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The Morning Dispatch: Mask Mandate Debate Heats Up
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The Morning Dispatch: Mask Mandate Debate Heats Up

Plus: An update on the Afghan refugee situation.

Happy Thursday! The Dispatch staff would like to extend our formal congratulations to the Baltimore Orioles, who defeated the Los Angeles Angels 10-6 last night and avoided breaking the record for longest losing streak in major league history.

Cheer up, Orioles—everyone has a bad game (or 19) now and then!

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that U.S. and coalition forces had evacuated approximately 19,000 people from Afghanistan over the past 24 hours, bringing the total number of people flown out of Kabul since August 14 to 82,300. According to the Biden administration’s analysis, between 500 and 1,500 Americans seeking evacuation remain in Afghanistan. Blinken said the administration has been “aggressively” reaching out to about 1,000 contacts who may be Americans, but noted some may no longer be in the country, have chosen to stay, or erroneously claimed to be American. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued an alert last night advising U.S. citizens to avoid traveling to the airport—or “leave immediately”—due to “security threats outside the gates.” 

  • Blinken added in his remarks that—contrary to their comments in recent days—Taliban leaders have made commitments to provide safe passage for Americans, third-country nationals, and Afghans at risk even past the Biden administration’s August 31 deadline. “There is no deadline on our work to help any remaining American citizens who decide they want to leave to do so, along with the many Afghans who have stood by us over these many years and want to leave and have been unable to do so,” Blinken said, though he argued the administration was still on pace to meet the deadline. “That effort will continue every day past August 31.” 

  • In a move choreographed earlier this week, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin issued a memo on Wednesday directing military leaders to “immediately begin” implementing a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all servicemembers, approximately 800,000 of whom—according to Pentagon data—remain unvaccinated. Austin did not include a specific date by which service members must comply, but said secretaries of the military departments “should impose ambitious timelines for implementation.”

  • Pfizer and BioNTech announced Wednesday they have begun the FDA supplemental application process necessary to get their Comirnaty (COVID-19 vaccine) booster shot approved. Phase III trial data, the companies said, showed a booster dose elicited more than three times the neutralizing antibodies in recipients than the second dose.

  • Johnson & Johnson unveiled data on Wednesday that showed a booster dose of its COVID-19 vaccine “generated a rapid and robust increase in spike-binding antibodies, nine-fold higher than 28 days after the primary single-dose vaccination.” The pharmaceutical company said it is “engaging” with the FDA and CDC on next steps.

  • U.S. District Judge Linda Parker issued a ruling Wednesday night ordering several pro-Trump lawyers—including Sidney Powell and Lin Wood—to face sanctions over their involvement in post-2020 election litigation, including potentially suspension or disbarment. “Attorneys have an obligation to the judiciary, their profession, and the public (i) to conduct some degree of due diligence before presenting allegations as truth; (ii) to advance only tenable claims; and (iii) to proceed with a lawsuit in good faith and based on a proper purpose. Attorneys also have an obligation to dismiss a lawsuit when it becomes clear that the requested relief is unavailable,” she wrote.

  • A federal appeals court on Wednesday upheld the death sentence handed down to Dylann Roof in 2017 after he murdered nine black members of a Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015. “His crimes qualify him for the harshest penalty that a just society can impose,” the three-judge panel wrote.

Biden Weighs In on Florida’s Mask-Mandate Debate

(Photo by Paul Bersebach//Orange County Register/Getty Images.)

As America’s kids get back to school, an issue many had hoped to leave behind this spring—whether it’s necessary or prudent for kids and teachers to wear masks—is prompting yet another round of political clashes.

Last month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order effectively banning Florida schools from requiring students to wear masks, arguing that masking decisions rightfully belonged to Florida parents. DeSantis argued that the order fell under the auspices of a new state law passed a month prior, known as the Parents’ Bill of Rights, which among other things granted a parent “the right to make health care decisions for his or her minor child, unless otherwise prohibited by law.”

Now, however, a number of Florida counties are moving forward with mandates in defiance of that order. Among them are many of the state’s largest districts, including the public schools of Miami-Dade, