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CDC Director Rochelle Walensky

Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, Republicans have settled on a position that seems just a smidge incredible: There is no pandemic. Downplaying the impact of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the disease that it generates has been standard Republican operating procedure since Donald Trump insisted that cases would soon be “down to zero” and that COVID-19 would go away “like magic.” But at this point, with 860,000 dead Americans and over 5.5 million lives lost around the world, in the midst of a wave of disease sending record numbers to hospitals, pandemic denial seems like something that should be impossible.

It’s not. Republicans have returned to the idea that people are just, you know, dying. And that COVID-19 has nothing to do with it.

It’s another trip through irresponsibility, delusion, and jackassery that started with a badly edited interview, passed through a now deleted Texas Sen. Ted Cruz tweet, and spawned a million gloating I-told-you-so claims on Facebook. Since then other Republicans, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, have doubled down on the claim, and the Republican National Committee (RNC) is proceeding at warp nine into conspiracy space.

Like so many of the claims during the last five years, this one started from a misunderstanding, then pivoted to a deliberate lie. It can be fully expected to become the accepted “truth” for Republicans moving forward. Here’s the three-step process into how “not from COVID-19, but with COVID-19” became the new Republican baseline.

Step 1: ABC makes a criminally bad edit of an already bad interview

To say that Rochelle Walensky’s brief term as director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been marked by poor communication is something of an understatement. Communicating with dolphins is only slightly less frustrating.

It’s not so much that the CDC has been wrong, but under Walensky the agency has issued unnecessary guidance that includes caveats and details almost certain to be steamrolled into a mush of confusion. For example, the idea that people who were asymptomatic but who tested positive for COVID-19 could cease self-isolation after five days if they continued to wear a mask. This was predictably turned into “CDC cuts COVID-19 quarantine to five days” by the media within 30 seconds of its issuance.

But perhaps no single statement has done more damage the CDC’s reputation than an interview on ABC News. In that interview, Walensky was asked about the results of a new study showing that vaccines were very effective in preventing severe illness. Here’s her response as it appeared on ABC News.

Walensky: “The overwhelming number of deaths, over 75 percent, occurred in people who had at least four comorbidities. So really, these are people who are unwell to begin with. And yes, really encouraging news in the context of omicron. This means not just to get your primary series, but to get your booster, and yes, we’re really encouraged by these results.”

There were any number of reasons to be upset by this statement. For one thing, Walensky appears to be not just brushing off people with long-term illness or conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID-19, but actually gloating about how deaths are restricted to people who were “unwell to begin with.” Disability advocates—and a lot of people who suffer from issues such as diabetes and high blood pressure—were justifiably outraged.

However, it turns out that ABC made an absolutely egregious edit. This was Walensky’s actual reply to the question about the study.

Walensky: “You know, really important study, if I may just summarize it. A study of 1.2 million people who were vaccinated between December and October, and demonstrated that severe disease occurred in about 0.015 percent of the people who received their primary series. And death in 0.003 percent of those people. The overwhelming number of deaths, over 75 percent, occurred in people who had at least four comorbidities. So really, these are people who are unwell to begin with. And yes, really encouraging news in the context of omicron. This means not just to get your primary series, but to get your booster, and yes, we’re really encouraged by these results.”

All of that went on the cutting room floor at ABC. Clearly, what Walensky was actually addressing was the results of a single study, a study that showed just how tremendously effective the vaccines really are.

However, the complaints of disability advocates remain absolutely valid, because there was no reason for Walensky to characterize the extremely low number of deaths found in this study in the way she did. It added no value to her response. In fact, by answering in this way, Walensky greatly undercut the point that she was trying to make. That point was not “only sick people died” but “vaccines are tremendously effective.” Walensky’s response remains a masterclass in awful.

But ABC’s editing made everything 1,000 times worse, and queued up exactly what came next.

Step 2: Context gets shredded by the RNC

Those watching the ABC interview might still have picked up on the fact that Walensky’s statement, no matter how mangled, was characterizing only vaccinated individuals in one study. But when those words hit social media, context went out the window. As far as the Internet was concerned, this was the beginning and the end of what Walensky had to say.

Granted, that kind of sentence or even phrase-level cherry-picking has been standard RNC practice for years, but ABC really helped them out by dropping all context from Walensky’s reply. As a result, social media soon flooded with Republicans claiming that 75 percent of all the people who have died from COVID-19 have been people who were very unwell to begin with. That prompted, including other things, this now-deleted Cruz tweet.

