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Daines Stands By Trump, Gianforte Lifts Mask Mandate, COVID Spreads At The Captiol

Capitol Talk is MTPR's weekly legislative news and analysis program. MTPR's Sally Mauk is joined by Lee Newspapers State Bureau Chief Holly Michels and UM Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin.

Montana's two senators are expected to split their votes on impeachment. The governor has lifted the state's mandatory mask mandate, and Attorney General Austin Knudsen joins the effort to reverse a Biden administration decision to halt the Keystone pipeline.

Listen now on Capitol Talk with Sally Mauk, Rob Saldin and Holly Michels.

Sally Mauk Rob, The U.S. Senate will soon vote on whether to convict Donald Trump of inciting an insurrection. And the best guess is our two senators, Tester and Daines, will likely split their vote.

Rob Saldin Yeah, Sally, I think for sure. You know, on Tester's side, the House impeachment managers made the case for convicting the former president. They were widely praised for how they presented that case from across the political spectrum.

So I think we can be confident that nothing has changed on the Democratic side, that Tester and the rest of the Democrats and at least a handful of Republicans are going to vote to convict, though there will probably be far too few Republicans to get up to that two-thirds threshold to convict.

But as for Daines, I think it's probably unimaginable that he would vote to convict. Over the last five years, he's never once found anything to criticize Trump for, and he's given no indication that he thinks Trump did anything wrong here.

The other issue for Daines is that he and several of those other senators helped to spread Trump's big lie of the stolen election, and they tried to stop the certification of the Electoral College vote. So if Daines were to acknowledge that Trump is responsible for the attack on the Capitol, he'd also be tacitly admitting that he himself bears some responsibility for what happened.

So it looks like Daines and the others are going to continue to basically ignore the substantive charges against Trump and fall back on this procedural argument — that the trial is unconstitutional. And on its own terms, that's a poor argument, but as a political maneuver, it does give them something to say.

And then, you know, they can kind of do an 'aww, shucks' routine that, because it's unconstitutional, they really can't even get to the point of considering the substantive allegations.

Mauk Our Gov. Greg Gianforte showed up at the trial in a replay of his assault on a reporter when he first ran for Congress. And that was a surprise to see that show up during the Trump impeachment trial.

Saldin Yeah, it was. They played the tape of the assault itself, and then played some footage of Trump praising Gianforte at a rally in Missoula which I think all three of us were at. I remember it well. The crowd loved it, although I suspect Gianforte would have preferred that Trump didn't bring it up.

You know, look, that's always going to be a part of Gianforte's legacy. I suspect he's much happier in Helena than in Washington, because that was just something that was always going to be difficult to escape in D.C. In Helena, I think he can kind of put that behind him and move on.

It is one of those things that certainly reflects poorly on him, although he did eventually acknowledge his actions and apologize, maybe not as quickly as one might have hoped. And initially, he and his team suggested that Ben Jacobs — the journalist — was actually the one who was to blame for the incident.

But still, Gianforte did face up to it and did make amends, and these days, that's no small thing. And, you know, I'd also note maybe that since he's been governor, Gianforte has conducted himself with the kind of decency that we'd expect from our elected leaders and is clearly trying to move on from this.

Mauk Speaking of Gov. Gianforte, Holly, he has as of today lifted the statewide mask mandate after signing into law a bill that protects businesses, etc. from liability because of COVID. And here's what he had to say about why he's lifting the mandate.

"When it comes down to it, I trust Montanans and together we can combat this public health and economic pandemic with personal responsibility and by looking out for one another."

Mauk But Holly, the mandate was put in place because many Montanans were not showing personal responsibility and not wearing masks, and that's why we had the mandate in the first place.

Holly Michels Yeah, the first mandate Montana had requiring masks statewide in counties with four or more positive cases went into place in July off 2020 because, like you said, we saw case growth rising in Montana.

Why Gianforte is saying he can lift the mask mandate now is he's citing improving rates. We have fewer daily cases we're adding, hospitalization rates and death rates are also down.

We also asked about specific metrics that led to Gianforte lifting the mandate, and one of the things he said is that the state has started the process of vaccinating its most vulnerable. And specifically what he said is that there have been initial clinics at all of the nursing homes and assisted living centers in the state, to give residents and employees their first dose of a two-shot vaccine.

Gianforte, like we heard, he said he wants to incentivize good behavior, and that's why in that same press conference he signed this bill that's a liability shield that aims to protect businesses, churches, nonprofits and other places over exposure if people are exposed to the virus there.

Democrats contend that that bill isn't sufficient enough to protect workers, but it's news that's been praised by business groups around the state. But not everybody's happy with Gianforte's decision.

I talked to Matt Kelley, who's the public health officer in Gallatin County, and he pointed out that Gianforte's announcement came on the same day the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention actually issued guidance saying people should be doubling up on masks for more protection for these more-contagious strains of the virus we're seeing circulated.

Kelley also pointed out tens of thousands of Montanans across the state who are vulnerable because of age or health conditions still can't get vaccinated. And Kelly is in one of the counties in Montana that does have a mask mandate that will continue because local governments, school districts can still put in their own more-restrictive measures.

Mauk In fact, they are doing that, and it makes it seem like the lifting of the mandate may be more of a symbolic gesture, Holly, since, as you just said, most, if not all of the larger counties and the school districts plan to keep the mask mandate in place.

Michels Yeah, that's something else that I asked Kelley about. And he said he did notice a big change, you know, because for a long time, Montana under the former governor really encouraged masks but didn't require them.

So he sort of said two things: One, he saw a big change in behavior when they became required, but also that if there's places that require masks and places that don't, it can create this patchwork which can cause confusion for people.

