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The Daily 202: White House efforts to conceal Pence team’s coronavirus outbreak show Trump’s penchant for secrecy

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 10/26/2020 James Hohmann

with Mariana Alfaro

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows confirmed Sunday that he sought to keep the public from finding out that at least five members of Vice President Pence’s staff have tested positive for the coronavirus just over a week before the election.

“Well, obviously, yes,” Meadows said on CNN. “Sharing personal information is not something that we should do, not something that we do actually do — unless it’s the vice president or the president or someone that’s very close to them where there’s people in harm’s way.” 

That admission was overshadowed by an even more startling comment during the same interview:

Quote of the day

"We are not going to control the pandemic,” Meadows said on CNN.

The reflexive, almost default, impulse to hold back important information dovetails with a pattern of intense secrecy that has been a hallmark of President Trump’s tenure in office. Because the White House is so prone to leaks, the fact that Trump has concealed – or tried to hide – so much unflattering information often gets overlooked.

a man wearing a suit and tie standing next to a woman: Marines keep watch as President Trump and first lady Melania Trump greet children Sunday night during a Halloween trick-or-treat event on the South Lawn. (Oliver Contreras for The Washington Post) © Oliver Contreras/For The Washington Post Marines keep watch as President Trump and first lady Melania Trump greet children Sunday night during a Halloween trick-or-treat event on the South Lawn. (Oliver Contreras for The Washington Post)

Trump is the first president since Richard Nixon not to voluntarily release his tax returns. The records that emerged recently show that the president has continued to make money off foreign investments and projects while in office, that foreign officials have spent lavishly at hotels he owns and that he is in hundreds of millions of dollars in debt with massive payments coming due to unknown lenders.

The president continues to fight tooth and nail in court to challenge subpoenas from New York prosecutors and congressional investigators for his financial records, even after the Supreme Court rejected Trump’s claims of immunity from local law enforcement and congressional investigators in a pair of 7-to-2 rulings in July. Trump’s refusal to comply with the kind of congressional oversight that predecessors in both parties submitted to relies on an absolutist view of executive power that the justices said is neither supported by case law nor the original intent of the framers. “Article II allows me to do whatever I want,” Trump has said repeatedly. Anyone who has even casually perused the Constitution knows that claim is preposterous.

In the case of the latest coronavirus infections, the attempted secrecy around the spate of White House infections comes amid attacks from Democrats surrounding Trump’s inability to control the spread in his own home. As former president Barack Obama put it in Philadelphia last week: “Donald Trump isn’t going to suddenly protect all of us. He can’t even take the basic steps to protect himself.”

Moreover, the five Pence team infections undercut Trump’s false claims on the campaign trail that the country is “rounding the turn,” which he repeated again Sunday in New Hampshire.

Here is what we have learned from our inside sources about the timeline: Last Tuesday – six days ago – Marty Obst, Pence’s top political adviser outside the government, tested positive after flying aboard Air Force Two with the vice president. Pence’s “body man” Zach Bauer, who had been in close proximity to Obst, subsequently tested positive. Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, continued reporting to work and reportedly spent time Friday with the vice president before testing positive on Saturday afternoon. Short has told people that he must have contracted the virus from Obst. Two other people in Pence’s office also tested positive, but White House officials refuse to divulge their identities.

“Some in the vice president’s office suggested that White House doctors should release a statement saying that Short was positive and that Pence was still okay to travel. But that idea was scuttled by Meadows and others,” per Phil Rucker, Josh Dawsey and Amy Wang. “It was not until Saturday evening that Short and Obst’s infections were first reported by the media. … (Pence) told aides that he was determined to keep up his appearances through the week despite his potential exposure, irrespective of guidelines … Some aides said they would have preferred tele-rallies because if the vice president is infected while on the road in the final days of the campaign, it is likely to become a major news story for several days.”

Despite knowing that people he had been in close proximity to people who had tested positive, Pence flew to rallies in Florida on Saturday and North Carolina on Sunday. He plans to fly to Minnesota this afternoon. It is unclear whether Pence will go through with previously announced plans to preside over the Senate tonight for the final vote to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. “I’m going to be in the chair because I wouldn’t miss that vote for the world,” Pence said Saturday night in Tallahassee, Fla.

