Apr 23, 2020

Is Trump silencing the scientists?

Is Trump silencing the scientists?

Plus, a question about COVID-19, climate change and the 2020 election.

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Today’s read: 8 minutes.

Whether Trump is silencing the scientists, a question about COVID-19 and climate change, and a story about being fined for not having a mask.

CDC director Robert Redfield (left) speaks at the coronavirus press briefing.


Yesterday, I released the third Tangle coronavirus poll and the seventh Tangle poll ever. If you took the poll yesterday, please don’t take it again! It should take less than two minutes. By the way: I’m going to do more polls through Tangle, as they have all helped me bring in really fascinating data and feedback from readers. I’ll always share some of the broad results of polls back with readers, but the polls are always anonymous unless you explicitly leave your email address — and I will never share your personal info with outside parties.

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Reader comment.

Yesterday, Margie from Austin, Texas wrote in about my coverage of plans happening across the country to “reopen” the economy:

“I think you entirely missed the point about opening states back up for business — especially Texas, but I imagine this applies to other states as well,” she said. “Nowhere in your commentary did you mention the lack of testing. As of today, Texas has tested just slightly more than ONE PERCENT of the population. How in the world can any leader make a decision about opening up the economy without the essential information of how many people are infected?”

This is a great point. In previous editions of Tangle, I had written a lot about the need for testing to calm fears and assure the public it was safe — and to make informed decisions about how to do this. I neglected to mention it in yesterday’s newsletter and it was a missed opportunity to reinforce that point. Margie is right: we need testing not just from a health perspective, but an economic one, too. People aren’t just going to come back out of their houses and start spending money unless they know it’s safe.

What D.C. is talking about.

Trump. And accusations he is silencing scientists. On Tuesday, CDC director Robert Redfield told The Washington Post that a simultaneous flu and coronavirus outbreak next fall “will actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through,” and said the president’s tweets to liberate states were “not helpful.” Trump replied on Twitter by claiming that Redfield had been “totally misquoted” and promised to put out a statement about it soon — a statement which never came. Redfield later appeared at the daily coronavirus press briefing, said he had been accurately quoted but seemingly softened his stance with the president next to him. “I didn’t say that this was going to be worse,” Redfield said. “I said it was going to be more difficult and potentially complicated because we’ll have flu and coronavirus circulating at the same time.” Redfield and Trump both seemed to criticize The Washington Post headline, which read, “CDC Director warns second wave of coronavirus is likely to be even more devastating”.

Then, yesterday, Dr. Rich Bright, a vaccine expert who was working at Health and Human Services, said he was ousted from his post for pushing the government to invest in “scientifically vetted solutions” instead of unproven coronavirus treatments like hydroxychloroquine, which have been touted by the president. He accused the White House of putting “politics and cronyism ahead of science.” Bright made the accusations in a scathing statement after being “abruptly dismissed this week as the director of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, and removed as the deputy assistant secretary for preparedness and response,” according to The New York Times, who first reported the story.

What the left is saying.

It’s just as they’ve predicted. Trump is giving scientists and experts facetime, but on the condition that they do and act exactly how he wants them to. For three years, the president has been trying to rewrite facts — from drawing with a Sharpie on hurricane preparedness maps to lying about the size of his inauguration crowd. “One can’t Sharpie an untested drug into safe status,” CNN’s Jake Tapper tweeted.  New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg said “there have been too many Trump scandals to keep track of” but the story about Bright was “among the gravest.” Crooked Media’s Brian Beutler summed it up like this: “Trump fired a leader of the U.S. effort to create a coronavirus vaccine because he resisted Trump's suspicious and ultimately fatal efforts to hawk hydroxychloroquine. A key witness to extraordinary malfeasance, without a committee to testify to.”

As for CDC Director Robert Redfield, many on the left were asking where Trump’s statement was. He had promised that Redfield was misquoted, only to bring him to a coronavirus briefing so he could say he was quoted accurately. “Trump just marched CDC director Redfield out to claim he was misquoted by the WaPo,” The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker said. “But in fact, Redfield just confirmed the entire story — below — said he was quoted 100 percent accurately.” Redfield was asked directly if his words in The Washington Post were accurate: "I am accurately quoted in The Washington Post,” he responded.

