Politics Trump requires food aid boxes to come with a letter from him
The administration slowly started including letters from the president in USDA’s food boxes over the past few months. But last week the USDA began requiring the letters to be added to all boxes distributed by companies with government contracts, according to six people familiar with the program.
Fox News first reported in July that letters would be included in some boxes over the summer and credited Ivanka Trump with the idea. In response, Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue complaining that the effort could be a violation of the Hatch Act, the federal law preventing executive branch employees from engaging in political activity. They asked the department to end the practice “immediately.”
The USDA responded by saying the letters don’t violate the Hatch Act and moved ahead anyway. This week, the White House posted a campaign-style video on Twitter touting the food boxes with remarks Trump made in North Carolina in August before a crowd of a few hundred people.
“It’s almost like an escalation,” Rep. Marcia Fudge, an Ohio Democrat who led the letter to Perdue, said in an interview. “Before they were optional. Now they are demanding that they go in every box.”
„This is supposed to be about helping hungry people,” said Fudge, who chairs a panel overseeing nutrition on the House Agriculture Committee, “It is one of the worst things I’ve seen in a long time.”
The new mandate has sent food banks and other nonprofits scrambling as they worry distributing the boxes with the letters could be misconstrued as election activity, according to interviews with nearly a dozen nonprofit and industry leaders.
„These guys should be handing out food and instead they’re talking to campaign attorneys because of these damn letters,” said Eric Kessler, founder of Arabella Advisors, a philanthropy consulting firm, and a longtime player in Democratic politics.”It’s a brazen attempt at vote buying targeted at the neediest.”
Food banks in several parts of the country said they have consulted lawyers to make sure they aren’t jeopardizing their nonprofit tax status, or violating any election laws.
In Ohio, food bank leaders sought legal counsel after a member of the National Guard who was helping hand out the food boxes raised questions about whether they could be inadvertently violating the Hatch Act.
In a legal memo shared with POLITICO, law firm Reminger determined that the letters do not violate the law because they don’t explicitly mention the election and the letter is not “directed towards the success or failure of a political party, candidate for political office or partisan political group.”
Some food banks have advised the food pantries and nonprofits in their network that they can open the boxes one by one and take out the letter from the president if they want to and have the staff to do so.
“We are a nonpartisan organization,” said Greg Trotter, a spokesman for the Greater Chicago Food Depository. “While the content of the letter is not overtly political, we think it’s inappropriate to include a letter from any political candidate just weeks from an election.”
In Oregon, a major food bank recently decided to stop participating in the program, in part because of the letters. The CEO of the organization, Susannah Morgan, wrote in a statement that “there are real questions as to whether food assistance organizations can ethically distribute such a message with an election looming in mere weeks.”
The Agriculture Department did not respond to questions about why the letters were previously not required, but now are.
In response to POLITICO’s questions, a spokesperson for USDA said Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease official at the National Institutes of Health, supports the letters as a messaging tool.
“In addition to benefiting from fresh produce, dairy and meat products, Americans in need also are receiving essential information about how to protect themselves and others from COVID-19. These measures include avoiding crowds, maintaining physical distance (6 feet), covering your mouth and nose with a cloth face cover when around others, and washing your hands often,” Fauci said, in a statement provided by USDA.
The single-page letter included in the boxes, however, is less specific, telling people to wash their hands, protect the elderly and vulnerable, and stay home if they feel sick. The letter only says to “consider” wearing a face covering in public, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explicitly recommends doing so.
The USDA also shared a statement from Ivanka Trump, who has been a public ambassador for the program.
On the south side of Chicago, in a predominantly Black neighborhood that has been hard hit by Covid-19, the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation has been handing out USDA food boxes every week since mid-May, when the program began. This week was the first time the president’s letters started showing up in the boxes, which are handed out in the parking lot of a Save-A-Lot grocery store that shut down in February, just weeks before coronavirus began wreaking havoc on the economy, said Carlos Nelson, the CEO of the nonprofit.
“It’s really shocking,” Nelson said, noting that the letters put his organization in an uncomfortable position because the group is required to remain apolitical to maintain its nonprofit tax status. “It seems like it’s being politicized.”
