Lost in the Sauce: A little pandemic won’t get in the way of a far-right agenda

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.

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Let’s dig in!


War on IGs continues

On Tuesday, President Trump removed acting-Dept. of Defense Inspector General Glenn Fine from his role leading the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC). Fine was chosen to head the committee by a panel of his fellow inspectors general, who judged him “uniquely qualified” for the job “given his more than 15 years of experience,” which included overseeing the DOJ under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

What now? The IG community can choose a new leader for the PRAC, though lawmakers are trying to return Fine to his position (see below). Fine will return to his Senate-confirmed post as principal deputy inspector general of the Pentagon. Sean O’Donnell will serve as acting-DoD IG and EPA IG while Trump’s nominee for the DoD IG position, Jason Abend, works his way through the confirmation process. Abend is currently a policy official at U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

  • Note that O’Donnell has only served as an IG for roughly three months. Before that, he was a prosecutor. Now he holds the position of two IGs at once with little experience. Furthermore, Jason Abend has been criticized as “utterly unqualified” to oversee investigations into the huge Pentagon bureaucracy

In addition to the PRAC, there are four other oversight mechanisms to monitor the coronavirus funds appropriated by Congress: A five-member Congressional Oversight Commission; Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery; House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis; general congressional oversight from existing committees. The PRAC has the widest purview, with the mandate to not only investigate the spending of funds, but also to supervise the coronavirus response in general.

Congressional response

On Wednesday, three House committee chairs led by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) released legislation that would allow the IG panel to select a PRAC leader from any individual that holds the position of IG, Deputy Principal IG, or senior staff from the office of an IG. This would permit Fine to be re-appointed as head of the PRAC, circumventing Trump’s removal.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN) introduced a bill in the House and the Senate on Thursday that would protect inspectors general from politically motivated firings and set their terms at seven years. “We simply cannot allow President Trump to weaponize independent oversight positions in his administration to reward his friends, punish his political enemies, and cover up wrongdoing,” Murphy said.

As we saw in the previous installment of Lost in the Sauce, Trump fired the Intelligence Community IG, Michael Atkinson, who provided Congress with the whistleblower complaint that became a centerpiece of the case for the president’s impeachment. When removing an IG, the president is required to notify Congress in writing of the reasons for removal 30 days in advance. Trump sidestepped the law by placing Atkinson on administrative leave. Additionally, Trump’s explanation was simply that he lost confidence in Atkinson.

A bipartisan group of senators led by Chuck Grassley (R-IA) sent a letter to Trump demanding that the president provide sufficient reason. Also signing the letter: Republican Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine and Democratic Sens. Gary Peters of Michigan, Mark Warner of Virginia, Ron Wyden of Oregon, Dianne Feinstein of California, and Jon Tester of Montana.

“Congressional intent is clear that an expression of lost confidence, without further explanation, is not sufficient to fulfill the requirements of the statute… his is in large part because Congress intended that inspectors general only be removed when there is clear evidence of wrongdoing or failure to perform the duties of the office, and not for reasons unrelated to their performance, to help preserve IG independence.”

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) announced last week that his panel will investigate Atkinson’s firing. In a letter to acting director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell, Schiff expressed concern that Grenell is politicizing that office on Trump’s behalf, noting that every Senate-confirmed person in the DNI has been removed. Setting an April 16 deadline, Schiff requested information regarding all recent changes made to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s leadership ranks and organization.

Last week, Schiff also introduced legislation to establish a bipartisan commission “to provide a full accounting of the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic,” similar to the 9/11 commission. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) will bring a companion bill before the Senate.

The coronavirus commission will examine U.S. government preparedness in advance of this pandemic, the Federal government’s response to it, and provide recommendations to improve our ability to respond to and recover from future outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics.

