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COVID vaccine breakthrough welcomed with cheers, boasts, sour grapes

President-elect Joe Biden in a virtual briefing with

President-elect Joe Biden in a virtual briefing with his coronavirus advisory council Monday at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del. Credit: AFP via Getty Images / Angela Weiss

Shot in the arm

President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden found something to agree on Monday: Pfizer's announcement that shows its coronavirus vaccine candidate has been found more than 90% effective in a Phase 3 clinical trial, according to interim data, is a welcome development.

"STOCK MARKET UP BIG, VACCINE COMING SOON. REPORT 90% EFFECTIVE. SUCH GREAT NEWS!" tweeted Trump. Biden said in a statement: "I congratulate the brilliant women and men who helped produce this breakthrough and to give us such cause for hope." But Biden, while hailing the "excellent news," also cautioned, as did Pfizer, that more remains to be done.

"Even if a vaccine is approved by late November, allowing some Americans to be vaccinated as soon as later this year, it will be many more months before there is widespread vaccination in this country," Biden said. Later in the day, the president-elect named the members of his team of public health and science experts. He also implored Americans in a speech to wear a face mask, saying that doing so "is not a political statement" but the best way to save lives in the meantime.

Postelection pandemic politics remain. Vice President Mike Pence tweeted that credit for Pfizer's vaccine is owed to "the public-private partnership forged by President @realDonaldTrump."

Not exactly, said Pfizer, pointing out that unlike other pharmaceutical companies, it did not accept federal funding to help develop or manufacture the vaccine to "keep Pfizer out of politics," according to the CEO, Dr. Albert Bourla. The company does have a $1.95 billion deal with the federal government's Operation Warp Speed to rush the manufacture and distribution of 100 million doses of the vaccine, if it's approved.

The president had hoped to announce a vaccine breakthrough before the election, and Donald Trump Jr. saw Pfizer's announcement as evidence of a conspiracy against his father. "The timing of this is pretty amazing. Nothing nefarious about the timing of this at all right?" said one sarcastic tweet from Trump's eldest son. "They all knew it but kept it from the public on purpose. Big Pharma hates Trump," said another tweet. Bourla told CNBC: "We were not working with the election as a timeline." Dr. William Gruber, Pfizer's senior vice president for vaccine clinical research and development, told Bloomberg News that an independent data-monitoring committee reviewed the results for the first time on Sunday.

For a more cheerful reaction than Donald Jr.'s, look to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious diseases expert, who called the vaccine candidate's 90% effectiveness rate "just extraordinary" and said at a briefing that it would "have a major impact on everything that we do with regard to COVID." Separately, Fauci told CNN that as a career official, he had "no intention of leaving" his job under Biden. "It's an important job, and my goal is to serve the American public, no matter what the administration is," Fauci said.

Whistling in the light

The coronavirus advisory council that Biden introduced Monday for his transition includes Dr. Rick Bright, a whistleblower who resigned from the Trump administration amid allegations that his early warnings about the pandemic and U.S. shortages of vital equipment were ignored.

Before he quit, Bright was shoved aside as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority after he voiced concerns over Trump's dubious promotion of hydroxychloroquine as an unproved coronavirus treatment. On Monday, a National Institutes of Health clinical trial formally concluded that hydroxychloroquine provides no clinical benefit to hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

Trump's COVID ward

At least two more attendees at Trump's White House election night party have become infected with the coronavirus: Housing Secretary Ben Carson and David Bossie, who has been leading Trump's effort to contest the election result.

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, another attendee, also tested positive in the days since the party. Bloomberg News reported that "at least five other White House officials" have come down with the virus in recent days.

Barr: I'll look at fraud claims

With Trump campaign operatives fanned out in battleground states to try to back up the president's claims of mass fraud, Attorney General William Barr authorized federal prosecutors across the U.S. to pursue "substantial allegations" of voting irregularities, if they exist, before the 2020 presidential election is certified.

Barr does not identify any specific instances of purported fraud in the memo. While the attorney general has done plenty of Trump's bidding at the Justice Department, Barr also has disappointed him lately in not prosecuting his enemies, and it's unclear whether he would set the bar as low as Trump's team in amplifying wobbly claims of wrongdoing.

Barr seemed to defer to his subordinates, The Washington Post reported, saying in the memo: "I trust you to exercise great care and judgment in addressing allegations of voting and vote tabulation irregularities. While serious allegations should be handled with great care, specious, speculative, fanciful or far-fetched claims should not be a basis for initiating federal inquiries."

But the career Justice Department official who oversaw voter fraud investigations quit his post after receiving Barr's memo, citing "the new policy and its ramifications," a signal of discomfort with the move.

