March 26, 2020

The White House has a color-coded, 69-page instruction manual for fighting pandemics, and had President Trump's staff used it, Politico reports, the "playbook would have been especially useful in helping to drive the administration's response to coronavirus, given that it was intended to guide urgent decisions and coordinate the all-of-government approach that Trump so far has struggled to muster." It would have advised action in mid-January to procure medical supplies, activate relevant agencies, and craft a unified communication strategy.

The National Security Council document, known as "the pandemic playbook," was compiled in 2016 to provide instructions for an expeditious, full-government response to a pandemic, drawn largely from lessons learned during the 2014-15 Ebola pandemic. The Trump administration was briefed on the playbook in 2017, and Trump's former homeland security adviser Tom Bossert "expressed enthusiasm about its potential as part of the administration's broader strategy to fight pandemics," Politico reports.

John Bolton, Trump's national security adviser at the time, ousted Bossert in 2018 and disbanded the NSC's pandemic response directorate, where the playbook resided. "It is not clear if the administration's failure to follow the NSC playbook was the result of an oversight or a deliberate decision to follow a different course," Politico says. A current NSC official told Politico "we are aware of the document" but called it "quite dated" and said "the plan we are executing now is a better fit, more detailed, and applies the relevant lessons learned from the playbook and the most recent Ebola epidemic."

The dismissal of "longtime disaster expert" Bossert is part of a larger pattern of "empty slots and high turnover" that has "left parts of the federal government unprepared and ill equipped for what may be the largest public health crisis in a century," The New York Times reports. Between firings and voluntary exits, Trump "now finds himself with a government riddled with vacancies, acting department chiefs, and, in some cases, leaders whose professional backgrounds do not easily match up to the task of managing a pandemic."

Among the relevant vacancies, Reuters reports, are dozens of U.S. federal "health experts, scientists, and other professionals" pulled from Beijing "who might have been able to help China mount an earlier response to the novel coronavirus, as well as provide the U.S. government with more information about what was coming." Peter Weber

2:22 p.m.

President Trump addressed the TikTok sale saga again Monday, and his most recent comments seemingly lend credence to speculation that his previous threat to ban the popular social media app was a negotiation tactic to force its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, to fully divest its U.S. operations. To be clear, Trump doubled down on the threat, but this time he affirmed he would be ok with Microsoft buying the app and set a deadline for a potential sale, whereas he previously suggested a ban was imminent.

"I don't mind whether it's Microsoft or someone else, a big company, a secure company, a very American company buys it," Trump said. "It'll close down on Sept. 15 unless Microsoft or somebody else is able to buy it and work out a deal, an appropriate deal, so the Treasury of the United States gets a lot of money."

Microsoft has confirmed it's working on a deal, but still has some negotiating to do. The Trump administration has scrutinized TikTok lately because of concerns that ByteDance is harboring American users' data and could potentially hand it over to the Chinese government down the line amid heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing. Read more at Bloomberg. Tim O'Donnell

1:11 p.m.

Former President Barack Obama unveiled his first round of 2020 endorsements on Monday, and he's got his eyes on Texas, at least at the local level.

Obama is endorsing 27 Democratic candidates in Texas, including 19 for the state House, where Democrats need to win nine seats to grab the majority. The focus seems to make sense for Obama, The New York Times notes, because Texas districts will be redrawn after the 2020 census, and Democrats want to gain a foothold before that happens. The former president has made it a priority to back candidates whom the National Democratic Redistricting Committee has labeled key to the redistricting process.

He decided to stay out of Texas' Senate race between incumbent Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and his Democratic challenger MJ Hegar, however. Obama similarly avoided other key Senate races in Republican states, including Montana, Kentucky, and Georgia, where his public support may not provide a boost, or could even prove harmful.

In races at the national level, Obama endorsed 52 Democratic House candidates and five for the Senate in battleground states, and he's set to announce a second wave of endorsements for states who have yet to hold their primaries. Read more at The New York Times. Tim O'Donnell

1:05 p.m.

In these uncertain times, one constant remains: the Cats pile-on continues.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, who composed the original Cats musical, in a new interview decided to join in on the fun of dunking on Tom Hooper's disastrous 2019 movie version.

"The problem with the film was that Tom Hooper decided that he didn't want anybody involved in it who was involved in the original show," Webber told The Sunday Times, per Deadline. "The whole thing was ridiculous."

The Cats movie has already become an infamous catastrophe after critics ripped it to shreds and it bombed at the box office, although one might argue its "problem" had less to do with the original show's creators not being involved and more to do with its CGI characters looking more horrifying than anything Wes Craven could have dreamed up.

Then again, given what the original show looks like, maybe Webber's statement that the movie version was "ridiculous" is actually his way of praising it for being faithful to the source material. Brendan Morrow

12:02 p.m.

Criticism of the United States' response to the coronavirus pandemic at every level is nothing new at this point, but some of the country's failures have gone beyond the worst case scenario in the eyes of infectious disease experts, Ed Yong reports for The Atlantic.

