Politico

Biden eyes New Mexico governor, Obama surgeon general for health secretary


New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy have emerged as top contenders to be President-elect Joe Biden’s health secretary, with Hispanic advocacy groups making a strong push for Lujan Grisham.

The nomination of Lujan Grisham, 61, would continue a tradition of presidents tapping governors to lead the sprawling Department of Health and Human Services, and make her the first Latina ever nominated for the post. Murthy, a 43-year-old Yale-educated internist who’s grown close to Biden as a top adviser on the coronavirus pandemic, would be the first nominee of Indian descent for the department’s top job.

Either would face potentially tough confirmation hearings as the Biden administration begins coordinating one of the largest immunization programs in history — and confronts the economic fallout of a pandemic that’s left tens of millions of people out of work and uninsured. The next secretary will play a key role in managing the Covid-19 response, and convincing a fatigued and distrustful public to buy into the tough public health measures needed to suppress the virus.

“It’s Covid 24/7 now,” said Don Berwick, a former Obama administration Medicare and Medicaid chief. “That’s got to be dealt with.”

Biden has not yet made a final choice, according to three Democrats familiar with the selection process, and an announcement is unlikely to come until Monday at the earliest. The deliberations could still circle back to others in a field of as many as a half-dozen finalists, like Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, former Louisiana health secretary Rebekah Gee and North Carolina health secretary Mandy Cohen.

But Lujan Grisham and Murthy are widely viewed as leading candidates, said more than a half-dozen people on or close to the transition, with each boasting a distinct mix of political experience, health policy chops and connections dating back to the Obama years.

A former Democratic congresswoman who currently co-chairs Biden’s transition, Lujan Grisham has gotten a boost in recent weeks from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which is lobbying the Biden team to put her atop HHS.

“When we think about someone who’s a manager and a leader who knows these issues, Michelle is top of the list,” said California Democratic Rep. Pete Aguilar, who worked closely with Lujan Grisham during her three terms in the House.

Influential Latino advocacy groups have also weighed in on her behalf, pointing in particular to her state leadership during the pandemic.


“She’s seen directly the impact of Covid-19 on her state and managed the response — and she’s had to do a lot because there hasn’t been a lot of federal guidance,” said UnidosUS President Janet Murguia, a former Clinton White House official. “She knows what it’s like to lead in this space and is a very credible candidate.”

Murthy, meanwhile, enjoys support from within the broad base of Obama administration alumni who have quickly populated the Biden transition. A health adviser to Biden during the campaign, he’s helped lead the incoming administration’s pandemic planning as co-chair of Biden’s Covid-19 advisory board.

If not picked to run HHS, Murthy is likely to be appointed to another prominent health post in the administration, several people close to the transition said — potentially as part of the White House’s Covid-19 response team.

A spokesperson for the Biden transition declined to comment. Lujan Grisham’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Earlier this week, she told reporters she hasn’t talked to the Biden team about roles in the incoming administration.

The emergence of the two as top HHS candidates reflects the outsized influence that the pandemic is playing in Biden’s thinking, as he prepares to take office amid deep public health and economic crises.

The incoming administration is bracing for a frenetic first several months spent trying to curb the pandemic and organize a large-scale vaccination campaign — a massive logistical challenge that will require close coordination across the federal government.

In Lujan Grisham, Democrats argue the Biden team would get a competent and steady leader with extensive management experience running New Mexico’s health agency and then the state as a whole. She has also been one of the most aggressive governors in combating Covid-19, declaring a statewide emergency on the same day New Mexico confirmed its first positive case and closing schools soon after.


More recently, she ordered a two-week lockdown after a 200 percent jump in hospitalizations that put the state at what she called a “breaking point.” It’s the kind of action that could face intense scrutiny from Republicans if she’s nominated — but one allies tout as a sign of decisiveness in a state that requires balancing all manner of political and cultural considerations.

“This pandemic puts a premium on someone who can bring people together and be a good manager,” Aguilar said. “She has a very diverse population; urban areas, very rural areas and Native American tribal lands. The complexity of that isn’t lost on those of us outside the state.”

The Biden team tasked with filling health positions has been similarly drawn to governors and former governors in seeking candidates, said one person close to the president-elect, given state leaders’ experience managing large bureaucracies and their skills as both public messengers and political operators. Past HHS secretaries who were governors include Kathleen Sebelius, Mike Leavitt and Tommy Thompson.

And Lujan Grisham in particular is seen among some Biden officials as a long-term prospect who could advance a broader policy agenda beyond the pandemic response. While running for governor in 2018, Lujan Grisham called for creating a program that would allow people to buy into Medicaid. The effort never got off the ground amid concerns about its cost, but the concept aligns with Biden’s core proposal for a public insurance option at the federal level.

“On paper, she has a lot of credentials in her favor,” said one Democrat tracking the deliberations, adding that Lujan Grisham also has pre-existing relationships on Capitol Hill. “Her reputation is that she’s pretty pragmatic and was able to work across the different facets of the different caucuses in the House.”

Still, her Senate confirmation would not be guaranteed — a key consideration for an administration that could need Republican help to install one of the leaders of its pandemic response. As a House lawmaker, Lujan Grisham profited when her former consulting group received a contract to run New Mexico’s high-risk insurance pool — even after Obamacare largely eliminated the coverage model. The arrangement has since prompted conflict of interest accusations.

And despite her role atop the transition, Lujan Grisham does not have the kind of close relationship with Biden or strong ties to the Obama White House shared by nearly all of Biden’s high-level picks to date — including Murthy.



The former Obama administration surgeon general was chosen to speak at the Democratic National Convention in August, and has become a top health adviser to Biden since then, briefing him regularly on the pandemic and helping lead the Covid-19 advisory board designed to oversee the transition work on the crisis response.

Biden has also dispatched Murthy to brief congressional Democrats on the pandemic in recent weeks, a role that some close to the transition pointed to as a sign of Murthy’s elevated status within the incoming administration.

A longtime public health advocate who first rose to prominence as co-founder of a pro-Obama doctors group during the 2008 presidential campaign, Murthy was appointed the nation’s top doctor in 2014, where he played an outspoken role in efforts to stem the opioid crisis and tackle a broad array of pressing public health issues.

If chosen as HHS secretary, it would signal a major recommitment to public health issues that have often been drowned out by divisive debates over policies like Obamacare — leaving the nation’s public health infrastructure underfunded and susceptible to disasters like Covid-19. Murthy has also written extensively about the health impact of loneliness, a focus that fits with Biden’s focus on tackling the mental health consequences of the pandemic.

Yet Murthy has little managerial experience — a drawback when it comes to running department with a trillion-dollar budget and 80,000 employees.

And he has already struggled through one confirmation process, facing fierce resistance over his support for contraception access and declaration of gun violence as a public health threat. That standoff lasted for more than a year — a delay that the Biden administration can ill afford this time around, as it races to confront the growing Covid-19 crisis.

Still, some officials contended that views on gun violence as a health issue have since changed — and that Biden’s affinity for Murthy could ultimately still win out.

“If you look at the president-elect’s other personnel announcements, it’s clear that he cares a lot about having people he knows and trusts, who have a pre-existing relationship with him,” one person working with the transition told POLITICO. “Obviously, Vivek is one of them.”


‘Fantasy world’: Pompeo knocks Biden administration picks as out of touch on foreign policy


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday criticized members of President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration, saying they’ve lived in a “fantasy world” and “led from behind.”

“I know some of these folks, they took a very different view, they lived in a bit of a fantasy world,” Pompeo said in an interview with Fox News anchor Bret Baier. “They led from behind, they appeased. I hope they will choose a different course.”

