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The Morning Dispatch: Biden Meets the Press
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The Morning Dispatch: Biden Meets the Press

Plus: Tech CEOs get another Capitol Hill grilling, and Sen. Chris Coons reports on the conflict in Tigray.

Happy Friday! 68 years ago today, Dr. Jonas Salk announced the success of his groundbreaking polio vaccine. We hope the authors of TMD in 2089 look back on today’s COVID-19 vaccine heroes with the same amount of gratitude.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • President Biden held his first press conference since taking office yesterday, answering about an hour’s worth of questions from reporters on topics ranging from immigration, to filibuster reform, to foreign policy.

  • At least five people in Alabama are dead following a series of tornadoes that whipped across the state. The storms have left more than 45,000 homes without power, and could affect residents in South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee as well.

  • A report from Arnold Ventures found the murder rate in a sample of 34 U.S. cities jumped nearly 30 percent from 2019 to 2020, the largest year-over-year increase on record. The country is still ahead of previous highs, though: Last year’s homicide rate in the sample cities was 11.4 deaths per 100,000 residents. In 1995 in those same cities, it was 19.4.

  • Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp last night signed into law the “Election Integrity Act of 2021,” an omnibus election reform bill that expands in-person early voting, implements a government-issued ID requirement to apply for an absentee ballot, moves up the deadline to apply for an absentee ballot, and limits counties to one ballot drop box per 100,000 residents, among other provisions. It also restructures the state’s board of elections to reduce the secretary of state’s power, and grants the board authority to intervene in election administration on a county level.

  • The Washington state Senate voted this week to automatically restore voting rights to those released from prison, including those on parole or probation. Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to sign the bill into law.

  • Initial jobless claims decreased by 97,000 week-over-week to 684,000 last week, the Labor Department reported on Thursday. About 18.9 million people were on some form of unemployment insurance during the week ending March 6, compared with 2 million people during the comparable week in 2020.

  • The United States confirmed 68,920 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 5.8 percent of the 1,191,457 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 1,259 deaths were attributed to the virus on Thursday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 546,504. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 32,704 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, and 2,831,442 COVID-19 vaccine doses were administered yesterday. 87,343,622 Americans have now received at least one dose.

Biden Holds First Official Presser

Although President Biden has interacted with plenty of reporters since taking office—on Air Force One, walking to and from events, at signing ceremonies in the Oval Office, etc.—he had yet to hold an official press conference as president. That changed Thursday, when Biden faced an hour of questions—on the border crisis, national security, his working relationship with GOP lawmakers, and more—from roughly 30 reporters in the White House’s East Room.

The president did his fair share of dodging and demurring over the course of the afternoon, but he made a fair amount of news as well. Off the bat, he doubled his administration’s initial, meager goal of 100 million COVID-19 doses in 100 days to 200 million by the end of April. (As before, this was in truth less a “goal” than a statement of current trends—getting to 200 million doses by the end of April will require about 2.3 million shots per day, below the 2.5 million per day pace we’ve seen over the last few weeks.) He also said he expects to run for reelection in 2024 with Vice President Kamala Harris by his side. The rest of the presser was entirely devoid of pandemic talk, and focused more on policy than politics.

Reporters homed in on the legislative filibuster early. Though he did not explicitly call for its abolition, Biden said the Senate rule is being “abused in a gigantic way,” and that he prefers a return to the talking filibuster, where senators are required to remain on the floor as they object to legislation. He ducked a question specifically asking whether he wanted the Senate to reduce the current 60-vote threshold to break a filibuster to 51. But prompted by a reporter, Biden, long a fierce defender of the filibuster, agreed that the legislative tool is a “relic of the Jim Crow era.”

“If there’s complete lockdown and chaos as a consequence of the filibuster,” he said, “then we’ll have to go beyond what I’m talking about.”

