Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Against the backdrop of a national crisis over race and law enforcement, the Senate Judiciary Committee plans to convene a hearing on Wednesday about the now-closed investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., appeared set to go ahead with a session scheduled before the flare in protests and violence that followed the death of a Minneapolis man, George Floyd, at the hands of police in an incident that reignited long-simmering anger at police in cities across the country.
The hearing is scheduled to commence at 10 a.m. ET. Watch it live here.
The sole witness is former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who’ll likely be grilled about revelations about the Russia investigation that have come to light since he left the Justice Department last year.
The political context has evolved: Republicans want to tie former Vice President Joe Biden into what they call the abuses of power from the end of the Obama era.
Graham and Republicans want answers about what Rosenstein and other Justice Department leaders knew at the time they were taking fateful decisions about the FBI’s investigation into the Russian interference in the 2016 election, which sought to hinder Hillary Clinton and help elect then-candidate Donald Trump.
Rosenstein found himself in the center of a political vortex in the spring of 2017, not long after he’d been nominated by Trump and confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate.
His boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, was a Trump loyalist and had recused himself from the Russian matter. The president had fired FBI Director James Comey.
In the midst of that febrile atmosphere, Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller to serve as a special counsel and continue the Russia investigation.
Re-look after re-look has verified Mueller’s findings about the Russian interference, but the work of the FBI and Justice Department wasn’t found to be problem-free.
Issues with the FBI investigators involved and their dealings within officialdom, especially with the secret court that oversees government surveillance, have embarrassed the top levels of federal law enforcement.
Many Republicans have faulted Rosenstein since his earliest days over his appointment of Mueller. Now, Graham is bringing Rosenstein back to center stage at a time when Trump and other allies want to link Biden with intelligence collection that involved members of the Trump camp.
Biden’s camp has rejected the idea there were any abuses and pointed out that there was no way for administration officials to single out Americans in intelligence reporting because their names were hidden, or masked.
They were only identified after requests for more information about who was talking with existing targets, Biden’s campaign said.
That practice is legal and takes place thousands of times per year. Trump and allies have made it the basis of political attacks against Biden and others from that era.
Biden, in turn, has blasted Trump and Republicans for what he calls their attempt to distract attention from the most pressing challenges of the day — first the coronavirus pandemic and now the national unrest over police violence.
Democrats, who are in the minority on the Senate Judiciary Committee, likely will take up that theme on Wednesday.
Republicans are likely to press Rosenstein over what they call surveillance abuses and the subsequent findings by investigators about problems with the FBI’s practices at crucial junctures in the saga.
Rosenstein now is with the law firm King & Spalding but he has appeared before congressional inquisitors before. In the past, Rosenstein has said that he relied on lower-level investigators and attorneys and wasn’t involved with the operational details now known to be problematic.
Specifically, Rosenstein signed a request to continue surveillance on a former junior campaign aide to Trump, Carter Page, based on work product that has since been repudiated by internal investigators and the secret surveillance court. Those details didn’t become clear to the public until later.
That likely will be a major area of focus on Wednesday, along with other episodes that have since come to light from the early weeks of the Trump administration.
Graham, meanwhile, has sought to show the Judiciary Committee can keep many plates spinning at once.
The committee heard from witnesses on Tuesday about the deadly effects of the coronavirus within the federal prison system, and Graham also has planned a hearing later this month about policing, as a result of Floyd’s death.
Eiffel Tower Reopens In Paris, After A 3-Month Shutdown
The Eiffel Tower reopened to visitors Thursday morning, after being shut down for more than three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was the Paris landmark’s longest closure since World War II.
The reopening is a dramatic sign of people finally reclaiming public spaces in France, after more than 100 days of restrictions. But the tower’s highest point is still not open – and for now, visitors will need to take the stairs.
The stairs-only rule is one of several restrictions at the site, which draws millions of tourists during a normal year. Face masks are compulsory for all visitors over the age of 11, and physical distancing markers are in place.
