We’re Going to Need a Truth Commission Examining Trump’s Coronavirus Response

Esquire

We’re Going to Need a Truth Commission Examining Trump’s Coronavirus Response

All the bungling and temporizing and malfeasance in the administration*’s process needs a full airing.

By Charles P. Pierce                                March 26, 2020

 

White House Coronavirus Task Force Holds Daily BriefingDREW ANGERERGETTY IMAGES

 

Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, courtesy of Politicoback to when we had an actual president who was up to the actual job.

But according to a previously unrevealed White House playbook, the government should’ve begun a federal-wide effort to procure that personal protective equipment at least two months ago.

“Is there sufficient personal protective equipment for healthcare workers who are providing medical care?” the playbook instructs its readers, as one early decision that officials should address when facing a potential pandemic. “If YES: What are the triggers to signal exhaustion of supplies? Are additional supplies available? If NO: Should the Strategic National Stockpile release PPE to states?”

The strategies are among hundreds of tactics and key policy decisions laid out in a 69-page National Security Council playbook on fighting pandemics, which POLITICO is detailing for the first time. Other recommendations include that the government move swiftly to fully detect potential outbreaks, secure supplemental funding and consider invoking the Defense Production Act — all steps in which the Trump administration lagged behind the timeline laid out in the playbook.

Sounds like a handy thing to have lying around during a pandemic, no?

The Trump administration was briefed on the playbook’s existence in 2017, said four former officials, but two cautioned that it never went through a full, National Security Council-led interagency process to be approved as Trump administration strategy. Tom Bossert, who was then Trump’s homeland security adviser, expressed enthusiasm about its potential as part of the administration’s broader strategy to fight pandemics, two former officials said. Bossert declined to comment on any particular document, but told POLITICO that “I engaged actively with my outgoing counterpart and took seriously their transition materials and recommendations on pandemic preparedness.”

And good for you. Of course, the administration*, filled with All The Best People, ignored this document—which was drafted decades ago, in 2016.

An NSC official confirmed the existence of the playbook but dismissed its value. “We are aware of the document, although it’s quite dated and has been superseded by strategic and operational biodefense policies published since,” the official said. “The plan we are executing now is a better fit, more detailed, and applies the relevant lessons learned from the playbook and the most recent Ebola epidemic in the [Democratic Republic of the Congo] to COVID-19.”

The evidence supporting this contention is, of course, everywhere. And I do mean everywhere.

But under the Trump administration, “it just sat as a document that people worked on that was thrown onto a shelf,” said one former U.S. official, who served in both the Obama and Trump administrations. “It’s hard to tell how much senior leaders at agencies were even aware that this existed” or thought it was just another layer of unnecessary bureaucracy.

When this all settles down, we are going to need a truth commission to sort out all the bungling and temporizing and malfeasance that has been such a big part of this administration*’s response to the pandemic. And then maybe another one to sort out how we elected these characters in the first place.

Coronavirus is a fast-forward version of what will happen with climate change

Yahoo – Lifestyle

Coronavirus is a fast-forward version of what will happen with climate change

Ryan Cooper, The Week                       

 

The United States will shortly become the epicenter of the novel coronavirus pandemic, if it isn’t already. At time of writing some 60,653 American cases have been confirmed, and 784 people have died. It’s going to get much, much worse before it gets better — especially if President Trump goes ahead with his evident plan to open the country back up before the virus is controlled.

It’s very hard to get one’s mind around the scale of the developing calamity. But it also provides an important window into a potential future of unchecked climate change. The coronavirus pandemic is a warp-speed tutorial in what will happen if we don’t get our act together and slash greenhouse gas emissions.

The skyrocketing U.S. number of coronavirus cases and deaths is the direct consequence of President Trump’s previous inattention and delay months ago. By late December it was clear there was a major risk the virus was going to get out of China, yet Trump didn’t set up pre-emptive containment measures. He didn’t set up testing or quarantine facilities, and didn’t even shut down commercial travel from China until January 31, which was almost certainly already too late — and in any case his administration bungled the transportation of 14 infected Americans so badly that they may have seeded several outbreaks on their own.

As a result, the virus has been spreading in the wild in the U.S. since late January or early February, and the entire time Trump has dragged his feet on setting up an all-out response. He was slow to activate the Army Corps of Engineers, slow to get behind economic rescue plans, and slow to take steps to ramp up the production of tests. To this day he refuses to actually invoke the Defense Production Act to secure needed supplies of ventilators and other medical equipment, leading to chaos as states and foreign countries desperately bid against each other for what remains. Now hospitals are starting to be overwhelmed across the country, and the corpses are piling up.

This is what an uncontrolled, exponentially-accelerating crisis looks like on the ground: first slow, then all at once. Past procrastination and dithering means that once the seriousness of what is happening is undeniable, the worst effects can only be mitigated, not avoided.

Climate change is going to be exactly like this, only on a much longer time scale. Decades have passed with greenhouse gas emissions rising steadily, yet so far the carnage has been relatively modest. The sea level keeps inching up, biological systems are increasingly stressed, ordinary weather patterns keep getting more and more odd, and extreme weather disasters keep getting worse and worse, but so far most human societies have not been seriously threatened.

Absent gargantuan efforts across the world to wrench down emissions, in a couple decades that is going to change very fast. Normal weather patterns will simply not happen anymore. Some areas will suffer devastating drought, and others heavy precipitation — and some places, like California, will swing wildly between the two. Sea level rise will begin to swallow cities where hundreds of millions of people live. Extreme weather disasters — floods, tornado outbreaks, hurricanes, dust storms, and so on — will obliterate crops and crush cities around the world. Many biological systems will break completely, and food sources for billions of people will vanish. Hundreds of millions of refugees will stream around the world.

