Strange days at the end of the Trump era.
The standoff over coronavirus relief checks entered a new phase when a bill that passed through the House with mostly Democratic support landed in the GOP-controlled Senate. Most House Republicans opposed it and others, like Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, perhaps unwilling to choose between their mercurial leader and the concerns about profligate spending they’ll be dusting off as soon as he leaves office, skipped the House vote altogether.
McConnell is primed to tie the $2,000 relief check proposal, which could pass, with Trump’s unrelated demand to strip tech companies of some liability protection — a forced marriage of policies that have nothing to do with each other besides Trump’s interest that could ensure both measures die in the Senate.
New interest in doing ‘the right thing’
That Trump’s now concerned with doing “the right thing” on the Covid relief checks after months of downplaying the pandemic has certainly changed political momentum.
Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, running for their political lives before twin January 5 runoff elections in Georgia, have both now endorsed the idea of larger checks, matching their Democratic challengers.
Trump plans to visit Georgia and campaign for Loeffler and Perdue. And Loeffler, at least, said she’ll vote any way Trump wants.
“I’ve stood by the President 100% of the time, I’m proud to do that and I’ve said absolutely, we need to get relief to Americans now, and I will support that,” she told reporters during a campaign stop Tuesday.
Rediscovering the debt
The contours of those races mean everything to McConnell, who very much wants to stay majority leader, but to do so needs Republicans to win at least one race to retain a 51-seat majority in the chamber.
McConnell’s also got to contend with the larger number of Republicans in the Senate who will oppose them.
Sen. Pat Toomey, the budget-conscious Pennsylvania Republican, told CNN’s Jake Tapper Tuesday that larger checks would add to the national debt and send help to Americans who don’t need it. The country’s economic problems, he argued, demand more focused relief.
“We’ve got very acute problems within certain employment groups, right? People who work for restaurants and hotels and travel and entertainment — devastated,” he said. “But we do not have a global macroeconomic depression underway at all. So it makes no sense to be sending this out to everybody who has a pulse.”
The Democratic retort to the deficit argument is simple: Why now and why not when Trump was pushing tax cuts?
“Senate Republicans added nearly 2 trillion to deficits to give corporations a massive tax cut,” Schumer, the Senate minority leader, said Tuesday. “So I don’t want to hear it that it costs too much to help working families getting a check when they’re struggling to keep their jobs and pay their family families and live a normal life.”
How we got to $600 checks
Clearly Republicans will have to square their concerns about deficit spending with their support for the populist outgoing President who cares mostly about himself.
Former Rep. Mia Love, a CNN analyst, said she does not envy the choice Republicans will have to make.
“They have got to decide whether they’re going to get back to the fiscally disciplined Republican Party, whether they’re going to continue to follow the President. I do not see any win-win for them to continue to follow the President at all costs,” Love said Tuesday.
In fact, it was only after months of negotiations led by Trump’s Treasury secretary that Republicans and Democrats agreed on the $600 payments for many Americans that the President signed into law on Sunday.
McConnell, while he notably did not promise a vote on the larger checks, said the Senate would consider the matter in some way this week, along with Trump’s calls to undo what’s known as “Section 230,” a piece of US telecommunications law that shields big tech companies from some lawsuits.
Watch the clock
What McConnell did promise is a vote Wednesday to override Trump’s veto of the annual bill that authorizes Pentagon policy, although Sen. Bernie Sanders has indicated he’ll try to hold up that defense bill without a vote on the larger checks, putting him and Trump strangely in league on that one issue. Trump wanted to tie that defense bill to the tech company issue. Now McConnell will tie it to the relief checks instead.
Time could be on McConnell’s side since this Congress ends on January 5. If the Senate can’t or won’t act by then, all these measures would need new votes.
“This is going to be the greatest operational challenge we’ve ever faced as a nation,” he said. “But we’re going to get it done. But it’s going to take a vast new effort that’s not yet underway.”
But after enduring so much, Americans can hardly be blamed for feeling outrage at yet another indignity at the hand of their leaders.
House Republicans on Thursday rejected an attempt by Democrats to pass a bill that included $2,000 direct payments to Americans — precisely the figure Trump demanded in a random video he tweeted this week rejecting a bill with $600 payments that had passed overwhelmingly with the support of his administration.
In the Republican-controlled Senate, there does not appear to be enough support for a bill with $2,000 checks. Trump is engaged in open hostility with the chamber’s GOP leaders because they have acknowledged the reality that he lost the election, a dispute he acknowledged on Twitter after returning to Mar-a-Lago from his golf course on Christmas Eve Day.
“At a meeting in Florida today, everyone was asking why aren’t the Republicans up in arms & fighting over the fact that the Democrats stole the rigged presidential election?” he asked, using the term “meeting” somewhat freely. “Especially in the Senate, they said, where you helped 8 Senators win their races. How quickly they forget!”
The bill Trump demanded Congress change was flown to him in Florida on Thursday afternoon but he offered no more clarity on what he would do with it. Government funding will lapse on Monday unless Trump signs the package or Congress passes another stopgap measure; they have already passed four such fixes this month alone.
That no one seems to know what Trump wants — if he even knows himself — has only fueled in the impression the country is careering further into chaos at exactly the moment it is least welcome.
“I have no idea what he plans to do,” Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican who is usually aligned with the President, said on Thursday.
Politicians immune from pain
In the past, when the government was about to shut down around Christmas, presidents and lawmakers stayed behind in Washington to figure it out. Even Trump skipped his Florida vacation two years ago as agencies shuttered.
So, too, have the country’s leaders typically attempted some form of in-the-trenches solidarity with their constituents when the going gets tough — like, for example, when health experts advise against holiday travel and gatherings with family.
But conventional practices have mostly disappeared in the four years Trump has been president. And no one really thinks twice anymore when Trump — despite claims by the White House that his schedule is packed with phone calls and meetings — pays another visit to one of his golf clubs while millions of Americans go hungry at Christmas.
