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Trump in mind-your-own-business mode on oversight for virus relief

President Donald Trump at the White House briefing

President Donald Trump at the White House briefing Tuesday. Credit: AP / Alex Brandon

Newsday is opening this story to all readers as we provide Long Islanders with news and information you can use during the coronavirus outbreak. All readers can learn the latest news at newsday.com/LiveUpdates

Nothing to see here

President Donald Trump changed his residence from New York to Florida last year, but there's a certain stereotypical hometown attitude he still flashes. Think of the line delivered with a hint of menace in the movies that goes something like this: What do you think you're looking at?

It has been his response to calls to reveal his income taxes, and to sundry requests from congressional investigating committees that end up in court fights. He tried to keep outside oversight away from the $2.3 trillion coronavirus stimulus package — "I'll be the oversight," he said. That failed, but now the president has upended the panel of federal watchdogs overseeing the law's implementation.

A panel of inspectors general had named Glenn Fine — the acting Pentagon watchdog who has a strong reputation for independence — to lead the group charged with monitoring the coronavirus relief effort. But Trump on Monday removed Fine from his post, instead naming the EPA inspector general to serve as the temporary Pentagon IG in addition to his EPA responsibilities.

Democrats condemned Fine’s ouster as “corrupt.” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said, “President Trump is abusing the coronavirus pandemic to eliminate honest and independent public servants because they are willing to speak truth to power and because he is so clearly afraid of strong oversight.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Fine’s abrupt removal “part of a disturbing pattern of retaliation by the president against independent overseers.”

After the relief bill was passed in late March, Trump issued a signing statement declaring that he could control what information goes to Congress about how and why the money is spent.

In recent days, Trump has fired one inspector general who carried out his duty to pass along a whistleblower's complaint that led to his impeachment, and the president castigated another he felt was overly critical of the coronavirus response. “We’re seeing since Friday a wrecking ball across the IG community,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight. 

The role of the modern-day inspector general dates to post-Watergate Washington, when Congress installed offices inside agencies as an independent check against mismanagement and abuse of power, The Associated Press notes. At his briefings Monday and Tuesday, Trump was open about his suspicion of the in-house watchdogs. He didn't comment directly about Fine, but he suggested that IGs who served in previous administrations harbored bias against him.

Janison: Trump can't sanitize this

Trump created yet another sideshow amid a massive national crisis by slinging mud at a career government employee for no other reason than she did her job, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.

It's worth looking past Trump's attack and at the cautiously factual report issued by the Health and Human Services inspector general's office. It found U.S. hospitals describing serious trouble getting equipment, supplies and coronavirus tests — a situation painfully familiar in Nassau, Suffolk and New York City.

Trump ranted on Twitter Tuesday with a what-aboutism deflection: "Why didn’t the I.G., who spent 8 years with the Obama Administration (Did she Report on the failed H1N1 Swine Flu debacle where 17,000 people died?), want to talk to the Admirals, Generals, V.P. & others in charge, before doing her report. Another Fake Dossier!"

Not that it would matter to the president, but Christi Grimm, who is principal deputy inspector general for HHS, began at the office in 1999 during the Clinton administration and later worked for both the Bush and Obama administrations. Assistant IG Ann Maxwell, who authored the report, has a similar background.

Another grim record

The United States on Tuesday reported more than 1,800 coronavirus-related fatalities, a new one-day high, with some states still to release their totals. The overall death toll is more than 12,000.

Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said there's still a chance the final death toll won't be as bad as the 100,000 or more some models have predicted.

“If we just social distance, we will see this virus and this outbreak basically decline, decline, decline. And I think that's what you're seeing,” Redfield told a Tuscon, Arizona, radio station. “I think you're going to see the numbers are, in fact, going to be much less than what would have been predicted by the models,” he said.

Trump said at Tuesday's briefing: "This will be a very painful week. This is a monster we're fighting," but there are signs that the strategy is "totally working."

Ill-tempered Navy boss walks plank

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly resigned Tuesday, days after he removed a Navy captain from the helm of the coronavirus-stricken USS Theodore Roosevelt, followed by a speech to the crew trashing their former commander as "too naive or too stupid” to be in charge of the aircraft carrier.

A senior Pentagon official told The Associated Press that Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who initially defended Modly's dismissal of Capt. Brett Crozier, directed him Monday night to apologize for his remarks about Crozier. Modly's profanity-spiked speech angered the Roosevelt's crew members who believed Crozier was looking out for them when he wrote a letter to his bosses pleading for help amid a shipboard outbreak. The letter's leak sparked turmoil.

