Politico

Poll: We have met the enemy and it is us


More than half of all Americans say the greatest danger to America's way of life comes from their fellow citizens, according to a CBS News poll released Sunday.

A total of 54 percent of those surveyed said that "other people in America, and domestic enemies" posed the "biggest threat" to American society at this point in time ahead of "economic forces" at 20 percent, "the natural world" at 17 percent and "foreign countries" at 8 percent. The category of "natural world" was a catch-all that included hazardous weather and other natural disasters, as well as lethal viruses, a nod to the coronavirus pandemic.

The most pessimistic respondents among those surveyed were those age 65 and older: About two-thirds (66 percent) saw their fellow Americans as the nation's greatest threat. There was not, however, much difference regardless of age group between Democrats (53 percent) and Republicans (56 percent) on the subject, nor a notable difference between men (53 percent) and women (55 percent).

The polling was conducted one week after the widespread alarm in the country over the rioting Jan. 6 at the Capitol. That insurrection left five people dead and temporarily halted the certification of Joe Biden as the victor of the November election over President Donald Trump.

In the aftermath of that insurrection, 51 percent of those surveyed said they expected political violence in the country to increase, and 71 percent said they believed democracy in the United States was "threatened" now, as opposed to 29 percent who thought it was "secure" or "very secure."

Despite all the pessimism, there were some signs of hope expressed. A total of 58 percent said they were optimistic about Biden's presidency, which is to begin Wednesday, and 74 percent said they considered him to be the legitimate winner of November's election.

A majority (51 percent) also said they expected the coronavirus situation to improve during Biden's presidency; as of Sunday morning, almost 400,000 Americans have died during the pandemic.

The CBS News survey of 2,166 adults in the U.S. was conducted by YouGov from Jan. 13 to Jan. 15. The margin of error was listed as approximately 2.5 percent; it was 2.8 percent on questions just addressed to registered voters.

Inauguration ceremony will be held outside Capitol, Biden spokesperson says


Incoming White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield said Sunday that the inauguration ceremony for President-elect Joe Biden will take place on the west side of the U.S. Capitol building as planned.

“I think that will send an incredibly important visual image to the world about the resilience of American democracy, and so our plan and our expectation is that President-Elect Biden will put his hand on the Bible with his family outside on the west side of the Capitol on the 20th,” Bedingfield said on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” of Wednesday's event.

Bedingfield’s comments came in response to concerns over security in the area, following the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. The U.S. Capitol has been locked down by security officials since then, and thousands of National Guard troops are expected to assist in securing the area.

A few inauguration plans have already been altered over these concerns — an inauguration rehearsal scheduled for Sunday was postponed to Monday and Biden’s planned Amtrak train ride from Wilmington to Washington was canceled.

Bedingfield said there is no question the country is in a “volatile time,” and that the Biden team is “preparing for any scenario that should arise after noon on January the 20th” with outgoing leadership in national security and law enforcement.

“We're working to ensure that we will be prepared, but we have full faith in the United States Secret Service and their partners who have been working for over a year on the planning to ensure that this event is safe,” she added.

Lindsey Graham predicts radical first 100 days


Sen. Lindsey Graham predicted Sunday that the first months of Joe Biden's presidency will bring the most radical agenda in U.S. history.

Speaking on Fox News Channel's "Sunday Morning Features with Maria Bartiromo," the South Carolina Republican offered a vision of radical Democrats attempting to enact leftist policies in the aftermath of Biden's inauguration.

"I think we are going to have in the first hundred days by the Biden administration the most aggressive socialized policy effort in the history of the country," Graham said.

While supporting the legitimacy of Biden's victory and saying he would attend Wednesday's inauguration — "I think it's important that I show up" — Graham predicted to Bartiromo that Democratic priorities would make Americans nostalgic for President Donald Trump and his supporters in Congress.

"If they do what they are talking about doing," Graham said. "Republicans will come roaring back in 2022, we will take back the House, we will take back the Senate and, just in a few months, President Trump will be looked at far differently than he is today."

The senator, an important ally of Trump's for much of his presidency, spent much of the interview raging about the latest impeachment of Trump. "To my Republican colleagues," he said, "please do not justify and legitimize what the House did and stand up for the Constitution like we did on January 6. Stop this before it stops. I hope every Republican will reject the second impeachment of President Trump."

He urged Biden to speak up and put the brakes on the impeachment process: "If you do not stand up against the impeachment of President Trump after he leaves office, you're an incredibly weak figure. "

Poll: Majority blame Trump for Jan. 6 rioting, but not most Republicans


More than half of voters surveyed blamed President Donald Trump for the rioting Jan. 6 at the Capitol, according to an NBC News poll released Sunday.

A total of 52 percent said the president was solely or mainly to blame for his supporters storming the Capitol during the certification of Joe Biden's election victory. Five people died during the insurrection and dozens of people have been arrested. The president, whose term of office ends Wednesday, was impeached last week by the House.

An additional 18 percent of those surveyed in NBC's poll put some blame on Trump, with 29 percent saying he was "not really responsible."

Notably, a mere 11 percent of Republicans surveyed blamed Trump for the mayhem, compared with 44 percent of independents and 91 percent of Democrats.

In addition, 28 percent of the Republicans polled said that Trump's actions related to the events of Jan. 6 made them happier that they had supported Trump. Only 5 percent said they now regretted voting for Trump, while almost two-thirds (66 percent) said their feelings for the president were unchanged.

The polling allowed those surveyed to distribute blame for the Jan. 6 rioting. While Trump drew more blame than anyone else, a total of 38 percent said social media companies were solely or mainly responsible, followed by 33 percent for conservative media outlets. Among the others who drew significant blame were QAnon (30 percent) and Antifa (28 percent).

A total of 49 percent said they thought the Jan. 6 insurrection was not an isolated incident but "the start of a major increase in violent political protests and riots."

Looking at the entirety of Trump's presidency, almost half of those polled (49 percent) said Trump ranks "definitely worse than most" presidents, with 19 president putting him as "one of the very best" presidents, and 21 percent listing him as "better than most."

The NBC News poll of 1,000 registered voters was conducted Jan. 10-13 by Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research. The margin of error for registered voters is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Harris to resign Senate seat ahead of swearing in as VP


Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will resign her Senate seat effective Monday, capping a brief legislative career marked by her tough cross-examinations of Trump administration nominees and the push last summer for police reforms after the killing of George Floyd.

Harris notified California Gov. Gavin Newsom and has sent her formal indication to surrender the Senate office as she prepares for her move to the Naval Observatory, aides said. Newsom named California Secretary of State Alex Padilla to serve out the final two years of Harris’ first term, though it’s unclear when Padilla will take the oath of office this week, or whether it will be administered by Harris.

Harris is expected to make a formal announcement on her resignation Monday. She will not be giving a floor speech, aides confirmed, something Biden did when he departed the Senate after decades there representing Delaware.

Democrats’ wins in Georgia this month tied the incoming Senate at 50-50 and put Harris in position to tip the balance on everything from key legislative items to confirming Cabinet nominees and judges.

“This is not a goodbye from the Senate,” a Harris aide stressed, given her role as the tie-breaker and expected work helping Biden with negotiations on Capitol Hill.

In her four years in the Senate, Harris wrote legislation to close racial disparities in maternal health, assure legal counsel to those held or detained while trying to enter the U.S. under President Donald Trump’s travel ban, and joined Sen. Cory Booker and members of the Congressional Black Caucus to write the Justice in Policing Act after Floyd’s killing sparked national protests over police brutality and calls for racial justice.

Harris worked with Republican colleagues on legislation encouraging states to end cash bail, aid victims of workplace sexual harassment, make lynching a federal crime and preserve historically black colleges and universities.

She spent much of 2019 campaigning for president and then was named to the ticket by Biden this fall.

While Harris didn’t come to the Senate until 2017, she got her political start in the same office in 1984, when as a sophomore at Howard University she had a summer internship with then-Sen. Alan Cranston of California.

Harris has not said whether she plans to keep an office in the Senate, as former Vice President Dick Cheney did when he spent six months as the Senate tiebreaker in 2001.

At the inauguration, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor will administer the oath of office to Harris at her swearing in as the first female vice president. Biden chose Sotomayor, the first Latina justice, when he was sworn in for a second term in 2013.

What Will Trump’s Presidency Mean to History?


As America ticks down the days until Donald Trump leaves Washington, it seems incumbent on those of us who’ve gritted our teeth and downed our bourbons through this never-ending cold-sweat fever dream of a presidency to try to explain—not for the last time, to be sure—what, if anything, this four-year spasm of discontent adds up to. Is there a Unified Field Theory that extracts meaning from the wild barrage of scandals and controversies, mendacity and meanness, hate-mongering and vainglory, that has pumped up everyone’s blood pressure since November 2016?

So far, surprisingly, overarching analyses of the Trump administration have been scarce. Instead, we’ve made do with laundry lists and inventories detailing the president’s “worst” or most “unthinkable” deeds. That may be because the sheer chaos of Trump’s high-decibel White House sojourn—the exhausting fusillades of rhetorical warfare and moral indignation—has confounded any sober efforts to take stock. News coverage and social media reaction have lurched from moment to moment, outrage to outrage, tweet to tweet, invading the quiet terrain where reflection and understanding flourish. In fact, if Trump’s presidency can be said to have a defining quality, it might well be chaos itself.

As a card-carrying historian, I realize it’s premature to try to pinpoint Trump’s place in the sweep of history. What comes next will be as important as what has come so far. But having studied the presidency, past and present, for most of my adult life, I can’t help thinking that that chaos—or, more precisely, the deliberate breakdown of rules—is what Trump’s presidency was all about.

That might sound like a stylistic critique. After all, Trump’s presidency was also marked by a crude ultra-populist politics, as seen in such features as his atavistic “America First” foreign policy, his determination to halt illegal immigration, including through morally and legally dubious methods, and the surge in overt expressions of racism, like the 2017 Charlottesville rally. But those Trumpian developments are actually connected to the president’s assault on America’s rules and norms. Under a healthy political order, demotic feelings that are ugly, undignified, cruel and violent are kept under control by a whole pyramid of habits, institutions and models of behavior. In both style and substance, Trump took a sledgehammer to that pyramid—and survived with a stronger base of support than anyone predicted. His flouting of the laws, institutions and precedents that had made the United States (for the most part, at least) an exemplar of democracy in the eyes of its citizens and abroad was the ground from which so much else about the Trump presidency springs. It will be taking its toll on our politics for some time to come.

Consider: The petty public insults thrown at world leaders, judges and his own Cabinet members. The brazen comfort with nepotism and self-dealing. The casual mendacity. The imperious browbeating of journalists. The shameless solicitation of foreign actors to meddle in U.S. elections. The refusal to concede the 2020 presidential race long after his defeat was apparent. And his role in the event that right now overshadows almost everything else about his tenure in office: his instigation of the seditious riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Trump’s signature move through all of this has been the snubbing of his nose at the canons that others would have him follow. Even his physicality expresses his hostility toward basic civility: shoving aside the Montenegrin prime minister at a 2017 NATO meeting, stalking Hillary Clinton in the 2016 debates (and madly interrupting Joe Biden in the 2020 contests), storming out of an unfinished “60 Minutes” interview because he didn’t like the questions.

