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Biden plans bigger role for Fauci in war on COVID

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious diseases

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious diseases official, at the White House coronavirus briefing on Nov. 19. Credit: The Washington Post / Jabin Botsford

A wingman named Tony

Dr. Anthony Fauci will still be on the scene when Donald Trump leaves the White House and Joe Biden arrives, and his job will be getting bigger.

"I asked him to stay on the exact same role he's had for the past several presidents. And I asked him to be a chief medical adviser for me as well and be part of the COVID team," Biden said of Fauci in a CNN interview Thursday during which the president-elect discussed his plans to fight the pandemic. Biden also asked Fauci, who turns 80 on Christmas Eve, to remain as head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

After months of mutual frustration between Fauci and Trump, who repeatedly bucked experts' advice, there will be a president in sync with the veteran public-health professional. Biden and Fauci spoke Thursday afternoon. Biden also said he will implore Americans to wear face masks for his first 100 days after he takes office in January. He told CNN's Jake Tapper he'll mandate masks where the administration has the authority, like in federal buildings and or in interstate transportation. "Just 100 days to mask, not forever. 100 days. And I think we'll see a significant reduction," Biden said.

It hasn't been entirely smooth sailing for Biden in getting his health care team in place as he prepares to tackle the nation's worst public health crisis in more than a century. Two Democratic governors seen as candidates for Health and Human Services secretary have faded from the shortlist. Rhode Island’s Gina Raimondo told reporters Thursday that she would not be the nominee and is staying in her current job to help her state confront the surge in COVID-19 cases. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham was offered another Cabinet post — interior secretary — and turned it down. Biden is expected to announce his choice for HHS secretary next week, The Associated Press reported.

Politico reported that Obama-era Surgeon General Vivek Murthy will return to that role, with a broader portfolio that will include acting as the top medical expert and public face of the coronavirus effort. Murthy is now co-chair of Biden’s coronavirus task force during the transition.

Jeff Zients, a co-chair of the overall transition and an Obama administration official, is expected to be tapped as the White House’s COVID-19 coordinator. Zients was brought in to fix the Obamacare website after its rocky launch, allowing the program to meet its sign-up target for 2014, the first year of coverage. Biden also is said to be close to nominating a Food and Drug Administration commissioner and a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director.

Health care will be a defining issue of Biden’s presidency even after expected vaccines defuse the threat of COVID-19, former HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt predicted to the AP. Addressing Medicare’s shaky finances will be an urgent priority before the end of the first term. The Congressional Budget Office projects that Medicare’s giant trust fund for inpatient care will be unable to cover expected costs in 2024.

Janison: A recount every day on COVID toll

On Thursday, the new count came in. The U.S. on Wednesday recorded more than 3,100 coronavirus deaths in a 24-hour period, breaking last spring's daily record. And what did Trump have to say? More false statements about alleged election fraud.

Trump's mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic may well be the key reason he's a one-termer, writes Newsday's Dan Janison. The 45th president's White House ditched pandemic preparations. He refused to level with the public about the virus's severity and risks. He spitballed dubious cures at news conferences. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, assigned to create supply chains, failed. Trump actively discouraged mask use and social distancing, dismissed experts, undermined state public-health measures, publicized quacks and issued repeated self-promotional predictions that the virus would all soon disappear.

Now, with 100,000 Americans hospitalized and new cases exceeding 200,000 a day, Trump is regressing to when he encouraged supporters to believe the threat wasn't real. He retweeted a photo of a medical care site in Reno, Nevada, that was misrepresented by cranks on social media to call the pandemic a fake. Trump's comment: "Fake election results in Nevada, also!" In case there was any doubt about where his head is.

On Barr-owed time?

Trump demanded Thursday that William Barr come back soon with evidence of massive election fraud after the attorney general told The Associated Press on Tuesday that to date, he hadn't seen any on a scale that could alter the election outcome.

"He hasn't done anything. He hasn't looked" for voter fraud, Trump complained in a brief exchange with White House reporters, though Barr said his department has been looking.

Asked if he still had confidence in Barr, Trump said, "Ask me that in a number of weeks from now." The president, who churns out multiple baseless and debunked claims daily, asserted, "This is very bad, criminal stuff."

The Associated Press reports a White House liaison at the Justice Department, Heidi Stirrup, was banned from the building within the last two weeks after she tried to pressure DOJ staffers to give up insider information about ongoing cases and the department’s work on election fraud. Stirrup is a close ally of White House adviser Stephen Miller.

Trump's legal eagles for the birds?

Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana is not going to stick his neck out as far as his Bayou State GOP colleague, Sen. Bill Cassidy, who has flatly said "Joe Biden won." But while Kennedy defends Trump's "right to go to court and challenge the results," he's not vouching for the competence of the president's legal representation.

