Top Republicans took the president’s words as a signal not to approve any more funds for COVID relief.
The Pandemic’s End
“The pandemic is over,” declared President Joe Biden in a “60 Minutes” interview aired Sunday night.
“We still have a problem with COVID,” he said. “We’re still doing a lot of work on it. But the pandemic is over.”
“If you notice, no one is wearing masks. Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape, and so I think it’s changing, and I think this is a perfect example of it,” he added, gesturing around at last week’s Detroit Auto Show, where the interview took place.
The president’s remarks turned many heads among public health experts, who have pointed out that 400 to 500 Americans continue to die from COVID-19 every day.
“We’ve had two million cases reported over the last 28 days, and we know underreporting is substantial,” Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota, told The New York Times.
“COVID-19 continues to be the number four cause of death in the country,” he added.
Others argued that the U.S. president does not have the authority to declare a pandemic over. Only the World Health Organization, which first declared the coronavirus a global pandemic in early 2020, holds that power.
“We are not there yet,” WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last week. “But the end is in sight.”
To Care or Not to Care: That is the White House’s Question
Biden’s relatively relaxed attitude toward the virus on “60 Minutes” contradicted his administration’s official policy, which aids have been quick to clarify remains the same. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the government’s declaration of a COVID-19 public health emergency, which enables it to waive or modify requirements for health-related programs like Medicare and Medicaid, remains in effect. That designation, however, will be up for renewal on October 13.
The White House has also been pushing Congress to allocate another $22 billion toward fighting the pandemic, but top Republicans said Monday that Biden’s comment declaring the pandemic over essentially shuts the door on further aid.
“If it’s over, then I wouldn’t suspect they need any more money,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tx.) in response Monday.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the ranking Republican member on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, added, “I don’t think they were going to get any Covid money through anyway.”
The Biden administration continues to encourage Americans to get the newly authorized “bivalent” COVID-19 booster shot, which provides protection against both the original strain and the omicron subvariants.
The booster shot could prevent as many as 10,000 deaths and 137,000 hospitalizations in the coming months, according to one estimate by Matthew Daley, a physician at Kaiser Permanente Colorado.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everybody over the age of 12, and those who are older, pregnant, immunocompromised, or have a chronic illness, in particular, get the booster as soon as possible. But while most Americans have been vaccinated at least once, less than half have gotten their first booster shot, according to CDC data.
New York Mayor Eric Adams announced Tuesday that vaccine mandates for private employers will end in November, though public employees will still be required to have a vaccine. The day prior, Starbucks also lifted some COVID policies, announcing that its workers will no longer get two weeks of sick pay for coronavirus infections starting on October 2.
In its statement, the company described the pandemic as entering the “endemic” phase.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (CNN) (The Washington Post)
Ron DeSantis Faces Lawsuit, Investigation for “Human Trafficking” of Migrants
A woman only known as “Pearla” allegedly lured the desperate migrants onto planes with monetary incentives and false promises.
A Political Stunt Blows Up in the Governor’s Face
After unexpectedly flying some 50 mostly Venezuelan migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is staring down a class action lawsuit, a local investigation, and a potential probe from the Justice Department.
On Tuesday, Lawyers for Civil Rights, in conjunction with the nonprofit Alianza Americas filed a federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of the migrants. The filing names DeSantis, the state of Florida, Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Jared Perdue, and their accomplices as defendants.
It alleges they fraudulently induced the migrants to cross state lines to Martha’s Vineyard, where shelter and resources were not prepared.
According to several accounts, the migrants were falsely promised work, free rent, and immigration assistance in exchange for taking the trip.
The migrants are seeking unspecified damages on top of the cost of their legal fees for emotional and economic harm.
On Monday, Texas Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar announced that he was opening an investigation into the migrant flights and DeSantis’s role in the scheme, which he called an “abuse of human rights.”
“They feel that they were deceived in being taken from Bexar County — from San Antonio, Texas — to where they eventually ended up,” he told CNN on Tuesday. “That could be a crime here in Texas and we will handle it as such.”
Salazar also said in a statement that his office was working with private attorneys representing the victims and advocacy organizations and that he was prepared to work with “any federal agency with concurrent jurisdiction, should the need arise.”
Since making the announcement, the sheriff’s office has been bombarded by threats via phone and email, according to a statement by a spokesperson.
Dylan Fernandes, a Massachusetts state lawmaker representing Martha’s Vineyard, called on the DoJ to launch a human trafficking probe into DeSantis Sunday.
He wrote on Twitter about the “inhumane acts,” saying, “Not only is it morally criminal, there are legal implications around fraud, kidnapping, deprivation of liberty, and human trafficking.”
