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CDC: Double-masking helps reduce exposure to the coronavirus


Wearing a cloth mask over a medical procedure mask significantly helps reduce exposure to the coronavirus, according to a new CDC study.

Researchers determined double-masking or wearing tightly fitted medical masks can reduce exposure to infectious aerosols by 95 percent — demonstrating that the better the masks fit, the better protection they provide.

Medical procedure masks don’t always provide robust protection alone because air can leak around their edges, according to the study, which CDC researchers conducted using dummies fitted with different types of masks.

If a medical procedure mask is worn alone, the CDC says modifications to improve the fit, such as knotting the ear loops and tucking in the sides of the mask, or wearing a cloth mask over it, can reduce exposure. Other options include using a "mask fitter" device or a sleeve made of nylon pantyhose to hold the mask tightly to the face, the agency said.

The background: The study is the latest to show evidence that masks can reduce transmission. The CDC last week released a pair of studies, including one that showed masks had helped slow hospitalizations in states that mandated their use.

The new research also comes as a growing number of experts — including Biden’s chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci — have recommended double-masking to increase protection against Covid-19. The advice has been driven in part by the arrival in the U.S. of coronavirus variants that are more transmissible than earlier versions of the virus.

The Biden administration has urged Americans to wear masks when they are around people who don’t live in their households. The president has used executive orders to mandate masks in federal buildings and on public transportation, and at least a dozen states have imposed their own mask mandates.

What’s next: Biden administration officials are expected to discuss the findings at an 11 a.m. Covid-19 briefing Wednesday.

Read more: politico.com

Biden administration backs DeVos in fight over testifying about loan forgiveness


The Biden administration is backing former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as she tries to avoid having to testify in a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s lengthy delays and sweeping denials of student loan forgiveness claims.

The Justice Department joined with DeVos on Monday to fight a subpoena seeking her deposition as part of a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of some 160,000 former for-profit college students seeking loan forgiveness on the grounds that they were defrauded.

DeVos is no longer the defendant in the lawsuit since she resigned from office Jan. 7 in the wake of the Capitol riots. But lawyers for the student borrowers say they need her testimony to get to the bottom of why her agency for years slow-walked the loan forgiveness claims and then began churning out denial letters with little explanation.

Democrats for four years slammed DeVos’ handling of student loan forgiveness for defrauded borrowers under a program known as “borrower defense to repayment.” President Joe Biden has vowed to reverse DeVos’ approach and restore Obama-era policies that were designed to more easily relieve the debts of students who were misled or cheated by their college.

But the Justice Department under the Biden administration is now coming to DeVos’ defense in the lawsuit, teaming up with her personal attorney this week to fight the subpoena compelling her testimony.

“Plaintiffs’ demand for a former Cabinet official’s deposition is extraordinary, unnecessary, and unsupported,” DeVos’ personal attorney and Justice Department lawyers wrote in a joint court filing on Monday. “It is a transparent attempt at harassment — part of a PR campaign that has been central to Plaintiffs’ litigation strategy from the outset.”

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. DeVos’ personal attorney in the case is Jesse Panuccio, who was the No. 3 official at the Justice Department during the Trump administration and is now a partner at Boies Schiller Flexner. He declined to comment on Tuesday.

The motion to block the subpoena was signed by Panuccio and Brian Boynton, who recently became acting assistant attorney general in the Biden administration. It was filed in federal court in the Southern District of Florida, which is where DeVos is a part-time resident, according to the filing.

A footnote in the filing says that DOJ is representing DeVos “in her capacity as former U.S. Secretary of Education” and “pursuant to DOJ’s representation of the U.S. Department of Education in the underlying litigation.”

The student loan borrowers are represented by Housing and Economic Rights Advocates and Harvard Law School’s Project on Predatory Student Lending, which successfully sued to block a range of DeVos’ higher education policies throughout the Trump administration.

The class-action lawsuit over the Trump administration’s processing of debt relief claims accused DeVos of illegally delaying action on tens of thousands of applications for loan forgiveness that piled up at the Education Department, in some cases for years, without receiving a decision.

Last spring, the borrowers and the Trump administration struck a preliminary deal that would have forced the Education Department to speed up its adjudication of their claims.

But several months later, the federal judge overseeing the case scrapped that settlement, ruling that DeVos had undercut the deal by denying large swaths of the outstanding claims without sufficient explanation. U.S. District Judge William Alsup of the Northern District of California blasted DeVos’ sweeping denials of the borrowers’ claims as “potentially unlawful” and “disturbingly Kafkaesque.”

Alsup, a Clinton appointee, at that time took the unusual step of authorizing the depositions of up to five Education Department officials to allow the class of student borrowers to probe the Trump administration’s decision to deny the claims and its months-long delays in processing them.

Alsup’s order had explicitly prohibited the deposition of Secretary DeVos. But after she resigned, the judge noted in a new one-paragraph order that he had imposed “no such restriction on Citizen DeVos” and said the plaintiffs were free to subpoena her.

Attorneys for the student borrowers late last month followed through with that demand, seeking DeVos’ testimony in a virtual deposition on Feb. 25.

In the joint filing by DeVos’ personal attorney and the DOJ, the lawyers said it was an “extraordinary request” for the student borrowers to seek the deposition of a former Cabinet secretary, who they said are usually shielded from having to testify about official actions.

They argued that the student borrowers have not shown that DeVos’ testimony is essential to their case and that they’ve exhausted alternative sources to obtain the information they want from DeVos.

Attorneys representing the student borrowers on Tuesday asked the federal judge in Florida to transfer the subpoena fight to the California judge overseeing the class-action lawsuit. That judge is set to hold a hearing on discovery disputes later this month.

Read more: politico.com

Dominion says it hired private investigators in a bid to reach pro-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell


Facing a more than $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit from Dominion Voting systems, former Trump lawyer Sidney Powell dodged the company’s legal team for weeks, forcing Dominion to hire private investigators, the company claimed in a Tuesday filing.

Dominion had to pursue Powell “across state lines," which forced the company to have "unnecessary expenses for extraordinary measures to effect service [of process]," it wrote in the filing. Powell also "refused to respond" to requests from Dominion’s legal team that would have allowed Powell more time to respond, the filing said.