Biden campaign attorney Bob Bauer said in a statement that it is "deeply unfortunate that Attorney General Barr chose to issue a memorandum that will only fuel the ‘specious, speculative, fanciful or far-fetched claims’ he professes to guard against."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday that Trump is "100% within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities and weigh his legal options." He did not say whether he agreed with the accusations. Four of the Senate's 53 Republicans — Susan Collins of Maine, Mitt Romney of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Ben Sasse of Nebraska — have recognized and congratulated Biden as the winner of the election.

Civil war among Georgia GOP

Georgia's two Republican U.S. senators, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, called on the state’s Republican secretary of state to resign on Monday, charging him with "failures" in overseeing the state's election process but providing no specific evidence to support their claims.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger responded in a statement: "Let me start by saying that is not going to happen. The voters of Georgia hired me, and the voters will be the one to fire me."

With nearly all of the ballots counted, Biden led Trump in Georgia by about 11,400 votes as of Monday night. Raffensperger said the process for reporting results in the state was orderly and lawful, and that while he was "sure" there were some illegal votes cast, it was "unlikely" there were enough "to change the outcome." Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, also a Republican, said his office has "not seen any sort of credible examples" of systemic fraud or voter disenfranchisement.

Both Loeffler and Perdue need to keep enthusiasm up among Trump voters as both face runoffs against their Democratic opponents on Jan. 5. The outcome of the two races will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate. Raffensberger tweaked them by commenting that as a Republican, "I recommend that Senators Loeffler and Perdue start focusing on that."

Esper: After me, 'God help us'

Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Monday, an unprecedented move by a president struggling to accept election defeat and angry at a Pentagon leader he believes wasn’t loyal enough, The Associated Press writes.

Trump tweeted that he had "terminated" Esper, who crossed the president by publicly resisting his calls to deploy active-duty military forces during civil unrest in June and supporting plans to remove Confederate symbols at military bases. The firing could unsettle international allies and Pentagon leadership.

Trump said that "effective immediately," Christopher Miller, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, will serve as acting secretary, sidestepping the department’s No. 2-ranking official, Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist.

In an interview given last week to the Military Times that was not published until after his firing, Esper said the derisive nickname he received from critics — "Yesper," as in "yes man" — was undeserved. He suggested he "pushed back more than anybody" in the Cabinet, but "I can only control what I do."

Esper, who succeeded retired Gen. James Mattis, said he was worried about what comes next. "Who’s going to come in behind me? It’s going to be a real ‘yes man.’ And then God help us," Esper said.

Where do you think you're going?

CNN reported — and Axios and The New York Times said they confirmed — that John McEntee, director of the White House Presidential Personnel Office, is spreading the word throughout the administration that if he hears of anyone looking for another job, they will be fired.

Meanwhile, at the Trump 2020 offices in Arlington, Virginia, campaign manager Bill Stepien's assistant shouted at a staffer for printing resumes in the office.

More coronavirus news

See a roundup of the latest regional pandemic developments from Long Island and beyond by Newsday's Robert Brodsky, Bart Jones and David Reich-Hale. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • The first person Rudy Giuliani introduced during Saturday's Philadelphia news conference as a "witness" to alleged Democratic vote tampering turned out to be an ex-con sex offender, Politico reported. Daryl Brooks went to prison in the 1990s on his conviction for exposing himself to two girls, aged 7 and 11, according to news accounts. Giuliani's response? He told the Daily News that he has "so many other" witnesses.
  • Fox News cut away from White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s remarks at a news conference Monday because she claimed without evidence that Democrats were inviting fraud and illegal voting. But Trump appears to be succeeding in undermining his supporters' confidence in the vote counts. A Politico/Morning Consult poll found that 70% of Republicans now say they don’t believe the election was free and fair, a doubling of the 35% who held similar beliefs before the election.
  • MSNBC is dropping historian Jon Meacham as a paid contributor after he commented on Biden's victory speech Saturday without having disclosed that he helped write it, The New York Times reported.
  • Ted Cruz has been among the most zealous GOP senators in pressing Trump's fraud claims. The Texan's detractors recalled a Trump tweet from 2016 after Cruz won the Iowa caucus in in the GOP presidential primary. "Based on the fraud committed by Senator Ted Cruz during the Iowa Caucus, either a new election should take place or Cruz results nullified," Trump tweeted on Feb. 3, 2016.
  • Prank callers have been jamming the Trump campaign's hotlines inviting the public to pass along allegations of fraud. The campaign put out new phone numbers. Those got jammed too.
  • Pence is heading off Tuesday for a five-day vacation on Florida's Gulf Coast resort island of Sanibel.
  • Former Vice President Dan Quayle — the only surviving member of the last incumbent presidential ticket to be defeated for reelection — said on Monday that it was time for Trump to accept the election results and concede. "It’s time to move on," Quayle told The New York Times.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman says the Kremlin will wait for an "official announcement" before commenting on the U.S. election or congratulating Biden.

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