Thursday, May 28, 2020

In pandemic, Trump's tweets backfire -- May 28, 2020 column


As the COVID-19 death toll neared and surpassed 100,000, President Donald Trump used his Twitter pulpit to sow fear, distrust and discord.

He even took after Fox News, calling some on-air personalities “garbage.”

Fox is “doing nothing to help Republicans, and me, get re-elected on November 3rd,” Trump complained in a tweet May 21.

Poor Donald. Then, a new Fox nationwide poll found former Vice President Joe Biden, the putative Democratic presidential nominee, leading Trump by 8 points, well above the 3-point margin of error and a healthy jump from a month earlier when the Fox poll showed a tie.

Such numbers explain Trump’s desperate rush to reopen the economy, even though he acknowledges it will cost lives. COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, most severely affects the elderly, the poor and people of color. The states hit hardest tend to vote Democratic.

After nearly four years in office, Trump still claims to be an outsider and a victim – of “fake news,” of former president Barack Obama, of Democrats, and of the social media he himself manipulates so skillfully.

It didn’t have to be this way.

Trump believes he cannot win reelection without a bustling economy and strong stock market, but he should not present a false choice between public health and the economy.

He just as easily could wear a mask and urge his 80.3 million Twitter followers to do so and keep social distance, as medical experts recommend.

He could lead national testing and contact tracing programs. He could urge states to follow the guidelines his own administration issued for a safe reopening of the economy, even if it takes more time.

Instead, motivated by self-interest, he ridicules Biden for wearing a face mask and bullies governors who move cautiously to reopen.

“They would rather see our country fail,” Trump says of Democrats. And, if the reopening fails, we know he’ll blame the Democrats.

But the virus doesn’t know red from blue. The virus doesn’t care if you have the luxury of working from home or must risk your life in a store or restaurant.

More than 40 million people have filed for unemployment benefits in the pandemic, and many small businesses may not survive.

Now Trump wants a Fourth of July celebration on the National Mall. He threatens to move the Republican National Convention from Charlotte unless North Carolina’s Democratic governor quickly promises to allow “full attendance at the Arena.”

To distract from harsh reality, Trump accuses Obama of unsubstantiated, unspecific crimes and even treason and Biden of, well, everything. Obama has indirectly criticized Trump’s leadership; Biden called Trump a “fool.”

In recent days Trump isolated himself from his usual allies by suggesting – without a shred of evidence – that a prominent critic, MSNBC “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough, committed murder.

In 2001, when Scarborough was a Republican House member in Washington, a young female aide in his Florida office died. Authorities investigated the death of Lori Klausutis at the time and found she had an undiagnosed heart condition and fell, hit her head and died. Her body was found the next morning.

On Twitter, Trump has urged authorities to reopen the “Cold Case.” Her widower begged Trump and Twitter to remove Trump’s tweets, but they refused.

This time, Trump’s baseless attacks prompted a rare backlash from conservative media, including the New York Post – “Trust us, you did not look like the bigger man.” The Washington Examiner called the claims “vile.”

And my personal favorite, from The Wall Street Journal: “ugly even for him.”

“It’s a smear,” a Journal editorialist wrote. “Mr. Trump is debasing is office, and he’s hurting the country in doing so.”

A few congressional Republicans also spoke up. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, chair of the House Republican Conference, urged Trump to stop tweeting about Scarborough.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois, tweeted that Trump’s Scarborough tweets were a “completely unfounded conspiracy. Just stop. Stop spreading it. Stop creating paranoia. It will destroy us.”

Twitter fact-checkers tagged two other Trump tweets as “unsubstantial claims” after he said, again without proof, that mail-in voting would be “substantially fraudulent.”

Trump is on the warpath against social media, which he and conservatives have long claimed stifle conservative speech.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus is still here and likely to stay around. Even if a vaccine is developed, it could take years to control the virus worldwide, if ever.

Our lives must and will change. Trump’s misleading tweets won’t stop that.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Watchdogs -- Never more needed, or endangered -- May 21, 2020 column


An inspector general investigates wrongdoing by the head of a federal department who’s also a staunch presidential ally.

Boom! The president fires the inspector general. What now?

Sounds like a plot of a Netflix drama, but that’s roughly what happened last Friday night, when President Donald Trump fired Steve Linick, the State Department inspector general.

Linick, it seems, ran afoul of his boss by doing his job. Inspectors general are independent watchdogs inside federal departments and agencies who investigate corruption, misconduct and misuse of federal funds. 

Linick reportedly had launched an investigation into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s use of agency staff for personal chores and into an $8 billion U.S. arms sale to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates without the approval of Congress.

Trump said he fired Linick because Pompeo asked him to do so. Pompeo said he didn’t know Linick was investigating him or the arms sale.

