Plus, a question about whistleblowers.
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Today’s read: 10 minutes.
Trump tries to push forward past coronavirus, a question about the history of whistleblowers and a story about how your work is watching you.
Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.
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One of the biggest stories unfolding in America right now is the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Shocking cell phone footage of Arbery being killed in Georgia is sparking a wave of outrage and disgust. The footage shows the 25-year-old African American man jogging down the street before being confronted by two white men in a pick-up truck. The men — father and son — are both armed. They confront Arbery as shakey cell phone footage captures pieces of a confrontation and several blasts of the firearms. Arbery died of gunshot wounds. The two men claimed they were pursuing Arbery because he looked like a suspect in a series of neighborhood robberies. A 911 call was made shortly before the chase where a neighbor said a black man was inside a house under construction in the same neighborhood. Arbery’s friends and family say the former football player, who stays in shape by running through the neighborhood, was simply on a jog.
The father involved in the shooting, Gregory McMichael, was a former Georgia police officer who worked for the local district attorney’s office and retired last May. He reportedly called 911 to tell the police he was pursuing Arbery. Two prosecutors recused themselves from the case because they had connections to McMichael, but one of the prosecutors defended McMichael’s actions in a letter first, claiming he was within Georgia law to pursue a suspected robbery suspect with a firearm he legally owned. The prosecutor cited a state law that says “A private person may arrest an offender if the offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge.” The events transpired on February 23rd and only now, after the cell phone footage was leaked, have they sparked an investigation. McMichael and his son have both been free for more than two months. The New York Times sums up what we know and don’t know about the case here.
What D.C. is talking about.
Moving into the next phase of our coronavirus recovery. About half of all U.S. states have now begun to “reopen” their economies and ease social distancing rules. Another five are planning to begin the process of reopening soon. Today, the Associated Press reported that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had laid out federal guidance for faith leaders, business owners and educators to begin to reopen — but that guidance was “shelved” by the Trump administration. One CDC official said the agency was told the guidance “would never see the light of day,” the AP reported. Instead, the president has put the onus on states to determine how and when they will come back online. “We have to get our country open again,” President Trump said. “People want to go back, and you’re going to have a problem if you don’t do it.”
Earlier this week, Trump hinted that he would be “winding down the coronavirus task force.” Then he reversed course, saying the task force would remain “indefinitely.” Later, he told reporters that he “had no idea how popular the task force is until actually yesterday. When I started talking about winding it down, I got calls from very respected people saying, ‘I think it would be better to keep it going.’” The President and his team have also shifted their tone, talking about the pandemic in the past tense. “They’ve gotten our country through this,” the president’s new press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, said of the task force. “There were supposed to be 2.2 million deaths, and we’re at a point where we’re far lower than that thanks to the great work of the task force and the leadership of President Trump.”
What the right is saying.
The president did a tremendous job. With senators back in D.C. this week, Politico reporters spent the last day or two asking them about the president’s response. They were nearly unanimous that he’s done a great job. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) predicted coronavirus will be a thing of the past by August. “We’ll be doing millions and millions of tests, we’ll do the antibody tests, we’ll have good reports, I think, on the beginnings of economic progress,” Tillis said. “And I think all those things will benefit the president and they’ll benefit me.” “Generally, I feel [Trump’s] done a very good job,” GOP Sen. Joni Ernst, who is up for re-election in Iowa, said. “He was right on it from day one prohibiting travel from certain countries and so forth. I think it was the right thing to do.” Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) struck a similar tone in the Politico article. “He exhibited tremendous leadership in this whole process, looking to people who are the experts and acting accordingly.”
Even Republican senators like Susan Collins and Cory Gardner, who have shown a willingness to criticize Trump in the past, have been pulling their punches for now. Gardner has called for a federal investigation into how the Trump administration handled its national stockpile of ventilators, but said “it’s important to not look and try to provide some kind of a grade… I think what’s important is trying to do better and better every day.”
There have been the usual detractors, too. Conservative voices on the right who have not supported Trump are still criticizing him now, saying the coronavirus pandemic has exposed all of his weakest traits and left the country in a disastrous position to bounce back economically.
What the left is saying.
We’re not even close. With the virus still spreading and people still dying by the thousands each day, the president has one concern and one concern only: re-election. And he knows the only way to get there is to muster up some strong economic signals by letting some people get back to work. Unfortunately, doing that requires ignoring epidemiologists and even the best economists who all seem to agree the only way to get the economy back on its feet is to contain and control the virus. That, they say, requires waiting longer — until the virus is really in retreat or until we can accurately test and trace people when they get back to work. Right now, neither of those conditions have been met.
