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White House Coronavirus Cases Spark Concerns About Internal Precautions

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  • After two White House staffers tested positive, Dr. Fauci, the CDC director, and the FDA commissioner all went into at least partial isolation.
  • Meanwhile, others who were likely exposed are still coming to work, include Vice President Pence, whose press secretary Katie Miller tested positive.
  • Few precautions have been taken, and no one is being told to wear masks.
  • During a meeting just hours after Miller tested positive, a video showed guests being told to remove their mask before meeting with the VP.

White House Cases

Concerns are rising over the lack of precautions taken by the White House to ensure employee safety after two members of the West Wing tested positive for the coronavirus last week.

On Thursday, an unnamed military valet for President Donald Trump tested positive for the virus. One day later, Trump announced that Katie Miller, the press secretary for Vice President Mike Pence, had received a positive test result.

According to reports, the White House has performed contact tracing and everyone known to have contact with Miller has so far tested negative, including her husband Stephen Miller, a top Trump advisor.

There have been no other reports of confirmed cases coming out of the White House, but the news still caused a stir, especially because Ms. Miller was recently present at a number of meetings and gatherings among White House staff.

As a result, three key members of the coronavirus task force announced that they would begin taking some isolation measures. Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Dr. Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, both said that they would be quarantining themselves for 14 days and working from home.

The two officials said they had come in contact with a member of the president’s staff who was infected. Neither said who that staff member was, but according to reports, both were at a meeting in the Situation Room with Miller last week.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the face of the coronavirus task force, also said that he was starting a “modified quarantine” after having what he called “low risk” contact with an infected White House staffer.

On Saturday, a spokesperson for Dr. Fauci said that while he is low risk, he is still “taking appropriate precautions to mitigate risk to any of his personal contacts while still allowing him to carry out his responsibilities in this public health crisis.”

Those precautions include “a mix of teleworking and wearing a mask during in-person meetings,” the spokesperson explained.

White House Response

The response from the White House, at least so far, has been very different. In a statement Sunday night, a spokesperson for Pence said that the vice president, “has tested negative every single day and plans to be at the White House tomorrow.”

Senior administration officials have also told reporters that many members of the White House staff who were probably in meetings with Miller before she tested positive were still going in to work.

All White House staffers were reportedly sent a memo Friday encouraging them to “practice maximum telework” and “work remotely if at all possible.” However, several administration officials have said that White House employees were encouraged to go into work by their supervisors. They also said aides who travel with Trump and Pence would not stay out of the office for 14 days.

According to reports, the all-staff memo did not encourage White House staffers to wear masks, which the CDC has recommended for all Americans in public spaces. In a separate statement to the media, a spokesperson outlined the measures the White House is taking. Those precautions also did not mention masks or other protective gear.

“In addition to social distancing, daily temperature checks and symptom histories, hand sanitizer, and regular deep cleaning of all work spaces, every staff member in proximity to the president and vice president is being tested daily for covid-19 as well as any guests,” the spokesperson said.

But some of those precautions were already in place before the valet and Miller tested positive, and even with them, there are still problems.

“Given the cramped nature of the West Wing, which makes proper social distancing all but impossible, the fear is that more cases of Covid-19 will emerge,” CNN’s Stephen Collinson explained Monday.

Kevin Hassett, a top economic adviser to Trump, also echoed that sentiment while speaking on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday.

“It is scary to go to work,” he said. “I think that I’d be a lot safer if I was sitting at home than I would be going to the West Wing.” 

“But I think that everybody knows that going to work, even in the West Wing, I mean, it’s a small, crowded place” he continued. “It’s, you know, it’s a little bit risky. But you have to do it because you have to serve your country.” 

Lack of Masks

While top administration officials have expressed concerns over going back into the White House for work, Trump on Friday said that some people— like valets and Secret Service members— would be required to start wearing masks.

That, however, does not seem to apply to Trump, Pence, and their other White House staffers. Despite the risk of the coronavirus spreading in the White House, this is still a place where the administration is digging its heels in. 

But this is not a new occurrence. Trump has previously said he will ignore his own administration’s guidelines and not wear a mask— and he’s stuck by that.

The president has never worn a mask in a public appearance, including, somewhat ironically, during a recent tour of a mask factory, where he chose to wear goggles but not a mask.

Pence has also received arguably even more heat for not wearing a mask during appearances at hospitals, factories, and nursing homes.

