Letters From an American

Who Said What

It was an unruly day for the administration

Who Said What

US President Donald Trump poses with ABC New anchor George Stephanopoulos ahead of a town hall event at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on September 15, 2020. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

September 16, 2020

Last night, Trump joined an ABC News “town hall” hosted by George Stephanopoulos in the battleground state of Pennsylvania. He faced ordinary Americans, who asked basic questions about health care, mask wearing, and so on, and delivered his usual litany of self-aggrandizement and lies. But he seemed cornered and unable to control the narrative the way he did in 2016. The White House has been doing damage control from the event all day.

The president promised to protect the ability of people with pre-existing conditions to get healthcare coverage and accused Democrats of trying to kill that rule. Of course, the opposite is true: the Trump administration is trying to overturn the Affordable Care Act—Obamacare—that protects such people, while Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden promises to expand and strengthen the law.

When Stephanopoulos fact checked him, Trump insisted that he is going to protect people with pre-existing conditions through his own forthcoming new health care plan. Stephanopoulos pointed out that he has promised such a plan repeatedly since he took office, but none has ever appeared. Today White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said there was a plan in the works but told reporters that if they wanted to know what it was and who was working on it, they should come work at the White House.

Trump claimed there would be a coronavirus vaccine in three or four weeks, although scientists say the earliest possible date is early 2021. Today, Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told Congress that a vaccine will not be available until next spring or summer. When asked why his prediction was so different than that of the CDC, Trump said that Redfield had “misunderstood” the question and “made a mistake.” “Under no circumstance will it be as late as the doctor said.”

Speaking in Wilmington, Delaware, Biden said, “I trust vaccines, I trust scientists, but I don’t trust Donald Trump.” When Trump contradicted Redfield, Biden tweeted the video clip and added, “this is what I meant.”

This afternoon, a spokesperson for Redfield appeared to bring the doctor’s comments more in line with Trump’s statements, but then retracted the retraction.

Trump defended his own reluctance to wear a mask by saying that “a lot of people think that masks are not good,” and then, when asked which people think that way, he said “waiters.” He criticized Biden for not issuing a national mandate for wearing masks. Biden promptly tweeted a fundraising message: “Just to be clear: I am not currently president. But if you chip in now, we can change that in November.”

The president almost never leaves the bubble of friendly interviewers on the Fox News Channel, and it showed. He seemed confused, out of touch, unable to budge off his talking points, even when they have been thoroughly debunked. He insisted that, far from downplaying the dangers of coronavirus as he is on tape admitting, he had “up-played it,” and that his response had been so good there was nothing he would change about it. When Stephanopoulos reminded him that the US has 4% of the world’s population and more than 20% of the Covid deaths, Trump nonsensically blamed the statistic on testing. Today, Trump praised his own response to the coronavirus by saying that “if you take the blue states out, we’re at a level I don’t think anybody in the world would be at.”

The town hall was bad enough that Fox News Channel personality Laura Ingraham tweeted it was an “ambush.”

Trump’s floundering seems to have hardened Attorney General William Barr’s determination to keep control of the government. Tonight, speaking at conservative Hillsdale College, Barr rejected criticism from career prosecutors in the Justice Department that he is skewing cases to benefit Trump. “What exactly am I interfering with?” he asked. “Under the law, all prosecutorial power is invested in the attorney general.” He compared prosecutors to preschoolers, and denied they should have freedom to handle their cases without his interference.

Barr railed against what he called the “criminalization of politics.” “Now you have to call your adversary a criminal, and instead of beating them politically, you try to put them in jail,” Barr said, and he claimed that the United States was starting to resemble an Eastern European country.

But it was Barr who last week told federal prosecutors to think about prosecuting violent protesters for sedition—that is, for rebellion against the government. The attorneys who leaked the story did so anonymously, because they are afraid of retribution. Barr also asked prosecutors in the Justice Department to look into bringing criminal charges against Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan for letting protesters set up a “protest zone” in the city. Durkan is a former US Attorney.

And today we learned that before federal officials cleared Washington D.C.’s Lafayette Square of protesters last June at Barr’s order, they sought ammunition and a device that makes anyone within range feel like their skin is on fire. A whistleblower from the D.C. National Guard, Major Adam D. DeMarco, noted that this technology is considered too unpredictable to use in war zones and that the protesters were peaceful and likely unable to hear orders to disperse.

Today we also learned that the Justice Department’s investigation of whether former National Security Adviser John Bolton disclosed classified information in his book, which was highly critical of Trump and his administration, has reached a federal grand jury.

There is increasing pushback to the escalating partisanship of the Trump Republicans. After his own rant on Facebook accusing government scientists of sedition, Trump loyalist Michael Caputo is taking a two-month medical leave of absence from his position as the top spokesman for the CDC. So is his science adviser, Paul Alexander, who was trying to censor CDC reports. Caputo will be replaced by Ryan Murphy, who held the job before Caputo arrived on the scene.

Today, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio, Maureen O’Connor, publicly condemned a statement yesterday by the Ohio Republican Party “in the strongest possible terms.” The statement accused a Democratic judge of colluding with Ohio Democrats to cheat in the upcoming election “to elect radical liberals to fulfill their agenda, including judge with unmistakable partisan interests.” O’Connor called the statement “disgraceful,” and “deceitful.” “The Republican Party’s statement should be seen for what it is: part of a continuing string of attacks against any [court] decision that doesn’t favor a political end, regardless of party, even if that decision may be legally correct and indeed legally required,” she said. The former Lieutenant Governor of Ohio, O’Connor is a Republican.

For the first time in its 175-year history, Scientific American has endorsed a presidential candidate. The editors wrote: “The evidence and the science show that Donald Trump has badly damaged the US and its people—because he rejects evidence and science. The most devastating example is his dishonest and inept response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which cost more than 190,000 Americans their lives by the middle of September. He has also attacked environmental protections, medical care, and the researchers and public science agencies that help this country prepare for its greatest challenges. That is why we urge you to vote for Joe Biden, who is offering fact-based plans to protect our health, our economy and the environment. These and other proposals he has put forth can set the country back on course for a safer, more prosperous and more equitable future.”

It is an enviable endorsement, but for his part, Biden seems aware that Americans are just tired of the constant drama and chaos of the Trump presidency. Tonight he tweeted simply: “We’re going to get this virus under control and get your life back on track.”

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