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The Morning Dispatch: Biden Rebukes Trump's Response to Protests and Rioting
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The Morning Dispatch: Biden Rebukes Trump’s Response to Protests and Rioting

Plus, who might replace Shinzo Abe?

Happy Tuesday! On this day 81 years ago, Germany invaded Poland, sparking the conflict that would eventually become known as World War II. A reminder that, as difficult as 2020 has been—for a whole host of reasons—humanity has overcome tremendous hardship and suffering before. Now onto the news.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The United States confirmed 33,762 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday, with 4.8 percent of the 701,198 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 534 deaths were attributed to the virus on Monday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 183,579.

  • The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 8-2 against former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s petition to have District Judge Emmet Sullivan drop his criminal case immediately, as requested by the Justice Department.

  • A day after Rep. Steve Scalise took down and removed a portion of an advertisement after it was revealed to feature doctored audio from a Democratic activist with ALS, White House staff and the Trump campaign shared two videos of Joe Biden that were manipulated, and eventually flagged by social media companies. 

  • Facebook said on Monday it would block Australian users from sharing news on its platform if the country passes a law forcing tech companies to pay publishers to distribute their content.

  • Longtime Georgetown University basketball coach John Thompson Jr.—who led the Hoyas to three Final Fours in the 1980s, including a national title in 1984—died on Sunday at the age of 78. 

Biden’s Broadside Against Trump

In the week since police shot Jacob Blake in Kenosha, the presidential campaign has been dominated by the riots, looting, and violence that has ensued. Burning buildings and shattered storefronts have served as cable news backdrops for days on end, with the violent clash between anarchists and pro-Trump activists in Portland we discussed yesterday bookending the week. President Trump—and his campaign—used the Republican National Convention to make the case that Joe Biden is aligned with this chaos and unrest. “The hard truth is you will not be safe in Joe Biden’s America,” Vice President Pence said on Wednesday

Biden worked to rebut such accusations, denouncing street violence, as he had earlier in the summer—first through a spokeswoman, then in a recorded video. On Sunday, he issued a statement condemning “violence of every kind by anyone, whether on the left or the right.” Yesterday, he traveled to a former steel factory in Pittsburgh and tried to flip the script on the incumbent.

“These are not images from some imagined ‘Joe Biden America’ in the future,” he said, referencing the unrest around the country. “These are images from Donald Trump’s America today. He keeps telling you if only he was president it wouldn’t happen. … He keeps telling us if he was president you’d feel safe. Well he is president, whether he knows it or not. And it is happening. It’s getting worse.”

Biden rejected Trump’s claims—in explicit and unequivocal terms—that he condoned the looting, rioting, and arson in American cities that has accompanied nationwide calls to fight racial injustice. “I’m going to be very clear about all of this: Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting,” he said, referencing the legacy of peaceful demonstrations by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rep. John Lewis during the civil rights era. “It’s lawlessness, plain and simple. And those who do it should be prosecuted.”

The former vice president accused Trump of exploiting urban unrest to deflect from his other domestic failings. “Donald Trump looks at this violence and sees a political lifeline,” Biden alleged, citing Kellyanne Conway’s comments on Fox News last week. “We are now on track for more than 200,000 deaths in this country due to COVID. … More cops have died from COVID this year than have been killed on patrol.”

Biden did not take any questions from reporters following his remarks.

The Trump campaign argued the former vice president’s comments Monday did not go far enough, in part because he issued a blanket condemnation rather than calling out specific groups or people by name. “He failed to condemn Antifa,” Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said in a statement. “He failed to condemn people who called the police a ‘cancer’ or people on his campaign staff who called them ‘pigs.’”

The second half of the statement landed a more substantive punch. “He failed to apologize for his campaign staff donating to a fund which bailed violent criminals out of jail in Minneapolis,” Murtaugh continued. “He failed to urge Democrat governors to call in the National Guard. He failed to urge Democrat mayors to allow the federal government to help.”

Several Biden campaign staffers publicly donated to the Minnesota Freedom Fund—which uses donations to pay bail fees in Minneapolis—back in May during the initial wave of protests and riots following the death of George Floyd. Before she joined the ticket, Sen. Kamala Harris encouraged her Twitter followers to donate to the group and “help post bail for those protesting on the ground in Minnesota.” Some of the money raised by the Minnesota Freedom Fund went toward bailing out people charged with violent crimes, according to a Fox 9 KMSP investigation. A Biden campaign spokesman told Reuters back in May the former vice president opposes cash bail as an institution, calling it a “modern day debtors prison.”

