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The Morning Dispatch: How Russia and China Are Trying to Meddle in the 2020 Election
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The Morning Dispatch: How Russia and China Are Trying to Meddle in the 2020 Election

Plus, President Trump takes executive action on COVID relief.

Happy Monday! We typically like to keep TMD short to kick off the week, to let you (and us) ease back into the rhythm of things. Unfortunately, there was Too Much News this weekend—and that’s after we sifted through all the dumb stuff that doesn’t matter on your behalf!

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The United States confirmed 49,573 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday, with 7 percent of the 711,984 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 522 deaths were attributed to the virus on Sunday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 162,938.

  • The U.S. economy regained 1.8 million jobs in July, per numbers released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Friday. The unemployment rate fell 0.9 points to 10.2 percent, with the number of unemployed workers dropping 1.4 million to 16.3 million.

  • William Evanina, a senior U.S. intelligence official and director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, released a statement Friday regarding information about hostile foreign powers trying to interfere in the 2020 election. Russia, Evanina’s statement said, is attempting to sway the election for Trump, while China is attempting to sway it for Biden.

  • The Trump administration imposed sanctions on 11 senior authorities in Hong Kong and China involved in the continued crackdown in Hong Kong, including Carrie Lam, the region’s chief executive.

  • According to unnamed U.S. officials, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sternly warned Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov against Moscow paying bounties for the killing of American soldiers in Afghanistan, directly contradicting President Trump’s claim that recent revelations about the issue were a “hoax.”

  • Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a major Trump donor before assuming his position in the administration in May, announced a significant reorganization of the Postal Service on Friday purported to increase efficiency in anticipation of an election where millions are expected to vote via mail-in ballots. The move set off cries of foul play from Democratic lawmakers, who argued that the changes are a veiled threat to the integrity of the mail-in voting system. “We are not slowing down election mail or any other mail,” DeJoy said.

  • New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the state’s schools can open for in-person classes in the fall, provided they are in a region where the average rate of positive coronavirus tests remains below 5 percent for a minimum of two weeks. The decision now lies with local officials.

  • In a 7-2 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that courts can enforce congressional subpoenas against the executive branch and that the House “was entitled to [former White House Counsel Don] McGahn’s testimony pursuant to its duly issued subpoena.” The case will now go back to a three-judge panel to determine whether McGahn can block the subpoena on other grounds.

  • Brent Scowcroft, foreign policy counselor to seven presidential administrations and national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, died over the weekend at 95.

  • A new study from Duke University researchers tested the efficacy of a variety of different facemasks on reducing the transmission of respiratory droplets. While most masks were proven to be highly effective—several cotton and polypropylene masks approached surgical- and N95-levels of performance—bandanas and neck fleeces/gaiters were shown to barely limit transmission.

  • Collin Morikawa, 23, won the PGA Championship—the first golf major since the pandemic shut down the sport in March.

If It Hadn’t Been for Those Meddling Geopolitical Foes

With fewer than 90 days until the final ballots of the 2020 campaign are cast, the bulk of the concern surrounding the integrity of the election has revolved around mail-in voting—and rightly so. But on Friday afternoon, the general public became privy to intelligence reportedly known to lawmakers and both presidential campaigns for days, if not longer: Adversaries are continuing to interfere in our electoral process.

“Ahead of the 2020 U.S. elections, foreign states will continue to use covert and overt influence measures in their attempts to sway U.S. voters’ preferences and perspectives, shift U.S. policies, increase discord in the United States, and undermine the American people’s confidence in our democratic process,” William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said in a statement. He cited three countries’ efforts in particular.

Russia, Evanina said, prefers President Trump win re-election and is “using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment.’” He cited Andriy Derkach—a pro-Russia Ukrainian parliamentarian—as a sample vessel for information designed to “undermine” Biden’s candidacy and the Democrat Party. Derkach was the source for various anti-Biden segments on One America News Network, a Trump-friendly conspiracy outlet, during the impeachment investigation last fall.

But Russia isn’t alone in trying to put a thumb on the scale, per Evanina. China is rooting for a Trump loss—Beijing sees the president as “unpredictable”—and Iran is working to “undermine” both Trump and American democracy more broadly.

Klon Kitchen—a senior fellow for technology and national security at the Heritage Foundation—outlined what he described as Russia and China’s differing “strategic postures” in an interview with The Dispatch. “Russia is deliberately blatant and does not fully hide its activities, because a part of what it wants to do is demonstrate that it’s acting with impunity and to put forward the idea that the Russian bear isn’t afraid to stand up to the Americans,” he said. China, on the other hand, is “much more clandestine, narrower in scope, and aware that certain portions of the U.S. government are going to know that they’re doing things, but not so blatant in their work so as to make it obvious to the public at large.”

