A unique week
If any further proof was needed that 2020 is one of the strangest national political cycles, one needs only to look back over the past few days. Within the span of hours, President Donald Trump was the subject of a book accusing him of lying to the American people as a killer virus swept through the country, while also being nominated — twice — for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Bob Woodward’s new book, “Rage” painted a picture of the President knowing how serious the coronavirus was, but continued to downplay the dangers in public comments. Woodward said this described Trump’s tendency to deny reality and get involved in “making up his own facts.” He declared Trump “unfit” to serve as commander in chief.
“A historic national tragedy has occurred because Trump told us in his own words that he did not tell us the truth about COVID-19,” West Palm Beach Democrat Lois Frankel said in a statement that encapsulated the feelings of those who felt he deceived the public. “He was fully aware of the catastrophic nature of the virus, that it was airborne, that it would damage old and young, but he left our entire country exposed and unprepared.”
Boca Raton Democrat Ted Deutch said, “The American people deserved leadership, they got negligence. Trump knew the dangers of COVID-19, he just didn’t care.”
The President and his defenders maintain he was trying to prevent a panic throughout the country.
Meanwhile, last week’s historic peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates generated a Nobel nomination from a Norwegian lawmaker. Another agreement saw Kosovo recognize Israel and Serbia agreeing to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, while another brought Israel and Bahrain together. The latter move generated another Nobel nomination, this time by a member of the Swedish Parliament.
“Rather than appeasing the mullahs in Iran and working to marginalize our democratic ally Israel, President Trump has united our allies in the region, strengthened Israel, and made peace more attainable,” said Hialeah Republican Mario Diaz-Balart.
Sarasota Republican Greg Steube said that Trump deserves the peace prize and more Americans would feel the same if they knew the facts. He blamed the media for the lack of awareness.
“The mainstream media chooses to ignore President @realDonaldTrump‘s foreign policy successes, but he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his dedication and progress in reaching peace in the Middle East,” Steube said during an interview on Fox Business Network.
While many Democrats such as Soto joined in the celebration for the peace deals involving Israel, none were calling for Trump to win the award. The final decision is more than a year away.
Mail balloting is underway in some states and will soon pick up in others, followed by early voting. The necessity to convince what remains of undecided voters will drive the injection of hundreds of millions of dollars into a relatively small window in time.
It is already a campaign season like no other in modern history. Many more stories remain to be told.
Disney called out
Hollywood is often heavily involved in political campaigns, but now the movie industry is in the middle of a controversy involving the persecution of an ethnic group in China. Sen. Marco Rubio led a bipartisan letter to The Walt Disney Co.’s CEO criticizing Disney’s cooperation with Chinese officials in the filming of the movie Mulan.
The letter to Bob Chapek calls out what they say is Disney’s cooperation with Chinese officials who are committing and covering up atrocities against Muslim Uyghurs, who many believe are held in internment camps. They called that cooperation “profoundly disturbing.”
“Publicly available information prior to the filming of Mulan showed the existence of mass internment camps for the detention of Uyghurs,” they wrote. “The decision to film parts of Mulan in the XUAR, in cooperation with local security and propaganda elements, offers tacit legitimacy to these perpetrators of crimes that may warrant the designation of genocide.”
Earlier this year, Rubio was joined by 74 members of the Senate and the House in sending a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin urging them to issue a formal determination of the atrocity crimes, including crimes against humanity and genocide against Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim ethnic minorities.
Among the 19 lawmakers signing the letter was Republican Sen. Rick Scott.
No relief in sight
Democrats have successfully played upon a division among Senate Republicans on the issue of a new round of coronavirus relief funding. While Democrats have touted a unified House caucus that passed the $3.4 trillion HEROES Act, as many as 20 Senate Republicans could not support a Senate package offered in July that was one-third the size of the Democrats’ bill.
Republican Senators rallied around a new offer that pledged $300 billion, which provided funds for schools to open safely, additional testing, a $300 per week federal bonus to state unemployment payments, more Paycheck Protection Program funding and protection from lawsuits. Democrats called that far from sufficient.
“We need sustained relief to South Florida to prevent a cascading economic crisis,” tweeted Deutch. “The ‘skinny’ bill Rubio & Scott will vote for this week isn’t enough. We need the #HeroesAct now to help our cities, health providers & workers in tourism/hospitality.”
