• Four States Get Ready to Reopen
• Incompetent or Corrupt?, Part I: Small Business Funding
• Incompetent or Corrupt?, Part II: Emergency Equipment Funding
• Oil Prices Fall Below Zero
• Trump Snubs Romney
• Democrats Are Raking It In
• Democrats Want Obama
In a development roughly as predictable as the sun rising in the east, Donald Trump announced on Monday night that he plans to sign an executive order suspending immigration to the United States.
Because the best policy is made late in the evening, and on Twitter, that is where the President shared the news:
In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens, I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 21, 2020
Historically, the phrase "invisible enemy" has been used to describe Asian attackers, particularly guerrillas, particularly during the Vietnam War. Is Trump historically literate enough to craft a dog whistle like that? Is his base capable of understanding the message? Maybe; both President and much of the base came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, so they would presumably be familiar with the rhetoric of that era. On the other hand, maybe Trump is just a savant, and the racially tinged verbiage is completely instinctive.
In any event, there is much about this that is...fuzzy, shall we say. The White House said Monday night that it is still working on a draft of the executive order. In other words, Trump was unhappy with all the adverse news this weekend and on Monday (more below), wanted to change the narrative, told his staff he was doing this now, and they were left scrambling. Among the questions that are currently unanswered:
- What about people who have H1-B visas (work visas) already, but are abroad?
- What about people whose H1-B visas were already in process?
- What about people who are already in the country, but whose H1-B visas are up for renewal?
- What about green-card holders (permanent residency) who are currently abroad?
- Will there be any exceptions to the order?
- How long will the order be in place?
These are just the big questions; there are many dozens of additional nuts-and-bolts type questions that consular employees will have to think about as they deal with people wanting to travel to the U.S. now or in the future.
The biggest question, however, is: What is the motivation behind this new policy? The official answer, given by a White House official on Monday night, is: "22 million unemployed Americans and counting due to COVID-19." To say that this explanation strains credulity is to put it mildly. Most of the jobs that have been lost in the last month were due to businesses downsizing or else shutting down entirely. And most of the unemployed are cooling their heels because they are waiting for their jobs to reopen, or because they fear for their health, or both. Shutting down immigration is not going to have any meaningful effect on unemployment, especially since a lot of the people who are going to be targeted (H1-B visa holders) tend to work in fields the U.S. simply doesn't have enough people to staff (various types of engineers and medical personnel, for example).
An alternate possibility is that the order is being issued in order to stop the spread of COVID-19. However, this explanation doesn't stand up very well, either. There were already significant limits on travel from affected areas (like China). Further, there are going to be far more new cases of the disease caused by Americans infecting other Americans, as opposed to immigrants infecting Americans. So, if halting the spread of the disease was the goal, Trump would be much better served by pushing hard for stay-at-home orders, as opposed to encouraging citizen rebellion against those orders. If the game plan is really to stop the spread of the coronavirus, he should have shut down all domestic air travel (except maybe for medical personnel), so the virus can't easily move around the country and start new hotspots.
And that leaves us with the explanation that squares best with the facts, as currently known: Trump is using COVID-19 to implement some portion of his anti-immigrant agenda in a high-profile way, and to score some points with the base. If the final order has a hundred exceptions to it, and makes no sense as a coherent policy document (like the Muslim travel bans), it will give further credence to this hypothesis. (Z)
Georgia, on orders of Gov. Brian Kemp (R), is going to start reopening on Friday of this week. That makes a total of four states with stay-at-home orders that will partly reopen by the end of the month, if current plans hold. In a development just as predictable as Donald Trump's anti-immigrant order, all four states are red states.
Here is what will reopen in each of the four states:
- Tennessee: "[T]he vast majority of businesses," according to Gov. Bill Lee (R)
- South Carolina: Public beaches, furniture stores, florists, flea markets, and department stores
- Texas: Retail stores, state parks, and other entities to be determined
- Georgia: Gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, body art studios, barbershops, hair salons, and other beauty parlors
In an effort to have their cake and eat it, too, all four states will instruct patrons to continue to observe social distancing. Exactly how someone is supposed to cut hair or complete a sale at a flea market from six feet away was not announced.
Undoubtedly these governors are under enormous pressure to reopen. First, from citizens who are not happy about the economic and/or social impact of stay-at-home orders. Second, from a president who is not happy about the economic impact of stay-at-home orders. Of course, they are taking a big risk that if more people get sick after the semi-reopening, that will be on the governors' ledgers. Presumably that is why "Eh, if a few old people die, it's still worth it" has been a Republican talking point for the last week or so.
