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White House looks to religion to build faith in vaccines

The Right Rev. Mariann Budde, bishop of the

The Right Rev. Mariann Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, was among faith leaders who got their COVID-19 vaccine in public Tuesday at Washington National Cathedral. Credit: EPA / Michael Reynolds

Selling a miracle in a syringe

President Joe Biden said earlier this week that faith leaders could be among the most effective messengers for getting conservatives skeptical of the coronavirus vaccine to roll up their sleeves. The administration is leaning into that path.

A player in that effort, reports The Washington Post, is the National Institutes of Health director, Dr. Francis Collins, a devout Christian known to get up before 4 a.m. to make time for prayer and Bible study. Collins, who has led the NIH since 2009, is the author of "Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief."

Collins and Biden's chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, led a livestreamed event at Washington National Cathedral on Tuesday with 25 interfaith clergy who got vaccinated on camera.

"Many clergy are emphasizing that receiving the COVID-19 vaccination is a way of loving your neighbor, a common theological principle," wrote Melissa Rogers, executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, in an op-ed for Religion News Service.

"Congregational leaders have made their buildings available as vaccination sites, while also working the phones to sign people up for appointments and providing transportation for those who need it."

Rogers added: "Some Americans are far more comfortable getting their shot in a house of worship than in a doctor’s office. Seeing congregational leaders get vaccinated first can further relieve anxiety and be a powerful refutation of baseless conspiracy theories."

The New York Times reported that thousands of clergy members from a cross-section of faiths — imams, rabbis, priests, swamis — are weaving Scripture and science to employ their congregants' trust in them and try to coax the hesitant to get vaccinated.

Trump: 'I would recommend it'

Former President Donald Trump, who has been conspicuously quiet on the subject, urged his followers to get vaccinated during a phone-in interview Tuesday night on Fox News. He acknowledged that MAGA-land has been an epicenter of doubt on the COVID-19 vaccine.

"I would recommend it, and I would recommend it to a lot of people that don't want to get it — and a lot of those people voted for me, frankly," Trump said. He called it a "great vaccine" and a "safe vaccine" and "something that works." Alluding to the rationale offered by those who resisted stop-the-spread practices such as masking, Trump told host Maria Bartiromo: "We have our freedoms and we have to live by that and I agree with that also. But it's a great vaccine. It's a safe vaccine and it's something that works."

Trump's endorsement came as he repeated complaints that the Biden administration is taking too much credit for his accomplishments in the development, manufacture and initial distribution of vaccines.

Opinion has been divided within the Biden administration and among outside experts on just how influential Trump could be in persuading his fans to get inoculated, which would improve the outlook for herd immunity.

Biden wants filibuster changes

In an interview with ABC News, Biden on Tuesday said he supports restoring the Senate’s filibuster rule back to requiring senators who seek to use the delay tactic to talk continuously on the chamber's floor — the first time he has endorsed altering the procedure.

"Here's the choice," Biden said. "I don't think that you have to eliminate the filibuster, you have to do it, what it used to be when I first got to the Senate back in the old days," Biden said. "You had to stand up and command the floor, you had to keep talking." He added that under the current rule, "it's getting to the point where, you know, democracy is having a hard time functioning."

The comments could galvanize Democrats who argue that the legislative filibuster is stymying Biden's agenda in the narrowly divided Senate.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday warned Democrats against changing the legislative filibuster, promising "scorched-earth resistance" by Republicans. He said, "This chaos would not open up an express lane to liberal change … The Senate would be more like a hundred-car pileup. Nothing moving."

Border influx to hit 20-year high

Biden said in the ABC interview that his message to migrants is "Don't come over." The appeal came hours after Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the U.S. is expected to reach the highest number of people apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in two decades. Mayorkas called it "a difficult situation."

"We are expelling most single adults and families. We are not expelling unaccompanied children," Mayorkas said in a statement a day ahead of planned testimony before a House committee.

As of Sunday, Customs and Border Protection was encountering 565 unaccompanied children crossing the border on average per day, according to new data obtained by NBC News. That's up from an average of 313 children per day last month.

Republicans have accused the current administration of creating a "crisis" at the border by relaxing some of Trump's immigration policies. Biden said there were surges in 2019 and 2020 too. When interviewer George Stephanopoulos noted, "This one might be worse," Biden acknowledged, "Well, it could be."

