DeSantis pulls ahead of 2024 GOP pack as Florida’s Covid cases fall

Florida’s coronavirus caseloads are dropping fast. And Gov. Ron DeSantis is again rising above other possible 2024 GOP presidential candidates in a new poll.

In a theoretical primary without Donald Trump on the ballot, DeSantis leads former Vice President Mike Pence by 22-15 percent, with all other possible contenders relegated to the single digits, the new national survey of Republicans by Echelon Insights, a GOP polling firm.

DeSantis’s 7 percentage-point lead over Pence has grown from 2 in Echelon’s last poll in August, which was conducted at the height of the coronavirus Delta wave swamping Florida, killing and sickening tens of thousands as the governor fought mask requirements for schools, a federal vaccination mandate and vaccine passports. In Echelon’s July poll, DeSantis led Pence by 15 points.

DeSantis’ fortunes have ebbed and flowed with the pandemic and the media attention that has come with it. In February, as vaccines were being distributed and after months of doom-and-gloom prophecies of catastrophe in Florida didn’t come to pass, DeSantis’s standing rose in the GOP as Republican voters compared him to the Democratic governors of New York and California and liked what they saw.

“By choosing a path that was in open defiance of lockdowns and mandates, it made him the anti-Cuomo, the anti-Newsom. So that's sort of his foundation,” said Patrick Ruffini, Echelon Insights pollster.

“But there's also kind of downside risk that cases might begin to spiral and voters in general are pretty worried about the virus,” Ruffini said. “So as long as things are going well, the strategy pays off, and if things start to go poorly, it doesn't look as good. And there's some attrition.”

With Democrats and independents giving him highly negative marks, DeSantis’ approval ratings fell by double digits in Florida as coronavirus caseloads peaked in mid-August. But the cases have rapidly started to decrease along with hospitalizations. Deaths are still at an all-time high, and the Delta wave killed so many people that the state went from having the nation’s 27th-highest death rate this winter to having the 10th-highest death rate today, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Amid the decline in infections, DeSantis this week nominated UCLA doctor Joseph Ladapo to be Florida’s next surgeon general. Ladapo, like DeSantis, objects to school closures and vaccine mandates.

Ruffini said the poll shows that a Trumpless primary is really “wide open,” but with Trump in the race, it wouldn’t be much of a contest. About six in 10 Republican voters said they favored Trump in a primary and 32 percent would want “another Republican.” In a different poll question, 30 percent said Trump should run again without opposition, 39 percent said he should run against other candidates and 22 percent said he shouldn’t run again. When asked whom they supported more — Trump or the GOP — 41 percent chose the former president and 48 percent said the GOP.

In the theoretical Trumpless primary, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is tied for third place at 9 percent with Donald Trump Jr. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who was Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, is ranked fourth at 6 percent.

A July survey from Trump’s pollster, Tony Fabrizio, also found Trump dominant and DeSantis as his heir apparent.

Despite all the conservative buzz about him and his national travel and profile, DeSantis has denied he’s eyeing a bid for the White House in 2024. He said he’s focusing on his 2022 reelection instead, although his campaign coffers have benefited significantly amid the speculation.

While Democrats, many independents and health officials have blanched at DeSantis’ defiance of mask mandates and his flirting with anti-vaxxers, Fabrizio said the governor’s policies and his posture fighting with President Joe Biden and the media are primary gold.

“You can never go wrong in a Republican primary when CNN and Joe Biden are attacking you,” Fabrizio said. “The more they beat him up, the stronger they make him in a Republican primary.”

The poll sampled 429 Republican voters from Sept. 17-Sept. 23 and has a margin of error of 4.9 percent.

‘You’ve disgraced this country’: Judge rips Capitol riot defendant

A federal judge tore into a low-level defendant in the Capitol Riot Friday, moments after the man entered a guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge stemming from the Jan. 6 unrest.

“You’ve disgraced this country in the eyes of the world and my inclination would be to lock you up, but since the government isn’t asking me to do that ... I won’t,” U.S. District Court Judge Reggie Walton shouted at Fort Pierce, Fla., resident Anthony Mariotto during a video hearing. “I find it outrageous that American citizens would do what you did, so you better walk the straight and narrow, sir, you understand?”

“I do, your honor,” Mariotto replied meekly.

Most of Mariotto’s half-hour-long plea hearing was routine in nature, as the judge led the defendant through a fairly standard series of questions about his competence to enter a plea and about the consequences of doing so.

However, as the subject turned to whether Mariotto should be detained pending sentencing, Walton’s voice rose and he unleashed an angry fusillade over the storming of the Capitol earlier this year as lawmakers were preparing to certify Joe Biden’s win in the presidential race.

“I have real concerns about what you and the other people” did, said the judge, an appointee of former President George W. Bush. “It was an attack on our government, and I love my government. This government has been good to me. To see somebody destroy, or try to destroy, the Capitol is very troubling to me.”

Walton noted that he routinely travels overseas to advise other governments on judicial and legal issues. Now, that task will be more complicated and his credibility will be undercut, the judge declared.

“America was not great on that day and I’m sure when I go to other jurisdictions to say how they can be like America, they’ll say: ‘Why should I want to be like America when you all are trying to tear down your own country.’ I find it very troubling.”

Walton also expressed fears that the Jan. 6 rioters had set a precedent that could lead to unrest and violence in future U.S. elections.

“What if the next time around, the Democrats lose the presidency and start a riot?" the judge asked. “I guess you think that would be all right, in light of what you did, right?”

“No,” Mariotto said.

Walton is among a handful of federal judges in Washington, D.C. — appointed by presidents of both parties — to express open disdain for the riot defendants and their cause.

Chief Judge Beryl Howell, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, has similarly verbally thrashed defendants and suggested even the nonviolent offenders bear responsibility for the most egregious acts committed that day, arguing that they helped overwhelm police and weaken the building’s defenses. Howell has at times questioned prosecutors for not issuing more serious charges against some defendants and pressed defendants directly during plea hearings to own up to their conduct.

Other judges have opined that the Capitol riot was a grave affront to democracy and emphasized that any light sentences they might dole out to low-level offenders will not become the norm, although many of those sentenced on misdemeanor charges so far have gotten no jail time.

Judges routinely comment on the gravity of crimes committed by defendants found guilty, but the attack on the Capitol has put them in a unique position to provide a daily, running commentary on an investigation that has consumed Washington for months.

The case against Mariotto is a relatively routine one among the more than 600 Capitol riot defendants. He is accused of entering the building illegally, but not of committing any violence or property damage. He was hit with one charge most of the Jan. 6 defendants do not face: illegally remaining in a Congressional gallery.

Mariotto entered the Senate chamber and took a smiling selfie while there that he posted to social media.

Under the terms of Mariotto’s plea deal, though, prosecutors agreed to dismiss that charge and three others in exchange for his guilty plea to the charge of parading or protesting in the Capitol. That carries a maximum six-month prison sentence.

Walton, who is known for withering in-court outbursts like a brutal verbal attack last year on Attorney General Bill Barr, initially misstated the charge Mariotto was seeking to plead guilty to as “pandering” in the Capitol. The charge actually covers parading, demonstrating or picketing in any Capitol building.

Mariotto quickly said he thought it was “parading” he was admitting to. Prosecutor Kimberley Nielsen also chimed in to say the charge was parading, demonstrating or picketing. The judge, however, said he didn’t see much difference.

“I’m sure pandering is equal to one of those,” Walton said.

Burnout and fatigue hobble CDC’s pandemic response

Staff at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are increasingly reluctant to join the agency’s pandemic response team, citing debilitating burnout and fatigue after 19 months of fighting Covid-19.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky is trying to build up the response team after paring it down last spring as part of a broader agency reorganization amid optimism the pandemic would ebb. But with the rise of the Delta variant, and projections that cases and hospitalizations could begin to rise again this fall and winter, Walensky is again asking agency staff to help — a plea many are spurning.

POLITICO spoke with five CDC officials, all of whom requested anonymity to discuss internal agency matters more freely. While the CDC has played a central role in the U.S. fight against Covid-19 for nearly two years, sources said the last several months have been particularly difficult. They described an intense summer marked by demands to digest complex data in record time as the government raced to update policies on vaccines, masks and travel in the face of Delta.

Many of the epidemiologists, scientists and statisticians on the CDC’s Covid-19 response team — which collects and analyzes Covid-19 data, drafts scientific reports and coordinates agency policy recommendations — have been putting in 15-hour days since the pandemic began. Some of its dozens of members are also continuing to work on non-pandemic topics.

“It’s been really difficult for people and with Delta, it just felt like we were back at the start of things,” one CDC official said. “And not everyone wants to work on the pandemic response because they know how crazy things are and what long hours they would have to pull. So that means that others who have already put in their time have to continue working.”

The CDC did not respond to a request for comment.

