Each morning, aides produce for the president the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), a classified report that summarizes the most important developments in security threats. Today the Washington Post reported that, beginning in early January, US intelligence agencies produced more than a dozen classified briefings in the PDB warning Trump about the emerging threat of the coronavirus, a level of attention like that given to active terrorist threats or overseas wars. The president rarely reads the PDB and is impatient with the oral briefings he allows two or three times a week.
Throughout his administration, he has had a poor relationship with intelligence agencies because of their investigation of Russia’s attack on the 2016 election. He was especially unhappy with the intelligence community in February of this year because on February 13, Shelby Pierson, the head of the election security unit of the office of then-acting Director of National Intelligence, Joseph Maguire, told members of Congress that Russia was again meddling in the 2020 election to favor Trump. The president wanted Maguire out, and he resigned on February 21. Trump replaced him with Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, a fervent supporter, who insisted that Russia did not interfere in 2016 and is not interfering in 2020.
During February, the virus spread across the country unchecked. On March 30, Trump told Fox News Channel personality Brian Kilmeade about the pandemic, “Nobody could have predicted something like this.”
Today, America’s death toll topped 56,000, and Trump increased the numbers of projected dead to between 60,000 and 70,000. American fatal casualties in the Vietnam War were slightly more than 58,000.
Trump’s popularity has never been good, but there were signs today that his internal polling is frightening down-ballot candidates for the 2020 election. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) acknowledged that neither party has a lock on the Senate, and that Republicans are on the defensive. Twenty-three Republican Senate seats are in contention, while only 12 Democratic ones are. Democrats need to pick up four seats to take control of the Senate. “It’s going to be a dogfight,” McConnell told Fox News Radio. “It’s going to be a fight to the finish. Sort of like a knife fight in an alley.”
Conservative columnist Henry Olsen wrote a Washington Post op-ed today suggesting that the party should try to sell voters on Trump by arguing that he is “Not Perfect, Just Better.” Noting that Trump’s approval rating was at 45.6% this morning, Olsen suggested that ads should start by saying things like: “We all roll our eyes sometimes at something stupid that the president says,” before celebrating his tax cuts, for example. They would emphasize his team, rather than Trump himself. “This is admittedly a high-risk, unproven strategy,” Olsen wrote, “But the alternative is worse.”
Trump would never permit such a scheme, of course. News broke today that, earlier this month, the National Republican Senatorial Committee circulated a memo with talking points for candidates to respond to questions about the novel coronavirus. “Don’t defend Trump, other than the China Travel Ban,” it said. “Attack China.”
It also encouraged candidates to distance themselves from Trump’s response to the coronavirus by saying, “I wish that everyone acted earlier—that includes our elected officials, the World Health Organization, and the CDC [Centers for Disease Control].” Trump was furious, and today his political advisor Justin Clark told the director of the NRSC, Kevin McLaughlin, that Trump would not support any Republican candidate who followed the memo’s suggestions. “Candidates will listen to the bad advice in this memo at their own peril,” Clark said in a statement. McLaughlin quickly clarified that the memo was poorly worded and that “There is no daylight between the NRSC and President Trump.”
But while Republican candidates are proceeding as if this election will be fought on traditional political lines, the pandemic crisis has created what is, to my mind, one of the more interesting developments in American politics in a generation. The federal government pushed responsibility onto state governors to assume responsibility for responding to the crisis, but it might have gotten more than it bargained for.
There are now pacts of states in both the East and the West joined together to coordinate their eventual lifting of restrictions put in place to stop community spread of the disease. Today, Nevada and Colorado joined the West Coast alliance of California, Washington, and Oregon. All five of these states have Democratic governors, and all say they will follow science in their decision making.
The rise of the governors has prompted a long-overdue political conversation about the realities of government funding. Since the 1980s, Republicans have attracted voters by harping on the “takers” in Democratic areas. But when McConnell last Wednesday said he would never agree to a “blue state bailout,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo responded: “We’re one nation. We put into the pot what we need, you take what you need… but if you want to call for an accounting, you’re making a mistake because you lose.”
The exchange highlighted for the public what has been well-known among political scholars for ages: the federal government redistributes wealth from richer states to poorer ones. The four top “giver” states-- New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Connecticut—tend to vote Democratic, while three of the four biggest “taker” states—Kentucky, Mississippi, and West Virginia—lean Republican. For every dollar New York puts into the federal government in taxes, it gets back $0.91. For every dollar Kentucky puts in, it takes out $2.41.
The topic is not a good one for Republicans, but it has become such a fixture in Republican rhetoric that leaders keep trying to run with it. Today, Trump tweeted: “Why should the people and taxpayers of America be bailing out poorly run states (like Illinois, as an example) and cities, in all cases Democrat run and managed, when most of the other states are not looking for bailout help?” (There are ten states that put more into the federal coffers than they take out; Illinois is one of them.) Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) agreed with Trump, telling reporters, “We sit here and live within our means, and then New York, Illinois, and California and other states don’t, and we’re supposed to go bail them out. That’s not right.”
This rhetoric that labels Democrats as fiscally irresponsible, eager to redistribute wealth from hardworking Republicans to their own lazy constituents, has been a staple of GOP politics since the 1970 midterm elections, when President Richard Nixon’s crumbling popularity after the Kent State shootings made him try to shore up his party by dividing the American people. (“Positive polarization,” his team called it.)
In the past this rhetoric got little public pushback. That has changed. On the Sunday talk shows, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, called McConnell’s suggestion that states like New York should declare bankruptcy “outrageous” and “incredibly dangerous,” pointing out that budget shortfalls were a result of the closures because of the pandemic. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, the Republican at the head of the National Governors Association, wasn’t happy either, saying that McConnell “probably would regret making that comment.” Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, tweeted “If Florida would like to have a conversation about making sure no state gets more money from the federal government than they send to it, Connecticut is ready.”
Connecticut gets back just 84 cents for every dollar it sends to the federal government. Florida gets $1.12.
The coordination of state governors and their increasingly prominent platform suggests that we might finally be able to undercut the rhetoric of “makers” and “takers” that has poisoned our politics for a generation.
You can sign up for this free newsletter at heathercoxrichardson.substack.com