In the Agencies
EARTH DAY AT A SOCIAL DISTANCE: On this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Americans are hunkered down at home during a public health crisis that may be exacerbated by poor air quality. It's not quite what young climate activists who have galvanized the global climate movement had in mind.
A growing body of scientific evidence has linked higher levels of air pollution to increased death rates from covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. But last week, against the recommendations of Environmental Protection Agency staff scientists, EPA head Andrew Wheeler announced his agency wouldn't tighten national air quality standards for fine particle air pollution, more commonly known as soot.
In an interview Tuesday, Wheeler told Power Up he is unlikely to reverse the EPA's decision to maintain existing air quality standards for fine particle pollution, despite its emerging links to higher death rates from coronavirus.
He claimed studies, such as the one by Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health showing a link between PM 2.5 – dangerous air particles so small they can enter the bloodstream – were lagging the facts on the ground.
- “Quite frankly, it's already too late for our proposal. We had to go up with a proposal last week. And we will take comment, and [advocates] can submit that as comments,” Wheeler said of the EPA proposed rules setting national soot levels for the next five years. “I think it's premature to put too much weight on a study that hasn't been finalized or peer reviewed yet."
- “We cannot go back and clean the air of the past,” Dr. Francesca Dominici, a Harvard biostatistician who led the Harvard study, told Power Up last week. “But in the future, we can target and make sure that in the counties that have high level pollution, we take environmental measures so that the disease doesn't kill as many people.”
Wheeler's original aims for the EPA's Earth Day celebration met the fate of most of our 2020 Spring plans: thwarted by the coronavirus pandemic. The agency had originally sought to clean up beach and water sites around the country. Now, Wheeler is encouraging his employees to celebrate at home by “picking up litter” or “working on recycling approved materials.”
The aforementioned activities conjure a retrograde vision compared to what it means to be an environmentalist in 2020 for some young voters who prioritize climate change as their top issue. Wheeler told us the agency takes “climate change seriously” but praised EPA for returning to its core mission during the Trump presidency of lowering pollution and taking a “pragmatic approach” to climate change.
- “What we’re doing is still fulfilling the mission of the agency,” Wheeler told us. “We're taking climate change seriously. But it's not the only environmental issue that we face as a planet."
Many scientists and activists argue that climate change is the single most urgent environmental challenge faced by the U.S. — and the world. And EPA's take on the day first celebrated in 1970 is perhaps emblematic of the disconnect between Trump's EPA and the broader climate movement.
- “This was not an anti-litter campaign,” Denis Hayes, an organizer of the first Earth Day in 1970, told the New York Times's John Schwartz. “This was talking about fundamental changes in the nature of the American economy.”
- “…one of the problems that motivated the early Earth Day activists remains unsolved, said Hayes, now 75. We haven’t quit the fossil fuels scientists say are warming the atmosphere and harming the Earth. Humans use more resources than the planet produces. Society has not changed course,” our colleague Sarah Kaplan reports.
The contrast between the way young voters and the Trump administration view the issue might prove to be problematic come November for a president who has publicly feuded with and mocked climate activist Greta Thunberg.
- “You know, we're getting real world results with this pragmatic approach to addressing climate change but we're also addressing all the other environmental issues that Americans face day in and day out,” Wheeler told Power Up. “A lot of young people think our air is getting dirtier, and it’s not,” Wheeler added, stating that “all six of our air quality criteria” had decreased.
- Fact check: the level of pollutants in at least one of those six categories — particulate matter — has worsened: “Air pollution worsened in the United States in 2017 and 2018, new data shows, a reversal after years of sustained improvement with significant implications for public health,” our colleague Christopher Ingraham reported last year.
Working from home: In our interview, Wheeler asserted the EPA is aggressively acting to provide clean air and water to Americans — particularly to communities of color disproportionately impacted by climate change.
But the pandemic hasn't stopped the EPA from recently rolling back standards easing industrial regulations and weakening emission limits for the nation's cars and trucks.
EPA's own analyses of these rollbacks project more air pollution than what would have been allowed under the Obama-era rule. But Wheeler argued the recently finalized Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles rule is “not projected to increase air pollution.”