On the U.S.-Mexico border crisis, Biden tried to separate the current surge of migrants from his own campaign promises and his administration’s policies, and blamed the country’s  lack of preparedness on his predecessor. “The reason they’re coming is that it’s the time they can travel with the least likelihood of dying on the way because of the heat in the desert, number one. Number two, they’re coming because of the circumstances in-country,” he said. “We’re building back up the capacity that should have been maintained and built upon that Trump dismantled. It’s going to take time.”

Biden also maintained that the “vast” and “overwhelming majority” of migrants crossing the border are being sent back—which is misleading, if not outright false. In February, according to CNN’s analysis of U.S. Customs and Border Protection data, approximately 72 percent of migrants arriving at the border were removed from the country under Title 42. But by the week ending March 17, that number had fallen to just 53 percent. Looking specifically at migrant families, just 13 percent were turned away between March 14 and March 21, according to Axios.

Asked if he’d spoken with Republicans in Congress about broader immigration reform, Biden laughed and said no. “They have to posture for a while,” he mused. “They have to get it out of their system.”

The comment—his final of the afternoon—was just one of many digs he took at both GOP lawmakers and his predecessor. Asked whether he thinks he will be running against Donald Trump in 2024, he chuckled. “Oh, come on,” he said. “I have no idea. I have no idea if there will be a Republican Party.” In one of the more heated moments of the press conference, Biden tore into Republican state legislatures for passing voting laws that make “Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle.”

When a reporter pressed him on Sen. Mitch McConnell’s comments claiming Biden had rejected bipartisanship, the president simply said he and “Mitch” know each other well and that he’d “expect” the Kentucky Republican to “say exactly what he said.”

“I would like elected Republican support, but what I know I have now is that I have electoral support from Republican voters. Republican voters agree with what I’m doing,” he added. “My Republican colleagues are going to have to determine whether or not we want to work together, or they’ve decided that the way in which they want to proceed is to just divide the country, continue the politics of division.”

Biden made news by saying that it’s “going to be hard to meet the May 1 deadline” that Trump set last year to bring home the remaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but added that Secretary of State Antony Blinken is meeting with NATO allies to discuss the matter. “We will leave. The question is when we will leave,” he said, adding that he “can’t picture” there still being U.S. troops there in 2022.

Biden also warned North Korea against escalating their ballistic missile tests, and painted the biggest clashes on the world stage as being between democracy and autocracy. Recounting his years-long relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Biden described him as “very straightforward.”

“Doesn’t have a democratic—with a small “D”—bone in his body,” he continued. “But he’s a smart, smart guy. He’s one of the guys, like Putin, who thinks that autocracy is the wave of the future and democracy can’t function in an ever-complex world.”

Biden said he told Xi in their February phone call that “as long as [the Chinese government] continues to so blatantly violate human rights, we’re going to continue, in an unrelenting way, to call to the attention of the world and make it clear what’s happening.”

Big Tech Under the Microscope Once Again

On the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue—at the same time as Biden’s presser—members of Congress were engaged in one of their favorite activities: Yelling at the CEOs of large technology companies.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, and Google’s Sundar Pichai have spent a lot of time before congressional committees in recent years, but there’s been little to no movement on actual legislative remedies to the litany of problems with these companies that lawmakers allege. Thursday’s Big Tech hearing—the first since the January 6 attack on the Capitol—indicated that may be changing, and soon.

“You have failed to meaningfully change after your platforms played a role in fomenting insurrection, in abetting the spread of COVID-19, and trampling Americans’ civil rights,” said Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “Your business model itself has become the problem, and the time for self-regulation is over. It is time we legislate to hold you accountable.”

Both sides of the aisle believe something must be done to take on Big Tech. But—as has become tradition in these hearings—their ideas of “something” are often not only different, but completely incompatible.

Republican critiques yesterday predictably focused on concerns surrounding “censorship” of conservative viewpoints on the tech companies’ platforms. “I’m deeply concerned by your decisions to operate your companies in a vague and biased manner with little to no accountability while using Section 230 as a shield for your actions and their real-world consequences,” said GOP Rep. Bob Latta, ranking member of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. “Your companies have the power to silence the president of the United States, shut off legitimate journalism in Australia, shut down legitimate scientific debate on a variety of issues, dictate which articles or websites are seen by Americans when they search the internet.” 

