New story in Politics from Time: California Voting Changes Raise Concerns for ‘Super Tuesday’

(SAN FRANCISCO) — Major changes to the way people vote have election advocates on edge as Californians cast ballots in a high-profile primary that was moved up from June so the country’s most populous state could have a bigger say in picking the Democratic presidential nominee.

More than 2.7 million of 20.6 million registered voters had returned ballots in early voting as of Thursday, Secretary of State Alex Padilla said. California is among several states holding elections on “Super Tuesday,” and the state’s 416 delegates are a rich prize for the Democrats slugging it out for the nomination.

“We’re going into this election with record registration and a whole lot of energy,” Padilla said in a phone briefing with reporters Thursday.

California’s primary also comes amid massive changes aimed at expanding voter participation: new voting equipment, vote centers that are replacing polling places in some counties and expanded same-day voter registration.

Those changes may confuse some voters. The fear is that California will end up with a mess much larger than the Feb. 3 debacle in Iowa, where the Democratic Party could not declare a winner for several days because of problems with a new cellphone app used to collect data from caucus sites, among other blunders.

The results of competitive races, such as the presidential primary, likely won’t be known Tuesday. California accepts ballots arriving up to three days after election day and has expanded same-day voter registration, so ballot counting will continue well after Tuesday. There were more than 2 million ballots left to process after the 2016 primary.

Paul Mitchell, vice president of data firm Political Data Inc., expects turnout in California to be around 50%, roughly the same as in the 2016 primary, with most people voting Tuesday. He said there’s excitement for the Democratic presidential race, but Republicans have little reason to vote in the primary despite congressional races on the ballot.

Election observers are keeping tabs on Los Angeles County, the nation’s most populous county with more than 5.5 million registered voters and an upgraded $300 million voting system, including new ballot-marking devices.

It’s also among 15 counties — up from five in 2018 — that have replaced traditional polling places with multipurpose vote centers, where people who live anywhere in the county can vote early, drop off ballots, register to vote or vote on election day.

The vote centers’ rollout last weekend was bumpy, with some opening late or not at all because supplies hadn’t arrived or workers didn’t have correct information to start new touch-screen ballot markers.

Los Angeles County is the only one of the 15 counties with vote centers that did not automatically mail ballots to all registered voters, increasing the possibility that people will have no ballot and won’t know where to go on election day.

The county has taken extra steps to educate voters about the change, says Jonathan Stein, head of the voting rights program at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus.

Still, “in a county that enormous, all of the public outreach efforts in the world are still going to fall short,” he said.

The Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder’s office did not return calls and emails seeking comment. Registrar Dean Logan posted Saturday on Twitter that the new equipment worked well but there is “more work ahead to ensure better coordination of facilities and logistics.”

The transition to vote centers is huge, says Orange County Registrar Neal Kelley, and he worries he’ll get calls from irate voters on Tuesday: “I’m standing in front of the garage I’ve voted at for the last 20 years — why is it not open?”

Orange County has 1.6 million registered voters, and returns are 35% higher than they were at this point in 2016, he said.

Also new this year, Californians can register to vote up to 8 p.m. on election day wherever ballots are cast, which could mean a surge of last-minute ballots, including provisional ballots that take longer to count.

Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation, said she’s not surprised people are holding on to their ballots as they debate the merits of the candidates — a still-evolving pool is precisely why lawmakers moved up the election date — but she and others worry about an election day meltdown with long lines.

“It’s fine to wait,” she said. “Just don’t wait too long, and for God’s sake, don’t put your ballot in the mail on election day.”

Another group that voting advocates say will face problems and perhaps contribute to longer lines is the state’s 5 million “no party preference” voters. They are given a nonpartisan ballot that lists no presidential candidates unless they specifically request a ballot from one of the three parties that allows them to vote in their presidential contests without re-registering: Democratic, Libertarian or American Independent.

New story in Politics from Time: Mike Bloomberg Says He Might Not Spend to Help Sanders If He’s the Nominee

(SAN FRANCISCO) — Billionaire Mike Bloomberg said Thursday that he might not spend money to assist Bernie Sanders if Sanders is the Democratic presidential nominee, days after a Sanders adviser said they wouldn’t want the help.

Sanders adviser Jeff Weaver said Tuesday that it would be a “hard no” on accepting Bloomberg’s financial assistance.

“What do you mean, I’m going to send a check to somebody and they’re not going to cash the check? I think I wouldn’t bother to send the check,” Bloomberg told the Houston Chronicle on Thursday. That’s a different answer than he gave the night before in a CNN town hall, when he was asked specifically if he would give financial help to Sanders despite his adviser’s comments. He committed that he would keep campaign offices open in battleground states so whoever is the nominee can use them.

The back-and-forth is part of a larger escalation between the two campaigns as a slew of Tuesday primaries approach, marking the first time Bloomberg will appear on ballots. Fourteen states vote on “Super Tuesday,” and Bloomberg is hoping he can pick up enough delegates to blunt Sanders’ rise.

Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, is worth an estimated $60 billion, wealth built from the financial data and media company he started in the 1980s. He’s already spent more than $500 million on his presidential campaign. But he’s pledged to pay to keep campaign offices open and staffed in general election battleground states through the fall.

“I said that I would help, I’m going to keep our campaign offices, the main ones anyways, open until Nov. 3,” Bloomberg told the Chronicle. “And if they don’t want to use them, then fine. Then we’ll close them.”

Asked to clarify the campaign’s position, Bloomberg spokesman Stu Loeser said “we’ll see” on whether Bloomberg spends on Sanders’ behalf.

For Sanders, Bloomberg serves as a clear foil in his argument that the American economy is skewed in favor of billionaires who can manipulate the system in a way regular Americans cannot. Weaver said the Sanders campaign would rather rely on small-dollar donations.

Also on Thursday, Bloomberg’s campaign released new details about his cardio health and urged the Sanders campaign to do the same.

A letter signed by Bloomberg’s doctor says he underwent cardiac stress testing and an echocardiogram in July. It shows normal function of his left ventricular, “excellent exercise capacity,” and a left ventricular ejection fraction of 60 to 65%, which is in the normal range. The letter notes that Bloomberg had a stent placed for a blocked coronary artery in 2000.

Sanders’ health has been under scrutiny since he suffered a heart attack in October. Both men are 78.

New story in Politics from Time: Meet HHS Secretary Alex Azar, the Official Chairing the Coronavirus Task Force

President Donald Trump often likes to refer to Alex Azar, his Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), as a “killer.”

That’s high praise from Trump: ‘Killer’ is one of his favorite compliments, and a sign of respect. “The president has been very deferential to [Azar],” says a former senior HHS official who has heard Trump refer to Azar this way in meetings. “He knows he’s smart.”

Now Trump’s confidence in Azar is about to be put to the test as officials prepare for the coronavirus’ possible spread within the United States. Trump has so far sought to downplay the danger, saying in a press conference Wednesday that “the risk to the American people remains very low.” That leaves Azar with a delicate line to walk, remaining factual and blunt about the situation without angering a president who tends to bristle when contradicted. As infections rise— the number of cases globally has surpassed 80,000 and 60 cases have been confirmed in the U.S.— Azar may find himself caught between a growing public health crisis and a mercurial boss. He will need to figure out how to be the loyal killer Trump wants and the trustworthy HHS Secretary an uneasy nation needs.

“This will definitely be a big stressor,” the former senior official says. “His tenure may be marked one way or the other with this.”

When Trump nominated Azar to the position in late 2017, he tweeted Azar would be “a star for better healthcare and lower drug prices!” Azar was coming from a decade at pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company, where he ran the U.S. division. He came under fire at his confirmation hearings for increasing drug prices during his tenure, with many Democrats questioning Trump’s claim that Azar would help the problem rather than exacerbate it. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, quoted Azar as saying that while he was at Eli Lilly, he “never, not one time, signed off on a decrease in the price of a drug,” according to Wyden’s prepared remarks about the nomination. Wyden voted against Azar along with most other Senate Democrats; in the end, Azar was confirmed 55 to 43.

Azar came to the job after a long history of influential posts in conservative circles and experience in government. In the 1990s, he was a law clerk to the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and then spent two years in Ken Starr’s independent counsel’s office, where he worked alongside other men who would later rise once again to prominence in the Trump era, including Brett Kavanaugh, who was confirmed to the Supreme Court under Trump, and Rod Rosenstein, who served as Deputy Attorney General.

