The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Daily 202: Trump's move to weaken key environmental law could sideline communities of color

with Mariana Alfaro

Note to readers: James Hohmann is on vacation until July 20. We have an all-star lineup of guest hosts from The Post to ensure you stay informed during his absence. 

At a moment when many communities of color are calling for greater input in public policy, President Trump is seeking to overhaul one of the nation's most powerful environmental laws in a way that could minimize their voices.

On Wednesday, the president is slated to finalize changes to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires the federal government to analyze how a major decision affects the environment and take public comment. Trump will travel to Atlanta to make the case that scaling back the 50 year-old statute will speed the construction of highways, pipelines and other infrastructure projects across the country. His cheerleading for a robust economic rebound comes in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic that continues to set new infection records.

NEPA has emerged as a major legal counterweight to the Trump administration’s policy agenda. 

And it's one of the most effective ways Americans of color have pushed back against plans that could harm their health and environment. Business groups and some unions, however, argue that it is a burdensome and complex law that has exponentially increased the cost and time it takes to modernize America’s infrastructure.

Asked about the new rule, White House spokesman Judd Deere said in an email, “The President will continue to take action to facilitate the great American comeback and to improve the quality of life [for] all Americans.”

In the past few months alone, challenges involving the law have halted at least three multibillion-dollar projects championed by the administration and its allies in the energy industry: the Keystone XL pipeline, the Dakota Access pipeline and the Atlantic Coast pipeline. In late June, a federal judge ordered the U.S. Forest Service to redo its environmental impact assessment for a plan to log old-growth trees across 1.8 million acres of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, after finding the initial proposal violated the law’s basic requirements.

Back in January, the White House proposed major changes to NEPA to limit which projects it applied to, how the government would calculate a proposal’s environmental impacts and how long the public would have to weigh in on any given decision.

These changes include eliminating the requirement to examine a project’s cumulative impact, including taking into account other projects in the area; requiring the most complex analyses be completed within two years; and prohibiting agencies from calculating the climate impact of burning fossil fuels extracted from federal lands or waters once they reach their final destination.

“It’s just massive,” said Raul Garcia, legislative director for healthy communities in the policy and legislative department of Earthjustice, an environmental law group, referring to the administration's NEPA overhaul. 

He argued the administration is rewriting the law “with the overall goal of excluding the public, undermining the study of the impacts that our federal infrastructure has on our communities and cutting a blank check for companies to do whatever they want when it comes to affecting public health and safety.”

A coalition of groups — energy, farming, logging, ranching and chemical manufacturers — seeks to scale back NEPA. 

Marty Durbin, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute, said in a phone interview Saturday the administration’s overhaul will “provide predictability and transparency” so developers can learn whether a project is viable. The lengthy analysis required under the law, coupled with the legal challenges that almost inevitably follow, can delay proposals for several years.

“The question is, can we have a process in place here that, in a reasonable time frame, can get us to a yes or a no,” he said. “We totally support environmental reviews of whatever’s necessary, and community input.”

For decades, developers have deliberately built polluting operations including trash incinerators, coal stacks and chemical plants near low-income communities and communities of color. A study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found African Americans bear a “pollution burden” that is 56 percent higher than other Americans, on average, relative to what they spend on goods and services. Hispanics have a pollution burden that is 63 percent higher, the researchers found.

Durbin argued that going forward, industries can rectify these wrongs by building mass transit and renewable energy projects under a streamlined law.

“We should look at this as an opportunity to provide more economic growth to those areas and have more environmentally sustainable projects in those communities,” he said. “We clearly have to recognize things we didn’t do right in past, so how do we build them going forward?”

But the Coalition for Healthy Ports’ Kim Gaddy, a 56-year-old activist living in the South Ward of Newark, said in a phone interview that the long-standing environmental law is a critical tool in fending off development contributing to the city’s higher rates of cancer and lung disease.

