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The Morning Dispatch: Is Biden Easing Up on Nord Stream 2?
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The Morning Dispatch: Is Biden Easing Up on Nord Stream 2?

Plus: how Biden's unaccompanied minors border policy differs from his predecessor's.

Happy Friday! Some free advice from your Morning Dispatchers: If you’re going to commit a crime, don’t text your ex-girlfriend about it—while you’re doing it—and then call her a moron. She might just turn you in.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The United States conducted a series of airstrikes last night against facilities used by Iranian-backed militia groups in Syria. The strikes, ordered by President Joe Biden, came “in response to recent attacks against American and Coalition personnel in Iraq,” according to a Defense Department spokesman. 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].”

  • Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough ruled last night that raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour through the budget reconciliation process does not comply with Senate rules, dealing a blow to Democrats who hoped to include the provision in their coronavirus relief package. Some progressive Democrats are advocating for overruling MacDonough, but White House officials have made clear they will not.

  • The Senate voted 64-35 on Thursday to confirm former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm as secretary of the Department of Energy.

  • Former U.S. Olympic gymnastics coach John Geddert died by suicide on Thursday hours after he was charged with two dozen felonies by the state of Michigan, including 20 counts of human trafficking and two counts of sexual assault.

  • The House of Representatives passed the Equality Act on Thursday in a 224-206 vote, with all Democrats and three Republicans supporting it. The legislation, which is unlikely to garner the necessary 60 votes in the Senate, would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to provide additional legal protections for LGBTQ individuals. 

  • Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told Fox News yesterday he would “absolutely” support Donald Trump if the former president won the Republican nomination in 2024, though he added that “there’s a lot to happen between now and ‘24” and it “should be a wide-open race.” McConnell’s comments came weeks after he blamed Trump for the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol and suggested the president might be prosecuted for his role.

  • The United States confirmed 80,763 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 4.5 percent of the 1,811,380 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 2,318 deaths were attributed to the virus on Thursday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 508,114. According to the COVID Tracking Project, 52,669 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1,809,170 COVID-19 vaccine doses were administered yesterday, bringing the nationwide total to 68,274,117.

Nord Stream 2: 2 Fast 2 Furious

Longtime Morning Dispatch readers—we’re talking way back, when we were only publishing three days a week—might remember an item we wrote in December 2019 about Nord Stream 2, a pipeline being constructed by the Russian state-owned natural gas company Gazprom. Once completed, the pipeline would span the Baltic Sea, allowing Russia to export more gas directly to Germany.

Why does this matter? Here’s what we wrote last year:

Russia currently funnels much of the gas it sends to Europe through Ukraine, which is then able to extract both transit fees and geopolitical leverage from the aggressors to the east. Putin would love to end that, further weakening the Ukrainian economy and the country’s ties to the Western world. In an interview with state TV in April 2018, Gazprom’s CEO acknowledged as much, saying that while some gas would continue to flow through Ukraine upon the completion of the pipeline, “the volumes of such transit will be much lower.”

Former President Trump signed a law in December 2019 threatening sanctions against any company that aided in the completion of the pipeline. For a little more than a year, this strategy worked: The project was put on pause as businesses involved in its construction dropped out, deeming the financial and geopolitical penalty for continuing to be too great.

But construction resumed February 6—estimates now peg the pipeline at 90 percent complete—as it became clear the Biden administration would not be nearly as aggressive in blocking it as its predecessor was. The Biden team, in fact, has yet to enforce many of the sanctions that are required by law. 

The State Department sent a report to Congress last Friday outlining where it believes the pipeline stands, and identifying Russian-based company KVT-RUS as subject to sanctions for allowing its ship, Fortuna, to be used in the pipeline’s construction. It did not, however, target more than a dozen other businesses reported to be involved. 

“The report … includes a list of entities that have engaged in good-faith efforts to wind down activities related to the Nord Stream 2 project during the relevant time period and, therefore, are not subject to U.S. sanctions at this time,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters on Monday. “This is a list that includes over 15 entities and it demonstrates that the legislative goals and our actions are having a good effect. We continue to examine entities involved in potentially sanctionable activity. We have been clear that companies risk sanctions if they are involved in Nord Stream 2.”

Kevin Book, managing director of the research group ClearView Energy, noted the shortfalls of the report. “The report that the administration published listed one vessel and one company, both of which had been sanctioned before,” he told The Dispatch. “It also noted 18 entities that had withdrawn from the project. It did not list, however, any of the other vessels that appear to be associated with construction based on the data we can see, or those vessels’ owners. It also did not list any of the supporting maritime facilities that appear to be associated with the project.”

