The senator from Kentucky was worried enough to get tested. But while he waited for the results, he kept going to work, the gym, and the pool.
By inadvertently spreading the coronavirus around the U.S. Capitol for at least a week, Rand Paul has turned the world’s greatest deliberative body into the nation’s highest-profile vector for the spread of the pandemic.
The senator from Kentucky was worried enough about being exposed to the virus that he got a still-hard-to-obtain test for it. But while he was waiting for the results, he
- decided to keep showing up to the Senate. He
- went to group lunches with his Republican colleagues,
- took the Capitol elevators,
- talked with reporters, and
- worked out in the somehow-still-open Senate gym.
- Yesterday morning, he was doing laps in the pool there.
By yesterday afternoon, Paul had announced that he had tested positive. Graciously, he said that he would start self-quarantining.
Paul is exactly what we’ve been told to worry about. For all the laughing and hate-tweeting directed at spring breakers saying they don’t think the coronavirus is a big deal, they’re at worst dumb, selfish, underinformed 20-somethings. Paul is a medical doctor (he worked as an ophthalmologist before first being elected in 2012). He is a senator. He is an elected official. People look to him for leadership.
In the Senate, the average age is 62.9. There are five senators in their 80s—and there will soon be six, when Vermont’s Patrick Leahy has his birthday at the end of the month. There are mothers and fathers of young children in the chamber. There are senators who have close family members with conditions that make them especially susceptible to the virus, such as Utah’s Mitt Romney, whose wife has MS.
Then there is Paul, whose office claims that he was being extra careful by deciding to get tested (he had a procedure last year to remove a damaged part of his lung), and that he “only got tested because of his insistence.” But Paul’s attitude seems to have boiled down to some version of Too bad for you if I’m infected and I come into contact with you.
He is infected. He came into contact with a lot of people. And now, at a crucial moment in American history, when the entire country is counting on Washington’s response, Paul has single-handedly given senators reason to worry that they are risking their health by showing up to vote.
None of this explains how Paul got tested at all. People across the country are having trouble breathing and running fevers but being told that they have to wait for a test. Paul was asymptomatic, but did attend an art-museum fundraiser in Kentucky on March 7 with two people who later tested positive for COVID-19 (Paul says he never interacted with either of the people in question). Other people at the event, including the local mayor, have tested positive, and Paul seems to have decided that attending the fundraiser was enough reason to ask for a test. How he jumped the line for one is a mystery. America doesn’t have anywhere near enough tests for those who need them, despite Donald Trump saying at the beginning of the month that anyone who wanted a test could get one, and Vice President Mike Pence saying on March 10 that there would be an additional 4 million tests “before the end of this week.” That was two weeks ago today.
Importantly, Paul has no idea where or from whom he contracted the virus. He could have gotten it and then spread it at all sorts of places he hasn’t considered. Representative John Yarmuth of Kentucky, who was at the same museum fundraiser, announced on March 15 that he’d taken a test and the results had come back negative. Still, Yarmuth tweeted, “I plan to continue working from home and will avoid going out in order to do my part as we all work to practice safe and precautionary distancing to help defeat this pandemic.”
Other senators, including Ted Cruz of Texas, preemptively self-quarantined after learning that they could have been exposed. Cruz had no symptoms either. Paul’s office argued that he got the test “out of an abundance of caution due to his extensive travel and events.” But if traveling between Kentucky and Washington is all that is required to get a test, a lot more people should be able to receive immediate testing.
They can’t, of course. There’s no question that Paul got special treatment. He got a test that others want and can’t get, and he got it despite having no symptoms—something the president has explicitly said people shouldn’t be doing. He got it as a United States senator, which means that he got it on a taxpayer-funded government health-care plan. Everyone else, including those who might be fighting for a ventilator in the coming weeks, can wait.
All last week, while he was deciding that he wanted to be tested, getting that specially obtained test, and waiting for the results, Paul was at work in the Senate. He was holding up, then voting against, then blasting in a floor speech the first major coronavirus-response bill, which includes a provision to make testing, once it becomes more readily available, free for whoever wants it.
Paul got a test that he voted against everyone else being able to get. He slowed the passage of the bill to make a principled stand against the enormous deficit spending involved. He did not mention, as he criticized young people for not taking the virus seriously while in almost the next sentence raising doubts that it is worse than the swine flu, that he was concerned enough about himself to get tested. “Modern man has become accustomed to the idea that life is relatively safe, that a long life is to be expected. Consequently, any re-eruption of diseases beyond our control paralyzes us with fear,” he said, urging people to get their worries under control. He mentioned that his parents remember the polio scares, and that they lived through those well into their 80s.
