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The Morning Dispatch: Biden Says Pandemic Over—But Not the National Emergency
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The Morning Dispatch: Biden Says Pandemic Over—But Not the National Emergency

Plus: Protests rack Iran after the death of a young woman in morality police custody.

Happy Wednesday! The U.S. Space Force unveiled its official song on Tuesday, and we’re not going to lie to you—it’s pretty great.

We’re the mighty watchful eye,
Guardians beyond the blue,
The invisible front line,
Warfighters brave and true.
Boldly reaching into space,
There’s no limit to our sky.
Standing guard both night and day,
We’re the Space Force from on high.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened further escalations to his war against Ukraine in a speech Wednesday, saying that Russia will use any means necessary to protect its territorial integrity—a statement many analysts understood as a threat to use nuclear weapons. Putin appeared to shift Russia’s first-use nuclear doctrine, which had previously held that Russia would only launch nuclear weapons first if the country’s existence is threatened. He also announced the state would call up hundreds of thousands more soldiers and indefinitely extend the military contracts of those serving, which typically last three to six months.

  • TASS, a Russian state-media outlet, reported Tuesday that Russian-backed separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” will vote in a referendum later this week and early next to decide whether to formally become a part of Russia. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba preemptively labeled the vote a “sham,” and said Ukraine maintains “every right” to liberate its territories—and will keep liberating them “whatever Russia has to say.”

  • Hurricane Fiona strengthened to a Category 3 storm on Tuesday and continued moving north through the Atlantic Ocean, leading officials in Turks and Caicos to issue a stay-at-home advisory for the islands. Fiona could intensify further to a Category 4 storm today or tomorrow, but it’s expected to largely steer clear of the United States’ east coast. Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, meanwhile, have only just begun their recovery process.

  • The World Health Organization announced Tuesday that Uganda has declared an outbreak of Ebola after confirming a case of the virus’ relatively rare Sudan strain for the first time in more than a decade. The country has investigated six suspicious deaths, and eight suspected cases are receiving medical care. The WHO will send staff to the affected area to help Uganda’s health officials investigate cases and find the outbreak’s source.

  • In the largest pandemic-related fraud case brought thus far, the Department of Justice on Tuesday charged 47 people in Minnesota for their alleged involvement in a $250 million scheme to defraud a federal child nutrition program. The DOJ alleges people working for Feeding our Future, a nonprofit organization, recruited the other defendants to open 250 Child Nutrition Program sites in the state, lying about serving thousands of meals to children and laundering the money to spend it on luxury cars and other goods. Feeding our Future head Aimee Bock has denied the fraud allegations. 

  • President Joe Biden announced Tuesday he plans to nominate Lynne Tracy—a career diplomat—to replace the recently retired John Sullivan as the United States’ ambassador to Russia. Tracy is currently the U.S. ambassador to Armenia, and served as the second in command at the U.S. embassy in Moscow from 2014 to 2017.

  • Undocumented migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard have filed a class action lawsuit against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other officials, alleging they were convinced to get on the planes with “false promises and misrepresentations” about the employment, housing, and educational opportunities that awaited them. DeSantis has denied the charges, claiming all migrants signed consent forms and took the trip voluntarily.

Biden: The Pandemic is Over, but the Emergency Isn’t

President Joe Biden disembarks Air Force One yesterday. (Photo by Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images)

Did you hear the great news? The pandemic is a thing of the past!

“We still have a problem with COVID. We’re still doing a lot of work on it,” President Joe Biden told Scott Pelley in a “60 Minutes” interview that aired Sunday. “But the pandemic is over. If you notice, no one’s wearing masks. Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape. And so I think it’s changing.”

The stance brings Biden—who first contracted COVID-19 a few weeks ago—in line with the majority of Americans who’ve more or less been living their normal, pre-pandemic lives for months. But it puts him at odds with several prominent public health officials and many members of his own party. “COVID’s not over,” Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia told reporters at the Capitol this week, referencing “huge” mental-health and long-COVID challenges that remain. “I don’t know what [Biden] meant.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci was somewhat more diplomatic on Monday in remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Relations. “We are much better off now,” he conceded, comparing today’s figures to some of the spikes that peaked during the initial Omicron wave. “But we are not where we need to be if we are going to, quote, ‘live with the virus,’ because we know we are not going to eradicate it.” He lamented the relatively few Americans who’ve received their first booster shot—let alone their second—and said it was “likely” another new variant will emerge this fall or winter.