On Tuesday, during their weekly distribution event, one long-time volunteer walked off and refused to participate once she realized the packages contained letters from Trump, expressing worry that people may think the boxes were essentially trying to sway votes, Nelson said. Others opened up the boxes and began removing the letters before handing them out to individuals who arrived at the event on foot, though the vast majority were not removed before being handed out.
Some people receiving the boxes pitched the letters out their car windows, Nelson said, leaving them on the ground. „Thankfully we’ve got a litter abatement team here,” he said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this report misstated the USDA program. It is the Farmers to Families Food Box Program.
For months, Democratic Party officials concerned about the safety of voting in person during the coronavirus pandemic promoted voting by mail, and rank-and-file members have responded, requesting, by large margins, more mail-in ballots than Republicans in several states that will help decide the 2020 election.
But as President Trump has waged a war on the legitimacy of voting by mail, even while planning to do so himself, many Democrats have had a change of heart and have decided to cast their ballots in person.
The shift in focus was signaled at the Democratic National Convention when former first lady Michelle Obama warned in her speech that “we have got to vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it.”
“We’ve gotta vote early, in person if we can,” Obama, who had spent the past several months pushing lawmakers nationwide to make voting by mail easier, told her audience.
As that message spread, others in the party began making it known that they would not let coronavirus concerns keep them from showing up at their polling place.
By the time Obama and Ocasio-Cortez issued their calls to voters, nearly 47 percent of Biden voters had already decided they would vote by mail, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC news poll. By comparison, just 11 percent of Trump voters said the same.
In Pennsylvania, Democrats have requested nearly three times as many mail-in ballots as Republicans. In Florida, Democrats have so far requested roughly 700,000 more mail-in ballots than Republicans. Ohio Democrats are outpacing Republican mail-in requests even in GOP districts, and have built up large advantages in North Carolina and Iowa.
But several factors have led Democrats to reconsider how they will cast their ballots this year, including the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine the U.S. Postal Service, often confusing instructions that voters must follow so that their ballots aren’t disqualified, and the mountain of lawsuits that Republicans have brought to challenge the counting of mail-in ballots.
But the biggest motivation for the Democratic pivot to in-person voting is President Trump’s months-long campaign to discredit voting by mail, which has led to fears that mail-in ballots may be disqualified in some places, or that Trump will refuse to concede an election in which they provide the margin of victory for his opponent.
During Tuesday’s presidential debate in Cleveland, Trump again went after the legitimacy of a process that seems likely to deliver many more votes for Democrats than Republicans.
“This is going to be fraud like you’ve never seen,” Trump said of the upcoming election, before citing a flurry of incorrect information to justify his view.
The president also intimated, once again, that he may not go along with a peaceful transfer of power to Joe Biden should the former vice president beat him thanks to mail-in votes.
“If I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that,” Trump said.
Trump’s rationale is that unsolicited mail-in ballots sent by state officials without being requested have a higher potential of fraud than absentee ballots, which must be requested by a voter, in some states with a valid excuse. Trump, whose legal residence is now in Florida, has used absentee ballots himself, as have other members of his family and administration.
There is no evidence to back up Trump’s claim that mail-in ballots are more susceptible to fraud than absentee ones.
Citing the nearly 100,000 defective absentee ballots sent to Brooklyn residents this week by the New York City Board of Elections, the New York Times editorial board published a piece on Wednesday urging readers to cast their votes in person.
“Any New Yorker who is able to do so ought to vote early and in person,” the editorial stated. For a city that was brought to a halt by the coronavirus pandemic, that advice was striking, and the paper noted that in-person voting “is thought to be relatively low risk” if proper precautions are followed.
That call resonated with Ben Arthur, a 47-year-old resident of Harlem, whose brother was a victim of the ballot mix-up at his address in Brooklyn.
“I definitely feel like those who are able to and are privileged enough to not have to use public resources — anything from a grocery store to an election outlet — should do so,” Arthur, a musician and the founder of the “SongWriter Podcast,” told Yahoo News. “But when the New York Times editorial board said that in their judgment they think it might make a difference, then I’m going to listen.”
Board of Elections officials have blamed the mistakes on the company it hired to print the ballots, and new ballots are being printed and readied for distribution. But even the hint of possible mail-in ballot problems has persuaded many voters to decide to brave the notoriously long lines at New York City polling places.
“I’ll put on my mask and try to go at a low-frequency hour and do it before the election. Hopefully we don’t happen to get into the room with a superspreader,” Arthur said.
