Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wielded decisive clout in the selection process for a key judicial vacancy President Donald Trump filled Friday, leveraging a deep reserve of good will accrued from four years as field marshal of Trump’s campaign to stock the federal bench with conservative jurists.
The president tapped U.S. District Judge Justin Walker, a McConnell ally, for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. At 38, Walker is the youngest nominee for the D.C. Circuit in decades. His nomination will likely be the last major confrontation over judgeships before the November election.
The nomination is as much a function of McConnell’s influence as it is Walker’s growing reputation in the conservative legal movement. Walker, a Kentuckian who serves on a federal trial court in Louisville, has been close to the senator for years. McConnell’s able stewardship of judicial confirmations gave him pivotal influence in a selection process that might otherwise have been fractious. Between academics, administration officials, and Washington lawyers, there was a deep reserve of prospective nominees for a panel widely seen as a springboard to the Supreme Court.
“Conservatives inside and outside of the administration recognize and appreciate the impact McConnell has had on the judiciary over many years, and very quickly agreed to McConnell’s preference, particularly since Walker looked like a safe pick,” a source involved in judicial selection told the Washington Free Beacon.
“McConnell made his pitch. Everyone took a look at Walker. Then things fell into place very quickly,” the source added.
The selection was made all the easier by Walker’s dedicated support of Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. Walker, who clerked for Kavanaugh after graduating from Harvard Law School, was one of the justice’s most prolific surrogates, giving dozens of interviews and speeches promoting Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Given the trying circumstances, Walker secured the enduring gratitude of legal conservatives.
“Judge Walker was an unrelenting defender of Justice Kavanaugh during the left’s unprecedented smear campaign,” said Carrie Severino of the Judicial Crisis Network. “I expect Walker to bring similar courage with him to the D.C. Circuit as he defends the rule of law. I look forward to his confirmation.”
The Trump administration has approached judicial selection as a companion to its deregulatory agenda. That consideration is especially important for the D.C. Circuit, which has jurisdiction over dozens of federal agencies. About half of the D.C. Circuit’s cases concern regulations, agency proceedings, and other administrative law issues according to statistics kept by the U.S. Judicial Conference.
“We are thrilled with President Trump’s nomination of Judge Justin Walker to serve on the D.C. Circuit, a key federal appellate court that protects all Americans from the arbitrary, harmful government actions by Washington’s out of control administrative state,” said Mike Davis of the Article III Project and former chief nominations counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee.
McConnell gave the nomination a populist hue in a statement following the nomination, praising the president for searching “outside the Beltway and into the Bluegrass.” Yet Walker’s résumé is heavy with Washington pedigree. He was a speechwriter to former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, clerked for Justice Anthony Kennedy, and practiced in the Washington offices of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, a prestigious law firm.
Still, Walker left the capital for Kentucky in 2013, where he edited books on education policy, mathematics, and political subjects while leading a nonprofit that coordinates student empowerment programs. He also served on the law faculty at the University of Louisville, teaching courses on legal writing and professional skills. His scholarship includes national security law issues and the separation of powers.
The president appointed Walker to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky in 2019.
The American Bar Association complicated his confirmation when its standing committee on the federal judiciary gave Walker a “not qualified” assessment. In a letter summarizing the panel’s views, committee chairman Paul Moxley cited Walker’s apparent lack of trial experience as a source of concern. He also noted that the committee prefers candidates with at least 12 years experience practicing law, while Walker had been a lawyer for fewer than 10 years.
The letter added that Walker “has great potential to serve as a federal judge.”
If confirmed, Walker will succeed Judge Thomas Griffith, who announced his retirement in March.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), for example, encouraged President Donald Trump in January to implement a travel ban from China. He told CBS’s Face The Nation on Jan. 26 that China had a “record of dishonesty and incompetence” in combating health crises and cautioned that while Washington was consumed with Trump’s impeachment trial, it was the viral outbreak that was the “most important story in the world.”
Citing Cotton, a Politicoreport in early February warned that a travel ban and quarantine measures “could undercut international efforts to fight the outbreak by antagonizing Chinese leaders.”
