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The Morning Dispatch: Long Winter Ahead
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The Morning Dispatch: Long Winter Ahead

Plus: China cracks down on pro-democracy legislators in Hong Kong.

Happy Friday! Approach your day with the confidence and conviction of Chris Krebs—the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency within the Trump administration—knowing he’s about to be fired and debunking all of the president’s election-related misinformation on his way out.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • A group of federal and state elections officials pushed back on President Trump’s continued baseless claims about widespread voter fraud. “The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history,” reads a joint statement from the Election Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council and Election Infrastructure Sector Coordinating Council executive committees. “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised. … We can assure you we have the utmost confidence in the security and integrity of our elections, and you should too.”

  • Several more Republican lawmakers—Sens. Chuck Grassley, Lindsey Graham, John Cornyn, John Thune, Rob Portman—said on Thursday that the Trump administration should grant Joe Biden access to classified intelligence briefings to kickstart the transition process.

  • Other network decision desks officially joined Fox News and the Associated Press in calling Arizona for Joe Biden yesterday, all but assuring the president-elect will finish the contest with 306 electoral votes—the same number President Trump won with in 2016.

  • Seven military members of a peacekeeping force—including five Americans—were killed in Egypt on Thursday when a helicopter crashed in the Sinai Peninsula. One American survived the crash, and is being treated at an Israeli hospital.

  • In a small victory for the Trump campaign, a Pennsylvania appeals court ruled on Thursday that counties must throw out mail ballots from voters who did not provide requisite identification by the state’s November 9 deadline. The small number of votes affected by the ruling had yet to be counted, so the decision will not take a bite out of Joe Biden’s 55,000-vote lead (which is still growing) in the state.

  • A federal appeals court panel ruled on Thursday that Harvard University’s consideration of race in its admissions process is a constitutional means of diversifying its student body. The ruling is the latest move in an affirmative action case brought in 2014 by plaintiffs who allege that the school discriminates against Asian-American applicants.

  • A Justice Department probe concluded that, while prosecutors overseeing the 2008 non-prosecution deal involving Jeffrey Epstein demonstrated “poor judgment,” no action will be taken against them because they did not break the law. 

  • Initial jobless claims decreased by 48,000 week-over-week to 709,000 last week, the Labor Department reported on Thursday. More 21 million people were on some form of unemployment insurance during the week ending October 24, compared to 1.5 million people during the comparable week in 2019.

  • The United States confirmed 146,086 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 10.1 percent of the 1,448,154 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 804 deaths were attributed to the virus on Thursday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 242,423. According to the COVID Tracking Project, 67,096 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19.

Off the Edge of the COVID Map

We reported Tuesday on the excellent news regarding COVID vaccine development, after Pfizer—just one of several pharmaceutical companies conducting Phase III trials—announced early results demonstrating better-than-expected efficacy. While frontline workers and those in particularly vulnerable populations may start being vaccinated on an emergency basis in a handful of weeks, it will be several months until there’s enough supply for widespread adoption. Asked when he estimates any American who wants a vaccine will be able to receive one, Dr. Anthony Fauci said “probably by April.”

But we’ve got a long winter to get through between now and then. And if recent COVID data—coming as colder weather pushes more and more Americans indoors—is any indication, it’s only going to get longer. Over the past week, the country has confirmed an average of more than 130,000 new coronavirus cases per day, up from an average of just under 49,000 per day a month ago. The number of Americans hospitalized with the virus has increased nearly 90 percent month-over-month. And more than 10,000 deaths have been attributed to the virus since the beginning of November alone. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s criteria, every state in the country besides Vermont and Hawaii qualifies as a COVID hotspot.

A study published in Nature science journal this week used cell phone mobility data to determine where most COVID infections happened early on in the pandemic, from March to May. About eight in 10 infections could be traced back to restaurants, gyms, coffee shops, or other crowded indoor spaces. “Restaurants were by far the riskiest places, about four times riskier than gyms and coffee shops, followed by hotels,” one of the studies’ authors told the New York Times

The world has adjusted since March, however, and more recently public health officials are tracing new infections back to smaller, more casual social gatherings. From dinner parties, to game nights, to sports leagues, to carpools, peoples’ coronavirus “bubbles” are growing in size again as pandemic fatigue wears on. 

Although doctors are now better-equipped—both in medical equipment and knowledge of the virus—to treat COVID patients, hospitals in heavily populated areas are spread thin once again. For elected officials in cities and states across the country, mitigating steps like mask wearing and social distancing haven’t done enough to control the spread. Some are beginning to take another look at targeted lockdowns.

