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Government shutdown halts most FDA food safety inspections

01/10/19 08:40AM

Following a series of major food-safety controversies in the Bush/Cheney era, Democrats approved a sweeping overhaul of the nation's food-safety system in 2010, expanding the FDA's ability to recall tainted foods and increasing inspections. It was the biggest effort on food safety in more than 70 years, all in the hopes of preventing unsafe food from reaching consumers' tables.

Shortly before getting elected, Donald Trump and his team made clear they had no use for the improved safeguards. As regular readers may recall, when the Trump campaign pointed to some of the "regulations" the Republican opposed, it specifically complained about the "FDA Food Police."

In other words, there were already concerns about how this administration would protect the safety of Americans' food. Trump's government shutdown, however, has made matters quite a bit more serious.

The ongoing federal government shutdown has stopped most food safety inspections, but the Food and Drug Administration is planning to resume at least some of them. To do it, the agency will have to force furloughed workers to come back without pay. [...]

... FDA inspectors are not looking for salmonella in breakfast cereal, E. coli in romaine lettuce, or listeria in ice cream. Companies can still make their own checks, of course, and the FDA is still announcing those recalls.

Foreign food inspections are also continuing, almost as normal, because they're considered so important. But the FDA has virtually stopped inspecting domestic food production facilities, which could mean threats to the public are going undetected.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb conceded to NBC News, in reference to the agency he leads, "There are important things we are not doing."

He later added on Twitter that the FDA is "working to continue" high-risk inspections, which didn't exactly set minds at ease.

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In this July 19, 2015 photo released by the U.S. Coast Guard, a Coast Guard Cutter Stratton boarding team investigates a self-propelled semi-submersible. (Photo by LaNola Stone/U.S. Coast Guard/ AP)

During shutdown, unpaid Coast Guard officials receive depressing advice

01/10/19 08:00AM

The current government shutdown, poised to become the longest in American history, doesn't affect every federal department and agency. Appropriations for the Department of Defense, for example, were approved before Donald Trump's stunt began a few weeks ago.

But that's cold comfort to the Coast Guard, which is a branch of the U.S. military, but which falls inside the Department of Homeland Security. As a result, thousands of Coast Guard officials are currently on indefinite furlough, and many of them are deemed "essential" -- which means they have to work without pay.

What are they supposed to do about paying their bills? As the Washington Post  reported overnight, these officials have received some depressing advice.

Employees of the U.S. Coast Guard who are facing a long U.S. government shutdown just received a suggestion: To get by without pay, consider holding a garage sale, babysitting, dog-walking or serving as a "mystery shopper."

The suggestions were part of a five-page tip sheet published by the Coast Guard Support Program, an employee-assistance arm of the service often known as CG SUPRT. It is designated to offer Coast Guard members help with mental-health issues or other concerns about their lives, including financial wellness.

"Bankruptcy is a last option," the document said.

As regular readers know, the president has been preoccupied to an almost creepy degree with the Coast Guard's "brand," gushing for months about how much it's "improved" in recent years.

Of course, Coast Guard officials can't pay the rent with Trump's impressions of their "brand."

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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 1.9.19

01/09/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Only of concern to people who eat food: "The ongoing federal government shutdown has stopped most food safety inspections, but the Food and Drug Administration is planning to resume at least some of them. To do it, the agency will have to force furloughed workers to come back without pay."

* Rosenstein: "Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who had been overseeing the special counsel investigation, plans to step down after Robert Mueller finishes his work, according to administration officials familiar with his thinking."

* He probably doesn't have the authority to do this: "In the midst of a government shutdown, President Trump has threatened to cut off federal emergency aid to California for forest fires.... It is unclear, based on the tweet's wording, if Trump already directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to withhold funds or if he would be doing so."

* Upping the pressure on the shutdown: "Senate Democrats voted down a Middle East policy bill on Tuesday evening in protest over the government shutdown, and may soon vote again to block Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's agenda if the funding lapse persists."