Trump’s insistence on breaking rules when he wishes clearly has roots in his narcissistic personality. Impulsive like a small child, he has always needed to win every standoff, to convince himself he is in the right. When facts intrude or constraints thwart him, he shouts, pouts and insists he’s correct. Feeding Trump’s penchant for cutting his own path, too, is the businessman’s sense with which he was raised that rules are for suckers. But Trump’s readiness to trample on the established ways of doing things, no matter how hardwired in his psychology, was more than a personality tic. It became a political program.

On the left, there has been, an intermittent counter-strain of criticism that rebukes Trump’s high-minded detractors for fetishizing “norms.” After all, doesn’t society progress by jettisoning old ways of doing things? Aren’t norm-revering liberals pining for an old status quo (which gave rise to Trump in the first place)? And haven’t many of the objections to Trump’s breaks from custom—his comments about Frederick Douglass despite not knowing who he was; his taste for well-done steaks slathered in ketchup—simply reflected the snobbery of liberal arbiters toward a man who, with much of America, holds different values? Isn’t the lionization of norms at bottom an elitist critique of manners?

Trump’s defenders—or let’s call them the critics of his critics—make some valid points. Fretting about presidential vulgarity can certainly lapse into a frivolous insistence on politesse. But there’s also more to it than that. As sociologists have long recognized, manners have more than cosmetic importance. They shape people’s sense of right and wrong; they assimilate heterogeneous citizens into a harmonious society. Manners can be barriers to change and require regular revision. But the wholesale demolition of long-held expectations of behavior—especially by the very person whom we look to to embody our national values and aspirations—threatens to tear or shred the democratic fabric. Vulgarity, from the Latin word vulgus, meaning the masses, has always been a tool of the demagogue.

To understand how rule-breaking came to define not just the style but the substance of Trump’s presidency, we need to go back and look at all the ways—some still vivid, some already forgotten in the welter of chaos—that Trump broke the machinery he was entrusted to run.

***

At 4:30 in the morning on December 17, 2016, Trump, recently elected president, was doing what he often does in the wee hours: Attacking other people on Twitter. He was angry that China had seized an American drone—an act that he called, with his flair for misspelling, “unpresidented.” (Trump’s blithe neglect of spelling, punctuation and capitalization constituted yet another way in which he defied the usual practices.) But if this malapropism highlighted Trump’s ignorance of Standard Written English, it also combined, with inadvertent brilliance, two qualities that people had already come to associate with him. It showed his contempt for the accrued wisdom of the past, as enshrined in established practices and the ways in which a political culture operates. And it exhibited a disregard for what we call “presidential” behavior—the belief that our head of state comport himself with maturity, dignity and statesmanship. Unpresidential + unprecedented = unpresidented.

Of the many ways in which Trump has injured the body politic, something like the fusion of these two qualities is what sets him apart. Trump’s heedlessness of tradition and custom, mixed with his disrespect for the higher callings of his office, disturbed Republicans in Congress (even as they loyally carried his water) almost as much as it did the Democratic opposition. It transcended Trump’s right-wing politics; it may transcend politics altogether. It speaks to human qualities of decency and fair play.

On another view, however, Trump’s disdain for tradition and precedent is very much related to his politics. If Trump’s barstool norm-busting has formed the core of his attackers’ critiques of his governance, it has also fueled his admirers’ unflagging fealty. Despite the choruses of alarm triggered by each of Trump’s outlandish behaviors these last four years—most recently his instruction to a mob of supporters gathered before the White House to march on the Capitol and “stop the steal”—it has been obvious since the launch of his 2016 presidential bid that he would brook no effort to box him into the confines of standard political conduct. During his first, improbable campaign, prognosticators foretold doom each time Trump contravened the ground rules of politics: assailing John McCain’s prisoner-of-war status, mocking a reporter’s disability, crowing about his sexual assaults against women, lashing out at the Pope. But each time they underestimated the public’s tolerance—even outright support—for Trump’s boorish iconoclasm. Nor did his utter lack of experience in government or the military (also new among our presidents) bother his supporters. Although it deprived him of opportunities to develop a more politic sensibility, it also preserved his freewheeling, spontaneous impudence—a valuable token of his status as the ultimate outsider.

Though Trump’s unorthodox background, language and style fueled his rise, his iconoclasm went beyond those elements. Over time, it’s become fashionable to conflate Trump’s policies with the ideology of the Republican Party or the conservative movement as a whole. But to categorize Trump as the culmination of a half-century of Richard Nixon-through-George W. Bush conservative populism is a mistake. When Trump first entered the presidential race in 2015, the entire Republican establishment, including politicians like Mitch McConnell, donors like Sheldon Adelson, and even Fox News, schemed to stop him. On ideological and policy grounds, a murderer’s row of conservative journalists and intellectuals stood arrayed against him, laying out their substantive differences in a special issue of National Review. On as many as a dozen high-profile policy issues, Trump broke sharply with the GOP establishment: the Iraq War, free trade, Russia and Ukraine, Social Security, the use of “eminent domain” to appropriate land, transgender bathroom accessibility, aid to Planned Parenthood, financial regulation and many others. And while there’s no telling whether Trump would have won the nomination in 2016 had not the field been divided 16 ways, it turned out that GOP voters were yearning for someone who promised radical change from their party’s post-Ronald Reagan message. Trump’s populist sneering at the way things had been done was precisely what allowed his hostile takeover of the Grand Old Party to succeed. And he delivered his heretical message in his trademark unconventional style: shouting down rivals in the Republican debates; foregoing primary-night victory speeches for hour-long media-hogging telethons; celebrating crowd violence at his rallies; pushing wild conspiracy theories about his rivals that led his followers to chant, “Lock her up!”—all the better to underscore the change he meant to deliver.

By 2016, three developments in particular had weaned Republican voters from their long-held dogmas and primed them for Trump’s demagogic appeals. The disaster of the Iraq War occasioned skepticism about the ready resort to military force abroad that had marked both Bush administrations. The catastrophic financial crash of 2008 birthed a Tea Party insurgency, hostile to globalization and Wall Street, that proved to be a forerunner of Trumpism. And the changing demographic complexion of the country—epitomized by the election of Barack Obama as president—awakened a dormant reactionary and racist impulse. Suddenly, policy positions associated with the discredited “paleoconservative” or Pat Buchanan wing of the Republican Party enjoyed a new life: protectionism, isolationism, hardline immigration restriction, neo-Confederate stylings. Even white supremacists and right-wing anti-Semites felt emboldened to venture out of the shadows where they had skulked quietly for decades.

It wasn’t just the Republican political establishment, moreover, whom Trump voters saw themselves rebelling against. The national news media, since Nixon an object of right-wing ire, came in for especially harsh denunciations by Trump. But where Nixon would fulminate against journalists mainly in private, Trump had no compunctions about doing so in public, rhetorically going beyond where even Hall of Fame press-haters like Nixon had gone. From early in his 2016 campaign, Trump constantly (and publicly) insulted individual journalists and media institutions, sweepingly and baselessly labeled their reporting “lies” or “fake news,” and even fomented violence against the press at his mob-like rallies. He took aim, too, at other cultural elites, whether in entertainment (gratuitous tweets about Meryl Streep) or academia (his efforts, as president, to turn Princeton University’s confessed past racism against it), encouraging his followers to see themselves as aggrieved victims whose culture was being hijacked by the political correctness commissars. In both 2016 and 2020, reporters who interviewed Trump voters found many of them citing Trump’s lack of political correctness—his refusal to accede to those who would make certain words, phrases or attitudes unutterable—as their main reason for backing him. This, too, was a variant of the Trumpian iconoclasm: a headstrong refusal to acquiesce in new assumptions by which everyone was supposed to abide.

***



With a presidential style forged not in politics but in three decades of relentlessly courting celebrity attention, Trump seemed to grasp intuitively the value of the performance and the gesture. When he called Senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas”—an egregiously racist insult that it’s impossible to imagine any other president hurling at a senator—he concisely communicated that, despite liberals’ ostensible concern for minority groups, they might really be ready to exploit such people when it served them. When he said that police shouldn’t be “too nice” to suspects (say by protecting their heads when they were placed in a squad car), he signaled that, unlike other politicians, he was not going to pay lip service to decency when law and order was concerned.

Gestures and rhetoric, in other words, are not merely superficial. Beneath Trump’s violations of taboos lay fundamental tenets of his worldview and governing style. The first of those tenets was the conviction that commonsense and popular wisdom were often superior to expert opinion, even on technical matters. This attitude had been germinating in right-wing circles for years; George W. Bush’s presidency endured multiple scandals—in its policies on climate change, contraception and teaching creationism, among others—in which political appointees placed ideology over science to harmful public effect. But Trump made the populist Bush look like Bill Nye, the Science Guy. His looking directly at the sun during an eclipse was more than bad form; it was a statement that he knew better than medical experts. Doctoring a hurricane map with a Sharpie to suggest the storm would hit Alabama was not simply an example of immature, unpresidential conduct; it asserted, facts be damned, that he was right and the meteorologists were wrong.

The contempt for expertise made a hash of his foreign policy, too. Trump’s decision in late 2018 to acquiesce to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and pull U.S. troops out of Syria led both Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Brett McGurk, the special envoy dealing with ISIS, to resign. Months later, prompted by a phone call with Erdogan, Trump agreed to forfeit American protection of the beleaguered Kurds altogether. Foreign policy conducted in this way betrays and frustrates allies, emboldens enemies and weakens American influence abroad.

And of course, as many have noted, this vaunting of common wisdom over expertise reached its horrible, tragic conclusion in Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. His knowingly false claims and poor example-setting—directly contradicting his own medical experts, hosting a super-spreader event on the White House lawn—surely led the United States to suffer a higher death toll than it otherwise would have.

Second, Trump’s pleasure in defying expectations also validated the values of his right-wing supporters who feel stifled by the moralistic messages they perceive to be emanating from the entertainment industry, the news media, academia and other bastions of the liberal culture. The rage for shaming, punishing and firing people for politically incorrect slipups or insufficiently woke opinions found its scourge in the bluster of a self-styled Übermensch whose pre-presidential tagline was “You’re fired!” Trump’s own knee-jerk political incorrectness gave many Americans a gratifying feeling of thumbing their noses at all that. His insistence on a July Fourth military parade in peacetime, for example—though at variance with the long-held American principle of a strict military-civilian divide—gave his voters a chance to both flaunt their nationalism and own the libs. Many of Trump’s remarks, of course, went far beyond jingoistic posturing or rebukes to the excesses of woke culture. Whether labeling Haiti and African nations “shithole” countries or routinely calling African American reporters and politicians stupid, his denigration of Black people, along with other most minorities, fed the culture’s ugliest sentiments and gave succor to the merchants of hate.

Third, Trump’s incorrigibility reflected an impatience with and rejection of the pace and negotiations of democracy. In a large and ideologically diverse country such as ours, making policy takes time and often results in half-measures. Democracy also requires a good dose of hypocrisy and ambiguity, which contributes to its perceived phoniness. Politicians need freedom to deviate from their public positions when behind closed doors, in order to strike needed compromises. They also need to speak in ways that are not so specific that they will shatter the consensus they’re trying to forge. Proclaiming “I alone can fix it,” Trump has fancied himself the human whirlwind who can explode the gridlock, strip away the posturing and deliver results.

