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Trump’s allies sound alarm over his attacks on independent watchdogs

That Lankford and other GOP senators like Chuck Grassley of Iowa have felt compelled to speak out publicly underscores the degree to which Trump has undermined routine congressional oversight — including the very mechanisms that Republicans themselves have crafted to rein in a rogue executive.

The public disapproval come as Trump faces criticism over his abrupt removal of the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson, and his refusal to provide Congress with an adequate explanation, as required by law.

And without responses from the White House, GOP senators have stepped up their public rebukes of the president as they try to convince him that independent government watchdogs are his friends, not his enemies. Lankford and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) in their letter to Trump last week outlined why they think it’s in the president’s best interest to “work with IGs, not against them.”

Grassley in particular has spent his career building up the watchdog community, and he led a similar crusade against President Barack Obama when he fired an inspector general without proper congressional notification. Now, as Trump takes actions that threaten the protections he perhaps cares about the most, Grassley is sending a mild-mannered but unambiguous plea to get the president to back off.

“Sen. Grassley has been a pain in the side of every president since he stepped foot in Congress back in 1975,” said Michael Davis, who served as the chief nominations counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee under Grassley’s chairmanship.

But despite Grassley’s uncharacteristically outspoken criticism of the president, he has yet to threaten to issue subpoenas or place holds on Trump’s prized nominations in order to secure the information he is seeking. It’s unclear how Grassley would proceed if his demands continue to go unanswered and unfulfilled.

Democrats say they’ll take what they can get from a Republican Party that has been reluctant to scrutinize the president.

“While I appreciate the steps Chairman Grassley has taken to request oversight of this administration, it is not enough to defend taxpayer funds and other government resources against abuse,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Grassley’s counterpart atop the Finance Committee.

Defending his direct pleas to Trump, Lankford specifically cited “some of the statements the president has made about inspectors general” which present a “growing challenge” for Congress’ ability to safeguard independent watchdogs from the political whims of a president, regardless of party.

Lankford is one of a handful of Republican senators to have appealed in recent weeks directly to Trump urging him to support the inspector general community and send qualified, permanent nominees to the Senate for consideration instead of relying on “acting” watchdogs.

But beyond their concerns about having Senate-confirmed personnel in place across the government, these lawmakers — many of them loyal allies of the president — are tacitly arguing that Trump is undermining watchdogs’ ability to do their job independent of the political winds and, in turn, shivving Congress’ built-in mechanisms to ensure their independence.

“I do want inspectors general to have the freedom to be able to make decisions and to not fear that they’re going to be released from their jobs at any point,” Lankford added, referring to Trump’s decision to fire Atkinson. “But I think there’s a better way to be able to handle it other than just saying, ‘I’m firing [you] because we disagree on some things.’ The president’s team has to be able to give all their reasons for that, just like the Obama team did as well.”

The spread of the coronavirus has brought with it an onslaught of new congressional demands for information and lawmaker-led pressure campaigns, and the price tags of the relief packages present lawmakers with challenges to rein in the waste, fraud and abuse that are likely to accompany the process.

But less than three months after avoiding removal from office on charges of stonewalling Congress, Trump is doubling down on his hostility toward the legislative branch’s oversight requests — including, and especially, ones coming from his fellow Republicans.

In response to their overtures, Trump has deployed a more expansive view than ever on his ability to quash lawmakers’ oversight demands.

The most recent spate began when Trump stated his intention to chip away at key oversight mechanisms built into the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package, including requirements of congressional notification if the newly created inspector general is “unreasonably refused or not provided with” any information. Trump later removed the inspector general charged with overseeing the pandemic response, Glenn Fine, and he blasted the Health and Human Services Department’s watchdog over a report detailing widespread failures to provide adequate coronavirus testing at hospitals.

Trump’s recent confrontations with the inspectors general community haven’t been limited to the congressional response to the ongoing pandemic; Republicans and Democrats alike were roundly critical of his decision to sack Atkinson — a move that prompted Grassley to seek an explanation for the firing and to question whether the president sought to circumvent Congress’ authority.

Trump has yet to respond to Grassley’s bipartisan letter demanding a fuller explanation for the termination of Atkinson, who provoked Trump’s ire when he transferred a whistleblower complaint to Congress that jump-started the House’s impeachment inquiry last year. Trump was supposed to respond to the lawmakers by April 13.

“That’s not really giving Congress the ability to understand the reason,” Lankford said of Trump’s nonresponse to the Atkinson inquiry. “When the Obama administration did that, they followed back up and said, ‘Here’s why, here’s what.’ We expect the Trump administration to be able to do the same.”

Grassley is unique in his crusade. No GOP lawmaker has perhaps been more outspoken about Trump’s hostility toward inspectors general, and the seven-term senator brings with him a résumé that includes authoring several laws on whistleblower protections and the independence of the federal government’s watchdogs. In his letters to Trump, he often notes his previous efforts to hold the Obama administration accountable for similar erosions of congressional authority.

“IGs can help drain the swamp,” Grassley wrote in an April 21 letter to Trump, his second direct plea to the president on the issue of inspectors general in recent weeks. “They find the waste, fraud, and abuse in government programs and they find ways to save taxpayer money.”