Having already forced suffering Americans to wait months for more economic relief from the ravages of the coronavirus, it does not appear elected officials will figure out how to move forward anytime soon.
“We were assured that the President would sign the bill,” Blunt told reporters Thursday, casually suggesting the President may not understand what is in it — something of an understatement given the President’s conflation of the Covid stimulus and government funding packages, and his fury over spending figures he proposed himself in his budget this year.
As Republicans work on sorting out what Trump wants, more than 12 million laid-off Americans could lose their unemployment benefits after this weekend, back rent will be due January 1 for millions of tenants and states could lose any unspent funds from the $150 billion that Congress provided earlier this year to state and local governments to help them cover coronavirus-related expenses.
It has left millions of Americans facing deep uncertainty at the end of a difficult year.
“I think that people are scared,” said Karen Pozna, the communications director at the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, on CNN. “You know, they’re scared, there’s been so many people who have lost their jobs or had to take pay cuts. The need was great before the pandemic. It’s continuing now. And I see it continuing well into the new year.”
Trump has made virtually no mention of the pandemic’s toll for weeks; in a video he taped alongside the first lady for Christmas, he left the empathy to his wife while he declared the rollout of recently authorized vaccines “a Christmas miracle,” though the vast majority of Americans won’t have access to shots for months.
Lawmakers say they are feeling heat from their constituents to get something done, pressure Trump doesn’t appear to share.
“I did a town hall last night that had people crying, people terrified of what is going to happen,” Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Michigan, said on Thursday after Democrats’ measure failed.
“The President — when we finally thought that we’d be able to give people hope — that’s what people need, hope — and be able to begin to continue to work on this in January, he doesn’t give a damn about people,” she said. “He threw more fear — he threw kerosene on a terror fire.”
It wasn’t only Democrats who were frustrated.
“If he thinks going on Twitter and trashing the bill his team negotiated and we supported on his behalf is going to bring more people to his side in this election fiasco, I hope he’s wrong, though I guess we’ll see,” Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio, tweeted on Wednesday.
Watching everything burn
In the end, Trump himself may not know what his end goals are beyond throwing more gasoline into a system he appears intent on watching burn as he leaves office. Trump remains furious that Republicans — including those who helped negotiate the legislation he rejected — aren’t supporting him in his bid to overturn the election.
In Florida, Trump is often surrounded by more willing hangers-on who, in the past, have encouraged his destructive impulses. His personal attorney Rudy Giuliani flew with him to Florida aboard Air Force One on Wednesday.
CNN reported on Thursday that Trump’s latest fixation is the January 6 certification of the Electoral College count for Joe Biden, an occasion he hopes will provide an opening for his supporters to challenge the results.
As he was flying to Florida for his vacation, Trump retweeted a call from one of his supporters for Vice President Mike Pence to refuse to ratify the Electoral College results.
Trump has told people recently that Pence isn’t doing enough to fight for him as his presidency ends, and has recently taken an interest in Pence’s traditional role during the certification. As president of the Senate, Pence presides over the proceedings.
It’s far from clear the President has internalized the message.
Just when it seemed like the President couldn’t sink any lower in his quest to subvert the November election results, his mere entertainment of invoking martial law to negate Biden’s victory underscores how laser-focused he still is on his own interests at a time when the nation is mired in crisis.
Trump, who has inexplicably proven unwilling to call out Russia or President Vladimir Putin for nefarious acts over the past four years, confounded national security experts on Saturday by tweeting that “it may be China” that is responsible for the attacks.
“I have been fully briefed and everything is well under control,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
Showing his lingering insecurity about the legitimacy of his 2016 victory, and his rejection of any suggestion that Russia tried to interfere in that contest against Hillary Clinton to help him win, Trump went on to say that “Russia, Russia, Russia is the priority chant when anything happens.”
“Discussing the possibility that it may be China (it may!),” the President tweeted of the cyber hack that breached US government systems.
Some Republican senators gingerly tried to sidestep the President’s latest theories Saturday. Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who is acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, “Everything I’ve seen is indicative of something that’s pretty widespread and serious and I think indicates that it was the Russian intelligence service.”
When asked about Trump’s assertion about China being involved in the massive cyberhack, Sen. Jim Inhofe, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee and was briefed on the attack, replied, “All of I’ve heard is Russia.”
The Oklahoma Republican also told CNN’s Manu Raju that Trump made a bad decision by vowing to veto the annual defense authorization bill, which Trump has claimed is weak on China — a view Inhofe disputes.
“I really believe he’s not getting the right advice. I know people advising him — they don’t appreciate the fact that I say that,” Inhofe said. “But I believe that.”
Rep. Adam Smith, the Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called Trump “an aspiring fascist” who admires Putin and wants the same kind of control that Putin exerts over his own country and its elections. Smith said the reports that Trump entertained Flynn’s theories about invoking marital law were “unbelievably disturbing.”
“He is talking about basically leading a coup against the United States government and destroying our Constitution,” Smith told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room” Saturday night. “There needs to be strong bipartisan pushback against this. It is an unbelievably dangerous thing for the President to be talking about.”
A contentious Oval Office meeting
The meeting took an “ugly” turn when Powell and Flynn accused Trump officials of failing to back up the President in his efforts to overturn the results.
The pushback against Flynn and Powell’s theories and suggestions does not appear to have tempered the President’s interest in finding a way to block Biden from taking office as he tweeted baseless theories Saturday about compromised voting machines.
Covid relief package moves closer
Leaders have said for days that they are close to a deal, and one of the major sticking points Saturday was a disagreement over the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending authority — a seemingly esoteric issue that would have seemed far removed from the lives of most struggling Americans if it had held up the deal.
Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey had argued that the emergency lending program, created under the CARES law passed in March, to boost the economy should be phased out because he believed it could become a slush fund for the incoming Biden administration. Democrats said that authority is needed to bolster the economy. Late Saturday night, Toomey agreed to drop his demands over the broad language in his proposal, a Democratic aide told CNN’s Manu Raju.
