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National Govt & Politics

    Former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn was stubborn as a mule and conservative to his core. But the Oklahoma family doctor, known for railing against federal earmarks, didn’t let political differences dictate whom he called friends — even if it didn’t sit well with some of his supporters. Coburn, who died early Saturday at age 72, joined the U.S. Senate the same year as President Barack Obama, and the pair became fast friends despite their contrasting ideologies. In Oklahoma, where Obama failed to carry a single county in his 2008 presidential bid, voters took note. But the Republican senator shrugged off complaints in 2009, when the state’s largest newspaper, The Oklahoman, ran a front-page photograph that showed him hugging Obama after the Democratic president gave a speech to a joint session of Congress. “I’m not aligned with him politically. I don’t know what people back home in Oklahoma would be worried about,” Coburn, who was re-elected the following year, said at the time. 'But you need to separate the difference in political philosophy versus friendship. How better to influence somebody than love them?' Coburn's death was confirmed to The Associated Press by cousin Bob Coburn. He did not provide a cause of death, but Tom Coburn had been undergoing treatment for prostate cancer for years. Coburn earned a reputation as a conservative political maverick in Congress. He also delivered more than 4,000 babies while an obstetrician and family doctor in Muskogee, where he treated patients for free while in the Senate. Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford called Coburn “an inspiration to many.' “He was unwavering in his conservative values, but he had deep and meaningful friendships with people from all political and personal backgrounds,” Lankford said in a statement. Known for bluntly speaking his mind, Coburn frequently criticized the growth of the federal deficit and what he said was excessive government spending endorsed by politicians from both political parties. 'I've got a flat forehead from beating my head against the wall,' he told voters in July 2010. First elected to the U.S. House during the so-called Republican Revolution in 1994, Coburn fiercely criticized the use of federal money for special state projects and was among the few members of Congress who refused to seek such earmarks for their home states. He represented northeastern Oklahoma for three terms, keeping a pledge in 2000 not to seek re-election. He returned to his medical practice in Muskogee before asking voters to send him back to Washington in 2004, this time to the Senate, so he could fight big spenders and ensure 'that our children and grandchildren have a future.' Coburn was re-elected in 2010, but left his second term early, in January 2015, after he was diagnosed with a recurrence of prostate cancer. He said he was convinced he could 'best serve my own children and grandchildren by shifting my focus elsewhere.” In the Senate, Coburn released a series of oversight reports detailing what he described as wasteful government spending. A 37-page report in 2011, dubbed “Subsidies of the Rich and Famous,” detailed nearly $30 billion spent annually in government subsidies, tax breaks and federal grant programs to millionaires. “From tax write-offs for gambling losses, vacation homes, and luxury yachts to subsidies for their ranches and estates, the government is subsidizing the lifestyles of the rich and famous,' Coburn wrote in the report. A joint report issued in August 2010 by Coburn and Arizona Sen. John McCain, who died in 2018, criticized stimulus spending, including $1.9 million for international ant research and $39.7 million to upgrade the Statehouse and political offices in Topeka, Kansas. Coburn’s stubbornness and thwarting of legislation considered worthy by Democrats frustrated then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “You cannot negotiate with Coburn,” Reid, a Democrat, declared in 2008. “It’s just something you learn over the years is a waste of time.” During debate over the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011, Coburn was part of a bipartisan “Gang of Six” senators who supported an alternative plan to cut the deficit by almost $4 trillion over the next decade through budget cuts and increased revenue through changes to the tax code. After leaving the Senate, Coburn continued to crusade against taxes, criticizing the Oklahoma Legislature when it passed increases in 2018 to shore up the state budget. A group led by Coburn attempted to launch a petition drive to overturn the tax hikes, but was ultimately unsuccessful. Born in Casper, Wyoming, on March 14, 1948, Coburn grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma. After graduating from Oklahoma State University, he went to work at his family’s business in Virginia, Ophthalmic Division of Coburn Opticals, from 1970 to 1978. He later attended medical school at the University of Oklahoma. By the time he jumped into politics — a decision he said was based on runaway government spending and his distaste for career politicians — he was married to his wife, Carolyn, with three children and had established a successful medical practice. Coburn had several health scares during his time in office. He was treated for malignant melanoma in 1975, and in 2011, he underwent surgery for prostate cancer. Health woes didn’t seem to damper his contentious attitude. After revealing in 2003 that he had been diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent surgery and chemotherapy, he told a Tulsa World reporter: “You should be writing about Medicaid and Medicare instead of my health.” ___ Associated Press writer Jamie Stengle in Dallas contributed to this report. ___ This story has been corrected to reflect that Coburn left the Senate in early 2015.
