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Joe Biden hammers Trump for handling of coronavirus pandemic

By BILL BARROW and ALEXANDRA JAFFE

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — Joe Biden took aggressive aim Tuesday at President Donald Trump’s fitness for the Oval Office, suggesting he has abdicated his duty to protect U.S. troops facing Russian enemies abroad and American citizens facing a pandemic and economic calamity at home.

Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, told reporters Trump has “a lot to answer for” concerning news reports that he was advised as early as March 2019 of intelligence that suggested Russia was offering bounties to the Taliban for the deaths of Americans. And, in prepared remarks, Biden accused Trump of “waving the white flag” as coronavirus cases spike nationwide and the death toll surpasses 125,000.

The one-two punch reflects the core of Biden’s candidacy, which he built on the argument that Trump is morally and temperamentally unfit to lead the nation. He sought again Tuesday to draw sharp contrasts with his own experience and style as a former vice president and longtime senator.

Biden stopped short of saying Trump had violated his oath of office or should face any consequences from Congress based on any inaction on potential Russian bounties. But he called it “an absolute dereliction of duty if any of this is even remotely true,” and, in that case, he added, “the public should, unrelated to my running, conclude that this man is unfit to be president of the United States of America.”

The Associated Press has reported that at least one of Trump’s daily intelligence briefings included evidence of Russian bounties. Trump has insisted that he was never briefed on such details because they weren’t credible.

Biden said Tuesday he has not had a classified briefing on the material or on Trump’s handling of it, but he said he may request one soon. Major-party nominees receive daily intelligence briefings, but Biden is not yet the official nominee, and he noted that he no longer has access to the same classified information that he could regularly review during his two terms as vice president.

Biden throughout the campaign has hammered Trump for “cozying up” to Russian President Vladimir Putin and other autocrats, and Biden warned as recently as Monday that Putin’s long-term goal is to destabilize NATO and Western alliances that have been in place since World War II.

Biden said Trump should have called his military and national security team together to reconcile any intelligence discrepancies on the Russian bounty reports. “He should have, at a minimum, picked up the phone and said, ’Vladimir, old buddy, if any of this is true … you’ve got a big problem,” Biden said.

The 77-year-old Biden also used Trump’s explanations – that he didn’t know about any such intelligence reports – to turn the tables on the president’s frequent mockery of Biden’s mental acuity. Biden said Trump, 74, “doesn’t seem to be cognitively aware,” and he embraced the possibility of general election debates. “I can hardly wait to compare my cognitive capability to the cognitive capability of the man I’m running against,” Biden said.

On the coronavirus, Biden lambasted Trump for not harnessing the power of the federal government.

“He called himself a wartime president. … What happened? Now it’s almost July, and it seems like our wartime president has surrendered, waved the white flag and left the battlefield.”

Biden said he’d implement a national system of testing for the virus and tracing the exposure path of those who are diagnosed. He said that’s necessary to restore the confidence that businesses, workers and consumers need to jump-start the economy. Biden added that widespread use of masks and social distancing practices must become normal protocol for the “foreseeable future,” and he warned that COVID-19 “will likely worsen” during the coming flu season.

“We can’t continue half recovering, half getting worse,” Biden said. “We can’t continue half with a plan and half just hoping for the best. We can’t defeat this virus with a piecemeal approach.”

He cast Trump as wanting to be a national “cheerleader” without backing it up with hard truths and action. “We need a president, Mr. President,” Biden said.

Trump’s reelection campaign countered that the president has been at the forefront of the nation’s coronavirus response.

While “Joe Biden spent the last 5 months trying to come up with a plan, the President has been leading one that slowed the spread, made us the world leader in testing, and reopened our economy,” Ali Pardo, deputy communications director, said in a statement.

The former vice president said that one of his first actions as president, if he wins, would be to ask Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s leading infectious-disease expert, to continue serving. Trump has often contradicted Fauci’s guidelines on the coronavirus. Fauci warned at a Senate hearing Tuesday that he wouldn’t be surprised if the daily count of new cases reaches 100,000 without further intervention.

Biden delivered his remarks just miles from his residence, where he’s spent most of his campaign time since early March. That’s when governors and mayors around the country first began issuing stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines to prevent the pandemic’s spread.

For the first time, Biden weighed in Tuesday on the widespread push to take down monuments and honors for long-dead Americans who held white supremacist views. He drew a contrast between Confederate Civil War figures and those who helped found the nation, even if they owned slaves.

“The idea of comparing whether or not George Washington owned slaves or Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and somebody who was in rebellion, committing treason, trying to take down a union to keep slavery — I think there’s a distinction there,” Biden said.

He said statues of Washington and Jefferson should be protected, despite the fact “they may have things in their past that are now, and then, distasteful.”

___

Barrow reported from Atlanta.

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Trump’s ties to Putin under fresh scrutiny in wake of Russia bounty reports

Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Donald Trump is facing renewed questions over his relationship with Vladimir Putin after reports that he was briefed in writing in February that Russia paid bounties for the deaths of US soldiers in Afghanistan.