Grassley, who now chairs the Senate Finance Committee, has found that his legacy is on the line when it comes to inspectors general. His criticisms of Trump — in the careful way that defines this political era — are getting noticed; but Trump has shown no signs of letting up.

Grassley, though, has leverage — and lots of it. The Iowa Republican has been instrumental in helping Trump secure some of the most significant wins of his presidency, including tax cuts, criminal justice reform and the successful Senate confirmations of two Supreme Court justices. At the same time, Grassley has sent a handful of judicial nominees packing after they couldn’t answer basic questions in committee hearings or were unqualified to sit on the federal bench. Trump needs Grassley more than Grassley needs Trump, his allies say, giving serious heft to the 86-year-old’s efforts.

“He’s not a rubber stamp,” Davis argued. “He’s a team player, but when he feels strongly about things, he has no problem voicing his disagreements.”

Wyden has joined at least one of Grassley’s efforts on inspectors general. The pair wrote a letter last week to Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general who also serves as chairman of the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, demanding information about the vetting process for IG nominees.

Grassley has also written to top health officials to inquire about how they are handling coronavirus outbreaks at nursing homes; and he most recently joined forces with Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) to seek a review of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons’ compliance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in order to ensure the safety of inmates and employees.

Democrats continue to argue, though, that simply writing letters isn’t enough unless they are backed up with concrete action.

“The sad fact is, the Republican caucus has by and large been willing to let Donald Trump use the federal government like a personal piggy bank for his donors and political allies, and to retaliate against those who stand up to him,” Wyden said.

Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.

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US coronavirus cases surpass 1 million as projections show deaths could rise in coming weeks

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States topped 1 million on Tuesday as researchers say the number of deaths could rise in coming weeks.

There are at least 1,004,908 cases of the virus across the US, according to a tally from health officials by Johns Hopkins University.

The grim milestone comes after seven coronavirus models anticipate a rise in cases that will depend on how much “contact reduction” Americans practice, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The models estimate the numbers of cases and deaths on the state and national levels, and one model from the University of Texas at Austin makes metro-area projections.

Your top coronavirus questions, answered

“State-level forecasts vary widely, reflecting differences in early epidemic phases, timing of interventions and model-specific assumptions,” the CDC says.

Models that factor in strong contact reduction suggest deaths will continue to occur, but will “slow substantially over the next four weeks,” the CDC said.

“Conversely, models that do not incorporate as strong contact reductions … suggest that total deaths may continue to rise quickly.”

One model frequently cited by the White House coronavirus task force has upped its predicted death toll again, this time projecting 74,000 Americans will lose their lives to the virus by August.

The projection was adjusted because of longer peaks in some states and signs that people are becoming more active again, according to Dr. Chris Murray, director of the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

Last week, the model projected 67,641 deaths from Covid-19.

States including Georgia, Texas, Michigan, Hawaii and Alaska have started reopening, while Alabama isn’t far behind.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom said his state is weeks away from changing its stay-at-home order — yet beaches in the southern part of the state were packed with thousands of people over the weekend. Massachusetts will extend its stay-at-home order and closure of nonessential businesses until May 18, Gov. Charlie Baker said.

“It’s a safer strategy to get the number of infections in the community down to a really low level, and then testing and contact tracing and isolation can work,” Murray said Monday.

Georgia, which Murray’s team warned shouldn’t begin reopening until June 28, started reopening small businesses Friday.

Gov. Brian Kemp said Georgia is “moving forward with data and information and decisions from the local public health officials, meeting and working within the guidelines of the great plan that the President has laid out.”

Under Trump’s own proposal for states to reopen in phases, Georgia does not meet the “gating” criteria.

Among the guidelines for “Opening Up America Again,” states shouldn’t start to reopen until they have a downward trajectory of documented cases in a 14-day period or a downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests in a 14-day period.

“We didn’t meet the full gating criteria, but we met several of them and we were approaching a plateauing, which made us feel that it would be safe to move forward because we had three things in place,” said Dr. Kathleen Toomey, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health.

The select criteria were adequate hospitalization, testing capacity and an increasing contact-tracing capacity, Toomey said.

As more governors start reopening their states and others set the date, they’re pushing to get a better idea of how hard their state has been hit through antibody testing.

Experts warn there’s still a lot researchers don’t know about the accuracy of the tests, and the World Health Organization has cautioned that no evidence exists yet that antibodies prevent a second infection.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he is encouraged that Covid-19 will respond well to a vaccine, once one is available, because there is evidence that patients “can mount a natural immune response,” he said.

“There’s no guarantee,” he said, “but the fact that the body can do it gives me cautious optimism.”

Hard-hit cities start testing asymptomatic people

Some cities and states will start testing residents who don’t have symptoms to better understand how many people have been infected.

Los Angeles County will expand coronavirus testing Tuesday to include delivery drivers, rideshare drivers and taxi drivers — even if they feel fine, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said.

“These are folks that are on the frontlines, helping us get to where we need to go, helping us have food delivered to our homes,” he said.

In Boston, 1,000 asymptomatic residents will undergo diagnostic and antibody testing by Friday to evaluate exposure to the virus in the city, Mayor Martin Walsh said.

Georgia public health workers will start visiting randomly selected homes in two of Georgia’s largest counties to conduct antibody testing through blood samples. The program is voluntary.

In New York, about 15% of the 7,500 people who have been tested in the state’s antibody study have tested positive, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.