  • In tiny Munfordville, Kentucky, the closure of the public library has cut people off from a computer used only for filling out census forms online. In Minneapolis, a concert promoting the once-a-decade count is now virtual. In Orlando, Florida, advocates called off knocking on doors in a neighborhood filled with new residents from Puerto Rico. Across the U.S., the coronavirus has waylaid efforts to get as many people as possible to participate in the count, which determines how much federal money goes to communities. The outbreak and subsequent orders by states and cities to stay home and avoid other people came just as the census ramped up for most Americans two weeks ago. Thousands of advocates, officials and others who spent years planning for the U.S. government's largest peacetime mobilization are scrambling to come up with contingency plans for pulling it off amid a pandemic. “Right now, everybody is faced with figuring out how to outreach to our communities not being face to face,” said Jennifer Chau, leader of a coalition of Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander organizations in Phoenix that passed out 300 reusable boba tea cartons in January to anyone who signed a card pledging to complete their census form. Nonprofits and civic organizations leading census outreach efforts are pivoting to digital strategies. Texting campaigns, webinars, social media and phone calls are replacing door-knocking, rallies and face-to-face conversations. But it comes at a cost: Experts say connecting with trusted community leaders in person is the best way to reach people in hard-to-count groups that may be wary of the federal government. 'It's making it exponentially more difficult to get the kind of accurate count that is needed for this census. There's no sugarcoating it. It's really tough,' said Arturo Vargas, CEO of NALEO Educational Fund, a Latino advocacy group. “Thank goodness for technology. We wouldn't be able to do what we're doing without it.” Although the U.S. Census Bureau is spending $500 million on outreach efforts, including advertising, it's relying on more than 300,000 nonprofits, businesses, local governments and civic groups to encourage participation in their communities. The groups are recalibrating their messaging to address the upheaval in people's lives, including job losses and stay-at-home orders, and to focus on how census numbers help determine the distribution of federal aid or medical supplies their communities may get during the coronavirus crisis. The groups also are emphasizing that if people answer the questionnaire online, by phone or by mail now, they can avoid having a census taker sent to their house to ask them questions come late spring and summer. “We want people to understand that even though we have this health emergency going on, there's a connection to the census with how the distribution of funds to states is all going to rest on how many people there are in a community,” Minnesota's demographer Susan Brower said. The 2020 census will help determine how many congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets, as well as the distribution of some $1.5 trillion in federal spending. The coronavirus has forced the U.S. Census Bureau to delay the start of tallies of homeless people and other transient populations such as racetrack workers, college students, prisoners and nursing home residents. It has pushed back the deadline for wrapping up the count by two weeks, to mid-August. “Of all of our worst nightmares of things that could have gone wrong with the census, we did not anticipate this set of actions,' said Al Fontenot of the Census Bureau. “But our staff has been extremely resilient about looking for solutions.' On the plus side, more people at home now have time to answer the questionnaire, and the deadline extension offers chances to reach out to more people, Brower said. In some places, outreach done well before the virus spread in the U.S. is paying off, but organizers aren't sure it will last. For the first week that people could start answering the 2020 questionnaire, New York City — which had dedicated $40 million to outreach efforts — was well ahead of its 2010 pace of self-responses. But now it's the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak. The coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, including fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. More than 30% of U.S. residents already had answered the census questionnaire as of Friday. Most of the temporary census takers hired by the government won't be sent out until May to knock on the doors of homes where people haven't yet responded. 'We are trending much better than 10 years ago, even in this craziness,' said Sheena Wright, president and CEO of United Way of New York City. That's despite events meant to generate participation getting canceled or delayed. Pittsburgh had commissioned Jasmine Cho, who uses cookie decorating to highlight Asian American and social justice issues, to lead decorating workshops with a census theme. An October session drew almost 50 people and grabbed attention, but workshops planned for March and April were canceled. “I'm hopeful that under the current quarantine measures, that people will actually pay more attention to their census mailings and take the time to complete it,” Cho said. The self-described “cookie activist” and the city are in talks to make an online instructional video about census-themed cookie decorating. San Francisco was supposed to ring in Census Day on April 1 with one of its famous cable cars rolling through iconic neighborhoods, but that became a casualty of COVID-19. Money from a $3.5 million budget earmarked for food and venues for census form-filling parties and town halls in the Bay Area will now go toward video marketing and printed materials, according to Stephanie Kim of the United Way Bay Area. “It's been hard to have to pivot on all the activities and events they were planning for for a long time,” Kim said. “So many organizations had planned for big community get-togethers.” ___ Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MikeSchneiderAP. Tang reported from Phoenix and is a member of The Associated Press’ race and ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ttangAP.
  • President Donald Trump said he was considering a quarantine as early as Saturday for coronavirus hotspots in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, though it wasn't clear whether he had the power to order state residents to stay put. Trump told reporters that he had spoken with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, among others, and that 'a lot of the states that are infected but don’t have a big problem, they’ve asked me if I’ll look at it so we’re going to look at it.” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who criticized the federal government’s response as his state became the country's virus epicenter, said the issue had not come up in a conversation he had with Trump earlier Saturday. “I don’t even know what that means,” the Democrat said at a briefing in New York. 'I don’t know how that could be legally enforceable, and from a medical point of view, I don’t know what you would be accomplishing. ... I don’t like the sound of it.” Trump made his remarks while on a trip to Norfolk, Virginia, to see off a U.S. Navy hospital ship heading to New York City to help with the pandemic. At the event, he spoke to a sparse crowd at the port and warned about taking virus protections, even though he himself, at 73, is in a high risk category and among those who have been advised to refrain from all non-essential travel. The federal government is empowered under the law to take measures to prevent the spread of communicable diseases between states, but it's not clear that means Trump can ban people from leaving their state. It has never been tested in the modern era — and in rare cases when any quarantine was challenged, the courts generally sided with public health officials. Courts have ruled consistently for years that the authority to order quarantines inside states rests almost entirely with the states, under provisions in the Constitution ceding power not explicitly delegated to the federal government to states. The federal government, though, would have power under constitutional clauses regulating commerce to quarantine international travelers or those traveling state to state who might be carriers of deadly diseases. Still, “it is entirely unprecedented that