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The Morning Dispatch: CPAC Rallies Around Trump
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The Morning Dispatch: CPAC Rallies Around Trump

Plus: Playing chicken with Iran, and the State Department’s new “Khashoggi ban.”

Happy Monday! And just like that, it’s March.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Food and Drug Administration on Saturday formally issued an emergency use authorization for Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose COVID-19 vaccine. Manufacturers will begin shipping doses of the vaccine around the country this week, but supply is expected to initially be somewhat limited before ramping up in April and May.

  • The House passed President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 aid package early Saturday almost entirely along party lines. The legislation now heads to the Senate, where it is expected to be reformed somewhat to comply with budget reconciliation rules.

  • The White House declassified an intelligence report on Friday that found Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the 2018 operation to “capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.” The Biden administration, however, has opted against directly punishing bin Salman, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying the United States’ “relationship with Saudi Arabia is bigger than any one individual.”

  • A second former staffer to Andrew Cuomo accused the New York governor of sexual harassment over the weekend, leading Democratic lawmakers to call for an independent investigation into the charges. Cuomo said in a statement on Sunday that some of his comments “have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation,” adding that “to the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that.” New York Attorney General Letitia James’ office will oversee an investigation into the allegations.

  • Hong Kong officials charged 47 pro-democracy activists figures with violating the region’s strict, Chinese Communist Party-backed national security law. Police said the figures were accused of “conspiracy to commit subversion.”

  • Burmese security forces killed at least 18 people on Sunday and detained hundreds more as widespread protests against last month’s military coup stretched into their fourth week.

  • The United States confirmed 51,367 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 3.9 percent of the 1,329,497 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 1,097 deaths were attributed to the virus on Sunday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 513,091. According to the COVID Tracking Project, 47,352 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 2,429,823 COVID-19 vaccine doses were administered yesterday, bringing the nationwide total to 75,236,003.

CPAC Rallies Around Trump

The arrival of March has driven it home for us: We’ve been doing this pandemic song and dance for an entire year. One particularly staggering piece of anecdotal data for you Morning Dispatchers:Andrew was sitting in the press gallery at last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, reading articles on the arriving virus during a lull in the proceedings, when it first struck him that maybe this thing was going to be a bigger deal than we’d previously thought. 

A year later, CPAC has come around again under very different circumstances: The entire conference moved to Florida to avoid pandemic restrictions. And, of course, the political circumstances are very different now than they were then. Andrew spent the weekend following the proceedings, and wrote about it for the site. Trump remains a favorite, he found, in large part because both the speakers and the attendees seemingly saw it as settled science that the election had been wrongfully stolen from him: 

So how did Trump escape the twin stigmas of loser and arsonist at CPAC? Simple: It was a major theme of the conference that Trump hadn’t lost, not really. In panel after panel, speakers argued that the media and the Democrats had conspired to pull off an election fraud of historic proportions against the president and the country.

One Friday discussion, for instance, tackled the question: If the election was fraudulently stolen, why didn’t the judges who heard the lawsuits brought by the Trump campaign step in and offer relief? The crack panel assembled to tackle the question included the Heritage Foundation’s Hans von Spakovsky, Fox News contributor Deroy Murdock, and Trump attorney Jesse Binnall.

Why didn’t the judges look at the evidence? “It’s very interesting, because judges even in ordinary election contests are very reluctant to overturn an election,” von Spakovsky offered. “And when it becomes an extraordinary election contest, one with national implications, and one in which they risk being attacked by one of the political parties, the pundits, and the news media, their reluctance to do anything gets even greater.”

“When you have judges that are taking on these cases,” Binnall added, “they’re also going home and watching the media. So when the media has this narrative that there is no voter fraud, that it’s debunked, that it’s baseless, and they say the same thing over and over again … judges are actually at home watching that. And they don’t want to be the first one to go out there to say that the emperor has no clothes.”

