Letters From an American

Heather Cox Richardson: The Coronavirus Election

Heather Cox Richardson: The Coronavirus Election

October 19, 2020

With the election just over two weeks away, the news is intense.

The biggest story, by far, remains coronavirus. While we are all understandably buffeted by the craziness of politics these days, no historians will ever write about this election without noting that over it hangs the pall of more than 220,000 Americans dead of Covid-19 and more than 8 million infected, and that numbers, once again, are rising. Today the US had 58,387 new cases, along with at least 445 deaths.

After Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and, theoretically anyway, an adviser to the White House, was quoted on CBS’s 60 Minutes last night criticizing the administration’s response to coronavirus, Trump attacked him this morning in a conference call with staff to which reporters had been invited. “Fauci is a disaster,” Trump said. “If I listened to him, we’d have 500,000 deaths.” Later he increased that number to 700,000 or 800,000. “People are tired of Covid,” he said. “I have the biggest rallies I’ve ever had. And we have Covid. People are saying: ‘Whatever. Just leave us alone.’ They’re tired of it.”

In Prescott, Arizona, this afternoon, Trump expanded on this idea. He told the crowd: “They are getting tired of the pandemic, aren’t they? You turn on CNN, that’s all they cover. ‘Covid, Covid, Pandemic, Covid, Covid.’ You know why? They’re trying to talk everybody out of voting. People aren’t buying it, CNN, you dumb bastards.”

Indeed, we are all tired of it, but as cases are surging and hospitals and medical staff again appear to be on the verge of being overwhelmed with cases of Covid-19, a majority of Americans trust Fauci’s cautious advice more than we trust that of the White House, which is embracing the idea of simply letting the disease spread to try to create immunity. Trump’s final push for reelection centers on holding in-person rallies, trying to illustrate that there is nothing to fear from the disease and that the country needs to get back to normal despite it.

Trump’s anger at Fauci seems to be part of his general anger these days, seemingly sparked by the polls that show him trailing Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. He is using his rallies both to express his grievances and to boast of his own power. Today, in Prescott, he boasted “I call the head of Exxon. I’ll use a company. ‘How, how are you doing, how’s energy coming? When are doing the exploration? Oh, you need a couple of permits, huh?’ But I call the head of Exxon, I say, ‘you know, I’d love you to send me $25m for the campaign.’” This sort of a bribe — the official term is quid pro quo—is illegal. Exxon promptly clarified: “We are aware of the President’s statement regarding a hypothetical call with our CEO… and just so we’re all clear, it never happened.”

Trump and pro-Trump media outlets are frustrated that the story Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani passed to the tabloid newspaper the New York Post is not getting the traction they want. The story of three laptops, abandoned at a repair shop by Biden’s son Hunter, that just happened to have incriminating evidence that ended up in Giuliani’s hands was flagged almost instantly as having the hallmarks of Russian disinformation. Today more than 50 former senior intelligence officers signed a letter to that effect, warning that Russia was, once again, interfering in our elections.

Even though intelligence officers warned the White House that Russian intelligence was targeting Giuliani, Trump’s team stands behind the story, and is reportedly putting pressure on FBI director Christopher Wray to announce an investigation into the issue. Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), Representative Devin Nunes (R-CA), and Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH) have all been pushing the story.

Today, the president exploded at a reporter, calling him “a criminal for not reporting” on the Hunter Biden story. Trump loyalist John Ratcliffe, the Director of National Intelligence — which places him at the head of our intelligence services — defended the Biden story and insisted it is not part of a Russian disinformation campaign. He told the Fox News Channel: “That’s something the American people should consider as they go in & look at elections & everything that’s going on in this country … we have the opportunity to bring truth.”

Ratcliffe’s partisanship shocked CIA veteran John Sipher, who tweeted: “Stunningly inappropriate. Intelligence leaders should be focused on collecting and analyzing foreign national security information. This is domestic, partisan politics and out-of-bounds.”

The news broke today that Fox News Channel executives passed on the Biden story, thinking it was not credible. Now, of course, FNC is reporting on the fight over the story, so it is sort of having it both ways, but the fact that the story was too iffy even for FNC speaks volumes. Also today, Facebook suspended the account of Andrii Derkach, the Ukrainian politician associated with Giuliani and the Biden story. Treasury officials have identified Derkach as a Russian operative. Facebook took down his page “for violating our policy against the use of our platform by people engaged in election-focused influence operations.”

Also today, the Department of Justice indicted 6 Russian military intelligence officers for computer hacks around the world that cost billions of dollars and disrupted a number of different societies. Thomas P. Bossert, Trump’s first homeland security adviser, who is now the president of a security firm, told New York Times reporters Michael S. Schmidt and Nicole Perlroth: “The G.R.U.’s hackers operate as a strategic arm of the Russian state, and they have been using this cybertool as a military weapon in a military campaign.”

Thursday night is the final presidential debate, and the Trump campaign spent the day wrangling over its terms. The non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates negotiated with the campaigns months ago to establish that the topics for each debate would be determined by the debate’s moderator. Last week, NBC News White House correspondent Kristin Welker, who will moderate the Thursday event — an arrangement to which Trump agreed — announced her topics, including the coronavirus, race, leadership, national security, and climate change. The Trump campaign promptly accused the commission of breaking a promise to focus on foreign affairs, an accusation the commission rejected, reminding the campaign of the terms to which they had agreed.

For his part, Trump called Welker “a radical left Democrat” who is “extraordinarily unfair,” but said he would take part anyway. “I’ll participate, I just think it is very unfair,” Trump told reporters. “I will participate, but it’s very unfair that they changed the topics and it is very unfair that again we have an anchor who is totally biased.”

Later today, though, the commission announced it would turn off each candidate’s microphone during his opponent’s initial two-minute reply to Welker’s questions. Trump indicated he was not happy with the change.

Finally, tonight the Supreme Court denied a request from the Pennsylvania Republican Party to stop the counting of mail-in ballots that arrive up to three days after Election Day. This is a win for wider voting in a swing state that often plays a key role in the Electoral College, and it appears that the Pennsylvania Republican Party thinks enabling more people to vote will hurt them. Four of the eight voting justices– Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh — sided with the Republicans’ argument for restricting the vote. Since Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett is, like them, a strict constructionist, it is not unreasonable to assume she would have joined them if she were on the court. Because there are currently eight justices on the court, and they tied, the lower court’s decision holds. But if Barrett were there, it is likely the strict constructionists would have made up a majority, cutting off the counting of ballots that arrived in the three days after the election.

In what is quite a rare occurrence, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is expected to hold sessions over the weekend to push through Barrett’s nomination before the election.

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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.