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ESG Investing & Pensions: Fund Managers Balk at Proposed Reporting Rules

A Wall Street sign outside the New York Stock Exchange in New York City. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

The sub-headline in a Financial Times story on the anguished reaction of some asset managers to the Trump administration’s belated (if modest) efforts to protect the threat to pensioners’ investment returns represented by “socially responsible” investing (SRI) shows where the paper’s sympathies lie (not that there was any doubt about that):

Funds say Department of Labor rule would hamper ability to incorporate ethical principles into pension portfolios.

“Ethical” sounds so much nicer than ideological.

The Financial Times

Late last month, the Department of Labor proposed a new rule that would require private pension administrators to prove that they are not sacrificing financial returns if they put money in ESG-oriented investments. [ESG-oriented funds, amongst other considerations, look at how a company measures up against somewhat variably defined environmental, social and governance standards]

“Private employer-sponsored retirement plans are not vehicles for furthering social goals or policy objectives that are not in the financial interest of the plan,” said Eugene Scalia, the labour secretary.

Quite.

The Financial Times:

Critics argue that, instead of protecting retirees from decisions that prioritise politics over returns, the rule may put them at greater risk by hindering their ability to fully analyse the companies in which they invest.

In fact, there’s nothing in the rule to stop asset management companies doing the “full” analysis they need (the only question is the use to which they put that analysis), but some cynics might say that the objection to a rule that places some limitation to the degree to which certain ERISA-eligible funds can be managed on SRI principles might owe just a little something to the fees that “full” analysis can bring.

The authors of the DOL’s commentary on the proposed rules note:

ESG funds often come with higher fees, because additional investigation and monitoring are necessary to assess an investment from an ESG perspective.

Convenient.

The Financial Times:

“The Department of Labor, under the current leadership, is sceptical of sustainable investing and that is bad for retirement investors,” said Aron Szapiro, head of policy research for Morningstar, the fund ratings firm.

I wonder.

The Financial Times:

The new rule does not prohibit sustainability analysis outright, but it restricts defined contribution pension plans from offering ESG funds  as default investments — which is where many users end up, having not made an active decision on selection. It also requires fiduciaries to provide evidence that ESG-oriented investments have been chosen solely on “objective risk-return criteria.”

Mr Szapiro said: “There is no need for regulations on avoiding investments that are chosen principally to create some alternative benefit; it’s very clear you can’t do that and everyone knows that.” The strict requirements are intended to dissuade investors from “sniffing around anything that looks like ESG,” he added.

I’d pay attention to that word “principally”, something of a red herring. Mr. Szapiro is quite right that “everyone knows” that an investment structured like that wouldn’t fly. The question, rather, revolves around investment strategies where the supposed ‘alternative benefits’ reduce financial return from what it might otherwise have been.

The Financial Times:

US regulators are operating on an outdated perception of ESG, “which assumes that investors must give up performance in order to invest responsibly,” said Brendan McCarthy, head of defined contribution investments at Nuveen, a Chicago-based asset manager.

Nuveen and Morningstar are drafting critical responses to the proposal. The UN Principles for Responsible Investing, which has signed up nearly 2,300 investment managers, has also come out against the rule.

Ah, the UN. Reassuring.

The Financial Times:

“A lot of what we do with policy and regulatory work is just to bring the facts. And in this case, we will be bringing a lot of facts,” said Amy O’Brien, Nuveen’s global head of responsible investing.

Fiduciaries looking to make the case that ESG analysis can lead to outperformance can cite a growing body of research.

Last year, Bank of America found that companies with high ESG scores generally saw lower future earnings volatility, particularly within the energy, materials, utilities and communications services sectors. The bank also found that 90 per cent of S&P 500 companies that went bankrupt between 2005 and 2015 were among the bottom cohort of ESG performers.

But the outperformance of companies with high ESG scores is a complicated question. Back in May, Bloomberg’s John Authers looked at this issue, and noted this (my emphasis added):

It is possible that ESG is undermining itself — or at least that the E and the S are in conflict with each other. Vincent Deluard, of INTL FCStone Inc., suggests that ESG funds are people-unfriendly. Tech and pharma companies tend to look good by ESG criteria, but they tend to be virtual as well as virtuous. These are the kind of companies that need relatively few workers and which churn out hefty profit margins. When Deluard looked at how the big ETFs’ portfolios varied from the Russell 3000, the results were spectacular. They are full of very profitable companies with very few employees… A further look at companies’ market cap per employee showed that investing in the current stock market darlings who are making their shareholders rich is a very inefficient way to invest in boosting employment. They include hot names like Netflix Inc., Nvidia Corp., MasterCard Inc. and Facebook Inc….