Those tests are “not ready for prime time,” a former acting director of the CDC told Stat, a health news website.

“As we learn whether that means you are protected in the future, there could be value in that,” Dr. Richard Besser told Stat, but “the science isn’t there yet to be able to say what those tests mean.”

“I worry that people will get a false sense of security and they can change their behavior based on the results of that test, or have a false sense of concern if it’s a test that isn’t detecting protections that they may actually have.”

Though it’s unclear when New York City’s schools will reopen (a decision is expected by week’s end), the city is adopting a special grading system to accommodate home learning and will stage a special citywide virtual graduation, Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

“You may not have the traditional ceremony that you were looking forward to, we’re going to give you something you’re going to remember for the rest of your life and you will cherish,” he said.

States gear up to reopen in coming weeks

Meanwhile, some governors are moving forward with reopening their economies.

Alabama will replace its stay-at-home order with a safer-at-home mandate beginning Thursday at 6 p.m., allowing employers and beaches to reopen “subject to good sanitation and social distancing rules,” Gov. Kay Ivey said.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday will outline reopening plans, he said during an Oval Office meeting with President Donald Trump.

Missouri will start next week, with some statewide restrictions set to be lifted Monday, Gov. Mike Parson said.

“Our plan is working, the health care system is not overwhelmed and we are winning the battle,” the governor said.

Under the governor’s plan, any business can reopen as long as 6 feet of social distancing can be maintained, and indoor retail businesses will have to limit their number of customers to no more than a quarter of their normal capacity.

In Kentucky, after the state started loosening restrictions for some health care services, the governor said the next phases of reopening will be announced week by week — with more restrictions loosened weekly, starting May 11.

Gov. Greg Abbott said he will allow his stay-at-home order for Texas to expire April 30. A new order will include an initial first phase of reopening that allows businesses such as retail stores, malls, restaurants and theaters to open Friday with 25% occupancy.

Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources intends to reopen 34 state parks, forests and recreational areas Friday with special conditions to minimize overcrowding and allow for social distancing, Gov. Tony Evers said.

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U.S. House not returning next week; Trump says Democrats on ‘vacation’

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives will not return to Washington next week as planned, due to the continuing risk of coronavirus infection, Democratic leaders said on Tuesday, a reversal of plans outlined only a day earlier.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said he and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made the decision to keep the chamber on an extended recess after discussing the situation with the official House physician, as well as House members.

“The numbers (of coronavirus cases) in the District of Columbia are still going up,” Hoyer told reporters. “The House physician’s view was that there was a risk to members that was one he would not recommend taking.”

With the Republican-run Senate returning to session next week, President Donald Trump, a Republican, accused the Democrat-led House of not wanting to work. “They’re enjoying their vacation,” he told reporters at the White House. “You look at Nancy Pelosi eating ice cream on late-night television.”

Pelosi, who showed off a home freezer full of ice cream in a recent television interview, retorted that Trump had been in denial about the danger posed by the coronavirus.

“This president has presided over the worst disaster in our country’s history, an assault on the lives and the livelihoods of the American people, and he did so by neglect of information, also denial and delay in accepting the facts,” Pelosi told MSNBC.

“I have ice cream in my freezer; I guess that’s better than having Lysol in somebody’s lungs,” she said, referring to a suggestion Trump made last week that coronavirus researchers try putting disinfectants into patients’ bodies.

Congress has not met in regular session since last month, though it has passed major coronavirus relief bills worth nearly $3 trillion, partly by using rules allowing bills to pass with just a small number of lawmakers present. Last week the full House met one day to approve the most recent, $484 billion coronavirus package.

Hoyer said the House intends to return to Washington soon to complete a new coronavirus response bill that Democrats have vowed to use as a vehicle for funneling hundreds of billions of dollars in assistance to state and local governments. He said he hoped House committees would be able to work remotely while the chamber is out.

In a separate call with reporters, Pelosi said it appeared $500 billion would be needed for states, and possibly “a very big figure also for counties and municipalities” as they grapple with the coronavirus. Lawmakers have already provided $150 billion to state and local governments in previous coronavirus legislation.

Slideshow (3 Images)

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer warned that state and local governments would see “massive” layoffs without more aid from Congress to keep police, firefighters, ambulance crews and other frontline workers on the job.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell told Fox News on Tuesday he was open to providing further aid to cities and states, but that any legislation would need to provide liability protections for businesses that are reopening.

McConnell also told Republican senators on Tuesday that he will not support spending on infrastructure in the next coronavirus relief bill, Axios reported. Trump has called for $2 trillion in infrastructure spending.

Reporting by David Morgan, Susan Cornwell and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Bernadette Baum, Jonathan Oatis, Richard Chang and Dan Grebler

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Abortion providers say they’re experiencing a “post-Roe” world, by Kate Smith – CBS News

Sarah got a glimpse earlier this month of what a world without legal abortion might look like.

Out of work and unexpectedly pregnant, Sarah, 20, had her appointment cancelled when Texas halted most abortion services as a way to preserve medical resources to fight the coronavirus pandemic. Desperate, she searched for a doctor who might offer the procedure under the table, or a pharmacist who might illegally fill a prescription for abortion-inducing pills. She had no car or money, so making the 15-hour drive to New Mexico, the site of the closest provider, was out of reach. But for Sarah, keeping the pregnancy wasn’t an option.