Indeed, there might well be additional outbreaks of pandemic diseases. Ancient pathogens are still alive in the Siberian permafrost, including anthrax, and possibly smallpox. As the permafrost melts, these could break out and infect a human population with no resistance.

All that is exceptionally grim. However, there may be a glimmer of hope in the response to this coronavirus epidemic. Outside of the United States and Brazil, virtually every country has thrown aside traditional political worries and attacked the pandemic with unprecedented speed and aggression. Concerns about national deficits, printing money, or increasing welfare benefits have evaporated in the face of a society-wide threat. Countries are outright nationalizing whole industries at the drop of a hat. Even in the U.S., after a primary season dominated by moronic “how are you going to pay for that?” concerns, Congress is casually debating a $2 trillion economic rescue package.

What we see is that when sufficiently motivated, countries really can transform themselves practically overnight. Whole continents have gone into emergency lockdown with as few people working as possible. Emissions are tanking with little transportation or production happening. The air around cities like Los Angeles is amazingly clear with so few pollution-spewing cars on the road.

A bold, world-wide climate policy would not be like the coronavirus response in the details or objectives, but the scale is about right. We need to radically transform our systems of manufacturing, energy, agriculture, and transportation, and it needs to happen as soon as possible. If we can completely overhaul whole countries in a matter of days to fight off a pandemic, we could do the same thing to forestall disastrous climate change. It’s just a question of political will.

Denmark’s Idea Could Help the World Avoid a Great Depression

An illustration of money and the Danish flag.
H. ARMSTRONG ROBERTS / GETTY / THE ATLANTIC
 

While the White House and lawmakers haggle over the terms of an emergency economic-stabilization package, Denmark has gone big—very, very big—to defeat the unprecedented challenge of the coronavirus.

This week, the Danish government told private companies hit by the effects of the pandemic that it would pay 75 percent of their employees’ salaries to avoid mass layoffs. The plan could require the government to spend as much as 13 percent of the national economy in three months. That is roughly the equivalent of a $2.5 trillion stimulus in the United States spread out over just 13 weeks. Like I said: very, very big.

This response might strike some as a catastrophically ruinous overreaction. Perhaps for Denmark, it will be. But we are at a fragile moment in American history. The U.S. faces the sharpest economic downturn in a century, and statistics that seem impossibly pessimistic one moment look positively optimistic hours later. In weeks—even days—Denmark’s aggressive response could be a blueprint for how the world can avoid another Great Depression.

To find out more, I corresponded with Flemming Larsen, a professor at the Center for Labor Market Research at Denmark’s Aalborg University, over two days of emails and an hour-long Skype call. The following interview blends those conversations, which have been edited for length and clarity.

Flemming Larsen: Denmark has nearly entirely closed down universities, schools, public institutions, restaurants, museums, cinemas. No assembly of more than 10 persons is allowed. The borders have been closed too.

Thompson: Denmark’s government has announced a very aggressive plan to help workers in the next few months. Tell me what it’s doing.

Larsen: Denmark’s government agreed to cover the cost of employees’ salaries at private companies as long as those companies do not fire people. If a company makes a notice saying that it has to either lay off 30 percent of their workers or fire at least 50 people, the state has agreed to take on 75 percent of workers’ salaries, up to $3,288 per month. (This would preserve the income for all employees earning up to $52,400 per year.)

The philosophy here is that the government wants companies to preserve their relationship with their workers. It’s going to be harder to have a strong recovery if companies have to spend time hiring back workers that have been fired. The plan will last for three months, after which point they hope things come back to normal.

Thompson: So the government is offering to pick up the tab for workers whose employment is threatened by the downturn. Couldn’t companies easily defraud the government and collect the money anyway?

Larsen: Maybe, but the workers compensated are not allowed to work in the period. Workers staying with the company do not receive the 75 percent compensation.

Thompson: Some American economists say the U.S. should copy Germany’s work-sharing plan, Kurzarbeit, in which workers’ hours are reduced and then the government takes on part of workers’ salaries. Is Denmark’s plan like that?

Larsen: Not exactly. In the German plan, the government and the employer share the cost of paying for work. Here, the government is paying companies for employees who are going home and not working. These workers are being paid a wage to do nothing. The government is saying: Lots of people are suddenly in danger of being fired. But if we have firing rounds, it will be very difficult to adapt later. This way, the company maintains their workforce under the crisis and people maintain their salaries. You are compensating people even though they have to go home.

Thompson: I think I understand you, and I’m going to try to summarize, but tell me if this summary is wrong: Denmark is putting the economy into the freezer for three months. You’re saying: We know that all these people won’t be able to work for the next few months. It’s inevitable. Rather than do rounds of firing followed by rounds of hiring, which will delay the recovery, let’s throw the whole economy into a deep freezer, and when the virus winds down we can thaw it out and almost everybody will still be with the company they worked for in January.

Thompson: What else is Denmark’s government proposing?Larsen: There are a few things. To prevent the financial sector from shutting down, the state will guarantee 70 percent of new bank loans to companies. This will encourage more lending even in the case of more bankruptcies.

Also, people on unemployment benefits are put on pause. Typically, people have to go to meetings at job centers and make a certain number of job applications to receive jobless benefits. There are a lot of rules. But those rules are suspended for now. There are no requirements. The other part of the pause is that, while you can only be on unemployment benefits for two years in Denmark, people who pass that threshold will still receive benefits. Again, we are freezing everything.

