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The Morning Dispatch: Biden Waives Nord Stream 2 Sanctions
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The Morning Dispatch: Biden Waives Nord Stream 2 Sanctions

Plus: GOP states drop the hammer on community mask mandates in cities and schools.

Happy Friday! Summer weather is here in earnest in the D.C. area, where we’re back to pushing 95 degrees for the foreseeable future. Jury’s still out on whether relaxed post-COVID work rules will permit wearing shorts and Aloha shirts to the Dispatch office.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Israel and Hamas have agreed to a ceasefire after a violent 11 days. Both Israel and Hamas confirmed the agreement in statements. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu added in his statement that “the reality on the ground … will determine the future of the operation.”

  • The House passed a $1.9 billion emergency spending bill to beef up security around the Capitol building. The bill was passed by only one vote, with some members of “the squad” of progressive Democrats voting no because it would give more money to police. The funding is a response to the January 6 attacks on the Capitol. 

  • President Joe Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act into law yesterday, which aims to curb violence and hate crimes against Asian-Americans. 

  • The Biden Administration announced ICE will no longer use two Department of Homeland Security facilities in Georgia and Massachusetts after reports of abuse at the facilities. A whistleblower reported that doctors at the Irwin County Detention Center were performing unwanted hysterectomies and other unauthorized medical procedures. 

  • Secretary of State Anthony Blinken sat down with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday in anticipation of a meeting with the two country’s leaders later in the summer. This was the first meeting between high-level U.S. and Russian officials during the Biden administration. A State Department official said the meeting was “constructive.”

  • The United States confirmed 29,511 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 3.4 percent of the 879,984 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 664 deaths were attributed to the virus on Thursday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 588,531. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 25,948 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. Meanwhile, 2,107,077 COVID-19 vaccine doses were administered yesterday, with 160,177,820 Americans having now received at least one dose.

Biden Lifts Sanctions on Russian Gas Pipeline Company 

Back in February, we wrote to you about the resumption of construction on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline—and the Biden administration’s apparent indifference despite overwhelming bipartisan support for halting the project. On Thursday, the White House officially notified Congress of plans to waive sanctions on Nord Stream 2 AG, the German company overseeing the undertaking, and its CEO (and friend of President Vladimir Putin) Matthias Warnig.

As first reported by Axios on Tuesday, the removal of congressionally mandated sanctions by the U.S. government could allow for the pipeline’s completion by early summer, connecting Russian natural gas to Central and Western Europe by way of Germany. In addition to the waivers, the report also named eight new Russian companies and ships involved in the conduit’s construction to be sanctioned. But with 95 percent of the pipeline already completed, lawmakers fear that the addition of new entities—without the inclusion of the involved German parties—will lend the Kremlin a foreign policy win.

Putin has long eyed the project as an inroad into Europe, with aims to foster greater dependence on the Russian energy sector in the traditionally “tough on Russia” countries of the EU. In addition, the 750-mile pipeline bypasses Ukraine, through which Russian gas has traditionally flowed to the economic and strategic advantage of U.S. allies in Kyiv. 

To curb Moscow’s influence, former President Donald Trump signed a law in 2019 threatening companies involved in the pipeline’s construction with sanctions. Several companies temporarily suspended their work in fear of retaliation from the White House. And in January 2021, a bipartisan group of lawmakers authorized sanctions on any entity that “provided services for the testing, inspection or certification” of the pipeline. Despite both measures, construction resumed February 6, and the conduit is nearly complete.

This Biden administration’s decision to lift sanctions on pipeline construction appears to be in deference to Germany, which has a vested economic interest in Nord Stream 2’s completion. But the move also directly contradicts a statement Secretary Blinken made during his confirmation hearing opposing construction of the pipeline. “The president-elect strongly agrees with you that Nord Stream 2 is a bad idea,” Blinken said, adding: “I am determined to do whatever we can to prevent [its] completion.” 

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz said in an interview that it’s not too late for the Biden administration to reverse the decision. “Congress—twice—passed strong sanctions legislation, that I authored, with overwhelming bipartisan support,” Cruz told The Dispatch on Thursday. “And the sanctions legislation worked. The pipeline was halted in its tracks, it was a hunk of metal at the bottom of the sea. When Joe Biden was elected president, and the Biden team began signaling softness toward Russia, Putin began building the pipeline again.”

“This latest decision is a complete capitulation to Putin in defiance of federal law and overwhelming support in Congress for stopping, and keeping stopped, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline,” Cruz added.

Republican Sen. Ben Sasse said much the same. “Two months ago, President Biden called Putin a ‘killer,’ but today he’s planning to give Putin, his regime, and his cronies massive strategic leverage in Europe. You can’t pretend to be a Russia hawk but then just roll over,” Sasse, a member of the Intelligence Committee, said in a statement on Tuesday.

Several Republican lawmakers are already circulating a proposal called the “Protecting Our Well-being by Expanding Russian Sanctions Act.” According to GOP Sen. Kevin Cramer, who is leading the effort, the bill would “reinstate and expand sanctions the Biden Administration is waiving on Russian people and entities.”

