Indivisible Upper Yellowstone – Weekly Journal
The Week of Saturday, May 9 through Friday, May 15, 2020 [#43]
“Distract and Divide”
The Week’s Most Notable
It’s probably a valid assumption that most Americans want to – safely – get out of the house, go back to work, even go back to school, and try to piece together what may be our “new normal lives.” Unfortunately, toward that end the events of the week offered only a confusing mishmash: The Trump-GOP seems intent on steering us away from dealing on a national basis with the COVID-19 crisis. Trump has begun splitting with Dr. Fauci. The White House was caught manipulating CDC guidelines. In general, they seem happier in suppressing reality and applying political pressure than in dealing with the fact that the U.S. still has the worst record on COVID-19 in the world. Meanwhile, we the people are stuck with whatever our state can do, which is a mixed bag.
Adding to the flurry of mixed signals, the Senate GOP seems to prefer paralysis to stimulating the economy. That meant the Democratic House passed a new $3 trillion relief bill into thin air. Meanwhile, in a panic about his slipping reelection, Trump seems to have cobbled together a strategy – making Baghdad Bob-style pronouncements, promoting anti-science, muzzling the CDC, firing Inspectors General, unleashing Attorney General Barr (current travesty, the Gen. Flynn case), and revealing the unbelievable, dog-whistle, amorphous thing called Obamagate. None of this is confidence inspiring.
Saturday, May 9
[Coronavirus] U.S. COVID-19 Totals: Deaths – 77,180, Cases – 1,310,000, Hospitalizations – 143,762
[Coronavirus] South Korea Again Closes Bars – President Moon Jae-in disclosed that a single individual visiting a number of bars in Seoul had infected several districts, forcing another closing of bars and the quarantining of many people. South Korea has long been considered one of the leaders in management of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sunday, May 10
[Coronavirus] Obama Steps into the COVID-19 Fray – In a leaked web call, he spoke of the U.S. response as “an absolute chaotic disaster.” It appears that Obama’s Olympian diffidence has its limits. This and other comments sorely provoked the Trump-GOP and prompted Senate leader McConnell to chastise Obama for unseemly criticism of another president. (As if Trump hasn’t been doing this shamelessly for several years.) These were the opening shots of a weeklong exchange between Trump and Obama. At one point, Trump and McConnell accused the Obama administration of leaving nothing to combat a viral outbreak. Obama and the Democrats immediately pointed out that they had left a pandemic unit at the National Security Council, a complete 69-page portfolio on how to deal with a pandemic, and had conducted a heads-up session for the incoming Trump administration. McConnell admitted his error and retracted his statement.
Monday, May 11
[Coronavirus] White House Orders Staff to Wear Masks – Conspicuously, Trump does not wear a mask and several times during the week rejected their use – falling in line with the evolving right-wing resistance to masks as a political statement. Earlier Monday Trump tweeted that the fight against COVID-19 was successful and the numbers were “going down almost everywhere.” This was patently untrue as the total number of coronavirus deaths rose by more than 10,000 in a week and surpassed 80,000.
[Justice] 2,000 Justice Department Former Employees Call for Barr to Resign – Prompted by his decision to drop charges against Michael Flynn, in an open letter the former employees charged that the decision was “conducted without any legitimate investigative basis,” and “once again assaulted the rule of law.”
[Coronavirus] Trump Walks Out on His Own Press Conference – In a clash with two reporters, one of which involved an obliquely racist answer to Weijia Jiang of CBS (an American citizen of Chinese birth), “Maybe that’s a question you should ask China.” Trump departed abruptly, leaving yet another iconic photograph of his exiting profile.
[Coronavirus] Putin to Gradually End COVID-19 Lockdown – By the end of the week Russia had climbed from fourth to second in the world’s list of total number of cases, which most observers consider to be massively undercounted.
Tuesday, May 12
[Coronavirus] Fauci Testifies to Senate – The lead takeaway was about reopening the country: “There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control.” Fauci and two other witnesses are self-quarantined after possible exposure at the White House.
[Supreme Court] Court Opens Oral Arguments on Trump Financial Documents Cases – Once again by teleconferencing, the court took up cases related to Trump’s tax returns and other private financial records. Normally, a decision on these cases would be expected in June; however, the court will probably punt the issue back to lower courts with no decisions until after the 2020 elections.
[Election 2020] Garcia (R) Wins California 25th Congressional District – Formerly a Democratic seat, the district flipped partly on the aftereffects of the Rep. Katie Hill (D) debacle and on shifting demographics (older). The seat will be re-contested in November by the same candidates.