On Monday, Powell, a Texas attorney, filed a motion seeking more time to respond to the lawsuit, which accuses her of promoting baseless claims that Dominion helped rig the 2020 presidential election against former President Donald Trump. Dominion opted not to oppose Powell’s move to extend her time to respond until March 22, but said it wanted to note these efforts to reach Powell for “the record.”

Powell did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Powell was a part of Trump’s legal team’s unsuccessful attempt to overturn the election results until late November, when Trump appeared to cut ties with her. Among Powell’s baseless conspiracies were that Dominion was created by late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and was flipping votes to Biden.

“Dominion brings this action to set the record straight, to vindicate the company’s rights under civil law, to recover compensatory and punitive damages, to seek a narrowly tailored injunction, and to stand up for itself and its employees,” Dominion wrote in its lawsuit against Powell.

Dominion said in its suit that the “viral disinformation campaign…irreparably damaged” its reputation, costing it hundreds of millions of dollars. Company employees have received death threats as a result, the lawsuit said.

The Trump lawyer’s campaign was riddled with errors, including misspelling "district" twice near the top of a filing as well as a lawsuit filed in Wisconsin that sought data on voting in Detroit, which is in Michigan. Twitter disabled Powell’s Twitter account just after the Jan. 6 insurrection over her promotion of QAnon conspiracy theories.

Powell joined in on lawsuits contesting the election results alongside Lin Wood, a pro-Trump lawyer whose baseless claims of election fraud led him to call for voters to not vote for Republican candidates for Senate in Georgia’s runoff in January.

Dominion has also sued Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, for defamation, saying Giuliani worked with Powell and Wood to "promote a false preconceived narrative about the 2020 election.” Another Trump ally who has peddled election conspiracy theories, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, is "begging to be sued," Dominion spokesperson Michael Steel said recently on CNN.

Read more: politico.com

Incinerators won renewable energy subsidies despite violations


New Jersey waste incinerators were allowed to collect millions of dollars in renewable energy credits even after racking up air permit violations that critics claim should have denied them the state subsidy.

The state Department of Environmental Protection is investigating the allegations, POLITICO has learned. And environmental justice groups in New Jersey are using the regulatory failure to bolster their case that the program be shut down completely.

They say incinerators, which tend to be located near lower-income communities, contribute to pollution and should not be considered sources of clean power.

“We paid for our own disproportionate deaths,” said Maria Lopez-Nuñez, director of environmental justice and community development for Ironbound Community Corp., a Newark-based social services group. “People are losing their homes, their lives and their livelihoods, and we’re subsidizing a dirty industry.”

Across the country, 23 states — including Oregon, Oklahoma, Massachusetts and Virginia — include energy from incinerators in their renewable portfolio standards, according to data from the Energy Recovery Council. For years, environmental groups coast to coast have asserted that burning garbage undermines governments’ green agendas.

That argument is gaining ground as the environmental justice movement amasses influence across the U.S. and in Washington. A growing body of research has exposed the health and social costs paid by fenceline communities, which have long fought to evict sources of industrial pollution from their neighborhoods, with limited success.

In New Jersey, the issue was raised in a letter obtained by POLITICO through a public records request. In it, lawyers for Ironbound Community Corp. and New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance presented data showing that the state’s five incinerators have violated federal and state laws, including the Clean Air Act, every year since 2004.

An analysis of state data showed incinerators had been cited for more than 800 permit violations between 2004 and 2020, the groups said. Still, the incinerators continued to sell renewable energy certificates worth more than $30 million, an estimate based on data provided by the Board of Public Utilities and PJM, the state’s grid operator.

The incinerator investigation has surfaced as the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection writes rules to implement a landmark environmental justice law passed in August. More than a decade in the making, the law aims to limit new pollution sources in overburdened neighborhoods and impose stricter conditions on permit renewals for existing facilities, like incinerators.

James Regan, a spokesperson for Covanta Holding Corp., which operates three waste-to-energy facilities in the state, said the letter mischaracterized the company’s performance.

“The assertion of hundreds of violations is really a sensationalized account of the actual events," Regan said. “One event may lead to multiple types of violations due to our permit, but it’s not hundreds of events.”

A spokesperson at Wheelabrator Technologies, which operates a single New Jersey site, did not respond to requests for comment.

DEP Acting Commissioner Shawn LaTourette also found fault with the group’s claims.

“Not every violation is created equal. Some violations can be ministerial, some violations can be of low environmental and public health consequence individually,” LaTourette said. A simple count of violations doesn’t determine whether a facility is in compliance, he said.

New Jersey’s renewable credits program has its roots in a 1999 law — most recently updated in 2018 — that requires a share of energy sold in the state to come from renewable sources. By 2025, the state must get 35 percent of its energy from renewable energy sources such as wind and wave. Another 2.5 percent must come from second-tier sources, which the state defines as hydropower and resource recovery facilities such as incinerators.

Between 2004 and 2019, on average, nearly 90 percent of second-tier energy came from incinerators, according to data from PJM.

An in-state incinerator is eligible to sell renewable energy certificates only if it meets “the highest environmental standards and minimizes any impacts to the environment and local communities,” limits that never were explicitly defined under New Jersey’s Electric Discount and Energy Competition Act.

LaTourette said the department is open to exploring a rulemaking process to set criteria for meeting the “highest environmental standards” laid out in the law.

After receiving the April letter, the environmental department and Board of Public Utilities in October entered into an agreement under which the DEP would notify the board if incinerators fell out of compliance with state law. Those facilities would be prohibited from selling renewable energy credits.

Regan said Covanta’s New Jersey facilities exceed emissions standards set by their permits and that the company is “continuing to improve.” Technology improvements have decreased its emissions by as much as 72 percent since 2007.

The Morristown, N.J.-based company says its incinerators are minor sources of emissions and they provide essential public services, including processing trash, reducing landfill waste and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

“We’re disposing of the waste society generates, we’re not just there to generate money and do it on the backs of these communities,” Regan said. “We’re not talking emissions that are egregious in nature or that hurt public health and the environment, and that’s how they’re portrayed in that letter."