A spokesman for the vice president said that Pence and his wife, Karen, both tested negative on Saturday and Sunday. But he would not say whether Pence will go to the Capitol on Monday for the Barrett vote. He also refused to say whether the vice president is receiving some of the drugs Trump was given as a preventive measure, including the experimental cocktail of antibodies by Regeneron, according to the New York Times, which also reported that “Meadows has indicated to people that he was doing what the president wanted” by trying to keep the diagnoses secret.

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Before Trump contracted covid-19 earlier this month, the president asked at least one of his advisers not to disclose results of their own positive test. “Don’t tell anyone,” he told an aide, according to an Oct. 4 story in the Wall Street Journal. The Journal reported that Trump and his top advisers aimed to keep such a close hold on the positive results after the Rose Garden superspreader event on Sept. 26 that Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien did not know that Hicks had tested positive on Thursday morning until he saw news reports that night. Stepien himself tested positive the next day.

Trump has taken pains to hide his own medical records. He sent a bodyguard to collect his records from a previous physician. He forced everyone who treated him at Walter Reed during a surprise visit last year, which questions linger around, to sign non-disclosure agreements.

The president has gone to great lengths to keep other potentially damaging or embarrassing information from coming out, from the mundane to the consequential. Trump broke with Obama’s practice of releasing White House visitor logs. The president demanded that his predecessor release his college transcript but has refused to release his own. We do know that Trump’s past claim that he was No. 1 in his class at the University of Pennsylvania was false. Trump attacked Hillary Clinton in 2016 for using a private email server when she was secretary of state, but his daughter, Ivanka Trump, has conducted public business over private email in her role as a senior White House adviser, in potential violation of federal recordkeeping rules.

Former special counsel Bob Mueller detailed evidence of 10 potential instances of obstruction of justice by the president, a few of which involved self-destructive efforts to be secretive. Trump refused to sit for an interview with Mueller’s team. He would only respond to written questions about the period before he took office. Aides said during interviews with the FBI that the president believed certain records and emails could be kept secret.

One of the two counts of impeachment that the House passed last December was for obstruction of Congress over his refusal to turn over subpoenaed documents and to comply with other requests. A confidential White House review of Trump’s order to freeze vital military aid to Ukraine, as he pushed the country’s new president to announce a politically motivated investigation into Joe and Hunter Biden, turned up hundreds of documents that reveal extensive efforts to generate an after-the-fact justification for the decision and an internal debate over whether what they were doing was legal. But those emails were not supplied to Congress. The GOP-controlled Senate voted to not convict the president.

Pence, in his capacity as chairman of the White House coronavirus task force, wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal on June 16 that declared “there isn’t a coronavirus ‘second wave.’” The vice president boasted: “Cases have stabilized over the past two weeks, with the daily average case rate across the U.S. dropping to 20,000—down from 30,000 in April.”

Tragically, Pence and the White House spiked the football prematurely. On Friday, the United States reported more than 80,000 new daily infections for the first time ever. It happened again on Saturday. More than 40,000 are currently hospitalized with covid-19, and the daily death tolls are climbing.

When Pence published that op-ed, about 2 million cases had been recorded in the country and 116,000 people had died in the United States. Now, there have been 8.6 million confirmed cases and at least 224,000 Americans are dead.

Anthony Fauci, the top infectious-disease expert in the federal government, told NBC’s Chuck Todd on Friday that Trump has not attended a meeting of the task force in “several months.”

a man wearing a suit and tie walking down the street: Vice President Pence runs Sunday from the stairs of Air Force Two to a stage for a rally in Kinston, N.C. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters) © Jonathan Drake/Reuters Vice President Pence runs Sunday from the stairs of Air Force Two to a stage for a rally in Kinston, N.C. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)

It is noteworthy that Pence is flying to Minnesota this afternoon despite so many close aides testing positive. Pence will go to Hibbing, Minn., for a speech at 1:45 p.m. Central time. During an April visit to the famous Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., Pence declined to wear a mask even as everyone else around him did. He later admitted that he should have complied with the hospital’s rules.

In the days leading up to Trump’s Sept. 30 rally in Duluth, Minn., local officials had privately pressed the campaign to abide by Minnesota’s state health guidelines aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. In response, Trump’s campaign signed an agreement pledging to follow those rules, limiting attendance to 250 people. On the day of the rally, however, Trump supporters flooded onto the tarmac at Duluth International Airport. They stood shoulder to shoulder, many without masks. An emailed warning from an airport representative that Trump was breaking the terms of the agreement went unheeded and unanswered. “Held two days before Trump was diagnosed with covid-19, the disease the virus causes, the rally was attended by more than 2,500 people,” Shawn Boburg reported over the weekend. “Minnesota public health officials have traced 19 coronavirus cases to a pair of Trump rallies held in the state in September, three of them to the event in Duluth.”

