CNN has learned that federal law enforcement agencies, in a series of bulletins and calls with local partners this week, have issued an urgent call for assistance in securing the nation’s capital as the inauguration nears, and painted a dire picture of potential threats leading up to January 20.
Officials are warning that last Wednesday’s attack on the US Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump will likely motivate additional follow-on attacks by extremists throughout 2021, according to an intelligence bulletin dated Wednesday and obtained by CNN.
Warning that the people who attacked the Capitol largely viewed their efforts as a success, the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence said the attack “very likely will serve as a significant driver of violence” for a diverse set of domestic extremists, according to the bulletin.
“The violent breach of the US Capitol Building is very likely part of an ongoing trend in which (extremists) exploit lawful protests, rallies, and demonstrations, and other gatherings to carry out ideologically-motivated violence and criminal activity,” the intelligence bulletin warned.
The range of potential future targets of attack was varied, with intelligence officials warning in the bulletin that extremists could zero-in on government officials and institutions, as well as racial and religious minorities, journalists and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
The bulletin also indicated that the January 6 attack may have served as a venue for extremists of differing ideological motivations to foster connections.
In addition to the perceived success of the January 6 Capitol attack, intelligence officials warned that the response by law enforcement could also motivate extremists to respond with violence, including at Biden’s upcoming inauguration.
“Since the (Capitol attack), violent online rhetoric regarding the (inauguration) has increased, with some calling for unspecified ‘justice’ ” for a rioter shot by police inside the Capitol, the bulletin said.
Other motivations for possible future attacks included anti-government views held by extremists, as well as grievances associated with the false narrative that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
“The increasing prevalence and influence of conspiracy theories based on a belief in the existence of global or ‘deep state’ actors who work to manipulate various social, political, and/or economic conditions of the United States very likely serves as a driver of some (extremist) violence,” the report said.
The conspiracy theory-laden language observed by US intelligence officials has often mirrored baseless claims made by Trump. Throughout his presidency, Trump has claimed without evidence that a nefarious group of “deep state” actors have been secretly working to undermine his presidency, and he has continually spread disinformation about the integrity of the 2020 election.
Feds working with police around the country
As law enforcement prepares to respond to upcoming protests before and during the inauguration, FBI Director Chris Wray and Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Ken Cuccinelli held a call Wednesday with law enforcement leaders from around the country to provide a briefing on the nationwide threat picture relating to planned protests, according to a person briefed on the call.
The source said the FBI briefed their law enforcement partners on intelligence reporting indicating protesters planned to conduct “peaceful, armed demonstrations” in Washington, DC, and at state capitols around the US on January 17 to protest the results of the 2020 election.
An FBI spokesperson confirmed the call, but did not provide additional details.
The FBI indicated federal law enforcement is currently working to identify any suspected extremists who may pose a threat at the planned armed demonstrations.
On the call, FBI officials said they remain concerned about the prospect of extremists appearing at planned rallies and conducting violence, and that violent domestic extremists continue to pose the most significant threat to Biden’s inauguration, according to another source familiar with the call.
“The chatter is off the charts right now,” one official told CNN on Tuesday regarding extremists talking online about future actions.
Federal officials stressed on the call with state, local, tribal and college campus law enforcement leaders that the FBI will not tolerate extremists using the First Amendment as a guide to incite violence, adding that they expect threats will continue past Biden’s inauguration, the source said.
In addition to the potential threats at government buildings, officials discussed seeing an increased number of threats to private companies and their executives in recent days.
According to the source, federal officials said on the call that Russian actors have been amplifying the false narrative that members of Antifa infiltrated Trump supporters during the riot at the US Capitol, and the Chinese have seized on news stories showing chaos in the US.
Secret Service report shows government is monitoring threats
Another government report is shedding light on how law enforcement officials are monitoring the threat of potential violence in the coming days.
According to an internal US Secret Service report dated January 11 and obtained by CNN, analysts with the Secret Service’s team responsible for monitoring websites and social media for planned demonstrations note that protesters unhappy with the 2020 election results are using online platforms to organize events in the Washington area and around the country.
In one online forum observed by investigators, the report indicated that a group calling itself “American Patriots Nationwide” is organizing a violent demonstration in Washington beginning on January 16. On its website, the group indicated it plans to use its members to surround the Capitol, White House and Supreme Court, and only allow the entry of people designated by Trump.
The Secret Service report said the American Patriots Nationwide group also planned to detain Democratic politicians who “played a role in planning or executing or supporting the attempted coup of the United States of America from 2016 to 2020.”
The Secret Service bulletin did not offer an assessment on the realistic nature of the planned rallies nor how much confidence investigators have in the ability of organizers to achieve their stated objectives.
According to the report, groups associated with the Boogaloo movement planned to host an armed march from the Washington Monument to the White House, and encouraged its members to bring weapons.
Other separate events noted in the Secret Service report similarly encouraged protest attendees to come armed, although organizers did not explicitly encourage violence.
The District of Columbia has some of the strictest gun laws in the country and the open carrying of firearms is prohibited.
For Inauguration Day, the Secret Service report indicated that analysts identified more than 35 rallies being planned online around Washington.