Related: ‘Russian bounties’ intelligence was in Trump written daily briefing – reports

After a meeting at the White House on Tuesday, Democratic members of Congress insisted the president must at least have been aware of the allegation against Moscow, yet failed to act.

“Based on what we heard today, it was information that a) the president should have known about and b) based on what we were told today, he did,” Adam Smith, chairman of the House armed services committee, told reporters.

Classified US reports suggested a Russian military intelligence unit offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill US and allied forces in Afghanistan, the New York Times reported last week.

The April 2019 killing of three US marines after a car rigged with explosives detonated near their vehicles as they returned to Bagram airfield in Afghanistan is seen as one possible result of the programme, which the Kremlin has denied.

The damning allegations have revived familiar questions from American political scandals: what did the president know and when did he know it?

Trump has long faced scrutiny for his warm relationship with Putin, including a refusal to accept his own intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Moscow intervened on his behalf in the 2016 presidential election; calls for Russia to rejoin the Group of Seven (G7) leading industrial nations; and the dispatch of ventilators to Russia to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump and Putin spoke by phone six times between 30 March and 1 June – an unusually high number – apparently without the Afghanistan issue being mentioned.

On Monday, the Times reported that information on the bounties was included in a daily written report delivered to the president in late February, with one unnamed official specifying 27 February – a date on which Trump hosted controversial celebrity supporters Diamond and Silk at the White House.

Separately, the Associated Press said senior officials in the White House were aware in early 2019 of the intelligence, and the assessment was included in at least one of Trump’s written daily briefings at the time. John Bolton, then national security adviser, told colleagues at the time he briefed Trump on the intelligence assessment in March 2019, the AP added.

Related: The Room Where It Happened review: John Bolton fires broadside that could sink Trump

Trump said on Sunday he was not told of the allegations because the information was not “credible”. The White House has claimed there was no consensus among intelligence agencies. The administration is yet to address whether Trump received a written report or if he read it.

At Monday’s White House briefing, the press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, was asked if the information was contained in the president’s daily brief, a summary of high-level information and analysis on national security issues. She replied, carefully: “He was not personally briefed on the matter” and repeated on Tuesday that Trump “was never briefed”.

White House officials briefed Democrats only after sharing information with Republicans on Monday.

After Tuesday’s meeting, Adam Schiff, chairman of the House intelligence committee, told reporters: “As we look at these allegations, number one the president of the United States should not be inviting Russia into the G7 or G8. We should be considering what sanctions are appropriate to further deter Russia’s malign activities.”

Schiff, who prosecuted the impeachment case against Trump over a quid pro quo with Ukraine, added: “There may be a reluctance to brief the president on things he doesn’t want to hear and that may be more true with respect to Putin and Putin’s Russia than with respect to any other subject matter. Many of us do not understand his affinity for that autocratic ruler who means our nation ill.”

Schiff called on Trump to consider imposing new economic sanctions on Russia, as did former national security adviser, John Bolton, who has published a damning book on the president, which suggests Trump is not fit for office.

Ruben Gallego, a member of the armed services committee, told MSNBC: “It is clear that this president has warped the information stream. Because of his love of Putin and Russia, it has made it more difficult, in my opinion, for briefers and people that inform the president of what is happening to keep him up to date on Russian activity, and that has caused a lot of problems.”

Related: President Trump is like a dead man golfing. So will he drop out of the election? | Arwa Mahdawi

Hillary Clinton tweeted of Trump: “Either he knew and chose to do nothing, or he didn’t know because he couldn’t be bothered to do his job.”

The New York Times further reported on Tuesday that US intelligence picked up transfers of large sums from Russian military intelligence to Taliban-linked bank accounts.

Trump’s handling of diplomatic relations took another hit on Monday when Carl Bernstein, a veteran journalist who reported on the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon, published a report online for CNN.

“In hundreds of highly classified phone calls with foreign heads of state,” Bernstein wrote, citing as sources unnamed White House and intelligence officials, Trump “was so consistently unprepared for discussion of serious issues, so often outplayed in his conversations with powerful leaders like Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and so abusive to leaders of America’s principal allies, that the calls helped convince some senior US officials … that the president himself posed a danger to the national security of the United States”.

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Joe Biden speech: Trump has ‘surrendered’ against coronavirus

In a speech in Wilmington, Delaware, the former vice president recounted what he cast as Trump’s missteps, from Trump’s early dismissals of the virus to his more recent refusals to wear a mask in public appearances.

Pointing to Trump in March declaring himself a wartime president in battling the coronavirus, Biden said: “What happened? Now it’s almost July, and it seems like our wartime president has surrendered — waved the white flag and left the battlefield.”

Biden’s remarks came as recent polls of voters nationally and in key swing states show him with a lead over Trump. Biden’s public appearances in recent months have been limited to small, invite-only crowds.

The 77-year-old former vice president appeared eager to respond to the Trump campaign portraying him as in cognitive decline, a case often made using out-of-context video from Biden’s public appearances. He said he “can hardly wait” to debate the 74-year-old Trump.

