President Trump walks out to speak about the coronavirus outbreak on Wednesday.

President Trump walks out to speak about the coronavirus outbreak on Wednesday. Alex Brandon / AP

Coronavirus Roundup: Trump Seeks to Fill Vacancies During Pandemic

There's a lot to keep track of. Here’s today’s list of news updates and stories you may have missed.

The White House is expected to release new guidelines on Thursday for governors on the country’s reopening. President Trump said during the Wednesday evening briefing on the coronavirus pandemic that some states might even be able to open before May 1. However, public health officials and state officials say the testing shortages hinder the country’s ability to track the novel coronavirus and plan for a reopening, as The New York Times reported. Here are some of the other recent headlines you might have missed. 

President Trump spent a considerable portion of the coronavirus briefing on Wednesday blaming “partisan obstruction” for the “nominees stuck in the Senate…[who] are nominated for vacancies that must be filled to assist with the coronavirus crisis and the resulting economic challenges,” The New York Times’ Peter Baker noted. Trump incorrectly said there are  “hundreds" of nominees who have been waiting for Senate confirmation for three years. Rather, there are 82 nominations pending and another 150 positions are vacant with no one nominated, according to the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service’s tracker

Trump said he might “exercise my constitutional authority to adjourn both chambers of Congress,” so he can make recess appointments to fill the positions. 

Historian Michael Beschloss pointed out, “No president in history has ever used the constitutional power to adjourn Congress.” Presidents Woodrow Wilson, William Howard Taft and Franklin Delano Roosevelt “were all urged to adjourn Congress and all refused,” Beschloss said. 

Following the White House accusing the international broadcasting service funded by the U.S. government of promulgating Chinese propaganda, Trump said during the briefing, “If you heard what's coming out of the Voice of America, it's disgusting.” If Michael Pack, his nominee to lead VOA’s parent agency U.S. Agency for Global Media, “would get in...he’d do a great job, but he's been waiting now for two years,” Trump said. In an interview with Government Executive, the agency asserted its independence and apolitical approach to covering the outbreak. 

A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said: “The leader pledged to find ways to confirm nominees considered mission-critical to the COVID-19 pandemic, but under Senate rules will take consent from Leader [Chuck] Schumer [D-N.Y.],” Axios reported

On Thursday, Politico published the list of House and Senate lawmakers from both major political parties that the White House invited to join the task force focused on reopening the country. Sources familiar with the matter said the invitations went out on Wednesday night. 

The Justice Department’s inspector general will investigate if the Federal Bureau of Prisons is following the best practices to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, the Associated Press reported on Wednesday. The virus has moved rapidly throughout the 122 federal correctional institutions nationwide and employees have been raising concerns about how BOP has been handling it. 

The Small Business Administration was expected to run out of money for emergency coronavirus loans on Wednesday afternoon, Bloomberg News reported. “The government-guaranteed loans are available on a first-come first-served basis. But without more funding, many small businesses that have flooded banks with applications won’t get help.” 

House Democrats alleged that the Trump administration's halting of funding to the World Health Organization while it examines its role in the coronavirus outbreak violates the same laws the Government Accountability Office said the administration violated when it withheld aid to Ukraine over the summer, Politico reported. However, a senior administration official said the fiscal 2020 spending bill gives the president “broad discretion” with regard to the WHO. Also, the administration did not agree with GAO’s assessment of the aid that was central to the impeachment investigation. 

An internal draft memo addressed to State Secretary Mike Pompeo warned against halting funds for the World Health Organization, ProPublica reported on Wednesday. Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs officials said that such a move would hurt America’s global standing and its response to the pandemic. ProPublica said it’s not clear if the draft memo was sent to Pompeo before Trump announced the United States was suspending funds to the WHO on Tuesday night.  