“We’re getting close, very close,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters as he left the Capitol late Saturday night. “If things continue on this path and nothing gets in the way, we’ll be able to vote tomorrow.”
The slow pace of negotiations and the lack of transparency about the fine points of the deal have proved frustrating to some members. Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware told CNN’s Suzanne Malveaux earlier Saturday that the timing of an agreement was still unclear.
“It’s frustrating as all get out to me that we’ve been at the final point now for days,” Coons said. “It’s unclear to me exactly what the last final issues are that are holding us up this weekend. I expect a final vote in the Senate on Tuesday, but it’s entirely possible we’re up here until Christmas Eve given the history of this particular impasse.”
Still, after harrowing, disorientating weeks when America’s health and constitutional systems were under assault, Monday offered the promise of a political turning point and a literal shot of hope.
“The flame of democracy was lit in this nation a long time ago. And we now know that nothing — not even a pandemic or an abuse of power — can extinguish that flame,” Biden said in Wilmington, Delaware.
After weeks of measured rhetoric as Trump has tried every avenue to cancel Biden’s win, the President-elect made his clearest statement yet that time was up for baseless claims that the election had been stolen.
He was particularly scathing about a failed attempt by Texas Republicans to get the Supreme Court to throw out millions of legally cast votes in battleground states that he won.
“The integrity of our elections remains intact. Now it is time to turn the page as we’ve done throughout our history. To unite, to heal,” Biden said.
Asserting presidential authority
Biden’s statement was a clear effort not just to move the country forward after its most acrimonious modern post-election period. It was also a firm attempt to assert his authority as the incoming president, to create the symbolism of a transfer of power that is being denied by Trump and to begin to establish legitimacy even among Trump supporters.
There is no sign that a President who has constantly ignored constitutional norms is moving any closer to accepting the reality of his defeat.
But there were signs of a crumbling of the ancient regime, as a few of Trump’s Republican allies in the Senate began to grudgingly accept, six weeks after the election, that Biden is indeed President-elect.
One source close to Trump told CNN’s Jim Acosta that while the President has privately conceded he won’t be staying in the White House for a second term, he won’t stop trying to discredit the election.
Another adviser said it was highly unlikely that the President would show up at Biden’s inauguration for a ceremonial tableau that is an emblem of America’s mostly unbroken chain of peaceful transfers of executive authority.
There is also likely to be no cathartic national moment analogous to then-Vice President Al Gore’s graceful December concession speech after a bitter legal battle handed the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000.
Trump’s behavior is certain to complicate Biden’s call for healing. There is still a chance that Republicans in the House — who remain in Trump’s thrall — will try to mount a futile rear guard to challenge the election result when Congress holds a joint session on January 6 to tally the results of the Electoral College.
That daylong votes of the Electoral College on Monday were anything more than a perfunctory ritual underscored the political poison laced inside American politics by Trump.
The President’s malfeasance has convinced many of the more than 70 million people who voted for him that the election was stolen, a dynamic that is likely to continue to be corrosive in the run-up to the midterm elections in 2022. He suggested in a Fox News interview over the weekend, for instance, that Biden would be an “illegitimate” president.
“There is a reign of terror that is going to continue beyond this election, and that is my fear,” David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama and a CNN political analyst, said on Monday.
Some Republican senators reacted to the latest events by finally admitting that Biden would be the next president, after indulging Trump during his avalanche of baseless claims that the election was corrupted.
“We’ve now gone through the constitutional process and the electors have voted, so there’s a President-elect,” Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the chair of the committee that plans the inauguration, told CNN’s Manu Raju. Another member of the GOP Senate leadership team, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, also acknowledged that Biden had secured the necessary 270 electoral votes.
One of Trump’s closest Senate allies, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, insisted, improbably, that the President still had a “very, very narrow path,” and revealed he had recently spoken to Biden.
But other Republican senators lacked the courage to offer even this grudging acceptance of Biden’s win and refused to talk to reporters.
‘A historic achievement’
The last nine months have been a relentless and demoralizing march of sickness, death and the rituals of normal life — work, family ties, friendship and free movement — shut down by lockdowns and a killer pathogen.
So the euphoria that greeted the first vaccinations of front-line health workers might have obscured the fact that it will be months before most Americans get the same — but it provided a rare sign that the future will be better. The Trump administration deserves some of the credit for the swift development of the vaccine, along with pharmaceutical firms, government scientists, independent researchers across the globe and medical advances that have been years in the making.
Fauci, a voice of fact-based reason during the pandemic — whose role will expand under Biden — celebrated the human endeavor that sequenced a new virus in January and delivered a 95% effective vaccine in December.
“That is a historic, unprecedented achievement,” Fauci said at a Center for Strategic and International Studies virtual event. But the nation’s top infectious diseases specialist also recognized the tragic duality of the moment, shortly before Monday’s awful milestone was reached.
“We have almost 300,000 deaths. That’s the worst public health catastrophe in 102 years — since the 1918 pandemic,” Fauci said. On MSNBC, he said he believed there would be sufficient vaccine to effectively stop the spread of Covid by the end of the second quarter. That would mean a return to beach trips, family visits, the workplace — for those who still have jobs — inside dining in restaurants, trips to the theater and big crowds at sporting events.
But before then, Americans face months of social distancing, mask wearing and bereavement as scientific modeling predicts tens of thousands more deaths.
And everything will have to go right in the massive logistical operation to vaccinate Americans — in production plants, supply chains and on the health care front lines — for Fauci’s optimism to be realized.
The FDA advisory panel will meet Thursday to discuss whether the agency should authorize emergency use of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine at a dark moment in the pandemic, when the US recorded the highest single day tally of more than 3,000 deaths — and some communities continue to resist precautionary measures like mask mandates as a vocal few falsely claim that the pandemic does not exist.
