Headlines: May 13, 2020
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Several health experts testifying to the US Senate on Tuesday warned lawmakers that it was far too soon to reopen businesses contradicting President Donald Trump’s administration and several state governors. Dr. Anthony Fauci in particular stressed the importance of avoiding a second wave of infections until there is a vaccine, saying, “It’s a highly transmissible virus. It is likely there will be virus somewhere on this planet that will likely get back to us.” Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned against actions that could lead to a new spike in coronavirus infections. Associated Press has just obtained a 63-page CDC document which is more detailed than an earlier one that was leaked last week which was an, “organizational tool,” offering “a coordinated national response to give community leaders step-by-step instructions” on how best to open businesses back up. The Trump administration has shelved this and other CDC documents. Meanwhile Democratic lawmaker and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer pushed the US Senate to adopt a resolution calling for the release of the CDC’s guidelines but Republicans blocked the measure.
Scientists outside the CDC agree that reopening the nation too soon is a big mistake as multiple models predicting the outcome of the pandemic agree that there will likely be 110,000 US deaths from the virus by June. Already Americans are venturing outdoors as elected officials dither on stringent rules or begin to relax existing rules. A New York Times analysis of cell phone data found that, “25 million more people ventured outside their homes on an average day last week than during the preceding six weeks.” Additionally, “In nearly every part of the country, the share of people staying home dropped, in some places by nearly 11 percentage points.” Still, a new poll shows that at least on paper Americans support maintaining social distancing. About two thirds of respondents in a Washington Post poll said they don’t expect to return to normal until at least July. In California where Gov. Gavin Newsom’s early and strict guidelines had earned him praise, the rules are also set to be relaxed. Newsom this week announced that dine-in service can resume at restaurants in certain counties that meet guidelines. In those counties, shopping centers and other retail establishments will also be allowed to reopen. Seven counties have so far qualified including Amador, Butte, El Dorado, Lassen, Nevada, Placer and Shasta counties. Meanwhile the California State University system said its campuses would remain closed through the fall semester.
Jerome Powell, the chair of the Federal Reserve gave a live digital address on Wednesday warning that Congress and the White House need to approve more financial aid in order to revive the battered US economy. He said, “Additional fiscal support could be costly, but worth it if it helps avoid long-term economic damage and leaves us with a stronger recovery.” On Tuesday House Democrats revealed a massive $3 trillion aid bill called the HEROES Act but progressive Democratic lawmakers slammed the bill as failing to adequately help the tens of millions of newly unemployed Americans or address their lost healthcare benefits. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal tweeted that three things about the crisis needed to be addressed: “getting people paychecks, ensuring access to health care, supporting businesses and their workers,” and that the HEROES Act did none of them. Republicans instead appear to have chosen several weeks of inaction – or as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called it, “wait-and-see.” McConnell now wants any new bill to be “narrowly targeted.” His party says the Democrats’ bill is “dead on arrival.”
The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday reported that big corporations are receiving hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks they say are needed to tide over the economic crisis. According to the paper, “So far, more than 50 publicly traded companies have disclosed tax savings and deferrals totaling at least $2.8 billion, according to securities filings. Money is also going to private companies that don’t report earnings.” Additionally, “New tax breaks expected to total about $650 billion are starting to flow.” The tax breaks were part of an earlier Congressional aid package that was passed into law. And, the Washington Post reported that the Aspen Institute, an elite think tank that has a $115 million endowment and multiple billionaires on its board of trustees, received and accepted an $8 million Small Business Loan through the Paycheck Protection Program.
In other news, a federal judge has placed on hold the Justice Department’s highly unorthodox decision to drop charges against Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. The Judge says he expects several groups and individuals will challenge the decision. The move comes as Acting Intelligence Director Richard Grenell was revealed to have handed over a list of Obama-era officials who first decided to investigate Flynn and his links to Russian operatives. Grenell turned over the list to Attorney General William Barr a day after Barr’s decision to absolve Flynn. Meanwhile Trump himself is the focus of several cases including one before the Supreme Court over his tax returns being made public. According to Associated Press, “There was no apparent consensus about whether to ratify lower court rulings that the subpoenas to Trump’s accountant and banks are valid and should be enforced.” However the court, “appeared likely to reject President Donald Trump’s claim that he is immune from criminal investigation while in office.” Meanwhile in another case involving allegations of sexual assault made against Trump by a woman named Summer Zervos, Trump’s lawyers seemed to make exactly that case: that a sitting president in their view is immune from prosecution. That case is currently before the New York State Court of Appeals.
Paul Manafort, Trump’s disgraced former campaign manager who has been serving a multi-year sentence over various charges of bank fraud as part of the Special Counsel’s investigation, was just released from prison. Manafort was supposed to remain incarcerated until 2024 and yet he was granted early release to serve the rest of his term at home due to the dangers of the coronavirus. Mr. Barr had directed the Bureau of Prisons to release some prisoners who had only 18 or fewer months of their sentence left or who had served more than half their sentence. Manafort did not qualify in either case. In an indication that wealthy well-connected Americans receive preferential treatment in the criminal justice system the Washington Post reported that many other federal prisoners who are vulnerable to infection remain in prison. Already there are reports of inmates dying from the coronavirus. California Representative Nanette Barragán toured Terminal Island federal prison in Southern California after a 7th inmate died and told reporters, “I would hear the inmates screaming that were in isolation units…Saying, ‘Turn on the air, get us some air.’ ‘Help me, I need to make a call.’” Best-selling author Michelle Alexander whose book The New Jim Crow shined a light on mass incarceration in the US, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, entitled, “Let Our People Go.” In it, Alexander said, “Our governments have been willing to shut down our entire economy, sparing only those sectors deemed ‘essential.’ Shouldn’t we also consider whether it is truly ‘essential’ for millions of people to be caged?”
And finally, Aimee Stephens, the woman at the center of a landmark transgender rights case before the Supreme Court died this week of kidney failure. She was 59. Stephens’ civil rights case has sought workplace protections for transgender Americans over their gender identity. Donna Stephens, Aimee’s wife, released a statement saying, “She has given so many hope for the future of equality for LGBTQ people in our country, and she has rewritten history.” The Supreme Court is expected to rule in the case in just days.