It was during the rally in Duluth when senior Trump adviser Hope Hicks started feeling unwell. “She quarantined herself on Air Force One on the return trip, discreetly enough that other staffers did not know she was ill. When the plane landed, she exited from the rear entrance,” Sarah Ellison and Dawsey reported a few weeks ago. “The next morning, Hicks reported for work at the White House and tested positive for the coronavirus. She returned home to begin isolating — but told only the president and a small circle of senior staff, including [Meadows]. Many colleagues, including one aide who had been near her during her potentially contagious period, were enraged when they only learned about it several hours later through the grapevine or White House contact tracers; two said they would have curtailed their contact with other people and taken a test immediately had they known sooner. 

“Several aides said they suspected there might be a positive case in the West Wing when co-workers started wearing masks, but by the time they learned about Hicks that evening, testing facilities were closed. But even after Trump learned of her diagnosis, he continued with a full day of activities, including his plan to attend, maskless, a fundraiser at his club in Bedminster, N.J., that afternoon. … In the meantime, news of Hicks’s diagnosis was broken by a Bloomberg reporter — not a statement from Hicks or the White House — at 8:09 p.m. that night.”

When that story broke, Trump said he had “just heard” Hicks tested positive – even though he had known for most of the day. Trump told Sean Hannity that night that he was awaiting results for his own test. What he did not tell the Fox News host was that he had already tested positive. He was just waiting for a second test to be sure.

While Trump announced via Twitter a few hours later that he had tested positive, his aides initially claimed that he had only minor symptoms and was feeling fine. But the White House physician later acknowledged that Trump had needed supplemental oxygen, and he subsequently spent three days in the hospital. The president later refused to say whether he had taken a coronavirus test earlier that week before his first debate with Joe Biden, as required by the rules.

So often, the White House has acted like guidelines do not apply to them. It’s been the same with coronavirus guidelines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people stay home for 14 days following possible exposure and to socially distance at all times. White House aides, including Meadows and national security adviser Robert O’Brien, pointed on Sunday to an exemption for “critical infrastructure workers” who are not experiencing symptoms, as long as they socially distance and cover their faces. Health experts are dubious of claims that Pence flying around to speak at rallies is “essential” work.

“For the people in the West Wing who have gotten it so far, it's been fairly benign cases,” Kushner said Monday morning on Fox News. “And, obviously, people are moving forward.”

a person standing in front of a fireplace: The Trumps pose for socially distant pictures with children on Sunday night during an event aimed at encouraging trick-or-treating. (Oliver Contreras for The Washington Post) © Oliver Contreras/For The Washington Post The Trumps pose for socially distant pictures with children on Sunday night during an event aimed at encouraging trick-or-treating. (Oliver Contreras for The Washington Post)

Conservative news outlets, though, are airing criticism of the Trump administration’s cavalier attitude surrounding these infections. Infectious disease expert Amesh Adalja said during a Sunday appearance on Fox News that “the vice president is at very high risk for developing coronavirus,” and he should probably self-quarantine for 14 days based on what’s known about his exposure. “We know that a test is just one moment in time and that you can’t test yourself out of self-quarantine,” said Adalja. The doctor criticized Meadows’s efforts to keep the outbreak quiet. “You want to be as transparent as possible,” he said. “That's how we move forward in this pandemic is being very open about who's at risk.”

A big question driving the day in Washington is whether Pence will go to the Capitol for Barrett’s confirmation. “Senators voted around 1:30 p.m. in a rare Sunday session, 51 to 48, to advance her nomination to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The final confirmation vote for Barrett is expected Monday night, putting her in position for a first full day as a justice as early as Tuesday and as the court continues to hear election-related legal challenges ahead of Nov. 3,” Seung Min Kim reports. “A spokesman for the vice president’s office did not respond to inquiries Sunday as to whether Pence planned to attend … [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell, who has been highly critical of how the White House has not abided by public health guidelines on its property, on Sunday declined to answer multiple times whether he preferred that Pence stay away from the Capitol for the confirmation vote.”