The report was somewhat of a disappointment even to Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who back in 2019 worked with Republican Sen. Ted Cruz on bipartisan legislation to forestall the completion of the pipeline. “I am encouraged to see new potential sanctions designations,” she wrote, “but I look forward to being briefed by the Biden administration on additional steps they can take to stop the threat posed by the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.”

Sen. Jim Risch, the Republican ranking member on the Foreign Affairs Committee, expressed his frustration more bluntly. “I am deeply troubled and disappointed by the State Department’s report on Nord Stream 2 activities and their decision to forgo additional sanctions on other entities involved in its construction,” he said in a statement. “Congress has passed multiple bipartisan laws regarding this project, and specifically broadened the mandatory sanctions to include the types of pipe-laying activities occurring right now. The administration’s decision to ignore these activities demands an immediate explanation.”

Cruz wasn’t convinced, either. “Without immediate and strong action, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline will be completed. Our allies across Europe will be subject to Putin’s blackmail and aggression, NATO’s ability to act will be severely constrained, and billions will flow into the Kremlin’s coffers,” he said. “Over the past few years Democrats have been ceaseless in calling for ever-stronger measures sanctioning and cutting off Russia. It is startling to see the Biden administration begin by handing Putin a victory he has been building towards for over a decade.”

Cruz is right. Democrats have been clamoring to get tougher on Russia. Biden himself has repeatedly called Vladimir Putin a “KGB thug” and reversed course in recent years to declare Russia the United States’ toughest geopolitical foe. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki even said last month that Biden “continues to believe that Nord Stream 2 is a bad deal for Europe.” So why isn’t he doing all he can to prevent its completion?

Primarily because Europe doesn’t believe it’s a bad deal for Europe, and Biden is desperate, after four years of tensions under Trump, to rebuild the United States’ relationships on the continent—particularly with Germany.

Because it doesn’t produce much of its own, Germany imports a lot of energy from other countries. With natural gas production on the decline across the EU, Germany feels like it has no choice but to turn to Russia—even with the geopolitical baggage that accompanies this decision. “The German government rejects such extraterritorial sanctions,” a spokesman said back in 2019 when the United States first blocked the pipeline’s construction. “They affect German and European companies and constitute an interference in our domestic affairs.”

Even recently—despite the poisoning and jailing of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny—German Chancellor Angela Merkel has plowed ahead. “In connection with the events in Russia, we have already said that we reserve the right to continue sanctions, especially against individuals,” she told reporters. “The position on Nord Stream 2 is not affected by this for the time being.”

In an extraordinary op-ed published in Politico EU this week, the foreign ministers of Poland and Ukraine essentially pleaded with the Biden administration to step in and block the pipeline’s completion. “Regrettably, Russia was allowed to advance this far with the [Nord Stream 2] project even as it continues to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, showing blatant disregard for international law,” they write. The United States “needs to dismiss claims that Nord Stream 2 has become ‘too big to fail’ and that it simply needs to be finished. If the project is successful, Russia could try to convince the Ukrainian public that the West doesn’t care about its own principles, and ultimately, about the security and prosperity of Ukraine.”

The Biden Administration’s First Migrant Detention Center

A few days ago, the Washington Post reported that the Biden administration had opened its first emergency migrant camp near the southern border, and that it would hold up to 700 teenagers and children. The move was lambasted by the right as hypocritical and the left as a broken promise. Is it one or the other? Both? Neither? We tasked our newest Morning Dispatcher, Ryan Brown, with finding out. His first standalone piece is up on the site, but some excerpts are below.

How does this compare to the Trump administration’s immigration policy?

The Biden administration insists that what is happening on the southern border is not at all like what happened during the Trump administration. At her daily press conference on Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki made this distinction: “We have a number of unaccompanied minors—children—who are coming into the country without their families. What we are not doing—what the last administration did was separate those kids, rip them from the arms of their parents at the border.”

In 2018, the Trump administration instituted a “zero-tolerance policy” that purposefully separated children from parents when they were caught crossing the border illegally, citing a wish to deter families from doing so. In a January 2019 study, HHS found that at least 2,737 children were separated from their parents. However, because of a lack of data and other complexities, that number may have been much higher. Instead of deterrence, though, what resulted was a massive public outcry and, ultimately, a withdrawal of the policy from the Trump administration in June 2018.

That was the policy Psaki was referencing in her comments, and the Biden administration has not reinstituted it. Currently, the new administration is dealing with an influx of new undocumented immigrants while also trying to keep the detained population low amid the coronavirus pandemic. Since taking office, Biden has reversed some of Trump’s restrictive immigration orders, including lifting a freeze on issuing green cards, revoking the travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries, throwing his full support behind the DACA program, and more. Perhaps most important: While Biden has largely kept in place a Trump-era expulsion order for anyone crossing the border, he has made an exemption for unaccompanied minors.