Azar worked at HHS under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2007. He was general counsel of the department and then went on to become deputy secretary in 2005. Former colleagues describe Azar as detail-oriented and hyper-focused, diving deep into the weeds on policy where other senior level HHS officials may have taken on a more managerial role. In the Bush Administration, Azar worked on the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003, a significant overhaul of Medicare that included an entitlement benefit for prescription drugs. He also gained experience during that time that could prove to be valuable now as he faces the coronavirus: He worked at HHS during the Anthrax attacks in 2001 and bioterrorism fears following 9/11, the SARS outbreak in 2002 and the avian flu epidemic in 2005, among other public health crises.

“He knows how to do this,” says Jennifer Young, who worked with Azar at HHS under Bush as Assistant Secretary for Legislation. “He has done it before on a smaller scale.”

Now as secretary, Azar has been working towards Trump’s major policy goal of lowering drug prices. He’s pushing to lower insulin prices and has taken steps to facilitate the import of cheaper drugs. His agency wants to increase transparency in drug pricing and has tried to adjust reimbursement rates in the 340B Drug Pricing Program to bring what hospitals pay and what Medicare pays more in line, though the latter effort has been hampered by the courts.

Those efforts, successful or not, are a key reason Azar has been able to stay in Trump’s good graces, says Tom Barker, who worked with Azar at HHS under Bush when he was General Counsel of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). “It’s loyalty,” says Barker. “A number one issue for President Trump is drug pricing, and Secretary Azar has done everything that he can to try to address the issue of drug pricing.”

While Azar and Trump have enjoyed a largely friendly relationship, Azar’s associates say, handling Trump’s volatility and the infighting in the Administration can make for a tough work environment. In addition to drug pricing, he’s overseen some of the most controversial policies of Trump’s presidency, including helping manage the border family separations under the “zero tolerance” immigration policy in 2018.

“He’s dealing with some pretty choppy waters,” says Tom Scully, who was the Administrator of CMS under Bush and knows Azar. “I think there’s times when he wants to rip his hair out.”

Azar has remained in the post for nearly three years because he enjoys the job and because he shares Trump’s broader vision for healthcare, those who know him say. “He’s very conservative,” Scully says, “and I think he’s philosophically probably pretty in tune with a lot of things this Administration does.”

It remains to be seen whether those priorities will remain aligned as the coronavirus crisis continues to unfold. On Wednesday, Trump put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the coronavirus team, and on Thursday, the White House appointed Ambassador Debbie Birx as the “White House coronavirus response coordinator,” a czar-like figure to join the task force led by Azar.

The move has raised questions of whether Azar has the President’s full confidence to handle the crisis. There is precedent for appointing a czar in situations like this: President Barack Obama tapped Ron Klain to be the Ebola czar in 2014 during the public health crisis. The former HHS official who knows Azar notes that regardless of who else joins the team, Azar will still likely be the person running the coronavirus response in reality. “People feel better because it looks like you’re doing something,” the official says about appointing a czar or similar figure to oversee a crisis. “It’s more public relations than anything.”

Trump said Wednesday evening that the White House continues to have confidence in Azar, despite the additions. “I think Secretary Azar is doing a fantastic job, but he also has many other things,” Trump said, mentioning drug pricing specifically. “I think it’s perhaps the most complicated job that we have in government, and I want him to be able to focus on that.” On Thursday, Pence said he is “leading” the task force while Azar is its “chairman.”

In the meantime, the Administration is asking Congress for a $2.5 billion funding package to fight the virus, which some Democrats say is woefully inadequate. Trump joked Wednesday evening that he’d be happy to accept more money, if the Democrats want to offer it.

Whatever happens next with the coronavirus in the U.S., and whoever else may be brought in to help with the response, Azar will remain a key player. But those who know him say even though his natural demeanor is calm and methodical, he will speak up if things get worse, regardless of the messaging coming from the White House. “If he’s really concerned,” Scully says, “he will not just quietly take the party line.”