Also, the state agreed to compensate companies for their fixed expenses, like rent and contract obligations, depending on their level of income loss. If they typically sell $1 million in a period, but now they can only sell $100,000, they lose 90 percent of their income. That will qualify them to receive large government help to cover fixed expenses.

Also, the spring payment of taxes for companies have been postponed until autumn, and all public employees will keep their salaries when sent home.

Thompson: This sounds incredibly bold and incredibly expensive. How much does the government expect this is going to cost?

Larsen: The cost is 287 billon DKK. [Over email, we worked out that this is the equivalent of approximately 13 percent of the country’s GDP. In the U.S., that would be about $2.5 trillion.]

Thompson: How does this response compare with what Denmark did during the global financial crisis in 2008?

Larsen: Back then, there was nothing at all at this scale. There was no huge amount of spending. The government was worried about public debt. There was a huge, long debate about whether Denmark should spend a lot of money at all. And Denmark had one of the highest increases in unemployment during the last crisis.

But today, the Danish economy is extremely strong. We have a huge surplus. We have a negative interest rate. There is a lot of public savings. So there is a lot of room to do this now. Also, the political environment has changed. We’ve tried to make higher investments in welfare spending in the last few years.

Thompson: It sounds like 10 years ago, there was a debate about stimulus. But today, everybody agrees that you just have to save the economy.

Larsen: Yes. They just want to save the economy. The philosophy is, if we don’t do it now, it will be more expensive to save the economy later. We’ve seen what the virus can do in Italy, in Spain. So I think people are very concerned. We are facing a huge, huge crisis.

Larsen: I have to say that the decision-making process in Denmark has been very extraordinary. We have 10 parties in Parliament. From the very left-wing to the really, really right-wing. And they all agree. There is nearly 100 percent consensus about this. And that’s really amazing. People are convinced that it’s wise to do this now.

Many of these policies are made as tripartite agreements between unions, employers’ associations, and the state. That’s because, in Denmark, most labor-market regulation is done by the unions and the employers’ associations. They regulate the labor market mainly through their own collective agreements. To make all this possible, you need the unions and employers’ associations to be a part of these agreements. That is very difficult. But they succeeded rapidly. In a matter of days, this was a signed agreement.

Thompson: Do you think it’s a good idea?

Larsen: I don’t know. Nobody knows for sure. This is unknown territory. I think it’s a good attempt. If you ruin people’s private lives and companies go bankrupt, it will take years to build this up again. So I think it’s a wise decision.

It’s Time to Quarantine the Crazy Coming Out of the White House

Esquire

It’s Time to Quarantine the Crazy Coming Out of the White House

Why even bother tuning in when all we get are unproven theories about left-wing conspiracies and unproven COVID-19 treatments?

By Charles P. Pierce          March 19, 2020

Coronavirus Task Force Briefs Press At White HouseCHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY IMAGES

 

The now-daily gathering of the Coronavirus SuperFriends on Thursday took the express bus to Crazytown, perhaps never to return. This is because they insist on telling El Caudillo del Mar-A-Lago where the briefing is and at what time it will be held. Can’t someone just lie to him about all that? First, out of the clear blue nowhere, the president* began promoting the use of the anti-malarial drug chloroquine as a possible therapeutic for COVID-19. This came as some surprise to the Food and Drug Administration, whose director was also on the dais today. From Bloomberg: 

The drug, chloroquine, hasn’t yet been approved for treatment of Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. While it’s been available for decades for malaria, it’s not clear whether it will work against the new illness. A March 10 review of existing research found that there’s little solid proof one way or the other. During an at-times-confusing White House press conference, Trump said that chloroquine was approved for use and that he wanted to “remove every barrier” to test more drugs against Covid-19 and “allow many more Americans to access drugs that have shown really good promise.” “Normally the FDA would take a long time to approve something like that, and it’s — it was approved very, very quickly and it’s now approved by prescription,” Trump said. An FDA spokesperson said the drug had not been approved for use in Covid-19 patients. However, U.S. doctors are legally able to prescribe a drug for any illness or condition they think is medically appropriate.

At Thursday’s press conference, Trump and FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn appeared to differ substantially about the status of the drugs being tested. Trump said chloroquine had been approved and could be given to patients by doctors with a prescription. “It’s been around for a long time, so we know that if things don’t go as planned it’s not going to kill anybody,” Trump said. Shortly thereafter, Hahn said that use of the drug would be in a controlled trial to find out whether or not it works, and if so, what dose would be safe and effective. “We want to do that in a setting of a clinical trial,” Hahn said.

Good god, get the hook.

But the presser didn’t go zooming off the rails until a “reporter” named Chanel Rion from One America News, the outlet that the president* watches when Fox News gets too Chomsky for him, chimed in from the izonkosphere:

On that note, major left-wing media, including some in this room, have teamed up with Chinese Communist Party narratives and they’re claiming you’re a racist for making these claims about Chinese virus. Is it alarming that major media who just oppose you are consistently siding with foreign state propaganda, Islamic radicals, and Latin gangs and cartels, and they work right here in the White House with direct access to you and your team?

(Media Matters has the 411 on Rion, and, well, wow.)

This gave the president* his cue to go off on a rant about how the Fake News is keeping the country from throwing him the parade his performance in office is due. It’s past time for the networks to decide whether or not these exercises in executive wankery are harmful to the general effort against the pandemic. It’s time to quarantine the Crazy.

