Lost in the Sauce: March 29 – April 4

Welcome to Lost in the Sauce, keeping you caught up on political and legal news that often gets buried in distractions and theater… or a global health crisis.

Figuring out how to divide the COVID-19 content from the “regular” news has been difficult because the pandemic is influencing all aspects of life. Some of the stories below involve the virus, but I chose to include them when it fits into one of the pre-established categories (like congress or immigration). The coronavirus-central post will be made again this Thursday-Friday; the sign up form now has an option to choose to receive an email when the coronavirus-focused roundup is posted.

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Let’s dig in!

MAIN COURSE

Decapitating the Intel Community

There are now no Senate-confirmed officials at the top of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

On Friday night, President Trump informed Congress that he is firing the Inspector General (IG) of the Intelligence Community, Michael Atkinson, explaining that he no longer has “the fullest confidence” in Atkinson. However, when asked about the matter on Saturday, Trump admitted that Atkinson’s removal was part of a months-long purge of officials who took part in the impeachment inquiry:

Trump: “I thought he did a terrible job, absolutely terrible…He took a whistleblower report, which turned out to be a fake report – it was fake… he took a fake report and he brought it to Congress with an emergency. Not a big Trump fan, that I can tell you.” (video)

  • To circumvent a law that requires that the Senate and House Intelligence Committees be notified 30 days before firing the IG, Trump put Atkinson on administrative leave effective immediately.

Last fall, as an independent watchdog, Atkinson followed the law by providing Congress the whistleblower complaint alleging that Trump withheld aid to pressure Ukraine into announcing an investigation of Joe Biden and his son Hunter. The House Intelligence Committee used the complaint to launch the impeachment inquiry.

The president has long discussed his desire to fire several inspectors general, and he has been talking to aides about his desire to oust Mr. Atkinson since last fall, tarring the inspector general as disloyal because he sought to share information with Congress about the president’s efforts to pressure Ukraine into delivering him personal political benefits. Mr. Atkinson’s fate was sealed after the trial on impeachment charges ended, said one Trump administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a delicate matter. (NYT

UPDATE: Last Sunday night, Atkinson released a statement raising the alarm to Congress that he was ousted for “having faithfully discharged my legal obligations as an independent and impartial Inspector General.”

“In the midst of a national emergency, it is unconscionable that the president is once again attempting to undermine the integrity of the intelligence community by firing yet another intelligence official simply for doing his job,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) said. The chair of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, Michael Horowitz, released a statement in support of Atkinson:

“Inspector General Atkinson is known throughout the Inspector General community for his integrity, professionalism, and commitment to the rule of law and independent oversight. That includes his actions in handling the Ukraine whistleblower complaint, which the then Acting Director of National Intelligence stated in congressional testimony was done ‘by the book’ and consistent with the law.”

Atkinson’s letter

Just two weeks ago, Atkinson wrote a letter to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer warning about backlash to whistleblowers, with the firing of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman in mind:

”As you know, the past six months have been a searing time for whistleblowers and for those who work to protect them from reprisal or threat of reprisal for reporting alleged wrongdoing. People may spend their entire careers publicly encouraging whistleblowers to come forward and sound the alarm if they observe suspected abuse or wrongdoing in the federal government… Those repeated assurances of support for whistleblowers in ordinary matters are rendered meaningless if whistleblowers actually come forward in good faith with information concerning an extraordinary matter and are allowed to be vilified, threatened, publicly ridiculed, or — perhaps even worse — utterly abandoned by fair weather whistleblower champions. It is precisely when the stakes are highest, and the conditions searing, that public officials must well and faithfully discharge the duties of their offices.”

Pandemic fund oversight

New IG nomination

Just hours before firing Atkinson, Trump nominated White House lawyer Brian Miller to serve as the IG overseeing the Treasury Department’s distribution of the $2 trillion coronavirus relief fund. Miller has ten years of experience as the IG of the General Services Administration, where his oversight of waste, fraud, and abuse cases earned him praise from non-governmental watchdog group CREW.