Later in the hearing, Dorsey admitted to Rep. Steve Scalise that Twitter made a “mistake” when it blocked users from sharing a New York Post story about Hunter Biden for 24 hours last October.

Democrats, meanwhile, expressed frustration that the companies weren’t doing enough content moderation (or “censorship”). Rep. Mike Doyle—chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology—listed QAnon, Holocaust denial, anti-vaxx sentiment, and election conspiracies as examples of harmful messages allowed to spread unchecked on these platforms. “You can take down this content, you can reduce division, you can fix this. But you choose not to,” he said. 

The CEOs pushed back on Doyle’s assertions, highlighting all their companies have done in recent years to crack down on misinformation. Zuckerberg pointed to Facebook’s third-party fact-checking program, its banning of hundreds of militia and conspiracy networks including QAnon, and its labeling of false or misleading election information. “This system isn’t perfect,” he acknowledged, “but it’s the best approach we’ve found to address misinformation in line with our country’s values. It’s not possible to catch every piece of harmful content without infringing on people’s freedoms in a way that I don’t think we’d be comfortable with as a society.”

 (The Dispatch is a participant in Facebook’s fact-checking program.)

“If we woke up tomorrow and decided to stop moderating content,” Dorsey said, “we’d end up with a service very few people or advertisers would want to use. Ultimately, we’re running a business, and a business wants to grow the number of customers it serves.”

That last point represented one of the few areas of agreement between Democrats and Republicans yesterday. “Time after time, you are picking engagement and profit over the health and safety of your users, our nation, and our democracy,” Doyle said. GOP Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers narrowed the focus of the conversation to children. “Your platforms are my biggest fear as a parent,” she said, referencing concerns about social media use leading kids to depression, self-harm, and harmful relationships.

“I have two daughters and a son with a disability,” she added. “I do not want their self-worth defined by the engagement tools you’ve built to own their attention. … I do not want their emotions and vulnerabilities taken advantage of so you can make more money and have more power.”

The CEOs seem to have come around to the idea that some sort of regulation is inevitable, and brought their own proposals with them. Zuckerberg, for example, suggested tweaking Section 230’s liability protections for online platforms to require companies have “adequate systems in place to address unlawful content.” Dorsey said the “most impactful” thing Congress could do is mandate transparency and choice around companies’ various algorithms.

But these companies are not submitting to more oversight out of the goodness of their own hearts. In many ways, they see the possibility of more onerous federal regulation as a blessing. For one, it would absolve them of their own responsibility to come up with solutions to these issues, which have made large swathes of their user bases increasingly angry with them. Regulation could also serve to freeze the companies into their current dominant market positions, making it more difficult for up-and-coming platforms without existing infrastructure to scale up. 

Readout on Sen. Coons’ Trip to Ethiopia

Delaware Sen. Chris Coons returned home from his trip to Addis Ababa this week following a “constructive” two-day deliberation with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and other senior government leaders. Filling a role typically reserved for State Department officials, Coons—a close friend of President Biden—reported that he impressed upon Abiy the gravity of the ongoing humanitarian crisis and alleged human rights violations unfolding in the northern state of Tigray.

“Engagement” was the theme of the press readout, as Coons doubled down on the Biden administration’s promise to reprioritize the African continent through proactive diplomacy and humanitarian aid. But the on-the-ground impact of this rhetoric remains to be seen, as 2021’s deadliest conflict rages on.

Coons told reporters that while Abiy vowed to hold perpetrators of mass civilian violence accountable, the prime minister—and 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner—refused to commit to a ceasefire. Abiy also rejected the U.S.’ categorization of the war as an ethnic conflict.

As we wrote to you on Wednesday, the conflict in Tigray has attracted global attention for precisely the reason Abiy denies: That the Ethiopian government’s military offensive may be the outgrowth of a broader campaign of ethnic cleansing, or even genocide. Tactics such as widespread sexual violence, systematic executions, and the destruction of vital infrastructure all target the region’s civilian population—not Abiy’s stated target of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).  