Biden’s picks so far for his national security and foreign policy teams are mostly people who held senior positions in the Obama administration. The president-elect selected Antony Blinken, one of his longtime advisers who also held senior foreign policy posts during the Obama years, as his secretary of State.

Pompeo said on Tuesday that he had not spoken with Blinken since Biden announced his selection. Pompeo also acknowledged the General Services Administration’s Monday declaration of Biden as the apparent winner of the 2020 presidential election.

“Today we began the process to see what GSA’s decision was and we’ll do everything that’s required by law,” he said. “We’ll make this work.”

The GSA’s acknowledgment of Biden will allow him to access federal transition funds and contact federal agencies to plan staffing. President Donald Trump, however, has still not conceded the election.

Pompeo specifically criticized former Obama administration officials as having “led from behind” in their relations with Iran, which he said the U.S. had been “funneling tens of billions of dollars into” — giving them “the things that help you build out a nuclear weapons program” — until the Trump administration took over four years ago.

“The previous administration had chosen to give them an awful lot of that thing, money. We’ve chosen to deny them,” he said.

Pompeo also responded to a Tuesday statement from Linda Thomas-Greenfield — an assistant secretary of State during the Obama administration whom Biden will nominate as ambassador to the United Nations. Thomas-Greenfield declared that “multilateralism” and “diplomacy are back.” Pompeo countered her statement, saying the Trump administration had developed “coalitions that actually deliver real results and reflect the reality on the ground.”

“I couldn’t tell exactly from her statement, but multilateralism for the sake of hanging out with your buddies at a cool cocktail party?” Pompeo said. “That’s not in the best interest of the United States of America.”

The Biden transition team did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the secretary of State’s criticism.

Trump carries on a fight everyone else is abandoning


President Donald Trump’s campaign has gone quiet. Some aides are leaving their posts for the holidays.

It has been days since Trump’s aides held a briefing for the press on its dwindling legal efforts to overturn the election, replaced by Rudy Giuliani’s Twitter feed and YouTube videos. The campaign’s communications director, Tim Murtaugh, hasn’t tweeted himself for almost a week. A senior campaign official described the campaign manager, Bill Stepien, as “MIA.”

“Nobody is really doing anything inside the campaign,” said the senior campaign official.

But back in Washington, Trump is clinging to the White House, attending to the bare minimum of presidential duties and improbably boasting on Twitter that he “will soon prevail!” in the already-settled presidential election.

In other words, he’s soldiering on — publicly, at least.

Almost everyone else is going home.

“It’s a pretty small crew,” said one adviser to the campaign.

And yet, Trump’s threadbare operation is forging ahead with a legal fight led by Giuliani that few advisers believe has any chance. It’s a fight that is creating rifts within the Republican Party, dividing the Trump true believers from the majority of the GOP establishment. And it is also setting the early narrative of Trump’s next act — whether it’s as a Twitter pundit or political leader.

“The window is shutting,” said Stephen Moore, an informal Trump economic adviser. “There’s a really good chance he runs in 2024, but if he wants to do that, then he doesn’t want to diminish his stature by playing the sore loser.”

Each day, Trump and his campaign are suffering fresh blows to their efforts to overturn the election. On Tuesday, Pennsylvania certified its presidential election results and the White House confirmed President-elect Joe Biden would soon start receiving the president’s daily intelligence briefing, one day after the General Services Administration finally released government funds for Biden’s transition.

On Capitol Hill, senators from Trump-friendly states like West Virginia, Tennessee and Louisiana are starting to call on the president to begin the transition process and consider his legacy.

Even within the White House, chief of staff Mark Meadows on Monday night instructed staff in an email to cooperate with the transition efforts. He included a rallying cry in the note: “Our work here is not done.”

“I am confident that each of you will represent and preserve the Executive Office of the President as we continue on,” Meadows wrote.

Looming over all of it is Dec. 14, when the Electoral College meets to certify Biden’s victory.

“He is going to put the protocols in place,” said Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel during an appearance on Fox News. “But he is not by any means giving up this fight.”



At his rare public appearances, the president has not responded to shouted questions from the press about whether he will concede. In total, he has avoided taking questions from the press for 21 days, a remarkably long stretch for a president who is not camera shy. But he has gone off on Twitter, and on Tuesday morning shared a string of bizarre tweets about election fraud from actors Randy Quaid and James Woods, both prominent Trump boosters on Twitter. Hours later he startled aides when he decided on just a few minutes notice to appear in the press briefing room to congratulate the country on the stock market’s performance, with Vice President Mike Pence at his side.

Outside of Twitter, Trump has not commented about the election in days, but a Republican close to the White House said the president reached a tipping point on Monday after he saw the response to a press conference his legal team held last week.

People at the campaign and in top Republican circles tried to distance themselves from the conspiracy theory-laden event, describing it as a “circus” and “national embarrassment.” The president was told by advisers he doesn’t have to concede, but he should keep his own legacy in mind and start the transition.

“The president was going to have to come to terms with what happened and throw a tantrum,” said a top Republican official. “It took a little longer than people first thought.”

Even some of Trump’s favorite conservative media hosts are reaching the same conclusion.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson called out Sidney Powell, who was cut off from Trump’s legal team on Sunday, for refusing to provide evidence to back up her sweeping claims of election fraud. Conservative radio titan Rush Limbaugh blamed the campaign for hyping “blockbuster stuff” about election fraud but not backing it up. “It’s not good,” Limbaugh said, encouraging the president to hold rallies in support of Republicans in the Senate runoff races in Georgia.

“Unless the legal situation changes in a dramatic and unlikely manner, Joe Biden will be inaugurated on 20 January,” said Fox News host Laura Ingraham.

A senior campaign adviser argued that the president’s legal team is now just trying to publicly lay the groundwork for a “fairer” election in 2022 and 2024.

“They’re trying to figure out how the campaign can set this up for the future beyond 2020,” the adviser said. “We want to be focused on the future so we can hit the ground running.”

The president has also had one foot publicly in the fight, and the other foot privately out the door. Behind the scenes, Trump has mused about his future after the White House, which has included everything from building up a Trump political arm, to investing in a media company, to a potential run in the next presidential election.

Some other members of the Trump family are also waxing nostalgic about the last four years. On Instagram, the president’s daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump posted old photos of her family, including husband Jared Kushner, visiting different sites across Washington, D.C., and at holiday events.

“This time of year always brings back wonderful memories at the White House,” she posted.

The couple is expected to leave Washington next year.

Gabby Orr and Nancy Cook contributed to this report.


Biden tamps down idea of Sanders or Warren in administration


President-elect Joe Biden said on Tuesday he wanted to keep some of his former progressive rivals in the Senate, further tempering hopes of Sens. Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren joining his administration.

Speaking with NBC News’ Lester Holt, Biden said that the two former Democratic presidential candidates were vital to advancing his progressive agenda in Congress and that his administration already had “significant representation among progressives.” Still, he said, “there’s nothing really off the table.”

“Taking someone out of the Senate, taking someone out of the House, particularly a person of consequence, is a really difficult decision that would have to be made,” Biden said. “I have a very ambitious, very progressive agenda. And it’s going to take really strong leaders in the House and Senate to get it done.”

Biden has unveiled his picks for key administration posts over the last few days — a list marked by decades of experience and Ivy League credentials. He picked former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen as his Treasury secretary — a post those close to Warren said she’d hoped for. Other administration picks include Ron Klain for chief of staff, Tony Blinken as secretary of State and Jake Sullivan as national security adviser.

Biden did, however, acknowledge that he was open to appointing Republicans to his administration as a sign of unifying the country. His transition team had been vetting Republican candidates for cabinet spots in the lead-up to Election Day.