governors or the president would prevent people from traveling from one state to another during an infectious disease outbreak,' said Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University law professor and public health specialist who questioned Trump's ability to order a quarantine on states. But as Trump traveled to Norfolk, he tweeted: “I am giving consideration to a QUARANTINE of developing “hot spots”, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. A decision will be made, one way or another, shortly.” The incoming White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, said they are 'evaluating all the options right now” when asked about legal authority for quarantine. But Trump may not need to order a legally justifiable quarantine. One idea under consideration would be to tell residents of those areas to isolate themselves and not travel for two weeks, just as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have instructed anyone who recently left New York to self-quarantine for 14 days, according to one person familiar with the negotiations who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing deliberations. The measure wouldn't necessarily come with any legal justification or penalty, just the hope that people would comply to try to contain the virus spread. The governors of Florida, Maryland, South Carolina and Texas already have ordered people arriving from the New York area to self-quarantine for at least 14 days upon arrival. In a more dramatic step, Rhode Island police have begun pulling over drivers with New York plates so that the National Guard can collect contact information and inform them of a mandatory, 14-day quarantine. Trump said the idea of isolating many in the trio of Democratic strongholds in the Northeast was pushed by DeSantis, one of the president's most outspoken supporters. It came a day after Trump made clear he wanted governors to be grateful when asking for federal support for the pandemic. Trump said people “go to Florida and a lot of people don’t want that. So we’ll see what happens.' He later clarified it would not affect truckers or people transiting through, and would not affect trade. “We'll be announcing that one way or the other fairly soon,” he said. Florida is a perennial swing state, and one Trump must win come November — plus he recently moved his residence from New York to Florida. It also has a population of 21 million with a large percentage of old people, who are particularly vulnerable to the virus. DeSantis confirmed he had spoken with the president about the possibility of a quarantine for the New York City area. Speaking Saturday to reporters, DeSantis said Florida will soon set up a checkpoint along Interstate 95 to screen travelers from that area, similar to one already in place along Interstate 10 to screen people from Louisiana. Many airports in Florida also are screening travelers from certain areas, requiring them to self-isolate for 14 days. “I think whatever works is what we need to do,” DeSantis said. The U.S. leads the world in reported cases with more than 115,000. There were roughly 1,900 deaths recorded by Saturday. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, said he did not talk about quarantining the tri-state area in his recent conversation with Trump, and learned of the president's comments as he walked into Saturday's daily briefing. “Until further notified we're going to keep doing exactly what we're doing, because we believe the data and the facts are on our side in terms of this aggressive, as aggressive as any American state right now, in terms of social distancing and flattening the curve,” he said. Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, also a Democrat, said he'd already called on residents to stay home. “I look forward to speaking to the President directly about his comments and any further enforcement actions, because confusion leads to panic,” he said in a statement. The quarantine idea comes a day after the president took a round of steps to expand the federal government’s role in helping produce critically needed supplies to fight the coronavirus pandemic, even as he warned the leaders of hard-hit states not to cross him. “I want them to be appreciative,” Trump said Friday after the White House announced he would be using the powers granted to him under the Korean War-era Defense Production Act to try to compel auto giant General Motors to produce ventilators. Yet Trump — who hours earlier had suggested the need for the devices was being overblown — rejected any criticism of the federal government's response to a ballooning public health crisis that a month ago he predicted would be over by now. After speaking in Norfolk, Trump watched as the USS Comfort slowly made its way out of port. The 1,000-bed hospital ship had been undergoing planned maintenance, but was rushed back into service to aid the city. It is scheduled to arrive Monday at a Manhattan pier a week after its sister ship, the USNS Mercy, arrived in Los Angeles to perform a similar duty on the West Coast. “We will stop at nothing to protect the health of New Yorkers and the health of the people of our country in their hour of need,” Trump said. The ship has 12 operating rooms as well as radiology suites and a CT scanner. It also has ICU beds, a lab and a pharmacy. The 1,100 or so medical staff on board are mostly active duty service members from the U.S. Navy, and some reservists, who serve on the East Coast. For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death. The vast majority of people recover. —- Long reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz in New York City, Matt Perrone, Jill Colvin and Michael Balsamo in Washington, Michael Tarm in Chicago, Ben Finley in Norfolk, Virginia, Curt Anderon in Miami and Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.
  • More than a fifth of Detroit's police force is quarantined; two officers have died from coronavirus and at least 39 have tested positive, including the chief of police. For the 2,200-person department, that has meant officers working doubles and swapping between units to fill patrols. And everyone has their temperature checked before they start work. An increasing number of police departments around the country are watching their ranks get sick as the number of coronavirus cases explodes across the U.S. The growing tally raises questions about how laws can and should be enforced during the pandemic, and about how departments will hold up as the virus spreads among those whose work puts them at increased risk of infection. “I don’t think it’s too far to say that officers are scared out there,” said Sgt. Manny Ramirez, president of Fort Worth Police Officers Association. Nearly 690 officers and civilian employees at police departments and sheriff’s offices around the country have tested positive for COVID-19, according to an Associated Press survey this week of over 40 law enforcement agencies, mostly in major cities. The number of those in isolation as they await test results is far higher in many places. Anticipating shortages, police academies are accelerating coursework to provide reinforcements. Masks, gloves and huge volumes of hand sanitizer have been distributed. Roll call and staff meetings are happening outside, over the phone or online. Precinct offices, squad cars and equipment get deep cleaned in keeping with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. Yet, many are worried it's not enough. This week, groups representing American police and fire chiefs, sheriffs, mayors and county leaders asked President Donald Trump in a letter to use the Korean War-era Defense Production Act to ensure they have enough protective gear. “We’re in war footing against an invisible enemy and we are on the verge of running out' of protective supplies, said Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. “We’ve got hospitals calling police departments, police departments calling each other, and it’s time to nationalize in terms of our response.” Police are accustomed to meeting staffing crunches by canceling vacations and leave, putting officers on 12-hour on, 12-hour off schedules and, when necessary, by shifting detectives and other specialized personnel to patrol. And officers are used to risk. It's part of the job. But at a time when Americans are being advised to stay six feet from each other to combat an insidious virus that can live on surfaces for days, the perils and anxieties are new. This crisis is unlike any American