In fact, according to reports, just hours after it was confirmed that Miller had tested positive, Pence met with a group of food industry executives in Iowa. A video livestream of the event shows a woman asking the guests to remove their masks before the vice president came on stage.

Miller, who had tested negative as recently as the day before receiving a positive result, also made an appearance outside a nursing home in Virginia where she did not wear a mask while briefing the press.

Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Debra Saunders, who was covering the event, even noted that at one point Miller, “coughed, then quipped that she didn’t have the coronavirus.”

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (CNN) (Slate)

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Trump Issues Executive Order Against Social Media Platforms After Fact Check War With Twitter

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  • President Donald Trump reportedly plans to announce an executive order aimed at social media companies on Thursday, after Twitter issued its first-ever fact check warning on one of his posts.
  • The order is expected to target a 1996 statute that, among other things, allows Big Tech companies to remove content they find “objectionable,” all without any legal ramifications. 
  • That statute has been widely controversial on both sides of the aisle.
  • Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has also responded to Trump’s criticism against the platform, saying Twitter will continue to issue fact check warnings on misleading posts related to elections around the world.

Trump Announces Executive Order Plans

President Donald Trump took aim at social media companies via an executive order on Thursday as part of an escalating feud with Twitter.

The incident began on Tuesday when Trump posted two tweets regarding mail-in ballots. Shortly afterward, Twitter issued a fact check warning on both tweets. 

In those tweets, the president continued to press the idea that mail-in ballots will lead to massive voter fraud—even though the majority of experts disagree. 

He also made the claim that California Governor Gavin Newsom plans to send mail-in ballots to everyone living in the state, “no matter who they are or how they got there. Notably, that is not true. Newsom plans to send ballots only to registered voters.

After receiving the label, Trump lashed out against Twitter, saying it was stifling free speech and that he would “strongly regulate” or even “close down” social media platforms.

Now, it seems Trump’s executive order, which was announced Wednesday evening from White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, plans to target a 1996 statute that shields Big Tech companies from liability for their users’ content. 

That’s because this statute also contains a section, Section 230, that allows platforms to remove material they find “objectionable,” all without being treated like a publisher or speaker. 

Because of this, Trump and many other Republicans have repeatedly accused social media platforms of having an anti-conservative bias either by getting rid of or invalidating conservative viewpoints.

“These platforms act like they are potted plants when [in reality] they are curators of user experiences, i.e. the man behind the curtain for everything we can see or hear,” a Trump administration official told Politico.

That official went on describe the order as broad and high level, saying it will address claims that Big Tech companies are cherry-picking what content to allow or block instead of acting as politically neutral platforms..

Jack Dorsey Defends Fact Check Labels

Despite this looming order, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey defended the warning over Trump’s tweets, saying those tweets “may mislead people into thinking they don’t need to register to get a ballot (only registered voters receive ballots).”

Dorsey added that Twitter will continue to issue fact check warnings.

“Fact check: there is someone ultimately accountable for our actions as a company, and that’s me,” he said. “Please leave our employees out of this. We’ll continue to point out incorrect or disputed information about elections globally. And we will admit to and own any mistakes we make.”

“This does not make us an ‘arbiter of truth,’” he added. “Our intention is to connect the dots of conflicting statements and show the information in dispute so people can judge for themselves. More transparency from us is critical so folks can clearly see the why behind our actions.” 

Dorsey specifically used the phrase “arbiter of truth” to hit back at Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who told CNBC Wednesday that social media companies should not regulate political speech.

“I don’t think Facebook or internet platforms in general should be arbiters of truth,” Zuckerberg said. “I think that’s kind of a dangerous line to get down to in terms of deciding what is true and what isn’t, and I think political speech is one of the most sensitive parts in a democracy, and people should be able to see what politicians say, and there’s a ton of scrutiny already. Political speech is the most scrutinized speech already by a lot of the media.”

How Much Power Does Trump Have?

Without congressional action, Trump’s power is limited, it’s also not unlikely to think that Congress could act.

That 1996 statute and Section 230 have been widely controversial on both sides of the aisle. While he’s not in Congress, earlier this year, former Vice President Joe Biden said that Section 230 should be revoked.

Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) said on Wednesday that he plans to introduce legislation to “end these special government giveaways” and that Twitter “should be divested of its special status under federal law.”

