Kevin Liptak and Kaitlan Collins at CNN this morning have a look at what Donald Trump has been up to in his final days in office, finding that contrary to the repeated White House mantra that the president “will work from early in the morning until late in the evening. He will make many calls and have many meetings,” instead:
On Thursday, it was Mike Pence carrying out tasks ordinarily left to a president, like visiting national guardsmen posted at the US Capitol or visiting White House operators to say farewell.
Liptak and Collins report that:
Aides have pleaded with Trump to deliver some type of farewell address, either live or taped, that would tick through his accomplishments in office. But he has appeared disinterested and noncommittal.
Trump has been consumed by the unraveling of his presidency. And he has made clear to aides in separate conversations that mere mention of president Richard Nixon, the last president to resign, was banned.
He told one adviser during an expletive-laden conversation recently never to bring up the ex-president ever again. During the passing mention of resigning this week, Trump told people he couldn’t count on Pence to pardon him like Gerald Ford did Nixon, anyway.
And there’s this…
Eager for a final taste of the pomp of being president, Trump has asked for a major send-off on Inauguration Day next week
Some more grim Covid-impacted economic news this morning, as retail sales declined further in December as measures to slow the pandemic undercut spending at restaurants and reduced traffic to shopping malls.
Retail sales dropped 0.7% last month, the Commerce Department said. Data for November was revised down to show sales declining 1.4% instead of 1.1% as previously reported.
The figures are concerning because they represent a period when the Covid infection rate was not as high as it currently is – the last 10 consecutive days have seen the country record over 200,000 new cases daily. The holiday season is also traditionally an important period for retail sales.
Reuters report that excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, retail sales tumbled 1.9% last month. These so-called core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product.
The report followed in the wake of news last week that the economy shed jobs in December – the first time the number had dipped in eight months. Further job losses are likely in January as new applications for unemployment benefits surged in the first week of the month. The data are in line with economists’ expectations for a sharp slowdown in economic growth in the fourth quarter.
Bloomberg has a piece this morning with a bit more on the shenanigans behind-the-scenes over the presidential social media accounts, with Jennifer Epstein reporting on the clashes between Joe Biden’s transition team and the social media giants.
Though Trump used his personal account, @realDonaldTrump, as his primary social media mouthpiece, Biden’s aides think it’s unfair Twitter isn’t handing over followers along with the official accounts.
“They are advantaging Trump’s first days of the administration over ours,” Rob Flaherty, the transition’s digital director said. “If we don’t end the day with the 12 million followers that Trump inherited from Obama, then they have given us less than they gave him, and that is a failure.”
Twitter views the new @PresElectBiden as an accommodation that helps resolve the dispute over the official accounts. A Twitter spokesperson said the company’s goal was to support the archiving and transition of accounts across administrations.
There’s a contrast at Twitter with the way that other companies are managing the change, as Epstein elaborates:
Both Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram will duplicate the millions of followers currently following the Trump White House accounts to follow new Biden White House accounts.
“We’re following the same procedures we used during the transfer between the Obama and Trump administration,” Facebook spokeswoman Dani Lever said.
The copying of followers means that Biden’s administration will start off with a large, built-in audience for the president-elect that will include many people who aren’t Biden supporters – people his team are eager to reach.
Epstein notes that the incoming administration will also inherit the followers of the Trump White House’s official YouTube channel.
When he’s not tweeting about himself, the secretary of state still has a job to do until the Biden administration takes power next week. Reuters have a quick snap just now that the US plans to announce additional Iran sanctions today, related to conventional arms and to the metals industry.
Sources, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, did not provide details on the sanctions, the latest in a series that US President Donald Trump has imposed on the Iranian economy to try to force Tehran into a new negotiation on curbing its nuclear program.
Trump in 2018 abandoned the Iran nuclear agreement that Tehran struck with six major powers in 2015 to rein in its nuclear program in return for relief from US and international sanctions that had crippled its economy.
When he walked away from the deal, Trump said he was open to negotiating a much wider pact that would seek more extensive constraints on Iran’s nuclear program. He has not secured such a pact. Joe Biden has said he will return to the 2015 agreement if Iran resumes strict compliance with it.
Talking of Twitter, oh no…
Regular readers of this blog will know how much I have been enjoying secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s near constant me-me-me tweet storms since the start of the year, all on an official US government account.
As my colleague Julian Borger put it in his excellent “last days of Pompeo” piece yesterday:
The last days of Pompeo have been played out in a blizzard of self-congratulatory tweets, at the rate of two dozen a day, as he seeks to write his own first draft of history.