Criticisms of Trump’s handling of the pandemic have only ramped up. The Washington Post’s editorial board excoriated Trump for “an absence of leadership” that has led to more deaths here than anywhere else in the world. Many on the left want states to remain on lockdown until we have a better testing protocol, contact tracing infrastructure or universal guidelines for the country to follow before going back to work. The Post also noted that Trump is allowing states to ignore the very guidelines he laid out two weeks ago for reopening, including a 14-day downward trajectory of documented cases we haven’t seen yet. “The president has not taken this thing by the horns and treated it like a natural disaster or a war, as he put it,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) said. “The truth is that this could have been handled a hell of a lot better with far fewer deaths.”
As I often say, I’m trying my best to hold off on calling balls or strikes when we’re sitting in the middle of this thing. But this administration is making it increasingly difficult for me to bite my tongue when we can’t even agree on the fact that we are in the middle of this thing.
The obvious question here is one nobody seems to be asking: by what metric has the administration’s response been a success? Put aside the difficult question of whether to reopen now or not, the two most common things the White House touts — in fact, two of the only things — is that Trump called for travel restrictions on China before it was popular and we have done more total tests than any other country. But each of those come with major caveats: the China travel restrictions did little to slow down actual travel into the U.S. from China, and even though we’ve conducted more total tests than other countries we only just caught up on tests per capita, many of those tests are taking weeks to get results and lots of them have been inaccurate.
So what’s the metric, then? What’s the evidence that the administration has done a “tremendous job,” as many Republican senators claimed this week? We have more total confirmed cases than any country on earth. We are past 70,000 total deaths, which already exceeds the 60,000 Trump and his task force predicted would be the grand total a month ago, and more than twice as many as the next closest country (the United Kingdom). Confirmed cases are going down in New York state, but they’re going up almost everywhere else. We’ve had between 1,000 and 3,000 coronavirus deaths a day every day since the beginning of April, with no end in sight. We’ve been averaging around 25,000 new cases a day at a steady clip for weeks, which means the deaths will keep rolling in. 33.5 million people have filed for unemployment since mid-March. The small-business loans designed to help U.S. companies survive have been hampered by technical issues, went predominantly to states that were the least impacted by the virus and went to so many companies that shouldn’t have qualified as small businesses that at least 40 of them ended up returning the loans.
What, then, is the evidence the administration is handling this well? Remember that this is just the raw data of the pandemic. It’s to say nothing of Trump’s erratic and freewheeling press conferences that were received so negatively and were so disastrous for his polling numbers that the administration scaled them back. It’s to say nothing of the stories of Trump allies’ lobbying blitz or Trump’s son-in-law fumbling the response to get help for doctors by enlisting volunteers from the private sector with no experience doing what they’re doing. It’s to say nothing of multiple reports that the administration has made it difficult for groups like the CDC to provide non-politicized material. It’s to say nothing of another whistleblower complaint, this one alleging the administration was pressuring its medical experts to dump money into researching a cure touted by the president and his allies in conservative media.
Again, I know many Trump supporters read this newsletter and I know I risk losing your faith in me by writing so critically about this administration, but if I’m honest with myself I really can’t see another truthful way to frame this. We are failing. I’ve repeatedly said I do not envy the hand Trump’s been dealt, but it seems abundantly clear other countries and world leaders are out-performing us. I even sent out a tweet today asking what metrics look good for the Trump administration on the coronavirus, and I haven’t gotten any responses that were compelling. Please, write in and tell me what you think. But I’m flummoxed in my search for signs of a competent response.
Your questions, answered.
Reminder: reader questions is one of my favorite parts of Tangle. If you have something you want to see in the newsletter, simply reply to this email and write in. I’ll try to get to it as soon as I can.
Q: Today we have another whistleblower complaint against the current administration. This person alleges widespread government misconduct related to the Covid-19 pandemic response. With the number of headlines in recent years including the word “whistleblower,” it has me wondering if other administrations had similar numbers of complaints or if this administration has compiled significantly more complaints.
— Katelyn, New York, NY
Tangle: The latest whistleblower complaint against the president would, in normal times, be one of the most damaging political news stories of a term. Rick Bright is alleging that the president and his administration forced him out because he refused to go along with Trump’s wishes to bet on hydroxychloroquine instead of safer, more effective COVID-19 treatments. Bright was in charge of coordinating our search for a vaccine and claims the Trump administration pressured him to steer “millions of dollars in contracts to the clients of a well-connected consultant.”
As Tangle reported here, though, it’s worth noting that Bright’s story is not as cut and dry as many reporters have made it. He was a controversial figure long before the coronavirus pandemic, and he had successfully pissed off plenty of his colleagues before this entire fiasco broke loose.
To the crux of your question, though: believe it or not, the Trump administration is rather low on the whistleblower list — especially when looking at the last few presidencies. The Government Accountability Project has tracked whistleblowers through the years and has an exhaustive list online. Last week, I wrote about my own complicated politics and said that “I liked Obama when he was president and grew to look down on much of what he did now that he’s left office.” His treatment of whistleblowers would be near the top of that list.