Cotton also argued that the virus might have originated at a Chinese biochemical lab in Wuhan that sits near the seafood market where Chinese officials initially claimed the disease originated. The New York Timesaccused him of spreading a “conspiracy theory,” writing that it was “the sort of tale that resonates with an expanding chorus of voices in Washington who see China as a growing Soviet-level threat to the United States, echoing the anti-Communist thinking of the Cold War era.”
“Right wing media outlets fan the anger,” Times business correspondent Alexandra Stevenson wrote on Feb. 17. Presumably, the right-wing outlets providing a megaphone for this conspiracy theory were different from the ones that were dangerously minimizing the threat of the illness.
Heads, the Times wins; tails, Republicans lose.
What most mainstream news reports have refused to acknowledge is that when it comes to the coronavirus, the right, the left, and, unfortunately, the scientific experts are flying blind, writing and rewriting the rules ad hoc and trying to muddle through.
There have been enough miscalculations to go around. The Times‘s effort to classify them by political inclination is laughable. There was the Vox explainer published in early February comparing the coronavirus to the flu. “Half the people in America do not get a flu shot and the flu, right now, is far deadlier,” CNN’s Anderson Cooper said on March 4th. “So if you’re freaked out at all about the coronavirus, you should be more concerned about the flu.”
It is also worth noting which voices have proved prescient. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius, in a Friday column that quotes Cotton, writes now that alas, “scientists don’t rule out that an accident at a research laboratory in Wuhan might have spread a deadly bat virus that had been collected for scientific study.”
He writes about a theory percolating in scientific circles about “an accidental lab release of bat coronavirus.”
“Less than 300 yards from the seafood market is the Wuhan branch of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Researchers from that facility and the nearby Wuhan Institute of Virology have posted articles about collecting bat coronaviruses from around China, for study to prevent future illness. Did one of those samples leak, or was hazardous waste deposited in a place where it could spread?”
Will the Washington Post excoriate their own well-sourced columnist for “spreading a debunked conspiracy theory” as they did when Cotton offered the same informed speculation six weeks ago? Will the New York Times offer their readers an analysis of how the panicked Republicans of February were unfairly maligned by the millennial pandemic explainers at Vox?
At least those of us lucky enough to have masks won’t have to hold our breath.
A Venezuelan Navy vessel opened fire on a German cruise ship but sank after it sustained “severe damages” while ramming the luxury liner on Monday morning.
The RCGS Resolute, a 123-meter-long cruise ship equipped for polar expeditions, was performing routine maintenance in international waters off the coast of Venezuela on Monday morning, according to a statement by Columbia Cruise Services, which manages the ship. Soon, a Venezuelan patrol boat approached, demanding that the ship divert its course to a Venezuelan port. The patrol boat then opened fire on the Resolute and repeatedly rammed it.
The Resolute has a reinforced hull built to survive in arctic conditions and sustained only “minor damages” in the encounter. The same could not be said for its aggressor.
“While the RCGS RESOLUTE sustained minor damages, not affecting [the] vessel’s seaworthiness, it occurs that the navy vessel suffered severe damages while making contact with the ice-strengthened bulbous bow of the ice-class expedition cruise vessel RCGS RESOLUTE and started to take water,” the statement read.
The Resolute repeatedly offered help to its crew, but the Venezuelan sailors did not answer the Resolute‘s hails, according to the statement. The cruise ship ultimately left the area after an international maritime authority told the Resolute that its assistance was not necessary. The ship soon safely docked at its intended destination of Curaçao.
The Venezuelan government acknowledged the naval encounter but claimed the Resolute was in Venezuelan territorial waters during the incident. CNN reported the country’s defense ministry suggested that the Resolute carried foreign mercenaries trying to invade Venezuela.
A search and rescue operation rescued all men aboard the patrol boat, according to the Venezuelan government.
The National Rifle Association filed a federal lawsuit against New York governor Andrew Cuomo (D.) on Thursday night in an effort to reopen gun stores closed by the emergency coronavirus shutdown.
Cuomo ordered all “nonessential” businesses to cease “in-office personnel functions” on March 22. He did not label gun businesses as “essential.” Since federally licensed gun dealers are required by law to conduct in-person background checks for each sale, the order effectively closed gun stores in the state and cut off most legal gun sales. The NRA said the governor’s shutdown order is an “assault” on “Second Amendment freedoms.”
