The border turned out to be a better attack on Biden than even Republicans thought

When Donald Trump took his final trip as president to the southwest border in January, the publicly stated purpose was to tout his record. Privately, however, his Republican allies had hatched a plan that they thought could get them back into the seats of power.

In Alamo, Texas, supporters lined the route of the motorcade. Trump used a Sharpie to autograph a newly constructed piece of the 452 miles of a 30-foot steel wall. He was joined by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), as well as the head of the federal agency charged with border enforcement, Mark Morgan, and Tom Homan, a former Trump immigration official who had pushed for Republicans to speak more about the issue during the 2020 campaign.

Graham “thought this needed to be an area of contrast so that when the Senate elections happen in 2022 this could be a place where they could really have some contrast,” said a person familiar with the senator’s four-hour visit with Trump at the White House four days earlier. Graham’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

The conversations around the trip were some of the earliest indications that Republicans anticipated the spike in migrants crossing the border — due to seasonal patterns and regional crises — and planned to use it as a political cudgel to try to retake Congress in the midterm elections. The topic turned out to be much more of a vulnerability for Biden than even they expected.

A record increase in the number of unaccompanied children coming to the border, the slow pace to process and house them, and the White House’s muddled message around it all is complicating Biden’s attempt to focus on fighting the coronavirus and reviving the economy. And while many of the political problems he is facing are of his own making, some of it was set in motion — through policy choices and political calculations — by his opponents before he even stepped foot in the Oval Office.

Now, after weeks of traveling to the border, writing letters, drafting memos and calling for investigations, Republicans are readying an even more aggressive plan to feature Biden’s policies in campaign ads and mailers in states across the country. GOP officials say the border — alongside the resistance to reopening schools during the pandemic — offer them the greatest political opportunities so far in Biden’s young presidency.

“It’s going to be a massive issue … in the midterms,” said Republican strategist Jason Miller, an adviser to Trump. “Biden clearly made a number of deals with progressives in his party but progressives in his party don’t necessarily represent the swing voters and working class blue collar voters all around the country.”

In interviews with a dozen Democrats and Republicans — including GOP strategists, Biden advisers and immigration advocates who work with the White House — a picture emerges not just of a Republican Party eager to leverage a policy point that worked well for Trump in his first run for office, but of a Biden White House that was ill-prepared for them to do that. Several Democrats and immigration activists who support Biden said they have grown frustrated that the White House has failed to respond to the attacks more forcefully and fully embrace pro-immigration policies.

In virtual briefings, the advocacy group Immigration Hub recently urged the White House and committees working to elect Democrats in 2022 not to back away from supporting expansive immigration proposals, such as a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants, and to clearly explain what specifically can be done to help on the border, including new shelters for children, technology to stop would-be border crossers and addressing the root causes of migration, according to a person familiar with the briefings.

In a five-page memo obtained by POLITICO, Immigration Hub cited internal polling that indicates immigration could be politically helpful to Democrats if they can better explain their policies. Sixty-three percent of nationwide voters, for example, approve of Biden’s approach to the border when introduced to it while 28 percent disapprove.

“A lot of people are not familiar with President Biden’s strategy, his policies, his vision,” said Sergio Gonzales, the group’s executive director, who worked on the Biden transition. “It really is incumbent upon the White House and Democrats to articulate what they stand for. They need to lean in and actually be very clear with the American public on what the plan is.”

Before he left office, Trump was repeatedly briefed on the expected increase of migrants at the border caused by a spate of hurricanes in Central America, the economic downturn, the traditional seasonal fluctuations, even the change in administration, according to two people familiar with the briefings.

In turn, outgoing officials at two agencies, Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, briefed Biden’s transition officials on the expected rise, said Homan, former acting ICE director and Trump confidant.

“Senior leadership in DHS under Trump told his transition team, told them numerous times, if you end these policies you’re going to see an unprecedented surge,” he said.

Homan said he had urged Republicans, who lost the White House and Senate in November, to speak more about immigration during the campaign. But Trump talked about the issue far less in 2020 than in 2016 in part because of the all-consuming pandemic but also because some of his aides were reluctant to turn off Hispanic voters in critical states.

Biden’s team blames Trump for pushing through last-minute policy changes, including closing shelters for children, that worsened the situation and for failing to share information as he blocked the transition in unprecedented ways.

“Being prepared and having a plan is not the same as having the right tools available especially when the previous administration created such a mess,” said Cecilia Muñoz, a top immigration adviser for Barack Obama who worked on the Biden transition team.

During the transition, the incoming Biden administration outlined specific plans to reverse Trump policies, including halting the construction of the border wall and stopping deportations for 100 days, that Republicans thought would create more problems at the border.

But Biden has yet to act on many of Trump’s immigration policies, from failing to increase the cap on refugees to rescinding a ban on most migrants at the southern border. He is allowing unaccompanied children and some families to remain in the U.S. for humanitarian reasons, though his administration was not ready for the influx.

In the Senate, Republicans say the rise in migrants at the border is expected to be an issue in competitive races across the country from Colorado and Arizona to New Hampshire and Georgia. In the House, they say, it would likely be used more often in border districts in Texas and Arizona.

“It’s certainly central to our messaging,” said a Republican operative involved with numerous Senate races. “Democrats are out of touch with the American people on immigration. They’re afraid of doing something on the border that would make liberal activist groups angry, regardless of whether it’s the right thing to do. We plan to highlight this every step of the way because it’s clearly bad policy. “

They cite poll after poll showing Biden’s low job approval rating on the border, especially with independents. House Republicans will soon poll the issue in battleground districts while Senate Republicans point to their poll that show 62 percent of independents disapprove of policies that include cutting border funding and halting deportations.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment. But Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison said, “Republicans are cynically stoking fear about children and families to score political points … Their tactics didn’t work in 2017. They didn’t work in 2018. They didn’t work in 2020. And they won’t work now. I’m proud that Democrats are working on solutions to the challenges at the border — Republicans need to drop their scare tactics and help find real solutions.”

The number of migrants had been steadily increasing for months. But it rose more sharply this year. More than 18,800 unaccompanied children crossed the border in March, a record-breaking figure; the previous high was more than 11,000 children in May 2019, according to CBP. The March numbers represent an almost 100 percent increase from February, when more than 9,400 minors were taken into custody.

“No one would be honest and say they foresaw the worst border crisis in history unfolding in just two months of his tenure, three months in his tenure,” a Republican campaign strategist said. That would include Biden’s team, which acknowledged this week that the influx was more than expected.

“That increase and that influx, as you all know, was higher than most people, including us, anticipated,” said press secretary Jen Psaki.

In response, the administration has opened emergency shelters for minors traveling alone, activated the Federal Emergency Management Agency and restored a program allowing some Central American children to apply for admission to the U.S. from their home countries.

Biden announced he was putting Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of diplomacy in the region known as the Northern Triangle and asking for $4 billion over four years to tackle the root causes of migration in Central American countries.

Still, even some of Biden’s allies have criticized him for his response, particularly over the treatment of unaccompanied children housed in crowded facilities, and urged them to quickly implement programs that would open up paths to legal immigration.

“They got caught flat footed,” said a person who consults with the White House on immigration policy. “They made this much worse.”

Democrat Joe Manchin says there’s one GOP senator he’d endorse ‘in a heartbeat’

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin bucked his own party’s political operation in 2020 by endorsing a Republican. Now, he’s doing it again.

The West Virginia senator is backing Alaska GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s reelection bid in the face of a pointed challenge from former President Donald Trump, whom Murkowski voted to convict of inciting an insurrection.

It’s a wrath that Manchin knows all too well, having faced a Trump-inspired challenge of his own three years ago.

But Manchin doesn’t want to see his friend Murkowski defeated by a Trump-endorsed Republican — or a Democrat. He told POLITICO’s Playbook Deep Dive podcast that he will support Murkowski’s challenging reelection campaign in 2022 “in a heartbeat.”

“I’ve met a lot of good people in Alaska, they know when they’ve got the real deal. And they see the person that basically is bringing both sides together, trying to look for the best interest,” Manchin said of Murkowski in a rare joint interview. “People understand that they have a person that understands Alaska and has Alaska in her blood and in every part of her veins and every morsel of her body.”

Murkowski hasn’t officially launched her reelection campaign but was elated to get Democratic backing: “I would welcome his endorsement.”

The two have a relationship dating back to essentially when Manchin entered the Senate in 2010 and Murkowski, then the top Republican on the Energy Committee, visited Manchin in West Virginia. Then as chair, Murkowski hosted Manchin in Alaska in 2019 — cementing their rare bipartisan relationship.

Manchin, who also endorsed Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) in her 2020 reelection race, said that “I don’t think we should be campaigning against any colleagues, Democrat or Republican.”

He conceded most of his colleagues don’t agree with him. But Murkowski hopes that with the establishment of a 20-senator strong bipartisan group, called the G20, their alliance is the start of something bigger rather than an outlier in an increasingly partisan chamber.

“I would like to think that we’re the resurgence, that it’s kind of lonely right now. But why wouldn’t we want to encourage greater collaboration and cooperation among our colleagues,” Murkowski. “I get weary of of of that energy that is focused on the dirty, unproductive process.”

Murkowski’s biggest problem is from within her own party, and Trump has backed Kelly Tshibaka against her. It’s unclear whether Democrats will even bother to put up a credible candidate against Murkowski, who won a write-in campaign after losing her primary in 2010. The state has also changed its elections system into a nonpartisan top-four primary that could help Murkowski blunt Tshibaka’s challenge.