Linick was the fourth inspector general in six weeks Trump fired on a Friday night when most Americans were focused on the coronavirus pandemic and the economic meltdown.

Trump on May 1 said he was naming a new inspector general at Health and Human Service, moving aside Christi Grimm, the principal deputy inspector general.

Her office had issued a report about problems in 300 hospitals nationwide that were struggling without adequate equipment to respond to COVID-19, the deadly disease caused by the novel coronavirus – while Trump was bragging hospitals had everything they needed.

In April, Trump said he was replacing Glenn Fine, acting inspector general at Defense. The move means Fine is ineligible to lead a new panel charged with oversight of the trillions of dollars in pandemic relief funds recently approved by Congress.

Also in April, Trump fired Michael Atkinson, Trump’s own appointee as inspector general of the intelligence community. Atkinson had told Congress about the whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment.

Trump says he lacked confidence in the inspectors general, but his Friday night massacres raise a larger question: What does his administration have to hide?

The firings also send a clear message to the dozens of IGs stationed around the federal government: To keep your job, avoid annoying the boss.

But we don’t have a king. The Constitution creates three equal branches of government, with checks and balances. All Americans, regardless of party, should demand inspectors general be protected so they can do their work on our behalf.  

In the wake of Watergate, Congress passed the Inspector General Act of 1978, authorizing a system of independent auditors and investigators to uncover and report on corruption in the federal bureaucracy.

Under the law, the president chooses and the Senate confirms inspectors “without regard to political affiliation and solely on the basis of integrity and demonstrated ability in accounting” and other financial specialties.

Of course, no president likes inspectors snooping around, but Trump said Monday, “Every president has gotten rid of probably more [inspector generals] than I have.” That’s wrong.

When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, he quickly tried to clean house of inspectors general. After a bipartisan uproar, though, he re-nominated five of the 15 he had fired, according to a new Congressional Research Service report.

A handful of other inspectors may have quit to avoid firing, the research service said in the May 12 report, but since 2000 only one president had fired any.

In 2009, President Barack Obama fired Gerald Walpin, IG of the Corporation for National Community Service, after Walpin investigated how grant money was used at a school in California run by former NBA basketball player Kevin Johnson. Johnson was a supporter of Obama and mayor of Sacramento.

“No one seemed to care” when Obama did the firing, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany complained this week. That’s also wrong. The Obama firing led to a bipartisan congressional effort to tighten rules on firing inspectors general. It failed.

At a time when inspectors general have never been more needed, or endangered, Trump would happily get rid of more.

And so we see a familiar pattern. Congressional Democrats raise alarms while almost all congressional Republicans sit silent.

If Congress won’t stop Trump from weakening watchdogs, the voters must remember come November.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

The right thing: Protect frontline workers -- May 14, 2020 column


It’s the least we can do.

We ask essential workers to fight the war on the novel coronavirus every day, even as the rest of us try to stay out of harm’s way.

The least we can do is give them the proper equipment them to do their work safely -- or as safely as possible under harrowing circumstances.

These heroic workers live with the fear they’ll bring the deadly virus home to their families and themselves, and, sadly, their fears are justified.

While no database records cases of COVID-19, the disease the coronavirus causes, among medical personnel, one small federal study found health care workers – including doctors, nurses, aides and janitors – account for about 20% of known COVID-19 cases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study also reported just 27 COVID-related deaths among medical personnel as of April 14, but noted the count was based on a survey of just 16% of all cases. The actual number of deaths is surely far higher.

Providing personal protective equipment (PPE) – masks, plastic shields, gloves and gowns – to essential workers has been spotty at best, with widespread shortages reported. Shortages are being exacerbated by unscrupulous suppliers flooding the United States with counterfeit equipment.

Millions of masks, gloves, gowns and other supplies in use in American hospitals are counterfeit, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.

The tip-off N95 masks from China were fake, even though they appear to be certified as medical-grade by the U.S. government, was ear loops. Real N95 masks have bands that stretch around the head, not just the ears, to keep the masks in place.

There must be a special place in hell for people who profit by selling shoddy goods that risk lives. For now, the federal government is pursuing the perpetrators.

Operation Stolen Promise, led by Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, has netted 11 arrests and 519 seizures, AP reported.

“And yet counterfeit goods continue to pour in – not just masks, but also mislabeled medicines, and fake COVID-19 tests and cures,” according to the agency.

This is appalling news, but there are glimmers of hope. Some states seem to be meeting the formidable challenges.

Frontline workers in New York now test positive less often for antibodies to COVID-19 than the general public, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced Wednesday.

“You know what that means? That means PPE works. Masks work. Gloves work. Hand sanitizing works,” Cuomo said.