The problem, Deluard suggests, is that ESG investing, intentionally or otherwise, rewards exactly the corporate behavior that is creating alarm. Companies with few buildings, few formal employees and a light carbon footprint tend to show up well on ESG screens. But allocating capital to them leads to a deepening of inequality, and intensifying the problem of under-unemployment. On the face of it, they aren’t the companies that should be receiving capital if employment is to recover swiftly. If investors want to behave with the interests of “stakeholders” rather than “shareholders” in mind, and that is surely central to the ESG philosophy, then their current approach is directly counter-productive. No good turn goes unpunished.

Oh.

What’s more, there’s some evidence that E, S and the generally uncontroversial G (governance) may affect performance in different ways:

Writing recently for the IFC Review, Julian Morris:

A 2016 paper from group of researchers from the European Parliament and Bournemouth Business School sought to look more deeply at the relationship, using disaggregated data from Bloomberg’s ESG Disclosure form for the S&P 500 for the period 2007 to 2011. The researchers found that the relationship between ESG and financial performance in general was indeed U-shaped. However, they found that the environmental and social components were linearly negatively related to performance. It was only the governance component that drove the U-shape relationship. This governance-dominated U-shape relationship between ESG and financial performance has since been confirmed in other studies.

In other words, if it’s financial performance you are after, focus on the ‘E’.

And as I noted in the same post in which I quoted Mr. Morris, the Financial Times (to its credit) had picked up on some comments by the SEC about ESG:

Jay Clayton, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, said any analysis that combined separate environmental, social and governance metrics into a single ESG rating would be “imprecise”.

“I have not seen circumstances where combining an analysis of E, S and G together, across a broad range of companies, for example with a ‘rating’ or ‘score’, particularly a single rating or score, would facilitate meaningful investment analysis that was not significantly over-inclusive and imprecise,” said Mr Clayton…

The concerns expressed by Mr Clayton over combining E, S and G scores have previously been described as “aggregate confusion” by academics. One example of this is the electric car maker Tesla. The business, which scores highly on environmental metrics, has often been criticised for its record on workers’ rights. As a result, different ratings providers give it wildly different scores.

“Full” analysis can be like that.

The Department of Labor should stick with its proposed new rule.

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Ann Coulter Supports Amy McGrath And Calls For Mitch McConnell’s Defeat

Things are getting really weird as conservative Ann Coulter tweeted praise for Democrat Amy McGrath, and called for Mitch McConnell’s defeat.

Coulter tweeted:

Either Ann Coulter’s Twitter account has been hacked, or something really bizarre is happening. It is easy to see why any true conservative would be drawn to the moderate veteran McGrath, and also why any real populist conservative would be repulsed by Mitch McConnell.

Outside of Donald Trump, no Republican is the embodiment of being owned by the big money elite than Mitch McConnell. The Senate Majority is why the Senate is broken and has stopped responding to the will of the majority.

One should never read too much into a single tweet, but Coulter has been growing more disgruntled with the Trumpian Republican Party for years, but this is still strange, and for one moment, many on the left may actually agree with Ann Coulter about something.

For more discussion about this story join our Rachel Maddow and MSNBC group.

Follow Jason Easley on Facebook

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Trump continues to ignore pandemic during trip to hotspot of Florida

The trip, which includes a multimillion-dollar fundraiser and meetings, comes amid Trump’s larger push to get the US back into gear amid the pandemic. The President has been determined to project an image of normalcy, even as he heads into what’s been widely referred to as the new epicenter of the virus and the rest of the America is being discouraged from traveling, told to socially distance and encouraged to wear a mask.

The President’s first stop on Friday was a visit Doral, Florida, to take part in a meeting with US Southern Command. The meeting, focused largely on drug trafficking prevention efforts, took place in Miami-Dade County, which has seen a dramatic rise in coronavirus cases this week and continues to be pressed for resources.

A presidential visit — no matter who is in office — requires a significant amount of resources, with White House officials, White House Medical Unit representatives and US Secret Service agents traveling in advance of the president to coordinate with local officials on the ground. There is an extensive amount of medical preparation involved each time a president travels, with plans in place for the worst-case scenario.

After visiting Southern Command, the President participated in a roundtable with dissidents of communism and socialism in Latin America. Participants largely focused on warning against socialism and communism creeping into the United States, at times drawing parallels to Democrats and activists in the United States.

“Now Joe Biden and the radical left are trying to impose this same system, socialism plus in America. Biden is a puppet of Bernie Sanders, (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), the militant left, the people who want to rip down statues and monuments to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin,” Trump said, adding: “They want to rip down statues to Jesus.”

Like other White House events in recent weeks, this roundtable took place at a church, and it’s not clear if audience members were socially distanced. During similar events at churches held by the White House amid the pandemic, efforts to socially distance audience members had been mixed.