The Fate of Trumpism Will Be Decided Here

STRONGSVILLE, Ohio—The crowd crammed into an indoor-outdoor bar at a sprawling mall in this teeming suburb south of Cleveland. The head of the local Republican club took to the mic on a small stage—and pledged vengeance.

“Sign the petition to ask Congressman Anthony Gonzalez to resign,” Shannon Burns said to a burst of cheers. “If you’re looking at your neighbor right now and saying, ‘What’s he talking about?’ … get with it!”

The second-term representative “betrayed his constituents,” in Burns’ assessment, when he voted in January with nine other House Republicans and every Democrat to impeach Donald Trump.

“He thinks a year from now when it’s election time for the primary you’re all going to forget and he’s going to get reelected,” Burns went on, eliciting snickers and jeers. “And I’m telling you right now: We’re going to make sure you don’t forget.”

In a normal political world and in a normal political time, a second-generation Cuban-American former NFL player from the Rust Belt with an MBA from Stanford would be considered practically by definition a rising GOP star. But Gonzalez’s impeachment decision made him a traitor in the eyes of the man who is manifestly the unofficial leader of the party. It’s the reason Trump wasted no time endorsing Max Miller—a former aide with next to no name ID plus an arrest record—to try to take out Gonzalez. And it’s why the 16th District of Ohio is now a singular early battlefield in the former president’s intensifying intraparty war.

“Anthony Gonzalez should not be representing the people of the 16th District because he does not represent their interest or their heart,” Trump said in a statement barely more than a month after he left office. “Max Miller has my Complete and Total Endorsement!”

A 32-year-old Cleveland native, Miller has been endorsed, too, by the Club for Growth, which commissioned a poll that suggests he has a wide lead at this early stage. “If the election was today, Anthony Gonzalez would lose,” Jim Renacci, the pre-Gonzalez Republican congressman here, told me last month. “He’s done,” said Harlan Hill, a Trump-aligned consultant who’s done work in the district. “Max is going to beat the hell out of Anthony.”

But it’s not that simple, according to more than three dozen interviews with strategists, analysts and current and former elected officials from both parties who know the region well. As battlefields go, Ohio as a whole is more red than purple, and so is the 16th District—but it’s replete as well with warning signs for Trump that his quest for retaliation might succeed only in further tearing the party apart.

Gonzalez, 36, from the west side of Cleveland, is a former Ohio State star with a family steel business background who voted in line with Trump nearly 86 percent of the time—a quickie biography and a record as a lawmaker that made him at least pre-impeachment something of a GOP up-and-comer.

Miller, meanwhile, is an electoral novice and the scion of a wealthy, politically connected family from the opposite side of Cleveland in a city in which many believe that divide still matters. And since he announced his bid, his critics say, he’s been hanging around the Trump stronghold of Southeast Florida more conspicuously than he’s been out and about in Northeast Ohio.

“Everyone in the Republican Party is flocking down to South Florida, because that’s where the money is,” Miller told me this week. But he acknowledged he has work to do on the ground at home. “There’s no greater endorsement that anyone in the Republican Party can get than President Trump’s,” he said. “However, it’s going to be on me to go out and persuade voters and for them to get to know me personally in order for them to vote and believe in me.”

Miller has a rap sheet, too, that’s from his late teens but nonetheless looms as largely undetonated ammunition for his opponents. Gonzalez operatives talk privately about Miller not with trepidation so much as relish. “It ain’t gonna be pretty,” one of them told me. “It’s just not.” Aside from what’s assuredly to come in this tussle, Gonzalez outraised Miller in the first quarter (although, to be fair, Miller didn’t declare until late February) and has more than double the cash on hand, Miller isn’t even the lone Trump-lane candidate, parts of the district are actually getting a tick more blue—and, in probably the biggest variable of all, the district is set to be redrawn in ways that could reshape the race.

All of this makes Ohio’s 16th worth watching as an early, distilled look at the potential limits and pitfalls of Trump’s shoot-first, aim-later style, his personality-driven, fealty-fueled, viscerally scattershot politics of retribution. “Anthony’s disloyal, and Max will be a loyalist,” Hill said. “No more complicated than that,” confirmed a person close to Trump. “Trump is such an emotional decider,” former Ohio Democratic Congressman Dennis Eckart said. This nascent race then could help Trump cement a sweeping and lasting influence—or play out as a case study in the ways in which his inchoate urge for revenge might begin to run into reality.

Is Gonzalez “going to have a spirited primary? Yes,” Republican strategist Barry Bennett, a 2016 Trump adviser who’s from Ohio and has extensive experience in the state, told me. “Is he the underdog? I don’t think so.”

“Everything depends on the redraw, but I think this race is really emblematic of what’s happening within the party across the country,” said Dave Cohen, a political scientist at the University of Akron.

“It’s a perfect example of how Trump could really hurt not just the near term but the future of the Republican Party,” said David Pepper, the former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. “It’s all about a loyalty test to him that almost will put targets on the backs of some of their best people.” The issue within the Republican electorate, of course, is that there is fierce disagreement about who those “best people” are.

And here at the Brew Garden at the monthly meeting of the Strongsville GOP, overlooking an asphalt vista of big-box stores, where the Cuyahoga County suburbs start to blend into the Medina County exurbs on the way down to the district’s more rural reaches around Wadsworth and Wooster, the sold-out, 300-strong throng offered at least one side of that debate.

The evening’s featured speaker, Cleveland conservative radio host Bob Frantz, the local iteration of the late Rush Limbaugh, called Democrats “evil,” said “systemic racism” “does not exist,” stressed the importance of the Second Amendment because “people need to have the means to have another revolution” and decried a corporate America “gone woke.” The people gathered clamored for boycotts of baseball and Coke. They booed Joe Biden, obviously, but they also hissed at mentions of Mike DeWine—Ohio’s Republican governor who’s been more pandemic-stringent than some of his counterparts around the country like Ron DeSantis of Florida. They wore Trump shirts. They wore Trump hats. They wore—in defiance of DeWine’s statewide mask mandate—vanishingly few masks. A 60-year-old woman literally pulled mine down below my nose and mouth—worried as she was, she explained, that it was more likely to make me sick.

“WE THE PEOPLE,” said a sweatshirt I saw, “ARE PISSED …”

But that palpable discontent was something less than laser-focused. Some of the attendees I talked to seemed to have their sights set on Gonzalez—I heard him called a “turncoat” and an “asshole”—but others seemed to have only passing knowledge of him or his impeachment vote. I found myself not merely asking questions but having to explain who was running against whom and why. It was a useful reminder of the relatively low level of engagement a year before an election—including even among citizens willing to come to political shindigs like this.

Whether they know it or not, though, these voters are living on a front that’s going to get more and more hot as the calendar hurtles toward 2022. For Trump—for his prospects for his future control of his party—there’s simply too much at stake.

“A year from now, everyone will know about it,” Burns told me. “If I was a betting man, I’d say President Trump’s gonna come in himself—and make sure people remember.” He predicted that would be “the kiss of death.”

Strongsville is a de facto capital of the 16th District. It’s one of its biggest concentrations of Republican voters. It’s the site of Gonzalez’s main non-Washington office. About a half an hour north, just shy of the shore of Lake Erie, is the tip-top of the district’s current contours—the more affluent suburb west of Cleveland called Rocky River. It’s where Gonzalez lives, and it’s where Miller lives now, too.

Gonzalez grew up just to the west, in Avon Lake, and went to high school a bit to the east, at Cleveland’s prestigious Saint Ignatius, the private Roman Catholic Jesuit institution that has doubled as a football powerhouse. He was a philosophy major and an Academic All-American and a wide receiver at Ohio State. He was a first-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts and played five seasons in a career hampered and ultimately ended by injuries. He got his graduate degree at Stanford in 2014 and was the COO of Chalk Schools, a San Francisco startup, before moving back home. His Ohio roots based on his sporting past and in particular his Buckeye bona fides were a key piece of his pathway into politics.

Jack Torry, a retired Washington correspondent for a pair of Ohio newspapers, last month sent me a YouTube video of Gonzalez making an extraordinary and basically game-winning catch against archnemesis Michigan in 2005. “Beating Michigan,” Torry told me, “is a big political plus.”

Nostalgia for Gonzalez’ on-field heroics, of course, wasn’t the only engine of his initial electoral foray. His Cuban-born father, the president of a metal processing company with outposts in Ohio, Michigan and Mississippi, helped seed his bid with a PAC. Gonzalez earned the endorsement of perhaps the most prominent fellow Cuban-American politician—Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. He got the nod as well as financial help from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And he was classified as “On the Radar” of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s “Young Guns” program for promising GOP prospects.

But the quality of his opposition was as important as his level of support. In the primary in his run in 2018, it’s worth recalling, his chief foe then, too, was a markedly Trump-tinged candidate. Christina Hagan fashioned herself as an enthusiastic Trump acolyte, while Gonzalez was more Trump-cautious—at one point even citing anti-Trump Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska as a role model. The result? Gonzalez won by more than 12 points. Which meant in a safe Republican district he was on his way to Congress—a GOP winner in a cycle in which Democrats would retake control of the House. The day before Election Day, at a MAGA rally in Cleveland, Trump name-checked Gonzalez. He called him “a special person.”

