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The Morning Dispatch: Lukashenko Pushes on Despite International Backlash
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The Morning Dispatch: Lukashenko Pushes on Despite International Backlash

Plus, the Justice Department announces inquiry into discarded ballots in Pennsylvania.

Happy Friday! As if we needed another reminder of these fraught times, the United States Senate yesterday approved by unanimous consent a resolution reaffirming “its commitment to the orderly and peaceful transfer of power called for in the Constitution of the United States.” Mildly reassuring!

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The United States confirmed 32,392 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 3.2 percent of the 1,021,284 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 781 deaths were attributed to the virus on Thursday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 202,738.

  • President Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power were he to lose the election was met with criticism from Republican officials on Thursday. “The winner of the November 3rd election will be inaugurated on January 20th. There will be an orderly transition just as there has been every four years since 1792,” Sen. Mitch McConnell tweeted. Rep. Liz Cheney, the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, promised: “The peaceful transfer of power is enshrined in our Constitution and fundamental to the survival of our Republic. America’s leaders swear an oath to the Constitution. We will uphold that oath.”

  • U.S. Attorney John Durham—ordered last year by Attorney General Bill Barr to look into the origins of the FBI’s Trump-Russia probe—found that one of the main sources for the infamous Steele dossier was the subject of an FBI counterintelligence investigation in 2009, according to details released to Congress.

  • Joshua Wong, one of the most prominent leaders of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, was arrested by Hong Kong police for attending an unlawful assembly in October 2019. 

  • Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Thursday that New York would form a committee to review the safety of coronavirus vaccines approved by the federal government and plan for the logistics of vaccinating New York’s population. On Wednesday, President Trump told reporters he might reject the Food and Drug Administration’s new, tougher vaccine approval process because it “sounds like a political move.”

  • President Trump promised to send prescription discount cards to 33 million senior citizens in the weeks before the November 3 election, though the source for the nearly $7 billion in new spending is unclear. The White House proposal to send the cards, which would theoretically cover $200 in prescription copays, comes one week after negotiators for the pharmaceutical industry rejected a request from the administration to provide similar $100 so-called “Trump Cards,” citing proximity to the election.

  • The Pac-12 reversed its original postponement of the football season, announcing Thursday teams will play a seven-game season starting November 6th.

Lukashenko’s Autocracy Continues to Alienate International Community

In a ceremony secretly planned and carried out at Independence Palace in Minsk on Wednesday, Alexander Lukashenko was sworn in for a sixth term as president of Belarus, slightly more than a month after he “won” an election many outside observers (and Belarusian citizens) viewed as illegitimate. The backlash to his power grab—from protesters in the streets of Minsk, opposition political leaders, and the international community—was immediate. “Lukashenko’s attempt to preserve his legitimacy only points to the fact that his previous authority has ended, but Belarusian citizens did not give him a new mandate,” said opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya from exile in Lithuania. 

Despite the state’s violent crackdown on protesters, mass demonstrations have rocked the streets of Belarus since Lukashenko declared victory with an implausible 80 percent of the vote early last month. In a statement on Wednesday, the opposition Coordination Council—formed by Tikhanovskaya immediately after Lukeshenko’s re-election—urged Belarusians to continue political resistance to the regime. “We support the infinite peaceful civil disobedience, ignoring any and all instructions from the illegal authorities, peaceful actions in the streets of cities and towns,” it reads.

More than 400 protesters were detained in Minsk on Saturday, according to the Interior Ministry. On Wednesday, Belarus police arrested and tear gassed more than 150 protesters. When asked if Lukashenko’s renewed campaign of violence against demonstrators would demoralize the opposition’s cause, Matthew Rojansky, an expert on Eastern Europe at the Woodrow Wilson Center, predicted just the opposite. 

“The protests certainly could persist for some time. After the 2010 election, protestors, though fewer in number, continued to turn out for months, despite violent repression by authorities,” Rojansky told The Dispatch. “By now, protesters have risked a lot, many have been arrested, beaten, and they know there could be future consequences for them and their loved ones if the regime consolidates its power and prevails.”