The President will round off his trip by participating in closed-door fundraiser — one of many events Trump and past presidents have used to secure support from high-dollar donors. The event is expected to raise $10 million. But it comes after supporters slated to attend a fundraiser with the vice president just on Thursday tested positive for the coronavirus and were asked to leave before he arrived.

Trump’s public appearances within the White House this week also appeared to be part of efforts to return to normal amid the pandemic, focusing on returning children back to school amidst the pandemic, signing a major trade deal, and enhancing “Hispanic prosperity.”

While meeting with the President of Mexico to sign the US-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement, Trump touted the US’ decision to send ventilators to Mexico for “saving a lot of lives.” But he made no mention of the fact that this week, Mexican coronavirus cases and deaths have nearly tripled after the government reopened certain sectors of the economy.
During events at the White House to push getting children back to school this fall, Trump said he would pressure governors to reopen academic institutions, claiming they want to keep them closed for political reasons, not over concerns about spreading the virus.

And during a roundtable and Rose Garden ceremony to establish the “Hispanic Prosperity Initiative” on Thursday, mentions of the coronavirus’ impact on Latinos were infrequent. One roundtable participant called the coronavirus’ impact on the economy a “blip.”

During an executive order signing, Trump touted his administration’s efforts on the coronavirus, but never mentioned its health impacts on the Hispanic community.

Recent data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that Hispanics and Blacks are suffering from coronavirus infections at rates far beyond their share of the population. And CDC data obtained by The New York Times show that Blacks and Latinos are three times as likely to become infected with the virus as their white neighbors.

At the White House events focused on Hispanics on Thursday, there was also no mention of the recent surge of coronavirus cases and deaths in states across the sunbelt, which have some of the largest Latino populations in the country.

In Texas, statewide Hispanic coronavirus cases are proportionate to their population. But in individual cities, such as Dallas, Texas, the Hispanic community is seeing a disproportionate impact.

In Dallas, more than 60% of individuals with coronavirus are Hispanic, according to Dallas County health officials. Hispanics make up about 40% of Dallas County, per the Census Bureau. And in the Rio Grande Valley, a region with a large Hispanic population, hospitals and mortuary services have started to become overwhelmed due to a coronavirus surge.

However, there are some signs that the President, the White House and his campaign are trying to adjust to the new realities of coronavirus.

Trump, who has been reluctant to wear a mask in setting where social distancing is not possible, said he plans to wear a mask while visiting Walter Reed National Medical Center on Saturday.

“You’re in a hospital setting, I think it’s a very appropriate thing,” the President said on Thursday. “I have no problem with a mask.”

Trump explained that “if I’m with soldiers, people that — you know, I don’t want to spread anything.”

And the campaign is planning to make changes to its upcoming rally in New Hampshire, his second since the pandemic began.

The rally was scheduled to take place this weekend, but White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Friday that it had been pushed back because of an incoming storm.

Tulsa, where the first campaign event took place in June, is now seeing a rise in coronavirus cases. Local health officials have suggested the rise was tied to a series of large events in the city, including the rally.
Unlike the first rally in Oklahoma, which fell below attendance expectations and was held indoors with little social distancing, the New Hampshire event is expected to be held in an airplane hangar. And while the campaign said in Tulsa that masks were voluntary, this time the campaign plans to ask rally goers to wear masks and encourage social distancing.

CNN’s Ashley Killough, Fredreka Schouten and Betsy Klein contributed to this report.

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Timeline Of Officials Trying To Get Trump’s Financial Records

The recent Supreme Court ruling permitting New York state prosecutors to get President Donald Trump’s financial records, the release of which has been a subject of controversy since his 2016 run for president. The Onion looks at the timeline of politicians and legislators trying to get Trump’s financial records.

April 2011

President Barack Obama releases his birth certificate, setting an important precedent for Trump just getting whatever he wants.


January 2016

Trump pledges to release tax returns once he remembers TurboTax password.


November 2016

Establishment liberals successfully elect Trump president of the United States in bold gamble for access to his tax returns.


January 2017

House Ways and Means Committee issues polite request to see if Trump wouldn’t mind releasing his returns when he has a moment.


December 2017

“Can you imagine what the reaction would’ve been like if Obama had refused to release his tax returns?” uttered for 1,000,000,000th time.


March 2019

Attorney General William Barr says he won’t release tax returns since they “have been too built up at this point” and “would be totally anticlimactic.”


May 2019

Administration officials adopt bold new strategy of ignoring subpoenas on grounds that no one will do shit about it.


July 2019

California governor Gavin Newsom signs bill forcing Trump to release taxes in order to appear on 2020 presidential primary ballot, which is blocked by a federal judge who admits it was a pretty good try.


July 2020

Supreme Court rules public has right to view Trump’s tax returns, but only after they decide whether to grant him four more years of unfettered executive power.


March 2021

Trump’s financial records reveal that he did indeed have finances this whole time.