Gaddy has three children with asthma, ages 31, 20 and 16. The area is already home to long-haul diesel trucks shipping goods from the New York-New Jersey Port, Newark Liberty International Airport, the largest incinerator in the Northeast, a natural-gas power plant and another gas plant being proposed by NJ Transit. 

Residents in Newark’s East Ward, known as the Ironbound, convinced policymakers to reroute some heavy trucks off local streets by using NEPA. Gaddy said she fears the NEPA changes will weaken residents’ ability to push back on additional development.

“Our main issue is we already suffer from the cumulative impacts of pollution that has disproportionately impacted people of color. So one of the reasons we are fighting for NEPA is that NEPA at least allows us to have a voice,” she said, adding the White House shouldn’t be changing the law “in this day and age of police brutality, of covid-19, when more of us are impacted because we have compromised health systems.”

 “So now you’re silencing us totally,” Gaddy said. “You’re forcing us to accept more pollution.”

While you were sleeping

The Washington Redskins will change their name. 

“The Washington Redskins plan to announce Monday morning that they will change their team name, three people with knowledge of the situation confirmed Sunday night. The team is not expected to reveal a new name until a later date,” Les Carpenter and Mark Maske report. “Two people with knowledge of the team’s plans said Sunday that the preferred replacement name is tied up in a trademark fight, which is why the team can’t announce the new name Monday. … The decision to change the nearly 87-year-old team name comes amid mounting pressure on the franchise from corporate sponsors and the broader nationwide discussion of race.” 

China imposes sanctions on GOP Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Texas).

They are for “interfering in China's internal affairs,” The Post reports. “No details were disclosed on what the sanctions would involve, but the move comes days after the Trump administration banned three Chinese officials from visiting the United States and froze any U.S. assets they might have.” The sanctions also extend to former Kansas governor Sam Brownback (R), Trump's ambassador for international religious freedom, and Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.).

The coronavirus

Long delays in getting test results are hobbling the coronavirus response. 

“Test results for the novel coronavirus are taking so long to come back that experts say the results across the United States are often proving useless in the campaign to control the deadly disease,” Rachel Weiner, William Wan and Abigail Hauslohner report. “Some testing sites are struggling to provide results in five to seven days. Others are taking even longer. Outbreaks across the Sun Belt have strained labs beyond capacity. That rising demand, in turn, has caused shortages of swabs, chemical reagents and equipment as far away as New York. The long testing turnaround times are making it impossible for the United States to replicate the central strategy used by other countries to effectively contain the virus — test, trace and isolate. … 

“After attending a funeral, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) and her family got tested June 29 as a precaution. No one in her family had developed symptoms. A week later, her test results still hadn’t come back, but her husband started feeling ill. So they got a different, rapid test through Emory University. Within hours, Bottoms learned that she, her husband and one of the couple’s four children had all become infected. It wasn’t until the next day that their initial test results finally arrived. They showed that when the family first got tested, only one of them, the child, had the virus. While they waited for their test results, the boy possibly passed it to his parents. …

“More efficient testing — such as in South Korea, where results are often given the next day — might have prevented the Bottomses from getting the virus. But such turnarounds seem out of reach in the United States because of a lack of federal coordination, supply shortages and surging demand as outbreaks in some states spiral out of control."

The U.S. has recorded 3.29 million cases and more than 132,000 deaths. Two Trump health officials warned that more will die.

