WASHINGTON — Less than 24 hours before the New Hampshire primary, the only member of Congress from the state who is endorsing a presidential candidate is Democratic Rep. Ann Kuster.
Kuster, who has represented New Hampshire’s second district since 2013, announced her endorsement of former South Bend Mayor, Pete Buttigieg, on January 15.
“With our country so consumed by division, @PeteButtigieg is the leader who can finally turn the page on the Trump presidency and bring our nation together,” Kuster tweeted that day. “He has the courage to break from the past to lead us to a better future — I’m excited to endorse him to be our next president.”
Buttigieg shortly after thanked Kuster for her backing, writing in a statement that amid a time of dysfunction in Washington, Kuster has united constituents and “spent her career delivering results for New Hampshire families.”
The congresswoman co-chairs the campaign and has hit the trail with Buttigieg.
No other national politicians from the state have yet to formally support a 2020 presidential candidacy for the first-in-the-nation primary. The Granite State’s lack of endorsements also stands in contrast with the number of Iowan endorsements issued ahead of last week’s caucuses.
Three out of four congressional districts in Iowa are represented by Democrats and all of them announced endorsements of 2020 Democrats prior to the February 3 caucus in the state.
Democratic Reps. Abby Finkaneur and Cindy Axne of IA-01 and IA-03 respectively endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden in January. David Loebsack of the Hawkeye State’s second district endorsed Buttigieg the same month.
Ben Kamisar and Jeremia Kimelman
4d ago / 4:17 PM UTC
Sanders, Buttigieg raised more money online in N.H. than rest of Democratic field
WASHINGTON — Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders and former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg sit at the top of the polls in New Hampshire one day before the state’s primary. And new data shows they raised more money online from the state last year than the rest of the Democratic presidential field.
Sanders raised the most New Hampshire online dollars of any candidate in 2019 through the Democratic online-fundraising platform ActBlue. He raised $727,410 from Granite Staters through the platform, which handles virtually all online donations for Democratic candidates, an NBC News analysis shows.
Buttigieg finished 2019 in a clear second place for New Hampshire online donors, significantly behind Sanders but also well above his other competitors. He raised almost $510,370 through the platform.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren raised $344,600 through ActBlue from voters in her neighboring state, followed by former Vice President Joe Biden’s $253,380, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s $190,000 and businessman Andrew Yang’s 147,610.
That order — Sanders at the top, followed by Buttigieg then Warren then Biden then Klobuchar then Yang — mirrors the ActBlue fundraising results from Iowa. It’s also almost exactly how the candidates finished in the state’s caucus last week, according to the state Democratic Party’s results, with Sanders and Buttigieg locked in a virtual tie, followed by Warren, then Biden and Klobuchar.
However, Iowa’s results have been marred by concerns about accuracy and the NBC News Decision Desk has not called a winner or allocating any delegates as a result of the caucuses at this time.
ActBlue is the primary online fundraising tool that candidates use to accept donations. Fundraising totals through ActBlue don’t include offline donations, like checks sent to campaigns directly.
4d ago / 3:15 PM UTC
Klobuchar releases new ad ahead of New Hampshire primary
KEENE, N.H. — Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is making her final pitch to New Hampshire voters the day before the first-in-the-nation primary with the release ofa new closing ad airing on cable, digital and radio.
The ad, “Empathy,” includes excerpts of Klobuchar’s closing debate statement on the stage. The senator’s debate performance has widely been viewed as strong fueling additional interest in her candidacy and sparking significant fundraising totaling about $3 million.
“There is a complete lack of empathy in this guy in the White House right now, and I will bring that to you,” Klobuchar says in the new ad. “If you have trouble stretching your paycheck to pay for that rent, I know you, and I will fight for you. If you have trouble deciding if you’re going to pay for your childcare or your long term care, I know you and I will fight for you. Please, New Hampshire, I would love your vote, and I would love the vote of America.”
It’s a message and sentiment Klobuchar often emulates on the campaign trail, especially in the final days while campaigning in the Granite State.
Recent polling has suggested Klobuchar is in or near third place in New Hampshire, a state where there are still many undecided voters and high independent and undeclared electorate counts.