A Mysterious Woman Named Pearla
Several migrants have told reporters, and claimed in the class action lawsuit, that they were lured onto the planes by a tall, blonde woman calling herself Pearla.
She reportedly approached them outside the San Antonio shelter, on the street, and in a McDonald’s parking lot, talking to them in broken Spanish.
Eduardo Linares, a migrant who said he rejected Pearla’s offer, told The Boston Globe that she promised them a free trip to Massachusetts and guaranteed work.
Another migrant named Alejandro told the outlet she offered him three months of free rent, job placement, and help with his immigration case.
The San Antonio Report interviewed a migrant named Emmanuel who said Pearla paid him $200 to recruit other migrants for the flights.
Tuesday’s lawsuit filing elaborates on their claims, saying that they were enticed with $10 McDonald’s gift cards to fly to Boston or Washington.
It alleges that the migrants were rounded up in hotel rooms while the scheme’s organizers gathered enough people to fill two planes, with them sequestered so they could not discuss the plan with anyone else.
“Once the individual Plaintiffs and class members landed, it became clear that the promises made to induce them on the planes were in fact bold-faced lies,” the filing says.
DeSantis defended himself on Fox News Monday night, saying, “They all signed consent forms to go and then the vendor that is doing this for Florida provided them with a packet that had a map of Martha’s Vineyard, it has the number for different services that are on Martha’s Vineyard.”
The brochures given to the migrants, however, listed services for refugees, not asylum seekers, and some migrants have said they weren’t aware of this fact. If the migrants were misled, the participants in the scheme could be criminally liable.
Who Pearla is and who employs her is still unknown, but DeSantis has publically taken credit for chartering the flights.
The League of United Latin American Citizens is offering $5,000 for information leading to the identification, arrest, and conviction of Pearla.
Two days after arriving in Martha’s Vineyard, the migrants voluntarily took shelter in a Cape Cod military base, which is designed for such emergency purposes.
See what others are saying: (NPR) (Vice) (The Boston Globe)
Trump Plays QAnon Music During Conspiracy-Ridden Speech in Ohio
In recent weeks, the former president has made explicit gestures to QAnon on Truth Social.
The One-Finger Salute Becomes Trump’s Latest Rallying Symbol
In one of his clearest endorsements of the conspiracy theory yet, former president Donald Trump played a QAnon theme song during a rally in Youngstown, Ohio on Saturday.
Trump was there to support Senate candidate JD Vance ahead of November’s midterm elections. As the night’s rally came to a close, the former president delivered an eight-minute monologue while dramatic string music provided ambiance.
Experts identified the song as “WWG1WGA,” an acronym for the QAnon slogan “Where we go one, we go all.”
But Trump aids who spoke to The New York Times claimed it was in fact a song called “Mirrors” by film and TV composer Will Van De Crommer.
“The fake news, in a pathetic attempt to create controversy and divide America, is brewing up another conspiracy about a royalty-free song from a popular audio library platform,” Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich, told the outlet.
When Trump posted a video to Truth Social containing the same music last month, however, music professor David Dominique told Vice the two songs were indistinguishable.
“I have listened to both [‘Mirrors’ and ‘WWG1WGA’] closely several times now,” he said. “And I have 100% professional confidence these recordings are identical, not even a reinterpretation of a composition, but the same recording.”
Media Matters also analyzed the songs using the software Audacity and found their audio profiles to be “virtually identical.”
When the song played on Saturday, dozens of people in the audience saluted with one finger extended in the air, a gesture Trump aids told The Times they have never seen at one of the former president’s rallies before.
The Daily Beast’s Will Sommer, who has a book about QAnon coming out next year, called the salute “curious” in a Twitter thread.
“Some on Twitter are calling it a QAnon salute, with 1 finger for ‘Where we go 1,’ and Trump is playing a pro-Q song as he talks,” he wrote. “I’ve never seen this happen before, though, so if it’s a Q thing it’s new.”
He added the caveat: “The one finger thing might also be for ‘America First.’ The white nationalist groypers, for example, do a one finger salute for that reason.”
Trump Warms to QAnon
QAnon is a conspiracy theory encompassing a wide range of beliefs, but the most common iteration posits that Trump is locked in a secret struggle against a global cabal of Democratic elites and satan-worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles.
The Trump administration generally kept its distance from the movement throughout most of his term, then the former president began to signal his sympathy for it as the 2020 election drew closer.
He congratulated Marjorie Taylor Greene, a prominent politician who has expressed belief in QAnon, for winning Georgia’s GOP primary.
