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The Morning Dispatch: Trump Relents on Omnibus
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The Morning Dispatch: Trump Relents on Omnibus

Plus: A bombing in Nashville and a slew of presidential pardons.

Happy Monday! We hope those who celebrate had a wonderful Christmas, and were able to make the most of the holiday in this very strange year.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • After initially voicing his opposition to the bipartisan omnibus spending bill passed by Congress last week that included $900 billion in coronavirus relief, President Trump backtracked and signed it into law last night, averting a government shutdown. 

  • A Christmas morning bombing in Nashville, Tennessee, destroyed dozens of buildings, but no one besides the alleged culprit—who federal authorities identified as 63-year-old Anthony Warner—died in the blast. The explosion damaged an AT&T facility, leading to widespread phone and internet outages in the area for days.

  • The United Kingdom and the European Union reached a trade agreement last week that will govern their post-Brexit dealings beginning on January 1. The U.K. will exit the EU’s single market and customs union at year end, but the two sides will continue to trade tariff-free, albeit with additional bureaucracy and reduced flow of both services and workers.

  • In light of the new COVID-19 mutation in the United Kingdom, the Centers for Disease Control issued a new order requiring passengers flying from the U.K. to the U.S. to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test within the three days preceding departure.

  • The United States confirmed 146,734 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 10.8 percent of the 1,359,624 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 1,201 deaths were attributed to the virus on Sunday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 333,110. According to the COVID Tracking Project, 118,720 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 9,547,925 COVID-19 vaccine doses have been distributed nationwide, and 1,944,585 have been administered.

Trump Relents, Signs COVID-19 Relief Package

After days of keeping the country in limbo, President Trump last night overcame his objections to the bipartisan omnibus spending bill—which separately included $900 billion in coronavirus relief—and averted a government shutdown by signing the massive piece of combined legislation into law. The government is now funded through September 30, 2021.

“I am signing this bill to restore unemployment benefits, stop evictions, provide rental assistance, add money for PPP, return our airline workers back to work, add substantially more money for vaccine distribution, and much more,” he said in a statement that also reiterated his disagreements with the package. “I have told Congress that I want far less wasteful spending and more money going to the American people in the form of $2,000 checks per adult and $600 per child,” he added, saying that he would be sending Congress a redlined version of the legislation with a formal rescission request “insisting that those funds be removed from the bill.” 

“The Senate will start the process for a vote that increases checks to $2,000, repeals Section 230, and starts an investigation into voter fraud,” he concluded.

Setting aside the fact many of the items in the appropriations bill that Trump decried as wasteful spending were in fact part of his own administration’s budget, his rescission requests are essentially meaningless, seeing as he has only  23 days left in his term. “The House Appropriations Committee has jurisdiction over rescissions,” Rep. Nita Lowey said in a statement last night, “and our Democratic Majority will reject any rescissions submitted by President Trump.”

Still, members of Congress—particularly Republicans—breathed a massive sigh of relief yesterday as news broke that the president had agreed to approve the bill. It took congressional leaders—working with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin—nearly half a year to hammer out an agreement on a second major relief package; Trump threatened to derail it less than 24 hours after it passed both chambers.

In a video posted to Twitter last Tuesday, Trump called the legislation a “disgrace” and erroneously conflated the appropriations bill—which had to be passed to avoid a government shutdown that would’ve begun tomorrow—with the accompanying coronavirus relief package, calling out provisions from the former to argue that the latter “has almost nothing to do with COVID.” He also put congressional Republicans in a box by criticizing the legislation as being too stingy with the size of stimulus checks ($600) and small business funding, a critique congressional Democrats were all too happy to agree with.

Only a handful of close aides were aware Trump was filming the video, and many Republicans were astonished when he posted it, having been assured by Mnuchin that the president was on board. On a members-only call last Wednesday, Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska accused Trump of throwing House Republicans under the bus: “The President’s Secretary of Treasury helped negotiate this bill and encouraged us to support it.” 

Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, from Ohio, was uncharacteristically critical of the president following the fiasco. “If [Trump] didn’t want money going to foreign countries, he shouldn’t have asked for it,” he tweeted on Wednesday. “100% of the items he complained about last night were either a lie (i.e. illegals aren’t getting $1800) or things in HIS budget (all the foreign aid).”

Politico reported last week that many lawmakers and other Republican officials believed Trump’s about-face to have less to do with the actual contents of the package and more to do with his anger at congressional Republicans for “abandoning” him by finally acknowledging he lost the election.

Several tweets from the long weekend seem to confirm such frustrations exist. “I saved at least 8 Republican Senators, including Mitch, from losing in the last Rigged (for President) Election,” Trump said just after 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve. “Now they (almost all) sit back and watch me fight against a crooked and vicious foe, the Radical Left Democrats. I will NEVER FORGET!”

But despite the bluster, Trump was ultimately convinced to sign the bill, and—aside from allowing boosted unemployment benefits to temporarily lapse over the weekend—the delay will likely have more of an impact on Trump’s post-presidency relationship with congressional Republicans than it will on the economy itself.