Does this mean, the moderator went on to ask, that all this evidence is just “accumulating in boxes around the country”? “Well, it may be shredded by now,” Murdock replied. “Maybe. Well, probably.” 

With Trump remaining the attendees’ heir apparent for 2024, other potential candidates struggled to get out from under his shadow: 

Sen. Ted Cruz, having plainly internalized that what the base wants is less hard-nosed policy positioning and more a constant stream of cultural grievances, embarked on protracted riffs about erstwhile Mandalorian actress Gina Carano, Mr. Potato Head, and media criticism of his recent trip to Cancun. Sen. Tom Cotton reminded everyone that the New York Times published an op-ed of his over the summer, which made some Times employees—“the little social justice warriors … all these children”—upset. Sen. Rick Scott delivered a halting address about the importance of GOP unity, although most of his jokes fell flat and he seemingly got lost in his notes, repeating a line twice about the importance of fighting for conservative values boldly and without apologizing to anyone. The crowd applauded politely at the appropriate times.

Others staked out their own ground more successfully. Sen. Josh Hawley, who has proven a singular talent at taking base-pleasing positions that at least nominally also comport with classically liberal principles, got huge applause when he bragged about contesting the election results on January 6. But in Hawley’s telling, that move was simply in the interest of provoking “a debate about election integrity”: “If we can’t have free and open debate in this country, we’re not going to have a country left. If we can’t have free and open debate according to the laws in the United States Senate, what good is the United States Senate? … I thought it was an important stand to take. And for that the left has come after me. They’ve tried to silence me. They canceled a book.”

Another hit came from South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, whose singular refusal to impose statewide COVID measures of the sort employed by every other state made her a right-wing folk hero of sorts over the last year. Amid the standard-issue shots at the media and targets like Dr. Anthony Fauci and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Gov. Noem made the case that hers had been the route of governance in true accordance with small-government principles, and that her state’s economy had not suffered the same damage as others as a result.

And, of course, there was Trump himself, denouncing his Republican opponents for caring more about the January 6 riot than about the threat posed by the Democrats:

We cannot have leaders who show more passion for condemning their fellow Americans than they have ever shown for standing up to Democrats, the media, and the radicals who want to turn America into a socialist country. … If Republicans do not stick together, the RINOs that we’re surrounded with will surround the Republican Party and the American worker, and will destroy our country itself.

The Latest on Iran

Last Monday, we wrote about the White House’s posture toward Iran. The Biden administration appeared to be so desperate to jumpstart nuclear talks with Tehran that it was willing to overlook repeat provocations—including rocket attacks on a U.S. base in northern Iraq.

A lot has changed in seven days. On President Biden’s orders, the United States conducted a series of airstrikes Thursday night targeting facilities used by Iranian-backed militia groups in Syria. A Defense Department spokesman said the strikes were “authorized in response to recent attacks against American and Coalition personnel in Iraq,” and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters the administration was “confident” the target of the airstrikes “was being used by the same Shia militia that conducted the strikes [against Americans in Iraq].”

President Biden was asked by a reporter Friday what message he hoped to send Iran with the offensive, which a Pentagon spokesman confirmed resulted in an unspecified number of casualties. “You can’t act with impunity,” Biden responded. “Be careful.”

(An Iraqi militia official told theAssociated Press the U.S. strikes killed one and wounded several others.)

Jason Brodsky, policy director at United Against Nuclear Iran, believes the recent attacks on American assets in Iraq were a “test” of the Biden administration—and the White House passed.

“After a few attacks, there was no response, and there was some concern, especially in the United States, that we would be once again ignoring or dismissing Iran’s regional provocations in order to make nuclear diplomacy with the Islamic Republic work,” he told The Dispatch. “But the Biden administration, to their credit, said no, Iran will be held responsible for its regional aggression, despite the fact that we are pursuing nuclear diplomacy. … I think it shows that Joe Biden is not necessarily Barack Obama on these issues.”