One event dubbed the Million Militia March encouraged attendees to bring weapons. “The group claims they will not attack, but will defend,” the Secret Service report noted.
As part of its protective mission, the Secret Service routinely reviews so-called “open source intelligence” to review planned rallies and protests staged near official events. The Secret Service report obtained by CNN indicated that recent efforts by social media companies to suspend users engaged in election-related disinformation has, in effect, hindered the ability of analysts to identify some details of planned inauguration protests.
Not all of the planned demonstrations listed in the Secret Service report were pro-Trump.
According to analysts, one group is planning a rally called “Smoking to Trump’s Sorrow,” in which attendees will join to together to smoke marijuana and celebrate the end of Trump’s presidency.
Another planned DC event, dubbed the “Lesbian U-Haul Trump Out Parade” is being organized to help move Trump out of the White House, although the Secret Service did not indicate what logistics the group planned to employ to accomplish its stated goal.
“After close review of recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account and the context around them we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence,” Twitter said.
“In the context of horrific events this week, we made it clear on Wednesday that additional violations of the Twitter Rules would potentially result in this very course of action.”
Twitter’s decision followed two tweets by Trump Friday afternoon that would end up being his last. The tweets violated the company’s policy against glorification of violence, Twitter said, and “these two Tweets must be read in the context of broader events in the country and the ways in which the President’s statements can be mobilized by different audiences, including to incite violence, as well as in the context of the pattern of behavior from this account in recent weeks.”
The first tweet was about Trump’s supporters.
“The 75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me, AMERICA FIRST, and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future. They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!”
The second indicated Trump did not plan to attend Joe Biden’s inauguration.
“To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.”
Twitter said the tweet concerning inauguration could be viewed as a further statement that the election was not legitimate. It also said that the tweet could be interpreted as Trump saying that the inauguration would be a “safe” target for violence because he would not be attending.
Trump’s other statement about American patriots suggested that “he plans to continue to support, empower, and shield those who believe he won the election,” Twitter said.
Twitter’s ban specifically addresses “the @realDonaldTrump account,” not Trump personally.
Twitter will enforce its policy against ban evasions to ensure that Trump does not circumvent his personal account’s suspension, the company told CNN.
“If it is clear that another account is being used for the purposes of evading a ban, it is also subject to suspension,” Twitter said in a statement. “For government accounts, such as @POTUS and @WhiteHouse, we will not suspend those accounts but will take action to limit their use. However, these accounts will be transitioned over to the new administration in due course and will not be suspended by Twitter unless absolutely necessary to alleviate real-world harm.”
Twitter’s policy would also prohibit Trump from directing a third party to operate a Twitter account on his behalf.
Trump sought to test Twitter’s ban evasion policy at roughly 8:30 pm ET Friday evening, when he or someone acting on his behalf published four tweets from the @POTUS account.
“As I have been saying for a long time, Twitter has gone further and further in banning free speech, and tonight, Twitter employees have coordinated with the Democrats and the Radical Left in removing my account from their platform, to silence me,” Trump tweeted.
The tweets disappeared almost instantly.
Twitter told CNN that the Trump campaign’s account has also been permanently banned. Before @TeamTrump was suspended, it had been seen sharing the same four-tweet thread that Trump had attempted to post from the @POTUS account.
After Twitter permanently banned the Trump campaign’s account, Mike Hahn, the campaign’s social media director, objected.
“We copied and pasted a White House pool report,” Hahn tweeted.
Earlier in the evening, a White House pool report was distributed that contained the exact language that Trump had attempted to share from the @POTUS Twitter account.
A Twitter spokesperson confirmed to CNN that what prompted @TeamTrump’s ban was its attempt to share the same language Trump tried to tweet earlier.
Hahn argued it is nonsensical for journalists to be allowed to share Trump’s words but that the Trump campaign is not.
“A serious question that needs to be asked by journalists: If you post exactly what the president said will you be suspended as well? Because that is all we did,” Hahn said.
Asked whether it saw a difference between journalists reporting Trump’s words and the Trump campaign repeating Trump’s words, Twitter told CNN that there was a distinction.
“There’s a difference between someone reporting on the President, and someone attempting to allow their account to be used by the president to essentially get around the ban,” a Twitter spokesperson said.
Civil rights leaders who have long criticized tech platforms for spreading hate speech and division welcomed Twitter’s decision.
Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, called it an “excellent step.”
“A fitting end to a legacy of spewing hate and vitriol,” Greenblatt said. “President Trump incited the violent riots at the Capitol using social media & paid the price.”
Eric Naing, a spokesman for Muslim Advocates, said Twitter “is showing real leadership.”
“As Twitter notes, letting Trump continue to post tweets, Facebook posts and YouTube videos for his white nationalist supporters risks ‘further incitement of violence,'” Naing said. “Now it is up to Facebook and Google/YouTube to follow Twitter’s lead.”
Even before the latest outrage, this week already marked a watershed moment for Biden’s coming presidency, a ruptured Republican Party and the integrity of the US political system.
In fact, the President blasted the world-leading US death toll as “fake news” on Sunday, while disregarding growing evidence his White House has botched the rollout of crucial new vaccines just as it did earlier stages of the pandemic.
