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The Morning Dispatch: A Trump-GOP Temperature Check
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The Morning Dispatch: A Trump-GOP Temperature Check

Plus: President Biden's Tuesday address to the United Nations.

Happy Wednesday! If you’re still a little groggy this morning, check out this video of White House staffers repeatedly shouting “Thank you!” over reporters trying to ask President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson questions at the White House yesterday. We promise it’ll wake you right up.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Johnson & Johnson released the results of a Phase 3 study on Tuesday showing that a single dose of its COVID-19 vaccine remained 79 percent effective against infection and 81 percent effective against hospitalization—even as the Delta variant became the dominant strain in the United States. The data also showed that a booster dose—given 56 days after the initial one—increased effectiveness against symptomatic illness to 94 percent in the United States and effectiveness against severe COVID-19 to 100 percent. J&J said it plans to submit the data to public health regulators for consideration.

  • The House voted along party lines last night to advance legislation that would fund the federal government through December 2021 and suspend the debt ceiling through December 2022. The package is likely doomed in the Senate, where it needs 60 votes to get to President Biden’s desk and Republicans have made clear they will not support it. Sens. Mitch McConnell and Richard Shelby introduced a competing short-term government funding bill Tuesday night that did not include a suspension of the debt limit.

  • The European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday that Russia was responsible for the fatal 2006 poisoning of former KGB officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, who fled Russia after being fired from the country’s security service and was granted asylum in the United Kingdom.

  • Sudanese officials said they foiled an attempted coup on Tuesday undertaken by adherents to Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the longtime dictator who was ousted in 2019. “This is an extension of the attempts by remnants since the fall of the former regime to abort the civilian democratic transition,” Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok said.

  • The Treasury Department on Tuesday announced sanctions against cryptocurrency exchange SUEX “for its part in facilitating financial transactions for ransomware actors.” It is the first instance of the United States levying sanctions against a virtual currency platform.

A Trump-GOP Temperature Check

Have you ever seen that old German optical illusion featuring a strategically drawn animal? Of any two people who take a look at the sketch, and one might come away sure it’s a duck and the other certain it’s a rabbit—and they’d both be right.

A similar dynamic is currently playing out in Washington with respect to former President Donald Trump and his future in the Republican Party. Everyone is looking at the same political landscape, but depending on which details are emphasized, Trump is either a has-been rapidly losing his grip on power or a lock to be the 2024 GOP nominee.

On the one hand, Trump lost in 2020, and—after trying and failing to carry out a political coup—his net approval rating tanked to the lowest level of his presidency. A record 10 members of his own party voted to impeach him in the House, and an unprecedented seven Republican senators opted to convict him in the Senate. Even those who didn’t—like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—were scrambling to put as much distance between themselves and the standard bearer of their party as possible.

In the months since, Trump’s ability to dominate the news cycle has all but vanished alongside his social media accounts, and he’s relying on increasingly desperate ploys—like providing commentary alongside a $49.99 pay-per-view boxing match on September 11—to garner attention. Republicans are increasingly willing to buck him—19 GOP senators voted in favor of a $550 billion infrastructure package Trump decried as “weak, foolish, and dumb”—and even his strongest allies aren’t echoing his renewed calls to replace McConnell as minority leader in the Senate. Trump’s hand-picked candidate lost to another Republican in the TX-6 special election a few months ago, and current elected officials have emerged as more effective leaders in opposing the Biden administration. His presence certainly isn’t deterring would-be 2024 candidates—including Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, Tom Cotton, Mike Pompeo, and Ron DeSantis—from beginning to lay the necessary groundwork for a campaign.

But there’s also plenty of evidence the former president remains as formidable as ever. Sixty-eight percent of GOP and lean-GOP voters told Republican pollster Echelon Insights in August they would “definitely” or “probably” vote for Donald Trump in the 2024 primary, compared to just 25 percent looking for a different candidate—and that split has grown in the months since January 6. After a brief hiatus, more Republican voters once again consider themselves primarily a supporter of Donald Trump than the Republican Party.

The 45th president has made it his mission since leaving the White House to exact revenge against the GOP officials who most vociferously called out his election lies—and he’s been fairly successful thus far. House Republicans voted to boot Rep. Liz Cheney out of her conference leadership position back in May, and public polling shows she faces an uphill battle just to hold onto her seat next fall. Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, just 37 years old, bowed out entirely last week, announcing he would not run for reelection next year against his Trump-endorsed primary challenger. “You can fight your butt off and win this thing, but are you really going to be happy?” he told the New York Times. “Politically the environment is so toxic, especially in our own party right now.” Trump has already endorsed primary challengers to Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, Rep. Fred Upton, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski as well. 

Even out of office, Trump can still draw massive crowds, and various Republican campaign committees rarely send a fundraising appeal to voters that doesn’t include either his name or face. Up-and-coming candidates in races around the country are tripping over themselves—often hilariously—to earn his endorsement, and his various political committees have more than $100 million on hand if he chooses to mount another White House bid.

