Off-message Birx irks president
Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, has been perhaps the most circumspect of presidential medical advisers during Donald Trump's frequent wanderings into fantasy territory. When that reluctance drew a rebuke from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Sunday as enabling "disinformation" — like when Trump mused about injecting disinfectant — the White House rushed to Birx's defense.
"It is deeply irresponsible of Speaker Pelosi to repeatedly try to undermine & create public distrust in Dr. Birx, the top public health professional on the coronavirus task force. It’s also just wrong," tweeted White House spokeswoman Alyssa Farah. Another spokesman, Judd Deere, tweeted that "the baseless, political attacks against her and her long record of saving lives and protecting public health are disgusting and shameful."
However, at around the same time as Pelosi's interview on ABC, Birx appeared on CNN and stepped on a Trump tripwire by offering a more somber outlook than the president wants Americans to believe. Birx said the pandemic was entering a new, dangerous phase. "What we are seeing today is different from March and April. It is extraordinarily widespread," she said, adding that the pandemic was affecting both urban and rural areas.
For Trump, that candor was indefensible. He ripped her on Twitter on Monday morning with harsher language than what he uses against Dr. Anthony Fauci, who more commonly contradicts him. Trump wrote, "In order to counter Nancy, Deborah took the bait & hit us. Pathetic!"
Birx didn't "hit" the administration. She gave a reasoned, reality-based, data-backed assessment. That's not what Trump wants to hear. In another Monday tweet blasting news coverage, he made clear the priority he places on presenting a rosier view. "The Fake News is working overtime to make the USA (& me) look as bad as possible!" Trump wrote.
The president toned it down at a late-afternoon coronavirus briefing, calling Birx "a person I have a lot of respect for" and complaining that Pelosi "treated her very badly, very, very badly, very nasty.” Trump did not respond when asked to clarify if he disagreed with Birx’s characterization of the current state of the pandemic, but he said, “I think we’re just doing very well.”
Coronavirus deaths are rising in 29 states, including Texas, Florida, California and Georgia, according to a New York Times tally. Nationally, about 1,200 a day have been dying over the past week, down from the peak of about 2,200 in April, but up from a low of 481 just a month ago. The total U.S. toll in lost lives is near 156,000.
Joe Biden tweeted on the Trump-Birx dust-up: "It's hard to believe this has to be said, but if I'm elected president, I’ll spend my Monday mornings working with our nation’s top experts to control this virus — not insulting them on Twitter."
New York Trump probe: Crimes
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.'s office showed more of its hand Monday in its legal battle for tax and business records from the president. Vance's court filing referenced public reports "of possibly extensive and protracted criminal conduct at the Trump Organization."
The document suggested the grand jury investigation into Trump and his business dealings extends beyond hush-money payments made to an adult film actress and a model before the 2016 election.
Among the reports cited by prosecutors was a Washington Post story that Trump had a practice of sending financial statements to potential business partners and banks that inflated the worth of his projects by claiming they were bigger or more potentially lucrative than they actually were.
Another article described congressional testimony by Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen, who said the president would overstate the value of his business interests to impress people or lenders, but then deflate the value of assets when trying to reduce his taxes.
The filing suggested bank and insurance fraud — both felonies — were among the potential crimes under investigation, The New York Times reported. Trump, at his coronavirus briefing, called the Vance inquiry a “continuation of the witch hunt.”
Janison: Slathered in makeup
At the start of his presidency in 2017, the usual rules applied. White House statements, even short bursts on Twitter, were to be taken seriously, if not at face value. By now, however, Trump has exhausted his credibility, as he once did his financial credit with major banks, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.
Over the weekend, he delivered another in a three-year stream of nothing burgers. Trump said he might use a security rationale to ban the popular video app TikTok, given that its parent company ByteDance is Chinese. But that threat had vanished by Monday after Microsoft and Trump aides spoke about a pending takeover deal for TikTok.
During an interview with Fox News that aired July 19, he said, “We’re signing a health care plan within two weeks, a full and complete health care plan." Two weeks passed. Nothing happened. Just like it didn't happen after he said during his 2016 campaign that replacing Obamacare is "going to be so easy."
