March 30, 2020

Tonight the top of the Empire State building flashed red and white like an emergency beacon, and the interpretations of that new signal encapsulated the nation's varying responses to the coronavirus. The Empire State Building’s Twitter account explained that the new lighting was supposed to represent “the heartbeat of America with a white and red siren in the mast for heroic emergency workers on the front line of the fight.”

But it looked far too much like an emergency signal for some observers. Yale Professor Joanne Freeman tweeted “I have never seen the Empire State Building do this. Definitely sending the message: ALARM.”

In contrast, Fox News Channel personality Martha MacCallum simply reinterpreted it for her viewers, telling them the clearly red and white lights were actually red, white, and blue. It was “lit up in red, white, and blue," she said, "in recognition of the nationwide effort to combat Covid-19.”

There were more than 160,000 coronavirus cases in the United States today, and the death toll is close to 3,000.

But while all eyes are on the coronavirus, there are a number of other stories that bear watching.

March was supposed to be the month when a number of legal cases involving the president came before judges. The Supreme Court was due to review Trump’s effort to shield his tax returns and financial records from Congress, as well as his insistence that a sitting president should be immune from any criminal proceeding related to any conduct before taking office or during his term, even if he were to shoot someone on Fifth Avenue. But the pandemic has forced the Supreme Court to postpone oral arguments. This is rare but not unprecedented: the Supreme Court postponed sessions during the 1918 influenza epidemic and in 1793 and 1798 during an outbreak of yellow fever.

That was not the only legal action expected in March and now postponed. Tuesday, March 31 was the deadline for the Department of Justice to turn over an unredacted version of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Report so Judge Reggie Walton could read it himself and determine whether or not the Justice Department’s continuing unwillingness to make public crucial parts of the report is justified. Walton has expressed concerns about Attorney General William Barr’s “lack of candor” in the matter. Today, the DOJ turned over the report, but the court is largely closed because of the pandemic, and the review cannot now begin until April 20, 2020 at the earliest.

March 31 was also the date scheduled for Barr himself to appear before the House Judiciary Committee for the first time in his 14 months in office. Barr was set to talk about how he handled the Mueller report and the Ukraine Scandal whistleblower report, and Trump’s interference in the sentencing of his associate Roger Stone. With the House out of session until at least April 20, though, that hearing has been postponed, with no new date yet set.

The issue of Russian sanctions has not gone away, either. Trump called into Fox and Friends this morning to chat with the personalities there who, unlike the reporters at his briefings, will not ask him uncomfortable questions. On air, he announced that he his next phone call would be to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Then, after attacking the report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller on Russian interference in the 2016 election, Trump defended his advances toward Russia. He said: "They love to be able to do trade with our country. It’s been very much hindered by the nonsense that’s been going on. Russia, Russia, Russia, which has turned out to be a total hoax when you look at what happened with Comey and McCabe and you look at all the things that happened with Mueller and the Mueller report.”

Putin has worked for years to get rid of the sanctions placed on his country after it invaded Ukraine, sanctions that make it impossible for him and key allies to move money, and has recently insisted that the coronavirus makes the lifting of sanctions a “matter of life and death.” Trump would not answer a question about what he would say if Putin asked him to lift sanctions. Instead, he harked back to World War Two, reminding the hosts that Russia was an American ally then and Germany was an enemy. He dismissed the idea that Russia was still engaging in disinformation campaigns in the United States--although intelligence agencies have said they are—saying “They do it and we do it…. Every country does it.”

Reports of the call itself say the two leaders discussed oil prices, trade, and the coronavirus.

Apparent corruption is still around, too. Last Friday, at 4:00, the Bureau of Indian Affairs told Cedrick Cromwell, the chair of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe that the tribes 321-acre reservation would no longer be considered sovereign land. The Secretary of the Department of the Interior, David Bernhardt, had decided to remove the reservation from federal trust. But why?

The tribe has been trying to get approval for a casino on its land, which is about 18 miles from Rhode Island, where men close to Trump already operate two casinos. Their company, Twin River Worldwide Holdings, hired as a lobbyist Matthew Schlapp, chair of the American Conservative Union and a big Trump supporter, whose wife Mercedes is Trump’s director of strategic communications. Loss of sovereignty over their land will hurt the Wampanoag’s bid for the one remaining casino license in Massachusetts, thus leaving the Rhode Island casinos without competition and the remaining license up for grabs.

The Fox News Channel is still spouting disinformation, but it might be in trouble. Its abrupt about face on the dangers of Covid-19 had a legal angle. Yesterday, Vanity Fair special correspondent Gabriel Sherman told MSNBC “I’ve been talking to Fox insiders over the last few days, there’s a real concern inside the network that their early downplaying of the coronavirus actually exposes Fox News to potential legal action by viewers who maybe were misled and actually have died from this.” Sherman pointed out that the Murdoch family, which owns the channel, had privately taken the virus very seriously and protected themselves even while downplaying it to viewers.

Michael Bromwich, former Inspector General for the Department of Justice and Assistant US Attorney for the Southern District of New York noted: “Fox is right to be concerned. Very concerned. This could be a legal bloodbath. Discovery will undoubtedly show that its personnel were putting out falsely comforting information it knew to be false and misleading in order to sync up with WH messaging.”

And finally, in his call to the Fox News Channel this morning, Trump said out loud something that has been on the table in the Republican Party since the 1980s when leaders began to talk about winning by suppressing the Democratic vote. Talking about the recent coronavirus relief and stimulus bill, Trump said: “The things they had in there were crazy. They had levels of voting, that if you ever agreed to it you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

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Notes:

Freeman:

https://www.today.com/news/striking-video-shows-empire-state-building-spinning-siren-red-light-t177156

MacCallum:

cases: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/03/31/coronavirus-latest-news/

Walton: https://lawandcrime.com/high-profile/federal-judge-who-slammed-ag-barr-obtains-unredacted-version-of-mueller-report/

SCOTUS: https://www.cnn.com/2019/12/13/politics/supreme-court-trump-impeachment-taxes-separation-of-powers/index.html

https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/16/politics/supreme-court-march-trump-taxes/index.html

Barr hearing: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/23/house-judiciary-committee-postpones-barr-hearing-144522

Congress in recess: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/30/congress-remote-coronavirus-155729

Trump will speak with Putin: https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/490126-trump-says-hell-speak-with-putin-on-monday

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-oil-opec-trump/us-russia-agree-to-oil-market-talks-as-trump-calls-price-war-crazy-idUSKBN21H216

https://news.yahoo.com/trump-says-putin-probably-ask-sanctions-lifting-135152258.html

Voting:

Wampanoag: https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/politics/a31979473/president-trump-casino-massachusetts-mashpee-wampanoag/

https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/politics/a31979473/president-trump-casino-massachusetts-mashpee-wampanoag/

Sherman:

Bromwich:

https://www.mediamatters.org/fox-news/fox-news-worried-about-legal-action-after-misleading-viewers-about-coronavirus