“There isn’t a single person who has ever used a gun for self-defense who would consider it nonessential,” Wayne LaPierre, NRA executive vice president, said in a statement. “This is clearly another assault by Gov. Cuomo on the NRA, on the rights of New Yorkers to defend themselves and their families, and on our Second Amendment freedoms. The NRA will continue to fight all such attacks until Gov. Cuomo recognizes that constitutional rights are for every New Yorker and every American—and not just for politicians and their privileged friends.”
The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the case. New York attorney general Letitia James (D.) vowed to fight the NRA in court.
“Everyone—including the NRA—must follow the law and all executive orders of New York,” James said in a statement. “We will aggressively defend the state against yet another legal assault by the NRA.”
The suit is the latest legal battle over gun-business shutdowns that are taking place across the country. The outcome of the suit could affect how state and local officials determine which businesses can remain open amid mass closures aimed at slowing the spread of the deadly coronavirus. Whether or not the threat of the virus can justify a total moratorium on legal gun purchases, even temporarily, or if gun businesses must be allowed to operate at least on a limited basis, may ultimately be decided by the courts.
Gun-rights activists and industry representatives have been largely successful in convincing state officials to allow gun stores to remain open as demand exploded. Days after Cuomo’s shutdown order, the Department of Homeland Security labeled gun businesses “essential” in coronavirus guidelines. The nonbinding federal recommendations led New Jersey governor Phil Murphy (D.) and Los Angeles County sheriff Alex Villanueva (D.) to reverse decisions to close gun stores. The only governor to further crack down on the industry in the wake of the DHS announcement has been Charlie Baker (R.) of Massachusetts, leading gun-rights groups to threaten legal action.
Gun-rights activists have faced mixed results in court so far. On Tuesday, a federal judge in California allowed Ventura County to move forward with gun-store shutdowns. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court similarly refused to block Gov. Tom Wolf (D.) from closing stores, though the governor later amended his order to open shops. A North Carolina judge ordered Wake County sheriff Gerald Baker (D.) to abide by an agreement to reopen the pistol-purchase permit process in his jurisdiction.
The NRA has already launched several legal battles against the Cuomo administration. The group is locked in litigation with the state over an attempt by the governor to pressure financial institutions to cut ties with the NRA. The state is also involved in an ongoing investigation into accusations of the group’s financial impropriety.
William A. Brewer III, counsel for the NRA, said the lawsuit was necessary because the shutdown of gun purchases violated the rights of New Yorkers. He accused Cuomo of using the threat of the virus as a political ploy.
“The right to keep and bear arms is enshrined in the Constitution, in part, to give Americans the ability to defend themselves and their families,” Brewer said in a statement. “The current public health emergency does not justify the complete elimination of this right, especially during a time when many New Yorkers have valid concerns about their physical safety and welfare. Our client believes that Gov. Cuomo is again weaponizing the power of his office—to prevent gun owners from exercising the rights to which they are entitled.”
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D., S.C.) on Friday defended his previous claim that coronavirus is a “tremendous opportunity” to advance Democratic policy goals.
“I find it kind of interesting that one of my colleagues said he has a problem with me because I’m a ‘restructure government’ person,” Clyburn told Roll Call. “Yes, Jim Clyburn is a restructuring government guy and everybody with any common sense, and looking at where we are today, needs to be a restructuring government person.”
Clyburn has taken a prominent role in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D., Calif.) coronavirus response. The speaker tapped the South Carolina Democrat on Thursday to lead her select oversight committee on coronavirus relief, which will monitor the billions in federal dollars spent fighting the pandemic. Top Republicans criticized the decision, pointing to Clyburn’s March comments calling the coronavirus “a tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our vision.”
“What’s most telling here is who [Pelosi] appointed. She didn’t go with the oversight committee chair, her own, she appointed Clyburn,” McCarthy said during a Fox News appearance Friday. “And remember what Clyburn said—her majority whip. He said this is a time to restructure into their vision, government. This isn’t about oversight, [it] sounds like pure politics.”
Clyburn defended his comments in a Friday Roll Call interview, with the South Carolina Democrat comparing America’s coronavirus response to World War II.