This last form of rule-breaking—nothing less than a severing of the sinews of democracy’s musculature—has taken an especially dire toll. When Trump declared a fake “emergency” so he could shift more funds toward building his wall on the Mexican border, in explicit contradiction of Congress’s stated intentions, he chipped away at the checks and balances on which our system rests. In attacking judges and justices or speaking about them as his personal handmaids, he cast the judiciary’s independence into doubt. Two of the biggest scandals of his presidency—his welcoming of election interference from Russia in the 2016 race and his solicitation of Ukrainian involvement in the 2020 race—both undermined the integrity of the foundation of democracy: free and fair elections. So, too, has his most recent, greatest norm violation: his desperate if doomed effort to reverse Joe Biden’s victory at the polls. Early on, stunts like flying Michigan lawmakers to the White House to try to get them to interfere with their state’s vote certification, seemed horrifying; but in contrast to having his legions storm of the Capitol to disrupt the constitutional process of vote counting, those early, unsuccessful meddling efforts appeared almost harmless. In fact, the final two weeks of Trump’s term—the insurrection, followed by Congress impeaching the president a second time—erased any lingering doubt that his was an unprecedented presidency.

Trump’s contempt for standard presidential behavior has also damaged American democracy by reducing the transparency that the public expects in the conduct of government business. In discontinuing the news conferences by either the president or his press secretary—a century-long staple of White House-media relations—Trump shrank access to information by reporters, and, by extension, the public. His previously unheard-of policy of meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin without any staff or note-takers—and in one case, when a note-taker was present, seizing the records afterward—left not just the public but his own aides in the dark about what he said to America’s most resolute nemesis. And Trump’s spurning of a more recent but still important convention—disclosing one’s tax returns—has worsened the miasma of financial corruption that has long swirled about him.

A final, related category of Trumpian transgression lies in his disrespect for the professionalism of civil servants and, notwithstanding their affiliation with the executive branch, for their independence from his personal agendas.

If Trump’s motives for disregarding the experts in some cases—foreign policy, the pandemic—reflected simply his stubborn willfulness, in other cases it arose from a corrupt instinct for self-preservation, compromising the very integrity of our justice system. In the 2016 campaign, when chants of “lock her up” reverberated through the arenas where he delighted his fans with taunts at Hillary Clinton, it became evident that he held no respect for the line between official justice and personal vengeance. One of the most commonly recurring fears throughout his presidency is that he would abuse the power of his office to protect himself from the law. And he did so repeatedly, firing FBI director James Comey, threatening to fire special prosecutor Robert Mueller and taking revenge on FBI officials who investigated him, while delivering pardons and commutations to pretty everyone ensnared in Mueller’s dragnet. Other pardons, cockily tossed like rolls of paper towels to friendly Republican congressmen Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter, reaffirmed his willingness to erase the time-honored distinction between justice and personal reward. And the flip side of misusing the pardon power was debasing the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a special honor hitherto reserved for men and women of extraordinary valor and distinction; Trump doled them out to Rush Limbaugh and, more appallingly still, congressional abettors Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan.

***


To people in New York or Washington or America’s comfortable bubbles of credentialed achievement, or to anyone who has thrived by diligently following the rules, it seems nearly impossible to imagine how his presidency survived all this deliberate recklessness. To review these four years of lawlessness and recklessness—and we haven’t even gotten to the rape allegations or hush money paid to porn stars, both of which dwarfed all other presidential sex scandals in severity—is to wonder anew how Trump survived four years, let alone came close to earning another four.

One answer, often forgotten, is that Trump’s iconoclasm was fully on display from the day he declared his presidential candidacy in 2015. If you voted for him in 2016, you probably knew what you were getting. You therefore were unlikely to be appalled by the “shithole” countries remark, or the 4 a.m. tweeting, or the porn star scandals, or the Ukraine debacle, or any of the rest of it. Either you found a way to rationalize all that stuff away, or you simply cared more about tax cuts, getting right-wing judges appointed, deregulation or other parts of the conservative agenda to which Trump remained true.

But much more importantly, for many Americans—especially in Trump’s base—this rule-breaking was the whole point. Trump famously said in 2016 that his admirers would stick with him if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue, and it’s true that his patina of scandal-repellent Teflon would make even Ronald Reagan envious. Certainly, the polarized partisanship of Washington today explains the unwillingness of so many of his fellow Republicans to cross their own voters and break with Trump; had he come to power in 1974, he probably would have been sent packing as Nixon was. But beneath it all was, for many, a true loyalty to the man, an admiration of his style, and, ultimately, a good deal of contempt for civility and decency, transparency and expertise, constitutionality and democracy. Trump may now be headed for Mar-a-Lago—no small thing—but that contempt remains. Nearly two-thirds of Republican voters, even after January 6, say Trump acted responsibly after losing the election to Biden.

The scariest moment of the assault on Capitol may have been not the bludgeoning of a police officer with a fire extinguisher, or a security agent’s bullet killing an insurrectionist, or any other act of wretched violence. It may have come after the riot was put down, when more than a hundred Republican congressmen and senators returned to the building and decided there was nothing untoward with continuing the mischief that Trump had earlier begun. Some ranted and raved as if they were appearing on Alex Jones’s “Infowars.” To persist in demanding that their harrowed colleagues and a dumbstruck nation indulge their delusions and lies, even after all that had just happened, was a monstrous affront not just to democracy and the Constitution, but to simple human decency. Trump, it was clear, was finished. But these scoundrels, who had honed their politics under his wayward rule, weren’t going anywhere.

More than most departing presidents, Trump faces an uncertain future. One way lies an acceleration of his social ostracism in the wake of the Capitol riot, and perhaps prosecution on multiple fronts. The other way lies a political comeback—an outcome that strikes many as unlikely or preposterous, but perhaps no more than his winning the White House seemed in 2015. What may determine his fate will not be just the strength of the movement he nurtured but also the remaining strength of the democratic norms and rules to which he sought to lay waste. Many of those norms, once broken, aren’t so easy to rebuild; whether Trump continues as a potent force or recedes as a bundle of bad memories, American politics is likely going to look very different in his wake.

The crash landing of 'Operation Warp Speed'


As the nation’s Covid-19 response was careening off the rails in March and April 2020, about a dozen top health and defense department officials huddled in antiseptic meeting rooms to devise what they believed would be the Trump administration’s greatest triumph — a vaccine program so fast, so special, so successful that grateful Americans would forgive earlier failures and business schools would teach classes about it for decades.

They dubbed their project "MP2," for a second Manhattan Project, after the race to create the nuclear weapons that ended World War II. Alex Azar, the Health and Human Services secretary who was often at odds with the White House and his own department, sounded like an Army general rallying his troops: “If we can develop an atomic bomb in 2.5 years and put a man on the moon in seven years, we can do this this year, in 2020," Azar would declare, according to his deputy chief of staff, Paul Mango, who helped lead the strategy sessions.
"It was just a spirit of optimism," Mango added.

Now, in the final days of the Trump administration, their “MP2” — later redubbed “Operation Warp Speed” — occupies a peculiar place in the annals of the administration’s ill-fated response to Covid-19: In many ways, it was successful, living up to the highest expectations of its architects. The Trump administration did help deliver a pair of working vaccines in 2020, with more shots on the way. But the officials who expected to be taking a victory lap on distributing tens of millions of vaccine doses are instead being pressed to explain why the initiative appears to be limping to the finish.

Governors say the Warp Speed effort has made promises it didn't keep, with deliveries of doses falling short and reserve supplies exhausted. Physicians and logistics experts have critiqued the disorderly rollout, arguing that the Trump team should have done a better job of coordinating the nation's mass vaccination effort. The incoming Biden administration on Friday morning announced they'd even do away with the initiative's branding, which President Donald Trump has touted for months.

Operation Warp Speed "is the Trump team's name for their program. We are phasing in a new structure," tweeted incoming White House press secretary Jen Psaki, adding there's an "urgent need to address failures of the Trump team approach to vaccine distribution."

It’s a deflating end for the Trump officials who conceived of Operation Warp Speed last spring, hanging themed posters inside the health department that boast the slogan "Because Winning Matters!"

POLITICO spoke with 11 officials closely involved in the conception of the vaccine project, in addition to other government officials and outside advisers, about how that optimistic vision of "MP2" became "Operation Warp Speed" — and where the rollout went astray in recent weeks. Many expressed frustration and disappointment, but also a faith that the long arc of history will prove they succeeded — pointing to data that roughly 1 million Americans per day are now getting vaccinated under Trump's watch, ahead of President-elect Joe Biden's own vow to accomplish the same.

The recent news about distribution problems "just sucks," said one health official. "This time it was supposed to be different… it still can be."

And asked if he was disappointed by recent news of setbacks, the cabinet secretary who steered the project offered a response as enigmatic as the program itself.

“You fail to achieve 100 percent of the goals you do not set," Azar says now.

Setting the ambition

The first Manhattan Project, conceived at the dawn of World War II, was an audacious gambit to marry American science with U.S. military might in the race to develop the atom bomb. The self-styled second project would similarly pair scientists and military experts — although in the pursuit of cures, not combat — and stake the pharma industry to make billion-dollar bets on coronavirus treatments that might otherwise never be funded.

And the hope — carried for months by Azar and his deputies, bruised from their battles last spring with the White House's coronavirus task force — was that their tightly run MP2 operation, and not a task force consumed by political rivalries, would deliver the desperately needed end to this generation's world war on the virus.

As MP2 was rebranded as Operation Warp Speed, and as promising Covid-19 vaccines sped through trials and into Americans' arms, the officials believed they'd turned their vision into a reality, racing the clock as the pandemic worsened and the potential end of the administration loomed.

"By the end of this year, 20 million Americans could be vaccinated," Azar effused on Dec. 14, cheering as the first shots were administered at George Washington University Hospital. "By the end of January, 50 million Americans could have had a first vaccination."

But the Trump administration's heady optimism about vaccine development has collided with sluggish vaccine rollout, tarnishing the $15 billion-plus effort they hoped to leave as a legacy.

Only about 13 million Americans have received their first dose of the vaccine, according to federal data, a far cry from the 30 million-plus people that the Trump administration had hoped to vaccinate by now. Logistical breakdowns have plagued the process; just more than one-third of doses distributed by Operation Warp Speed have been administered, and the initiative's top military official recently issued a public apology for misleading states on how many vaccine doses they'd get.

The stumbles have sent leaders back to the drawing board — Azar this month hunkered down at Camp David before announcing a revised plan to speed shots and punish laggard states — and sparked recriminations between the federal government and local leaders, with each side pointing fingers at the other. Some Trump officials are also griping about the Centers for Disease Control's deliberative policies and lack of operational expertise — a reprise of the feuds that marked last year's bumpy rollout of Covid-19 tests and supplies.

"The narrative that CDC is the harmless victim is bullshit, frankly," said a career government official involved in Operation Warp Speed, reflecting on meetings where defense-department logistics experts were puzzled by the scientific agency's push to play a major role in vaccine distribution. "We had thought this through, but ended up giving them way too much deference."