Coronavirus relief

The Senate is currently at a stalemate over the next steps to provide coronavirus relief funds to the nation. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell attempted to add more funding to the small business Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) via unanimous consent – meaning without requiring a vote. Democrats objected and moved to make the PPP more equitable (e.g. a certain amount must go to businesses owned by women, minorities, veterans, and families) and add more funding for hospitals and state and local governments, which Republicans then blocked.

In remarks before trying to pass the bill, McConnell asked Democrats to support the effort: “Please, do not block emergency aid that you do not oppose just because you want something more,” he said. “We don’t have to do everything right now.”

“I am afraid that this unanimous consent is basically a political stunt,” Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said following McConnell’s request. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also weighed in: “There is no reason why they cannot come to the table and see the value of what we are offering…You cannot expect us to ossify inequality in access to capital as we try to fight the coronavirus.”

Implementation of Phase three

Phase three of the coronavirus relief is the CARES act, which was passed at the end of last month. Congress has been in recess since then, with only select members appearing at the Capitol when needed (e.g. during the attempts to pass PPP last week). The following are some issues that have come up in relation to executing the CARES act:

  • Politico: Congress assured America that its frenzied rush to deliver $2 trillion in coronavirus relief wouldn’t lead to waste, fraud or abuse because they packed the sprawling law with powerful safeguards. Yet, as the Trump administration begins pumping billions of taxpayer dollars into the economy, none of the built-in oversight mechanisms are even close to functional.
  • Politico: Tucked into the recent recovery bill was a provision granting the Federal Reserve the right to set up a $450 billion bailout plan without following key provisions of the federal open meetings law, including announcing its meetings or keeping most records about them…The provision dispenses with a longstanding accountability rule that the board has to give at least one day’s notice before holding a meeting.
  • Daily Beast: HHS confirmed Friday it would give hospitals and doctors money according to their historical share of revenue from the Medicare program for seniors—not according to their coronavirus burden… States such as Minnesota, Nebraska and Montana, which the pandemic has touched relatively lightly, are getting more than $300,000 per reported COVID-19 case in the $30 billion… On the other hand, New York, the worst-hit state, would receive only $12,000 per case. Florida is getting $132,000 per case. (Alternative source).
  • WaPo: In recent days, Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia [yes, son of the SCOTUS judge], who has expressed concerns about unemployment insurance being too generous, has used his department’s authority over new laws enacted by Congress to limit who qualifies for joblessness assistance and to make it easier for small businesses not to pay family leave benefits. The new rules make it more difficult for gig workers such as Uber and Lyft drivers to get benefits, while making it easier for some companies to avoid paying their workers coronavirus-related sick and family leave.
    • Related: WaPo “How Europe manages to keep a lid on coronavirus unemployment while it spikes in the U.S.”
  • Reuters: Mnuchin told major airlines on Friday he wants them to repay some of the $25 billion in cash grants the U.S. Congress approved last month to cover payroll costs…Mnuchin spoke with the chief executives of major airlines in separate calls on Friday and told them the department was offering 70% of the aid in grants that would not need to be repaid, and 30% in low-interest loans for which the airlines would be required to offer warrants

Easter, voting, and abortions during a pandemic

During the last week when roughly 95% of Americans have been under stay-at-home orders, we’ve seen three major flashpoints in the nation: the pandemic is just dangerous enough to block abortion but not dangerous enough to hold elections by mail

Abortions in Texas

The fight against Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s total abortion ban raged back and forth last week, with the Fifth Circuit of Appeals again blocking a lower court ruling that allowed some abortions to resume in Texas.

A coalition of abortion rights groups filed a petition of an emergency stay with the Supreme Court on Saturday, requesting that the high court block the decision to uphold the ban. The groups request that medical abortions should be permitted to resume, as doctors do not need to use personal protective equipment for such appointments.

“Delaying abortions by weeks does nothing to further the State’s interest in combatting COVID-19, and indeed runs directly contrary to that interest: individuals will require more health care — even in the short term — if they remain pregnant than if they have a desired abortion, and some will engage in risky, out-of-state travel in an attempt to access earlier abortion services, thus increasing contagion risks in the midst of a pandemic,” attorneys wrote in the filing.