“Adm. Brett Giroir, an assistant secretary with the Health and Human Services department, and Dr. Jerome Adams, the surgeon general, both emphasized their concern about surging outbreaks, many of them in areas where people have not followed recommended public health guidelines to contain the spread of the virus,” the Times reports. “‘We’re all very concerned about the rise in cases, no doubt about that,’ [Giroir] said.’ ‘We do expect deaths to go up,’ …‘If you have more cases, more hospitalizations, we do expect to see that over the next two or three weeks before this turns around.’ Still, [Giroir] and Dr. Adams offered up a few optimistic notes. Admiral Giroir said the percentage of positive test results was leveling off, and both officials said that doctors had better tools to treat people who become sick than they did at the start of the pandemic. … 

“Both health officials were questioned about the administration’s reluctance to consider returning to a lockdown in some cities and states. Asked on ‘This Week’ if states with stark increases in cases, like Florida, South Carolina, Arizona, Texas and Georgia, should consider more stringent measures, [Giroir] said ‘everything should be on the table.’ He said closing bars and limiting the number of patrons allowed in restaurants were ‘two measures that really do need to be done.’ … Dr. Adams struck a similar tone … Appearing on ‘Face the Nation,’ Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration in the Trump administration, said, ‘I think things are going to get worse before they get better.’”

Florida reported more than 15,000 positive cases – the highest single-day number for any state. 

“Florida health officials on Sunday reported 15,300 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 — more than any other state in America has previously reported in a single day. The number in the Florida Department of Health’s latest update blew past the previous high, 12,274 by New York on April 4, and past Florida’s previous high of 11,458 on July 4,” the Miami Herald reports. “While the figure reflects Florida’s ballooning case numbers in recent weeks, it may also be the result of a dramatic one-day rise in the number of reported test results. … But a Herald analysis this past week found disturbing two-week trends — of increasing positivity and rising numbers of confirmed cases, even as testing volume remained the same. Florida has now had 269,811 confirmed case … [Republican Gov. Ron] DeSantis has recommended the wearing of face masks, but he has resisted calls to mandate it … Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez told CNN on Sunday that the county’s hospitals will soon reach capacity, but he said more beds can be added, including for intensive care. … 

“Health experts are concerned that people are gathering in crowds, and have expressed concern that the Republican National Convention’s nomination party for Trump is scheduled to be held in Jacksonville in August. A commissioner for a county near Jacksonville is seriously ill with the virus, according to a posting by his daughter on Facebook. … On Saturday, the Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom reopened at Walt Disney World in Orlando, concerning health experts who urge people not to gather in groups. Guests at the park said that people were wearing masks and social distancing, and videos showed near-empty parks.”

The White House is trying to discredit Tony Fauci.

Fauci no longer briefs Trump and is ‘never in the Oval [Office] anymore,’ said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Fauci last spoke to the president during the first week of June, according to a person with knowledge of Trump’s calendar," write Yasmeen Abutaleb, Josh Dawsey and Laurie McGinley. 

"A White House official released a statement saying that “several White House officials are concerned about the number of times Dr. Fauci has been wrong on things” and included a lengthy list of the scientist’s comments from early in the outbreak. Those included his early doubt that people with no symptoms could play a significant role in spreading the virus — a notion based on earlier outbreaks that the novel coronavirus would turn on its head. They also point to public reassurances Fauci made in late February, around the time of the first U.S. case of community transmission, that “at this moment, there is no need to change anything that you’re doing on a day-by-day basis.”

Betsy DeVos made it clear she wants schools to fully reopen for most students. 

“DeVos made her latest statement about what schools should do on CNN’s ‘State of the Union.’ In the interview with journalist Dana Bash, DeVos doubled down on calls she made last week for schools to reopen. ‘Kids need to be in school,’ she said. ‘They need to be learning, they need to be moving ahead. And we can’t — we cannot be paralyzed and not allow that or not be intent on that happening,’” Valerie Strauss reports. “DeVos said nothing, however, about what school superintendents have been saying they need to reopen: billions of dollars in additional federal funding to cover the costs of changes they have to make and personal protective equipment they need to buy.”

Fairfax County, Va., schools superintendent Scott Brabrand – one of the largest U.S. public school systems – said DeVos “can’t put every kid back in a school.” DeVos has called out Fairfax County’s plan to have students attend in-person schooling twice weekly while spending the other days in remote learning. Brabrand hit back, saying that “the guidelines for 6 feet social distancing simply mean that you can't put every kid back in a school with the existing square footage footprint. It's just that simple.” (CNN)

“I wouldn’t trust you to care for a house plant let alone my child," said Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) in response to DeVos's push to fully reopen schools. Pressley was among several Democratic lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), who publicly blasted DeVos following her Sunday claims. Pelosi accused Trump and his administration of “messing with the health of our children,” noting, “Going back to school presents the biggest risk for the spread of the coronavirus.” (Allyson Chiu

A ray of hope: New York City reported zero coronavirus deaths for the first time since March. 

“According to initial data reported by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, no one died from the virus in New York City on July 11. Officials recorded no confirmed deaths the day before as well, but did have two probable death. The department's data shows there hasn't been a day without a coronavirus-related death since March 13, two days after the first reported death,” NBC New York reports.  

California’s failure on early mass testing led to the current surge. 

“California found itself unprepared, overwhelmed and constantly lagging,” the Los Angeles Times found. “Those early failures left California far behind in the fight against the coronavirus, and it has struggled to keep up — even as cases surge today. In the beginning, dozens of investigators, called ‘cluster busters,’ worked each case to try to contain the spread of the coronavirus. They aimed at identifying each strand of transmission and snipping it before the virus could take hold as a sturdy web across communities. They functioned as all-inclusive personal assistants: arranging child care, setting up WiFi, coordinating grocery drop-offs. But data would later show that, long before the official case count began to climb, the virus was freewheeling. Federal officials grappling with a shortage of test kits issued narrow testing criteria; that meant key local spreaders in the state’s budding outbreak were going unnoticed and untraced.” 

  • Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, both Democrats, are calling for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) to impose a statewide stay-at-home order amid surging case numbers. Regional cases rose to 63,864 on Sunday. At least 258,658 cases have been reported in the state, per our tracker. Abbott said he might consider shutting down more nonessential businesses if things worsen. (Houston Chronicle)
  • Three Arizona teachers who shared a summer classroom contracted the virus, leaving one of them dead. Kimberley Chavez Lopez Byrd, 61, died last month, less than two weeks after she was hospitalized. All three teachers wore masks and gloves, according to school officials. The state topped 122,000 cases this weekend. (CNN)
  • Several people who attended a huge sandbar party in Michigan for the Fourth of July have tested positive for the virus, officials said. The event was so crowded that health authorities said it’s impossible to track all the people the infected attendees came into contact with. Footage from the event shows thousands partying hip-to-hip in the water. (M Live)
Disagreements between the Fed and Treasury slowed down the start of the Main Street Lending Program. 

“The differences centered on how to craft the loan terms of [the $600 billion program] to help support businesses through the early stages of the pandemic,” the WSJ reports. “Fed officials generally favored easier terms that would increase the risk of the government losing money, while Treasury officials preferred a more conservative approach, people familiar with the process said. Treasury, which has put up $75 billion to cover losses, resisted recent changes to relax loan terms. … The upshot is that the program, announced in March, went through multiple revisions and opened for business this past week. As of Wednesday, it hadn’t purchased any loans. Some Fed officials privately have voiced frustration that painstaking negotiations wasted precious weeks in launching the program.”

The Trump presidency

President Trump's commuting the sentence of his longtime confidant Roger Stone drew varied reactions on July 10-11. Stone was convicted of lying to Congress. (Video: The Washington Post)
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Bob Mueller may be called to testify after publishing an op-ed on Roger Stone.

Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, “didn’t give any details on the timing of any potential invitation,” Felicia Sonmez reports. “Graham’s statement came one day after Mueller defended his office’s prosecution of Stone, Trump’s longtime friend and political adviser, in a Post op-ed. Trump commuted Stone’s 40-month prison sentence on Friday … In his statement Sunday, Graham suggested that he had reconsidered his position on allowing Mueller to testify in light of the former special counsel’s op-ed. ‘Apparently Mr. Mueller is willing — and also capable — of defending the Mueller investigation through an oped in the Washington Post,’ Graham said. ‘Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee have previously requested Mr. Mueller appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify about his investigation. That request will be granted.’ … A Graham spokeswoman, said a formal invitation to Mueller is in the works but did not provide details on the timing of any potential testimony. There are only about three dozen legislative days remaining for the Senate before the November election. …

Trump’s commutation of Stone’s sentence has triggered a flood of criticism, with Democrats — and a handful of Republicans — in recent days arguing that the move amounted to an abuse of presidential power and an effort to undermine the justice system. On Sunday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) said that ‘anyone who cares about the rule of law in this country’ should be ‘nauseated’ by Trump’s actions in the Stone case. … Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) also criticized Trump’s commutation of Stone’s sentence, calling it a ‘problem.’ ‘The president does have the right, by law, to take the action he took,’ Hogan said on NBC News’s ‘Meet the Press.’ ‘That doesn’t mean he should have.’ … Trump fired back at two of the Republicans who have criticized him — Sens. Mitt Romney (Utah) and Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.) — in a tweet on Saturday night in which he called them ‘RINO’S.’”

Stone plans on campaigning for Trump now that he “won’t die in a squalid hellhole of corona-19 virus.” “I’m asthmatic,” he told Axios. “Sending me to a prison where I could not be socially distanced ... would, I think, be a death sentence.” He said he’ll do “anything necessary to elect my candidate, short of breaking the law.”

Trump has made more than 20,000 false or misleading claims.

“It took Trump 827 days to top 10,000 false and misleading claims in The Fact Checker’s database, an average of 12 claims a day. But on July 9, just 440 days later, the president crossed the 20,000 mark — an average of 23 claims a day over a 14-month period,” Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo and Meg Kelly report. “The coronavirus pandemic has spawned a whole new genre of Trump’s falsehoods. The category in just a few months has reached nearly 1,000 claims, more than his tax claims combined.”

Mark Meadows has been feeding nuggets of information to suspected leakers to see if they pass them on. 

So far, Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff, has yet to discover any leakers, Axios reports. “A source familiar with Meadows' thinking said he is ‘focused on national security leaks and could care less about the palace intrigue stories.’ On a recent podcast with Ted Cruz, however, Meadows said they tracked down and fired a federal employee who leaked information about a White House social media executive order.” 

Trump lashed out against supporters who built a portion of the border wall in his honor.

“Trump on Sunday criticized a privately built border wall in South Texas that’s showing signs of erosion months after going up, saying it was ‘only done to make me look bad,’ even though the wall was built after a months-long campaign by his supporters,” the AP reports. “The group that raised money online for the wall promoted itself as supporting Trump during a government shutdown that started in December 2018 because Congress wouldn’t fund Trump’s demands for a border wall. Called ‘We Build the Wall,’ the group has raised more than $25 million promoting itself as supporting the president. Former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon joined the group’s board and Trump ally Kris Kobach became its general counsel. … The section in question is a roughly 3-mile (5-kilometer) fence of steel posts just 35 feet (10 meters) from the Rio Grande, the river that forms the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas. That’s much closer to the river than the government ordinarily builds border barriers in South Texas because of concerns about erosion and flooding that could violate U.S. treaty obligations with Mexico.” 

The election

Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale is hitting a rough patch.