MANCHESTER, N.H. — Billionaire Tom Steyer will be skipping New Hampshire primary night to campaign in the more diverse early states of Nevada and South Carolina, his campaign confirms to NBC News.
In lieu of spending election day in the Granite State, he will kick off a bus tour in Reno, NV.
“Like he said on the debate stage, Democrats have to build a national, diverse coalition in order to defeat Donald Trump in November,” his spokesman Jake Lewis said in a statement. “So Tom stopped in Nevada the day after the Iowa caucuses and will be traveling to South Carolina today then on to Reno on the 11th for his bus tour across Nevada because these states are critically important to his strategy to build that broad coalition Democrats need to beat Donald Trump.”
His South Carolina trip had been previously announced but the campaign had not made his plans for Tuesday public until today.
Steyer spent the last five days in New Hampshire, but has only held 32 public events across seven trips to the first-in-the-nation primary state.
5d ago / 4:24 PM UTC
Sanders on his medical records: I ‘released as much’ as ‘any other candidate’
MANCHESTER, N.H. — Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who had a heart attack last year, said Sunday that his campaign has released “as much” medical information as other candidates.
Sanders argued on “Meet the Press” that his rigorous campaign schedule stands out among his fellow Democratic presidential hopefuls as proof of his good health, but that once you start releasing medical records, “it never ends.”
“We have released as much documentation, I think, as any other candidate,” Sanders said.
“You can start releasing medical records, it never ends. We have released a substantive part.”
He added that his doctors have confirmed “that I am in good health. I am in good health.”
Sanders had previously told reporters last September that releasing medical records is “the right thing to do.”
“The American people have the right to know whether the person they’re going to be voting for president is healthy, and we will certainly release our medical records before the primaries, certainly before the first votes are cast,” he said at the time.
The Vermont senator released three letters from doctors at the end of last year, which concluded he was “more than fit enough” to be president. The letters included some test results as well as more explanation of Sanders’ heart attack and his recovery.
Amanda Golden and Melissa Holzberg
6d ago / 7:45 PM UTC
Klobuchar campaign announces it’s raised $2 million after debate performance
DURHAM, N.H. — Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar is capitalizing on a strong performance in Friday night’s Democratic debate. According to the campaign on Saturday, Klobuchar has raised $2 million since the debate ended. The campaign said that this is the best fundraising haul for the team after any of the debates.
“With proven grassroots support, Amy continues to outperform expectations and punch above her weight,” Klobuchar’s campaign manager Justin Buoen said in a statement. “Following her debate performance, we’ve raised $2 million and have seen an outpouring of donations from all 50 states which will allow us to compete in New Hampshire and beyond.”
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At an event in Durham, N.H. on Saturday, Klobuchar leaned into her debate performance telling rally-goers that it’s important to her to get to know the voters in each state.
“I had an opportunity last night to address the people of New Hampshire. I think that I was the one that mentioned New Hampshire the most,” Klobuchar said. “Maybe that is because I realize there’s a primary coming up, and I also think it is part of being a good president and being a good elected official. That you represent the people that you see and you get to know the issues and what matters to them. That is what driven me so much in my work in public service.”
MANCHESTER, N.H. — Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign released an aggressive new video against former Pete Buttigieg on Saturday, contrasting his record on major national issues with the smaller-scale accomplishments of the former mayor of South Bend, Ind.
The video follows Biden’s remarks at the Democratic debate on Friday and on the campaign trail where he has said it’s a risk for the Democratic Party to nominate someone who’s only elected experience is mayor of a small city. On Saturday, he noted that South Bend’s population is smaller than Manchester — New Hampshire’s largest city.
The campaign’s new attack video says that while Biden helped pass the Affordable Care Act and the 2009 stimulus bill, Buttigieg “installed decorative lights under bridges giving citizens of South Bend colorfully illuminated rivers,” and “revitalized the sidewalks of downtown South Bend by laying out decorative brick.”
The video also more seriously targets Buttigieg for firing the city’s first African American police chief.
Following the video’s online debut, Biden hit Buttigieg directly at a rallying event in Manchester. He told the crowd that for as much as Buttigieg touts how Democrats tend to pick new, underdog candidates as their nominee, he fails to mention that every nominee has won based on support from the African American community in which Buttigieg lacks support.