While the Atlanta-based CDC has referred politically sensitive questions to HHS, which oversees it, some of its most prominent alumni have rushed to the agency's defense. "[T]housands of public servants in Atlanta and around the world have spent the past year being maligned and undermined at every turn, serving as punching bags for all that has gone wrong during this pandemic," former CDC directors Jeffrey Koplan, Julie Gerberding, Richard Besser and Tom Frieden wrote in a joint op-ed on Thursday.

Meanwhile, officials involved in Operation Warp Speed from its early days concede that they're dismayed by perceptions that the vaccine project is a failure. For much of 2020, they had safeguarded the effort from the political pressures that had warped the White House task force and led Azar to be shunted aside. They had gotten a nearly blank check from Trump — and convinced him, for the most part, to back off public pressure.

"For all the stories about 'political interference in Warp Speed,' how many vaccines did you see actually pushed out before the election? Zero," said one official. "We held the line."

"We had a lot of support on the protection of the integrity of Operation Warp Speed," added Brian Harrison, Azar's chief of staff.

For Azar, who was at risk of being ousted from the administration last year, the vaccine initiative increasingly emerged as his flagship — a project that combined his years of experience as a government official who had devised national pandemic plans during the Bush administration with his background as a pharmaceutical executive, learning the levers that would speed up the industry's production.

The health secretary, a privately religious man who regularly attended bible study with other Cabinet members before the pandemic, even saw divine intervention in his path from HHS to the private sector and back again.

"I think that God put me in this job at this time for this reason," Azar told POLITICO on Nov. 23. "Putting me in the drug industry where I got to see how R&D works and the financial incentives… Putting me here."

And even as Trump lost re-election and Biden prepared to take office, Trump's deputies insisted that the Democrat moving into the White House would be inheriting a ready-made end to the Covid-19 crisis.

"Very clearly by January 20, this will be a mop-up operation," Mango predicted on Dec. 3. "All the heavy lifting will have been done. The flow of vaccines will have been out there for four to six weeks."

Yet as Inauguration Day approached, and the vaccine initiative sputtered, Biden's team began complaining that Trump's vaccine effort was a mess, failing on short-term shots and insufficient long-term planning. As a result, the president-elect is increasingly signaling he'll opt for his own approach — asking for Operation Warp Speed's top science adviser to step down, planning a restructured model and announcing his own plan — even as Trump officials rush to put the final stamp on theirs.

Bumpy beginnings

When Azar's "MP2" plan first emerged last spring, there was no guarantee that the White House would even hear it out.

"It was a tough time for the secretary," said one ally, reflecting on the series of slights that had led to Azar being removed as coronavirus task force leader at the end of February and increasingly exiled to the Humphrey Building, the brutalist HHS headquarters at the foot of Capitol Hill. Azar also was still reeling from his own recent attempts to oust Seema Verma, the health department's Medicare chief and Azar's nominal deputy, a costly battle that had prompted Verma's White House allies to turn on the HHS secretary and left Azar's job status as an open question in Washington.

Under Vice President Mike Pence, the White House coronavirus task force continued to fight over the response, with health and economic officials feuding over issues like a potential ban on cruise ships while Trump himself threw out ever-wilder theories about how the virus would simply disappear. But when the president began musing about the prospect of developing a vaccine in less than a year — drawing the ire of fact checkers who suggested it couldn't be done — Azar and his aides saw an opening for redemption.

"So much of the early Covid-19 response had gone wrong," said one official. "This was a chance to get the vaccine right."

"If you want to pick a date that I believe Operation Warp Speed, that the germination of it began, it was on March 27," said Mango, referencing external inquiries about the government's new $450 million contract with Johnson & Johnson on Covid-19 vaccine development, a decision that took HHS leadership by surprise.

Azar "started asking some questions about, okay, we're gonna invest almost a half a billion dollars in this company. What are we getting in return? And because of this, how much are they accelerating their ability to develop a vaccine?" Mango added. "And he was completely unfulfilled by the answer, as both of us were."

"We literally sat down that night, and he asked me to go get every contract we assigned that had anything to do with vaccines or therapeutics, so that we could review them and see how much of a sense of urgency was built into those contracts," Mango said. "And again, we were completely unfulfilled."

HHS officials convened a new advisory board for the secretary featuring the government's top scientists — including National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, the CDC's Nancy Messonnier and others — that met several times in early April, reviewing the initial development of Covid-19 treatments and vaccines. In the eyes of senior officials, the government-funded efforts were haphazard and, in their eyes, not ambitious enough.

"It quickly became apparent that there was an opportunity here that we could be more proactive and actually push to fundamentally change these timelines," Azar said.

That belief crystallized in an HHS meeting on April 10, where Peter Marks, a top regulator at the Food and Drug Administration, argued for a sweeping effort to use the federal government's powers and deep pockets, and officials openly discussed the idea of a second Manhattan Project that would rush Covid-19 treatments and vaccines, such as by simultaneously pursuing pharmaceutical development and manufacturing.

"Having worked in the pharmaceutical industry and worked on drug development, it's very clear that there's a lot of dead space in drug development," Marks said on an HHS podcast last year, discussing the Operation Warp Speed planning meetings. "Sometimes, there are ways to eliminate dead space… you can eliminate time between things."

By Monday April 13, the team had developed a PowerPoint that described their "MP2" vision, and Azar met with White House senior adviser Jared Kushner to pitch him on the plan.

"We are the country that put a man on the moon and returned them safely to Earth… We are the country that within three years developed an atomic weapon that won World War II," Azar said he told Kushner. "If we put the entire financial and human capital and private sector weight of this country behind it, we can get a vaccine by January 1."

Kushner was "completely supportive" of the project, Azar told POLITICO, and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows also threw his support behind the idea. The health secretary began a process of prospecting for new allies, quietly calling industry contacts to find potential drug-industry executives who could help steer the new initiative.

But this low-profile period was short-lived, as Azar and his team would soon be reeling from "nuclear-level attacks" on the public affairs front, said one official who works closely with the secretary.

First, an April 23 Wall Street Journal exposé pinned much of the blame for the nation's Covid-19 failures on Azar's leadership, saying that the secretary's "early missteps" set back the U.S. response.

"[I]nterviews with more than two dozen administration officials and others involved in the government’s coronavirus effort show that Mr. Azar waited for weeks to brief the president on the threat, oversold his agency’s progress in the early days and didn’t coordinate effectively across the health-care divisions under his purview," the Journal concluded.

Hours later, Azar's chief of staff Harrison came under fire after a Reuters article, "Former Labradoodle breeder was tapped to lead U.S. pandemic task force," attacked Harrison's qualifications and handling of early Covid-19 meetings. The article became a national talking point, even as Harrison's allies insisted that that the portrayal wasn't fair and pointed to a Dallas Morning News column that challenged its claims.

"He had previously worked in government and started the breeding business because of family health issues, so he could work from home" said a former HHS official who worked with Harrison. "And he didn't 'lead the task force,' though he scheduled meetings for it.”

The news cycle would only worsen for HHS' leaders: By that Saturday, Azar's White House critics were weighing an attempt to push him out.

"It was an interesting weekend for me," Azar allowed, saying that he took "a very long walk in my neighborhood" — and used it as the moment to make the pitch for what became Operation Warp Speed.

Spending hours on his walk, Azar called officials like then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper, White House Office of Management and Budget Director Russ Vought, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, White House coronavirus coordinator Deborah Birx and other senior officials, trying to convince them on his plan.

"I made the $3 trillion pitch, that we should be in an un-resource-constrained environment," Azar said. "We should put everything we have against this. It should be a whole of government approach. We should build a board of directors that involves us. And we can declare a goal of January 1 for a vaccine and move against that."

Azar said he won unanimous approval on the vaccine plan, and other officials said he shored up his once-tenuous standing while putting a new spotlight on his rivals. Four days later, Joe Grogan — Trump's domestic policy chief and one of Azar's fiercest critics — announced he was leaving the administration.

By that point, the name also had evolved past its "MP2" origins.

"We looked at the names, Peter [Marks] and I, and we realized that 'Manhattan Project 2' really didn't connotate what we thought," said Robert Kadlec, the health department's emergency and preparedness chief. "You know, building a bomb, it's not developing the vaccine [although] it was the same level of effort."

"We looked for an alternative term that would be really catching one's imagination, that would be more contemporary ... and if you remember the scene from Star Trek, 'to go where no man has gone before?’ " Kadlec added. "That's really what we tried to capture."


Formalizing the initiative

Senior officials huddled again at the Pentagon on May 1, a small group that included Azar, then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper, deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, Kushner, and Adam Boehler, a former health official who led a U.S. international development agency and was a close Kushner ally, using the session to solidify their plan.

"It was what became Operation Warp Speed in terms of the rubber hitting in the road, how we're doing this," said Harrison, who also attended the meeting, adding that HHS and Pentagon officials used the session to divvy up responsibilities. "We needed the muscle the Pentagon could provide — logistics, operations, contract and support. We had that all committed as well as the notional timelines."

The decision was also made: don't repeat the mistakes that bogged down the White House coronavirus task force. That ad hoc effort, launched in January as the first Covid-19 cases where detected in the United States, sprawled to include dozens of senior officials and aides, with attendees complaining that the forum was unfocused as leaks constantly spilled into the press and Azar was ousted as leader.

Azar didn't directly respond to questions about task force operations, but praised the structure of Warp Speed, which included a strict chain of command — leaning on the business and military backgrounds of many participants — and a small executive board that included the health and defense secretaries.

"We needed to be able to operate with complete dispatch and efficiency and nimbleness and authority," Azar said. "A board that could make decisions, do so quickly, and have those decisions stand and not be relitigated has been critical."

Meanwhile, HHS officials quickly moved forward on recruiting venture capitalist Moncef Slaoui as Warp Speed's top scientific adviser and tapping other industry veterans like Carlo de Notaristefani to oversee the project's manufacturing.

The health secretary also encouraged the team to approach the project as though money was no object, with the Operation Warp Speed team awarding billions of dollars as they placed bets on vaccine candidates, expecting that not all would quickly pan out. "It’s important to marshal this team to be in business what’s called a ‘big hairy audacious goal’ or ‘BHAG,’" Azar said.

Excluding the task force wasn't well-received at the White House, with senior officials in the vice president's office bristling that they weren't included in the early Warp Speed discussions and quickly skeptical of the effort after news broke that it was underway.

"We were blindsided by it," said a former White House official involved in the task force. "They wouldn’t brief the task force on it… [just] a private briefing."

"That from day 1 set the tone for Warp Speed," the former official added. "It was dysfunction. It was just another shadow task force that popped up."

Even as vaccine development raced ahead across the summer and fall, other headaches emerged. Slaoui's decision to join Operation Warp Speed as a contractor, rather than a special government employee — allowing him to steer billions of dollars in pharmaceutical spending while keeping millions of dollars in industry stock himself — drew fire and calls for an investigation from congressional Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren. The attacks rankled Trump administration officials, who called Slaoui a hero for joining the effort and warned that scrutiny of his stock holdings would delay a vaccine, which only sparked more criticism. In November, Trump fired Esper as defense secretary a week after the election, potentially putting the Warp Speed partnership between the health department and Pentagon at risk, although officials said that senior defense official Norquist ensured that collaboration continued.