So, say I'm here in Lewis and Clark County, and Broadwater County isn't requiring masks. If somebody from there might come to Helena, go out to eat, they don't understand that there's still a mask mandate in place, that would put, you know, maybe a server at a restaurant in a position of having to talk to them about wearing a mask and that creates confrontation.

So that's something that I think a lot of places are concerned about, just with if we see patchworks of restrictions around the state.

Mauk Meanwhile, Holly, the Lewis and Clark County health director wants legislative leadership to get lawmakers to wear their masks when they're out in the community.

The City of Helena and the county of Helena have a mask mandate, but a lot of lawmakers are apparently going into some businesses and not wearing a mask. That's a problem that the Lewis and Clark County health director wants some help with.

Michels This tension existed before the session even started, when we had the health director Drenda Niemann here, and then the city and county commission, and also the mayors for Helena and East Helena actually urged lawmakers to not come to Helena at all and hold a remote session. So this has been a dynamic that's been in place.

There's also this interesting piece where in the Capitol, legislators — they have control over what happens in their chambers, which means they're not subject to the mask mandate here. So when they're going out to businesses, we're hearing reports that they're not wearing masks and that's what prompted this letter.

We saw Sen. Jason Ellsworth, who's a Hamilton Republican who heads the Legislature's COVID-19 response panel — he was expressing some frustration, saying that he didn't get names of specific lawmakers or businesses from the health officer here, but he did ask senators to respect local guidelines.

Mauk Well, the Legislature has its own COVID-19 response panel that's supposed to be sort of governing what happens within the Capitol in terms of the pandemic. But Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour complained about the panel's response. Here's what she had to say.

"And what we've gotten is stonewalled and no ability to essentially work within that system."

Mauk And she's basically saying, Holly, that the panel isn't doing its job.

Michels Yeah. Democrats on the panel — and they make up just 25% of it because it's made up of legislative leadership and Republicans hold a majority — have had a lot of frustrations about this panel.

[The panel] met twice and they've adopted these temporary rules that sort of lay out how you would respond to COVID in the panel, but Democrats argued from the start right there that being responsive to the virus and not proactive is a problem.

This week we saw the fourth [fifth as of the publication of this episode] legislator test positive for the virus. This is the first legislator who — the previous three, two of them had been wearing masks, one of them hadn't been in the Capitol at all when they tested positive — but this is someone who had been and also wasn't masked.

We also saw this week some of the first data from the contact tracer hired by the Legislature that shows they made about 25 close contacts of people who'd been in or associated with the Capitol building. So I think we might see case growth coming from that. It's something we'll monitor, but Democrats have been frustrated.

Republicans counter that there's a plan. They point to that leadership has agreed to make public when legislators test positive, but that does leave a lot of gaps where we're struggling to get information about other people who are in the building. Staff — the Legislative Services Division — is trying to provide information about testing and positives, but there's not a clear system to let people know yet.

And then there's also really not much of a way at all — other than the county contact tracing process that happened separate from the session — for all of the other people that are in the building; members of the public who come in to testify, lobbyists, the press, there's really not any mechanism set up in place to notify about those cases except contact tracing.

So there's still a lot of patchwork. You know, Republicans haven't scheduled the next meeting for that COVID panel, and they still could meet, but we haven't seen when one might be scheduled. So I think it's something that Democrats have a lot of frustration with, and I've heard some from staff as well.

Mauk The five legislators who have so far tested positive for the virus — I can't help but notice they're all Republican.

Rob, Montana's Attorney General Austin Knudsen has joined 13 other state attorneys general to protest President Biden's cancelation of a permit that is crucial to construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. Knudsen says that will hurt rural counties in Montana that could use the tax revenue from the pipeline. Here's what he said:

"You're talking about schools, police, fire departments and, with the stroke of a pen, President Biden says that's gone, sorry. Thanks for playing."

Mauk And he also says, Rob, that it kills jobs, but those jobs would mainly be temporary construction-related jobs, right?

Saldin Yeah, that is right Sally. You know, there'd be about 4,000 jobs created across four states, including Montana. And of course, there'd be some spillover effects because those people are out in the community consuming goods and services.

But right. I mean, there's a big asterisk hanging over this and that is that nearly all of those jobs would be those temporary construction jobs. So that means that once the thing's actually built in a year or two, those jobs go away. And after that, we're talking about something more like 50 jobs spread across those states.

So it's not like this pipeline is a great long-term solution for providing steady employment in some of these sparsely-populated counties in Eastern Montana.

Mauk It's worth noting, Rob, that all of Montana's congressional delegation, including Democrat Jon Tester, support the pipeline. It's not just Knudsen.

Saldin. Yeah, exactly. And, you know, I think that's always a tougher dance for the Democrats like Tester, and when Steve Bullock was governor, he was also a supporter.

But for those guys and other Democrats, they're cross-pressured on it just from a political standpoint. It pits that old kind of labor-oriented Democrat, puts that in tension with the environmental wing of the party. So that's a tough balance to strike for Democrats.

For Republicans, on the other hand, this is a great issue. They get to be seen supporting rural communities and it doesn't really cost them anything. They don't get any pushback from within the party so it's a great issue for Knudsen and Republicans.

Mauk We are out of time, Holly and Rob. Thank you, please stay warm and I'll talk to you both next week.

Saldin Thanks Sally.

Michels Thanks Sally.

Capitol Talk is MTPR's weekly legislative news and analysis program. MTPR's Sally Mauk is joined by Lee Newspapers State Bureau Chief Holly Michels and UM Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin. Tune during the legislative session Fridays at 6:44 p.m., via podcast, or listen online.

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