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The Morning Dispatch: Farcical (But Dangerous) Conspiracies From Trump's Legal Team
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The Morning Dispatch: Farcical (But Dangerous) Conspiracies From Trump’s Legal Team

Plus: School closures don’t follow the science.

Happy Friday! We’re exhausted. You’ll understand why once you finish this newsletter.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The CDC issued new guidance on Thursday urging Americans to limit or postpone Thanksgiving travel to limit the spread of COVID-19. “Travel may increase your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. Postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others this year.”

  • Georgia completed its by-hand recount of 5 million ballots yesterday, and—despite uncovering 6,000 ballots overlooked in the initial process—it validated the initial outcome: Joe Biden won the state by more than 10,000 votes. Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger plans to certify the results later today.

  • The COVID-19 vaccine being developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca generated a strong immune response in older adults, according to an early study published yesterday. Late-stage trial results for the vaccine are expected to be released within a few weeks.

  • Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said yesterday he will allow several emergency Federal Reserve lending programs to expire at the end of the year. The programs—implemented in the spring to combat the coronavirus-induced recession—have “clearly achieved their objectives,” Mnuchin said. In a statement in response, the Federal Reserve said it “would prefer that the full suite of emergency facilities established during the coronavirus pandemic continue to serve their important role as a backstop for our still-strained and vulnerable economy.”

  • Initial jobless claims increased by 31,000 week-over-week to 742,000 last week, the Labor Department reported on Thursday. More than 20 million people were on some form of unemployment insurance during the week ending October 31, compared to 1.5 million people during the comparable week in 2019.

  • In an effort to slow the resurgence of the coronavirus in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom—who earlier this week apologized for attending a dinner party with people from other households—announced an overnight stay-at-home order that will go into effect on Saturday. “The virus is spreading at a pace we haven’t seen since the start of this pandemic and the next several days and weeks will be critical to stop the surge,” he said. “We are sounding the alarm.”

  • The United States confirmed 188,093 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 10.4 percent of the 1,817,267 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 2,031 deaths were attributed to the virus on Thursday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 252,514. According to the COVID Tracking Project, 80,698 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19.

This Absurdity Continues

Thursday morning, President Trump teased an “Important News Conference” happening later in the afternoon in which his lawyers would lay out a “clear and viable path to victory” because the “pieces are very nicely falling into place.” The only accurate part of the tweet was that a news conference did, indeed, occur. It was just under two hours, and the Trump administration’s recently fired CISA Director Chris Krebs called it “the most dangerous 1hr 45 minutes of television in American history.”

Packed into a small room at the Republican National Committee headquarters, Trump’s lawyers—Rudy Giuliani, Jenna Ellis, and Sidney Powell—made debunked claim after debunked claim, alleging that “President Trump won by a landslide” and promising to “clean this mess up now” and “reclaim the United States of America for the people who vote for freedom.” 

Powell—who accused Democratic and Republican candidates across the country of paying “to have the system rigged to work for them”—presented a wild claim involving former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (who died in 2013) and voting machine software that “set and run an algorithm that probably ran all over the country to take a certain percentage of votes from President Trump and flip them to President Biden.” Powell has been making a similar case for more than a week, floating vast conspiracies involving voting machines operated by a company called Dominion, and a second company called Smartmatic. 

We’re running out of space in this newsletter, but Alec is out with a detailed Dispatch Fact Check—his sixth one addressing claims about Dominion—of the latest conspiracy. Here’s the last sentence:

“Powell and Giuliani have offered no evidence to connect the companies as they’ve made their claims, nor have they and other conspiracy theorists provided evidence that Dominion’s vote-tabulating software was created ‘to produce altered voting results in Venezuela for Hugo Chávez.’”

Reporters in the room—who Trump campaign aide Jason Miller mocked for wearing masks—asked the trio to provide evidence of their claims. “Your question is fundamentally flawed when you’re asking, ‘Where’s the evidence?’” Ellis responded. “You clearly don’t understand the legal process.” She said they “haven’t had the opportunity yet to present [the evidence] to the court.”

But the Trump campaign and its allies have been fighting in court for weeks, and—according to Democratic election lawyer Marc Elias—they have won two of their cases (neither of which affected the outcome in any state) and lost 31. As a result, the Washington Post reports that Trump and Giuliani’s strategy has shifted away from proving widespread voter fraud and toward “pressur[ing] GOP lawmakers and officials across the political map to stall the vote certification in an effort to have Republican lawmakers pick electors and disrupt the electoral college when it convenes next month.” Trump has reportedly invited Republicans in Michigan’s state legislature to the White House for a meeting with him later today.

Several Republican elected officials condemned the latest developments. “Having failed to make even a plausible case of widespread fraud or conspiracy before any court of law, the President has now resorted to overt pressure on state and local officials to subvert the will of the people and overturn the election,” Sen. Mitt Romney wrote. “It is difficult to imagine a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American President.”

In a statement provided to The Dispatch, Sen. Ben Sasse said that “based on what I’ve read in their filings, when Trump campaign lawyers have stood before courts under oath, they have repeatedly refused to actually allege grand fraud—because there are legal consequences for lying to judges.” 