“I spent some time in the last 24 hours looking at the Truman Committee, looking at the history of it, looking at what went on with it. I think they were very successful,” Clyburn said. “We came out of World War II with restructuring some things.”
Clyburn also used the coronavirus to tout Democratic priorities on health care, arguing that telehealth expansion could not occur without upending the nation’s health care system.
“We gotta have telehealth going forward for these kinds of issues, and to do it we’ve got to restructure the way we deliver health care in this country,” Clyburn said. “That’s what we were doing with Medicare and Medicaid, that’s what we were doing with the Affordable Care Act—trying to restructure the way health care is delivered in this country.”
Though Clyburn defended his portrayal of coronavirus as a political opportunity, Pelosi on Friday indicated that she would back away from adding unrelated Democratic policy goals to the next coronavirus relief bill. The speaker faced criticism for delaying the now-signed $2 trillion stimulus bill in favor of her own legislation, which increased collective bargaining power for unions and raised fuel emissions standards for airlines. She previously indicated that the next relief bill could include “bold action to renew America’s infrastructure.”
“While I’m very much in favor of doing some things we need to do to meet the needs—clean water, more broadband, the rest of that—that may have to be for a bill beyond that right now,” Pelosi said during a Friday CNBC appearance.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) welcomed Pelosi’s reversal in a Friday tweet.
“I’m glad Speaker Pelosi is again standing down from efforts to use this crisis to push unrelated left-wing priorities,” he said. “The latest proposal had been a massive tax-code giveaway for wealthy people in blue states that was instantly panned by economists across the spectrum.”
Lee, who was sentenced in 2018 for a bank fraud conviction, has asked a federal court for release on home confinement. The 59-year-old has hypertension and requires a breathing machine to sleep.
Oakdale was the country’s first federal prison to report fatalities from COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus. The head of the local guard’s union says dozens of inmates at the complex’s low-security unit, where Lee is housed with nearly 1,000 other prisoners, are showing flu-like symptoms.
The U.S. Justice Department, which oversees the nation’s largest prison system, wants to keep Lee behind bars. Lee’s concerns “are based entirely on speculation and generalized fear,” a federal prosecutor said in a filing this week. The case is still pending.
Prosecutors have been making similar arguments in federal courts across the United States, according to a Reuters review of documents from dozens of court cases, and interviews with attorneys, legal advocates and inmates’ relatives.
At a time when some prison authorities in states from New York to California are rushing to free non-violent offenders, elderly criminals and other medically high-risk prisoners, the DOJ so far has taken a more cautious line on coronavirus-related releases from federal facilities.
Court documents show federal prosecutors have contended that judges cannot force the government to put prisoners on home confinement. They have urged courts to deny bond to defendants who are in jail awaiting trial. They have suggested that some inmates with pre-existing medical conditions would be safer in prison than at home. And they have expressed skepticism about claims of virus-related illness among people facing incarceration.
In West Virginia, for example, prosecutors on March 27 asked a court not to postpone the date when a man convicted on a gun possession charge was supposed to report to jail, after the defendant’s attorney asked for more time because his client, Ricky Nelson, was displaying COVID-19 symptoms. A judge has twice-delayed his surrender date anyway, based on a doctor’s note.
“They’re fighting the release of vulnerable people on technicalities. It’s disgusting,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a group that has pushed to reduce the number of people in prisons.
Criminal-justice advocates like Ring have warned for months that U.S. jails and prison are potential hothouses for infection. Inmates live in close quarters, share bathrooms and dining halls, and often have limited access to health care.
Nearly 2.3 million people were locked up in the United States in 2017, according to the latest count by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics; it’s the highest incarceration figure in the world by far. The federal prison system alone houses approximately 175,000 inmates.
The Justice Department told Reuters it is working towards transferring more inmates to home confinement. And it has instructed prosecutors to utilize video-teleconferencing and to seek continuances in cases of non-violent offenders awaiting sentencing.
Since last week, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has approved 500 inmates for release to home confinement, Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said.
The Justice Department is “focusing on how to best protect the health of vulnerable inmates and the general public,” Hornbuckle said.