The bill was blocked by Senate Democrats as Republicans came together.
“Senate Republicans have been focused on getting help to individuals and small businesses that are struggling. We can accomplish this goal without bankrupting our country,” said Scott in a statement after the vote. “The package negotiated and supported by Senate Republicans does just that.”
After Trump suspended the payroll tax to provide a $300 unemployment benefit in August, the White House is reportedly looking at more executive action to get around the deadlock. One of the possibilities floated was to take $300 billion in unspent relief funds from the CARES Act and turn those into another $1,200 stimulus check.
“(The Democrats’) strategy is clear,” Scott said. “They believe that passing nothing benefits them politically and they’re determined to stop any relief from moving forward. It’s shameful, but what we’ve come to expect from Sen. (Chuck) Schumer and Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi.”
Pelosi has reportedly offered a willingness to drop the cost of their bill by one-third to $2.2 trillion.
Boost Taiwan trade
Momentum for stronger relations with Taiwan appears to be growing. Making the island republic a stronger trading partner seems to be part of the strategy.
Following a recent move by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen to lift restrictions on the importation of American beef and pork, free trade proponents called on the Trump administration to build on the breakthrough. In a letter to Pompeo, Rubio called the step as a removal of the “sole obstacle” to enhanced trade.
“I urge you to send Undersecretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and Environment Keith Krach to Taipei as soon as possible to demonstrate U.S. determination to complete an FTA in a timely manner,” Rubio wrote.
“Maintaining U.S. economic influence and reducing Taiwan’s dependence on trade with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is essential to ensuring that the Indo-Pacific remains free and open. Taiwan is our tenth-largest trade partner and they have proven themselves to be a partner of the first order.”
Increasing tensions with China and their attempt to seek greater dominance in the Asia-Pacific region has brought the U.S. closer to Taiwan and further angered the Chinese. The recent trip to Taipei by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar was designed to highlight Taiwan’s successful management of the coronavirus, but also hinted at increased trade.
Shortly thereafter, Tsai announced the lifting of restrictions on beef and pork.
HUD funds coming
With more than $250 billion yet to be disbursed from the $2.2 trillion CARES Act passed in March, more of those funds are beginning to work their way into American communities. Last week three Central Florida Democrats announced more than $20 million would be coming to the region from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to provide additional support for individuals, small businesses and communities.
Reps. Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park, Darren Soto of Kissimmee, and Val Demings of Orlando jointly announced funding that will involve eight different cities and counties in the area. HUD is distributing funds to eight different cities and counties in Central Florida.
“Many Central Floridians are still struggling with the uncertainty of a global pandemic that has left them without a job and facing eviction,” Murphy said in a joint news release. “I’m proud to announce this funding that will help hardworking families stay in their homes and increase access to affordable housing in Central Florida.”
Specific uses for the funds are still to be determined by the recipients, but previous CARES Act funding was used for rental assistance, homeless shelter operations, case management, legal aid for low-income households, job preparation and training, and other programs to help alleviate the economic and housing affordability crisis escalated by the pandemic.
“Another due date for renters and homeowners has passed and Floridians impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic are still struggling to stay in their homes,” Soto said. “I’m proud to announce these housing grants with Congresswomen Demings and Murphy that will help families in our districts keep a roof over their heads. Together, we will continue to fight for federal funding to ensure everyone in Central Florida fully recovers from this crisis.”
Orlando and Orange County are targeted to receive more than $11 million, with more than $5.5 million going to Seminole and Osceola County, along with the communities of Sanford, Kissimmee and St. Cloud. More than $3.5 million will be dedicated to Lakeland and Polk County.
“This pandemic has attacked our health and our economy. Families have struggled to make ends meet and to stay safe,” said Demings. “While the President has failed to respond, Democrats in Congress have acted. This funding passed by Congress is important, but it is also not enough.”
Demings and her colleagues have repeatedly called on Senate Republicans to pass the $3.4 trillion HEROES Act, which contains billions for states and local communities.
Alert for hacking
Murphy has called for increased transparency in the event of election interference following reports the Woodward book provides additional information on two Florida counties whose election infrastructure was allegedly compromised in 2016. Federal authorities have yet to confirm the information.