The Biden administration is packed with former Obama administration officials, many of whom are eager to resuscitate the nuclear deal the 44th president considered to be one of his crowning achievements. But there is a split in the new White House—and in the Democratic Party—over the prudence of rushing back into a deal.

“Common wisdom might be to expect the Biden team to simply go back to the nuclear deal that many of the same team so painstakingly worked on,” Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who previously served as a CIA analyst and Pentagon official, said on Saturday. “But with everything in foreign affairs, conditions change—for better or for worse—and we must strictly avoid nostalgia or political considerations from guiding policy.” 

Iran made the Biden administration’s decision a little easier on Sunday, rejecting a recent offer by European Union officials to broker nuclear talks between Iran and the United States. 

“Given the recent moves and positions of the U.S. and the three European countries, the Islamic Republic doesn’t assess the timing of an informal meeting proposed by the EU coordinator as appropriate,” said Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman. “The path ahead is very clear: The U.S. should end its illegal and unilateral sanctions and return to its JCPOA commitments.”

The Biden administration has thus far balked at such requests, demanding Iran first come back into compliance with its JCPOA commitments with respect to uranium enrichment. It all boils down to one big game of chicken. “Iran’s position is, ‘I didn’t get out of the deal, you did. Why is it I have to do anything?” said Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute. “‘I’m not going to blink first, you go.’”

Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute believes Tehran playing hard to get will result in a better deal for Iran. “The longer the process takes, the more it can milk Biden’s team for concessions,” he told The Dispatch. “Ordinarily, the U.S. should have more leverage. Iran’s economy is in dire straits and is desperately in need of a cash injection. By telegraphing a desire to fast-track talks as Jake Sullivan did, however, Iranian leaders are likely to conclude they are in the driver’s seat.”

Last week’s airstrikes, however, seem to have achieved their stated goal of “de-escalat[ing] the overall situation”—at least for now. Although an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman labeled the attack an act of “illegal aggression” in violation of human rights law, Vatanka believes this is mostly bluster.

“The Iranians have said very little about the latest strike in Syria,” he said. “And when they say very little about something in the state media, that means they don’t want to have to respond. Because if they say a lot about it, [and] they’re angry, then they kind of force themselves to have to retaliate. And that’s not what they did, they’re doing the opposite.”

Biden Administration’s Saudi Arabia Game Theory

President Biden on Friday approved the release of a four-page intelligence report concluding that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—also known as MBS—approved the October 2018 operation “to capture or kill” Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. MBS has long been suspected of having a role in the gruesome killing of Khashoggi: The CIA concluded in November 2018 MBS was behind it, according to “people familiar with the matter.” But Friday’s report was the first time the U.S. intelligence community put forth their conclusions on the record.

The report did not include the horrific details of Khashoggi’s kidnapping, murder, and subsequent dismemberment in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. It did, however, trace his assassination to a 15-member team of elite Saudi security officials, including seven members of the crown prince’s elite protective detail, who operate under the “absolute control” of bin Salman. 

The report’s publication was accompanied by sanctions and restrictions for the perpetrators of the attack, but the Biden administration opted against directly punishing bin Salman himself. 

On Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a new “Khashoggi Ban”—imposing visa restrictions on foreign individuals who “are believed to have been directly engaged in serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities”—and applied that ban to 76 Saudi nationals. Blinken also told reporters the Treasury Department would be slapping sanctions on Ahmad al-Asiri, a former Saudi intelligence official, and designating the Saudi Rapid Intervention Force for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act.

The Biden administration received bipartisan praise for taking steps the Trump administration did not and making the intelligence implicating MBS public. “I strongly support the administration’s new Khashoggi Ban to sanction those threatening dissidents abroad,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, the Republican ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Saudi Arabia must permanently end intimidation, harassment and violence against journalists and dissidents in order to restore the trust of the United States and the world.”