Regan declined to disclose what Covanta earned from selling New Jersey renewable energy certificates between 2004 and 2020. Energy generation revenue accounted for about a fifth of its operational revenue from North America facilities, according to federal filings.

New Jersey’s incinerator subsidy pales in comparison to the annual $300 million from state ratepayers that support the PSEG’s three nuclear plants. But the $30 million directed to incinerators since 2004 could have covered more than a year of the state’s annual electric vehicle rebate fund, and the subsidies imply that the incinerators are in good standing with the state.

“The whole idea behind the renewable energy credits is we’re looking to reduce air pollution by having cleaner sources of energy generation,” said Stefanie Brand, director of the state Division of Rate Counsel. It’s “crazy,” she said, for ratepayers to fund subsidies for companies that violate their air permits.

At least one facility has lost its eligibility. In 2014, a Covanta site in Virginia failed to meet environmental standards required to sell New Jersey renewable energy credits. The Board of Public Utilities kicked the incinerator out of the program.

Environmental advocates want more action.

“There’s nothing renewable about burning trash,” said Doug O’Malley, director of policy and advocacy group Environment New Jersey. “It’s part of a decades-long marketing effort for industry to brand themselves as waste-to-energy. We should move beyond a world where we’re dependent upon power from incinerators.”

Read more: politico.com

‘It just symbolizes everything’: Bidens bring presidential PDA back to the White House


On a mission to rebuild institutional norms and help heal a hurting nation, Joe and Jill Biden are trying something novel after four years of the Trumps: a little tenderness.

Since Inauguration Day last month, the first couple have been conspicuous in their frequent public displays of affection, from a fleeting kiss before boarding Marine One to a cozy morning stroll among oversized candy hearts on the White House North Lawn.

The romantic gestures between the Bidens — who are spending Valentine’s Day weekend with family at Camp David — are representative not only of their resilient, 43-year marriage, but also of the new president’s self-proclaimed “tactile” style of interpersonal communication.

And although Joe and Jill Biden’s shows of warmth are just the latest in a long history of presidential PDA, they are even more pronounced in contrast to Donald and Melania Trump — whose sometimes chilly public interactions shattered the steady cultural progression of first couples growing increasingly comfortable expressing affection in front of the cameras.

Spokespeople for the first family did not immediately return a request for comment on how the Bidens handle the public projection of their relationship and what message, if any, they work to deliver with their interactions.

Dr. Lara Brown, director of the Graduate School of Political Management at the George Washington University, described the Trumps as “famously cool,” citing the several times the former first lady appeared to yank her hand away from her husband in public.

The Bidens, by contrast, “want very much to help the country back from what I think the Trump administration continually conveyed,” Brown said, “which was that relationships and all of the presidency is transactional rather than transformational.”

A president’s bearing and rhetoric are “like the background music to the country,” Brown argued — and PDA can be a key part of that soundtrack.

“People aren’t necessarily listening to every word, but they’re listening to the tone. They’re listening to the cadence,” she said. “They’re kind of taking in these behaviors or gestures or relationships. How is the president engaging with the Cabinet? How is the president engaging with the first lady? How is the president managing the symbolic, as well as the substantive?”

Ultimately, though, Brown contended that presidents’ personal conduct can never truly be isolated from their primal political instincts. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“Most politicians have thought about the strategic side of their behavior for so long that it is part of who they are,” she said. “And so at that level, it is authentic to them, even though they know that they are playing into a type.”

Brown pointed specifically to one of the most memorable instances of political PDA of the modern era: Al and Tipper Gore’s intense — and by many accounts cringe-inducing — smooch at the 2000 Democratic National Convention.

Brown doesn’t doubt that the kiss was authentic. But in the aftermath of Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, as Al Gore sought to project that his marriage — which ended a decade later — was stronger than the sitting president’s, “there’s no way that he wouldn’t have known what the impact of him doing that was,” she said.

Donna Brazile, who served as Gore’s campaign manager, also maintained that the moment between the then-vice president and second lady “really was spontaneous.”

The veteran Democratic operative recalled that she was seated onstage beside convention organizer Michael Berman at the time, whom she walloped when the presidential nominee locked lips with his spouse.

“I hit him and I said, ‘What the hell is that?’ I mean, that was so unscripted,” Brazile said, adding of Berman: “I hope I didn’t break his shoulder.”

Reflecting on the political outcome of the Gores’ PDA, Brazile said there was “no question that I think it helped to seal the deal in many ways for people who had often not seen Al Gore in all his complexity as a candidate, as an individual. And I think that was a very good moment for them. It was a good moment for the campaign.”

Brazile has some insight into the Bidens’ relationship, too. She met Joe Biden back in 1987, when the then-Delaware senator traveled to her native Louisiana for his first White House run and offered a young Brazile a job as regional political director for his campaign.

Brazile turned down that proposal to instead become national political director for Dick Gephardt’s presidential bid. But decades later, during the Obama administration, she would frequent the vice president’s mansion at the U.S. Naval Observatory for breakfasts with Joe and Jill Biden.

Their affection for one another was apparent then in those private settings, Brazile said, and it remains publicly evident now, as the new president embarks on what he has characterized as a quest to reclaim America’s soul.

“I think showing the love that he has not just for his wife, but his family will help us heal,” Brazile said. “Because after all, now Joe Biden inherited 321 million family members. And what a great time to show us how to love one another, respect one another and how to help heal this country.”

Jill Biden, too, sought to impart that same message ahead of Valentine’s Day weekend. Her office worked overnight Thursday to plant heart-shaped placards outside the White House that were adorned with words like “unity,” “kindness” and “healing.”

On Friday morning, the Bidens ambled to the North Lawn to admire the surprise display, carrying cups of coffee and accompanied by their two German Shepherd dogs, Champ and Major. “It’s just a little joy. A little hope. That’s all,” the first lady told reporters.

The president added: “I’m crazy about her, man.”

Presidential scholars and relationship experts agree that the first couple’s PDA carries a great deal of unspoken significance for Americans at this particular moment in history — both coming after the Trumps and in the context of a fractured, pandemic-torn nation.

