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Spy Station Complicates Blinken’s Beijing Visit
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Spy Station Complicates Blinken’s Beijing Visit

Plus: The Supreme Court rules against Alabama’s congressional district map.

Happy Tuesday! We’ve all wished for a low-stakes medical excuse—a root canal, perhaps—to get us out of a work meeting, and President Joe Biden is living our dreams.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Denver Nuggets defeated the Miami Heat Monday night to win their first-ever NBA championship after 56 years of play and 38 playoff appearances. Center Nikola Jokić and point guard Jamal Murray led the team to a 94-89 victory in Game 5 after winning three other games by double digits. “The job is done, we can go home now,” Jokić said.
  • The Federal Trade Commission asked a federal court Monday to block Microsoft’s $75 billion acquisition of Activision Blizzard. The deal has attracted transatlantic antitrust attention—the European Union approved the deal, while the United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority ruled against it—over concerns Microsoft will use control of dominant Activision games like Call of Duty to elbow out cloud-gaming rivals. 
  • Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa alleged in a Senate floor speech yesterday that an FBI FD-1023 form—used to record unverified tips, in this case an informant’s report of allegations that then-Vice President Joe Biden was involved in a $5 million bribery scheme with a Ukrainian executive—included an assertion that the Ukrainian executive had 15 recordings of phone calls with Hunter Biden and two with Joe Biden. “The 1023 also indicates that then-Vice President Joe Biden may have been involved in Burisma [energy company] employing Hunter Biden,” Grassley said, claiming the FBI redacted this information from the file it showed House lawmakers but that he had seen an unredacted version.
  • Ukraine has gained ground in its counteroffensive, President Volodymyr Zelensky said Monday, recapturing seven villages in the southeast of the country. Russian-backed local officials in Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia reported fierce fighting along the border of those regions, with Ukrainian troops holding their gains. Ukrainian officials accused Russian forces of blowing up a small dam on the Mokri Yaly River to slow Ukrainian counteroffensive progress. At least 10 people have reportedly died in flooding from the recent destruction of the Kakhovka Dam, and 35 are still missing.
  • Israel is planning to announce the construction of at least 4,000 new housing units in West Bank settlements later this month, Axios first reported, and has reportedly informed the Biden administration of its intentions. Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indefinitely postponed a Monday meeting that would have advanced a settlement expansion plan opposed by the United States. White House National Security Spokesperson John Kirby reiterated U.S. concern over additional settlements on Monday.
  • Silvio Berlusconi—billionaire real estate and media mogul and former Italian prime minister—died yesterday at 86 after struggling with chronic leukemia. Berlusconi led Italy for a total of nine years between 1994 and 2011 and became notorious for scandals including sex parties at his villas, alleged corruption, and suspected ties to the mafia. But Berlusconi and his Forza Italia party remained a powerful force in Italian politics, and he died a sitting senator in parliament.
  • The Commerce Department on Monday added 43 entities to an export control list for threatening national security. Listed businesses included Frontier Services Group, accused of training Chinese military pilots, and the Test Flying Academy of South Africa, accused of recruiting British ex-military pilots to train Chinese pilots. Additions to the entity list—which restricts listed businesses’ access to U.S. exports—also included companies the United States says have helped China’s military modernization efforts and hypersonic weapons development. 

Mr. Blinken Goes to Beijing—Maybe

Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies before the Senate. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies before the Senate. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The news cycle sometimes gets the best of all of us. Just as word leaked out last week that Secretary of State Antony Blinken will likely make a long-delayed visit to Beijing next week, the Wall Street Journal reported China and Cuba had struck a deal to install a Chinese surveillance post on the island, less than 100 miles off Florida’s coast.

The Biden administration quickly denied the report—clarifying that, actually, China has had a Cuban listening post for years—but that hasn’t stopped the foreign policy establishment from wondering whether the revelation would scuttle Blinken’s reported travel plans. It wouldn’t be the first time in recent memory: Blinken canceled a February trip after the United States shot down a Chinese spy balloon the size of three school buses. Despite the White House’s best efforts to engineer a U.S.-China thaw, relations have remained chilly, and the administration appears reluctant to cancel Blinken’s trip over the listening post news or China’s recent provocative military maneuvers.