“One way I can get it safely done, and another I could put my life on the line,” said Sarah, who asked that her real name not be used. “It’s so scary.”

As the coronavirus’ death toll continues to grow, another public health crisis is emerging. At least eight states have restricted abortion as part of directives banning “non-essential” medical procedures. In Texas, all of the state’s abortion providers were forced for stop offering services for more than four weeks. It marked the first time a state has banned legal abortion since Roe v. Wade legalized the procedure nearly 50 years ago.

For advocates on both sides of the issue, the experience offered a preview of a world without the landmark Supreme Court ruling. 

Julie Burkhart, Trust Women Foundation. 

Julie Burkhart

“One thing is just crystal clear to us, and that’s that this is a little peek through a ‘post-Roe’ window,” said Julie Burkhart, the founder of Trust Women, a network of clinics that provide abortions. 

As clinics in Texas were forced to turn women away, providers in neighboring states were overwhelmed with patients. At Trust Women, Burkhart’s patient-care coordinator worked nearly 100 hours in one week, attempting to schedule a 400% increase in appointment requests at its Kansas and Oklahoma locations. Some days, her clinics have nearly run out of supplies, Burkhart said. 

Planned Parenthood’s clinics in Colorado, New Mexico and Las Vegas reported a seven-fold increase in patients from Texas while the procedure was unavailable in the state.

Many of those patients traveled long distances to get there. Texas patients traveled nearly 2,000% farther to get to the nearest clinic, according to a study from the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research organization. If abortion access were shut down in every state that sought to halt services amid the coronavirus pandemic, the average one-way driving distance to the nearest clinic would have risen 3,625%, to 447 miles from 12, according to data from Guttmacher shared exclusively with CBS News. 

One operator, Whole Woman’s Health, began taking patients at five in the morning to try and accommodate everyone. A parking lot full of out-of-state license plates was a scene that Amy Hagstrom Miller, Whole Woman’s Health’s founder, said was reminiscent of stories her mentors had told her of delivering abortion services before Roe v. Wade forced all 50 states to offer the procedure.

“It reminds me of that, this desperation we’re seeing from our patients,” Hagstrom Miller said. 

Amy Hagstrom Miller, Whole Woman’s Health.

A world without Roe is something Hagstrom Miller and many other providers have been forced to consider. A majority-conservative Supreme Court has made abortion rights more vulnerable than they’ve ever been. A decision on June Medical Services v. Russo is expected in June, and abortion-rights supporters say it could render Roe virtually meaningless. More than a dozen similar cases are making their way through the judicial process that could have the same effect: overturning Roe or eroding it to a point that the right to an abortion in the United States exists in name only.

Without Roe, states would be able to decide for themselves whether to legalize abortion. Abortion-rights group warn the effect would be a patchwork of access and service availability determined by a patient’s zip code. 

“This is exactly what you would see in a post-Roe world,” said Nancy Northup, the chief executive officer of the Center for Reproductive Rights, one of the country’s biggest law firms defending abortion access. “You’d see these very same states shut off access. It’s terrifying.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who says he’s been “pro-life” since college, said the state’s decision to suspend abortion has nothing to do with his personal beliefs. But Texas — and every other state that’s tried to halt the procedure amid the pandemic — has a long history of regulating abortion. They’re home to some of the country’s most restrictive policies, like a 24-hour waiting period and state-mandated counseling. 

Carole Tobias, president of National Right to Life.

National Right to Life

For anti-abortion rights activists, overturning Roe is the first step to nationally criminalizing pregnancy termination completely.

“We’re well positioned to go into all 50 states and start trying to change those state laws,” said Carole Tobias, the president of National Right to Life, the country’s biggest anti-abortion rights group. “Ultimately, we can amend the Constitution. That’s a long way down the road, but I think reversing Roe v. Wade and having a state by state battle is going to happen much sooner.”

Because the recent abortion bans have happened within the context of the virus outbreak, the impact has been greater than would be the case in a ‘post-Roe’ world. The economic devastation caused by the outbreak has caused some families to hold off on parenthood.

“We’ve been hearing from women who’ve said, ‘In any other circumstance I would continue this pregnancy and have my baby,'” Burkhart said. “But at this point they’ve made the decision within their family, that an abortion would be the best thing.”

Those making the long treks to neighboring states aren’t just stymied by additional cost, but also increased exposure to the virus.

“It’s many times worse than some of the post-Roe landscapes we’ve imagined because of the public health crisis,” Hagstrom Miller said. 

In a surprise legal filing, Texas allowed abortion to resume on April 22 along with certain other medical procedures. 

For Sarah, the news was almost too late. In the nearly month-long stretch that abortion wasn’t available, she wasn’t able to raise the nearly $1,200 she expected it would cost to pay for gas for a borrowed car and get the procedure done in New Mexico.

Now, nearly 19 weeks pregnant, Sarah is trying to get to a clinic near her before she hits 20 weeks, when Texas prohibits abortion procedures, coronavirus or not.

“I have rights,” Sarah said. “I can’t be a mother right now, and right now, I have the right not to be.”

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House scraps plans to return to the Capitol while Senate forges ahead

Washington — The House of Representatives has canceled plans to convene next week as originally planned, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer announced Tuesday, citing the continued rise of coronavirus cases in the D.C. metro area. The Senate is still expected to return to the Capitol next week.