Small Farms Also Struggle as Restaurants Shut Down Due to Coronavirus

Civil Eats

Small Farms Also Struggle as Restaurants Shut Down Due to Coronavirus

With the sudden closure of restaurants around the country, farmers are looking for new ways to feed their communities and stay afloat.

 

At Norwich Meadows Farm in upstate New York, Zaid Kurdieh and his wife Haifa grow varieties of vegetables coveted by New York City chefs. If this were a normal week, diners would be enjoying their produce at restaurants like Blue HillABC Kitchen, and Gramercy Tavern. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, however those restaurants are closed indefinitely—creating a dire situation for them and others like them. But it’s not just restaurant owners and workers who stand to suffer in the wake of the virus.

While it’s still unclear how all farmers will be economically impacted by the coronavirus, the situation is already affecting small-scale producers who sell into local markets.

“It’s unprecedented. I’ve never seen anything like this,” Kurdieh said, estimating that about 60 percent of his business depends on restaurants, and at this time of year, that number is closer to 75 percent. “We are figuring everything out day by day.”

The fate of farmers’ markets is still uncertain in many places, but COVID-19’s catastrophic effect on restaurants that buy from local growers is now assured. President Trump issued new guidelines on Monday that advised Americans to avoid groups of 10 or more people and called for governors in affected states to close restaurants and bars. Before that, governors in many states across the country had already ordered restaurants closed except for takeout and delivery.

Mayors in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. all issued similar but varying directives. And in places where government officials haven’t stepped in, many restaurants are closing anyway, either out of necessity due to lack of customers or in service of the public interest to slow the spread of the virus.

“We really rely on restaurants,” Joe Schirmer, owner of Dirty Girl Produce, a 40-acre organic farm in Santa Cruz, California told Civil Eats on Monday. “[Those sales are] at zero. It’s totally done. There are no restaurants buying.”

The shuttering of institutions—especially schools—is also affecting small farms. As of March 16, 35 states had closed public schools.

Sky Island Farm's Kate Harwell. (Photo courtesy of Sky Island Farm)

Kate Harwell. (Photo courtesy of Sky Island Farm)

Kate Harwell grows vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers at Sky Island Farm in Grays Harbor, Washington, a couple of hours outside of Seattle. She had been structuring her whole season around starting a contract to sell produce to Seattle public schools starting in mid-April.

“We were basically going to be wholesaling a large percentage of what we’re growing to them. That was going to be a big chunk of money,” she said. Seattle schools are now officially closed through April 24, and Harwell hasn’t heard back from her district contact. “I’m sure she’s dealing with a lot right now,” she said.

Given the uncertainty around when schools will reopen, Harwell is now working with the assumption that she has lost that sales channel. Her goal is to make up the income by shifting gears and expanding her community supported agriculture (CSA) program, which she had previously kept small.

After she reopened it and began posting about it on Instagram, including a new offer for home delivery, her membership grew faster than it ever had before. “I got 10 sign-ups just yesterday,” she said.

And she’s not alone. Many farmers are pivoting from restaurant and institutional sales to sell directly to customers who are holed up at home. In New York, Kurdieh is ramping up online sales of his produce through the platform OurHarvest. In the Bay Area, which instituted a “shelter in place” order as of March 17, Schirmer is working on quickly putting together a “box” program with both pick-up and delivery options. (Essential activities including food shopping and medical visits are not restricted by the order.)

One of his oldest restaurant customers, Zuni Café, is helping put together a produce pick-up that will aggregate local food from Dirty Girl Produce and other farms they work with. In an Instagram post on Monday, the restaurant hinted at the initiative. “In the coming days we will be starting a new project that we are hopeful will keep our farmers connected to everyone,” they wrote.

Schirmer said there has been an outpouring of support from the local food community, and that keeping the business afloat will require his team to be extraordinarily nimble. “We’ve got food, we’ve got a crew, we’ve got trucks and infrastructure,” he said. “We’re just changing our business model on the fly.”

Emma Jagoz, small farmer at Moon Valley Farm.

Emma Jagoz. (Photo courtesy of Moon Valley Farm)

Like many East Coast farms, Moon Valley Farm, a favorite supplier for restaurants in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., would typically be gearing up to start its CSAseason in the coming weeks. But farmer Emma Jagoz announced on Saturday that the farm would begin “veggie home delivery,” offering a la carte CSA shares (rather than requiring a seasonal commitment) delivered to customers, starting this week.

Also in Maryland, Beckie Gurley owns the seven-acre organic fruit and vegetable farm Calvert’s Gift Farm with her husband, Jack. She also runs Chesapeake Farm to Table, a platform that has aggregated produce from local growers to sell to restaurants in Baltimore, including Rye Street TavernDylan’s, and Larder.

“Of course [the closures] are going to affect our bottom line,” Gurley said, but the cooperative is in a better position than it would be otherwise, because it already has the capacity to take online orders and offer home delivery. “We’re hoping the word gets out. In order to recoup the lost restaurant business, we hope that we can get these direct sales moving, and people realize we’re out there and how safe and available local food is.”

Gurley has also set up a pick-up point for produce orders in conjunction with a restaurant partner, Well Crafted Kitchen, that is continuing to operate a takeout business.

So far, farmers say the pandemic is not affecting them as much as it would during summer or fall, when most of their revenue generally comes in. But if it continues into peak harvest time, things are going to get much more difficult. “If this was peak season, this would be a disaster,” Kurdieh said. “We don’t know how this is going to turn out, but we’re planning [for summer] just as if it was a normal year, because I don’t know how else to do it.”