Other than several hundred loyalists who attended the ceremony, Lukashenko shrouded his inauguration in secrecy in order to shield the event from another wave of demonstrations. He took an oath swearing to “serve the people of the Republic of Belarus, respect and protect rights and freedoms of people and citizens.” 

“The inauguration was Lukashenko throwing a gauntlet down to the opposition and the protesters,” Rojansky said. “He has signaled that he will not permit any new election, and has apparently backed down on his previous offer of a transition period and a constitutional reform. For now, he is behaving as if he can use force to bring the country to heel.”

International onlookers have taken notice, and are beginning to respond. The U.S. State Department issued a press release following Lukashenko’s inauguration to reject the legitimacy of his leadership. “The United States cannot consider Aleksandr Lukashenko the legitimately elected leader of Belarus,” the Wednesday statement read. “The path forward should be a national dialogue leading to the Belarusian people enjoying their right to choose their leaders in a free and fair election under independent observation.”

Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, concurred. “The European Union’s position is clear: Belarusian citizens deserve the right to be represented by those they freely choose through new inclusive, transparent and credible elections,” he said after the inauguration.

According to exclusive reporting by Reuters, the United States, Britain, and Canada may impose sanctions against Belarusian leaders and officials as early as today. Sources told the wire service that the three countries plan to sanction individuals to signal that the international community doesn’t accept Lukashenko’s fraudulent re-election.

Moscow, on the other hand, has only deepened its ties with Lukashenko’s regime since the onset of protests. President Vladimir Putin has promised financial backing and offered to deploy Russian police in Belarus to quell protests. Lukashenko has vocally praised his neighbor to the East in exchange. But, as Rojansky points out, Belarusian officials should tread carefully when it comes to support from Putin.

“The biggest risk is that the conflict turns geopolitical, drawing in Russia and NATO/Europe/US forces in case of a major escalation of violence, as occurred during Ukraine’s Maidan protests in early 2014,” he said. “If the regime appears unable to cope with the challenge, Russia might move more decisively to assert control in Belarus, which could in turn trigger an anti-Russian backlash from the population, who would look to the West for support.”

“This is in part about control of territory and resources. But it is also philosophical and psychological,” Rojansky added. “As in Ukraine, the population that has so far been largely indifferent to divisive questions about language and national identity, could be pushed by Russian pressure into much deeper divisions and even violent clashes.”

DoJ Investigating Nine Ballots Being Discarded in Pennsylvania

In the closing days of the 2016 campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump griped to anyone who would listen that the election was rigged against him, and that Hillary Clinton and the Democrats were going to steal it from him. “Millions of people … are registered to vote that shouldn’t be registered to vote,” he told Fox News’ Chris Wallace in the third presidential debate, adding that he will “look at” whether to accept the election results “at the time.”

“I’ll keep you in suspense, okay?”

The words should ring a bell to anyone who’s been following the news this week, as Trump is following a similar playbook: refusing to commit to the peaceful transfer of power if he loses, making unfounded claims about massive voter fraud, declaring the election “rigged” months in advance.

The only difference? He now has the power of the presidency at his disposal.

On Thursday afternoon, the Department of Justice issued a press release saying the Office of the United States Attorney and FBI had begun “an inquiry into reports of potential issues with a small number of mail-in ballots at the Luzerne County Board of Elections.” Investigators, the press release went on to say, recovered nine military ballots that had been discarded. “All nine ballots were cast for presidential candidate Donald Trump.”

Luzerne County went for Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, 58.4 percent to 38.8 percent.

The investigation itself is, of course, perfectly reasonable. The functioning of our democracy relies on every legitimate vote being counted, and any irregularities like the one outlined above should be scrutinized.