With the reality of shots in arms coming ever closer, the crucial question is whether Trump and his administration are equipping the incoming Biden administration with the knowledge and tools they need to carry out an unprecedented vaccination operation as Trump’s White House grudgingly passes the baton.
Cash-strapped states are still worried about whether they will have the resources to get the vaccine to the most remote locations, distribute it equitably and fight vaccine skepticism. Yet even at this crucial moment — when lives will literally depend on an orderly handoff from one administration to the next — Trump answered a question this week about why he wasn’t including Biden aides in a vaccine distribution summit by insisting the election still wasn’t settled.
“Twenty million people should get vaccinated in just the next several weeks, and then we’ll just keep rolling out vaccines through January, February, March as they come off the production lines,” Azar said, trying to offer a note of reassurance about continuity during an interview on CNN’s New Day.
Trump distracted by his fixation on the election
One of Trump’s top allies, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, said he does not plan to accept Biden as the President-elect even after the Electoral College votes Monday.
“Why would I do that? I’ll wait ’til it’s all over to find out. Every legal vote has to be counted. Every recount has to be finished. And every legal challenge has to be heard,” the California Republican said Wednesday.
But a number of GOP senators have indicated that it is time to move on, even if Trump will not. Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, a Republican, said “it is unhealthy for the well-being of the country” to continue debating the outcome of the election “once the presidential race has been determined.”
“Unless a court makes some other decision, the Electoral College is the defining outcome of the presidential race,” Moran said. Asked what would be next if Trump doesn’t concede, Moran said: “There is a transition that just occurs — occurs under our laws under the Constitution.”
Trying to steer the country forward as Trump continues his election challenges in what often feels like alternate universe that is devoid of facts, Biden continued to build out his Cabinet Wednesday, introducing retired Gen. Lloyd Austin as his choice for defense secretary.
If confirmed, Austin would be the first Black man to hold that role. He would need a waiver from Congress to head the Defense Department since he hasn’t been out of the military for the required seven years — something not all members of Biden’s party appear ready to support. But the President-elect said the country needs Austin’s experience “with large-scale logistical operations to help support the swift and equitable distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.”
Alarming surges as local officials warn the vaccine ‘will not save us’
With hopes riding on the vaccine authorization discussion Thursday, the country continued to grapple with an alarming rise in cases around the country as medical professionals began to see the post-Thanksgiving spike materialize and some regions reverted to shutdowns to try to preserve hospital capacity.
Dr. Grant Colfax, director of public health for the city and county of San Francisco, said that the city will run out of intensive care unit beds in just 17 days and noted that the average case rate in San Francisco has doubled since the holiday.
“This is by far, the worst surge to date,” Colfax said. “The reality is unfortunately proving to be as harsh as we expected. … The vaccine will not save us from this current surge — there is simply not enough time.”
In Los Angeles County, which is also under a stay-at-home order, hospitalizations have tripled during the past month and fatalities have risen by 258%, according to county health data.
Los Angeles County Health Director Barbara Ferrer tried to hold back tears Wednesday as she ticked through the case numbers during a press conference: “The more terrible truth is that over 8,000 people, … who were beloved members of their family, are not coming back. And their deaths are an incalculable loss to their friends and their family, as well as our community.”
Though Trump has said that the vaccination program will “quickly and dramatically reduce deaths,” a new White House task force report warns that the vaccine “will not substantially reduce viral spread, hospitalizations, or fatalities until the 100 million Americans with comorbidities can be fully immunized, which will take until the late spring.” The report said the key to limiting deaths and hospitalizations in the interim is to urge Americans to change their personal behavior as states make “aggressive mitigation” efforts.
During the meeting of the FDA advisory board on Thursday, members are expected to discuss which groups should be excluded from the first round of vaccines because of safety concerns, such as pregnant women or those who are likely to have severe allergic reactions to the vaccine, as they review the data from Pfizer’s vaccine trial.
The FDA is expected to conduct its authorization review between December 11 and the 14, with first shipment of the vaccine going out by December 15. Needles, syringes and other materials to deliver the vaccines are already on their way to states. While the FDA’s emergency use authorization will allow shipping of the vaccine to begin, shots of the vaccine can’t actually be administered until a US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory committee recommends use of the vaccine and the CDC accepts that recommendation — a process that is expected to get underway this weekend.
Operation Warp Speed’s chief operating officer, Gen. Gustave Perna, said that 2.9 million doses of vaccine will go out in the first shipment from Pfizer once the FDA grants emergency use authorization.
Initially the federal government expected to receive 6.4 million doses from Pfizer as the first shipment. But because the vaccine is administered in two doses, the math is more complicated. About 500,000 doses will be set aside as a reserve supply, and the remaining number was divided in half to set aside what is needed for the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, which brought down the total in the first shipment to 2.9 million doses.
“Within 24 hours of that (FDA) approval, we will begin moving the vaccines,” Lt. Gen. Paul Ostrowski, the director of supply, production and distribution for Operation Warp Speed, said Wednesday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
“We just want to make sure that Americans understand exactly the science that went into this, understand the gold standard of the FDA and the approval process. We want to make sure that the vaccines are actually administered, and we’re afraid that that won’t happen,” Ostrowski said.
But he acknowledged that officials have a long way to go in building trust with Americans that the vaccine is safe, a task that the Biden administration will take over from Trump’s team.
“We must build a trust in the American people. We must make them understand that the science that went into this, that the oversight they went into this is gold standard, and that our scientists, our pharmaceutical companies here in the United States, are the best ever,” Ostrowski said.
“And we just want to make sure that everybody gets this vaccine, because we got to get our lives back.”
With the Pfizer vaccine emergency use authorization expected later this month, and perhaps also for the Moderna vaccine, states are learning there’s not enough for them to fully vaccinate those designated as their first and top priority.
Federal officials estimate about 40 million vaccines will be available by the end of the month if both Moderna and Pfizer get US Food and Drug Administration authorization — only enough to vaccinate 20 million people, because two doses are needed for each person.
