With the world’s attention glued to the coronavirus pandemic, news about anything else has been slipping farther and farther down the proverbial front page. But that doesn’t mean nothing’s been going on. Whether by design or coincidence, politicians and others are taking cover under coronavirus news to move forward on their plans—and with so much to say about the pandemic, journalists have been letting slide what might otherwise land above the fold.
Some of the most worrying buried news concerns the environment. In late March EPA, led by former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, rolled back the Obama administration’s hard-won fuel efficiency standards. Shortly after that the agency, whose core function is to create and enforce environmental regulations, announced an indefinite suspension of enforcement. It said that expecting polluters to follow guidelines during the pandemic is unreasonable.
Environmental news came from outside the agency, too. On March 16, the Department of Defense released a report into the news-sink Friday afternoon time slot finding that the number of military bases with high levels of certain cancer-linked chemicals jumped by nearly fifty percent since 2018.
A few weeks later, airlines lobbied international regulators for release from carbon offsetting obligations in light of the epidemic, saying pulling out was “a matter of survival” for the industry. The next day, the Canadian gas company TC Energy announced it had begun building the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline, which has been the subject of sustained protests and was rejected twice by the Obama administration.
Other areas of the federal government have been busy too. The Justice Department dropped a case, originally brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, against two Russian companies that worked to influence the 2016 presidential election. (Officials said it was to prevent the firms from using the case to gather intelligence about U.S. systems, not an attempt to undo Mueller’s work.) President Trump, meanwhile, fired the top watchdog of the intelligence community, who had managed the whistleblower complaint that led to his impeachment late last year.
Despite the pandemic, the Trump administration is pressing forward with several longstanding priorities. One is tightening access to food stamps. A work requirement rule that would have revoked benefits for up to 1.3 million people is on hold during the state of emergency declaration, but the administration has not said whether it will challenge a recent preliminary injunction against the rule once President Trump lifts the declaration. Another new rule, requiring a separate food stamps application for people already receiving other benefits, is still set to impact up to 3.1 million eligible Americans.
And with the help of advisor Stephen Miller, the administration has continued its quest to severely restrict immigration. The State Department has suspended visa operations, and immigration courts are closed. Trump’s April proclamation limiting green cards, Miller recently promised supporters in a leaked call, is just the beginning: the administration also plans to curtail foreign worker visas, and is actively soliciting input from anti-immigration groups on future changes.
Congress, although mainly focused on coronavirus relief, is also weighing the EARN IT Act, a privacy-curtailing bill that experts predict would ban end-to-end encryption (used in secure messaging apps like Signal and WhatsApp), hold online platforms responsible for content posted by users, and give law enforcement a long-sought backdoor into other messaging services like iMessage. In the Senate, a three-year review by the Republican-led Intelligence Committee confirmed the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia undermined the 2016 election to help President Trump.
Mitch McConnell has also made significant moves during the pandemic. In April, he continued his quest to pack courts with extremely conservative judges, shepherding President Trump to nominate McConnell’s associate Justin Walker to the highly influential D.C. Circuit appeals court; Walker previously clerked for Brett Kavanagh and made dozens of media appearances in support of his former boss during Kavanagh’s contentious confirmation hearing. McConnell also added an amendment to the renewal of the PATRIOT Act that empowers the attorney general to surveil Americans’ web browsing and search history without a warrant.
At the state level, Governor Andrew Cuomo is basking in widespread media praise for his leadership during the crisis. But there was little reporting on his 2021 state budget, which contains billions in cuts to Medicaid and reverses bail reforms that would reduce jail populations currently at a high risk for coronavirus exposure. Only local news has covered Cuomo’s repeated refusals to back relief for the 40 percent of New Yorkers who rent their homes, particularly his silence on bills currently in the state legislature that would freeze rents for 90 days and extend an eviction moratorium through the end of the year; the governor’s response has been to extend an eviction moratorium, although it only applies to tenants directly impacted by Covid-19. And with the subway all but empty, an arson on an uptown train that killed a conductor and injured over a dozen passengers, amid a rise in emotionally disturbed populations taking refuge on the trains, in late March didn’t snag much notice, either.
Speaking of evictions, Jared Kushner’s real estate company has continued serving them, including to tenants left jobless or otherwise impacted by the coronavirus. He’s not the only elite making out nicely amid the first stages of a global depression: Goldman Sachs has boosted its chief executive’s salary and purchased two private jets for executive use, one of which costs over $50 million.
Zoë Beery is a freelance writer, editor, and audio producer in New York.
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