New story in Politics from Time: The Trump Administration’s Many Vacancies Could Complicate its Coronavirus Response

On Thursday, as the U.S. was facing its first possible case of community-spread coronavirus, President Donald Trump brought in a long-time public health official to help manage the White House response to the spread of deadly disease. Ambassador Debbie Birx, a physician and the State Department’s top official on the global effort to reduce HIV/AIDS, will report to Vice President Mike Pence, who Trump put in charge of U.S. efforts to stem the virus in a impromptu press briefing on Wednesday.

The move was part of a push back from the Trump Administration this week after markets plummeted and critics have said they are not prepared for the disease’s seemingly inevitable landing in the U.S. In addition to bringing Dr. Birx into the White House, Pence also beefed up his team by adding Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, and Trump’s top economic advisor Larry Kudlow.

But many top positions across the government that could play a role in coordinating the government’s efforts to prepare for coronavirus remain empty. Birx’s appointment was necessary in part because Trump had eliminated a National Security Council office dedicated to managing pandemics in May 2018. Other key roles at the State Department, the United States Agency for International Development, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Health and Human Services are being carried out by temporary, unconfirmed officials.

The long list of vacancies and scramble to bring in expertise fit a pattern of neglect in this Administration’s health security staffing that experts worry has left the U.S. on shaky ground as the coronavirus crisis gathers force. The President has said he has taken a cue from the business world by keeping agencies streamlined, but others warn that building a crisis team overnight is not how outbreaks are fought.

While it is hard to say at this stage how exactly the vacancies could impact the Trump administration’s response, it does mean that all of those people in acting roles “now trying to do multiple jobs at once,” Dr. Rebecca Katz, the director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University, told TIME. These agencies can’t be staffed up overnight in an emergency, she says. “Public health capacity is something that needs to be built and sustained over time.”

There is a long list of seats that have been not been permanently filled or even had someone nominated. The United States Agency for International Development, which has faced drastic budget cuts under the Trump administration, has no nominees for key roles that would be relevant to coordinating the response to the outbreak, including Assistant Administrator for Global Health, Associate Administrator for Relief, Response, and Resilience, Assistant Administrator for Asia and Associate Administrator for Strategy and Operations. Those jobs are being handled by officials acting in a temporary capacity.

The VA’s Under Secretary for Health position, which has communicated preparedness of VA medical facilities across the country in previous health crises, has also been vacant since Trump took office. The VA’s role in the coronavirus outbreak could become even larger given the rotation of deployed service members in countries already impacted by the virus OK?. On Tuesday, a 23-year-old American soldier stationed in South Korea became the first U.S. service member to test positive for the virus.

The State Department’s thinned down ranks also have left empty positions that would work on threat reduction and coordination with other countries in this crisis. There is, for instance, no nominee for the important role of Assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs. There are more than two dozen ambassadorships without permanent nominees, including Japan, Singapore and Pakistan.

At the Department of Homeland Security, almost all top jobs are being carried out in a temporary, unconfirmed capacity. The DHS Secretary, Deputy Secretary, Undersecretary for Management, head of Customs and Border Protection and key roles at the Federal Emergency Management Agency — all of whom are involved in the coronavirus preparation and response — are all working in an acting capacity. At Health and Human Services, which is at the forefront of the coronavirus response, the roles of Assistant secretary for planning and evaluation and Assistant secretary for financial resources are being carried out in an acting capacity. The agency also does not have an inspector general nominee.

It’s a pattern that extends all the way down to lesser-known bodies and roles, such as the currently unfilled positions for director and deputy director of the National Science Foundation, which distributes more than $8 billion in research grants including, in 2014, a number of rapid response research grants to advance Ebola research.

Within the White House itself, Trump eliminated key positions tasked with preparing and responding to outbreaks like coronavirus. This was part of a broader effort, still underway, to streamline the National Security Council and reduce the headcount of career officials from agencies detailed to the White House. Trump’s allies felt there were too many layers of bureaucracy and the large staff posed a heightened risk of leaks.

The top White House official charged with leading the U.S. response to a global pandemic, Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer, abruptly left the administration in May 2018, when then-national security advisor John Bolton reorganized the National Security Council. The global health security team he led – created in 2016 to address the issues revealed by the slow, uncoordinated U.S. response to the Ebola crisis – was also disbanded.