Buttigieg campaign spokesperson Chris Meagher responded to the ad, saying, “while Washington politics trivializes what goes on in communities like South Bend, South Bend residents who now have better jobs, rising income, and new life in their city don’t think their lives are a Washington politician’s punchline.“
“The vice president’s decision to run this ad speaks more to where he currently stands in this race than it does about Pete’s perspective as a mayor and veteran,” Meaher said.
Julia Jester and Amanda Golden
6d ago / 10:00 PM UTC
New Hampshire officials anticipate high turnout, clean reporting for election
MANCHESTER, NH — New Hampshire’s chief election’s officer, Secretary of State Bill Gardner, says he is anticipating a record turnout on Tuesday’s primary, predicting there will be 420,000 ballots cast, including 292,000 cast specifically in the Democratic primary.
“This would be the most votes cast in a presidential primary when an incumbent is running for re-election,” a statement from Gardner’s office said.
Not only could this be the highest turnout election that Gardner has seen, it will also be the 100th anniversary of the New Hampshire primary, and state officials are working to ensure that it goes off without a hitch.
Gardner, Gov. Chris Sununu and Attorney General Gordon J. MacDonald were among state officials who tried to assuage concerns that Tuesday’s primary will have any of the chaos that consumed the Iowa caucuses. Sununu pointed to the integrity of the paper ballots during the press conference.
“When our citizens cast their ballot, they know their vote will be counted correctly with integrity, and on time,” Sununu said.
N.H. officials are also putting into place several security mechanisms to assure the public of that integrity: there will be an Election Day hotline staffed with a team of attorneys ready to respond to issues, and every town will be visited by a polling place inspector from the Department of Justice, including midnight voting towns which is a new addition this year.
“This is not a 100 year tradition as much as I think we see it as 100 year responsibility of getting it right,” Sununu said, applauding state officials for ensuring transparency and reliability in the process for years and even decades. “Not just the state, but the nation and even the eyes of the world do look upon New Hampshire and trust New Hampshire to lead the nation to get it right every single time.”
The primary’s results are expected to be known around 9:30 p.m. on election night, according to Gardner. At each location, moderators will read the ballot results out loud, the county’s clerk will write down the results and return envelopes to one of 36 counting locations statewide. At 5 a.m. Wednesday morning, officers will pick up the envelopes and deliver them directly to the Secretary of State’s office by 7 a.m.
Given inconsistencies in the Iowa caucuses surrounding an app that was used, officials assured that optical scanner devices used to count ballots are not connected to the internet, and instead rely on manually secured memory cards, an issue that Gardner says distinguishes New Hampshire from Iowa.
“We don’t have apps that deal with voting or tallying the votes,” Gardner said.
And as to why teams of attorneys may be needed, MacDonald said it is so issues can be resolved “collaboratively.”
“To the extent that any issues do arise on election day — it has been our experience that they can be resolved cooperatively, collaboratively working with local election officials,” MacDonald said.
New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley said he is fully confident that Tuesday’s primary will be done and counted cleanly.
“We’ve had 100 years without an issue,” Buckley said. “We have 100 percent confidence our local election officials along with our state officials will make sure everything runs perfectly.”
7d ago / 6:54 PM UTC
Sanders hits Buttigieg for billionaire support ahead of New Hampshire primary
MANCHESTER, N.H. — Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., went after Pete Buttigieg Friday for the former South Bend mayor’s support from big-money donors at the final New Hampshire Institute of Politics’ “Politics & Eggs” event of the cycle.
Sanders singled out Buttigieg and billionaire candidates Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg in the same breath while speaking to the crowd at Saint Anselm College, reading a series of newspaper headlines like Forbes’ “Pete Buttigieg has most exclusive billionaire donors than any Democrat” and The Hill’s “Pete Buttigieg tops billionaire donor list,” among others.
“I like Pete Buttigieg, nice guy,” Sanders said to awkward laughs in the room. “But we are in a moment where billionaires control not only our economy but our political life.”