Kitchen made a scary prediction. “I think 2020 will be more heavily contested than 2016 was. And I think both political candidates will be able to levy believable and legitimate complaints about foreign interference, such as to call into question the outcome.”

The congressional response to Evanina’s findings seemed to acknowledge the gravity of the situation, with leaders issuing uncharacteristically measured and mature remarks.“One of the best ways to combat such [foreign disinformation] efforts is to share with the voting public as much information about foreign threats to our elections as possible,” the top two senators on the Intelligence Committee—Marco Rubio and Mark Warner—said in a bipartisan statement. “We encourage political leaders on all sides to refrain from weaponizing intelligence matters for political gain, as this only furthers the divisive aims of our adversaries.”

President Trump’s Frankenstein CARES Act

We told you Friday that President Trump, frustrated with the slow progress of congressional COVID relief talks, was mulling a plan to perform the roles of both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. On Saturday afternoon, he unveiled a series of executive orders targeting a number of the White House’s policy priorities from the negotiations, including a payroll tax freeze, an expanded unemployment extension, a moratorium on evictions, and a deferral of federal student loan payments. 

We say targeting those priorities, because Trump is hobbled by the fact that actually tackling them head-on would require making use of Congress’ power of the purse. Instead, the White House has cobbled together a set of actions that gesture in the direction of those policies from existing laws—resulting in a hodgepodge of zigzag strategies that vary wildly in both their likely constitutionality and likely effectiveness. 

Over at the site today, Andrew breaks down the basics of what the orders do, what they can’t do despite the president’s assurances otherwise, and what they may end up doing whether we like it or not.

Two are relatively easy to address: The president can waive penalties for late federal student-loan payments, but cannot unilaterally freeze evictions nationwide. (Trump’s eviction memorandum itself quietly acknowledges this fact.)

The other two are a little more complicated. By monkeying around with federal disaster budgets, President Trump can seemingly create a new sort of Frankenstein version of the CARES Act’s expanded unemployment program, one of the most pressing concerns from the latest negotiations. But experts say the program would have to be rebuilt from scratch and could take months to put in place, and would require bleeding FEMA funds that might soon be needed elsewhere, particularly during hurricane season.

Then there’s the payroll tax freeze—which, we should remind you again, neither Republicans nor Democrats in Congress want, and which most experts agree is bad policy in response to a pandemic. The statutory authority here isn’t as thin as you might think: Federal law permits the government to suspend tax collection for up to a year from people in disaster zones. But experts Andrew spoke to argue this action stretches that law to its breaking point: 

“It wasn’t the intent of the legislation,” Joel Griffith, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told The Dispatch on Thursday, before the White House move was official. “It would be just such an unprecedented act to go ahead and declare an entire nation a disaster zone, and then instead of suspended taxes only for those that are impacted, we’re going to suspend it for the entirety of the population. … It would also be a dangerous precedent because in this country, Congress sets the tax policy, and the executive branch is supposed to enforce that law. And if Congress wants to suspend the payroll tax, and the federal government wants to do that, Congress needs to go ahead and pass that legislation, right?” 

In the days ahead, everything will depend on whether these executive actions spur Congress to act more quickly to strike a deal on legislation or whether the White House, thinking its mission accomplished, will walk away from the negotiating table. We’ll keep you posted in the days ahead.

July’s Economic Report Card

The U.S. economy added 1.8 million jobs in July, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported Friday, marking the third straight month of job growth since states began easing coronavirus-induced lockdown measures in late-spring. July’s employment gains were well below the 4.8 million new jobs added in June and the 2.5 million added in May—a sign the economic recovery is beginning to decelerate.

“I expect us to look like we’re on the ‘V’ trajectory, but that ‘V’ will only get us halfway,” Obama administration economist Jason Furman told Declan back in May. “It’ll look like this incredibly rapid decline in the unemployment rate—from say 20 percent to 12 percent—but then the next 8 percentage points will take much longer than the first eight percentage points.”

The rate fell to 10.2 percent in July—but 16.3 million Americans remain out of work, anxiously stuck in a limbo awaiting the next round of coronavirus relief. President Trump is trying to alleviate some of that anxiety with his executive actions over the weekend, but, as Andrew reminds us, critics have since called into question both the efficacy and constitutionality of those measures.