National Review’s Washington correspondent John McCormack warns that Pence’s presence would create a controversy that could tarnish Senate Republicans in next week’s election. “Presiding over the vote obviously would make the vice president feel good, and the photo of the moment could come in handy in 2024, but Pence’s presence is not necessary,” writes McCormack. “Why take the risk sitting in a windowless room with a bunch of senators who are in their 70s and 80s?... Pence’s presence creates a controversy that tarnishes Senate Republicans a week before the election.”

The office of Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) announced Saturday that two of her aides tested positive but that the senator herself tested negative. She was among the people photographed maskless in the Rose Garden for the Sept. 26 superspreader event and during an indoor reception afterward. Two other senators who were there tested positive, in addition to the president and first lady Melania Trump.

Despite that donnybrook, the White House is preparing a possible outdoor event for a ceremonial swearing-in of Barrett that could come Monday night after she’s confirmed, senior administration sources told ABC News.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) urged Democratic senators in a private email on Sunday not to congregate in the Senate chamber and to cast their votes quickly and from a distance if Pence shows up to preside over the chamber. “Their carelessness with the health and safety of their colleagues and Capitol employees mirrors their carelessness with the health and safety of Americans during the crisis,” Schumer wrote.

For his part, Trump continues to be in a state of deep denial. His own recovery appears to have made him less sensitive to the plight of ordinary Americans who do not have access to the world-class care and medicines he did. During a Saturday rally in North Carolina, Trump weaved a tale about an apocryphal plane crash and accused the media of excessively covering a virus that is killing hundreds of Americans every day. “Turn on television: ‘covid, covid, covid, covid, covid.’ A plane goes down, 500 people dead, they don’t talk about it — ‘covid, covid, covid, covid,’” Trump told scores of maskless attendees standing shoulder to shoulder.

Experts say Trump is giving false confidence and projecting that people do not need to take this contagion seriously. “I don’t see forceful policy intervention happening any time soon,” former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “We have a moment of opportunity right now to take some forceful steps to try to abate the spread that’s underway. But if we don’t do that, if we miss this window, this is going to continue to accelerate.”

More on the coronavirus

a person wearing a hat: A nurse performs a coronavirus test in Salt Lake City. (Rick Bowmer/AP) © Rick Bowmer/AP A nurse performs a coronavirus test in Salt Lake City. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

A new wave of cases is straining resources nationwide.

“With coronavirus hospitalizations surging in much of the United States and daily cases hitting all-time highs, the pandemic is putting new strain on local health systems, prompting plans for makeshift medical centers and new talk of rationing care,” Hannah Knowles and Jacqueline Dupree report. “In Texas, authorities are scrambling to shore up resources in El Paso, where intensive care units hit full capacity on Saturday and where covid-19 hospitalizations have nearly quadrupled to almost 800 in less than three weeks. In Utah, the state hospital association warned that if current trends hold, it will soon have to ask the governor to invoke ‘crisis standards of care’ — a triage system that, for example, favors younger patients. ‘It’s an extreme situation, because this means that all your contingency planning has been exhausted,’ said Greg Bell, president of the Utah Hospital Association. … 

"This past week brought the highest number of coronavirus cases since the pandemic started. Dozens of states have seen a seven-day average of more than 100 new cases per 100,000 people, with more than 700 per 100,000 in North Dakota — population-wise, that would be the equivalent of Florida reporting more than 20,000 cases during the same time period. … Some officials’ attempts to tamp down cases with stricter rules have quickly run into opposition. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) is asking residents to ‘rise above’ an appeals court’s temporary block on limits to indoor gatherings, the latest challenge to coronavirus restrictions in a state posting record covid-19 hospitalizations.”

  • Wisconsin is a microcosm of the forces roiling America, with one of the nation’s fastest-growing rates of new infections, a government wracked by toxic partisan division, a top court dominated by conservatives who reliably side with Republicans and a major city (Kenosha) taken over by racial justice demonstrations. “It’s only fitting that Wisconsin may be the state that decides the nation’s destiny next month,” writes Griff Witte.
  • Kansas counties that opted to require masks in public are adding only about half as many new cases per capita than the state overall, according to Kansas University research. (Antonia Farzan)
  • It can always get worse: Tropical Storm Zeta will threaten the Gulf Coast, as 2020 ties the record for most named storms. Zeta is the record-tying 27th named storm of the year, matching 2005 for the most names used in a year. (Matthew Cappucci)

As the holidays near, families find themselves in a quandary about celebrations.