“As Trump’s reelection effort struggles, Parscale, despite his self-promotion, increasingly finds himself out of favor with his boss and hemmed in by newly hired staffers and recently promoted advisers, according to people familiar with the campaign,” Michael Scherer and Josh Dawsey report. “Trump has made clear his displeasure with Parscale, especially after a disappointing rally in Tulsa, and the campaign has expanded its senior team in ways that diminish his role, according to multiple campaign and administration officials. Trump’s new kitchen cabinet, a combination of White House and campaign employees led by White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, includes Parscale’s recently promoted deputy Bill Stepien and two communications aides from the 2016 campaign — Hope Hicks and Jason Miller, who was recently hired by the campaign and is increasingly seen as its principal strategist. … [C]ampaign and White House officials say Parscale does not always appear to understand the political dynamics of crucial swing states. … A senior Trump administration official … said Parscale ‘knows he screwed up’ with the Trump rally… 

“[Parscale is also absent] from campaign headquarters. Parscale lives in Florida, and the campaign is based in Northern Virginia, and staffers say that when they talk to him, he is often by his pool in Fort Lauderdale. … The amount of money that Parscale has personally earned from the campaign is undisclosed in Federal Election Commission reports, because the reports do not distinguish between the money that goes directly to him and the payments that go to his firm, Parscale Strategies, for pass-through costs. … Between September 2019 and May 2020, [Trump and GOP] accounts paid Parscale Strategies an average of $100,905 a month. … In comparison, records show that Biden’s campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon, has been paid $11,486 a month since taking over in April.” 

The pandemic has reshaped the presidential race in the Sun Belt. 

“Biden is now leading Trump by six points in Florida, and the two are tied in Arizona and competitive in Texas, where Biden is down by just a point to Mr. Trump. Biden has made gains in part because most say their state's efforts to contain the virus are going badly — and the more concerned voters are about risks from the outbreak, the more likely they are to support Biden,” a CBS News poll found. “In all three states, most voters say their state reopened too soon, and those who say this feel their state went too fast under pressure from the Trump administration. Most also say the president is doing a bad job handling the outbreak. He may be paying a price for that, at least in the short term.” 

Biden has a five-point lead over Trump in Texas, per a Dallas Morning News-University of Texas at Tyler pollThe Biden campaign, though, has done little to demonstrate it will make a major push in the Lone Star State. Texas hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Trump’s battle against Michigan’s female leaders could have 2020 implications. 

“Beyond being the women leading Michigan’s state government, Gretchen Whitmer, Dana Nessel and Jocelyn Benson have a lot in common,” the Times reports. “By 2018, the three were swept into statewide office on a wave that flipped much of Michigan’s leadership from red to blue and put three women — Ms. Whitmer, the governor; Ms. Nessel, the attorney general; and Ms. Benson, the secretary of state — in charge of running the state for the first time. Now these women share another distinction: They’re all targets of Trump. Trailing in polls to Biden in this key battleground state, the president has taken aggressive aim at [them] zeroing in on their mission to expand voting rights in a state where his 2016 winning margin of just 10,704 votes was the narrowest in the country. The three women have in turn responded forcefully to Mr. Trump … Michigan Democrats believe that the state leaders are a not-so-secret weapon in the 2020 election. They see the president’s frequent barbs … as helping fuel the anti-Trump bandwagon in the state, which before 2016 had not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988.”

Quote of the day

“There’s a tsunami coming,” in November, said former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe (D) about the Democrats' chances in the general election. “If [Trump had] early on jumped in front of the coronavirus and been a leader, this guy would’ve been unbeatable. But every opportunity he’s had to stand up and be a leader, whether Charlottesville or anything else, he’s failed each time.” (Philip Rucker, Rachael Bade and Seung Min Kim) 

Social media speed read

The Houston Chronicle's Sunday edition had a stand-alone obituary section: 

Many jumped to Tony Fauci's defense after it was reported that the White House is leading a campaign against him: 

Back in 1998, President George H.W. Bush called Fauci a hero:

Even Cher had something to say: 

Videos of the day

Trump finally wore a face mask in public during a Saturday visit to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center: 

President Trump was seen wearing a face mask during a July 11 visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to visit service members and hospital staff. (Video: The Washington Post)

People returned to Disney World, where things looked different: 

Orlando's Disney World opened to the public on July 11 after its four-month closure during the coronavirus shutdown. (Video: The Washington Post)