The leisure and hospitality industries—including food services—experienced the largest surge in payroll employment last month with 592,000 new jobs, constituting roughly a third of all gains. The government added 301,000 jobs in July—most of them in local and state education—and the retail sector came in third with 258,000 new jobs. The leisure and hospitality workforce is still 2.6 million jobs smaller than it was in February—and retail is down 913,000—but their relatively strong recoveries seem to indicate a desire on the part of Americans to return to their normal spending behavior.

Things are trending in the right direction, but the raw numbers are still lousy. “Total employment remains at 2014 levels, and the unemployment rate, falling to 10.2 percent, is still at its highest point since 1982 and higher than peak unemployment during the Great Recession,” said Daniel Zhao, a senior economist at Glassdoor. “The report exposes cracks in efforts to reopen as employers struggle to deal with resurgent outbreaks around the country.”

These historic unemployment rates have disproportionately affected racial and ethnic minorities. Black Americans—who enjoyed all-time low unemployment last August—are now out of work at a 14.6 percent clip. Meanwhile, 12.9 percent of Hispanic Americans are unemployed, followed by Asian Americans at 12 percent, and white Americans at 9.2 percent.

The speed and strength of the economic recovery will depend on how many of the jobs lost in March and April were temporary, and how many will become permanent. On this point, the data provide a hint of a silver lining. “More than 80 percent of the people who lost their jobs in the last few months still say they think it’s a temporary job loss,” Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia told Fox Business on Friday. Friday’s BLS report seemed to back that up: The number of permanent job losers remained “virtually unchanged” throughout July, holding steady at about 2.9 million. That’s still about double pre-pandemic levels, but July was the first time in several months the figure didn’t dramatically increase.

Worth Your Time

  • David Brooks’ latest column made waves over the weekend—he wrote about potential paths forward for a post-Trump Republican Party. “The basic Trump worldview,” he argues, “will shape the G.O.P. for decades, the way the basic Reagan worldview did for decades. A thousand smarter conservatives will be building a new party after 2020, but one that builds from the framework Trump established.” It’s clear, Brooks writes, that Reaganism’s chokehold over the GOP is finished. But what the party’s post-Trump platform and character will look like depends on who takes the reins in the months and years to come.

  • Nellie Bowles traveled to Seattle to report on the aftermath of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) for the New York Times. The idea of police abolition is currently supported by only the most activist fringe, but for many small business owners and residents of the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Seattle, it was a reality for weeks on end. The picture Bowles paints of a world without police is a disturbing one. “One window broken, then another, then another, then another. Garbage to clean off the sidewalk in front of the store every morning. Urine to wash out of our doorway alcove. Graffiti to remove,” the owner of a printing shop detailed. “Costs to board up and later we’ll have costs to repair.”

  • The Washington Post is running a series of oral histories from Americans living through—and touched by—the coronavirus pandemic. Its latest installment hit us like a ton of bricks. Francene Bailey believes she gave COVID-19 to her 70-year-old mother, and 10 days later she was gone. “I heard her start to cough downstairs in her room,” Bailey remembered. “It was nighttime, and I leaned against the floorboards to listen. I said, ‘Oh God, no. No. Please, Jesus, don’t let her be sick.’ But I already knew. She sounded exactly like me.”

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Toeing the Company Line

  • Today we launch what will become an occasional series, “The Biden Agenda.” Based on Biden’s long career, the views he’s articulated in his low-key campaign for president, the people he’s likely to rely on for advice, and the current political moment, what should we expect from a prospective Biden presidency on the most pressing issues of our time? The first piece is on what health care policy might look like, and it comes from Jim Capretta, one of the country’s leading experts on health care, entitlements, budgets and fiscal policy.

  • Jerry Falwell, who has been through several scandals regarding his personal behavior, has finally been put on leave as head of Liberty University. David’s Sunday French Press unpacks the latest Falwell revelations and what they mean for the broader Evangelical movement.

  • In his latest G-File (and Ruminant), Jonah examines the internal debate on the left as to whether class or race is the “central explanation for American perfidy.” He writes: “One camp claimed race as the Rosetta Stone for deciphering America’s sins. The other, older camp clung to class-based explanations. It’s not necessarily the case that the socialists didn’t think racism was a problem, and it’s certainly not the case that the racialists (for want of a better term) didn’t think class and capitalism, etc., weren’t constructs of oppression. The debate was simply over which paradigm should take precedence and explain or illuminate the other side’s concerns or the central challenges to be overcome.”

Let Us Know

Are you feeling the effects of an economic recovery in your neck of the woods? If you (or friends, neighbors, etc.) were laid off back in March or April, did those layoffs end up being temporary?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Nate Hochman (@njhochman), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photographs by Jim Watson and Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images.