In addition, the $2 trillion stimulus bill signed by U.S. President Donald Trump on March 27 included a provision designed to make it easier for federal prisons to release more people into home confinement to help control the coronavirus outbreak.
Still, states and municipalities are far outpacing the federal system, particularly in areas hard hit by the virus. Los Angeles County alone released more than 1,700 detainees before the end of March, while New Jersey’s chief justice recently ordered the release of 1,000 jail inmates statewide.
Coronavirus case numbers are exploding in Louisiana. Emily Arseneau, Lee’s daughter, said she fears for his safety and wants to see him released.
Lee, who originally was sentenced to five years for lying to banks to obtain $2 million in loans, has served about 1½ years. He is due to be re-sentenced because a court calculated his prison term incorrectly.
“I’m afraid that if he gets sick, that’s it,” she said. “He doesn’t deserve to lose his life over bank fraud.”
Medical experts say people with underlying respiratory problems are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, which has killed at least 54,000 people across the globe including more than 6,000 in the United States. There are about 10,000 people over the age of 60 in federal custody, and federal defenders say about a third of them have preexisting conditions.
Some legal scholars doubt that a spate of inmate releases will reduce the overall risk to society. Prisons must continue operating, so the best course is to take measures inside those facilities to deal with the virus, according to Jon Guze, director of legal studies at the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank in North Carolina.
“Jails and prisons are not like schools and universities,” Guze wrote in a recent research brief. “Sending everyone home is not an option.”
ARGUING AGAINST RELEASE
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the quality of federal prison healthcare was under strain. The Justice Department’s inspector general last year cited prison healthcare as a major management challenge, saying the prison population’s demographics “heighten the challenge of providing proper care for inmates, including aging inmates, inmates with chronic illnesses, and inmates with mental health issues.”
Around 75 inmates and 39 staffers have contracted the coronavirus in U.S. federal lockups, according to the BOP. But public defenders, families of incarcerated loved ones, and union leaders at prisons suspect the numbers are higher. At Oakdale, the BOP has started to presume people showing symptoms are positive.
Fearful of the spread, inmates nationwide have started asking the courts to set them free, be it shortening their sentences, freeing them on bond or granting a compassionate release if they are elderly, sick or terminally ill.
Federal prosecutors have broadly opposed those requests.
In filings reviewed by Reuters, prosecutors echoed the argument they made in the case of Lee – that inmates’ anxieties are unwarranted, and that detainees are likely to be as safe in prison as they are on the outside.
Take North Carolina inmate Larry Winckler. A convicted embezzler, the 59-year-old has terminal cancer. He asked a judge for compassionate release as the coronavirus has spread through his prison in rural Butner.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ross Lenhardt wanted the court to deny that request. In a filing, Lenhardt said conditions in his neighborhood were similar to those in the prison in the respect that both he and Winckler were located close to medical treatment facilities and had neighbors who were quarantined.
On Friday, a judge ordered that Winckler should be released from prison immediately due to his terminal cancer. The judge did not directly address the threat of the coronavirus pandemic.
Elsewhere, federal prosecutors have said there is no need to free prisoners from facilities where authorities have not yet confirmed cases of the virus.
Prosecutors objected when 64-year-old Teresa Gonzalez, who has emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asked to be released a few months early from a jail in Spokane, Washington, where she had begun a short sentence for her role in a scheme to defraud insurance companies. They argued that no inmates had tested positive for COVID-19, thus her request was “currently predicated on a hypothetical.”
A federal judge disagreed and sent Gonzalez home this week. Her lawyer, Sandy Baggett, said the Justice Department’s resistance was surprising. Gonzalez, Baggett said, “ticked every box” for the kind of prisoner who should be released – an older, sick, non-violent offender with no prior record. “If you’re going to oppose that one, I would assume you’re not going to consent to any,” she said.
In other cases, federal prosecutors have said old or ill prisoners would be worse off at home.
When a jailed 78-year-old awaiting trial on drug charges in Michigan recently asked a judge to be released on bond because his age puts him at risk from the virus, prosecutors objected.
“An argument can be made that he potentially is safer where he is – sheltered in place in a facility that has the ability to control people’s interactions, screening of people coming in from the outside,” they wrote in a filing.