Today’s predominant variants—BA.5 and BA.4.6—appear to be running out of steam in the United States, with the number of confirmed new COVID-19 cases, COVID-19 hospitalizations, and deaths attributed to the virus in the country falling precipitously since mid-July or early August. Still, 355 to 400 deaths per day is nothing to sneeze at—and that’s far from the only remaining consideration. “We have millions of people with long COVID and no vaccine that blocks transmission,” Dr. Eric Topol—founder of the Scripps Research Translational Institute—told the Wall Street Journal. “[Biden is] completely off base.”

Not everyone in the public health community holds that view, of course. “By multiple definitions, the pandemic is over,” Dr. Leana Wen—professor of health policy at George Washington University—wrote this week. “That doesn’t mean that the coronavirus is no longer causing harm; it simply signals the end of an emergency state as COVID has evolved into an endemic disease.”

But the Biden administration still has made no public plans to revoke the COVID-19 public health emergency declaration that’s been in place since early 2020. In fact, the White House is reportedly planning to extend the measure yet again after the midterm elections, teeing it up to expire (barring another extension) in early 2023. “Covid is not over. The pandemic is not over,” a senior Biden official told Politico a few short weeks ago. “It doesn’t make sense to lift this [declaration] given what we’re seeing on the ground in terms of cases.”

Biden contradicting that message—on national television, no less—has undoubtedly created a number of headaches for his top aides. For starters, the White House is currently in the process of rolling out updated COVID-19 boosters from Pfizer and Moderna ahead of a possible fall surge, but uptake has thus far been limited. The president signaling the pandemic is over will do little to change that trajectory.

The Biden administration is also asking Congress to attach another $22 billion in COVID-related funds to a must-pass government funding bill this month, but the already low odds of that happening have shrunk in recent days. “I’m glad Joe Biden finally admitted that the pandemic is over,” GOP Rep. Brian Mast of Florida said this week. “So why does he want to spend another $22 billion of your tax dollars on ‘COVID-19 response’?” The White House claims the additional money is more forward-looking, arguing it would go toward preparation for future variants and the research and development supporting “next-generation vaccines and therapeutics.”

But that $22 billion is just a fraction of what Biden jeopardized with his comments over the weekend. As you may remember from a few weeks ago, the White House’s legal justification for “canceling” hundreds of billions of dollars of student loan debt was built around the HEROES Act, a 2003 law intended to support members of the U.S. military transitioning into and out of active duty after 9/11. The Biden administration seized upon one marginal aspect of the legislation—that the provisions applied not just to military members serving on active duty or performing National Guard duty, but to any individual who lives or works somewhere “declared a disaster area” in connection with a “national emergency”—to extend the benefits to tens of millions of borrowers.

But by waiting more than a year-and-a-half to act—and then claiming the pandemic is “over” less than a month after making the move—Biden is really pushing his luck. “The only rationale for rolling out a program of sweeping debt relief with no question about whether someone is, in fact, negatively affected by the emergency is the urgency of the emergency,” Fordham Law School Professor Jed Shugerman told The Dispatch, arguing it’s become increasingly clear COVID was a pretext for the move, not the real reason. “If you make an official announcement that the pandemic is over, you lose your one argument you can make about why they didn’t tailor the program to fit the emergency.”

The one thing Biden may have going for him is that, after four years of the Trump administration arguing presidential statements should not be considered binding, his White House can probably do the same. “They could cite what they might call the Trump Principle, which is that a president’s statements can be recalled by his staff quietly, and in most cases, will not really wind up having any legal effect on anything,” said Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies. Biden himself sought to clarify his remarks on Tuesday, telling donors at a fundraiser he meant to say that the pandemic “basically is not where it was.” 

“There are some exceptions where a president’s statements, even if snatched back, might have a legal effect,” Olson added. “But mostly, under Trump, we learned that no, they do not.”

Formal declarations by executive agencies—like when the Centers for Disease Control terminated Title 42 in April—are a different story. In ending the Trump-era public health order that allowed U.S. officials to quickly expel migrants crossing the southern border, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky determined the “current public health conditions” and “increased availability of tools to fight COVID-19” rendered that public health emergency “no longer necessary.”