What the right is saying.

When the story about Bright broke, the right immediately expressed skepticism about it. For one, buried paragraphs into the story, there were details about Bright butting heads with his colleagues. 18 paragraphs into the story, The New York Times said Bright “clashed repeatedly” with Dr. Robert Kadlec Bright, the assistant health secretary for preparedness and response, and was described by colleagues as “a polarizing figure within the Department of Health and Human Services,” where there were concerns his management style was “confrontational.” Then Politico’s Dan Diamond, who is not a partisan actor, reported that administration officials had been working to oust Bright since last year, and even shared timestamped text messages from early January to prove as much. Diamond also reported that Bright had actually praised the acquisition of malaria drugs in internal emails, despite publicly claiming he was against them. And this all came before news that Bright was using the same lawyers who represented Christine Blasey Ford when she made sexual assault allegations against conservative Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh.

As for CDC director Robert Redfield, conservatives accused The Washington Post of doubling down on their lies. People on the right were upset about the headline, not about Redfield’s quote. The Real Daily Wire’s Ryan Saavedra claimed: “they were talking about the headline” (note: Trump tweeted that Redfield was “totally misquoted”). Many on the right clung to Redfield’s clarification that he said it was “going to be more difficult,” not worse. Redfield told reporters he believes the infrastructure being built will keep Americans safer and that we’ll be better prepared for the second wave, so even if it’s more complicated it doesn’t mean the outcome will be worse.

My take.

There are three separate stories here, and I want to address them individually: the CDC director story, the Richard Bright HHS story, and the story of how Trump treats folks that disagree with him.

My take on the CDC director story is that he gave a fair, reasonable warning and Trump is pressuring him to soften that stance. If you read The Washington Post story, I don’t think their takeaway headline is at all inaccurate and Redfield himself said he wasn’t misquoted (as the president claimed on Twitter). What basically happened is Redfield issued a stark warning: the flu and coronavirus hitting at once will be very, very scary. Sometimes, during outbreaks of the flu, that alone can overwhelm our hospitals. Now we risk a bad flu season with the coronavirus, which is scary. Redfield’s clarification that it will be more complicated but not worse is kind of laughable because those two things are obviously the same. His optimistic take that we’ll be more prepared is just that — optimism. I hope he’s right, but I don’t think The Washington Post did anything wrong.

The Richard Bright story is a different ballgame. I think the left may have gotten out over their skis a bit on this one. Bright’s statement, released through his lawyers, and the first half of The New York Times article, are all very, very damning. The narrative is simple to follow: science expert fired for bucking Trump during a global pandemic. But the consequential reporting from Politico and the finer details later in The Times story give the right’s take here a lot more credence. It sounds like Bright was on thin ice before the coronavirus pandemic, and it also sounds like he was a difficult, divisive figure in the department. It’s totally possible that his firing had more to do with that then his push for “science-based” vaccine testing, even if that’s how he wants to frame his firing. There is a lot more to this story and I’d be careful not to overreach on it. As the lede in the Politico story says: “The abrupt ouster of a top vaccine expert at HHS has split officials who see it as either a boon for the nation’s Covid-19 response or the latest indication of a dysfunctional health department.”

Finally, Trump: at his daily briefing, the president was asked if Bright had been forced out because he challenged the president’s hydroxychloroquine support. “Maybe he was and maybe he wasn’t; I don’t know who he is,” Trump said. This kind of lie from Trump — which is what it is — is almost laughable in its nature. It’s how toddlers lie. First, if Trump doesn’t know who a leader of the vaccine effort against coronavirus is, that’s a very bad thing to boast about. Second, if he does know who he is, then this is just another example of Trump claiming to not know people he knows very well because they said or did something he doesn’t like. The Washington Post actually has a hilariously extensive list of all the people Trump has claimed he doesn’t know who he obviously has relationships with. It’s a strategy we’ve seen many times before and it’s not a particularly good one. Either Trump did know him and he’s lying, or Trump didn’t know a top HHS official helping lead the research for a pandemic-ending vaccine or cure.

News you missed.