Now deleted Ted Cruz tweet claiming that most people who died from COVID, didn

Step 3: Double-down and carry on

Cruz may have backed away from that tweet after the editing fingers of both the RNC and ABC were made clear, but don’t expect him to stay backed up. Since that initial post, the RNC has doubled down. And tripled down. In their latest tweet, they’re back to the language that Republicans used in the opening days of the pandemic as deaths began to pile up across the country. People didn’t die from COVID-19, says the RNC. They’re just sick people who happened to die with COVID-19.

Rubio then took this to the next logical step with a claim that the thousands of people being hospitalized during the Omicron spike aren’t being hospitalized because of COVID-19.

Except that as the article makes clear, there are 145,982 people hospitalized in U.S. from COVID-19. Not from “reasons unrelated to COVID.” There’s absolutely nothing in the article cited, or in any other source, to back up Rubio’s statement.

It doesn’t matter, because the Republican Party has only one reaction to being found wrong on any point: tactical extremism. Rather than admit the claims about people dying from COVID-19 are the results of a series of bad, out of context edits, expect Republicans to harden on this position as a baseline. Expect renewed claims that the CDC is greatly exaggerating the threat of COVID-19, as well as more of those videos where people invade their local hospital to “prove” that there’s no wave of COVID-19 patients.

Expect more resistance to vaccination. Expect more denial of reason. Expect more deaths.

All brought to you by the modern Republican Party, the best friend a virus ever had.

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Eric Holder

The failure of major federal voting rights legislation in the Senate has left civil rights advocates saying they are determined to keep fighting—including by suing in battleground states. But the little bipartisan consensus that exists on election reform would, at best, lead to much narrower legislation that is unlikely to address state-level GOP efforts now targeting Democratic blocs.

“This is the loss of a battle, but it is not necessarily the loss of a war, and this war will go on,” Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general and Democrat, told MSNBC, saying that he and the Democratic Party will be suing in states where state constitutions protect voting rights. “This fight for voting rights and voter protection and for our democracy will continue.”

“The stakes are too important to give up now,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which for years has operated an Election Day hotline to help people vote. “Our country cannot claim to be free while allowing states to legislate away that freedom at will.”

In recent weeks, as it became clear that the Senate was not going to change its rules to allow the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to pass with a simple majority, there have been efforts by some lawmakers, election policy experts, and civil rights advocates to identify what election reforms could pass the Senate.

“There are several areas… where I think there could be bipartisan consensus,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, in a briefing on January 20. “These areas are all around those guardrails of democracy. They are all about ensuring that however the voters speak that their voice is heard… and cannot be subverted by anyone in the post-election process.”

Becker cited updating the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which addressed the process where state-based slates of presidential electors are accepted by Congress. (In recent weeks, new evidence has surfaced showing that Donald Trump’s supporters tried to present Congress with forged certificates as part of an effort to disrupt ratifying the results on January 6, 2021.) Updating that law could also include clarifying which state officials have final authority in elections and setting out clear timetables for challenging election results in federal court after Election Day.

Five centrist Washington-based think tanks issued a report on January 20, Prioritizing Achievable Federal Election Reform, which suggested federal legislation could codify practices now used by nearly three-quarters of the states. Those include requiring voters to present ID, offering at least a week of early voting, allowing all voters to request a mailed-out ballot, and allowing states to start processing returned absentee ballots a week before Election Day.

But the report, which heavily drew on a task force of 29 state and local election officials from 20 states convened by Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center, was notable in what it did not include, such as restoring the major enforcement section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was removed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. It did not mention the Electoral Count Act nor growing threats to election officials from Trump supporters.

“This won’t satisfy all supporters of the Freedom to Vote Act, but this is a plausible & serious package of reforms to make elections more accessible and secure that could attract bipartisan support,” tweeted Charles Stewart III, a political scientist and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. “A good starting point.”

The reason the centrist recommendations won’t satisfy civil rights advocates is that many of the most troubling developments since the 2020 election would likely remain.

Targeting Battleground States

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Donald Trump Now Leads An Authoritarian Movement

Politico Magazine published an article Thursday that perfectly embodies the failures of tabloid-style political journalism to address the fundamental dangers facing the country: “145 Things Donald Trump Did in His First Year as the Most Consequential Former President Ever.”

“In ways both absurd and serious, the 45th president refused to let go of the spotlight or his party and redefined what it means to be a former leader of the free world,” the article sub-headline states, sitting above a colorful image containing a photo of a smiling Trump and images that have defined his post-presidency, including his second impeachment, golf clubs, and a vaccination needle.

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