But why are these unaccompanied minors being sent to migrant facilities?

The facility, in Carrizo Springs, Texas, was built and opened under the Trump administration, which used it only for about a month  in 2019. A press release from the Administration for Children and Families described the conditions of the “Influx Care Facility,” which is run by the Department of Health and Human Services rather than the Border Patrol. It is equipped with beds, a meal schedule, health care, and other resources for unaccompanied minors to access 24/7. 

It will be used to combat overcrowding at the current facilities that hold unaccompanied minors when they cross the border. Axios reported that there were more than 700 children in Border Patrol custody as of Sunday. More than 200 had been in custody for longer than 48 hours, and nine for longer than the legal limit of 72 hours. 

Sarah Pierce of the Migration Policy Institute told The Dispatch that, when an unaccompanied minor crosses the border, agents follow a protocol that ultimately leads to finding the minor a sponsor to live with via the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Meanwhile, the minor goes through standard immigration court proceedings. 

Connecting minors with a sponsor through the ORR is challenging these days for a couple of reasons, Pierce says. “They’re overwhelmed not only because of the rise in numbers, but because they’re trying to keep the number of people in their facilities low [because of COVID-19].” 

Elizabeth Neumann of the National Immigration Forum argues that the Biden administration currently has no choice but to reopen some of these migrant facilities. “Of course nobody wants to be housing children in camps,” she said, “but what else do you want them to do, just sleep outside?” Neumann and other experts told The Dispatch that in order to solve this problem, serious immigration reform is required to address why these minors are coming to the U.S. in the first place.

Is there a particular reason the number of migrants coming to the border is surging?

“In this instance, Biden is facing a problem of his own creation,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for less immigration into the United States. He pointed to the new administration’s decision not to apply a Trump-era public health order—which allows Border Patrol to turn away anyone who shows up at the border—to unaccompanied minors.

“So, guess what? There are a lot more unaccompanied minors,” Krikorian said. “The real issue here is that the promises Biden has made on immigration are going to lead to problems like this at the border. … I don’t know if there’s any way they can avoid it. They have backed themselves into a kind of corner.”

Worth Your Time

  • To help start your Friday on an optimistic note, here’s some fantastic news: COVID-19 deaths have fallen dramatically in nursing homes in recent months, far outpacing the national decline. “In some nursing homes, four out of five residents or more have now been vaccinated,” Matthew Conlen, Sarah Mervosh and Danielle Ivory write in the New York Times. “The turnaround is an encouraging sign for vaccine effectiveness and offers an early glimpse at what may be in store for the rest of the country, as more and more people get vaccinated.”

  • CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski and the Wall Street Journal’s Rachel Louise Ensign lost their nine-month-old daughter Francesca last December to a deadly brain tumor. In a heart-wrenching piece for the Washington Post, Kaczynski details the grief their family experienced—but also makes the case for a series of steps pharmaceutical companies and governments can take that, over time, could prevent other families from suffering the same fate. “Children with cancer touch a special place in people’s hearts,” he writes. “We’ve received so many incredible messages of support from total strangers that we will always cherish. And yet, as a society, we have failed to put our best resources together. Let’s start now. We don’t have time to waste.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • In his latest French Press (🔒), David explains how the Equality Act goes well beyond the legitimate scope of nondiscrimination law in seeking to protect LGBT Americans from invidious discrimination. For David, the Equality Act has two main flaws. “First, it renders virtually all biological sex distinctions unlawful, regardless of context,” he writes. “And second, it explicitly attempts to diminish religious liberty protections for religious individuals and institutions by stating that the Religious Freedom Restoration ACT (RFRA) ‘cannot provide a basis’ for challenging the ‘application or enforcement’ of the act.”

  • On yesterday’s episode of Advisory Opinions, Sarah and David engage in some mild-mannered media criticism over coverage of the Supreme Court, before being joined by University of Chicago law professor William Baude for a discussion of the Court’s shadow docket.

  • TMD grand poobah Declan Garvey joins Jonah on this week’s second edition of The Remnant. The pair discuss Declan’s recent piece on whether the GOP could fracture, while nerding out over Whig history. They also address whether a third party could emerge in the United States, and if there’s any credibility to the idea of “Red Dog Democrats.” Along the way, Jonah makes sure to abuse Declan relentlessly for his Harvard education.

Let Us Know

We know topics like Nord Stream 2 or the latest developments in Burma are a little off the beaten path, but we cover them because we think they’re important. How do you think we’ve been doing on topic selection lately, balancing politics with policy, foreign events with domestic, and so on?

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).