Hoyer told reporters that he came to the decision after consulting with the Capitol’s attending physician. He also said the next legislative package to respond to the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic was unlikely to be ready for a vote by next week.

“We made a judgment that we will not come back next week but that we hope to come back very soon,” Hoyer said. “The House physician’s view was the risk to members was not one he would recommend taking.”

The House and Senate have the same attending physician.

Hoyer also encouraged House committees to conduct their work over videoconferencing for the foreseeable future. He said in an email to House members that “they will be given sufficient notice of when they would need to return to Washington, DC.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters Tuesday that the House had “no choice” but to not reconvene.

“We had no choice. The Capitol physician recommends that we not come back, then we have to take that guidance in the interest of the safety of the people who work here, the custodians in the building, those who have to be here more because we’re here — the press, the staff, the members of congress, the staff of congress as well who make the congress run in addition to our own staff,” Pelosi said.

Hoyer also said in a statement that the bipartisan Virtual Congress Task Force met Tuesday “over safe and secure videoconferencing technology for a positive discussion.”

“Today’s call was an example of how effective remote work in the House can be,” Hoyer said. “As a result of today’s meeting, we are encouraging all House committees to hold remote roundtables to further test these new platforms.”

Stay-at-home orders are in effect in the nation’s capital until at least May 15. The region is also one of the hot spots of the virus, with over 35,000 cases in Washington, Virginia and Maryland, according to the Washington Post. There are nearly 4,000 cases of the coronavirus in the district alone. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of infectious diseases research at the National Institutes of Health, also said Tuesday that he did not believe the city had “turned the corner.”

However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday that the Senate would return on May 4 to address the “urgent need” for additional legislation to combat the pandemic.

“We will modify routines in ways that are smart and safe, but we will honor our constitutional duty to the American people and conduct critical business in person,” McConnell said. “If it is essential for doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, truck drivers, grocery-store workers, and many other brave Americans to keep carefully manning their own duty stations, then it is essential for senators to carefully man ours and support them.”

Democratic Senator Chris Murphy said McConnell was “putting thousands of Capitol employees at risk” by calling the Senate back to Washington.

“McConnell is calling the Senate back in, ignoring DC’s stay at home order and putting thousands of Capitol employees at risk. Not to do oversight of Trump’s pandemic response. Not to pass a new relief bill. But to ram through more conservative judges,” Murphy wrote on Twitter.

In a call with Democratic senators on Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer urged members of his Congress to press for more oversight hearings regarding the virus.

“If we are going to be in DC with the coronavirus raging, it is critically important that we continue and actually ramp up our messaging and activities on the oversight front,” Schumer said on the call, according to a Democratic source on the call.

Schumer said there needs to be public senate oversight hearings on testing, small business lending programs, unemployment insurance, and confirmation of appointees to the bipartisan Congressional Oversight Commission, including the chairperson.

Hoyer also told reporters on Tuesday that the House would tackle providing additional funding for state and local governments in the next coronavirus relief package. McConnell initially resisted providing federal assistance for states, suggesting that states could instead declare bankruptcy. In an interview with Politico on Monday, McConnell walked back those comments, saying it was “highly likely” the next package would include aid for local governments.

Melissa Quinn contributed to this report.

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COVID-19 supplies not reaching northeast Syria

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Human Rights Watch said Tuesday that medical supplies to prevent and treat the new coronavirus are not reaching northeast Syria because of restrictions imposed by the Syrian government and the Kurdish regional government.

The international rights organization urged the U.N. Security Council to immediately adopt a resolution reopening the Al Yarubiyah border crossing from Iraq into the northeast. The crossing, which was used primarily to deliver medicine and medical supplies from the World Health Organization, was closed in January at the insistence of Russia.

Syrian Kurds established an autonomous zone in the northeast in 2012 and were U.S. partners on the ground in fighting the Islamic State extremist group. A Turkish offensive in October against Syrian Kurdish militants led the U.S. to abandon its Kurdish allies, leading to strong criticism of both Washington and Ankara.

Louis Charbonneau, U.N. director for Human Rights Watch, stressed at a video press briefing launching a report on aid restrictions hindering the COVID-19 response that “this is not a political question, it’s a humanitarian question, (and) very easy for the Security Council to move quickly.”

Gerry Simpson, the rights group’s crisis and conflict associate director, said: “Two million people are stuck in northeast Syria without the tools to tackle outbreaks of COVID-19.”

He said a man who died on April 2 in the northeast city of Qamishli was later diagnosed with COVID-19.

Human Rights Watch said authorities in Damascus have refused to collect some COVID-19 test samples from northeast Syria for testing, and it took two weeks before authorities in the northeast found out in mid-April about the first positive test from the man who died on April 2.

Simpson said there is a need for urgent action because there is no place for testing, next to no testing equipment, almost no personal protective equipment, and just 10 ventilators for adults and one for a child in the entire northeast region.

He said COVID-19 related aid is already in warehouses in Iraq “waiting to get in.”

The United Nations began cross-border aid deliveries in 2014 to get food, medicine and other humanitarian items to opposition-held areas of Syria. There had been four crossing points, two from Turkey to the mainly rebel-held northwest, one from Jordan to southern Syria and one from Iraq to the northeast.