Although he is publicly playing coy, all signs point toward Trump doing exactly that. Jason Miller—a longtime Trump aide who left over the summer to launch a new social network—told Cheddar News a few weeks ago that the likelihood of his old boss running in 2024 is “somewhere between 99 and 100 percent.” Rep. Jim Jordan—arguably Trump’s closest ally in Congress—expressed even more confidence in a video shot by an undercover Democratic activist. “President Trump, he’s gonna run again,” he said. “I know so. Yeah, I talked to him yesterday.”

And it’s not just talk. Trump’s Save America PAC hired two veteran Iowa operatives last month, and he recently announced an October 9 rally at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines.

“Coming to Iowa is not subtle,” said David Kochel, a veteran GOP strategist in the state. “I do think he’s running—at least he’s doing everything to indicate that he’s running.”

Trump’s jumping into the race would assuredly winnow the 2024 primary field, but it wouldn’t eliminate it entirely. Staunch Trump critics like Cheney, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, or Gov. Larry Hogan are unlikely to be dissuaded from potential runs by the former president’s presence, and multiple GOP sources tell The Dispatch they believe Cotton, Pompeo, and even Pence would still throw their hat in the ring if they decided there is a path to victory.

If Trump does give it another go, he’ll likely wait until after the midterm elections to make a formal announcement—but other prospective candidates can’t just sit around frozen in amber until he makes up his mind. “They can still come to Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina, or go on Fox, and road test the message,” said Kochel, who worked for Jeb Bush in 2016 and several congressional and gubernatorial candidates in 2020. “There’s a lot they can do without directly challenging Trump, and they’re going to do it. … They’re all going to continue to kind of run around and be involved in midterm campaigns that they can get involved in and raise money.”

But it will be a delicate balancing act. “There will definitely be an Eye of Sauron quality to Trump, where he’s watching around the landscape for all these other folks running around,” Kochel added. “They’re not going to be mentioning [Trump] I don’t think, because you don’t want to draw his attention.”

Biden Addresses United Nations General Assembly

The 76th United Nations General Assembly came at an awkward time for President Biden. Between last month’s fall of Kabul—and the ensuing international uproar it provoked—and a recent falling out with our French allies over the U.S.’s nuclear-powered submarine deal with Australia (AUKUS), there was no shortage of global tensions for him to address. 

But in step with the administration’s recent foreign policy posturing, the president delivered another speech seemingly detached from the gravity of its context. Drawing on standard platitudes of multilateralism and diplomacy, Biden focused on areas of greater international consensus—climate change, technological development, humanitarian aid, and the COVID-19 pandemic—while giving little to no air time to the crisis in Afghanistan, AUKUS, or America’s strategic competition with Beijing. When he did address them, he was on the defensive. 

“Instead of continuing to fight the wars of the past,” Biden said, alluding to the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, “we are fixing our eyes on devoting our resources to the challenges that hold the keys to our collective future: ending this pandemic; addressing the climate crisis; managing the shifts in global power dynamics; shaping the rules of the world on vital issues like trade, cyber, and emerging technologies; and facing the threat of terrorism as it stands today.”

“The world today is not the world of 2001 … and the United States is not the same country we were when we were attacked on 9/11, 20 years ago. Today, we’re better equipped to detect and prevent terrorist threats, and we are more resilient in our ability to repel them and to respond,” Biden added, just days after the Pentagon acknowledged an August drone strike killed 10 civilians—and no terrorists—in Kabul. “We know how to build effective partnerships to dismantle terrorist networks by targeting their financing and support systems, countering their propaganda, preventing their travel, as well as disrupting imminent attacks.” 

The Taliban now wants a seat at the table, and has requested to send its spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, to New York as a representative to the high-profile gathering. 

In all, Biden focused on “recommitment”—to NATO, the Human Rights Council, and the Paris Climate Agreement—and “reengagement”—with ASEAN, the World Health Organization, and the African Union—after four years of the Trump administration’s de-emphasizing  international ties. But Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, speaking from Tehran, focused his allotted time on drawing comparisons between the current and previous U.S. presidents.

“Today, the world doesn’t care about ‘America First’ or ‘America is Back,’” Raisi said. “Over the past decade, the U.S. has been making the mistake of modifying its ‘way of war’ with the world instead of changing its ‘way of life.’ An erroneous path cannot be brought to fruition by merely adopting a different method.”

The hurried evacuation of Kabul and the January 6 Capitol riots, the newly inaugurated Iranian president argued, sent “one clear message” to the international community: “The U.S.’s hegemonic system has no credibility, whether inside or outside the country.”

“Raisi’s speech is further proof that America’s adversaries are watching, waiting, and calibrating their talking points and attacks based on domestic differences and discord present in American politics at home today to advance their policies abroad,” Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies focusing on Iran, told The Dispatch.