One of those parents is Ron Paul, the former congressman from Texas and presidential candidate who helped mainstream a version of libertarianism that his son is clearly inspired by, though the elder Paul is a separate political figure and not formally affiliated with his son except by biology. But here’s what Ron Paul, who also began his professional life as a doctor (an obstetrician) wrote in a commentary published on March 16: “People should ask themselves whether this coronavirus ‘pandemic’ could be a big hoax, with the actual danger of the disease massively exaggerated by those who seek to profit—financially or politically—from the ensuing panic.” The same day, Rand Paul’s chief political strategist, Doug Stafford, tweeted mockingly about New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio taking a midday break from dealing with the pandemic response to go to a gym in Brooklyn: “So people can’t eat out but can go to the gym where they expel bodily fluid and touch things other people just touched. Ok.” His boss, he would later find out, was doing those things all week.
Here are some of the questions I sent Paul’s spokesman this morning:
- When did the senator decide to get tested? Why did he wait, when Congressman Yarmuth, who was at that same museum fundraiser, got tested a week earlier?
- Why did he not inform anyone in the Senate that he was concerned enough to get tested and/or self-quarantine?
- How did the senator obtain a test so quickly, when others have been waiting (including others who likewise have conditions that have them on high alert)?
- Was the test covered under his Senate health insurance? If not, how was it paid for?
The only response I received pointed me to the statements that Paul has put out over the past day, which don’t address these questions. Paul’s office released an emailed statement from him this afternoon, calling for “more testing immediately, even among those without symptoms.” He argued, “The nature of COVID-19 put me—and us all—in a Catch-22 situation. I didn’t fit the criteria for testing or quarantine. I had no symptoms and no specific encounter with a COVID-19 positive person. I had, however, traveled extensively in the U.S. and was required to continue doing so to vote in the Senate. That, together with the fact that I have a compromised lung, led me to seek testing.”
He turned his scolding toward anyone questioning how he’s behaved, holding himself up as an exemplar because he went out of his way to get tested, even though he kept it secret, and even though he got a test others can’t get.
“For those who want to criticize me for lack of quarantine, realize that if the rules on testing had been followed to a tee, I would never have been tested and would still be walking around the halls of the Capitol,” the statement reads. “Perhaps it is too much to ask that we simply have compassion for our fellow Americans who are sick or fearful of becoming so.”
I hope the senator makes a full recovery. Many Americans who are sick or fearful of becoming so won’t get the same compassion or access to treatment that he did.
Be skeptical: The executive routinely shares highly-classified information with lawmakers, particularly Gang of 8, who are notified about covert actions. Officials have also been talking for days about intelligence (in more than general terms, btw) that led to Soleimani’s death. https://twitter.com/NBCNews/status/1215255923977080832 …NBC News
NEW: Responding to criticism of congressional briefings, VP Pence asserts to @SavannahGuthrie that admin. could not share with the US Congress some of “most compelling” intel around the Iran strike because doing so “could compromise sources and methods.” https://nbcnews.to/2N9xoDU128 people are talking about this
Administration officials argue that the general was plotting imminent attacks, but Democrats said that the intelligence they have seen was too vague.
WASHINGTON — Under increasing pressure to defend the killing of a top Iranian general in Iraq, senior Trump administration officials offered new justifications but little detail on Tuesday, citing threats to the American Embassy in Baghdad and intelligence suggesting other imminent attacks that helped prompt the strike.
Democrats stepped up their criticism of intelligence that the administration provided immediately after the drone strike last week that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. The administration’s formal notification to Congress, which remains classified, provided no information on future threats or the imminent attack, officials who have read it said.
Several said it was improperly classified, and Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, called it “vague and unacceptably unspecific.” Lawmakers pressed for more answers on Tuesday at a briefing by the C.I.A. director, Gina Haspel, and other intelligence officials.
Iranian forces or their proxies were days from attacking American personnel when President Trump decided to strike General Suleimani, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper told reporters at the Pentagon. Mr. Esper added that General Suleimani had traveled to Baghdad to coordinate attacks following up on a two-day siege of the United States Embassy there last week by pro-Iranian demonstrators. He declined to elaborate but called the intelligence “exquisite.”