But even that number will fall short. Pfizer is only expected to have 6.4 million doses of vaccine ready by mid-December.
A CNN analysis of the state breakdowns of what they plan to receive shows all will fall short of what they would need to fully vaccinate health care workers and long term care residents. CNN was able to confirm the expected size of the first shipment of vaccine for at least 45 states.
Now states must decide how they will ration the vaccine among their top priority groups and how the small first installment affects the timetable of when groups down the line can be vaccinated. Some states are already being forced to triage — choosing which healthcare workers are a higher priority than others.
California must vaccinate 2.4 million healthcare workers first and Governor Gavin Newsom said earlier this week that the state is only receiving 327,000 doses of the vaccine from Pfizer to start with.
Since that covers just a fraction of the healthcare workers needed to get vaccinated, Newsom said Thursday the state would be trimming its list of top priority group of healthcare workers even further to decide who gets vaccinated first.
“It’s one thing when you hear the national news about, well, we broadly all agree that our healthcare workers and skilled nursing residential care and assisted living facilities should be prioritized, but that is millions and millions of people. When you only have a few hundred thousand doses of vaccines – doses, you need two doses — you can cut that in half in terms of the total number of people that actually will be fully vaccinated. We have to look at some prioritization of those doses, and we’ve done just that,” Newsom said Thursday.
The Covid-19 vaccine in California will now go first to acute care facilities, nursing homes, dialysis centers and first responders before going to groups like home healthcare workers.
Alabama is receiving far less of the Pfizer vaccine than they were first promised from the initial shipment. Instead of their first shipment being 112,000 doses from Pfizer, the state will receive 40,950 doses, according to Alabama Department of Public Health Officer, Karen Landers. The state has designated 300,000 health care workers and 22,000 residents of long-term care facilities as among the highest priority group to be vaccinated.
“The Alabama Department of Public Health will follow its Phase 1a allocation of Covid-19 vaccine and, as necessary, ask providers to sub-categorize persons within Phase 1a based upon supply,” Landers told CNN. “For example, healthcare personnel who work in emergency rooms, Covid-19 units, have underlying health problems, or other factors, may receive the initial vaccines.”
Montana is only receiving around 9,750 doses of the Pfizer vaccine from the first shipment when it has more than 40,000 healthcare workers to vaccinate before moving on to the rest of the state’s population.
“We’ll likely be receiving several thousand subsequent doses in the coming weeks” Governor Steve Bullock said in a news conference earlier this week.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said his state will receive 170,000 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine on December 15th. The state’s highest priority groups include 85,000 nursing-home residents and 130,000 nursing home facility workers.
For some states, the difference between the amount of vaccine they expect to receive and the number of people labeled as the state’s highest priority are not as far off.
In Texas, the state expects 224,250 doses of the Pfizer vaccine the week of December 14, but will end up with 1.4 million doses when combining shipments from Pfizer and Moderna by the end of December. The state estimated it needs to vaccinate 1.6 million health care workers to complete its first phase of the process.
West Virginia Governor Jim Justice gave more detail in his Friday announcement of what the state will be receiving by sharing not only the initial shipment, but the ordering cap for each week. Justice said that West Virginia is expected to receive 60,000 doses of the vaccine from Pfizer on December 15 and 26,000 from Moderna the week after. The state can order up to 16,000 new doses from Pfizer a week and up to approximately 5,000 from Moderna each week.
The state has said its first priority group is approximately 100,000 healthcare workers, long-term care facility staff and residents, individuals critical to community infrastructure and emergency response, public health officials, and first responders.
But even a President-elect who promises to replace Trump’s neglect with a science-based approach to the pandemic can only do so much before he takes office on January 20, when the health crisis and economic toll are likely to be far worse.
The current President spent Sunday firing off delusional new claims to bolster his fantasy that the election was stolen, which did nothing to advance his inept legal cases but further poisoned hopes of national unity when he’s gone.
Biden waits in the wings
It was left to the heads of government health agencies, some of whom were effectively muzzled by the President ahead of the election, to muster national resolve.
Since Biden has little capacity to limit the explosion in Covid-19 cases, his most critical initial task will be to preside over the distribution of a vaccine developed by private companies in coordination with the current White House.
Giroir’s confidence is encouraging. But it must be seen as another upbeat assessment from an administration that has made repeated optimistic assessments on the provision of protective equipment for front-line workers, falling death rates, expanding testing and forecasts about hospital occupancy that have all proven to be empty.
Dr. Megan Ranney, a Brown University emergency physician who has been treating Covid patients, said Sunday that political failures had brewed a disaster in the nation’s hospitals.
“We have been talking for months about the need for increased supplies of personal protective equipment, about the need for increased testing supplies, we still desperately need those,” Ranney said on CNN “Newsroom.”
“But even if those were all available, the trouble is that the surge in Covid-19 patients right now is so great, it is overwhelming hospitals, it is overwhelming available beds and worst of all, it is overwhelming the number of available staff.”
Grim warnings from top health officials
The unity of messaging from government health experts over the weekend was remarkable and ominous — and only emphasized the silence of Trump, who has repeatedly lied about the US “rounding the corner” on the crisis, or Vice President Mike Pence, who heads the White House coronavirus task force.
Giroir told CNN’s Dana Bash that he was “very concerned” about high levels of Thanksgiving travel and asked Americans to avoid high risk areas like bars and other indoors spaces.
“We’re entering into what really is a precarious situation because we’re in the middle of a steep slope,” Fauci said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“I want to be straight with the American people, it’s going to get worse over the next several weeks,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” “The actions that we take in the next several days will determine how bad it is or whether or not we continue to flatten our curve.”
And another senior member of the White House coronavirus task force, Dr. Deborah Birx, who said she hopes to begin briefing Biden’s team this week after a transition delayed by the President, said people who traveled for the holiday should get tested and avoid vulnerable relatives.