  • A new Republican-led Senate report released earlier this week, conducted by the Senate Intelligence Committee, confirmed the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia tried to undermine the 2016 election and did so in order to help Donald Trump. “The I.C.A. reflects strong tradecraft, sound analytical reasoning and proper justification of disagreement in the one analytical line where it occurred,” Senator Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina, wrote. “The committee found no reason to dispute the intelligence community’s conclusions.” The assessment undermines years of President Trump’s accusations that the intelligence community, or “deep state,” was lying about the context of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Trump allies dismissed the report as a “whitewash” of corrupt investigations and continued to argue that Russia’s role in 2016 has been overstated and their goal was to sow chaos, not support one candidate over the other. Click.
  • A reporter from The Daily Beast said she was inside a D.C. restaurant in March when she overheard a top advisor to Joe Biden discussing his plans for his Vice President pick. The reporter writes that this advisor said Biden’s campaign chairman Steve Ricchetti and a top Biden aide, Anita Dunn, both liked Stacey Abrams for the role of Vice President. The advisor was overheard saying that the campaign is hoping Abrams does more television appearances to show that she is a skilled debater. Pressed on the story before publication, the advisor confirmed both Dunn and Ricchetti liked Abrams, but said they were unaware of what the two were thinking now. It’s one of the first times the Biden campaign has confirmed Abrams is a leading candidate for the role, and it confirms he has at least two important people in his ear advocating for her. Click.
  • Last week, Tangle referenced the 17 tons of American masks and medical supplies that were shipped to China as the coronavirus outbreak began here. But a new fact-check from The Washington Post found that the story was actually presented in a misleading way. Those 17 tons of PPE did not belong to the federal government, but private charities and public companies who were going to send those materials with or without help from the U.S. government. All the State Department did was provide the planes, that otherwise would have been empty on their way to China. The Post rated this claim “two Pinocchios” and the Tangle archive will be updated. Click.

Your questions, answered.

Reminder: Reader questions are a big part of Tangle. To ask a question, all you have to do is reply to this email and write in. Give it a try!

Q: Can you speak to the intersection between the climate crisis and COVID-19? Given the Trump administration's rollbacks on various environmental regulations, the overlap between the COVID-19 and public health crises is only going to deepen. This has a disproportionate effect on poorer communities and thus people of color, who are already at a significantly higher risk of both contracting and dying from COVID-19. To what extent do you think the election this year will influence these issues?

— Julie, Baltimore, Maryland

Tangle: The intersection of climate change and COVID-19 is quite fascinating, and I’m sure in a year or two there will be a number of books that dive into the subject. What I find really interesting, and what I think will be fun to watch, is whether it changes the climate change discussion at all. As I’ve reported here, we are seeing some really interesting things happen while the globe is on lockdown. Rivers are clearing up, the air is becoming healthier to breathe, and smog is disappearing in cities that are typically polluted to the brim.

At the same time, we’re also seeing the economic impacts of certain sectors like the oil industry being thrown into flux. We’re bleeding — or going to bleed — hundreds of thousands of jobs in energy-related fields because a barrel of oil is now worth less than a dollar. In fact, some well-known conservatives like Noah Rothman from Commentary Magazine have been writing about how they think this pandemic will blow up in environmentalists’ faces. Rothman makes the case that the Green New Deal and other priorities of the left call for the kind of government takeovers and fossil fuel job-killing initiatives that we’re now seeing play out in our coronavirus response. And people hate them.

I didn’t find Noah’s piece particularly convincing, and we had a little back and forth about it on Twitter, but it’s been fascinating to see how the two sides are digesting COVID-19 related to climate change.

You’re also right that there is a developing narrative about the uneven impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on people of color. It’s also true that climate change typically has a more negative impact on low-income Americans or people of color than it does wealthy Americans or white people. But, again, this conversation is being received differently on the right and the left. I actually just listened to an interesting conversation on the WeTheFifth podcast about the intersection of race and COVID-19. The speakers, three men of color, do not find the argument that this pandemic is disproportionately effecting non-white people particularly convincing. All three tend to lean right in their politics, and — again — I think it’s interesting to see how differently that conversation is playing out outside the left.