  • “The anticipated surge in interstate travel, family gatherings and indoor socializing is expected to facilitate the spread of covid-19," Joel Achenbach reports. “Colder weather is already driving people indoors. The government’s top doctors have said they believe the recent national spike in infections has largely been driven by household transmission. Superspreader events have gotten a lot of attention, but it’s the prosaic meals with family and friends that are driving up caseloads. … The coronavirus exploits travelers to spread in places where it has been sparse or absent. … The scientists are not telling people to cancel their holiday plans, necessarily. But they are urging people to think of alternative ways to celebrate. They do not say it explicitly, but they are encouraging a kind of rationing of togetherness. …

“Many families may hope timely testing will solve the problem of people converging from distant points. But some experts say testing won’t solve all the holiday issues. The most sensitive tests, the PCR genetic tests, do not typically provide a result for several days. The rapid-response antigen tests are usually faster, but they aren’t as sensitive and can miss some infections. Timing is everything: A person who is exposed in transit, say on an airplane or in an airport, probably would not immediately develop an infection that could be detected by a test."

A Trump appointee offered a special deal for Santa Claus performers.

“A federal health agency halted a public-service coronavirus advertising campaign funded by $250 million in taxpayer money after it offered a special vaccine deal to an unusual set of essential workers: Santa Claus performers. As part of the plan, a top Trump administration official wanted the Santa performers to promote the benefits of a Covid-19 vaccination and, in exchange, offered them early vaccine access ahead of the general public, according to audio recordings. Those who perform as Mrs. Claus and elves also would have been included,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “The deal was the brainchild of the official, Michael Caputo, an HHS assistant secretary, who took a 60-day medical leave last month. The rest of the campaign now is under an HHS review. The Santa ‘collaboration will not be happening,’ and HHS Secretary Alex Azar had no knowledge of Mr. Caputo’s outreach discussions, an HHS spokesman said."

At least 27 Trump political appointees have left HHS since the start of the pandemic. Senior leaders are bracing for dozens more officials to depart swiftly if Trump loses, Politico reports, citing interviews with 17 current and former HHS officials who say that many are already checked out. “I've personally seen people working on their resumes inside the office,” a senior HHS official said. “It’s no secret.”

Italy imposes the harshest restrictions since its spring lockdown as a second wave sweeps Europe.

“The World Health Organization reported new daily case records worldwide three days in a row last week, with new infections reaching more than 465,000 on Saturday. Almost half of those cases were in the organization’s Europe region,” Ruby Mellen reports. “‘The pandemic is spreading rapidly again, even faster than at the start of it more than half a year ago,’ German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned in her weekly video podcast. … Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced the new restrictions as the country reported a record 21,273 cases on Sunday. Beginning Monday, restaurants and bars will be required to close by 6 p.m., and gyms, pools and movie theaters must shut down entirely. The restrictions are the fourth round of tightening this month in Italy, and the most severe since the country lifted its nationwide lockdown in May. …  Italy had 1,208 covid-19 patients in intensive care on Sunday — more than on March 9, when Conte announced the lockdown.” 

  • So many Belgians are sick or quarantining there aren't enough police on the streets, teachers in classrooms or medical staff in hospitals. (Quentin Ariès and Michael Birnbaum)
  • The British health secretary said the government was gearing up to roll out a vaccine in early 2021, amid reports that an experimental candidate developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca triggered a promising immune response in elderly people. (Financial Times)
  • Mexican authorities acknowledged their true death toll from covid-19 likely includes tens of thousands of fatalities not in the official count. (Farzan)
  • China is testing all 4.7 million residents of Kashgar in its far western Xinjiang region after the government said it discovered an outbreak of 138 asymptomatic cases. (Eva Dou)
  • Russians are generally suspicious of doctors and state hospitals, polls show, partly a hangover from Soviet times when hospitals were free but forbidding places. This means many are treating themselves, opting for self-diagnosis and self-medication. That’s not helping in the fight against covid-19. (Robyn Dixon)

More on the elections

Donald Trump et al. standing in front of a crowd: President Trump acknowledges supporters as he leaves a campaign rally at the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport in Londonderry, N.H., on Sunday. © Elise Amendola/AP President Trump acknowledges supporters as he leaves a campaign rally at the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport in Londonderry, N.H., on Sunday.

To many Americans, the future looks dark if the other side wins.