Murphy is the lead sponsor of bipartisan legislation, the ALERTS Act, that would require notification to appropriate members of Congress, state and local officials, and potentially affected voters when an election’ system or voter information is compromised.
In March 2019, the Mueller Report concluded that Russian military intelligence officers sent spear-phishing emails to over 120 email accounts used by Florida county elections officials leading up to the 2016 elections, therefore, allowing Russians to gain access to the network of at least one Florida county government.
“These reports continue to demonstrate just how much voters are unwisely kept in the dark by our government about election meddling and how this confusion only serves to destabilize trust in our democracy,” Murphy said in a news release. “We cannot fight back against foreign interference if voters are not aware of potential intrusions and cannot take steps to verify the integrity of their voting information.
In response to the report, Murphy and St. Augustine Republican Michael Waltz requested a briefing by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for the Florida congressional delegation on the extent of Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections.
During that briefing, federal officials informed the Florida delegation that Russian had infiltrated two counties in Florida, but the officials did not authorize members to disclose that information to the public. The counties’ names still have not officially been released.
Waltz is the original co-sponsor of the ALERTS Act. He is among 35 co-sponsors, including 14 within the delegation.
Politics of oil
There is no disputing that the Florida delegation is united against the concept of drilling for oil and gas off the state’s coast. Whether or not the threat is serious, Trump has been linked to favoring the expansion of drilling but used the presidential campaign to officially take the threat off the table for the time being.
The President came to Jupiter for a campaign stop to focus on environmental issues, with offshore drilling at the top of the list. His announcement of an executive order declaring a 10-year extension of an existing moratorium delighted drilling opponents and disappointed the oil industry while removing a campaign line of attack from the table.
“Today, the President once again stood with Florida by announcing he will extend Florida’s offshore drilling moratorium,” said Clermont Republican Daniel Webster in a statement. “In addition to protecting our world-renowned, beautiful beaches; the moratorium on offshore drilling in the eastern Gulf is vital for our combat capabilities.”
The move reportedly caught many by surprise. One industry official described it as “a campaign sort of thing.”
While Democrats are pleased with the policy, some also described the announcement as political.
“No one is fooled by an executive order that can be rescinded at any time, or by a President who has rolled back over 100 landmark clean water and clean air protections,” said Tampa Democrat Kathy Castor.
“Trump opposes investments in clean energy and the related cost savings for consumers. He ignores scientists, calls the climate crisis a ‘hoax,’ and sides with polluters over the health of families every chance he gets. Voters won’t be fooled by this election year epiphany.”
As part of a series of tweets, retiring Naples Republican Francis Rooney applauded the move, but offered a way to make the ban permanent.
“I hope that the Senate will now realize what the House of Representatives & Pres. Trump realize that FL needs to be protected from offshore drilling-& act to convert this executive order into formal legislation like HR 205 so that it cannot be easily reversed by a future admin. 3/3”
Rooney is the lead sponsor of the bill, Protecting and Securing Florida’s Coastline Act of 2019, with Castor serving as the original co-sponsor. It is co-sponsored by 12 members of the delegation and passed the House one year ago.
More housing funds
More federal funding is on its way thanks to the CARES Act. Castor announced the City of Tampa will receive a $3.1 million Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to bolster coronavirus relief efforts. The funding is authorized through the CARES Act.
“Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, I am continuing to work hand in hand with Mayor Jane Castor to aid our neighbors and ensure families stay afloat,” she said in a news release. “This CARES Act funding is intended for critical local needs like affordable housing and COVID-19 safety measures to help neighbors who are facing economic uncertainty.”
The Castors are not related.
These grants support community development activities to build stronger and more resilient communities. Activities may address needs such as infrastructure, economic development projects, public facilities installation, community centers, housing rehabilitation, homeowner assistance, and more. Federal support encourages systematic and sustained action by state and local governments.
The funding follows nearly $1.1 million in CDBG funding that Castor announced on April 2. The CARES Act is a $2 trillion coronavirus relief package for states and local communities passed by Congress and signed into law March 27, 2020.
“We are all in this fight together, and I’m committed to bringing every resource possible,” she added.
The controversy over “Cuties,” a new film on Netflix, has drawn quite a few critics. Sarasota Republican Vern Buchanan joined them on Monday, the same day he put forward legislation to outlaw childlike sex dolls nationwide.
