At The White House
DARPA BUT MAKE IT HARPA: The White House has been briefed on a proposal to improve earlier identification of people who are suffering from mental illness and at risk of committing violence. Supporters hope the proposal could offer President Trump a way forward on gun control as his endorsement if universal background checks seems to be flagging, or at least unclear.
The proposal is an element of a larger initiative to establish a new agency called the Health Advanced Research Projects Agency or HARPA, which would sit inside the Health and Human Services Department. Its director would be appointed by the president and the agency would have a separate budget, according to three sources with knowledge of conversations around the plan.
- What it is: HARPA would be modeled on DARPA, the highly successful Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that serves as the research arm of the Pentagon and collaborates with other federal agencies, the private sector and academia. The concept was advanced by the Suzanne Wright Foundation, and was first discussed by officials on the Domestic Policy Council and senior White House staffers in June 2017.
- But the idea has gained momentum in the wake of the latest mass shootings that killed 31 people in one weekend in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio.
Phase II: The Suzanne Wright Foundation re-approached the administration last week, and proposed that HARPA include a “Safe Home” — “Stopping Aberrant Fatal Events by Helping Overcome Mental Extremes” — project. The proposal gained renewed interest last week among White House policymakers last week, said a person familiar with the discussions.
The attempt to use volunteer data to identify “neurobehavioral signs” of “someone headed toward a violent explosive act” would be a four-year project and would cost an estimated $40 to $60 million, according to Dr. Geoffrey Ling, the lead scientific adviser on HARPA and a founding director of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office.
- “Everybody would be a volunteer,” Ling said in an interview. “We’re not inventing new science here. We’re analyzing it so we can develop new approaches.”
- “This is going to have to be done using scientific rigor,” Ling added.
- Read more about the proposal here.
The president has said he thinks mentally ill people are primarily responsible for the spate of mass shootings in the United States. And this proposal is likely to be welcomed by Republicans and gun rights activists who have argued the same thing.
Trump has reacted “very positively” to the HARPA proposal, according to a source with knowledge of the discussions and has been “sold on the concept.” But it’s unclear whether he has reviewed the new “Safe Home” component and creating an entire agency would be a huge lift in Congress.
- “Every time this has been brought up inside the White House — even up to the presidential level, it’s been very well-received,” a source familiar with discussions said. “HARPA is the health-care equivalent of DARPA and it’s a great legacy project for the president, one he is uniquely positioned to get done.”
- That source said Trump could benefit in a variety of ways from getting behind a project like HARPA right now: “There is no doubt that addressing this issue helps the president deal with two issues he has yet to find real success on: one is the health-care front and one is on the gun-violence front,” the source added.
- The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
The background: Trump has a close personal relationship with Bob Wright, who founded the Suzanne Wright Foundation after his wife passed away from pancreatic cancer. Wright is the former chair of NBC and was in that job while Trump headlined "The Apprentice."
- Wright sees Ivanka Trump as the most effective champion of the proposal and has previously briefed her on HARPA himself, Wright told us.
- “It would be perfect for her to do it -- we need someone with some horsepower -- someone like her driving it…. It could get done,” said one official familiar with the conversations. “We’d be able to put every resource of federal government, from the highest levels of the scientific community to say: ‘This is how people with these problems should be treated and have limited access to firearms.’”
Open source data: The idea is for the agency to develop a “sensor suite" using advanced artificial intelligence to try and identify changes in mental status that could make an individual more prone to violent behavior. The research would ultimately be opened to the public. HARPA would develop “breakthrough technologies with high specificity and sensitivity for early diagnosis of neuropsychiatric violence,” says a copy of the proposal. “A multi-modality solution, along with real-time data analytics, is needed to achieve such an accurate diagnosis.”
- The document goes on to list a number of widely used technologies it suggests could be employed to help collect data, including Apple Watches; Fitbits; Amazon Echo and Google Home. The document also mentions “powerful tools” collected by health-care provides like fMRIs, tractography and image analysis.
- “Advanced analytical tools based on artificial intelligence and machine learning are rapidly improving and must be applied to the data,” states the document.
- Regarding privacy concerns: Those familiar with the project stressed that it would not collect sensitive health data about individuals without their permission. The government is simply trying to identify risk factors when it comes to mental health that could indicate violent behavior, they said. “Privacy must be safeguarded. Profiling must be avoided. Data protection capabilities will be the cornerstone of this effort.”