During his Tuesday interview, Biden also spurned the recent criticisms that he was trying to recreate an Obama White House by appointing seasoned Washington figures. President Donald Trump has completely transformed the political landscape, Biden said, giving his soon-to-be administration a whole new slate of challenges.

“This is not a third Obama term, because we face a totally different world than we faced in the Obama-Biden administration,” the president-elect said.

Biden also said he and Trump had not yet met, though he suggested that Klain and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows might have spoken. Though the Trump administration formally kicked off the presidential transition this week, Trump has continued to refuse to concede the election, tweeting out conspiracy theories of election fraud.

Biden keeps the peace with first Cabinet picks


Progressives don’t love Joe Biden’s first round of Cabinet picks. But they can live with them.

Antony Blinken? A “solid choice” for secretary of State, according to Faiz Shakir, Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign manager.

Alexandra Rojas, executive director of the left-wing group Justice Democrats, said she is “encouraged” that Biden tapped John Kerry as his international climate czar. Elizabeth Warren said Janet Yellen, Biden’s expected nominee for Treasury secretary, would be “outstanding.”

Though there are many positions left to fill, Biden’s Cabinet announcements so far fit a pattern: The former vice president has chosen people for top positions who haven’t sparked bitter or protracted fights with the left — without giving progressives any major wins. None of Biden’s nods have been wildly off the mark to the left flank of the Democratic Party. And the president-elect has also selected leaders who, despite being moderate, have spent time building relationships with progressives.

“It could have been a lot worse,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive strategist who advised incoming left-wing Rep. Jamaal Bowman’s campaign, adding that things could still change. “He’s not picking any lefties. He’s just picking people who haven’t alienated the left, who are listening.”

Several progressive elected officials, aides and activists have, in turn, offered cautious praise of Biden during the transition period and avoided serious battles with him so far. They stressed, however, that it is early in the process and things could certainly shift, especially during confirmation hearings. Still, their posture toward Biden’s Cabinet selections to date stands out when compared with the no-holds-barred brawl between moderate and left-wing Democrats in Congress that has been raging since Election Day.

Progressives said that for many of Biden’s picks, there’s been a worse option that they’re grateful he didn’t choose. In many of those cases, they lobbied his team to keep those people out.



For Treasury, the fear was that he might go with Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a former venture capitalist who is disliked by labor unions because she cut pensions. For secretary of State, Blinken is viewed on the left as preferable to moderate Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a longtime Biden ally. For his chief of staff, they implored Biden to pick his eventual choice, Ron Klain, who played a role in Biden’s outreach to progressives this year, over Steve Ricchetti, a former lobbyist.

“Progressives are breathing a little bit of a sigh of relief because the wing of the party that Joe Biden comes from is not getting everything they want here,” said Waleed Shahid, spokesperson for the Justice Democrats, which recruited Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to run for Congress. “Meaning The Third Way, conservative wing of the party.”

Progressive immigrant rights groups such as United We Dream tepidly welcomed the appointment of Alejandro Mayorkas to head Homeland Security, who as the first Latino to potentially lead the department could bring a “different tone.”

But “Biden and Mr. Mayorkas were part of the team that unfortunately oversaw millions of deportations,” said Greisa Martinez Rosas, executive director of United We Dream. “And we see our role as holding everyone accountable to ensure that does not happen again.”

Some even go beyond faint approval. Liberals closely aligned with the Warren wing of the progressive movement said there’s a lot to be happy about in Biden’s early selections.

“The biggest turning point was actually the selection of Ron Klain, which we saw as extremely positive news,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “That sent a broader signal that when there are multiple options on the table for Biden, and one of them is most acceptable to progressives that he will go in that direction, keeping peace in the land.”

Some progressives, however, criticize left-wing groups for going too far in applauding Biden’s safe choices.

“I don’t want to exaggerate. John Kerry’s fine. [But] this need to pretend that these milquetoast nominees with mixed records are great progressive heroes is pretty pathetic,” said David Sirota, Sanders’ former speechwriter. “What I think we need right now are advocacy groups and activists and journalists to just be honest about who these nominees are.”

Part of Biden’s successful navigation so far seems to stem from his own strength in nurturing political relationships and his decision to tap personnel with similar attributes. Biden gets along with Sanders and Warren, both of whom have sought top jobs in the administration. Climate activists said Kerry worked well with them on policy task forces that Biden formed with Sanders after the primary. Likewise, Matt Duss, Sanders’ foreign policy adviser, said Blinken helped in the left’s attempt to end U.S. support for the war in Yemen, which meant “a lot.”

“During the campaign, Tony and his team made a point to engage regularly with progressive groups as part of Biden’s broader effort to reach out to the left and unify the party,” said Duss. “There’s no doubt it helped them win, and continuing to do it now will help them govern.”

Progressives said another reason Biden likely went with what they see as broadly acceptable picks — not only to them, but also to moderates and even some conservatives — is because of the close divide in Congress. Democrats hold a slim majority in the House and, at best, would face the same situation in the Senate if the party wins two runoff races in Georgia. That is forcing Biden to appeal more to the left, they said.

Liberal Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said progressives aren’t going to come out swinging early when they see a lot to applaud. For one, he said, the appointees understand the national security implications of climate change. And Yellen, Schatz said, is “closer to a dream pick” than people may realize because the nominee represents a “big formal break” from “the idea that austerity helps the overall economy.”


Still, the left needs to “see the full pantheon of nominees before we make a judgment about whether this team is sufficiently committed to the kinds of change necessary,” he said. At the same time, Democrats need to be “vigilant” against “the-cupboard-is-bare instinct" when spending money for top priorities, said Schatz. Progressives will push Biden on that point as he makes appointments, but he cautioned, “if we freak out, hair-on-fire about the small stuff, nobody's going to listen to us about the big stuff.”

That isn’t to say Biden hasn’t received any blowback from progressives. The Sunrise Movement, a group of young climate change activists, said it felt like a “betrayal” when Biden tapped Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) as a senior adviser. The left-wing organization Demand Progress lists Ricchetti, whom Biden has empowered to be the White House liaison to Congress and corporate leaders, as a “Person of Interest” on its website aimed at keeping “corporate insiders” out of the administration.

Moving forward, progressives’ major focus is on excluding Democrats who favor austere governing from Biden’s team. In recent days, progressive lawmakers and strategists have launched petitions and tweeted their opposition to some Obama-era carryovers. For instance, they are trying to keep centrist former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and “deficit hawk” Bruce Reed away from the Biden White House, particularly in top spots such as Transportation secretary and the head of the Office of Management and Budget.

Progressives also oppose Mike Morell, who has defended drone strikes, for CIA director and BlackRock managing director Brian Deese for the National Economic Council. Jennifer Epps-Addison, president of the left-wing Center for Popular Democracy, which endorsed Sanders in the primary, said the appointments of Deese or Reed would “feel like a bridge really far away from bringing these different factions within the party together.”

Similarly, Schatz said, a Reed appointment is “worth watching,” but he didn’t want to “assume” that, because Reed was a key presence in a fiscal reform commission derided by progressives under former President Barack Obama, “his views are locked and that he's gonna work with Third Way and cut spending.”

In a statement provided by Biden's team, former presidential candidate Tom Steyer came to Reed's defense: "He's a climate champion who will fully support the Biden clean energy plan, and anyone who thinks he will put budget deficits over the needs of working families struggling to make ends meet during a pandemic simply doesn't know Bruce."

At the same time, the left is urging Biden to go with Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), a Warren ally, for secretary of the Interior, and keeping a close eye on whom Biden nominates to the Justice Department. And the Progressive Change Campaign Committee is pushing Biden on lower-level government positions, collaborating with some 40 liberal and nonpartisan groups on a list sent by the Progressive Change Institute to his transition team.