Prosecutors have also asserted that judges lack the power to let prisoners serve out their sentences at home. That was one of the arguments prosecutors made in the case of Lee, the Oakdale inmate.
David Joseph, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, told Reuters his office would not oppose an expedited re-sentencing hearing by video conference, where Lee’s defense lawyer could bring up concerns about his client’s health in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
In a filing Friday, Joseph’s office contended that it fears that Lee now has more incentive to flee if released “due to the unique circumstances associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.”
BIG NEW POWERS
Prior to the new economic stimulus law, the BOP could only release inmates to home confinement who had already served 90% of their sentence or had no more than six months left to go.
The new law allows the BOP director more discretion. But Attorney General William Barr must first declare a state of emergency for the federal prison system, something he has yet to do.
Hornbuckle, the department spokesman, said officials are considering that, and “will take a reasonable, lawful and safe approach” to deciding on home confinement for non-violent defenders.
A day before Trump signed the stimulus bill into law, Barr issued a memo ordering BOP to begin considering who can be released into home confinement. The memo requires BOP to weigh factors beyond age and health, including the inmate’s criminal history and behavior in prison. It also requires a determination as to whether a release could worsen community transmission of the virus.
“We cannot take any risk of transferring inmates to home confinement that will contribute to the spread of COVID-19,” Barr wrote.
Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Brad Heath in Washington, D.C.; Editing by Marla Dickerson
As Congress prepared to pass its $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus last week, a trio of Republican senators sounded an alarm, claiming that the bill’s ultra-generous unemployment insurance could let many Americans quit essential jobs.
The 11th-hour objection by Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Tim Scott (S.C.), and Ben Sasse (Neb.) attracted derision and outrage, but the scenario they feared may be playing out. Some small business owners say their employees are resigning in part to collect generous unemployment benefits.
Daniel Johnson, the owner of a New Orleans landscaping construction company, told the Washington Free Beacon that while he runs a business deemed essential, most of his team has stopped showing up because of the coronavirus, preferring to wait on unemployment payouts.
“The majority of my team’s last day was 3/13,” Johnson told the Free Beacon. “We have plenty of work and the city deems us as an essential business because we are a city contractor working on green infrastructure projects.”
“The employees expressed concern for several reasons,” Johnson said. “Most focused on fear of bringing virus home to weak family members young and old. I get it, but our work allows them to have substantial space between each other. Most are desperately waiting for unemployment benefits and are not interested in returning to work anytime soon. Very frustrating as an employer.”
In the face of a pandemic, the government has urged people to stay home, gutting large and small businesses alike. While mass unemployment may keep people physically safe in the short run, the widespread use of unemployment insurance runs the risk that businesses may lose out on government loans guaranteeing their payrolls and could erode employer-employee connections that stop businesses from buckling. That could convert a short, sharp corona-recession into a dragged-out economic depression.
Prior to the CARES Act’s passage, Sasse, Scott, and Graham warned that the bill might contain what they called a “life-threatening drafting error,” which they said introduced “a strong incentive for employees to be laid off instead of going to work.” They objected to the act’s unemployment insurance provisions, which ordered states to waive many eligibility requirements and put the federal government on the hook for a larger portion of payment obligations.
That added spending includes a flat $600 per person per week for four months—the equivalent of a guaranteed $15 per hour full-time wage, not counting other unemployment payments or the $1,200-per-person cash advance also in the bill. This, the senators feared, would lead essential workers to walk off their jobs just as they were most needed.
There is growing evidence that may be playing out. In fact, some small businesses are telling customers that their laid-off employees will fare better if they’re laid off. In an email to customers, a cleaning service in Alexandria, Va., wrote that its two-week closure would actually benefit employees: “With the generous Federal supplement added to state unemployment benefits, not to mention the federal stipend, most of our cleaners and many of our office workers will actually fair [sic] better with a temporary layoff than they have thus far this year.”
Stories like Johnson’s or the cleaning service’s reflect the past week’s shocking job market data. Figures released Thursday showed that 6.6 million Americans had filed for unemployment insurance over the preceding week. That number blew past all previous records, including the 3.3 million filings the week before. It also eclipsed the consensus projection of about 3.7 million filings.