Sanders also mused about a general election against President Trump, saying that he has read that “some of his advisors tell him that I will be the toughest candidate for him to run against.”
The senator faced the reality that turnout in Iowa — where he and Buttigieg remain essentially tied amid questions about the accuracy of the vote count — was not what his campaign had hoped for but pointed out some positives.
“The Iowa caucus is behind us and while the voter turnout is not as high as I would have liked, you know what did happen? We saw a 30 percent increase in young people under 29 voting,” Sanders said. “If we’re gonna defeat Trump, we need a huge increase in young people’s participation in the political process.”
He added that his campaign needs to reach out to “some of Trump’s working class supporters and make it clear that they understand the fraud that he is.”
Sanders was asked about criticism that his candidacy is similar to that of Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn, a left-wing candidate who lost badly in last month’s elections there, and whether he was concerned that could foreshadow what happens in the United States in 2020.
Sanders responded that while Trump will be a difficult opponent to run against, he believes that having the largest voter turnout in history will be key for Democrats.
“I think we are the candidate,” Sanders added. “We are a multi-generational, multi-racial campaign that has the capability of reaching out to communities all across this country, bringing them into the political process to defeat Trump.”
The New Hampshire Institute of Politics’ “Politics & Eggs” is sponsored by companies such as Comcast, Bank of America and Eversource Energy — in other words, the entities Sanders consistently attacks.
The room’s walls were plastered with the groups’ signage and many audience members present work for the companies. This was not a typical crowd for a Sanders event. Instead of the usual chants of “Bernie, Bernie!,” Sanders was met with polite applause.
Sanders and Buttigieg will both attend ABC News’ presidential debate tonight.
-Liz Brown-Kaiser contributed.
7d ago / 6:22 PM UTC
Democratic group says congressional fundraising dominance isn’t trickling down-ballot
WASHINGTON — Forward Majority, a Democratic super PAC focused on helping the party win control of state legislatures, is warning that Democrats’ congressional fundraising dominance isn’t trickling down to key state legislative races.
Although congressional Democrats “have been clobbering their Republican opponents,” candidates further down the ballot are struggling.
Data from other groups support these claims.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), which aims to reclaim the chamber majority, brought in $60 million in 2019 and reported record-breaking numbers surpassing the GOP in the fourth quarter of 2019.
On the House side, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) raised $125 million in 2019 — $40 million more than its GOP rival organization. About three quarters of that cash came from moderate Democrats’ campaigns in Trump districts.
That’s not the case in state legislative races even in Arizona, Florida, and Texas, which are in the national spotlight as 2020 congressional and presidential candidates focus on the states.
In Florida, Republicans outpaced Democrats in the fourth quarter by a whopping six-to-one margin in areas Democrats hope to pick up. In 2019, Republicans raised over $3.5 million across Florida House targets while Democrats gained only half a million.
The GOP more than doubled Democrats’ earnings in key State House races in Texas, raking in over $2 million last year.
In Arizona, where both the State House and State Senate are up for grabs, Democrats only raised 38 percent of the GOP’s haul in target races — about $650 thousand compared to $1.7 million in 2019.
Forward Majority says that the discrepancy between Democratic fundraising at the national level versus the state level has led to different election outcomes, pointing to 2018 results as proof.
The PAC launched a $10 million initiative, “Roadmap 2020,” in January to transfer power from Republicans to Democrats in the three competitive sunbelt states plus North Carolina.
2020 pick-ups are particularly important for state Democrats because the congressional redistricting process, a responsibility of state legislatures, begins in 2021 following the release of this year’s census.
Forward Majority’s communications director, Ben Wexler-Waite told NBC News Wednesday that the PAC will spend “where we believe establishing legislative majorities will upend Republicans’ ability to rig the national electoral playing field.”
States like Texas and Florida, Wexler-Waite said, matter for redistricting because they’re gerrymandered and set to gain new congressional seats after the census. The next redistricting process begins in about a decade.
“At this critical moment in history, it’s never been more important for Democrats to fight back,” the spokesman noted.
Pieter Brower, a regional press secretary for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) — the official organization dedicated to electing Democrats to state legislatures — told NBC News Thursday that it’s not surprising that Republicans are ahead in fundraising though his group is making strides for Democrats.