But when it came to renewing the mandate for cross-border deliveries late last year, Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said cross-border aid was meant to be a temporary response to the Syrian conflict and the situation on the ground had changed.

He said the Jordan crossing point hadn’t been used and the volume through the Iraqi crossing “is insignificant … and could be done from Syria” so only the Turkish crossing points were needed.

Using the threat of a veto, Russia forced the Security Council to maintain aid deliveries only from Turkey and end deliveries from Jordan and Iraq, a victory for its close ally Syria.

Human Rights Watch said that between March 31 and April 21 it interviewed 10 aid workers and officials from U.N. agencies and international non-governmental organizations operating in or supporting operations in northeast Syria about the obstacles they faced in responding to COVID-19.

The rights group said aid workers reported that the closure of the Al Yarubiyah border crossing from Iraq has resulted in a $40 million shortfall for 2020 for non-governmental organizations depending on U.N. support for their operations in northeast Syria, including $30 million for health care, mostly to prevent and respond to COVID-19.

Despite some air shipments in March and April from Damascus to Qamishli, which is in a government-held area of the northeast, the rights group said “bureaucratic obstacles in Damascus are preventing aid agencies from transferring supplies to non-government-held parts of the region.”

And it said that since March 1, the Kurdish regional government has introduced restrictions that have severely limited the amount of aid that humanitarian organizations can take to northeast Syria.

Simpson said that in light of “the catastrophic effect of the end of U.N. supplies reaching northern Syria from northern Iraq,” the Security Council should act immediately to authorize the reopening of the Al Yarubiyah border crossing.

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‘I stand by Vice President Biden…he has vehemently denied this allegation’

NBC News reporters Julie Tsirkin and Mike Memoli reported a short while ago (as I write this) that Sen. Gillibrand was asked about Tara Reade’s allegations today during a conference call. Gillibrand replied, “I stand by Vice President Biden. He’s devoted his life to supporting women and he has vehemently denied this allegation.”

This is quite a stunning turn around for Sen. Gillibrand. During the Kavanaugh confirmation two years ago, she repeatedly made it clear that to not believe Dr. Ford was to not believe women as a whole. Here are a few of the tweets she published back in 2018. Let’s start with this one in which Gillibrand claims all Democrats are asking for is a nominee who has “never assaulted a woman.”

Back then she was outraged that dastardly Republicans “don’t believe women.”

When it came to having Dr. Ford’s back, Gillibrand wanted it to be almost literal.

This one is pretty awkward: “Past actions matter. We need another nominee.”

In case it wasn’t clear how she felt:

Gillibrand pledged to stand with survivors of sexual assault “Now and always.”

Anyone who would vote for Kavanaugh after hearing from Ford is saying “the experiences of women don’t matter.”

“Don’t rest until we get to the bottom of this.”

The stakes were high for those willing to vote for Kavanaugh:

“It’s really about who we are as a country.”

“Are we a country that values women? Do we believe women when they tell us about sexual trauma?”

Even in defeat, Gillibrand saw a silver lining: “Her strength will forever be a source of strength as we continue to fight for survivors to be believed, for women to be valued. And we won’t stop fighting.”

But it sounds as if Sen. Gillibrand has stopped fighting. She’s now siding with Biden because he denied the allegations and, suddenly, that’s good enough. All that heated rhetoric about what kind of country we are going to be and having a nominee who hasn’t assaulted anyone, forget that stuff. Gillibrand’s hypocrisy on this is so glaring that I’m somewhat amazed she’s not embarrassed by it. I’ll close with a speech Gillibrand made backed by model Emily Ratajkowski and actress Amy Schumer. What happened to this person?

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Republicans Want to Indemnify Corporations Against Liability for Employee Injury

Back last September, before All This Happened, the administration*’s deregulation eye fell with its usual heedless abandon on the pork-producing industry. The customary recklessness ensued. From NBC News:

The new rule will let factory workers, rather than USDA inspectors, remove unsuitable carcasses and trim defects in plants that opt into the new inspection system. USDA inspectors will still examine the carcasses, but they will be stationed farther down the line, and off-line inspectors will be roaming the factory to conduct other kinds of safety checks…Debbie Berkowitz, a former Labor Department official under the Obama administration, says the change will harm workers who are already laboring under dangerous conditions in traditional plants, which are currently allowed to process up to 1,106 hogs per hour.

The rule “will lead to an increase in serious and often crippling injuries to tens of thousands of slaughterhouse workers, who already endure exceedingly harsh conditions to provide cheap pork to American consumers,” said Berkowitz, a program director at the National Employment Law Project, a research and advocacy group…Advocates also criticized the USDA for moving forward with the rule amid a probe by the agency’s inspector general, who is examining whether the USDA used faulty data and hid information about the new rule’s impact on worker safety.

Working in the meat-processing industry always has been perilous; hell, that’s how Upton Sinclair got famous in 1906, when he published The Jungle. Now, though, meat plants have become serious vectors for the pandemic. Smithfield Foods in Sioux Falls was the center of South Dakota’s principal outbreak. Slaughterhouses, large and small, all across the country have been closing down. Animals are being euthanized en masse and turned to compost, or buried in the fields, for all that implies eventually for the groundwater.

If ever there was a project for Mitch McConnell.

