February 20, 2020

President Trump confirmed Wednesday night that he is appointing Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, as acting director of national intelligence. Current acting DNI Joseph Maguire, who would have had to step down by March 12 because he lacked Senate confirmation, "was blindsided by the news," The Washington Post reports, as were many people in the intelligence community and on Capitol Hill. Grenell will take responsibility for America's 17 intelligence agencies on Thursday, The New York Times reports.

Trump isn't expected to nominate Grenell for the job, so he can hold the office for only 210 days under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act.

Grenell has no real intelligence experience and has never run a large bureaucracy. His most relevant experience to head the U.S. intelligence community are his two-year ambassadorship and long stint as spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations under President George W. Bush. Before Trump sent him to Berlin, "Grenell was known mainly as an online media critic and conservative Fox News foreign policy analyst," The Associated Press reports. One administration official told AP that "Grenell was named in an acting capacity because Trump wanted him in quickly and there were doubts about whether he could be confirmed in the job."

Director of national intelligence is "a job considered to be among the most nonpartisan in Washington," the Times notes. By picking Grenell, Trump is signaling "he wants a trusted, aggressive leader atop an intelligence community that he has long viewed with suspicion and at times gone to war against," and "the list of people with the requisite experience who have not been critical of the president is slim." Also, Grenell will be the first openly gay member of Trump's Cabinet, its third Fox News contributor, and, along with U.N. Ambassador Kelly Craft, the second Cabinet member who is a "Gold" level member of the Trump Organization's Trump Card loyalty program. Peter Weber

1:55 p.m.

President Trump has a penchant for tagging his political opponents with simple, but biting nicknames. The one he chose for his presumptive Democratic presidential challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, doesn't seem to have landed like those in the past, however, Axios reports.

It's well-known Trump refers to Biden as "sleepy Joe," but so far, at least judging by Google search trends, voters apparently don't associate the moniker with Biden all that much. Trump dubbed his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, as "crooked" Hillary, which prompted far more searches than "sleepy Joe." As analysts noted, there are likely several reasons for this. Regardless, it could be a small, but telling data point that shows Trump's patented insults may not have the same affect in 2020 now that the novelty has worn off.

Of course, it could just be that "sleepy" isn't particularly evocative, which is perhaps why the Trump campaign has recently starting trying out "corrupt Joe Biden." Read more at Axios. Tim O'Donnell

1:18 p.m.

May and June unexpectedly produced strong jobs reports. The unemployment rate, while alarming, is much lower than it was in April after the first surge in coronavirus cases and appeared to skate around economists' most pessimistic projections. But Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody's Analytics, told CBS News' Margaret Brennan on Sunday that things are likely to take a turn for the worse.

Zandi said the return of millions of jobs over the last two months is at least in part the result of states reopening businesses too soon amid the pandemic. Now that infections are climbing in several states that mostly avoided the worst back in March and April, those places are "pulling back" their reopening efforts, which hasn't shown up in the data yet. "That's coming down the road," he said, predicting that June's progress is in the rearview mirror.

The most recent spike in states that play a driving role in the national economy, like Texas, California, and Florida, is "very disconcerting," Zandi said, adding that "the prospects of going back into a recession are pretty high." Tim O'Donnell

12:52 p.m.

Susan Rice, who has previously served as both the United States Ambassador to the United Nations and former President Barack Obama's national security adviser, is "very much in the mix" to be former Vice President Joe Biden's running mate as he tries to unseat President Trump in the 2020 election, a source close to the Biden campaign told The Hill.

Rice doesn't get as much attention as two other candidates for the job, Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), but she does appear to have a leg up on the lawmakers in one area. "I know [Biden and Rice] have a good relationship — perhaps the best relationship of anyone on the list," the same source said. "They've known each other for years, they've worked alongside each other and she's been tested in a way that a lot of folks on the list just haven't been."

Biden has gone on the record saying he wants his potential vice president to be someone who is "simpatico." That is, someone who agrees with him on both "philosophy of government" and "the systemic things you want to change." Rice seems to fit the bill in that case — a former Obama administration official said she "makes perfect sense."

On Sunday Rice continued to play it cool, telling NBC's Andrea Mitchell, "let's not get ahead of ourselves" when asked about the possibility, but she did address some skepticism about her lack of experience running for office by noting that not only did she serve in government for years, she's worked on multiple campaigns. Whether she's Biden's running mate or a "door knocker," though, Rice said she'll do whatever she can to get Biden elected. Tim O'Donnell

12:12 p.m.