The House and Senate are set to vote today and tomorrow to override Trump’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act that funds the military. The president vetoed the legislation last Wednesday because it would eventually rename military bases that honor Confederate soldiers, and would not repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Bomber Died in Nashville’s Christmas Day Explosion

Christmas celebrations nationwide were disrupted on Friday morning by news reports of a massive explosion in downtown Nashville.

On Sunday—less than 72 hours after the detonation—law enforcement officials identified 63-year-old Anthony Quinn Warner as the man responsible. Federal agents concluded that Warner died at the scene after matching his DNA with the human remains that were found in the wreckage.

“We’ve come to the conclusion that an individual named Anthony Warner is the bomber, that he was present when the bomb went off, and that he perished in the bombing,” U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee Donald Cochran said at a news conference on Sunday. 

Warner’s RV detonated early Friday morning in front of an AT&T switching station on Second Avenue, in Nashville’s tourist district. Three people were injured and 41 buildings in the surrounding area were damaged in the blast, but there were no fatalities aside from Warner.

Federal agents swarmed Warner’s house on Saturday after he was identified as a person of interest in the case. He has been described by his neighbors and family members as a recluse who rarely interacted with anyone. “He mostly kept to himself,” said Steve Schmoldt, Warner’s neighbor of 25 years, to the Wall Street Journal. “I never saw anybody go to his house.” Officials have not yet identified Warner’s motive.

Police were able to evacuate everyone in the surrounding area prior to the explosion, as Warner’s R.V. began playing a recording warning of an explosion in 15 minutes. “That’s stuff that I’ll never forget, the sound of the announcement saying … ‘Evacuate now,’” Amanda Topping, a Nashville police officer, said in a news conference.

AT&T customers in Tennessee, Alabama, and Kentucky experienced long-lasting internet and cell phone service outages following Friday’s bombing. “It’s unnerving for a lot of us because we don’t know the motive of the blast or if there are others coming,” Nashville resident and AT&T user Gray Lochbihler told The Dispatch on Sunday.

Lochbihler, who lives just five minutes away from the explosion site, lost cell phone and internet service after the blast. “It feels like something out of a movie,” she said. “On top of the tornado here earlier this year and everything else it’s a lot.”

AT&T said on Sunday afternoon that 96 percent of its wireless network, 60 percent of its business services, and 86 percent of its entertainment and broadband services had been restored.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee asked President Trump on Saturday for federal assistance following the explosion, and Nashville Mayor John Cooper echoed the sentiment on CBS News yesterday. 

“It’s part of our historic identity of Nashville, this kind of late-Victorian streetscape that ended up being bombed,” Cooper said. “And the businesses there, going through COVID, they’ve had the worst nine months that you could have as a business. And then now to be affected by a bombing. Of course, we’re going to need help and we may need some help in hardening our infrastructure.”

Pardon Me?

With just a handful of weeks before his term comes to an end, President Trump is making the most of his pardon power, granting clemency to nearly 50 people last week alone. 

Some of the pardons were relatively uncontroversial. Incoming House Republican Maria Elvira Salazar, for example, advocated for a full pardon for Cesar Lozada, a Cuban immigrant and small business owner in Miami who in 2004 was charged with conspiring to distribute marijuana. Topeka Sam—sentenced to 130 months in prison in 2012 for conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine—founded an organization after her early release in 2015 called Ladies of Hope Ministries that works to transition women and girls back into society following prison sentences.

But several cases are more dubious. Among the recent clemency recipients are donors, political allies, or family friends of President Trump’s, including his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, his longtime confidant and adviser Roger Stone, and his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s father Charles.

Stone and Manafort were indicted by Robert Mueller, and Manafort served time for filing false tax returns, failing to report foreign bank accounts, and bank fraud. The charges were related to his business dealings and were uncovered by Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference in 2016. Trump had floated the idea of pardoning the duo for years.

Manafort was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison by a federal judge but is currently in home confinement due to COVID-19. Stone—whose sentence was commuted by the president back in July—landed charges of witness tampering, obstruction, and lying to Congress under oath.

Investigators pinned Stone on obstruction-related crimes while investigating his links to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Russian hacker Guccifer 2.0 during the 2016 campaign, a maneuver that the White House referred to as “prosecutorial misconduct” in a statement announcing the pardon. “Mr. Stone was treated very unfairly,” it read. “Pardoning him will help to right the injustices he faced at the hands of the Mueller investigation.”

GOP Sen. Pat Toomey—who recently announced he will retire in 2022—called Trump’s pardons a “misuse of power” Sunday on Fox News. “I mean, my goodness, we have tax fraud and bank fraud, witness tampering, obstruction of justice,” he said. “But because they were close to the president, they got pardoned.”

Sen. Ben Sasse’s statement following Trump’s moves was short, and to the point. “This is rotten to the core.”

Charles Kushner pleaded guilty in 2005 to tax evasion, illegal campaign contributions, and witness tampering. During the high-profile case prosecuted by then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, Kushner sought to intimidate William Schulder, a former employee and Kushner’s brother-in-law, by hiring a prostitute to seduce Schulder and sending video footage to his wife. Christie said in 2019 that Kushner’s case was “one of the most loathsome, disgusting crimes” he had prosecuted.

