by Gabe Fleisher
Good morning! It’s Thursday, April 7, 2022. Election Day 2022 is 215 days away. Election Day 2024 is 943 days away.
Here on the Georgetown campus, the Covid-19 mask mandate has been reinstated — after a brief three-week respite — amid an increase in cases among students.
Based off of group texts and Instagram posts, I can tell you that the move was met with frustration by many students. But we’re not the only D.C. institution wrestling with what to do about the virus, as America moves into its third pandemic year...
Do D.C. cases signal a new Covid wave?
A Covid outbreak is raging throughout official Washington right now.
Since Tuesday, here’s a sampling of who’s tested positive:
- Two Biden Cabinet members (Attorney General Merrick Garland and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo)
- Two high-profile Democratic lawmakers (Reps. Adam Schiff of California and Joaquin Castro of Texas)
- A top White House aide (Jamal Simmons, the vice president’s communications director)
A likely superspreader event has already been identified: the glitzy Gridiron Dinner, an annual event where many of D.C.’s elite gathered last Saturday.
Garland, Raimondo, Schiff, Castro and Simmons were all there; according to the event’s organizer, 14 attendees in total have tested positive, including several high-profile journalists.
The virus is creeping closer to President Biden, who has evaded it successfully for 2+ years. A number of people close to Biden have tested positive in recent weeks: his press secretary Jen Psaki, White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff.
Still, Covid protocols for the 79-year-old, twice-boosted Biden have only been loosening. As the Wall Street Journal notes, the president “is spending more time in large groups without a mask, eager to resume the in-person glad-handing he grew accustomed to over more than 40 years in politics.”
He has held large events at the White House every day this week, including one with former President Barack Obama (who also was just out of isolation) on Tuesday. Simmons, Vice President Kamala Harris’ top spokesman, was at the Obama event; Biden was not deemed a close contact of his, but Harris has been and will “consult with her physician” about next steps.
According to the White House, Biden last tested negative for Covid on Monday.
Throughout the pandemic, cases among celebrities and politicians — who have had greater access to testing, or just more publicity — have often anticipated larger waves of the virus. (At the very beginning of the Omicron surge, for example, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, plus tennis star Rafael Nadal, were among the infected.)
Is that what’s happening now? Maybe. Experts have been predicting a Covid uptick in the U.S. for weeks now, based off of the BA.2 waves seen in other countries. But even as the highly infectious BA.2 has become the dominant variant here as well, the national case count has remained mostly stagnant. The New York Times called it a “mystery” on Wednesday.
That said, per Axios, “half of the states are seeing Covid case numbers rise again,” meaning expert predictions of a nationwide surge could still come true. Importantly, Axios reported that “U.S. officials have said they aren’t expecting a big rise in hospitalizations or deaths” even if there is another wave, due to the effectiveness of vaccines and the immunity conferred from the Omicron surge.
Both hospitalizations and deaths are sharply decreasing in the U.S. right now, down 26% and 35%, respectively, over the past two weeks.
As the nation prepares for a possible new swell of cases, Congress appears poised to leave for a recess without heeding President Biden’s calls to pass a Covid aid package.
A measure with $15.6 billion in pandemic funding was stripped out of a broader spending bill last month amid Democratic infighting, and then a bipartisan compromise bill with $10 billion in Covid aid was blocked in the Senate this week.
Republicans called for an amendment reinstating Title 42 — the pandemic-era ban on asylum-seekers that Biden recently lifted — to be voted on as part of the package. Democratic leaders refused to vote on the amendment (which likely would have passed the Senate, and then sunk the package in the House); all 50 Republicans then voted against the package advancing, including its co-author Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT).
With both chambers of Congress leaving town today for two weeks, the package seems destined to fall by the waysides.
Administration officials have warned that the U.S. will run out of funds for Covid tests, vaccines, and therapeutics if an aid package isn’t approved soon.