President Trump on Saturday sounded optimistic about the United States' ability to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic sooner rather than later. During an Independence Day speech at the White House, the president predicted a vaccine would be available "long before the end of the year," and also downplayed the threat of the virus, describing 99 percent of COVID-19 cases as "harmless." Those words seemed to place Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn in a tough spot.

On Sunday, Hahn was diplomatic when asked by ABC News' Martha Raddatz and CNN's Dana Bash to respond to Trump's comments. He didn't directly refute his boss, but he did say "we don't want to have any" cases or deaths from the virus and urged people to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention so they can protect vulnerable people. "People need to take it seriously," Hahn said.

As for the vaccine, Hahn assured viewers that the FDA is moving at a rapid pace, but because the agency is committed to making sure any potential vaccine or treatment is safe for widespread public use, he can't make any predictions about when one would become available. Tim O'Donnell

11:27 a.m.

President Trump's re-election may depend on flipping blue states like Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, and New Hampshire, people close to or involved with his campaign told Politico.

The campaign has always remained determined to win over those four states, but they were once considered luxury add-ons. But now campaign aides, senior administration officials, and GOP donors are reportedly privately acknowledging that it's just as plausible Trump loses Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania to the presumptive Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, which would put Trump under the 270 electoral vote threshold required to win if everything else played out as it did in 2016. Wisconsin, in particular, is looking quite tenuous for Trump, NBC News reports. "Independents are walking away from Trump," said Charlie Sykes, a former conservative radio talk show host in Wisconsin. "That's a big deal."

One of Trump's advisers told Politico that even if the campaign loses two of the Rust Belt states, picking up New Hampshire and one of New Mexico and Nevada would help clinch a second-straight victory. But at the moment, polls show Biden ahead in all three of those states, as well as Minnesota, long considered another possible Trump pickup.

While Trump's team is coming up with ways to make sure they can get to 270, the Biden campaign says it's "playing offense" and looking to "get in front of a large volume" of voters who supported former President Barack Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016. Read more at Politico and NBC News. Tim O'Donnell

10:43 a.m.

Despite China's assurances that freedom of speech would be protected in Hong Kong under the recently-passed national security law, there are already signs of censorship.

Online records show books written by prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy activists like Joshua Wong or pro-democracy Tanya Chan are no longer available in the city's public libraries. Hong Kong's Leisure and Cultural Services Department said Sunday it will "review whether certain books that violate the stipulations" of the law, which aims to root out secessionist activity, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces following several months of anti-government, pro-democracy protests in the city. It's not clear how many books are under review, and Reuters notes two works by Chinese political dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo were still available.

While China has maintained the legislation will only target a "very small minority" of "troublemakers," critics believe it will lead to widespread censorship and severely limit Hong Kong's autonomy. The removal of books from the library isn't the only example of those fears coming true — the day the law came into effect, a man was arrested for carrying a Hong Kong independence flag and on Friday the government declared the slogan "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times" illegal. Read more at Agence France Presse and Reuters. Tim O'Donnell

8:11 a.m.

Coronavirus cases across the United States continued to rise Saturday. Florida recorded 11,458 new daily infections, just shy of New York state's one-day record of 11,571 positive tests in April. Texas, where hospitals are becoming more and more strained, broke its own record for the sixth straight day with 8,258 cases. Health experts are worried cases will continue to rise after the July 4 weekend, but despite the trajectory, President Trump struck an optimistic tone in an Independence Day speech at the White House on Saturday.

The president once again focused heavily on the preservation of statues and monuments in his speech, echoing one from the previous day at Mount Rushmore. "We will never allow an angry mob to tear down our history, indoctrinate our children, or trample on our freedom," he said, vowing to defeat the "radical left." But when he did turn his attention to the coronavirus, he defended his administration's response, arguing "we've made a lot of progress" and "we've learned how to put out the flame."

He also doubled down on his belief that the spike in cases was tied to an increase in testing even though positivity rates are actually climbing in several states, and claimed that "99 percent" of cases are "totally harmless." While it's true the infection fatality rate may be much lower than has been recorded due to uncounted mild or asymptomatic cases, there have already been nearly 130,000 deaths since the pandemic began in the U.S., and there are indications severe cases can lead to long-term health issues in patients. Tim O'Donnell

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