Depending on the length of the crisis, without restaurants and institutions, they may have to sell all their food directly to consumers.

“[We’re asking]: ‘How do we feed our communities?’ I think that’s the goal of every small farmer at this point,” Kate Harwell said. “If [global] commerce stops, we have to get our food from somewhere. I think people should absolutely start thinking about their local farmers, and I hope this puts them in a position to support them.”

Fighting Hunger with Community in the Era of Coronavirus

Civil Eats

Fighting Hunger with Community in the Era of Coronavirus

The founder of D.C. Central Kitchen offers a list of ways to feed and care for our neighbors in this time of uncertainty.

 

Coronavirus is producing a wave of need that will likely overwhelm most local food distribution charities and meal programs. But that doesn’t mean people have to go hungry.

Even before this virus hit, food banks and pantries were struggling to meet the needs of an estimated 37 million Americans who routinely struggle with hunger. Similarly, in many communities there’s a waiting list for Meals on Wheels, the main vehicle through which many home-bound elders access meals. Now, these and other networks are facing an unprecedented trifecta of difficulty.

Charitable donations of food and money—the lifeblood of all nonprofits—will likely be impacted by the economic tailspin caused by the virus. Volunteerism will also decrease, as companies, religious groups, schools, and individuals pull back out of concern for their members’ safety. (In addition, many volunteers are seniors, and they will need to step back from the work for their own safety.) Finally, demand for free and low-cost food will soar, as Americans of all ages, who are impacted by lay-offs, canceled events, and retirement plan losses will turn to charities for help.

We have to admit, as we have with our healthcare system, that our charitable systems aren’t prepared to meet an emergency of this level. So, we need to innovate—and we need to do it fast.

While the federal government weighs its response, and national groups including Feeding America, Meals on Wheels, and others work overtime to keep their networks sourced with food, we should also look at how to support our own communities in this unprecedented movement of anxiety, fear, and need. Here are my suggestions:

Launch an elder grocery support network. Many communities have Facebook or Nextdoor pages dedicated to sharing news. These can be activated to enlist healthy, willing, and able-bodied volunteers to shop and run errands for frightened, health-compromised elders. Physical contact must be limited, but volunteers can leave groceries outside people’s homes and funds can be transferred electronically before or after the supplies are bought. Volunteers can shop later at night to avoid crowds. Volunteers can also make stops at pharmacies or drug stores and elders should be reminded to buy things they might need if they become ill. For example, Gatorade or other forms of electrolytes could be vital. Also ask about pets’ needs.

Start a shared meal program. As you shop for your own supplies, consider buying extra food to prepare meals for neighbors. Rice and beans, soup, chili, and baked pasta are all easy, affordable options. Cost-conscious recipes are easy to find online. Food safety must be a priority. Cook food to a proper temperature, and deliver anything you make within two hours, to avoid contamination. Use disposable bowls and plates if you can, to avoid the need to return containers. If possible, try to use microwave-friendly packaging (avoid tinfoil and styrofoam). Write a note of comfort, and include the time the meal was cooked and any reheating directions.

Fight isolation. For many elders, the pain of loneliness often exceeds that of hunger. Organize your community to check in with people. Walk your neighbors’ dogs, help tend their gardens, or cut some spring flowers to brighten their worlds. You can chat, or drink a glass of wine together by phone or over video, which gives you the ability to communicate eye-to-eye with people. Either way, if you can help lessen the impact of this period of social isolation, it will go a long way.

As my friend Chef José Andrés of World Central Kitchen said recently, “Sometimes the bigger problems we face in humanity have simple solutions. But they don’t happen when we’re in continuous meetings about how to solve them.… Stop talking, stop planning, and start cooking.” I couldn’t agree more.

We’re in the midst of an unprecedented disaster, and we can’t expect charity, or the government to meet the rising need. Nor can we let fear overcome us. Now is the time to fight hunger with community. You can be a local hero who stands up and says, “Let’s do this.” All it takes is determination, compassion, and a working kitchen.

Congress Races to Address Food Insecurity in Its Legislative Response to COVID-19

Civil Eats

Congress Races to Address Food Insecurity in Its Legislative Response to COVID-19

Seeking to support vulnerable populations impacted by coronavirus, the two bills are facing resistance from the White House and some Republicans.

 

Editor’s note: This is a developing story; Civil Eats will update as the news evolves.

March 16, 2020 update: Early on Saturday, March 14, the House passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act with strong bipartisan support, and with many of the provisions described in the original article below included.

The final text includes language that gives USDA the ability to waive various requirements that are preventing districts from feeding hungry children while schools are shuttered. As of March 15, at least 64,000 schools have closed, affecting more than 32.5 million students.

On SNAP, the final bill prevents eligibility restrictions during a public health emergency and gives states some flexibility to ask for emergency allotments, but does not directly increase benefits. It also provides an additional $500 million in funding for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program and an additional $250 million for food programs for low-income seniors, through September 2021.

The Senate is expected to take up the bill today. While some Republicans and President Trump have signaled support, its fate is still uncertain.

March 13, 2020, 3pm ET update:In a press conference at 2:00pm ET, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House will be “passing a bill” today. “Our bill takes aggressive action to strengthen food security initiatives including student meals as well as SNAP, senior meals, and food banks,” she said. However, Civil Eats has yet to see a final version of the legislative package, called the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. So it remains unclear which of the provisions on school meals and SNAP benefits (described below, as provisions of separate marker bills) will make it into the final legislation.