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And, on Monday, Tyson Foods took out full-page ads in a number of newspapers warning the country that its food chain was breaking. Apparently, this was enough to scare the president* into the kind of calm, reasoned response to which the country has become accustomed. From Bloomberg:

Trump plans to use the Defense Production Act to order the companies to stay open as critical infrastructure, and the government will provide additional protective gear for employees as well as guidance, according to the person.

The order sets the stage for a showdown between America’s meat giants, which have been pressing to reopen plants, and some local officials and labor unions who’ve called for closures in a bid to prevent the virus from spreading. The president himself has long agitated for Americans to return to work and restore an economy crippled by social distancing measures. Trump signaled the executive action at the White House on Tuesday, saying he planned to sign an order aimed at Tyson Foods Inc.’s liability, which had become “a road block” for the company. He didn’t elaborate.

Ah, and there we have the joker in the deck. Indemnifying corporations in advance for what might happen to their employees if the country is opened up prematurely, and the corporations force their employees to choose between work and epidemic disease. It’s now an obviously concerted project for the entire Republican Party. In the Senate, Mitch McConnell is using corporate immunization to hold the next stimulus bill hostage. From Bloomberg:

As some states begin gradually lifting stay-at-home orders and other restrictions, McConnell said that without protection from lawsuits, business owners could end up with years of legal claims over their efforts to restart the economy. “Our response must not be slowed, weakened or exploited to set up the biggest trial lawyer bonanza in history,” he said in a statement.

Is this reckless? Absolutely. Cynical? Vastly. Many of the employees that the president* seeks to put back to work, pandemic be damned, are undocumented workers who he otherwise would be hustling back to their countries of origin. And anyone who relies on the fanciful notion that the industry is going to abide by the regulations in that executive order is…well, dead meat. Social distancing on a speeded-up chicken dismemberment line? How does that work exactly?

A break in the food chain is serious business. It requires something more substantial than a knee-jerk executive order. (It took weeks for the president* to invoke the DPA at all, and longer than that to employ it to produce vital medical supplies. It took less than a day for him to use it to reopen the meat plants.) It also requires more reflection than an attempt in Congress to protect the donor class from the families of employees who sicken and die for pork chops.

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Judge orders Michael Flynn’s former attorneys to execute another search for documents after new trove discovered

The federal judge presiding over retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn’s case issued a surprise order telling the former national security adviser’s previous attorneys to conduct another search of their entire case archive after it was revealed they failed to turn thousands of documents over to Flynn’s new defense team.

The ruling by Judge Emmet Sullivan was made public Tuesday afternoon after Robert Kelner and Stephen Anthony, Flynn’s former lawyers at the powerhouse firm Covington & Burling, claimed there were 6,800 records they had only just now unearthed and turned over to Flynn’s current defense team, which has been led by former federal prosecutor Sidney Powell since July 2019.

“It is FURTHER ORDERED that Covington & Burling LLP shall re-execute a search of every document and communication pertaining to the firm’s representation of Mr. Flynn,” stated Sullivan’s ruling, which appeared on the public docket. “It is FURTHER ORDERED that Covington & Burling LLP is FORTHWITH DIRECTED to produce to Mr. Flynn’s successor counsel all documents or communications concerning the firm’s representation of Mr. Flynn that were not previously transferred in the rolling productions. It is FURTHER ORDERED that Covington & Burling LLP shall file a notice of compliance with this Order by no later than 12:00 PM on May 4, 2020.”

Around the same time Tuesday afternoon, a seven-page filing from the Covington attorneys was unsealed, which showed that Kelner and Anthony had just transferred thousands of documents that they had been sitting on for almost a year to Powell and Flynn’s new team. Earlier in April, Covington admitted it failed to transfer a number of emails and two hand-written notes over to Powell, but Tuesday showed that this was just the tip of the iceberg.

“Covington has now re-executed the email collection and searches on the broader set of emails, correcting the error made as a result of the miscommunication. In so doing, we again used electronic search terms and manual reviews to target documents in the client file. This effort yielded an additional set of approximately 6,800 documents and emails (including attachments) that were not produced during the client file transfer in July 2019,” Kelner and Anthony said, adding, that “these documents, comprising approximately 1% of the 669,800 total documents transferred in this case, were produced to successor counsel today.”

Flynn, 61, is fighting to dismiss the government’s case against him. He pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to investigators about his conversations with Russian diplomat Sergey Kislyak on sanctions on Russia and a United Nations resolution on Israel, but in January, he told the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., that he was “innocent of this crime.” He filed to withdraw his guilty plea after the Justice Department asked the judge to sentence Flynn up to six months in prison — though afterward, the department said probation would also be appropriate. Powell is pressing for the dismissal of his case by arguing that the FBI unfairly treated Flynn.

The Covington attorneys blamed “an unintentional miscommunication involving the firm’s information technology personnel” that had led them, in some instances, to run search terms on subsets of emails for a case involving Flynn’s former business partner Bijan Kian for a related Foreign Agents Registration Act case “rather than on the broader sets of emails that should have been searched.”

Powell, who took over last year in the spin-off case from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, said that new information provided by the Justice Department on Friday that was related to her client’s prior representation of more than two years showed that Flynn would be exonerated.