Biden was asked in a brief exchange with reporters Tuesday about when he planned to visit the southern border. "Not at the moment," he replied.

Is that wall there is?

Fragments of Trump's unfinished border wall dot remote areas of the U.S.-Mexican border, serving more as eyesore than obstacle.

In the Huachuca Mountains of Arizona stands a quarter-mile segment connected to nothing at all, simple to pass on its left or right, in an area where migrants rarely try to cross, The New York Times reports. "There it was, this unfinished piece of completely pointless wall, right in this magical place," said Julia Sheehan, 31, a nurse and former Air Force mechanic who trekked to the site. "It’s one of the most senseless things I’ve ever seen."

When Biden took office on Jan. 20, he suspended construction and announced 60-day period during which officials would determine whether to "resume, modify, or terminate" construction. Critics of the wall are urging the president to tear down parts of it, and Republican leaders call on him to finish it. Under Trump, only a few miles of new wall were built in South Texas, the area with the most illegal cross-border traffic. Much of the new construction was in remote, lightly crossed parts of remote Arizona.

A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said "border barriers slow and stop illegal activity" and contended that locations where it wants new barriers are "areas of high illegal entry."

Biden unwraps package

Biden went to a minority-owned flooring business in suburban Philadelphia on Tuesday to highlight how his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief and stimulus package can help small businesses.

It "took some loud, strong voices to get this done," Biden said, making a subtle dig at Republicans during his visit. "And it’s not like it passed with 100 votes. It was close."

The three major Democratic campaign committees — the Democratic National Committee and the party's House and Senate campaign arms — are running ads promoting the American Rescue Plan, Axios reports. The Republican National Committee is planning an aggressive rebuttal campaign to portray the relief spending as a boondoggle to fund progressive "pet projects."

Putin's heavy meddle encore

Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized influence operations using Trump allies during the 2020 campaign to smear Biden while a smaller Iranian effort tried to undermine confidence in the vote and harm Trump’s reelection prospects, according to an unclassified report issued Tuesday from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

But intelligence officials found "no indications that any foreign actor" interfered with the voting and counting process — debunking postelection claims from Trump and his camp. The unclassified report also dismissed the Trump administration's allegations of Chinese meddling.

Intelligence officials did not single out any Trump ally in Russia's effort — a reprise of Moscow's 2016 effort — but longtime associate Rudy Giuliani met repeatedly with Ukrainian lawmaker Andrii Derkach, who tried to link Biden to unsubstantiated corruption allegations. U.S. officials have said they regard Derkach as an active Russian agent, and Tuesday’s report said Putin is believed to have "purview" over his activities.

The report also saw Iran behind an operation that involved a flurry of emails to Democratic-registered voters in battleground states that falsely purported to be from the far-right group Proud Boys. The emails threatened the recipients with harm if they didn’t vote for Trump; it was an apparent attempt at reverse psychology.

Click here to read the DNI report.

More coronavirus news

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

What else is happening:

  • Biden said in the ABC News interview that New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo must resign if the sexual misconduct allegations against him are substantiated by the state attorney general's investigation. And if that happens, said Biden, "I think he’ll probably end up being prosecuted, too."
  • Biden will hold his first formal news conference as president on Thursday afternoon, March 25, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday.
  • Biden’s national security team is meeting its Chinese counterparts at a high-stakes summit in Alaska on Thursday, and one of the most urgent issues they must tackle is Beijing’s growing threat to Taiwan, Politico reports. Top U.S. military officials are warning with increasing urgency that Beijing could in the next few years invade Taiwan, which it claims as part of China.
  • The Senate confirmed Isabel Guzman by 81-17 to head the Small Business Administration on Tuesday. Guzman was director of California’s Office of the Small Business Advocate and served in the SBA during former President Barack Obama's second term.
  • Deepening partisan disagreement is stalling congressional efforts to form a commission to investigate the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, writes The Washington Post.
  • Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida has become a choice destination for Republicans looking to raise money even for elections in other states, ABC News reports. Former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, running for governor of Arkansas, held a fundraiser there over the weekend with Trump making a "surprise appearance," according to her tweet.

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