The reports of burnout highlight the extent to which the CDC is struggling to maintain productivity and morale at one of the most pivotal and confusing moments of the pandemic. They also raise questions about the agency’s ability to recruit qualified scientists and leaders to help handle the increased Covid-19 workload that health experts say will come when Americans begin to gather indoors for the holidays, driving up new infections. The agency is also expected to weigh in on the appropriateness of vaccines for young children and any expansion of the nation’s booster rollout.

In the meantime, the Delta variant is already causing devastating spikes in hospitalizations and deaths across an ever-expanding swath of the country. The Biden administration is grappling with how to contain the current outbreak and how to fend off potential future surges.

Senior health officials have in recent weeks debated various ways for the U.S. to protect itself, most notably by expanding the use of booster shots. The CDC sits at the center of that conversation, and the pandemic response team’s work is often used as the basis for major White House Covid-19 policy decisions. Officials inside the agency are in charge of gathering data on vaccines’ performance over time to help predict what the Covid-19 situation will look like in the weeks and months ahead.

State health departments are also asking the CDC for more help tracking and understanding Delta as well as breakthrough infections in vaccinated people. The CDC is under an unusual amount of pressure to not only help local officials across the country manage the spread of the latest, most transmissible variant, but also to provide the administration with greater clarity on whether and how it should prepare for additional spikes in cases.

Of particular interest to senior health officials is determining whether Covid-19 is here to stay and what policies and recommendations the U.S. government should develop to help Americans protect themselves in the long term.

While CDC officials said they know employees at other federal agencies are also struggling with the demands of fighting Covid-19 seven days a week, they said that pressure on their agency has ratcheted up as Delta has taken over. The White House in particular has pushed the CDC to increase the pace of their Covid-19 analyses, with an eye to how Delta may be changing the rules of the pandemic.

The agency has ramped up its studies on vaccine efficacy over the last two months in an attempt to guide the administration's decisions on boosters. Several CDC officials, as well as two other senior administration officials, said the agency’s employees have felt pressure to collect, analyze and release data on vaccine performance before it was ready for publication, particularly in the race to meet President Joe Biden’s goal of giving out booster shots to most adults starting the week of Sept. 20.

The agency was once again the spotlight Friday as Walensky overruled the CDC's vaccine advisory panel to endorse giving Pfizer and BioNTech's booster shot to people with significant on-the-job Covid-19 exposure, along with the elderly, nursing home residents and younger people with health conditions that increase their risk of severe illness.

Another senior administration official familiar with the matter said the CDC has long struggled to share data with the rest of the federal government in a timely manner. The White House and federal officials working on the government’s Covid-19 response this summer pushed the CDC to share its domestic vaccine efficacy data so they could compare it to the data from Israel that showed the vaccine’s protection waning over time.

Henry Walke is the incident manager for the CDC’s Covid-19 response and also directs the agency’s division of preparedness and emerging infections. The pandemic response team he oversees draws from the CDC's more than 20,000 employees and contractors.

In the spring, Walensky moved to consolidate several Covid-19 task forces under Walke’s leadership, including most of the groups working on vaccines. Walensky moved other officials off of the pandemic response team, including former top CDC respiratory official Nancy Messonnier, in an attempt to streamline the pandemic task force’s work. During the same period, Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s former principal deputy director, announced that she was retiring.

The reorganization came at a time when vaccinations were increasing sharply across the country and the administration was preparing to push reopening and a return to normalcy this summer.

Over the past two months, the agency has struggled to respond to Delta and is in the process of trying to staff task forces working under Walke. Senior officials inside the agency have recently sent notices internally asking for additional volunteers.

“I think it is going to take a while to find people who want to help and who have the ability to help right now,” another CDC official said. “We have to gear up for what is probably coming this winter.”

Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou set to be released

OTTAWA — Senior Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou has reached a plea deal with U.S. prosecutors that will allow her to return to China in a development that will have major consequences beyond North America.

The Chinese telecom giant’s chief financial officer is appearing by virtual link in a Brooklyn courtroom to resolve charges that underpin a U.S. extradition request against her, according to documents filed in the Eastern District of New York.

Reuters was the first to report that she is expected to reach a plea deal with U.S. prosecutors.

Canadian police arrested Meng in December 2018 at the Vancouver airport on a U.S. extradition warrant. She’s accused of fraud in the U.S. connected to her alleged violation of American sanctions on Iran.

The court fight, which started with her arrest more than 1,000 days ago, has become a key component in the tensions between the West and Beijing.

Her arrest angered Beijing, which has been demanding her release. If Meng secures her freedom, it could be seen as a big win for Chinese President Xi Jinping.

During a July meeting between Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and China's Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng, Beijing's list of demands included a request that the U.S. unconditionally revoke the extradition request for Meng.

CBC News reported that Meng is expected to pay a fine as part of a deal to defer charges. The details of that anticipated plea are unclear.

The report, citing unnamed sources, says if the New York court accepts the deal, Canadian prosecutors will appear in a Vancouver court later Friday to suspend extradition proceedings. The outlet says she could be freed from house arrest later in the day.

The New York Times reported that Meng will admit to some wrongdoing as part of a deferred prosecution agreement. Federal prosecutors, the report said, will defer and then ultimately drop the charges.

Meng will not enter a guilty plea as part of the deal, the report said.

Her legal team and U.S. Department of Justice officials have held talks about a possible deferred prosecution agreement since last winter.

Meng, the daughter of Huawei's founder, has denied wrongdoing and her case has angered Beijing.

The Chinese government has called the charges politically motivated.

Days after her arrest, then-President Donald Trump said during an interview that he would be willing to intervene if it would help the U.S. land a trade deal with China or serve other American national security interests.

John Bolton, Trump's former national security adviser, has rejected the idea that politics are involved in the case against Meng.

Meanwhile, other individuals have been caught in the middle.

Nine days after her arrest, Chinese authorities arrested two Canadians — Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor — on espionage charges. Spavor was given an 11-year sentence and a court date for Kovrig’s verdict has yet to be set.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called their arrests “arbitrary” and has pushed for their release by rallying allies — including President Joe Biden. The president pledged earlier this year to work to free the men, known colloquially in Canada as the “Two Michaels.”

Biden and Trudeau discussed Kovrig and Spavor during a call this week.

The Globe and Mail reported that Meng's plea agreement does not include a deal to free the two Michaels. It remains to be seen if Canada has its own understanding with China that could lead to their eventual release.

A few weeks after their arrests, a Chinese court toughened its sentence for another Canadian, Robert Schellenberg. The court changed his initial sentence of 15 years for drug trafficking to a death sentence.

The cases have damaged Chinese-Canadian diplomatic relations — and has long been Trudeau's top foreign policy challenge.

Leah Nylen contributed to this report.

Two 'View' hosts test positive for Covid before Harris interview

Two hosts of ABC's "The View" abruptly left the show's set on Friday after testing positive for Covid-19 just before Vice President Kamala Harris was expected to appear in-person on the program.

The two hosts, Sunny Hostin and Ana Navarro, were fully vaccinated and contracted breakthrough cases of the virus, co-host Joy Behar said.

Harris was not in contact with Hostin or Navarro before the show, deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh confirmed in a statement to POLITICO. The vice president's Friday schedule will remain as it was originally planned.

Harris, who had flown to New York earlier Friday to appear on the show, conducted her interview remotely. She emphasized the importance of being vaccinated in the case of breakthrough Covid-19 infections.

"Sunny and Ana are strong women and I know they're fine, but it really also does speak to the fact they're vaccinated and vaccines really make all the difference because otherwise we'd be concerned about hospitalization and worse," Harris said in her show appearance.

The vice president told the remaining "View" hosts that "people have got to be responsible" by getting vaccinated against Covid-19.

"When I think about it in the context of any one of us who have had the awful experience of holding the hand of loved one who's in an ICU bed or near death: don't put your families through that," she said. "The vaccine is free, it's safe, it will save your life. So, folks just need to get vaccinated."

Bass set to launch Los Angeles mayoral run

Rep. Karen Bass is set to run for mayor of Los Angeles, according to a source familiar with the matter.

Her entry would immediately reshape the nascent contest to govern America’s second-largest city. While the field is still forming ahead of a 2022 vote, Bass (D-Calif.) wields broad name recognition and deep popularity among Black Angelenos and progressive activists who have urged her to run.

Bass, 67, is a former Congressional Black Caucus chair who made President Joe Biden's running-mate short list during the 2020 campaign.

Mayor Eric Garcetti’s looming departure to become ambassador to India — assuming he can win Senate approval — has set off a scramble among Los Angeles politicians. City Councilmember and former state Senate leader Kevin de León recently joined a field that already includes City Attorney Mike Feuer and City Councilmember Joe Buscaino.

Bass’ decision has long loomed over the race as a decisive variable. Her supporters in deeply Democratic Los Angeles have launched a campaign urging her to run. City Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas, one of the city’s leading Black politicians and a longtime Bass ally, recently told the Los Angeles Times that Bass would “send terror through the ranks” of other candidates if she chose to run.