Obama was a constitutional law scholar and understood how our government worked as well as any president before him. He often used that knowledge and expertise in ways that I’d describe as dangerous. The American Prospect covered this well, explaining how Obama “weaponized the Espionage Act against whistleblowers like no administration before.” I had my research assistant Cameron dig into this, and he pulled from a few different sources like The Government Accountability Project, TIME Magazine, The American Prospect’s coverage and Wikipedia’s list of whistleblowers to come up with an approximate count of how many whistleblower complaints were filed against government entities during certain time periods. Here’s what he pulled together:
2008-2016 during Barack Obama’s term: approximately 33.
2000-2008 during George W. Bush’s term: approximately 44.
1992-2000 during Bill Clinton’s term: approximately 5.
So far during Trump’s term: 4 going on 5 (Rick Bright).
Many of the 33 whistleblower complaints during Obama’s term were intelligence-based, including two of the most famous whistleblowers of all-time (Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning). Obama was notoriously hard on them, seeking maximum penalties and doing what he could to punish and intimidate others from coming forward. Snowden is still living in what can only be described as an exile.
Under the Bush administration, there were 44 whistleblower complaints against government organizations, including Coleen Rowley, a member of the FBI who blew the whistle on our slow response to reports of suspicious activity before 9/11. The five under Clinton were less explosive, but include the Monica Lewinsky story, which ultimately left an indelible mark on Clinton’s presidency.
All that being said, the sheer number here doesn’t reflect what’s unique about the Trump administration. For one, it doesn’t address the primary reason Trump has so few whistleblower complaints: his administration leaks unlike any other before it. Part of what has made the Trump admin such a waterfall of non-stop news is that members of his team are constantly, relentlessly, unflinchingly leaking to the press — even when they’re bashing “the media” in the same breath. One of the worst-kept secrets in Washington D.C. is that the president himself is an anonymous source on many of the stories that run in The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal. Past administrations, like Bush and Obama, had a much better grip on their staff. That meant when things went south, a formal whistleblower complaint that afforded certain protections was a safer and more reliable way to get the media’s attention.
The other thing that’s unique is that we now have three whistleblower complaints that have directly implicated Trump or top members of his team. Some of the whistleblower complaints filed during the Obama administration (like the Snowden revelations) were arguably more shocking or mind-blowing than anything that’s happened under Trump, but some included in the count are also far removed from Obama, like a whistleblower complaint by a former USDA Public Health Veterinarian who discovered humane handling violations at slaughter plants. That is, technically, a whistleblower complaint aimed at a government organization — but there’s a big difference between animal rights violations by a government organization and a president overseeing a mass spying program or encouraging a foreign leader to investigate his political rivals.
For Trump, the first whistleblower was Natalie Edwards, a member of the U.S. Treasury Department who blew the whistle in 2017 on financial crimes that included those of Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign manager. That came around the same time a separate whistleblower said the Trump administration was marginalizing workers at the Department of Interior’s Office of Policy Analysis who focused on climate change. Then in 2018, two doctors blew the whistle on the child detention practices at the border. Then in 2019, an anonymous CIA whistleblower filed a formal complaint alleging that Trump had pressured Ukraine’s president into investigating his top political rival. And Rick Bright is now alleging that the Trump administration was pressuring scientists to take a certain direction while fighting a global pandemic. That is, in the modern era, a qualitatively unique set of complaints, though the sheer number is not historically unique.
A story that matters.
Your employers are watching you. Maybe. With millions of people forced to work from home, companies are looking for new ways to make sure their employees are actually working. One of the most popular has been software that tracks what we’re all doing on our computers, and demand has surged for the programs in recent weeks. Some programs track the words we type, others take random pictures of our computers and then send them to our employers. The technology is raising a lot of questions about where the line should be drawn between making sure employees are working and invasions of their personal privacy. You can read the full story here.
- 3.2 million. The number of new unemployment claims in the last week, according to new numbers released this morning.
- 77%. The percentage of laid off workers who believe they will return to their old jobs after the pandemic ends, according to an Ipsos poll.
- 76%. The percentage of Democrats who say they’re wearing a mask when they leave home, according to an Associated Press poll.
- 59%. The percentage of Republicans who say they’re wearing a mask when they leave home, according to an Associated Press poll.
- 78%. The percentage of Americans who say they would be uncomfortable eating at a sit-down restaurant.
- 7. The number of days a Texas salon owner will spend in jail after reopening her business too soon.
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Have a nice day.
Several U.S. cities are making the most of the coronavirus lockdown and finally finishing up all those projects on roads and bridges they’ve been working on for decades. In cities like Los Angeles, empty streets have allowed repairs to take place that previously seemed impossible. It’s a rare bright spot of the pandemic that is being encouraged by the president and now seems to be spreading: Florida officials are accelerating highway projects, New York’s Westchester County Airport is finally repaving a beat-up runway and other state leaders are suddenly taking notice of the opportunistic renovations. Click.