“President Trump lost Michigan by more than 100,000 votes, and the campaign and its allies have lost in or withdrawn from all five lawsuits in Michigan for being unable to produce any evidence,” Sasse continued. “Wild press conferences erode public trust. So no, obviously Rudy and his buddies should not pressure electors to ignore their certification obligations under the statute. We are a nation of laws, not tweets.”

A few new voices joined the chorus yesterday. “To insinuate that Republican and Democratic candidates paid to throw off this election is absolutely outrageous,” Sen. Joni Ernst—who does not yet acknowledge Joe Biden as president-elect—told Fox News’ Guy Benson after the press conference. Ernst won her reelection bid in Iowa on November 3. “I’ve worn our nation’s uniform to protect the values and freedoms that our nation espouses and to have that accusation just offhandedly thrown out there just to confuse our voters across the United States, I think that is absolutely wrong.”

Even Tucker Carlson was not buying Powell’s most outlandish assertions. “What Powell was describing would amount to the single greatest crime in American history,” Carlson told his viewers last night. “We invited Sidney Powell on this show, we would have given her the entire hour, we would have given her the entire week, actually, and listened quietly the whole time at rapt attention. That’s a big story. But she never sent us any evidence, despite a lot of polite requests. Not a page. When we kept pressing, she got angry and told us to stop contacting her. When we checked with others around the Trump campaign, people with positions of authority, they told us Powell has never given them any evidence either. Nor did she provide any today at the press conference. … She never demonstrated that a single actual vote was moved illegitimately by software from one candidate to another. Not one.”

Georgia is set to certify its election results later today, Michigan and Pennsylvania by Monday. Electoral College electors will officially cast their votes on December 14, and Congress will count and certify those votes on January 6. Joe Biden will be sworn in as president two weeks later. While the farce is strong with these latest efforts from Trump’s hapless band of conspiracy theorists, it is having an effect. A Monmouth poll out earlier this week found nearly 8 in 10 Trump supporters believe Biden won because of voter fraud  Trump, his Republican allies, and his media boosters will determine how much more damage our democratic process will withstand between now and then.

School Closures Do Not Follow the Science

On Thursday, New York public schools were shuttered again, after reopening for a scant eight weeks. “Given recent increases in transmission,” Chancellor Richard Carranza wrote in a letter to families on Wednesday, “we have reached a point in our City’s infection rate that requires all students to transition to remote learning. Beginning Thursday, November 19, all school buildings will be closed, and all learning will proceed remotely for all students, until further notice.”

The nation’s largest school district—with more than 1 million students in more than 1,200 schools—will pivot to online learning, as cases in New York City are again on the rise. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s reopening agreement with the city’s teacher’s union earlier this year targeted a 3 percent rate of test positivity, averaged over seven days, as the line at which the city would choose to shut down schools. This rule is somewhat arbitrary: New York state as a whole, for example, set the school closure trigger at 9 percent, three times as high as the city’s. 

Not all schools in New York are closing, however. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York announced in a Wednesday press release that it would continue to allow its 62,000 students access to in-person instruction “irrespective of” New York City closing public schools. Catholic schools in New York “faithfully follow rigorous state health guidelines, and decisions regarding closures can be made on an as-needed, school-by-school-basis,” it said.

New York’s situation is a common one across the United States. According to an Education Week tracker, nine states are operating under partial shutdown orders, which vary in implementation: California requires schools to apply for waivers to open after meeting state-mandated metrics, for example, while West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice recently announced that all schools will transition to online learning from Thanksgiving to December 3. Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia have declared full school shutdowns.

With the exception of four states that have ordered schools to provide in-person schooling—Texas, Arkansas, Iowa, and Alabama—the rest of the country has left reopening largely up to local school districts. Nationally, almost 40 percent of students are attending school entirely virtually, while another quarter are on a hybrid schedule that mixes in-person and remote learning days.

With childcare plans thrown into turmoil, jobs threatened, and children forced to sit through relatively ineffective online classes, many parents and families are asking whether shutdowns are in fact necessary.

Emily Oster—an economist at Brown University who has studied school openings’ effects on coronavirus transmission rates—said in an interview with The Dispatch that “schools themselves do not seem to be the source of a lot of spread,” pointing out that test positivity rates in schools tend to be similar to rates in the larger community. Officials in Rhode Island, for example, found that the test positivity rates of in-person learners were similar to those of remote learners. As of Monday, New York City schools had tested 140,000 students and staff. The positivity rate among that group: 0.23 percent.

The implications of these data are disheartening: School closures, with all their severe short-term and long-term consequences, seem to have little payoff in slowing down transmission rates.

