January 22, 2021

When President Biden and first lady Dr. Jill Biden arrived at the White House on Wednesday afternoon, there was no chief usher to greet them. He had been fired at about 11:30 a.m., half an hour before Biden was sworn in as president, The New York Times reports. Former first lady Melania Trump had hired the chief usher, Timothy Harleth, from the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., in 2017, after the previous chief usher, Angella Reid, was dismissed a few months into Donald Trump's term.

The White House chief usher is in charge of the first family's residence, overseeing everything from personnel issues to budgets. It is typically an apolitical job, and ushers typically stay through several administrations. Reid, hired in 2011, was only the ninth chief usher since 1885, though she was the first woman hired for the job. The Bidens had communicated to the White House counsel that they intended to bring in their own chief usher, a person familiar with the process told the Times. A Biden White House official told CNN that Harleth "was let go before the Bidens arrived," though CNN reports it was the Bidens who gave him the ax.

Harleth was already in hot water with Trump's team, though. He "had found himself in an untenable position" since the election, "trying to begin preparations for a new resident in the White House, even as its occupant refused to concede that he would be leaving the premises," the Times reports. And Trump's chief of staff, Mark Meadows, was "unhappy" with Harleth "for trying to send briefing books about the residence to the Biden transition team in November." Harleth "had worked with Jill Biden's staff for weeks to organize the move of household belongings," The Washington Post adds.

The absence of a chief usher was one manifestation of the chaotic transition period, but it doesn't entirely explain the curious breach in protocol where nobody opened the doors for the BIdens when they arrived at the White House, the Times notes. The doors, which awkwardly stood closed for about 10 long seconds as the Bidens watched, are typically opened by Marine guards.

Once the Bidens passed through the doors into the newly sanitized White House, things got better, the Post reports. "Awaiting Biden in a room adjacent to the Oval Office were two trays stacked with chocolate chip cookies, each one in plastic wrap with a gold presidential seal." Peter Weber

1:17 p.m.

The truth is out there — according to Demi Lovato.

The pop star is set to host a new four-part unscripted series from Peacock called Unidentified With Demi Lovato, which will follow her "quest" to prove that aliens exist, TVLine reports.

"Demi is a true believer, and during this courageous adventure, she hopes to convince her friends, family and her millions of followers that not only are there intelligent beings beyond Earth but that they are already here!" the streamer declared. "Demi plans to learn enough about the extra-terrestrials through interviewing scientists, alien abductees, and her own experiments to initiate those close encounters and make peace with the aliens, and ultimately save ourselves."

The series will revolve around Lovato, her sister Dallas Lovato, and her "skeptical" best friend Matthew Scott Montgomery — the Scully to her Mulder, if you will. They'll "investigate recent eyewitness encounters, uncover secret government reports, and conduct tests at known UFO hot spots." It might sound a bit like very belated April Fools announcement, but the project isn't actually out of left field for Lovato, who previously declared on Instagram she wanted to "force our governments to acknowledge the truth about extraterrestrial life among us," Deadline notes.

We wish Lovato the best of luck on her quest, and if she happens to mysteriously disappear anytime in the next few months, we might just know why. Brendan Morrow

12:51 p.m.

During a Senate Judiciary Committee on "ghost guns" (firearms made at home that lack a serial number) on Tuesday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) tried to change the subject to a debate about police funding.

"If you don't support abolishing the police, why do you keep voting for nominees who advocate abolishing the police?," Cruz asked his Democratic colleagues, referring to Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta and Kristen Clarke, whom President Biden has nominated to run the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (R-Conn.) responded to Cruz's attempted diversion by telling him his words were "a complete distortion of [Gupta's and Clarke's] positions" before adding that "we're not here to talk about those nominees. If you want to stay, we can do it at the end of the hearing, but right now we're gonna move on."

Cruz, it turns out, did not want to stay. He was next seen getting up and walking out of the room, though he did at least politely push in his chair. Tim O'Donnell

12:07 p.m.

No, you haven't accidentally stepped into a time machine and emerged back in 2003: it appears Bennifer really might be a thing again.

After it was revealed Monday that exes Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck recently vacationed together for a week, TMZ reported Tuesday that they "didn't just rekindle their romance within the last two weeks," but "instead, it's been building since February." According to the report, Lopez and Affleck, who broke up in 2004, were in "very regular contact" beginning in early February, when Affleck "started flooding her with emails" while she was filming a movie in the Dominican Republic.

"We're told the tone of the emails wasn't just friendly," TMZ says, "but more loving and longing for Jen."

Affleck in one instance reportedly told Lopez she looked beautiful in photos and that he wished he could be down there with her in the Dominican Republic. They apparently emailed each other back and forth for Lopez's entire film shoot, which went until the end of April. The two were subsequently spotted together in May, setting the internet aflame and sparking rumors of a rekindled romance — though a source told Page Six at the time, "They are friends."