“The government produced to Mr. Flynn stunning Brady evidence that proves Mr. Flynn’s allegations of having been deliberately set up and framed by corrupt agents at the top of the FBI,” said Powell’s Friday filing on the public docket. “The government has deliberately suppressed this evidence from the inception of this prosecution — knowing there was no crime by Mr. Flynn.”

U.S. Attorney Timothy Shea enclosed a letter directly to Powell on Friday providing Flynn’s legal team with an update on the work being carried out by U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri Jeffrey Jensen, who was selected by Attorney General William Barr in January 2020 to conduct a review of the Flynn case.

“The review by USA EDMO has involved the analysis of reports related to the investigation along with communications and notes by Federal Bureau of Investigation personnel associated with the investigation,” Shea said. “The enclosed documents were obtained and analyzed by USA EDMO in March and April 2020 and are provided to you as a result of this ongoing review. Additional documents may be forthcoming.”

The documents Flynn’s team believes will be critical for his case were filed under seal, but Powell said they could be unveiled to the public in the next day or two.

Flynn’s defense lawyers also said Friday that they “found further evidence of misconduct” by former Mueller prosecutor Brandon Van Grack, claiming that he made “baseless threats” to indict Flynn. Flynn’s lawyers also claimed Van Grack put together a “side deal” not to prosecute Flynn’s son “as a material term of the plea agreement” but required that the deal be kept secret “expressly to avoid the requirement” of Giglio v. United States, a Supreme Court case about the responsibilities of prosecutors when putting together plea deals.

“Since August 2016 at the latest, partisan FBI and DOJ leaders conspired to destroy Mr. Flynn,” Powell said, adding that “the government’s misconduct in this case is beyond shocking and reprehensible. It mandates dismissal.”

Former FBI Director James Comey admitted that he took advantage of the chaos in the early days of the Trump administration when he sent agent Peter Strzok and another FBI agent to talk to Flynn. Flynn agreed to cooperate with Mueller’s Russia investigation, admitting and then reaffirming his guilt in 2017 and 2018. The defense team that negotiated the plea deal was fired and, since taking over last summer, Powell has argued that “there never would’ve been a plea to begin with” if Flynn knew how much information the Justice Department was hiding from him.

The Justice Department called Flynn’s claims of innocence “an extraordinary reversal.” The agency insists it never concealed any exculpatory evidence from Flynn.

Powell’s filing Friday evening included two exhibits related to March 2018 communications from Flynn’s former legal team at Covington. The first was a redacted email from former Flynn lawyer Robert Kelner to another attorney on the case, Stephen Anthony, stating, “we have a lawyers’ unofficial understanding that they are unlikely to charge Junior [Mike Flynn’s son] in light of the Cooperation Agreement.” The second blacked out email from Anthony to Kelner said: “The only exception is the reference to Michael Jr. The government took pains to give a promise to MTF [Michael Flynn] regarding Michael Jr. so as to limit how much of a ‘benefit’ it would have to disclose as part of its Giglio disclosures to any defendant against who MTF may one day testify.”

In a filing earlier this year, Powell pointed to a section of DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report that showed the intelligence briefing the FBI gave to then-candidate Donald Trump’s team in August 2016 during the presidential campaign was a “pretext” to gather evidence to help in the counterintelligence investigation into Trump’s campaign.

President Trump said in March he is considering a full pardon for Flynn.

“I will only say this: I think that Gen. Flynn is a wonderful man, he had a wonderful career, and it was a disgrace what happened to General Flynn,” Trump said on Monday. “Let’s see what happens now, but what happened to Gen. Flynn should never happen again in our country. What happened to other people should never happen again in our country. What happened to your president of the United States should never again be allowed to happen.”

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Anthony Fauci Approves of Brad Pitt’s SNL Portrayal of Him

When most people find themselves day dreaming about what celebrity might portray them in the movie of their life, their pipe dream may include the hope of an A-list, Oscar-winning star like Brad Pitt cast in the leading role. At least, that’s who Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had jokingly hoped would play him on TV when asked a few weeks ago. The doctor who is known for focusing on the fact-based science of the nation’s fight against the coronavirus outbreak got his wish when Pitt stepped in to play him on Saturday Night Live.

“I think he did great,” Fauci told Telemundo on Monday, offering his review of Pitt’s appearance. Not only was the doctor pleased with the actor’s impersonation of him, but also gave his stamp of approval to the message Pitt delivered while in character on Saturday’s episode.

“I mean, I’m a great fan of Brad Pitt, and that’s the reason why when people ask me who’d I like to play me I mention Brad Pitt because he’s one of my favorite actors. I think he did a great job,” Dr. Fauci added.

On the show, Pitt portrayed Fauci as a man just trying to do his job amid a pandemic, despite the fact that his boss (President Donald Trump) occasionally been at odds with his actions. At the end of the cold open on Saturday Night Live, Pitt broke out of character as Fauci and directly addressed the man himself to thank him and frontline workers for their efforts. “And to the real Dr. Fauci, thank you for your calm and your clarity in this unnerving time,” Pitt said on the show. “Thank you to the medical workers, first responders, and their families, for being on the front line.”

Fauci appreciated the kind words. “I think he showed that he is really a classy guy when, at the end, he took off his hair and thanked me and all of the health care workers,” Fauci said in his interview with Telemundo. “So not only is he a really great actor, but he is actually a classy person.”

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