Blinken is reportedly headed to Beijing at the end of his current swing through the Middle East, arriving in the Chinese capital on Sunday (sorry you’re going to miss Father’s Day, Tony). He’ll almost certainly meet with his counterpart, Politburo member Wang Yi*, and possibly also President Xi Jinping.

The State Department has yet to confirm Blinken’s travel plans—perhaps sensitive to the optics if the plan changes yet again. But if he goes, he wouldn’t be the only high-ranking U.S. official recently traipsing to China to try for a thaw. CIA Director William Burns made the Beijing rounds in May to emphasize “the importance of maintaining open lines of communications in intelligence channels,” a U.S. official told the Financial Times. And representatives from the State Department and National Security Council (NSC) traveled to China just last week. The purpose of their visit, according to NSC spokesman John Kirby, was “to make sure the lines of communication remain open and to talk about the potential for future visits, higher-level visits.”

But who needs to talk when you can listen? The Journal reported Thursday China would pay Cuba to set up a listening station capable of collecting electronic communications like email and phone calls across the southeastern U.S.—a region that includes a number of military installations. Kirby called the reporting on the surveillance agreement “not accurate,” without elaborating.

But the administration’s additional statements Friday suggested that a Chinese listening station in Cuba already exists, along with others across the globe. The Cuban surveillance post was updated in 2019, the White House said, making it a problem “inherited” from the Trump administration. “Our experts assess that our diplomatic efforts have slowed down this effort by [China],” Blinken said Monday. China and Cuba have both denied the existence of such an outpost on the island.

The listening post may be the most provocative, but it’s not China’s only step into the United States’ sphere of influence. Just this Sunday, Honduras opened an embassy in China after breaking off relations with Taiwan—which it had previously recognized diplomatically—in March. The move followed similar ones by El Salvador, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua. Reports of spying in Cuba underline this trend and “highlight the need to get more serious about diplomacy, foreign policy, and national security concerns in Central America, Latin America, the Caribbean,” says Michael Mazza, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Those regions have been “ignored—outside of the immigration and drug questions—for a long time,” he adds.

Americans may not be able to joke about shooting a listening station out of the sky from their backyard as they could the spy balloon, but news of a Chinese outpost so close to home has nevertheless raised bipartisan eyebrows. “We are deeply disturbed by reports that Havana and Beijing are working together to target the United States and our people,” Sens. Mark Warner and Marco Rubio, the chair and vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said last week. “We urge the Biden administration to take steps to prevent this serious threat to our national security and sovereignty.”

Rep. Mike Gallagher, the Republican Chair of the Special Committee on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), went even further than his Senate colleagues. “From the spy balloon to the spy base, it’s become clear that the administration is muting criticism of the CCP and slowing overdue defensive actions out of a misguided desire to reengage in a dialogue with Beijing,” he tells TMD. “Rather than lining up officials to go hat in hand to China, the administration should focus” on addressing technological competition and sanctioning those responsible for the Uyghur genocide, he says.

The Biden administration is likely motivated to make this visit happen to restore military-to-military communications, which China ended after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan last year. This communications breakdown increases the risk of fatal accidents, particularly considering China’s penchant for aggressive maneuvers against U.S. military vessels in the region.

A Chinese fighter jet zoomed in front of a U.S. reconnaissance plane in the international airspace of the South China Sea last month, visibly shaking the cockpit of the American aircraft in what the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command called an “unnecessarily aggressive maneuver.” Only a few days later, China repeated the stunt at sea. A U.S. Navy destroyer in the Taiwan Strait nearly collided with a Chinese warship that traversed just 150 yards off its bow, forcing the U.S. vessel to slow down to avoid a collision.

