Trump Is Gutting the Inspector General System, and Most Republicans Don’t Care

“The Trump administration’s dismantling of independent federal watchdogs continued late last Friday, as Trump removed State Department Inspector General Steve Linick, who was reportedly conducting at least two misconduct probes into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Politico also reported today that Linick had recently finished an investigation into a Pompeo aide and concluded she had likely failed to report allegations of workplace violence.

On Friday night Trump also replaced the acting inspector general at the Department of Transportation, who was investigating Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao—the wife of Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.)—for alleged favoritism in awarding contracts.

Friday’s moves follow a string of dismissals that congressional Democrats and government accountability groups say is a purge of the inspectors general system by the Trump administration. The president has then filled those watchdog positions with political allies.”

“In April, Trump fired Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community. Atkinson’s referral of a whistleblower complaint to Congress launched the Ukraine investigation and eventual impeachment of Trump, and the firing was widely seen as retaliation.

Trump also replaced Pentagon Inspector General Glenn Fine, who was supposed to oversee the $2 trillion coronavirus aid package passed by Congress.

Inspectors general are independent offices that investigate waste, fraud, and abuse at federal agencies. They regularly audit agencies’ compliance with mundane rules and record-keeping, as well as investigate whistleblower complaints about misconduct.

Their investigative powers give them access to records and officials that the public and reporters don’t have, and as such, they fill an important role as watchdogs within the federal government.”

“To do their job, inspectors general are supposed to be insulated from political pressure. They don’t report to agency heads, and although they’re appointed and can be fired by the president, the president must give Congress 30 days’ notice before any firing, along with reasons for the removal. (Trump subverted even this modest requirement in Atkinson’s case by placing him on immediate leave.)”

“But the Trump administration, despite the president’s pledge to “drain the swamp,” is hostile to any oversight and has no use for inspectors general except as toadies and rubber stamps. Trump said he fired Linick at the request of Pompeo, but so far the administration has not given any detailed explanation, except that the president “lost confidence” in him.

And congressional Republicans, once champions of oversight and accountability during President Barack Obama’s administration, have become mute or blasé on the subject.”

“If Congress wants to maintain any vestige of respectability—or even any indication that it’s still a functioning branch of government rather than the executive’s doormat—it needs to reassert its power to protect independent inspectors general, regardless of which political party holds the White House.”

What’s the Herd Immunity Threshold for the COVID-19 Coronavirus?

“Herd immunity is the resistance to the spread of a contagious disease that results if a sufficiently high proportion of a population is immune to the illness. Some people are still susceptible, but they are surrounded by immune individuals, who serve as a barrier preventing the microbes from reaching them. You can achieve this through either mass infection or mass vaccination.”

“Most the evidence so far suggests that people who recover from a COVID-19 coronavirus infection do, at least for a time, develop immunity to the microbe. If that’s true, what is the disease-induced herd immunity threshold for the COVID-19 coronavirus? Various epidemiologists offer different answers, depending upon their estimates for the disease’s R0 and other variables, but most have converged on a threshold at around 60 to 70 percent.

More recently, some researchers have suggested that this threshold may be too high. In a new preprint, three mathematicians from Sweden and the United Kingdom, using an R0 of 2.5, calculate a reduction in the herd immunity threshold from 60 percent to 43 percent by incorporating some assumptions with respect to populations’ social activity levels and age structures.

A couple of new reports speculatively lower the possible herd immunity threshold for the coronavirus to just 10 to 20 percent of the population. This conjecture depends chiefly on assumptions about just how susceptible and connected members of the herd are.”

“There are no solid estimates for the percentage of the U.S. population that has already been infected by the coronavirus, but Youyang Gu and his team at COVID19-Projections estimate that right now the number is between 2.2 to 4.7 percent. That would mean that somewhere between 7.3 and 15.5 million Americans have been infected. A similar result emerges from a very rough calculation that multiplies the number of confirmed cases at 1.4 million by a 10-fold factor of undiagnosed cases and infections. (The 10-fold factor is derived from data recently reported by Indiana University researchers.)
The upshot: The U.S. as a whole is not yet close to achieving even the speculatively low estimate of the herd immunity threshold.”

The New York Times Recoils at the Predictable Consequences of the Mandatory COVID-19 Precautions It Supports

“If COVID-19 precautions are mandatory, they must at some point be legally enforced, with all the risks that entails, including violence and racial discrimination. The public health payoff might justify those risks in certain contexts—if a dense crowd happens to gather in Central Park, for instance, or if subway riders refuse to wear masks (although that was the situation in the video that the Times cites as evidence of overkill). But the risks cannot be eliminated if voluntary compliance is less than perfect, as it always will be.”

South America Won the U.S.-China Trade War

“The easiest way to win a trade war? Don’t be one of the countries involved.

When the United States slapped tariffs on steel, aluminum, and billions of dollars of Chinese imports in the summer of 2018, China and other U.S. trading partners retaliated by targeting American agricultural exports. By the time a series of tit for tat increases in tariffs by the U.S. and China came to a halt with a December 2019 partial trade agreement—one that left most of the higher tariffs in place on both sides—the average foreign tariff for American farm goods had jumped from 8.3 to 26.8 percent

As a result, U.S. farm exports suffered. Carter and Steinbach calculate that U.S. farmers lost more than $15.6 billion in trade with countries that hiked tariffs in response to the Trump administration’s trade war. Soybeans, pork products, and grains were the products most affected.