“Why should @twitter continue to get special treatment from government as a mere distributor of other people’s content if you are going to editorialize and comment like a publisher? Shouldn’t you be treated like publisher?” Hawley said

Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL) also announced plans to propose similar legislation in the House. 

Still, legislation like this will likely face opposition.

In October, we saw Republican Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers said, “I want to be very clear: I’m not for gutting Section 230.”

“It’s essential for consumers and entities in the internet ecosystem,” she added. “Misguided and hasty attempts to amend or even repeal Section 230 for bias or other reasons could have unintended consequences for free speech and the ability for small businesses to provide new and innovative services.”

Additionally, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) has essentially blamed Trump and other Republicans of playing political theater with these fact check labels.

“Whatever the credible criticisms of current law, Trump’s demagogic meat-ax attack is exactly wrong,” he said. “He intimidates free speech & imperils responsible reform. It’s condemnable.”

See what others are saying: (CNBC) (Politico) (The Hill)

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RNC Sues California Gov. for Expanding Mail-In Voting

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Picture by George Frey for Getty Images

  • The Republican National Committee filed a lawsuit against California Gov. Gavin Newsom alleging that an executive order he signed expanding mail-in voting is illegal.
  • The order would send mail-in ballots to all registered voters in the state ahead of the general election.
  • The lawsuit comes as President Trump and other Republican leaders have ramped up their criticisms against the numerous states that have expanded mail-in voting amid the coronavirus pandemic.

RNC Files Lawsuit

The Republican National Committee, along with the other Republican groups, filed a lawsuit Sunday against California Gov. Gavin Newsom, claiming an executive order he passed that sends mail-in ballots to every registered voter in the state ahead of the general election is illegal.

That executive order, signed by Newsom on May 8, does not entirely close down all polling places, but it does strongly encourage everyone who can to vote by mail. It has also been described as the largest expansion of vote-by-mail that any state has put in place as a result of the pandemic.

Now, the lawsuit filed by the RNC, which was also joined by the Republican Congressional Committee and the California Republican Party, says that order goes too far.

According to reports, the lawsuit argues that Newsom’s actions went beyond the scope of his power because he didn’t go through the state Legislature. It also accuses him of making a “brazen power grab” that would “violate eligible citizens’ right to vote.”

The lawsuit claims that the order “invites fraud, coercion, theft, and otherwise illegitimate voting” because it mandates that ballots be sent to all registered voters, including inactive voters.

That sentiment was echoed by RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, who first announced the lawsuit on Twitter, where she referred to the order as Newsom’s “illegal election power grab.” 

“His radical plan is a recipe for disaster that would create more opportunities for fraud & destroy the confidence Californians deserve to have in their elections,” she continued. “Make no mistake, Democrats are trying to use this pandemic to redesign our entire election system for political gain, and we will not let their brazen attempts go unchallenged.”

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla responded to the lawsuit in a series of tweets on Sunday night, where he defended the vote by mail measure and accused Republicans and President Donald Trump of using the coronavirus pandemic to engage in voter suppression.

“Expanding vote-by-mail during a pandemic is not a partisan issue — it’s a moral imperative to protect voting rights and public safety,” he wrote. “Vote-by-mail has been used safely and effectively in red, blue, and purple states for years.”

“This lawsuit is just another part of Trump’s political smear campaign against voting by mail,” Padilla continued. “We will not let this virus be exploited for voter suppression.”

Broader Efforts Against Mail-In Voting

Padilla’s last point is important to note here. While the lawsuit was filed in California, this pushback is part of a much broader trend that has become apparent as more and more states expand vote-by-mail during the pandemic.

President Trump himself has been very vocal about his opposition to expanding vote-by-mail in recent weeks. Last week, Trump threatened to withhold federal funding from Michigan and Nevada. Michigan is sending voters mail-in ballot applications while Nevada is mailing active registered voters the ballots themselves.

Trump claimed that the efforts in both states were illegal and accused both Democrat and Republican leaders of engaging in voter fraud and cheating in the elections. On Sunday, Trump doubled down on those attacks again in a tweet.

“The United States cannot have all Mail In Ballots. It will be the greatest Rigged Election in history,” the president wrote. “People grab them from mailboxes, print thousands of forgeries and ‘force’ people to sign. Also, forge names. Some absentee OK, when necessary. Trying to use Covid for this Scam!”