Blinken’s visit may help get the military phone line open again, but not much more. “If the ask is for senior-level, mil-to-mil talks—that’s a pretty small ask, so it’s a reasonable thing to raise,” Mazza tells TMD.

Gallagher argues the juice isn’t worth the squeeze. “These diplomatic overtures are failing in spectacular fashion,” he says. “And perhaps, to judge by recent escalatory behavior, actually emboldening CCP aggression.”

SCOTUS’ Voting Surprise

In what would have been last week’s big legal news if it weren’t for Donald Trump’s habit of stealing the spotlight, the Supreme Court delivered a surprise ruling on congressional maps in Allen v. Milligan on Thursday. SCOTUS concluded Alabama’s new congressional district maps likely violate a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 intended to prevent racial discrimination. The decision may send Alabama back to the drawing board and could reverberate across other states’ congressional maps.

Allen v. Milligan pitted three sets of plaintiffs—including some black Alabama voters and progressive voting rights activists—against Alabama’s Republican secretary of state, Wes Allen, who argued the state should be allowed to use race-neutral methods to draw new voting maps. At a time when many have argued the court has shifted to the right—and voting rights have become a political lightning rod—avid court watchers expected the justices to break in Alabama’s favor.

Like other states, Alabama redrew its congressional maps in 2021 to account for updated population data from the 2020 census. Progressive activists—including named plaintiff Evan Milligan, who heads a state group championing liberal causes—argued the new maps discriminated against the state’s black voters. Though black Alabamians make up 26 percent of the state’s population—and 50 to 80 percent of the population, depending on the county, in the state’s “Black Belt” region—they constituted a majority in only one of the state’s seven House districts. The plaintiffs said the new map divided remaining black voters among districts in a way that unfairly diluted their collective political power.

This, the plaintiffs argued, violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which bars the “denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” To demonstrate such a violation, the aggrieved group has to show “its members have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.” The Supreme Court’s 1968 decision in Thornburg v. Gingles had established a three-part test for determining whether a map satisfies Section 2, requiring consideration of how much the majority and minority racial groups vote as a bloc and the number and geographical dispersion of the minority group.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall argued that Section 2 doesn’t require a state to factor in race at all when drawing its maps, as long as the state doesn’t use race to discriminate. Alabama’s methods, Marshall argued, would fit this “race-neutral” standard: The state had used a computer algorithm to generate thousands of map options and determine the average number of “majority-minority” districts in those hypothetical maps, then drawn its map to match that average.

A lower court decided against Alabama in January 2022, giving the state two weeks to draw up a replacement map for the 2022 midterms. But before lawmakers could break out the sharpies, Alabama appealed the ruling—and the Supreme Court stayed the lower court’s decision, leaving the contested post-census map in place for the 2022 midterms. Alabamians elected six Republicans and one Democrat to the House.

Staying the lower court’s ruling suggested the high court might be poised to overturn it and update its interpretation of the VRA’s Section 2. And the Roberts court does have some history of reining in the VRA. In 2013, for instance, the court declared Section 4 unconstitutional. Section 4 had been used to determine which states and jurisdictions were required to have their electoral maps “precleared” by the Department of Justice or federal district court in D.C.—a measure intended to safeguard against racially discriminatory maps. By the time oral arguments ended in this case, voting rights activists were preparing funeral bells for Section 2.

But at the Supreme Court, it ain’t over till it’s over. Roberts—joined in the majority by Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the liberal bloc of Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson—rejected Alabama’s interpretation of Section 2. The chief justice argued it ran “headlong into our precedent” and declined to knock down the Thornburg v. Gingles test to make room for Alabama’s argument. Embracing the “race-neutral” approach, Roberts declared, would ignore Section 2’s requirement that courts consider all the circumstances when evaluating a map. “The contention that mapmakers must be entirely ‘blind’ to race has no footing” in SCOTUS precedent, Roberts wrote.