* Formalizing what we knew would happen: "President Donald Trump has formally nominated Andrew Wheeler to be EPA administrator, cementing the no-nonsense former attorney as his pick to carry out his deregulatory agenda, the White House announced today."

* I could've sworn we were told tax cuts would pay for themselves: "The federal budget deficit continued to rise in the first quarter of fiscal 2019 and is on pace to top $1 trillion for the year, as President Trump's signature tax cuts continue to reduce corporate tax revenue, data released Tuesday shows."

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In new 'temper tantrum,' Trump literally walks away from negotiating table

01/09/19 04:35PM

Following Donald Trump's Oval Office address last night, congressional Democratic leaders explained, "We don't govern by temper tantrum. No president should pound the table and demand he gets his way or else the government shuts down."

Perhaps the president missed the remarks, because this afternoon, during brief White House talks about re-opening the government, Trump threw a tantrum, pounded the table, and demanded he get his way or the shutdown would continue,

President Donald Trump abruptly walked out of a closed-door meeting with congressional leaders Wednesday in the White House Situation Room after Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she wouldn't fund his border wall if he ended a government shutdown first.

"She said 'No,'" Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said, adding that Trump slammed the table. "He said, 'Then we have nothing to discuss' ...He just walked out of the meeting."

Echoing last night's message, Schumer also told reporters, "Again we saw a temper tantrum because he couldn't get his way."

We don't have to wonder whether Schumer's version of events is true: after literally walking away from the negotiating table, the president turned to Twitter and largely confirmed the Democratic senator's version of events.

Vice President Mike Pence soon after spoke to reporters, and fleshed out the White House's position. That was useful, in a way, though Pence's perspective was quite odd.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

The common thread tying together Trump's troubles: rampant incompetence

01/09/19 12:55PM

Donald Trump hasn't changed much since taking office, but the structure surrounding the president has evolved more than once. The latest iteration of conditions in the White House appears designed to allow Trump to feel less constrained than he's been.

The New Yorker's Susan Glasser recently published a report on the Republican's habit of getting in his own way.

This is likely to happen even more in the coming months, because of another one of the key events of the past year: Trump's firing of his top officials, including Tillerson, the White House chief of staff John Kelly, and the national-security adviser H. R. McMaster, and replacing them with hard-liners more willing to accept Trump's positions.

All those moves, as the foreign-policy analyst Thomas Wright put it to me, are "part of a deliberate strategy to maximize his freedom to operate." And that was before the news of Mattis's departure hit.

Around the same time, the New York Times reported that the president "appears determined to assemble a new team of advisers who will not tell him what he cannot do." It came on the heels of a report from Politico that said acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, having seen John Kelly fail to instill a sense of discipline in the president, "intends to give Trump more leeway to act as he chooses."

A Washington Post report added, "For President Trump, the era of containment is over."

And what, pray tell, does this unrestrained presidency look like? For one thing, Donald Trump flip-flopped his way into a government shutdown with no plan to get out of it, no strategy on how to manage it, and no ability to strike a deal to resolve it.

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Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.9.19

01/09/19 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.

* As if the rationale behind Donald Trump's Oval Office address weren't already suspect, the Trump campaign sent a fundraising appeal to donors ahead of the speech, focused entirely on the president's proposed border wall, and asking supporters to help the campaign raise $500,000 in one day.

* On a related note, just minutes after the Oval Office address wrapped up, the Trump campaign sent out a second fundraising appeal, urging supporters to "donate to the Official Secure The Border Fund NOW."

* Tom Steyer, a progressive billionaire philanthropist and environmentalist, has scheduled a press conference -- in Iowa -- for this afternoon, where he'll apparently discuss his future political plans. There have been rumors for quite a while about Steyer possibly launching a Democratic presidential campaign, despite never having served in elected office.

* There was a state Senate special election in Virginia last night in a district left vacant after Jennifer Wexton (D) was elected to Congress. Del. Jennifer Boysko (D) won yesterday by nearly 40 points.

