December 10, 2019

It turns out an Obama-era budgeting issue may have gone a long way toward proving the link between expanded health insurance and fewer deaths, The New York Times reports.

On the surface, it seems obvious that having health insurance would decrease the likelihood of death, but some economists are skeptical since uninsured people aren't completely excluded from health insurance. So an accidental study that took place in the final days of the Obama administration showing that the mortality rates did decline with increased coverage has other experts excited.

In 2016, as part of the Affordable Health Care Act, the Internal Revenue Service sent 3.9 million Americans a letter telling them they had recently paid a fine for not carrying health insurance and suggested ways to enroll. The letter was supposed to go out to all 4.5 million people who didn't enroll, but the budget turned out to be too small, leaving 600,000 people in the dark. That wound up allowing the Treasury Department to conduct a study, which showed that for every 1,648 people who received the letter, one fewer death occurred than among those who hadn't, per the Times.

The economists' research found that the letter led to a 12 percent decline in mortality, which is far from insignificant, although it's still unclear just how large the effects may be. Either way, Sarah Miller, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan who researches the topic, said the study provides "a really high standard of evidence that you can't just dismiss." Read more at The New York Times. Tim O'Donnell

4:48 a.m.

President Trump berated outgoing acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire on Valentine's Day because he was upset over an election security intelligence briefing for the House Intelligence Committee on Feb. 13, several major newspapers reported late Thursday. Trump was reportedly angry that Shelby Pierson, the election threat czar at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, had briefed lawmakers without his knowledge, and also that she had told them Russia is currently interfering in the 2020 election with the goal of helping Trump win re-election.

Specifically, Trump was furious that Pierson had briefed House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), The Washington Post reports. "Trump erroneously believed that Pierson had given the assessment exclusively" to Schiff, and he "also believed that the information would be helpful to Democrats if it were released publicly." It isn't clear where Trump got the impression Schiff was the only person at the bipartisan briefing, but "Trump learned about Pierson's remarks from Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), the committee's ranking Republican and a staunch Trump ally," the Post reports. Nunes was at the briefing.

Trump has "fixated on" Schiff, "pummeling him publicly with insults and unfounded accusations of corruption," since Schiff started leading Trump's impeachment, The New York Times reports. In October, Trump even "refused to invite lawmakers from the congressional intelligence committees to a White House briefing on Syria because he did not want Mr. Schiff there."

Accounts differ on how much the election interference briefing weighed on Trump's decision to replace Maguire with Richard Grenell, a loyalist who is currently U.S. ambassador to Germany — the Post says the incident "ruined Maguire's chances of becoming the permanent intelligence chief," while two administration officials tell the Times the timing was coincidental and Maguire was never a contender — but "Trump's suspicions of the intelligence community have often been fueled by Nunes, who was with the president in California on Wednesday when he announced on Twitter that Grenell would become the acting director," the Post reports.

Some of Maguire's top aides are leaving, too, including acting deputy DNI Andrew Hallman, the Times reports, paving the way for "Grenell to put in place his own management team." Kash Patel, the Nunes aide "who helmed efforts to push back against the FBI's Trump-Russia investigation, has just started working in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence," The Daily Beast reports. Peter Weber

2:25 a.m.

The good news for American farmers is that China will buy almost $4 billion more in U.S. agricultural goods this fiscal year versus 2019, according to projections Thursday from Robert Johansson, chief economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The less-good news is that China pledged to buy about $40 billion in U.S. agricultural exports this year, and Johansson forecast that China will purchase about $14 billion. Those numbers aren't exactly comparable — Johansson's projection was for fiscal 2020, which ends Sept. 30.

These new figures, the first released by the USDA since the U.S. and China de-escalated President Trump's trade war by signing a "Phase One" agreement in January, mean "it's either going to be a boom fourth quarter for U.S. farmers, or that extra $12.5 billion in American agriculture purchases promised by China for this year isn't happening," Bloomberg reports. Also, the $14 billion figure doesn't include seafood and ethanol, both included in the Phase One deal.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue predicted Thursday that China would surpass the $14 billion estimate. Johansson said the X-factors include how long the COVIC-19 coronavirus debilitates China, Brazil's record crop harvest, and how much pork China needs after African swine fever decimated its herds. Outside analysts are skeptical. "There's still a lot of uncertainty out there in terms of 'will the Chinese comply?'" AgResource president Dan Basse told Bloomberg Thursday. If China ends up buying just $4 billion more from U.S. farmers, the U.S. "may have to act in terms of putting additional tariffs back on the Chinese and reinvigorating the trade war."

"Before the Sino-U.S. trade war, China was the largest customer for U.S. ag exports with purchases of around $21 billion a year," notes Successful Farming. After Trump threw up tariffs and China retaliated by cutting back agricultural imports, farmers were hit hard, even with Trump's two huge bailouts. Trump touted the Phase One deal in December, telling farmers to buy "more land" and "bigger tractors" to prepare for a Chinese bonanza. Peter Weber

2:03 a.m.

Finn Lanning was surprised when one of his new students, a "studious and smart and funny" 12-year-old named Damien, came up to him before Thanksgiving in 2018 and said he wouldn't be returning after the holiday break.