“If Congresswoman Karen Bass jumps into the Mayor’s race in Los Angeles it’ll be like a wave of progressive fresh air and hope,” state Assemblymember Isaac Bryan (D-Los Angeles) tweeted recently. “Our City deserves it.”

Bass’s candidacy could also reverberate across a political landscape set to be transformed by redistricting. California is set to lose a House seat for the first time in its history because of slow population growth and demographic data suggests consolidation is likely in shrinking Los Angeles County. Bass' pursuit of the mayor's office would potentially ease some of the competition for a reconfigured map with one fewer district.

Her mayoral race plans, first reported by the Washington Post, were confirmed by a source who addressed them candidly on condition of anonymity.

A POLITICO reporter also overhead her discuss her plans on a phone call. “I'm going to officially announce a run for mayor,” she said on a phone call walking out of the House chamber.

Biden decries ‘horrible’ treatment of migrants, promises repercussions for agents

President Joe Biden forcibly condemned Friday the “horrible” treatment of Haitian migrants assembled along the U.S-Mexico border, pledging consequences for the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents who were photographed on horseback confronting immigrants at the border.

“It’s outrageous. I promise you those people will pay,” Biden told reporters on Friday, his first in-person remarks on CBP's treatment of the migrants after days of opprobrium from members of his own party and humanitarian organizations.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Professional Responsibility opened an investigation this week after scenes of border patrol agents on horseback using long reins to push migrants back toward the border drew widespread outrage.

The Biden administration has repeatedly decried those images and promised to swiftly punish anyone who crossed the line. But the White House has faced questions in recent days about why the president had not directly addressed the situation himself, rather than through officials like press secretary Jen Psaki, Vice President Kamala Harris and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

“There will be consequences,” Biden said. “It’s an embarrassment — it’s beyond an embarrassment. It’s dangerous. It’s wrong. It sends the wrong message around the world. It sends the wrong message at home. It’s simply not who we are.”

Biden also said that ultimately he bears responsibility for things that happen under his watch.

“Of course I take responsibility. I’m president.”

On Thursday, the special envoy to Haiti, Daniel Foote, resigned his position in protest of those expulsions. The Biden administration has forcefully pushed back on some of the assertions Foote put forward in his resignation letter, with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman telling McClatchy reporters that Foote had floated sending in the U.S. military to Haiti.

“Some of those proposals were harmful to our commitment to the promotion of democracy in Haiti and to free and fair elections in Haiti so the Haitian people can choose their own future. For him to say the proposals were ignored were, I’m sad to say, simply false,” Sherman reportedly said.

Haiti has been riven in recent months by the assassination of the country’s president, as well as devastating storms and a 7.2-magnitude earthquake earlier this month.

Booster confusion takes hold as Biden announces expanded eligibility

President Joe Biden said his administration will begin to deliver booster shots this week after the nation’s two leading health agencies endorsed a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine for individuals older than 65 and people at high risk.

"We have the tools to beat Covid if we come together as a country and use the tools we have," Biden said in a speech Friday. "This week we took a step in protecting the vaccinated with booster shots. I've made clear all along ... the decision of which booster shot to give and who will get them is left to the scientists and the doctors."

Biden’s announcement marks a turning point for his administration — and the country — as it takes its next step in fighting Covid-19 in the U.S. Federal health experts, including Biden's medical adviser Anthony Fauci, have warned of the potential for a surge in cases and hospitalizations this fall as Americans begin to gather indoors for the holidays. Fauci and other officials believe vaccine efficacy will continue to wane over the next several months and more booster shots will be needed to help curb another surge.

The president's remarks came hours after CDC Director Rochelle Walensky overruled an agency advisory committee to allow health care workers and other people with significant on-the-job Covid-19 exposure to get the Pfizer-BioNtech booster. That decision ended weeks of speculation about whether the Food and Drug Administration and CDC would move to authorize the shots before the president’s end of September deadline.

In addition to the elderly and those with workplace exposure to Covid-19, the Pfizer-BioNTech booster will now be available to nursing home residents and people 18 and older with underlying health conditions that increase their chances of severe illness. But the policy does not allow for boosters to be given to people initially vaccinated with the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson shots.

"As CDC director, it's my job to recognize where actions can have the greatest impact," Walensky said during a White House Covid-19 briefing on Friday. "In a pandemic, we most often take steps with the intention to do the greatest good even in an uncertain environment. And that is what I'm doing with these recommendations."

She also rejected the notion that she overruled the advisory panel. "This was a scientific close call," Walensky said.

Biden said the CDC's decision would immediately make 20 million people eligible for boosters, with up to 60 million becoming eligible in the coming months. But even as the White House moves to expand booster availability, the president emphasized that a quarter of the country have not yet had even one dose of Covid-19 vaccine.

"We still have over 70 million Americans who have failed to get a single shot," Biden said. "There are elected officials actively working to undermine with false information the fight against Covid-19. This is totally unacceptable."

Top health officials inside the administration have for weeks debated whether there was enough domestic data to support administering boosters to most adults — a plan that White House officials pushed for this summer. In the end, the FDA and the CDC decided that the additional shots should be given to a narrower population.

Walensky's decision early Friday means the federal government will once again need to kick-start a delivery and shipment operation to get booster shots to retail pharmacies and other health care facilities for distribution. The administration will draw on an existing infrastructure first concocted by former President Donald Trump’s Operation Warp Speed which allowed for the delivery of doses to a wide range of settings, including public health departments across the country.

Multiple state health officials told POLITICO they are on standby awaiting instructions from the federal government about ordering and allocating booster shots.

Biden’s remarks followed several days of tense deliberations among members of the FDA and CDC’s independent vaccine advisory committees.

The FDA panel weighed in first, voting on Friday in favor of a rollout to the elderly, younger people at high risk of severe Covid-19 because of underlying health problems and people in high-risk jobs, such as frontline health care workers. The agency formally accepted that decision on Wednesday, authorizing the shot for those groups.

But the FDA does not have final word over how vaccines are used; the CDC is charged with refining which people should get a shot and when. That agency's advisory panel — the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices — ruled Thursday to limit the distribution of the booster shots to people aged 65 and older and nursing home residents, along with people 18 to 64 with health conditions that increase their risk of severe Covid-19. The committee did not endorse booster shots for individuals working in high-risk settings.

“I think [the committee’s] decision on health care workers was less about the fact that there isn’t enough data. I think they started worrying that there were too many people that were going to become eligible at once,” said Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health. “They were worried about sending the wrong signal. But ACIP shouldn’t be worrying about signals. If you are an ICU nurse who is 8 months out from getting your second shot … I think you absolutely should get a booster.”

Walensky overruled her advisory board just before 1 a.m. Friday, endorsing the use of Pfizer and BioNTech's Covid-19 booster shot for workers at high risk as well as the groups covered in the advisory panel's recommendations. Walensky framed the action as bringing CDC's recommendation in line with FDA's booster authorization.

Hours later, during the White House briefing, the CDC chief noted that the ACIP vote on whether to offer boosters to groups such as health care workers, teachers and prisoners had been close. "In an effort protect those at greatest risk, our initial vaccine rollout prioritized these individuals," she said. "I must do what I can to preserve health across our nation."

Walensky also said that concerns about the disproportionate harm Covid-19 has had on communities of color and the poor also factored into her actions.

"Many of our frontline workers, essential workers and those in congregate settings come from communities that have already been hardest hit," she said. "Withholding access for boosters from these people and communities would only worsen the inequities that I have committed to fight against."

Her decision to contradict her advisory committee and expand the eligible population for boosters was closely held within the administration, with some senior health officials only finding out after it went public. It came after a series of late-night calls between White House aides and Biden’s top health officials, according to three people with knowledge of the matter.

The officials strategized through the evening over how to best message the CDC’s highly unusual split with its outside advisers. They also discussed how to manage the inevitable blowback, including the possibility that advisory committee members would be angry at being overruled and take their frustrations public, said one person with knowledge of the matter.

"Dr. Walensky made a good judgment and showed good leadership in making that decision," Fauci told POLITICO. "I totally agree and support that decision she made."

Camille Kotton, an ACIP member who voted in favor of allowing frontline workers to access boosters, said Walensky adapted the panel's comments and concerns about the occupational booster question into her ultimate recommendation.

“I believed that additional flexibility was useful for people in occupations at high risk of exposure, but definitely did not think that it should be recommended for all of them," said Kotton, an infectious disease clinician at Massachusetts General Hospital. "And that’s definitely not indicated.”

While Walensky made the right call on the prescribing guidance, the confusion over the CDC’s advisory panel’s advice is a larger problem that should have been dealt with earlier in the pandemic, said Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the FDA who currently sits on Pfizer’s board.

“We've superimposed a process that was built to be very slow, very deliberative [and] works very well for making decisions around pediatric immunization schedule. And we've assumed that this process would be fit for purpose in the setting of a fast-moving global crisis,” he said.