"It's not as progressive as I would like it to be, but it's good news that Biden so far is also keeping conservative Democrats who are hostile to progressives, like Rahm Emanuel and Bruce Reed, out,” said Bowman of Biden’s picks. “The Cabinet process is just the beginning — these are the folks we have to work with, but also the folks we're going to push."

Appropriators strike deal on funding totals to avoid December shutdown


Top House and Senate appropriators on Tuesday clinched a deal on a bipartisan set of funding levels, paving the way for a $1.4 trillion spending package to avert a government shutdown next month.

The agreement on the funding allocations, confirmed by a House Democratic aide, establishes overall totals for 12 appropriations measures that will be rolled into one massive omnibus bill that would boost federal budgets for the rest of the fiscal year. Negotiators plan to keep the numbers — known as 302(b)s — under wraps until a bipartisan, bicameral omnibus is finalized, the aide said.

The deal comes at a time with little margin for error. After the Thanksgiving break, both chambers will have just two weeks to flesh out the finer points of the 12-bill spending package and pass the legislation in order to avoid a government shutdown by the Dec. 11 deadline.

Key context: House Democrats unveiled their funding allocations earlier this year and passed most of their spending bills in two big bundles over the summer, while Senate Republicans only released their numbers earlier this month and haven't passed any bills.

Appropriators and staff have worked for days to resolve a number of outstanding issues between the two sets of figures, including how to classify veterans health care spending, funding for nuclear cleanup and state unemployment costs as joblessness remains high during the pandemic, according to aides close to the talks.

It's unclear whether any stimulus measures will accompany the government funding package. Senate Republicans have been increasingly pessimistic about attaching coronavirus relief to the spending bill, while Democrats have remained somewhat optimistic.

“We have been working on the omnibus bill and I thought that would be a segue into” coronavirus relief, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday during her weekly press conference. “Let’s hope that it is.”

Top Senate Republicans have signaled that the White House will sign off on an omnibus, rather than another continuing resolution that would keep federal funding flat while avoiding a shutdown. But officials' assurances as to what President Donald Trump will ultimately support have been somewhat vague.

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told reporters on Capitol Hill last week that he can’t “guarantee” a government shutdown is off the table, but “it’s a high priority to make sure we keep our government funded.”

Opinion | Fox Doesn’t Need to Fear Trump’s Wrath


It was a media story that sustained a thousand pundits, politicians, media critics and reporters for a generation, and it went like this: Fox News Channel, the devilish invention of Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, rules the commanding heights of conservative broadcast news! It cannot be displaced! It is the tail that wags the dog of the Republican Party! The network that bolsters the Trump presidency and the essential source of news that issues hourly—and often untruthful—marching instructions for America’s populist-right millions!

But then came Election Night 2020. Fox’s coverage earned it Judas status among Trump’s most ardent supporters. The network's crimes of betrayal and heresy? It was first to call Arizona for Joe Biden. In the following days, Fox joined the consensus projection that Biden was the winner of the election and show-host Laura Ingraham and co-host Brian Kilmeade drew criticism from the right for meekly allowing that a Biden presidency might be in the offing. Tucker Carlson, as Trumpie as a Trumpie can get without being a member of the family, earned damnation for doubting the berserk election-fraud theories of then-Trump attorney Sidney Powell.

Fox also slow-walked the voting-fraud allegations, and these combined tilts from the usual hard-Trump line fueled a new storyline: Fox was losing its mojo among conservative viewers and bleeding audience and influence to upstart, hard-to-find-on-your-dial channels like Newsmax and One America News Network (OANN). These two channels, unlike Fox, had lent high credence to the election-fraud stories and remained loyal to Trump. The president encouraged the Fox hatred, disparaging the network in a Nov. 15 tweet that ended, “Many great alternatives are forming & exist. Try @OANN & @newsmax, among others!”

Our president-for-the-time-being’s move to buffalo his legions of supporters away from his historically loyal mouthpiece poses a central question about the media-politician axis. Who possesses the real power here? The politician? The audience? The network? And if the network, which one? The answers arrived on the heels of the collapse of Trump’s legal ploy to overturn the election.

Today, with the presidential election all but officially conceded, the Newsmax and OANN insurgency has faltered. But both networks had struck a chord in Trump country by reliably producing news that matches the priors of Trump supporters and leaving their political preconceptions unruffled. Reject the authority of the newsies, Trump commanded, and accept mine. And Newsmax and OANN bowed with enthusiasm that not even Fox in its toadiest moments ever mustered. Even after Michigan and Pennsylvania certified the Biden victory and Trump had allowed the GSA to fund the Biden transition, Newsmax and OANN were still hyping the election-fraud angle, stoking its audiences passions with Foxier than Fox, pro-Trump kindling. “Bypass the big media,” as one Newsmax on-air promo instructs viewers, taking a shot at not just CNN but Fox, too.

Both channels have historically drawn low viewership numbers, but that’s changed at Newsmax. One top Newsmax show, which usually hovers around the 58,000-viewer mark, recently attracted a record 1.1 million viewers, only a couple of million shy of a top-ranked Fox show running in the same time slot. The idea that Fox could be outflanked on the harder right was supported by a recent Wall Street Journal report that a Trump-friendly private equity company had approached Newsmax to buy or invest in it. Suddenly, the prospect of extra-Trumpie news networks competing with Fox and supplanting it for conservative primacy seemed possible.

Predictions of Fox’s diminution—however stirring they might be to liberals—must clear several obstacles before they can be taken seriously. Again and again, Fox has proved itself resourceful in replacing “star” show hosts like Megyn Kelly and Bill O’Reilly with new versions of the same thing, such as Ingraham and Carlson, and carrying on after the departure of network auteur Roger Ailes. For another example, when Fox’s favorite presidential candidates have underperformed—such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio in 2016—it’s been quick to dismount for a winning candidate like Trump and pretend that it always supported him. For another thing, viewership habits are extraordinarily hard to break. In many households, Fox burns like a winter hearth all day long, as background, diversion and even rapt viewing. Audiences have to search their cable dials for the alt-Fox networks or download the OTT apps. Even if they do in times of peak interest like the “election fraud” episode, how many will remain after the hubbub subsides? As Biden moves into the White House and the election fraud story turns to vapor, we can expect Fox to reclaim most of its defecting audience by going full-bore against Biden with its superior production values and much more talented news and opinion anchors.

The mismatch between the Newsmax and OANN pair and Fox cannot be exaggerated. As data published in the Financial Times shows, the contest isn’t really two Davids and one Goliath as much as it is between two dust motes and the burning sun. Fox is expected to reap $2.9 billion in revenue this year compared with Newsmax’s teensy $26 million and OANN’s only slightly less pitiful $48 million. More than half of those Fox revenues come from the affiliate fees that the cable operator pays to carry the channel, which means that if you’re a Democrat and your cable package includes Fox, you’re putting about $1.65 in Rupert’s piggy bank every month (96 cents for CNN and 29 cents for MSNBC). At Fox, they’ll probably say a prayer of thanks on Thursday as they carve the turkey, expressing joy that it is two underfunded, amateurish operations attacking them from the right instead of a repositioned-to-the-right CNN or MSNBC.

What of the argument that one of the alt-Fox networks could become competitive by adding Trump to the programming schedule? Good luck. The backers of Current TV and then Al Jazeera America poured millions into cable trying to launch viable, quasiliberal networks to compete directly with incumbents CNN and MSNBC. They failed. I suppose you could pay Trump $100 million a year to host a weekday show to swell ratings, but you can’t construct a network around a single tent pole. Besides, the Trump audience is already backed into the viewership of Newsmax and OANN. Without a doubt, given the right producers, Trump could put on a terrific tractor-pull of a show, but will his words convey the same valency as those spoken at his rallies or from the White House? But even a hit Trump show would leave competitors miles behind Fox. Also, the man is 74 years old, making him an old horse for any network to bet on let alone ride. On the plus side, the fact that nearly 74 million voted for him indicates the upside potential of the Trump audience. He was, after all, a better TV show host than he was a president. (Newsmax CEO Christopher Ruddy says he won’t turn his network into Trump TV but is willing to consider a weekly Trump show.)