White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert, who had been a vocal advocate for a comprehensive biodefense strategy against deadly pandemics, had left a few months earlier. According to current and former officials, those positions were not reinstated. However, the National Biodefense Strategy, which Bossert and his colleagues spearheaded in 2018, remains the roadmap the U.S. officials are using today.

“A lot of the benefits that the American public is reaping today comes from the work of public health community under the Trump administration that resulted in a biodefense strategy, and from the capacity in our health security system that has been built upon over the last decade under two presidents,” Bossert told TIME.

The National Biodefense Strategy moved the “day-to-day coordination and execution” of the plan from national security officials in the White House OK? to the Secretary of Health and Human Services, a move some health security experts worry that the coronavirus crisis is about to test.

“We are in an era of more frequent outbreaks — of higher velocity, higher impact, higher cost — and we need to be much better prepared in order to have an effective and timely response,” said Steve Morrison, the director of the CSIS global health center and a former State Department official who served in the Clinton administration. “There needs to be strong White House leadership. You can’t expect that the Secretary of HHS is going to be able to get the same level of influence [in] the State Department, the Defense Department.”

Morrison recently led a two-year CSIS commission on U.S. pandemic preparedness which included six members of Congress, health experts, and former U.S. and military officials. The group published a report in November warning that they were “sounding the alarm that the U.S. government is caught in a cycle of crisis and complacency” when it comes to preparing for global pandemics.

As its very first recommendation, the commission urged the White House to restore health security leadership at the NSC. So far, Trump officials do not appear to have gotten the memo.

New story in Politics from Time: Big-Money Democratic Donors Are Trying to Stop Bernie Sanders. But Even They Worry It Could Be Too Late

As Senator Bernie Sanders’s lead in the Democratic presidential primary has solidified this month, some major Democratic donors have started funneling their money into an effort to thwart the rise of the self-described democratic socialist. But even some of the donors involved in the attempt to stop Sanders concede it may be too late.

Major donors and strategists worry the fractured field of Democratic candidates going into Super Tuesday will split up the delegates and funding necessary to block Sanders from running away with the nomination. “Democrats who fear that Bernie Sanders would likely lose to Trump are frustrated that the crowded field of moderates in the race is making it difficult for one to break out of the pack,” says Jon Cooper, a Democratic donor supporting former Vice President Joe Biden, who thinks other candidates should exit the race.

In the aftermath of the New Hampshire primary, more than half a dozen donors turned to Jonathan Kott, a former longtime aide to West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin. “A lot of Democrats were surprised that Bernie Sanders had been able to avoid the scrutiny of a front runner,” Kott says, “and they decided to act and make sure voters had all the information about his radical views before they voted.”

Kott formed the Big Tent Project, a group which, as a 501(c)4 nonprofit, does not have to disclose its donors. Within days the group received more than $1 million, which it poured into ads in Nevada and South Carolina to sow doubt about Sanders’ ability to deliver on his policy platform. “Socialist Bernie Sanders promises the world,” stated one ad that aired in both states. “But at what cost? $60 trillion.” Donations to the group picked up even more after Sanders’ win in Nevada on Feb. 22, according to Kott, who says he’s steadily been receiving more six- and seven-figure donations and is closing in on $3 million.

But the investment is minuscule in a race that features two billionaire candidates burning through hundreds of millions of dollars. And so far it has done little to stop Sanders’ ascent. Although there are plans to expand the ads in at least some of the 14 states voting on Super Tuesday, the contests are days away, with Sanders projected to win the most delegates. And while no one is yet conceding defeat, donors and strategists say the factor that aided Sanders’ lead in the first place—a crowded field of moderate alternatives—is continuing to complicate the effort.

The remaining candidates who are not funding their own campaigns—Biden, former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren—are splitting both delegates and money from donors, allowing Sanders to build on his advantage. In Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, Sanders amassed 45 pledged delegates of the allocated 100, while the other four split the remaining 55. Sanders, known for his small-dollar fundraising capabilities, raised more than $25 million in January, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission. Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Warren each raised less than that individually, but amassed nearly $32 million combined.

“There are so many people in the race that the vote that isn’t Bernie is being split five or six ways,” says Alix Ritchie, a Democratic donor worried about Sanders’ chances against President Donald Trump. “He’s winning more votes than any individual person because [they are] splitting the rest of the vote.”

