Welcome to your weekly run-down of all the big news, strange rules and interesting happenings from the world of US politics.
Yesterday in America, for the first time in 18 months, I joined 23 strangers in a dimly lit, rubber-floored room, where we sprinted on treadmills and heaved weights above our heads as a coach yelled vague-but-effective encouragement over a pulsing mix of pop hits.
A few people high-fived, showing no regard for social distancing. None of us wore masks. And I only felt guilty about it all once.
Maybe exercise wouldn’t be your preferred method to celebrate one’s vaccination status. I mean, it’s not mine either.
But I’ll admit that a few happy tears (and maybe a little sweat) ran down my face when I walked out of the studio, having just completed my first group fitness class since getting a vaccine.
In lieu of one concrete day when we can all say ‘the pandemic is over, go back to normal,’ each of these little ‘first since’ moments has hit me in a stupidly dramatic way. It’s like the reverse emotions from the start of the pandemic — I feel drop-everything overjoyed over the same things that once left me with paralysing, physical anxiety.
America was pretty much in non-stop lockdown from March 2020 to May 2021, when an expansive vaccination effort finally kicked into overdrive.
Most things are opened up and operating like normal. But the closure and catharsis never really came. We’re aching to start saying ‘post-pandemic’ with confidence.
President Joe Biden is trying very hard to make that point this weekend, when America celebrates its independence on July 4.
He and his cabinet will spread across 15 states, attending baseball games and hosting cookouts, marching in parades and visiting fire stations. They’re trying to pack in as many of those ‘first since’ moments as they can, dubbing it “America’s Back Together” weekend.
Except the country isn’t really back together. Not quite yet.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US is still recording more than 11,000 new COVID-19 cases per day and averaging more than 280 deaths. That’s a huge (more than 90 per cent) reduction in both numbers since this thing was peaking, but it’s not nothing.
For one thing, vaccination rates are stagnating and America has yet to reach herd immunity.
Biden’s initial goal was to get 70 per cent of US adults at least their first COVID-19 vaccine shot by this weekend’s July Fourth holiday. As of Monday, that metric was roughly 66 per cent, according to the CDC.
Concern about the Delta variant, which is triggering lockdowns in largely unvaccinated Australia this week, aren’t stopping America’s march towards normal.
It’s because in the country’s most densely populated areas (think New York), vaccination rates are rising fast, approaching that magic herd immunity number.
The biggest hold-outs are sparsely populated rural areas, where the virus didn’t hit as hard, and younger Americans, who mistakenly don’t feel they’re at-risk for the virus’s worst symptoms. If the current pace continues, only 57 per cent of adults under age 30 will have received at least one dose by the end of August.
Speaking directly with hesitant Americans is also on the White House agenda for the weekend.
But all this presidential pageantry can’t drown out the worry that vaccine peer pressure will drop as the country keeps marching towards normalcy without meeting its own milestones (ie: I had no way of knowing whether anyone in that fitness class was unvaccinated).
So while Australians will spend another weekend in lockdown, Biden will spend a weekend performing normality, trying to keep the nation on the same page.
Even in a country where vaccines are so plentiful that it’s almost easier to get one than a flat white at an airport, the road out of the pandemic won’t be as linear as we — or our political leaders — want it to be.
So, you could say, it’s kind of like getting back in shape. Just put your own effort in and hang in there.
The big story
Well, it’s not a great day for anyone who’s tried to hide their tax returns …
The Manhattan District Attorney charged Donald Trump’s family business with a 15-year-long tax fraud scheme. Its Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg is accused of avoiding taxes on $US1.7 million ($2.3 million) in income.
Trump is not expected to be indicted today, but the court may learn a lot more about his finances from Weisselberg, who has been under intense pressure to cooperate with the investigation.
The Assistant District Attorney characterised Weisselberg’s alleged role as part of “a sweeping and audacious illegal payment scheme”.
The Trump Organization said the CFO was being used like a “pawn in a scorched-earth attempt to harm the former president.”
Weisselberg surrendered voluntarily at 6:20am (local time) this morning and entered a not guilty plea. Expect to hear his name a lot in the coming weeks.
FWIW, the timing of the forthcoming court storm is likely to add a little momentum to Biden’s tax plan. He wants to crack down on fraud and evasion to raise funds for infrastructure projects, an area of legislation generally agreeable across partisan lines, which Trump was never ever to make progress on.
The Revenge Tour
While all this grand jury stuff was happening in Manhattan, the former president made his return to public political life with a rally in Ohio and a trip to the southern US border in the past week.
Both trips were ostensibly about:
- supporting a candidate trying to primary a sitting Republican who voted to impeach
- turning the heat up on Joe Biden’s immigration policies
But as Politico reported, that didn’t matter to his fans at the rally who wanted to hear “the same stuff — just more of it”.
What was different was the cast of supporting characters around the former president. In lieu of other local elected Republicans, Trump’s warm-up acts were a Who’s Who of the conspiracy fringe of American conservatism.
Think Marjorie Taylor Greene. The MyPillow guy.
Last week Republican strategist Eric Wilson told us that the test for the rally would be how enthusiastic Trump’s supporters were, and how much he could command the attention of the media.
Crowd size numbers are always fuzzy, but the reporters on the scene certainly said the crowd packed in to see Trump, even if they did start shuffling out because they couldn’t hear him speak.
But on the media front, it appears Trump was notably less successful. None of the major cable networks broadcast the rally live — including Fox News.
Instead it aired on the extremely conservative, but audience-lagging, Newsmax and One America News.
In a significant win for transgender youth, SCOTUS said it wouldn’t hear a case concerning a Virginia school that prohibited a transgender student from using the boys’ restroom.
The court’s decision doesn’t establish precedent.
But in all likelihood it will spur yet another round of debate over the bathroom issue. It’s been among the clearest dividers of the right and left, socially speaking, since the Obama administration threw its weight behind the student in 2016.
Burning down the House
The lower chamber of Congress voted 222 to 190 to create a bipartisan committee to investigate the January 6 Capitol riot and review current safety measures.
Two Republicans — Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger — sided with the Democrats to pass the measure, even though about 35 House Republicans formerly said they supported the measure.
That the only Republican supporters were two who’ve already been condemned by the party is not at all surprising given that a previous attempt to create a Senate commission got blocked by the upper chamber last month.
The Republicans argued back then that any sort of special investigation would be used as a political weapon in next year’s midterm election.
An Iowa caucus redux in New York
Remember when the 2020 Democratic Iowa caucus was such a binfire that they printed joke T-shirts about it?
Well, the New York mayoral elections might be headed for an even bigger binfire.
Two weeks after the election, they’re still counting the votes in the Democratic primary, which used ranked-choice voting for the first time.
And this week, the New York City Board of Elections released an updated count … that somehow managed to include 135,000 dummy ballots that were used to test the system.
You know things are going poorly when the Notes app apology comes out.
A day after that embarrassing retraction the board released new results, showing the race is looking much closer than when Eric Adams all but claimed victory on election day.
The new tally has Adams leading the New York Times endorsed Kathryn Garcia by 51.1 per cent to 48.9 per cent.
There are about 125,000 absentee ballots that are still to be counted and, assuming the troubled Board of Elections doesn’t stuff things up again, a winner will finally be declared in mid-July.