December 15, 2020
There’s not a lot going on today that changes the national story, so this letter is a good one to skip if you’re tired of news.
Coronavirus numbers continue to climb, even as vaccinations are beginning. Josh Kovensky and Kate Riga at Talking Points Memo are following the story that the Trump administration appears to have planned a federal vaccine rollout only until Biden takes office, and then has simply planned to turn the problem over to the states to handle without any funding. This threatens to turn vaccine distribution into chaos, while Trump administration officials are making rosy predictions about how things will go in those early weeks.
Dr. Leana Wen, a former Baltimore city health commissioner and a George Washington University health policy professor, told the TPM reporters: “I just don’t see how it would happen.” Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar has promised that the vaccine will be widely distributed in February and March, but, she said, “That’s an extremely optimistic projection that assumes everything is done perfectly, and when resources are so limited, that perfect execution is nearly impossible.”
Joe Biden continues to move forward with his administration, naming former rival Pete Buttigieg for Secretary of Transportation. Buttigieg, the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, emerged as a surprisingly popular presidential candidate in 2020, and afterward turned out to be an astonishingly good voice for Democratic policies on the Fox News Channel. (Seriously. Go watch clips.)
But critics note that his experience in public office is limited to his mayorship, and his nomination would throw him at the head of a department of 55,000 employees in service to a president who has vowed extensive infrastructure development—for real, this time. Since he is obviously hungry for national elected office, nerdy about infrastructure, and good in front of the cameras, it’s not clear this is a bad idea. It might be a good way to boost a low-profile department that often goes unappreciated.
Buttigieg ran his presidential campaign on a platform of climate action, and his nomination has already drawn praise from the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the League of Conservation Voters. If confirmed, he will be the nation’s first openly gay Cabinet member.
Now that the Electoral College has cast the votes that elect Joe Biden to the presidency, Republican senators are acknowledging Biden’s win. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told other Republican senators not to object to the certification of the Electoral College votes on January 6. Doing so would force the rest of the Senate to vote against Trump, infuriating Trump voters, and McConnell hopes to avoid such a vote. Still, Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) have indicated they might be willing to join House Republicans in challenging the votes.
Tomorrow, the Senate Homeland Security Committee, which Johnson chairs, will hold an oversight hearing on what he says are the irregularities in the 2020 election. Courtrooms, where lawyers bear penalties for lying, have turned up no irregularities. The Senate hearing will have much more latitude, and its first witness is Republican operative Kenneth W. Starr, so it is almost certainly going to consist of rumors and assumptions rather than any evidence to which the witnesses could swear under oath.
The White House continues to refuse to acknowledge Trump’s loss. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany today said simply that “The president is still involved in ongoing litigation related to the election. Yesterday’s vote was one step in the constitutional process.”
The lies about the election spread by Trump and his loyalists are radicalizing Republican true believers, according to security officials and terrorism researchers. They worry that fringe conspiracy theories are going mainstream. Polls suggest that 77% of Trump supporters believe that Biden stole the election—although there is no evidence of fraud—and officials worry those true believers are turning to violence.
Elizabeth Neumann, who resigned from her job as Assistant Secretary for Threat Prevention and Security Policy at the Department of Homeland Security in April out of concerns that Trump was exacerbating right-wing violence, noted that “the conservative infotainment sector makes money off… outrage.” Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, who was a senior adviser in the State Department, Defense Department, and the National Security Council, agreed with others that Trump is promoting radicalism by spreading conspiracies and disinformation. "Leadership matters," she said. "It really matters that the president of the United States is an arsonist of radicalization. And it will really help when that is no longer the case."
In Houston, Texas, today, police arrested a former police department captain for running a man off the road and pointing a gun at his head in a misguided attempt to foil a massive voter fraud scheme. Sixty-three-year-old Mark Anthony Aguirre claimed to be part of a citizens’ group investigating voter fraud. Believing his victim was hiding 750,000 fraudulent ballots in his truck, Aguirre rammed the truck with his SUV and held the driver first at gunpoint and then with his knee in the man’s back until police came. Upon inspection, it turned out the truck was full of air conditioning parts. The district attorney, Kim Ogg, said “His alleged investigation was backward from the start—first alleging a crime had occurred and then trying to prove it happened…. [W]e are lucky no one was killed.”
But power is shifting in Washington. Tonight, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife Susan hosted an indoor holiday party to which they had invited more than 900 guests. Only about 70 people responded to the invitation and even fewer showed up to what public health officials warned could be a superspreader event. In the past, the party has drawn 200-300 people, but the combination of a pandemic and the waning days of the administration meant the event had little attraction. Pompeo’s name was on the invitation and he was scheduled to speak, but he canceled and sent someone else.