As for the election, I (unfortunately) am not sure it will have much of an impact at all, depending on what you mean. Will it impact the conversations the election is about? Probably not. I know that might surprise you, or maybe it doesn’t, but I’ve found that climate change or the concerns of lower-income Americans typically take center stage when things in our country are stable. Wars, sex scandals, D.C. drama and culture battles often distract the general public from “real” issues facing low-income Americans. I imagine this pandemic will, too. Will a white, suburban, middle-class family find time to care about the nuanced impacts coronavirus is having on climate change policy or black Americans when they are living off of unemployment or struggling to pay their bills? As cynical as it might be, I sincerely doubt it.

At the same time, if your question is whether the pandemic will impact the election as a whole, I think it absolutely will. How the Trump administration’s response is rated will matter in a big way. How they protect or defend or come to the aid of low-income communities, rural communities, black or Hispanic communities, and keep the economy stable in the suburbs will matter in a big way. Trump’s strongest selling point has been the stock market gains and low unemployment rates he’s enjoyed as president. Much of that has been either wiped out completely or at least shown to be far more vulnerable than people understood a few months ago. And I think that absolutely will change who certain people vote for in 2020 — especially if Joe Biden can successfully communicate what he would have done differently to protect all these groups.

A story that matters.

Yesterday, a judge in Harris County, Texas ordered residents to start wearing face masks in public for 30 days or they would face a fine. The ruling, which was apparently intended to help stem the spread of coronavirus, instead caused a national outcry and pushback across the state. It was the leading story on FoxNews.com and has thrown gas on the debate over individual rights during the pandemic. The state’s lieutenant governor called it “the ultimate government overreach” and Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) said that "commonsense guidelines" should not lead to “unjust tyranny.” The fines could be as big as $1,000 or cost someone 180 days in jail. “Should guidelines for masks in confined spaces be emphatically promoted? Absolutely,” Crenshaw tweeted. “But we will NEVER support 180 days in jail or $1,000 fine for not wearing a mask.”

The story isn’t just getting traction on the right, either. The idea of enforcing social distancing laws has also caused concern on the left, especially from folks who are worried police will use the laws to issue fines or arrest people in low-income neighborhoods that are more heavily policed. Even the Houston Police Officers’ Union, comprised of cops who are expected to enforce the law, called it draconian and asked for guidance from the state’s attorney general on how to enforce it. As orders for people to wear face coverings spread across the U.S., this conundrum is going to continue to play out: How do you enforce such orders without unjustly punishing vulnerable communities? Without further straining people already under financial hardships? Without executing government overreach? Click.


  • 46-38. Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump in Michigan, according to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll.
  • 46-40. Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump in Pennsylvania, according to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll.
  • 43-40. Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump in Wisconsin, according to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll.
  • 4.4 million. The number of new weekly jobless claims reported this morning.
  • 22.2 million. The number of jobs created over the last 10 years.
  • 26.5 million. The number of jobs lost over the last 5 weeks.
  • 3.5%. The unemployment rate in February.
  • ~20%. The estimated unemployment rate in the United States today.
  • 24%. The unemployment rate during the great depression.
  • +1.45%. The rise in the Dow Jones Industrial Average this morning after the unemployment numbers were released.

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Have a nice day.

For 28 days, a group of workers in southeastern Pennsylvania lived inside a factory to produce millions of pounds of raw Personal Protective Equipment material. Their “shift” started on March 23rd, and the 42 co-workers set up a makeshift dormitory before hunkering down for nearly a month. They ate, slept and worked all in the same place without leaving until Sunday night.  All of the workers volunteered to do the work, and together with a second plant in West Virginia, it is estimated they will produce 40 million pounds of polypropylene in a month, enough of that material to be used to make as many as 500 million N95 masks or 1.5 billion surgical masks if it were put toward one or the other. “We were just happy to be able to help,” Joe Boyce, an operations shift supervisor told The Washington Post. “We’ve been getting messages on social media from nurses, doctors, EMS workers, saying thank you for what we’re doing. But we want to thank them for what they did and are continuing to do. That’s what made the time we were in there go by quickly, just being able to support them.” Click.

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