Letters From an American

“Quick, Look Over There”

The administration is trying to deflect attention from the pandemic, financial crime reports and poll numbers.

"Quick, Look Over There"

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 14: U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to speak to the press in the Rose Garden at the White House on July 14, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Trump spoke on several topics including Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, the stock market and relations with China as the coronavirus continues to spread in the U.S., with nearly 3.4 million confirmed cases. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

September 21, 2020

Today started off with Attorney General William Barr designating New York City, Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, as “Jurisdictions Permitting Violence and Destruction of Property.” His statement responded to Trump’s September 2 memorandum calling for a review of funding to “state and local governments that are permitting anarchy, violence, and destruction in American cities.”

The idea of defunding cities is vague and it is also odd, considering how many Americans actually live in cities. The US Conference of Mayors wrote to Trump on September 7 to ask him to rescind his memorandum, noting that “attacks on America’s cities are attacks on America itself. America’s cities represent 86 percent of the Nation’s population and 91 percent of real gross domestic product (GDP)…. Cities are the Nation’s incubators of talent: people flock to cities to take advantage of their accessibility, diversity, inclusiveness, vibrancy, infrastructure and innovation,” they wrote. They warned that if he tried to enforce a restriction on funding, they would sue, and would almost certainly win. They reminded him: “This is a time our Nation needs unity, not division, among all levels of government.”

This new declaration is little more than a distraction, meant to try to resurrect the old “law and order” ploy and take our eyes off… what?

There are several things the administration would rather keep off the table.

The first, of course, is the coronavirus. More than 200,000 Americans have now died of Covid-19 and almost 7 million have been infected. A study conducted by Pennsylvania State associate sociology professor Ashton Verdery and other researchers concluded that every Covid-19 death leaves an average of nine survivors who have lost a grandparent, parent, sibling, spouse or child. That’s close to 2 million Americans in mourning for a close relative. And while early deaths from the pandemic centered in Democratic cities, the weight of the deaths has now shifted to red states, places where members of Trump’s base live.

The administration remains eager to cover up just how bad the pandemic is. At a rally tonight, Trump falsely claimed that coronavirus “affects virtually nobody” younger than 18 and that it is dangerous mainly to elderly people with heart disease and other medical issues—a statement that is both false and contradicted by his own statements to journalist Bob Woodward on tape on February 7.

Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) removed a statement it had posted Friday saying that Covid-19 spreads through “small particles, such as those in aerosols,” and that “there is growing evidence that droplets and airborne particles can remain suspended in the air and be breathed in by others, and travel distances beyond 6 feet (for example, during choir practice, in restaurants, or in fitness classes.) In general, indoor environments without good ventilation increase this risk.” Trump acknowledged this information in the February 7 call with Woodward, but it suggests reopening restaurants and other small spaces is dangerous and that schools must be upgraded for better ventilation before they will be safe. Today the CDC abruptly scrubbed its website, saying the information was “posted in error.”

On Saturday, Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex M. Azar II, grabbed control of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the 26 other agencies in the Department of Health and Human Services, claiming sole authority to sign any new any new rules about foods, medicines, medical devices… and vaccines. Azar’s chief of staff Brian Harrison said the new policy was simply “a housekeeping matter,” but it seems clear there is a fight in HHS over approval for the vaccine Trump insists — contrary to scientists — will be ready in October.

Investigative journalist Katherine Eban of Vanity Fair set out to figure out how the United States, “with its advanced medical systems, unmatched epidemiological know-how, and vaunted regulatory and public health institutions, could have fumbled the crisis so disastrously.” Her answer in a piece published Thursday: Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who, along with his “shadow” coronavirus task force of young corporate officers, had a “quasi-messianic belief in the private sector’s ability to respond effectively to the crisis and their contempt for government capabilities.” “Free markets will solve this,” Kushner allegedly said. “That is not the role of government.”

Trump and his loyalists would also likely prefer people not to notice that his poll numbers continue to be bad. For him to convince people that a loss for him means the election has been stolen, he has to make people think he is running more strongly than he is. Trump carried white voters in Minnesota by 7 points in 2016; this year he is losing them by 2 points, according to a new CBS News/YouGov poll. In 2016, Trump carried non-college educated white women in Wisconsin by 16 points; now he is losing them by 9.

Trump’s concern over this slippage shows in his recent attempts to recover a white base, calling, for example, for “patriotic education” that replaces recent attempts to grapple with the legacy of slavery and his reassurance to a rally audience in Minnesota that they have “good genes.”

The Trump campaign, and the Republicans in general, are now facing a cash disadvantage in these last weeks before the election. In 2019 and the first half of 2020, the Trump campaign raised $1.1 billion, but by early this month, it had already spent more than $800 million. Close to $60 million has gone into legal bills, $350 million went to continued fundraising, more than $100 million went to television ads before the convention, $11 million went to two Super Bowl ads. The campaign also lavished money on consultants. In the spring, Trump had nearly $200 million more than Democratic nominee Joe Biden, but that advantage was gone even before last weekend, when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death prompted contributors to pour more than $160 million into Democratic causes.

Trump and Republican Senators would probably prefer that voters don’t look too closely at the upcoming fight over a new Supreme Court justice, either. For all that Trump and McConnell are pushing their nominee, and Senators are declaring they will vote for anyone Trump nominates, in fact it is not clear that forcing through a radical nominee will help the Republicans in the election. What is most clearly on the table right now is the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare —which the Supreme Court will take up exactly a week after the election. Obamacare prohibits discrimination against people with preexisting conditions. This policy has always been hugely popular, and is even more popular now, when coronavirus has added almost 7 million Americans who have been infected with coronavirus to those with what could easily be considered pre-existing conditions. Right now, in the middle of a pandemic attributed to the administration’s poor handling of the crisis, seems a poor time to strip Americans of their healthcare.

For all that these stories are important, my favorite candidate for the story we’re not supposed to notice is last night’s leak of suspicious activity reports (SARs) filed by banks with the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, known as FinCEN. This agency combats money laundering. The documents, leaked to BuzzFeed, which shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, found that banks flagged more than $2 trillion in potentially laundered money between 1999 and 2017. The leaked documents, which make up less than 0.02% of the more than 12 million SARs filed with FinCEN between 2011 and 2017, show a world awash in money from criminal activity. They paint a picture of a world of fabulously wealthy oligarchs and criminals, operating out of our sight.

There is nothing specifically about Trump or his company in the leaked documents, and being flagged in a SARs does not necessarily mean wrongdoing. But transactions involving $1.3 trillion at Deutsche Bank, Trump’s bankers, made other bankers nervous enough to flag them. In one of the documents, Bank of America raises concerns about the amount of Russian money flowing into the US in 2016 through Deutsche Bank.

Finally, there is one more thing we should be paying attention to, and this one falls under the category of “high time.” On Friday, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will become the first woman to lie in state in the US Capitol.

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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.