  • Further reading: CNN “The 115-year-old Supreme Court opinion that could determine rights during a pandemic.”

Wisconsin election

The day before Wisconsin’s Tuesday elections, the state’s Supreme Court sided with the Republican-controlled legislature and blocked Gov. Tony Evers’ (D) executive order postponing in-person voting due to the coronavirus. “The state Supreme Court split 4-2 along ideological lines, with Justice Daniel Kelly, who is up for reelection in Tuesday’s balloting, abstaining,” Politico reported.

  • Note that the judges voted remotely to force people to show up in-person to vote themselves.

Trump himself got involved in the matter, falsely alleging that Evers only postponed the election because the president endorsed Judge Kelly and didn’t want him to win (see video below).

  • Atlantic: “Wisconsin may be crucial to Donald Trump’s reelection come fall, and that these local officials will play an important role in conducting that election.”

Also late Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court split along ideological lines in favor of Republicans to block extended absentee voting: absentee ballots must be postmarked by 8 pm April 7, election day. Justice Ruth Ginsburg dissented, writing of the state’s voters: “Either they will have to brave the polls, endangering their own and others’ safety. Or they will lose their right to vote, through no fault of their own.”

“The polling place next to my house closed down, so I’m here,” Milwaukee voter Clarence Carter, 70, told the New York Times. “It’s the ballot or the bullet,” he said, quoting Malcolm X.

Consequences

Thousands of residents still showed up to the polls, which were drastically reduced in urban areas: Milwaukee, which typically has 180 polling locations, only had five on Tuesday, creating long lines with a waiting time of nearly two hours in parts of the city. However, that wasn’t the case for the entire state:

But the distress was hardly noticeable in other parts of the state that are less populous, more white, and more likely to vote Republican. In communities like Beloit, more drive-through voting options were available, and the elimination of some polling places was likely to have less of an effect.

In Wauwatosa, which borders Milwaukee, polling locations were virtually empty as supply outpaced the demand. Outside the region in Cedarburg, a more Republican community, two polling locations had virtually no wait, and some voters arrived and left within 10 minutes.

Asked about the possibility that people would get sick as a result of voting in person, Trump denied responsibility: “Look, all I did was endorse a candidate. I don’t know anything about their lines. I don’t know anything about their voting. I love the state. I won the state… and I’m going to win it again because we’ve been great to the people of Wisconsin.” (video)

For more on holding elections and protecting voting rights during a pandemic, see the following section.

The SCOTUS decision not to allow extended absentee voting has already proven harmful, disenfranchising thousands of Wisconsin residents: “At least 9,000 absentee ballots requested by voters were never sent, and others recorded as sent were never received. Even when voters did return their completed ballots in the mail, thousands were postmarked too late to count — or not at all.” CNN reported that the U.S. Postal Service is investigating the problems with delivering and postmarking ballots.

Religious gatherings

U.S. District Judge Justin Walker, who is Trump’s nominee to the powerful DC Appeals Court, issued a controversial ruling on Saturday blocking Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer from forbidding drive-in church services on Easter to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Court reporters and observers noted that Walker seemed to be auditioning for higher ambitions in writing his opinion, which strikingly included many biblical references.

Law professor Marty Lederman: “The merits are not correct because they involve a “prohibition” that doesn’t exist. The entire opinion is, well, the sort of thing you’d only expect to see in the Onion or a dystopian novel.”

Court reporter Mark Joseph Stern: “So basically, the Trump judge here was so eager to write this crazy opinion that he made up a prohibition (a ban on drive-in church services) that didn’t exist, then denied the city an opportunity to present evidence that the prohibition did not exist. “

Walker’s opinion begins: “On Holy Thursday, an American mayor criminalized the communal celebration of Easter. That sentence is one that this Court never expected to see outside the pages of a dystopian novel, or perhaps the pages of The Onion.”

