COVID-19, News

Trump plans July 4th celebration despite pandemic

Image: National Park Service

WASHINGTON — The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t upended President Donald Trump’s plans to hold a Fourth of July celebration in the nation’s capital this summer.

The White House told the Associated Press this week that Trump intends to move ahead with a scaled-back version of last year’s massive “Salute to America” event on the National Mall. Those plans are taking place despite the pandemic and as lawmakers in the region have asked the administration to reconsider.

“As President Trump has said, there will be an Independence Day celebration this year and it will have a different look than 2019 to ensure the health and safety of those attending,” White House spokesman Judd Deere told the Associated Press. “The American people have shown tremendous courage and spirit in the fight against this global pandemic just as our forefathers did in the fight to secure our independence, and both deserve celebration on America’s birthday this year.”

On Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers from Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., asked the administration to immediately suspend plans for such a celebration.

“The Administration, including your agencies, should be focusing on helping American families, not on a vanity project for the president,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.

The letter was signed by Maryland Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, as well as Maryland Reps. David Trone, Anthony Brown, Jamie Raskin and Steny Hoyer. Virginia Reps. Don Beyer, Jennifer Wexton and Gerry Connolly signed on, as did Washington, D.C., Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton.

They warned that such an event would unnecessarily jeopardize health and safety and would cost millions of taxpayer dollars.

“Should the president continue with his plan to hold another ‘Salute to America’ event, it would have detrimental impacts on not only those that live in the National Capital Region, but all those who travel in from other areas of the country to attend,” they wrote.

They called it financially “wasteful,” pointing to the $5.4 million price tag for last year’s event. That event included a Trump speech from the Lincoln Memorial, tanks on display, a military flyover and a VIP section for GOP donors and supporters.

Trump told reporters in April that he planned to reprise the event this year, according to The New York Times.

“We’ll have to do that in a very interesting way. Maybe we’ll even do it greater. Leave a little extra distance,” Trump said.

News

Burr steps down as Intelligence chairman

Chairman Richard Burr, (R-NC), gives opening remarks at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on May 5, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Andrew Harnik-Pool/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Sen. Richard Burr is leaving his post as Senate Intelligence Committee chairman after federal agents seized his cellphone Wednesday as part of an insider trading probe.

“Senator Burr contacted me this morning to inform me of his decision to step aside as Chairman of the Intelligence Committee during the pendency of the investigation,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Thursday morning in a statement. “We agreed that this decision would be in the best interests of the committee and will be effective at the end of the day tomorrow.”

The Los Angeles Times reported that agents had seized the North Carolina Republican’s cellphone Wednesday as part of a Justice Department investigation into stock sales he made ahead of the market drop caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Burr has faced a backlash from Democrats and Republicans alike since the allegations of insider trading surfaced. Critics allege that the North Carolina senator broke the law by using nonpublic information about the threat posed by the virus when he dumped up to $1.7 million of stocks in February.

Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz previously slammed the North Carolina senator for remaining the intelligence chairman “after screwing all Americans by falsely reassuring us” with op-eds on COVID-19 “while he dumped his stock portfolio early.”

Burr’s spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) told reporters Thursday that he’d spoken to Burr about his decision. Warner thinks it’s appropriate and hopes it’s resolved quickly, according to Warner spokeswoman Rachel Cohen.

Dennis DeConcini, a former Arizona Democratic senator who served as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he “never heard anything like that before,” regarding the seizure of Burr’s phone. Asked how serious the situation is for the North Carolina senator, DeConcini said: “One to 10? Ten.”

It’s not yet certain who would replace Burr as chairman on the committee. Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho is the next Republican in terms of seniority, but he is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is the next Republican in line. Rubio appeared surprised when asked by reporters about Burr’s decision on Thursday. He quipped to reporters: “I wish they would time these things better,” The Hill reported.

Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the watchdog group Public Citizen, said Burr’s resignation as chairman, “is rooted in political opportunism. Burr faces very serious allegations of self-dealing insider trading during the pandemic, which reflects very poorly not just on Burr himself but also the political party in which he has a leadership position.”

Prior to the announcement that Burr would step down as chairman, Thom Tillis, North Carolina’s junior GOP senator, told conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt that it wasn’t his place to comment on whether Burr should keep the gavel.

“That’s … between Senator Burr and the leader. I do believe as I’ve said before he owes us all an explanation. … We just need to see where the investigation ends,” Tillis said, according to Los Angeles Times reporter Jennifer Haberkorn.

Critics stepped up their calls for Burr’s resignation from the Senate on Thursday.