Newsmax and OANN may have temporarily outflanked Fox by more perfectly echoing Trump’s contention that the election was stolen from him for days after Fox largely abandoned that line, but what special ingredient do they have now? The downside of news organization embracing disinformation, such as the stolen election story, is that reality has a way of interceding and eventually nullifying it. The easiest path is to devise or adopt another disinformation scramble, a technique Fox has already perfected. You may recall the heavy breathing Fox gave the Benghazi scandal, the Seth Rich murder conspiracy, Obama birtherism, and the hydroxychloroquine hype, just to name a few of its grand scoops that when pfft. If Newsmax and OANN think they can maneuver around the Murdoch empire by promoting grander crackpot stories than Fox, they can expect a surprise. Fox is the master of this type of coverage, and unlike Newsmax and OANN, it knows when to discard a news angle and find a new one.

Newsmax and OANN do have one thing going for them. Misinformation masquerading as news clots the Internet and the cable dial not so much because producers create it but because consumers demand it: It’s a demand-side problem, not a supply-side one. As long as viewers seek confirmation of every utterance by a prolific liar like Donald Trump, there will be a guaranteed place for outfits like Newsmax and OANN. But just as surely, if Fox doesn’t turn its back completely on that game, it will bestride the right-wing mediaverse for years to come.

******

Send crackpot theories to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts watch OANN. My Twitter feed views Newsmax on the app. My RSS feed, having killed its television in a previous column, abstains from the technology.

Liberals blanch at Durbin’s Judiciary power play


Dick Durbin didn't become Senate Democratic leader. He might still end up as one of the most important Democrats of Joe Biden’s presidency.

But first he will have to overcome resistance from some on the left and questions about whether he is accruing too many plum posts in the caucus.

The Illinois Democrat was just re-elected as his party’s whip, the No. 2 leadership job, after handily winning his fifth term in the Senate. He already oversees billions in spending on the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee. And now he is seeking to succeed Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) atop the Senate Judiciary Committee.

That’s fueled some grumbling about whether that’s too much for one senator to take on, though Durbin currently has no challenger for the Judiciary Committee post. The next Democrat in line, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, said Tuesday he looks forward to the question of succession being decided by the caucus, adding, "I will abide by the caucus’s decision."

Durbin is popular in the caucus and may already have the job locked down because of his seniority. But some prominent progressives are pushing for Whitehouse to get the job due to his reputation as a political brawler — the latest instance of the party fighting over its future in the post-Trump era.

“Nothing personal against Durbin, but with Feinstein stepping down, I think there’s a need for some new blood and new style and approaches. Sen. Whitehouse could breathe some new energy into the committee,” said Faiz Shakir, who managed Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and was a top aide for former Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, described Whitehouse as “one of the most strategic and savvy fighters in the Democratic caucus” and said he assumes Durbin “would be thrilled for someone as good as Senator Whitehouse to play a leading role in Judiciary.”

Brian Fallon, who runs the progressive group Demand Justice, also praised Whitehouse after Feinstein announced her plans. Fallon had called for Feinstein to go after her conciliatory handling of Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings.


No Judiciary Committee Democrats commented for this story, a sign of the issue’s sensitivity. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who once served on the Judiciary Committee, has not publicly discussed the slot beyond praising Feinstein.

It’s difficult for Senate Democrats to negotiate the matter during the Thanksgiving recess. But there is likely to be a conversation among lawmakers about whether the party’s No. 2 should also lead a crucial committee.

“There needs to be a discussion,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the No. 3 Senate Democrat. “It’s clear we have a lot of great talent in our caucus and voices that need to be heard and used in leadership so we can be as effective as possible.”

Some progressive groups are staying out of it. Nan Aron, president of the liberal group Alliance for Justice, said she’d support either Durbin or Whitehouse, describing them both as “stalwarts.” Meagan Hatcher-Mays, director of democracy policy for Indivisible, didn’t take sides but said Feinstein’s successor has a tall task ahead.

“What cannot happen is a return to the bad old days when Democrats played by an outdated set of rules that were easily exploited by Republicans,” Hatcher-Mays said.

Durbin is one of the most visible Democrats on the issues overseen by the committee, including immigration and criminal justice reform. Vanita Gupta, a top civil rights official under President Barack Obama who now runs The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, praised Durbin’s plans to run for the job and called him “a champion for civil and human rights.”

Several aides said Durbin would not have put out a statement on Monday night announcing his pursuit of the job if he didn’t already have the support to win. After all, he is the party’s chief vote counter.

“I have served on the committee for 22 years, and I am its most senior member who does not currently serve atop another Senate Committee,” Durbin said shortly after Feinstein’s announcement. “We have to roll up our sleeves and get to work on undoing the damage of the last four years and protecting fundamental civil and human rights.”

Durbin is an affable and well-liked member of the Democratic Caucus with deep relationships with Republicans — a valuable commodity in divided government. He’s also one of the chattiest senators in the Capitol, often engaging with reporters at length on issues of the day and pushing the party’s message in his plainspoken style. After serving in both the House and Senate, he knows every nook and cranny of the Capitol; sometimes he leaves behind his security detail as he roams the halls.

Durbin boasts a long liberal record, but Whitehouse is a more pugnacious combatant in the Judiciary Committee. A former Rhode Island attorney general, Whitehouse is a close Schumer ally and has made attacks on dark money in politics his signature issue. If Whitehouse takes the top job, it would increase the likelihood that Democrats embrace some of the GOP’s hard-line tactics. Democrats still seethe over the GOP blocking a Supreme Court vacancy under Obama and rushing through Barrett days before a presidential election.

Republicans have “set a very clear precedent of: ‘If we can, we will,’” Whitehouse said in an interview this month. “If you live by the rule of: ‘If we can, we will,’ then you’ve lost your standing to come back later on if you’re ever not in the majority and say to another majority: ‘Yeah, I know you can, but you shouldn’t.’”

Durbin or Whitehouse could become chairman if Democrats win two Georgia Senate runoffs on Jan. 5. Even in the minority, the top Judiciary Democrat will have to work closely with incoming Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to process Biden’s judicial nominees and try to reverse Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s outsize stamp on the courts.


Durbin has struck deals with Grassley before, most recently in 2018 on a new criminal justice reform law. Taking the top job on the Judiciary Committee would also give Durbin his biggest platform yet to pursue immigration reform, a longtime goal.

As whip, Durbin already has a spacious office on the third floor of the Capitol with sweeping views of Washington, plus a security detail. He’s held the post since 2005, a stunningly long run.

That’s partly because Democrats treat seniority differently than Senate Republicans, who cap leadership positions, chairmanships and ranking member roles at three full terms — with an exception for party leader. When Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) won the whip job in 2019, he gave up his chairmanship of the Senate Commerce Committee.

Whether Democrats have any appetite to reform such rules is not clear. And those decisions, including potentially for committee posts, may be delayed until January pending the Georgia elections.

Durbin has faced uncertainty before. In 2016, Murray declined to rule out a run for whip until right before the party’s leadership elections. And Schumer and Durbin were involved in a lengthy standoff over whether they’d struck an agreement to support each other in the caucuses’ top two jobs. While Durbin fell short to Schumer in becoming party leader, he’s held onto the No. 2 spot throughout.