Each morning, WUTP’s team of contributors rotate to offer a roundup of the latest news in a specific policy area. It’s Thursday, so Anna Salvatore is here with the week’s top legal news:
As part of a broader effort to hold Russia accountable for its invasion of Ukraine, the Justice Department charged a Russian oligarch on Wednesday for evading U.S. sanctions. Government officials accused the oligarch, Konstantin Malofeyev, of violating sanctions by hiring an American to help him purchase media outlets in Europe in order to spread pro-Russian propaganda. The charges came days after officials seized a $90 million super-yacht in Spain owned by another pro-Kremlin oligarch.
Attorney General Merrick Garland also announced Wednesday that the Justice Department is cooperating with foreign prosecutors to investigate potential Russian war crimes. Citing “atrocities that we have all seen in both photographs and video footage this week,” Garland noted that members of the department’s Criminal Division have met with European Union law enforcement agencies to gather evidence. He also revealed that a top department prosecutor in Paris had spoken recently with the French war crimes prosecutor.
In a 5-4 opinion, the Supreme Court reinstated a Trump administration rule that restricted the role of states in enforcing the Clean Water Act. The brief, unsigned ruling gave no explanation for its reasoning, which is “typical when the justices act on an emergency application” in what’s called the “shadow docket,” as the New York Times wrote.
Chief Justice John Roberts joined his more liberal-leaning colleagues in a dissent written by Justice Elena Kagan, in which she criticized the majority for failing to let the appeal proceed through the courts. Law professor Steve Vladeck noted that Roberts has previously joined other “shadow docket” dissents, but “this is the first time he’s joined an opinion criticizing the majority for abusing” the practice.
Plus, one more legal story you should know: “A federal judge on Wednesday found a former Energy Department contract engineer not guilty of trespassing and disorderly conduct in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, saying the defendant plausibly argued that police officers allowed him into the building,” the Washington Post reports.
The verdict marked the first time someone had been acquitted of all charges after being indicted in connection to the Capitol riot.
How your leaders in Washington are spending their time today. (All times Eastern)
Biden’s day: Receiving his daily intelligence briefing (10:15 am).
Harris’ day: Joining Biden for his intel briefing.
Also at the White House: Press secretary Jen Psaki holds her daily press briefing (1 pm).
On the Senate agenda: Voting on Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation. Jackson, who is the first Black woman nominated to the nation’s highest court, is expected to receive support from all 50 Democrats and three Republicans.
- In addition, the chamber is slated to vote on two bills targeting Russia: H.R. 7108, which would suspend normal trade relations with Russia and its ally Belarus, and H.R. 6968, which would ban imports of Russian oil to the U.S.
On the House agenda: Voting on H.R. 3807, which would provide $42 billion in relief for restaurants and $13 billion in aid to other industries hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.
- Plus, the House is expected to vote on the two Russia-related bills once they have gone through the Senate. The lower chamber has already approved them both — the trade relations bill passed 424-8, the oil ban passed 414-17 — but the Senate is passing amended versions, so the House will need to OK the changes before sending both measures to the president’s desk.
Also on the Hill: The House Oversight and Reform Committee will hold a hearing on “book bans and academic censorship” (10 am). Ruby Bridges, who famously integrated her Louisiana school as a six-year-old, will testify, along with teachers and students from across the country.
- The House Administration Committee will hold a hearing on proposals to ban members of Congress from trading stocks (9:10 am).
- The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on the Defense Department budget request (9:30 am). Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will testify.
Before I go...
This might be my favorite story I’ve read all week: Vaughn Smith, 46, is a mild-mannered carpet cleaner in Washington, D.C.
But, unbeknownst to many of his clients, he’s also a “hyperpolyglot”: Smith can speak a remarkable 24 languages, and has some at least passing knowledge of 13 more.
You won’t regret reading this Washington Post piece, which tells Smith’s story and also gets into how the brains of polyglots differ from those of us who struggle in our language classes.
The piece also includes a really impressive journalistic innovation: there are audio clips interspersed throughout, so you can hear Smith read different sentences of the story in a range of languages, from Nahuatl to Romanian to Portuguese. It’s really cool to listen to.
My favorite line from the piece... Smith’s description of how people react when they find out he’s able to talk to them in their native language. It’s like, he says, they’re “hit with a splash of happiness.”
Read the piece here.
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