Wednesday, May 13
[Coronavirus] Wisconsin Supreme Court Strikes Down Stay-at-Home Order – The court held the governor could not issue a statewide emergency order without consulting the legislature. The decision was widely seen as political on behalf of the Republican legislature and Republican-dominated Supreme Court. It instantly created a wide-open state (the governor labeled it “the wild West”), which will be watched for a surge in COVID-19 cases.
[Coronavirus] Fed Chair Powell Calls for More Stimulus – Remarking about a new Fed survey he said, “The scope and speed of this downturn are without modern precedent, significantly worse than any recession since World War II.” He underlined the Fed’s concern that “There is a sense, growing sense I think, that the recovery may come more slowly than we would like. But it will come, and that may mean that it’s necessary for us to do more.”
[Mueller Investigation] Judge Puts Flynn Case Dismissal on Hold – Creates “case within a case” – U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan did more than throw a spanner into the gears of the Attorney General’s attempt to spring Michael Flynn. He appointed former federal judge John Gleeson (he who convicted mob boss John Gotti) to investigate the DOJ’s unusual legal logic. This will mean calling of witnesses, possibly examination of documents, and a public airing of the mysterious and the controversial (read: politicized) DOJ move for dismissal. Apparently Judge Sullivan did not take kindly to the DOJ messing with his court. Although existing laws may constrain him to release Flynn, it will not happen quietly.
[Justice] FBI Seizes Sen. Richard Burr’s Cell Phone – While apparently in connection with the investigation on insider trading, it is unusual to make this kind of public gesture. Burr (R, NC) has voluntarily stepped down from his chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Note that Burr is no favorite with the White House because of his leadership on the reports documenting Russian interference in the American elections.
[Coronavirus] Manafort Released to Home Confinement – Given his age, 71, and ill health, six years of his seven-year term will now be served at home. This is almost unprecedented for such a high-profile case; there are many other similar cases that have yet to receive such lenient treatment (for example, Trump’s imprisoned lawyer Michael Cohen had his pending home confinement inexplicably canceled).
[Government] Senate Rejects Barring of Warrantless Internet Searches – Current surveillance laws permit searches of Internet activity and browsing history without a warrant. The bipartisan amendment to require warrants was rejected by one vote.
Thursday, May 14
[Coronavirus] Whistleblower Rick Bright Testifies for the House – Dr. Bright was the director in charge of developing pandemic vaccines; he was removed from his position by the White House mainly because he would not validate hydroxychloroquine, Trump’s miracle cure. His testimony was verbally punchy, “I knew that we were going to have a crisis for our healthcare workers because we were not taking action. . .. We could face the darkest winter in modern history.” Trump characterized Dr. Bright as a “disgruntled employee.”
[Mueller Investigation] Graham Announces Sen. Judiciary Committee to Investigate Origins of Mueller Probe – Filling out the attacks by William Barr’s DOJ on Trump’s enemies, the Senate will operate a parallel investigation on the “Deep State” for targeting the president. The White House is orchestrating a number of “revelations” between now and the November election. That these efforts are transparently political is apparently of little concern.
[Coronavirus] CDC Releases Delayed Guidance – Under media pressure, the White House has allowed the CDC to distribute a somewhat more detailed guidance for reopening under the COVID-19 crisis. The delay and prevarication about this guidance (the earlier draft was “too prescriptive”) are a good example of the degree to which the CDC and its mission have been compromised by its political leadership.
[Coronavirus] Last Week’s Jobless Claims Reach Almost 3 Million – The total for eight weeks under the COVID-19 crisis is now 36.5 million, and will apparently exceed 40 million, or between 20% and 25% of the workforce, by the end of the month. These are the worst unemployment figures since the Great Depression.
Friday, May 15
[Coronavirus] U.S. COVID-19 Totals: Deaths – 87,530, Cases – 1,443,000, Hospitalizations – 153,866
[Coronavirus] House Passes $3 Trillion Coronavirus Relief Package – A big chunk of the bill provides $1 trillion in aid to state and local governments, extends unemployment benefits, and adds another round of $1,200 to individual Americans. It contains many other elements which were hotly contested by the House Democrats themselves. McConnell pronounced the bill DOA in the Senate, and though talks continue, he has promised nothing will happen until June. Significant movement probably won’t occur until mid-summer when there is much more intense pressure from unemployment and business bankruptcies.
