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Trump and Biden hold dueling health events as virus worsens

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump holds a rally to support Republican Senate candidates at Valdosta Regional Airport in Valdosta, Ga. on Dec. 5, 2020.Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Talk about another awkward day for a country where the outgoing president has yet to concede to the incoming president-elect who clearly defeated him a month ago.

At 2:00 p.m. ET, President Trump holds a summit at the White House designed to claim credit for a coronavirus vaccine.

But also around the same time, President-elect Biden will be introducing his health team — HHS Secretary pick Xavier Becerra, Surgeon General pick Vivek Murthy, CDC pick Dr. Rochelle Walensky and COVID-19 czar Jeff Zients — who will be in charge of distributing the vaccines to most Americans, per NBC’s Geoff Bennett and Mike Memoli.

Oh, and this all takes place on the day when another country — Britain — began administering the first clinically approved vaccines.

Tweet of the day

Data Download: The numbers you need to know today

15,037,383: The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, per the most recent data from NBC News and health officials. (That’s 210,648 more than yesterday morning.)

284,911: The number of deaths in the United States from the virus so far. (That’s 1,748 more than yesterday morning.)

205.93 million: The number of coronavirus tests that have been administered in the United States so far, according to researchers at The COVID Tracking Project.

102,148: The number of people currently hospitalized with coronavirus

4.6 million: The number of out-of-work Americans who would be affected by the ending of emergency unemployment benefits on December 31.

One week: The extra time Congress is seeking to punt the deadline to prevent a government shutdown and negotiate a coronavirus relief bill.

7,061,920: Joe Biden’s lead in the popular vote at the time of publication

28: The number of days until the Jan. 5 Senate runoffs.

43: The number of days until Inauguration Day.

Austin, we have a problem

On Monday night, NBC News confirmed that Biden is expected to nominate retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin as Defense secretary. If Austin is confirmed, he’d become the first African American to lead the Pentagon.

But the selection of Austin has created the first real Cabinet-pick controversy for Biden within his own party.

For starters, a good portion of the Democratic national-security community is disappointed that Michele Flournoy didn’t get the job, which would have made her the first woman to lead the Pentagon.

But more concerning to critics is the fact that Austin would be a retired military man to be Defense secretary instead of what’s typically been a civilian in charge.

To make Austin his Defense secretary, Biden will need a waiver from Congress, since the 1947 National Security Act requires a prospective secretary to wait seven years after ending active duty as a commissioned officer.

Jim Mattis got a waiver to be Trump’s first Defense secretary. So did George Marshall.

But will Austin get one, too?

Also, if Austin is confirmed, it would mean the last THREE Democratic presidents have gone on to pick Republicans (Bill Cohen for Clinton, Bob Gates/Chuck Hagel for Obama) or retired generals to lead the Pentagon.

What does it say about the party that its presidents have had a difficult time finding civilian Democrats for this job?

Biden Cabinet/Transition Watch

State: Tony Blinken (announced)

Treasury: Janet Yellen (announced)

Defense: Ret. Gen. Lloyd Austin (confirmed)

Homeland Security: Alejandro Mayorkas (announced)

HHS: Xavier Becerra (announced)

UN Ambassador: Linda Thomas-Greenfield (announced)

Director of National Intelligence: Avril Haines (announced)

Attorney General: Doug Jones, Sally Yates

Interior: Deb Haaland

Agriculture: Heidi Heitkamp

Labor: Andy Levin, Bernie Sanders, Marty Walsh

Education: Lily Eskelsen Garcia, Randi Weingarten. Sonja Santelises, Linda Darling Hammond

OMB Director: Neera Tanden (announced)

CIA: Michael Morell

Small Business Administration: Keisha Lance Bottoms

Chief of Staff: Ron Klain (announced)

National Security Adviser: Jake Sullivan (announced)

Climate Envoy: John Kerry (announced)

National Economic Council Director: Brian Deese (announced)

Surgeon General: Dr. Vivek Murthy (announced)

Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Dr. Rochelle Walensky (announced)

Covid-19 Czar: Jeff Zients (announced)

White House Communications Director: Kate Bedingfield (announced)

White House Press Secretary: Jen Psaki (announced)

VP Communications Director: Ashley Etienne (announced)

VP Chief Spokesperson: Symone Sanders (announced)

Talking Policy with Benjy: Big fat beautiful checks edition

The big bipartisan deal on COVID relief continues to chug along, but there’s some prominent dissent from the left and right — and, unusually, they both have the same complaint.