Biden also chided Trump for either failing to read or forgetting the contents of the daily briefing delivered to the President. The White House has denied that Trump was “personally briefed” on reports that Russia offered bounties to Taliban fighters to kill US troops in Afghanistan, claiming that the intelligence “wasn’t verified.”

“If he wasn’t briefed, it was a dereliction of duty. And if he was briefed and he didn’t do anything, that’s a dereliction of duty,” Biden said.

And, when asked by a reporter if he has been tested for any sort of cognitive decline, Biden said: “I can hardly wait to compare my cognitive capability to the cognitive capability of the man I’m running against.”

Biden’s speech tied together proposals he has issued in recent months, including calls for a national board to oversee a “massive surge” in coronavirus testing.

He framed most of his remarks as directly addressing Trump, urging the President to adopt Biden’s proposals immediately.

“You know the steps you’ve taken so far haven’t gotten the job done, Mr. President. Fix the shortage of PPE for our health care workers before you tee off another round of golf,” Biden said.

Biden’s plan includes offering free coronavirus testing to all Americans. It also calls for 100,000 people to be hired to form a national contact tracing workforce, as well as a doubling of drive-through testing sites.

He is also urging Trump to use the Defense Production Act to ramp up production of protective equipment for health care workers, testing supplies and other supplies.

His plan includes a series of steps designed to help businesses and schools reopen, including financial support for retaining and rehiring workers, building a best-practices clearinghouse for schools and guaranteeing paid leave for anyone with coronavirus or who is caring for someone with the virus.

Biden said he would call Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, shortly after being declared the winner of the general election to ask him to remain on in his position of director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a post Fauci has held since 1984.

He also criticized Trump’s administration for what he cast as a piecemeal state-by-state approach to whether and how businesses can reopen.

“We need real plans, real guidelines, with uniform, nationwide standards, to help us chart our economic re-opening. Whatever we’ve been doing now is not working. The state-by-state approach will only produce confusion and slow any progress,” he said.

Biden said there should be federal guidance “that everyone needs to wear a mask in public, period. Period.”

“Wear a mask. It’s not just about you. It’s about your family. It’s about your neighbors. It’s about your colleagues. It’s about keeping other people safe,” he said.

During his first question-and-answer session with reporters in months, Biden said he planned to announce his vice presidential running mate by early August — potentially later than the August 1 deadline he had previously set.

Biden was also asked by reporters Tuesday about the cultural battle around the removal of monuments. He drew a distinction between former Confederate leaders, who he said belong in museums, and slave-owners who played pivotal roles in the founding of the United States, statues of whom he said should remain in place.

“The idea of comparing whether or not George Washington owned slaves or Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and somebody who was in rebellion, committing treason, trying to take down a union to keep slavery — I think there’s a distinction there,” Biden said.

He said statues of Christopher Columbus, Washington and Jefferson should be protected, even though “they may have things in their past that are now, and then, distasteful.”

This story has been updated.

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House Dems Introduce Resolution To Impeach AG Barr

House Democrats on Tuesday introduced a resolution to ‘investigate and consider’ impeaching Attorney General William Barr. The move comes just a few months after their failed attempt to impeach President Donald Trump.

Congressman Steve Cohen, R-TN, brought the measure to the House floor with the support of 35 co-sponsors. The group alleges that “Attorney General Barr has undermined our judicial system and perverted the rule of law.”

He added, “In the past few weeks alone, Barr has ordered the attack on peaceful protestors in Lafayette Park, in violation of their constitutional rights, and moved to drop charges against Michael Flynn, the President’s former campaign advisor, despite his guilty pleas. He fired without any explanation the U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York who was overseeing investigations into the President’s associates and possibly the President himself.”

“The pattern here is unmistakable. Barr obstructs justice by favoring the President’s friends and political allies. He abuses his power by using the Department of Justice to harass, intimidate and attack disfavored Americans and the President’s political opponents. My oath to support and defend the Constitution compels me to confront this corruption. Congress is a co-equal branch of government and we must get to the bottom of this and hold Bill Barr accountable.”

Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee Rep. Jim Jordan criticized his colleagues’ move saying, “Are you kidding me?”, adding “Bill Barr is cleaning up the mess that Obama, Biden, and Comey created!”

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Joe Biden hammers Trump for handling of coronavirus pandemic

By BILL BARROW and ALEXANDRA JAFFE

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — Joe Biden said Tuesday that President Donald Trump has a “lot to answer for” amid reports that he was advised as early as March 2019 of intelligence that suggested Russia was offering bounties to the Taliban for the deaths of Americans.

“It’s an absolute dereliction of duty if any of this is even remotely true,” the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee told reporters in Wilmington, Delaware, after giving a speech excoriating Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden stopped short of saying Trump had violated his oath of office or should face any consequences from Congress, which has already impeached and tried him on charges related to his handling of foreign affairs. But, Biden, said, “If these allegations are true and he did nothing about any of this, then in fact I think the public should, unrelated to my running, conclude that this man is unfit to be president of the United States of America.”

The Associated Press has reported that at least one of Trump’s daily intelligence briefings included evidence of Russian bounties. Trump has insisted that he was never briefed on such details because they weren’t credible.