Meanwhile, as the vaccines themselves drew closer, public health experts grew worried that there would be insufficient supply or resources for distribution. One public blow-up came after reports that the Trump administration had passed up an opportunity to secure millions of additional doses of Pfizer's promising vaccine before the FDA authorized it last month.

"We fear this is yet another instance in which the Trump Administration’s failure to develop a comprehensive national vaccines plan in a timely manner could jeopardize efforts to get people vaccinated and ultimately end this pandemic," Senate Democrats wrote to Operation Warp Speed officials on Dec. 14.

Problems mount

In recent weeks, critics of Operation Warp Speed have increasingly been proven right, as the vaccine rollout has been plagued by a series of well-chronicled problems.

The Trump administration's decision to punt much of the work of vaccine distribution to the states has left many local health officials overwhelmed, saying that they didn't receive sufficient funding or resources to handle the work of administering doses. State leaders in December also announced that HHS had steadily lowered the total number of promised doses, prompting a war of words between governors and the Trump administration before Operation Warp Speed's top logistics official apologized for misleading states and admitted the federal effort had wrongly inflated estimates.

“It was a planning error, and I am responsible,” Army Gen. Gustave Perna said last month. “We’re learning from it. We’re trying to get better.”

Inside the administration, officials insist that some of the operational challenges don't rest with Operation Warp Speed but separate efforts that fell to the CDC. The Atlanta-based public health agency has been at odds with HHS for much of the pandemic — with Trump appointees seeking to muzzle CDC scientists and change the agency's reports — and the vaccine rollout prompted new tensions, despite a somewhat different cast of officials involved.

"CDC made it very clear that they owned working with the states on the last mile of getting people vaccinated — that was their turf," said one HHS official closely involved in the vaccine project. As a result, CDC ended up playing a major role in determining how vaccines should be prioritized, making recommendations that have guided states' own strategies.

While CDC officials have complained that HHS interference has made it harder to accomplish their mission during Covid-19, department leaders say that they've only tried to push the science-focused agency to be more operational.

"In June, they wanted to send out the H1N1 playbook to the states with literally the title changed," the official added, referring to the years-old guidance that was used to fight a decade-old pandemic. "While there were plenty of good ideas in there, rubber-stamping that was not a good idea." HHS instead held back the agency's vaccine-distribution playbook until September for reviews and changes, sparking complaints within CDC that valuable time was lost, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.

"The CDC needs to stop treating 'who's getting the vaccine next' like they're announcing a beauty pageant," said another HHS official, who pointed to one agency slide session from December about allocating vaccine doses. "Is that clear or is mud clearer?"

Azar himself has grown frustrated with CDC, said a person who's spoken with him, saying that the health secretary believes the agency's approach allowed states to be "overly prescriptive" in administering vaccines, slowing the process down.

Amid the clamor to speed up the pace of shots, Azar cloistered himself in recent days at Camp David, revising vaccine plans and dealing with a new, last-minute complication: the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol, fueled by Trump's rhetoric that the presidential election was "stolen." The crisis prompted fellow Trump appointees like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to resign, and senior officials to weigh the possibility of invoking the 25th Amendment to take power away from Trump.

"I’m committed — I’ve wrestled with this — I’m committed to see this through in my role as health secretary during a pandemic, to ensure that vaccines and therapeutics get out to the American people and to ensure a smooth hand-off to President Biden’s team," Azar said on ABC’s "Good Morning America" on Tuesday, pressed over his response to Trump's comments.

On Jan. 12, the health secretary announced an overhaul of vaccine distribution, saying that the administration would quickly ship more doses instead of keeping some in reserve, expressing confidence that the pace of production had improved. "We are releasing the entire supply we have for order by states, rather than holding second doses in physical reserve," Azar said.

But that move — initially welcomed by state leaders, who began to plan for a vaccine surge — has only sparked a new round of recriminations, with governors surprised to learn that the federal reserve is effectively exhausted and there aren't any additional doses to come.

"I am demanding answers from the Trump Administration," tweeted Oregon Gov. Kate Brown on Friday morning. "This is a deception on a national scale. Oregon’s seniors, teachers, all of us, were depending on the promise of Oregon’s share of the federal reserve of vaccines being released to us."

The health department rushed to clarify its stance, with Azar saying on NBC News on Friday night that "there's not a reserve stockpile" and that the department was just announcing its updated policy to move more quickly.

Health officials also have said that some of their goals have been mischaracterized in the media, with Azar claiming to NBC on Friday that "we said we would have doses available for 20 million people," not 20 million people vaccinated.

"Because we didn't control the shots in the arms, we never had that internal goal," a person with knowledge of Azar's thinking said, adding that the internal goal was 20 million available doses. "That became a narrative and a way to attack an incredible sensitive project and that bothers him because that was never the intention."

However, Azar and other officials expressly promised "20 million vaccinations" by the end of December.

The Trump team’s projections of total doses manufactured and distributed across December and January also were “wildly off-target,” concluded Yale University health policy professor Jason Schwartz.

The shifting expectations and patchwork policies have unsettled public health experts, and the incoming Biden administration has pledged to be more aggressive on vaccinations than the last.

“The vaccine rollout in the United States has been a dismal failure thus far,” Biden said in a speech on Thursday, teasing his own Covid-19 plan. “We’ll have to move heaven and earth to get more people vaccinated, to create more places for them to get vaccinated, to mobilize more medical teams, to get shots in people’s arms, to increase vaccine supply and to get it out the door as fast as possible.”

Outside analysts say that the situation in the United States may not be as dire as the politically charged rhetoric suggests.

Grading the Trump administration's performance "has to take into account how other countries are doing," HuffPost's Jonathan Cohn wrote on Friday. "It turns out the U.S. is faring pretty well, relatively speaking. In fact, shots are getting into arms faster than in most of Western Europe, at least according to the available data."

"The crazy thing here is how much has gone right," insisted Michael Pratt, Operation Warp Speed's chief communications officer, on Thursday. "The vaccines were developed within a year. There are tens of millions of doses now available. More than 11 million people are reported as having the vaccine… [and] it's better than the data shows."

"The fact of the matter is it represented the best of American science and biotechnology, and it was the work of hundreds of thousands of people to get us into this position," said Kadlec, the health department's preparedness chief. "This is what America was made of."

Who is ‘essential’? Food and farm workers left in limbo in vaccine priorities


The nation’s food workers, hit hard by Covid-19 infections throughout the crisis, are finding resistance in the race to get vaccinated.

The industry is clamoring to prioritize frontline food workers who kept Americans fed throughout the worst of the pandemic even as thousands of them fell sick and hundreds died. But limited doses and a haphazard patchwork of distribution plans are leading to fears that thousands more workers will get hit — potentially stymieing food production in the coming weeks and months.

After last year’s widespread failure by employers and government regulators to protect food and farm workers from the virus, labor advocates fear that millions could once again fall through the cracks. President-elect Joe Biden is pushing for a $20 billion national vaccine program, but the plan doesn’t specifically address the needs of food and ag workers.

The CDC’s guidelines designate meat processing, grocery store, and food and agriculture workers as “non-health care frontline essential workers,” part of the second tier of vaccine priority, or “Phase 1b.” But the federal government is giving states the authority to craft their own plans and timelines for distribution — some of which leave out agriculture workers altogether, while others are rapidly changing.

In New York, for example, a last-minute decision by Gov. Andrew Cuomo dropped farm and food processing workers from its Phase 1b vaccine rollout, after the state received fewer doses of the vaccine than it expected. Agriculture groups including the New York Farm Bureau, apple growers and dairy processors were quick to blast that decision.

“We understand this is a fluid and evolving situation and unexpected circumstances occur, but we are asking that these employees be first in line when expanding Phase 1b to other populations,” said Ozzie Orsillo, executive vice president of the Northeast Dairy Foods Association.

In the absence of standard guidance, labor advocates are left to stitch together clear directions and information for workers who are vital to America’s food system but face unique challenges to accessing the vaccine.

“It’s challenging since the U.S. is so big and there’s 50 states with 50 different ways of distributing,” said Laszlo Madaras, chief medical officer at the Migrant Clinicians Network, a nonprofit organization of clinicians who help bring health care to farm workers. “We don’t want to see farm workers lost in that shuffle.”

Madaras said his group is pushing for equitable access to vaccines for workers in the agriculture industry, which relies heavily on immigrants and seasonal foreign labor.

“We have a database geared towards people on the move to help get them from one community health center to another,” Madaras said. “We are working to help those farm workers who are on the move — who may get the first vaccine in North Carolina and then are due for their second one when they reach Virginia — and to make sure (they get the) correct second vaccine.”

Difficulties of reaching workers

A lack of access to health care, misinformation, public charge concerns and uncooperative employers also pose major challenges. Biden on Friday promised to focus on low-income communities of color and combating mistrust about vaccines as he overhauls the federal rollout.

The complexities in vaccine distribution can be seen across the country, including in Idaho, where health officials have warned that outbreaks in food processing plants are driving the disproportionately high rate of coronavirus infection among Latinos in the state.

Some agriculture workers in Idaho, including food processing employees, could get the vaccine as early as February, but advocates in the state still worry about equitable reach.

“Our farm workers are likely to live in rural communities which don’t have an adequate health care structure,” said Samantha Guerrero, an agriculture and food community organizer at the Idaho Immigrant Resource Alliance, which was formed by a coalition of community organizations. “This places these communities last.”

Oregon was one of the first states to see large outbreaks of Covid-19 among agriculture workers — but it has not designated them within the order of vaccine distribution.

“Transporting to rural areas in Oregon, storing and making the vaccine available in rural communities really adds to the complexity of reaching our workers,” said Reyna Lopez, executive director for Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, the largest Latino union in Oregon.

Other large agriculture states like Florida and Texas also didn’t specify when food sector workers can access the vaccine.

Hot spots turned into vaccination sites

The nation’s largest meat processors — whose slaughterhouses became hot spots for coronavirus outbreaks last spring — have since stepped up worker safety measures and testing. Now they’re mounting an effort to vaccinate the meatpacking workforce, including by doing it themselves.

JBS says it’s working with health officials and providers to coordinate vaccine distribution at meat plants, purchasing ultra-cold freezers, and educating employees about the importance of getting the shots.

“Our goal is to achieve the highest voluntary participation rate possible,” said Cameron Bruett, head of corporate affairs for JBS USA and its majority-owned poultry giant, Pilgrim’s Pride.

Depending on the plant, Bruett said, vaccines could either be provided at nearby clinics or administered directly by company nurses.

Keira Lombardo, chief administrative officer for Smithfield Foods, said the company already has medical sites at its plants and expects vaccines will be available for distribution to critical workers within 60 days, though the situation varies by state.

Tyson Foods is teaming up with clinical services provider Matrix Medical Network to deploy “mobile health clinics” at slaughterhouses to administer vaccines and offer counseling and education to employees, the company announced on Wednesday.