* When West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice sought his current office in 2016, he ran as a Democrat who only intended to serve one term. Justice is now a Republican, and as the Charleston Gazette Mail  reports, he's seeking a second term.

* In North Carolina's 9th congressional district, Mark Harris (R) yesterday told WSOC in Charlotte that Donald Trump has conveyed a message to him, encouraging the Republican to "keep fighting" despite widespread allegations of election fraud.

* Though most new U.S. senators were sworn in last week, Florida's Rick Scott (R) waited until the official end of his gubernatorial term and was sworn in yesterday. On his first day as a new senator, the Florida Republican reportedly hosted a "lavish" fundraiser in D.C.

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President Donald Trump talks with reporters as he reviews border wall prototypes, Tuesday, March 13, 2018, in San Diego.

On immigration, Trump relies on fear-mongering, and little else

01/09/19 11:02AM

Plenty of crimes were committed in the United States on Dec. 27, but Donald Trump decided to single out one for attention.

"There is right now a full scale manhunt going on in California for an illegal immigrant accused of shooting and killing a police officer during a traffic stop," the president wrote. "Time to get tough on Border Security. Build the Wall!"

The point obviously wasn't subtle, but it was familiar.

Not long after taking office, the Trump administration created a Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) office, which included a hotline Americans can call if they're a victim of a specific kind of crime: those perpetrated by undocumented immigrants. (The initiative proved to be ridiculous.)

In February 2018, the White House distributed to reporters a "round-up" of "immigration crime stories," purporting to show -- in some cases, falsely -- evidence of immigrants breaking the law. In June 2018, Trump hosted a special event for the victims of crimes committed by immigrants, complete with a special name: "Angel Families."

Last night's Oval Office address fit comfortably within the larger pattern. A Washington Post  analysis explained:

[I]t's not a surprise that Trump's first Oval Office address to the country focused on stoking visceral fear of people crossing America's southern border. [...]

He wanted America to focus on a police officer murdered by an undocumented immigrant in California. He wanted listeners to hear about a veteran brutally killed by another immigrant here illegally. He wanted people to focus on gang members he talked about so often at his rallies, who killed a teenage girl in cold blood.

The antecedents of tactics like these are, of course, genuinely scary. What's more, the entire pitch ignores the simple fact that native-born Americans, on average, commit more crimes than immigrants, including undocumented immigrants.

But as the debate -- and the related government shutdown -- continue, it's worth appreciating why Trump insists on framing the debate in a demagogic way.

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'It takes two sides to shut down the government'? Not exactly

01/09/19 10:06AM

The Associated Press did a perfectly nice job overnight fact-checking Donald Trump's Oval Office address and the Democratic response, though it ran into one easily avoidable mistake.

On its Twitter feed, the AP summarized its argument about responsibility for the government shutdown this way:

"Democrats put the blame for the shutdown on Trump. But it takes two to tango. Trump's demand for $5.7 billion for his border wall is one reason for the budget impasse. The Democrats refusal to approve the money is another."

In the article the tweet links to, the Associated Press used nearly identical wording, arguing, "It takes two sides to shut down the government."

Well, that's one way to look at it. There is, however, a more sensible approach.

Trump started with a ridiculous campaign promise -- crafted by his aides as a mnemonic memory device -- that even members of his team didn't take seriously or literally. After the election, the president made little meaningful effort to persuade the Congress led by his partisan allies to advance his goal, or trying to strike a deal with his opponents.

He revived interest in his ridiculous campaign promise ahead of the midterm elections, and given what we saw in the results, voters were clearly unmoved.

Several weeks later, the president declared -- on camera, for all the world to see -- to Democratic leaders, "I am proud to shut down the government for border security.... I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I'm not going to blame you for it.... I will take the mantle of shutting down."

When Democrats failed to give him taxpayer money in pursuit of a medieval vanity project -- an obvious move, backed by the public, since they were no under no obligation to help the president with his ridiculous campaign promise -- Trump followed through on his threat and shut down the government.

The Associated Press wants the public to believe both sides bear responsibility. Given literally every available detail, I think that's a mistake.

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