Zach Hudson, spokesperson for the liberal super PAC American Bridge 21st Century urged Burr to resign from office immediately.

“Senator Richard Burr’s announcement is a blatant admission of guilt. He used privileged information to personally profit and is only acting now because he got caught. His actions today are still a day late and a million dollars short; he has lost the trust and confidence of his constituents and as a result, is incapable of serving in public office.”

If Burr were to resign from the Senate, a 2018 law approved by Republican supermajorities in the General Assembly specifies that Gov. Cooper would have to select from a list of three individuals submitted by the executive committee of the state Republican Party in naming a replacement. Previously, the governor only had to choose someone affiliated with the same political party as the outgoing senator.

Note/update: as the comment below from Stewart rightfully points out, the situation would be different if Burr were to resign from the Senate more than 60 days prior to this November’s election. In that case, a new election would be held to fill the remainder of his unexpired term on Nov. 3.

Courts & the Law, News

From hospital, Justice Ginsburg slams Trump birth control rules

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

WASHINGTON — Hospitalization for a gallbladder condition didn’t stop U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg from assailing Trump administration’s birth control rules on Wednesday.

Ginsburg, 87, was hospitalized at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore on Tuesday night, but was animated as she participated in an oral argument via teleconference surrounding a Trump administration policy that allows employers to opt out of a contraceptive coverage mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

The Obama-era health care law requires employer-provided insurance plans to cover birth control, but the Trump administration finalized new rules that expand exemptions to employers based on religious or moral beliefs.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey challenged the exemptions, and a federal judge in Philadelphia issued a nationwide injunction in January 2019 to block the rules from taking effect. A federal appeals court upheld that decision, prompting the Trump administration and the Roman Catholic organization — Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home in Pittsburgh — to appeal to the Supreme Court.

North Carolina is one of several states opposing the administration’s policies. Those states told the Supreme Court in an amicus brief that the administration’s exemptions “make women’s access to contraceptive coverage contingent on the religious and moral approval of their employers” and that Congress intended for women to have full and equal coverage for preventive health care.”

The justices appeared divided on the issue during the arguments, but Ginsburg made her disdain for the Trump rules clear.

The administration’s exemptions “toss to the wind entirely Congress’ instructions that women need and shall have seamless, no-cost comprehensive coverage,” Ginsburg said to Solicitor General Noel Francisco, who defended the administration’s policies.

The exemptions, she added, leave women “to hunt for other government programs that might cover them. And for those who are not covered by Medicaid or one of the other government programs, they can get contraceptive coverage only from paying out of their own pocket, which is exactly what Congress didn’t want to happen.”

Francisco argued that the administration had lawfully issued the rules, which exempt a small number of employers who have “sincere conscientious objections.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor questioned whether it would indeed be a small number of women who would be impacted. “I understand the figure to be somewhere between 75,000 and 125,000 women,” she said.

Reproductive rights advocates have warned that the Trump rules could broadly hamper women’s access to birth control.

“People must have the ability to plan, space, and prevent pregnancy, without financial barriers — especially at a time when millions of people are losing their jobs and families have less money on hand for necessities,” National Women’s Law Center President and CEO Fatima Goss Graves said in a statement.  “The Court must protect access to health care, not allow employers to take it away.”

Pennsylvania’s Chief Deputy Attorney General Michael Fischer told the justices that the rules would allow “virtually any employer or college to opt out of providing contraceptive coverage entirely, including for reasons as amorphous as vaguely defined moral beliefs.”

Chief Justice John Roberts, seen as a potential swing vote in the case, questioned whether the exemptions might “sweep too broadly.” Justice Clarence Thomas appeared skeptical of the nationwide injunction and of states’ legal standing to challenge the rules in the first place.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh said there “are very strong interests on both sides here, which is what makes the case difficult.” He noted the tensions between religious liberty and “the interest in ensuring women’s access to health care and preventive services, which is also a critical interest.” The question, he said, is “who decides how to balance those interests?”

Kavanaugh pointed to agencies’ discretion when writing rules and suggested it isn’t the role of the courts “to put limits on the agency discretion that Congress has not put there.”

The court is expected to issue a decision in the case before its term ends this summer.

News

U.S. Supreme Court tosses gun case as Kavanaugh urges future debate

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday avoided issuing a landmark Second Amendment ruling in a closely watched gun rights case, but set the stage for future legal battles.

A divided court ruled that a challenge to New York City gun restrictions was moot because the city had later changed its regulations.