He'll just keep making it up. Trump tweeted on Monday: "My visits last week to Texas and Florida had massive numbers of cheering people gathered along the roads and highways, thousands and thousands, even bigger (by far) than the crowds of 2016." No one else saw them.
GOP: Please push the envelopes
Push or pull the envelope? Trump's attacks on mail-in voting as "rigged" and "fraudulent," while unfounded in fact, have found a receptive audience among the Republican rank and file. That's causing growing exasperation for state and local GOP leaders who are trying to encourage absentee voting, The Washington Post reports.
Senior Trump advisers, including Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, have warned the president that his rhetoric is complicating Republican turnout efforts, multiple strategists said. An analysis of current absentee ballot requests in North Carolina shows that Democrats have vastly outpaced Republicans, even though roughly the same numbers of Republicans and Democrats voted by mail four years ago.
One recent Facebook-sponsored post from the Johnston County, North Carolina, Republican Party exhorted voters that when a GOP “absentee ballot mailer” comes their way, “please know that it is legitimate!!!” The assurance was met with skepticism from many commenters. “Burned it! I will go in person to vote straight Republican,” wrote one.
Trump tweeted Monday that he will sue Nevada after its legislature passed a bill to mail ballots to all active voters, saying it "made it impossible for Republicans to win the state." He claimed at the Monday briefing that he has the authority to issue an executive order on mail-in ballots.
Shaking Mitch's Supreme confidence
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to push forward to fill any Supreme Court vacancy that arises during the remainder of Trump's first term, even though he blocked former President Barack Obama's nominee nine months before the 2016 election.
But McConnell's plan won't work if four members of his 53-seat majority don't go along with it, and at least two GOP senators are not on board. On Monday, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said that filling a Supreme Court vacancy before 2021 would be "a double standard" and she “would not support it.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa told NBC News that he also felt filling a vacancy would violate the party’s 2016 standard and that he “couldn’t move forward with it" if he still were running the Judiciary Committee. The panel's current chairman, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said he’d be “willing” to fill a vacancy but cautioned: “I’d like to get input from my colleagues.”
Liberals are hoping for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to hang on despite fragile health and deny Trump an opportunity to replace her if he loses the election.
More coronavirus news
See a roundup of the latest pandemic developments from Long Island and beyond by Newsday's Robert Brodsky with Michael O'Keeffe. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.
What else is happening:
- Fauci said on Monday that while the nation’s “default principle” should be that children return to school, he warned against reopenings in coronavirus hot spots. Trump tweeted: "Much of our Country is doing very well. Open the Schools!"
- In the sixth month of the pandemic, Trump is using his campaign's email blasts to encourage mask-wearing. "While I know there has been some confusion surrounding the usage of face masks, I think it’s something we should all try to do …” he said. Until recently, Trump had long been the leading voice of mask ambivalence, calling them a "double-edged sword."
- As Trump continues to downplay the need for increased coronavirus testing across the country, White House officials were told on Monday they will now be subjected to random testing for the virus, Politico reported.
- Negotiators on a huge coronavirus relief bill reported slight progress after talks resumed Monday afternoon in the Capitol, The Associated Press reported. Multiple obstacles remain, including an impasse on extending a $600-per-week enhanced jobless benefit, funding for the Postal Service and aid to renters facing eviction. Pelosi voiced uncertainty to her Democratic colleagues on completing a deal this week.
- The Constitution spells out the Senate's advise-and-consent role in approving presidential nominees, but Trump wants who he wants even when it's not consensual. Past bigoted and inflammatory tweets sank his choice of retired Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata as deputy undersecretary for defense policy. So the administration has created a Pentagon job with essentially the same duties and put Tata in it.
- Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Monday called Trump's handling of the coronavirus “the worst government blunder in modern history.” Cuomo's comments came on a day a New York legislative hearing examined his policies during the pandemic for nursing homes, where thousands died. See Michael Gormley's story for Newsday.
- Trump said he is open to Microsoft or another U.S. company buying TikTok instead of banning it. But he said the U.S. Treasury should get a payment for allowing the deal, likening his demand to the “key money” a tenant who wants a lease pays a landlord. It wasn't clear what authority he had to demand the payment, The Washington Post reported.