If left unchecked, Biden’s lackadaisical use of executive authority will have dangerous repercussions—even if one agrees with the policy on the merits, as Shugerman does. “This idea of invoking emergency powers as pretexts for policy arguments, the left should be quite concerned about validating the approach of just never letting an emergency go to waste,” he said. “What I think the message is [from this], is if there’s ever an emergency, you can use the emergency as an excuse to break glass and rely on expanding executive power without a legislative mandate to get your policy solution through. That’s bad for democracy, and it’s bad for the rule of law, and it’s a bad precedent for the next, worse president who comes into office.”

Iranians Protest a Woman’s Death in Custody

As Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi arrived in New York City on Monday to address the United Nations General Assembly, women back in Iran were removing their state-required hijabs, waving the headscarves in the air and lighting them on fire as crowds chanted “woman, life, freedom” and “death to the dictator,” staring down security forces.

The seeds of the recent unrest were planted last Tuesday, when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was detained during a holiday trip to Tehran for allegedly wearing an “improper” hijab, violating requirements in place since shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution that mandate women wear hijabs and conservative clothing. The Kurdish woman slipped into a coma in custody and died Friday after what Iranian officials claimed was sudden heart failure. 

But Amini’s family says she had no pre-existing heart condition, and acting U.N. human rights chief Nada Al-Nashif called for an investigation, citing reports that morality police officers beat Amini on the head with a baton, banging her head against one of their vehicles. The behavior wouldn’t be out of character for the patrols—Al-Nashif noted that the U.N. has received verified videos of past beatings, and a video posted last month appeared to show a woman thrown from a moving morality police van.

Many Iranians haven’t accepted the official explanation, as evidenced by demonstrations that exploded across the country over the weekend. Businesses have declared strikes in 24 cities near Amini’s home, according to human rights watchdog Hengaw, and protesters have taken to the streets in 13 more across the country—including Tehran. Tehran University has reportedly moved classes online for the next three weeks for all commuter students after a Monday rally on campus. Security forces have cracked down on the crowds with pellet guns, tear gas, and water cannons, per Hengaw, arresting hundreds of people and killing at least three.

Iranian leaders are also falling back on many of their tried and true repression tactics, with internet governance watchdog Netblocks reporting internet disruptions in several areas within Iran since Amini’s death—including in Tehran and her hometown. “There’s a pattern evolving here where the regime picks one or two elements of its layered security apparatus to deploy against protesters and complements that at the top—based on the jurisdiction that is protesting—with some kind of internet blackout, some kind of communications blackout,” Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The Dispatch.

Women have been protesting the hijab rules for some time, removing their headscarves publicly for several years starting in 2017. Deaths in custody after hijab-related arrests are rare, but enforcement has stepped up in recent months since hardliner Raisi came to power. “This is generally a repressive wind that’s blowing in Iran,” Ray Takeyh, a senior Middle East fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Dispatch. But headscarves are far from the only grievance the Iranian people have with the regime: Teachers, farmers, and other middle-class workers have filled the streets all year, objecting to the handling of various economic and social issues. And like the protests over Amini’s death—and so many others before them—the demonstrations quickly began to call for regime change. “They begin as economic grievances, but they become politicized very quickly,” Takeyh said.

But as was the case during previous protests, the current iteration lacks coordinated leadership—though there have been some unusual reports of protesters fighting back against security forces. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei remained out of sight for several days recently with a health issue—Charlotte reports on the site today about the succession plan—but he has since returned to the public eye, silencing health questions for the time being.

Khamenei or no, Iran’s security forces are experienced at isolating protests by cutting off information and arresting local activists. “The Iranians are sophisticated,” Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Dispatch. “They don’t just bash heads, but identify protesters for later arrest. They also make examples out of certain people in order to intimidate others.” 

“The [regime] has the money and the weapons and will not give up without a very bloody fight,” Rubin added.

Even if the current protests fizzle, analysts expect Iranians to keep calling for regime change. “The fact that you have protests that are political happening in the face of environmental, economic, socio-economic, and even religious events, even in response to foreign policy matters tells you one thing,” Taleblu said. “There will be more.”