“It’s no secret that Republicans have deep-pocketed donors at their disposal,” Brower said. “Looking at a tough district and deciding that there’s no way we can win becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
“We’re going on complete offense this year,” he added.
7d ago / 3:53 PM UTC
Former presidential candidate Joe Sestak endorses Klobuchar
MANCHESTER, N.H. — Former Pennsylvania Congressman and Democratic presidential candidate, Admiral Joe Sestak, is endorsing Senator Amy Klobuchar for president, her presidential campaign tells NBC News.
“We need a nominee with a depth and breadth of experience to govern effectively, a proven track record of winning in red and blue districts and states so we can unite this country again, and an understanding of the need to rebuild our global leadership so we can convene the world to tackle the defining challenges of our time,” Sestak said in a statement.
“Having seen her on the campaign trail and observed her work in the Senate, it’s why I know Amy Klobuchar is uniquely qualified to be President. I’m proud to endorse her,” he added.
Sestak will campaign for Klobuchar in New Hampshire throughout the weekend ahead of the first-in-the-nation primary, hosting events at veteran’s organizations throughout the state alongside fellow Klobuchar endorsers, former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Jim Smith and retired Brigadier General Kevin Ryan.
Klobuchar often leans into her ability to unite voters of varying political ideologies on the campaign trail.
“I bring the receipts to this primary, and that is that I have been able to win big in the rural of rural areas in the reddest of red congressional districts, never losing once in every congressional district in my state,” Klobuchar said Thursday in Manchester.
“I think if we are going to have the kind of coalition that we need to bring patriotism and decency, back in the White House, we have to bring people with us,” she said.
The endorsement from Sestak comes as Klobuchar holds a steady fifth place in recent polling, on top of earning the endorsements of all three New Hampshire newspapers that have endorsed so far.
THE UK has been accused of making “fanciful demands” of the European Union during post-Brexit trade talks, in a move described by one political expert as “beyond audacious” and a strategy that could completely derail already-fragile negotiations.
“The threatening to take money away from a state that is hurting as bad as we are right now is just scary, and, I think, something that is unacceptable,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, told “CBS This Morning.” Other observers saw shades of Trump’s attempt to withhold military equipment from Ukraine to extort that country into opening a criminal investigation into his leading Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. This action led to Trump’s impeachment.
Michigan sends absentee ballot applications to 7.7 million people ahead of Primaries and the General Election. This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State. I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!
Trump’s actions suggest he is interested in suppressing the November vote. Why? Perhaps because he thinks that the more eligible Americans he can prevent from voting, the better his chances of being re-elected. If you make it easier for more people to vote with absentee and mail-in ballots, Trump said on “Fox & Friends, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
The United States cannot have all Mail In Ballots. It will be the greatest Rigged Election in history. People grab them from mailboxes, print thousands of forgeries and “force” people to sign. Also, forge names. Some absentee OK, when necessary. Trying to use Covid for this Scam!
This could also be the reason that some Republicans have been pressing to restrict voting-by-mail. In Wisconsin, for example, the Republican state legislature blocked the Democratic governor’s efforts to mail ballots to all voters and the Republican majority on the state Supreme Court overruled his effort to move the April primary to June. This backfired, however, when a Democrat won an upset election to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
This isn’t a purely political issue, it’s a question of safety. Voting-by-mail during this pandemic means that citizens will not have to choose between their votes and their lives.
But Trump looks to be up to more than suppressing the vote. He could be attempting to set the stage to challenge the legitimacy of the election if he loses — by claiming widespread voter fraud in the mailed ballots. Let’s keep in mind that even when Trump won in 2016, he challenged the election results, claiming without a shred of evidence that three million to five million votes were illegally counted for his opponent, Hillary Clinton. This is the reason, he insisted, that she won the popular vote.
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Much needs to be done to provide for safe and secure voting. State and local election officials need substantial amounts of federal funds to administer the vastly increased number of mailed-in ballots that will be cast in the November elections in the face of the coronavirus. Money is also required to make the adjustments necessary for safe in-person voting.