“In 2018, he ran against what was a very imperfect Trump candidate,” Columbus-based Republican strategist Ryan Stubenrauch told me, referring to Hagan—a then-twentysomething ultraconservative state rep who wasn’t even endorsed by Trump. “And he beat her by a little more than 7,000 votes.” (It actually was almost 8,000—but point taken.) “Does voting to impeach the president and being a former Trump official as a primary opponent plus an active role from Donald Trump in the race,” Stubenrauch said, “pick you up 7,000 votes in a Republican-leaning district?” He answered his own question. “It certainly seems like it could be done,” Stubenrauch said, “given the influence Donald Trump has on the Republican Party in Ohio and certainly within the 16th District.”

But Miller, too, is his own kind of imperfect Trump candidate.

Few people in and around Cleveland have heard of Max Miller. But very few people in and around Cleveland haven’t heard of his grandfather. Sam Miller, a real estate developer and philanthropist who died at 97 a little more than two years ago, was the poor son of immigrants from Russia and Poland before becoming over the course of an epic life one of the city’s preeminent political fundraisers and donors to candidates of both parties. He was a power broker. He was a kingmaker. And near the end of his life his company sold for $6.8 billion. “His influence,” onetime Cleveland mayor and former Ohio Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich said upon his death, “was total.”

Sam Miller had four children with his first wife, née Ruth Ratner—the sister of his business partner of nearly three-quarters of a century, Albert Ratner, another all-time Cleveland kingpin. One of their children: the former diplomat and Middle East and foreign policy expert (and POLITICO contributor) Aaron David Miller. Another: Abe Miller—the co-owner of a company that makes baseball caps and the father of Max.

Max Miller grew up in old money Shaker Heights in a more than 8,000-square-foot house. He graduated from Shaker Heights High in 2007. He graduated from Cleveland State in 2013.

Miller’s Ohio arrest record was first reported by the Washington Post in 2018. He was charged with assault and disorderly conduct and resisting arrest in 2007 after a fight in which he punched another man in the back of the head and ran from police. He pleaded no contest to a pair of misdemeanors, and the case was dismissed on account of a program for first offenders. He was charged with underage drinking in 2009, the case dismissed due to the same program. And he was charged with disorderly conduct in 2010 following a fight after leaving a hookah bar in the wee hours in which he bloodied his wrist by punching a glass door. “I did make mistakes in my youth, as many of us have,” Miller said in a statement to Cleveland’s Plain Dealer earlier this year. “Since then I’ve served my country in the Marine Corps Reserves and hold a very high-level security clearance (TS-SCI) approved by the FBI and CIA—which was granted after extensive background checks into my record and character.”

“You have a congressman who can’t run on his record, so he’s going to choose to do a smear campaign,” Miller told me. “He’s going to try to use things from when I was a teenager.” He described it as “shameful.”

A Marine reservist, Miller got a gig as an aide on Trump’s 2016 campaign thanks to a cousin who had a connection—Eli Miller, who’s now a managing director for an investment management firm, according to his LinkedIn page, but in 2015 and ’16 was a deputy finance director for Rubio’s presidential campaign before shifting to be the COO of finance down the general election stretch for the Trump campaign. After Trump won, Max Miller worked in Washington in the office of presidential personnel, helping with the placement of Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs appointees. After that, he was the director of advance. On the 2020 campaign, he was a deputy campaign manager. “He’s been with him for the entire presidency in various roles that were up close and personal,” a senior Trump adviser told me about the former president’s relationship with Miller, “and he likes him a lot.”

Congressional candidates don’t need to live in their districts. For his run for Congress, though, Miller’s move to Rocky River was kind of a must. For all the ways in which he’s ancestrally an insider in the area, Miller’s more an outsider in this specific congressional district.

“Cleveland has this cultural thing where it’s very East Side-West Side, like there are almost two separate cities in terms of the suburbs,” Monique Smith, a Democrat in the state Legislature who represents a handful of suburbs on the West Side, told me. “Max Miller comes from the other side.”

“Max Miller comes from one of Cleveland’s wealthiest and most prominent East Side families,” said Jim Simon, who lives in Akron and is a member of the Ohio Republican State Central Committee. “I don’t know how Max Miller’s background and privilege plays in this West Side district.”

When I talked to Miller, he downplayed the divide. “It’s more of a rivalry,” he said. “It’s like, if you went to Shaker, you played Rocky River in baseball, right?”

Miller’s generally been sparse with his interviews in the going on two months since he announced his candidacy, sticking mostly to friendly, partisan platforms. He’s gone on Newsmax and OAN. He’s gone on Frantz’s show. To my eye and ear, he has … room for improvement, often presenting as somewhat stilted, nervous or rehearsed. My reporting says I’m not the only one who’s noticed. “It is clear he’s not yet gotten his feet underneath him,” said a Republican strategist who knows Ohio.

Gonzalez declined to talk to me for this story. It’s not hard to see why he might not want to call additional attention to the ways he’s at odds with the Trump-torqued chunk of his Republican base. But in interviews with NBC News, the Dispatch podcast and the conservative radio host Frantz in the immediate aftermath of his vote, he’s tried to divorce his decision from the pure pick-a-side politics of the moment.

“In the long arc of history, I believe it was the right vote,” he said. “Twenty years from now, 30 years from now, 50 years from now, what are people going to say about Jan. 6?” he said. “What this was was an attempt by the president of the United States to circumvent the Constitution to overturn an election,” he said. But he’s clear-eyed about the possible consequences. “I’m not an idiot,” he said. “I understand what this vote means and what it could potentially mean for my political career.”

He also, though, in the middle of January capped his appearance on the air with Frantz by trying to start to make amends with his constituents who feel livid or just let down.

“Every single person listening, every conservative listening right now,” Gonzalez said, “we have Joe Biden coming into office in a couple of days, we have a Democratic Senate, we have a Democrat-controlled House. We are going to have to be unified and pushing back on the agenda that we know is so bad for this country. We have to be. I know I took a vote that everybody can’t stand. I get that. But the priority moving forward, for me, for my office, for I hope every conservative across the country and certainly listening to this radio program, is to make sure that we stay together and prevent D.C. statehood, to prevent socialized medicine, to prevent all these crazy things that have been campaigned on by liberal politicians.”

Frantz told him he had “guts for coming on” his show “after the vote.” On subsequent shows, though, talking with Miller and with Burns, the popular host also called Gonzalez’s vote “shameful” and concurred that it constituted apostasy.

If Ohio can be seen as “the ultimate microcosm of the country overall—“an ur-place,” “an uncannily complete everyplace,” “a reflection of the nation,” in the estimation of the Ohio writer David Giffels—then the 16th District could be considered a microcosm of that microcosm.

In winning Ohio twice, Trump took the district in 2016 with 56.2 percent and upped that to 56.5 last year. But it’s true, too, that Biden did better in the 16th (42.2 percent) than Hillary Clinton did (39.5). And Gonzalez? He did better than Trump—winning 63.2 percent of the vote.

Western Cuyahoga County, furthermore, is home to the lone state House district in Ohio that flipped in 2020 from red to blue. In Bay Village, Westlake, North Olmsted, Fairview Park and Rocky River, Monique Smith edged out Dave Greenspan—making Smith, a Democrat, Gonzalez’s (and now Miller’s) state rep. “The reason my part of the district flipped,” Smith told me, “was it was following that trend that we started to see in 2018, where suburban voters were just repulsed and disgusted by the political tone they saw coming from the president.”

The Ohio State Board of Education district that roughly corresponds to the 16th District also flipped from red to blue. While technically a nonpartisan election, Christina Collins, a Democrat, beat by a hair Lisa Woods, not just a Republican but a Republican who last year traveled to Bethesda, Maryland, to attend the vigil outside Walter Reed hospital when Trump was there sick with Covid. “To me,” Collins said when we talked this month, “that indicated that there are some moderate voters in there—have to be.” She couldn’t and wouldn’t have won without them.

None of these finer, quieter crosscurrents, of course, were detectable in the midst of the Strongsville throng.

One man told me matter-of-factly that he believed Covid vaccines were going to kill 50 million people and that Trump hadn’t actually been inoculated in spite of what he’s repeatedly said. “He already knows the people that voted for him will not get the vaccine,” said Joe Poldruhi, 55, a maintenance man from nearby Olmsted Falls. “All the people that voted for Biden and hate Trump are taking the vaccine. Trump has no problem with that. Because they’re going to be dead.”

He told me he thought Trump “was going to win California, and when they called California as fast as they called it, I said, ‘Something is not right. There’s something that’s not right.’ He was sweeping everything—and then all of a sudden they stopped counting. I’m, like, ‘OK, Trump was right. He was absolutely right.’ He said, ‘They’re going to steal it.’ And they stole it. We watched ’em steal it.”

He said he used to be a big-time Pittsburgh Steelers fan. Now he doesn’t watch the Steelers or any professional football because of the kneeling players, or any sports at all, he said, because of what he considers increasingly liberal and activist athletes.

I looked around, taking in the buzzy Brew Garden scene.

“This is your sports,” I said.

“This is my sports,” he said.

“Joe Biden is not my president. Donald Trump is still my president.”

Notably not among the 300 Republicans on hand: Miller or Gonzalez.