“In almost every generation, politicians pose certain elections as the most important of their time. But the 2020 vote is taking place with the country in a historically dark mood — low on hope, running on spiritual empty, convinced that the wrong outcome will bring disaster,” Marc Fisher reports. “‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ said Frank Luntz, a Republican political consultant who has been convening focus groups of undecided voters for seven presidential cycles. ‘Even the most balanced, mainstream people are talking about this election in language that is more caffeinated and cataclysmic than anything I’ve ever heard. If you are a believer in climate change, reelecting Trump is literally the end of the world. If taxes are your issue, you think a Biden victory will bankrupt you. If your top concern is health care, you think a Biden loss will kill you.’ … 

“The worry on the right that a Democratic win would plunge the nation into catastrophic socialism and the fear on the left that a Trump victory would produce a turn toward totalitarianism have created ‘a perilous moment — the idea that if the other side wins, we’re in for it,’ said Peter Stearns, a historian of emotions at George Mason University. … The rejection of the other side is so thoroughgoing that 31 percent of Biden supporters in Virginia say they would not accept a Trump victory as legitimate and 26 percent of Trump supporters are similarly unwilling to accept a Biden victory, according to a new Post-Schar School poll.”

  • Eleven people were arrested in Manhattan after fights broke out between a caravan of Trump supporters and demonstrators who were protesting the president. The brawls broke out when a group calling itself “Jews for Trump” crossed paths with the anti-Trump crowd. (Teo Armus)
  • A Florida man was accused of stealing a bulldozer to dig up Biden-Harris signs. James Blight, 26, even allegedly ran down one of his city’s speed limit signs. He was charged with grand theft auto and trespassing. (Spectrum News)
  • Dozens of ballots were destroyed in a suspected arson of a Boston drop box. By the time firefighters doused the fire by filling the inside of the box with water, dozens of ballots inside had been destroyed. The FBI and Boston police are searching for a suspect. (Tim Elfrink)
  • Trump’s fear-mongering is prompting record early voting in Nevada – among Democrats. “Beyond health concerns, the opinions of many of those who voted early make the case that the president’s vilification of the U.S. Postal Service and mail-in balloting has backfired,” the Daily Beast reports
  • Election officials processing mail-in ballots in Virginia are finding surprises in the envelopes: Thank-you notes. (Patricia Sullivan)
  • Trump plans to fire the heads of the FBI, CIA and Defense Department if he wins reelection, Axios reports.

Trump had one last story to sell, but the Wall Street Journal wasn’t buying it.

“By early October, even people inside the White House believed Trump’s re-election campaign needed a desperate rescue mission. So three men allied with the president gathered at a house in McLean, Va., to launch one,” the New York Times reports. “The host was Arthur Schwartz, a New York public relations man close to Trump’s eldest son, Donald Jr. The guests were a White House lawyer, Eric Herschmann, and a former deputy White House counsel, Stefan Passantino … The three had pinned their hopes for re-electing the president on a fourth guest, a straight-shooting Wall Street Journal White House reporter named Michael Bender. They delivered the goods to him there: a cache of emails detailing Hunter Biden’s business activities, and, on speaker phone, a former business partner of Hunter Biden’s named Tony Bobulinski. Mr. Bobulinski was willing to go on the record in The Journal with an explosive claim: that Joe Biden, the former vice president, had been aware of, and profited from, his son’s activities. The Trump team left believing that The Journal would blow the thing open and their excitement was conveyed to the president. 

“As the Trump team waited with excited anticipation for a Journal exposé, the newspaper did its due diligence: Mr. Bender and [Washington bureau chief Paul] Beckett handed the story off to a well-regarded China correspondent, James Areddy, and a Capitol Hill reporter who had followed the Hunter Biden story, Andrew Duehren. Mr. Areddy interviewed Mr. Bobulinski. They began drafting an article. Then things got messy. Without warning his notional allies, Rudy Giuliani … delivered a cache of documents of questionable provenance — but containing some of the same emails — to The New York Post … Giuliani’s complicated claim that the emails came from a laptop Hunter Biden had abandoned, and his refusal to let some reporters examine the laptop, cast a pall over the story … 

"Trump and his allies expected the Journal story to appear Monday, Oct. 19 … An ‘important piece’ in The Journal would be coming soon, Mr. Trump told aides on a conference call that day. His comment was not appreciated inside The Journal. … [As Thursday’s debate ended, the Journal] published a brief item, just the stub of Mr. Areddy and Mr. Duehren’s reporting. The core of it was that Mr. Bobulinski had failed to prove the central claim. ‘Corporate records reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show no role for Joe Biden,’ the Journal reported.”