But the DoJ’s public announcement of the still-ongoing investigation was highly irregular, and the messaging raised concerns about politicization at the Department. “It is really improper for DoJ to be putting out a press release with partial facts,” Justin Levitt, a constitutional law professor at Loyola Law School told Politico. “And it is career-endingly improper to designate the candidate for whom the votes are cast. There is no federal statute on which the identity of the preferred candidate depends.”

The press release may have even breached the Department of Justice’s own Confidentiality and Media Contacts Policy, which states that, except for issues relating to public safety or when “the community needs to be reassured that the appropriate law enforcement agency is investigating a matter,” the DoJ “generally will not confirm the existence of or otherwise comment about ongoing investigations.” 

“DoJ personnel shall not respond to questions about the existence of an ongoing investigation or comment on its nature or progress before charges are publicly filed,” the policy continues.

If that guideline applies to accurate information, it probably applies doubly so to erroneous information. If you clicked the hyperlink we included to the press release above, you would’ve noticed it led you to an error message on the DoJ website. Why? Because the DoJ had to delete the initial blast and reissue a revised version. Here’s what changed: “Of the nine ballots that were discarded and then recovered, 7 were cast for presidential candidate Donald Trump. Two of the discarded ballots had been resealed inside their appropriate envelopes by Luzerne elections staff prior to recovery by the FBI and the contents of those 2 ballots are unknown.”

The White House was aware of the investigation in advance, and hinted at an upcoming announcement throughout the day.

“These ballots are a horror show. They found six ballots in an office yesterday in a garbage can,” Trump told Fox News’ Brain Kilmeade in a Thursday morning interview. “They were Trump ballots—eight ballots in an office yesterday in—but in a certain state and they were— they had Trump written on it, and they were thrown in a garbage can. This is what’s going to happen. This is what’s going to happen, and we’re investigating that.”

“I can confirm for you that Trump ballots—ballots for the President were found in Pennsylvania,” Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters minutes before the first DoJ release went out. “And I believe you should be getting more information on that shortly.”

The DoJ later published a letter sent by U.S. Attorney David Freed to the Luzerne County Bureau of Elections providing more details of the investigation. “While at this point the inquiry remains active,” Freed wrote, “based on the limited amount of time before the general election and the vital public importance of these issues, I will detail the investigators’ initial findings.”

The problem seemed to hinge on a few election administrators mistaking the military ballots for ballot request forms, with Pennsylvania’s recently mandated “secrecy envelopes” contributing to the confusion. “It was explained to investigators the envelopes used for official overseas, military, absentee and mail-in ballot requests are so similar, that the staff believed that adhering to the protocol of preserving envelopes unopened would cause them to miss such ballot requests,” Freed wrote. Once the ballots were mistakenly opened, they became illegitimate.

A Lawful Decision in Kentucky, But An Unjust One

In David’s latest French Press (🔒), he argues that the grand jury’s decision in the Breonna Taylor case—where one of three officers involved was indicted for wanton endangerment but no one was charged for Taylor’s death—“was both lawful and deeply unjust.”

Referencing a previous newsletter, David made the case that, although the police officers involved in this specific case likely followed the law as written, the law as written “place[s] police and lawfully armed citizens on a violent collision course.”

“In a series of opinions reaching back more than two decades, the Supreme Court has permitted the use of no-knock police raids not just to preserve life, but also to preserve evidence. It has also granted officers specific legal privileges even when they’ve violated citizens’ constitutional rights, including, a) exemptions from the exclusionary rule (which blocks the use of unlawfully obtained evidence in criminal trials) for raids that violate knock-and-announce requirements and, b) exemptions from attempts to impose heightened obligations for the use of force when officers are violating the Fourth Amendment by unlawfully intruding in a citizen’s own home.

Police departments across the country have taken advantage of this wide latitude. They’ve sought no-knock warrants liberally. They’ve blurred the line between no-knock and knock-and-announce with ‘quick knock’ practices. And they’ve engaged in surprise, late-night violent entries into private dwellings for the sole purpose of preserving evidence.”