Gonzalez was in town but spent the day visiting a couple of businesses in Brunswick before returning to Washington. Miller was missing on account of a delayed flight back from Florida. He had been down there for a weekend of GOP and Trump-tied fundraisers and festivities.

The only 16th District candidate present was the other Trump-lane candidate. Jonah Schulz is even younger and nothing if not eager. He lives in Cleveland, outside the district, and ran in the 11th District in 2020, losing in that Republican primary. Still, he’s a threat to siphon at least some Trump supporters’ votes. “I’ve been going to three to four events per week, and I have not run into Max,” Schulz said in March the first time we talked. “I’ll be interested to meet him,” he told me drily when we chatted near the back of the bar.

“Schulz needs to get out of the race,” Harlan Hill told me. “Don’t split the Trump vote. It’s time to consolidate behind Max Miller. He’s got the endorsement.”

“He should see,” Miller said, “that I’m in better position to unseat Gonzalez.”

But some Republican consultants argued right now it’s not about what Schulz needs to do as much as it is about what Miller does. “You can’t win a primary in the middle of Ohio from Palm Beach,” said one GOP strategist with Ohio experience. “Max,” said Barry Bennett, “needs to get out of Mar-a-Lago and into Medina.”

“Max raises money at Mar-a-Lago with President Trump,” said a Republican strategist familiar with the dynamics of the race. “Anthony Gonzalez is stuck doing Zoom calls with John Boehner.”

In the 16th, with some exceptions, a general rule of thumb is this: The more south you go, south from Rocky River, south from Strongsville, the more Trumpy it gets. I drove that way.

It’s impossible to know for sure which parts of the district will stay and which parts will go.

“Who knows what it’ll look like in ’22?” said Pepper, the former Ohio Democratic Party chair.

“That’s the thing,” Susan Moran Palmer, Gonzalez’s opponent in the general election in ’18, told me. “You don’t know what the district’s going to be.”

“Redistricting,” granted Strongsville’s Burns, “is going to be a little bit tricky.”

And Chris Glassburn, a North Olmsted city council member and a redistricting expert who assisted Ohio Democrats in the 2010 cycle, told me the 16th could become more suburban, less rural and “considerably less” Republican.

The shape and the breakdown are wait-and-see wild cards. For now, though, I got off the interstates and zigzagged from Strongsville to Medina, from Wadsworth to Wooster, shifting from suburban to exurban to residually agrarian to authentically and stubbornly so, from low-slung strip malls to horse stables and silos, through four-way stops and rundown towns, over verdant hills and past rows of crops, past Blue Lives Matter flags, past NO STEP ON SNEK flags, past Trump flags and still-up signs in yards and on porches and in windows, past a T-R-U-M-P painted in black block letters on big brown boards, past a tattered MAGA banner twisted into a tree at the front of an empty lot.

Trump’s bleach news conference happened one year ago today. We’ve never been the same.

One year ago today, President Donald Trump took to the White House briefing room and encouraged his top health officials to study the injection of bleach into the human body as a means of fighting Covid. It was a watershed moment, soon to become iconic in the annals of presidential briefings. It arguably changed the course of political history.

Some ex-Trump aides say they don’t even think about that day as the wildest they experienced — with the conceit that there were simply too many others. But for those there, it was instantly shocking, even by Trump standards. It quickly came to symbolize the chaotic essence of his presidency and his handling of the pandemic. Twelve months later, with the pandemic still lingering and a U.S. death toll nearing 570,000, it still does.

“For me, it was the craziest and most surreal moment I had ever witnessed in a presidential press conference,” said ABC’s chief Washington correspondent Jon Karl, who was the first reporter at the briefing to question Trump’s musings about bleach.

For weeks, Trump had been giving winding, stream-of-consciousness updates on the state of the Covid fight as it clearly worsened. So when he got up from the Oval Office to brief reporters gathered in the The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room on April 23, there was no expectation that the day’s proceedings would be any different than usual.

Privately, however, some of his aides were worried. The Covid task force had met earlier that day — as usual, without Trump — to discuss the most recent findings, including the effects of light and humidity on how the virus spreads. Trump was briefed by a small group of aides. But it was clear to some aides that he hadn’t processed all the details before he left to speak to the press.

“A few of us actually tried to stop it in the West Wing hallway,” said one former senior Trump White House official. “I actually argued that President Trump wouldn’t have the time to absorb it and understand it. But I lost, and it went how it did.”

Trump started his press conference that day by doing something he’d come to loathe: pushing basic public safety measures. He called for the “voluntary use of face coverings” and said of his administration, “continued diligence is an essential part of our strategy.”

Quickly, however, came a hint at how loose the guardrails were that day. Trump introduced Bill Bryan, head of science and technology at the Department of Homeland Security. “He’s going to be talking about how the virus reacts in sunlight,” the president said. “Wait ‘til you hear the numbers.”

As Bryan spoke, charts were displayed behind him about surface temperatures and virus half-lives. He preached, rather presciently, for people to “move activities outside” and then detailed ongoing studies involving disinfectants. “We tested bleach,” he said at one point. “I can tell you that bleach will kill the virus in five minutes.”

Standing off to the side, Trump clasped his hands in front of his stomach, nodded and looked out into the room of gathered reporters. When Bryan was done, he strode slowly back to the lectern.

“A question that probably some of you are thinking of if you’re totally into that world,” Trump began, clearly thinking the question himself, “So, supposing we hit the body with a tremendous — whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light — and I think you said that that hasn’t been checked, but you’re going to test it. And then I said, supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way, and I think you said you’re going to test that, too. It sounds interesting. And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning. Because you see it gets in the lungs, and it does a tremendous number on the lungs. So it would be interesting to check that.”

Dr. Deborah Birx, Trump’s former coronavirus response coordinator, sat silently off to the side as the president made these suggestions to her. Later, she would tell ABC, “I didn’t know how to handle that episode,” adding, “I still think about it every day.”

Inside the Biden campaign, aides were shocked as well. They were working remotely at that juncture, communicating largely over Signal. But the import of what had happened became quickly evident to them.

“Even for him,” said one former Biden campaign aide, “this was stratospherically insane and dangerous. It cemented the case we had been making about his derelict covid response.”

In short order, the infamous bleach press conference became a literal rallying cry for Trump’s opponents, with Biden supporters dotting their yards with “He Won’t Put Bleach In You” signs. For Trump, it was a scourge. He would go on to insist that he was merely being sarcastic — a claim at odds with the excited curiosity he had posing those questions to Birx. His former team concedes that real damage was done.

“People joked about it inside the White House like, ‘Are you drinking bleach and injecting sunlight?’ People were mocking it and saying, ‘Oh let me go stand out in the sun, and I’ll be safe from Covid,” said one former administration official. “It honestly hurt. It was a credibility issue. … It was hurting us even from an international standpoint, the credibility at the White House.”

That Trump was even at the lectern that day was head-scratching for many. For weeks, he and his team had downplayed the severity of the Covid crisis even as the president privately acknowledged to the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward that it had the potential to be catastrophic. But as it became clearer that the public was not buying the rosy assessments, Trump had decided to take his fate into his own hands — assembling the press on a daily basis to spin his way through the crisis.

He loved it. The former administration official said Trump was elated with the free airtime he was getting on television day after day. “He was asking how much money that was worth,” the aide recalled. The coverage was so ubiquitous that, at one point, Fox News’ Bret Baier attended the briefing and peppered the president with questions because his own show was being routinely interrupted.

The bleach episode changed all that.

Aides immediately understood what a public health quagmire Trump’s remarks had created. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany insisted he was being taken out of context.

“President Trump has repeatedly said that Americans should consult with medical doctors regarding coronavirus treatment, a point that he emphasized again during yesterday’s briefing,” McEnany said in a statement issued the next day. “Leave it to the media to irresponsibly take President Trump out of context and run with negative headlines.”

But behind the scenes, Trump’s remarks were used as evidence by senior aides for why they needed to crack down on unvetted information being put in front of the president. “Either they didn’t know what he was going to say — which isn’t ideal — or they didn’t push back before he went out to the briefing,” said a former senior communications official in the Trump administration. “It was a huge unforced error that could have been prevented.”

By then, White House aides were already debating the efficacy of having Trump relay health information to the public and having to answer whatever question a reporter might throw his way. Some aides — along with Republican allies on Capitol Hill — were pushing to get the president to take a back seat to his health experts at the podium.

“It became like a presser for the sake of having a presser. We didn’t have anything to announce or real policy plans,” a former White House official said. “If you’re just coming out and talking, a Q&A [with reporters] wasn’t going to be helpful.”

Trump would end up doing only a handful more press conferences after the bleach episode before picking them back up again in July. A year later, the episode is still considered a defining point in the Covid fight and a prime exhibit of what can go wrong when an over-confident president believes he can message his way through a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic.

“Undoubtedly [it was] a seminal moment in presidential communications, and while it is easy to laugh it off, I hope it educates leaders and communicators for decades,” said former Obama White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. “But this was the moment where we knew without any doubt that the government was in way over its head, and its ability to both respond effectively and educate Americans about what to do was not going to be anywhere close to meeting the moment.”

Progressives swoon over Ellison role in Chauvin trial

When Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison was tapped last year to take the lead in the prosecution of police officer Derek Chauvin, he took on a major political risk. Failing to secure a conviction could have blown up the Democrat’s career with the entire world watching.