However, after spending some time in the private sector, Miller joined the White House as a special assistant to the president, playing a role in the White House’s response to document requests during the impeachment probe (virtually all of which were stonewalled).

Harry Sandick, a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York: “It’s antithetical to oversight to have someone with a tight connection to the White House. It seems weird to have a White House lawyer play this role.” (WaPo)

Trump has already proclaimed that he will be “the oversight” (video) of the $2 trillion fund. By simultaneously firing Atkinson and appointing his own lawyer to the Special IG for Pandemic Recovery position, Trump is sending a clear signal: He will promote his own interests above all others and if you get in the way, you’ll lose your job.

Other oversight mechanisms

Lawmakers added several layers of protection against abuse of the relief fund, only one of which was the Special IG role that Miller was nominated to fill. In summary:

  1. A five-member Congressional Oversight Commission. Each of the four top congressional leaders gets an appointee with the fifth chosen by Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader McConnell. Federal agencies are required to turn over any data requested by the commission’s chair, but this could run into roadblocks if Trump continues his broad rejection of congressional oversight on the Executive Branch,” Politico explains.
  2. The Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery is chosen by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Trump nominated Brian Miller for the position but it is unclear if he will be confirmed. This IG will conduct audits and investigations of loans and other investments made by the Treasury secretary, issuing regular reports to Congress. In his signing statement, Trump said he may attempt to block the IG from sharing these reports with Congress.
  3. The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, made up of 20 inspectors general, has “broad authority to investigate, audit and probe the implementation of the entire $2 trillion coronavirus rescue package.” A group of IGs voted to appoint Pentagon IG Glenn Fine to lead the committee. In addition to the mandated 8 IGs, Fine added a dozen more.
  4. General congressional oversight from existing committees.

Additionally, Speaker Pelosi created a new bipartisan House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis, to be chaired by Majority Whip Jim Clyburn. “The committee will be empowered to examine all aspects of the federal response to the coronavirus to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being wisely and efficiently spent to save lives, deliver relief and benefit our economy,” Pelosi explained in a statement.

Republicans have criticized the panel’s creation, with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy suggesting that Pelosi doesn’t trust the House Oversight Committee to do its job. Trump complained about Pelosi’s committee using his favorite phrase for describing oversight: “It’s a witch hunt after witch hunt after witch hunt … We want to fight for American lives, not waste time and build up my poll numbers, because that’s all they’re doing.”

Where is Congress?

Both the House and the Senate are on recess until April 20, leaving the White House in charge. Some lawmakers have pressed McConnell and Pelosi to implement remote voting, allowing them to maintain social distancing while still performing their essential role as the legislative branch of government.

“To say that legislators can’t log votes remotely is ridiculous,” former presidential candidate Andrew Yang told VICE News. “It’s going to be necessary at some point soon during this crisis as more and more legislators end up self-quarantining, so they should just get the show on the road right now.”

The arguments against remote voting usually follow two lines: (1) tradition and (2) lawmakers need the personal negotiations in order to craft bipartisan legislation.

Another option during the next two weeks that I haven’t seen discussed: virtual hearings. There is no reason House Representatives can’t use a streaming platform to conduct oversight. Instead of firing off letters warning the Trump administration against taking a certain action that Trump has already done, lawmakers could bring the issue to the public via the magic of the internet. It’s 2020, university lectures are regularly held online; oversight hearings can be held online as well.

Judicial nominee

In the middle of a global pandemic, during a week when 7,000 Americans died from the virus, Trump nominated a controversial judge to fill an influential vacancy in the DC Court of Appeals. Justin Walker has served only five months as a District Court Judge in Kentucky and was given an “unqualified” rating from the American Bar Association last year.