[Coronavirus] Trump Announces Operation Warp Speed to Develop COVID-19 Vaccine – He also announced the appointment of Moncef Slaoui, former chair of GSK Pharmaceuticals, and General Gustave Perna to head vaccine development. They promptly promised “a few hundred million doses of vaccine by the end of 2020,” which most experts in the field believe is hopelessly optimistic.
[Government] Trump Fires State Department Inspector General – Trump cited the usual “lack of fullest confidence” in the current Inspector General, Steve Linick, but others have noted Linick’s ongoing investigation into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. This firing continues the pattern of “shadow Friday night massacres” of Inspectors General. Trump clearly does not want effective oversight of any kind.
[Economy – COVID-19] J. C. Penney Files for Bankruptcy – This is the largest retailer, so far, to declare bankruptcy but it is expected to be joined by tens of thousands of other retailers big and small.
[Coronavirus] FDA in Surprise Move Halts Seattle-Based COVID-19 Testing Program – The innovative program, a joint effort by the Seattle and King County public health departments, sought to develop home testing kits for COVID-19 DNA. The program was previously sanctioned by Washington state, but now the FDA claims it must have federal approval. This is a good example of the inconsistency of all aspects in COVID-19 testing. Note: The Bill Gates Foundation heavily underwrites and promotes the Seattle project.
[Coronavirus] Lancet Editorial Slams Trump COVID-19 Response – In a highly unusual move by the entire editorial board of one of the most influential and oldest medical journals in the world, the British-published Lancet wrote: “Americans must put a president in the White House come January, 2021, who will understand that public health should not be guided by partisan politics.” They summarized Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis as an “inconsistent and incoherent national response.”
Coronavirus Crisis Notes
Although the White House will do some window dressing, there will be no concerted effort to develop a national COVID-19 testing program. In fact, Trump spent much of the week in downplaying the role of testing, “the whole concept of tests isn’t great,” and promoting the idea that the COVID-19 crisis would fade away, “We have prevailed.” Although he seems interested in a vaccine, Trump alternates between saying that maybe a vaccine isn’t so important, and expressing a desire for a quick and highly unrealistic vaccine development. As he has said many times, his focus will be on the economy, which illustrates the degree to which he does not understand that fixing the economy begins with convincing consumers that the COVID-19 threat has (actually) been managed.
Between now and the end of May is a kind of “wait-and-see” period for the results of reopening states. On the one hand some governors, most of them in red states, express nothing but confidence and promise economic rebounding. On the other hand, health officials expect a rebound of COVID-19 cases. The reality, for the most part, will be difficult to interpret. There are so many factors in the response of the states to the various partial and conditioned reopening actions – not to mention those states that will cheat or suppress their COVID-19 statistics (à la Georgia) – that a clear trend, or more specifically a seriously dangerous trend, will be difficult to prove. It’s more likely that what we have now, a relatively steady progression of worst-in-the-world cases and deaths will continue without clear evidence of significant economic improvement.
No doubt, sometime in June the economy will improve. How could it not? Remember that very roughly 80% of the economy never stopped. In trying to measure improvement the problem will be that pockets of activity, some even approaching normal, will be outweighed by segments of the economy doing very badly (tourism, major retail, entertainment) and perhaps the majority of the economy sputtering along with spot shortages, especially in parts supply and food, and a lot of confusion on the part of consumers as to whether it’s even safe to resume working, shopping, and enjoying life. Other than the so-called economists at the White House, even conservative economists now think the recovery is going to be long, fragile, and difficult. Buckle up for the end of summer.
Trump’s campaign strategy seems to have devolved into creating distractions. Obamagate, whatever that is (it seems like an ambitious version of the “Obama spied on my White House” gambit), will be joined by other efforts. The Senate Judiciary Committee and Barr’s DOJ will try to exonerate Trump’s allies and attack Trump’s enemies. They will keep up a steady stream of “news” culminating in reports and possibly indictments by October. However, it’s an open question whether the American voters, even the Trump voters, are going to give two damns about any of this old news. They didn’t seem to care that much even during Mueller time and now we are all faced with ongoing reality – disease, death, and economic collapse.
Quote of the Week
“Of the 16 strains of novel influenza viruses that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified as being of highest concern, all but two converted to human viruses in commercial poultry farms.”
Jonathan Safran Foer, “Opinion: Meat is not essential, why are we killing for it?”, Washington Post, May 11, 2020.
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