But the gamble paid off, thrusting Ellison into the national spotlight and adding another chapter to a career that’s taken him from Congress to an unsuccessful run for the Democratic National Committee chairmanship in 2017 to statewide office. Now, armed with enhanced name recognition after Chauvin’s guilty verdict, progressives are buzzing about the 57-year-old’s prospects for higher office — if there are any.

“Whatever future he wants to lay out for himself, there are many of us who would support him in that,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told POLITICO. “It adds to a record of his successes in the many roles that he’s had over the years. And it got a lot of public attention, so the recognition of him and what he did for our country — and it really is for our country, and for Black people across the country — is immeasurable.”

Ellison, a prominent ally of Bernie Sanders during both of the Vermont senator’s presidential bids, has received accolades from both flanks of the Democratic Party for his role in Chauvin’s trial. Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress and a longtime critic of Sanders, tweeted that she is “so grateful” that Ellison was in charge of the case. Progressives such as Justice Democrats spokesperson Waleed Shahid praised “his leadership.” Rev. Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader, also singled out Ellison for his role.

“He is a living example of how the state’s top law enforcement should not only react to a crime, but also assemble the evidence and facts,” said Donna Brazile, the former chair of the DNC. “He has been phenomenal. There’s no other way to describe it. He filled a void. He provided steady leadership.”

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced last May that Ellison would be at the helm of prosecuting Chauvin — a decision that came in the wake of Floyd’s family members, activists and lawmakers voicing concerns about the local prosecutor who had been leading the case until then.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman had been managing it and would have been in charge of the prosecution, but that changed after 10 state representatives sent a letter to Walz saying they — and particularly their Black constituents — no longer trusted Freeman’s ability to “impartially investigate and prosecute” the case.

Ellison, on the other hand, was a more natural fit. A former state legislator, he was Minnesota’s first Black member of Congress and the first-ever Muslim elected to Congress, where he represented a Minneapolis-based district for over a decade. Early in his career, he worked for 16 years in civil rights law — five of them as the head of the Legal Rights Center, a Minnesota firm that promotes racial and social justice. As a law school student, he led a protest against police brutality and the failure to charge transgressing officers in Minneapolis. He also has been singled out by cops in his own life, he said, because he is Black.

“He was the right person for this moment. Him and his team, they changed the course of history,” said Nina Turner, Sanders’ former campaign co-chair who worked with Ellison during the senator’s presidential bids. “He’s very down-to-earth, very committed, very focused but also warm. … With all of his intellect and skills that he has, he is a Black man in America and he understood from lived experiences the historic import, too.”

In an interview, Jackson called Ellison “tough” and said “he has the capacity to relate to all people, and give them a comfort level.”

Yet Ellison’s record has also attracted criticism. Minneapolis Police Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the local Police Officers Federation, said in 2018 when Ellison was running for attorney general that “Keith Ellison has a long history, and it’s a negative history, with the Minneapolis Police Department … I don’t wholeheartedly believe that [he respects law enforcement]. I think he’s got a different agenda that, quite frankly, is anti-law enforcement.”

The same year, Ellison’s ex-girlfriend posted allegations of domestic abuse on social media. He denied the allegations, which came near the height of the #MeToo movement and nearly derailed his campaign. Ellison defeated his GOP opponent, Doug Wardlow, by 4 percentage points in 2018, the smallest margin of any statewide Democrat on the ballot that year.

Ellison’s reputation as an unabashed progressive was highlighted when he ran for DNC chair in 2017 — he was endorsed by Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. He ultimately lost the race, a blow to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party as a whole.

Despite Ellison’s 2018 victory and current momentum, his future political options are somewhat limited. Walz, a Democrat, is in his first term after winning by 11 points in 2018 and has broken fundraising records in advance of the 2022 gubernatorial election. And given the hits the governor has taken from progressives over his handling of criminal justice, Ellison actually did Walz a favor by securing the conviction of Chauvin.

Minnesota’s senators, Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, are also incumbent Democrats — and by Senate standards, fairly young.

A spokesperson for Ellison declined to comment for this story.

“He can become a transformative figure, and I think he has the capacity for many great things,” said James Zogby, a DNC member who served with Ellison on the national party’s platform drafting committee in 2016, “He’d be a great senator, a great governor — whatever Keith Ellison feels he’s ready to do, he’ll be good at it.”

Even if opportunities to advance his career are limited in the near-term, the rise of Black Lives Matter and the widespread belief that the country’s criminal justice system is flawed has elevated the role of attorneys general and district attorneys, giving Ellison a national platform going forward.

“The best use of [Ellison’s] talent is right where he is right now,” said Turner, though she added “that doesn’t mean he won’t go other places.”

Next year, Ellison is up for reelection as attorney general. Wardlow, a former state representative who’s been working as general counsel for MyPillow, the bedding company owned by Donald Trump ally Mike Lindell, announced in February he is running again.

On Tuesday, Ellison said he would not call the verdict in Chauvin’s case “justice.”

“Because justice implies true restoration,” he said. “But it is accountability, which is the first step towards justice. And now the cause of justice is in your hands. And when I say your hands, I mean the hands of the people of the United States.”

Biden’s sweeping climate goal comes down to one thing

President Joe Biden’s ambitious climate pledges come down to one main question: How much greener can he make the U.S. power grid?

The United States has made almost no progress in cutting greenhouse gas emissions from its other major carbon sources — vehicles, buildings, factories and farms. The U.S. reduced emissions by only 12 percent from 2005 through 2019, so it will have to more than triple its carbon-slashing pace to meet the target Biden announced Thursday: 50 to 52 percent reductions from 2005 levels by 2030.

The one bright spot, accounting for virtually all the reductions that America has achieved, has been the rapid transformation of U.S. electricity. The power sector’s emissions have already decreased by more than one-third, as dirty coal-fired power plants have been replaced by cleaner-burning natural gas and zero-emissions wind and solar. The nation’s non-electricity emissions actually increased a bit before Covid put the economy on pause.

So while Biden’s $2 trillion-plus infrastructure plan aims for tectonic shifts throughout the economy, its success will depend mostly on cleaning up the grid even faster. This is partly because electricity is the only sector with clean, cheap and effective alternatives to fossil fuels that are already expanding their market share. And it’s partly because clean electricity will magnify the climate benefits of electrifying sectors like transportation in the future.

“The power sector still has the lowest-hanging fruit,” said Ed Crooks, vice chair for the Americas at the energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie. “The rest of the economy looks a lot more challenging.”

The global game plan for phasing out fossil fuels is fairly straightforward: Shift to clean electricity while electrifying as much of the rest of the economy as possible. The U.S. has had remarkable success with the first part, eliminating more than a third of its electricity emissions since 2005 by retiring more than half its coal plants. It’s the rest of the economy that’s been a problem. Transportation emissions decreased just 5 percent before the pandemic, industry emissions barely budged, and emissions from buildings and farms slightly increased. Government mandates for more energy-efficient furnaces and fuel-efficient cars have been offset by consumers buying bigger houses and more gas-guzzling SUVs.

Now Biden wants an economywide sprint to halve emissions, and electricity is the only sector with a running start. The White House did not unveil specific 2030 targets for various sectors Thursday, but energy analysts believe that electricity emissions may have to drop more than 80 percent from 2005 levels to make the math work, and Biden has already set a goal of a completely emissions-free power grid by 2035. In a press briefing, a senior administration official rhapsodized about all kinds of solutions with the potential to replace fossil fuels, from hydrogen-fueled heating for industry to all-electric Ford F-150s for transportation, but he hinted that the power sector will lead the way toward a decarbonized future.

“We know that’s the sector on wheels. It has the momentum,” the official said. “The right move is to lean into the opportunity to continue to modernize our grid.”

The collapse of coal over the last decade has been driven by Obama-era pollution regulations, cheap fracked natural gas, massive reductions in the cost of renewables, and an extraordinarily successful legal and political campaign to force utilities to face economic and environmental reality. Biden’s $2.5 trillion infrastructure plan aims to accelerate the transition by expanding tax credits for wind, solar and batteries that can store power when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining; investing in transmission lines that can move renewable electricity where it’s needed; and enacting a clean electricity standard that would force utilities to produce as much as 80 percent of their power without emissions.

Bruce Nilles, who helped jump-start the greening of U.S. electricity when he led the Sierra Club’s relentless Beyond Coal campaign, says America needs to get rid of all of its coal plants to meet Biden’s 2030 target, and probably half its gas plants as well. He says that with strict government mandates as well as generous government investments, the U.S. could not only reduce annual electricity emissions by more than a gigaton in this decade — it could also set the stage for much larger reductions in other sectors in future decades if innovations like electric vehicles for transportation and electric heat pumps for buildings can reach critical mass.

Starla Yeh, director of policy analysis for the Natural Resources Defense Council, has a model that expects the power sector to produce 62 percent of America’s emissions reductions by 2030, even though it only produces about 25 percent of America’s emissions. Transportation already passed electricity as America’s largest source of emissions in the last decade, and industry is expected to pass transportation in this decade.

“We’ve got to keep doing what’s working in the power sector, but we also have to start getting serious about the other sectors,” said Nilles, who is now pushing broader decarbonization strategies as the head of the Climate Imperative foundation.