However, Walker is a friend of Sen. McConnell and a former clerk of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. During Kavanaugh’s contentious confirmation hearings, Walker conducted 162 media interviews defending Kavanaugh and his character. McConnell delayed the Senate’s vote on the first phase of coronavirus relief in order to go to Kentucky with Kavanaugh to attend a swearing-in ceremony for Walker (photo).

Walker is nominated to fill the seat of Judge Thomas B. Griffith, a G.W. Bush appointee who is set to retire. Shortly after Griffith announced his intent to retire, reports surfaced that McConnell was reaching out to Republican-appointed judges to press them into retiring before November.

Christopher Kang, chief counsel of Demand Justice: “The nomination of a Mitch McConnell crony, who has been rated unqualified by his peers, to the second highest court in the country is beyond suspicious… We need an immediate investigation into whether McConnell manufactured this vacancy by unethically pressuring Judge Thomas Griffith to retire now.”


THE SIDES

Mail-in ballots

Democrats are beginning to plan a fourth coronavirus relief bill to take up when Congress returns from recess at the end of the month. One of the biggest sources of tension looks to be a battle over voting by mail this fall, which Democrats and voting rights groups argue is necessary to prevent further spread of the coronavirus.

Sens. Klobuchar and Wyden introduced legislation (pdf) over three weeks ago, called the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act, to expand early voting and no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail to all states (supported by federal funding). Now, they’re pushing for it to be integrated into the relief bill:

“In a worst case scenario communities may be facing the choice of either voting by mail or not voting at all,” added Wyden. “We’re already going in this direction and now we’re in the middle of a pandemic and I think this is a very different time.”

Republicans are pushing back on the idea, saying it is too early to consider taking such measures. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) even implied that it’s not too much to ask for Americans to risk their lives to vote: “Around the world we’ve had people in new democracies go to vote when their lives were at risk because the right to vote was so precious.”

Trump gets involved

Meanwhile, the RNC and Trump’s campaign network are launching a multimillion-dollar effort to block Democrats from changing the voting rules. Tipping their hand, “Trump advisers said they’re open to certain changes, such as automatically sending absentee ballot applications to voters over age 65. But they’re opposed to other moves Democrats are pushing, such as sending every voter a ballot regardless of whether they ask for one, which Republicans argue would open the door to fraud.”

During Friday’s Trump rally coronavirus task force briefing, Trump asserted that Democrats only want mail-in voting so they could “cheat.”

I think a lot of people cheat with mail-in voting. I think people should with ID — voter ID. The reason they don’t want voter ID is because they intend to cheat .When you get something, when you buy something, you look at your cards and credit cards and different cards – you have your picture on many of them. Not all of them, but on many of them. You should have a picture on your – on your – for voting. It should be called ‘Voter ID’. They should have that.

And it shouldn’t be mail-in. It should be: you go to a booth and you proudly display yourself. You don’t send it in the mail where people pick up – all sorts of bad things can happen by the time they sign that if they sign that, if they sign that – by the time it gets tabulated. No. it shouldn’t be mailed in, you should vote at the booth, you should have voter ID because when you have voter ID it’s the real deal. (video)

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff pushed back: “After being caught trying to cheat in the next election, Trump opposes vote by mail over concerns about ‘cheating.’ Nonsense. He prefers making voting dangerous for millions of Americans if it helps his re-election. Every American must be able to cast a secure ballot by mail.”

Indeed, Trump appears to think voting by mail is great… when it’s for him and his family. Just hours after railing against the idea during the briefing, news broke that Donald and Melania requested a vote-by-mail absentee ballot for the Florida Republican presidential primary.

The truth of the matter is what Trump himself admitted on Fox News last week: Allowing widespread voting by mail would allow more people to vote, hurting Republican chances at winning. Referring to the expansion of mail-in voting in the Democrats’ proposal, Trump said: “The things they had in there were crazy. They had levels of voting, that if you ever agreed to it you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

  • Further reading: Despite Coronavirus Lockdown, Wisconsin Republicans Insist on an Election that Will Disenfranchise Thousands
  • Further reading: “…he linked high voter turnout to Republicans losing elections. In recent years, Republicans have vigorously erected barriers to voting… But seeking to take advantage of a deadly epidemic to depress turnout is a new low. It suggests that Mr. Trump thinks his best chance for a second term rests not with his handling of the pandemic crisis, but in Americans staying away from the polls because they fear for their health.”