The loss of 10 million jobs in two weeks is doubtless driven by cascading effects of the coronavirus, including the shutdown of nonessential businesses in many states. But the cushion introduced by the equivalent of a $15-$20 hourly wage from the government is likely not helping.
“Government policy—especially the generous extended unemployment benefits Congress passed last month—has potentially lit a match under already combustible conditions,” Karl Smith, vice president for federal policy at the Tax Foundation, wrote Thursday.
Contrary to claims that the bill’s unemployment provisions would not apply to individuals who willingly quit their jobs, Smith explained that the CARES Act provides benefits for any person who self-certifies that he left his job “as a direct result of COVID-19.” Because the current wave of unemployment is almost all coronavirus-related, there are few people who could not judge themselves eligible.
There are upsides to mass unemployment during a pandemic: Fewer people going to work means fewer vectors for disease. But it could have dramatic economic consequences down the road.
Wall Street firms are unanimous in their view that the United States is entering a recession. They are still debating whether that recession will be “v-shaped”—a short, sharp drop followed by a short, sharp increase—or shaped more like a “u” or “l”—sharp drops followed by slow or no recovery. Samuel Hammond, director of poverty and welfare policy studies at the Niskanen Center, wrote Thursday that the unemployment incentivized by the CARES Act makes the latter more likely.
“Maintaining a formal relationship between employers and their employees, even if they’re furloughed, will be key to ensuring a robust economic rebound,” Hammond wrote. “If those relationships are broken, businesses won’t spontaneously raise wages. Rather, they will either close shop or restructure around business models where that labor isn’t demanded in the first place.”
An alternative approach is to keep employees technically on payroll but send them home, while the government picks up the costs of continuing to employ them. This is the idea behind Denmark’s offer to pay 75 percent of companies’ wage costs. It’s also the premise of the CARES Act’s $350 billion paycheck protection program (PPP), which promises small businesses loans that will be forgiven if they are used to cover payroll costs.
PPP loans’ forgivability, however, is dependent on employees remaining on payroll. If employees resign to seek more money through unemployment, then struggling small business owners will be left with loans they cannot repay.
This could spell economic disaster. A U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey released Friday found that one in four small businesses say they are two months or less away from closing permanently. Such mass closures would almost certainly mean a long, hard economic recovery, a double blow to a country already fighting a deadly disease.
Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden has been dinged several times by fact-checkers over claims he has made during the coronavirus crisis, including a total of 11 “Pinocchios” from the Washington Post.
Over the course of three weeks between March 13 and April 3, Biden was fact-checked five separate times for making false or misleading claims concerning the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic.
A Washington Postfact check on March 13 awarded Biden four Pinocchios, the fact-checker’s most severe rating, for two manipulated videos the Biden campaign circulated.
The first video claimed to show Trump at a Feb. 28 rally saying Democrats were turning the coronavirus into “their new hoax” after they failed to bring Trump down through impeachment. Biden’s video was edited to make it appear that Trump was calling the coronavirus a hoax. Trump, however, was referring to the Democrats’ attempts to blame him for the virus, not the virus itself.
The second Biden campaign video showed Trump saying the phrase “the American Dream is dead,” which the Post found was taken out of context and missing the second part of Trump’s statement where he promised to “bring it back bigger and better and stronger than ever before.”
Another Postfact check on March 24 gave the campaign four Pinocchios after adviser Ron Klain accused Trump of silencing Dr. Nancy Messonnier of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The president and the White House sent a clear message to scientists in the government—there would be a price for speaking out and speaking up,” he said in a campaign video released on March 21.
Messonnier continued to hold routine phone briefings with reporters in the weeks after she raised the alarm about the virus at a press conference with Trump.
Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler wrote that Klain’s framing was “simply wrong.” Messonnier’s alarming rhetoric did irritate Trump, but the idea that she was silenced was a “false narrative,” Kessler added.
At a CNN town hall on March 27, Biden repeated an earlier claim that Trump had eliminated the White House pandemic office. He also claimed Trump made “no effort” to put any pressure on Chinese president Xi Jinping and reduced the CDC’s staff in China prior to the outbreak. Biden added he called for China to admit medical experts from the United States when the outbreak in China was still in its early stages.