But on Monday, E! News quoted a source as saying Affleck and Lopez have "picked up where they last left off," also saying, "the chemistry is unreal." Lopez and Alex Rodriguez officially announced they were calling off their engagement in April, and Rodriguez, E! also reported, is apparently "shocked that J.Lo has moved on."

So, is Bennifer really back, then? Affleck's buddy Matt Damon, for one, is rooting for these crazy kids.

"I love them both," Damon told Today. "I hope it's true. That would be awesome." Brendan Morrow

11:43 a.m.

As the Israel-Palestine conflict escalates, the lack of a U.S. ambassador to Israel or a consul general in Jerusalem for Palestinians is becoming more glaring, Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Tuesday.

In an earlier tweet, Miller wrote that the Biden administration's decision to remain mostly out of the fray has resulted in Israel and Hamas emerging as the "key decision-makers" at the moment, which is "not an uplifting thought." Walla News' Barak Ravid seemed to agree that the unhurried approach is befuddling amid a "huge crisis," noting that the Biden administration has appointed envoys for Iran, Libya, the Horn of Africa, and Yemen. "This doesn't make any sense," he tweeted.

While the Biden administration clearly wants to play a more restrained role in the Middle East than past administrations, it does seem that moving more quickly on tapping diplomatic officials could be necessary. On Monday, Gilad Erdan, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., tweeted (in Hebrew) his displeasure with the State Department's current messaging, Politico reports, suggesting the need for more direct engagement. Tim O'Donnell

10:50 a.m.

The price was not right.

In their New York City mayoral endorsement interviews, published Monday by The New York Times, Democratic candidates Shaun Donovan and Ray McGuire dramatically underestimated the cost of homes in the city.

When asked the median sales price for a house or apartment in Brooklyn, McGuire, a former Citigroup vice chairman and Wall Street executive responded, "It's got to be somewhere in the $80,000 to $90,000 range, if not higher." The correct answer was $900,000.

When asked the same question, Donovan, who was the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under former President Barack Obama and a housing commissioner under former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, answered, "I would guess it is around $100,000." He later emailed to clarify his response as referring to the "assessed value" of homes in Brooklyn, not their price.

Of the eight candidates interviewed, the only one to answer correctly was former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, although Scott Stringer and Kathryn Garcia came close. Maya Wiley overestimated, responding with $1.8 million.

The Times later officially endorsed Garcia. The New York City mayoral primary will be held on June 22nd. Brigid Kennedy

9:59 a.m.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's official stance is that "less than 10 percent" of COVID-19 transmission has occurred outdoors, but The New York Times' David Leonhardt wrote Tuesday that that's like saying "sharks attack fewer than 20,000 swimmers a year." Sharks actually only attack around 150 people a year, so the 20,000 number is "both true and deceiving," which appears to be the case with the CDC's outdoor transmission assessment.

In reality, multiple epidemiologists told Leonhardt the actual figure is probably less than 1 percent, and may even be below 0.1 percent. The 10 percent benchmark "seems to be a huge exaggeration," said Dr. Muge Cevik, a virologist at the University of St. Andrew's.

The CDC reportedly reached that number based on research that defined any place that was a mix of indoors and outdoors as the latter. For instance, the bulk of cases tied to outdoor transmission in multiple studies occurred at construction sites in Singapore, which the Times reports were not solely outdoor settings, leaving open the possibility that transmission really occurred indoors. But even if all of the Singapore cases did occur outside, they still only made up less than 1 percent of total cases.

Increasing the risk by tenfold or more is an issue, Leonardt argues, not because it's bad math, but because it's "an example of how the agency is struggling to communicate effectively, and leaving many people confused about what's truly risky." Read more at The New York Times. Tim O'Donnell

9:40 a.m.

California gubernatorial candidate Caitlyn Jenner has revealed she sat out the 2020 election and headed to the golf course instead.

Jenner, the former reality TV star and athlete who's running to oust California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) in a recall election, told CNN she "didn't even vote" last year. Jenner is a Republican, and she said that "out here in California," a blue state, voting for a Republican president is "not gonna work."

Asked if she voted down-ticket, though, Jenner said she skipped that as well.

"It was voting day and I thought, the only thing out here in California that I worry about, which affects people, is the propositions that were out there," Jenner said. "And I didn't see any propositions that I really had one side or the other. And so it was Election Day and I just couldn't get excited about it. And I just wound up going to play golf, and I said, 'Eh, I'm not doing that.'"

Politico previously reported that Jenner "did not cast ballots in nearly two-thirds of the elections in which she was eligible to vote since 2000," and although she expressed support for former President Donald Trump as a candidate in 2016, she "never cast a ballot in the 2016 elections."

Asked by CNN's Dana Bash how she can get voters "excited" to get out and vote for her, then, Jenner responded, "Because I'm cute and adorable?" Brendan Morrow

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