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The coronavirus view from Washington

Politics | Congress and the White House review the pandemic response and plan next steps
by Harvest Prude
Posted 6/25/20, 03:50 pm

WASHINGTON—The Trump administration’s top health officials trekked to Capitol Hill this week to answer tough questions about how they’ve handled the coronavirus crisis.

“It’s a mixed bag,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday, adding that the United States is still in the first wave of the pandemic even though some parts of the country have declining case numbers. “In other areas of the country, we’re now seeing a disturbing surge of infections. The next couple of weeks are going to be critical in our ability to address the surges we’re seeing.”

On Wednesday, health officials reported 36,000 new confirmed cases of COVID-19, marking a single-day record. The same day, seven states—Arizona, Arkansas, California, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas—reported new highs of coronavirus-related hospitalizations.

The federal government’s coronavirus response came under renewed scrutiny following President Donald Trump’s rally on Saturday in Tulsa, Okla., where he attributed the rise in recorded U.S. cases to increased testing. The president claimed he told health officials to “slow the testing down.” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany attempted to clarify Trump’s remarks on Monday, saying the comment was “made in jest.” The president doubled down that same day, telling a reporter, “I don’t kid. … We have got the greatest testing program anywhere in the world.”

Fauci and other witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing said no one in the Trump administration ever directed them to reduce testing. The United States has conducted about 27 million tests since the coronavirus first arrived in January. Since then, nearly 2.4 million people have tested positive, more than 122,000 have died, and close to 650,000 have recovered.

Squeezed by health concerns on the one hand and dire economic news on the other, the federal government has taken a decentralized approach to the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance for states, but the president has stayed away from countrywide, top-down mandates.

Camille Busette, a senior fellow of governance at the Brookings Institution, said the approach may have caused the United States to lose time quashing infections. She said Congress and the White House should proactively coordinate their responses to the pandemic’s medical and economic crises going forward.

“We do need more coordination around how we open up and how it is that we are going to deal with spikes in cases,” Busette said. “That’s an area the administration could be much more hands-on.”

Fauci told the House committee he does not believe states need to implement another total lockdown despite the increasing spread of the virus in some areas. He said if states run into trouble going from “phase one to phase two” of reopening, “they may need to go back to phase one.”

On Thursday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, paused his state’s reopening plan because COVID-19 patients began to fill intensive care units in bigger cities. Open businesses do not have to close, but they cannot return to full capacity as soon as expected. Abbott also ordered elective surgeries canceled in the Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio areas to hold hospital rooms open for coronavirus patients.

In the northeastern United States, the governors of Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York this week said travelers arriving from states with high infection rates should quarantine for 14 days. North Carolina, California, and Washington state announced they will require residents to wear face coverings in public. And Virginia released rules for businesses to follow for employees’ safety, the first such employer-based coronavirus regulations in any state.

On Wednesday, local health officials reported the number of COVID-19 cases in Tulsa County, Okla., hit a new high. But Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, a Republican, did not attribute the 259 new infections to the president’s rally or protests.

“It’s from people going to weddings and funerals and family gatherings and bars and other things like that,” he said.

The Tulsa Health Department recommends that anyone who attended a mass gathering get tested.

Associated Press/Photo by Alex Brandon (file) Associated Press/Photo by Alex Brandon (file) Attorney General William Barr

Barr under fire

Department of Justice officials at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday accused Attorney General William Barr of undermining the agency’s independence out of loyalty to President Donald Trump.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron Zelinsky, who formerly worked with special counsel Robert Mueller, said prosecutors felt “heavy pressure from the highest levels” of the department to request a lighter sentence for Trump ally Roger Stone. Democrats used subpoenas to secure the testimony of Zelinsky and John Elias, an official in the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division. Stone will serve a 40-month sentence beginning on Tuesday even though department officials initially recommended seven to nine years in prison for a conviction of lying to Congress.

Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said Barr did not discuss Stone’s sentencing with Trump or anyone else: “Mr. Zelinksy’s allegations concerning the U.S. attorney’s motivation are based on his own interpretation of events and hearsay at best, not first-hand knowledge.”

The hearing also focused on Barr’s role in the dismissal of Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York who presided over the investigation of the death of billionaire Jeffrey Epstein in federal custody. Berman investigated Trump associates such as the president’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, and others.

On Friday, Barr announced Berman would be “stepping down” from his role and the president would nominate someone else. Berman fired back in a statement that he had no intention of leaving. Barr officially fired him the next day after getting the sign-off from Trump.

Barr is set to appear before the House Judiciary Committee on July 28 for his first congressional testimony since taking office 16 months ago. Last year, the House voted to hold him in contempt for defying a Judiciary panel subpoena. —H.P.

Associated Press/Photo by Andrew Harnik (file) Associated Press/Photo by Andrew Harnik (file) Sen. Chuck Grassley

Lifting the blockade

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has lifted the holds he placed on two of President Donald Trump’s executive nominees.

The senator wanted explanations for why the Trump administration dismissed intelligence community Inspector General Michael Atkinson and State Department Inspector General Steve Linick. To get the information, Grassley said he would object to the nominations of Marshall Billingslea as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security and Christopher Miller as director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

Trump administration officials wrote a letter on June 12 explaining the firings.

“Although I do not agree with the president’s stated reasons for removing [the inspectors general], my objection to these nominees was designed to prompt compliance with the IG Reform Act, which the president has now done," Grassley said.

The State Department attributed Linick’s dismissal to leaks to a reporter about the contents of a watchdog report. Grassley said he hadn’t verified the allegations against Linick, but the “president retains the constitutional authority to manage executive branch personnel.”

Grassley said he inferred from the administration’s letter that Trump fired Atkinson “because of the speed with which he sought to bring the whistleblower information to Congress, and/or his role generally in the impeachment process.” —H.P.

New law enforcement laws on hold

On Wednesday, Senate Democrats blocked a Republican proposal for police reform. The procedural vote came back 55-45, five votes short of the 60 needed to bring the legislation to the floor for consideration. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Doug Jones, D-Ala., and Angus King, I-Maine, crossed the aisle to vote with their GOP colleagues.

Democrats criticized Republicans for not agreeing to specific amendments before the procedural vote. Republicans called out Democrats for sinking the bill before engaging in an open debate about it.

House Democrats are expected to pass their own police reform bill later this week, but the Republican-controlled Senate likely will not consider it. —H.P.

Harvest Prude

Harvest is a reporter for WORLD based in Washington, D.C.

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