police forces have dealt with before, said former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis. “We're in unprecedented territory here,” said Davis, who led the police department when the Boston Marathon bombing happened in 2013. Streets are less crowded as people hunker in their homes. But police must prepare for the possibility of civil unrest among people who become anxious or unhappy about government orders or hospitals that get overrun with patients, he said. In New York, which has rapidly become the American epicenter of the pandemic, more than 500 NYPD personnel have come down with COVID-19, including 442 officers, and the department's head of counter-terrorism was hospitalized with symptoms. Two NYPD employees have died. On a single day this week, Friday, 4,111 uniformed officers called in sick, more than 10% of the force and more than three times the daily average. Leadership at America’s largest police department maintains that it’s continuing enforcement as usual. But they’ve also said that if the disease continues to affect manpower the NYPD could switch patrol hours, or pull officers from specialized units and other parts of the city to fill gaps -- steps also taken after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death. But the U.S. is now leading the world in the number of confirmed cases; more than 100,000. Over 1,700 people have died in the country. And doctors say cases are nowhere near peaking. Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, based in Washington, D.C., said police can't just go out of business. “They need to have ways so that if one person goes down, who’s going to back that person up, so departments are having to be innovative,” he said. In big cities and remote areas alike, officers are being told to issue tickets or summons rather than making arrests for minor crimes. More crime reports are being taken by phone or online. These steps to limit exposure come as police must beef up patrols in shuttered business districts and manage spikes in domestic violence. In Detroit, officials say many of those quarantined should return to duty soon. In the meantime, an assistant chief recently released from quarantine is heading up day-to-day operations while Chief James Craig is out. Many officers are also worried about whether they'll be able to draw workers compensation benefits if they get sick, since the coronavirus is not spelled out in the list of covered conditions. “No one really knows,” said Robert Jenkins, president of the Florida State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police union, which covers 22,000 officers. “Unfortunately, we have to be out there. We don’t have a choice.” While the pandemic has so far hit American cities hardest, rural law enforcement agencies with few staff are in some ways most vulnerable. In the tiny West Texas community of Marfa, Police Chief Estevan Marquez instructed his four officers not to pull over cars for minor traffic infractions, especially if they're passing through from areas already hit by the virus. He can't afford for anyone to get sick. ___ Bleiberg reported from Dallas. Associated Press writers Alanna Durkin Richer in Boston; Colleen Slevin in Denver; Claudia Lauer in Philadelphia; Colleen Long in Washington; Dave Collins in Glastonbury, Connecticut; David Sharp in Portland, Maine; Don Babwin in Chicago; Jacques Billeaud in Phoenix; Julie Watson in San Diego; Michael Schneider in Orlando; Mike Sisak in New York and Stefanie Dazio in Los Angeles contributed to this report. ___ Follow Jake Bleiberg at www.twitter.com/jzbleiberg
  • For many in the public health and political worlds, Dr. Deborah Birx is the sober scientist advising an unpredictable president. She's the data whisperer who will help steer President Donald Trump as he ponders how quickly to restart an economy that's ground to a halt in the coronavirus pandemic. Others worry that Birx, who stepped away from her job as the U.S. global AIDS coordinator to help lead the White House coronavirus response, may be offering Trump cover to follow some of his worst instincts as he considers whether to have people packing the pews by Easter Sunday. In coming days, immunologist Birx will be front and center in that debate along with the U.S. government's foremost infection disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, as well as Vice President Mike Pence. Birx will bring to the discussion what she fondly refers to as her sheet music — data on testing, mortality, demographics and much more. “What the president has asked us to do is to assemble all the data and give him our best medical recommendation based on all the data,” Birx told reporters. “This is consistent with our mandate to really use every piece of information that we can in order to give the president our opinion that’s backed up by data.” But will Trump listen? The president has sent mixed messages on that. He plans to meet with the two doctors and Pence on Monday to review the latest data on the spread of the disease. His administration's original 15-day guidelines promoting social distancing expire Tuesday. Over a matter of weeks, Trump has veered from playing down the virus threat to warning Americans it could be summer before the pandemic is under control. And in more recent days, he's talked eagerly about having parts of the country raring back by Easter in two weeks. As the president’s message has vacillated, Birx has emerged as one of the most important voices laying out the administration’s pandemic response. She has a way of spelling out the implications of the virus to Americans in personal terms while offering reassurances that the administration is approaching the pandemic with a data-driven mindset. For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who helped shepherd Birx’s ambassadorial nomination through the Senate in the Obama administration, said it’s like Birx and Fauci have become a tag team for science in the midst of calamity. “I can’t imagine how complicated it is to have a boss –- if you will — who insists on saying things on a regular basis that are just not true and aren’t based on any science,” Sebelius said. In her public comments, Birx has taken pains to avoid publicly contradicting Trump when he’s offered some decidedly unscientific riffs, unlike Fauci, a professional mentor, who has been known to push back pointedly. Instead, her messaging has toggled between providing digestible interpretations of what the data is saying about the spread of the virus and offering relatable pleas to the American public to practice social distancing to help stem the disease. In recent days, Birx has received praise from Trump backers and pushback from some fellow scientists after she minimized what she called “very scary” statistical modeling by some infectious disease experts. One study, published this month by Harvard University epidemiologists, found that the need to maintain social distancing remains crucial in the weeks ahead to prevent the American healthcare system from becoming overwhelmed by new cases. “The scenario Dr. Birx is ‘assuring’ us about is one in which we somehow escape Italy's problem of overloaded healthcare system despite the fact that social distancing is not really happening in large parts of the US,” Marc Lipsitch, a co-author of the study, wrote on Twitter. Birx also has drawn criticism for asserting that there are still beds in intensive care units and a “significant” number of ventilators available in hospitals around New York City -- the area hardest hit by virus. That message doesn't jibe with the dire warnings of city hospital workers, who in recent days have said they're ill-equipped and in danger of being overwhelmed by patients stricken with the virus. Birx’s friends and colleagues say she is one of the adults in the room who is providing the president with clear-headed advice and giving Americans the information they need to stay safe. “She’s a tough cookie,” said Michael Weinstein, who heads the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and got to know Birx professionally after she was named the global AIDS coordinator in 2014. “She’s 100% about the data.” In the sea of men in dark suits who have been appearing with Trump for daily briefings, the 63-year-old mother of two with a fondness for colorful scarves stands out. Her seemingly endless scarf collection was even fodder for comedian Paula Poundstone recently on the NPR quiz show “Wait Wait...Don’t tell me!” Birx’s resume is impressive: She is a U.S. Army