After saying Louisville’s decision was “unconstitutional,” Walker launched into a biblical tale: “According to St. Paul, the first pilgrim was Abel…”

  • Note that Walker was appointed to the district court with a “not qualified” rating from the American Bar Association. He served less than a year before Trump nominated him for a promotion to the appeals court, the second-highest ranking court in the nation.

November elections

With the threat of the coronavirus unlikely to abate until a vaccine is created – an effort estimated to take at least a year – politicians and activists have turned their attention to the logistics of the November elections. The fact that Republicans fought so hard to ensure people had to risk their lives to vote in Wisconsin should make it clear that keeping the general election safe will not be easy.

Democrats are pushing for all-mail voting this November, warning that forcing in-person voting during a pandemic would disenfranchise millions. Trump and other Republicans argue that widespread voting-by-mail would allow voter fraud and could lead to their party’s demise.

Pelosi included national vote-by-mail in Democrats’ opening bid on the previous legislation, but it was removed due to Republican opposition. GOP aides cited security concerns and objected to using a coronavirus aid bill to overhaul election laws.

For the next phase of the coronavirus relief, progressives are fighting to make vote-by-mail a key provision not open to negotiation. Indeed, it will take many months of preparation to prepare and roll out such a measure – if Congressional Democrats can’t get it done soon, it likely will not happen later.

“You’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” Trump said last week on Fox News, referring to vote by mail.

During his daily briefing on the coronavirus Tuesday, Trump went even further. “Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country because they’re cheaters,” Trump said. “The mail ballots are corrupt, in my opinion.”

When asked how he could say that when he himself had requested an absentee ballot last month, Trump provided no reasonable justification:

President Trump: “I think mail-in voting is horrible, it’s corrupt.”

Reporter: “You voted by mail in Florida’s election last month, didn’t you?”

Trump: “Sure. I can vote by mail”

Reporter: “How do you reconcile with that?”

Trump: “Because I’m allowed to.”

A day later, Trump revealed the groups that he approves of voting-by-mail: “Absentee Ballots are a great way to vote for the many senior citizens, military, and others who can’t get to the polls on Election Day. These ballots are very different from 100% Mail-In Voting, which is “RIPE for FRAUD,” and shouldn’t be allowed!”

Notably, these groups are more likely to vote conservative. The seven states that have laws that fit Trump’s requirements are “coincidentally or not…all deep-red states carried by Trump in 2016, most of them by large margins…They appear to provide Trump’s model for the country as a whole.”

  • Fact check: “The main argument by Mr. Trump and other Republicans is threefold: Voting by mail is easier than going to the polls; more people will vote if the process is easier; and when larger numbers of people vote, more will vote for Democrats. But in the states and counties that have transitioned to all-mail voting, there has been little evidence of partisan advantage for either side because of mail voting…” (similar non-paywalled source)
  • Further reading: “How to make sure everyone can vote during the coronavirus pandemic. Voting by mail is a crucial reform, but the details of how you implement it are very important.”
  • Some good news: Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced Sunday that he signed a series of new measures into law aimed at expanding access to voting in the commonwealth. The new legislation will establish Election Day as a holiday, remove the requirement that voters show a photo ID prior to casting a ballot and, expand early voting to be allowed 45 days before an election without a stated reason.

A concerning report:

The Intercept: On Election Day in November, some polling places could be patrolled by off-duty police officers and veterans, according to a plan hatched by Republican operatives. The idea is a reprisal of once-illegal Election Day “ballot security” intimidation tactics, intended to challenge voter registration and remove voters from the rolls. At a strategy session in February attended by conservative donors and activists, several people expressed a specific need for Republican poll watchers in “inner city” and predominantly Native American precincts,

Postal service

The U.S. Postal Service warned Congress last week that it will completely “run out of cash” in the next several months without immediate action from the White House and Congress, requesting $89 billion in funds.