The broad categories of adults now eligible for boosters — and their ability to self-attest to their need, without providing any further proof — mean millions more Americans anxious to protect themselves amid rampant community transmission may be able to access the shots even if they don’t technically qualify.

Fauci warned against that Friday, saying that "you get more bang from the shot" by waiting at least six months after initial vaccination is completed.

Already, 2.37 million Americans had received additional vaccine doses as of Thursday, according to CDC data, nearly six weeks after the administration allowed some immunocompromised people to seek out additional doses of either Pfizer’s or Moderna’s vaccines. Those individuals don’t need a doctor’s note to get the extra shots.

Some governors began urging their residents to seek out boosters before the FDA and CDC officially endorsed them. The Maryland Department of Health updated its Covid vaccine bulletin Friday to encourage health care providers to contact immunized individuals to get them “to consider their eligibility for a [Pfizer] booster or additional doses” of either messenger RNA vaccine if they’re immunocompromised.

“Providers shall not turn away any individual who self-attests to eligibility for a booster or additional dose if immunocompromised,” the department said.

Asked about whether any individual who wants a booster should ask their providers or pharmacies for a shot now, Biden urged individuals to wait.

“Wait your turn,” he said.

David Lim contributed to this report.

Most rental aid went unspent in August, Treasury says

The Treasury Department said Friday that state and local officials had disbursed less than 17 percent of federal rental aid as of the end of August, as bottlenecks plagued the $46.5 billion eviction prevention program eight months after its creation.

The White House pandemic relief office projected that the total amount of assistance delivered by the end of this year would total $16.5 billion at the current pace of distribution — enough to help between 60 percent and 65 percent of households at significant risk of eviction. About 2.6 million tenants are at risk of imminent eviction without aid, according to the Urban Institute.

State and local governments that have struggled to distribute the funds face a Thursday deadline to disburse 65 percent of their allocations or risk having Treasury redistribute the money elsewhere. Already, Treasury has signaled that it will provide additional funds to a handful of programs — including those in Houston, Philadelphia and New Orleans — that have proven to be the most adept at getting aid into the hands of renters and landlords.

The slow pace of aid distribution indicated that the United States still faces a potential eviction crisis stoked by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Biden administration has limited tools to stop tenants from being kicked out of their homes after the Supreme Court in August halted a federal eviction ban, a legal blow that made expediting rental aid even more urgent. Goldman Sachs economists estimated at the end of last month that renters owe between $12 billion and $17 billion to landlords, with about 2.5 million to 3.5 million households behind on rent.

With rental aid delivery not expected to accelerate in a significant way, the Biden administration is attempting to lower expectations for the performance of the assistance program in the near term.

Administration officials on a call with reporters Thursday pushed back on the idea that the percentage of funding spent is a meaningful gauge of a program’s efficacy. They noted that Congress made $25 billion of rental aid available until September 2022 and a second $21.5 billion batch of funds available until September 2025.

“To simply take the amount of money that has gone out in the first five or six months, and then compare that to what was allocated for four or five years, is just a meaningless number,” an administration official who declined to be named said.

Administration officials also told reporters Thursday that the long runway Congress established gives them flexibility to use the program beyond the emergency needs of the pandemic.

“There was an eviction crisis in this country prior to Covid,” an official said. “The timelines clearly make it possible to do something that's more durable over time to actually make this system work better, more economically, efficiently and certainly more humanely than it did prior.”

CDC director breaks with agency advisers to endorse Pfizer booster for at-risk workers

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorsed the use of Pfizer and BioNTech's Covid-19 booster shot for workers at high risk of severe Covid-19, taking the rare step of overruling her agency's own advisers.

The CDC's independent vaccine advisory panel said on Thursday afternoon that the booster should be given to people 65 and older and nursing-home residents, along with people between 18 and 64 with underlying health conditions that raise their chances of severe Covid-19.

But the group, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, voted against allowing the booster for those at risk because of on-the-job exposure, such as for health care workers and teachers — breaking with the Food and Drug Administration's decision Wednesday to allow the booster for people with high-risk jobs.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky's decision to overrule the advisers, announced just before 1 a.m. on Friday, allows the Biden administration to expand use of the Pfizer-BioNTech booster, but falls far short of the broad rollout the White House laid out last month. The Biden team had initially aimed to begin administering Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna boosters to most adults beginning this week, but critics in and out of the administration argued that available vaccine safety and efficacy data only justified boosters for a small slice of the adult population.

Walensky nodded to that ongoing controversy, and her unusual decision to contradict CDC's vaccine advisory panel, in a statement on Friday.

"It is my job to recognize where our actions can have the greatest impact," she said. "In a pandemic, even with uncertainty, we must take actions that we anticipate will do the greatest good."

Walensky also noted that her action aligned the CDC's recommendations for booster use with the FDA authorization, and added that the agency "will address, with the same sense of urgency," the use of Covid-19 boosters made by Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

Moderna submitted its application for a booster shot earlier this month. Johnson & Johnson has begun submitting data on the efficacy of its booster but has not yet submitted an application.

"Walensky did the right thing," said Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University. "ACIP came out with a shocking poor recommendation that failed the common sense test. Are we really going to deny an additional level of protection to frontline workers, many of whom got vaccinated eight to nine months ago? It makes much more sense to recommend boosters to those who clearly will benefit."

Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist at NYU and Bellevue Hospital, said the evidence for boosters based on occupation was mixed — but there were still valid reasons to move forward with such a plan.

"Are you doing it to protect the health of the individual in those occupations or are you doing it to keep it on the job?" said Gounder, who has advised the Biden administration on Covid-19 response. "If you are asking the former, I agree with ACIP. There isn’t enough data. If you are asking the latter, if you think about health care setting for example … you’re not allowed to go to work if you have a breakthrough infection because you pose a risk to patients."

If enough health care workers in a given facility develop breakthrough infections simultaneously, that can hurt staffing levels, she said. "It’s the same thing with teachers. That is the reason to vaccinate people in those professions because it is not just for them," Gounder added.

The CDC director's decision is the latest twist in the administration's ongoing booster rollout. The FDA's own vaccine advisory committee quashed the administration's proposal for a widespread booster rollout last week when its members voted overwhelmingly against offering an additional dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot to people 16 and older.

Instead, the FDA panel said the booster should be permitted for people 65 and older and those at high risk of severe Covid-19 because of underlying health conditions. The panel also unofficially backed the use of the shot for people whose jobs increased their risk.

But the weeks of intense debate in and out of the administration about how far to expand the booster rollout may be for naught. Walensky's decision allows people to "self-attest" to their eligibility for the Pfizer-BioNTech booster, rather than providing proof such as a doctor's note. That, plus the fact that much of the population has at least one health condition that elevates their risk of severe disease, could allow millions of people to seek boosters as of Friday.

Erin Banco contributed to this report.

Grassley will seek reelection, boosting GOP's majority hopes

The waiting game for Chuck Grassley is over: He's running for reelection.

The Iowa Republican senator announced on Twitter Friday morning he will run for an eighth term, a move that makes it more likely the GOP can keep control of his seat in next year's midterm elections. Though Iowa has trended red in recent years and Grassley just turned 88 this month, Republican Party leaders have nonetheless pressed him to seek reelection amid their broader efforts to claim the Senate majority next year.

Grassley delivered his news in a tweet at 4 a.m. Central Daylight Time, emphasizing his exercise regimen and early wake-up time.

"It’s 4 a.m. in Iowa so I’m running. I do that 6 days a week. Before I start the day I want you to know what Barbara and I have decided. I’m running for re-election—a lot more to do, for Iowa," Grassley said in his tweet.

Grassley romped to a seventh term in 2016 by 25 points and will face former Democratic Rep. Abby Finkenauer in next year's general election. If Grassley had retired, Republicans could have faced a messy primary in the race to replace him.

The plainspoken Iowan is a fixture of the Senate. He presided over the Senate Judiciary Committee during Republicans' blockade of former President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland as well as the confirmation of former President Donald Trump's nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who faced accusations of sexual assault during his committee hearings.

Grassley also served in the line of presidential succession as the most senior GOP senator when Trump was president. He is currently the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Regulating crypto: the $2T Rubik's Cube

Crypto trading! Bitcoin! Dogecoin! Stablecoin! Even if lawmakers don't understand blockchain, Capitol Hill is finally waking up to digital currency — Congress has introduced more than a dozen bills on crypto and blockchain this year alone — as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle go head to head over the best way to regulate the $2 trillion market. Economics reporter Victoria Guida joins Playbook co-author Tara Palmeri to talk about lobbying around crypto and the time her dog ate her Bitcoin.

