A week in Trump and Biden’s split-screen America
It’s been a week of split-screens in American politics.
The nation’s attention is divided between the president and the president-elect; between the coronavirus vaccine and the rising death toll from the pandemic; between congressional attempts to reach compromise and congressional attempts to rebuff Donald Trump.
As the days tick down until the holidays, and a new year, and a new Congress and a new president, here are some of the key political stories from this week.
Trump’s longshot election challenges
“For individuals and organisations that champion the rule of law and claim the mantle of the founding principles of our nation to call for overturning an election reeks of hypocrisy” – conservative commentator Linda Chavez
It was yet another rough week for the president’s efforts to reverse the results of his November defeat in the US presidential election.
First, the “safe harbour” date for states certifying the results arrived on Tuesday with all but one, Wisconsin, meeting the deadline. That will make it much more difficult for Trump’s allies in Congress to contest the results of the election in January.
Tuesday also delivered a one-two legal punch to the president. The Arizona Supreme Court unanimously ruled that there was no evidence of fraud or misconduct in Joe Biden’s victory in that state. And the US Supreme Court batted down a legal challenge to the Democrat’s win in that state with a terse, one-sentence “application denied” order.
That leaves Trump placing all his judicial hopes on a lawsuit filed by the attorney general of Texas that seeks to discard the presidential election results in four states Biden won – Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Georgia. Texas is asking the court to allow the state legislatures – which all happen to be controlled by Republicans – to determine who should get their electoral college votes.
Election law experts largely scoff at the prospects for the suit – “utter garbage,” writes UC-Irvine professor Rick Hasen – but 17 other states with Republican attorneys general, as well as Trump himself, have joined the effort.
Of the 25 states Trump carried in November, 18 are involved in this lawsuit, suggesting that even in defeat the president has the ability to bend the party to his will. This has prompted concern from anti-Trump conservatives like Chavez, quoted above, as well as some Republican politicians, including Texas Senator John Cornyn and Utah Governor Gary Herbert, who said his attorney general’s decision to join the lawsuit was an “unwise use of taxpayer money”.
While there is a miniscule chance that the Supreme Court will step in, let alone set in motion a chain of events that will hand the election to Trump, the reality is that the presidency rests in the hands of the nine justices who sit on the Supreme Court.
In a democracy of 328 million Americans, it comes down to what five people think.
Contrasting Covid messages
I have been through many public health crises before, but this is the toughest one we have ever faced as a nation. The road ahead will not be easy”– Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
When the president wasn’t fulminating about the results of the presidential election this week, he was celebrating the development of multiple vaccines to treat Covid-19.
At a “vaccine summit” event on Tuesday, Trump touted what is, without a doubt, a remarkable medical achievement.
“From the instant the coronavirus invaded our shores, we raced into action to develop a safe and effective vaccine at breakneck speed,” the president said. “In order to achieve this goal, we harnessed the full power of government, the genius of American scientists, and the might of American industry to save millions and millions of lives all over the world.”media captionOne travel nurse’s emotional journey through US Covid hotspots
The good news on immunisations, however, comes as record numbers of Americans are dying from Covid-19 every day – and the outlook for the months ahead, before the vaccinations reach most Americans.
That was the message Biden was delivering to the nation from his transition headquarters in Delaware at the same time as the White House event.
“We’re in a dark winter. Things may well get worse before they get better,” Biden said. “A vaccine may soon be available, but we need to level with each other. It will take longer than we would like to distribute it to all corners of our country. We will need to persuade enough Americans to take it. It’s daunting, but I promise you that we will make progress starting on day one.”
Biden was unveiling his choices for top health positions in his administration, including California Attorney General Xavier Becerra for health secretary, Vivek Murthy as surgeon general and Fauci as this “chief medical adviser on Covid-19”.
The president-elect said once inaugurated on 20 January, he would mandate mask-usage in interstate commerce and on federal property, distribute 100 million doses of vaccine in his first 100 days and prioritise reopening schools.
It’s a tall order, but his administration’s ability to control the pandemic, and efficiently and equitably distribute the vaccine, will be the standard by which his early success as president will be judged.