Stay at home

All but nine governors have issued stay at home or shelter in place orders in the U.S. The states without even partial orders from some counties or cities include North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, and Arkansas. Three states have stay at home orders in certain localities, but not the entire state: Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming. Meanwhile, South Carolina has skirted the line, ordering non-essential businesses to close but stopping short of ordering people to stay home.

All nine states are run by Republican governors. Two studies have confirmed what should be obvious by now: Republican governors were slower to implement social distancing restrictions to combat the spread of the coronavirus. One of these studies, from the University of Washington (pdf), concludes that these delays are expected to result in “significant” consequences.

If Republican governors and states with Republican majorities continue to lag behind, the cumulative impact on those states, and on the country as whole through spillovers, could be vast.

When pressed for an explanation for not issuing shelter in place orders, some pointed to the lack of instructions from Trump and the CDC: “Aides to several of the Republican governors said the only persuasion that was likely to move their positions was specific guidance from the President.”

  • Further reading: Orlando Sentinel “DeSantis quietly signs second order overruling all local coronavirus orders, including church bans,” The Hill “GA mayor slams Kemp’s executive order reopening state’s beaches”
  • ABC News: At least 11 states are currently enforcing statewide stay-at-home orders or bans on mass gatherings with some version of a religious exemption. Six of those states are led by Democratic governors, five by Republicans – but the motivating principle behind the exemptions is largely the same. Religious institutions are widely believed to be protected from such regulations by the concept of separation of church and state protected in the First Amendment.

Military’s response

Last week, the Navy relieved Capt. Brett Crozier from his command of the Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier that was beset by the coronavirus. Cozier sent a letter to Navy leadership earlier in the week pleading for help for the 5,00 crewmembers stuck on the contaminated ship. Though the official reason for his removal was for sending the letter over “non-secure unclassified email” to a “broad array of people” rather than up the chain of command.

Crozier received a heartfelt send-off from his crew for putting his career on the line to save their lives (video). The Trump administration has not been so kind. Both Secretary of Defense Esper and President Trump defended the decision to remove Crozier, even though the captain himself and at least 155 members of the crew have since tested positive for COVID-19.

On Saturday, Trump said: “He wrote a letter… that’s not appropriate… I thought it was terrible what he did. To write a letter? I mean, this isn’t a class on literature.”

Meanwhile, the Pentagon has ordered all military installations across the globe to stop publicly announcing coronavirus cases among their personnel. As Mother Jones pointed out, the Defense Department has been consistently tamping down on transparency since Esper’s confirmation.

Deregulation continues

Using the pandemic as cover, the Trump administration gutted Obama-era fuel economy standards that would have encouraged automakers to ramp up production of electric vehicles and more fuel-efficient gas and diesel vehicles.

The EPA and National Highway Transportation Safety Administration released an analysis in which they admit the rollback will mean a future with about 10,000 fewer auto industry jobs per year. The administration apparently determined that a trade off was worth it: “the proposed loosening of standards, resulting in a 1 percent reduction in annual employment, could save the automakers $15 billion.”

Obama’s corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards would have reduced emissions from cars and light trucks by 6 billion tons (cutting their emissions by half), reduced oil consumption by 2 million barrels a day, and saved Americans a cumulative $1.7 trillion in fuel costs.

Combined with the EPA’s announcement two weeks ago that it will not enforce pollution reporting during the pandemic, the lax mileage standards will pollute the atmosphere, lowering air quality at a time when public health should be the number one priority.

“Clearly we’ll have more pollution, and that will mean more people with asthma, more people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “It’s going to make the health of those populations who are exposed much worse.”