“I think that the Bidens know that the affection they show for each other is serving as a healing agent,” said Dr. Douglas Brinkley, the Rice University professor and presidential historian.

“New presidents and first ladies have to be empathetic,” he explained, and the Bidens’ PDA is just one part of the first couple’s effort to fulfill that institutional imperative.

“When we watch [first couples] together, we don’t want to feel a tension in their marriage,” Brinkley said. “We don’t want to feel that they enjoy being separated from each other. One wants to believe that there’s some harmony and deep respect there.”

Casual displays of affection weren’t always so commonplace for first couples. According to Dr. Barbara Perry, director of Presidential Studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, it was the sexual revolution of the 1960s that redefined standards for how all Americans — including commanders in chief — could interact with their spouses in public.

After Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Gerald and Betty Ford became the first of the first couples to fully embrace the concept of PDA following those societal changes, Perry said.

The Fords made their affection for one another known from day one on Aug. 9, 1974, when they escorted the outgoing Nixons at an elaborate White House farewell ceremony that threw the two relationships into stark relief.

As they strode down a red carpet unfurled on the South Lawn, Gerald and Betty Ford were locked arm-in-arm with first lady Pat Nixon. Meanwhile, Richard Nixon — slightly removed from the group — walked untethered toward the presidential helicopter that would carry him home to California.

The Fords “were natural together” and “just seemed so happy” during their brief two-and-a-half years in the White House, Perry said. Not only were they left less encumbered as a result of ‘60s-era cultural progress; they also benefited from following the Nixons, whom Perry dubbed “the winner of the cold couple award” among modern presidential pairings.

Perhaps more importantly, though, Gerald Ford had never aspired to such ambitious political heights. Ford, a former House minority leader, was unelected to the presidency — elevated first to the vice presidency after the resignation of Spiro Agnew and then to the Oval Office when Nixon stepped down.

“They were never in the national, white-hot spotlight,” Perry said of the Fords. “So they felt comfortable doing what they’d always done.”

Subsequent presidents and first ladies showed their fondness for one another in their own ways — including the love letters from Ronald to Nancy Reagan, whom Perry considers to be the most affectionate of the modern first couples.

Baby Boomers, a generation far less fazed by PDA than their forebears, gained entry to the White House in the form of Bill and Hillary Clinton. But their marriage, rocked in the mid-1990s by the Lewinsky affair, represented a major turning point in the history of presidential PDA, as millions of Americans started scrutinizing the first couple’s movements for signs of insincerity.

Whereas the public had only learned of prior presidents’ marital struggles well after they left office, Perry remarked that the Clintons “are the first couple, and he the first president, that we know in real-time, while he’s president, that he’s strayed from his marriage. And so for them, that’s why it’s so difficult to know what is genuine and what is artifice.”

Since Bill and Hillary Clinton, the presidency has seen a series of first couples — George W. and Laura Bush, Barack and Michelle Obama, and Joe and Jill Biden — who demonstrate that American culture is “past all the taboos” that were formerly associated with PDA, Perry said.

The glaring exception is the previous first couple, Donald and Melania Trump, whose frigid public encounters interrupted what had otherwise been a natural integration of PDA into everyday presidential behavior.

In that sense, the Bidens’ displays of affection appear somewhat foreign after the last four years, even though they represent yet another return to the norms of past administrations that the new president repeatedly pledged to rehabilitate on the campaign trail.

“It’s comforting. It’s warm. It’s genuine,” Perry said. “And so if you layer the Covid issue, our divided country [and] the violence in our country upon the contrast with the Trumps, it just symbolizes everything.”

Drew Joseph, a Washington-based couples therapist who has practiced for nearly three decades, similarly interpreted the Bidens’ doting exchanges as “very welcome signals” in 2021. Whether the Bidens know it or not, their public closeness also “communicates tremendous confidence” in the face of crisis, he said.

But putting the dire state of the union aside, PDA from leaders like Joe Biden is “really important” in its own right, Joseph said, because it demonstrates that attributes of strength and sensitivity aren’t mutually exclusive.

“We all need to feel, ‘This is a person who has the capacity and the will to protect us — and they’re also a human being, and they understand and they’re not afraid of the vulnerabilities and the needs that we all feel.’”

Read more: politico.com

Biden’s economic point man draws praise — and pushback


The success of Joe Biden’s presidency will be defined by his ability to end the Covid-19 pandemic and rescue the American economy. And that’s thrust the man at the center of the initial response — Brian Deese — into the spotlight, drawing plaudits from allies but making him a target for critics who question whether he’s up for the task.

The 42-year-old head of the National Economic Council, Deese has emerged as a major player in the early days of the administration, holding the ear of the president as he shuttles between the White House and Congress.

“This is unquestionably one of the very, very most talented policy minds of his generation,” said Gene Sperling, a former top economic adviser under former President Barack Obama who first hired Deese around 2002, when he was just a few years out of college.

Few doubt Deese’s intelligence, and his close relationship with Biden is a potent source of his authority on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. But while supporters have praised his efforts to win support for a $1.9 trillion relief package, Deese also has drawn criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike, some of whom have bristled at how much power he’s been given and how he’s wielding it.

Senate Republicans have groused privately that Deese, who declined to be interviewed for this story, does not appear interested in compromising on a final coronavirus relief package. One Republican senator said that Deese, who has been meeting with members of both parties in group settings and one-on-one, appeared to brush off concerns on a range of economic issues, including stimulus checks.

“He is doing his job, but he hasn’t been easy to work with so far,” said the senator, who asked for anonymity to discuss the complaints candidly. “Either he’s not been instructed to be bipartisan or he doesn’t have much interest.”

At a recent GOP lunch, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said she did not think that Deese was committed to working with Senate Republicans, but that Biden was, according to a source familiar with the matter. Collins, like other GOP senators, has a long-standing relationship with the president from his time in the Senate.

Deese, despite gaining national prominence as the 31-year-old “wunderkind” leading Obama’s auto bailout, is a stranger to many Republicans on the Hill. Some GOP lawmakers have said they’d like to see other Biden administration officials get involved in the coronavirus relief talks, as well. Several noted that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin worked productively with Democrats to craft Congress’ previous coronavirus relief packages and said they’d be open to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen playing a similar role.