Some Democratic lawmakers have also criticized the White House’s move. “I’ve made it clear to the Biden administration from day one that every effort should be made to prevent completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who co-authored legislation designed to halt construction of the pipeline. “Though I’m encouraged the State Department will levy sanctions against eight additional entities, I’m disappointed the administration will not hold Nord Stream 2 AG to the same standard.”

“If the administration maintains these waivers, I have several questions,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “First, what does the administration now expect from Germany after having made this significant concession to exercise the waiver? Will Berlin strengthen its support for Ukraine in the Normandy Format? Will it provide additional assistance to Kyiv in its struggle against Russian aggression? Also, what will the administration do to bolster our relationship with Ukraine?”

Connecticut Democrat Sen. Chris Murphy, on the other hand, said he supports the Biden administration’s move and believes lifting sanctions on pipeline construction will create room for diplomatic negotiations moving forward. “I think that the administration is taking the right path on this,” Murphy told The Dispatch during Senate votes Wednesday afternoon. “And I think the story has also been a little backwards. Instead of leading with the sanctions they applied, the stories are leading with the sanctions that didn’t apply, which I think is probably a little unfair to the Biden team.”

No More Mask Mandates, Say States

Earlier this week, we filled you in on how, in the wake of the Centers for Disease Control’s latest guidance that vaccinated people need not wear masks, many states that had still been enforcing mask mandates moved to lift them. A few Republican-led states, however, are using the new guidance to go farther: not simply removing state-wide mask mandates, but forbidding cities and even schools from implementing their own mask requirements at all.

On Tuesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, issued an executive order prohibiting any government entities, including school districts, from requiring masks. And on Thursday, Iowa GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds signed an education bill with a similar provision into law. While the Texas order won’t be enforced until June 4—after the end of the school year for most state public schools—Iowa’s new law went into effect immediately, leaving districts scrambling to adjust.

“The state of Iowa is putting parents back in control of their child’s education and taking greater steps to protect the rights of all Iowans to make their own health care decisions,” Reynolds said in a statement. “I am proud to be a governor of a state that values personal responsibility and individual liberties.”

Last week, the interim director of the Iowa Department of Public Health encouraged schools to drop their mandates—although she also acknowledged that “some parents may want their child to continue to wear a cloth face covering for reasons that make sense for their family or that child’s individual health situation.”

Proponents of the legislation in state government say it was prompted by an outcry against mask mandates from constituents. “This amendment comes from the citizens of Iowa,” GOP state Rep. Dustin Hite told the Des Moines Register. “I’ve lost count of the number of emails, the number of messages, all of that that I have received on the topic.”

But the question is worth asking: If Iowans were so fiercely clamoring to get rid of all school mask mandates, why were some school districts—which are, after all, beholden to the local parents who elect their boards—still holding onto them? School workers who spoke to The Dispatch argued that middle schoolers in particular have been left in the lurch—more likely than younger children to contract or transmit COVID, but only recently authorized by the CDC to receive the Pfizer vaccine.

In this sense, the Iowa bill is the latest example of a trend that has become increasingly clear during the coronavirus crisis: Rather than defer as a matter of principle to local control over public health decisions, many Republican-led states have opted to enforce lower levels of COVID precaution, in keeping with conservative sensibilities—and forbidden lower jurisdictions from deciding otherwise.

We saw something comparable earlier this month in the debate over the use of vaccine passports, which would allow businesses to ask their customers for proof of vaccination. As Andrew wrote at the time, a number of Republican governors signed legislation or executive orders preventing their states from implementing passport systems. But some went further, additionally forbidding businesses operating in the state from making use of private passports. Then, as now, they sold these policies—explicitly designed to limit local decision-making at the state level—as a victory for “individual liberties.” 

Worth Your Time

  • We know, you’ve heard a lot about the Brood X cicada situation on the East Coast. So much that you might even be tired of hearing about it. But we promise, this interactive graphic from the Washington Post that walks you through the life of one of these cicadas is worth checking out. (Make sure the sound is on!)

  • You may not have seen this coming, but Miami is slowly becoming a sort of second Silicon Valley. This is no accident; Mayor of Miami Francis Suarez wants it to be seen as a place for the free market to explode. In this piece for Reason, Daniel Raisbeck talked to Mayor Suarez, but also to Latin American immigrants, who are, he writes, the true drivers of the economy in Miami: “Miami’s ascendance in the 21st Century hinges on whether it can continue to fulfill its role as the greatest city in Latin America that just happens to be located in the United States.” 

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • On Thursday’s Advisory Opinions, Sarah and David go deep on abortion case law, Justice Elena Kagan’s spicy dissent in Edwards v. Vannoy, and a UNC Chapel Hill tenure dispute.

  • Jonah’s Remnant episode this morning starts off with further ruminations on his midweek column on Israel and antisemitism, then reads from a Commentary piece on the anti-capitalist tendencies of medieval antisemites and the antisemitic tendencies of more modern communists.

Let Us Know

Which is closest to your view? 

A) Cicadas are fascinating and I can’t get enough new information about them. 

B) One of the few things more annoying than cicadas in real life is the constant hum of (most East Coast) journalists talking about them. 

C) I don’t have a strong view about cicadas one way or another; it’s probably healthier not to get too fired up about the little bugs in life.

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).