But according to reports, there is no evidence that “thousands” of forgeries have been linked to mail-in voting, and there is not extensive evidence of people being forced to sign absentee ballots.

In fact, numerous studies have found that there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the U.S. from either in-person or mail-in voting. Some studies have shown that instances of voter fraud account for just a fraction of a percent of all votes cast.

Still, Trump has not been alone in his attacks of these new proposals. Republican leaders all over the country have joined the president in making the same baseless claims about fraud and election security. 

Now, they have the legal backing of the RNC and other major Republican leadership groups. According to CNN, the lawsuit is just one part of a $20 million effort led by the RNC “to combat Democratic-led expansions of vote-by-mail across the country.”

Trump Threatens to Move Convention

The lawsuit against Gov. Newsom is not the only significant piece of RNC-related news coming out of the long holiday weekend.

On Monday, Trump separately threatened to move the Republican National Convention from North Carolina if the state’s governor, Democrat Roy Cooper, did not promise to hold the event at full capacity. Right now, the convention is set for the end of August.

In a series of tweets Trump called on Gov. Cooper to guarantee that the convention can be held without coronavirus restrictions, writing that he loves North Carolina and that he had pushed for the convention to be held there, but adding that Gov. Cooper “is still in Shutdown mood & unable to guarantee that by August we will be allowed full attendance in the Arena.” 

“In other words, we would be spending millions of dollars building the Arena to a very high standard without even knowing if the Democrat Governor would allow the Republican Party to fully occupy the space,” he said.

Trump also said that Gov. Cooper must immediately say if the space can be fully occupied. 

“If not, we will be reluctantly forced to find, with all of the jobs and economic development it brings, another Republican National Convention site,” he wrote. “This is not something I want to do. Thank you, and I LOVE the people of North Carolina!”

Trump’s announcement comes as North Carolina moved to ease more restrictions on Friday, transitioning to its second phase of reopening. Right now, according to reports, the state allows for the opening of some businesses, and gatherings are limited to no more than ten people inside and 25 people outside.

But coronavirus cases are still on the rise. On Saturday, the state’s Department of Health and Human Services reported the highest number of confirmed cases in a single day since the pandemic started.

As a result, it is currently unclear if the state will be ready to host the convention at the level Trump wants. 

According to reports, the convention is set to be held at an arena in Charlotte that can hold as many as 20,000 people. When Trump says “full capacity,” he means 20,000 people in an enclosed space and likely without proper distancing measures.

But, at least for now, it doesn’t seem like Trump is going to get an immediate answer. 

“State health officials are working with the RNC and will review its plans as they make decisions about how to hold the convention in Charlotte,” a spokesperson for the governor’s office said in response to Trump’s tweets. “North Carolina is relying on data and science to protect our state’s public health and safety.”

Separately, the Mayor of Charlotte, Vi Lyles, also reportedly said that her primary concern is the city’s “vulnerable populations” who could get sick from the coronavirus.

As for what state the convention would be moved too, Trump did not say, but during an interview with Fox News on Monday, Vice President Mike Pence indicated that Texas, Florida, and Georgia, all of which have enacted the broadest plans to reopen, were on the short list.

See what others are saying: (CNN) (The Los Angeles Times) (The Wall Street Journal

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Trump Threatens to Withhold Funding From Michigan and Nevada Over Mail-In Voting

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  • President Trump accused Michigan and Nevada of illegally sending voters absentee ballots in the mail and threatened to withhold funding from the two states.
  • Michigan’s Secretary of State clarified that she is sending applications for the ballots, not the ballots themselves. 
  • Nevada is sending actual ballots to active registered voters, but Trump’s attack perplexed many because the policy is spearheaded by Nevada’s Republican Secretary of State.
  • Numerous other states are also expanding absentee voting, so it is unclear why Trump chose to go after these Nevada and Michigan. Some speculate it is because the two states are likely to be contested in the 2020 election.

Trump’s Twitter Threats

President Donald Trump threatened to withhold funding from Michigan and Nevada Tuesday over efforts by the two states to expand absentee voting.

“Breaking: Michigan sends absentee ballots to 7.7 million people ahead of Primaries and the General Election,” the president tweeted. “This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State. I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!”

“State of Nevada ‘thinks’ that they can send out illegal vote by mail ballots, creating a great Voter Fraud scenario for the State and the U.S. They can’t!” he wrote in another tweet shortly after.