"Mayor [Rudy] Giuliani would not be my first choice to lead this fight," Kennedy told Fox News on Thursday. "I’m not saying he’s not a good lawyer — he obviously is — but this is an area of the law that’s very esoteric, election law." Giuliani's I-see-fraud-everywhere tour of swing states won by Biden has generated comedy fodder but no Trump wins. Giuliani's partner on the fly-around, Jenna Ellis, has thin credentials — especially on her claim to be a "constitutional law attorney" — according to a New York Times profile, but playing one on Fox News got her noticed by Trump.

Parallel efforts to help Trump by far-right, QAnon-fluent lawyers Sidney Powell and Lin Wood have featured repeated slips on legal banana peels. Just for starters, according to an account by Politico, they listed people as plaintiffs without their permission, brought forward an expert witness to allege shenanigans in a nonexistent Michigan county, cited irregularities in a Wisconsin suit at a counting center that was actually in Detroit and committed constant basic errors over procedures and even spelling.

Well-known law firms ran away from the fight in the first weeks after the election in discomfort over the gap between the fraud claims and the evidence.

In Georgia, a MAGA vs. MAGA civil war

Republicans — Trump included — are growing increasingly alarmed at Wood and Powell for telling pro-Trump Georgians to skip the Jan. 5 Senate runoff elections, claiming the voting system can't be trusted. If the Republican incumbents lose, the Democrats will control the Senate.

The Daily Beast reported that the president called both lawyers, who aren't on his legal team, to tell them he wanted Republican voters to show up for Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, even as Trump echoes the same conspiracy theories about election fraud, including baseless accusations against Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. But Wood was still at it after Trump told him to "knock it off," Politico reported, telling a rally: "Why would you go back and vote in another rigged election?"

Now the go-vote camp is circulating theories about Wood. "Grift Wood: ‘MAGA’ Poseur Goes for Sabotage in Georgia," screamed a headline on the right-wing Breitbart news site. A Breitbart story spotlighted Wood's past contributions to Democrats, suggested he was doing their dirty work and hurting the GOP.

The squirrelier Gateway Pundit website stood with Wood. Its headline said, "Breitbart Wages War Against Attorney Lin Wood — Who Is Defending President Trump Against Evil Marxist Horde."

Lining up against Wood and Powell is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who represented a Georgia district. "It’s one of the nuttier things I’ve seen in a long time in politics," said Gingrich, who has echoed a full range of Trump's election-theft claims, no matter how strange. He tweeted Thursday: "Lin Wood and Sidney Powell are totally destructive. Every Georgia conservative who cares about America MUST vote in the runoff."

Hope grows for COVID relief bill

Optimism about delivering long-sought COVID-19 relief is building on Capitol Hill after additional rank-and-file lawmakers voiced support for a bipartisan, middle-of-the-road plan taking shape in the Senate and as top congressional leaders connected on the topic for the first time in months.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke by phone Thursday, a day after Pelosi signaled a willingness for major concessions to arrive at a coronavirus stimulus package in the $1 trillion range. "We had a good conversation. I think we’re both interested in getting an outcome," McConnell said.

The path forward is cluttered with obstacles, however, including a tight window and hard feelings from months of futile talks and a poisonous election, The Associated Press reported. But the $908 billion cost is what many Republicans signaled they were willing to accept this summer in the next round of stimulus.

More coronavirus news

See a roundup of the latest regional pandemic developments from Long Island and beyond by Newsday's reporting staff, written by Bart Jones. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • Three former presidents — Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — say they’d be willing to take a COVID-19 vaccine publicly, once one becomes available, to encourage all Americans to get inoculated against the disease. Obama, the youngest of the three, likely would have to go later.
  • Biden said in the CNN interview that Trump should attend his inauguration. "The protocol of the transfer of power, I think is important. But It is totally his decision, but it is of no personal consequence to me, but I think it is to the country," he said.
  • Rep. Gregory Meeks, whose district covers parts of Queens and Nassau County, was chosen Thursday by House Democrats to become the first Black chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, reports Newsday's Tom Brune. He'll succeed Rep. Eliot Engel, who lost the primary in his Bronx-Westchester district.
  • Donald Trump Jr. is considering seeking a leadership position with the National Rifle Association as a way to keep up his political profile, according to Business Insider.
  • Tenants at Trump apartment buildings in Brooklyn have sued the family business, alleging it fraudulently raised rents through an invoice-padding scheme. If the plaintiffs’ lawyers win approval of class-action status, any potential judgment would encompass every paying tenant in more than 14,000 rent-regulated apartments since 1992, The New York Times reported.
  • Final Long Island vote tallies show Trump beat Biden in Suffolk County by just 232 votes, while Biden won in Nassau by 69,788 votes, reports Newsday's Michael Gormley. In 2016, Trump won Suffolk by 49,849 votes, while Democrat Hillary Clinton won Nassau by 30,858 votes. "Long Island is reflective of what happened in suburbs around the country — a significant shift away from Trump, compared to 2016," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies.

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