March 13, 2020, 11am ET update: As of early Friday, House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin continue to negotiate the package of legislation; a vote in the House of Representatives is expected today. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell adjourned for the weekend on Thursday, but canceled the Senate’s scheduled recess next week, so a vote on the legislative package could happen next week if the House passes the bill.

At least 10,600 schools have closed across the U.S., affecting at least 4.9 million students. Five states have closed their schools entirely: Ohio, Maryland, New Mexico, Michigan, and Washington.

The original news story begins below.

On Wednesday, House lawmakers introduced an emergency legislative package to address the impacts of the coronavirus outbreak. In addition to testing and sick-leave provisions, the bill attempts to tackle food insecurity by increasing access to federal food assistance and ensuring that low-income students still receive meals when schools close.

“As the coronavirus continues to spread, we must make sure everyone, especially low-income families, have access to nutrition assistance benefits,” said Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-California), a co-sponsor of the Ensuring Emergency Food Security Now Act, in a press release. “As a former food stamps recipient, I know how important programs like SNAP are during troubled times, and now is the time to expand access, not restrict it. This bill will ensure that our communities’ needs are still being met in a robust way.”

The same day, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially labeled the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. And although the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, is currently at 938 (with 29 deaths), those numbers are expected to rise quickly.

As schools, workplaces, and other public places have been shutting down—for prevention as well as quarantine—many families are packing their pantries. But families living paycheck to paycheck and using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to get dinner on the table each night don’t have the resources to stock up.

“I think what this [crisis] does is it illuminates the most vulnerable populations. That’s kids, hungry people, veterans, seniors, and the working families who rely on the emergency food system every single day, [even] without a crisis,” said Noreen Springstead, the executive director of nonprofit hunger-relief organization WhyHunger. “Losing 20 percent of your stock portfolio feels horrible, but when you can’t feed your child and you’re in survival mode, that feels so threatening.”

The sweeping package of legislation covers a wide range of issues, including guaranteeing paid sick leave for workers and waiving the costs of coronavirus tests. It also addresses food security in two parts, written as marker bills that will be incorporated into the larger, comprehensive legislation.

The Ensuring Emergency Food Security Now Act increases the value of SNAP benefits for recipients through September 2020 and provides the funding needed for states to make those increases. Springstead said the simple approach is “the most effective way” to quickly address the issue, as it will put “money for food and nourishment into the hands of the most vulnerable, who will then use those federal dollars in local stores to generate economic activity.”

The bill also designates extra funding for federal food distribution on Native American reservations and blocks any new SNAP eligibility requirements from going into effect. That provision is meant to prevent the Trump administration’s new SNAP eligibility rules—which are scheduled to go into effect on April 1—from removing an estimated 700,000 people from the program.

Meanwhile, there is growing attention to how students who rely on federal meal programs will continue to eat if more school districts close. Close to 22 million children across the country receive free or reduced-price lunches in public schools. According to Education Week, which is tracking closures, as of March 12, 2,100 schools serving more than 1.3 million students have already closed or are set to do so.

The USDA has begun granting waivers to states to allow them to activate the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) to feed children and waive the requirement that meals be served communally. However, SFSP only allows meal service in places where at least 50 percent of the student population is eligible for free or reduced lunch, meaning low-income students in wealthier districts would not have access to meals. At a House hearing on Tuesday, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue said the agency would like to offer meals in other areas, but “we don’t believe we have the legal and statutory authority” to do so.

The COVID–19 Child Nutrition Response Act intends to resolve that issue. Sponsored by Representatives James Comer (R-Kentucky) and Suzanne Bonamici (D-Oregon), the bipartisan bill “will create a nationwide waiver authority, allow school officials to distribute food in any number of settings across all nutrition programs, and allow for flexibility on meal components if food supply or procurement is disrupted.”

Maintaining access to “federally funded school meals is going to be critical,” as the situation progresses, Springstead said, and how schools will manage implementing changes to meal service remains to be seen. (At least one district in Seattle that has moved to online classes is using an online ordering and distributed pickup option to get meals to students and their parents.)

Both bills are part of a package that House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) is pushing toward a vote on Thursday. Pelosi has been working on negotiating components of the package with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, but President Trump said he does not support the legislation, signaling likely Republican resistance in the Senate.

If the legislation does make it through both chambers of Congress and is signed into law, it’s also unclear how quickly the changes will be able to go into effect.

When it comes to something as pressing as vulnerable populations having access to food, representatives like Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut) are stressing the urgency. “Too often, people who are living paycheck-to-paycheck are forgotten,” she said in a press release, “and it is exactly at times like these that we must be thinking about them and doing everything we can to help them.”

Photo CC-licensed by Eneas de Troya

House wins access to Mueller grand jury details, appeals court rules

CNN

House wins access to Mueller grand jury details, appeals court rules

(CNN)The House of Representatives has won access to secret grand jury material gathered in former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and cited in The Mueller Report, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday.