Proponents of the plan argue that an agency like HARPA, which applies technology being used in other fields to develop medical breakthroughs, is long overdue.
- “DARPA is a brilliant model that works. They have developed the most transformational capabilities in the world for national security," said Liz Feld, the president of the Suzanne Wright Foundation, saying those techniques had yet to be applied to health care. “We’re not leveraging the tools and technologies available to us to improve and save lives.”
In the Agencies
FLORES, OUT: "The Trump administration is moving to terminate a federal court settlement restricting how long U.S. officials can detain migrant children with their parents and replace it with a rule that could expand family detention and dramatically increase the time children spend in custody," our colleague Maria Sacchetti reports.
- What's happening: "The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services will issue a rule Friday to withdraw from the Flores Settlement Agreement, the federal consent decree that has set basic standards for the detention of migrant children and teenagers by the United States since 1997," Maria writes. The proposal needs to be approved by a federal judge, which declined a request last year.
- What could happen next: "Homeland Security officials said the rule would eliminate a 20-day cap for detaining migrant children and create a new license regime that would make it easier for federal officials to expand family detention nationwide," Maria writes.
- Why it matters: "Exercising greater control over family detention would be a coup for the White House, which has said the Flores agreement is among the most significant 'loopholes' spurring mass migration," Maria writes. Immigration advocates "counter that families are fleeing violence, hunger and poverty in Central America and should be released on bond or under orders of supervision until their cases are heard in the immigration courts."
IT'S BEEN QUITE A WEEK: Let's recap the head-spinning developments. "Tuesday turned out to be a busy day for President Trump. He poked another U.S. ally in the eye, questioned the loyalty of American Jews, backpedaled on gun legislation and undercut the denials of his advisers on the economy," our colleague Dan Balz writes. "It was just another normal day in the Trump administration."
- Wednesday was more of the same: Trump began the day on Twitter, at one point quoting a conspiracy theorist who compared him to "the second coming of God." Later in a 35-minute gaggle with reporters, Trump further alienated fellow U.S. NATO member and ally Denmark by calling the Danish prime minister remarks "nasty" for suggesting it was "absurd" to have a conversation about selling Greenland. Just minutes later, he pronounced himself "the chosen one" vowing that he alone could get a trade deal with China.
- But the day was not done: At an event for veterans in Kentucky, Trump pondered whether he could present himself a congressional medal of honor, despite having never served in the military.
- Finally, Trump, after doubling down on his attacks on whether American Jews who support Democratic candidates are "disloyal," ended the day on Twitter. He claimed that industrialists Henry Ford and Alfred P. Sloan are "rolling over [in their grave]" over Ford and General Motor's handling of a fight between California and the federal government concerning fuel efficiency standards.
The takeaway: "It portrays a president who changes his mind whenever it suits him, whose statements shift with the moment, and who uses words carelessly and sometimes destructively," Dan writes. "It forms a pattern of dissembling, of deliberate or unknowing falsehoods as well as efforts to divide already divided Americans from one another."
On The Hill
THE DEFICIT CONTINUES TO SOAR: "The U.S. federal deficit will expand by about $800 billion more than previously expected over the next decade, as recent increases in spending are on track to push the nation into levels of debt unseen since the end of World War II, the Congressional Budget Office said Wednesday," our colleagues Jeff Stein and
Jonnelle Marte report.
- It is unusual that this is happening during a period of economic growth: "The country is not in a recession, but recent economic data has made clear the economy is growing more slowly as business investment declines, the manufacturing industry struggles and stock and bond markets react to uncertainty over trade policy, which the CBO cited Wednesday as a drag on U.S. growth," Jeff and Jonnelle write.
- But should a recession occur, a response might be limited: "The new deficit estimates could deepen worries that U.S. policymakers face a shortage of tools to bolster the economy should the country fall into recession, some economists say. In addition to potentially less room to spend or pass tax cuts, the Federal Reserve cannot reduce interest rates, which are quite low, as much as it has during previous downturns."
In the Media
- The #YangGang's weekend reading: "The Surprising Surge of Andrew Yang," By Politico's Michael Kruse.
- A deep dive on the most important media outlet you didn't know: "Big Tech, a conservative provocateur and the fight over disinformation," by the New York Times's Nicholas Confessore and Justin Bank.
- Will you watch? "The Host of 'Dancing with the Stars' distanced himself from Sean Spicer's casting," by Buzzfeed News's Michael Blackmun.