In a sense, killing off granny to save the Dow Jones is a variant of a long-standing but somewhat related scheme. Former Speaker Paul Ryan devised a health-care plan that gave everyone a voucher to buy health insurance. The amount would be enough to buy sort-of-maybe-adequate insurance for healthy people, but woefully inadequate for sick people, who would go into a separate pool whose total funding would be determined by Congress. The rough idea was to put, say, 80% of the population (the healthy people) in one pool and give them cheap insurance and put the sick 20% in another pool and grossly underfund it, leading to many deaths. From Ryan's perspective, the Republicans would get votes from the happy 80% and lose the votes from the unhappy 20%. Politically, that sounded like a good deal. For some reason, Congress didn't seem to like it so much, though. (Z)
The distribution of the $350 billion set aside for small businesses has been a fiasco, by anyone's standards. The rules for the program were unclear at the outset, leaving banks flying blind. Vast numbers of businesses could not find a lender who would work with them. Those that could find a lender got to deal with a labyrinthine application process, constant crashes by the Small Business Administration's servers, and a near-total lack of communication. After the money (quickly) ran out, folks who were midway through the process were unable to figure out if they had made it in under the wire or not.
On Monday, a new and even more unsavory light was trained on the whole operation. As many suspected, including more than one of our letter-writers this weekend, much of the money did not go to "small" businesses, the way that term is generally understood. In fact, a lot of it went to medium-to-large sized businesses of the sort that have relationships with mega-banks, and can afford high-priced lawyers (along with the occasional lobbyist or two). For example, $20 million went to Ruth's Chris Steak House, which has 150 locations and a market value of a quarter-billion dollars. Unless the Dept. of Treasury thought Ruth was "mom" and Chris was "pop," it's hard to see how the chain qualifies as a small business. Similarly, Shake Shack, which has a market value of more than $1.5 billion, got $10 million in funds. The blowback on that was so bad that the chain has already given the money back. Large grants also went to other large restaurant chains as well as to hotels and resorts.
The whole purpose of the $350 billion was to save jobs, and obviously these business concerns employ large numbers of people. However, another guiding principle was supposed to be saving businesses that operate on tiny margins, and that would go under (and take jobs with them) if not given a bailout. If a billion-dollar corporation says they do not have the cash on hand to weather a downturn like this, by contrast, it raises questions about how truthful they are being and what, exactly, they have been doing with their profits.
At very least, then, the whole process was absolutely riddled with poor implementation, poor management, and poor decision-making. On the other hand, it's also possible that this is a smoke screen, and that the administration merely used this as a way to steer even more money to corporate interests. This is exactly the kind of question that an oversight board might look into. Coincidentally, Donald Trump has done everything possible to resist the oversight functions written into COVID-19 relief bill v3.0, so presumably that won't be happening. On the other hand, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which is beyond presidential control, is not happy about what it's seeing, and has already launched audits. And several House committees are promising investigations. So maybe someone will get to the bottom of this, after all.
Meanwhile, work on COVID-19 relief bill v4.0 is almost done. Democrats are going to get a bunch of money for hospitals and for virus testing, and for a few other priorities. Meanwhile, small businesses (or, possibly, "small" businesses) are going to get multiple hundreds of billions in additional funding which, according to the banks, will last...a couple of days. So, negotiations on COVID-19 relief bill v5.0 will presumably be underway by the end of the week. (Z)
The money for small businesses isn't the only thing that has been handled poorly. The government has been purchasing medical and safety equipment at premiums that bring to mind the $200 screwdrivers and $600 toilet seats that William Proxmire was kvetching about in the 1980s. For example, N95 respirator masks should cost about 70 cents each, but FEMA has been paying an average of more than $5/per.
And it gets worse. One of the juiciest contracts for the production of new supplies was awarded, without bidding, to Panthera Worldwide LLC. They got $55 million. There are just a few problems with this, though. First, Panthera's actual business is described as "tactical training," and there's no evidence they have ever manufactured anything, much less medical equipment. Second, they filed for bankruptcy last fall, and listed liabilities of—wait for it—about $50 million. Third, consistent with the bankruptcy, the firm doesn't have any actual employees, and hasn't since 2018.