The ruling may breathe new life into a House Judiciary Committee investigation into President Donald Trump for obstruction of justice, which failed to gain steam since Mueller issued his report on Trump and testified last summer and since the White House has blocked administration witnesses from appearing before Congress.
The appeals panel sided with an earlier ruling from the chief judge of the DC District Court, who had roundly criticized the Justice Department’s legal theories to keep the Mueller materials under seal and who had endorsed the House’s investigation into President Trump. The appeals court agreed that the House Judiciary Committee has a “compelling need” to view the secretive details prosecutors had collected from witnesses and about the President.
READ: Court ruling granting House access to Mueller grand jury material
Read: Court ruling granting House access to Mueller grand jury material
The decision, which was split 2-1, highlights how the judicial branch typically stays away from interfering with other government branches’ activities but in this case asserted control over grand jury materialThe Justice Department could appeal the Mueller grand jury decision to the Supreme Court or again to the DC-based appeals court. A Justice Department spokeswoman said the department is reviewing the court’s decision.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler applauded the court’s ruling on Tuesday, and the committee pledged it would plan to work with the House Intelligence Committee to review the secret material.
“The Justice Department has consistently provided grand jury material to the Committee in past investigations involving Presidential misconduct — but Attorney General (William) Barr chose to break from that long-standing practice, and DOJ radically altered its position in an attempt to withhold this information,” Nadler said in a statement following the decision. “The court today correctly rejected DOJ’s arguments and held that the Committee is entitled to these materials.
“The Committee remains committed to holding the President accountable to the rule of law and preventing improper interference in law enforcement investigations,” Nadler added.
Mueller found Trump attempted to obstruct the Russia investigation on several occasions, but declined to make a decision whether to prosecute him. Mueller had cited, among other things, Justice Department policy not to indict a sitting president, and Justice Department leadership decided not to bring any charge against Trump. Mueller also didn’t charge any Americans with conspiracy with the Russians, though the former special counsel’s report noted many communications between Russian officials and the 2016 Trump campaign. Six former Trump associates and top campaign leaders were convicted of obstructing justice for lying to investigators or Congress.
The House had told the courts it wants the still-confidential Mueller findings and grand jury material so it can investigate the President for potential obstruction of justice during the Russia investigation. The House especially raised questions about what campaign witnesses told Mueller versus what Trump said to Mueller in written answers — saying he didn’t recall conversations about attempts to reach WikiLeaks in 2016. The House has said at the time of the Ukraine impeachment proceedings it could still consider impeaching Trump again because of his actions during the Mueller investigation.
Even if the grand jury material ultimately goes to the House, it is likely to be kept confidential, at least initially, because the House has set up protocols to keep it secret until the Judiciary Committee votes otherwise.
“Special Counsel Mueller prepared his report with the expectation that Congress would review it,” the opinion said. “The Committee’s particularized need for the grand jury materials remains unchanged. The Committee has repeatedly state that if the grand jury materials reveal new evidence of impeachable offenses, the Committee may recommend new articles of impeachment.”
In the court’s 26-page opinion, written by appellate Judge Judith Rogers, the court reminded the Justice Department it doesn’t have complete control over grand jury information. The court underlined how it could control the information.
“In short, it is the district court, not the Executive or the Department [of Justice], that controls access to the grand jury materials at issue here,” held Rogers, who was appointed by former President Bill Clinton.
Judge Thomas Griffith sided with Rogers, while Judge Neomi Rao dissented.
The decision stands in contrast to another major and recent House lawsuit regarding potential obstruction of justice by the President. In that case, the appeals court ruled two weeks ago that judges have no ability to resolve standoffs over subpoenas between the House and the executive branch.
Rogers was in the minority in that decision, disagreeing with the appeals court’s ruling. Griffith, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote that opinion.
Rao, who was appointed by Trump to the court last year after serving in the White House, wrote in her dissent on Tuesday that the appeals court should have no role to play in the grand jury material fight, just as the court decided regarding the White House refusing to allow former White House counsel Don McGahn to testify about Trump under congressional subpoena.
The House is already appealing the McGahn decision, saying it undermines its constitutional power and could chill committees’ work for years to come.
But Griffith wrote on Tuesday how the McGahn and grand jury cases differed for the appeals court. “As gatekeepers of grand jury information, we cannot sit this one out. The House isn’t seeking our help in eliciting executive-branch testimony or documents,” Griffith wrote. “Instead, it’s seeking access to grand jury records whose disclosure the district court, by both tradition and law, controls.”
The Mueller grand jury decision on Tuesday falls in line with several past court decisions.
“The courts cannot tell the House how to conduct its impeachment investigation or what lines of inquiry to pursue, or how to prosecute its case before the Senate, much less dictate how the Senate conducts an impeachment trial,” the opinion said on Tuesday. “The Mueller report made clear why the grand jury materials in Volume I [outlining Russian interference in the election] were necessary for the Committee to review and evaluate in exercise of its constitutional duties”
This story has been updated to include additional details from the decision.

‘The Truth Still Matters,’ Said Judge Amy Berman Jackson.

Esquire

‘The Truth Still Matters,’ Said Judge Amy Berman Jackson. Are We Sure About That?

Jack Holmes                      February 21, 2020

Photo credit: Michael Ciaglo - Getty ImagesMichael Ciaglo – Getty Images

“The truth still exists,” U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson said on Thursday. “The truth still matters.” She spoke at the sentencing hearing for Roger Stone, career ratfucker and longtime confidante of one Donald Trump. Stone had already been convicted on charges of lying to Congress and witness tampering related to his attempted coverup of his ratfucking activities on Trump’s behalf in 2016. “Roger Stone’s insistence that it doesn’t,” Jackson continued, still referring to the truth, “his belligerence, his pride in his own lies are a threat to our most fundamental institutions, to the foundations of our democracy. If it goes unpunished, it will not be a victory for one party or another. Everyone loses.”