“To every American, this is the moment to protect yourself and your family,” Birx said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Pressure mounts on Congress to avert economic devastation
With the President absent, it will fall to governors and mayors to pick up the mantle of leadership again. But a flurry of new restrictions on public gatherings and restrictions on restaurants is likely to further damage an economy that has been hammered by the pandemic.
So pressure is rising on Congress to break out of its partisan stasis and offer more help to millions of Americans who are out of work because of the pandemic.
Lawmakers will return to Washington after the holiday this week after months of the two chambers failing to pass a new and combined Covid-19 aid package. The prospects for progress still look grim with a funding deal needed to avert a partial government shutdown by December 11. In the past, however, such deadlines have sometimes spurred a modicum of political cover that allows incremental deals. Still, a more comprehensive pandemic package may have to await the arrival of the new President in January. But the reality of divided power in Washington — pending two runoffs in Georgia that will decide control of the Senate — and the likelihood that Senate Republicans will rediscover their budget hawk instincts with a Democrat in the White House, only add to Biden’s huge problems. There is also concern that the failure of Congress to act will hamper the ability of states to train workers and effectively distribute several vaccine candidates.
Providing no evidence for his lies about the “greatest fraud in the history of our country,” the President more importantly offered no answers or responsibility for the testing days ahead in the worst domestic crisis to afflict the country since World War II.
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.
In restoring a more conventional version of the presidency, Biden is using his mandate to counter the political forces that led to Trump’s rise and which still delivered more than 73 million votes to the President, albeit in a losing cause.
His Washington restoration is not without risk, and is already coming into conflict with Trump’s blend of nihilistic conservatism that is likely to dictate the Republican Party’s strategy even when he has left the Oval Office.
“Let’s begin the work to heal and unite America and the world,” Biden said.
His recruits, many of them protégés, represent the antithesis of the philosophy, style and comportment of Trump’s authoritarian, “America First” and anti-science White House that is driven by conspiracy theories and a personality cult.
Biden’s domestic, health and economic policy teams, expected to be revealed after Thanksgiving, will likely share the same blend of experience and knowledge after catching the eye of a President-elect who has more years on his Washington clock than any modern predecessor.
“The purpose of our administration is once again uniting. We can’t keep this virulent political dialogue going. It has to end,” Biden said.
His overarching point is this: the American people, after watching chaos, nepotism and anti-intellectualism in government amid a pandemic that killed a quarter million of their fellow citizens and as the US turned its back on its friends abroad, now just want people who know what they are doing and don’t make too much noise doing it. Each of his nominees highlighted on Tuesday from Thomas-Greenfield, who is Black, and Homeland Security Secretary nominee Alejandro Mayorkas, who is Hispanic, represent individual departures from Trumpism in personality, background and qualifications.
Multilateralism, diplomacy, quiet competence, scientific rigor, inclusivity, collegiality between top officials, respect for civil servants, the intelligence community and a welcome for immigrants are in.
Bashing allies, populism, nationalism, White House backbiting, despot coddling, ring-kissing Cabinet meetings, political hacks running spy agencies, and downplaying politically inconvenient threats — like killer viruses — are out.
Former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu believes that Biden’s nominees reflect the man who chose them.
“The President-elect has been demonstrating and modeling what presidential behavior looks like,” Landrieu told CNN’s Brooke Baldwin.
“He is just trying to demonstrate to the people of America what it looks like when you have a president that is balanced, that is stable that is thoughtful and experienced,” he said.
The President-elect is likely to adopt that persona again when he delivers a Thanksgiving address to the American people from his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, on Wednesday.
A completely different America
The sharp turn that America will take on Inauguration Day on January 20 reflects the stark choice that was before voters on November 3 — which has been only made more clear during Trump’s subsequent attempt to steal the election. It also underscores the elasticity of an American political system that has the ingrained capacity to counter the excesses of its leaders and often produces presidents who are the opposite of their predecessors.
Four years ago, Trump won an election after a campaign in which he vowed to destroy the political and economic establishment in Washington. His presidency tore at the institutions of federal power and the consensus of elites on economic, domestic, immigration and foreign policy.
In many ways, in placing his faith in seasoned Washington hands like Blinken and Director of National Intelligence nominee Avril Haines, Biden is rebuilding that administrative state. Perhaps only the President-elect himself is a more establishment, experienced and conventional figure than former secretary of state and long-time senator John Kerry, who will serve as presidential climate envoy and is exactly the kind of global citizen that Bannon and his fellow travelers decry.
Biden is not hiding his belief that more government is good. In a statement released on Monday after the Trump administration finally agreed to begin a transition, his team vowed to gain a complete understanding of Trump’s “efforts to hollow government agencies.”
And several of Biden’s national security nominees on Monday made a point of paying tribute to the unseen functionaries of government who keep the country running but were treated like an enemy within during the Trump years.
“My fellow career diplomats and public servants around the world. I want to say to you, America is back, multilateralism is back, diplomacy is back,” said Thomas-Greenfield. Haines spoke publicly to members of the covert community who were often on Trump’s target list.
“The work you do, oftentimes under the most austere conditions imaginable, is just indispensable,” said Haines. Several nominees offered fealty to the American ideal, Congress, the American public and democracy. While they all praised Biden, there was little of the exaggerated praise and expressions of personal loyalty that Trump requires of his subordinates. Haines told her new boss that she’d tell him bad news that he’d rather not hear, in another implied criticism of the Trump administration.
A different breed of official
The impression of professionalism and competence given by the group was a contrast to the late-term personnel on whom Trump has relied, who in many cases were unqualified for the great roles of state but prospered by prioritizing loyalty to the President.
Not all of Trump’s initial Cabinet picks were in the same mold. Those like Defense Secretary James Mattis and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats were experienced and experts in their fields. But their attempts to play the role that Biden expects of his appointees were frustrated when they were constantly undermined by Trump who saw his government as in exclusive service to his personal needs. And these officials, who were dubbed “adults” in the press, frequently spent their time reigning in an erratic President’s worst impulses.