Ultimately, Democrats may decide living through the tension of a committee fight as Biden gets ready to take the White House isn’t worth it. Some outside groups may never be satisfied anyway. Sunrise Movement on Tuesday reiterated its call for Feinstein to resign from the Senate, not just step down from her Judiciary Committee post.

Evan Weber, the group’s political director, didn’t outright endorse an alternative to Durbin, but called on “Chuck Schumer and Senate Democrats to end the practice of seniority determining Committee leadership.”

Democrats look to next DCCC chief to avert 2022 disaster


House Democrats are desperately trying to stop another Election Day fiasco — and they're pinning their hopes on either a Democrat who's won in Trump country or a Latino fundraising powerhouse.

Reps. Sean Patrick Maloney and Tony Cárdenas are jockeying to lead the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee next Congress. The victor will not only be tasked with rebuilding the campaign arm after the party got wiped out in GOP-leaning districts across the map but also ensuring Democrats keep their grip on the House in 2022.

Perhaps the most urgent — and complicated — task for the next DCCC chief will be crafting a new message, after almost all Democrats pinpointed it as a weak spot in the 2020 races. And that’s something lawmakers on both sides of the race can agree on.

“I don’t think a one-size-fits-all message works for the Democratic Party,” said Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), a frontliner who supports Cárdenas. “We need to make it more tailored and more specific so that people don’t think that we’re just throwing out empty words.”

“The folks who had some difficulty winning — ads around socialism or defunding the police — those weren’t their beliefs, but it’s hard to overcome message after message on that,” added Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa), who also represents a swing district and is backing Maloney. “I think we all know Democrats have a hard time of sometimes putting a succinct message out there.”

In the most closely-watched Democratic leadership race this fall, set for after Thanksgiving, Maloney and Cárdenas are offering competing pitches about what went wrong at the polls and how to solve it. Maloney is touting his experience running as a gay man with a biracial family in a Trump-won district in the Lower Hudson Valley. Cárdenas, a leader in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, has touted his robust fundraising and ability to connect with Latino voters, some of whom fled the Democratic Party this year.


The contest comes amid a messy bout of soul searching within the caucus, with Democrats publicly airing long-simmering personal and ideological grudges as they spar over why they lost 11 incumbents when party leaders were confidently predicting gains. By the time all the votes are tallied in the last few undecided 2020 House races, Republicans will be somewhere between five and nine seats away from reclaiming the majority.

The GOP already begins the next election cycle in a commanding position — the party that controls the White House typically loses seats in the following midterm. And in 2022, Republicans will also have redistricting on their side. They control the map-drawing process in many major states, boosting their shot at reclaiming the majority.

Both Maloney and Cárdenas have been mostly restrained in their critiques of current DCCC chairwoman, Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), and the campaign arm’s tactics during the 2020 cycle. Bustos decided not to seek a second term during an internal backlash over Democrats’ lackluster showing on Election Day.

Maloney stressed that he would conduct the kind of autopsy he did in 2016 — after Democrats picked up just six House seats despite predicting far larger gains — and says he can’t precisely spot broader problems until there’s more data. The New York Democrat, who will return to Congress for his fifth term, declined to go into detail about the substance of the review, which the committee kept closely guarded. And he would say little about any potential messaging or mechanical flaws that may have contributed to the losses.

“People really feel like we need to dig into what happened, because there's obviously a debate going in the caucus about the causes of that,” Maloney said. “I like to say, ‘If you're not God, bring data’... I can find out what happened because I’ve done it before.”

Cárdenas, also going into his fifth term, blamed the losses on a combination of factors, including both messaging and a lack of mobilization due to the pandemic. But he also stressed that he would build a more inclusive group.

“We need a chair of the DCCC from day one that will dedicate everything he or she can in a way that’s transparent, that is inclusive,” Cárdenas said. “When someone’s the chair of something, it’s not their organization. But that person has been entrusted to make sure the organization is run properly and it is run effectively.”

Both contenders have sought to win over swing-district Democrats, whose seats will be critical to keeping the House majority in two years. So far, more of these so-called frontline Democrats have backed Maloney, citing his ability to win in a tough Trump district. (Maloney’s seat will be redrawn next cycle in what he predicts will give him a safer seat in 2022.)

But not every vulnerable Democrat has gotten behind him, and some say they’re not enthused by either candidate, worried that Maloney won’t be independent enough from Pelosi and the leadership team and that Cardenas doesn't have the experience in GOP-leaning districts. Many of those surviving Democrats have felt an intense sense of panic after so many of their colleagues were defeated earlier this month, and worry that top Democrats won’t be willing to sufficiently overhaul the campaign arm’s message and tactics ahead of the midterms.

Some centrists, like Wild, say Cárdenas could help DCCC with its deep struggles to win over Latino voters. Three of House Democrats’ most surprising losses in 2020 came in heavily Latino districts in South Florida and Orange County, California — prompting concerns that the party was treating these voters as a monolith.

Cárdenas also bolstered his 2020 record by bringing in $15 million this cycle for BOLD PAC, the political arm of the CHC, more than doubling its figure from two cycles ago.

Besides the moderates, the new DCCC chief will also be tasked with mending a shaky relationship between the committee and prominent progressives. The left warred with Bustos throughout the cycle over a new DCCC policy that blacklists campaign consultants who work with candidates mounting primary challenges against sitting members. Top progressives reached a detente with the DCCC earlier this year, but that represented a postponement of the conflict at best.


Cárdenas said he would reverse the policy of a blanket “blacklist” that bans any consultant who has worked on a primary challenge, and would instead evaluate vendors on a case-by-case basis. Maloney said he would reevaluate the ban, noting it had some “unintended consequences.”

In the days since the election, more tension between DCCC and progressives have surfaced. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), in particular, took aim at the DCCC and moderates over what she described as a lackluster digital strategy. Moderates offered their own sharp rebuttals, both on Twitter and in private caucus meetings.

Cárdenas said he reached out to Ocasio-Cortez shortly after she went public with her critique of DCCC, and noted he has worked with her as the head of BOLD PAC.

“I know what it’s like to be in a large family where we argue or we disagree,” Cárdenas added, noting that he is the youngest of 11 siblings. “But at the same time, we are here to make sure we do the work of the American people, and the best way to do that is make sure we’re in the majority.”

Even if the incoming head of the campaign arm does reach a truce with progressives over the consultant ban in the next cycle, the problem of Democratic primary challengers isn’t going away. Progressives have shown no sign of backing away from primary fights — which took down three incumbents this cycle alone, including 16-term incumbent Eliot Engel, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

For all of their complaints against committee strategy, progressives did not offer a candidate of their own in the DCCC race.

Maloney, too, seemed eager to smooth over tensions with the caucus’s most vocal progressives, lauding their ability to organize digitally, though he didn’t say exactly how that would work.

“I think what you’ll find, it’s not an either or. Everyone is making good points based on the experience they have in their own districts,” Maloney said. “It’s my job to integrate those into a shared understanding of what happened and a new battle plan to win.”

But not all House Democrats say it’s up to the DCCC chair to bridge ideological factions within the caucus over the next two years.

“DCCC is really an operational role. It’s dangerous actually, in some ways, to try to be a really popular DCCC chair,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.). “It’s not about popularity, you've really got to be able to make hard choices.”


Trump grants Biden access to presidential intel


President Donald Trump on Tuesday granted Joe Biden access to presidential intelligence briefings, according to two White House officials, after stonewalling the information amid his ongoing resistance to the transition of power.

The President’s Daily Brief, a summary of high-level national security intelligence, is routinely shared with the president-elect to prepare him for his move into the White House. But until Tuesday, Trump had refused to loop Biden into the briefs as he challenged the outcome of the Nov. 3 presidential election. Officials are still working out the coordination, but the briefings for Biden are likely to start early next week, one official added.