Nearly every country has had to grapple with the coronavirus. While those efforts have been challenging, many have curbed the virus through decisive action. Experts largely don't count the U.S. in that group, though. "The U.S. fundamentally failed in ways that were worse than I ever could have imagined," Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, told The Atlantic.

Johns Hopkins epidemiologist Caitlin Rivers noted that governments and humanity at large have "moved mountains" to roll back contagious pathogens like the coronavirus throughout history, and she said "it's appalling that we in the U.S. have not summoned that energy around COVID-19."

And that doesn't bode well for the future when even more severe pandemics could occur, Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina told Yong. How will the U.S. fare, she asked, when "we can't even deal with a starter pandemic?" Read more at The Atlantic. Tim O'Donnell

11:56 a.m.

The Rock has evidently got his eye on becoming the most electrifying man in football.

Dwayne Johnson, Dany Garcia, and RedBird Capital are buying the XFL, the football league that was founded by WWE CEO Vince McMahon, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The group is reportedly acquiring the XFL's parent company, Alpha Entertainment, for $15 million, though the deal is subject to bankruptcy court approval. The news had previously been reported by Sportico.

The XFL after lasting just one season in 2001 was revived for a 2020 season that had to end early due to the coronavirus pandemic, and after subsequently filing for bankruptcy, the league was headed to auction. But now Johnson, a former professional wrestler under McMahon, has swooped in at the last minute with this deal that XFL President Tom Pollock described as a "Hollywood ending."

"The acquisition of the XFL with my talented partners, Dany Garcia and Gerry Cardinale, is an investment for me that's rooted deeply in two things — my passion for the game and my desire to always take care of the fans," Johnson, who played football at the University of Miami, said on Monday. "With pride and gratitude for all that I've built with my own two hands, I plan to apply these callouses to the XFL, and look forward to creating something special for the players, fans, and everyone involved for the love of football."

In other words, The Rock says ... deal. Brendan Morrow

11:56 a.m.

Democrats and Republicans are still at loggerheads over a second coronavirus rescue package. The primary sticking point is super-unemployment: Democrats want to extend the original $600-per-week boost, while Republicans want something much smaller.

The GOP is obsessed with the fact that some lower-income workers ended up getting paid more after they were laid off. "We're not going to use taxpayer money to pay people more to stay home," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said recently. Yet overwhelming evidence shows it's the uncontrolled pandemic and a lack of jobs keeping workers at home, not the increased benefits.

In response, Democrats like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi have proposed keeping super-unemployment going based on economic conditions — once the economy has recovered, then people wouldn't need such a generous benefit. This could be a good idea, but it would depend on the condition. Super-unemployment was the main thing keeping the economy from spiraling into a complete collapse. If it is cut off too soon, then America could easily nosedive right back into a recession.

A good candidate would be when the ratio of jobseekers to jobs goes below one — meaning there are more job openings than unemployed people (right now, there are four jobseekers for every opening). For one thing, that is facially fair. One can hardly blame people for going unemployed when there are simply not enough jobs to go around. For another, that situation has only happened once in the last 20 years (between January 2018 and February 2020), because those were the only two years when America got even close to full employment. Keeping our foot all the way to the floor on super-unemployment until the job market is very strong will ensure that America can pole-vault out of the pandemic economic sand pit, and not be stuck with weak growth and few jobs as it was for nearly a decade after the Great Recession. Ryan Cooper

10:22 a.m.

A federal judge says the tragic death of her son "cannot be in vain."

U.S. District Judge Esther Salas spoke on Monday about the "unfathomable pain" her family has been experiencing since her son, a 20-year-old student at Catholic University of America, was shot and killed at their home by a man who was reportedly wearing a FedEx uniform. Salas' husband is recovering after being shot multiple times.

Salas in the video describes speaking with her son while they were cleaning up from his birthday party when he went to answer the door and she "heard the sound of bullets" as he was shot by a "monster" carrying a FedEx package. The primary suspect in the shooting has been identified as Den Hollander, who described himself as an "anti-feminist" lawyer and was "apparently angry at Judge Salas for not moving quickly enough on a lawsuit he had brought challenging the constitutionality of the male-only draft," The New York Times reports.

"We are living every parent's worst nightmare, making preparations to bury our only child, Daniel," Salas says. "My family has experienced a pain that no one should ever have to endure, and I am here asking everyone to help me ensure that no one ever has to experience this kind of pain."

Salas, who says she believes she was targeted by the "madman" because of "my position as a federal judge," says judges are "forced to live in fear for our lives because personal information like our home addresses can easily be obtained by anyone seeking to do us or our families harm," calling for steps to be taken that would "safeguard" their privacy.

"My son's death cannot be in vain," Salas says. "...This is a matter of life and death, and we can't just sit back and wait for another tragedy to strike." Brendan Morrow

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