Headlines: May 19, 2020
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Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell were questioned by Senators on Tuesday in a virtual hearing on the pandemic-related economic responses of their two agencies. Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown grilled Mnuchin on the health risks to workers from reopening businesses. It was the first time that lawmakers held an accountability hearing on the financial implementation of several economic stimulus packages passed into law to tackle the impacts of the coronavirus. Mr. Mnuchin during the hearing warned that states would not be able to recover economically if they remained on lockdown, while Fed Chair Jerome Powell suggested that more was needed from Congress to help the economy remain afloat. Meanwhile, Monday was Mnuchin’s deadline for large publicly traded corporations to voluntarily return the taxpayer backed loans they applied for and received – loans that were intended for small businesses. According to the New York Times, out of $1.52 billion in loans, only $512 million has been returned.
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow spoke to reporters at the same time as the Senate hearing and was asked what ideas he had to help low income Americans suggesting a payroll tax cut for low income workers which would lead to cuts in their Social Security and Medicare plans. Kudlow specifically said on Fox News that Trump wants a 7.6% payroll tax cut. Progressive Democratic members of Congress have suggested another option: to cut military spending. Representatives Barbara Lee and Mark Pocan laid out the demand ahead of the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act which is an annual bi-partisan giveaway of taxpayer dollars to the military. In a letter that 29 members of Congress signed, they said, “Right now, the coronavirus is our greatest adversary…We must remain focused on combating the coronavirus and not on increasing military spending that already outpaces the next 10 closest nations combined. . . . At some point, spending more than every other nation on earth must be enough.”
Republicans have refused to take up any more stimulus bills with House minority leader Kevin McCarthy saying, “”I don’t see the need right now.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell similarly said, “I don’t think we have yet felt the urgency of acting immediately. That time could (come), but I don’t think it has yet.” Meanwhile more than 90,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus as per a tracker by Johns Hopkins University. The state of New York still leads within the US with more than 28,000 deaths, followed by New Jersey where more than 10,000 have died. In the nation’s most populous state of California, about 3,200 people have died from the virus. A number of activist groups including MoveOn, Indivisible, and the Center for Popular Democracy have organized a nationwide “day of mourning” on Wednesday with funeral processions in about 20 states.
The state of Georgia, which was one of the first to end its lockdown has now come under fire for adjusting its data on Covid-deaths to suggest the virus had peaked. Georgia’s Department of Public Health on its website moved dates around with May 2nd deaths listed before those on April 26th so that it seemed the virus’ impact was falling. Governor Brian Kemp’s office has issued an apology. State Representative Jasmine Clark – who is a microbiologist – said, “I have a hard time understanding how this happens without it being deliberate…Literally nowhere ever in any type of statistics would that be acceptable.” A similar fudging of data appears to be taking place in Florida where a highly regarded data analyst who was tracking deaths was fired. According to USA Today’s interview of Rebekah Jones, the data scientist, “she was fired because she was ordered to censor some data, but refused to ‘manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen.’” In several other states that are opening up businesses, Texas, North Carolina and Arizona, the numbers of Covid-19 infections are steadily rising. A total of 17 states are reporting infection rates continuing to rise, but by this weekend all states will be at least partially reopened.
President Trump on Monday stunned reporters and lawmakers when he said during a press briefing that he had begun to take the unproven medication Hydroxychloroquine as a protection from the virus. The FDA has not approved Hydroxychloroquine for Covid-19 treatment or prevention and in fact warns that it could cause fatal heart problems. A number of studies showing its effectiveness have either been discredited or unable to replicate results. There is speculation that Trump is simply lying about taking it. Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer slammed Trump saying it was, “reckless, reckless, reckless. It gives people false hope, has people avoid real medical attention, and can actually cause them trouble. It is just dangerous, what he did.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested Trump is in danger if he’s taking the drug given that he is considered obese. Fox News host Neil Cavuto warned that the drug could kill Trump, leading Trump to denounce the rightwing network saying he was, “Looking for a new outlet,” to echo his views. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesperson said on Tuesday when asked to comment on Trump’s statement that Mr. Johnson does not recommend taking the drug.
In the latest on Trump’s firing of the State Department Inspector General Steve Linick over a probe into Trump loyalist Mike Pompeo, Mr. Pompeo told the Washington Post, “Linick wasn’t performing a function in a way that we had tried to get him to.” The State Secretary has openly admitted that he recommended Trump fire Linick who was overseeing Pompeo’s potential abuses of his role. In addition to Pompeo’s troubling treatment of diplomatic staff to run his errands, there was a larger issue of Trump’s approval of a weapons’ sale to Saudi Arabia that Pompeo had signed off on and that Linick was investigating. Congress had blocked the federal government’s arms’ sale and then asked Linick to look into Trump’s potential violation. Now lawmakers suspect that may be the real reason Linick was fired.
In international news, Trump is threatening to permanently freeze US funding for the World Health Organization until it meets a set of criteria that the President posted to his Twitter feed. Most of the demands appear to not be based on reality and center around Trump’s theory that the WHO has given China preferential treatment and a pass over its role in the origins and spread of the virus. Meanwhile reports from some of the world’s most populous nations show dramatic increases in Covid-19 infections including Russia, Brazil, and India.