The case had been billed as potentially the biggest gun rights lawsuit in a decade, and gun control advocates feared a broad ruling could spell doom for some local gun restrictions. But the court’s decision to toss out the case on procedural grounds allowed the justices to avoid the thornier legal issues over the scope of the Second Amendment — at least for now.

The dispute centers on a New York City regulation banning the transport of licensed, locked, and unloaded handguns to a home or shooting range outside city limits. Gun owners sued over the rule, but in the face of legal challenges, the city changed its regulations to remove the travel restrictions.

Several justices signaled during oral arguments in December that they’d reject the challenge on procedural grounds. “What’s left of the case?” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked at the time.

In the per curiam, or unsigned, opinion issued Monday, the justices sent the case back to lower courts to determine whether the gun owners who brought the lawsuit could seek damages in relation to New York’s old regulation.

Three conservative justices — Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas — dissented, saying their colleagues were incorrectly dismissing the case as moot.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh sided with the majority in agreeing that the case was moot. But notably, he penned his own dissent stating that he agreed with Alito’s concern “that some federal and state courts may not be properly applying” a 2008 Supreme Court opinion in which “we held that the Second Amendment protects the right of ordinary Americans to keep and bear arms.”

Kavanaugh — a conservative justice whose confirmation was seen as a significant shift on the court toward limiting gun regulations — encouraged the court to promptly revisit the application of that major Second Amendment ruling.

“The Court should address that issue soon, perhaps in one of the several Second Amendment cases with petitions for certiorari now pending before the Court,” he wrote.

Kavanaugh’s short statement was viewed by some of his critics as a sign that future rulings by the court’s conservative majority could imperil other gun control measures.

“Brett Kavanaugh just officially put everyone on notice that no gun safety measures are safe now that he is on the Supreme Court,” said Christopher Kang, chief counsel of the progressive group Demand Justice.

COVID-19, News, Trump Administration

Trump ousts another watchdog as critics see ‘disturbing pattern’

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Tuesday ousted the second federal watchdog in the span of five days as congressional Democrats accused him of purging federal employees for political reasons.

Trump removed the Defense Department’s Acting Inspector General, Glenn Fine, who had been on the job since early 2016. Last week, Fine had been named by a group of other inspectors general to lead a committee tasked with overseeing how the government spends $2 trillion in COVID-19 relief aid. Trump also named Sean O’Donnell, the inspector general of the U.S. EPA, to serve as the acting DOD inspector general.

Fine’s ouster came after Trump on Friday fired Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, who had told Congress about the whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment, CNN reported.

Lawmakers and other critics warn that the administration is meddling with independent oversight.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement Tuesday that Fine’s “sudden removal and replacement” is “part of a disturbing pattern of retaliation by the President against independent overseers fulfilling their statutory and patriotic duties to conduct oversight on behalf of the American people.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote on Twitter that “Trump is abusing the coronavirus pandemic to eliminate honest and independent public servants because they are willing to speak truth to power and because he is so clearly afraid of strong oversight.”

Now, O’Donnell — who has been on the job at EPA for just over two months — will dramatically expand his portfolio.

On top of overseeing EPA, which has an annual budget of about $8.8 billion and a workforce of about 14,000 people, O’Donnell will be tasked with overseeing the nation’s largest employer. The Defense Department has an annual budget of about $716 billion and employs about 2.87 million people.

Prior to serving as EPA’s inspector general, O’Donnell worked for 15 years at the Justice Department, most recently as a prosecutor in the criminal division’s money laundering and asset recovery section. He was detailed to the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy, where he worked on the group that vetted and prepared candidates — including now-Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch — for federal judicial nominations.

O’Donnell will serve as the Defense Department’s acting inspector general starting this week, said Kentia Elbaum, a spokeswoman for the EPA IG’s office. She confirmed that he will be serving as EPA’s top watchdog as well.

Trump on Friday announced plans to nominate Jason Abend, a senior policy advisor at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, to be the Defense Department’s permanent inspector general. That post requires Senate confirmation.

As acting DOD IG, O’Donnell will not automatically assume Fine’s duties as the head of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. Under the $2 trillion COVID-19 response package, the Defense Department IG is a member of that committee, which is tasked with preventing waste, fraud and abuse, Elbaum said.

A council of federal inspectors general, which had previously selected Fine, will be charged with naming a new leader of the oversight committee.

‘The world is upside down’ 

Earl Devaney, a former Interior Department inspector general who was hired in 2009 to police the distribution of federal stimulus spending by the Obama administration, has worked with Fine and called him “one of the best” among inspectors general.  Read more