“I think she would be helpful,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “She’s well-respected up here obviously for her past experience. I think she would be a spokesperson that would have some gravitas.”

Yellen, a former Federal Reserve chair who earned her economics Ph.D. in 1971, has been making more media appearances and holding high-level meetings since being confirmed in late January, a White House spokesperson noted. Deese, whose position is not Senate-confirmed, did not have to wait for congressional confirmation to dive into negotiations.

The White House disputes the notion that there is any daylight between Deese and Biden when it comes to working with Republicans. In a statement to POLITICO, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, “The president made a commitment to govern through unity and to find common ground as our nation comes together to heal and build back better from the crises facing us, and his entire team is committed to that vision and working tirelessly to enact it.”

Deese’s admirers say he’s exceedingly bright and capable, a quick study who can easily digest complicated policy minutiae without losing sight of the politics surrounding them. A low-drama policy wonk, his only outward signs of stress, they say, include twirling his pen around his fingers during meetings or pacing around White House hallways and offices while on phone calls — often, at least during the Obama years, shoeless.

But his rapid career rise and his background — he has a law degree from Yale but no formal economics training — has also sparked frustration. Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus and other Black Democrats cited his resume in November to argue that the White House was using different criteria when vetting a white man versus a woman of color, according to two people familiar with the conversations.

The news of Deese’s appointment came out around the same time that Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) was told she would not be Biden’s pick for Agriculture secretary, a nomination for which she and her supporters had openly lobbied.

Some members felt Fudge, who is Black, was unfairly passed over for the position because she is from an urban area and thus viewed as lacking necessary experience for the role, despite being a senior member on the House Agriculture Committee and leading its nutrition panel (USDA plays a major role in nutrition policy). Ultimately, Biden nominated Fudge to be his secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

The people familiar with the CBC’s complaints noted that Deese was tapped to lead the NEC despite not being an economist by training. “And that’s perfectly fine,” one of the people said, “but Marcia Fudge is not held to his standard.”

And though others in Deese’s position have also lacked a formal economics background, there’s been some frustration inside the White House with his early steps to coordinate the economic policy process. As head of the NEC, Deese is the top economic adviser in the West Wing. But he’s also tasked with navigating between his team and those at the Council of Economic Advisers, the Office of Management and Budget and the Treasury Department to pull together varying views for the president to consider.

That delicate dance hasn’t come without challenges.

During the transition, a seemingly innocuous change on a weekly economic briefing raised eyebrows among the economic team, according to multiple people familiar with the incident. As team members were preparing to deliver one of their first briefings, Deese adjusted the document’s header. He put his name atop the document, shifting Cecilia Rouse, Biden’s nominee to run the Council of Economic Advisers, into a “cc” line below his name. Rouse, who would be the first Black person to hold the post, boasts a doctorate in economics from Harvard and previously was dean of the public policy school at Princeton.

Biden officials said it was simply a procedural move, part of the NEC director’s coordinating role. But given that Rouse’s team had compiled the memo, people close to her felt her work was being overshadowed. The moment set the tone for early jockeying among the various economic advisers for access to the president.

A compromise was brokered, but one that is a break from tradition on CEA memos, where the NEC has traditionally had limited involvement, people familiar with how briefing books are usually compiled said. Weekly economic reports to the president now include two cover sheets — the first one has a header with Deese’s name on top, and the subsequent page will have Rouse’s name at the top after she is confirmed.

Others close to Rouse said she and Deese have been productive partners in their work together — reflecting the usual division of labor between their roles. The CEA traditionally is staffed by distinguished economists who provide research and overall guidance on economic matters, while the NEC is typically more directly involved in the political and policymaking process.

Within the administration there has been criticism, too, about the number of women in senior roles at the NEC. Two of Deese’s three current deputy directors, David Kamin and Bharat Ramamurti, are both men, as is Daleep Singh, who will be taking on a dual role as a deputy director of the NEC and deputy national security adviser. Sameera Fazili also holds the deputy director title.

Critics say the lack of gender diversity on the council is a particular problem given the nature of the current crisis: The Biden administration is tasked with pulling the country out of an economic tailspin that has disproportionately impacted women, who have dropped out of the workforce in droves, often to take care of their kids and families amid ongoing school and child care closures.

The White House disputes that there is a lack of gender diversity at the top of the NEC, highlighting a senior team that consists of not just Kamin, Ramamurti and Fazili, but also chief of staff Leandra English. They also point out that five of the nine staffers below the senior level are women. Other economic agencies, including CEA and Treasury, are also led by women.

Still, the criticism centers on the NEC and the idea that women should be evenly represented at the top.

“It’s really hard to expect people who have less power in a powerful group to be the ones that call out when the policy is having adverse effects on groups of people,” said Claudia Sahm, a former CEA and Federal Reserve economist who has been outspoken about the need for more women in economics, as well as greater diversity more broadly. “That’s just — I don’t care how good Brian is, and the deputy directors — that’s not a recipe for success. It’s a very weak defense to say, ‘Hey, but we have them in the group.’ That’s not good enough.”

Given the urgency of the current moment, and the stakes for passing a relief plan quickly, current and former senior White House aides emphasize there is no one better suited to take on the role than Deese.

“Brian knows how to take many, many voices within the White House and the departments and make sure you come with a coherent approach,” said Sylvia M. Burwell, the current president of American University and Deese’s former boss at the Office of Management and Budget. “Any issue, Brian could dig in and get through.”

Read more: politico.com

‘A big promise’: Biden’s climate spending pledge faces early test


President Joe Biden has promised 40 percent of the $2 trillion he’s aiming to spend on climate change will go to disadvantaged communities that have suffered the most from pollution and crumbling infrastructure — but figuring out how to spend that potential mountain of cash may vex the places vying for it and the lawmakers tasked with doling it out.

People at the highest levels of Biden’s administration are huddling to try to meet the 120-day deadline Biden set out in his sprawling executive order on climate change to issue recommendations for spending that money. And figuring out the details while avoiding the blunders that could undermine confidence in the program will be crucial for generating political momentum for his climate agenda — something Biden’s former boss President Barack Obama struggled to do with his 2009 stimulus package.