New York, for example, is reintroducing some of its spring and summer coronavirus restrictions, mandating that bars and restaurants close for in-person dining at 10 p.m., and limiting private gatherings in homes to 10 people. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio seems on the verge of shutting down schools as well, despite growing evidence of low transmission rates between students.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot rolled out the “Protect Chicago” initiative this week after Illinois reported 12,626 new cases on Tuesday—the state’s highest-ever tally. The city issued a stay-at-home advisory set to go into effect this coming Monday, asking Chicago residents to avoid non-essential travel, not to host guests who they don’t live with, and to “cancel traditional Thanksgiving plans.” But continuing the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do approach of many leaders, Lightfoot last weekend posted a video of herself celebrating the election results maskless amid a crowd of Chicagoans.

Renewed restrictions aren’t just coming in blue cities, either. Utah’s Republican Gov. Gary Herbert declared a state of emergency earlier this week in an effort to ease the strain on the state’s hospital system. In addition to a stricter mask mandate, the order limits social gatherings to “household only” until November 23, and pauses “all extracurricular activities, including athletic and intramural events” (exempting college sports and high school athletic championships). Ohio’s Republican Gov. Mike DeWine issued an order prohibiting dancing at weddings and other social gatherings, and said he will make a determination on restaurants, bars, and gyms next week. A recent public health order in Colorado reduced the size of allowable social gatherings to 10 people from no more than two separate households. “We are asking everyone to ‘shrink their bubble’ to reduce the spread,” the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said.

Dr. Michael Osterholm—an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota and a member of President-elect Joe Biden’s recently announced COVID-19 task forcefloated on Wednesday the idea of another four-to-six week national lockdown, something even Fauci has pushed back against in recent days. “We could pay for a package right now to cover all of the lost wages for individual workers, for losses to small companies, to medium-sized companies or city, state, county governments. We could do all of that,” Osterholm said Wednesday. “If we did that, then we could lock down for four to six weeks and if we did that, we could drive the numbers down.”

When asked about Osterholm’s comments, Biden spokesperson Kate Bedingfield said the president-elect is “of course” taking his experts’ advice into consideration, but right now is focused on “encouraging national mask mandates” and “providing resources to small businesses and schools to ensure that they can open safely.”

Biden himself spoke with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer Thursday and—according to a readout of the call from the president-elect’s transition team—discussed the “urgent need” for Congress to pass bipartisan COVID-19 relief during the lame duck session before January 20. But Democrats and Republicans remain very far apart on negotiations over additional stimulus legislation. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday rebuffed Democrats’ renewed push for a multi-trillion dollar package, saying “that’s not a place I think we’re willing to go” and that Republicans prefer something “highly targeted at what the residual problems are.”

More than 21 million Americans were still collecting some form of unemployment insurance during the week ending October 24, and approximately 13 million of those received their benefits through programs created by the CARES Act that are set to expire at the end of this year.

Big Trouble in Little Hong Kong

On Wednesday, four pro-democracy legislators in Hong Kong—Dennis Kwok, Kenneth Leung, Kwok Ka-ki and Alvin Yeung—were forced out of office in a move by the mainland Chinese government to crack down further on dissenting voices in the semi-autonomous city. Their ouster was prompted by the Chinese National People’s Congress’ passage of a resolution declaring that the city government could remove politicians who “fail to uphold the Basic Law of the Hong Kong SAR of People’s Republic of China.”

The move caused 15 other members of the Legislative Council associated with the pro-democracy movement to resign in protest, rendering Hong Kong’s government essentially devoid of any opposition to the Chinese Communist Party. “Under authoritarianism, the road to democracy will be extremely long and arduous,” one of the pro-democracy legislators who is stepping down—Wu Chi-wai—told reporters. “But we will absolutely not be defeated by its pressures.”

The “Basic Law” in question is Hong Kong’s semi-constitution, adopted after the city’s 1997 handover from British to Chinese control. The law includes freedoms of speech, press, and assembly, and it stipulated that Hong Kong was to remain semi-autonomous from China until at least 2047. But the Chinese government has steadily encroached on these rights over the last few years. Chief Executive Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s leader, said that the pro-democracy politicians undermined the parts of the Basic Law that said Hong Kong was part of China.

Allison Sherlock, a China analyst at the Eurasia Group, says the actions by the Chinese government (acting through the government of Hong Kong) are a sign that the windows of legally permissible dissent are closing for Hong Kongers. “The issues for [the pro-democracy faction] are going to get more and more granular as there’s less space for them to push back,” she said in an interview with The Dispatch. One possible clash, Sherlock noted, could be over the attempt by the government to insert patriotic, pro-Chinese material into school curricula.

Sherlock predicted much more caution from pro-democracy forces, as the personal risk of opposing the government is now much higher—and much less clearly defined—than before.

Angus Lam—a Hong Kong native who went to college in the United States and currently lives in Washington, D.C.—says the climate is confusing for young Hong Kongers who sympathize with the democracy movement. “Although expected, it is still unprecedented,” he told The Dispatch, adding he still felt drawn to return to Hong Kong out of a sense of patriotism. “It feels like everything is up in the air.”