To keep people from crossing paths on the stairs, visitors will ascend on the Eiffel Tower’s East pillar and descent on the West pillar, the Eiffel Tower website states.
🇫🇷 Premiers visiteurs aux 1er et 2e étages 😃 10 mn de montée par étage seulement ! 💖
🇬🇧 Our first visitors arrive at the 1st and 2nd floors. 10 minutes only to climb each level 💪#tourEiffel #EiffelTower pic.twitter.com/GBf26ElSAD
— La tour Eiffel (@LaTourEiffel) June 25, 2020
The reopening took place on a sunny and clear morning, promising wide views of the city. The tower’s return was widely celebrated, with Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo hailing the reopening. As the first visitors prepared to make their way up, a band of drummers performed in the plaza at the tower’s base.
Elevator service inside the monument is slated to return on July 1. For those who can’t wait, a ticket to walk up to the Eiffel Tower’s second floor – the wider area that cuts off just as the tower narrows toward its spire – costs 10.40 euros (about $11.65).
Tickets are being sold online, in 30-minute increments. Shortly after noon local time Thursday, spots were still open through the afternoon, although the evening tickets had all been claimed, presumably by people eager to see how the City of Lights comes to life in the night, even during a pandemic.
A French government official declared the coronavirus to be “under control” in early June. Days later, France joined the rest of the European Union in lifting many border restrictions within the bloc – part of a plan to salvage part of the summer tourism season.
There are signs that the virus is remaining under control. France’s positive test rate for the coronavirus is 1.5%, according to the most recent data from the national public health agency. Only two of its 104 departments are considered to be in a highly vulnerable situation – and those are in islands in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean.
France has confirmed 161,348 coronavirus cases, including 29,731 deaths, according to government data.
‘Gone With The Wind’ Returns To HBO Max With New Introduction
Gone With The Wind has returned to the streaming service HBO Max after it was removed earlier this month because of its benign portrayal of American slavery. The film now features a new introduction by film scholar and Turner Classic Movies host Jacqueline Stewart.
In the introduction, Stewart addresses the film’s problematic depiction of the Antebellum South.
“Eighty years after its initial release, ‘Gone With the Wind’ is a film of undeniable cultural significance,” she says. “It is not only a major document of Hollywood’s racist practices of the past but also an enduring work of popular culture that speaks directly to the racial inequalities that persist in media and society today.”
Stewart adds that the film depicts a “world of grace and beauty, without acknowledging the brutalities of the system of chattel slavery upon which this world is based.”
The streaming service also added two companion videos along with the return of the film. One video features a panel discussion on the film’s controversial legacy and another provides more information about Hattie McDaniel, who in 1940 became the first African American to win an Oscar for her portrayal of the enslaved “Mammy.”
The 1939 film has long been the subject of criticism, with some saying it portrayed the Confederacy with sentimentality and fondness. Recent protests for racial justice sparked by the police killing of George Floyd renewed these concerns. Screenwriter, producer and director John Ridley wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times earlier this month calling on HBO Max to remove Gone With the Wind from its library.
“The movie had the very best talents in Hollywood at that time working together to sentimentalize a history that never was,” Ridley wrote. “And it continues to give cover to those who falsely claim that clinging to the iconography of the plantation era is a matter of ‘heritage, not hate.’ “
A spokesperson for the streaming service told NPR in a statement at the time of the film’s removal that the “racist depictions” in the film were “wrong then and wrong today, and we felt that to keep this title up without an explanation and a denouncement of those depictions would be irresponsible.”
The spokesperson added that aside from the new introduction, the movie itself would not be altered once it returned, “because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.”
Stewart reiterated those sentiments in her introduction, acknowledging that while watching Gone With The Wind and other classic films could be uncomfortable or painful, the films should be available in their original form to “invite viewers to reflect on their own beliefs when watching them now.”
Both Chambers Of Congress Back For First Time During Pandemic Amid Questions On Tests
On Thursday, the House and Senate will be in session at the same time, for the first time, since the pandemic began more than three months ago.