Some of those losses were offset by trade with other nations—for example, when China stopped purchasing U.S.-grown soybeans, growers had to find other buyers for their products. That was the goal of a July 2018 deal struck by President Donald Trump and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker that the White House touted as a vehicle for sending more American soybeans to Europe.

As Reason noted at the time, Europe’s annual consumption of soybeans was less than 25 percent of China’s (and it already had access to tariff-free imports of U.S. soybeans), so “unless Juncker and Trump plan to start jamming soybeans down European throats, foie gras-style, there’s simply no way that Europe can consume enough soybeans to make up for the loss of China as an American export market.”

“Nearly two years later, Carter and Steinbach calculate that so-called “deflected trade” in agricultural goods boosted U.S. exports by about $1.2 billion during the trade war—leaving American farms only $14 billion in the red.”

“countries that the two researchers identify as “non-retaliatory countries”—that is, places that did not hike tariffs in response to U.S. tariffs on steel, aluminum, and other goods—gained more than $13.5 billion by increasing trade to places, like China, that took steps to reduce imports of U.S. farm goods.”

“soybean farmers are worried about how the trade war might permanently reshape the global soybean trade, to the detriment of American growers.”

“In March 2018, after Trump announced his intention to hike tariffs on steel and aluminum, Peter Navarro, the director of the White House’s National Trade Council, was asked about the potential consequences of retaliation aimed at American farm exports.

“I don’t believe any country in the world is going to retaliate,” he said. “They know they’re cheating us, and we’re just trying to stand up for ourselves.”

Navarro and Trump were wrong. American farmers have lost $14 billion because of their mistake.”

11 legal experts agree: There’s no good reason for DOJ to drop the Michael Flynn case

“The decision to toss out Flynn’s case is, to put it mildly, controversial. The DOJ is saying, implicitly, that they can’t prove that Flynn committed the crime he already confessed to, or that it’s simply not worth prosecuting even though he already pled guilty. Either scenario is, well, odd.

On the surface, there’s only one reason to drop this case: politics. Trump, and his Attorney General Bill Barr, think the Russia investigation was bogus to begin with. Flynn’s lawyers, for their part, have insisted that the FBI mishandled the investigation and entrapped him.”

“I reached out to eleven legal experts. While there wasn’t a perfect consensus, every expert agreed that the DOJ’s decision was highly unusual at best and an attack on the rule of law at worst.”

The agonizing story of Tara Reade

“All of this leaves me where no reporter wants to be: mired in the miasma of uncertainty. I wanted to believe Reade when she first came to me, and I worked hard to find the evidence to make certain others would believe her, too. I couldn’t find it. None of that means Reade is lying, but it leaves us in the limbo of Me Too: a story that may be true but that we can’t prove.”

Why some labs work on making viruses deadlier — and why they should stop

“The scientists who do this kind of research argue that we can better anticipate deadly diseases by making diseases deadlier in the lab. But many people at the time and since have become increasingly convinced that the potential research benefits — which look limited — just don’t outweigh the risks of kicking off the next deadly pandemic ourselves.”

Coronavirus is a major test of America’s innovation industry

“the attention and resources dedicated to repurposing old drugs detracts from the pursuit of new therapies that would be true breakthroughs, exponential advancements in science. Feldman describes such innovation as “value beyond pearls.”
“It’s rare, it’s beautiful, it’s startling, it’s a thing of beauty,” she said.

But that kind of innovation takes time and money with no certain payoff. It’s simpler and cheaper to modify existing products to somewhat improve their efficacy or to tweak them to treat a different condition.

“I worry that our system is not well primed for it,” she said. “It’s all about the incentives. Our incentives aren’t directed properly.”

She pointed to the shift away from antibacterial resistance research and drug development, even though researchers anticipate millions of global deaths annually within the next few decades because bacteria have become resistant to the drugs that we already have to fight them.

Drug makers currently devote a lot of their attention to end-stage cancers, because they can benefit from “orphan drug” designation and other competitively advantageous policies, while Feldman argued that chronic conditions have been underserved. Looking at it from a societal perspective, the latter obviously has more value than the former — and yet that is not necessarily what our innovation system has been designed to reward.

Or look at the antiviral space, which is the most relevant to the coronavirus response.

Antiviral research investment historically has not been a priority for the major drugmakers. The Wall Street Journal reported Pfizer had to reestablish its antiviral research department for its Covid-19 work because the unit was disbanded in 2009. Novartis ended its antiviral and antibacterial research in 2018. One systemic review of the past 30 years of antiviral research found “only a few drugs were approved to treat acute viral infections” in that time.

“Antibiotics and antivirals are both areas that haven’t seen a tremendous amount of new drug development because the economic incentives haven’t justified significant R&D in this area,” Caroline Pearson, senior fellow with NORC-University of Chicago, told me recently.

So long as these incentive structures remain in place, Feldman warned, we will never be ahead of the curve in fighting off the next pandemic. She said that the US should be asking: “What’s of value and what should we incentivize people to do?””