A few hours after Biden delivered his address, Trump ran into some condemnation trouble of his own, opting in a press conference not to denounce the violence of either the 17-year-old boy who was charged with killing two people in Kenosha or the pro-Trump activists in Portland who allegedly fired paintballs and pepper spray into crowds of people.

“That was an interesting situation. You saw the same tape as I saw,” Trump said of the shootings in Kenosha. “And he was trying to get away from them, I guess; it looks like. And he fell, and then they very violently attacked him. And it was something that we’re looking at right now and it’s under investigation,” he said, adding that he’d “like to see law enforcement take care of everything” rather than private citizens with guns.

“Paint is a defensive mechanism; paint is not bullets,” he said of the Portland caravan. “These people, they protested peacefully. They went in very peacefully.”

Biden responded to these comments with yet another statement. “Tonight, the president declined to rebuke violence. He wouldn’t even repudiate one of his supporters who is charged with murder because of his attacks on others,” he said. “Once again, I urge the president to join me in saying that while peaceful protest is a right—a necessity—violence is wrong, period. No matter who does it, no matter what political affiliation they have. Period. If Donald Trump can’t say that, then he is unfit to be president, and his preference for more violence—not less—is clear.”

Conventional punditry wisdom on both sides of the aisle, from Don Lemon to Andrew Sullivan, seems to have coalesced around the idea that this latest round of urban unrest benefits Trump’s re-election chances—and it very well might! But similar predictions were made in early June as protests and looting enveloped cities across the country following the death of George Floyd; Biden’s national polling lead over Trump expanded from +5.8 percentage points on the day Floyd was killed to +9.5 percentage points a month later. The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll—conducted before the Jacob Blake shooting, from August 9-12—found Trump with a +4 percentage point lead over Biden on “dealing with crime,” but Biden had a +24 percentage point lead over Trump on “dealing with race relations” and a +23 percentage point lead over Trump on “having the ability to bring the country together.”

Who Will Replace Shinzo Abe?

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his resignation last week, citing his worsening health due to bowel disease. Abe served four terms in the role—from 2006 to 2007, and from 2012 to 2020—and just last year became the longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s history. He will remain in office until September 17, around which point his successor as leader of the Liberal Democratic party will be chosen.

The party announced next month’s election will be a streamlined version of the usual selection process, with rank-and-file members and “friends of the party” excluded from the voting. The simplified process will help the government maintain continuity in its response to the COVID-19 crisis, as well as avoid a drawn out leadership struggle that could threaten the Party’s majority.

Campaigning (at least in a smoke-filled-room kind of manner) for the position has already begun. Japanese media reported Sunday that Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s chief cabinet secretary and right-hand man, is looking to replace his boss. Other contenders include Shigeru Ishiba, a former minister of defense and political rival of Abe, who has long advocated for a buildup in Japan’s military capabilities, and Fumio Kishida, an Abe ally and former minister for foreign affairs.

In an interview with The Dispatch, Scott Seaman, director for Asia at the Eurasia Group, characterized the streamlined selection process as—at least in part—a move to lock Ishiba out of the race, and added he believed Suga was in “pole position.” Seaman believes all three would represent broad policy continuity with Abe’s program of economic liberalization and foreign policy hawkishness.

Whoever it is, Abe’s successor will face serious challenges upon assuming office. Japan is currently grappling with a second wave of the coronavirus, which has driven the government’s approval ratings into the ground. The country is also experiencing its third consecutive quarter of economic contraction, which began before the pandemic hit—after Abe’s government instituted an unpopular consumption tax hike. Struggling with persistently low growth, a high level of public debt, and an aging population, Japan doesn’t “have a lot of good options,” Seaman noted. He pointed to a need for structural reforms, including labor market liberalization. 

“What was unique about Abe,” Hoover Institute policy analyst and Japan historian Michael Auslin told The Dispatch, “was that he actually sold an economic package to the country”—colloquially known as “Abenomics.” The more conventional and subdued politicians jockeying to succeed Abe may backtrack from Abe’s boldness and protect powerful interests like the Japanese agricultural lobby.