Cargill is checking with health authorities about the potential for distributing vaccines at its facilities, but it’s still “too early to make firm plans” at this point, said Daniel Sullivan, a spokesperson for the company.

Sullivan said Cargill would help facilitate vaccines for its employees, particularly frontline plant workers, “without jeopardizing the prioritization of essential health care workers and others at extreme high risk.”

Again, the lack of a uniform distribution system means the nationwide companies have to tailor their approach by state, leaving some in limbo as state and federal officials come up with clearer guidelines — including instructions on immigration status eligibility, because a significant portion of food and farm workers are undocumented.

In Nebraska, for example, Gov. Pete Ricketts first declared, then walked back, a statement that undocumented immigrants were ineligible for vaccines. The Mexican government later threatened to use the labor provisions of the USMCA to ensure that Mexican migrants aren’t left out.

Advocates say the U.S. federal and local governments need to clearly state that immigration status will not be a factor in eligibility for the vaccine — nor will getting vaccinated jeopardize a worker’s immigration status in the future.

For its part, the Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC released a data use and sharing agreement essentially promising that any data collected during vaccination will remain confidential and cannot be used in any prosecution, including immigration enforcement.

Confronting vaccine misinformation

Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, a national farm worker women’s organization, is trying to increase awareness and confidence about coronavirus tests and vaccines, and combat confusion about the cost, requirements for immigration status and how the vaccine works — including mistrust fueled by social media and the Trump administration's hardline immigration rhetoric.

“People are afraid … We knew this was going to be a battle,” said Mily Treviño-Sauceda, executive director and co-founder of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas. “In Florida, the governor was blaming agricultural workers for the increase in Covid-19, and these kinds of racist accusations have contributed to distrust. There is a pressure on our people that they shouldn't be a public charge. When you talk about publicly available, government-provided vaccines, you do this after they have been told to not be that public charge.”

Mónica Ramírez, president and attorney at the advocacy group Justice for Migrant Women, has been organizing in Ohio — another state without a public plan for agriculture and food sector workers. Ramírez faced pushback from growers and employers who refused to let testing occur at their operations over fear that it was a way to get workers to unionize.

“In order for this to work, there has to be a partnership between growers, advocates, the community and the state. That’s the only way it’s going to work,” Ramírez said. “Those concerns need to be secondary, and they weren’t this summer… I hope when it comes to vaccination people will set those concerns aside.”

Pandemic reveals tale of 2 Californias like never before


SACRAMENTO — The tale of two Californias has never been clearer.

As Bay Area tech workers set up home offices to avoid coronavirus exposure, grocers, farm workers and warehouse employees in the Central Valley never stopped reporting to job sites. Renters pleaded for eviction relief while urban professionals fled for suburbs and resort towns, taking advantage of record-low interest rates to buy bigger, better homes. Most of the state’s 6 million public school children are learning remotely, while affluent families opted for private classrooms that are up and running.

California has long been a picture of inequality, but the pandemic has widened the gap in ways few could have imagined. While other states face large budget deficits, California has a $15 billion surplus, thanks to record 2020 gains from Silicon Valley and white-collar workers who pay the bulk of California's taxes.

Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled the state's record-high $227 billion budget last week despite a year in which unemployment soared beyond 10 percent and the homelessness crisis reached devastating levels in Los Angeles and beyond.

He has proposed directing much of California's bounty toward struggling residents and low-income families, and it remains to be seen whether the state will continue to reap similar tax rewards in future years. If this is a onetime windfall, Newsom and lawmakers will have to find other resources to sustain additional aid — and face pressure to raise tax rates even more on the wealthy.

“There’s a way in which the pandemic has amplified all of these systemic and societal issues we were always aware of,” said Brandon Greene, director of the racial and economic justice program at the ACLU of Northern California. “These gaps persist and are widening. And if it can happen here, in a blue state where you have the political capital, it can happen anywhere.”

California’s low-income workers and people of color have borne the brunt of both the economic fallout of the recession and the physical toll of the virus itself. The Latino Covid-19 death rate is 22 percent higher than the statewide average, and the Black death rate is 16 percent higher, according to California’s health equity tracker.

Even before the pandemic, ZIP codes home to just 2 percent of California's population held 20 percent of the state’s net worth, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office. In 2020, more than 40 percent of households making less than $40,000 annually saw reduced work hours or pay, and an equal share had to cut back on food, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

"Decades-long inequalities, those preexisting conditions around race, around ethnicity, the preexisting conditions around wealth disparities and income disparities, obviously have come to the fore and must be addressed," Newsom said while outlining his budget proposal last week.

Moments later, he made a stark proclamation about how the other side is doing: "The folks at the top are doing pretty damn well."

Newsom, 53, is a multimillionaire businessman in addition to being governor, and his own personal life has punctuated the extreme differences in California. His dinner at the French Laundry in November not only enraged the public for his flouting of his own advice against gathering; it served as an optics problem with menu prices that many Californians cannot afford even in normal times. Newsom sent his own children back to private classrooms in late October while most families were stuck in remote learning. When he had to quarantine in November, he said he was "blessed because we have many rooms" in his Sacramento County home.

However, the Democratic governor has prided himself on bridging the equity gap and has branded his efforts as "California for All" since taking office two years ago. He appointed the state's first surgeon general, Nadine Burke Harris, who has focused her career on addressing childhood trauma in disadvantaged communities and led vaccine discussions mindful of equal distribution. Newsom has pushed hard to reopen public schools this spring because he says students in low-income neighborhoods are struggling the most with distance learning.


Newsom has proposed $600 state stimulus checks to nearly 4 million low-income workers as part of his budget plan. He launched an effort to shelter tens of thousands of homeless Californians in hotel rooms when the outbreak began and then transitioned toward a program that would convert that into permanent housing. He helped enact renter protections from eviction and wants to extend those protections.

Californians saw an array of relief in 2020, as all levels of government tried to lessen the burden. Children who live in communities that have long gone without broadband and quality internet access received hotspots and other Wi-Fi access. Cities stopped using parking tickets and towing as a way to bring in revenue. More lower-level offenders were freed from prisons and jails after virus outbreaks.

Advocates say the jarring juxtaposition in the pandemic, as the state's richest got richer and its poor got poorer, prove it's not enough. They are lobbying Newsom and the Legislature to use California's unexpected windfall to help the state’s neediest by expanding the social safety net and to turn temporary relief granted during the pandemic into permanent solutions. They worry that momentum is already losing steam, and that things will revert to normal when the vaccine reaches the masses and Covid-19 is in the past.

“These things that were implemented as a kind of lifeline are now expiring and folks still need it,” said Jhumpa Bhattacharya, a vice president at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development based in Oakland. “We live in a society where we don’t believe in government intervention, and there’s this narrative that you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps. When the pandemic hit, we saw that’s not true, and my hope is that we will be able to develop a new understanding of how our society works.”

California Democrats have proposed bigger taxes on the ultra-rich as a solution, with groups like the California Teachers Association pushing last year for legislation to hike taxes for residents with more than $30 million in assets. That bill, led by Assemblymember Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), would have generated an additional $7.5 billion a year but failed in the Legislature in 2020. Other Democratic lawmakers this week proposed raising taxes on corporations by $2 billion to fund housing for people experiencing homelessness.

Newsom made clear last week that he will not entertain major tax proposals, declaring "they're not part of the conversation." The pandemic's remote work culture has shown information-based companies that office location may not matter as much as once thought, while California's high housing costs, regulations and taxes are a deterrent.

Further taxing the rich is proving to be a political risk and a threat to the very system that makes it possible for California to thrive even in dark times. Just last month, Oracle and Hewlett Packard Enterprise announced they were moving their headquarters to rival state Texas. Elon Musk, now the richest person on the planet, also said he was moving to the Lone Star State, though his company Tesla will remain in California.


"There's about 1 percent of taxpayers that pay half the income tax in the state, and the reason why state revenues have been so strong is that those taxpayers had a very good year. As long as those people are willing to stay in California and be taxed, the money will come in," said David Shulman, senior economist emeritus for the UCLA Anderson Forecast. "But there is a point where they will say it doesn't work anymore. The question is, are we at a tipping point? There's certainly more evidence that we are getting close to it."

The last major tax hike in California was a 2012 voter-approved tax on residents making more than $250,000 championed by Gov. Jerry Brown, which voters later extended through 2030. Voters in November, however, rejected a ballot initiative to tax commercial properties at their current value, which would have generated up to $12 billion more annually.

Advocates say another tax hike is overdue, but even without one, the state could change its priorities to make better use of its billions.

“It’s all very frustrating, since with the fifth largest economy in the world, these things are fixable. The money is there,” said Courtney McKinney, spokesperson for the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “It is a question of priorities — whether or not millions of people being plunged into poverty is seen as enough of a destabilizer to encourage the wealthy, business and political class in California to put money into addressing poverty and the trappings of poor environment in smart, sensible ways. Easier said than done.”

Assemblymember Alex Lee (D-San Jose), a coauthor of legislation to extend the eviction moratorium for another year, said resistance to more permanent solutions to help low-income residents is a reminder that California is not as progressive as it claims to be.

In the November election, California proved it's not the liberal bastion people think it is. Besides rejecting the business property tax increase, they opposed affirmative action and rent control while they sided with gig employers and dialysis companies instead of labor unions.

“Whether or not people should be evicted during a pandemic in a recession … even just having to fight about that says we aren't where we should be yet,” Lee said. “I think a lot of people are realizing this stuff, and that even though we have Democratic super, ultra majorities, we aren’t living up to the progressive potential we have. I would never characterize us as progressive state."

Democrats haunted by ghosts of Obama’s DNC


State party leaders couldn’t be more thrilled that Joe Biden has thrown his weight behind one of their own, former South Carolina Democratic Party chief Jaime Harrison, to chair the Democratic National Committee.

But many party leaders and DNC members are expressing alarm over Biden’s decision to make his former campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon, one of the key players in charge of his political portfolio — they view her as a culprit in the kneecapping of the national party that occurred during former President Barack Obama’s administration.

Obama tapped Dillon to serve as executive director of the DNC when he entered office, while at the same time his allies built up the outside political group Organizing for America as a separate infrastructure that competed with the national party. More than a decade later, many Democrats remain furious about OFA, which they believe sapped financial resources from the DNC and led to massive down-ballot losses under Obama — losses they’re still trying to recover from.

“I do not perceive Ms. O'Malley Dillon as being an ally to the grassroots,” said Colorado-based DNC member Jeri Shepherd. “I would like to be proven wrong.”

State party leaders complain of being underfunded during that period, and point to Dillon as the person negotiating with them at the national committee. Biden’s rollout of his slate of DNC officers last week — which some party officials complained came without adequate consultation — was viewed as a throwback to that era.

“All of us are wary of Jen Dillon and how she managed this for Obama, and it appears to be the same operating procedures,” said a DNC member who requested anonymity to speak freely. “There is no love there on either side. … She’s a Beltway person, not a grassroots investor, and treats us all like village idiots frankly.”

Biden announced his preferences for DNC leadership roles around 6 p.m. Thursday, only a few hours before contenders for the positions were required to file statements of candidacy. That led to grumbling about a lack of advance notice, and frustration among those who were not asked for their input on the choices. They also said it prevented any opposition from organizing for vice chairs.