Trump’s acquiescence comes only a day after the General Services Administration formally acknowledged Biden as the apparent winner of the election, allowing the former vice president’s team to go ahead with the transition.

But Trump has maintained publicly that he will not concede anytime soon, even as his and his allies’ numerous lawsuits casting doubt on the legitimacy of the election and alleging mass voter fraud fall apart.

CNN first reported Biden‘s getting access to the PDB on Tuesday.

Biden confirmed to reporters later Tuesday afternoon that he‘d been offered the briefings but said he hadn’t seen one yet.

Some Republican senators argued for nearly two weeks that Biden should be granted access to the President’s Daily Brief, even though they stopped short of acknowledging him as the victor. Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) pointed out that President Bill Clinton allowed George W. Bush access to presidential briefings even while his election was subjected to a recount in Florida back in 2000.

“Both of them have got to be ready to serve, if selected,” Lankford said less than a week after the race was called for Biden. “We don’t know who the winner is. So keep the briefings going. Ultimately, the president has to make this decision.”

Biden urges Senate to take up confirmation process for Cabinet picks


President-elect Joe Biden pushed the Senate on Tuesday to begin confirmation hearings for his cabinet selections in the coming weeks, a process that could put at least some leaders of the incoming administration in position to assume their roles on Inauguration Day.

"I hope these outstanding nominees received a prompt hearing, and that we can work across the aisle in good faith to move forward for the country,” Biden said Tuesday. “Let's begin that work to heal and unite, to heal and unite America as well as the world.”

Biden and his transition team this week rolled out the names of his top national security staff, as well as nominees for secretary of state and ambassador to the United Nations. The president-elect held a press event Tuesday at his home base in Wilmington, Del., to introduce the nominees.

“To the American people, this team will make us proud to be Americans,” Biden said.

The path to confirmation for Biden's nominees remains unclear as control of the Senate will be decided by two runoff elections in Georgia early next year. Senate Republicans thus far have exerted considerable caution not to run afoul of President Donald Trump's unfounded claims of election fraud by acknowledging Biden's victory. Still, lawmakers including Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) have all suggested that the incoming president is entitled to a cabinet.

Cabinet selections for incoming presidents have historically been granted hearings in their relevant Senate committees ahead of Inauguration Day. Two of President Donald Trump's original cabinet members, former Secretary of Defense James Mattis and former Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, were confirmed on Trump's inauguration day. Former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush had six and seven members of their original cabinets confirmed on inauguration day, respectively.


Each of the Biden nominees on stage Tuesday were given time to speak, and several took time to indirectly contrast themselves with their Trump administration counterparts.

To wit, Avril Haines, Biden's designate for director of national intelligence, vowed to voice uncomfortable truths to Biden and other members of the administration. Tony Blinken, the secretary of state nominee, promised to renew America’s commitment to global alliances, as did Biden’s pick for United Nations envoy.

“Multilateralism is back,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the president-elect's nominee for U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said.

Blinken also recounted his stepfather’s harrowing tale escaping death during the Holocaust, in which he emerged from a hiding place in the woods after fleeing Nazis to encounter a Black American solider who emerged from a tank.

“He got down on his knees and said the only three words he knew in English his mother taught him before the war: ‘God bless America,’” Blinken said. “That's who we are. That's what America represents to the world, however imperfectly.”



The presentation came less than a day after GSA administrator Emily Murphy acquiesced to swelling pressure and allowed for the formal transition process to commence as President Donald Trump’s efforts to subvert the election results continued to evaporate. Biden said he was “pleased to have received the ascertainment” — the official term for the designation Murphy conferred to Biden — “so our teams can prepare to meet the challenges at hand.”

“And as more states certify results of this election, there's progress to wrap up our victory,” Biden said.

Neither Biden, vice president-elect Kamala Harris nor anyone else on stage took questions from the press following their remarks.

Biden’s stage-crafted event came little more than an hour after Trump bounded into the White House briefing room to hold a hastily arranged address touting the Dow Jones Industrial Average breaking the 30,000-point plateau.

Those remarks lasted only a minute, and Trump later presided over the White House’s annual turkey-pardoning ceremony.


Trump pardons Corn the turkey as a finishing White House act


President Donald Trump officially pardoned Corn the turkey from the dinner table Tuesday, presenting a chipper mood as his presidency enters its twilight.

Standing before about 100 guests on a sunny fall day, with first lady Melania Trump at his side, the president cracked jokes as he partook in a White House tradition for the last time of his term.

"Thanksgiving is a very special day for turkeys. Not a very good one, when you think about it," Trump said.

He kicked off celebrating a healthy stock market and lauded the country's farmers, police and military. He also praised the enduring tradition of the turkey pardon, evoking its origins in the days of Abraham Lincoln. But the signs of an unusually troubled year were apparent.

Trump lauded the progress on coronavirus vaccines and thanked health care workers for their efforts in controlling the pandemic. And while the president and first lady didn't wear masks, other attendees had their faces covered.

"From our earliest days, America has always been a story of perseverance and triumph, determination and strength, loyalty and faith," Trump said. "This week in a time that is very unusual but in so many ways very, very good, what we've endured and been able to endure, with the vaccines now coming out, one after another, it's an incredible thing that happened."

Trump did not make any mention of the election or the previous night's announcement that his administration would allow President-elect Joe Biden to proceed with the transition. But while acknowledging the armed services and law enforcement, Trump said "America first — shouldn’t go away from that, America first."

It was a contrast from the somber quiet coming from the White House since the race was called for Biden over two weeks ago. Trump has refused to take questions from reporters and his public schedule has been largely empty.

After his remarks, Trump hovered his hand over Corn and pardoned the fowl. Another turkey, Cob, was dubbed the backup bird this year, but he was not spotted at the White House ceremony.

"We hope — and we know it's going to happen — that Corn and Cob have a very long, happy and memorable life," Trump said.

Turkeys pardoned at the White House are bred for slaughter and are often too unhealthy to support long lifespans. Most die a few months after getting pardoned.

California paid inmates $1B in fraudulent unemployment benefits, prosecutors say


Inmates in California's jails and prisons have stolen upwards of $1 billion in pandemic unemployment aid, four district attorneys and a federal prosecutor announced Tuesday.

The news: A multi-agency investigation found that 35,000 unemployment claims were filed in the name of California state prison inmates and that 20,000 have already been paid out, said Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert.

Schubert called the scale of the scheme "honestly staggering" and "one of the biggest fraud of taxpayer dollars in Calfornia history."

The investigation involved district attorneys from Sacramento, El Dorado, Kern and San Mateo counties as well as McGregor Scott, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California.

Context: Tuesday's announcement is only the latest twist in the fraud saga plaguing California's unemployment programs, a challenge facing states nationwide. For months, fraudsters have exploited programs designed to swiftly distribute federal pandemic aid to self-employed and contract workers through a self-certification process.

Federal officials warned state workforce agencies this fall that cybercriminals in the U.S. and abroad — using troves of personal information mined from massive data breaches — may have pocketed $8 billion in pandemic aid. Police from Beverly Hills testified in Sacramento that they launched an investigation after reports of out-of-state suspects attempting to buy luxury goods from Rodeo Drive shops using cash or multiple Employment Development Department debit cards.

And last month a rapper living in the Hollywood Hills with the stage name of Nuke Bizzle was arrested on federal fraud charges after posting a music video entitled "EDD" that appeared to boast about defrauding the department. He is accused of applying for more than $1.2 million in benefits using stolen identities.

California's unemployment system has recently adopted a more sophisticated identity verification system and has taken other measures, such as halting the automatic backdating of claims.

But lawmakers and other advocates for low-wage workers are also concerned that an emphasis on fraud prevention has needlessly added legitimate claimants — sometimes with small discrepancies in their applications — to the state's lengthy backlog of unpaid claims, which reached 1.6 million earlier this fall.