As with the small business funds, it is possible that this is just garden-variety incompetence. After all, when vast sums of money are flowing, and time is at a premium, sloppy mistakes get made. During the Civil War, and the mobilization in the early months of the war, Secretary of War Simon Cameron awarded contracts to firms that gave them far too much money to produce goods that they had no business producing. Some of these firms created uniforms out of a quick-and-cheap material that was easy to make but that fell apart quickly. The name of this material was...shoddy, giving us a word that remains a part of the language today. Eventually, Abraham Lincoln sent Cameron packing, and replaced him with Edwin Stanton.
Cameron, then, was incompetent. Well, actually, he was incompetent and corrupt, but the shoddy uniforms were more on the incompetent side of the ledger. Maybe that's the case with the overpriced masks and the $55 million contract for Panthera. On the other hand, maybe someone in the administration saw an opportunity to bail out a friend (or themselves?) on the government's dime, at a time they thought nobody would notice. One imagines that the GAO will be looking into this matter, as well. (Z)
It's lucky Jed Clampett isn't alive to see this. On Monday, for the first time in history, the price of oil futures in the United States sank to -$37.63 per barrel. Note the minus sign in front of that; the previous low was $10 per barrel (no negative) in 1986 (adjusting for inflation; otherwise it's $1.46 a barrel in 1946). What this means, in effect, is that nobody is willing to take new shipments of oil. So, the holders of oil futures were literally paying people to take their contracts off their hands in order to protect themselves from even steeper losses that might be incurred by a further downturn in the market and/or by having to bear the cost of storing the unwanted oil. In Europe, some banks have negative interest rates. They don't want your money, but if you pay them enough, they will grudgingly hold it for you. Welcome to Supply and Demand 101, Chapter 29 (huge supply and no demand).
Donald Trump is very upset about all of this, and is doing everything within his power to try to fix it. The problem is that his options are rather limited. He's already proposed buying several billion dollars worth of extra oil, and adding it to the country's strategic reserve. However, there isn't much enthusiasm for that idea among the members of Congress or the executive branch, as it would not be easy to transport or store that much oil, and besides, this would only be a short-term fix. The President also proposed leasing space in government warehouses to petroleum companies to store their oil until the market improves, but that solution has all the same problems.
Another option available to Trump is to persuade foreign producers, particularly Russia and OPEC, to curtail their oil production. To his credit, he's already talked them into doing so. The bad news is that Monday's disaster happened despite this. Further, the agreement with Russia and OPEC lasts for only a couple of months; if they resume their normal levels of production, then the U.S. oil industry could go into an even deeper tailspin. If that's possible.
The fundamental issue here, which you probably don't need us to point out to you, is that demand for gas is way, way down—25% to 40%, depending on whom you ask. People aren't driving to work or for leisure, and they aren't using other gas-fueled forms of transportation. So, there's just no one to buy all the oil that is being produced.
Politically, this has Donald Trump scared witless for three reasons. First, because he gets lots of donations from Big Oil that may not be forthcoming if Big Oil becomes Out-of-cash Oil. Second, because if the petroleum industry craters, it will further drag down the national economy and the stock market. Third, because there's a reason that Old Jed called it "Texas Tea." Roughly 40% of the nation's production takes place in the Lone Star State. If the petroleum industry tanks, then that state's economy will go down the tubes. And that will hurt the President's support in the state, at least some. As it is, his lead over Joe Biden in the last five polls taken there was an average of just 2.6%. And if Trump loses Texas, he's done for. That alone would result in a 270-268 win for Biden, even if the President held every other state from 2016. Oh, and there's also a key Senate race there; if Sen. John Cornyn (R) loses to MJ Hegar, the Republicans' hopes for holding the Senate will take a big hit. (Z)
Donald Trump has built a vast, unwieldy bipartisan task force that will theoretically help him figure out how and when to reopen the country. Included in that task force is every single Republican in the Senate. Well, except for one; somehow the junior Senator from Utah got left off the list. When reporters asked the President if this was deliberate, he was pleased to admit that it was, because he still holds a grudge from the impeachment trial. "I'm not a fan of Mitt Romney," he said. "I don't really want his advice."
Even three years into his presidential career (and decades into his career as a public figure), it's remarkable that he's this petulant and childish, and this open about his petulance and childishness. Put another way, what Trump is saying is: "Even if Mitt Romney has ideas that might save lives, I don't care, because I don't like him." In case you didn't already know where the President's priorities lie, you do now. It is striking that, in the face of the exact same basic crisis, Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz—who are certainly not best buddies—have put aside their differences for now and have agreed to form a national emergency government. Similarly, the British Isles have been badly divided by Brexit, but the people and Prime Minister Boris Johnson have rallied around the Union Jack, and are all on Team UK, at least for now. An observer might take note of this, and decide that Netanyahu, Gantz, Johnson, and new leader of the opposition Keir Starmer are all bigger men than Trump.