On Monday, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., urged President Trump to veto any bill that doesn’t include direct payments to Americans along the lines of the $1,200 checks that went out at the start of the pandemic. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. has also said he opposes the emerging deal on those lines. While not yet threatening to vote against a bill, big names on the left in the House are also pushing for more payments, led by Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and D-N.Y., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich.

Trump is also on record calling for more COVID payments in October after his signature went on the previous round of checks, though he has not done much to push for them in the current round of negotiations. Hawley and Sanders also have other concerns, with the former upset over aid to state and local budgets and the latter worried about protections for business against COVID-related lawsuits.

While the coronavirus is the cause of the current debate over payments, it’s part of a broader trend in both parties towards promoting direct cash benefits to families rather than more complicated benefits tied to specific needs. Andrew Yang was the most prominent evangelist with his push for basic income, but Vice President-elect Kamala Harris also made big refundable tax credits her signature domestic policy.

On the GOP side, some Republicans see it as a way to compete with Democrats on populist grounds. Even before the pandemic, Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee were rolling out a bill to expand child tax credits — and notably pay for it by raising taxes on wealthy heirs, a rare break from conservative orthodoxy.

All of this could present a President-elect Joe Biden with some bipartisan opportunities once he takes office. On paper, Hawley and Sanders could easily work out a bipartisan bill on stimulus and maybe even get Trump to endorse it on Twitter. But in practice, Biden knows from experience that it’s hard getting Republicans to back even tax cuts when it means a victory for a Democratic president. This could be an early test of how much has changed since then.

Georgia Runoff Watch by Ben Kamisar

In today’s Runoff Watch, the blame game is starting a month early.

The president continues to step on his party’s message in Georgia, most recently in a Monday night Twitter tirade. Last night, he criticized the lieutenant governor for “falsely claiming to be ‘pro-Trump,’” retweeted conspiracy theories, and pre-emptively blamed a possible Senate loss on top GOP officials in the state who are bucking his call for the legislature to overrule the voters and elect a pro-Trump slate of electors.

“RINOS @BrianKempGA, @GeoffDuncanGA, & Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, will be solely responsible for the potential loss of our two GREAT Senators from Georgia, @sendavidperdue& @KLoeffler. Won’t call a Special Session or check for Signature Verification! People are ANGRY!” he tweeted.

Missing from the president’s blame game — any acknowledgment that him constantly pitting himself against Georgia’s top Republicans and accusing them of sandbagging him may be hampering the GOP’s attempt to unify around their candidates in key races.

The Lid: The old college try

And the Number of the Week is… 270! Don’t miss the pod from yesterday, when we took a (deep dive!) look into what the Electoral College actually does.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

It’s Safe Harbor Day! What does that mean for the presidential results?

The New York Times reports that the Trump administration passed on the chance to lock in additional doses of the Pfizer vaccine beyond an already-negotiated 100 million, a decision that may have let other countries jump in line for access before the U.S.

There’s a new controversy surrounding vaccine access: Protecting recipients’ privacy.

For a Hill hearing today, GOP Sen. Ron Johnson is assembling a slate of witnesses who largely disagree with the public health consensus around coronavirus.

Trump personally called the House Speaker in Pennsylvania, asking for help in reversing the election outcome in the state.

Democrats in Georgia are mostly treating Trump’s efforts to overturn the results there as a sideshow.

Experts are worried that Trump is laying the groundwork for more restrictive voting access laws.

Yesterday was the deadline to register to vote in the Georgia runoffs.

Mike Pompeo is heading to Georgia (not the country.)

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel says Peter Navarro should be penalized for Hatch Act violations.