Biden said Tuesday that he has not had a classified briefing on the material or on Trump’s handling of it, but he said he may request one soon. Major party nominees receive daily intelligence briefings, but Biden is not yet the official nominee, and he noted that he no longer has access to the same classified information that he could regularly review during his two terms as vice president.

Alluding to that experience, Biden said Trump “at a minimum” should have called the Joint Chiefs of Staff together with other national security leaders and pushed to reconcile any discrepancies in the intelligence and draw a firm conclusion. And he said, were he president, he would call Russian President Vladimir Putin and say, “Vladimir, old buddy, if any of this is true … you’ve got a big problem.”

Biden has, throughout the campaign, hammered Trump for “cozying up” to Putin and other autocratic leaders across the globe, and Biden warned as recently as Monday that Putin’s long-term goal is to destabilize NATO and Western alliances that have been in place since World War II. He has said repeatedly that if Trump is reelected, NATO will cease to exist in any meaningful form.

The Q&A with reporters and the speech that preceded it was an opportunity for Biden to draw sharp contrasts with Trump on topics including foreign policy, the pandemic and cognitive ability.

Biden noted that Trump’s explanation of not knowing about intelligence on Russia was evidence of a president who “doesn’t seem to be cognitively aware of what’s going on.” Trump, 74, and his allies have repeatedly pushed the narrative that Biden, 77, is mentally unfit for the presidency.

“I can hardly wait to compare my cognitive capability to the cognitive capability of the man I’m running against,” Biden said.

On the coronavirus pandemic, Biden said that Trump is “waving the white flag” and refusing to lead the country through a pandemic that has killed 125,000 Americans and led to Depression-level unemployment.

“Despite the administration’s propaganda that their response should be a cause for celebration, despite President Trump’s request that we should slow down testing because he thinks that makes it look bad, COVID-19 is still here,” Biden said. “It didn’t have to be this way.”

Biden said a national system of testing for the virus and tracing the exposure path of those who are diagnosed is necessary to restore confidence for businesses to reopen and consumers to reengage in the economy. And he added that widespread use of masks and social distancing practices must be come normal protocol for the “foreseeable future,” and he warned that COVID-19 “will likely worsen” during the coming flu season.

“We can’t continue half recovering, half getting worse,” Biden said. “We can’t continue half with a plan and half just hoping for the best. We can’t defeat this virus with a piecemeal approach.”

Biden said he has not been tested for the virus but expects to be tested “relatively soon,” and he noted that Secret Service agents and staff who are around him are tested regularly.

Biden’s campaign said separately that one of his first actions as president, if he wins, would be to ask Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s leading infectious-disease expert, to continue serving. Trump has often contradicted Fauci’s guidelines on the coronavirus, and the veteran of six administrations has been out of public view at times in recent weeks as COVID-19 cases have spiked across the country.

Biden delivered his remarks just miles from his residence, where he’s spent most of his campaign time since early March, when governors and mayors around the country first began issuing stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines to prevent the pandemic’s spread.

As he has for weeks, Biden hammered Trump for giving Americans a “false choice” between “lives and livelihoods.”

Biden reminded voters of actions he’s called for over several months, in contrast to Trump downplaying the virus and bemoaning governors’ orders to shut down businesses. Biden said he’d implement those plans as president, focusing on a national testing-and-tracing system that he touts as the key to restoring enough confidence for businesses to reopen safely and consumers to re-engage with the economy.

Biden also emphasized personal protective equipment and investments in vaccine research and treatment methods.

Biden called in March for Trump to use the Defense Production Act, usually a wartime statute, to direct private sector manufacturing capacity to produce more health care materials needed to prevent, treat and combat the virus. Trump later said he was invoking the act to ramp up production of ventilators, though he spent weeks arguing that governors should be responsible for securing their own supplies.

Biden acknowledged Tuesday that his recommendations were repetitions of things he called for weeks or even months ago. That, he said, is simply because Trump hasn’t done his job.

___

Associated Press writer Bill Barrow contributed to this report from Atlanta.

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Fauci tells Senate new coronavirus cases could rise to 100,000 a day

“We are now having 40-plus thousand new cases a day. I would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000 a day if this does not turn around and so I am very concerned,” Fauci told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee during a hearing on the pandemic on Tuesday.

Fauci expressed dismay over people congregating in crowds and not wearing masks and inadequate attention being paid to guidelines on reopening.

“We’re going to continue to be in a lot of trouble, and there’s going to be a lot of hurt if that does not stop,” he said.

The urgent message came during a hearing on the latest efforts by the US government to contain the pandemic, as several states struggle to contain the virus amid rising cases and state reopenings. The US reported more than 40,000 new Covid-19 cases on Friday, its biggest daily jump yet.

Asked if the pandemic is under control, Fauci said, “I am not satisfied with what’s going on because we are going in the wrong direction if you look at the curves of the new cases, so we’ve really got to do something about that and we need to do it quickly,” adding, “Clearly we are not in total control right now.”

Fauci said that he can’t make an accurate prediction of the number of cases and deaths the US will see before the pandemic is over, but said, “It’s going to be very disturbing, I will guarantee you that.”