The decision displeased Justice Clarence Thomas. In his 48-page dissent—joined in part by Justices Amy Coney Barrett and Samuel Alito, and entirely by Justice Neil Gorsuch—he disagreed with Roberts’ characterization of the case’s premise. “The question presented is whether Section 2 of the Act, as amended, requires the State of Alabama to intentionally redraw its longstanding congressional districts so that black voters can control a number of seats roughly proportional to the black share of the State’s population,” he wrote. “Section 2 demands no such thing, and, if it did, the Constitution would not permit it.” Not stopping there, he also reiterated his long-held belief that Section 2 doesn’t apply to voting districts at all, but only voting processes.

The decision may affect multiple states’ district maps—and with them, the balance of power in Congress. Alabama will likely end up forced to redraw its maps, and another black or near-black majority district in the state could turn another House seat blue. In reaction to the court’s Thursday ruling, the Cook Political Report, which measures likely outcomes of House races, moved two of Alabama’s formerly bright red House districts—currently held by Reps. Barry Moore and Jerry Carl—to the “toss-up” column, pending a redraw. Meanwhile, similar VRA cases are pending in Louisiana and Georgia.

Potentially the most significant result of the ruling, says David Becker, founder and executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, was that it clarified the Supreme Court’s position, which was otherwise uncertain after a decade of rulings that put pressure on the VRA. “It’s good to know the rules, even if you don’t like them,” he says. It’s good to have some boundaries around “gamesmanship that both parties play to try to maximize their political power, especially when it comes to race.”

Worth Your Time

  • U.S. spy agencies have been quietly collecting vast quantities of American citizens’ data, raising questions about the government’s adherence to legal restrictions on domestic spying, Dell Cameron reports for Wired. “Perhaps most controversially, the report states that the government believes it can ‘persistently’ track the phones of ‘millions of Americans’ without a warrant, so long as it pays for the information,”  he writes. “Were the government to simply demand access to a device’s location instead, it would be considered a Fourth Amendment ‘search’ and would require a judge’s sign-off. But because companies are willing to sell the information—not only to the US government but to other companies as well—the government considers it ‘publicly available’ and therefore asserts that it ‘can purchase it.’ It is no secret, the report adds, that it is often trivial ‘to deanonymize and identify individuals’ from data that was packaged as ethically fine for commercial use because it had been ‘anonymized’ first.’”
  • As young Americans become more polarized by gender, they’ve also become less willing to marry across the political aisle. This trend doesn’t bode well for the institution of marriage, write Lyman Stone and Brad Wilcox in The Atlantic. “Even as the possibility of finding a mate who shares one’s politics shrinks, Americans are not budging on their preference for same-politics partners,” they write. “The sobering future for marriage and family life in America is that greater political polarization spells trouble for already anemic rates of dating, mating, and marrying.”

Presented Without Comment

The Hill: Americans are drinking as much alcohol now as in Civil War days

Also Presented Without Comment

The Detroit News: Michigan Senate votes to force public employers to give unions workers’ contact info

Toeing the Company Line

  • In the newsletters: The Dispatch Politics crew details the GOP primary field’s response to the charges against Trump now that the indictment has been unsealed, Nick puts to rest (🔒) the argument that the DOJ should drop charges against Trump if he drops out of the race, and Kevin explores (🔒) the Republican-led Ken Paxton impeachment.
  • On the podcasts: Pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson joins Steve on High Steaks (🔒) to talk indictment opinion polling, and David and Sarah discuss the Alabama voting ruling, the Jack Daniels dog case, and whether Justice Gorsuch is overcharging his friends on Venmo on the latest Advisory Opinions
  • On the site: Grayson breaks down the PGA Tour’s merger with the Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf league, and Audrey Baker reports on the fraught policy debate over gender-related medical interventions for children.

Let Us Know

After the Nuggets’ NBA Championship win, should Nikola Jokić be considered the best basketball player in the world?

Unrelatedly, would reopening military-to-military communications with China be worth a trip by the Secretary of State?

Correction, 06/13/2023: This newsletter has been updated to reflect that Wang Yi is China’s top foreign policy official.

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.