We will also point out this fact: In 2016, Trump took 45.5% of the vote in Utah. Hillary Clinton took 27.5% and independent Evan McMullin took 21.5%, meaning the major chunks of the non-Trump vote add up to 49% (54.5%, if third-parties are included). Trumpism doesn't play well with Latter-day Saints (not to mention with Utah's sizable liberal rump), and if the President insists on demeaning someone who is not only a Utahn and a former Republican nominee for president, but is also one of the most respected living members of the LDS Church, he might just be forced to play defense in a state that should require no defense.
It is worth noting that in the only poll of the Beehive State conducted since Joe Biden became the presumptive Democratic nominee, Trump's lead was a mere five points, 46% to 41%. Also note that Trump's support in the poll was equal to his share of the vote in 2016, which suggests his base there isn't growing. If it goes down a bit, or if Biden improves his position a bit, things could get interesting. And the more "safe" states that cease to be safe (e.g., Utah, Texas), the harder it is for Trump to pull the royal flush he needs to get reelected. (Z)
While Donald Trump is being hindered by problems that are his doing (Utah) and not his doing (Texas), the Democratic Party is doing a brisk fundraising business. Yesterday, we had an item about some of the Senate races. Today, the big news is that the Democrats' online fundraising arm, ActBlue, raised a staggering $533 million in Q1 of 2020. By contrast, the Republican equivalent, WinRed, collected $130 million.
The $400-million plus difference between ActBlue and WinRed does come with some caveats. The $533 million was goosed by the hauls of several presidential campaigns that are no longer active. Meanwhile, the $130 million does not account for the fact that Trump 2020 and the RNC do a lot of direct fundraising that does not go through WinRed. Still, $400 million is $400 million. It was collected from 4.3 million donors, which means an average donation of about $130. That's not quite Bernie Sanders-level grassroots fundraising, but it's pretty good, and strongly suggests enthusiasm is on the side of the Blue Team this cycle.
In addition to the Democratic U.S. Senate candidates that we talked about yesterday, key House candidates are also doing quite well. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has identified 42 incumbents who are in some danger heading into 2020. Every one of the 42 now has at least $1 million cash on hand, which is a vast mountain of money in most congressional districts. Further, 40 of the 42 have a bankroll at least double that of their Republican opponent. Meanwhile, 31 of the 42 GOP challengers have cash-on-hand of $500,000 or less.
Joe Biden's fundraising is also improving. He had his best quarter of the campaign, with $46.7 million in donations. That's not a Trump-level take, as yet. However, Biden spent much of this quarter as one candidate among several, as opposed to the presumptive Democratic nominee. Further, there are going to be Democratic movers and shakers (not the least of them Barack Obama) who will move in and whip Biden 2020's fundraising into shape. So, expect the upward trend to continue. (Z)
No, not that one, though they surely wouldn't mind him, either. However, it's the former first lady that Democrats are currently pining for. A new story from Politico looks at all the high-profile members of Team Blue who are hoping, praying, and prodding for Michelle Obama to accept the #2 slot on the 2020 ticket.
The appeal is plain. Obama is a woman, of color, who is wildly popular and appeals to both progressives and centrists. She comes from the Midwest, is still young, and has spent eight years in the White House seeing first-hand how the executive branch works. She checks as many boxes as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI) and Stacey Abrams combined.
The one tiny problem here is that Obama has no interest in the job. She doesn't care for politics, doesn't like life in a fishbowl, and has consistently expressed her unhappiness with the fact that critics and conspiracy theorists put her life and that of her family in danger. "I'll say it here directly: I have no intention of running for office, ever," she wrote in her memoir, which is the Full Sherman and then some.
If she wanted to be in politics, 2016 was her moment. She and her husband were about to leave the White House, but there was a Senate seat up in Illinois. And it was occupied by a Republican, Mark Kirk, who had a stroke and was barely functioning. All she had to do was tell some reporter that she was considering a run against Kirk, and the race would have been over right then and there. She would have had a Senate seat for life. She wouldn't even have had to raise money or campaign. All she would have needed was a one-page website with her photo and the caption: "I'm Michelle Obama and I am running for the Senate in Illinois." Done deal. And she didn't do it. That sort of indicates that she really doesn't want to be in politics.