On Wednesday night, Pompeo was asked about a Washington Post report that two years ago embassy officials warned the State Department about safety issues at a Wuhan research facility. “I can’t comment on the cables tonight.  I can say this. This is a laboratory that contained highly contagious materials. We knew that. We knew that they were working on this program,” he said on Fox News. “Many countries have programs like this. And in countries that are open and transparent, they have the ability to control and keep them safe and they allow outside observers in to make sure all the processes and procedures are right.” 

Roll Call depicted how the Pentagon is trying to balance transparency and national security during the coronavirus outbreak. “Sharing details about every case could provide America’s adversaries with enough data to encourage them to strike at a perceived weakness if it becomes public knowledge that a certain outpost has been crippled by the illness,” Roll Call reported. “Staying quiet about infection rates, however, could expose families and portside communities when military personnel go on leave or rotate home.”

Meanwhile, the Internal Revenue Service announced on Wednesday that supplemental security income recipients would automatically receive their coronavirus stimulus checks. These individuals typically do not have to file tax returns, so the IRS is not going to make them do so now. 

As of late afternoon on Wednesday, 9.8 million people were able to check their stimulus check status and 1.6 million provided their direct deposit information using the IRS’s new online tool, according to the agency. 

Following the news that adding Trump’s signature to the checks could cause delays, the IRS asserted on Wednesday they’re still on schedule,  NPR reported. "Thanks to hard work and long hours by dedicated IRS employees, these payments are going out on schedule, as planned, without delay, to the nation,” said a statement.

However, glitches “affecting filers who used tax preparers, parents of dependent children and people with 2019 tax returns still to be processed — are delaying payments and causing confusion,” The Washington Post  reported on Thursday. 

During the briefing, Trump denied knowing much about the signatures. “I don't know too much about it, but I understand my name is there. I don't know where they're going...I do understand it's not delaying anything,” he said. “I don't imagine it's a big deal. I'm sure people will be very happy to get a big, fat, beautiful check and my name is on it.”

In mid-March, a National Security Council team asked Taiwan for help obtaining face masks, then set aside a portion for White House staff and officials despite public guidance that they weren’t necessary, according to The Washington Post. “At the time, the U.S. government was discouraging the public from wearing masks, saying that healthy people didn’t need them and that the gear should be saved for front-line medical workers most at risk of infection,” the paper reported. “The White House was not issuing masks to its staff...But inside the NSC, a top deputy was convinced that face coverings should be used more broadly to protect both his team and the public at large.”

The White House installed Michael Caputo, Trump loyalist, as the new Health and Human Services spokesperson on Wednesday. Officials told Politico, the “move is designed to assert more White House control over Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.” Caputo worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign and is friends with Trump ally Roger Stone and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort (both convicted of crimes). The new spokesperson also recently published a book about the “hoax” impeachment, according to Politico

On Wednesday, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., requested a series of documents from a company slated to make ventilators for the federal government’s stockpile that did not speed up production due to the pandemic. “Last September, [HHS] entered into a contract with Respironics Inc.—a subsidiary of Philips North America Corp.—to provide 10,000 ventilators to the Strategic National Stockpile by September 2022 at a cost of $3,280 each,” he wrote. As the coronavirus hit, “the company’s spokesman reported that it would not begin producing those ventilators until at least next year” and “Philips reportedly has been selling ventilators to foreign clients at much higher prices.” 

The federal government is paying a “premium” to obtain masks from third-party vendors as it races to secure enough supplies, The Washington Post reported on Wednesday night. “The government has paid the companies more than $5 per unit, nearly eight times what it would have spent in January and February when U.S. intelligence agencies warned of a looming global pandemic, procurement records show.”

So far there is only one member on the Congressional Oversight Commission that will help track the $2.2 trillion CARES Act. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., named Bharat Ramamurti, a former aide to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., as his pick for the panel on April 6. “With no colleagues, no staff, and no office, he’s had to rely on one of the few avenues he has to communicate with the public: his unverified Twitter feed,” Bloomberg News reported on Wednesday. 

