August 19, 2020

President Trump's payroll tax deferral is effectively dead.

Pretty much no one, Senate Republicans included, wanted to put a payroll tax cut Trump was pushing for in the next coronavirus relief bill. And Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) seemingly put the final nail in the coffin on Thursday as he told Fox News it's "probably a mistake" to do so.

Paul, a libertarian who reliably opposes any expansion of government spending, stuck to his guns on Thursday when he opposed the "skinny" CARES Act Republicans are starting to push as coronavirus relief talks remain stalled. A pared down package is "just Democrat lite," Paul said, before going on to clearly oppose extending boosted unemployment benefits and stimulus checks to Americans.

But a potential reward for Americans getting back to work — Trump's payroll tax deferral — was also "probably a mistake," Paul said, because it would hurt the Social Security trust it funds. And as Forbes' Andrew Solander noted, Paul's opposition will likely seal the end of the proposition. Kathryn Krawczyk

9:53 a.m.

The number of Americans filing new jobless claims has declined to less than 800,000 for the first time in seven months.

The Labor Department on Thursday said that 787,000 Americans filed new jobless claims last week, a decline of 55,000 from the previous week's revised level. This was significantly below the 875,000 claims economists had been expecting, CNBC reports. It's also the first time since the middle of March that the number of claims has been below 800,000, CNN notes.

Additionally, the number of continuing claims declined by about 1 million to 8.37 million claims, according to CNBC. Thursday's report came after last week, the number of new jobless claims unexpectedly rose to the highest level in almost two months.

At the same time, CNN notes that "23.2 million Americans received some form of government jobless benefits in the week ended October 3." The number of new jobless claims has also still yet to fall below 695,000, which was the record for most claims filed in one week prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Some recovery is better than no recovery, but we want this to be stronger," Evercore ISI managing director and policy economist Ernie Tedeschi told The New York Times. "It's at risk of getting knocked off its slow momentum if we get another shock, another wave of the virus." Brendan Morrow

8:58 a.m.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in a new interview says he'd seek court reform recommendations from a bipartisan commission if elected.

Biden made these comments in an interview set to air on 60 Minutes after facing questions in recent weeks about his position on the idea of packing the Supreme Court.

"If elected, what I will do is I'll put together a national commission, a bipartisan commission, of scholars, constitutional scholars — Democrats, Republicans, liberal, conservative — and I will ask them to, over 180 days, come back to me with recommendations as to how to reform the court system, because it's getting out of whack the way in which it's being handled," Biden said.

Biden had been repeatedly asked whether he would support expanding the Supreme Court, a move some Democrats called for after Republicans announced they would move to fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg's seat before the election. In numerous interviews, Biden declined to specifically answer the question, although he recently said he's "not a fan of court packing."

In the 60 Minutes interview, Biden said he would look at his commission's recommendations and that they could involve several options outside of court packing.

"It's not about court packing, there's a number of other things that our constitutional scholars have debated," Biden said. "And I'd look to see what recommendations that commission might make. ... There's a number of alternatives that go well beyond packing."

Biden added that "the last thing we need to do is turn the Supreme Court into just a political football, whoever has the most votes gets whatever they want." Brendan Morrow

8:48 a.m.

"Explicit photos and emails purportedly belonging to Hunter Biden were circulating in Ukraine last year at the same time that Rudy Giuliani was searching for dirt there on former Vice President Joe Biden," Time reports, citing two people approached with the material in May and September of 2019. "The two people said they could not confirm whether any of the material presented to them was the same as that which has been recently published in the U.S.," or whether any of the documents were authentic.

One of the people said when the New York Post published a story about material purportedly taken from a water-damaged laptop left at a Delaware repair shop, "it brought back memories of the same information that was being introduced to us a year ago." The second person told Time the material was offered for sale at a price of $5 million, with the unidentified seller looking to sell it to Republican allies of President Trump, but "I walked away from it, because it smelled awful."

In January, the U.S. cybersecurity firm Area 1 reported that Russia's GRU military hackers had broken into the computer systems of Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company Hunter Biden worked for. Selling pilfered private information is so commonplace in Ukraine now it's the "national sport," said Igor Novikov, a former adviser to Ukraine's president, and it really exploded when Giuliani put out the call for dirt on the Bidens. One of the people Giuliani worked with, Andrii Derkach, has been identified by the U.S. government as an "active Russian agent."

"For months, Derkach has been peddling allegations of criminality against Biden that are remarkably similar to the broad strokes of the initial New York Post story," Politico reports. "If Borat was able to compromise Rudy, imagine what a trained intelligence officer could do," quipped former CIA officer Alex Finley.

Russian intelligence often mixes in forged documents with real ones, and anything coming from Ukraine's kompromat market should be treated with caution, as it's "extremely hard to verify, yet very easy to fake," Novikov told Time.

"For those not steeped in the byzantine maze of reporting on Hunter Biden, the story can be pretty hard to follow," Politico notes, but in short, "there are giant blinking warning signs about the documents, their provenance, and the timing of their disclosure." Read more about the "hard drive from hell" at Politico and Time. Peter Weber

7:56 a.m.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a new guidance has expanded its definition of a COVID-19 close contact.

The CDC's latest guidance defines having a close contact with someone infected with COVID-19 as being within six feet of the individual for 15 or more cumulative minutes during a 24 hour period, The Washington Post reports. The CDC previously defined a close contact as being within six feet of an infected person for 15 consecutive minutes.

The new definition, The Associated Press writes, takes into account "briefer but repeated encounters" with an infected person. It specifies the 15 minutes of exposure within six feet is "added together over a 24-hour period," and so as an example, this could be "three 5-minute exposures for a total of 15 minutes)."