“I did repeatedly raise concerns that, in Western Tigray in particular, forced relocations of Tigrayan farmers and the emptying out of whole towns raised the specter of forcible relocations,” Coons said. “That is something that has raised alarms not just in Washington, but around the world, in terms of the possibility of an ethnic conflict akin to what happened when Yugoslavia broke apart into a series of countries—and was accompanied by years of ethnic conflict—which ultimately produced both ethnic cleansing and genocide.”

Coons also highlighted Abiy’s speech to Ethiopia’s parliament earlier this week, in which the prime minister publicly acknowledged the presence of Eritrean forces in Tigray for the first time. The “Eritrean people and government did a lasting favor to our soldiers” during their intervention, Abiy said. “However, after the Eritrean army crossed the border and was operating in Ethiopia, any damage it did to our people was unacceptable. … The military campaign was against our clearly targeted enemies, not against the people.”

Disputes between the TPLF and Eritrea date back more than 20 years. While the 2018 peace pact between Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki settled their conflict at the state level, its provisions did not actively include the Tigrayans, and it is sometimes understood to be between the two leaders rather than the two countries.

“Senator Coons’ trip was productive—it is new and noteworthy that PM Abiy acknowledged both the presence of Eritrean forces and the alleged abuses, however indirectly. But a U.S. response focused on humanitarian aid alone is insufficient and could even prolong the conflict if the response does not include efforts to end the conflict as well as provide longer-term support for governance-building in Ethiopia,” Emily Estelle, of the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project, told The Dispatch

Worth Your Time

  • While setting personal goals can lead to increased happiness, making those goals too lofty may have the opposite effect. Rather than “shooting for the moon,” Arthur Brooks argues in his latest Atlantic column, taking a more balanced, measured approach will lead to greater success. “Dream of the person you want to be—not of how rich or powerful or famous that future self is, but about the life you will lead and work you will do to serve and enrich others maximally, leaving behind a world that is better than you found it.”

  • Just when you thought the Suez Canal fiasco was unsolvable, America’s youth have swept in to solve the problem. Dan Kois over at Slate asked a range of kids—aged four to 15—how they would get the vessel unstuck. Theo, 6, thinks they should just “get giant oars and row it.” Nina, 8, has an even simpler solution: “They should move the sand.”

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Thomas Joscelyn’s  latest Vital Interests (🔒) warns of the growing partnership between China and Russia. The United States “should focus on protecting already existing democracies from the combined CCP-Kremlin threat,” he writes. “However, that doesn’t mean the Biden administration should back away from its criticisms, which are necessary to draw a sharp comparison between the American-led West and the world Moscow and Beijing want to create.”

  • David’s Thursday French Press (🔒) breaks down the potential Second Amendment clash coming to the Supreme Court, and how most gun control measures currently in place exist outside of judicial review. “The Supreme Court has not opined on a host of relevant firearms restrictions,” he writes. “There are no decisions about assault weapons bans or bans on high-capacity magazines. There are no decisions on the right to carry a weapon outside the home. Thus, the vast, vast majority of gun regulations in your state exist outside of Supreme Court oversight (so far) and are matters of state law or lower-court rulings.”

  • On Thursday’s episode of Advisory Opinions, Sarah and David provide an update on the goings on at the Supreme Court, including an in-depth look at a union takings case in California. Plus: A Second Amendment case, Twitter’s lawsuit against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a conversation about D.C. statehood, and more!

  • David graciously guest-hosted The Remnant yesterday. He was joined by Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, for a conversation about some of the silliest and most sinister examples of censorship on college campuses in recent memory.

Let Us Know

What do you think of the questions President Biden was asked at the press conference yesterday? What would you have added? The Dispatch was recently approved for a White House press credential, so we hope to be there for the next one!

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Haley Byrd Wilt (@byrdinator), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).