The former Kansas congressman, with evident ambitions for a presidential run in 2024, has accented his claims of success by frequent derogatory references to the previous administration, portrayed as hapless appeasers. The political point-scoring and aggrandizement have made the use of the megaphone provided by a government Twitter account, with 3 million followers.
It is not the first time Pompeo has used government resources for personal ends. The state department inspector general was investigating him for using state department staff to run private errands, like picking up dry cleaning and walking the dog, when Pompeo had him fired last May.
It seems an awful long time ago now, but do you remember back in December when there was dismay that Donald Trump was intending to break with (a fairly new) convention and refuse to hand over the official @POTUS and @WhiteHouse Twitter accounts with their followers intact?
That was before this happened, obviously…
Anyway, nevertheless overnight Joe Biden’s team have opened the new account that will become @POTUS – it is currently @PresElectBiden. I’m sure we can expect the first Breitbart/Fox article gloatingly comparing their respective follower numbers by Wednesday afternoon.
Also pondering the future for the Republican party is Alex Isenstadt at Politico, who today writes that a diminished Trump leaves a vacuum for 2024 Republican hopefuls.
While some are gradually separating themselves from the president, others are publicizing plans to bolster the party as it heads into the post-Trump era. Some are even sparring with other potential 2024 rivals in plain sight, marking a strikingly early start to public presidential maneuvering.
“While President Trump is likely to remain the most influential voice in the GOP for the foreseeable future, the events of the last week could provide more running room and potentially open the door to more candidates in 2024,” said Phil Cox, a former Republican Governors Association executive director.
Republicans note that without the threat of Trump’s Twitter feed, candidates are freer to separate themselves from him without fear of reprisals. The president used the account as his primary tool of imposing discipline on the party.
Part of the willingness to break with Trump also reflects a calculation that Trump’s once iron-like grip on the party has loosened. According to a POLITICO/Morning Consult survey released Wednesday, Trump’s approval rating among Republicans is 75 percent, down from 83 percent in December. The same poll found that just 40 percent of Republicans would support Trump in a 2024 primary — still in first place, but with a majority saying they’d prefer someone else.
Read more here: Politico – Diminished Trump leaves a vacuum for 2024 hopefuls
Director of political studies at the Niskanen Center in Washington, Geoffrey Kabaservice, writes for us this morning, arguing that Republicans must repudiate Trump or live with the consequences for ever:
In the view of many party strategists, Republicans might be better off if Trump were prevented from running again. The possibility of a 2024 Trump campaign freezes out potential successors and prevents the party from moving in new and more positive directions. The president arguably cost his party its Senate majority with his lies and conspiracy theories about the election, which depressed Republican turnout in the pivotal Georgia senatorial races. His role in inciting the Capitol riot disgraced his party as well as his legacy. Tellingly, almost no Republicans attempted to defend him during the impeachment hearings. Instead, many warned that impeachment would further enrage Trump’s followers when what’s needed is national unity and healing.
Of course, this come-together plea is rank hypocrisy from those who encouraged Trump’s shredding of the social fabric, believing that his attempt to tear the country apart would leave them with the bigger half. The claim that lions would lie down with lambs if Democrats would drop their vindictive harassment of the outgoing president conveniently overlooks the fact that the Capitol invasion happened only because Trump pushed the Big Lie that Democrats, the media, and the Deep State stole the election. And nearly two-thirds of Republicans in Congress made themselves complicit in Trump’s lie by voting to overturn the election results, even in the wake of that deluded, destructive and deadly riot.
Representative Peter Meijer, a newly elected Republican from Michigan who was one of the 10 Republicans to vote for impeachment, observed that many of his party colleagues argued that since millions of Americans believe the election was stolen, therefore Congress would be justified in preventing Biden from taking the presidency. But, he pointed out, most of the voters who believe in this false reality do so precisely because they have heard it from Trump and his congressional enablers. “That doesn’t make it right. That doesn’t make it accurate. It means that you lied to them, and they trusted you and they believed your lies.”
We’ve already had the news in the last few hours that Joe Biden is planning to appoint David Cohen as deputy director of the CIA and that David Kessler will join his team to help lead the Operation Warp Speed Covid vaccination effort. Axios have what they have labelled a scoop on another appointment – Anita Dunn.
Veteran communications and campaign strategist Anita Dunn will join Joe Biden’s White House on a temporary basis, helping him to advance his opening agenda from inside the West Wing.
Dunn, a former communications director to president Barack Obama, took on an expanded role in Biden’s campaign when it faltered last winter, helping guide it through a party nomination and general election victory.
She’ll work closely with Kate Bedingfield, who’ll be White House communications director, and press secretary Jen Psaki. As a senior adviser, Dunn also will play a key role in coordinating issues across the White House, much as she did during the campaign and as co-chair of Biden’s transition.