The House recently approved these essential funds with the HEROES Act, stimulus relief legislation, which includes $3.6 billion for the November elections. This money is needed to pay for crucial additional expenditures — ballot printing, postage, drop boxes for absentee ballots and appropriate security, secure electronic absentee ballot request technology, ballot tracking, improvements to absentee ballot processing, additional facilities for both ballot processing and storage, additional staffing to support absentee ballot processing, polling facilities that meet public health standards and increased poll worker support.
The act also provides $25 billion for the U.S. Postal Service, which has an essential role to play in effective voting by mail and which has major financial woes. Trump regularly attacks the Postal Service, has installed a political crony as postmaster general and prevented the service, to date, from receiving the federal funding it needs to properly function.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. R-Ky., has been slow walking this next round of stimulus legislation. Throughout this Congress, he has also blocked adequate funding for the states to conduct the November elections. And McConnell has prevented Senate consideration of all legislative efforts in this Congress to protect against foreign interference in our elections.
Negotiations on the next round of stimulus relief are now expected to begin in June, with a deal expected sometime in July. But the longer it takes to get money to the states, the more difficult it will be for them to conduct a safe, secure, and fair election in November.
But even when the election is over, we will still have a broken political system, a corrupt campaign finance system and an endangered democracy.
The current campaign finance system is dominated by influence-seeking billionaires and millionaires, Super PACs, dark money nonprofit groups, bundlers, lobbyists and powerful special interests. The current voting system is rife with barriers that discriminate against minorities, suppress voting and leave tens of millions of eligible voters unregistered.
Partisan gerrymandering often results in officeholders choosing their voters rather than voters choosing their representative, denying the American people fair representation. The ethics abuses and corrupt practices of Trump and his administration are unmatched in U.S. history. Trump’s refusal to give up ownership of his businesses, for example, have created enumerable domestic and foreign conflicts of interest. Ethics problems exist in all three branches of government.
We will face an historic opportunity in 2021 to enact the most transformational reform legislation ever considered by Congress.
Assuming the current polls hold up in November, we will face an historic opportunity in 2021 to enact arguably the most transformational reform legislation ever considered by Congress. It is designed to repair our political system, reform our campaign finance laws and revitalize our democracy.
Unrigging the system in Washington is a prerequisite to achieving the substantive changes that could be pursued in the next Congress and future years. Democratic congressional leaders — and their members who unanimously supported H.R.1 — have correctly recognized that Washington’s rigged system must be ended to pave the way for solving the nation’s problems.
Biden has said, should he win, a first priority for his administration will be to push through the kinds of reforms found in the bill. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. D-Calif., prioritized the critical need for democracy reform by making it the first order of business in this Congress. She has committed to doing the same in the next Congress. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has committed to making the bill one of his first three priorities if Democrats control the Senate in January 2021.
H.R 1 has been carefully crafted to obtain the support it needs to pass Congress and cannot become a Christmas tree on which to hang other substantive or systemic reforms without dangerously jeopardizing its enactment.
In contrast to earlier decades of bipartisan support for democracy reforms, congressional Republicans in the last 10 years have almost universally opposed these reforms. At the state and local level, however, bipartisan democracy reforms have been enacted. Most important, the American people object to Washington’s rigged system that benefits the few at the expense of the many.
McConnell has now spent decades using either obstructionist filibusters by the minority or his scheduling powers in the majority to block Senate consideration of democracy reforms. But a new Senate Democratic majority would no longer allow this.
The Senate filibuster rules may not be eliminated. But after McConnell has used an exception to the filibuster rules to pack the federal judiciary with conservative and right-wing judges, there is bound to be room for a second exception to allow a majority to determine the rules of our democracy.
It looks like we are on the cusp of enacting an historic package of democracy reforms to repair our political system and restore our democracy. The constitutional system of representative government given to us by the Founders is on the line.
WASHINGTON — Several weeks ago, President Donald Trump forced the Food and Drug Administration to reverse a safety ruling and clear the way for one of the nation’s premier defense contractors to sell, service and operate new machines that reprocess N95 face masks for health care workers.
Within two weeks, Battelle, the company that makes the machines, had a contract from the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency to recycle masks for up to 20 uses each at locations across the country. The no-bid deal, ordered up by the White House coronavirus task force, is worth up to $600 million.