Ritchie herself has donated to Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Warren this cycle, and now admits that casting such a wide net has become part of the problem. “There are many people I know who have donated to several candidates who aren’t Bernie,” she says. “Everybody is just hoping someone rises above the crowd and they can get behind.”

Which highlights the most immediate problem facing the Democratic donors and operatives who want to stop Sanders. Cooper, for instance, thinks everyone but Biden should exit the race, because Biden polls the best against Trump in battleground states. But others reject the idea agree that candidates who have performed better than Biden to date should be the ones to exit the race.

Ami Copeland, who was deputy finance director for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, believes donors would have rallied behind a single moderate candidate earlier if one stood out from the pack. “Each has their strengths and their weaknesses, and that is reflected in their appeal to the larger donor base,” he says. “Unfortunately that continues today.”

Rufus Gifford, a Biden fundraiser, says there is still time for the party to unify around a Sanders alternative.”When it becomes clear what the Bernie alternative is, you’re going to see the donor community – both high dollar and grassroots – coalesce around that person,” he says.

But the fear among some Democratic donors and strategists is that the won’t be any real clarity before Sanders’ delegate lead becomes insurmountable. There are few signs any candidate will get out before Super Tuesday, which will award more than a third of the total delegates to the party’s nominating convention in Milwaukee this summer. And despite donors’ fresh injection of funds, that fractured dynamic seems to be accomplishing what that money is working to stop: Sanders’ march to the nomination.

“Every day,” says Copeland, the Obama fundraiser, “it gets harder and harder.”

New story in Politics from Time: Barack Obama Sends Cease-and-Desist Over South Carolina Ad Attacking Joe Biden

Former President Barack Obama called on South Carolina TV stations to stop airing an attack ad that uses his voice to criticize his former Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday, accusing Republicans of trying to suppress black voter turnout ahead of the state’s Democratic primary on Saturday.

The ad, paid for by pro-Trump PAC the Committee to Defend the President, uses a clip from the audiobook of Obama’s 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father to falsely suggest Obama is criticizing Biden. According to Poynter’s Politifact, a fact-checking website, the ad takes Obama’s words “wildly” out of context. The section of the memoir, it says, is written from the perspective of somebody else: a black barber in Chicago, speaking about the politics of the city.

Later on in the passage, Obama goes on to talk about the power of African Americans to vote for candidates who represent the issues they care about. “The pro-Trump ad uses the passage to create the impression that Obama believed that black voters… sold their soul to the Democrats at election time,” Politifact says. “But the actual book passage is about the good things that come from voting.”

South Carolina is the first state with a large African American population to vote in the Democratic primaries. For Biden, who has historically received support from the black community, it presents perhaps a final chance to revive a flagging performance in the early stages of the race.

In the ad, a narrator’s voiceover begins: “Joe Biden promised to help our community. It was a lie. Here’s President Obama.” The misleading segment from Dreams From My Father then plays before the narrator concludes, saying: “Enough. Joe Biden won’t represent us, defend us, or help us. Don’t believe Biden’s empty promises.”

“This despicable ad is straight out of the Republican disinformation playbook, and it’s clearly designed to suppress turnout among minority voters in South Carolina by taking President Obama’s voice out of context and twisting his words to mislead viewers,” Obama’s communications director Katie Hill said in a statement. “In the interest of truth in advertising, we are calling on TV stations to take this ad down and stop playing into the hands of bad actors who seek to sow division and confusion among the electorate.”

Obama sent a cease-and-desist letter to the Committee to Defend the President on Wednesday, through an attorney. “This unauthorized use of President Obama’s name, image, likeness, voice and book passage is clearly intended to mislead the target audience of the ad into believing that the passage from the audiobook is a statement that was made by President Barack Obama during his presidency, when it was in fact made by a barber in a completely different context more than 20 years ago,” the letter said.
“To this end, the Committee to Defend the President must immediately remove this ad … further the Committee to Defend the President must agree on behalf of itself and all affiliated entities to refrain from future misuse of President Obama’s intellectual property or right of publicity.”

New story in Politics from Time: Appointing Pence to Lead Response, Trump Scrambles to Contain Fallout From Coronavirus Threat to U.S.