Why school shutdowns, then, when far more dangerous sources of spread like bars, restaurants, and gyms, remain open? In large school districts like New York’s, powerful teachers unions have put the brakes on reopening. Over the summer, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), New York city’s public-school teachers union, threatened a “sickout” if the city did not meet extensive safety demands. The 3 percent threshold was then part of the agreement Mayor de Blasio made with the UFT to ensure schools reopened. Union president Michael Mulgrew issued a straightforward statement this week: “The city established the 3% infection rate threshold to make sure that schools did not become centers to spread the coronavirus. Since the 3% rate has been reached, education will continue but all students will be learning remotely.”

Nationally, many other teachers unions have blocked school reopenings. In Maryland, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan clashed with the union in Baltimore as his state attempted to reopen schools. In San Francisco, the local teachers union pressured the school board to vote against a consultant hired to develop a reopening plan because he had worked with charter schools in the past, which the superintendent characterized as a “body blow” to reopening plans. Washington, D.C., saw teachers protest a reopening plan by dumping body bags in front of district headquarters and taking a mass “mental health day” break from teaching remotely. 

On CNN last night, Dr. Anthony Fauci said his “default position” is “to keep the schools open if you possibly can.” CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield expressed similar sentiments earlier in the day, saying “extensive data” exists to “confirm that K-12 schools can operate with face-to-face learning, and they can do it safely, and they can do it responsibly.” He added that, from the CDC’s perspective, schools are “one of the safest places [K-12 students] can be.”

Redfield advocated for “data-driven decisions,” warning against an “emotional response” to the pandemic leading to school closures. There is little doubt that the coronavirus has been sucked into America’s partisan culture war: A July Brookings Institution study found that a county’s 2016 vote share for President Trump was a much better predictor of school district reopening decisions than new COVID-19 cases per capita. The lower Trump’s vote share, the less likely school districts were to favor in-person learning.

The CDC has published extensive guidance on how schools can safely and effectively open, including widespread masking, improved ventilation systems, and modified seating layouts to create more distance between students. The CARES Act last spring allocated just over $13 billion for public schools across the country for needs like “tools and resources for distance education, ensuring student health and safety, and developing and implementing plans for the next school year.” The assumption, however, was always that more money would come later. The Democrats’ HEROES Act in May included $225 billion for school districts and institutes of higher learning; the Republicans’ counterproposal in late July included $105 billion. Neither have passed.

Worth Your Time

  • Kevin Williamson’s latest post on NRO’s The Corner is an all-timer. “What we are seeing now, in the twilight of Trump’s kookery, is the merger of QAnon, the Republican Party, and the large part of the conservative movement that earns its bread by peddling miracle veggie pills to gullible elderly people on the radio,” he writes. “This raises some uncomfortable questions for conservatives. One of those questions is: How long are we going to keep pretending that this madness isn’t madness? Another is: How long will we continue to pretend that what’s being broadcast by Fox News and talk radio is political commentary rather than the most shameful, irresponsible, and unpatriotic kind of sycophantic for-profit propaganda? A third is: What exactly is the benefit—for our ideas, and for the country—of making common cause with these lunatics and hucksters?”

  • In his new Substack newsletter, Matt Yglesias takes an ambitious stab at answering a difficult question: “What’s wrong with the media?” The problem, he postulates, is multifaceted. First and most obviously, the journalism field is composed of a very narrow demographic that largely skews left. Second, the opinions of career journalists are being passed up in favor of employees—like programmers and developers—with an untrained political eye. Lastly, the New York Times is growing its monopoly over the industry—both in readership and in the hiring of talented journalists. “So we’re left with a giant that’s incapable of self-scrutiny, because that might lead to implosion, paired with a set of institutions that increasingly all reflect the same worldview and do so in very strange ways.”

  • “Why are you making choices to make the world crueler than it needs to be and calling that being ‘woke?’” asks Professor Loretta J. Ross, who has dedicated her teaching at Smith College to combating cancel culture. In her latest for the  New York Times, Jessica Bennett profiles Ross’ lifelong commitment to feminism, social justice, and compassion—three things that shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. “The antidote to that outrage cycle, Professor Ross believes, is ‘calling in,’” writes Bennett. “Calling in is like calling out, but done privately and with respect.”

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Three months ago, Israeli operatives killed Abu Muhammad al-Masri, an al-Qaeda emir who has been wanted by U.S. operatives for 22 years following his involvement in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. In his latest Vital Interests (🔒) newsletter, Thomas Joscelyn explains why it’s not surprising that Masri was gunned down in Tehran, given the “constellation of data points about the Iranian regime’s cooperation with al-Qaeda.”

  • On Thursday’s episode of the Advisory Opinions podcast, David and Sarah discuss the latest election litigation disputes, imminent lawless action in the context of the First Amendment, and two of their favorite television shows, Ted Lasso and Queen’s Gambit.

Let Us Know

Let’s take a stab at those “uncomfortable questions for conservatives” that Kevin Williamson posed. “How long are we going to keep pretending that this madness isn’t madness? How long will we continue to pretend that what’s being broadcast by Fox News and talk radio is political commentary rather than the most shameful, irresponsible, and unpatriotic kind of sycophantic for-profit propaganda? What exactly is the benefit—for our ideas, and for the country—of making common cause with these lunatics and hucksters?”

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