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The poll that explains everything

I bet these numbers are getting attention today at the White House, for good reason.

Purely and simply, either the trend in the graph below reverses before November and the president has a fighting chance at a second term or it doesn’t and he doesn’t. He can’t get reelected if he’s rating this badly on the country’s biggest concern.

Every other poll we’ve looked at over the past few weeks is noise by comparison.

Sixty-seven percent disapproval of how he’s handling COVID isn’t just garish, it’s meaningful in that it shows Trump losing parts of his own base on the issue. He’s not “supposed” to poll below 40 percent in approval metrics, as that’s the share of the electorate that’s stuck with him through thick and thin over the course of his presidency. If he’s at 33 percent, it means there’s been a crack in the granite foundation of his base. ABC has numbers on that as well:

Trump’s approval [on handling the coronavirus] among independents lands at 26% in the survey, a sharp drop from 40% in mid-June, the last time the question was asked. Trump’s disapproval among independents has risen to 73%, up from 59% in the June poll.

Within his own party, Republicans are less inclined to back him in the newest poll, with only 78% approving of the president’s handling of the coronavirus, compared to 90% in mid-June. His disapproval of 22% in the new poll is a more than two-fold increase from last month.

Even his base of whites without a college degree has slipped from 57/42 on his handling of the epidemic last month to 50/49 now. Here’s another data point that likely explains part of the decline, although probably not all of it:

As case counts flare nationally, especially in southern states, the press and some portion of the public have concluded that it’s due to states reopening too early. Which isn’t entirely fair: It’s logical that more commerce would produce more cases, especially with twentysomething morons celebrating reopening by cramming into indoor spaces like bars to celebrate the end of quarantine. But there’s no hard proof that early reopening has driven this. California didn’t reopen early, yet it has one of the worst outbreaks in the country at the moment. The Black Lives Matter protests may have driven the surge there and in other hot spots, or at least compounded a problem that was created by reopening.

But as the graph shows, the public’s sense that reopening came too soon is growing. And because Trump was the biggest cheerleader for reopening early, he’s destined to be blamed for that misjudgment.

Still, that doesn’t explain everything, as disapproval of his handling of the virus has grown more than the share of people who think the country reopened too early has. Some of the deterioration must be due to his own performance. I think it’s probably no more complicated than the fact that his major contribution over the past month to the effort to cope with rising cases and hospitalizations has been to insist repeatedly that this is all some sort of mirage created by increased testing. If he had a plan for containment and was scrambling to implement it and case counts were rising anyway, I think voters would reward him for the effort and reserve judgment to see if the plan worked.

Instead, despite the public’s growing belief that businesses reopened too quickly, he’s already moved on to demanding that schools reopen quickly as well.

Here’s the fateful question for November. Is there still time to undo voters’ loss of confidence in him by changing course or is this all baked in now? Or is it silly to imagine him changing course in the first place?

I don’t know. Voters’ memories are short. Trump’s entire strategy for reelection is to keep the economy improving steadily through October even if it’s nowhere near all the way back to where it was in February by Election Day. It’s trends that voters look to, not absolute performance. If COVID burns out in the south and California by September and remains burned out in the northeast after the mass bloodletting there this past spring, Trump could point to those trends and say, “We’ve beaten it. The worst is behind us and the vaccine is coming soon.” That might give him a shot at an upset.

But for that to happen, scientists would need to be wildly mistaken about the likelihood of a second wave this fall. They seem confident that we’ll see one. If we do, it may take nothing short of a miracle drug to hit the market between now and then to save Trump.

Here’s another fateful question. Is public opinion about his handling of the virus bleeding over into unrelated issues? This bit from Amy Walter’s new piece on swing voters’ dislike of “cancel culture” is worth quoting:

Even so, warns one GOP strategist I spoke with this week, there is real concern among suburban voters about where this so-called ‘cancel culture’ or what we called in the old-days, PCism, is headed…

But, this person points out, they are also wary of how far this reckoning will go. Over the last week or so, they’ve raised the question of “where does it end?” They cringe at reports of statues of Christopher Columbus being tossed into a lake and are upset to read of another public figure fired for a controversial Facebook post that they put up years ago.

However, the challenge for Trump in being able to exploit these concerns is that these voters “are mostly done with him” and think that “he makes everything worse.” As a messenger, this person said, Trump has “zero credibility” with these suburbanites.