Biden has actually become more popular as the election nears.

“Democrats spurned him in the early primary season contests and worried throughout the fall in a general election that began with Biden under fire for campaigning mostly from his basement. Party factions feared Biden would fail to shore up the Democratic base or that he had lost a step because of his age. Allies fretted he would stumble in debates with President Trump and that his gaffes would give ample material to his tenacious opponent,” Matt Viser reports. “But the circumstances of this campaign — a pandemic and an economic collapse costing millions of jobs and making even the still-employed feel vulnerable — have pushed the race in the direction of Biden’s strong suits and against his deficits, shining a bright light on his empathy and sober experience and casting his flaws into the shadows. He has emerged with more Americans viewing him favorably now than at this time last year, the opposite of the usual trajectory of a campaign and far different from the circumstances that faced Hillary Clinton in 2016."

  • Biden has a two-point edge in Florida, is up four points in North Carolina and the contest even in Georgia, according to CBS-YouGov polling.
  • Kamala Harris will campaign in Texas on Friday. (Texas Tribune)
  • The vice-presidential nominee was caught on the hot mic checking her location before addressing supporters at a rally. “Are we in Cleveland?” she was heard quietly asking an aide before yelling to supporters, “Hey, Cleveland, it’s Kamala!” (Fox News)
  • Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Sunday that she intends to run for another term as House speaker. (Cat Zakrzewski)

The New Hampshire Union Leader endorses Biden.

This is the first time that the very conservative newspaper has ever supported a Democrat for president. “Trump is not always 100 percent wrong, but he is 100 percent wrong for America,” the editorial board writes. "Our policy disagreements with Joe Biden are significant. Despite our endorsement of his candidacy, we expect to spend a significant portion of the next four years disagreeing with the Biden administration on our editorial pages.”

The Topeka Capital-Journal in Kansas also backs Biden. “Yes, you might have heard that he’s also a Democrat. He deserves your support anyway,” the paper’s editorial board writes. “This newspaper endorsed President Trump in 2016. … we understood the risks. But it seemed as though Trump’s no-nonsense persona and business record could shake up Washington, D.C., for the better. The gamble didn’t work out.”

The New Yorker has a first excerpt of Barack Obama's new book, focused on the Affordable Care Act.

“When I think back to those early conversations, it’s hard to deny my overconfidence. I was convinced that the logic of health-care reform was so obvious that even in the face of well-organized opposition I could rally the American people’s support. Other big initiatives — like immigration reform and climate-change legislation — would probably be even harder to get through Congress; I figured that scoring a victory on the item that most affected people’s day-to-day lives was our best shot at building momentum for the rest of my legislative agenda,” the former president writes in an excerpt published this morning by the New Yorker. “The recession virtually guaranteed that my poll numbers were going to take a hit anyway. Being timid wouldn’t change that reality. … 

"I thought we’d use as open and transparent a process as possible. ‘Everyone will have a seat at the table,’ I’d told voters during the campaign. ‘Not negotiating behind closed doors, but bringing all parties together, and broadcasting those negotiations on C-SPAN, so that the American people can see what the choices are.’ When I later brought this idea up with [White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel], he looked like he wished I weren’t the President, just so he could more vividly explain the stupidity of my plan. If we were going to get a bill passed, he told me, the process would involve dozens of deals and compromises along the way — and it wasn’t going to be conducted like a civics seminar. ‘Making sausage isn’t pretty, Mr. President,’ he said. ‘And you’re asking for a really big piece of sausage.’"

The new world order

a group of people sitting at a desk: Vladimir Putin meets on Monday with the speaker of the Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, at the Russian president's residence outside Moscow. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/Kremlin) © Sputnik/Via Reuters Vladimir Putin meets on Monday with the speaker of the Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, at the Russian president's residence outside Moscow. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/Kremlin)

The Trump presidency has been a boon for Vladimir Putin.