Fauci, Redfield urge American public to wear masks

Fauci and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield stressed the importance of wearing masks during testimony before a Senate committee on Tuesday, with Fauci saying “we recommend masks for everyone” and “masks are extremely important.”

Redfield singled out younger Americans in particular to deliver a message that they are not exempt from the necessity of wearing a mask.

“It is critical that we all take the personal responsibility to slow the transmission of Covid-19 and embrace the universal use of face coverings,” he said. “Specifically, I’m addressing the younger members of our society, the Millennials and the Generation Zs — I ask those that are listening to spread the word.”

Fauci spoke of the across-the-board importance of wearing masks.

“We are all in this together,” he said, adding, “We recommend masks for everyone on the outside, anyone who comes into contact in a crowded area. You should avoid crowds where possible and when you’re outside and not have the capability of maintaining distance, you should wear a mask at all times.”

Fauci indicated that he would support an effort to increase the production of high-quality masks in the US and distribute them free of charge to the American public in response to a question from Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“Masks are extremely important,” Fauci said, adding, “There’s no doubt that wearing masks protects you and gets you to be protected. So it’s people protecting each other. Anything that furthers the use of masks, whether it’s giving out free masks or any other mechanism, I am thoroughly in favor of.”

More than half of all states are seeing a rise in cases, and Florida, Texas and Arizona are getting hit particularly hard. Texas has begun scaling back its reopening, and beaches in Florida have closed for the upcoming holiday weekend.

Experts testify on vaccine development as the FDA gets more involved

Dr. Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration, said the FDA is taking action to help coronavirus vaccine developers get through the approval process faster.

“I am pleased to announce that today, FDA is taking action to aid the timely development of a safe and effective vaccine to prevent Covid-19 by providing guidance for developers, with recommendations on the data needed to facilitate manufacturing, clinical development, and approval,” he said.

Hahn said the FDA is committed to “help expedite this work,” but added, “We will not cut corners in our decision making.”

Hahn said the guidance will “provide regulatory clarity around what FDA expects with respect to those data. We want to see certain parts of those data so that we can demonstrate to the world, to the nation, to the American people, that we are following our rigorous standards with respect to safety and efficacy.”

“This is particularly as important as we know that some people are skeptical of vaccine development efforts,” he continued, adding that “public confidence in vaccines is so important.”

Separately, Redfield said there was “substantial disappointment with American Airlines” when the airline announced it would stop limiting seat sales on airlines.

“I can tell you that when they announced that the other day, obviously there was substantial disappointment with American Airlines,” Redfield said. “I can say this is under critical review right now by us at CDC. We don’t think it’s the right message.”

Last week, American Airlines said it plans to begin selling every seat on flights, something it has not done since the pandemic struck this spring.

The airline responded to criticism of the decision, saying in a statement Tuesday that it is committed to the “safety and well-being of (its) customers and team members.” The airline said that it has “multiple layers of protection” for passengers and that it provides flexibility to those who want to change flights.

Experts promise increased testing

Fauci and Redfield testified before lawmakers last week, when Fauci said “we’re going to be doing more testing, not less,” in response to President Donald Trump’s recent claim that he asked his administration to slow down testing during the pandemic.
Senators have been weighing another stimulus package in recent weeks as unemployment numbers remain worrisome and economic hardship stemming from the pandemic persists. Republicans remains divided on the size and scale of the next stimulus bill and while it has been discussed for months, the next phase of economic relief is still weeks away. But there is now broad agreement something has to be done — something that wasn’t always the case.
In Capitol Hill’s last round of aid, Congress boosted unemployment checks by $600 a week and added 13 weeks of pay, beyond what states offer. The additional money will expire on July 31 without congressional action, but the 13-week extension will remain in place until the end of the year. A second round of stimulus payments is on the negotiating table in Washington, but some of the 160 million Americans who got money the first time could be left out, according a more targeted approach the administration is pushing for.

Republicans have zeroed in on the last week of July to reach agreement on the next round of stimulus legislation. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been adamant for weeks on that timeline and the administration is on board.

This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.

CNN’s Amanda Watts, Alison Main, Phil Mattingly and Katie Lobosco contributed to this report.

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McGrath wins Kentucky Senate primary

Booker’s rise began late last month as he took part in protests against police brutality in his hometown of Louisville. Major leaders from the party’s left wing, from Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, endorsed him in the closing weeks. He already had support from state legislators and other Kentucky Democrats, but more in-state supporters jumped off the sidelines down the stretch.

But McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot who was backed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, had a superior organization and massive fundraising advantage that proved too much to overcome. She raised more than $40 million ahead of the primary, significantly outraising Booker and even McConnell. She spent more than $12 million on TV in the race, compared to less than $2 million from Booker, and her campaign won significant margins in the state’s rural counties outside Louisville and Lexington.

Most of her spending focused on McConnell, as McGrath essentially ran a general-election campaign against him for months, even after Booker joined the race in January. She focused some of her late advertising more directly to the state’s Democrats, a concession to the rapidly tightening race, and outspent Booker heavily in the final week. Even then, her advertising leaned on many Democrats’ belief that her campaign is best suited to challenge McConnell this fall.

