March 20, 2020

If there is a story today, it is in how fast our news cycles are changing. Last night I wrote of the news that Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) and Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) appear to have capitalized on private information about the dangers of coronavirus they received as senators by selling off stock and, in Loeffler’s case, buying stock in a company that makes telecommuting software.

Some of you expressed dismay that I did not include in my list Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), James Inhofe (R-OK), or Ron Johnson (R-WI). But the stories that they had sold stock in the crucial period broke after I wrote last night, posting at 3:00 a.m., so I did not see them until after I had posted (and couldn’t bear to go back in and revise at that hour). And then the story changed again: it appears that the transactions of the last three were legitimate: Feinstein did not attend the briefing where the senators heard of the dangers of the coronavirus, her holdings are in a blind trust and her sales were in unrelated stocks, and she lost money; Inhofe had been systematically selling stocks for a while; Johnson, too, had been selling stocks and continued to sell after the market began dropping.

Burr and Loeffler, though, remain on the hook with abrupt transactions that appear connected to the coronavirus briefing. Burr responded to the reports today with a weak defense that said he had relied only on “public news reports” of the seriousness of the issue and that he wants the Senate Ethics Committee to open “a complete review.”

This story has been in the news cycle only 24 hours, and it seems already to be behind us. One thing that has stuck, though, is that our Intelligence agencies were warning the president and members of Congress as early as January that the coronavirus would be a deadly pandemic, even as those same lawmakers continued to downplay the danger and claim that concerns about it were a Democratic hoax.

The rest of the day’s news is more of the same that we have been getting for the past few weeks, all on steroids:

Our coronavirus numbers are up again, with more than 19,200 diagnosed cases in the United States. At least 258 have died. California and New York have ordered their inhabitants to stay at home except for imperative trips for supplies or medical care; New Jersey, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut, as well as the city of New Orleans, have issued similar restrictions. The administration has closed the borders to Canada and Mexico to all nonessential travelers starting at midnight on Saturday.

The stock market is down again, stumbling lower as investors tried to figure out where the coronavirus would leave the world economy. On February 12, the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit an all-time high of 29,551.42, but on Friday, March 20, it closed at 19,173.98, capping a loss of a third of its value. It is now below where it was when Trump took office, erasing the gains that he has boasted of as a sign of the strength of his administration.

The strain on the president showed today in his press conference when he lashed out at NBC News reporter Peter Alexander. Alexander lobbed a softball question at Trump, giving him an opening to reassure Americans with a positive or uplifting message. Alexander asked him “What do you say to Americans who are scared…? I guess, nearly 200 dead, 14,000 who are sick, millions, as you witnessed, who are scared right now. What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared?” Rather than answering with a calming, quotable sentence or two, like FDR’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Trump attacked Alexander. “I say that you’re a terrible reporter. That’s what I say. I think that’s a very nasty question.” Vice President Mike Pence recognized the question for the opportunity it was and later answered the question: “Do not be afraid, be vigilant.” He then went on to explain that the risk for most Americans is low.

Trump’s petulance has left a leadership vacuum in the country, into which others are stepping, notably New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has been carefully explaining to New Yorkers the pandemic and steps he is taking to fight it. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is now hoping to step into the vacuum Trump is leaving. Biden has kept quiet in this pandemic to keep from looking like he was making political attacks during a time of crisis, but as Trump has used his “bully pulpit” to mislead Americans rather than to inform them—saying, for example, that a vaccine is “very close” (it’s not), and that everyone can get tests (they can’t)-- Biden evidently feels that caution is no longer necessary. He has announced he will start his own briefings as early as Monday, informing Americans of the truth but also likely expecting that he will look more presidential than the actual president as Trump continues to mislead his audience, bully the experts, and lash out at reporters.

The Senate today passed the House coronavirus bill by a vote of 90-8. Voting no on this second coronavirus relief package, which is expected to cost around $104 billion, were Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), James Inhofe (R-OK), Ron Johnson (R-WI), James Lankford (R-OK), Mike Lee (R-UT), Rand Paul R-(KY), Ben Sasse (R-NE), and Tim Scott (R-SC). Trump is expected to sign it. The Senate is working on a third, far more expensive, coronavirus bill, but Republicans, who hold the majority, wrote it without input from Democrats. Now, Democrats believe it is helping business more than regular Americans and want changes, and the two sides cannot find common ground. Still, the Republicans believe the Democrats will accept the $1 trillion dollar bill rather than face popular anger if they block it.

Meanwhile, Trump continues his effort to mold the Intelligence Community to his own ends, purging career officials and replacing them with cronies. Today, nine former intelligence leaders—virtually all of them-- wrote a letter warning Americans that the Trump administration is pursuing a “deeply destructive path” by getting rid of the “nonpartisan experts who serve the president and the American people with no regard to personal politics.” The politicization of the intelligence community “is destructive of our nation’s ideals, and it puts us all at risk,” they wrote.

History has an annoying way of moving glacially, glacially, glacially... until it suddenly turns on a dime. We are in one of those sudden changes. Nothing brought that home to me more than a question from a reader asking where Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani had gone. Just over a month ago he was in the headlines as we learned that the Department of Justice had set up a system to receive information from Giuliani about Hunter Biden and his insistence-- contrary to all our Intelligence agencies-- that it was Ukraine and not Russia that attacked our 2016 election. Today, just over a month later, I had to google him to find out where he'd gone. He has apparently started his own youtube channel to show that the conspiracy he claims to have uncovered in Ukraine reaches all the way through the Democratic party leadership.

Our world is moving fast.

——

Notes:

Burr: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/20/opinion/burr-loeffler-stocks-coronavirus.html

Other stock sellers:

Early warnings: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/us-intelligence-reports-from-january-and-february-warned-about-a-likely-pandemic/2020/03/20/299d8cda-6ad5-11ea-b5f1-a5a804158597_story.html

Second bill passes Senate: https://thehill.com/homenews/senate/488264-senate-passes-houses-coronavirus-bill-sending-it-to-trump

Third bill: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/20/senate-coronavirus-emergency-stimulus-deal-friday-138788

https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/19/politics/mcconnell-coronavirus-cnntv/index.html

toll: https://abcnews.go.com/Health/coronavirus-live-updates-china-exonerates-whistleblower-doctor-warned/story

Stocks: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/03/20/stocks-markets-today-coronavirus/

Intelligence letter: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/former-intelligence-chiefs-trumps-removals-of-experts-are-deeply-destructive-to-our-nations-safety/2020/03/20/b16e7e06-6ac3-11ea-abef-020f086a3fab_story.html

restrictions: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/20/world/coronavirus-news-usa-world.html

alexander: https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/donald-trump/trump-rips-reporter-who-asked-him-calm-scared-americans-terrible-n1165031

Biden: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/20/biden-coronavirus-plannings-139629

Giuliani: https://www.ft.com/content/2caaf124-6797-11ea-800d-da70cff6e4d3

https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/10/politics/justice-department-rudy-giuliani-ukraine/index.html