On takeaways from the Senate’s September SEC oversight hearing on cryptocurrencies — and partisan split over the policy approach

“One of the things that's difficult about crypto is that it's developing so quickly, it's changing so quickly. And that's one of the things that's really difficult about legislating it. And I heard this in some of my conversations with administration officials is basically like, you don't want to be that specific necessarily in how you legislate crypto, because the way that the industry looks now might not be what it looks like in a year or two because this technology is developing so rapidly. And so that's another thing that makes it really hard, particularly from a legislative standpoint, right? Like — government agencies take a while to do stuff, but Congress may only weigh in on things once every decade. And so that's another thing that's sort of difficult, because if you legislate on crypto, you kind of want to make sure that it's going to work for at least a little while.” — Victoria Guida

On the crypto industry’s lobbying efforts in the bipartisan infrastructure package

“This was really the first time that the crypto industry really had to gear up and try and fight a bill because they had never been used as sort of a pay-for revenue item for legislation before. And I think to some extent, they were actually kind of caught off guard by that. But they've gotten a lot of powerful people on their side. ... And so one of the things that we saw, too, was this sort of grassroots mobilization of people against the bill, and they were actually really able to kind of slow down the bipartisan infrastructure package in the Senate, although they ultimately lost. But I think that the force of their response, you know — they got Gene Simmons from KISS to tweet for them, and they had Jack Dorsey, who's super pro-Bitcoin. I think that the fight that they put up kind of surprised people.” — Victoria Guida

On the fear of Treasury and the Fed that stablecoins could disrupt the financial system

“One of the reasons why stablecoins are getting a lot of attention from regulators right now is partially because of what they could be, which is they could be used as sort of payment tokens that we use on e-commerce sites. So there's actually an organization called the Diem Association that's affiliated with Facebook. And the way that they envision it is to have this sort of separate payment system that lives within Facebook. So you'd still have dollars in your bank account. But it would be almost like going to an arcade where you go buy tokens and then you can use those tokens for everything at the arcade. And so stablecoins could become this entirely separate ecosystem of payments. So regulators want to make sure that they really understand all the implications of that, including whether — when you're done with the arcade — you can actually cash them back in and get the money back for the ‘tokens’ that you didn't use.” — Victoria Guida

On whether we’re at a turning point

“I do think we've reached the point where people generally feel like crypto is something that they can no longer ignore, that it's something that you're going to have to decide what you think about it and what to do about it, which is no easy task. It's kind of funny, too, because cryptocurrency were sort of originally designed with the idea of being outside of government. And so it's really interesting because even within the crypto community, you have all these different factions. There are some companies whose entire business model is like, ‘Let's design our business model to be within regulatory parameters. We're going to talk with government agencies and be in line with what they want.’ But it's not like the other part of the crypto community — the part that's suspicious of government, wants nothing to do with them and wants a completely parallel financial system — has gone away.” — Victoria Guida

McConnell warms to Herschel Walker as primary war with Trump fizzles

Republicans are hand-wringing over former President Donald Trump’s hand-picked candidate Herschel Walker entering a critical Senate race. Surprisingly, Mitch McConnell isn’t one of them.

After vowing earlier this year to tangle with Trump if necessary to nominate electable GOP candidates in must-win Senate primaries, the Senate minority leader is tacitly blessing many of Trump’s endorsements. As McConnell surveys Trump’s picks in Senate battlegrounds, he's concluded that “I don't believe they're troubling.”

McConnell even sees a path to victory for Walker, the former NFL star who is dogged by allegations of past erratic behavior, including threats to his ex-wife. Trump essentially recruited Walker in Georgia, making him the instant favorite to win the GOP nomination. And McConnell is OK with that.

“There are some things written that indicate he’s had some challenges in his life. On the other hand, the good news is, he's made several impressive performances on national television. His whole team is the same team around [former Sen.] Johnny Isakson,” McConnell said in an interview this week. “He's called me; we had a good conversation. I think there's every indication he’s going to be a good candidate.”

Republicans across the country will sigh in relief at McConnell’s remarks as Trump prepares to rally with Walker in Georgia on Saturday. McConnell hasn’t personally reconciled with Trump after excoriating him for ginning up the pro-Trump insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6. But the apparent midterm clash between the two hasn't materialized and may never — even as Trump continues a push to oust McConnell as Republican leader.

The only real political conflict between the two GOP titans at the moment is in Alaska, where McConnell said his party will do whatever it takes to defend incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski while Trump seeks to topple her. McConnell otherwise doesn’t view Trump’s endorsements of Walker, Sean Parnell in Pennsylvania, Rep. Mo Brooks in Alabama, Rep. Ted Budd in North Carolina and Adam Laxalt in Nevada as counterproductive to taking back the majority.

Asked about Brooks, a conservative firebrand who has antagonized party leaders for years, McConnell replied: “He’s a Republican, isn’t he? The magic number is 51.”

And if GOP leaders have any closely held problems with any of those candidates, they aren’t serious enough to prompt an internal civil war with the former president.

“I don't see Sharron Angle, Christine O'Donnell, Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock out there,” McConnell said, referring to toxic Republican Senate nominees who blew winnable races in 2010 and 2012. “I don't think there's much chance we're going to end up with a nominee who can't win in November.”

Still, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who ran the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2010 and 2012, said it’s “still kind of early” to judge whether the party would coalesce around nominees who could be anchors in a general election. The NRSC is officially neutral in open primaries this cycle, even as Trump offers his blessings in contested races.

Republicans only need to net one seat to gain back the Senate majority, though it’s also possible they could lose seats given a map that's forcing them to defend seats in Biden-won states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. It's a less favorable battlefield than 2018's midterms, when Senate Republicans gained seats even as House Republicans were clobbered and lost the majority.

McConnell described next year’s Senate battle as a “50/50 proposition.” Republicans are defending more territory, but Democrats face the challenge of trying to hold onto a narrow majority in a midterm election that’s historically rough on Washington's governing party.

“We're going to have … a referendum on the Biden administration. Everything he's doing so far is probably exacerbating the natural buyer's remorse that typically sets in two years into an administration,” McConnell said, mentioning the southern border, Afghanistan and Democrats’ spending plans.

McConnell declined to comment on whether Trump would help him take back the majority. He hasn’t talked to the former president since December, when he declared Joe Biden the duly elected president amid Trump's false claims of a stolen election.

Democrats like Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who chairs the party's Senate campaigns arm, dismiss Republican crowing over the deteriorating environment around Biden’s approval ratings more than a year before Election Day:

“It’s way too early … I’m not concerned," said Peters, who added that Republicans “are trying to prove they’re the most loyal to Donald Trump, I don’t think it's going to be a good strategy for them.”

The Senate map is also not fully formed. McConnell is waiting on key decisions from four of his incumbents on their reelection campaigns. McConnell said he wants Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and John Thune (R-S.D.) to run again and would go all-out to protect Murkowski. Grassley announced Friday he would seek re-election.

“We’re all in for Lisa. In every way. Senate Leadership Fund, NRSC, we’re all in for Lisa. I think she’ll have a competitive race,” McConnell said. Senate Leadership Fund is the main GOP super PAC for Senate races.

Republicans are also hoping to corral two high-profile governors who could change the complexion of the Senate map if they challenge Democratic incumbents. If GOP Govs. Doug Ducey of Arizona and Chris Sununu in New Hampshire take on Democratic Sens. Mark Kelly and Maggie Hassan, respectively, McConnell made clear those two candidates would be his preference in those races. (This comes as Trump says warm words about Don Bolduc in New Hampshire.)

McConnell sees the Senate map's top battlegrounds as Democratic-held seats in Georgia, New Hampshire, Nevada and Arizona and GOP held-seats in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Missouri. He omitted Colorado, where Sen. Michael Bennet (D) is running for reelection in a state that’s trended Democratic in recent years.

And despite McConnell’s sunny view of Trump’s endorsements, some races are getting ugly. In Pennsylvania, Jeff Bartos has called Parnell “unelectable” because his wife sought protective orders against him several years ago. Outgoing Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said he’s still weighing whether to endorse a potential successor and conceded the fighting between the GOP rivals is “is not anything you enjoy seeing.”

Retiring senators have bucked Trump’s picks elsewhere, with Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) backing former Gov. Pat McCrory over Budd and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) backing his former chief of staff Katie Boyd Britt over Brooks. McConnell and the NRSC, however, are not going there.

In a 50-50 Senate, every race matters. McConnell laments that if his party had held one of the seats in Georgia it would have shut down Democrats’ $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill and the $3.5 trillion social spending bill currently under discussion. But the self-appointed “grim reaper” of the Senate said his party isn’t necessarily running on a platform to stop Biden on everything.

McConnell cooperated with Biden on infrastructure, for example, but is refusing to throw the president a lifeline on the debt limit, whipping his members to block an increase unless Democrats pass one via a party-line vote. He’s also worked with Democrats on a competitiveness bill and hate crimes legislation.

“If you look at 2014, which is a good Republican year, we ran against Obama. But we also did business with him. The 21st Century Cures bill, Trade Promotion Authority,” McConnell said, referring to a health care modernization bill and a free-trade vote.

Of course, the Kentuckian also prevented former President Barack Obama from filling a Supreme Court seat once he had the majority. In some ways, Biden's ability to confirm a high court nominee if Justice Stephen Breyer retires is the biggest prize next year.