Immigration and Customs Enforcement launched “Operation Stolen Promise” to combat coronavirus-related fraud and other criminal acts with the help of other federal, business and industry partners. “As of April 14, HSI special agents have opened over 130 investigations nationwide, seized over $3 million in illicit proceeds; made nine arrests; executed seven search warrants; sinkholed over 11,000 COVID-19 domain names and worked alongside [CBP] to seize over 225 shipments of mislabeled, fraudulent, unauthorized or prohibited COVID-19 test kits, treatment kits, homeopathic remedies, purported antiviral products and personal protective equipment,” said a press release. 

On Tuesday night, a Miami federal magistrate judge said ICE must disclose how many detainees and third-party contractors at three South Florida detention centers have the coronavirus, the Miami Herald reported on Wednesday. This was following the paper’s story “that revealed [ICE] did not consider its contractors ICE ‘staff,’ and that the agency said it had no obligation to include them on its website detailing how many employees at its detention centers nationwide had contracted the virus,” said the Miami Herald. Third-party contractors run all three detention centers. 

A Buzzfeed reporter said on Thursday that ICE had released 693 people (out of about 33,000) as of Wednesday, according to a court filing by the Homeland Security Department. Also “ICE contractors as well as non-ICE detainees (at state/local facilities that also detain ICE detainees) have died because of COVID-19,” she said.

Advocates “fear an outbreak at the Tacoma [Washington detention] facility is just a matter of time,” which is why they filed a lawsuit seeking to speed up releases, The Seattle Times reported on Thursday. ICE has been releasing detainees on a case-by-case basis during the pandemic, but some lawmakers and advocates say this is not happening fast enough. “U.S. District Judge James Robart has turned down motions by [Northwest Immigrant Rights Project] and the [American Civil Liberties Union] for immediate releases, but the lawsuit remains active,” according to The Seattle Times.

The Navy is considering reinstating Capt. Brett Crozier, who was ousted after he wrote a letter asking for help with the coronavirus outbreak aboard his aircraft carrier, The New York Times reported on Wednesday. Crozier was hailed as a hero by current and former service members, and acting Navy secretary Thomas Modly resigned in the aftermath.  

A team of service members at the military’s joint base in Charleston, S.C., is tackling innovative projects to aid the Defense Department’s coronavirus response. Currently, they’re manufacturing face covers and hand sanitizer for service members and civilians. The team is called “Palmetto Spark,” as South Carolina is nicknamed “The Palmetto State” after its state tree. 

The National Institutes of Health announced on Wednesday it found three methods to “effectively sanitize masks for limited re-use.” As hospitals nationwide have struggled to obtain masks during the pandemic, many health workers have said they need to re-use their masks, which raised concerns over their effectiveness after one use. NIH Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana, did the study (that is not yet peer-reviewed) with the University of California, Los Angeles.

During the coronavirus briefing, Trump said there are 48 authorized coronavirus tests so far and the Food and Drug Administration is working with 300 labs and companies to expand testing capacity. 

Vice President Mike Pence said during the briefing  “576 doctors, nurses, and other military medical professionals have been deployed to 13 hospitals across the nation: 10 in New York, and one in Connecticut, Texas, and Louisiana each,” as of Wednesday. 

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue asserted at the briefing that the food supply chain is safe, despite federal food inspectors raising concerns about their workplace conditions and many testing positive for coronavirus. “Our food supply chain has shown tremendous agility in shifting production and logistics so suddenly from restaurant and institutional settings to retail settings,” said Perdue. “To all the employers out there in this sector: It's critical that you follow [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines and guidance and best practices to keep all of your employees and people safe and healthy.”

Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode features Samantha Donaldson, Partnership for Public Service vice president of communications, on how agencies should communicate with their employees during the coronavirus crisis.

Upcoming: The White House coronavirus task force will have a briefing at 6 p.m. 

Help us understand the situation better. Are you a federal employee, contractor or military member with information, concerns, etc. about how your agency is handling the coronavirus? Email us at newstips@govexec.com.

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