I bring that up because ABC found in this same poll that voters are now more likely to disapprove of the Confederate flag than they were five years ago. In 2015 they split 13/28 when asked if they have a positive view of it or not. Today it’s 5/43. Maybe that has nothing to do with Trump, that it’s just a natural evolution of the country’s views as younger people age in and older people age out of the electorate. But then I thought of this Gallup poll a few weeks ago showing that, for the first time ever, more Americans want immigration to the U.S. to increase rather than decrease. That feels like a backlash to Trump himself given his strong support for decreasing immigration. There may be a similar “Trump effect” coloring other issues as he embraces them, in which his unpopularity due to his handling of COVID or just his general Trumpiness is now drving perceptions of issues with which he’s identified. If that’s true then his crusade in defense of monuments to the Founding Fathers may not do much to rally public opinion in the suburbs, or may even discourage some people in the center from championing the cause themselves because they don’t want to be seen as partnering with him. In that case, the urgency with which he needs to turn things around on the pandemic is even greater than we thought.

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A top terrorism fighter’s dire warning

Travers said he worries that the intelligence agencies focused on counterterrorism are retreating into themselves because of budget pressure, which raises the specter of a reversion to the pre-9/11 siloing of intelligence on counterterrorism.

So Travers reached out to Michael Atkinson, who was then the intelligence community inspector general — a position set up to field sensitive internal concerns. It wasn’t their first time talking; when Atkinson started the job in the spring of 2018, Travers said he briefly discussed his concerns about NCTC with him. By March 2020, he was ready to take a more formal approach. So Travers arranged a meeting with Atkinson for March 8. After scheduling the meeting, he said, he learned from a subordinate that Grenell had discussed the possibility of further reducing the number of detailees sent to NCTC. That dramatically ratcheted up Travers’ concerns.

“I remember talking to Michael and saying, ‘I thought I was just coming over here to talk about the general lay of the land and my strategic concerns about the center, and as of yesterday there is a potentially more existential concern about the center if we were lose detailees,” Travers said.

Grenell’s approach was compounding his pre-existing concerns about NCTC’s resources, Travers told Atkinson (who declined to comment for this article). In Travers’ view, the new acting director was single-mindedly focused on making cuts, without an understanding of what he was cutting.

Grenell, a spokesperson for the U.S. mission to the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration, has bristled at criticism that he entered the job without formal intelligence experience. As a senior official who enjoyed the president’s confidence, he would have been privy to a decent amount of sensitive information.

But intelligence community veterans like Travers, who also did stints at the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, worried that he didn’t have more experience.

“As a factual matter, he’s a PR guy or something,” Travers said. “He didn’t come in with a lot of knowledge about the intelligence community. I get it, he probably got some when he was ambassador to Germany. But the community itself is extraordinarily complicated. And it seemed to me that the kinds of questions that should have been asked related to who’s doing what and why, what are their charters, where are their strengths, where are the weaknesses, where are the gaps — that is the kind of conversation that should have occurred before you start imposing cuts and realignments. And there was none of that conversation.”

On March 13, Travers said, he emailed a senior ODNI official to disclose that he’d met with Atkinson.

In the meantime, Travers said he’d scheduled a meeting with Grenell to discuss the center’s mission and work. On March 18, he went in for the meeting. But before he could tell Grenell about the issues facing NCTC, Grenell told him that Travers and his deputy were being removed from their posts.

Travers hadn’t seen it coming.

“He just initiated the meeting by telling me that my deputy and I were out, which was certainly his prerogative,” he said. “I found it kind of strange.”

“There was a little bit of dead airtime,” he continued. “I asked him if he wanted me to go through NCTC. He said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ So I did that.” For the next 20 minutes or so, Travers said, he briefed Grenell on the NCTC.

Grenell and spokespersons for ODNI did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Grenell had the power to oust him as NCTC director, but not to push him out of the civil service. Travers said he decided on the spot to retire, and told Grenell that was what he would do. That process took several months.

About two weeks after Grenell fired Travers, Trump fired the inspector general, who had earned the president’s lasting enmity as the official who passed along a whistleblower complaint to Congress that kicked off the impeachment probe.

“At that point,” Travers said, “I got a little bit gun shy and wasn’t entirely sure what to do.”

He decided nonetheless to continue sharing his concerns with the watchdog’s office. So he put together a document called a Disclosure of Urgent Concern detailing his concerns about NCTC’s future. He shared that material with the new, temporary inspector general. Since then, he’s been told the House and Senate Intelligence committees have received his report.

“The issue is, how do we establish a government that works on behalf of the American people and deals with issues that, frankly, are not very sexy?” he said.

In the meantime, Travers said he saw a spin game emerge about the circumstances of his departure. News of his firing generated outcry — notably from a host of former senior intelligence officials, who wrote a Washington Post op-ed saying his ouster was “deeply destructive.”

But ODNI claimed on the record he hadn’t been fired, with spokesperson Amanda Schoch telling the Post that Travers “was offered the opportunity to move to a new role and chose to retire.”

Travers said that was disingenuous.

“Almost immediately, the word started coming out that, ‘Oh, no no, Travers wasn’t fired, he wanted to retire, we offered him three jobs,’” he said. “None of that is true.”