“A film that shows girls as young as 11 engaging in highly sexualized dance routines is inappropriate,” the congressman said. “I support artistic expression in film but this is exploitative, dangerous and borders on child pornography.”
Buchanan joins with Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody in slamming the film. But he also used the release to note his CREEPER Act 2.0 legislation, modeled off a Florida law passed in 2019. “We need to stop catering to predators and start paying more attention to protecting children,” he said.
Perhaps coincidentally, his Democratic opponent Margaret Good was the only Florida lawmaker to vote against the Florida sex doll ban, though she said she did so in error.
Buchanan said his concern over Cuties isn’t about free expression. A news release from his office said the message of the film could have been delivered without showing children in risqué situations. As with childlike sex toys, the presentation only risks feeding the appetite of predators, he said.
As Palm City Republican Brian Mast seeks reelection to a third term, most Democrats will line up behind his challenger, former Navy JAG officer Pam Keith. That will most certainly be true for presidential nominee Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden.
However, Mast and the Bidens have a relationship dating back to 2010, a few months after he suffered severe injuries while serving in the Army that cost him both legs. Several wounded service members and their spouses, including Brianna Mast, were invited to Thanksgiving dinner in 2010 at the vice president’s residence. Brian Mast was subsequently invited by Jill Biden to attend the 2011 State of the Union address as her guest.
“I met Brian and Brianna at one of my favorite events last year — the annual Thanksgiving dinner that my husband Joe and I host for wounded warriors and their families at the vice president’s Residence,” Jill Biden wrote in a statement issued on Jan. 25, 2011.
“Joe and I are always filled with such gratitude for both the commitment and the enormous sacrifices made by the families who join us for this meal and at other events and meetings throughout the year. Families whose service to our country all too often goes unrecognized.”
Despite the goodwill shared by the families, they now have opposite political goals. Last week, Mast was with Trump when he visited Jupiter and signed the executive order extending the moratorium on oil drilling (see “Politics of oil” above). Jill Biden was campaigning for her husband in Jacksonville addressing teachers and students.
Rep. Francis Rooney in his last term in Congress has made a habit of going against the partisan grain and critiquing Trump. He did so again Monday, issuing a release slamming the President’s decision to defer Social Security taxes.
“I appreciate the administration’s attempt to bring financial relief to hardworking Americans during this difficult time, but this payroll tax deferral is not a good solution,” Rooney said. “It presents a short-term remedy that will engender long-term problems beyond the pandemic and could end up disrupting the historical employee-employer cost-sharing for payroll taxes.”
The action by the President comes as the House and Senate have failed to reach common ground on another coronavirus rescue bill. Through executive order, the President can delay payroll taxes, but cannot control the budget, and thus the fact taxpayers will still owe money that must be repaid in the future. Rooney fears deferring payments will just create financial calamity.
“It is impractical to expect that these deferred amounts could be paid by employees next April. The highest likelihood is that the government reimburses them, or worse, that employers are required to pay the employees’ part as well as their own,” he said.
“This order is not an appropriate means of repairing our damaged economy because however these deferred payments might be resolved, there will be serious damage to the employee-employer relationship at the very time when we need to strengthen it to provide economic opportunity for more Americans.”
On this day
September 15, 2008 — More evidence emerged that the United States is in a worrisome downturn. The Dow Jones Industrials lost 4.5% of its value, but other events are painting a possible grim picture on Wall Street as the administration of President George W. Bush scrambles to mitigate the damage.
Investment giant Merrill Lynch was saved after Bank of America stepped in to purchase it. The struggling AIG insurance group is now drawing on funds from affiliates to survive, while Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The situation became campaign fodder as Vice President Biden described an administration under Republican presidential nominee John McCain would be “Bush 44.”
September 15, 2010 — Less than two months before Election Day, Republican Senate nominee Rubio is comfortably leading independent Gov. Charlie Crist and Democratic U.S. Rep Kendrick Meek. A Fox News poll showed Rubio with 41% to 30% for Crist and 23% for Meek.
Some Democrats are torn between backing their party’s candidate and Crist, a former Republican. Among those elected Democrats supporting Crist is Democratic state Sen. Al Lawson. The winner will succeed Sen. George LeMieux, who was appointed by Crist to fill out the remainder of former Sen. Mel Martinez’s term.
Greetings to Rep. Murphy (September 16).