Worth Your Time

  • For a Wall Street Journal story, Rachel Wolfe spent an afternoon in the parking lot of Rouses Market in Houma, Louisiana, talking to shoppers about how inflation has affected their grocery habits. Kerry Carter, a construction worker and avid cook, said he skims the newspaper for coupons over breakfast every morning, and now only buys food when it’s on sale. “I can’t do what I want to do. I have to be on a budget,” he told Wolfe. “As a child, he remembers looking forward to trips to the supermarket with his mom,” Wolfe writes. “‘Now, I cringe,’ said Mr. Carter, who spent $80.86 at the market that day, according to his receipt. … He said he can’t afford to buy red meat or pork chops anymore, but said the biggest loss is that he can no longer host as many seafood boils for his friends and family. What used to be $100 for shrimp, crab, corn, sausage, potatoes and lemons is now closer to $300. ‘Boils are the lifeblood of Louisiana,’ Mr. Carter said, adding that he feels less connected to his community without them.”

  • There’s a growing divide in how effective various social programs and policy interventions are for girls and women, and how effective they are for boys and men. “The problem is not that men have fewer opportunities; it’s that they are not seizing them. The challenge seems to be a general decline in agency, ambition, and motivation,” Richard Reeves writes in an essay for National Affairs. “These trends have not occurred in a vacuum; they are the result of a broad range of structural challenges plaguing our society. The education system is clearly less suited to boys than it is to girls. The labor market has become a tougher place for men as well. But there are some deeper cultural causes at work, too. In particular, the dramatic rebalancing of power relations between men and women over the last few decades has rendered old modes of masculinity—especially men’s role as family breadwinner—obsolete. And as of yet, nothing has replaced them. The problem is not a lack of incentives in the narrow economic sense, but a loss of identity in a broader, cultural one.”

Something Wholesome

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Also Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • David and Sarah are back with a new episode of Advisory Opinions, unpacking the Supreme Court’s decision on Yeshiva University’s refusal to recognize an LGBTQ student group. Plus: Who’ll censor whom in the showdown between Texas and big tech?

  • American Enterprise Institute economist Michael Strain joins Jonah on today’s episode of The Remnant to dive into where things stand on inflation and kvetch about the Federal Reserve. Is economics really a dismal science? Can inflation be fought at the state level? Plus: Some thoughts on the Russia-Ukraine war and HBO’s House of the Dragon.

  • As much momentum as Democrats think they have going into November, Republicans are still in the driver’s seat, Sarah argues in this week’s Sweep (🔒). Plus: Trump’s standing in the GOP, inflation’s disproportionate impact across the country, the difference between “hard” and “soft” campaign dollars, how top of mind abortion will be for voters, and more.

  • In Tuesday’s Uphill, Haley takes a look at how Biden’s Taiwan comments are playing on Capitol Hill before turning to the latest on efforts to reform the Electoral Count Act. Will lawmakers be able to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate’s competing versions of the legislation?

  • National conservatism is a direct threat to religious freedom, David writes in Tuesday’s French Press (🔒). “The brand of conservative Christianity advanced by Christian nationalist conservatives is already a minority faith in the United States,” he writes. “They can certainly win fleeting victories by attaching themselves to other American coalitions, but once they’re out of political power they will sorely miss the First Amendment doctrines they intentionally degrade.”

  • On Tuesday’s episode of Dispatch Live (🔒), Jonah, David, and Andrew were joined by newest addition to The Dispatch team: Kevin Williamson! The quartet broke down the controversy surrounding Republican governors busing illegal immigrants, predicted what a Trump/DeSantis feud would look like, and lamented the shifting allegiances at the Heritage Foundation. Dispatch members who missed the conversation can catch a rerun—either video or audio-only—by clicking here.

  • On the site today, we’re very excited to post the first edition of Boiling Frogs, the newsletter from Nick “Allahpundit” Catoggio. Nick previews his newsletter and offers a trenchant analysis of the current political moment. Stay tuned for details on how to sign up for “Boiling Frogs” in early October to make sure you never miss a newsletter. 

  • Also on the site today, in addition to Charlotte’s piece mentioned above, Andrew covers the funding standoff between Mitch McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund and billionaire Peter Thiel over whose millions should give air support to Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters.

Let Us Know

Do you consider the pandemic “over”? If yes, how and when did you make that determination?

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.