Auslin also pointed to potential foreign policy differences between Abe and his eventual replacement. “I think there’s actually a very good chance that the next leader will not be as visionary in foreign policy, will not believe that Japan has to play as big a role in the world,” he said. Abe’s leadership was critical in reorienting Japan’s defense policy toward Chinese provocation in the Senkaku Islands, forging closer ties with Australia and India, and taking control of the re-envisioned Trans-Pacific Partnership after American support for the trading bloc collapsed. “China’s very happy that he’s gone,” Auslin said, predicting that the Chinese and North Korean governments will, over time, test the new prime minister by gradually increasing military provocations.

Abe entered office in 2012 while Japan was still recovering from the disastrous Fukushima reactor meltdown, and he leaves in the midst of another crisis, with COVID-19 spreading throughout the aging Japanese population and hammering the country’s economy. In between, he, however fitfully, liberalized Japan’s economy and forged a new path for the country abroad, as the leader of a network of Pacific countries opposing China’s attempts to expand its sphere of influence. In an increasingly uncertain global environment, what Abe’s successor does in either furthering or slowing his reformist and aggressive policy, will bear close watching.

A Different Debate Over COVID Testing

There’s an unexpected new fight developing in the COVID-19 testing world. Not the same political fight we’ve already seen dozens of times about whether we’re testing enough (or too much!), but a fight over the tests themselves, and whether they might be—of all things—too sensitive to the presence of the virus. Andrew has the details over at the site today. Finding out whether a test is positive, for example:

… requires an elaborate laboratory process—a process that’s predicated on at least one injection of human subjectivity. The tests in ubiquitous use around the country make use of a process called polymerase chain reaction, which rapidly multiplies viral RNA in a sample to bring it to a measurable level. It’s a time-tested, proven process.

But it isn’t a one-step process: the PCR process must be cycled multiple times to get the virus to that level of visibility. How many cycles are necessary varies from test to test, but the math of exponential multiplication means that the more virus-saturated a sample was to begin with, the fewer you’ll need before you see the results.

The trouble—perhaps—involves how many times a test is cycled before it can be declared negative: up to either 37 or 40 cycles for COVID tests. In a New York Times article published over the weekend, a number of epidemiologists said they were concerned that number of cycles was too high: enough to return a positive result even when truly miniscule amounts of the virus are present in the initial sample, “akin to finding a hair in a room long after a person has left.”

Others disagree.

“I get very concerned about making very sweeping statements about infectivity compared to CT value,” Dr. Susan Butler-Wu, a pathology professor and clinical microbiologist at USC, told The Dispatch. “These are specimens that are obtained from the upper respiratory tract. … And we know that over the course of time the virus actually transitions from being in your upper respiratory tract down into the lower respiratory tract, or your lungs. So I don’t think there’s really a whole lot of evidence at all to say that we know for sure that a high CT value means you’re definitely not infectious.” 

Worth Your Time

  • Ideological and cultural sorting are at such high levels nowadays that knowing someone’s political affiliation is, oftentimes, akin to knowing their taste in music or clothes or cuisine, what TV shows they watch, how they worship, even their coronavirus risk tolerance. This, Kit Wilson argues in a terrific piece for Arc Digital, is why culture wars ruin everything. “There is no rule woven into the universe that states that some specific opinion somebody holds must inevitably be linked with some other specific opinion, like atoms that are only configurable into a limited number of molecular combinations,” he writes. “We live at a moment in history when the cross-pollination of interesting ideas, from all sorts of backgrounds, ought to be easier than ever — when pop culture fanatics and post-liberals, high artists and hipsters, religious conservatives and radicals should be able to learn from one another in a spirit of shared humanity. And we’re wasting it on petty, small-minded squabbles.”

  • Amy Walter—former Remnant guest—consistently puts out some of the smartest election analysis there is. Her most recent piece evaluating the state of the race headed into the home stretch is no exception. “While many are looking for signs that Trump is filling in cracks in his base, Trump’s real problem is much deeper,” she writes. “Trump is trailing, not because he’s losing his 2016 base, but because he has never expanded beyond it.”

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Watching and reading the news in recent weeks, you’d be forgiven for thinking the presidential election in November is going to come down to which candidate condemns the violence in Kenosha and Portland with more force. Don’t get us wrong: The looting, the rioting, the vigilantism—all are despicable and worthy of condemnation.

But much more is going on in the country as well, particularly for the hundreds of millions of Americans that don’t live in Kenosha or Portland. As you’re making your decision over the next 63 days, which issues—urban unrest, the coronavirus, economic recovery, national security, religious liberty, racial equality—will weigh most heavily on your mind? Something else?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), James P. Sutton (@jamespsuttonsf), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images.