If Democrats lose one seat or more next year and there’s a Supreme Court vacancy under divided government, would McConnell again mount a blockade?

“Cross those bridges when I get there, we are focusing on ‘22,” McConnell said. “I don’t rule anything in or out about how to handle nominations if I’m in the majority position.”

The Mini-Trump Blowing Up Local GOP Politics

STRONGSVILLE, Ohio—One evening earlier this month, on the grass of the commons outside the police station and the chambers of the city council here, a couple hundred people gathered with “Thin Blue Line” flags mounted on thick plywood posts for an event they wanted to serve as a show of political force.

On hand to back the local cops while fending off what they see as looming leftist enemies, the speakers who took the stage included two city councilmen, the Republican state representative, a onetime Cleveland police union boss and Fox News-prominent former Milwaukee County sheriff David Clarke — but the obvious emcee of the occasion was an operative with gelled-down hair and a gap-toothed grin.

Shannon Burns, the president of the Strongsville GOP, slid behind the microphone and delivered a puckish prompt. “Anyone ever heard of us backing down from a fight?”

“No!” the crowd shouted back.

Many of the attendees had paid $40 for a flag to stand in a public space to decry a scarcely discernible controversy. The happening went on for roughly an hour before some of them shifted inside to chambers to lecture their elected officials about “so-called,” “self-appointed” “social justice activists.” The episode wasn’t some natural groundswell. It was a coordinated effort that has become quite common lately in this town of 45,000.

Triggered by former President Donald Trump’s rise but even more by his (electoral) demise, Burns has stoked a steady boil of outrage — organizing more than a dozen events around culture-war wedge issues like masks and vaccines to critical race theory and “defund the police.” No issue, though, has been a bigger, more visceral animator for Burns and the members of the Strongsville GOP than what they considered the heresy of Anthony Gonzalez — their congressman who was one of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in the aftermath of the Capitol insurrection earlier this year. Relentlessly modeling Trump-style politics — politics as entertainment, politics as business, politics as personal and perpetual combat — Burns zeroed in on Gonzalez, censuring him, hounding him for his “betrayal” and calling on him to “RESIGN.”

Throughout 2021, Burns has transformed the local Republican party in this suburban corner of northeast Ohio, making a local partisan group less local and more partisan. He has dispensed with much of the staid standard fare and even the pedestrian goals of a traditional place-based Republican club like actually electing Republicans. Instead, he has presented what can feel like almost non-stop programming — movie nights, gun range nights, grandiose political summits with right-wing A-list-ish guests. In fact, Burns no longer is even running a local Republican club — because the Strongsville GOP at this point is legally the Better Ohio PAC, a political action committee Burns started just nine days after Gonzalez’s fateful vote. I’ve been here five times since April, and each time I have left more convinced that what Burns is up to is emblematic of the nationalization of our grassroots political life: the apocalyptic pitch, the hostile, conspiratorial talk, the obliteration of any semblance of a lull between elections. Being around Burns and his minions this spring, summer and fall began to feel to me very much like an on-the-ground, scale-model glimpse at the building of a bridge from Trump 2020 to the impending possibility of Trump 2024.

And this month was peak proof.

Over the course of a week and a half, in this red suburban corner of Democratic Cuyahoga County, Burns went from the “Back the Blue Rally” ($40 a flag) to the Strongsville GOP clambake that went for $76 a head to the news last Thursday night that Gonzalez was not going to run for re-election. Gonzalez made national news with his retreat, the first of the 10 Republican impeachment supporters to quit in the face of Trump-driven outrage. Locally, though, his pullout had its own meaning: It sharply underscored the extent to which Burns has become the head of a field office of Trump, and a vehicle for the former president’s unrelenting efforts to exact revenge. Because if Gonzalez’s announcement was a win for Trump and for his chosen primary challenger — the favored former aide Max Miller — it was a triumph, too, for Burns.

In terms of sheer publicity, this registers as a highwater mark in his life in and around politics. But with publicity comes scrutiny. Burns, 46, a mostly middling Republican consultant and now a state central committeeman, is plainly an able and energetic schmoozer. He’s also, though, a slipshod businessman at best — and perhaps something worse as well, according to reams of county, state and federal records, which show evictions, bankruptcies, hundreds of thousands of dollars of back taxes and more than two dozen lawsuits filed against Burns and his companies. “A shyster,” one of the plaintiffs said when we talked this month. “A flimflam artist,” said another. “Scammin’ Shannon,” Ralph King, a longtime conservative activist in the area, told me. “You got the red and you got the blue, but Shannon’s ‘conservatism’ is green,” King said. “Who can put it in his scamming little pocket?” Even this, though, the fact that Burns is doing what he’s doing right now in spite of a documented litany of misconduct, is nothing if not evocative of a former president who transformed the landscape by (among of course many other things) trafficking in controversy, weaponizing his own scandals and simply plowing brazen-faced and full steam ahead.

On the Strongsville commons, Burns took to the mic — to upsell a topic that had been confined for the most part to the public-comment piece of a single meeting of the city council.

“There’s this group that put together this fake report about our police, and this fake report is trying to use some statistics that say that our police are racist,” he said, referring to Indivisible Strongsville and its request that the city council look into racial disparities of the people the police pull over. Burns paused. The crowd knew the cue. Boo! “And then they also want the ‘Thin Blue Line’ flag in headquarters to be taken down because they think that’s a racist symbol.” Boo! “Know what we said? We said, ‘Hell no,’” Burns said. “Hell no!” hollered the crowd. Before he was done, he called for the ousters of the two female members of the seven-person city council, painting them as sympathetic to Indivisible, which Burns, buzzing with buzzwords, called “gutless” and “Marxist” and “tied to George Soros.” It was a Tuesday in Middle America, and this was a miniature Trump rally.

“There’s something unique about Shannon,” Josh Mandel, arguably the most pro-Trump candidate in Ohio’s sprawling, Trump-torqued Senate primary, told me recently. “I think President Trump inspired them to become active,” Mandel said of the members of Strongsville GOP, “and I think Shannon has done a terrific job of keeping them active.”

“The fringe groups, and I wouldn’t even call them fringe groups, these are people that are just fed up, but Shannon has taken it one step further,” said a praising Jim Renacci, the 16th district congressman before Gonzalez who is now running for governor in an intraparty fight against Mike DeWine. “Shannon’s capitalizing on a couple of things,” he added, noting the anti-Joe Biden, anti-Covid-cautious-DeWine, anti-mask, anti-vaccine and anti-Gonzalez grassroots rage.

“He is an opportunist,” Doug Deeken, the GOP chair of nearby Wayne County, said when I called to talk about Burns. “And when do farmers make hay? They make hay when the sun shines. The sun is shining right now in Strongsville, and Shannon’s making hay.”

The night of the Gonzalez news, Burns crowed that the Strongsville GOP was “the tip of the spear.” The next morning, I found Burns in a “celebratory” spirit.

“It’s definitely a great day,” he said. “There’s no other way to frame it.”

The first time I saw Shannon Burns was the first time I was in Strongsville. It was at the April monthly meeting of the Strongsville GOP. I had come not because I was interested in Burns but to cover the nascent primary pitting Miller against Gonzalez. Burns was not on my radar because Burns by any normal measure was not a major player — the head, after all, of not even a county-level Republican club. With a stubborn Northeast Ohio nip in the air, that evening’s gathering was on the asphalt outskirts of the town’s huge mall sprawl, at an indoor-outdoor pub that was packed with people wearing plenty of MAGA merch but next to no masks. My own mask was so at odds with the group vibe a woman physically removed it from my face. A man, meanwhile, told me he thought the vaccines — not the virus — were going to kill millions of people. Bob Frantz, a sort of local Limbaugh, was the keynote speaker, but the person who held court on the stage by the bar was Burns. It wasn’t, though, until a Saturday in the middle of May at something Burns was billing as the Ohio Political Summit that I started to see him truly as a significant character in his own right.

For all the ways in which Florida is the foremost bastion of the Trump-led GOP, Ohio also is a white-hot epicenter, a swing state that by now has mostly swung — a state Trump won twice, a state with a governor seen by Trump supporters as too pandemic-strict, and a state that is every bit a roiling, high-stakes congressional battlefield. And Strongsville even more specifically, a site of presidential pit stops of the past, is known due to its confluence of throughways as “the Crossroads of the Nation.” In press releases, Burns hyped his summit as “the first major event of the season,” announcing a roster of most of the major GOP candidates running in the most important races — plus a one-two punch of headliners: Lauren Boebert, the heat-packing congresswoman from Colorado, and right-wing celebrity Candace Owens.

But when Burns added another eyebrow-raising, non-Ohio provocateur to the lineup — Florida congressman Matt Gaetz, mired at the time in controversy over alleged sex trafficking — many of the candidates who had committed to the event discovered they had conflicts. Reporters in the days leading up to the shindig started to hear the scuttlebutt of eleventh-hour cancellations. I had one person call me to make sure I knew — concerned I would ruin my weekend for a Burns-led dud. Not privy to these developments (because Burns was being mum) were most of the 600 people who had purchased tickets for (as he had put it in promotional materials) “Only $75.”