Megan J. Brennan, the postmaster general, told lawmakers on the House Oversight and Reform Committee that the agency would need $25 billion in federal grants to cover lost revenue from the pandemic, plus an additional $25 billion to update aging infrastructure. Another $14 billion is needed to pay off long-term debt related to a retirement benefits program, along with $25 billion in unrestricted borrowing authority. (NYT)

Democrats are pressing to provide the service with what it needs, but Trump has resisted… because he dislikes Jeff Bezos and Amazon. In fact, Congress considered including at least part of the required money in the CARES Act but Trump promised to veto any legislation that contained such a provision, stating the agency should raise its rates for delivering packages instead:

“They lose money every time they deliver a package for Amazon or these other internet companies,” Trump said. “If they’d raise the prices by, actually a lot, then you’d find out that the post office could make money or break even. But they don’t do that…Tell your Democrat friend that he should focus on that.”

  • Fact check: For years now, Trump has repeated the lie that USPS loses money through its contracts with Amazon and other private corporations to handle the last legs of their deliveries. A task force Trump himself commissioned in 2018 contradicted that argument. In its most recent quarterly statement, USPS reported a 2.3 percent increase in revenue from parcel delivery and increased revenue per package.

Why is the postal service losing money? Partly as a result of the coronavirus, but also partly as a result of a 2006 law that requires USPS to pre-fund its retirees’ health benefits through the year 2056. The Institute For Policy Studies wrote last year that “this extraordinary mandate, which applies to no other federal agency or private corporation, created a financial ‘crisis’ that has been used to justify harmful service cuts and even calls for postal privatization.”

  • Consider, also, how hard it would be to vote-by-mail without a postal service.

Trump conflicts of interest

  • CREW: Last fiscal year, the Trump family took more trips that required Secret Service protection than the Obama family took in seven… On average, Obama’s family took 133.3 protected trips per year, while the Trump family has taken an average of 1,625 annually. Much of the Trump family’s known travel has been to promote Trump Organization businesses, which President Trump still owns and profits from.
    • WaPo: The Secret Service has protected Trump family members on 4,000 trips in three years. That figure excludes trips focused on Trump or the first lady.
  • ProPublica: Yes, Trump Hotels Do Appear to Qualify for Coronavirus Bailout Benefits. President Donald Trump’s hotels in D.C., New York and Chicago all seem to qualify for benefits from the coronavirus bailout. So does his winery lodge in Virginia. Last month’s $2 trillion bailout bill barred President Donald Trump, his family or other officials from benefiting from one of the law’s giant loan programs. But as reporters noticed, there was no such language included for other elements of the bailout.
  • Politico: New York City needs more space — additional field hospitals, rooms for medical workers, shelters for the homeless. But President Donald Trump’s flagship property remains open and isn’t among the 20-plus hotels that have offered up empty rooms… In the seven American cities with Trump luxury hotels, no local officials said the Trump properties were in discussions to house overflow patients or medical personnel.
  • Intercept: …every year since 2017, Congress has directed FEMA to set aside $41 million of its budget to offset the extraordinary costs of providing security for President Donald Trump’s properties. The “Presidential Residence Assistant Protection Grants” were most recently funded by Congress in an appropriations package in December.
  • HuffPo: President Donald Trump has spent weeks promising to protect cruise lines from the economic pain of the coronavirus pandemic. Now a fund that Trump ally Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman controls has revealed a big new stake in Carnival Corporation, the world’s largest cruise operator. The sudden change of fortunes for a company run by Micky Arison, a longtime Trump associate, could be as much about personal relationships and geopolitics as about business.

What else?