Mr. Trump was more forceful but no more specific. General Suleimani “was planning a very big attack and a very bad attack for us and other people,” Mr. Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “And we stopped him.”
Their defense of the killing came as Tehran launched its initial response, firing a dozen ballistic missiles early Wednesday from Iranian territory targeting American forces in Iraq’s Anbar Province and Kurdish region. A Pentagon official confirmed that the missiles were launched at bases hosting American forces, but provided no initial damage assessment.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered a direct and proportional response to the Suleimani killing, not the kind of covert action through proxy forces that Tehran has traditionally employed. American officials in recent weeks warned about the threat from short-range ballistic missiles that Iran had smuggled into Iraq.
As the threats from Tehran increased, several NATO allies conducting training for Iraqi troops — including Canada, Germany and Croatia — decided at least temporarily to remove some troops from Iraq. Canada, which leads the NATO training mission, announced it was withdrawing its 500 troops and sending them to Kuwait.
Fueled by what they have called weak and inadequate briefings from the administration, Democrats grew increasingly vocal in their skepticism, arguing the administration has a high burden to meet to show that the strike was justified.
Some drew comparisons to the flawed intelligence on weapons of mass destruction used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the recent revelations about the failures of the war in Afghanistan.
“Between no weapons of mass destruction, no clear and present danger, the Afghanistan papers — there’s plenty to be skeptical about,” Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a brief interview. “The burden is on the administration to prove the truthfulness and veracity of how they made their decision.”
Ms. Haspel has spoken with multiple lawmakers in recent days, some of whom have urged her to be more forthcoming about the intelligence behind the killing. Ms. Haspel, in turn, has emphasized that she had serious concerns about the threat posed by General Suleimani if the administration held off on targeting him.
Before the drone strike that killed the general, the pro-Iranian protesters had attacked barricades outside the American Embassy in Baghdad, and American officials feared the attacks could resume and the situation could easily grow more dangerous, threatening the diplomats and military personnel who work at the compound.
General Suleimani had arrived in Baghdad to pressure the Iraqi government to kick out American forces after attacks by the United States on Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi militia group with ties to Iran, according to American officials.
One official noted that General Suleimani was traveling with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Iraqi who helps lead the Iranian-backed militias and who was coordinating the attacks on the American Embassy. Mr. al-Muhandis was also killed in the strike.
Additionally, the classified document sent to Capitol Hill only recounts the attacks that Iran and its proxies have carried out in recent months and weeks rather than outlining new threats, according to three American officials.
Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. demanded that Mr. Trump give a “sober-minded explanation” of the strike, its consequences and the intelligence that prompted it.
“All we’ve heard from this administration are shifting explanations, evasive answers, repeated assertions of an imminent threat without the necessary evidence to support that conclusion,” Mr. Biden, a front-runner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, said in remarks from Pier 59 in New York. If there was a threat, he added, “we’re owed an explanation and the facts to back it up.”
Iranian-supported militias have increasingly directed attacks at Iraqi bases with American forces over the past two months, officials have said. Since May, intelligence and military officials have warned that Iran has been preparing for attacks against Americans in the Middle East.
The reports have prompted the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. to relocate officers out of the American Embassy in Baghdad in recent days and weeks, though some C.I.A. officers were relocated earlier, according to officials briefed on the matter. Some went to other parts of Iraq, and officials emphasized that the moves had not diminished intelligence collection on Iranian activity in the country.
“We’re all going to want to hear why they thought targeting Suleimani was the best option, what were the other targets on the table, did they know about the collateral damage?” he said.
Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican who has long vocally opposed the lengthy deployments of American forces overseas, has emerged as one of the few Republicans willing to criticize the decision. He questioned the administration’s claim of an imminent attack, citing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s repeated criticism of General Suleimani.
“I’ve always been surprised at how presidents in general, including President Obama, stretch the idea of what imminence is,” Mr. Paul said. “I can tell you the secretary of state’s been talking about for over a year all the things Suleimani has done. I think they found this as an opportune time to take him out.”Mr. Pompeo has led the administration’s defense of the strike and said on Tuesday that the intelligence was presented to Mr. Trump in broad detail before he ordered the strike.
“It was the right decision,” Mr. Pompeo said.
And Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser, said that General Suleimani was plotting attacks on “diplomats, soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines” at multiple facilities.
Mr. O’Brien said the intelligence would most likely remain classified to avoid putting sources of intelligence and collection methods at risk. But, he added, “I can tell you that the evidence was strong.”