Kentucky is a challenging state for Democrats to compete in a federal general election. McConnell, who is seeking a sixth term, is unpopular in polling of his state’s voters, and some public polls have shown the race to be competitive. But President Donald Trump is favored to carry the state overwhelmingly in the fall, and Democrats would need to convince huge numbers of voters to split their tickets.

Still, it is the first time McConnell will be on the ballot as the Senate majority leader, and McGrath’s fundraising ability gives Democrats hope of making the contest expensive and potentially competitive. A super PAC aligned with McConnell has already booked nearly $11 million in ads to run this fall, an investment that came alongside more likely battleground states like Arizona, North Carolina and Maine.

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Wear the masks, people — they work!

Did Fox News decide to stage an intervention on behalf of Donald Trump? Over the last 24 hours, two of the hosts in their top-rated lineup have gone out of their way to rebut conservative skepticism over mask-wearing in public venues. No lesser MAGA personality than Sean Hannity launched his show last night to reinforce the notion that masks work to control the spread of COVID-19.

“Look, anecdotally, I was in the epicenter of this,” Hannity said, discussing how his grocery store’s customers have all masked up. “No one at my grocery store, thank God, got coronavirus,” he declared. “I think they work.” Did Hannity have a particular audience member in mind for this PSA? (Via Twitchy)

If Hannity meant this message for one superfan in particular, perhaps so did Steve Doocy. Earlier this morning, Doocy suggested that MAGA should stand for “Masks are Great Again” and urged the Fox & Friends audience to put them on. “I don’t see any downside to the president wearing one,” Doocy tells Ronna McDaniel, who says that the president is trying to put together a balancing act on reopening. That’s when Doocy offers his “marketing advice” on rebranding MAGA:

Maybe these two PSAs are just a coincidence, or perhaps just two hosts independently coming to the same conclusion that Trump’s disdain for masks might cost him the election. As AP noted yesterday, they wouldn’t be the first; Mitch McConnell has gotten much more vocal about his support for wearing masks in public, too. McConnell’s message that we should put “no stigma” on wearing masks seems aimed at the Oval Office as well as some of his allies on Capitol Hill, whose own mask-wearing practices are less than disciplined.

How does this relate to Trump’s re-election? For one thing, his support among seniors has reportedly dropped, and they are one of his core electoral bases. Seniors are higher risk for contracting the disease, and the more people mask up, the safer they are. With Trump suggesting that it’s not important to wear masks, it makes seniors less likely to get out of their houses, and might be adding resentment to the COVID-19 isolation they are experiencing.

More importantly, though, a broad usage of masks might prevent more economic damage. Goldman Sachs issued a note yesterday that claimed a national mask “mandate” could prevent a -5% GDP hit in 2020:

A federal face mask mandate would not only cut the daily growth rate of new confirmed cases of Covid-19, but could also save the U.S. economy from taking a 5% GDP hit in lieu of additional lockdowns, according to Goldman Sachs.

Jan Hatzius, Goldman’s chief economist, said his team investigated the link between face masks and Covid-19 health and economic outcomes and found that facial coverings are associated with sizable and statistically significant results.

“We find that face masks are associated with significantly better coronavirus outcomes,” Hatzius wrote in a note to clients. “Our baseline estimate is that a national mandate could raise the percentage of people who wear masks by 15 [percentage points] and cut the daily growth rate of confirmed cases by 1.0 [percentage point] to 0.6%.”

“These calculations imply that a face mask mandate could potentially substitute for lockdowns that would otherwise subtract nearly 5% from GDP,” the economist added.

That alone could make the difference between a second MAGA term or a Joe Biden presidency. As Doocy explicitly argued, a national push for mask-wearing might be the key to really reopening the economy and avoiding a second wave of lengthy lockdowns.

Will Trump get the message from Hannity and Doocy? Thus far he’s been resistant to wearing masks even while his own advisors keep pushing mask use publicly. If Hannity and Doocy can make masks cool on the Right, though, perhaps Trump will get out in front of that trend.

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Spygate: The man who knew an awful lot

C-SPAN video

Technically, what’s of interest about the man in question, Robert S. Litt, is the number of Spygate-central waypoints he turns up in.  I have to imagine John Durham has at least wanted to talk to him.  Litt was one of the “Logan Act” chorus in early January 2017; he was also reportedly the conduit for informing then-DNI James Clapper of the Flynn-Kislyak phone calls; and yet again he was right in the middle of staffing the last-minute changes to Executive Order 12333 at the same time (which, of course, we would expect him to be).

But there’s more.  Robert Litt was General Counsel to the Office of the DNI from 2009 to January 2017.  He was the lead attorney for the organization and was thus naturally involved in its chief dramas during that period.  What put a focus on him this past week was a tweet from CBS News’s Catherine Herridge, highlighting a recollection by former Acting Assistant Attorney General Mary McCord in her interview with the FBI in July 2017.

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McCord, remember, is the Justice Department official who recalls being informed at the earliest date by the FBI about the December 2016 phone calls between Michael Flynn and Sergei Kislyak.  McCord says she learned of the calls on 3 January 2017, in a phone call with Andrew McCabe.

