When the history of the pandemic is written, one of the great mysteries will be what President Donald Trump was doing in the waning days of his presidency as the number of Covid-19 deaths in the US soared past 3,000 each day, the virus spread unchecked and Congress dithered over the details of an emergency relief package that could be the difference between people being able to eat and being forced to sleep on the streets this holiday season.
Trump ran for president pretending he was the consummate dealmaker, the chief executive who could make things happen with a snap of his fingers. He will go down in history as a president who worsened the grief and tragedy of the most consequential pandemic in 100 years by being contemptuous of masks and the safety precautions designed by his own administration – a man incapable of empathy, who chose to remain cocooned in his White House bubble at a time when leadership would have mattered.
For weeks now, Trump has spent most of his time plotting how to nullify the results of President-elect Joe Biden’s November victory as he has fleeced his supporters to pay for a string of ill-conceived lawsuits that were tossed out of court by some of his own judicial appointees. When those efforts failed, he began looking ahead to January 6 when a joint session of Congress meets to formally count the Electoral College results – seeing another opportunity to try and thwart the democratic process.
In his comfort zone of the Twittersphere – where he’s put out countless false tweets claiming the election was “swindled” – Trump has been silent about the disturbing hacking campaign, suspected to be tied to Russia, that has endangered US national security. Despite being briefed on the massive data breach by top intelligence officials Thursday, he hasn’t said anything about risks to the federal government or how he planned to address it.
Sen. Mitt Romney, who has been a critic of the President, called the hacking “the modern equivalent of almost Russian bombers reportedly flying undetected over the entire country,” speaking to SiriusXM on Thursday. “And in this setting, not to have the White House aggressively speaking out and protesting and taking punitive action is really, really quite extraordinary.”
Biden, without mentioning Trump or his administration, tried to draw the contrast. “Our adversaries should know that, as President, I will not stand idly by in the face of cyber assaults on our nation,” he said in a statement Thursday.
Perhaps most baffling about Trump’s disappearance, he has stayed out of the public eye when he could have taken a victory lap following the US Food and Drug Administration’s historic authorization of the first Covid-19 vaccine – despite his previous insistence that he should get all the credit for the vaccines because of his effort to push the companies developing them harder than they’d ever been pushed before.
Trump White House
But if he emerged to herald the vaccine, he would have also had to acknowledge the suffering afflicting America, both from illness and economic hardship, which he knows will reflect poorly on his legacy. The US now has more than 17 million Covid-19 cases and the daily number of new coronavirus cases in the United States is nearing 250,000. Trump has also lost his primary talking point about how the economy is coming roaring back: Jobless claims released Thursday showed that 885,000 Americans filed for first-time unemployment benefits last week.
Trump issued a sunny tweet glossing over that troubling news Thursday: “All-time Stock Market high. The Vaccine and the Vaccine rollout are getting the best of reviews. Moving along really well. Get those ‘shots’ everyone!” the President tweeted, ignoring the fact that scarce vaccine doses are only being allotted to front-line health workers, residents at long-term care facilities and some government officials. “Also, stimulus talks looking very good,” he added.
Stimulus talks hurdle toward a key deadline
But as Congress tries to structure a Covid relief package that will have bipartisan support in both houses — with much-needed aid for millions of unemployed Americans as well as small businesses that are on the brink of collapse — the President has not used his supposed negotiating prowess to get the deal across the finish line.
As leaders claim that they are close to a deal, some progressives and conservatives have formed an unlikely alliance to advocate for increasing the size of the $600 direct payments that are expected to go out to cash-strapped Americans. Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri said he planned to call for a vote Friday on his bill providing direct payments of $1,200 for individuals and $2,400 for families. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent, has also demanded the larger direct payments.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday evening that conversations “are still underway and making progress” and told his members to be prepared to work through the weekend. Even though these negotiations should have been completed months ago as unemployment and other benefits began expiring and worsening cases led to new Covid lockdowns by local officials, McConnell blamed the delays on Democrats.
“Families across the nation have waited far too long already for another significant dose of assistance,” McConnell said in a speech from the Senate floor Thursday. “We must not slide into treating these talks like routine negotiations to be conducted at Congress’ routine pace. So we need to complete this work and we need to complete it right away.”
Republican Sen. John Thune, a member of leadership, said the longer negotiations drag on, the harder it becomes to keep members in line – describing the process as “a little bit of whack-a-mole.”
“Whack it here, and someone else pops up … there’s a lot of interaction between the moving parts of all this, and getting it all lined up at the same time has proven to be pretty hard,” the South Dakota Republican said. “But I’m still hopeful.”
Members may need to pass another stop-gap measure to keep the government funded and avert a shutdown that would begin at midnight on Friday. But Thune said that Friday midnight deadline had actually been helpful in moving discussions forward.
“We need the pressure to get this done, and I hope that pressure will continue to build toward midnight tomorrow night,” Thune said.
A big day for a second coronavirus vaccine
Doses of a second coronavirus vaccine manufactured by Moderna may soon be on their way to Americans after a key advisory panel to the US Food and Drug Administration recommended that the agency grant Moderna emergency use authorization on Thursday. Leaders at the FDA signaled that a decision would come quickly.
“Following today’s positive advisory committee meeting outcome regarding the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has informed the sponsor that it will rapidly work toward finalization and issuance of an emergency use authorization,” FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn and Dr. Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said in a statement Thursday evening.
Hahn and Marks said the agency had also notified the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention so they could prepare for the next steps in the authorization process. Once the FDA signs off, an advisory panel to the CDC will meet to make recommendations about who should get the Moderna vaccine first, and the CDC must sign off on that advice before shots of the Moderna vaccine can be injected into the arms of Americans. FDA officials said they also notified officials at Operation Warp Speed that they were nearing a decision “so they can execute their plans for timely vaccine distribution.”
In a public show of confidence about the vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech, Vice President Mike Pence and second lady Karen Pence will publicly receive the vaccine Friday along with Surgeon General Jerome Adams. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also said they will receive the vaccine in the coming days.
The President, who contracted coronavirus in early October, won’t get the vaccine until it’s recommended by the White House medical team, a White House official told CNN.
But as the nation plunges deeper into this critical fight against Covid, he continues to be missing in action, content to let the gears of government function without him.