With the exception of Mr. Paul, most Republicans on Capitol Hill have coalesced around the administration.
“We had very clear, very solid information from the intelligence community that indeed there were going to be imminent attacks that could involve hundreds of people, could involve even thousands of people,” Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters late last week, calling the intelligence “rock solid.”
The House was set this week to consider measures to curtail the president’s war-making powers on Iran by invoking the War Powers Resolution. A similar measure could come to a vote on the Senate floor as early as next week. And the Democratic-led House Foreign Affairs Committee announced a hearing set for next Tuesday on the Trump administration’s Iran policy.
A few Republicans have managed—really—to work successfully with the president. Here’s what the new speaker could learn from them.
But there’s no formula for successfully negotiating with this mercurial, ad hoc chief executive. Pelosi’s first attempt to do so, an agreement in September 2017 to protect the Dreamers from deportation in exchange for border security funding, fell apart not long after it was announced.
Still, there’s no reason to think Pelosi, or anyone in the nation’s capital, can’t find a way to a win with Trump. Here’s what we’ve learned about the art of making a deal with Trump from the few successful people in Washington who have figured out how to get what they want out of the president.
Convince Him He’ll Be Loved
Trump may want nothing more than to be well-liked and appreciated. The bipartisan criminal justice reform bill seems to have been sold to him as an opportunity to do just that. Versions of the First Step Act, a major reform that liberalizes federal prison and sentencing laws, had floundered in Congress for years. The policy already had support from across the political spectrum—but it needed a Republican president who could provide political cover to bring enough members of the GOP on board.
Trump wasn’t an obvious champion for sentencing reform. He ran a campaign promising “law and order” and selected the tough-on-crime Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Sessions’ Justice Department had issued reports critical of the bill. The president has suggested that convicted drug dealers deserved the death penalty. To get his support, the criminal-justice reformers would need to conduct a conversion.
The evangelist was White House adviser Jared Kushner, who, all accounts say, worked hard to persuade his father-in-law. Kushner met with everyone from members of the Congressional Black Caucus to Koch-funded interest groups to the news media to bolster an already large coalition. It helped that Kushner was able to deliver plenty of groups and individuals on the right.
“I think the broad popularity of the policy was the gateway,” says one of the bill’s advocates, who watched the process at the White House up close. “The president was also given a booklet of dozens of conservative organizations and individuals making supportive statements on the bill to show grassroots political support. And then it took some convincing that law enforcement was on board.”
The last piece proved crucial, because there’s perhaps no interest group Trump cherishes more than law enforcement. The marquee names—the
- Fraternal Order of Police, the
- International Association of Chiefs of Police, the
- National District Attorneys Association—
were enough to get the president on board. With seemingly few people opposed (Tom Cotton, otherwise a devoted Trump ally, the most prominent) and even staunch critics in the media like Van Jones making the trek to kiss Trump’s ring at the White House, Kushner and his partners succeeded in selling Trump on the most important provision of the First Step Act: Mr. President, you will be loved for signing it.
It won’t be easy for Pelosi, but the Democratic speaker may be able to use similar tactics to goad Trump into supporting some bipartisan health-care initiatives. The administration has already begun proposing some form of federal intervention to lower prescription drug prices, while Democrats have long argued that Medicare should negotiate with Big Pharma on bringing down drug costs. Some kind of compromise bill could get the support of both Capitol Hill and the White House. Your older, Medicare-using base will love you for it, Pelosi might tell the president. That would get his attention.
Remind Him of His Campaign Promises
Earlier this month, Trump and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul were having one of their frequent conversations about the American military presence in both Syria and Afghanistan. Paul, a persistent, longtime critic of the continued deployment of troops in the Middle East, has found the strongest ally of his political career on the issue with Trump.
After their discussion, Paul sent the president some news articles supporting his view that the time was right to withdraw from Syria, says top Paul aide Doug Stafford, who says Trump sent back a note alerting him that he would “see some movement on this soon.” On December 19, Trump announced the forthcoming withdrawal of the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops fighting ISIS in Syria. The move was resisted by just about everyone around Trump, inside and outside the administration, including John Bolton, Jim Mattis and Lindsey Graham. All, except Paul.
“I think people mistake it like Rand is trying to get him to do what Rand wants. But this is what Donald Trump ran on,” says Stafford. “Rand sees his role more as keeping the president where he wants to be and where he said he would be against some people who are inside of the White House and other senators who are trying to push him off of his beliefs and his position.”