Modly has said he acted against Crozier in anticipation of what he thought Trump would want him to do. Trump initially defended the firing but later voiced second thoughts based on Crozier's overall career record as the controversy grew more heated. Trump gave credit to Modly for resigning “to end that problem,” calling it an “unselfish thing to do.”

Modly's farewell was an apology to the entire Navy. "It’s my fault. I own it,” he said, according to the military news website Task & Purpose.

Seek $250 billion more for relief

The Trump administrations and congressional leaders are working to push through another $250 billion in coronavirus relief to pay for small-business loans.

The initial $350 billion program is already running out of money despite having started just on Friday. "The way it's going, we're going to need that, because it’s really going. People are loving it. They're really loving it," Trump said Tuesday during a teleconference with business leaders.

Schumer teed up a proposal for $25,000 in “heroes” pay for front-line health care and service industry workers. “This is a heroes’ fund and they deserve it,” he said.

Voters line up in Wisconsin

Primaries have been postponed throughout the country since the pandemic took hold, but not in Wisconsin, where Republicans won a court fight against Democrats who wanted to wait.

Long lines of voters, many of them wearing face masks, stretched for blocks Tuesday through Milwaukee, where many polling places couldn't open for lack of staff.

Trump on Twitter had encouraged his followers to go out and vote for a Republican candidate in a state Supreme Court race. He charged that the Democrats moved to delay the special election only after he made the endorsement.

"All of a sudden they want safety. Well, before I did the endorsement, they didn't talk about safety,” said Trump. The president also assailed proposals to expand mail-in voting for November as "corrupt." Trump himself voted by mail in last month's Florida Republican primary.

In Wisconsin's Democratic presidential primary, Bernie Sanders denounced in-person voting as "dangerous." Front-runner Joe Biden's campaign focused get-out-the-vote efforts on absentee balloting. Results are not expected until next week.

Shuffle in White House press shop

Stephanie Grisham is on her way out as White House press secretary after a nine-month tenure most notable for not once conducted a briefing. She's going back to where she came from, the staff of Melania Trump, where she will serve as the first lady's chief of staff.

The president's new chief of staff, former Rep. Mark Meadows, engineered the shake-up. Expected to take Grisham's place is Kayleigh McEnany, currently a press secretary for the president's 2020 campaign and an often-seen cable news surrogate for Trump's 2016 campaign. 

McEnany's ascension as Trump's fourth press secretary drew attention to her coronavirus comments during a Feb. 25 appearance on Fox Business Network. “We will not see diseases like the coronavirus come here … and isn't it refreshing when contrasting it with the awful presidency of President Obama," McEnany said. (See the video clip.)

A side note about McEnany of New York interest: She is married to Sean Gilmartin, who pitched for the Mets in 2015 and is currently under a minor league contract in the Tampa Bay Rays' organization.

More news on coronavirus

New York State on Tuesday reported its highest number of deaths in a single day from coronavirus — 731 — even as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said there are signs the outbreak is plateauing and spoke tentatively about looking at steps to restart the economy and life in general.

See a roundup of the latest pandemic news 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:

  • Trump said he never saw or requested memos written by White House trade adviser Peter Navarro in January that warned of a possible pandemic. “I didn’t see them. I didn’t look for them,” Trump told reporters. Though he imposed a China travel ban that Navarro wanted, Trump otherwise downplayed the threat then and in February.
  • A crew member aboard the Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort has tested positive for coronavirus and is currently in isolation aboard the vessel, which is treating patients in New York City.
  • Trump on Tuesday threatened to slash federal funding for the World Health Organization, accusing the UN agency in a tweet of being “very China centric” and criticizing WHO's early guidance on countering the coronavirus spread. "The W.H.O. really blew it," Trump said.
  • Need help sorting out the new federal and state sick-leave laws adopted in response to the pandemic? Newsday's James T. Madore explains who is covered and the help they can get.
  • Trump has falsely claimed four times since last week that his administration inherited a faulty coronavirus test, a CNN fact-check finds. There was no previous test for COVID-19, which emerged in late 2019. The faulty initial test was created during Trump's administration, in early 2020, by the CDC.
  • The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals voted, 2-1, to overturn an injunction against the Trump administration’s plan to restart federal executions for the first time since 2003. But a legal dispute on execution procedures remains unresolved.

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