physician and recognized AIDS researcher who rose to the rank of colonel, head of the global AIDS program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and a rare Obama administration holdover as the State Department’s ambassador-at-large leading a U.S. taxpayer-funded worldwide campaign to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. Birx has also developed a reputation as a tough boss. Some who fall under her watch at the global effort known as PEPFAR have complained that the leadership of her office has been“dictatorial' and “autocratic,” according to a State Department Office of Inspector General audit released earlier this year. “She has somewhat of a reputation of being a hard task-master,” said John Auerbach, head of the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health.. “She is incredibly hard-working, someone who was driven and would drive other people to work really hard and to do their best work.” Birx has also been perhaps the most outspoken in calling for Americans to be mindful in how they are interacting with others. And she’s made the case in personal terms. The doctor says she’s avoided visiting with her young grandchildren as she practices social distancing, and she's spoken in admiring tones of her two millennial daughters when making the case that younger Americans’ actions will play a key role in determining how quickly the country can contain the virus. She also has spoken of her grandmother living with a lifetime of guilt, because she caught the flu at school as a girl and, in turn, infected her mother — one of an estimated 50 million people worldwide who died in the 1918 influenza epidemic. “She never forgot that she was the child that was in school that innocently bought that flu home,” Birx said of her grandmother. Birx, who declined to be interviewed for this article, told a Christian TV network popular with Trump’s evangelical base that she’s confident that the president is, like her, a student of data. “He’s been so attentive to the scientific literature and the details and the data,” Birx told CBN. “I think his ability to analyze and integrate data that comes out of his long history in business has really been a real benefit during these discussions about medical issues because in the end, data is data.”
  • Republicans who have spent the past decade howling about the danger of ballooning deficits embraced the coronavirus rescue package approved by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump, shrugging off past concerns about spending in the face of a public health crisis. In many cases, the conservatives who backed the $2 trillion bill — the largest economic relief measure in U.S. history — were the very same who raged against the nearly $800 billion economic stimulus package backed by the Obama administration. But facing the unprecedented threat of a global pandemic — and working under a Republican president who has largely brushed off concerns about debt and deficits — the GOP was willing to overlook an unprecedented flood of taxpayer spending. Leading budget hawk Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who insisted in 2009 that government cannot spend its way out of a recession, this week joined a unanimous Senate majority that approved what he described as “the biggest government intervention in the economy in the history of the world.” “This is a response to an invasion,' he told reporters. “This is the kind of thing you’d have to do if we were at war.” Like other conservatives, he noted that much of the nation's current economic distress was caused by the government's social distancing orders, while the Obama stimulus was in response to a crisis created by the private sector. Failing to take dramatic action now, Toomey said, 'would be a wildly imprudent thing, and it would probably result in such a severe recession — it might very well be a depression — and it could take decades to come out of this.” Even before the health crisis struck, the Republican-aligned fiscal conservative movement had dramatically diminished under Trump, who has pushed the nation's budget deficit to heights not seen in nearly a decade. That's prompted arguments that the GOP is hypocritical when it comes to government spending. Mick Mulvaney, Trump's outgoing chief of staff and a former Republican congressman aligned with the tea party, told a private audience last month that the GOP only worries about deficits “when there is a Democrat in the White House,” according to a report in The Washington Post. For the first time in the modern era, Republicans are on record supporting direct cash payments to most American adults — a government-backed measure more likely to be found in socialist countries. While a 2008 stimulus package offered tax rebates to many taxpayers, the 2020 legislation offers all Americans making less than $100,000 grants of up to $1,200 each with an additional $500 for each child. Also in the bill: a massive expansion of unemployment benefits, $500 billion in loans to businesses and local governments, and tens of billions more for the airline industry, hospitals and food assistance. David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth, Washington's preeminent fiscal conservative watchdog, which Toomey previously led, raised the possibility that the coronavirus package could push this year's budget deficit to $4 trillion. The largest annual deficit in U.S. history was $1.4 trillion in 2009. “The spending is just outrageously high,” McIntosh said in an interview. “But on the short-term basis, we’re pleased.” He opposed the direct payments to Americans but was satisfied that a significant portion of the taxpayer-funded package consists of loans likely to be repaid. He added that Congress rejected what he called the Democrats' list of unrelated “political goodies.' “Yes, it's too much, and we’re worried about overall spending, but we recognize something has to be done,” McIntosh said. “That’s the kind of comment I’m hearing from conservatives who would normally oppose big spending bills.” What remains of the tea party movement, which sprang up early in Barack Obama's presidency to oppose government spending, has largely been silent. One major exception: Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., who upset congressional leaders — and Trump himself — on Friday by unsuccessfully trying to force a formal House vote on the historic legislation. Massie tweeted that the $2 trillion rescue package, in addition to $4 trillion in stimulus from the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department, would create roughly $17,000 in new debt for every American citizen. “Not a good deal,” he wrote. Trump, in a rare public rebuke of another Republican, punched back on Twitter: “Throw Massie out of the Republican Party.” The Congressional Budget Office reported weeks before the coronavirus outbreak that the national debt was already on track to reach nearly 100% of the gross domestic product in just 10 years. The current package, and a subsequent round of government intervention already being discussed, will substantially escalate that timeline. The budget office did not release specific projections on the fiscal impact of the legislation before it passed. Not including the rescue package, the current national debt exceeds $23.5 trillion, which is $3.5 trillion more than when Trump took office. The coronavirus spending surge will put heightened pressure on lawmakers to cut the social safety net in the coming year, including Social Security and Medicare. Trump and leading Democratic rival Joe Biden have both promised not to touch the popular entitlement programs, yet they consume a disproportionate share of government spending. “The future will be more painful,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Still, she added: “This is definitely not the time to worry about the deficit. This is the time to be borrowing as much as we need to deal with the huge health crisis.” Grover Norquist, one of Washington's most notorious fiscal hawks, praised a series of temporary deregulations in the legislation that he hopes might permanently eliminate bureaucracy controlling such things as medical professionals' ability to work in other states, the use of health savings accounts and liquor store deliveries. He predicted that the rescue package could actually lead to a “more open society with more freedom.' “There's no permanent damage,' Norquist said. “On balance, it seems to have been the best you could do under the circumstances.”