The FBI interview notes also reflect this bit of information:

Page 2 of McCord’s notes [i.e., her contemporaneous notes from that week] indicate General Counsel at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) Bob Litt raised the issue of a possible Logan Act violation.  McCord was not familiar with the Logan Act at the time and made a note to herself to look it up later.

Now, we needn’t kid ourselves that it took Litt at ODNI to popularize the Logan Act and get it circulating at the White House nosebleed level.  (Herridge’s highlight points out that Litt raised it on 3 January, and then Joe Biden raised it in the Oval Office on 5 January.)

The theme had been a drumbeat for weeks.  The media had been bringing it up in connection with Trump at least a month earlier, and by the end of December 2016 the Logan Act was an established theme.

(It reminded me at the time of the “New steps! New steps!” chant from the 1993 Australian film Strictly Ballroom, by Baz Luhrmann.)

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) even introduced legislation to amend the Logan Act, basically to make it more likely to stick, so appalled was he that the incoming Trump administration was doing what incoming administrations always do, by opening channels with foreign governments during the transition.

So the Logan Act was out there.  But:  it wasn’t ODNI’s problem to find a legal basis for going after Michael Flynn and ultimately Donald Trump.  In fact, if I’d been Litt – at least, Litt in a straightforward situation – I think I would have kept my mouth shut about what was so clearly someone else’s problem, no matter how brightly the bulb flashed over my head.  The Logan Act, after all, has nothing to do with intelligence.  It’s about diplomacy and influence.  It’s not in ODNI’s lane.

So Robert Litt reportedly bringing it up with the DOJ (and probably the FBI; it’s not clear who was in that particular conversation) is noteworthy.  It suggests what we may call a lack of professional detachment about the situation.

It’s unlikely that anything Litt did in that regard was prompted by Clapper.  There’s Clapper’s general air of somnolence to consider, but he also testified to the House, later in 2017, that the person who first told him about the Flynn-Kislyak phone calls was … Robert Litt.  (See p. 35 here.)

Assuming that’s true, it puts Litt in the middle of conveying FBI intelligence about Flynn to Clapper.  It doesn’t necessarily mean a whole lot that James Comey said he briefed Clapper on it; Litt could have learned about it earlier and told Clapper as soon as he knew.  That wouldn’t be unusual in such a relationship.  But coupled with the volunteer “good idea” about the Logan Act, it starts to paint a picture of Litt’s role, and how much he was in the loop on the machinations of Spygate.

He was naturally in the loop on staffing the changes to E.O. 12333, which were signed by Clapper in December 2016 and Loretta Lynch on 3 January 2017.  In email correspondence obtained by Jay Sekulow’s American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), Litt can be seen in late November urging a quick staffing turn-around at the Department of Defense, prior to Clapper’s signature on 15 December.

In an email on 29 November 2016 to someone in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, Litt expresses thanks for an update on the status of the 12333 staffing package, and says, “Really really want to get this done . . . and so does the Boss.”

Emails on staffing of E.O. 12333 amendments package obtained through ACLJ FOIA request; link in text

OK.  So what, if Litt was in there pitching for the priorities of the Boss (Clapper) as Obama’s term wound down?

It’s a nice sketch for us of what the Obama administration’s priorities were, and how it operated, for one thing.  Five weeks in the life of the ODNI General Counsel: rush through changes to a 35-year-old executive order that would gut the controls on protecting U.S. person identity information (USPI); be the one to tell the Boss about phone calls the FBI listened in on by the incoming National Security Adviser; and stoke the Department of Justice to look at the Logan Act, of all things, for taking whacks at the Trump team.

Litt seems to have taken some well-deserved time off when he left ODNI with the departing administration.  In September 2017, he joined the firm of Morrison & Foerster (which goes by the cheeky nickname MoFo, and no, I am not making that up), as of counsel.

Another supporting player from the Spygate cast had already gone to MoFo: John P. Carlin, who abruptly announced his resignation from the position of Assistant Attorney General for the National Security Division at the DOJ on 27 September 2016.  That was the day after he apparently tried, unsuccessfully, to sandbag NSA Director Michael Rogers for the chronic misuse of Section 702 “about” queries, which Rogers had discovered in the Obama agencies.  (Earlier in 2016, Carlin was the DOJ supervisor of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s prosecution of Evgeny Buryakov, the Russian spy for whose trial Carter Page was a key cooperating witness.)

Litt, however, was the Obama administration alumnus and MoFo expert on intelligence and national security who sat down with C-SPAN in October 2019 to discuss Ukraine and the so-called “whistleblower” complaint.

Litt was not only the former ODNI General Counsel, but was and still is a contributor to the Brookings Institution Lawfare blog, edited by James Comey’s good friend Benjamin Wittes (of “Comey memo, shopped to the media” fame).  Litt wrote an article about the “whistleblower” situation for Lawfare on 17 September, very shortly after the news of it broke.