When asked about QAnon a few days later, Trump told the press corps, “I don’t know much about the movement other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate.”
One reporter followed up by asking him specifically about the idea that he was serving as a warrior against a satanic cabal of pedophiles and cannibals, to which Trump replied, “If I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it.”
Late last month, the former president created and shared a flurry of posts on Truth Social that were explicitly related to QAnon.
In one, he reposted the slogan “Where We Go One We Go All,” and in another, he reposted a 2017 message from “Q,” the anonymous persona at the center of the conspiracy theory, criticizing the intelligence community. The string of posts came one day after he demanded to be reinstated as president, and just weeks after the FBI executed a search warrant on his Mar-a-Lago estate.
Last week, Trump posted a meme of himself wearing a Q lapel pin with the words “The storm is coming” superimposed over it. In QAnon lore, “the storm” refers to the imminent return of Trump to the White House and subsequent mass arrest of the deep-state cabal.
In May 2021, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) conducted a survey of Americans’ belief in specific QAnon-related conspiracies.
Around 15% of respondents, equivalent to nearly 50 million people if extrapolated to the general population, agreed with the statement: “The government, media and financial world in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.”
See what others are saying: (Rolling Stone) (The Washington Post) (PBS)
Congress Returns From Recess With Full Plate Ahead of Midterms
Top agenda items include hashing out a government funding bill, election and government reforms, and the resumption of public hearings for the committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection.
After a month-long summer recess, Congress is officially back in session.
At the top of the lengthy to-do list for members in both chambers is to reach a deal on a bill to fund the government by the end of this month to avert a shutdown. An agreement, however, appears fraught due to a separate bargain Democratic leaders struck with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) in exchange for his support of the Inflation Reduction Act.
In order to earn Manchin’s tie-breaking vote, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) promised that he would allow certain energy legislation in this year’s spending bill. The legislation, however, runs counter to Democrat’s climate goals.
Among other measures, Manchin’s asks included provisions that would allow new oil and gas leasing, complete a natural gas pipeline in his home state of West Virginia, and make it easier for developers to skirt some environmental protections.
As a result, many progressive members have said they oppose the agreement struck by Manchin and Schumer, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who could prevent Senate Democrats from getting a majority to pass the funding bill if no Republicans sign on.
Even if funding legislation does pass the Senate, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva said on Friday that more than 70 House Democrats have signed a letter voicing their opposition to a permitting push being attached to any stopgap funding bill.
Also in the Senate, members have said they are beginning to move on a key bill that would protect marriage equality. The legislation, known as the Respect for Marriage Act, would codify the right to same-sex and interracial marriages at the federal level. It was passed by the House earlier this year with broad bipartisan support, gaining backing from a total of 47 Republicans.
Supporters argue that the bill is necessary because Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said in his decision to overturn Roe v. Wade that he also thinks the high court should also reconsider the rulings on contraception and same-sex marriage.
Opponents, however, argue that such protections are redundant, including many Senate Republicans, who have undermined optimism that this bill could pass. Notably, there are several Republicans who have voiced support for the proposal, which is also being sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Me.), but it is unclear if she can get nine more of her colleagues to join all Democrats and break the 60-vote filibuster.
Also in the Senate, members are working to eke out a number of additional legislation victories ahead of the midterms, including legislation to safeguard elections and voting processes — a measure that the House would likely not pass if Republicans take control of the chamber this fall, as is widely expected.
Meanwhile, over in the House, all eyes are on the select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection.
The panel, which held numerous high-profile public hearings before the August recess, has its own big to-do list in the 16 weeks before it is dissolved.
According to Politico, the panel is “still deciding when to release a comprehensive final report, as well as hundreds of witness transcripts that could provide extensive new details about Trump’s behavior surrounding the Capitol attack.”
“The panel is expected to soon announce additional public hearings, finalize efforts to obtain the testimony of two crucial Secret Service witnesses and issue legislative recommendations designed to prevent future attempted disruptions to the transfer of power,” the outlet continued.
Also in the House, a bipartisan group is pushing for a bill that would ban lawmakers from trading stocks — a movement that has been gaining a lot of momentum in Congress.
In a letter earlier this month, the group outlined a framework for the bill, which would prohibit all members of Congress, their spouses, and minor dependents from “owning or trading securities, commodities, futures, derivatives, options, or other similar financial assets, including where such investments are traded through an investment vehicle that the covered person controls.”
Beyond that, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) also said Democrats in the chamber will take up a trio of government reform bills aimed to “prevent the kind of abuses of office and lack of transparency that were rampant under the previous administration and protect the nonpartisan, merit-based nature of our federal civil service.”