CDC Director Robert Redfield in a statement said that "as we get more data and understand this COVID we're going to continue to incorporate that in our recommendations." With this change, the Post noted the CDC was "greatly" expanding the group of people considered at risk of contracting COVID-19.

It's easy to accumulate 15 minutes in small increments when you spend all day together — a few minutes at the water cooler, a few minutes in the elevator, and so on,” Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security epidemiologist Caitlin Rivers told The Washington Post. "I expect this will result in many more people being identified as close contacts. This change underscores the importance of vigilant social distancing — even multiple brief interactions can pose a risk. Brendan Morrow

6:43 a.m.

President Trump picked a fight with 60 Minutes on Tuesday and threatened to release his own version of his interview with Lesley Stahl. Wednesday's Late Show got there first.

"Seriously, if you're trying to win the senior vote, you can't insult 60 Minutes," Jimmy Fallon said at The Tonight Show. "That's like trying to win the youth vote by banning TikTok." Trump put a brave face on his 60 Minutes debacle, he said, but in footage taken right afterward "he looks like Rudy Giuliani on his way to the Borat premiere."

"It was revealed today that Rudy Giuliani was caught on video with his hands down his pants while alone in a hotel room with a woman he thought was a conservative journalist, as part of the filming of Borat 2," Seth Meyers said on Late Night, attributing that "late-breaking story" to Mad Libs.

"Now, this doesn't look great, but Rudy says he has a perfectly innocent explanation," Stephen Colbert said at The Late Show. Too bad it isn't believable, he added. "I watched the footage. Why did you go into a bedroom at the suggestion of a young woman to have cocktails — to take off a mic? I take off a mic every night. Never once have I reclined on a king size bed and then launched a fact-finding mission to my own groin."

As for Trump, "we should never let his stupidity overshadow the fact that he's also a heartless monster who must be driven from office," Colbert said, pointing to the "chilling news" that the U.S. still can't find the parents of 545 migrant kids Trump separated at the border. "That's not a child on a milk carton, that's the whole dairy aisle," the equivalent of "eight school busses full of children," he said. And you're voting on that issue whether you want to or not.

"Yesterday alone we learned that Trump has a secret bank account in China, and his administration now cannot find the parents of 545 children they intentionally separated from their mothers — this is quite a closing argument he's making," Jimmy Kimmel said on Kimmel Live. "Of course Donald Trump has a Chinese bank account. He had to, he's running out of things to be hypocritical about."

Meanwhile, "the pope has gone rogue all of a sudden — he's talking like Jesus," Kimmel said. "It's crazy — we live in a time when the head of the Catholic Church is more progressive on same-sex marriage than the vice president of the United States." Watch below. Peter Weber

4:27 a.m.

At this point in the 2020 presidential race, you'd probably rather be Democratic nominee Joe Biden than President Trump. "Polls are getting worse and worse for Trump," showing him tied in Texas and drowning in must-win Pennsylvania, John Harris and Daniel Lippman write at Politico. "Still, journalists just can't bring themselves to count him out." That's one reason Trump's advisers still see "gleams of hope," Annie Karni reports at The New York Times.

Trump's "internal numbers over the past three weeks have stabilized after the double whammy of the first presidential debate" and his "subsequent hospitalization for the coronavirus," Karni reports. And Biden isn't "breaking decisively into a double-digit lead" in places like Wisconsin and Arizona, "leaving open the possibility that the race will tighten on Election Day, when in-person ballots come in." Thursday's debate also gives Trump one last chance to reset the race. And, of course, Trump proved everyone wrong in 2016.

Despite Trump's constant feuding with the press, including individuals like CBS's Lesley Stahl and Thursday's moderator Kristen Welker, "by historical standards, Trump's press coverage is actually favorable," Politico's Harris and Lippman argue. Thanks to the ghosts of 2016, self-doubting journalists and political professionals are "giving generous allowance for the possibility that things aren't as bad as they seem for the incumbent, and that he may yet have another surprise in store for anyone who thinks that conventional dynamics of politics apply to him."

That's a big gift, says veteran GOP election lawyer Ben Ginsberg. It "helps Trump because he can hold out a sliver of hope for his supporters so they don't give up the ship. Nobody likes a loser; you're not going to admit you're a loser."

A comeback isn't impossible, "but if Trump loses, the biggest factor won't be COVID-19 or the economic meltdown or the social unrest," Tim Alberta argues at Politico Magazine. "It will be his unlikability." Pollsters and journalists have long "fixated on the question of which candidate voters would rather have a beer with — a window into how personality translates into political success," he explains. But Trump is "like the drunk at the bar, he won't shut up. Whatever appeal his unfiltered thoughts once held has now worn off. Americans are tired of having beers with Trump. His own supporters are tired of having beers with Trump," and it's probably too late to change that. Peter Weber

2:51 a.m.

President Trump's performance in the first presidential debate with Democratic nominee Joe Biden was described as an "avalanche of lying." But not everybody saw that as a negative. To preview Thursday's final Trump-Biden debate, The Daily Show's Michael Kosta held an online panel discussion with three professional liars: Brett Johnson, a con man once on the FBI's most-wanted list; hypnotist Timon Kruase; and Alexis Conran, a magician and deception expert.

"In the first debate, I thought Trump was a mess," Kosta said on Wednesday's show. "But these guys liked his aggressive style." Some of Trump's voters evidently agree, and they might not care if he's being straight with them. "We have this perception that the people that are followers of Donald Trump or that fall for scams are idiots or stupid or ignorant," Johnson said. "They're not. It's just that they're looking to make sense out of something that doesn't make sense." Watch below to see a card trick gone bad, find out about "prison debates," and learn if any of these con men were impressed enough by Trump's moves they would vote for him themselves. Peter Weber

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