  • With some public friction over the federal Coronavirus response, President Donald Trump on Friday again singled out the Governor of Michigan and the Governor of Washington State for criticism, telling reporters that he had discouraged Vice President Mike Pence from calling either one to discuss the virus response. 'When they're not appreciative to me, they're not appreciative to the Army Corps (of Engineers), they're not appreciative to FEMA. It's not right,' President Trump said at a Friday White House briefing. 'All I want them to do, very simple, I want them to be appreciative,' the President added. 'We've done a great job,' the President said. 'I think the media and governors should appreciate it.' The President's comments came as he continued to spar long distance with Gov. Jay Inslee (D) of Washington State, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) of Michigan. Inslee has already been a frequent target of the President - who referred to him in one briefing as a 'snake' - acknowledging that he has urged Vice President Pence not to call the Washington Democrat. 'I say Mike, don't call the Governor of Washington, you're wasting your time with him,' Mr. Trump said. 'Don't call the woman in Michigan.' In an interview Thursday night with Sean Hannity on Fox News, the President took aim at Whitmer, who has complained of troubles in getting medical supplies for hospitals to combat the virus outbreak. 'We’ve had a big problem with the young, a woman governor, you know who I’m talking about from Michigan,' the President said. While Gov. Whitmer went on TV to respond to the President, Inslee used Mr. Trump's favored mode of social media. 'I’m not going to let personal attacks from the president distract me from what matters: beating this virus and keeping Washingtonians healthy,' Inslee tweeted. While Inslee avoided barbs from the White House on Friday night, Whitmer did not. “Governor, Gretchen “Half” Whitmer is way in over her ahead, she doesn’t have a clue,” the President tweeted. Michigan has become a flash point in recent days in the fight to stop the Coronavirus; 32 deaths were announced on Friday, almost as many as the two previous days combined. 28 deaths were announced on Friday in Washington State, raising the death toll there to 175 people, second most of any state.
  • After days of desperate pleas from the nation’s governors, President Donald Trump took a round of steps to expand the federal government’s role in helping produce critically needed supplies to fight the coronavirus pandemic even as he warned the leaders of hard-hit states not to cross him. “I want them to be appreciative,” Trump said Friday after the White House announced that he would be using the powers granted to him under the Korean War-era Defense Production Act to try to compel auto giant General Motors to produce ventilators. Yet Trump — who hours earlier had suggested the need for the devices was being overblown — rejected any criticism of the federal government's response to a ballooning public health crisis that a month ago he predicted would be over by now. “We have done a hell of a job,' Trump said, as he sent an ominous message to state and local leaders who have been urging the federal government to do more to help them save lives. Trump said he had instructed Vice President Mike Pence not to call the governors of Washington or Michigan — two coronavirus hotspots — because of their public criticism. “If they don’t treat you right, I don't call,” Trump said. The comments came after Trump unveiled a slew of executive actions to bolster states' capacities to respond to the pandemic, including authorizing Defense Secretary Mark Esper to call up an unspecified number of federal reservists to help with the coronavirus response. Friday's invocation “should demonstrate clearly to all that we will not hesitate to use the full authority of the federal government to combat this crisis,' Trump said. Trump had been saying for more than a week that he was reluctant to use the Defense Production Act — even after he invoked it — because companies were already doing what he wanted and he didn't need arm-twisting to make them comply. Yet Trump continued to suggest that states' own failures were to blame for the needed intervention. “Normally these would be bought for states, just so you understand,” he said. The nation's governors have been exerting growing pressure on the president to do more to bolster supplies, despite the perceived risks of speaking out. From New York to Washington, they have pleaded with him to use the DPA to force companies to manufacture critical equipment. And they have begged for help in obtaining supplies like masks and testing agents, saying that states have been forced to compete against one another as well as the federal government on the open market, driving up prices, even as federal officials have pledged their help if states fail. The notoriously thin-skinned Trump has not taken well to their criticism. Instead, he has lashed out at the governors, continued to diminish the risk posed by the virus and insisted that the federal government was only a “backup” as he looked to avoid political costs from a pandemic that has reshaped his presidency and tested his reelection plans. In a Thursday night interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Trump declared that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee “should be doing more” and “shouldn't be relying on the federal government.” He dismissed New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s requests for additional ventilators to keep patients alive, saying, “I don't believe you need 40,000 or 30,000” of the devices, which force air into the lungs of those too sick to breathe. And he said he was still weighing Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's request for a disaster declaration, saying, “We've had a big problem with the young, a woman governor from, you know who I'm talking about, from Michigan.” “You know,' he added from the White House, 'we don't like to see the complaints.” On Saturday, however, the White House announced that Trump had approved Whitmer's request on Friday and ordered federal assistance be provided to Michigan. The administration's mantra, frequently articulated by Mike Pence, has long been that the fight against the virus must be “locally executed, state managed, and federally supported.” But Trump has show little public empathy for the states' predicament, with his emphasis skewed toward the 'locally executed' portion of that trifecta. Whitmer, in particular, has criticized the administration’s response to the pandemic –- including on national cable TV shows -- saying that the federal government should do more and that Michigan’s allotment of medical supplies from the national stockpile is meager. “It’s very distressing,” the Democratic governor told radio station WWJ. “I observed early on, like a lot of governors on both sides of the aisle, that the federal preparation was concerning. That apparently struck a nerve, and I’ve been uniquely singled out despite my voice not being the only one that observed that,' she said. “I don’t go into personal attacks. I don’t have time for that,” she said. 'I need partnership out of the federal government. We have to be all hands on deck here.” Cuomo has also been on the forefront, some days criticizing the administration's failure to act and at other times commending federal assistance. But the New York Democrat has remained clear that the state, which is now the epicenter of the crisis, needs many more ventilators than it has at the ready. 'That's what the data and the science said,” Cuomo said Friday as he defended his ask for additional ventilators and issued a new request to Washington for an additional 41,000 beds in temporary hospitals. “What is unclear to me is why the federal administration refuses to direct industries to manufacture critical PPE,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, said Wednesday, referring to personal protective equipment. “I’m not exaggerating when I say this outrageous lack of action will result in lost lives. Including those of our health care workers.” “The governors have been very gracious, for the most part,' Trump said Friday. But he complained that, “There are a couple that aren't appreciative” of the “incredible job” he claimed to be doing, adding: 'They have to do a better job themselves, that's part of the problem.” Just a month ago, Trump was predicting the U.S. was days away from being “close to zero” coronavirus cases. Now, the country has more than 100,000 cases nationwide. The Friday order Trump signed on General Motors instructs his administration to explore forcing the company to accept and prioritize federal contracts to produce ventilators. He also sent a letter to Congress on Friday that said he had authorized Esper to order units and individual members of the Selected Reserve, as well as certain Individual Ready Reserve members, to active duty. They are separate from, and in addition to, National Guard members who have been mobilized by state governors. The reserve call-up likely is intended to fill gaps in medical expertise as the military deploys field hospitals to cities hard hit by COVID-19 and provides other forms of medical support to state and local authorities. Trump also named trade adviser Peter Navarro to lead the government's production effort. For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority recover. ___ Associated Press writers David Eggert in Lansing, Mich., Tom Krisher in Detroit, Andrew Selsky in Salem, Ore., and Rachel La Corte in Olympia, Wash., contributed to this report.
  • They sprayed. They wiped. At least two donned gloves. Politicians love to promise to clean house in Washington. For a change Friday, they followed through when the actual U.S. House of Representatives confronted the coronavirus outbreak with the biggest stimulus bill in history. The vigilance fit the perilous moment for humanity, as well as the specific threat to people over 60 who control the nation's legislature. But it also produced some discomfort as avowed partisan warriors worked together. The six-foot rule seemed fine with them, for several reasons. For one, social distancing helps prevent the spread of the deadly virus. It also lowers the risk of appearing too close to a politically toxic opponent and a $2.2 trillion spending bill. It's still an election year, after all. “I can't go that far,” House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy demurred with a grin after Speaker Nancy Pelosi invited him to pose next to her and the legislation. The leaders, surrounded by others, posed six feet apart for photos. Pelosi held the legislation. Off-camera, the House's deliberations produced some extraordinary visuals. Before the debate began, Pelosi glanced at the gathering Republicans and gestured with her hands for them to stand further apart to chat. Later, roughly 90 House members of both parties did more than cross the aisle to ensure the bill passed. They sat above it, in every other seat or so throughout the drafty visitors gallery that has sat empty since tours were canceled March 12. Their numbers helped surmount a challenge to the bill by Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., the only member of Congress willing to stall, if not block, the historic legislation. Throughout the day, Massie appeared to ask for speaking time. He was granted none. At one point, he and McCarthy walked across the chamber to talk with Pelosi. But she did most of the talking. “We just said to him, ... 'Why don't you just back off?'' Pelosi said later. He didn't. In a series of tweets, Massie said the bill was 'stuffed full' of sweeteners added by Democrats. He tried — and failed — to force a person-by-person roll call, “to make sure our republic doesn't die by unanimous consent.” President Donald Trump urged voters to throw Massie out of office. Massie's move so outraged Washington that it brought Trump and former Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, secretary of state under President Barack Obama, together. On Twitter, Kerry used a vulgarity to describe Massie and said, “He must be quarantined to prevent the spread of his massive stupidity.” Kerry added, ”Finally, something the president and I can agree on!” Otherwise united, House members spent the day together, yet apart, in the 162-year-old chamber. No one sat shoulder-to-shoulder, though a few members occasionally stood elbow-to-elbow to chat in the back. At one point, the sound of prevention hissed through the room. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas pulled a large can of disinfectant from his bag, aimed and fired. He sprayed the microphone into which he had just spoken. Then the lectern beneath it and the table on which it stood. Next, the seat behind him, its arms — and with a final swoosh, the air all around. The spray was a showy, if unnecessary, tool. Hand sanitizing stations stood at the top of every aisle. And cans of wipes with electric green tops were perched in seats behind the speakers' and managers' tables. Most speakers wiped down the microphones and lecterns before and after speaking. Pelosi raised a hand, palm out, whenever anyone came near. That included her aides — even as she asked and they answered questions. Others went further. Rep. Susan Brooks, R-Ind., entered and exited the chamber wearing off-white gloves, peeling them off after she sat down during the speeches. She did not wear them for her own address, choosing the wipes instead. Rep. Haley Stevens wore gloves — pink ones — on-camera. The generally mild-mannered freshman Democrat from Michigan appeared to have driven all night to get to Washington, tweeting from her car at 12:30 a.m. that she was “somewhere in Ohio.” At the lectern, she held up hands and continued speaking when Republicans shouted that her time had expired. Addressing doctors and nurses, she yelled: “You will see darkness! You will be pushed! Our society needs you to stand together at this difficult time! Our country loves you!” When the leaders cut her off, Stevens stepped away from the lectern. She put down her speech, said, “I yield,” and peeled off her gloves. Then she took sat in a seat on the aisle, next to Pelosi. The speaker, who celebrated her 80th birthday this week, smiled and moved one seat farther away. ____ Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this story. ___ Follow Kellman on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/APLaurieKellman