That’s where the numbers get even more daunting. For example, only about 2 percent of the vehicles sold in the U.S. are electric. And only about 17 million vehicles are sold in the U.S. every year, out of 280 million vehicles on the road. Biden’s infrastructure plan would invest $174 billion in electric cars and trucks, but even if he succeeds in getting it through Congress, and even if it succeeds in jacking up all-electric vehicle sales, it would move only a small percentage of the U.S. fleet off gasoline. Homeowners replace their furnaces even less frequently than drivers replace their cars, so weaning home heating off carbon could be even slower.

Meanwhile, the technological innovations that will be needed to decarbonize heavy industries like steel and cement are still expensive and unproven. Aviation and shipping also seem likely to remain fossil-fueled for the foreseeable future. The farm sector is yet another question mark; there’s a lot of hype around the potential of “regenerative agriculture” to help fix the climate, but not a lot of evidence that it helps store more carbon in fields or pastures.

Frank Maisano of the Bracewell Policy Resolution Group, which represents utilities as well as other energy interests, thinks it’s a bit unfair to expect utilities to keep shouldering the carbon-cutting burden for the rest of the economy; a tough clean electricity standard could force them to start retiring viable new gas plants in addition to outdated coal plants. But he understands that it’s easier to force 600 utilities to change how they generate electricity than to force 300 million Americans to change how they drive and live and cook. His real complaint is that even if the U.S. power sector cuts its emissions by 80 percent, no plausible scenario exists for the other sectors to do enough to meet Biden’s overall 2030 target.

“We have to look at these challenges with a dose of reality, or else we’ll hurt ourselves in the eyes of the international community,” Maisano said. “These numbers just don’t add up.”

The Biden 2030 target is clearly a stretch, although some analysts believe it’s achievable with continued cost reductions in clean technologies, as well as some cooperation from Congress and the Supreme Court. But Biden’s ultimate goal is a net-zero economy by 2050, which would be in line with the Paris agreement’s targets for avoiding the worst climate outcomes. For the next decade, the trajectory may be more important than the exact numbers.

“It’s like steering an ocean liner,” said climate scientist Zeke Hausfather, director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute. “What really matters is that the ship is turning in the right direction.”

There’s little doubt that in this decade, electricity will continue to steer the ship, because wind and solar (along with electricity-saving LED lighting) are the most cost-competitive green technologies. But if Biden can also promote a future where more cars and delivery vans and stoves and heating systems go electric, the impact of the cleaner grid will be even greater. It’s not clear whether he’ll succeed, but he clearly intends to try.

“We’ve never had an administration this committed to resolving the climate crisis,” said Yeh, the NRDC policy analyst. “It’s really a special moment in time.”

Biden officials lose faith in Johnson & Johnson after repeated vaccine stumbles

The Biden administration has stood by Johnson & Johnson as the vaccine maker struggled to deliver promised doses of its Covid-19 vaccine — but privately, frustrated senior health officials have largely written off the shot, according to seven people with knowledge of the matter.

Johnson & Johnson, which has a long history of successful vaccine development, was one of the government’s first and biggest bets in the coronavirus vaccine race. But the company has faced an unrelenting series of setbacks, including production problems at its vaccine plant in the Netherlands, a contractor mix-up that ruined 15 million doses and revealed serious safety and hygiene lapses, and concerns that the vaccine may be linked to recent reports of rare, severe blood clots among recipients.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccine advisory committee will meet Friday for the second time to review the possible blood clot link, and federal health officials are expected to update their current recommendation to pause use of the shot. But the Biden administration is bracing for yet another potential complication: If ongoing tests of remaining vaccine batches made by J&J’s contractor Emergent BioSolutions reveal further contamination, it could take the vaccine maker up to four months to replace those doses through manufacturing at alternate facilities, according to two people with direct knowledge of the situation.

Some of the problems J&J has faced are failures of management or oversight; others appear to be pure bad luck. But the chaos has disappointed the Biden team, which once argued that the company’s one-dose vaccine would be central to turning the tide of the pandemic. Instead, the administration has concluded that the company can’t be counted on for any significant production until it gets the green light from regulators to resume vaccination, according to two sources.

Federal officials say they have enough doses from Pfizer and Moderna to vaccinate all American adults. But officials are hopeful that J&J can iron out its problems and still be of use for booster shots down the line, and for immunization in other countries as the U.S. ramps up its vaccine diplomacy.

“I think if J&J’s vaccine were the first vaccine available, the conversation would be different,” said Paul Offit, a vaccine expert at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who sits on FDA’s advisory panel. “What I worry about is by giving this vaccine a scarlet letter … we may do harm,” he added, pointing to vaccine hesitancy issues that could emanate far outside of the U.S. as well.

“What we do in this country does affect how other countries view vaccines.”

An HHS spokesperson praised J&J’s move to take greater control over the Emergent plant in recent weeks, saying the department has seen improvement since the company boosted its oversight at the direction of the Biden administration.

But J&J’s broader troubles represent an extraordinary turn of events for a company with deep experience making and marketing vaccines. The Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority — an arm of the federal health department — partnered with Johnson & Johnson in March 2020, when human trials were months away, to put more than $1 billion into research, development and eventual manufacturing of its Covid-19 shot.

Unlike other vaccine makers employing brand-new technology, J&J said it would rely on an adenovirus approach it used successfully in an Ebola shot just a few years earlier. The strategy was seen as relatively reliable: After all, no one knew yet whether the messenger RNA technology used by Moderna and Pfizer would actually work, and the former had never before brought a product to market.

Flash forward a little more than a year, and Pfizer and Moderna are steadily increasing their deliveries to the U.S., while J&J is unlikely to hit its goal of supplying 100 million doses by the end of May. Biden officials have said they’re holding off on forecasting what the company might be able to contribute over the long term until the CDC and FDA conclude their investigations into the shot’s potential link to the rare blood clots, known as cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, and low platelet levels.

The health agencies cited six known instances of the clots among women 18-48 when they recommended last week that use of the J&J vaccine be paused nationwide. Two other cases have been identified among participants in clinical trials of the vaccine, and regulators are continuing to look for other cases.

The European Medicines Agency has already weighed in, saying on Tuesday that it saw a possible link between the shot and the blood clots but the benefits of the vaccine outweighed any risk. The EMA recommended adding a warning to the vaccine’s label. U.S. regulators are considering issuing a similar warning or restricting the vaccine’s use by age or sex.

“My hope is that the pause will be lifted tomorrow and that there will be a suitable recommendation,” said Rajeev Venkayya, president of the global vaccine business unit at Takeda Pharmaceutical Company. “Then I think the public health community, the scientific community and then world leaders will have to have a strong set of messages, reassuring people everywhere and decision makers everywhere that this J&J vaccine is a very, very important and valuable tool to help us to mitigate the pandemic.”

In the meantime, FDA is continuing to test all existing batches of J&J vaccine produced by Emergent to determine if they are safe for use. But it will take J&J at least two more weeks to address safety and hygiene concerns raised by FDA after its recent inspection of Emergent’s Bayview plant in Baltimore. The agency said Monday that the Bayview facility is not large or sanitary enough for vaccine production and that the company has not fixed the problems that led to the ruined doses.

With Emergent’s woes setting the company up for months of repairs, the administration has sought to accelerate J&J vaccine production at a separate facility run by Merck, which agreed in March to help churn out doses. But the pharmaceutical giant’s vaccine facility will not be ready until September, according to a senior administration official.

The Biden administration is still on track to have enough vaccine between Moderna and Pfizer to vaccinate every American adult by the end of May. But the outsize attention paid to J&J’s stumbles have frustrated officials who lamented that it’s distracted from the White House’s broader vaccination campaign — and specifically, overshadowed what should have been a triumphant week as the administration hit its goal of 200 million administered shots in fewer than 100 days.

The administration still has a small amount of J&J doses that were not manufactured by Emergent, and thus could be distributed as soon as the pause is lifted. But officials have cautioned state leaders that it’s a limited supply, and shifted much of their focus to ramping up the availability of Moderna and Pfizer’s vaccines.

“It is all a little surprising that it happened because J&J is so experienced on this,” said Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health. “My assumption is that they’re going to fix it. This is going to get back on track. We’re gonna have a lot of single-dose vaccines from J&J in the weeks and months ahead. I really believe that J&J remains a really critical part of the path to herd immunity in the U.S.”

CDC reassigns official who drew spotlight for pandemic warning

CDC respiratory disease chief Nancy Messonnier has been reassigned from her position heading the agency’s Covid-19 vaccine task force, according to three people familiar with the move.

Messonnier is being absorbed into an incident management response team headed by CDC Director Rochelle Walensky. But the situation remains fluid as CDC restructures teams under Walensky’s leadership.

An agency spokesperson said that the CDC vaccine task force was established separately from the Trump administration’s vaccine accelator, Operation Warp Speed, so that the federal response could more easily focus in on the task force’s recommendations. Now that vaccines are in use, the vaccine task force duties will be reassigned to Henry Walke, the director of the agency’s Division of Preparedness and Emerging Infections.

Messonnier, a prominent respiratory disease scientist who has been at CDC for more than two decades, led the CDC’s early planning for the nationwide distribution of coronavirus vaccines. She also angered top Trump administration officials early in the pandemic after warning that its impacts could be “severe.”

Messonnier remains the top respiratory disease official at the CDC. She is still employed by the agency, a spokesperson said.

“It’s not a question of if this will happen but when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses,” she said on Feb. 25, 2020, triggering a stock market dip as fears of a pandemic grew.