Biden’s approach is designed for the circumstances in which he will take office. With Covid-19 raging out of control he will face a nation badly in need of an organized strategy to roll out the vaccine that could restore normal life. Just not being Trump and signing back up to the Paris climate accord will give him instant wins on the world stage.
But in the longer term, the test of his presidency will be whether his vision of calm, deliberative leadership can pacify a nation whose politics resembles an unruly jungle, where his opponents didn’t wait until he won the election to try to delegitimize him and where there is no longer a common version of truth.
After all, President Barack Obama once tried to engage his opponents with facts and logic within the traditions of the US governing system. It didn’t get him far with Republican opponents whose political existence was directed towards thwarting whatever he proposed.
If things go wrong, Biden will face claims that the return of the administrative state triggered disaster, which will fuel Trump if he runs again in 2024 and the candidates who hope he won’t so they get a shot.
Abroad, Biden must prove whether indulging allies, a methodical policy process and the grunt work of dialogue can constrain a world of rising US rivals who have rocked the fraying global system in which he came of age. Experience and foreign policy expertise in successive administrations never solved some of the thorniest issues — like North Korea’s nuclear quest.
One reason Trump won four years ago is that many Americans believed that the globalized instincts of a generation of Washington elites caused their jobs to go abroad and the wars in which their kids were sent to fight.
“Biden’s cabinet picks went to Ivy League schools, have strong resumes, attend all the right conferences & will be polite & orderly caretakers of America’s decline,” Rubio tweeted. “I support American greatness. And I have no interest in returning to the ‘normal’ that left us dependent on China.”
His tweet, which overlooked the fact that many Trump officials also went to Ivy League schools, encapsulated the duel between Biden’s traditional White House leadership at home and abroad, and the populism harnessed by Trump.
That’s the truth, even though last desperate gasps of the Trump era increasingly bear one striking similarity to its origin: it all seems like a hopeless joke.
When the reality star descended his golden escalator at Trump Tower way back in 2015, his shock brand of race-baiting populism seemed like a futile attempt to make himself relevant and kickstart a flagging media career. The idea that he had a shot at becoming President of the United States seemed laughable.
But, dismissed by the media and ridiculed by fellow Republicans, Trump found a way to hopscotch from conspiracy theory to conspiracy theory all the way to the White House. And then nobody was laughing any more.
Now, it’s Trump remaining in office that seems impossible. Trump was clearly rejected by voters at the polls — nearly 6 million more people chose Biden — and his legal challenges in multiple states have all faltered.
And Rudy Giuliani is still ginning things up. On Thursday afternoon, Giuliani, hair dye dripping down his face, gave a wild press conference where he alleged a massive multi-state conspiracy to steal the election from the President. As evidence, he pointed to votes in Philadelphia, a barely concealed mimic of the Detroit complaint and a clear effort to disenfranchise voters in cities with large Black populations.
“That press conference was the most dangerous 1hr 45 minutes of television in American history. And possibly the craziest. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re lucky,” said Chris Krebs, the DHS election security official recently fired by Trump, in a tweet.
The multi-pronged conspiracy is not millions more voters choosing Biden. It’s the expanding effort to overturn results in at least three states and undo a solid electoral defeat. It would be sad and funny if it weren’t quite literally about ignoring the voters to keep Trump in power.
And so it’s extremely distressing that Trump is on the phone with Republican officials who now say they want to rescind their certification of votes in Wayne County, which covers Detroit — a step that is normally just a technicality.
Much of Wall Street views the Trump campaign’s efforts to overturn the election results as a desperate sideshow destined to fail. But JPMorgan is telling clients there’s still a chance that this process descends into chaos. It is 2020, after all.
Michael Cembalest, chairman of market and investment strategy at JPMorgan Asset Management, warned in a report Wednesday of the “remote risk of an American horror story” and “constitutional mayhem.”
: Trust the votes
It was not that long ago that Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney was leading the GOP. Now he’s “shunned” by some, as he told David Axelrod in an Axe Files podcast released Thursday.
Mistrust of democracy. But I heard Romney say something else that completely hits the mark:
“Both here and around the world we are seeing a reduction in the confidence people have in voting,” Romney said.
“And if people don’t believe in voting, and don’t have confidence in voting, how can you have democracy, because democracy is fundamentally based on people voting.”
“And if the United State of America doesn’t believe that we have voting that’s reliable, why, how can you expect a country that’s just becoming a democracy to adopt this practice and use it as a basis for determining its future.”
The counterargument to this is that the 2020 election, despite Trump’s silly allegations of rigging, drew a record number of voters. For now, at least, voters are voting. And that’s a good thing. Georgia’s hand recount of its election reaffirmed Biden’s victory over Trump and found no widespread voter fraud — just like we thought it would.
Paralyzed Senate. He also described how the Senate, which is necessary to pass any major legislation, votes on very little major legislation.
“Over the years the Senate has moved and moved to a point where I think there’s a reluctance to vote on things that might be bad votes for members of the majority’s party,” Romney said.
“As a result we don’t vote on much. Not either up or down, things we agree with, but if it’s bad for Senator X, Y or Z, why then we don’t want to take that vote. We vote very rarely on matters of substance. Just as a particular, I think in the two years I’ve been in the Senate, we haven’t had a single vote on a matter related to health care, immigration, tax policy, climate change, the list goes on.”
: Where schools are closed but restaurants are open
As more people around the country deal with new restrictions on schooling and movement, Greg Krieg writes about the special situation in New York City, where schools were shut after school ended Wednesday — so suddenly that kids left their textbooks in class. Some excerpts from Krieg:
Poor delivery. It is a demoralizing setback for a city that slowly re-opened after seeing more than 30,000 pandemic deaths and now faces a deadly winter surge of new Covid-19 infections. The news was delivered to principals by the city’s schools chancellor at around 2 p.m. on Wednesday, after hours of uncertainty, and set off a scramble among parents juggling child care needs and work responsibilities.
