TWO ROADS DIVERGED — Things are tense on Congress’ sole committee dedicated to investigating the government response to Covid-19. Despite a decade-long friendship between the panel’s top Democrat and Republican, hearings have devolved into accusations of conspiracy mongering and political malfeasance, members have demanded colleagues’ remarks be stricken from the record, and they’ve routinely put out press releases and open letters criticizing one another.
Earlier this month, the committee’s Democrats and Republicans released competing reports about the origin of Covid-19, and Democratic staff told POLITICO they may continue to go their own way, drafting more of their own reports and holding “shadow hearings” to hit topics they feel are being ignored or misrepresented by their GOP colleagues.
Amid the divisions and mounting acrimony, lawmakers in both parties and outside experts are lamenting that the U.S. could have taken an entirely different path for Covid oversight — a path several other countries are on today.
The road not taken: Lawmakers in the House and Senate — Democrats and Republicans — pushed last year for an independent, nonpartisan panel to study the Covid-19 response. Supporters of the idea, modeled on the 9/11 Commission that identified a host of national security failures, argued recommendations from such a group would have greater credibility with a divided and skeptical public.
But despite backing from lawmakers across the political spectrum — led by Kansas Republican Sen. Roger Marshall and New York Democrat Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand — the effort didn’t become a priority for either party’s leadership or the White House, and it fell by the wayside amid end-of-year negotiations in 2022. Supporters reintroduced their bill in May but there has been little movement since then.
Jennifer Nuzzo, a Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations, says leaving the work to a partisan committee of lawmakers is dangerous for both public health and geopolitics.
“What I see happening are splashy, contentious, argumentative hearings involving people who are not experts weighing in on what don’t seem like the highest priority topics — basically dancing on the graves of the people who lost their lives,” she said. “We need an honest and hard look that’s not about retribution or scoring political points.”
In the UK, on the other hand, an independent commission led by a retired judge is holding public listening sessions, obtaining the communications of key government figures and digging into how political and economic fights around Brexit left the country unprepared for Covid.
In Sweden, an independent “Corona Commission” made up of professors, faith leaders and retired government officials released a 1,700 page report last year detailing how the country’s no-lockdown strategy put the elderly in peril, among other policy failures.
In New Zealand, the independent “Royal Commission of Inquiry into COVID-19 Lessons Learned” is interviewing officials behind closed doors so that “people can be free and frank” and they have pledged to issue a report on “what could we do differently or better.”
Georges Benjamin, the president of the American Public Health Association, who testified at the House Covid committee’s first event back in February, says those investigation models — unlike the U.S. version — are far more effective.
“Their mission is to thoroughly understand the facts regardless of the political outcomes,” he said. “They only have the goal of protecting health and safety. And if there are sacred cows out there — things politicians or we in the public health field deeply believe in but are wrong about — so be it.”
The U.S. is not alone, however, in leaving Covid oversight to lawmakers.
Australia’s parliament created a Senate committee to investigate the pandemic response, and while it included members of many different political parties, it was dominated by the ruling Labor Party. Members of other parties complained that the majority used it to advance its own political agenda, issuing their own dissenting reports (sound familiar?).
— John Eastman, awaiting potential indictment, asks judge to postpone his disbarment proceedings: Attorney John Eastman, an architect of Donald Trump’s last-ditch efforts to subvert the 2020 election, is asking a California judge to postpone disbarment proceedings lodged against him, saying he’s increasingly concerned he’s about to be criminally charged by special counsel Jack Smith. “[R]ecent developments in the investigation have renewed and intensified [Eastman’s] concerns that the federal government might bring charges against him,” his attorneys Randall Miller and Zachary Mayer wrote in an Aug. 4 filing posted to the court’s public docket today.
— Amazon called into final FTC meetings ahead of expected antitrust suit: Amazon officials have been called into meetings next week with commissioners at the Federal Trade Commission, marking what is almost certainly the final step before the agency files a long-expected antitrust lawsuit against the e-commerce giant. According to two people with knowledge of discussions between Amazon and the FTC, Amazon officials will meet with each of the FTC’s three commissioners during the week of Aug. 14. Amazon and the FTC declined to comment.
— Trump and his new lawyer are not on the same page about judge’s recusal: Donald Trump blared Sunday morning that his legal team would be “immediately asking for recusal” of U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan from his latest criminal case, proclaiming (but not revealing) “very powerful grounds” for the demand. Hours later, his attorney John Lauro would publicly walk back that plan, saying Trump was speaking with a “layman’s political sense” and reacting primarily because Chutkan was nominated to the bench by a Democrat. (She was confirmed 95-0 by the Senate in 2014 after Barack Obama nominated her).