While the 100-member Senate resumed its regular floor business in May, the much larger House of Representatives has met sparingly. With more than 430 members, the lower chamber faces higher risks for an outbreak.
And like many other workplaces around the country, Congress has had to ration tests for the coronavirus. Much of the work by employees, aides and lawmakers is being done remotely. Last month, the House approved new rules allowing proxy voting and hearings by video conference.
“Rationing tests for members of Congress … to me, it’s maddening,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. “Like, this is no way to run a country.”
But there have been some improvements. The attending physician to Congress can now test asymptomatic members, a senior Democratic aide told NPR. Previously, only some sick members could access tests.
Meanwhile, the Capitol remains closed to the general public for tours and visits. And those still meeting there largely adhere to the attending physician’s guidance to maintain social distancing and wear masks.
“Everyone should just wear a damn mask, like you guys are, like I am right now,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told reporters Wednesday.
Members of Congress saw a spike in cases at the start of the pandemic but have largely flattened their curve, with a total of nine cases.
But Capitol workers — which include staff members, Capitol Police officers and those who maintain operations — have seen a larger influx of cases, with more than 60 by mid-June, according to a congressional aide.
“Those are the ones that we should be concerned about developing some long-term testing protocols for, because it’s not just about the members,” Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., ranking member on the House Administration Committee, told NPR recently.
Davis has been on the hunt for a new testing program for Congress. This month, he wrote House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., asking for the attending physician to partner with the military or a private vendor to test 2,000 people or more a week.
But so far Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have said Congress shouldn’t get prioritized testing ahead of essential workers.
The chair of the House Administration Committee, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., agrees with that plan — for now.
“I think until the country is in better shape, we’re not going to be in a position to test everybody who comes into the Capitol,” Lofgren said.
Experts such as Jha say national testing still hasn’t reached recommended levels. Among those showing little interest in boosting it is President Trump, who told a rally last weekend in Tulsa, Okla., that he asked for testing to be slowed.
On Tuesday, Trump told reporters he wasn’t kidding when he made the comments.
“Testing is a double-edged sword,” he said.
On The COVID-19 Campaign Trail, Montana’s Gov. Steve Bullock May Be Getting A Boost
At a free, mass testing site on Montana’s Flathead Reservation, hundreds of people are queued up in idling cars. They’re waiting an hour or more for the irritating nose swab test for COVID-19, but most like Francine Van Maanen are just grateful to finally get one.
“We enjoyed the fact that they had this testing available to us so why not get checked,” she says, while waiting in line with her husband.
Nurses wearing face shields put the swabs in plastic tubes while busily scribbling notes on clipboards. This “mass surveillance” testing event was part of Gov. Steve Bullock’s recent goal to do community surveillance testing of 60,000 Montanans a month — the state has yet to come close to hitting that.
“This is big, this is overwhelming,” Bullock told tribal and county health officials working the recent Flathead event. “Now let’s start talking about when we’re going to do it again.”
Under Bullock’s watch, Montana now has the lowest coronavirus infection rate in the nation, and among its lowest hospitalizations and deaths. Daily new case numbers have been going up for the last two weeks, but only by single or double digits. The pandemic — and Bullock’s handling of it as the state’s top leader — is fast becoming a central issue in his campaign to unseat Republican Sen. Steve Daines.
The race is one of a few around the country that could decide which party controls the U.S. Senate next year. It’s also expected to be one of the most expensive in the nation, and likely the most expensive in Montana’s history.
Bullock, citing advice from local public health officials, implemented a statewide stay-at-home order and closed most schools down earlier than some neighboring states on March 28. Montana also began a phased reopening earlier than most, around the middle of last month. By June 1, citing the low number of cases, Bullock lifted a 14-day quarantine requirement for travelers, saying there is ample contact tracing now.
“We may see positive cases,” he says. “But we’ll also identify those positive cases before they start spreading.”