“I thought it was a no-brainer that because of the pandemic, voting by mail was going to be the obvious choice and it would not be controversial at all. It’s shocking to me that it is controversial in any way,” Steve Swanson, a trial lawyer from Glen Ellyn, Ill., told Yahoo News. “The main reason I changed my mind was because of this nonsense that Trump is advocating, that somehow this election is going to be fraudulent.”
Swanson says he will vote in person next week in DuPage County to assure that Trump can’t dispute the results in his home state, which is considered safe for Democrats.
“The more in-person voting that can get done now, the more election results you’ll have on the day of the election,” Swanson said. “So if it is clear just from the in-person voting that Trump has lost Illinois, then they can take that controversy and potential lawsuit off the table.”
But there’s also a more personal motive behind Swanson’s decision to put on a mask and cast his vote early.
“If I get hit by a bus on Thursday and I voted Wednesday, at least I’ll die knowing I got my shot in,” he said.
In a year in which both parties have cast the election as the single most important in U.S. history, and which could boil down to a few thousand votes in some states, more and more Democrats say they aren’t willing to take chances with their votes.
“We’re shifting away from making plans to vote by mail to voting early in person,” Quentin James, the founder of the Collective PAC, the nation’s largest Black-led political action committee, told Axios.
As fears about contracting COVID-19 while wearing a face mask have lessened, the Biden campaign also announced Thursday that it would jump-start its door-to-door canvassing operation.
“We’re now expanding on our strategy in a targeted way that puts the safety of communities first and foremost and helps us mobilize voters who are harder to reach by phone now that we’re in the final stretch — and now that Americans are fully dialed in and ready to make their voices heard,” Biden campaign manager Jennifer O’Malley Dillon told the Associated Press.
Meanwhile, in Texas, where polls show a tight race between Trump and Biden, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued an order Thursday requiring counties to close multiple drop-off sites for absentee and mail-in ballots.
“As we work to preserve Texans’ ability to vote during the COVID-19 pandemic, we must take extra care to strengthen ballot security protocols throughout the state,” Abbott said in a statement. “These enhanced security protocols will ensure greater transparency and will help stop attempts at illegal voting.”
Democrats say Abbott is changing the rules in order to make it harder to vote.
“It’s a miscalculation on Abbott’s part,” Democratic Party spokesman Abhi Rahman told the Austin American-Statesman. “Texas Democrats will crawl through broken glass to vote these cheaters out of office.”
Cycling team Trek-Segafredo has suspended the 2019 junior road race world champion Quinn Simmons after he made comments in support of President Donald Trump on Twitter.
Simmons, a 19-year-old American, was replying to Dutch cycling journalist Jose Been. Been initially tweeted statements that were critical of Trump.
„My dear American friends, I hope this horrible presidency ends for you. And for us as (former?) allies too,” Been wrote, via the Associated Press.„If you follow me and support Trump, you can go. There is zero excuse to follow or vote for the vile, horrible man.”
Simmons replied to Been with “Bye,” and a Black-skinned waving hand emoji.
After another Twitter user replied to Been with „Apparently a Trumper,” Simmons replied again with „That’s right” and an American flag emoji.
Trek-Segafredo: Simmons won’t race until further notice
The racing team released a statement late Wednesday night about Simmons’ tweets and his use of a Black hand emoji.
„While we support the right to free speech, we will hold people accountable for their words and actions. Regrettably, Simmons made statements online that we feel are divisive, incendiary, and detrimental to the team, professional cycling, its fans, and the positive future we hope to help create for the sport In response, he will not be racing for Trek-Segafredo until further notice.”
There has been some backlash and talk of boycotting Trek cycling products after Simmons’ suspension, since he appears to be guilty of nothing more than stating his support for the current US president, and none of his comments were derogatory or inappropriate.
However, the issue could be his use of a Black-skinned hand emoji. Since Simmons is white, using an emoji with a dark skin tone could be considered to be a form of Blackface. Trek-Segafredo has not explained what specifically got Simmons suspended.
Been, the cycling journalist who started the exchange, deleted her original tweet about Trump. On Thursday she tweeted that she feels „horrible about the situation and terrible for @QuinnSimmons9 to miss his beloved classics. To suspend him would never be my choice.”
It appears that Been then deleted her entire Twitter account.
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