- “It's not as aggressive as the Obama administration's proposal was, but we still require 1.5 percent decrease in [carbon dioxide] emissions year over year,” said Wheeler. “So we are still decreasing air emissions under our CAFE standards, so each year from now will be lower than the previous year. And it's based on real world analysis. So it is not that we're not allowing more pollution — we're not quite as aggressive as the Obama administration.”
According to our colleagues Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis, “the government’s own estimates say more Americans will die as a result of increased air pollution during that same period than if the existing standards remained in place.”
- An analysis of the revised mileage standards by the Environmental Defense Fund projects the changes will cause “an additional 1.5 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions into the air over five years,” per Juliet and Brady.
- According to environmentalists who are currently suing the Trump administration, EPA's own analysis projects the rule could result in increased carbon emissions in some regions of the country. And whatever gains the power sector may make on climate were likely to come with or without regulation as coal struggles to compete with cheaper forms of power, like natural gas and renewable sources.
In response to the coronavirus crisis crippling the American economy, the EPA also announced a relaxation of some environmental rules: EPA notified petrochemical plants, power companies and other major industries “they could determine on their own if they can report their operations’ air and water pollution levels during the virus outbreak.”
Wheeler told us the enforcement memo was “not permanent” but he was asked by the White House to assess the efficacy of any regulatory changes “that we've learned from the coronavirus.” Our colleagues Jeff Stein and Bob Costa reported the White House is expected to repeal or suspend federal regulations affecting industry that could impact environmental policy.
- “One of the things that we are looking at, for example, is more electronic reporting of some of some of the things that have to go to the agency. So it's not, 'we're not looking at regulatory initiatives that will roll back environmental controls.' We're looking at how to make things more efficient,” Wheeler told us.
Cleanup on aisle five: Wheeler also shouted out to the EPA's career scientists who are working overtime during the pandemic to expand disinfectant products approved for use against the coronavirus. The list now includes over 350 surface disinfectant products that are effective against the coronavirus.
- EPA relaxed requirements related to the “Pesticide Registration Notice” to “allow registrants of currently registered pesticide disinfectant products containing any of the active ingredients specified in this notice to use any source of the specified active ingredients without having to first apply for and receive EPA approval of an amendment to their pesticide registration to identify the new source of ingredient.”
- “On March 6, we had 60 products that we said were effective against the coronavirus,” Wheeler told us. “Now we're up to I believe it's over  products have now been cleared for use for the coronavirus.”
- “Typically, before this. It took us two or three months to approve a product. We're now down to just a couple of weeks,” he explained. “And our scientists are working overtime to take a look at the products and see what is effective …. Because we don't want to see people buying a product that is not effective in using it and think that they're safeguarding their families. ”
At The White House
TRUMP TO SUSPEND IMMIGRATION FOR 60 DAYS: “The president provided a rationale for the unprecedented decision that was primarily economic, arguing that he wants Americans to have access to work as millions of people have lost their jobs amid the coronavirus crisis,” Nick Miroff, Maria Sacchetti and Tracy Jan report.
- The executive order is still being written: “Senior officials at the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies could not respond to basic questions about the scope of the order,” our colleagues write. “Other aides said privately that the president had once more announced a sweeping policy that was not yet ready for implementation, and his administration was trying to piece together an executive order for him to sign that would catch up to his whim.”
What we know: The freeze will block green card recipients but continue to allow temporary workers on nonimmigrant visas to enter the country. The president said seasonal farm laborers would not be affected and the suspension “will help to conserve vital medical resources.”
- The virus rationale doesn’t add up: “The outbreak is well-established across the country and has been for more than a month,” our colleagues write. “The United States has more confirmed coronavirus cases, by far, than any other country, with nearly 800,000 as of Tuesday afternoon.”
- Visa services had already been suspended overseas: That means the “very few would-be immigrants are likely to be stopped just before they board planes,” our colleagues write.
The U.S. is deporting infected migrants to struggling countries: “Since the coronavirus struck the United States, immigration authorities have deported dozens of infected migrants, leaving governments and nonprofits across Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean struggling to respond,” Kevin Sieff and Nick Miroff report.