Former Republican Reps. Chris Collins, Duncan Hunter, Steve Stockman, and Mark Siljander were also included in the bunch receiving clemency. Collins and Hunter were the first two congressional Republicans to endorse Trump back in February 2016. 

Collins was sentenced to 26 months in prison earlier this year after pleading guilty to insider trading, having alerted his son to a failed clinical trial from the biotech company on whose board he sat. “People feel sorry for me. They shouldn’t,” Collins said at his sentencing. “I did what I did, and I violated my core values.”

Hunter and his wife, meanwhile, were indicted in 2018 on charges that they “converted more than $250,000 in campaign funds to pay for personal expenses,” filing false campaign finance records with the Federal Election Commission all the while. Among those personal expenses, per the Justice Department’s indictment? Family vacations to Italy, Hawaii, Arizona, and Idaho, dental work, theater tickets, golf outings, video games, and groceries. A judge sentenced Hunter to 11 months in federal prison last March.

President Trump also issued full pardons to four Blackwater security contractors—Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, and Dustin Heard—convicted on charges ranging from first degree murder to voluntary manslaughter related to the 2007 killing of 14 Iraqi civilians, including two children, in Baghdad. Blackwater (now known as Academi) is a private military company that was founded by Erik Prince, a Trump donor and the younger brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The United Nations’ human rights office criticized Trump’s pardon of the contractors last week, expressing concern that it “contributes to impunity” from war crimes.

Article II of the Constitution says that presidents “shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States,” and Trump is far from the first to exert this power in a questionable manner. President Bill Clinton’s 11th hour 2001 pardon of indicted tax cheat Marc Rich, for example, reeked of corruption. Rich’s ex-wife had donated $450,000 to the Clinton presidential library before the pardon.

With 23 days remaining in his term, Trump is reportedly considering a whole host of other pardons—including preemptive ones for his children and for his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.

Back in December 2018, Sen. Marco Rubio said he “would be very critical” of a potential Manafort pardon, adding that Trump doing so could “trigger a debate about whether the pardon powers should be amended.”

Worth Your Time

  • Stephen Nesbitt—a reporter for The Athletic covering Pittsburgh sports—lost his 20-year-old sister to COVID-19 at the end of October. Nesbitt’s son, Luke, was born just over one week later. He poured his heart into his latest piece—published on Christmas morning—trying to grapple with both the grief and the joy he’s experienced in the past two months. “I’m not sure what the view is like from Heaven, with the angels, but I think she is watching,” he writes. “There will never be a day when she isn’t on our hearts and minds. And each time Luke stares at a Christmas tree, we’ll tell him the story of how beloved he was by Aunt Bethany, who knew him even before he was born.”

  • Caitlin Flanagan first learned about how Christianity worked from the recitation of the Gospel of Luke in the Charlie Brown Christmas special, first broadcast in 1965. In The Atlantic, she explored why the show has had such staying power—not only for her, but for millions and millions of children over the years. “Charles Schulz had what Maurice Sendak had: respect for children,” she writes. “He understood the way they think and feel, not the way adults want them to think and feel. He understood that there’s a point in children’s growing up when Christmas doesn’t work its magic as reliably as it once did. Schulz let them explore a taboo subject, Christmastime unhappiness, while still reassuring them that Christmas is a good and fun and wonderful thing.”

  • “The CDC came scarily close to adopting a plan that would, according to its own models, have killed thousands of Americans,” Yascha Mounk writes in this essay for Persuasion, referring to the agency’s initial plan—based on “social justice”—to recommend prioritizing essential workers for COVID-19 vaccination over elderly Americans. The CDC has since scrapped that plan, but that it was even being seriously considered was enough to shake Mounk’s trust in the institution. “America’s botched guidance on who gets the vaccine first should, once and for all, put the idea that the excesses of wokeness are a small problem that doesn’t affect important decisions to bed.”

Something Old School

Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro died over the weekend at the age of 81. He won 318 games in his 24-year career spent mostly with the Atlanta Braves, but he was best known for his filthy knuckleball. Fewer and fewer pitchers make use of the pitch nowadays, so it’s worth pausing for a moment to enjoy Niekro making professional hitters look downright silly with it. May he rest in peace.

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • We pretty much closed up shop over the weekend for the holiday, but that didn’t stop David from publishing a new French Press Sunday. After first sharing a bit about his experience in suburban Nashville following Friday’s bombing, he dives into the various high-profile scandals that plagued the church this year. “The American church needs to hear less from popular celebrities and more from courageous prophetic voices, from people who boldly seek justice and call us to turn, individually and institutionally, from sin,” he writes. “How much more evidence do we need that our church culture is shot through with systemic sin before our own hearts are pierced, before we ask, like our spiritual fathers and mothers who came before, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’”

Let Us Know

If you celebrated, was there any part of you that enjoyed having a lower-key Christmas this year? Do you anticipate incorporating any pandemic-era traditions into Christmas 2021 and beyond?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Haley Byrd Wilt (@byrdinator), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).