“That’s a big promise,” said Cecilia Martinez, who heads the environmental justice portfolio at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, one of the offices Biden tasked with crafting the blueprint. “When we talk about 40 percent to the most vulnerable and the communities that need it most, that’s a sign of achievement. And from the get-go that is what we’re all working on.”

With much of the country struggling under the economic slowdown from the pandemic, there is no shortage of targets. Environmental organizers from low-income and communities of color across the country are linking up with mainstream green groups to identify their needs — and the list goes far beyond traditional environmental concerns to include things like personal protective equipment, community health centers and affordable housing.

With such a large amount of money at stake, it immediately raises fears about whether it will reach the intended areas.

“I’m very concerned about how that 40 percent is administered,” said Peggy Shepard, executive director with WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a group that’s in frequent contact with Biden’s team. She pointed to criticisms in California about the 35 percent share of the $5 billion raised from the state’s emissions trading program that’s intended to be directed to hard-up communities. "They don’t always know where it’s gone," she said.

That type of accountability will be critical for a program that’s certain to draw scrutiny from fiscal conservatives and Republicans opposed to big government programs.

Those concerns are front and center for lawmakers like Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), a Biden ally who has been working with outside groups on the issue.

“Making sure that 40 percent ends up on the target and doesn’t get siphoned off to some area that no one could possibly imagine being an [environmental justice] community is going to be the great challenge of this Congress," he told POLITICO.

What Biden’s Jan. 27 executive order lacks in specifics, it makes up for in ambition. Among promises to protect large swaths of land, create a new civilian conservation corps and deliver help to suffering coal-producing regions, its call for 40 percent of spending to go to disadvantaged communities for an array of projects: investments in clean energy and energy efficiency; clean transit; affordable and sustainable housing; training and workforce development; the remediation and reduction of legacy pollution; and the development of clean water infrastructure.

But there’s little clarity on how to identify which communities would qualify for those benefits.

Shepard is working with organizations through the Equitable and Just Climate Platform, which includes big green organizations like the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and League of Conservation Voters, and local and regional groups focused on environmental justice that advocate for communities most heavily affected by pollution and disinvestment. Others outside that coalition, including academics, are also working out what data, social indicators and programs merit consideration.

McEachin said the definition of communities eligible for funds is still being "wordsmithed," and he hoped it would focus on "historically discriminated-against frontline communities who have borne the brunt of pollution," regardless of race.

The executive branch and Congress must provide oversight so funding isn’t abused or wasted, McEachin added. "There are always going to be folks who try to take advantage of the system," he said, "and it’s our jobs to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

CEQ’s Martinez said the definitions for which communities and priorities receive funding are being “sorted out,” with input from people on Capitol Hill along with environmental groups inside and outside Washington, D.C.

At the White House, Martinez, domestic climate chief Gina McCarthy and her deputy, Ali Zaidi, are playing key roles. The Office of Management and Budget is also involved. David Kieve, who led outreach to environmental groups during the campaign, has continued that role as part of the administration.

So far, lawmakers who want to weigh in have received little direction from the administration, though a House Democratic leadership aide said there have been some initial talks with White House officials.

“They’re just getting staffed up,” said the aide, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about conversations with the administration. “These are things that we know are on the list of things to talk about but haven’t grappled with them about in detail yet.”

Tasking Congress to put Biden’s plan into action is already running into hurdles. While the administration is showing signs of flexibility on its proposal for a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package, some Democrats are eyeing budget reconciliation to move it through Congress, since that requires only a simple majority vote in the Senate. But that tool’s rules likely prevent Congress from carving out spending for specific populations, potentially making the plan to help disadvantaged areas specified in the executive order off-limits.

“I don’t think that it’s impossible. I think that it’s going to be difficult,” a Senate Democratic aide who has been involved in the discussions said of the targeted money for disadvantaged communities.

Still, the administration might have some discretion in how its disburses the funds from agencies, the staffer added.

“This is a commitment from the president so there are a lot of levers in terms of how the administration chooses to implement these programs once they’re created,” the person said.

The administration will surely be keeping track. Its climate executive order also called for the Office of Management and Budget to compile and publish a public scorecard regarding its environmental justice spending efforts.

How it will tally those wins is unclear. McEachin, for example, said only green initiatives should count toward Biden’s 40 percent goal, while some local organizers believe funding for essentials like healthcare provision should count in areas that suffer from significant health ailments tied to pollution.

“It doesn’t appear to be that there is a very neat answer,” said Julian NoiseCat, vice president for policy and strategy at progressive think tank Data for Progress. “It’s certainly true that a lot of people are thinking about this.”

Democratic lawmakers have signaled they’re eager to help shape Biden’s plans. Sens. Ed Markey (Mass.) and Tammy Duckworth (Ill.) and Missouri Rep. Cori Bush introduced legislation mandating the 40 percent spend for environmental justice communities. The measure faces long odds in the Senate, despite Data for Progress polling that showed 55 percent of voters — including 51 percent of Republicans — endorse employing an “equity score” on legislation to assess the climate and environmental effects to communities.

Some Hill staffers who spoke with POLITICO suggested the limited flexibility that would be available through budget reconciliation means their safest route for achieving Biden’s target is increasing spending for programs that have traditionally flowed to low-income and communities of color, such as the Energy Department’s weatherization assistance program.

But that won’t cut it, said Harold Mitchell, a former South Carolina state representative who has been working with the Biden administration on their plan.

“Some folks [in disadvantaged areas] didn’t even know certain programs in certain agencies existed. So from that standpoint, how do you fix something that wasn’t utilized?” said Mitchell, who now runs environmental justice organization Regenesis Community Development Corporation.

Mitchell said Biden has done a good job in winning over local organizers who were skeptical of his intentions after he locked up the Democratic nomination last spring, and that engagement from his team has remained constant. Securing that local level buy-in will be key for raising grass-roots pressure, particularly in Republican-led states that might resist the climate spending efforts like they did with Obama’s 2009 federal stimulus, Mitchell said.