- After countries resisted, U.S. officials said they would screen migrants slated for removal: “But they did not commit to administering coronavirus tests. In many instances, the screenings, which consist primarily of taking a person’s temperature, have failed to detect cases. Even though overall deportations declined this month, the United States has returned thousands of people across the Western Hemisphere in April,” our colleagues write.
On The Hill
SENATE PASSES PPP DEAL: “The Senate passed a $484 billion deal to replenish a small-business loan program that’s been overrun by demand and to devote more money to hospitals and coronavirus testing. [Trump] said he would sign it into law,” Erica Werner and Seung Min Kim report.
- The details: The bill would increase funding for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) by $310 billion. It would also boost a separate small-business emergency grant and loan program by $60 billion, and direct $75 billion to hospitals and $25 billion to a new coronavirus testing program.
- Democrats didn't get everything they wanted: “Democrats fought successfully for money in the bill for hospitals and testing, but they did not get Republicans and Trump administration officials to go along with their demand for $150 billion for cities and states,” our colleagues write. “[Senate Minority Leader Charles E.] Schumer said he hopes to see that addressed in the next package, and Trump has indicated he is open to it.”
On to phase 4?: “Democratic lawmakers say it should be just the beginning,” our colleague write. Schumer (D-N.Y.) wants a bill rivaling the record $2.2 trillion stimulus measure passed last month. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) disagrees at this point. Trump continues to push his goal of a large infrastructure investment and a payroll tax cut along with tax incentives for restaurants and other industries.
- It's “time to push the pause button,” McConnell told our colleagues of any additional spending legislation.
- Key quote: “Waving $2.7 trillion through the Senate and the House on voice votes is not the way the Congress was set up to function,” McConnell said. “And since I believe we’re in the process of beginning to get back to normal, with proper safeguards when we go out, we ought to deal with this the way Congress normally would, with full attendance in the Capitol, doing our work.”
CDC DIRECTOR WARNS OF SECOND WAVE: “There’s a possibility that the assault of the virus on our nation next winter will actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through,” CDC Director Robert Redfield said in an interview with The Washington Post. “And when I’ve said this to others, they kind of put their head back, they don’t understand what I mean.”
- Why things could be worse: “We’re going to have the flu epidemic and the coronavirus epidemic at the same time,” Redfield said. "Having two simultaneous respiratory outbreaks would put unimaginable strain on the health-care system, he said. The first wave of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has already killed more than 42,000 people across the country. It has overwhelmed hospitals and revealed gaping shortages in test kits, ventilators and protective equipment for health-care workers,” Lena H. Sun reports.
Add Redfield to the list of officials pushing back on protesters: “It’s not helpful,” he said of protests to state stay--at-home orders and calls for governors to “liberate” their citizens.
MORE REASONS TO BE WARY OF HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE: “An anti-malarial drug [Trump] has aggressively promoted to treat covid-19 had no benefit and was linked to higher rates of death for Veterans Affairs patients hospitalized with the novel coronavirus, according to a study, raising further questions about the safety and efficacy of a treatment that has seen widespread use in the pandemic,” Christopher Rowland reports.
- More details: “The study by VA and academic researchers analyzed outcomes of 368 male patients nationwide, with 97 receiving hydroxychloroquine, 113 receiving hydroxychloroquine in combination with the antibiotic azithromycin, and 158 not receiving any hydroxychloroquine,” our colleague writes. “Rates of death in the groups treated with the drugs were worse than those who did not receive the drugs, the study found. Rates of patients on ventilators were roughly equal, with no benefit demonstrated by the drugs.”
- The authors touted the importance of more clinical studies: “These findings highlight the importance of awaiting the results of ongoing prospective, randomized, controlled studies before widespread adoption of these drugs,” wrote the authors.
An NIH panel is also recommending against the drug in some cases: “A panel of experts convened by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases recommends against doctors using a combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin for the treatment of covid-19 patients because of potential toxicities,” NPR's Joe Palca reports.
- The combination increases the risk of sudden cardiac death, the panel found: “The recommendation against their combined use would seem to fly in the face of comments made by President Trump suggesting the combination might be helpful. On March 21, for example, the president described them in a tweet as having a ‘real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine,’” NPR reports.