“How do health care workers have a lower percentage of infection than the general population? Because people don’t wear these at home, and they don’t take the same precautions. But this works.”

The lower rate is significant because the largest nurses’ union in New York state had to go to court last month and sue the state health department and two hospitals, to force changes in protective procedures.

New York state, the epicenter of infection with nearly 350,000 confirmed cases, has seen significant improvement, enough to warrant reopening parts of the state.

Cuomo issued executive orders last month requiring all people in New York to wear masks or face coverings in public whenever social distancing – keeping six feet away from others -- was impossible, including on public or private transportation. He also ordered nursing home staff be tested for COVID-19 twice a week.

“This is a social exercise,” he said. “I believe in the people, and I believe when they have the right information and they trust the information and they know the information is actually factual as opposed to some type of political jargon, they will do the right thing. And they have.”

Face coverings are sensible, and the White House now requires staffers to wear them, even though President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence refuse.

Virginia recommends, but does not require, face coverings.

Coverings protect other people, not the wearer. If you are infected but asymptomatic and wear a mask or covering over your nose and mouth, you help stop the spread of disease.

“It says to other people, I respect you, I respect your family, I respect the work of our front-line heroes, the nurses . . . I wear this mask to protect you and your family because I respect you,” Cuomo said.

Show some respect? Yes, that’s the least we should do.  

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

What's the rush? Consumers rule -- May 7, 2020 column


“We’re all in this together.”

Those encouraging words burble from politicians, TV commercials and the public address system in the supermarket as you survey still-empty shelves.

Are we in this together? Not really.

As COVID-19 ravages the country, with more than 1.2 million confirmed cases and more than 73,000 deaths, the disease disproportionately affects the elderly, people of color and the poor.

Meanwhile, the political chasm grows wider and deeper.

President Donald Trump and many Republican governors are pushing to reopen the economy – ignoring the White House’s own guidelines on how to do so safely.

The guidelines include a 14 day-trend of declining COVID-19 cases or of positive tests as a percent of tests. In more than half the states easing restrictions, both measures are trending upwards, not down, the New York Times reported.

But there are signs we’re in this together in one way. Most Americans are united around an idea: Don’t rush to reopen. Do it right.

The angry protesters who demand their states be “liberated” get oodles of news coverage, but they are a minority. Most Americans say they are willing to stay home and observe social distancing a while longer. To do otherwise is to court later waves of disease and future lockdowns, which could be disastrous.

Many recent polls have found a strong majority of Americans want the government to slow the spread of the virus first, even if the economy is hurt in the short run. Rather than pretending everything is fine, elected officials should respond accordingly.

Two-thirds of people say they would be uncomfortable shopping at a retail clothing store and nearly eight in 10 said they would be uncomfortable eating at a sit-down restaurant, a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll reported this week.

Interestingly, people in states with looser restrictions reported levels of discomfort similar to those in states with stricter rules.

Six in 10 people support stay-at-home restrictions and more than half are more concerned about stopping the virus’s spread than about the economic fallout, according to an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll last month.

Americans by vast majorities are not ready to return to school, go back to work, attend large sports events or eat in restaurants, a PBS-NPR-Marist poll reported.

And, remember, it’s consumers who hold the keys to the car. If they aren’t willing to take it for a spin, it’s sitting in the driveway.

Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell warned April 29 that while stay-at-home and social distancing orders stopped the economy cold, the economy won’t heal until consumers feel COVID-19 is under control.

“It’s worth remembering that the measures we are taking to contain the virus represent an investment in our individual and collective health,” Powell said April 29.

So what’s the rush? Trump believes his reelection depends on a booming economy. He acknowledges reopening will mean the sacrifice of American lives.

“Will some people be affected? Yes,” he said on his trip to Arizona Tuesday. “Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open, and we have to get it open soon.”

On Wednesday, he said the country “may very well” need to accept greater loss of life as the economy reopens. He insists, despite polls to the contrary, that social distancing rules are not sustainable.

The economic ruin that has swamped the country is horrific and unprecedented. Thirty-three million Americans have filed for unemployment, and the picture is likely to get much worse before it finally gets better, Powell said.

To reopen successfully, we need reliable widespread testing and contact tracing.

Real national leadership would acknowledge that reality and move to make testing and tracing a national priority, not left to each state.

Real national leadership would advise patience while scientists develop a vaccine and effective treatments.

Americans will make their own decisions for themselves and their families. Just because the government says you should go back out and spend money doesn’t mean you must.

If masks are voluntary, as Trump insists, so too is shopping at the mall, going to bars and restaurants and getting a manicure.

Be smart. Staying home, covering your face and observing social distancing are still the safest bet.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.