A "strike team" appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom this year found that nearly all of the claimants flagged for further verification were legitimate, while fraudsters sailed through the automated system.

Azar says states will decide who gets first Covid-19 shots


States will have final say on how to prioritize who gets the first doses of any coronavirus vaccines, HHS Secretary Alex Azar told reporters on Tuesday.

A CDC vaccine advisory committee is set to meet as soon as the FDA authorizes the first vaccine, to determine which groups should get early access to the shot. But governors will have "final say," Azar said, raising the possibility that Americans could face widely differing distribution plans depending on where they live.

He and other top government officials have said that about 40 million doses of the vaccine will likely be available next month. Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech have filed for emergency authorization from the FDA, and another developer — Moderna — has said it will soon follow suit.

Although public health experts broadly agree that groups at high risk, such as front-line health care workers and the elderly, should be prioritized in any vaccination campaign, there will not be enough doses initially to treat all members of those groups.

"We are not dependent on any delay for ACIP in terms of helping to advise states on prioritization" of vaccines, Azar said of the CDC panel, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. "We hope our recommendations will carry weight with [states] but at the end of the day, they will make that decision."

The timing will be tight: ACIP has said that it will wait until a vaccine is authorized before laying out its priority list. But the federal government's vaccine accelerator, Operation Warp Speed, is planning to ship the first doses within 24 hours of FDA authorization.

Azar said the federal government will not wait for ACIP's recommendations before distributing the first shots.


The CDC panel weighs in: ACIP met on Monday and unveiled the principles that will guide its recommendations. The group says vaccine distribution should aim to address health inequities amid disproportionate Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Black, Latino and Native American populations, as well as long-held distrust of the medical establishment among those groups because of historical abuse and mistreatment.

How the feds will dole out doses: The Trump administration will divide shipments of the coronavirus vaccine to states in December and beyond based on the size of their adult populations, rather than how many Covid-19 cases they have, Azar said.

"We wanted to keep this simple," Azar said. "Once we pass through these initial tranches where we're in a much more of a scarcity situation, we'll eventually get to where we need to be per capita."

Operation Warp Speed officials stuck with the population rationale to avoid having one distribution formula initially and changing it later, he added.

Governors provided limited feedback on how the first doses should be divided up by state, Azar said, noting that they "also wanted to keep it simple."

Trump pops into White House briefing room for one-minute impromptu speech


President Donald Trump has kept an unusually low profile since his election defeat, making few public appearances and hardly speaking except for on Twitter.

But when the Dow Jones Industrial Average crossed 30,000 for the first time on Tuesday, Trump emerged to take a victory lap.

“That is a sacred number,” said Trump, who has long fixated on the stock market as the barometer of his administration’s economic performance. “Nobody thought they'd ever see it.”

The appearance lasted just over a minute, and reporters were given hardly any notice, showing the hastiness of the remarks.

The index had hovered near that mark earlier this month amid news that vaccines for coronavirus demonstrated effectiveness and could soon receive emergency authorization. The market crested Tuesday after the GSA administrator the night before cleared the way for President-elect Joe Biden to begin coordinating with the government he will take over in January.

"I'm very thrilled with what has happened on the vaccine front,” Trump said, with Vice President Mike Pence by his side. “That’s been absolutely incredible.”

The appearance was not on the president’s schedule until moments before he showed up, and Trump took no questions from the press before exiting the room.

Trump is scheduled to hold the annual turkey pardoning ceremony later in the afternoon, a typically light-hearted event the president has seemingly reveled in over his prior three years in office.

Pennsylvania certifies Biden’s victory as battlegrounds make 2020 results official


Key states continue to certify their election results Tuesday, blowing past attempts by President Donald Trump and allies to undermine or overturn the results of the 2020 election.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, announced Tuesday morning that the Pennsylvania Department of State had certified state election results and he had appointed Electoral College electors for President-elect Joe Biden. The moves finalized the results in a critical battleground that had been a target of Trump’s efforts to change or block results showing Biden winning.

In addition to launching a sprawling range of court cases in battleground states, Trump also invited Michigan state legislative leaders to the White House, as he pushed the prospect of GOP legislators in Biden states appointing their own pro-Trump electors. But that legally dubious plan has quickly faded as states including Georgia, Michigan and now Pennsylvania follow their election results and the normal processes laid out in their election laws.

“Today [the Pennsylvania Department of State] certified the results of the November 3 election in Pennsylvania for president and vice president of the United States,” Wolf wrote on Twitter. “As required by federal law, I’ve signed the Certificate of Ascertainment for the slate of electors for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.”

Trump and allies tried to block Pennsylvania’s certification in both state and federal courts. But the president’s federal case was eviscerated by a district court judge over the weekend, and the campaign is currently trying to appeal to the Third Circuit. Meanwhile, a case brought in state court by plaintiffs including Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) and Republican congressional candidate Sean Parnell, who lost to Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), has argued that the state’s entire mail-in voting system was unconstitutional.

Three other battleground states are expected to certify results on Tuesday. In Nevada, the state Supreme Court will meet at noon Eastern Time on Tuesday to make the state’s results official, including Biden’s win there. The state board of elections in North Carolina, which Trump won, will lock in its results as well. And Minnesota, another state Biden carried, is expected to do the same later Tuesday afternoon.

The certification process, normally a formality, has been targeted by Republicans across the country as a chokepoint in the election process to block Biden.

The most intense attempt was in Michigan, where Biden won by roughly 155,000 votes, but that effort ultimately collapsed on Monday. Republicans urged the state canvassing board to delay certification, alleging widespread but unsubstantiated malfeasance in the predominantly Black city of Detroit. The Trump campaign abandoned its federal lawsuit in the state, falsely claiming they were doing so because the Wayne County board of canvassers, which includes Detroit, declined to certify the results. In actuality, the county board did certify results.

Three of the four members of Michigan’s state election board voted Monday to certify the results, despite pleas to wait from state Republicans, including the state GOP chair and a lawyer representing Republican Senate candidate John James.

Aaron Van Langevelde, a lawyer for the state legislature’s House GOP caucus and one of the two Republican members on the board, joined the two Democratic members in certifying the results. Van Langevelde argued that at the meeting that state law requires the board certify results, and it didn’t have the authority to demand an audit or otherwise delay the results.


Kash Patel, recently installed Trump loyalist, now leading Pentagon transition


Kash Patel, a White House loyalist who was installed at the Pentagon two weeks ago amid a purge of senior civilian officials, has been put in charge of the Defense Department's transition to the next administration, a Pentagon spokesperson confirmed on Tuesday.

The news, first reported by CNN, comes one day after the General Services Administration allowed the Trump administration to begin talking with the incoming Biden team to begin the transition process.

Background: Patel was named chief of staff to acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller just two weeks ago, the day after the president fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper. His former chief of staff, Jen Stewart, resigned shortly after. Trump allies were also installed in top positions overseeing intelligence and policy.

Stewart was leading the transition effort before she left the Pentagon, so it was expected that Patel would take over those responsibilities.

Patel previously worked for Rep. Devin Nunes (R.Calif.), the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, and as a staffer played a key role in helping Republicans discredit the Russia probe.

He also held a number of roles in the Trump administration, including on the National Security Council staff, in the office of former acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell, and most recently as a top White House counterterrorism official.

Other personnel moves: Tom Muir, the director of Washington Headquarters Services, will be the agency transition director, the Defense Department transition task force lead and the senior career executive for transition, the spokesperson said.

On the Biden team: Kathleen Hicks, a senior vice president at the center for Strategic and International Studies, is leading a group of more than two dozen people handling the Defense Department transition for the Biden team.

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