But others wanted the administration to address bin Salman’s  role directly. “I commend the Biden Administration for taking action against Saudis involved in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” said Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy. “But what about the Crown Prince, who was the mastermind? No one is above the law.”

Republican Sen. Rob Portman echoed Leahy’s sentiment on ABC News yesterday, though he articulated the counterargument as well. “Look, I know this is tough, because the Saudis are pushing back right now on Iran, that’s very important,” he said. “It’s a delicate area, and as was said earlier: It’s easy to campaign, it’s harder to govern.”

Portman’s comments get at the crux of the issue. As reprehensible as Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights is—Biden himself said there is “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia” in a 2019 debate—the United States relies on the Saudis to counter Iranian hegemony in the region and limit terrorist activity. The Biden administration appears to be trying to thread the needle: Release intelligence making clear MBS has blood on his hands, but avoid doing anything that would truly jeopardize the alliance.

“The relationship with Saudi Arabia is an important one. We have significant ongoing interests. We remain committed to the defense of the kingdom,” Blinken said. “What we’ve done by the actions that we’ve taken is really not to rupture the relationship, but to recalibrate it to be more in line with our interests and our values.”

In a statement on Friday, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry “completely rejected” the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment, saying it was filled with “inaccurate information and conclusions.” The Foreign Ministry maintained that the Saudi Kingdom had “clearly denounced this heinous crime,” and “took the necessary steps to ensure that such a tragedy never takes place again.” But the statement concluded by reaffirming the Kingdom’s “robust and enduring” partnership with the United States.

Worth Your Time

  • In a deeply reported and informative piece on the Chinese prison state of Xinjiang, Ben Mauk of The New Yorker provides rare, firsthand accounts of life inside a genocide. “The retirement home’s dormitory bedrooms had been transformed into prison cells with triple-locking metal doors and surveillance cameras,” Mauk writes. “For several hours each day, [prisoners] watched state-produced news broadcasts, documentaries, and speeches by President Xi Jinping. Video cameras kept them under constant surveillance. … The detainees were never allowed outside.” 

  • The public health messaging surrounding COVID-19 has, over the past year, often been confusing and contradictory, preventing the United States’ response from being as robust and effective as possible. Zeynep Tufekci highlights five pandemic mistakes we keep repeating in a piece for The Atlantic. “One of the most important problems undermining the pandemic response has been the mistrust and paternalism that some public-health agencies and experts have exhibited toward the public,” she writes. “Much of the public messaging focused on offering a series of clear rules to ordinary people, instead of explaining in detail the mechanisms of viral transmission for this pathogen.”

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Toeing the Company Line

  • In Sunday’s French Press, David dives into the “Seven Mountain Mandate,” an Evangelical concept that essentially argues that, to create Godly change in America, Christians should be in the highest positions of power in all aspects of life. David argues that this is a warped interpretation of how the Bible calls Christians to really live their life.

  • Over the weekend, Jonah gave us both an extra-long G-Fileand a “feature-length” episode of The Ruminant. In both, Jonah provides his take on two pieces from earlier in the week: Scott Alexander’s plea for Republicans to center their arguments around class, and Bill Kristol’s trial balloon regarding anti-Trump Republicans moving into the Democratic column.

  • In his confirmation hearing last week, Xavier Becerra claimed he “never sued any nuns” in his role as attorney general of California. Turns out, the truth is a little more complicated than that. Alec Dent dug into the claim in his latest Dispatch Fact Check.

  • Sarah continued her quest to find the perfect chicken sandwich over the weekend, adding new sandwiches and spicy versions to her original pool: McDonald’s, Chick-fil-a, Wendy’s, Shake Shack, and more.

Let Us Know

There’s an old saying about March: It comes in like a lion, and it will go out like a lamb.

Usually, that’s in reference to the weather. But what’s your prediction for what life will be like at the end of the month? Where will we be on the “back-to-normal” scale?

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).