“If they do, ‘I think’ I can hold up funds to the State. Sorry, but you must not cheat in elections.”

However, Trump’s remarks about Michigan are false. On Tuesday, the Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said Tuesday that she plans to mail an absentee ballot application to voters, not an actual ballot. 

She noted that in a response to Trump herself, and pointed out that several Republican-led states plan to do the same thing.

Trump later deleted the tweet, then reposted it so it included the word “applications.”

Nevada, on the other hand, will actually send mail-in ballots to active registered voters for the state’s entirely mail-in primary on June 9. Still, many found Trump’s attack confusing because the move to switch to a vote-by-mail election was made by Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, a Republican.

In fact, Cegavske’s policy has faced significant backlash and even lawsuits from Democrats, who do not want all of the in-person polling locations to be closed and are pushing for all registered voters, not just active voters, to be sent ballots. 

But that is not the only thing that is perplexing about this situation. Michigan and Nevada are only two of the numerous states that have started to expand vote-by-mail during the pandemic.

States like Georgia and even cities like Milwaulkee have already said they will do the exact same thing that Michigan is doing with sending vote-by-mail applications. A lot of these efforts are supported or even led by Republicans.

Just two days before Trump’s remarks, the chair of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniels, said she is fine with absentee ballot applications being sent to registered voters, though she does not support the actual ballots being sent.

In fact, the CDC specifically recommends that states “encourage mail-in methods of voting if allowed in the jurisdiction” given the coronavirus threat. 

Trump and The 2020 Presidential Election

With a wide variety of other states working to make absentee voting easier, it is unclear exactly why Trump is singling out these two right now.

Some speculate that it is because Michigan and Nevada are states likely to be contested in the 2020 election. In 2016, Trump barely won Michigan and he lost Nevada by less than 3 points. 

While Trump has said that voting by mail means Republicans would not get elected, a new study by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research found that there is no evidence that vote-by-mail benefits one party over another.

Trump has frequently opposed expanding mail-in voting, often by falsely claiming that the process is riddled with fraud and corruption, but numerous experts and studies say that cases of election fraud in the U.S. are rare.

In fact, a 2017 study by the Brennan Center for Justice said the rate of voter fraud in the U.S. was somewhere between 0.00004% to 0.0009% off all votes. An exhaustive analysis, it conducted of all known voter fraud cases only identified 491 cases of absentee ballot fraud from 2000 to 2012 — billions of votes were cast during that period.

As far as what “funds” Trump is threatening to withhold from Michigan and Nevada, that remains actually unclear. He is likely referring to “Election Security Grants” provided under the CARES Act, which are designed to help states deal with the coronavirus as it relates to the 2020 election cycle. 

Michigan received about $11.2 million in funds and plans to use some of that for the absentee ballot applications. Nevada received $4.5 million and wants to use that to transition to a system where registered voters automatically receive a ballot. 

In other words, both states are using the money for the purposes laid out by congress, which makes it easier to cast votes during the pandemic.

However, according to the New York Times, election officials said that money is already “out the door” on the way to states, and there is no way for Trump or his administration to stop them.

Accusations of Hypocrisy

While these attacks from Trump may seem of out of left field, it is not the first time in the last few weeks he has lashed out against states expanding mail-in voting.

About a week ago, he slammed California’s decision to send ballots to every voter for November, calling the move “scam.” 

But on the same day, he also told California voters to mail-in their ballots and vote for a congressional candidate he supported.

Some have also viewed his comments as hypocritical since Trump himself cast an absentee ballot by mail in Florida’s Republican primary this year and in the 2018 midterms.

When asked about this contradiction in his messaging, he said it was fine “because I’m allowed to” vote by mail while living outside the state of Florida. At the time, he also said, “I think if you vote, you should go.” 

Other prominent members of the Trump administration have also repeatedly voted absentee with mail-in ballots, according to Times, including Vice President Mike Pence.

Critics of Trump’s rhetoric have also pointed out that though instances are rare, one of the most serious and credible allegations of absentee ballot fraud in decades was actually designed to help a Republican. 

During the 2018 race for North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District, a Republican operative was charged with election fraud after rounding up absentee ballots for the Republican candidate, Mark Harris. 

State election officials refused to certify the results and held a redo election in 2019. However, experts also use this case as an example that fraud big enough to sway an election outcome will likely be detected.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NPR) (Politico)

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