Messonnier clashed with the Trump administration over those comments, leading the administration to halt her regular press briefings and her appearances with the White House’s coronavirus task force. Former President Donald Trump threatened to fire her and publicly dismissed her dire projections.

Messonnier’s long public silence was supposed to end when President Joe Biden assumed office and strove to put more scientists at the forefront of the pandemic response. But she also had differences with Biden officials, according to a person familiar with the discussion.

‘Parents are powerless’: Students face being held back after a year of remote learning

David Scruggs Jr. has spent most of the pandemic at his second-grade son’s side, helping him with virtual learning as their Nashville, Tenn., home became a schoolhouse as well as his office. In the next room, Scruggs’ wife, Dorothy, sat beside their first-grade daughter, a mirror image on the other side of the wall, doing the same while holding down her own job.

For a year, the Scruggs worked to keep their kids from falling behind as the pandemic forced children to stay home and America’s education system struggled to adjust. The family installed a whiteboard and baby pink desk next to their TV. The coffee table became a receptacle for homework, folders and laminated multiplication tables.

Now, the Scruggs and thousands of families like them in Tennessee and more than a dozen other states face a reckoning with how well they succeeded in their new role as substitute teachers. In the coming months, under a new, stricter state policy, if their son doesn’t do well enough on a standardized reading test next year, he could be forced to repeat a grade.

“I don’t know how much was lost or gained in this process. That’s the scary part,” Scruggs said of learning during Covid-19. “I would hope he’s not held back.”

Tennessee’s new law, enacted during a rushed statehouse voting session in January, dictates that if a third-grade student cannot read at grade level as measured by standardized tests, they will be held back until they can. The retention bill was one of several education measures fast-tracked with the support of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee in an attempt to respond to Covid-related learning loss.

So-called third grade reading laws were already the subject of fierce debate in education circles before the pandemic. But while the coronavirus raged, despite near-heroic efforts by teachers who converted their lesson plans for remote learning and parents like the Scruggs, who made their kids’ learning a priority, nearly all students in the United States have fallen behind. Some estimates suggest many — if not most — are now a year or more behind in reading and math.

Thousands, if not millions, of parents across the U.S. are now wrestling with the question: Does my child need to repeat a grade? But in 18 states, including Tennessee, this decision will be made not by parents and their children, but by state officials.

“I think at that point, the parents are powerless. There’s nothing we can do about it,” Scruggs said.

By some estimates, nearly 66 percent of third graders in Tennessee are not meeting English language standards and would be flagged for automatic retention under the new law. Other states have similarly staggering figures. If the laws are applied as written, that suggests hundreds of thousands of American school children may not advance to the next grade, causing bottlenecks in school systems and larger class sizes that could clog the nation’s education system for years to come.

“It’s a misguided law that was onerous before the pandemic,” Michigan state Sen. Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat and former teacher, said of her state’s retention law. “Now it’s just plain cruel.”

Lawmakers long ago honed in on third grade because of research showing, from that point forward in school, children are no longer learning to read but are “reading to learn,” meaning their lessons shift from teaching the basics of reading to relying on reading skills to advance in all subjects.

Proponents of grade retention policies — who fall on both sides of the political aisle — argue holding kids back is not the primary goal, improving literacy is. The threat of retention is there to put pressure on school districts to focus on early literacy, a building block that researchers agree is necessary for success throughout K-12 education.

There is room in many of these school systems for parents to request “good cause” exemptions and fight for their child to move forward. But often these retention policies take effect before parents are even aware of their existence, let alone given the chance to petition them.

Last year, at the height of the pandemic, some states — including Mississippi, one of the early pioneers of the third-grade reading law — canceled standardized tests and suspended retention policies.

But this year, with standardized testing in many states set to move forward under President Joe Biden’s administration, some experts fear a large swath of the nation’s elementary school students could soon be targeted to repeat a grade. The fallout could last a generation.

Grade retention policies in their earliest form originated in California in 1998, when then-Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, signed a bipartisan measure requiring students of all grades to meet specific content standards in order to move ahead every year.

Republican school-choice policymakers in the early 2000s took that idea and zeroed in on the third grade, passing the stricter third grade reading laws in place today. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was a huge proponent, as was Betsy DeVos, who became former President Donald Trump’s Education secretary.

The laws operate using a carrot-and-stick approach and a basic coda: If a child is not reading at a third-grade level, they should be held back until they can. Some states pepper in funding incentives and additional literacy coaches to help kids upgrade their reading skills. Others leave these support measures out or include more anemic versions.

In the short term, there’s evidence these policies can work. Florida’s third-grade reading law — enacted in 2002 and among the first of its kind — boosted the state’s National Assessment of Educational Progress scores within a year and Bush, then the governor, started marketing the policy aggressively across the country.

Beth DeShone, executive director of the DeVos-founded Great Lakes Education Project, which has advocated for the benefits of third-grade reading laws, said “real harm” comes when students advance to the next grade if they are behind — a policy known as social promotion. Many states’ laws, she noted, have exceptions that allow a child to move forward in some subjects while remaining behind in reading or literacy.

“If their reading is more than one grade level behind, we owe it to them as adults to ensure that they get the commitment of intervention services,” DeShone said in an interview. “Rinsing and repeating is not successful.”

But several prominent studies in the ensuing years have concluded that mandatory retention causes stigma that damages students’ self-esteem and harms their chances of graduating high school or pursuing a college degree.

In a pandemic that has caused outsized hardship for Black, brown and low-income families, that could mean wealthy, mostly white kids have the benefit of moving ahead with their self-perception intact while others without the means for tutoring, learning pods or parental assistance will be forced to do the year over. Being a year behind their peers could later translate to delayed or lost economic opportunity.

Concerned about those outcomes, lawmakers in Florida and New Jersey are moving forward with legislation that would ease state control and give parents and school principals more say in grade retention decisions, taking into account students’ experiences learning during a pandemic as well as their performance on tests. Florida’s measure would also expand the state’s retention policy to kindergarten through fifth grade. New Jersey’s would allow parents to make the final call, regardless of the grade level. In California, lawmakers are trying to rush through a measure that would create a simpler process for parents to keep their child in the same grade next school year. Democrats in Michigan, a state with a third-grade reading law set to take effect for the first time this year, are working to strike the retention mandate entirely.

In Tennessee, bills beefing up the retention policy were passed in a little over three days during a special session with no testimony from parents or educators and signed into law in early February.

“It’s infuriating,” said Tennessee state Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Democrat and member of her chamber’s education committee. “Teachers are in the middle of Covid instruction. Some of them didn’t know [about the bills] until after it was done.”

Gabriel DellaVecchia, co-founder of the Don’t Leave Us Behind campaign, an advocacy group that opposes mandatory retention in Michigan, said these policies are often passed quickly and without much community engagement.

DellaVecchia, a doctoral student in education at the University of Michigan, said he was teaching in Colorado in 2013 when the legislature there passed the Colorado READ Act, which identified some 14 percent of the state’s students in kindergarten through third grade as having a “significant reading deficiency,” meaning they were trailing far behind their peers and in danger of never learning to read.

DellaVecchia said it was policymakers, not parents, who wanted children to repeat a grade.

“I had those conversations with families,” DellaVecchia said. “No family selected this option.”

In Michigan, one of 18 states showing a decline in early literacy progress, DellaVecchia’s group and Polehanki, the state senator, are working to rewrite the law. Pre-pandemic estimates suggested 5,000 third graders — about 5 percent —in Michigan would be identified for retention on the basis of spring testing; however, due to the pandemic, some advocates say this year that number could quadruple.

Polehanki — a Democrat from Livonia, Mich., and former two-time local teacher of the year — has introduced a measure that would keep existing support structures like literacy coaches and student progress monitoring in place for students who fall behind, but would scrap the retention mandate.

But politics are not on their side. Michigan’s government is split with Democrat Gretchen Whitmer in the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature firmly under Republican control. There’s virtually no interest among state Republicans in revising the law.

“I say there’s probably zero chance that I’m going to pass that bill,” Polehanki said. “I flipped a Senate seat from red to blue. [Republicans] want their seat back.”

In New Jersey, a state that allows retention but does not mandate it, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, chair of the state Senate education committee, wants to give parents more control over retention decisions. She said that parents this year have had “a bird’s eye view” into their child’s education and some feel retention is right for their child. Even without standardized test scores determining proficiency, she said, an extra year of learning should be on the table for anyone who thinks it could help their child.

“We’re not going to resolve this issue in the summer,” Ruiz said of pandemic learning loss.

Retention is a complex and emotional issue for parents. Sonya Thomas, a 45-year-old Nashville mother of four, made the tough call herself. But she believes the choice should belong to families — not to the state of Tennessee.

Thomas read the studies about grade retention. She poured over the data that demonstrated how retaining students — especially Black students like her son — could do irreparable harm to kids’ self-worth and chances of graduating high school. She looked looked at how well Nashville schools serve students through graduation — improving, but still far from the best track records in the country.

And then she spoke with her son, an eighth grader who was not progressing in his studies as fast as he would like during the pandemic and facing a move to a new high school when virtual learning was still new and uncertain.

Together, they chose to keep him back.

“We’re at a critical point in our children’s lives,” said Thomas. “I had to look at my child as an individual versus overall data.”

