May 9, 2020

The United States government had an opportunity when there was seemingly still time to curb the coronavirus pandemic to strike a deal with a manufacturer that could have produced an additional 1.7 million N95 masks per week, The Washington Post reports. But, ultimately, the money wasn't there.

Michael Bowen, the vice president of Prestige Ameritech who has reportedly been warning about American mask shortages for years, wrote to administrators in the Department of Health and Human Services in January that he was willing to take the "very difficult and very expensive" step of re-activating four dormant machines should the coronavirus situation become dire. If the company did that, they would have been able to produce an additional 1.7 million masks per day, and Bowen wanted the government to get first dibs, even though his phones were reportedly ringing off the hook. The productions lines remain untouched.

Bowen apparently caught the attention of Dr. Rick Bright, who was recently removed as the head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, but no one else was on board (Bright briefly mentioned Bowen's proposal in his whistleblower complaint about HHS last week).

White House economic adviser Peter Navarro said Prestige was "extremely difficult to work and communicate with," but an anonymous official told the Post that the "prescient" Bowen has a "legitimate beef. The "reality," the official said, is that HHS "didn't have the money to do it at the time." Read more at The Washington Post. Tim O'Donnell

8:05 p.m.

The State Department's inspector general has found that during his tenure, Ambassador to Britain Woody Johnson has made inappropriate and insensitive comments about religion, race, and sex.

In a report released Wednesday, the office wrote that "offensive or derogatory comments, based on an individual's race, color, sex, or religion, can create an offensive working environment and could potentially rise to a violation of Equal Employment Opportunity laws."

The office also said it found that Johnson's "demanding and hard-driving" management style hurt morale, and if he thought a staffer was being too cautious or resistant to "suggestions about what he felt strongly, he sometimes questioned their intentions or implied that he might have them replaced. This caused staff to grow wary of providing him with their best judgment."

Johnson, the co-owner of the New York Jets, had no diplomatic experience when he took on the role in August 2017. The inspector general's office said it has asked the State Department's Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs to conduct a further review and to take action, but the agency said it doesn't think this is necessary. Catherine Garcia

7:06 p.m.

Gen. Frank McKenzie, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East, shared a stark warning on Wednesday about the Islamic State in Syria.

McKenzie participated in a virtual United States Institute of Peace forum, and said that in parts of western Syria, "conditions are as bad or worse" than they were prior to the terror group's rise in 2014, and "we should all be concerned about that." This region is controlled by the Syrian government, and insurgents there have a degree of freedom to move around. There is barely a U.S. presence in western Syria, McKenzie said, and the United States does not believe the regime will do anything to try to push back against the militants.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, it's been difficult to transfer people out of Syrian refugee camps. One camp, al-Hol in northeastern Syria, has as many as 70,000 inhabitants, and it can be easy to radicalize people in these conditions, McKenzie said. "As young people grow up, we're going to see them again unless we can turn them in a way to make them productive members of society," he added. "We can either deal with this problem now or deal with it exponentially worse a few years down the road." Catherine Garcia

5:48 p.m.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) appeared for the first time as Joe Biden's vice presidential candidate on Wednesday, speaking at an oddly quiet audience-free event in Wilmington, Delaware.

When the former vice president announced Harris as his running mate on Tuesday, he reflected on her relationship with his late son Beau. Harris herself, who worked with Beau when she was California's attorney general and he was Delaware's, used a few of the first moments of her speech to pay tribute to Biden's son. He was the "kind of guy who inspired people to be a better version of themselves," she said, and "when I asked him where'd he get that ... where did this come from, he would always talk about his dad."

After running through plans to revamp the criminal justice system, promote clean energy, and expand access to health care, Harris moved on to criticize President Trump's response to the coronavirus pandemic. "This virus has impacted every country. But there's a reason it has hit America worse than any other advanced nation. It's because of Trump's failure to take it seriously from the start," she said. "This is what happens when we elect a guy who just isn't up to the job. Our country is in tatters. And so is our reputation around the world."

Instead of jumping to tamp down on early outbreaks of COVID-19, Harris said, Trump "pushed miracle cures he saw on Fox News." Aside from his coronavirus response, Harris criticized Trump's handling of the economy. "He inherited the longest economic expansion in history from Barack Obama and Joe Biden," she said. "And then, like everything else he inherited, he ran it straight into the ground." Summer Meza

5:33 p.m.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), the presumptive Democratic vice presidential nominee, made their first public appearance together as running mates Wednesday, just a day after the Biden campaign announced her selection.

In his introduction, Biden lauded Harris' integrity and credentials, saying he has "no doubt that I picked the right person to join me." But he also found the time to take a shot at President Trump in the process.

It didn't take long for Trump to insult Harris after Tuesday's announcement. When asked about the pick, he called her "the meanest" and "most horrible" senator, taking particular issue with her questioning of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his dramatic confirmation hearing.

But Trump's words left Biden chuckling. The former vice president said "whining" is what the commander-in-chief "does best," and asked, rhetorically, if anyone was "surprised Donald Trump has a problem with a strong woman" like his running mate. Tim O'Donnell

4:37 p.m.

Drop boxes are set to take center stage in the "2020 voting wars."

On Wednesday, Ohio's Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose released a statement spelling out the rules and regulations for drop box usage during general election voting, and some viewed it as a red flag that could suppress voter turnout.

LaRose says legitimate drop boxes will be placed only at county boards of elections, and that "boards of elections are prohibited from installing a drop box at any other location." But Democrats in the state are arguing there's no legal reason for such a restriction, and that limiting the number of drop boxes will make it more challenging for voters to get their ballots in on time during the coronavirus pandemic.

It doesn't help that recent concerns about the slow pace of the United States Postal Service has some worried about delays to mail-in ballots. President Trump has even faced allegations of grinding the service to a halt deliberately.

The move is viewed by some as an attempt to cater to the Trump administration. Tim O'Donnell

3:49 p.m.

A powerful derecho storm that swept through the Midwest on Monday has left thousands of acres of crops completely devastated, and officials say more than half a million people could be without power for quite a while.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) said the storm, which had hurricane-force winds up to 112 mph, destroyed at least one-third of the entire state's crops. More than 10 million acres were completely flattened, leading Reynolds to say she thinks the storm should qualify for federal disaster declaration. The Washington Post reports between 180 and 270 million bushels of corn were likely damaged, shortly before harvesting usually begins in September.

The storm left one man dead in Iowa and one woman in Indiana. Teams are working to restore power, though USA Today reports full recovery could take weeks.

Photos demonstrate just how dramatic and widespread the damage was:

3:18 p.m.

It doesn't sound like Defense Secretary Mark Esper will remain at his post for long after the November election, regardless of whether President Trump is re-elected, Bloomberg reports.

Trump has reportedly said he intends to find someone else to run the Pentagon if he wins in November, people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg. And one source said Esper himself has told people close to him he intends to leave no matter the outcome, so, if the reports are accurate, the two do at least appear to be on the same page. On the other hand, an official close to Esper did tell Bloomberg he is committed to serving in the role as long as Trump wants him to.

But it wouldn't be shocking if that turns out to be later this year — Trump has appeared frustrated with Esper on several occasions because the Pentagon chief doesn't always back him up on key issues. Esper also didn't agree with Trump's idea to send active-duty military to contain nationwide protests in the wake of George Floyd's death earlier this summer, Bloomberg notes. Read more at Bloomberg. Tim O'Donnell

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