“Few countries have benefited more geopolitically from Trump’s time in office than Russia,” Philip Rucker and Shane Harris report in a deep dive. “In his two decades as Russia’s autocratic leader, Putin has systematically sought to grow his nation’s influence at America’s expense by breaking up its long-standing alliance structure and discrediting its democratic institutions and values. Over the past four years, Putin has succeeded to a remarkable degree, aided by the credibility and support on the world stage that Trump has given him, according to national security and foreign policy experts … 

"More than 130 Republican former military, intelligence, diplomatic and other national security officials signed a joint statement in August endorsing Biden because they said Trump had ‘failed our country,’ in part because of his handling of Russian interference and alignment with Putin and other strongmen. … Through his rhetorical attacks and norm-busting actions, Trump has eroded public faith in the Justice Department, the State Department and the intelligence community; demeaned the military leadership; threatened the freedom of the press; and challenged the courts. … Though Trump appears to have governed in this manner largely to protect and perpetuate his own political power, his objective dovetails neatly with Putin’s, according to longtime students of Russia. … 

“The Homeland Security Department has continued to produce reports on Russian election interference, according to officials with knowledge of the matter. But not much has been made public. And what has been publicized is the product of a balancing act, between carrying out an apolitical intelligence mission and not incurring the president’s wrath. … At times, it’s difficult to tell whether Trump is parroting Russian propaganda or if the Kremlin is echoing Trump.”

The Taliban keeps showing it can launch attacks anywhere in Afghanistan.

The latest developments offer further proof that Trump's strategy is failing as the president, for all intents and purposes, surrenders in America's longest war. A photo, circulating widely on social media, shows two dozen corpses in military uniforms dragged into a tangled line on a hard empty plain. It was reportedly taken in the Nimruz province, where military officials said the Taliban launched an attack, Pamela Constable reports. "In the past several weeks, Taliban fighters have staged ground attacks and bombings in 24 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, leaving scores dead. In northeastern Takhar they ambushed and killed at least 40 soldiers and police. In northwestern Ghowr, a car bomb killed 19 civilians. In southern Helmand, Taliban fighters are still clashing with Afghan forces after a two-week assault on the provincial capital region. The message of the surge is clear and coldblooded. Even as Taliban delegates continue to nominally participate in peace talks with Afghan leaders in Qatar, the insurgents have shown no intention of reducing violence. … 

“In the past week alone, Afghan security officials said Saturday that the Taliban had staged 356 attacks, two suicide bombings and 52 mine explosions across the country, killing 51 civilians and wounding 157. They said more than 400 insurgents were killed but did not give casualty figures for Afghan forces. A suicide bombing in Kabul Saturday, which killed at least 24 students, was claimed by the Islamic State group, a rival extremist organization.”

  • Thousands of Iraqis returned to the streets a year after protests over corruption and a lack of basic services toppled the previous government. The demonstrations began peacefully, but as the afternoon wore on and protesters tried to cross bridges that led to government buildings, small groups of young men hurled molotov cocktails at security forces, and police fired tear gas. A Post reporter saw almost a dozen injured protesters. (Louisa Loveluck and Mustafa Salim)
  • The U.S. announced a new cease-fire between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a potential respite from heavy fighting after an initial truce brokered by Russia two weeks ago fell apart. (Isabelle Khurshudyan and Karen DeYoung)
  • France recalled its ambassador from Turkey after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said French President Emmanuel Macron needs “mental” treatment. Erdogan made the comments in light of Macron’s outrage over the beheading of a teacher who had shown students pictures of the prophet Muhammad. (James McAuley and Kareem Fahim)
  • After Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko ignored an “ultimatum” deadline demanding that he step down, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets demanding his resignation, leading to a police crackdown with stun grenades. (Isabelle Khurshudyan)
  • Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, vowed to become carbon-neutral by 2050. (Simon Denyer and Akiko Kashiwagi)
  • Polish demonstrators disrupted Sunday Mass as some of Europe’s tightest abortion laws get tighter. Thousands have taken to the streets to protest a ruling by the country’s Constitutional Tribunal that made it illegal to abort a fetus with congenital defects, amounting to a near ban on abortion. (Loveday Morris)
  • Pope Francis will elevate Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory to cardinal next month, making him the first African American to hold that title. Gregory is one of 13 cardinals in the new class, a promotion that comes as he is trying to rebuild trust in an archdiocese rocked by sexual abuse cases. (Chico Harlan, Michelle Boorstein and Ann Marimow)

Social media speed read

From Trump's former top homeland security adviser: 

White House officials are handing out printouts of favorable polling to reporters:

And Donald Trump Jr. seemed to encourage speculation that he will run in 2024:

Videos of the day

CBS aired its version on Sunday night of Lesley Stahl's interview with Trump:

“Saturday Night Live” spoofed the latest debate:  

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