Amid the dearth of information, a handful of DNC members had quietly worked to prepare a slate of officers that could have been submitted at the last minute if necessary, according to a person familiar with the plan.


Another state party leader, who declined to speak on the record, said that “some of the concern about Jen is that she was one of the architects of OFA, and she was also one of the people who, at the DNC during that time, really stripped a lot of resources away and invested them in an outside organization.”

The person added that, while they “don’t want to take anything away from her brilliance in her work,” O’Malley Dillon “is not a party person.”

O’Malley Dillon, whose formal role will be to serve as Biden’s White House deputy chief of staff, was among a group of Biden’s senior advisers who counseled him on his slate of DNC officer picks. She is expected to help manage his political portfolio in the White House and beyond.

Howard Chou, vice chair of the Colorado Democratic Party, praised O’Malley Dillon’s work for Biden’s 2020 campaign, but said, “I hope that she understands how important state party infrastructure is.”

“I don’t know her personally. But just from previous experiences of what happened in state parties during the Obama era, we can’t make that mistake again,” he said, adding that the party must focus on “empowering state structures and grassroots voices, and the ability to work collaboratively.”

Several other state party leaders and DNC members vigorously defend O’Malley Dillon. They said that she demonstrated her commitment to state parties last year, when Biden’s team worked closely with the DNC and she oversaw a coordinated program between the campaign, state organizations and the national party that sent more than $100 million to those groups — a level of collaboration they said hadn’t taken place in years.

“Jen O’Malley Dillon made the fundamental decision to treat state parties as partners,” said Ben Wikler, chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. “All of our conversations with her and the DNC give me great confidence that the DNC and the Biden leadership will keep upgrading the local and state infrastructure as we go into 2022 and 2024.”

Some Democrats said they saw her as working on their behalf from the inside while she was at the DNC under Obama, and that the idea of OFA started before she even joined Obama’s campaign. Others made the case that financial resources for state parties didn’t change during her time there, though state party heads dispute that.

“I did not blame her. I just think it was a policy at the White House,” said Carol Fowler, then-leader of the South Carolina Democratic Party, who negotiated with O’Malley Dillon on behalf of state organizations. “I always felt that she was on my side.”

Ray Buckley, the New Hampshire Democratic Party chair who previously led the Association of State Democratic Committees, said “anyone who’s talking doesn’t know what they’re talking about” because “she was the one champion we had.”

One factor that even O’Malley Dillon’s harshest critics take comfort in is the fact that Biden has struck a very different posture toward the party than Obama. Biden is an institutionalist, whereas Obama campaigned as a party outsider. Biden also vowed to not create an external group such as OFA.

A Biden transition source said that his team has learned lessons from the past, and that he personally chose his slate of DNC officers, including Harrison, a former state party chair himself who was backed by state organization leaders. The person also stressed that Harrison will be running the DNC, while O’Malley Dillon will be advising Biden in his role as leader of the Democratic Party.

"The President-elect has been an enthusiastic champion of Democratic candidates up and down the ballot and local Democratic committees. He made empowering state parties a priority as the Demoratic nominee for president,” said T.J. Ducklo, a Biden spokesperson. “The President-elect and his entire team will be close partners with the DNC under Jamie Harrison's leadership, so state parties can thrive and continue to elect Democrats at every level of government.”

Still, Biden’s history — and Harrison’s presence — has not completely ameliorated some Democrats’ concerns.

“The biggest concern state [party] chairs have is that Jaime will be hamstrung,” said the DNC member. As for Biden, he “is a bit busy.”

O’Malley Dillon’s supporters said her critics will soon realize they’re wrong about her.

“Jen guided President-Elect Biden to a historic victory by working closely with Democrats across the country and making unprecedented investments in Democratic state parties — including a multi-million dollar field operation that was totally coordinated and integrated with our state party partners,” said Mary Beth Cahill, CEO of the DNC. "Anyone who didn't notice the close partnership she established between the DNC and the Biden campaign during the general election and the emphasis she put on supporting Democrats' state organizations wasn't paying attention."

Trump admin enlists private firm to review some Covid-19 tests


The Department of Health and Human Services is paying a private firm to review the accuracy of some Covid-19 tests — the latest example of the department’s political leadership attempting to bypass scientists at the Food and Drug Administration.

The idea behind the last-minute contract, announced days before President Donald Trump leaves office, is that HHS would use the review to issue emergency use authorizations for the tests without input from FDA.

It comes as the health department has scrambled to force through several new FDA regulations — sometimes without the agency’s knowledge, and sometimes over its objections.

The noncompetitive, sole source contract HHS recently signed with NDA Partners — a Rochelle, Va., consulting firm that employs former top FDA regulators — is only worth a maximum of $1.5 million. Public health experts said the decision is largely symbolic, since the incoming Biden administration could return responsibility for reviews to FDA. But it comes after a bruising pandemic year for the agency and its scientists, who Trump without evidence repeatedly accused of slowing down progress of tests, drugs and vaccines for political reasons.

“It’s concerning because it gives at least the strong appearance that these decisions about scientific questions are being taken away from the FDA and lodged elsewhere,” said Rachel Sachs, an associate professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis. “The emerging picture for HHS Secretary Azar seems to be to bind the hands of FDA as much as he can going forward, before he leaves office.”

The current skirmish concerns tests that labs develop for their own use, which have been a particular point of contention between HHS and FDA during the pandemic. Senior FDA officials strongly objected to HHS’ August decision, announced in a one-paragraph memo, to strip the agency of its ability to require premarket review of the products. They argued that the decision could allow flawed tests to be used during a public health emergency.

The health department maintained at the time that firms could still choose to apply to FDA for an emergency use authorization, which carries with it some liability protections for the labs. But FDA decided to stop reviewing any lab-developed tests, which are each developed and used by only one lab, to focus on diagnostics that could add sizable U.S. testing capacity or represented technological advantages, such as the ability to screen for the virus at home.

In response, HHS testing czar Brett Giroir told reporters in November the health department would enlist CDC or the National Cancer Institute to assist with reviews if FDA could not assess the tests in a timely manner. It’s not clear whether either of those agencies has a role now in reviewing lab-developed tests or if HHS will only rely on NDA Partners, which employs former longtime FDA diagnostics director Alberto Gutierrez and medical device director David Feigal.

An HHS spokesperson told POLITICO the latest move comes in response to labs telling the health department they will not offer Covid-19 testing without the liability protections conferred by an EUA. There are at least 19 emergency-authorization applications pending for lab-developed tests.

Giroir "will exercise his authority from Secretary Azar to act as the Secretary’s delegate to issue EUAs for LDTs, with a focus on universities,” the spokesperson said.

Gutierrez said HHS asked NDA Partners to help review lab-developed tests. FDA referred to HHS questions about whether it signed off on the third-party test reviews.

“I don’t think they have a choice,” Gutierrez said.

FDA's diagnostic regulators have been slammed with a deluge of requests for emergency authorization of Covid-19 products, leading the agency to put on hold review of many non-Covid submissions. Tim Stenzel, the FDA’s chief diagnostics regulator, said Wednesday on an industry call that the agency is still receiving about 40 applications per week.

“We have put over 100 regular non-Covid submissions on hold right now, that is weighing on us, we want to get back to them as soon as possible,” Stenzel said.

The American Clinical Laboratory Association, which represents major private labs like LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics, declined to comment on HHS’ decision to enlist a private firm for test review. The lab lobby has long maintained that FDA does not have the legal authority to regulate LDTs as medical devices.

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) — one of the sponsors of legislation that aims to overhaul how FDA regulates diagnostic tests — slammed the HHS decision, saying it would endanger public health.

“Senator Bennet is concerned that HHS overstepping FDA and allowing a third party to review applications for Emergency Use Authorizations for COVID-19 tests sets a precedent that gives private companies the power to authorize diagnostics, hurting the ability of the FDA to ensure that tests are accurate and safe and putting Americans’ medical decisions and lives in danger,” said a spokesperson for the senator.


Nathan Brown, a former FDA lawyer who now practices at Akin Gump, said there is a legitimate public health justification for directing more resources toward reviewing Covid-19 tests.

“I think the new administration wants testing expanded,” he said. “You could come up with a way to still use this resource that has already been contracted for and do it in a way that’s more consistent with respecting FDA’s authority and expertise and oversight.”

Mother-son duo facing conspiracy charges for role in Capitol assault


A mother-son duo who wielded flex cuffs at the Capitol on Jan. 6 — and openly talked of a violent revolution — are facing conspiracy charges related to the assault on Congress last week, with the FBI describing a plot that may include others "known and unknown" to federal authorities.

In a Saturday legal filing, the FBI indicated that Eric Munchel — who was seen masked and wielding the plastic cuffs inside the Senate chamber in a now widely circulated image — and his mother Lisa Eisenhart would face charges of conspiracy for their efforts to disrupt lawmakers' efforts to certify the presidential election.

Munchel and Eisenhart are facing charges of "knowingly and willfully conspiring with persons known and unknown" to impede law enforcement, unlawfully entering a restricted building and violently forcing their way into the halls of Congress.

Munchel had been apprehended earlier in the week, but Eisenhart was arrested Saturday in Tennessee and the charges updated to include conspiracy.

It's a notable development in the nationwide manhunt for the perpetrators of the Jan. 6 attack, which left five dead, including a Capitol Police officer. Dozens have been arrested and the FBI is pursuing hundreds of cases, often based on the images and videos that the rioters posted themselves on social media.

Prosecutors have indicated they anticipate lodging grave charges, including potentially "seditious conspiracy," but have begun by apprehending suspects on lesser offenses to begin building a broader case.

Although Munchel was masked in the Senate image, the FBI relied on open-source information and distinct patches and symbols on his clothing, as well as surveillance footage and other video shot at the hotel where the pair were staying to identify them. They have since searched Munchel's home and discovered the items seen in the Capitol picture, including "distinctive black in color Black Rifle Coffee Company hat with American flag and rifle logo, black boots, black camouflaged pants and shirt, and black tactical vest with patches to one of a Punisher logo.

"Also found inside of MUNCHEL’s home were five pairs of white flex cuffs," the FBI noted.

According to the newly disclosed case against the pair, Munchel and Eisenhart appear in video footage near a mob that was "physically attacking two Capitol Police officers guarding entry into the Senate chambers." Eventually, the officers fled and the mob gave chase. Munchel and Eisenhart followed, both wielding the flex cuffs in their hands "during the pursuit." Both officers escaped, according to the statement of the case.

The FBI also cited a Jan. 10 news article in the Times of London quoting Munchel and Eisenhart discussing revolution.

“This country was founded on revolution. ... I’d rather die a 57-year-old woman than live under oppression," Eisenhart told the paper. "I’d rather die and would rather fight.”

Census Bureau says Trump's push to exclude undocumented is dead


Outgoing President Donald Trump’s plan to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census totals used to apportion congressional seats is officially dead.

The Census Bureau announced Saturday that data on apportionment — and a related calculation of the number of undocumented immigrants Trump has specifically requested — would not be released until after President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in. Biden has said he opposed Trump’s efforts to exclude undocumented immigrants, who have historically been included.