Two years ago, Thomas founded a parent organizing group, Nashville PROPEL, around the issue of retention and others facing Tennessee’s kids. PROPEL’s goal, she said, is to arm parents with data, information and resources to help them make tough educational decisions. In the pandemic, the group has found new members — including the Scruggs, who recently completed the group’s six-week parent advocacy workshop.

The sticking point is often resources. While it’s simple in theory to say all students held back should be given individualized progress plans, coaching and wraparound services to help them excel, school leaders and parents in majority Black and brown communities say the reality doesn’t always meet the promise.

That’s why even some steadfast opponents of retention say things have grown more complicated. One of them is Sonja Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Schools, who penned an op-ed last year promising no low-income student in Baltimore Public Schools would be held back.

But after a year like no other, her thinking has changed. She said she’s already getting calls from concerned parents who say the city owes their kids an education and for them, that means letting their child repeat a year. Maryland has a state policy that allows but does not require retention.

“The world is even more complex than it was when I said that,” Santelises said. “We have to be honest about this country’s track record in this kind of redo.”

In the past, retention policies have come as unfunded mandates from lawmakers and governors that demand expenses like more assessments, more literacy teachers and tutoring programs without providing the funds to pay for them. As a result, Santelises said, low-income, mostly Black and brown students are often subjected to retention at higher rates and their schools don’t have the funding to provide the additional supports they need to progress.

This year, thanks to a pandemic-related infusion of cash from the federal government, Santelises said the money is available to do retention right, if a parent wants that for their kid.

Parents, she said, “don’t want a false, glossed-over exchange or substitute for what was really supposed to be a full year of learning.” What they want is the flexibility to make the best decision for their kid and the support and commitment of the school district to provide what they need.

“These children belong to parents and grandparents,” Thomas, the Nashville mother, said. “They do not belong to the system.”

Biden unveils sweeping climate goal — and plans to meet it even if Congress won’t

President Joe Biden pledged Thursday to slash U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases in at least half by 2030 — an ambitious target that will require retooling the world’s largest economy in an effort to put the U.S. at the forefront of the international campaign to slow climate change.

It’s a goal the White House insists the U.S. can meet even if Congress rejects Biden’s calls for trillions of dollars in green infrastructure spending.

The new target embodies one of Biden’s top policy priorities and represents a stark shift from the Trump administration, which had dismissed the threats posed by climate change and rejected the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement as a plot to hobble the U.S. economy. In contrast, Biden has made reducing carbon dioxide from fossil fuels a core part of his $2.2 trillion infrastructure plan and called for putting the U.S. on a path to eliminating net greenhouse gas pollution by mid-century.

Thursday’s announcement came hours before Biden was set to preside over a two-day virtual climate summit with 40 world leaders. Biden’s target calls for cutting U.S. carbon dioxide output by 50 to 52 percent compared with 2005 levels — a far more aggressive goal than the one former President Barack Obama proposed half a decade ago.

Most nations have welcomed the U.S. back into the global climate diplomacy realm, with a lineup of leaders ranging from Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau scheduled to tout their own climate achievements on Thursday morning.

But after more than two decades of policy reversals on climate change, the U.S. will face skepticism in convincing the world it can follow through on the goal, especially given the long odds Biden’s infrastructure and climate proposal — the American Jobs Plan — faces in passing the narrowly divided Congress. Administration officials contend that their 2030 target is achievable without enacting that plan through legislation.

Many experts doubt whether hitting the climate marks is feasible without enacting significant portions of that infrastructure and jobs plan.

“That is, I guess we could say, the $2 trillion question,” said Dan Lashof, director of think tank the World Resources Institute.

Administration officials told reporters in a Wednesday briefing that they saw multiple pathways to achieving the climate goal outside of the infrastructure package as currently crafted.

Ali Zaidi, the deputy White House national climate adviser, said at a separate Wednesday event that the plummeting costs of renewable energy that have helped reduce emissions — even under the coal-promoting Trump administration — as well as the climate efforts by cities, states and major companies, have shown steep reductions are possible.

“The trend towards the utilization of clean energy technology around the world is both steep and secular,” Zaidi said.

Environmental groups have produced reams of reports and analyses arguing that emissions cuts of 50 percent by 2030 are both necessary and achievable, but practically all of them call for congressional action to speed the adoption of clean energy. That could be in the form of legally mandated emissions targets, a clean energy standard that requires adoption of green energy, or direct spending to eliminate carbon pollution.

“I think it would be basically impossible to achieve the proposed [target] with executive authority alone, both in terms of investment and regulation,” said Alex Trembath, deputy director at the Breakthrough Institute, a progressive think tank focused on environment and humanitarian problems.

“I’m sure there are things the administration can do on the margins, but for the ambition they’re announcing, I can’t see it happening without legislation,” he added.

RMI, formerly the Rocky Mountain Institute, a clean energy think tank, worried that without federal mandates, the patchwork of state policies would not be adequate to make up for shortfalls in executive authority to slash emissions.

“The answer to the question of whether the White House can achieve such a goal alone is almost certainly no,” said Mark Dyson, a principal with the carbon-free electricity practice at RMI. “It is very unlikely that this goal could be achieved without new federal legislation. Currently, many of the key rules and regulations are done at the state level. While some states have aggressive policies, they are not uniform or aggressive enough to meet the [goal].”

But other progressives are more optimistic, including Christy Goldfuss, head of energy and environmental policy at the progressive Center for American Progress and a former Obama White House official.

“Yes, the Biden administration can be successful in setting the U.S. on a path to achieving its ambitious goal without Congress,” Goldfuss said. “The administration has already committed to taking a whole-of-government approach to addressing climate. However, the U.S. Congress’ partnership with the Biden administration would certainly hasten the transition to a clean future.”

It’s unclear whether the infrastructure plan could pass through an evenly split Senate — much less a key climate element of the plan: a clean electricity standard that would sharply ratchet down emissions.

High-ranking Biden officials have publicly championed the jobs and infrastructure package as essential for reshaping the power grid, transportation sector, buildings and industry in a climate-friendly fashion.

“We’ve delayed so long, it’s really urgent that we move now, and it’s got to be action on multiple fronts,” former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration leader Jane Lubchenco, now a top White House climate adviser, told POLITICO.

Because of that uncertainty around whether Biden’s new goals are feasible, many countries attending the two-day summit are taking a wait-and-see approach before increasing their own ambitions. Close U.S. allies like Canada, Japan and South Korea are expected to all announce new goals and policies, but three sources familiar with the conversations between those governments and the U.S. said they will not be as aggressive as the Biden administration had hoped they would be this week.

An administration official told reporters in the Wednesday briefing that Canada, Argentina and Japan would release plans with “increased ambition,” but said judging those commitments against the U.S. pledge to halve emissions requires evaluating the “whole context” for those countries.

“The countries that are enhancing their ambition are doing so in a way that’s going to allow them to get on track by 2050,” the official said. “That’s the bar that we’re setting and we’re seeing our allies step up and meet.”

Still, the fact that any country was prepared to make new commitments so early in Biden’s term reflects the considerable energy that special climate envoy John Kerry devoted to the campaign in recent weeks. The summit also represents a shift in the balance of climate diplomacy, as shown by the United States’ ability to convene world leaders to discuss climate change outside the formal international process for addressing the issue, which will continue in November at a conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

“They clearly created a lot more momentum for [the Glasgow talks] than even I expected,” said Jake Schmidt, senior strategic director for international climate with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Many members of the Biden Cabinet will participate in the two-day summit, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, EPA Administrator Michael Regan and national climate adviser Gina McCarthy — the former Obama administration EPA chief who is coordinating much of Biden’s strategy.

The new U.S. climate change goal, known in the parlance of the Paris climate agreement as a “nationally determined commitment,” is the centerpiece for the event. Each nation under the Paris agreement is required to issue an NDC, but there are no requirements on how stringent such pledges must be. The only mandate is that the plans aim to prevent rising global temperatures from crossing a tipping point of 2 degrees Celsius — and, ideally, 1.5 degrees Celsius — above pre-industrial levels.

Biden’s number nearly doubles the carbon-cutting goal President Barack Obama set, which committed the U.S. to curbing greenhouse gases 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

The U.S. is close to meeting Obama’s goal. But reaching the new target seems implausible without extra authority and spending from Congress, said Robbie Orvis, director of energy policy design with think tank Energy Innovation.

“We have to push on the sectors where the technologies are readily available,” he said, adding that the clean electricity standard Biden has proposed is a “linchpin” to any credible plan to halve emissions in a decade. That idea envisions curbing power sector emissions 80 percent by 2035 and eliminating them entirely by 2050, and has earned the backing of the electric utility industry.

“Being able to say this isn’t just President Biden’s wishlist — you have big U.S. businesses that are the core of U.S. manufacturing calling for similar targets — that can create momentum in Congress and for selling it abroad,” he said.

Nathan Hultman, who worked on the Obama climate pledge, said he saw multiple paths to reach the goal Biden set — even if the administration was forced to rely primarily on executive actions and measures like tax credits. The Obama goal, he noted, had underestimated how quickly clean technology costs would plummet, how cities, states and counties would act, and how the broad shift in public opinion would contribute to cutting emissions.

“Those are the things that I would say to other world leaders if they come back and say, ‘Well, why should we think that this time is different?’” said Hultman, who is now director of the Center for Global Sustainability at the University of Maryland. “The answer is it is actually different.”

Michael Grunwald contributed to this report.

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