-12 and college athletics ordering that “only females, based on their biological sex, … shall participate in any girls’ or women’s athletic event.” In a statement, Noem suggested her executive actions were a temporary fix, noting she would work with Republican leaders to schedule a special legislative session to tackle this issue and others.

To some traditionalist Republicans, the entire fight has, if not self-injurious, been a waste of time.

“It’s just silly,” said Sean Walsh, a Republican strategist who worked in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush White Houses. “Of the great political issues and great outrages of our time, this one just doesn’t hit the meter, you know?”

With all of the other issues that Republicans could be talking about, he said: “I just don’t see the entire world clamoring over transgender athletes in sports … I just think it’s a lot of time and effort for not really much of an issue.”

'It's a tragedy'

Supporters of the legislative push to restrict teams based on sex often point to a highly charged legal battle in Connecticut, where three high school runners sued the state last year for allowing transgender athletes to compete based on their gender identity. The student athletes argued they were denied titles and athletic opportunities as a result, though one of the runners subsequently clinched a state title and two now run for college teams.

Last year, Utah became the first state to pass a law restricting transgender women and girls from participating in women's sports. The law has since been tied up in legal battle that could have repercussions for those states passing bans of their own.

The Connecticut case was spearheaded by the Alliance for Defending Freedom, a conservative advocacy group that has been pressing for states to pass bills restricting transgender athletes. Since then, ADF has advocated for states to adopt legislation that divides teams from kindergarten through college based on sex assigned at birth and provides athletes with legal recourse if schools impose other policies, said senior counsel Matt Sharp.

ADF emphasizes those points when legislators ask for input on their legislation or when it's asked to testify at hearings around the country, Sharp said.

“There's just a real desire among a lot of legislators to take just very meaningful, but common sense, steps to preserve female sports while still allowing students to fully compete,” Sharp said. “Not trying to deprive opportunities for anyone, but really preserving those important, vital opportunities for female athletes.”

But in the sports world, some people wish the Republican Party would stop politicizing the issue altogether.

The Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, an organization founded by former athletes and sports administrators, advocates for finding a middle ground that preserves female sports without excluding transgender athletes. The group argues for allowing youth to play on teams that match their gender identity before puberty and, in later years, imposing rules that account for physiological advantages to being born male.

“I hate to say this: I really think sport is being used, in a way, as a wedge,” said Donna de Varona, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who co-founded the group. De Varona said LGBTQ advocates are too willing to scrap decades of progress in women’s sports, while conservative groups have latched onto the issue to stifle transgender equality.

“It’s a tragedy, what’s happening,” de Varona continued. “And we foresaw it and that’s why we wanted the middle ground. I think everybody wins if during the passage of the Equality Act, which is what this is all about, we carve out language to protect the intent of Title IX.”

David Siders contributed to this report.

Giuliani cuts down his entourage

Rudy Giuliani, the former personal lawyer for ex-president Donald Trump, has reduced the size of his personal entourage, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Giuliani laid off several staffers and independent contractors in the last few weeks, according to one of the people, who said the ousted employees had been told that the former New York mayor was seeking to cut costs.

Giuliani has enlisted a part-time driver, Eric Ryan, the son of his friend Maria Ryan, according to one of the people familiar with the matter. But he no longer moves around Manhattan with the full complement of as many as five people he has kept around him in recent years. (Ryan didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

The news of Giuliani’s shrinking entourage comes after years of stories suggesting he might be having financial difficulties — or is at least seeking creative ways to make money as he manages his growing legal woes.

The Trump confidant, recently raided by the FBI as he faces an intensifying criminal probe, has reportedly faced a cash crunch before, with multiple divorces said to be taking a toll on his balance sheet. In October 2019, the Washington Post reported that Giuliani was giving his ex-wife Judith $42,000 a month in alimony; a sum amounting to more than half a million dollars a year. The Post also reported that Giuliani had made between $7 and $9 million in both 2016 and 2017.

That same month, Giuliani accidentally left a voicemail for a reporter in which he said, “The problem is we need some money.”

The remark, while cryptic, nonetheless reinforced the idea that the high-flying Giuliani — a frequent habitué of pricey outlets like the Trump International Hotel in D.C., where room rates can run in the high hundreds of dollars a night and a spoonful of wine can cost up to $140, and the Grand Havana Room, a members-only cigar bar in New York — was in need of cash. A lawyer for Giuliani’s wife also alleged in court documents that he dropped tens of thousands of dollars on a private jet subscription service, $40,000 for a friend’s son’s dental work, $7,000 on fountain pens and $12,000 on cigars.

Since leaving public office, Giuliani’s sources of income have been somewhat opaque. He has served as an attorney for Greenberg Traurig, a powerhouse international law firm headquartered in New York. In 2018, he left the firm amid a dispute over his public defense of Trump, according to the New York Times.

Giuliani has also done security and legal consulting for numerous entities, including foreign governments like Qatar and other high-profile clients ranging from Iranian opposition group MEK to a Ukrainian oligarch and a Turkish-Iranian gold trader wanted by the U.S. government.

In mid-November of last year, the New York Times reported that Giuliani had demanded $20,000 a day in legal fees in exchange for representing the ex-president as he contested the 2020 election. Though Giuliani had denied it, according to the Washington Post, Trump reportedly balked at the figure and told aides not to pay it. Giuliani allies, led by his son Andrew, also made a push this week to get Trump to pay for Giuliani’s mounting legal fees.

A lawyer for Giuliani declined to comment. Giuliani didn’t respond to requests for comment, and a spokesperson didn’t provide a comment.

Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.