“Neither the Census Bureau nor the Department of Commerce will report or publicly disclose any population counts or estimates relating to the population as of April 1, 2020, including counts or estimates of the illegal alien/undocumented immigrant population, prior to the change of Administration on January 20, 2021,” the Census Bureau said in a statement.

The agreement arose from a suit from the National Urban League, and other plaintiffs opposed to the plan, over the accuracy of the census.

The announcement also said a similar prohibition applies to data related directly to Trump’s controversial memorandum. The agreement pauses the case for 21 days, and if data is available before the end of the stay, the government would need to give plaintiffs 7 days’ notice.

Earlier in the week, Department of Justice attorneys told the court that it is unlikely that apportionment data would be released until early March. In the order, which was filed late on Friday, the government stated that the apportionment data “will not be in position to finalize or provide apportionment data until many weeks after January 20.”

The statutory deadline for the release of apportionment data was Dec. 31, 2020. However, the pandemic scrambled the bureau’s schedule, even as the Trump administration tried to rush the collection and processing of data to release it before the end of his term.

The announcement comes at a tumultuous time for the Census Bureau. Several key Democratic lawmakers told POLITICO this week that bureau director Steven Dillingham, who was appointed to lead the agency by Trump in early 2019 and confirmed by a voice vote in the Senate, should resign, or be removed from his post once Biden takes office.

The calls for Dillingham’s removal follows the Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General releasing a memo earlier this week, which alleged that Dillingham was pressuring career staff to rush a technical report on data on undocumented people in the United States. Dillingham said in response to the OIG memo that he told career staff to stand down.

“I call on Dr. Dillingham to immediately resign from his position as Director of the Census Bureau because I no longer have faith that he can lead the Bureau to produce a fair, accurate, and complete 2020 Census count as required by the Constitution,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), who chairs the House Oversight Committee, said in a statement following POLITICO’s reporting.

Biden plans dozens of executive orders for early days of presidency


WILMINGTON, Del. — Joe Biden is planning to sign dozens of executive orders in his first days in office, as he aims to roll back some of President Donald Trump’s signature policies on immigration and climate change while taking early action to address the coronavirus crisis.

After being sworn in on Wednesday, Biden will rescind the travel ban on several majority-Muslim countries, rejoin the Paris climate accords, extend limits on student loan payments and evictions instituted during the pandemic and issue a mask mandate on federal properties and for interstate travel. Incoming White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain outlined the flurry of activity for Biden’s first 10 days in office in a memo to senior staff on Saturday.

“These actions will change the course of COVID-19, combat climate change, promote racial equity and support other underserved communities, and rebuild our economy in ways that strengthen the backbone of this country: the working men and women who built our nation,” Klain wrote in the memo. “While the policy objectives in these executive actions are bold, I want to be clear: the legal theory behind them is well-founded and represents a restoration of an appropriate, constitutional role for the President."

On Biden’s second day in office, he will sign executive actions focused on addressing the Covid-19 pandemic, including ways to help schools and business reopen safely, expand testing, protect workers and establish clearer public health standards. The next day, Biden will direct his Cabinet to work on delivering economic relief to families most affected by the crisis.

In subsequent days, Biden will expand “Buy America provisions,” take action to advance “equity and support communities of color,” begin to reform the criminal justice, expand access to healthcare and work toward reuniting families separated at the border. Klain did not specify what these actions would entail, but the memo follows Biden’s introduction this week of his legislative agenda, which includes a $1.9 trillion relief bill.

Klain conceded much of Biden’s agenda would need the support of Congress, a prospect that improved after Democrats took control of the Senate earlier this month. But any action in Congress is likely to be delayed as the Senate is slated to begin Trump’s second impeachment trial shortly after Biden takes office.

Man arrested at inauguration checkpoint with gun, ammo


Police have arrested a man with a handgun and 500 rounds of ammunition at a checkpoint in Washington set up ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Wesley Allen Beeler was stopped at the checkpoint near the U.S. Capitol on Friday.

Court documents say Beeler approached the checkpoint but did not have a valid credential for that area. An officer noticed he had “firearms-related stickers” on his vehicle and asked him if he had any weapons inside.

The papers say Beeler told the officers he had a handgun under the armrest and police detained him at the scene. They searched his car and found a high-capacity magazine in the 9mm handgun, along with more than 500 rounds of ammunition in the vehicle. Authorities said he didn’t have a license to carry the gun in Washington.

Beeler was charged with carrying a pistol without a license. His attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Guardsmen stationed at U.S. Capitol building to get cots


The National Guardsmen providing security in the U.S. Capitol ahead of the inauguration are soon getting cots, after images went viral last week of troops sleeping on the floor in the halls of Congress, according to four people familiar with the decision.

Guard spokesman Wayne Hall confirmed Saturday that Federal Emergency Management Agency received a formal request through the D.C. Emergency Operations Center for more than 1,200 cots “to provide comfort for members of the National Guard supporting law enforcement and the upcoming presidential inauguration in D.C.”

The Army is coordinating the effort with FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security and the Joint Force Headquarters National Capital Region, said a Guardsman familiar with the planning. Officials will collect cots from National Guard armories in Maryland and Virginia and transport them to the Capitol, the person said.

Many officials believe the cots are unnecessary, but the photos of Guardsmen resting on the floor of the Capitol quickly became a “PR issue,” the person said — particularly after more than a dozen House Democrats called Thursday on the Army Secretary to send cots, bedding, shower facilities and other resources.

“Most everyone’s opinion is that we honestly don’t need them,” the person said, noting that “this is one of the nicest napping spots most of us have ever had in uniform.”

The cots will arrive Saturday and Sunday, the person said, adding that no costs should be incurred aside from the time and transportation.

A Jan. 15 memo obtained by POLITICO cited guidance from Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville that Guardsmen “who are resting inside the U.S. Capitol Building are to lay on a cot, and not on the ground.” The guidance was confirmed separately by a D.C. National Guardsman, who celebrated the news.

“No more cold marble!” the Guardsman said.

A defense official stressed that McConville did not order Guardsmen to rest on cots, rather that he directed the Army to provide the troops “whatever they need to accomplish the mission and to take care of their life support needs.”

In a letter to Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy on Thursday, a group of lawmakers said they were “disappointed” by images posted to social media of soldiers resting in the Capitol Rotunda, the Capitol Visitor Center and elsewhere as thousands of Guardsmen poured into DC to support local law enforcement responding to threats of violence ahead of the Jan. 20 inauguration.

“With the uncertainty for needed rest and recoup time in flux, and to ensure that the Guard members are fully able to execute their protection mission, we urge you to make available cots or other equipment to more easily facilitate their ability to rest while they are on Capitol grounds,” the lawmakers wrote.

More than 21,000 Guardsmen will be deployed to D.C. by Inauguration Day to support law enforcement responding to the protests.

Hotel pulls plug on Hawley fundraiser


Loews Hotels announced Saturday that it won’t host a planned fundraiser next month for Sen. Josh Hawley at one of its Florida properties.

“We are horrified and opposed to the events at the Capitol and all who supported and incited the actions,” the company said in a statement posted to Twitter. “In light of those events and for the safety of our guests and team members, we have informed the host of the Feb. fundraiser that it will no longer be held at Loews Hotels.”

While the statement doesn’t mention the Missouri Republican by name, a political action committee affiliated with Hawley’s re-election, Fighting for Missouri PAC, was scheduled to hold a Valentine’s Day weekend fundraiser for the senator Feb. 12-15 at the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel in Orlando, Fla., near the Universal Orlando theme park.

“Please join Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) for a Fun-Filled-Family-Friendly Orlando Weekend Event,” a flier for the event read.

A spokesperson for Hawley could not be reached for comment on Loews’ decision.

Loews’ announcement is the latest blow for Hawley, who objected to President-elect Joe Biden’s win even after pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol to demand the results be overturned.

Simon & Schuster announced last week that it would cancel the publication of a forthcoming book by Hawley over his role in last week’s deadly riots.

Hawley has threatened legal action against the publisher, calling its decision a “direct assault on the First Amendment.“

House launches probe into intelligence failures preceding Capitol insurrection


Four House committee leaders are launching an investigation into "high-level failures" of intelligence and security planning that left the Capitol vulnerable to insurrection on Jan. 6.

The committee chairs said in a letter released Saturday that emerging evidence shows federal intelligence officials and law enforcement agencies received information about the likelihood of violence targeting Congress, but a breakdown in the information-sharing process left the Capitol vulnerable, despite widely anticipated efforts to disrupt the lawmakers' session to certify President-elect Joe Biden's victory.

"This still-emerging story is one of astounding bravery by some U.S. Capitol Police and other officers; of staggering treachery by violent criminals; and of apparent and high-level failures — in particular, with respect to intelligence and security preparedness," wrote House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, House Oversight Committee Chairman Carolyn Maloney and House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson in a letter to the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and top federal intelligence officials.

"The Committees will conduct robust oversight to understand what warning signs may have been missed, determine whether there were systemic failures, and consider how to best address countering domestic violent extremism, including remedying any gaps in legislation or policy," they continued.

The committees are seeking a series of classified briefings beginning in late January to help lawmakers understand the evidence of threats they had collected, both about Jan. 6 and other threats to the transition of power leading up to Biden's Jan. 20 inauguration.

They're also asking specific questions, including on the evidence each intelligence agency gathered ahead of Jan. 6 and what they did with it; if there was evidence of any foreign efforts to either assist the insurrection, spread misinformation about it or exploit the aftermath; if any current or former officials with security clearances participated in the insurrection; and what policy responses the intelligence agencies have implemented to apprehend rioters and disrupt potential future actions.

For several hours on Jan. 6, the Capitol convulsed in chaos as violent rioters stormed past police lines and sent lawmakers and aides fleeing for safety inside the building. Vice President Mike Pence, a target of some of the insurrectionists, was escorted from the Senate chamber shortly before rioters swarmed it. On Wednesday, the House impeached President Donald Trump for inciting the riot, and federal prosecutors have been rounding up participants in a nationwide manhunt while piecing together evidence.

Democrats have alleged that some of their own GOP colleagues may have had a hand in assisting the insurrectionists, with some saying they witnessed suspicious tours in the Capitol on Jan. 5. Some of the rioters appeared to have significant knowledge of the Capitol complex, which has fueled those concerns.

Far-right media figure ‘Baked Alaska’ arrested in riot probe


Far-right media personality Tim Gionet, who calls himself “Baked Alaska,” has been arrested by the FBI for his involvement in the riot at the U.S. Capitol, a law enforcement official told The Associated Press.

Gionet was arrested by federal agents in Houston on Saturday, according to the official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter before the public release of a criminal complaint and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Thousands of supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 as Congress was meeting to vote to affirm President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral win. Five people died in the mayhem.

Law enforcement officials across the country have been working to locate and arrest suspects who committed federal crimes and so far have brought nearly 100 cases in federal court and the District of Columbia Superior Court.

Gionet posted video that showed Trump supporters in “Make America Great Again” and “God Bless Trump” hats milling around and taking selfies with officers in the Capitol who calmly asked them to leave the premises. The Trump supporters talked among themselves, laughed, and told the officers and each other: “This is only the beginning.”

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