Outside the venue, past a Ford EcoSport SUV with window stickers saying “F--- Biden” and “Trump 2024,” the line to get in stretched around a bend and down the side of the building. On the doors, signs said Ohio policy mandated masks, but basically the only people who wore them once inside were the dozen or so reporters from around the state and beyond. In the men’s room, under the soap dispenser, somebody had planted a sign of his own: “MASKS DON’T WORK!” Out in the main ballroom, where the crowd was shoulder-to-shoulder in chairs, people watched on a pair of big screens a piped-in YouTube video of Trump’s rally in Orlando from the summer of 2019. It seemed at first like maybe a way to set the mood. Before long, it became clear that it was more just to kill time. People began to look around and check their phones.

I found Burns in a corner.

“So,” I said, “the schedule …”

“Well, you’ll have to see.”

“A surprise?”

“You got it.”

For most of the rest of the morning and well into the afternoon — with the exception of Mandel, who called Gonzalez a “traitor” that “spit in Donald Trump’s face” — the candidates who took the stage to speak were lesser lights with little chance. As the people ate their box lunches, they listened to Senate candidate Mark Pukita (“if you’re a Republican and you didn’t vote to object to the certification of the Arizona and Pennsylvania election results, you need to be primaried … they need to go”), gubernatorial candidate Joe Blystone (“the only way we can change the system is take over the system”) and congressional candidate Jonah Schulz (he called DeWine “our tyrannical governor”). Late adds and slot-fillers included somebody from a Republican club in a town near Columbus, a congressional candidate from the other side of Cleveland and a congressional candidate from … Georgia. And Bob Frantz again — the local radio personality. “I can’t smell freedom through face diapers,” he said.

Owens and Gaetz, when they finally took the stage well into the afternoon, felt like relief.

“Factually speaking, we are producing the dumbest kids that have ever lived in America,” she told the crowd that had given her a standing ovation and would give her another when she finished her less-than-an-hour-long speech-plus-question-and-answer-session for which Burns’ Better Ohio PAC had cut her a check for $30,000. “But now you can major in gender studies, which is interesting, because that should be five minutes in kindergarten — two genders!”

Gaetz lauded the ways and aims of Burns and his group. “This is Donald Trump’s Republican Party, and I’m a Donald Trump Republican!” he said. “The way forward is not a repackaged version of Paul Ryan’s ‘Better Way.’ And it’s certainly not the Green New Deal and the socialist way. Isn’t it obvious by now? It is our America First ideas, not theirs, that fill the rallies and sell the tickets. I’m told that the Strongsville GOP has never sold more tickets than for today’s event. Congratulations to all of you!”

Boebert, though? A no-show.

I’ve talked to some people who heard from some people who grumbled about the rejiggered, less appealing run of show, but the people I talked to that day at the event seemed unbothered by the absence of Boebert or any of the other candidates who were supposed to have been there. No complaints of a bait and switch. No requests for refunds. And if people were angry, at least from what I heard, it wasn’t at Burns. “People are upset at the candidates that didn’t show up,” Dakota Sawyer told me. “Some people chickened out, and they’re going to take a hit for it,” Steve Kraus said. When I caught up with Gaetz in a post-speech scrum of enthusiastic selfie-seekers, he feigned ignorance that his presence might have been a reason. “They should’ve come,” he said. “There were a lot of great folks here. We had a great time.”

“It is head-scratching,” King, the conservative activist who dubbed Burns “Scammin’ Shannon,” told me this week. “The people on the right, you say you’re the smart ones, and the Democrats are dumb. You say you’re against the swamp. Yet you register no anger towards a guy that misled you. This is what the swamp thrives and survives on!”

The next day, Jeff Darcy, the editorial cartoonist from the Plain Dealer of Cleveland, sketched for the newspaper a caricature of Burns and opined that the Strongsville GOP “now appears to be acting more like a de facto Trumplican cult.”

Two weeks after that, Martin Schutte, another plaintiff in another lawsuit against Burns, sent an email to members of the Strongsville GOP. Schutte recently shared it with me. “I doubt all of you know that Shannon Burns robbed his employee’s (sic) of pay that they earned,” Schutte wrote. “This man is NOT a patriot! He is a fake Republican and a fraud!”

For most of the last decade and a half the people in politics who knew Burns knew him because of Victory Solutions. Victory Solutions, which he incorporated in 2006, according to state records, provided phones and computer software to help campaigns make more calls in less time. The Trump campaign in the 2016 cycle paid Victory Solutions $1,266,923, according to Federal Election Commission records. In the 2020 cycle, though, Victory Solutions did no work for the Trump campaign, and not that much work at all, based on FEC filings — and now is effectively shuttered because it’s so deeply indebted.

Just this past January, according to campaign finance records, Burns incorporated in Ohio a new company called WAB Holdings. It does not do business in Ohio, according to Burns. From February to June of this year, according to Texas records, WAB Holdings made a little more than $600,000 from a PAC called Save Austin Now — for “advertising” and “voter identification efforts” during a (successful) ballot initiative supporters described as an outdoor camping ban and critics considered too stringently anti-homeless. “He did all of our voter ID, all of our voter contact. He did our data analysis. He did our modeling,” Matt Mackowiak, the Austin-based GOP operative and a co-founder of Save Austin Now, told me. He added that he didn’t know much about Burns’ doings in Ohio. “I’m happy to learn more about vendors and people and their careers and things they do well,” he said, “and things they don’t do well.”

The unflattering parts of Burns’ past aren’t a secret. The Daily Beast offered up a rundown in the waning days of 2019, and it spawned some aggregation. Well beyond that coverage, though, Burns has attached to his name and the name of his companies a glut of daunting and damning county, state and federal records.

Going back to 2004, in residential apartments as well as office space, Burns has been sued for unpaid rent more than half a dozen times and evicted on at least three occasions.

Dating back to 2001, the Internal Revenue Service and state agencies have placed tax liens on Burns and his companies that add up to more than $800,000 — much of which he hasn’t paid.

In 2018, Burns filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection twice — declaring $231,901 in assets and more than $2 million in liabilities, according to records, in spite of reported earnings between 2016 and 2018 of more than $4 million. His efforts, though, were dismissed by the court, because shareholders didn’t agree to the terms.

Starting in 2001, just in Cuyahoga County, Burns has been sued more than two dozen times for unpaid wages and unpaid bills—by people who did work for him, by companies that did work for him, once by one of his own attorneys—amounts ranging from as little as just over $1,000 to more than $100,000. Burns’ chief business partner died in 2012 of brain cancer, and his widow, a minority shareholder of Victory Solutions, sued Burns for mismanaging the company and stonewalling her in any communication or ownership benefits—a case subsequently dismissed due to the bankruptcy filings. The elderly Holocaust survivor mother of his business partner sued Burns, too, alleging that she loaned him in 2009 $15,000 plus hefty interest and that he not only didn’t pay her back but ignored her calls for years after her son’s death—a case that resulted in a default judgment against Victory Solutions of $48,304.66.

“He’s a scumbag, and anybody associated with him needs to hang their head in shame,” said Elva Heuschkel, a former employee who sued him in 2013 for $3,384.61, got a court judgment in that amount and was actually paid by Burns. “I think I’m one of the few that got money from him,” she said. “I was one of the lucky ones.”

“He runs everybody through the mud,” said Schutte, who sent the email to members of the Strongsville GOP calling Burns a “fraud.” Schutte received in 2017 a judgment of $53,525.05. “He still has not paid me,” he said, “and no one makes him — like, there’s no consequences at all, and I think he knows that, so he doesn’t care. He’s, like, ‘If there’s no consequences, why should I have to do anything?’”

Schutte, who’s registered as a Democrat but insists that has nothing at all to do with his gripe, didn’t get many responses to the email he sent. But he did get some.

“Please remove me from your email list,” Jeanine Hammack, the group’s campaign chair, wrote back. Linda Savido, the events chair, said the same thing.

Burns’ odd new prominence is a byproduct of Trump’s unexpected emergence as a leader of lasting political consequence. “All I’ve done,” Burns told me this month, “is figured out how to catch the wave.”

He’s been in charge of the Strongsville GOP since early 2015 — just before Trump started running for president. In 2017, in the wake of Trump’s victory the fall before, two Republicans on the Strongsville City Council lost — in part, according to local GOP politicos, because Burns urged them to nationalize the campaign, using imagery of Trump and Hillary Clinton on mailers. But the setback and sore feelings receded, and Burns was elected in 2020 to the state central committee by presenting himself as a Trump candidate even though of course there was no such thing as a Trump endorsement in the comparatively small-potatoes race. Then came this year. In January, emboldened, Burns sniffed accelerant and cash and trained at Gonzalez his unwavering ire.