Washington’s got a secret. Pixabay; LU graphic

It has become a running, half-sarcastic refrain among Spygate analysts that the “whistleblower” complaint was actually written not by a dewy-eyed whistleblower but by the stable of volunteers at Lawfare.  Certainly the complaint was written in the style of a professional briefing document.  It’s short on substance internal to the actual U.S. government intelligence community, but very, very long on perfectly footnoted references to media reporting.

Without suggesting that Litt – however well he knew the landscape at ODNI where the complaint was processed – participated in writing it, it’s certainly no stretch to suggest that he may know who did.

Dynamic duo. (Adam Schiff, L, CNN video; Jerry Nadler, GMA/ABC News video)

With a recent history like this, it’s no surprise that Litt was Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Criminal Division, and then Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General, in the Clinton administration in the 1990s, working for Eric Holder during part of this period when Holder was Deputy Attorney General.  Like a number of the Clinton presidency alumni, Litt was a partner at the firm Arnold & Porter from 1999 to 2009, reportedly specializing, among other things, in CFIUS compliance.  Litt was also touted, then as now, for extensive expertise in FISA matters, gained in his 1990s DOJ jobs.

But it’s his interesting record of being sent to explain the Obama administration’s pattern of questionable electronic surveillance of Americans, and adjusting regulations to make that easier, that in hindsight stands out.

NCTC and FBI again

In 2012, for example, Robert Litt was front and center reassuring the public about a rules change that would allow the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) to retain personally identifying information on Americans for five years, instead of the 180 days authorized at that time.  The decision was being explained in March 2012, simultaneous with the implementation of the new memorandum of understanding (MOU) we have looked at in the past that allowed USPI to be shared more freely and automatically between the FBI and NCTC.

This was also, of course, at the same time John Brennan’s old company, The Analysis Corporation, had database maintenance and analysis contracts with both the FBI and the NCTC.

The New York Times’s Charlie Savage provided additional detail at the time:

The guidelines will lengthen to five years — from 180 days — the amount of time the center can retain private information about Americans when there is no suspicion that they are tied to terrorism, intelligence officials said. The guidelines are also expected to result in the center’s making more copies of entire databases and “data mining them” — using complex algorithms to search for patterns that could indicate a threat — than it currently does.

Savage pointed out critics’ concern that this measure would resurrect a program partially shut down during the Bush administration, which sought to fuse “vast archives of electronic records — like travel records, credit card transactions, phone calls and more — and search[] for patterns of a hidden terrorist cell.”

Don’t even think about it. Guard gate at the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) in McLean, VA. Google Street View

It was then in July 2013 that Litt participated in testimony to the House Judiciary Committee on not just a “two-hop” but a “three-hop” standard for expanding electronic surveillance beyond individual targets.

As AP recounted, congressmen established with the witnesses that “If the average person calls 40 unique people, three-hop analysis could allow the government to mine the records of 2.5 million Americans when investigating one suspected terrorist.”  (The database collection that facilitated this has since been significantly curtailed.  That makes it a longer process, but still not impossible, to perform the same data-mining, as see in the next section.  Taking the long way around, the feds may order the telecom providers to do it.)

Scanning emails on the sly

Litt popped up again in December 2016, when Congress was indignant about the Obama administration issuing a secret FISA order to Yahoo to scan user emails for keywords in real time and hand them over to a “government agency” – implicitly NSA, but probably including the FBI as well.

Litt is recorded as offering the following argument: “Computerized scanning of communications in the same way that your email service provider scans looking for viruses – that should not be considered a search requiring a warrant for Fourth Amendment purposes.”

Pixabay

That little-remembered secret-scanning interlude began, remarkably, in about April or May 2015.  Yahoo’s IT security team discovered a program running stealthily to scan user emails: “The sources said the program was discovered by Yahoo’s security team in May 2015, within weeks of its installation. The security team initially thought hackers had broken in.”

But it turned out the CEO had quietly authorized the scanning program to be initiated on the system.

Recall that that was also the timeframe when Dutch national intelligence reportedly informed the U.S. that Russia was reading the emails of U.S. targets like employees of the Democratic National Committee.  (The specific reports referenced at the link say the Dutch informed the U.S. “in the summer of 2015.”  However, the same reports indicated the Dutch, using the same intelligence method, had caught an intrusion into the State Department system back in 2014, and had informed U.S. agencies of that as well.  It is thus quite possible that the FBI knew about the Russian monitoring of DNC accounts at the time the FISA order was issued to Yahoo.  The likelihood that the two developments were connected is pretty strong.)

James Comey (Image: ABC video screen grab)

James Comey later claimed that his knowledge of that vulnerability – and a Russian report of Loretta Lynch assuring Hillary Clinton, through intermediaries, that the probe of Clinton’s emails “wouldn’t go too far” – infused his decision to exonerate Hillary on his own authority in July 2016.

The FISA order on the email scans was probably issued to other carriers as well.  Litt was deployed to reassure the public on the matter.  The Obama administration said the intelligence Gang of Eight in Congress knew about it.

Certainly Litt did.  Given his level of engagement on Spygate themes as the Trump inauguration approached, it’s hardly unrealistic to guess that he had a pretty good idea why all these things were being done as well.