Part of that exercise has included hearing directly from communities, the White House’s Martinez said, and many of their needs are not narrowly environmental in nature. Activists say the federal government’s only tool for identifying problem areas, the EPA’s EJSCREEN, is inadequate, since It only weighs concentration for one pollutant across one demographic at a time.

That prompted the Biden administration to form separate interagency groups on environmental justice as well as public health and equity to assess the interconnected web of pollution, health, housing and income conditions affecting certain communities.

It also called for expanding the EJSCREEN tool to account for more data and to measure cumulative ways in which pollution, economics and social indicators like race are linked, building off similar models in states like New York, Washington, Maryland and California.

That endeavor is, in a word, complicated.

“Everybody’s not facing the same problem, issue, around the country. I think that’s the beauty of them at least taking the time to get it right,” Mitchell, of South Carolina, said. “This is serious, under-the-microscope examining the problem to make sure that the antidote that goes in is going to fix the problem.”

Read more: politico.com

‘The Democratic version of John McCain’


Here’s a question on everyone’s mind when a critical vote comes up: Where is Joe Manchin?

The West Virginia senator has become the central character in Democrats’ control of Washington, a conservative throwback who speaks his mind and is maddeningly frustrating to liberals. He sided with his party to give them a critical vote toward approving President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus plan, but is already vowing to cut back Democrats’ dreams of a $15 minimum wage and limit who gets direct checks.

“He’s kind of the Democratic version of John McCain,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). “I say that partially in jest. But partially it’s true: Joe’s a hard guy to figure out how to lead. You know? He dances to his own music.”

Like McCain, the moonshine-swigging former quarterback isn’t afraid to let his colleagues know where he stands on a given day, either in the hallways of the Capitol or on cable news airwaves. Manchin often publicly discusses how he’s struggling with issues or tough votes. In a nod to his state, he lives on a boat while in D.C. named “Almost Heaven.”

Senators say following Manchin’s appearances on cable news or in papers is just as important as following the remarks of Senate leaders to understand where things are going.

“Joe loves to be in the middle of the action. And if you’re unsure about what he’s thinking in that moment, just turn on any TV set and there he is,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, Manchin’s Republican counterpart from West Virginia.

Making known his dissension from Democratic Party orthodoxy is essential to Manchin’s political survival in a state former President Donald Trump won twice, by roughly 40 points. And though he has long sought to be an essential Senate moderate, he has found mostly frustration during his 10 years as a senator, eventually declaring of the hallowed chamber: “This place sucks.”

He chafed at the leadership style of former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), then found things little better under GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), finding both leaders unwilling to accommodate his style of politics. Trump mostly ignored Manchin’s entreaties of cooperation, and Manchin had little in common with President Barack Obama, famously shooting a hole through Obama’s climate plan in a 2010 ad.

These days, Manchin couldn’t be in a better spot. His ally Chuck Schumer is now majority leader and Joe Biden is president after running as a uniter. They need his support on just about everything, and Manchin has spoken to Biden several times in the past week alone.

In a recent conversation recalled by Manchin, Biden explained what he went through trying to convince Republicans to come on board with the Affordable Care Act in 2009, only to be jilted after months of talks.

“Joe, I don’t have time to do that again,” Biden told Manchin.

Manchin replied: “I respect that Mr. President, I really do.”

This time around, Democrats are itching to brush aside what they see as unserious Republican offers to compromise, and use tools like budget reconciliation to pass more expansive, progressive bills with only a simple majority. Manchin is also bolstered politically by a GOP governor pushing for a large aid package.

But there are major limits to what Manchin, who sits in the seat once occupied by arch-institutionalist Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), is willing to do. Budget reconciliation is constrained by a rule named for Byrd, and though Democrats could overrule those restraints, Manchin says he will not. And even if that process allows the minimum wage increase Democrats hope for — no foregone conclusion — Manchin said he will only agree to increasing it to $11 an hour.

“I was more than willing to do [vote for the budget] to help the president the way he believes he has to with the urgency of the pandemic,” Manchin said. “But he knows I’m going to do everything I can to make it bipartisan and I will protect the Byrd Rule at all costs.”

Manchin, along with Tester, are probably the only two Democrats that can win a seat in their states in the current political climate. Manchin mulled retirement or running for his old job as governor, but in 2018 ran for re-election and narrowly prevailed — in part for his support for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Because of that dynamic, Manchin gets a wide berth from Democrats when it comes to his voting record. The United States doesn’t have royalty, but Manchin is pretty close to the lord of the Senate at this moment now that he’s the deciding vote.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) greeted him this month as “your highness,” a moniker that makes Manchin a bit sheepish.

“They just kid around. None of that does anything for me. It’s just a little friendly chit-chat back and forth,” Manchin said. “I didn’t lobby for this position, I didn’t pick it.”

Compared to most Democrats, Manchin is a fiscal conservative, often votes with the GOP on abortion legislation but has tried to cut deals on everything from immigration to gun background checks. He’s found more success lately on coronavirus aid than past endeavors, and is already pushing Biden’s package in a more moderate direction.

The Senate is already taking cues from Manchin, approving his amendment with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) 99-1. Manchin famously endorsed Collins in her 2020 battle for reelection, which burnished both of their bipartisan credentials.

But she says her friend is about to have the weight of the Democratic Party bearing down on him.

“My experience with Joe is he’s a person you can count on. And if he gives you a commitment he keeps it,” Collins said. “ It can’t be easy for him to be in a caucus where the leader is putting enormous pressure on all of its members to toe the party line regardless of the merits.”

As far as his relationship with Schumer goes, Manchin praises the New York Democrat but bristles at the notion he can be whipped in line.

“Schumer has never come to me and said: ‘Joe this is a party-line vote, we’ve gotta have you.’ He understands me well enough. And that’s what I respect. We get along great,” Manchin said.

During the Senate’s recent marathon voting series, it was obvious why Manchin’s vote is so tantalizing to Republicans. He was the deciding vote on several amendments, siding with the 50 GOP senators on protecting federal funds for houses of worship and pushing back against an Obama-era water regulation.

And perhaps the most important major issue where Manchin will side with the GOP is on the minimum wage. He simply seems immovable on his opposition to a $15 national hourly rate.