Read more here: Axios – Anita Dunn to join Biden White House as senior adviser
One thing we were expecting, but won’t now be seeing, is Avril Haines up before a Senate committee. CNN report that the first confirmation hearing for a crucial position in the Biden administration has been postponed. Haines is the president-elect’s pick to be the next director of national intelligence.
A source said the timeline for confirmation is not expected to be altered significantly, and the reason for the delay was a senator wanted the hearing in person, and Friday’s session was slated to be remote. The committee had been seeking to expedite the hearing with a virtual session but needed consent from all the senators on the panel to do so. Biden transition team spokesman Ned Price said the team was “disappointed” by the delay. Acting intelligence chair Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, and vice chair Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, said last night the committee is working “as fast as possible.”
Here’s some of what we have in the diary so far for today…
President-elect Joe Biden will delivers remarks on his plan to administer Covid-19 vaccines to the US population in Wilmington, Delaware, at 3.15pm ET (which is 8:15pm if, like me, you are in London) and he will also attend a finance event for the presidential inaugural committee later on.
Also on that front, Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff, will be discussing the goals of the new administration and the battle against the coronavirus pandemic at an event hosted by Washington Post at noon.
House speaker Nancy Pelosi holds a briefing, two days after the House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump for inciting an attack on the US Capitol, at 11.30am. You’ll be able to watch a live feed of that right here on the blog.
Kellyanne Conway, former White House counselor, is interviewed on Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO at 10pm, likely becoming the latest member of Trump’s circle to explain why she found it unconscionable to carry on working in the White House at the very last moment.
As for the president himself, Donald Trump has no official public engagement scheduled. For what seems like the umpteenth day in a row, the White House has instead cut’n’pasted the same phrase, claiming that Trump will “work from early in the morning until late in the evening. He will make many calls and have many meetings.”
Barry Eichengreen writes for us this morning, warning that the $2,000 stimulus checks alone won’t work – the US needs better infrastructure:
We know that living through a large economic shock, especially in young adulthood, can have an enduring impact on people’s beliefs. For those parents unable to put food on the table during the pandemic, the experience will establish a heuristic that will be hard to forget.
The upshot is that we can’t count on a burst of US consumer spending to fuel the recovery once the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines is complete. And if private spending remains subdued, continued support from public spending will be necessary to sustain the recovery.
But putting $2,000 checks in people’s bank accounts won’t solve this problem because unspent money doesn’t stimulate demand. With interest rates already near zero, the availability of additional funding won’t even encourage investment. Sending out $2,000 checks to everyone thus would be the fiscal equivalent of pushing on a string.
Fortunately, there is an alternative: the president-elect Joe Biden’s $2tn infrastructure plan would mean additional jobs and spending, which is what the post-pandemic economy really needs. Better still, under the prevailing low interest rates, this option would stimulate job creation without crowding out private investment.
Our Health reporter Jessica Glenza has this latest update on the Covid pandemic in the US:
More Americans are dying of Covid-19 than at any time during the pandemic, the most complex mass vaccination campaign in history is off to a rocky start, and more transmissible strains of the coronavirus are emergent. January is going to be a bleak month.
The most pessimistic outlook published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) predicts up to 438,000 people may be killed by Covid-19 by the end of the month in a staggering upward trend.
“My hope is this month will be the peak and things will start to look better in February,” said Caitlin Rivers, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University whose work focuses on pandemic response. “I don’t think it will be vaccination that will bend the curve. It will be washing your hands and staying home.”
A mass vaccination campaign now underway holds the promise of altering the pandemic, though it has stumbled. The vaccination campaign is not likely reflected in existing forecasts, because only about 3% of the population has been vaccinated.
Experts attribute this failure to hit early vaccination targets to a disengaged White House which pushed vaccine planning to states, a lack of timely federal funds, and failure to conduct public education campaigns to combat vaccine hesitancy. These failures have led to wide discrepancies between states.
The differences are, “not a red versus blue state thing,” Dr Ashish K Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said on Twitter. “It’s a lack of federal leadership thing.”
Herd immunity, likely requiring near-universal vaccine uptake among US adults, is seen as the ultimate goal of the vaccination campaign. But a tipping point, when the vaccine has observable positive effect, is likely to come earlier. If the Biden-Harris administration can successfully speed up vaccinations, it is possible a reduction in deaths could be the first positive outcome of the vaccination campaign.
“We will likely see the positive effects of the vaccination campaign in deaths before new cases,” said Rivers. That is because, “we are specifically targeting people who are at highest risk of severe illness” for vaccination.
Read more of Jessica Glenza’s report here: US suffers bleak January as Covid rages and vaccination campaign falters
According to the Johns Hopkins university figures, yesterday there were 229,386 new coronavirus cases confirmed, with 3,769 further deaths in the US. 128,947 infected people are currently in America’s hospitals.