“I was left with no doubt that it was him that was — pick your verb — firing, removing, terminating me,” he added. “I was out as a result of that conversation.”

After Travers’ ouster, Grenell announced a reorganization of the center that will reduce its size by about 15 percent, according to The New York Times.

Travers isn’t alone with his questions about the future of NCTC.

“Russ is absolutely right to point out that it is past time for a reckoning of resource allocation across the Intelligence Community when it comes to terrorism and counterterrorism,” said Nick Rasmussen, a former NCTC director. “There’s no doubt that there is room for rationalization and elimination of duplication and redundancy. And given all that the intelligence community is dealing with beyond counterterrorism, it would be crazy not to have this conversation in a structured way.”

Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement the center has a critical role in preventing terrorism.

“I am concerned about NCTC getting the resources needed to do everything we ask them to,” he said. “This is something that the Senate Intelligence Committee is paying close attention to, and may step in if needed.”

Warner and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), chairman of the committee, also issued a joint statement to POLITICO about whistleblowers.

“Consistent with its mandate to oversee the activities and programs of the Intelligence Community, the Committee takes seriously all complaints it receives pursuant to the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act (ICWPA),” the statement said. “The ICWPA is an essential channel for ensuring evidence of wrongdoing rising to the level of an urgent concern is brought to the Committee’s attention in a manner that is lawful and protective of classified information. Without commenting on the specifics of any single instance, the American public can be assured that this Committee’s approach to ICWPA complaints is, and will remain, one defined by vigorous oversight, adherence to the law, and recognition of Congress’ Constitutional obligations.”

And Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he found Travers’ comments deeply concerning.

“The allegations Russ Travers made to POLITICO raise serious questions about whether President Trump’s hand-picked appointees have taken actions that improperly and dangerously impair the critical security mission of the National Counterterrorism Center,” he said in a statement. “If such allegations are borne out, then Travers would be yet another victim of retaliation, at the hands of an Administration insistent on punishing whistleblowers and other public servants who sound the alarm. The Committee plans to take steps regarding these allegations in the coming days.”

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Joe Biden’s Iowa hires signal tightening in state Trump won big

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Joe Biden’s presidential campaign has lined up a senior team in Iowa, a sign Democrats see the state where Republican Donald Trump beat them handily in 2016 as within reach.

Although Iowa’s six Electoral College votes hardly make the state a political jackpot, a competitive race for them this fall could signal problems for Trump in other northern states he won by smaller margins and would likely need to carry again to win reelection, chiefly Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

“I don’t know who will win Iowa, but I think the state is in contention in a way that six months ago you might not have suspected,” said David Axelrod, a former senior strategist to President Barack Obama. “The fact that Iowa is a close race means that those other states are very much in jeopardy for Trump.”

Biden has named veteran Democratic operative Jackie Norris as the senior adviser for his general election team in Iowa, where Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton by 9.4 percentage points in 2016, the campaign confirmed to The Associated Press on Thursday.

Norris, who was president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of Central Iowa until May, was the senior adviser to Obama’s winning 2008 Iowa caucus campaign and later directed Obama’s winning 2008 Iowa general election campaign before being tapped to serve as Michelle Obama’s first chief of staff in Washington.

Joining Norris as Biden’s Iowa campaign director is Lauren Dillon, who directed Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s 2020 Iowa caucus campaign. She was a senior advertising strategist for Democratic Senate candidates during the 2018 midterm elections after serving in several roles at the Democratic National Committee.

A Des Moines Register poll last month showed the race nearly tied in Iowa. Trump led Biden by more than 10 percentage points in the Register’s March poll.

The tightening in Iowa follows incremental gains by Democrats since Trump carried the state.

After a decade of steady Republican gains capped by Trump’s 2016 win, Democrats ousted two Republican House members in 2018, while also picking up seats in the legislature. Democrats have since pulled near even with Republicans in voter registration for the first time in seven years.

Trump’s campaign spent more than $400,000 in Iowa from April through late June, according to advertising data obtained by the AP. Meanwhile, Trump has reserved at least $5 million in advertising time in Iowa this fall, according to Advertising Analytics, a nonpartisan ad-tracking group.

“Trump folks know it is in play because they are advertising here,” said former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat who endorsed Biden last year.

Biden aides declined to say whether they planned an Iowa advertising campaign, though Democratic operatives unaffiliated with the campaign suggested one would be likely should the race remain close, given how relatively inexpensive television time is in the state.

Besides Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Biden has staff organizing in Arizona, Florida, Nevada and North Carolina.

The Trump campaign named a senior Iowa team almost a year ago, including Eric Branstad, son of former Gov. Terry Branstad, as senior adviser.

Though Trump campaign aides declined to comment on the advertising, campaign spokesperson Preya Samsundar said the campaign had made more than a million voter contacts in the state and had volunteers in all of Iowa’s 99 counties.