The Post‘s fact check gave Biden three Pinocchios due to his imprecise language. The Trump administration sought access for CDC experts, and the administration told the Post that Trump offered to send experts to China to help with the outbreak. Biden also did not specifically call for experts to be sent until late February.
Those weren’t the only times Biden has been fact-checked for rhetoric during the crisis.
On March 15, during the Democratic presidential debate, Biden falsely claimed that Trump refused coronavirus testing kits from the World Health Organization. The kits were never offered in the first place. PolitiFact rated his statement “Mostly False.” CNN, after initially deeming his statement factual, retracted its rating after a report by the Washington Free Beacon.
On March 19, Biden first tweeted that Trump “eliminated” the pandemic response team. The Washington Postfact check found this claim “overstated” due to the fact that the global health directorate was folded into another office under the guidance of former national security adviser John Bolton. Citing “dueling narratives,” however, it didn’t give a rating to Biden’s claim.
China has been appointed to an elite United Nations human rights group despite the country’s routine abuse of human rights, stifling of free speech, and imprisonment of dissidents.
Jiang Duan, a minister at China’s mission to the U.N., was selected to serve on the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Consultative Group, a five-nation body that plays a key role in selecting human rights investigators who will oversee abuses across the globe.
With a spot on the committee, China will be in a prime position to thwart investigations into its own human rights abuses.
“Allowing China’s oppressive and inhumane regime to choose the world investigators on freedom of speech, arbitrary detention, and enforced disappearances is like making a pyromaniac into the town fire chief,” Hillel Neuer, executive director of U.N. Watch, an organization dedicated to performing oversight work on the U.N., said in a statement.
As a member of the Consultative Group, China will help select people to “investigate, monitor, and publicly report” on human rights issues, according to U.N. Watch. This includes matters of free speech and religion.
“How can China be involved in choosing the U.N. special rapporteur on the protection of freedom of opinion and expression, when the regime routinely imposes draconian censorship, and seeks to shut down dissenting voices?” Neuer asked.
China will now also help vet candidates for a range of key U.N. human rights positions.
“It’s absurd and immoral for the U.N. to allow China’s oppressive government a key role in selecting officials who shape international human rights standards and report on violations worldwide,” Neuer said.
The position will increase China’s influence at the U.N., where it has been a constant critic of U.S. actions, including its sanctions on Iran and push to hold human rights violators accountable.
The selection also comes as China faces backlash for lying about its number of coronavirus infections and deaths. A portion of its work on the U.N. body will be focused on health-related issues.
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday announced plans to nominate a vocal ally of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh to an influential federal appeals court in Washington.
Justin Walker, 37, who has served as a federal district court judge in Kentucky since October, would replace Republican appointee Judge Thomas Griffith on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit if approved by the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate.
Griffith, appointed by former President George W. Bush, had previously announced his plans to retire.
After Trump nominated conservative judge Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in 2018, Walker frequently appeared on cable TV, including Fox News, talking up the nominee’s conservative credentials.
“He is a warrior with a backbone of iron,” Walker told Fox at the time. He also called Kavanaugh “a fighter for conservative legal principles” who would not “go wobbly” if appointed to the Supreme Court.
Kavanaugh was narrowly confirmed to the high court after claims of sexual misconduct from decades earlier were made against him. He denied the allegations.
Although based in Kentucky, where he has taught at the University of Louisville’s law school, Walker has Washington ties. He clerked for Kavanaugh on the same appeals court to which he has been nominated, where Kavanaugh served for 12 years. He also clerked for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who Kavanaugh replaced in 2018.
At the time of his appointment to the district court, the American Bar Association, a legal organization that issues ratings on judicial nominees, said Walker was not qualified to serve because of his lack of experience. He was confirmed on a 50-41 vote.
The D.C. Circuit is considered the second most powerful court in the United States, in part because it handles many high-stakes challenges to federal regulations. Walker’s appointment would not change the ideological balance of the court, which currently has a 7-4 majority of Democratic appointees.
One of Trump’s biggest successes has been the swift appointment and confirmation of conservative judges, especially on the appeals courts. He has also made two appointments to the Supreme Court – Kavanaugh and fellow conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch.
Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Bill Berkrot