‘I just want to find … votes’
The release of the stunning telephone conversation between Trump and Georgia’s GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger escalated the constitutional crisis Trump started stoking even before his election loss.
“So look, all I want to do is this: I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have. Because we won the state,” Trump said in a comment that at best was an abuse of power and could raise legal questions. Throughout the hour-long call, the President repeatedly prods Raffensperger to agree to his false claims that thousands of votes were illegally cast, that some ballots were destroyed or came from dead people or out-of-state voters. The Georgia secretary of state tells the President that he has false information.
In the latest smoking gun call, Trump is heard trying to convince Raffensperger to announce that he had recalculated the vote totals and that the President won, and threatening criminal reprisals if his fellow Republican failed to act.
“At the very least it’s an abuse of presidential power, which in a normal time would be impeachable,” said CNN presidential historian Timothy Naftali.
John Dean, a former White House legal counsel in the Watergate scandal, told CNN’s Fredricka Whitfield that Trump was at “the edges of extortion.”
Biden senior legal adviser Bob Bauer said in a statement that the tape offered “irrefutable proof of a president pressuring and threatening an official of his own party to get him to rescind a state’s lawful, certified vote count and fabricate another in its place.”
“It captures the whole, disgraceful story about Donald Trump’s assault on American democracy.”
Call heaps pressure on Trump’s GOP backers
Trump’s call with Raffensperger suddenly heaped new scrutiny on Republican members of the House and Senate who have pledged to challenge the normally pro forma certification of the election result in Congress.
As they criticize results already ratified by Republican-appointed judges and the conservative majority Supreme Court, as well as state officials, many of whom are Republicans, they must now decide whether they stand by Trump’s flagrant attempt to overturn the rule of law in Georgia.
“Do … Republicans want to be on the side of an abuse of power or a criminal conspiracy?” Naftali asked.
The shallowness of the Republican effort is revealed in lawmakers’ arguments that it is being pursued not on the basis of new evidence of fraud but on the grounds that millions of Trump voters believe the election was corrupt.
But Trump and his acolytes have spent months making false claims about election fraud, aided by conservative media organizations and White House officials who have blatantly lied about an election that Trump’s Justice Department and other appointees have said was free and fair.
A Republican breach
The challenge to the certification and demand for a commission on false claims of voter fraud is just the latest in a long list of efforts by Capitol Hill Republicans to appease an unchained and lawless President who threatens to back primary challenges against those who cross him.
But several GOP senators, including Utah’s Romney, Maine’s Susan Collins and Nebraska’s Ben Sasse have registered frustration with their colleagues.
“The egregious ploy to reject electors may enhance the political ambition of some, but dangerously threatens our democratic Republic,” Romney said in a statement Saturday. “I could never have imagined seeing these things in the greatest democracy in the world. Has ambition so eclipsed principle?”
His 2012 running mate, former House Speaker Paul Ryan, vocalized his concerns in a rare public statement Sunday, saying, “Efforts to reject the votes of the Electoral College and sow doubt about Joe Biden’s victory strike at the foundation of our republic.”
Republican leaders are angry that Hawley — a potential 2024 presidential candidate — has effectively forced his colleagues into a vote on the election that is doomed to fail but leaves them to chose between democracy and a GOP President who is popular with the base.
“I think that if you have a plan, it should be a plan that has some chance of working. And neither of the two proposals that have been advanced will produce a result,” said Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of GOP leadership.
While McCarthy is backing the challenge, the third-ranking Republican in the House, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, sent a memo to colleagues on Sunday warning that it set a “dangerous precedent” that threatened to snatch away the responsibility of states for running their own elections.
“This is directly at odds with the Constitution’s clear text and our core beliefs as Republicans,” she wrote.
Another group of seven House Republicans — including a couple in the conservative House Freedom Caucus — also spoke out Sunday, calling on their colleagues to “respect the states’ authority here” even “though doing so may frustrate our immediate political objectives.”
Trump heads to Georgia
Trump’s bombshell call could affect what are shaping up as two tight races in Georgia, where GOP Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler are facing voters. Republicans need just one of them to prevail to retain their Senate majority. If Democrats welcome both Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock as new senators, they will split the chamber 50-50, allowing Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to cast deciding votes on tied legislation.
Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who earned credit for helping engineer Biden’s victory in the state, said on “State of the Union” that it could take several days for the results to become clear.
But she said she believed that strong turnout among Democrats casting mail-in votes had put the party in a strong position.
“This is going to be a very tough battle, but it is absolutely within the realm of possibility, in fact, the realm of likelihood, that Democrats can win,” Abrams told Tapper.
Republicans need a strong Election Day turnout to compete. But there are fears among local activists that Trump’s relentless assault on the probity of the presidential election in Georgia will convince his supporters that their votes will not count in the senatorial runoff races.
The President will seek to rally his base when he travels to Georgia for an election eve rally on Monday. Based on the contents of his call with Raffensperger, though, it is not clear whether his intervention will help.
CNN’s Ryan Nobles and Arlette Saenz contributed to this report.
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.