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The White House’s new briefing strategy: Short, with lots of commentary

He added: “They’re more a blunt instrument of what Trump thinks is wrong with the press rather than informing the public.”

Yet Trump’s backers see it as an important chance to capitalize on the public attention the gatherings receive, airing the administration’s points before they are put through the media filter.

“I think Kayleigh uses this as an opportunity, knowing how many people are watching these briefings, to get across key points,” said former White House press secretary Sean Spicer. “Reporters look at this as chastising the press but it’s also an opportunity to get a message out. It’s a vehicle to talk about something going on with the coverage.”

White House press briefings under Trump had a freewheeling — and infamous — start, with Spicer walking out on a Saturday evening to falsely state that the president’s inauguration size was “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.” In the weeks and months that followed, the fireworks and verbal sparring between Spicer and members of the press made the briefings must-see TV.

Yet under Spicer’s successor, the press room briefings ground to a halt, replaced with off-camera gaggles and TV appearances. Sanders’ successor, Stephanie Grisham, did not hold one briefing in the press room during her time in the role.

Just as McEnany brought back briefings at the beginning of May, the president appeared to scale back his own press conferences.

His daily coronavirus briefings, which sometimes went on for multiple hours as he took round after round of questions from reporters, faded away as the economy, and not the virus, became more of a focus at the White House. There were efforts to modulate the president’s appearances after he and his advisers fielded criticisms for the president’s conflicting claims about the virus and controversial suggestions about therapeutics like hydroxychloroquine or even injecting bleach.

A White House official defended the administration’s accessibility, noting that since April, the president has taken questions from a gathering of reporters over 55 times. Many of those appearances are from the daily coronavirus task force briefings, however, which tailed off at the end of April. Trump has also held 27 interviews during June and July — a vast majority of which were with conservative or friendly reporters like FOX News’ Sean Hannity or conservative commentator Michael Savage.

“President Trump is by far the most accessible president in history,” said deputy press secretary Sarah Matthews. “He’s his own best messenger, routinely informing the American people of his thoughts via his Twitter and regularly making himself available to the press for questions.”

Most recently, Trump went two weeks without answering questions from a group of reporters in public, opting instead for one-on-one interviews. CBS News’ Paula Reid asked McEnany about the decision on Wednesday.

“This president routinely answers questions,” McEnany said. “He’s more accessible than any of his predecessors. I’m sure you’ll be hearing from him soon. He’s always up to the job, but he’s hard at work in the Oval Office.”

Late on Thursday, Trump did answer a question from a pool reporter.

Battles between the White House and media have been constant since Trump’s first day in office. At times the situation has even escalated to attempts to rescind the press credentials of specific reporters, like CNN’s Jim Acosta. And numerous outlets have, in the past, complained about being left out of off-camera briefings from the press secretary.

While McEnany has resumed on-camera briefings with reporters, it has not stopped the tussles over media coverage. McEnany has frequently used the podium to offer her own critique of press coverage.

On Monday, for example, after a spate of deadly shootings over the weekend, McEnany pointed out that not one of the questions she was asked touched on the violence. Instead the focus was on Trump’s tweets attacking NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace, who is Black, and claiming that NASCAR’s decision to ban the Confederate flag had led to lower TV ratings, even though the opposite appeared to be true.

And last week, following a report from The New York Times about Russia paying bounties to Taliban-linked militants, McEnany slammed the story as “false” and then ticked through a prepared list of stories she claimed the Times had wrong.

The format appears by design. McEnany keeps her appearances short and often comes armed with an opening statement — which is typical for press secretaries — but then a closing thought that slams news coverage.

For example, her second briefing ended by asking the press if they would take back statements downplaying the coronavirus. A month later, she asked why reporters had not posed a question about Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser who may have his guilty plea dismissed. Another time, a question about Susan Rice was flipped to launch a prepared narrative about an Oval Office meeting during which Rice had discussed Flynn.

On another occasion, she dove into a soliloquy about the dangers of erasing history, questioning why HBO had removed “Gone with the Wind” — even though it was a temporary move — and mentioning the Japanese American internment camps under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “Should he be erased from history?”

To press advocates, the strategy is intended to avoid a substantive discussion.

“Now this is like some kind of political kabuki theater,” said Frank Sesno of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University and a former CNN White House correspondent who covered multiple administrations.

“Yes, there is someone speaking for the White House, and yes they are behind the camera and behind the podium,” he added. “That’s a good thing. But as far as providing any real information or background on the actual workings of the White House, forget it, not happening.”

The president has also recently avoided taking questions in the Rose Garden, even at events billed as being opportunities for the press to ask questions. Last week, the president announced a “news conference” on jobs numbers, but then stepped away shortly after commenting to the cameras. And during a press conference on job numbers and the economy — at the height of a national uproar over the death of George Floyd — the president bucked social-distancing guidelines by gathering the press closely together but then refused to take questions. Aides say they can never predict when the president will be in the mood to engage.