But nurses, doctors and scientists who have spoken to NBC News about Battelle’s hydrogen peroxide vapor chambers said the process it uses remains unproven over long-term use and using masks cleaned by it more than a couple of times could leave front-line health care workers vulnerable to contracting the coronavirus.
Time may tell whether Trump’s intervention benefited health care workers and taxpayers as much as it helped him and the company. But it is already clear how Trump has killed oversight, and how he is taking advantage of its death to help himself politically in a re-election year.
He brazenly steamrolled FDA experts. His special task force in charge of medical supplies, which operates outside the authority of any existing agency, deployed emergency powers to award the Battelle contract without competition or any significant consideration of similar technologies. He has ordered task force members not to testify before Congress for the time being. And, last month, as part of a purge of the inspectors general who would be empowered to investigate aspects of the coronavirus response, he got rid of the Pentagon’s top watchdog, who would oversee the deal.
There is effectively no independent oversight of the Battelle deal or others like it.
A president proud of his work and his intentions should welcome the validation of those checks. But Trump has neutralized them at a time when more money is being pumped out of Washington at a faster pace than ever before. Indeed, he just appointed his own legal counsel and senior adviser to oversee stimulus-law spending.
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His detractors are horrified by the situation, but his loyalists see his roughshod run over competing power centers as the proper exercise of power by a just president.
Eric Havian, a whistleblower law expert at the law firm of Constantine Cannon, argues that while “temporary trimming of oversight is surely understandable” during a crisis, whistleblowers offer a “supplement to the government’s oversight.”
Under another president, that might work. But Trump canned the intelligence community inspector general who bucked him by backing a whistleblower during the Ukraine scandal. He has trashed whistleblowers who have come forward publicly. Those actions and others have made clear there will be brutal consequences for anyone in the administration who questions him.
The lack of oversight means voters will have less information by which to judge the president when they go to the polls. Trump surely understands that.
When he stepped in to help the company, he was desperate to show he was taking action after a slow-footed response to the disease’s arrival in the United States. He was on the wrong end of a daily brawl with governors of both parties who pleaded for the federal government to provide supplies to their states amid harrowing shortages. Politically, he needed to first quiet a bipartisan chorus of criticism and then change its tune.
On March 29, the day after the FDA gave the company partial clearance to use its mask-recycling system, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican whose state houses the company’s headquarters, got on the phone to complain to Trump. The language of the waiver prevented Battelle from deploying the machines outside its headquarters and limited the number of masks it could service in a day.
After talking to DeWine, Trump pressured FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn to change the waiver, and it was done within hours. The three men applauded one another publicly. An FDA spokesperson told NBC News this week that the decision was based on “new information” but did not respond when asked if that information was scientific or political.
The FDA waiver was just the start of the story. Within five days, the White House coronavirus task force had agreed to buy 60 machines for $1 million apiece. Five days after that, the task force decided to pay Battelle $413 million to include the cost of operating them, which was required by the FDA waiver.
The task force went ahead with the purchase despite an objection from a Health and Human Services Department expert on federal supply-chain finances, and by May 1 the ceiling on the deal had risen to $600 million, according to the Defense Logistics Agency.
From the perspective of Trump’s politics, it doesn’t matter whether the machines are as effective as Battelle says they are — or if the cost to taxpayers is justified.
He showed quick action after a delayed response to the virus, granted a lucrative deal to a powerful company in the midst of an economic crisis and turned criticism from a prominent Republican governor in a crucial swing state into praise. He also eased his own burden of trying to acquire new masks.
Over the long term, if nurses working with coronavirus patients get sick, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to prove it was the result of masks degraded as part of the recycling program. The FDA spokesperson told NBC News that the company has reported damage to 94 masks so far, representing less than two-hundredths of a percent of the number decontaminated.
It will also take time to find out whether taxpayers got a good deal for Battelle’s work.
But because Trump has effectively gutted oversight of his administration, only voters can hold him accountable if his decisions were bad — or made for the wrong reasons.
Jonathan Allen is a senior political analyst for NBC News, based in Washington.