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Trump threatens swing states on plans for mail-in voting amid pandemic

President Donald Trump at a White House meeting

President Donald Trump at a White House meeting Wednesday, with a display showing how much protective equipment was sent to Arkansas and Kansas. Credit: Pool / Getty Images / Doug Mills

His new Ukraine?

President Donald Trump routinely threatens to cut federal aid for anyone he wants to pressure, including sanctuary cities, Ukraine and the World Health Organization. Usually this gets zero results. But Trump is trying the squeeze play anyway, against Michigan and Nevada, where polls show Joe Biden in the lead, and where officials are preparing for a surge of mail-in ballots due to coronavirus.

The president's Twitter offensive Wednesday against the bipartisan practices of two swing states, both struck hard by the pandemic, included false statements, such as Michigan illegally mailing ballots to residents. In fact, Michigan's secretary of state sent out only the applications for mail ballots. Trump tweeted nonetheless: "I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!"

Earlier, he griped: "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..." He vaguely threatened funds there, too. But Nevada's mail-vote plan has been upheld in federal court.

For her part, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson defended the practices, which she said also are followed by "my GOP colleagues in Iowa, Georgia, Nebraska and West Virginia." Oklahoma's absentee-ballot rules are being litigated. Most states are either reeling from deficits or facing serious budget problems due to the pandemic.

Trump targeted for insults Michigan's Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, after she was mentioned as a possible running mate for Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. She's also been attacked in small but widely publicized demonstrations, encouraged by Trump, to protest public health measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the state. In addition, Trump is due to be in the state Thursday to visit a Ford Motor Co. factory but hasn't committed to wearing a mask, as company and state officials requested.

By deriding mail-in ballots, which are popular among seniors, Trump invites new allegations of a GOP engagement in voter suppression. In December, it emerged that Justin Clark, one of his campaign advisers, told an audience in Wisconsin weeks earlier that Republicans "traditionally" relied on voter suppression in swing states. That state's GOP last year moved to purge voter rolls earlier than expected. Voter IDs also remain a bone of contention. But Wednesday, Wisconsin officials ignored Trump and considered mailing out absentee-ballot applications.

Two months ago, his critics took it as a confession when Trump, in a Fox News interview, blasted Democrats' efforts to fund new absentee-mail options in a coronavirus aid bill. “They had things — levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again," Trump said.

Pssst! Guidelines are out

Ever so quietly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released detailed guidance for reopening schools, mass transit and nonessential businesses that were shut to slow the coronavirus spread. The White House held up its publication for weeks even as Trump agitated for states to "reopen" without saying how. It was posted without fanfare on the agency's website this week, dated only "May 2020." (See the detailed reopening guidance here.)

All states already are moving to lift restrictions and lockdowns. Outlined in its 60 pages, the CDC guidelines offer a three-step system for the reopenings. For schools, the CDC recommends closing cafeterias and serving meals in classrooms, staggering student arrival and drop-offs and promoting social distancing, including keeping rows of seats open on buses.

Bars and restaurants, the agency says, should use disposable menus or digital menu boards, safeguard ventilation systems and wash anything touched by customers. On mass transit, the CDC underscores social distancing and face coverings for riders, keeping shared surfaces clean and changing routes between areas showing "different levels of transmission." 

Fat chance of an apology

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi expressed alarm that Trump was taking hydroxychloroquine while "morbidly obese" after he announced Monday that he's been on the antimalaria drug as a COVID-19 preventive, despite tests showing it ineffective against the virus and risky for those with certain health conditions. On Wednesday, she said of her characterization of him: “I gave him a dose of his own medicine. He’s called women one thing or another over time, and I thought he thinks that passes off as humor in certain cultures.”

“I was only quoting what doctors had said about him, so I was being factual in a very sympathetic way," the California Democrat said at her weekly news conference. Meanwhile, there was scant progress on a further coronavirus aid package, with the $3 trillion House-approved bill dismissed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). For his part, Trump said he will finish his self-described hydroxychloroquine regimen in "a day or two."

Poll: 'Second wave' our worry

Strong concern about a second wave of coronavirus infections is driving widespread opposition among Americans to fully reopening all public places, a new poll finds — suggesting that livid anti-lockdown protesters represent a small minority across the nation. But partisan static has eroded patience with measures designed to curb the spread.

The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll finds that 83% of Americans are "at least somewhat concerned" that lifting restrictions in their area will add to infections, with 54% saying they are very or extremely concerned that such steps will result in a spike of COVID-19 cases.

More coronavirus news

See a roundup of the latest 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.

Pompeo-gate expands

Firing someone who's investigating you can look like a cover-up. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was on the defensive following the removal of Steve Linick as his department's inspector general. Pompeo said he "should have done it some time ago" — that is, recommend the dismissal to Trump — but refused to explain his reasons.

Beyond his purported role in a U.S. arms sale to the Saudis that bypassed Congress and his evident use of federal employees for personal errands, Pompeo faces heat over dozens of so-called "Madison dinners" for the Washington elite that he hosted using taxpayer funds. State Department officials involved in the dinners told NBC News they had raised concerns internally that the elaborate, unpublicized events were using federal resources to build a donor base to support Pompeo's future political ambitions.

Biden widens pitch

Biden on Wednesday spoke of correcting abuses of power by Trump. Speaking to Columbia University Law School graduates via videoconference, Biden urged them to “protect the very foundations of democracy.”

“Trust in self-governance. Because right now, it’s under attack,” he said. “The very people tasked with enforcing the rule of law are abusing their powers, protecting their friends, weakening the very principles that make our country work.”

On Tuesday, Biden told donors in a conference call that “criticism of Israel’s policy is not anti-Semitism, but too often that criticism from the left morphs into anti-Semitism.”

What else is happening:

  • Computer modeling at Columbia University suggests tens of thousands of lives could have been saved nationwide if coronavirus lockdowns had been imposed even a week earlier, The New York Times reports.
  • Bankruptcies and long-term unemployment loom high among worries within the Federal Reserve, according to the minutes of the Federal Open Market Committee meeting in April.
  • The White House has revived broad attacks on China. A new 20-page report, which expands on Trump's get-tough rhetoric, does not signal a shift in U.S. policy, a senior official told The Associated Press.
  • Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a Trump ally, continues to shrug off a domestic explosion of coronavirus as Trump still "considers" a travel ban on that country.
  • A Senate committee voted Wednesday to authorize a subpoena as part of a GOP investigation targeting Hunter Biden.
  • Ex-Trump lawyer Michael Cohen is set to be released Thursday from federal prison in upstate New York due to the coronavirus outbreak and is expected to serve the rest of his 3-year sentence from home, The Wall Street Journal reported.

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