“This suspension of enforcement during the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis is irresponsible and neglects the Agency’s core mission to protect public health,” lawmakers in the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition (SEEC) wrote in a letter spearheaded by Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.).

Concurrently, Trump is meeting with oil industry executives and directing his cabinet to find ways to help U.S. oil companies stay above water as prices drop by about two-thirds. In addition to hosting industry groups and CEOs at the White House, Trump reached out to the Saudi Crown Prince and Putin to try to resolve a dispute between their two countries:

Just spoke to my friend MBS (Crown Prince) of Saudi Arabia, who spoke with President Putin of Russia, & I expect & hope that they will be cutting back approximately 10 Million Barrels, and maybe substantially more which, if it happens, will be GREAT for the oil & gas industry! …..Could be as high as 15 Million Barrels. Good (GREAT) news for everyone!” (tweet)

  • Note: “A law firm that previously employed President Donald Trump’s interior secretary has, for several years, represented Saudi Arabia, the petroleum-rich nation that recently launched an oil price war that could bankrupt U.S. fossil fuel producers… Interior Secretary David Bernhardt was an attorney and shareholder at BHFS before joining the Trump administration in August 2017, lobbying on behalf of oil, gas and mining interests that are now benefiting from the administration’s aggressive environmental rollbacks. The lobbying giant’s domestic clients include oil and gas interests that have been hit hard by the oil market crash.”

Don’t miss…

Here are some articles that I couldn’t include in the write up above:

  • Forbes: Trump’s Net Worth Drops $1 Billion As Coronavirus Infects The President’s Business
    • NYT: Trump’s Company Seeks to Ease Financial Crunch as Coronavirus Takes Toll. As companies nationwide look for relief, the Trump Organization has talked with Deutsche Bank and a Florida county about delaying payments on some loans and other obligations.
    • WaPo: Trump Organization has laid off about 1,500 employees as pandemic hits business
    • Intercept: Coronavirus Hasn’t Stopped Jared Kushner’s Real Estate Empire from Hounding Tenants with Debt Collection, Eviction Lawsuits
    • Politico: Kushner company stands to benefit from freeze on federal mortgage payments. With more than $800 million in federally backed properties, Kushner Companies could reduce its payments to zero under provisions of the recovery bill.
    • NBC: The co-founder of a huge private equity firm sent an email this week to Jared Kushner and other Trump administration policymakers seeking to relax rules on coronavirus relief money in a way that would benefit the company, according to sources familiar with the matter. Kushner’s family real estate business has financial ties to the company, Apollo Global Management.
  • The Hill: A federal judge filed an opinion on Monday ruling that a fraud case against President Trump’s hotel company can continue. U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos, an Obama appointee, decided a former business partner of Trump International Hotels Management could amend its lawsuit against the company to include claims of fraud and breach of contract
  • Law & Crime): Federal Judge Who Slammed AG Barr Obtains Unredacted Version of Mueller Report [Note this is for the judge’s review only, not public release]
  • Native News: Reacting to an order to disestablish the tribe’s reservation, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe on Monday asked a federal court to issue an emergency restraining order to prevent the Dept. of Interior from removing the tribe’s land trust status.
  • NBC News: Texas 5th Circuit abortion ruling reveals how GOP using coronavirus to oppress women
  • Politico: ‘It’s a sh– sandwich’: Republicans rage as Florida becomes a nightmare for Trump… Privately, Republicans admit that the $77.9 million system that is now failing Florida workers is doing exactly what Scott designed it to do — lower the state’s reported number of jobless claims after the great recession.
    • Tampa Bay Times: Ron DeSantis was warned about Florida’s broken unemployment website last year, audit shows
  • Seattle Times: Washington state nonprofit files lawsuit saying Fox News misled viewers about coronavirus
  • CNN: Inmates sue for soap and paper towels as coronavirus spreads in jails
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