September 11, 2020

Today is the nineteenth anniversary of the terrorist attack that killed almost 3000 of us on this date in 2001. It feels wrong to write about daily news today and yet, as we approach 200,000 dead from a mismanaged pandemic and face unprecedented assaults on our national government, it also feels wrong not to.

We are also currently facing another crisis that demands our attention. Wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington have consumed more than 3 million acres in CA, more than a million acres in Oregon, and nearly 627,000 in Washington. The fires have killed at least 17 people; many more are missing. In Oregon, more than 40,000 residents have been evacuated with half a million preparing to leave evacuation zones. Towns have been burned to the ground, and state officials warn that they are preparing for a “mass fatality incident.”

The danger from Oregon fires has been compounded by politics, as rumors spread that the fires had been set by left-wing mobs planning to ransack houses after forcing people to evacuate. The FBI and local officials urged people not to listen to rumors and insisted that extremists were not setting the fires. The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office posted on Facebook: “Remember when we said to follow official sources only[?] Remember when we said rumors make this already difficult incident even harder? Rumors spread just like wildfire and now our 9-1-1 dispatchers and professional staff are being overrun with requests for information and inquiries on an UNTRUE rumor that 6 Antifa members have been arrested for setting fires in DOUGLAS COUNTY, OREGON. THIS IS NOT TRUE!... STOP. SPREADING. RUMORS!”

Although one person has been arrested for setting one of the fires, officials said he was not politically motivated. They described him as “a local transient” with a criminal record who had frequently tangled with law enforcement officers.

While Trump talked in July and August about protecting lives in Oregon and sent in federal forces to engage with protesters in the streets of Portland, he has remained virtually silent about the fires now devastating the western states. (Last summer, he offered federal help to Russian leader Vladimir Putin and to Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist, to contain wildfires burning in Siberia and the Amazon rain forest.) He has, though, issued an emergency declaration for California and Oregon, which opens up federal funding for those states.

How much money will go to help Americans through this year’s fires is unclear. The Iowa governor asked for close to $4 billion to rebuild after last month’s derecho storm; Trump approved $45 million (although he tweeted that he had approved “the FULL Emergency Declaration”). A month later Iowans have received $7.1 million in grants and small business loans.

It is also unclear how much money is available. At the end of July, the $600 federal weekly addition to state unemployment benefits ran out. The Senate refused to pass the House’s coronavirus relief bill and proved unable to write its own. Then talks between White House negotiators and Democratic House leaders about a new bill broke down. To replace some of the unemployment relief money-- $300 a week-- Trump redirected $54.2 billion from the Disaster Relief Fund administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), leaving $25 billion or so for emergencies. The money that went into unemployment benefits is now almost gone-- the extra payments will end for most recipients within a week or two. It’s unclear how far the remaining money will stretch.

Federal relief money was also in the news today as Michael McAuliff at the New York Daily News broke the story that, since 2016, the Trump administration has secretly siphoned off nearly $4 million from the New York City Fire Department’s 9/11 health fund, designed to treat New York firefighters and medics who suffer from illnesses related to their service on 9/11. The payments were authorized and sent, but the Treasury Department began keeping some of the money.

The administration had not responded to years of inquiries about the hold, but today, after the news story broke, a Treasury Department official emailed to say that it was “an unfortunate situation.” The department blamed an accounting error that docked money from the fund because the city owed money on a different account. Dr. David Prezant, the medical officer who oversees the program, rejected the explanation, noting that he had been asking for answers for years. “They are giving us craziness,” he told McAuliff and his colleague Chris Sommerfeldt. “If they’re talking [sic] money because the city owes them money, let them take it from where the city owes it. And if they’re taking money, they should tell people they’re taking money. This has been a clandestine operation.”

Representative Peter King, a Republican from Long Island who is retiring from Congress this year, agreed: “The initial blame has to go to Treasury. Whoever decided to target the FDNY 9/11 firefighters health fund — it’s just absolutely disgraceful, totally indefensible.”

The administration’s honesty on other issues was in the news, today, too. Nora R. Dannehy, a top aide in the Justice Department, unexpectedly stepped down. Dannehy worked for U.S. Attorney John Durham, who is conducting an investigation into the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia in 2016. Attorney General William Barr appointed Durham to redo the work of the Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, when it became clear Horowitz’s own look at the probe would not support the president’s accusations that it was a “witch hunt.” When it came out, Horowitz’s report found errors in the FBI’s application for surveillance clearance, but concluded that the investigation was opened legitimately and conducted without political bias.

Dannehy did not explain why she has resigned, but the Hartford Courant reported that, according to her colleagues, she was unhappy that Barr was putting pressure on the team to produce a report before the election. Barr has made it clear he is intending to ignore the Justice Department’s policy of avoiding public announcements within 60 days of an election if such an announcement could affect the vote. After the Horowitz report, Trump told reporters: “I look forward to the Durham report, which is coming out in the not-too-distant future. It’s got its own information, which is this information plus plus plus.”

Today, former Judge John Gleeson, tapped by the judge overseeing Michael Flynn’s sentencing to examine whether or not it was appropriate to drop the case at the sentencing stage, delivered his brief. Trump’s friend and former National Security Advisor, Flynn had pleaded guilty of lying to FBI officers about his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak in early January 2017 but, after cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller for almost two years, Flynn tried to withdraw the guilty pleas and argue that he had been set up by the FBI. This May, the Justice Department tried to dismiss the case and set Flynn free. Judge Emmett Sullivan instead asked Gleeson to review the situation and scheduled a hearing on the issue. Flynn’s lawyer asked the court to order Sullivan to stop the prosecution immediately. A three-judge panel, headed by a Trump appointee, agreed, but the full bench overturned that ruling by a vote of 8-2.

And now we have Gleeson’s scathing review. He called the attempt to dismiss the case a plot to help a friend of the president evade the law. “There is clear evidence that this motion reflects a corrupt and politically motivated favor unworthy of our justice system,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, the House investigation of the Department of Homeland Security, sparked by this week’s whistleblower complaint by Brian Murphy, is expanding. Murphy claims that acting Director of Homeland Security Chad Wolf (appointed illegally, according to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office), and his deputy Ken Cuccinelli (also appointed illegally) pressured intelligence officers to change their reports to benefit the president. Officers were instructed to downplay the real threats of white supremacist violence and Russian interference in the election, and instead bolster Trump’s narrative that left-wing groups are a threat and that China and Iran, rather than Russia, are attacking our election.

Murphy will testify in private before the House Intelligence Committee on September 21.

The House Homeland Security Committee has subpoenaed Wolf to testify in a public hearing on September 17 after he refused to do so voluntarily. Trump yesterday submitted his name as an actual nominee for the post he has filled since last November and DHS says it is unprecedented for a department head to testify before his confirmation. It is, of course, unprecedented-- and likely illegal-- that Trump has kept an unconfirmed appointee in that position for so long.

In contrast to the apparent politicization of… well, everything… Biden today released his plans for combatting the coronavirus pandemic, should he be elected. Six months ago, he pulled together leaders from the George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama administrations to draft plans for ramping up testing, distributing protective equipment and vaccines, addressing health-care disparities, and reopening schools. Biden maintains that the economy cannot recover until the pandemic is addressed adequately.

His campaign also recognizes that, if he is elected, he will have to figure out how to both unify the country and restore the public’s faith in the federal government.