BATTLE OVER DIGITAL BREWING IN BIDEN CAMPAIGN: “Joe Biden’s campaign leadership is clashing over the future of its digital operation — a rift that comes as campaigning has moved largely online and as Biden faces a yawning deficit against [Trump’s] massive digital operation,” Politico's Alex Thompson reports.
The disagreement involves a group backed by Mike Bloomberg: The fight is over whether to beef up its own digital team “or hire Hawkfish which is backed financially by billionaire Mike Bloomberg and ran the digital operation for his presidential campaign,” Politico reports.
- For now, Biden's digital operation pales in comparison to other campaigns: The former vice president's operation has roughly 25 people. Trump's campaign has a 100 person-plus team. “Hillary Clinton’s digital operation was just less than 100 at this point in 2016, according to three Clinton digital staffers,” Politico reports.
- The Biden camp's response: “In a statement, a Biden adviser said the current digital team packs 'a hell of a punch and we're looking forward to expanding for the general election while being smart about not overextending ourselves,'” Politico reports. “The adviser said that new hires are coming but did not specify when.”
VEEP WATCH: Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The day after our colleague Bob Costa questioned Whitmer about whether the Biden campaign had asked her for any potential vetting information (“No, not yet”) the governor was a subject of just the type of story that arises during such searches for a campaign's No. 2.
Her administration abruptly canceled a no-bid contract to help track the virus: "[This came] a day after announcing the hiring of a state Democratic consultant and a national firm that has worked for prominent Democratic causes,” Matt Viser and Josh Dawsey report. “The reversal comes amid complaints that the governor tapped politically connected firms to collect health data on state residents and monitor sensitive medical information.”
- The contract was worth nearly $200,000 over the next eight weeks: “The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services announced that the program would be run by Great Lakes Community Engagement, which is headed by a Michigan-based Democratic consultant,” our colleagues write. “And it would be managed in coordination with EveryAction, a firm that is closely linked to NGP VAN, a technology provider that boasts that it powers ‘nearly every major Democratic campaign in America.'"
In the Media
WHAT ELSE YOU NEED TO KNOW:
The first covid-19 death in the U.S. occurred weeks earlier than previously known: “Two coronavirus-infected people died in Santa Clara County on Feb. 6 and Feb. 17, the medical examiner revealed Tuesday, making them first documented covid-19 fatalities in the United States,” the Los Angeles Times's Matt Hamilton, Paige St. John and Rong-Gong Lin II report. “Until now, the first fatality was believed to have occurred in Kirkland, Wash., on Feb. 29.”
Democratic lawmaker named to coronavirus oversight panel failed to disclose tax returns: “Miami Democratic Rep. Donna Shalala, the lone House Democrat on the committee set up to oversee $500 billion in taxpayer money being used for coronavirus-related payouts to large businesses, violated federal law when she failed to disclose stock sales while serving in Congress,” the Miami Herald's Alex Daugherty reports.
- Shalala's office said she and her financial adviser made a mistake: “Shalala told the Miami Herald on Monday she sold a variety of stocks throughout 2019 to eliminate any potential conflicts of interest after she was elected to Congress in November 2018,” the Herald reports. “But the transactions were not publicly reported as required by the STOCK Act, a 2012 law that prohibits members of Congress and their employees from using private information gleaned from their official positions for personal benefit and requires them to report stock sales and purchases within 45 days.”
Several states have tried to ban abortions amid the pandemic: These efforts come through emergency orders against elective medical procedures and nonessential businesses. Abortion rights supporters said the changes put unfair burdens on women, Dan Keating, Lauren Tierney and Tim Meko report.
Department stores are facing dire futures: “At a time when retailers should be putting in orders for the all-important holiday shopping season, stores are furloughing tens of thousands of corporate and store employees, hoarding cash and desperately planning how to survive this crisis. The specter of mass default is being discussed not just behind closed doors but in analysts’ future models,” the New York Times's Sapna Maheshwari and Vanessa Friedman report of an industry that has been dealt repeated blows over the last decade but has been walloped by crash in sales amid the coronavirus.
Moving up: “Dan Scavino, the White House director of social media who sometimes operates [Trump’s] Twitter feed, has been promoted to deputy chief of staff for communications, officials said,” the New York Time's Maggie Haberman reports. Scavino's new title is just the latest shakeup in the White House's comms. shop since Mark Meadows became chief of staff.