President Donald Trump knows that presidents are ruthlessly judged for fumbling a crisis. President George W. Bush was widely ridiculed for saying “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” to Michael Brown who headed the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina. Trump himself called the botched 2013 rollout of the enrollment website for President Obama’s Affordable Care Act a “total disaster.” In 2014, he said President Obama should be “ashamed” for not blocking flights from Africa during an Ebola outbreak.

As Trump left India to return to Washington earlier this week, the President was furious at seeing the markets tank in response to the spread of the coronavirus — and the warning by his own Centers for Disease Control that Americans should brace themselves.

So on Wednesday, Trump decided to get ahead of the story, calling a rare primetime press conference in the White House Briefing Room. His staff scrambled to put it together. “He was pissed over in India” and felt like his administration was “getting killed” in the press and by the markets about its handling of the coronavirus, says a White House official.

In the hour before Trump walked out to meet the press, he told public health staff he would announce that he was putting Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the coronavirus response, calling on Pence’s experience as the governor of Indiana handling the response to health crises in that state. “It was a game time decision,” the official said.

And during the 57-minute press conference, the President downplayed the risk the virus poses, contradicting his own public health officials. “The risk to the American people remains very low,” Trump said. “We have the greatest experts, really in the world, right here. We’re ready to adapt and we’re ready to do whatever we have to as the disease spreads — if it spreads.”

The decision to appoint Pence and the impromptu briefing seemed to be an acknowledgement by Trump that the threat of the coronavirus poses a critical challenge to his presidency. It comes as he is seeking re-election and has been flexing his power, emboldened at having survived impeachment and the Special Counsel Robert Mueller investigation. His approval ratings — while still averaging below 50% — have ticked up slightly. He’s launched a purge of career officials he believes are disloyal to him. He’s called for two Supreme Court justices to recuse themselves from cases involving him, and publicly pressured the Justice Department to ease up on prosecuting his friend Roger Stone and slammed the federal judge handling the case.

A serious outbreak of coronavirus in the United States would not only derail that momentum, it would put him under unprecedented scrutiny. The series of erratic moves he has made not only challenge long-standing democratic norms, they could be dangerous at a time when the public, facing an emerging public health crisis, is looking for a steady hand in the White House, says Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University. “This is one of those moments where the chaos from the administration and the disinformation has real consequences,” Zelizer said. “It matters that the public trusts what the president says.”

Trump knows the stakes are high, which is why he was walking a narrow line during the Wednesday briefing between offering the concrete action of appointing Pence and trying to tamp down the alarm he felt the CDC had unnecessarily whipped up by urging schools, hospitals and state and local officials to prepare for the coronavirus. He continued to express optimism that the virus could be contained and won’t infect many more people inside the U.S.

That is not a view shared by Dr. Anne Schuchat, the principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), who joined him in the briefing room. When Trump restricted travel to the U.S. by non-citizens who had recently visited China, limited flights and called for quarantining Americans who had recently traveled Wuhan Province, the epicenter of the virus, the administration managed to delay, but not stop, the spread of coronavirus inside the U.S., Schuchat said.

“Our aggressive containment strategy here in the United States has been working and is responsible for the low levels of cases that we have so far. However, we do expect more cases,” Schuchat told reporters during the briefing.

Within an hour of President Trump ending the press conference, the Centers for Disease Control announced that a new case of coronavirus had been confirmed in northern California, bringing the total number of known cases in the U.S. to 60. Officials don’t know how the person in California contracted the virus. “At this time, the patient’s exposure is unknown,” the CDC wrote in a statement. “It’s possible this could be an instance of community spread of COVID-19, which would be the first time this has happened in the United States. Community spread means spread of an illness for which the source of infection is unknown.”

That leaves Trump in an uncomfortable spot. Pence will lead his first coronavirus task force meeting at Health and Human Services headquarters on Thursday, says a senior administration official. White House officials are considering bringing Dr. Deborah L. Birx, who has been the U.S. global aids coordinator and U.S. special representative for global health diplomacy at the State Department since 2014, into the National Security Council to help coordinate the response. But as more cases mount, Trump will have to come to terms with the fact that it’s his crisis now, and he’ll own the outcome.