“I would amend it to $11. You know that. Because I think that’s basically a base that we should have in America right now,” Manchin said, explaining that he would raise the wage up from $7.25 over two years. “It gets people who work 40 hours at least over the poverty guidelines. The states that have $15, already have it. That’s great.”

Tester and centrist Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) will also be central decision-makers to Democrats’ priorities on immigration, health care and spending issues. But even among that group, Manchin stands out.

“Who’s the most likely maybe to vote with Republicans? I would say Joe,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).

Put it all together, and it’s almost hard to imagine a legislator having that much sway over the priorities of a party that controls the Senate, House and White House. Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said simply: “He is the man.”

Manchin was with his party over the past week when it mattered though: He voted against GOP efforts to withhold funding to schools with vaccinated teachers that aren’t reopening, spurned a Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) effort to make it harder to expand the Supreme Court and sided against Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) effort to crack down on Biden’s “catch-and-release” immigration policies. And then he voted to approve the budget and move forward Biden’s agenda, for now at least.

Votes like those show that despite his reputation, Manchin will side with Democrats more often than not. And that’s likely to be the difference-maker that Biden needs to get his agenda through over the next two years.

After a decade of exasperation, Manchin finally has the chance to shape legislation in his own aisle-crossing image. But it hasn’t changed Manchin’s opinion of the Senate: It still sucks.

“That hasn’t changed,” he said as he walked through the Capitol’s basement toward the Senate floor. He was immediately swarmed by reporters, asking for his view on the day’s news.

Read more: politico.com

WARNING for Families: New Netflix Movie Is Woke on Steroids


Hollywood’s woke revolution can sneak up on you.

Otherwise mainstream movies and TV shows can take sudden social justice detours. It might be a quick lecture or exchange to show the creative team won’t waste the chance to send a hard-left message.

Moxie offers another approach.

The March 3 Netflix film, co-starring and directed by Amy Poehler, puts the woke right up front.



Here’s Netflix’s official synopsis: 

Vivian (Hadley Robinson), a seemingly shy 16-year-old, has always preferred to keep her head down and fly under the radar. But when the arrival of a new student (Alycia Pascual-Peña) forces her to examine the unchecked behavior of her fellow students running rampant at her high school, Vivian realizes she’s fed up. Inspired by her mother’s (Amy Poehler) rebellious past, Vivian anonymously publishes an underground zine called Moxie to expose bias and wrongdoing in her high school, and unexpectedly sparks a movement. Now at the center of a revolution, Vivian begins to forge new friendships with other young women and allies, reaching across the divide of cliques and clubs as they learn to navigate the highs and lows of high school together.

Or, as the trailer says, “Get Ready … to Woke Up.”

Even the hashtags accompanying the film’s press release scream social justice.


Based on the 2017 novel by Jennifer Mathieu, Moxie may have to update the source material given how quickly woke rules evolve. Heck, it might be problematic that a cis-gender white female, Poehler, is such a prominent player in the project.

Chances are the woke crowd will find something to complain about the movie, no matter its entertainment value.

Will it crack Netflix’s vaunted Top 10 list upon its release? The film’s trailer is generating quick interest, racking up 70K views in its first few hours of release.

Social justice films have a checkered track record, though. Movies like Booksmart and Charlie’s Angels flopped hard in theaters. The latter pushed far-left themes in the film as well as the promotional push.

The Hulu series Woke earned a second season late last year, but the streamer generally doesn’t release hard viewing figures in the classic Nielsen mold, much like rivals like Amazon Prime and Netflix.

Going woke didn’t help Wonder Woman 1984, which dramatically under-performed at the global box office even considering pandemic restrictions.

[Cross-posted from Hollywood in Toto.] 

Read more: newsbusters.org

Flashback: HBO’s ‘Recount’ Questioned 2000 Election Results


Though they might not want you to know, there was a time when liberals considered it noble to question presidential election results. In fact, HBO made a whole movie about it, 2008’s Recount.



At the time Recount was released, it received many glowing reviews. One such review was from Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times:

“Recount,” an astute and deliciously engrossing film on HBO this Sunday night, retells the tale of Florida in all its bizarre and inglorious moments, from haggling over the “hanging chad” and “butterfly ballots” to the ruckus between the Florida secretary of state, Katherine Harris, and the Palm Beach County Canvassing Board. “Recount” is not satire; it’s a mordantly serious look at a moment when character, political influence and luck fatefully collided.

…The film lays out how Mr. Gore, and the nation, missed a chance to find out for sure, partly through Mr. Gore’s own lack of nerve but mostly because the Democrats were outlitigated and outfoxed by a tougher, more sophisticated team of Republican lawyers and political consultants.

Perhaps the most ironic thing about Recount is that the main character portrayed by Kevin Spacey is Ron Klain, Joe Biden’s current chief of staff. And how did Klain feel about Recount? Newsweek provided his review:

I have to say that when I first heard they were going to make the movie, I was skeptical because it seemed improbable as a film. It’s fundamentally a story about people running to go to court, and where you know the ending. But it’s an important story because a lot of what you see dramatized in the film are still problems in the electoral system that could happen in 2008. The basic thrust of the film is absolutely accurate and is very important in that thousands of people didn’t have their votes counted in 2000.

I hope it reminds people of what can go wrong and activates them to work harder to prevent those things from going wrong, and in the two screenings I’ve been at, the reactions from the audience have been along the lines of “I need to go vote this year!” I think it will cause people to ask what happened about all these problems, and I think they’ll be surprised to learn how little has changed, that partisan officials still run the electoral system—it brings these questions back to the forefront. It’s definitely painful to watch. I’ve seen it three times, and the opening scene of the elderly voter trying to navigate the butterfly ballot just makes me want to scream as she punches the Pat Buchanan hole. For me, it’s about fighting very hard and losing. The last eight years in some ways have made it even clearer than it was on Dec. 12, 2000, what a fork in the road it was and makes the consequence of coming up a few votes short all the more acute.

For more on Recount, see the MRC’s Brent Baker’s review. He noted that the film portrayed Florida Secretary of State as Cruella De Vil. 

Read more: newsbusters.org


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