The lack of questions from the press comes as the Trump campaign has criticized presumptive 2020 rival Joe Biden for largely avoiding answering questions. Last week, Biden, who has been strict about following the government’s social-distancing guidelines, held his first press conference in 89 days. His previous press availability — back at the beginning of the spring — was done virtually to avoid gathering reporters in one space during the coronavirus.

Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh told POLITICO at the time that Biden’s press event on July 1 shouldn’t be “a news event in itself.”

“That it’s notable is embarrassing for him,” he said. “This is something a national candidate should do as a matter of course.”

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Coronavirus Election Funding Could Increase After Primaries : NPR

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., left, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., maintain social distancing as they attend a press conference after meeting with Senate Republicans at their weekly luncheon on Capitol Hill in May.

Patrick Semansky/AP


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Patrick Semansky/AP

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., left, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., maintain social distancing as they attend a press conference after meeting with Senate Republicans at their weekly luncheon on Capitol Hill in May.

Patrick Semansky/AP

Ever since the pandemic struck, state and local election officials across the country have made it clear: To avoid an election disaster in November, they need more money now.

Congressional Republicans are now signalling a new willingness to provide that, after initial fears from voting rights advocates that the federal government would provide no more support than the $400 million that came as part of a March relief package.

Experts expect as many as 70% of all ballots cast in November’s presidential election will be cast through the mail, a quick and radical shift that will require equipment upgrades and greatly increase costs for cash-strapped states and counties. During the 2018 midterms, about a quarter of ballots were cast by mail.

Officials across the country, like Lynn Bailey, who is the board of elections executive director of Augusta, Ga., are looking ahead to November and wondering how they will pay for it.

Bailey testified Wednesday as part of an Election Assistance Commission hearing about the 2020 primaries. She said Georgia’s June 9 primary cost about 60 percent more than a normal election would have in her jurisdiction, due to adjustments made as a result of the pandemic.

“We had about a 35 percent turnout rate in our jurisdiction in this past election, and we know that in November that number will likely double,” Bailey said. “We can only expect therefore that our budget will likely double over what we spent this time, if not more.”

Similarly, the executive director of Kentucky’s state board of elections testified that the state had already spent the majority of money Congress allocated in March just on the state’s primary in late June.

“We can’t afford not to get the money [from Congress],” said Wendy Weiser, who directs the Democracy Program at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice. “The consequences would be so dire. It would be so devastating, not just to our election, but to America’s standing in the world overall.”

New optimism

Democrats in Congress have supported a massive influx of elections funding virtually since the onset of the pandemic to help the country adjust to voting during a national emergency. The Brennan Center estimated the total cost of such adjustments to be $4 billion, which is how much was allocated in a proposal that passed the Democratic-controlled House in May.

What’s unclear now is how much Senate Republicans are actually willing to approve as part of the next relief package that Congress is expected to begin negotiating later this month.

After the CARES Act was passed in March, “there was a time it looked like more funding would be off the table,” Weiser said.

But, she added, it’s only become more apparent since, after a number of primaries saw huge lines and bungled mail voting expansions, why the funding is necessary.

“We’ve already had four months slip between our fingers,” said Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold. “The decision on whether to act or not is really the decision of whether you want your citizens to have to risk their health to have their voice heard in November.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also released new guidances for elections safety that noted that in addition to providing “a wide variety of voting options,” election administrators must also adjust their Election Day precincts to respond to the pandemic. They will need to provide adequate hygiene supplies and try to find bigger spaces that provide more room to social distance, all of which will cost more money.

While President Trump has made a series of false claims in an effort to discredit voting by mail, many state and congressional Republicans support efforts to expand it.

Senate Rules Committee chair Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said on the Senate floor before lawmakers went on recess, that he was “prepared to look at more money for the states to use for elections this year.”

The Senate Rules Committee, which has jurisdiction over federal election law, is expected to hold a hearing about elections safety in late July, which may also be a precursor to more funding being approved.

“We continue to work toward an election that produces a result that people have confidence in,” Blunt said. “And done in a way that everybody that wants to vote, gets to vote.”

In addition to more money, Democrats had wanted broader policy changes, including mandated weeks of early voting and universal access to mail ballots nationwide, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said that such requests are a non-starter.

While many congressional Republicans have voiced support for mail voting as an option for voters, they are loathe to have the federal government set national standards over U.S. elections, which are run mostly by the individual states and localities.

Senate Democrats now seem resigned to the fact that more money may be the most they can get. Still, they are pushing for individual states to greatly expand access to mail voting, and they see providing more funding as a means to allow that.

“I would rather put ballots in the mail, than voters in the hospital,” said Senate Rules Committee ranking member Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.