Covid stimulus negotiation drama
Members of the House and Senate have been engaged in good-faith negotiations and continue to make progress. The bipartisan talks are the best hope for a bipartisan solution” – Democratic Congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer
The public-health aspect of the coronavirus pandemic is just one component of the crisis currently facing US policymakers. The disease, and efforts to control its spread, have placed enormous strain on the US economy, as businesses have been forced to close and workers lose their jobs
While Republicans and Democrats in Congress and Trump administration officials have been negotiating another round of economic stimulus for months to no avail, a bipartisan group of legislators gave new life to attempts at a compromise with their proposal for a $900bn package of aid last week.
In an encouraging development, Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who had been pushing for nearly three times that amount, endorsed the compromise – while saying that she would ask for more when Biden becomes president.media captionHow are Biden voters in a Trump heartland dealing with the election aftermath?
A deal needs to be wrapped up in the next few weeks, before this congressional term ends, and there are still a number of big sticking points.
Democrats want hundreds of millions of dollars for cash-strapped local and state governments that have seen their revenues drop during the pandemic. Republicans want lawsuit protections for business that stay open. Democrats would like to reauthorise hundreds of dollars in supplemental weekly payments to the unemployed. The Trump administration would prefer a one-time payment to all Americans.
It’s a lot to try to wrap up in very little time. But with the latest economic figures showing unemployment rising and businesses struggling, the pressure on Congress to do something – anything – is growing.
Biden Cabinet choices
I think one of the things I’m looking for, when I see all of these picks together is: What is the agenda? What is the overall vision going to be? I think that’s a little hazy – Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Amidst all the turmoil surrounding Trump’s challenge of the election results and the coronavirus pandemic, Biden continues the slow process of unveiling his nominations for top administration jobs.
In addition to his health picks this week, Biden has also announced his selections for secretaries of defence (Lloyd Austin), agriculture (Tom Vilsack), veteran’s affairs (Denis McDonough) and housing (Marcia Fudge).
Biden continues to form a diverse cabinet, but one common thread running through many of these picks is their personal connection to the president-elect – a “team of buddies”, as a New York Times headline put it.
Vilsack was agriculture secretary under Barack Obama and campaigned for Biden during this year’s Iowa Caucuses. McDonough was an Obama chief-of-staff. Austin was a general in Iraq during the Obama administration and friends with Biden’s late son, Beau.
That has raised some unease among the more liberal members of the Democratic party who, like Ocasio-Cortez, want to see Biden – a self-professed moderate – pursue a more assertive progressive agenda.
There are also specific concerns about Biden’s choice of Austin, given that the recently retired Army officer would require a special congressional waiver to run the Pentagon. Trump asked for, and received, one for James Mattis, his first defence pick – over the objection of many Democrats.
“As Democrats, we just spent four years watching these kinds of rules be violated,” Democratic Congressman Tom Malinowski told the New York Times. “It really does feel as if a waiver would turn the exception into a rule.”
Trump’s final veto showdown
Today the House sent a strong, bipartisan message to the American people: Our service members and our national security are more important than politics – House Armed Services Chair Adam Smith
Speaking of national defence, a mini-showdown has been unfolding in Congress this week after Trump threatened to veto the National Defence Authorisation Act – the law funding the US military – if it did not include language removing liability protections for big tech companies.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which insulates social media companies from being held responsible for unlawful content produced by their users, has become a frequent target of criticism for the president, who says it is a government handout to tech companies that censor the speech of conservatives like him.
Although it is in no way connected to military spending, Trump has made the defence appropriations the hill on which he’s going to fight this battle.
It looks like it’s going to be a losing one for him. The general reaction to the president’s threats in Congress has been one of indifference bordering on derision.
On Tuesday, the House of Representatives passed the defence bill by more than the two-thirds margin required to override a presidential veto. The Senate will probably do the same in the coming days.
Then the ball is in the president’s court. If he follows through with a veto – either because of Section 230 or earlier objections to a requirement that the Army rename bases honouring Confederate generals – it seems probable that, in the waning days of his presidency, this will be the first time Congress has successfully reversed such a move.
While Republican politicians seem largely unwilling to challenge the president’s claims that he won re-election, when it comes to military spending they’re more than willing to push back.