The fact that Obama does not want the job is also part of her appeal, though. Americans have often gravitated towards candidates who had to be "drafted" for president or vice president. The general assumption is that people who don't want the job do not have a secret agenda (or selfish ambitions), and so will do what they think is best for the country, as opposed to what is politic, or what is profitable. In the 20th century alone, the "draftees" list includes William Howard Taft (P), Calvin Coolidge (VP), Franklin D. Roosevelt (P, 3rd term), Harry S. Truman (VP), and Dwight D. Eisenhower (P), although some of those "drafts" were mostly for show. Heck, even the current president attracted support in this way. He most certainly wasn't drafted, but there was a period of time when he didn't really want the job, causing his supporters to conclude he was only doing it as favor to his country. Truth be told, he probably still doesn't want the job, though the reason he's still hanging on isn't as a favor to the country.
It is very unlikely that Obama will yield to the pressure upon her. That said, stranger things have happened. If she becomes persuaded that joining the ticket is the only viable path to kicking Donald Trump out of office, and salvaging her husband's presidential legacy, it's possible a sense of duty might cause her to swallow hard and accept the VP slot. For what it's worth, the betting markets have it as a 20-to-1 shot, which to us seems just about right. (Z)
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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Apr20 Voters Dump Trump Bump
Apr20 Trump's New Election Strategy: Run on Dividing the Country
Apr20 Coronavirus Is Starting to Hit Red States
Apr20 Some Sanders' Supporters Are Undecided
Apr20 A Nationwide Mail-in Election Is Not Likely to Happen
Apr20 Michael Cohen Is Writing a Tell-All Book
Apr20 Can Political Parties Fall Victim to COVID-19?
Apr20 This Is What Good Old-fashioned Traditional Corruption Looks Like
Apr20 What Is Essential?
Apr20 Democrats Outraised Republicans in Key Senate Races
Apr19 Sunday Mailbag
Apr18 Saturday Q&A
Apr17 Trump Unveils reopening Plan...
Apr17 ...and Governors Do Their Own Thing(s)
Apr17 Intelligence Community to Probe Chinese Origins of COVID-19
Apr17 Small Business Funding Runs Out
Apr17 Never Trump Republicans Rally
Apr17 What to Make of Tara Reade?
Apr17 Warren Is Angling for VP Slot
Apr16 Amash May Run
Apr16 Warren Endorses Biden
Apr16 Trump Faces Blowback on WHO Funding Cut
Apr16 Trump Threatens to Adjourn Congress
Apr16 Retail Sales Drop in March by the Greatest Amount Ever
Apr16 Democrats Are Motivated Like Never Before
Apr16 Poll: Biden Should Pick Experienced Running Mate
Apr16 Some States Are More Ready for Mail-in Voting than Others
Apr16 Delaying the Census Could Cause Big Problems
Apr16 Some Surprising Industries Have Been Hit Hard by COVID-19
Apr15 Trump's COVID-19 Strategy, Part I: Make Himself the Hero
Apr15 Trump's COVID-19 Strategy, Part II: Find a Scapegoat
Apr15 A Tale of Two Recovery Plans, Part I: The States vs. the White House
Apr15 A Tale of Two Recovery Plans, Part II: Red vs. Blue
Apr15 Obama Endorses Biden
Apr15 Elizabeth Warren: Batter Up!
Apr15 The Times That Try Men's (and Women's) Souls, Part VII: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (1865)
Apr14 A Power Struggle He Cannot Win, Part I: Trump vs. the Governors
Apr14 A Power Struggle He Cannot Win, Part II: Trump vs. Fauci
Apr14 Biden Wins Wisconsin
Apr14 Sanders Endorses Biden
Apr14 USS Theodore Roosevelt Sailor Dies of COVID-19
Apr14 Trump Wants to Delay Census
Apr14 Biden, Democrats Get to Play Some Catch-Up Due to COVID-19
Apr13 Biden Beats Sanders in Alaska Primary
Apr13 Trump's Newest Election Strategy: Biden Is Weak on China
Apr13 What Did Trump Know and When Did He Know It?
Apr13 Trump Lashes Out at Fauci
Apr13 Trump's Friend and Donor, Stanley Chera, Has Died of COVID-19
Apr13 Republicans Reject Democrats' Ideas for the Next Relief Bill