Conflicting standards. Part of the public confusion — and private differences — centered on how the city and state measure coronavirus test positivity rates. Some nine months into the pandemic, they are still employing different metrics to settle some of the most pressing issues facing New Yorkers.
Bars and gyms stay open! Frustration over the process and timing of the shutdown bubbled over almost immediately after the mayor, following hours of uncertainty, tweeted out his decision. That anger was compounded by the fact that city restaurants, bars and gyms — the places most experts say the virus is most apt to spread — remain open at limited capacities in accordance with guidelines set by the state.
: Now, reconsider Thanksgiving plans
“The reason that we made the update is that the fact that over the week we’ve seen over a million new cases in the country,” Dr. Erin Sauber-Schatz, the CDC’s lead for Community Intervention and Critical Population Task Force, said during the briefing.
I changed my plans this week and it didn’t make me sad so much as angry. When will this end?
I will admit to complaining about Thanksgiving in recent years. There are hassles. How to cook the turkey. Where to celebrate. Who’s coming. Who isn’t. Traffic. Those frustrations seem silly today, like the complaints you hear from people who don’t like to to celebrate their birthday.
So skip the big meal this year, but definitely celebrate your birthday. You don’t know how many more you’ll get.
The continuing power struggle between two men with diametrically different philosophies on how the US should handle the virus has left the nation rudderless at this critical moment — forced by Trump into a governing crisis as he refuses to let the transition to the Biden presidency proceed and pass on knowledge that could be critical to slowing the spread of the virus next year.
The President is still adhering to the same hands-off approach that led so many voters to reject his leadership on Election Day, inaccurately stating that the increase in cases is the result of increased testing as he tries to focus public attention on his administration’s efforts to speed up a vaccine through Operation Warp Speed.
The President spent most of Saturday golfing and tweeting his baseless and debunked conspiracy theories about how the election was rigged, and driving by a crowd of his supporters who gathered in Washington to protest the election results on the basis of his lies and propaganda.
He barely addressed the virus on Twitter Saturday, tweeting: “Congress must now do a Covid Relief Bill. Needs Democrats support. Make it big and focused. Get it done!”
Amid that leadership vacuum, many doctors and top medical experts are bracing for even greater holiday spikes, noting that Americans have simply let their guards down and given in to the desire to return to normal life. The President unquestionably played a role in those attitudes as the administration abandoned its coronavirus task force briefings months ago and he tried to win reelection by advancing the falsehood that the US was “rounding the corner.”
Given the complexities of rapid vaccine distribution and the potential for catastrophic consequences if doctors, hospitals and first responders don’t have what they need to handle the current rise in Covid-19 cases, Democrats — and even some Republicans from past administrations — are sounding the alarm about the need for more communication between the outgoing and incoming administrations in this grave moment of national crisis.
“We have a president who has gone AWOL,” said Leon Panetta, who served as White House chief of staff under former President Bill Clinton and as CIA director and secretary of defense under former President Barack Obama. “AWOL from the election and its results, AWOL from Covid-19 and the impact it’s having, AWOL from the transition and frankly AWOL from the presidency.”
“That has created a dangerous moment here,” Panetta told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Saturday night on “The Situation Room.”
Lack of communication raises alarm about virus response
“This crisis demands a robust and immediate federal response, which has been woefully lacking. I am the president-elect, but I will not be president until next year,” Biden said, underscoring the limitations of his position. “The crisis does not respect dates on the calendar, it is accelerating right now…. Right now is a moment for shared responsibility and shared action. Together, we have the power to rein in this virus. And I promise you, from the moment I am sworn in on January 20, I will do everything in my power to lead this unified national effort.”
The President-elect’s advisers have been increasingly vocal about their concerns about the lack of information sharing between the current and future administrations.
“This is truly a national security threat,” Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious diseases specialist, epidemiologist and Biden Transition Covid-19 board member, said on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” Friday evening. “I cannot even imagine another situation — if we were in the midst of a war — that you wouldn’t have handoff of information and plans to a succeeding president.”
“We’re at a point now, even pre-Thanksgiving, where we are surging beyond any level that we have seen over the last eight months,” Murthy, a former surgeon general under President Barack Obama, said on “The Situation Room.” “What we do over these next few weeks is going to have a profound impact on whether this spread increases or whether we ultimately control the spread of this virus.”
Local leaders weigh stronger measures to curb the virus
In the absence of a vigorous federal response, local leaders are once again considering more dramatic action to control the spread, which could create major economic and logistical disruptions.
The 2.4% test positivity rate in New York City is now close enough to the 3% threshold that could lead the city to close schools and transition students to remote learning, a possibility that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo discussed during a call with journalists Saturday where he added that some schools might be able to “test out” of closures if they have a much lower positivity rate than the surrounding area.
The resurgence in Oregon, where cases topped more than 1,000 a day for the third day in a row Saturday, led Gov. Kate Brown to announce a “two week freeze” on Friday that will limit social gatherings to six people and two households, close restaurants and bars and place new limits on the number of people who can gather within faith-based organizations. The freeze will span from November 18 to December 2.
“I know it’s hard and I know everybody is weary but we are trying to stop this ferocious virus from spreading,” Brown said.
In Los Angeles, where cases have surged from about a 1,000 a day three weeks ago to nearly 4,000 on Saturday, according Mayor Eric Garcetti, officials created the largest testing center in America at Dodger Stadium — ushering some 8,000 people through the testing regimen on a single day this past week.
On Saturday, the Navajo Nation ordered a new three-week stay-at-home lockdown, restricting travel and only allowing residents to leave their homes for emergencies or to pick up groceries, medicine and firewood.
“We are inching closer and closer to a major public health crisis in which we could potentially see our hospitals filling up with patients,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a statement. “Our health care system on the Navajo Nation cannot sustain a long-term surge in Covid-19 cases. The safest place to be is at home.”
CNN’s Elizabeth Joseph, Sheena Jones, Jenn Selva, Konstantin Toropin and Paul Vercammen contributed to this report.