  • President Donald Trump issued an order Friday that seeks to force General Motors to produce ventilators for coronavirus patients under the Defense Production Act. Trump said negotiations with General Motors had been productive, “but our fight against the virus is too urgent to allow the give-and-take of the contracting process to continue to run its normal course.” Trump, who had previously been reluctant to use the act to force businesses to contribute to the coronavirus fight, said “GM was wasting time” and that his actions will help ensure the quick production of ventilators that will save American lives. GM is among the farthest along of U.S. companies trying to repurpose factories to build ventilators. It is working with Ventec Life Systems, a small Seattle-area ventilator maker, to increase the company's production and GM will use its auto electronics plant in Kokomo, Indiana to make the machines. Experts say that no matter how many ventilators companies can crank out, it may not be enough to cover the entire need, and it may not come in time to help areas now being hit hard with critical virus cases. U.S. hospitals now have about 65,000 ventilators fully capable of treating severe coronavirus patients. They could cobble together about 170,000, including some simpler versions that won't work in all cases, said Dr. Lewis Rubinson, chief medical officer at Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey and lead author of a 2010 medical journal article on the matter. Some 960,000 people in the U.S. will need to be on ventilators at one point or another during the crisis, according to an estimate made in February by Dr. James Lawler, an associate professor and infectious disease specialist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Rubinson said it’s unlikely the U.S. would need that many ventilators at the same time, estimating it will need more like 300,000 fairly quickly. If social distancing works, people will get sick at different times, allowing hospitals to use ventilators on multiple patients. In the most severe cases, the coronavirus damages healthy tissue in the lungs, making it hard for them to deliver oxygen to the blood. Pneumonia can develop, along with a more severe and potentially deadly condition called acute respiratory distress syndrome, which can damage other organs. GM said Friday it could build 10,000 ventilators per month starting in April with potential to make even more. After Trump invoked the act, GM said in a statement that it has been working around the clock for more than a week with Ventec and parts suppliers to build more ventilators. The company said its commitment to build Ventec’s ventilators “has never wavered.” Trump said from the Oval Office Friday afternoon that the government thought it had a deal for 40,000 ventilators but GM cut the number to 6,000 and talked about a higher price than previously discussed. “We didn't want to play games with them,' he said later that evening during his daily briefing, adding that GM now agrees with him and he may be able to end the enforcement of the act. Trump also said wasn't happy with GM for closing its factory in Lordstown, Ohio. “I didn't go into it with a very favorable view,” he said. Peter Navarro, White House trade adviser, said officials worked with more than 10 companies to get ventilators, including Ford and General Electric, and nearly all have been cooperative. But the government had problems with GM and Ventec, he said. “We cannot afford to lose a single day,” he said. GM asserts that it is offering resources to Ventec “at cost.” Ventec, not GM, is talking with the government, and the only changes Ventec has made have been at the government's request, said Chris Brooks, the company's chief strategy officer. GM would merely be a contract manufacturer for Ventec, he said. Ventec ventilators, which are portable and can handle intensive care patients, cost about $18,000 each, Brooks said. That's much cheaper than the more sophisticated ventilators used by hospitals that can cost up to $50,000, he said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has made multiple requests since Sunday for estimates of how many ventilators it can build at what price, and has not settled on any numbers, according to Brooks. That could slow Ventec's efforts to ramp up production because it doesn't know how many breathing machines it must build, he said. Trump invoked the Defense Production Act soon after a series of tweets earlier Friday attacking GM and CEO Mary Barra. The president also cajoled Ford to build ventilators fast. Ford responded that it's “pulling out all the stops.” It was a dramatic shift in tone from the night before, when the president told Fox News that pleas by hospitals for more ventilators are exaggerated. “I have a feeling that a lot of the numbers that are being said in some areas are just bigger than they’re going to be,” he said. “I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators,' Trump continued. 'You know, you’re going to major hospitals sometimes, they'll have two ventilators. And now, all of a sudden, they're saying, ‘can we order 30,000 ventilators?’” When Trump was asked during Friday's briefing why he invoked the act if the ventilators won't be needed, he said he thought there is a good chance there'll be enough and that if there ends up being a surplus, the ventilators could be sent to other countries. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been pleading for 30,000 more ventilators to handle an expected surge in critical virus patients during the next three weeks. U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, said her state is facing a critical need for ventilators. Michigan has gone from three coronavirus deaths a week ago to a total of 92 on Friday. “I think we need to let the scientists and the doctors tell us what we need and not people without medical degrees or the background,” she said. __ Kevin Freking in Washington and David Koenig in Dallas contributed to this story.