One Friday night in late June, the eve of the Trump rally in adjoining Lorain County, I made my way through the crowded dining room of the Strongsville Buffalo Wild Wings to get to a private back room. It was Strongsville GOP movie night. Burns all but reveled. I wasn’t even the only reporter there. So was Seth McLaughlin from the Washington Times. So was Sarah Ferguson from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Before he hit play on conspiracy theorist Dinesh D’Souza’s 2018 film “Death of a Nation,” Burns told the few dozen people on hand to watch Fox News in the 9 o’clock hour: “Max Miller, who is, as you know, the congressional candidate running against the evil Anthony Gonzalez, is going to be on.”

“How does Donald Trump still get a big crowd to come out and see him?” Ferguson, the Australian reporter, asked Burns. “He lost.”

Burns said no.

“He may not be in office, but I don’t concede that he lost.”

This line of thinking, an absolute article of faith at Burns’ events, coursed through the crowd on the commons in September as well. “Trump won! Trump won!” a squat woman with an arm brace and a pack of cigarettes kept yelling in the briefest of pauses in the speeches.

“How is ‘Sippy Cup Joe Biden’ gonna win an election when he can’t even say a sentence?” she said to me when I spotted her and went to talk to her after the rally was over and the crowd had started to disperse or make their way to city council. “He didn’t win that. That election was stolen.” She said she didn’t want to give her name — “’cause I don’t trust anybody” — before shifting to the debunked notion of “FEMA camps” where Biden is planning to send the unvaccinated.

“Shannon hustles,” Tom Patton, the area’s state rep, told me when I called to talk about Burns and the Strongsville GOP. “He’s got the reins, and he’s really transformed it into something more than a local little city group.”

“What I love about Shannon is just his passion for our country,” said Mark Fender, Strongsville’s chief of police. He told me the blue-line flag in the lobby of his station was going nowhere. “The flag,” he said, “has been around a lot longer than these other villanization movements against the police.”

The next morning, I met with two of the leaders of Indivisible Strongsville, Russ Smith and Beverly Masek. We drank coffee, and Smith offered toast with honey made by his beekeeping wife. They hadn’t gone to the rally the night before, or the city council, they said, because they didn’t want to play the foil for his social media feeds. Marxists? Socialists? Communists? “At election time, we’ll be the ones hanging vote-for-so-and-so on your doorknob — that’s about as wicked as we get,” Smith said. Masek and Smith gave me a copy of the letter they had written to the council, yellow highlights, blue-pen edits, saying Black drivers were “being unjustly ticketed by Strongsville Police” and referencing a “thoughtful meeting” with the city’s safety director “back in March.”

Playing a different game at a different pace, Burns was back at it the following Monday after the rally on the commons. Another bunch of people squeezed under a large white tent on the lawn adjacent to VFW Post 3345 at yet another event put on by the Strongsville GOP. For $76 a person ($140 a couple or $528 for a table) the clam bake promised a dozen clams or half a chicken, chowder, corn and rolls with butter — plus a familiar “Special Guest.” But Boebert was a no-show. Again. (Multiple spokespeople for Boebert didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.)

Back behind another mic, Burns didn’t so much as mention her (and nobody I talked to brought her up, either). “Good evening, Strongsville!” Burns said. They prayed (“God, thank you, thank you for this wonderful crowd of like-minded people,” the first vice president said), they said the Pledge of Allegiance, they sang the national anthem, and Burns quickly introduced a handful of local polls before shifting focus. “We’re going to make certain that we are not going to have any critical race theory taught here in our schools,” he said to a rousing round of applause.

A school board candidate assured she would “fight like hell,” the executive committee chair of the county GOP urged the crowd “not to bend to the tyranny of the left,” and Mandel — the always-at-hand, not-Boebert keynote at Burns’ events — delivered a talk that rolled out like ready-made, red-meat bingo. Two genders. Critical race theory, the New York Times’ 1619 project? “Trash” and “lies.” And the election? “Stolen.”

“I hear you’re doing a hit piece on me,” Burns said as I stood off to the side. But he said it with that grin.

It’s not “a hit piece,” I said, if I’m standing here asking questions.

“I started a company, I had a lot of growth, and that growth also got me leveraged, right? And I got to a point where I was overleveraged. And it’s happened to plenty of others. What happens in that case? You get sued. Plain and simple. There’s no nefarious thing going on there, right? I employed a lot of people, and there are always ways to spin that and make it seem like you’re a terrible guy,” he said. “If people want to do that, they can.”

“But have you made people whole?” I said, knowing he has not.

“Well,” he said, “I’m only one man, right? There’s a company, right? There’s a company that had — you know, I don’t operate Victory Solutions anymore. Victory Solutions is no longer a company, since last year, right? I’ve got my own consulting firm now,” he said, meaning WAB Holdings. “And there’s no way for Victory Solutions to make it whole.”

He added later: “I was the head of the company, and I take responsibility for what happened, but I was only a 51-percent-share owner of the company. So, while ultimately the buck stops with me, I wasn’t the only owner — and, by the way, I lost more money than anyone else did.”

Besides, to some extent all publicity is good publicity, Burns suggested at the clam bake. That Darcy cartoon and commentary from May? “That one’s on my wall,” he said.

Some 72 hours later, Burns texted me a tweet — his — saying Gonzalez was “considering dropping out of the race,” saying Miller “will be the next Congressman,” saying the Strongsville GOP was “the tip of the spear.” He had tweeted it at 8:07 p.m. The New York Times’ Jonathan Martin, on the other hand, had tweeted his scoop 57 minutes later. Burns wanted to make sure I’d noticed. “I was the first one to put it out,” he said in a text.

Gonzalez, in his statement explaining his thinking, cited “the toxic dynamics inside our own party” and “the chaotic political environment that currently infects our country.”

“RINO Congressman Anthony Gonzalez, who has poorly represented his district in the Great State of Ohio, has decided to quit after a tremendous loss of popularity, of which he had little, since his ill-informed and otherwise very stupid impeachment vote against the Sitting President of the United States, me,” Trump said in an emailed statement in his bizarre strain of almost poetry.

At 10:50, he added a quick grace note: “1 down, 9 to go!”

In the interim, though, I talked to the “celebratory” Burns.

“I’m absolutely thrilled,” he said, mentioning Trump and his endorsement of Miller and the rally in Ohio on his behalf but claiming as well some credit for himself and his club. “We just kept the pressure on the whole time and never let it drop.”

People close to Gonzalez say that’s preposterous. “I can’t overestimate the zero that he is on my day-to-day life. Even commenting makes it seem like he’s more of something than he is,” one of them told me this week. “The only impact Shannon has ever had on the 16th congressional district is the time that gets taken away from my day from people calling to tell me about the next shady scam Shannon is up to.”

It’s not just Gonzalez allies who stress this. “Do we really think that Anthony Gonzalez not running for office had anything to do with Shannon Burns?” a wired, Ohio-based Republican lobbyist told me the other day. “A hundred percent — a thousand percent — not even close. I mean, the president of the United States, the former president of the United States, is attacking Anthony Gonzalez and coming to town for his opponent. And he thinks somehow Anthony resigned because of Shannon Burns?”

I’m wary, too, of giving him too much credit. At the very least, though, Burns has done more than his fair share to stoke the political terrain in which Gonzalez was going to have to run. And the environment this year for Gonzalez nonetheless went from uncomfortable to untenable. This doesn’t make Burns a genius. It makes him “an opportunist,” said the lobbyist.

“Shannon is a political version of a Kardashian,” he said, “all about creating as much chaos as possible… because if there’s chaos, he finds himself able to grow amongst that chaos.”

If the Gonzalez news, though, was for Burns a win, it was also a loss. “He lost his cause celebre,” another person close to Gonzalez said. “He’s got to find another one.” This person paused. “I’m sure he will.”

If there is a scoresheet of Burns’ performance, his critics say it ought to include some less prominent local defeats as well as the win against Gonzalez.

In an echo of the 2017 city council debacle, three Republican candidates who were set to run this fall for three at-large seats backed out due to a lack of help they expected to receive from Burns and the Strongsville GOP, local Republicans say privately. His priorities, they assessed, are elsewhere. “So let me get this straight,” King said in a tweet. Burns and his “PAC are so busy fleecing people … they forgot to find GOP candidates in his own city!” The club has commissioned a committee to read textbooks used in the local schools looking for evidence of critical race theory. The city council presumably at some point will have an answer for Indivisible Strongsville, and Burns, it’s safe to assume, won’t let that go quietly. Covid, Max Miller, Mike DeWine — even after Gonzalez, there remains plenty of national ammunition for Better Ohio PAC.

“President Trump, in order to get elected again, should he run in ’24, which I truly believe he’s going to,” Burns told me the other day, “he’s going to need guys like us, guys and gals like us, to keep the fight going right now.”

It’s movie night tonight in Strongsville. Scheduled to show in the back room of the Buffalo Wild Wings? “Trump 2024: The World After Trump.”

“This movie night,” said a still-basking Burns, “might include a few additional beers.”