In June, the Chinese government took advantage of the partial lull in street protests to bypass Hong Kong’s legislature and pass a new national security law that criminalized secession, subversion, and collusion with foreign forces. It also allows the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to override Hong Kong law, and for PRC agents to operate openly in the city. The law’s broad and vaguely defined provisions have been used to arrest dozens of people, including Jimmy Lai, the founder of Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy newspaper. 

“The local government in Hong Kong has been essentially stripped of its policymaking power and agenda setting power,” Sherlock said. The effective end of any kind of dissenting voice in Hong Kong’s government, brought about by the resignations and expulsions of pro-democracy lawmakers, is yet another step in the mainland’s quest to assert its authority over Hong Kong.

The U.S. government has condemned the moves, threatening further sanctions on Chinese officials. U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said there would be sanctions on “those responsible for extinguishing Hong Kong’s freedom,” and Sens. Jeff Merkley and Marco Rubio of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued a joint statement saying that “China’s unelected and unaccountable National People’s Congress standing committee took another grave step toward stripping the people of Hong Kong of their sacred rights and freedoms.”

The United Kingdom also accused China of violating the 1997 handover agreement, saying it would consider sanctions against Chinese officials. Canada and the U.K. have recently made it easier for Hong Kongers to gain work permits and residency in their countries.

In an interview with the BBC on Wednesday, ousted lawmaker Dennis Kwok said that it was “a very, very, tough time” for the pro-democracy movement, but said that he and his colleagues would return to local politics and grassroots level organizing. The fight for the rights of Hong Kongers will continue, if less out in the open than before.

Worth Your Time

  • Will Trump’s nationalist economic policy agenda have any staying power in the GOP after he leaves the White House? Bloomberg columnist and American Enterprise Institute economist Michael Strain doesn’t think so, arguing we are about to witness a departure from the president’s populist approach to trade, spending, and immigration.  “Under pressure from business leaders, I expect the center of gravity in the party to recover its pre-Trump support of free trade and globalization,” Strain writes in his latest Bloomberg column. Even if Republicans keep up their hawkishness toward China, Strain believes “the days of Republican support for tariffs against U.S. allies”—not to mention hostility toward international institutions like NATO and the WTO—“are over.”

  • Cable news and social media are festering with baseless conspiracy theories suggesting that widespread voter fraud cost Donald Trump the election. FiveThirtyEight’s Kaleigh Rogers notes that we should have seen this wave of election disinformation coming; Trump has been priming his base for such nonsense since 2015. “Even before he was president, Trump was alleging election fraud without producing evidence. During his 2016 campaign he claimed the election was “rigged” in favor of Clinton, predicted widespread voter fraud and announced he would accept the results of the election only if he won,” she writes. “When people are already primed to think about a topic in a certain way, it can lead them to seek out information that confirms their existing beliefs.

  • “It is counterintuitive but true: Joe Biden would benefit from Republican control of the Senate.” So begins George Will’s latest Washington Post column, in which he argues that a divided government may help insulate the president-elect from progressives’ unrealistic policy agenda while solidifying Mitch McConnell’s reputation as one of the most effective Republicans of the century. A Biden-McConnell bipartisan alliance, Will argues, will also help to restore long lost institutional norms that have crumbled during the Trump presidency: “With a combined 72  Senate years (so far), Biden and McConnell are custodians of the Senate’s institutional memory.”

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • “A combination of intimidation, disinformation, and equivocation are persuading tens of millions of Americans that the 2020 election was illegitimate,” David writes in his latest French Press newsletter (🔒). In a scathing critique of the “conservative media-entertainment complex,” David explains how Trump-friendly media personalities were able to convince MAGA-loving Americans—with virtually zero credible evidence—that the election was rigged against the president. “While there are many notable and valuable exceptions, the industry is now overrun with proponents of propaganda and vindictive rage. We are watching it corrupt the GOP and poison the GOP base step by painful step.”

  • On Thursday’s episode of the Advisory Opinions podcast, David and Sarah explain the legal context surrounding the president’s ongoing election litigation efforts and give us the lowdown on the latest voter fraud conspiracy theories. Plus, they break down Supreme Court oral arguments for the Affordable Care Act case and preview a deeper discussion on the race-based admissions lawsuit at Harvard.

  • Russian and Chinese officials have thus far kept relatively quiet about the U.S. presidential election. But that silence has been broken by state-backed media conglomerates in both countries. “I’ve been following China’s and Russia’s English-language, state-backed sites every day since the election,” reports Thomas Joscelyn in his latest Vital Interests newsletter (🔒). “They are littered with commentary and reports that are intended to amplify political discord within the U.S.”

  • National Review’s Kevin Williamson joins Jonah on the latest episode of The Remnant for a heaping helping of rank punditry, book talk, and eggheadery. 

Let Us Know

Have you noticed an uptick in the coronavirus’s prevalence in your community in recent weeks? 

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

Photograph by Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto/Getty Images.