Lanning is a math and science teacher at AXL Academy in Aurora, Colorado. Damien told him that he has an autoimmune diseases called focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, which affects his kidneys. He was in foster care, but because of his medical needs, they couldn't find the right placement for him, and he was going to have to move into the hospital. Soon after, his kidneys shut down, and he had to have dialysis treatments for 12 hours every day.

Lanning visited Damien once a week, and was stunned when he learned that Damien needed a kidney transplant, but without stable housing, wasn't eligible to be on the donation list. It didn't matter to Lanning that he had no experience as a parent — he had to be there for Damien. He applied to be his foster father, and last March, was approved. "I'd really thought a lot about this decision," Lanning told People. "I didn't want to be another person in a long line who'd made a commitment to him and then couldn't keep it. I wanted him to trust me and feel comfortable."

Damien was put on the list, and in June, underwent a kidney transplant. Because of complications with his autoimmune disease, he had to go through two months of intense treatments, but has been in remission since September. Damien went back to school in August, and enjoys swimming, playing sports, and cooking with Lanning. "You kind of lose hope after awhile when you're living in the hospital," he told People. "But now I can settle in, go to school, make friends, and live a good life." Seeing the world through Damien's eyes has brought a new joy to Lanning, who "never expected this to be my life, but I'm so happy it is. We're in it together." Watch a video of the pair from 2019 below. Catherine Garcia

12:56 a.m.

President Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One on Thursday night that he is considering nominating Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) as director of national intelligence.

The director of national intelligence oversees the 17 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community. Since the resignation of Dan Coats in August, there has not been a permanent director of national intelligence; Joseph Maguire has served in an acting role since last year, but on Wednesday, Trump announced he will be replaced by U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell.

This is a position that requires Senate confirmation, and Collins is known for being one of Trump's most ardent defenders, a quality that was on display during the House impeachment inquiry. Collins announced earlier this year that he is running for Senate in Georgia against Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), who was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp (R) to fill the seat vacated by former Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, who resigned due to health reasons.

Collins entering the race has caused infighting among Republicans, and if he is picked as director of national intelligence, he'll likely drop his Senate bid. Prior to becoming a congressman, Collins worked as a lawyer and served in the military as a chaplain. Catherine Garcia

12:00 a.m.

At Wednesday night's debate in Las Vegas, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) hammered former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg so hard, he tried to erase his beating with a Four Pinocchio ad that carefully edits one of his better lines into a "moment." Among the hits Bloomberg appeared totally unprepared for in the debate was Warren pressing him to release from their nondisclosure agreements the unknown number of women (and men) with whom he has reached confidential settlements. In a CNN town hall Thursday night, Warren circled back with some pro bono legal work.

"I used to teach contract law, and I thought I would make this easy," Warren told Erin Burnett and her town hall audience. She held up a contract she had written. "All that Mayor Bloomberg has to do is download it — I'll text it — sign it, and then the women, or men, will be free to speak and tell their own stories," Warren said, reading some relevant parts of the contract.

Warren also tweeted out the agreement.

Warren didn't tag Bloomberg in her tweet, though maybe she really did text him the contract. Legal work doesn't come cheap, especially from Harvard professors, but it's unlikely Bloomberg will appreciate the gesture. After all, spending money isn't really something he seems to worry about. Peter Weber

February 20, 2020

President Trump is still smarting over remarks Brad Pitt made nearly two weeks ago when he received an Academy Award for his performance in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Trump held a rally in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on Thursday night, and spent a considerable amount of time complaining about this year's Oscars. "How bad were the Academy Awards?" he asked. He was mad that the widely praised South Korean film Parasite was named Best Picture, thinking the honor should have gone to an American movie like 1939's Gone With the Wind, and he shared his irritation with Pitt.

While accepting the Best Supporting Actor statue, Pitt said: "They told me I only have 45 seconds up here, which is 45 seconds more than the Senate gave John Bolton this week. I'm thinking maybe Quentin [Tarantino] does a movie about it. In the end, the adults do the right thing." He was referring to the Republican-controlled Senate voting against letting Bolton, Trump's former national security adviser, testify during Trump's impeachment trial.

Trump did not appreciate Pitt's comments, which were made as millions of people watched around the world. "I was never a big fan of his," Trump said. "He got up, said a little wise guy thing. He's a little wise guy." Catherine Garcia

February 20, 2020

Former CIA Director John Brennan is very disturbed by a new report from The New York Times, which says last week, members of the House Intelligence Committee were warned by an aide to Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire that Russia is actively meddling in the 2020 campaign in order to get President Trump re-elected.

"We are now in a full-blown national security crisis," Brennan said. "By trying to prevent the flow of intelligence to Congress, Trump is abetting a Russian covert operation to keep him in office for Moscow's interests, not America's." Brennan served as CIA director from 2013 to 2017.

The briefing was delivered by Shelby Pierson, one of Maguire's aides known for her blunt delivery, the Times reports. When Trump found out about the briefing, he was livid, and complained that the committee's chair, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), will "weaponize" the intelligence against him, a person with knowledge of the matter told the Times. On Wednesday, Trump announced Maguire is being replaced by U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, a Trump loyalist. Catherine Garcia

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