HEAD ON — After three years of not answering the question directly, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, in a newly posted interview with NBC News, said point blank about former President Donald Trump: “Of course he lost. Joe Biden’s the president.”
“I think what people in the media and elsewhere, they want to act like somehow this was just like the perfect election,” DeSantis said. “I don’t think it was a good-run election. But I also think Republicans didn’t fight back. You’ve got to fight back when that is happening.”
And during a campaign stop in Iowa on Friday, DeSantis was asked if he thought the election was stolen, as asserted by Trump and his supporters. “I’ve said many times, the election is what it is. All those theories that were put out did not prove to be true,” he responded.
BRANDING BIDEN — President Joe Biden is risking a lot on “Bidenomics.” But, about two months in, his efforts to sell his sweeping economic agenda don’t appear to be working, reports POLITICO’s Jennifer Haberkorn.
Poll numbers show persistent voter skepticism about the state of the economy, and Republicans are working aggressively to take back the term, dubbing it as synonymous with tax hikes and inflation.
Inside the White House, aides remain confident the bet will pay off, adopting the mantra of the hockey legend Wayne Gretzky: Skate to where the puck is going, not where it is now.
“If you look at where the puck’s going to be a year from now,” said a White House official granted anonymity to discuss strategy, “inflation’s going down and the term “Bidenomics” is going to come to signify … President Biden has a plan. They may not be able to list every single thing in that plan, but it’s more factories, it’s more jobs, it’s prescription drug costs cut.”
There is a long-held theory in certain quarters of the Democratic Party that candidates shouldn’t tout how good things are in the midst of an economic recovery, lest those still struggling feel left behind.
Biden and his team haven’t fully abandoned such caution. But they’re not living by it either.
The administration has moved aggressively to not just claim ownership of the economy, but to broadcast how good the news around it is: from falling inflation, to steady job growth, to diminished talk of a forthcoming recession. They anticipate the good news will ramp up with factory groundbreakings and bridge ribbon cuttings at the heart of the Inflation Reduction Act, bipartisan infrastructure law and CHIPs and Science Act. As the economy continues to improve, they believe, voters will start crediting them for “Bidenomics’” most popular items and general economic improvement.
CHANGE OF PLANS — Spain’s far-right Vox party on Sunday backed down from its long-held position on being included in any national government requiring its support, saying it’s willing to back a minority government headed by the center-right Popular Party even if a future cabinet doesn’t include any of its members, writes Aitor Hernández-Morales.
In a statement, the group said its deep concern over Socialist Pedro Sánchez’s plans to remain Spain’s prime minister had led it to revise its position and offer the unconditional support of its 33 MPs to conservative leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo, who needs a simple majority in the country’s parliament to back his bid to form a government.
Vox’s new position could theoretically make it easier for Feijóo to convince at least one party to back his bid to form a government: Last week Cristina Valido, the sole MP representing the Canarian Coalition group, said she was willing to support the Popular Party if its future executive did not include any far-right politicians.
But it’s highly unlikely the shift will lead any of the other groups in the parliament — the majority of which have either left-wing or separatist platforms — to back the conservative leader. Feijóo therefore continues to fall short of the numbers needed to become prime minister.
To form a government, a candidate selected by Spain’s king must be backed by either 176 of the 350 MPs in the Spanish parliament in an initial vote, or receive more “yeas” than “nays” in a second vote held 48 hours later.
PLANS FOILED — Ukraine’s security service said today it had detained a Russian informant who planned to assassinate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last month, writes Laura Hülsemann.
The alleged informant “was preparing a Russian airstrike in the Mykolaiv region during the visit of the president of Ukraine,” the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) said.
The woman was “gathering intelligence” about the “the time and list of locations of the approximate route” of Zelenskyy’s visit to Mykolaiv at the end of July. Based on the information, a “massive” Russian airstrike would have assassinated Zelenskyy, the SBU said.
OFF THE ROAD — Dead and Company — the longest running Grateful Dead touring company since the death of founding member Jerry Garcia — is purportedly getting off the road for good. The band, which has existed in different iterations since 1965, both helped to usher in new styles of performance and is rare in its ability to draw huge crowds for its fairly idiosyncratic brand of music. It’s also become an American institution that is now changing dramatically, as Dead and Company relies on the live experience to make its biggest mark. To chronicle the end of this project (at least for now), Sadie Sartini Garner went to their final shows in San Francisco and came back with a meditation on the band’s project for The Ringer.
Did someone forward this email to you? Sign up here.