Asian hate crimes:

  • AP: Former U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke is denouncing President Donald Trump for a new campaign ad that seems to falsely imply Locke was a Chinese official. Trump’s Republican reelection campaign released an ad Thursday that accused former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, of being too cozy with China. It featured an image of Biden and Locke on a stage with U.S. and Chinese flags in the background.
  • Yahoo News: Federal agencies are concerned that domestic extremists could use the coronavirus pandemic to attack Asians and Jews, according to a joint intelligence bulletin… [it] says that “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists,” or RMVEs, “who advocate for the superiority of the white race seek to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic to bolster their narratives and encourage attacks and hate crimes against minorities, including Jewish and Asian Americans.”
    • The Hill: Racism against Asian Americans has surged as the coronavirus sweeps the U.S., with reports of hate crimes averaging approximately 100 per day, according to Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.). Speaking live on MSNBC on Tuesday, Chu discussed the increase in assaults on Asians in the U.S. over misinformation regarding the coronavirus. She confirmed “at least 1,000 hate crimes incidents being reported against Asian Americans” after the pandemic arrived stateside.

Immigration:

  • The Hill:: Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called for an investigation Thursday into reports of mistreatment of pregnant women in the Department of Homeland Security custody that she called “appalling and inhumane.”
  • BBC: The US has expelled more than 6,300 undocumented migrants on its Mexico border using emergency powers to curb coronavirus spread, officials say. [Customs and Border Patrol reported expelling nearly 10,000 immigrants without a chance to apply for asylum]
  • Press release: Reps. Grijalva, Vela, Thompson, and Kirkpatrick Express COVID-19 Concerns, Demand a Halt to Border Wall Construction in Letter to DOJ, DOD, and DHS: “There is no reason for construction of President Trump’s wasteful wall to continue during this pandemic. There is nothing essential about it. The billions wasted on the wall would be put to much better use constructing hospitals or other needed facilities…. Border wall construction should have been halted weeks ago.”

Environment:

  • The Hill: A federal court on Tuesday struck down the Trump administration’s move to suspend an Obama-era rule that restricted the use of a powerful greenhouse gas, saying the Trump administration did not follow the proper procedure… Trump appointee Neomi Rao dissented…
  • AP: The Trump administration plans to open 2.3 million acres of land for hunting and fishing at more than 100 national wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries under a proposal unveiled Wednesday that is aimed at giving Americans more recreational access on public lands. The plan earned applause from several hunting and fishing groups, but criticism from one conservation organization that called it “tone deaf” to focus on this during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Center for Biological Diversity: The Trump administration [Thursday] announced the release of its final plan to expand drilling and fracking and other fossil fuel extraction across southwestern Colorado for the next two decades, threatening organic agriculture, recreation and endangered species while undermining the state’s climate law.
  • Guardian: Big Oil is using the coronavirus pandemic to push through the Keystone XL pipeline

Other:

  • Politico: How Trump surprised his own team by ruling out Obamacare. Insurers were prepared to extend coverage, HHS officials were largely on board, but the White House refused to reopen enrollment.
  • Yahoo News: Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said Tuesday that the U.S. government “once again has ignored” the country’s Indigenous people, accusing federal officials of failing to deliver enough much-needed resources to help fight the coronavirus… He said tribal nations haven’t yet seen any of the resources allocated in the three coronavirus relief bills signed into law by President Donald Trump last month.
  • WaPo: Trip to Guam at center of top Navy official’s resignation cost taxpayers over $243,000
    • Former-acting-Navy Secretary Modly repeated Trump’s talking points to sailors after firing Capt. Crozier: [Modly] went to the Roosevelt and delivered a 15-minute diatribe over the ship’s loudspeakers berating the crew for cheering for its captain. He called Captain Crozier either “too naïve” or “too stupid” to command an aircraft carrier. He told the sailors they should never trust the media. He blamed China for the virus. Less than 30 minutes later, after taking no questions from the sailors, he was gone.
  • This morning (Monday), the Navy announced that a sailor on the USS Theodore Roosevelt has died from coronavirus. The ship’s commander was ousted after he wrote a memo that said, in part, “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care” of our sailors. As of the weekend, 550 Roosevelt sailors had tested positive for the virus. 

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