When politicians want to hide a news story, they dump it on Friday night, after five o’clock, when it’s too late to make it onto the evening news. With luck, it will be forgotten by Monday, and will never get the attention it deserves. Tonight’s news dump was that Trump is replacing acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney with retiring North Carolina Representative Mark Meadows, a key Trump loyalist.
This move has been in the works since at least mid-December when Meadows announced he would not run for reelection. Mulvaney was the Director of the Office of Management and Budget as well as the acting Chief of Staff, making him key to the withholding of the money from Ukraine that was at the heart of the Ukraine Scandal. He was also apparently the one who put together the “Three Amigos”--Energy Secretary Rick Perry, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, and Kurt Volker, special envoy to Ukraine—to pressure Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation of Hunter Biden to weaken Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Mulvaney angered Trump in October when he admitted that the administration had withheld the Ukraine aid in exchange for the announcement. “We do that all the time with foreign policy,” he told reporters. “And I have news for everybody: Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.”
Trump’s advisors convinced him not to dump Mulvaney in the midst of the impeachment crisis, but the axe has dropped now as Trump is calling his most avid defenders to his side. Chiefs of staff tend to burn out quickly, but naming his fourth chief of staff in three years, and changing the guard at a time when his administration badly needs to give off the image of stability, suggests that Trump is aware his administration is in trouble. This means that his reelection is in trouble.
The novel coronavirus is not going away, and the administration’s handling of it is confusing and frustrating. As of Friday night, the U.S. has more than 300 cases of Covid-19 and at least 17 deaths. Trump has repeatedly downplayed concerns about Covid-19 and contradicted the statements of doctors and epidemiologists, saying, for example, that there would be a vaccine for the virus available in a few months, when experts say we’re looking at 12 to 18 months.
Trump toured the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta today. The visit had been planned but then was left off his Friday schedule (the president’s daily schedule is released the night before). When asked why the trip had been cancelled, Trump told reporters: “They thought there was a problem at CDC with somebody that had the virus…. It turned out negative so we are seeing if we can do it. They've tested the person fully and it was a negative test. So I may be going. We're going to see if they can turn it around with Secret Service. We may be going.” But no one had been informed of a suspected coronavirus case, including Vice President Mike Pence, who is coordinating the administration response to the crisis. The White House would not confirm the president’s statement.
So he went, but provided little calm as he boasted of his "natural ability" to understand the science behind the virus, compared the "perfect" coronavirus test to his "perfect" phone call with Ukraine President Volodymr Zelensky that touched off the Ukraine Scandal, and called Democratic Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who is overseeing the epicenter of the U.S. infections, "a snake."
The coronavirus continues to impact the economy. Leaders in Austin, Texas, have canceled the South by Southwest festival, a ten-day music, technology, film, and conference gathering, after TikTok, Twitter, Apple, Facebook, HBO, Netflix, and intel, had decided to keep their employees home. SXSW was due to start on March 13, and was expected to bring $350 million into Austin. Officials are issuing a local disaster declaration, although there have not been any cases of Covid-19 cases in Austin yet (there are three in Houston).
United Airlines has announced that it’s cutting its April international flights by about 20% and domestic flights by about 10%. Leaders in the travel and hospitality industry are begging people to keep traveling, but with companies and schools cancelling travel, it is likely that this sector of the economy is going to take at least a temporary hit.
The impact of novel coronavirus on the economy is still driving the stock market down. It rallied on Wednesday with the Dow Jones Industrial Average gaining 1,173 points after former Vice President Joe Biden did well on Super Tuesday, but dropped again on Thursday: the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 969 points, or 3.6%. It dropped again today by 253 points, slightly less than 1%. The faltering economy threatens Trump’s reelection since his strongest argument for another term was the strength of the economy. In a “town hall” last night on Fox News Channel, he insisted that the economy was the best it has ever been, and that in a second term, We’re… going to have growth like you’ve never seen before.” But experts say we’re in for a rough ride until we figure out how to counter the novel coronavirus.
Trump is worried how the economic slump will affect his reelection and, meanwhile, the administration has taken two bad hits in courts this week over its election ties to Russia. On Thursday, Judge Reggie Walton, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote that Attorney General William Barr’s efforts to mislead the public over the Mueller Report into Russian interference in the 2016 election "cause the Court to seriously question whether Attorney General Barr made a calculated attempt to influence public discourse about the Mueller Report in favor of President Trump despite certain findings in the redacted version of the Mueller Report to the contrary." Walton is presiding over a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that asks the court to make the Department of Justice release the unredacted report, which has not yet been made public. Walton says he will read the unredacted report himself to see if the Justice Department’s redactions (that is, blacking out of sections) was reasonable, or simply an attempt to protect the president. “I have never seen an attorney general called out this way before by a judge for making misrepresentations,” Harry Sandick, a former federal prosecutor, told TalkingPointsMemo.
On Friday, in a different FOIA case, U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ordered the National Security Agency to let her see a memo of a conversation between Trump and former NSA chief Admiral Mike Rogers, asking Rogers to push back against news reports that the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia. Rogers’s deputy wrote the memo, and Mueller summarized it in his report. Transparency groups want to see it; Trump says it is classified under executive privilege. Kollar-Kotelly says she wants to see it to make a determination.
So Trump is fighting to retain control of the narrative for his reelection. The Trump Campaign has sued the New York Times, the Washington Post, and CNN for “false and defamatory statements” about the campaign’s apparent openness to working with Russia in 2020. The suits seemed designed to gin up the Trump base and to undercut stories of Russian intervention in the upcoming election, which experts say is already actively underway.
A final quick word about the Democratic contest for the presidential nomination. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren suspended her campaign yesterday after a poor showing on Super Tuesday. She has not endorsed either of her main opponents. The short-term takeaway from this is that it is a problem for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who badly wanted her endorsement to shore up his flagging campaign. But I think there is maybe a longer term takeaway too, and that is the reality that there are so very many issues at play in American politics right now that Warren is wisely taking a step back to see what the next several months bring.
Thanks for being so kind about last night's hiatus. I needed the ten hours of sleep, but sheesh! I look at today's news and think it might have been easier just to write....
Coronavirus numbers: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/06/us/politics/trump-coronavirus-cdc.html