At the current rate of daily fatalities, the US death toll from the pandemic – currently at 388,377 – is on course to surpass 400,000 before Joe Biden is sworn in next week.
A New York Times survey has shown that “At least 28 states and Washington DC, have begun vaccinating older people, in many cases marking a shift in earlier plans that put medical workers and nursing home residents at the front of the line for the inoculations.”
These changes have come about as a result of pressure and changed guidelines from the Trump administration, which has seen the US fail to meet their initial targets for getting vaccination doses administered.
CDC data says that 9.6 million people have received their first dose of vaccine, and 1.3 million of those have also received a second dose. However, the Operation Warp Speed target was 20 million by the end of 2020. Biden has said his administration will aim for 100 million doses administered in his first 100 days as president.
With the news that overnight the Trump administration carried out another federal execution, our award-winning podcast Today in Focus features our chief reporter Ed Pilkington talking to Anushka Asthana about its history.
Lisa Montgomery, who was killed by lethal injection earlier this week, was a particularly high-profile case. Subjected to torture and sexual violence as a child, she was suffering from extreme mental illness when she committed a horrific crime. The state of her mental health was not taken into account at her original trial. So why is Trump carrying out so many executions?
Ed tells Anushka that although use of the death penalty is shrinking in the US, it is still employed in many of the former confederate states. You cannot talk about the use of the death penalty, says Ed, without looking at America’s relationship with its racist history and the impact it still has today.
You can listen to it here: Today in Focus – Trump, the death penalty and its links with America’s racist history
Lois Beckett has this special report for us this morning – inside the Boogaloo killings of US law enforcement:
One hundred days before Dave Patrick Underwood was murdered on 29 May, a group of analysts who monitor online extremism concluded that an attack like the one that killed him was coming.
An anti-government movement intent on killing law enforcement officers had been growing rapidly on social media, the analysts at the Network Contagion Research Institute warned.
Building on the work of other analysts, the researchers had identified Facebook groups where thousands of members obsessed over the idea of an imminent American civil war called “the Boogaloo”, displaying photographs of rifles and combat equipment, sharing advice for making weapons and posting memes about killing police and federal officials. The Facebook groups were particularly dangerous, the researchers concluded, because they were helping to build local connections between nascent domestic extremists. The movement appeared to be successfully recruiting members of the US military.
Facebook responded to findings that it was “studying trends” around the use of the word “Boogaloo” on its platforms, and that it would remove any content that violated its rules against inciting hatred or violence. Over the next few months, a spokesperson said, it would remove 800 individual Boogaloo-related posts that violated its policies. But it did not ban the Boogaloo movement from its platform, or take the majority of the Boogaloo groups down.
Two months later, another report warned of the Boogaloo movement’s “explicit threats of violence to government authorities”. There were now at least 125 Boogaloo groups on Facebook, the Tech Transparency Project said. The groups had added tens of thousands of members in the last 30 days alone, as coronavirus lockdown measures made some Americans furious about what they perceived as government “tyranny”. More than half of these Facebook groups had been created since February.
This time, Facebook said it had removed some groups and pages that used Boogaloo-related terms for violating Facebook policies. But none of the Facebook groups explicitly mentioned in the Tech Transparency report had been taken down, HuffPost reported, even though the online rhetoric was already translating into action: earlier in April, Texas police arrested Aaron Swenson, a man who had reportedly “liked” more than a dozen Boogaloo-related pages, and who police said had been livestreaming himself on Facebook as he drove around looking for a cop to execute.
Read more of Lois Beckett’s worrying report here: 100 days of warning – inside the Boogaloo killings of US law enforcement
NBC News are reporting this morning that president-elect Joe Biden will appoint lawyer David Cohen as deputy director of the CIA. He can go straight into the job, as it does not require Senate confirmation. He previously held the role in the Obama administration. Ken Dilanian reports:
The choice may signal that Biden wants the perspective of someone who isn’t a career CIA official. Cohen was a top national security official at the Treasury Department before he joined the spy agency in 2015, and before that he was a lawyer in private practice for two decades.
After he left the CIA in 2017, Cohen rejoined his law firm, WilmerHale — the firm that employs former FBI director and special counsel Robert Mueller — and he spent time as an NBC News national security contributor.
Biden’s decision to appoint Cohen after having named William Burns, who would be the first career diplomat to run the CIA, is likely to ruffle a few feathers at the spy agency, CIA veterans said, because usually one of the people in those jobs has long experience at the CIA.
Read more here: NBC News – Biden to name David Cohen deputy director of CIA
From The Guardian -
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