It’s unclear from the court reporting what tone Jackson adopted for that first part. Was she assured? Confident? Defiant? Hopeful, even? Because the argument that the truth still exists and that it still matters in the Year of Our Lord 2020 is no done deal. The jury is very much out. We have strayed very far from our school days, when the world was split into truth and fiction and things like “checks and balances” were almost self-evident. The war on the concept of truth waged for three years now by Donald Trump, American president is beginning to pay real dividends. The president does not subscribe to the concept of objective reality, where there are observable features of the world around us and facts we can consequently all agree on. He believes the truth is whatever you can get enough people to believe, and you’re never guilty if you never admit it. In a polarized political environment and a balkanized media ecosystem, he might just be right.

Photo credit: Anadolu Agency - Getty ImagesAnadolu Agency – Getty Images

One thing Jackson gets right is that all this is a threat to democracy. We cannot function as a society—we cannot make rules and policies around how we live, we cannot forge a way forward together—if we cannot agree on basic facts about the world around us. The Enlightenment gave us the tools to discover and verify and spread the truth regardless of what powerful people thought of it, but we have lost our grip on those tools and allowed ourselves to slide back into a tribalist dark age. In this environment, where the powerful say what’s real and their followers believe them, those in power can avoid the kind of accountability for their actions that undergirds a democratic republic. Without checks on their power, they can easily grow it. You need not serve your constituents if they will believe you’re serving them simply because you tell them you are.

And it’s here where Jackson’s statement surely moved towards hope or defiance. If Stone’s villainous lying goes unpunished, she said, “it will not be a victory for one party or another.” Really? Because it seems like one party is winning. The president has declared all negative information about him to be “fake,” and all positive information to be “real.” This is the only basis on which he evaluates information. It’s the attitude of a toddler—perhaps even your three-year-old can more easily process shame and disappointment—but this man has a very good chance of being re-elected to the most powerful office in the world. His Republican Party will very likely retain control of the Senate and all its antidemocratic capabilities. They now believe they have a shot to regain the House of Representatives. Along the way these three years, they’ve stuffed the courts full of judges who will entrench their minority rule for decades.

The president’s attitude towards information—is it good for me, or is it bad for me?—made yet another appearance this week in the matter concerning the United States Director of National Intelligence. We’ve got a new acting director, you see, and it’s a former internet pest whom Trump first saw fit to make ambassador to Germany, and who now will serve as (part-time!) acting head of our intelligence community. Richard Grenell surely got the gig because he will massage the information that comes across his desk until it is sufficiently palatable for The Boss. His predecessor, who also served in an “acting” capacity because the Constitution’s mandate that the Senate advise and consent on major appointments doesn’t matter if you just ignore it, lost the job because he did not adhere to the essential Trumpian mantra: Real News is whatever’s good for Trump.

At least, that’s what The New York Times reported Thursday and what NBC News backed up Friday. Joseph Maguire, the ex-acting chief, made the grave mistake of observing protocol by having his subordinates brief congressional leaders on the evidence that Russia is once again interfering in our elections heading into 2020, and that they once again want Trump to win. This is an exceedingly believable notion, considering Trump has a habit of siding with the Russians on any issue that comes up. He’s fought sanctions against them and slowed their implementation. He opened the door for them to seize control of northern Syria. All this culminated in his extortion of Ukraine,  with which Russia is currently at war via proxy forces. Trump has torn up notes of his meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the White House has failed to report their phone calls, leaving the American public to learn of them when the Russians make it public.

Photo credit: JIM WATSON - Getty ImagesJIM WATSON – Getty Images

But none of this is of interest to the public, in the president’s calculus, including the fact that a geopolitical adversary is set to attack our democracy again this year. The Director of National Intelligence had no business telling the people’s representatives in Congress about it. And why? It “angered Mr. Trump,” the Times reported, “who complained that Democrats would use it against him.” It is entirely irrelevant to him whether the 2020 elections will be free and fair, and whether Americans will be allowed to choose their own leaders without interference. What matters is that he wins, at any cost. This, of course, reflects the larger Republican attitude towards elections, where the ends always justify the means. Voter suppression, voter purges, closing polling stations in Certain Neighborhoods, extreme gerrymandering, foreign interference—anything goes if it keeps you in power. And if you lose, you can just strip the office you lost of it’s powers before a Democrat can get in there and, uh, do the job the public elected them to do.

It’s really no wonder, then, that Trump would rise to control a party that long ago chose to slide towards authoritarianism rather than appeal to any slice of the public outside The Base of white ultraconservative Evangelicals and those who’ve made common cause. But the efficiency with which the president has used weaponized falsehood to erode the pillars of a democratic republic is staggering. The principles of consensus and persuasion that define democratic politics are beginning to falter. The president and his movement do not use words to persuade, but as a rhetorical bludgeon to beat down The Enemies. What they are offering is force.

On The Apprentice, producers would often find themselves scrambling to put an episode together after Trump inexplicably fired someone who’d performed well, because he hadn’t been paying attention before the boardroom. They’d have to reverse-engineer the episode until Trump’s conclusion made sense. Now, one of America’s two major political parties, a large swathe of its media outlets, and increasingly, the actual federal government are all devoted to the same task. Except now, they’re reverse-engineering reality itself to meet the president’s preferences. This will have consequences from a governing standpoint, of course: if you make policy in defiance of the real world, it will eventually catch up to you. But perhaps the more immediate concern is that it may finish off our ability to govern ourselves, to compare our leaders’ words and actions to what we can see and verify around us and hold them to account on that basis. The threat is that we will once again slide into darkness, where all that matters is power and force.