Iranians from across the diaspora gathered in cities to protest ahead of Raisi’s appearance, voicing their opposition to the international community’s move to legitimize his orchestrated election and record of human rights abuses. “Prosecute Raisi now now now!” demonstrators chanted, holding up pictures of the victims of his political violence.  

Negotiations to revive the Obama-era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal, stalled this summer following Raisi’s election—and the new president spared no time in blaming the Biden administration for the U.S.’ unwillingness to return to compliance. 

“Today, the whole world including the Americans themselves have admitted that the project of countering the Iranian people, which manifested itself in the form of violating the JCPOA and was followed by the ‘maximum pressure’ and arbitrary withdrawal from an internationally recognized agreement, has totally failed,” he said. “However, the policy of ‘maximum oppression’ is still on.”

Biden, meanwhile, expressed his willingness to revive the deal if Tehran adheres to its guidelines and cooperates with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

“Both Biden and Raisi put the onus on each other in their speeches to take the first step towards JCPOA compliance. This indicates that despite the first few months of direct concessions to Iran and lingering market effects of maximum pressure, very little has changed in practical terms from the stalemate this summer,” Taleblu said. “Raisi aimed to signal that the regime feels sufficiently confident and is in no rush to restore JCPOA compliance. After all, Iran’s ultra-hardline elite believe they have survived peak maximum pressure, and don’t think the Biden team will resort to such pressure anytime soon.”

Worth Your Time

  • In The Atlantic yesterday, science reporter Katherine Wu argues we should think about post-vaccination COVID-19 as an entirely different—and less worrisome—disease than the one that shut down the world last year. “The measles virus is ultra-infectious, much more so than SARS-CoV-2, and kills many of the uninoculated children it afflicts,” she writes. “But for those who have gotten all their shots, it’s a less formidable foe, which we’ve learned to live with long-term. That’s the direction that many experts hope we’re headed in with SARS-CoV-2 as it becomes endemic. … On average, breakthrough infections seem to be briefer, milder, and less contagious. Among the fully immunized, catching the coronavirus doesn’t mean the same thing it did last year.”

  • We’ve written a lot about GOP state legislatures’ efforts to undo pandemic-era voting expansions and add new restrictions to boot, but some Republicans are now wondering if the clampdown on absentee ballots—undertaken primarily to appease their own voters’ Trump-inspired concerns about election fraud—will backfire on their own party. “In Texas, one Republican state legislator wrote a newspaper column where he openly wondered why the legislators were ‘trying to make it harder for Republican voters to vote?’ Dante Chinni reports for the Wall Street Journal. “In Iowa, a Republican election commissioner from rural Adams County asked the same thing at a hearing on new voter rules in that state. And in Florida, one former Republican campaign operative worried that the new laws could rile voters of color and turn them out in greater numbers.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • For more on Trump’s reemergence, check out this week’s Sweep. “GOP leaders in Washington thought they had reached an understanding with Trump in the wake of 2020,” Sarah writes. “Sure, Rep. Liz Cheney, the former No. 3 in the House GOP, who lost her leadership position within the party for continuing to insist that Trump had lost the 2020 election, had to go. But for those willing to keep their mouths shut, they believed, Trumpism was still subordinate to Republicanism. Perhaps not.”

  • It’s an incredibly busy time in Congress, and yesterday’s Uphill has all you need to know. “For the first time since July, both chambers of Congress are back in session, and there is plenty on the to-do list,” Harvest and Ryan write, “including a bill to keep the government funded and suspend the debt ceiling, while Democrats seek to advance President Joe Biden’s sweeping $3.5 trillion infrastructure and social investments package and finalize a $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill that focuses on traditional items like roads, bridges, and airports.”

  • Chris Stirewalt returned to The Remnant on Tuesday for punditry so intense it could rival the summer heat of New Orleans. He and Jonah discuss the intersection of Christianity and politics, the Republican Party’s embrace of working-class men, and the return of radical chic.

  • David’s in a bit of a predicament. “There are reasons why Joe Biden’s approval rating is dropping to Trump-like levels,” he writes in his latest French Press (🔒), citing the U.S.’ Afghanistan withdrawal, more-than-transitory inflation, chaotic border situation, and continued coronavirus struggles. But the Republican Party—which should serve as an electoral check on Biden in 2022—is not ready to govern. “Are House Republicans led by serious adults or by Trumpist vassals, beholden both to an utterly unfit former president and to his increasingly radicalized base?” he asks. “And won’t their victory do nothing but embolden Trump and energize that base?”  

Let Us Know

Do you believe Trump will be the Republican nominee in 2024?

And more importantly, do you think that German sketch looks more like a rabbit or a duck?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@lawsonreports), Audrey Fahlberg (@AudreyFahlberg), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), Harvest Prude (@HarvestPrude), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).