On the Flathead, the one-time presidential candidate was in his element, wearing jeans and cowboy boots, his Ray-Bans shielding against the glare from the sun hitting the late season snow high on the Mission Mountains.
Bullock is termed out as governor after this year. After months of insisting he wouldn’t run for Senate, just before the filing deadline, he changed his mind in March. Then a few days later, the pandemic hit.
“I think there’ll be a time for the campaigning side of that,” he says. “But that hasn’t been where I’ve really been putting the time.”
But the pandemic is in the news every day, which so far hasn’t exactly hurt Bullock who until recently had been seen as the underdog.
“He’s dominating the airwaves, you can’t turn around without seeing a story about the governor,” says Chris Mehl, the non-partisan mayor of Bozeman.
Bozeman is the state’s fastest growing city. It’s swung blue lately, in part due to a wave of newcomers attracted by the area’s outdoor and recreation amenities and the increased ability to telecommute. The university town near to ski resorts and Yellowstone National Park was also Montana’s initial hotspot for cases.
“It’s in a sense become what he’s tied to,” Mehl says. “The issue for him is the competency of handling the pandemic, both on a health side but also on an economic recovery side.”
‘Jobs and economy’ election
Bozeman is also the hometown of Republican Steve Daines. Lately Daines has struggled to get into the local news as much as Bullock even after he helped pass a sweeping public lands conservation bill. If these were normal times, that would have been big news considering the growing influence of the outdoor recreation economy in the state.
Nevertheless, in a phone interview, the senator says he doesn’t think the public health crisis itself will be much of a factor come Fall.
“I think by the time voters start to cast their ballots, this election is going to be a jobs and economy election,” Daines says.
Daines touted his experience helping small businesses, and he predicted unemployment claims will continue to mount if the pandemic continues to hamper economic recovery.
But in Montana right now, Daines’ reelection chances may depend mostly on President Trump remaining popular here.
Daines has positioned himself as one of the president’s staunch supporters. When Trump tweeted the so-called “squad” should go back where they came from, Daines doubled down in support. He was also one of the few Republican senators to publicly praise the president when peaceful protesters were cleared out from in front of the White House so Trump could pose holding a bible.
“Montanans are going to vote for President Trump, he’s going to win Montana,” Daines says. “They’re going to be glad that he’s coming here.”
Trump also came to Montana four times in 2018, failing to unseat the state’s other senator, Democrat Jon Tester. While no dates have been set, his return on behalf of Daines is widely expected and that’s prompting the same public health concerns as at recent rallies in Tulsa and Phoenix.
“That bridge will be crossed when there is a decision made to have a rally,” Daines says.
Montana ticket splitting
Montana is famously all over the map politically. When Daines was elected in 2014, he took over a Senate seat that Democrats had held for 100 years. In 2016, when Trump won Montana by nearly 20 points, Steve Bullock was re-elected as governor.
Just like during his long-shot presidential bid, Bullock is touting his bipartisan record from COVID-19, to Medicaid expansion and showing support for the Keystone pipeline which crosses the state.
“Look, I stood up to President Obama multiple times,” Bullock says. “I’ll work with whoever it is when it’s in the best interest of Montana.
One place Bullock has taken some heat for his handling of the pandemic is in national park gateway towns like West Yellowstone. Montana’s entrance gates opened three weeks after Wyoming’s, as per Bullock’s order.
“I would have loved to have seen us open earlier,” says Travis Watt, general manager for a hotel and a couple other businesses in the tourist-dependent town. “I’m glad he didn’t wait till longer, I know there was a lot of pressure to push until later.”
Watt didn’t vote for Bullock for Governor but he says he likes how he’s managed the pandemic so far.
“It’s a unique situation and you look at some of the things going around in the country and I think Montana sits pretty good,” Watt says.
While Sen. Daines can probably win Montana with a big turnout from Trump’s base and rural voters, Bullock will need people like Watt to consider crossing over, just as he needs coronavirus cases to stay low and the economy to rebound.
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