Meanwhile, David notes, the District of Columbia v. Heller Supreme Court decision guaranteed citizens a constitutional right to defend themselves at home with a handgun. Other states have enacted stand-your-ground-laws or laws recognizing the “castle doctrine.” These doctrines “in general hold that a person does not have a duty to retreat when he is lawfully present in a place and he reasonably believes he faces an imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm,” David writes.

The result? If cops are raiding a home in the middle of the night executing a no-knock or ‘quick knock’ warrant, but the armed homeowner is unaware they are police, he or she has the right to open fire. And once police are fired upon, they can also shoot back. “A gun battle can commence with both parties acting completely lawfully,” David writes.

And that appears to be what tragically occurred in the case of Breonna Taylor. David walks through the details in the full French Press, but here’s his conclusion:

In the contest between the rights of a woman to sleep peacefully in her own home and for her boyfriend to defend it against violent entry and the right of the state to make a violent entry, the law should prefer the homeowner. No, that doesn’t mean removing from police the ability to defend themselves. It means dramatically restricting their ability to make a violent entry in the first instance. It means revitalizing the Fourth Amendment, and reviving its importance in our constitutional republic. ‘The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.’

Yesterday, the grand jury correctly applied the law to the facts, and its decision not to charge the officers who fired the fatal shots was almost certainly correct. But Breonna Taylor’s death was still deeply unjust, and the injustices will continue until the law is reformed. 

Worth Your Time

  • The Verge has acquired dozens of leaked audio tapes, messages, and screenshots from internal company-wide meetings at Facebook as the social media company navigates controversies over Trump, protests, and the pandemic. The leaked recordings make clear a central tension at the company: The divide between the progressive rank-and-file and Facebook’s leadership, who are committed to keeping Facebook as a neutral arbiter. “If we want to actually do a good job of serving people, [we have to take] into account that there are different views on different things,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg says in one recording, “and that if someone disagrees with a view, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re hateful or have bad intent.” Unsurprisingly, that claim didn’t sit well with many Facebook employees.

  • Will President Trump face any significant political cost for his decision to advance a Supreme Court nominee before November 3? According to New York Times elections reporter Nate Cohn, there hasn’t been any seismic shift in presidential election polling since Justice Ginsburg’s passing one week ago. “The most recent New York Times/Siena College polls of Texas, Iowa and Georgia found no serious evidence that the Supreme Court vacancy has affected the race for the White House,” Cohn writes. “Nor did the polls find much reason to think this would shift the race in the weeks ahead.”

  • “One of the more peculiar political dynamics during the last four years has been this president’s dogged determination to play into the hands of his opponents and to make his critics’ fears worse,” National Review’s senior editorial staff write in an editorial responding to Trump’s comments about the peaceful transfer of power. The media and several top Republican officials have rightfully condemned the authoritarian tenor of the president’s words, and it’s important to note they bear absolutely zero constitutional authority. “There is, in fact, no chance that this president — or any president — will successfully remain in the White House having lost an election,” the editors write. “Nevertheless, all systems rely upon buy-in, and every demurral helps to chip away a little at the rock on which the country has been built.”

Presented Without Comment

Presented Without Comment

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • David and Sarah are joined by Federal Elections Commission Chairman Trey Trainor on the latest episode of Advisory Opinions, for a discussion of the ins and outs of federal election law. They also dive deep on the questions of legality surrounding police raids after the grand jury announcement in the Breonna Taylor case. Plus, SCOTUS.

  • In Thursday’s Midweek Mop-Up (🔒), Sarah spoke with New York Times campaign reporter Reid Epstein about what it’s like covering Democrats in 2020. Epstein tells Sarah about his numerous experiences being ghosted by high profile politicians, the love-hate (well, mostly hate) relationship between campaign operatives and campaign reporters, and the time he rode a Ferris wheel with Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar.

Let Us Know

We are about to embark on the the first (official) fall weekend of 2020. Do you agree with the indisputable fact it’s the best part of the year? What seasonal activities are you looking forward to over the next couple of months?

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