In our last episode, mail had finally arrived at my building in downtown Manhattan after many days without, all because of the devastating impact of COVID-19 at my local post office.
The delivery included a bombastic fundraising letter from the National Republican Congressional Committee, under the name of Mike Pence, excoriating Nancy Pelosi and the evils of socialism, a graceless exercise of the poison pen and maltreatment of the bulk postage rate.
In the week and a half since, postal carriers, fighting sickness and struggling to cope with understaffing brought on by the pandemic, have managed to deliver letters to my place on two other occasions.
The last batch included a couple of mass mail postcards from the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announcing, in all caps, “PRESIDENT TRUMP’S CORONAVIRUS GUIDELINES FOR AMERICA.”
President Trump’s? Really? Somehow, I just don’t picture him in the Oval Office personally scribbling down these guidelines while Melania sat in the Roosevelt Room rereading The Federalist Papers.
As we know all too well, especially here in New York City, our insecure manchild-in-chief has to have his name on everything, whether it’s a casino or corona. Reports continue that among other self-aggrandizements, Trump had pondered putting his EKG-like signature on the bipartisan recovery bill’s stimulus checks, and historian Jon Meacham told The Washington Post on Friday, “Trump has cast himself in the role of [the] generous monarch who is saying, ‘I have given you this, dear subjects’ — and it’s a remarkably selfish and self-referential performance. It’s our money, for goodness sake. It’s not his money.”
As far as his postcard goes, there’s nothing wrong with the guidelines per se—wash your hands, stay at home, etc.—but like pretty much every move made by this administration during our crisis, it’s way past due. As The New York Times noted in an extensive investigation headlined, “He Could Have Seen What Was Coming,” published over the weekend, Trump “was slow to absorb the scale of the risk and to act accordingly, focusing instead on controlling the message, protecting gains in the economy and batting away warnings from senior officials…
“… Mr. Trump’s response was colored by his suspicion of and disdain for what he viewed as the “Deep State” — the very people in his government whose expertise and long experience might have guided him more quickly toward steps that would slow the virus, and likely save lives…
“The chaotic culture of the Trump White House contributed to the crisis. A lack of planning and a failure to execute, combined with the president’s focus on the news cycle and his preference for following his gut rather than the data cost time, and perhaps lives.”
Yet in this same moment, despite their deadly ineptitude when it comes to disease, Trump and administration officials seem intent on using our current crisis to their advantage—personal, political and ideological—depending on our understandable distraction to slip through their latest horrendous changes to government.
As time goes by, there’s no doubt that it will be revealed how many of Trump’s pals and GOP cronies took advantage of this national tragedy to make a fast buck—just look, for one, at the US senators who simultaneously told the public that all would be well while allegedly selling off their shares in businesses they knew were about to be gut punched by COVID-19 (and I include in their gang Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein).
Look, too, among many other examples, at the firing of inspectors general dedicated to investigating malfeasance in the government, Trump and Secretary of State George Pompeo’s de facto evisceration of the Peace Corps, under the guise of calling volunteers home from overseas to protect them from the pandemic, the summary deportation of 10,000 migrants at the southern border by citing emergency public health regs, or the suspension of environmental rules—leaving it to industries to self-regulate, using the virus as an excuse to let polluters run amok.
They’re trying to pull a multitude of fast ones and the United States Postal Service is yet another target. I wrote in last week’s piece, “The House version of the recent $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package included $25 billion in emergency funding to make up for revenues lost in the pandemic.” It also canceled USPS debt and offered the post office loans of up to $10 billion, but those loans are all that survived what finally was passed into law.
Now it turns out, as per The Washington Post, that the reason for that was—surprise!—Donald Trump. If it helped bail out the post office with additional needed cash, he threatened to veto the entire coronavirus stimulus bill. The Post reported, “President Trump has blocked potential emergency funding for the agency that employs around 600,000 workers, repeating instead the false claim that higher rates for Internet shipping companies Amazon, FedEx and UPS would right the service’s budget.”
The competition from other delivery companies and the Internet is a real problem but what truly keeps the post office in debt, even with all that competition, is $72 billion in prepaid pension and healthcare costs for its employees, a system like no other in government or corporate America. This was foisted on the postal service by a lame duck Republican Congress in 2006. Many hoped it would force the USPS into privatization. Without this unnecessary burden, the postal service would almost break even.
We also know there’s nothing our president likes better than kicking someone when they’re down and this virus comes at a time when the post office’s own defenses are at an all-time low. The USPS now is projecting losses of $2 billion a month because of COVID-19. According to the Post, 500 postal workers have tested positive, another 462 are presumed positive, 6,000 are in self-quarantine and 19 have died.
Mail volume is steadily declining because of the disease and could be down by as much as half by the end of June. With $19 billion in existing debt, by the end of September, the USPS could be “financially illiquid” and may lose $23 billion in the next year and a half.
Postmaster General Megan Brennan now is asking Congress for $25 billion to cover lost revenue from the pandemic, $25 billion for modernization and another loan of $25 billion. On Trump’s behalf, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin is pushing back, saying that in this next round of negotiations around recovery legislation, such a proposition would be a poison pill.
Trump’s public rationale for attacking the postal office—it’s failure to raise prices for delivery—is specious. In part, what this really is about, in addition to the desire to turn USPS over to corporate interests, is punishing Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO and publisher of The Washington Post, the investigative reporting of which has been a perpetual thorn in Trump’s thin skin. Although increasingly, Amazon has developed delivery systems on its own, it’s still dependent on the postal service to get its goods in the hands of even the most faraway domestic customer.
But beyond this particular, childish lashing out at a perceived enemy like Bezos is something even scarier to our soul-deprived man in the Executive Mansion—free and fair elections. Eric Lutz at Vanity Fair writes that Trump’s “apparent plan to bleed the postal service dry comes as the agency is poised to play perhaps a bigger role than ever in November’s election, as Democrats and voting rights activists call for mail-in voting and other measures to ensure Americans can safely cast ballots in the midst of the pandemic.”
Trump says, “I think mail-in voting is terrible,” claiming that it’s rife with fraud, which, it almost goes without saying, is a lie. Not to mention hypocritical, as he himself has used mail-in ballots in last year’s midterms and this year’s Florida primary. What’s really behind his opposition is the knowledge, as he himself admitted, that the more Americans who are able to vote, the worse it is for him and the GOP. “If you ever agreed to it,” he declared, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
As the coming weeks go by and the news of his drop in the polls grows more dire, Trump will become increasingly desperate. Watch as he tries to do his worst, suppressing the vote and working to prevent states that don’t already have it from adopting the mail-in ballot (or quashing any attempt to make mail-in voting a federal law).
This man has no qualms stomping on the Constitution—just witness his wild and bogus pronouncement Monday that his authority “is total.” So why would he hesitate for an instant to try eradicating the USPS, the only federal agency that’s actually called for in that Constitution? Even though the USPS consistently is ranked the most popular government agency and is essential to millions who depend on it not just for mail but prescriptions, money and other essentials, Trump doesn’t care or want to know. Any impediment to his supremacy has to go.
And lest we forget, he’s nuts.
“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”—the words engraved over the entrance of New York City’s former main post office. But a global pandemic might be able do what neither weather nor darkness can—especially if it’s aided and abetted by a cynical, venal president and a party committed to a death grip of power over patriotism and naked partisanship above liberty, country and democracy.
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Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.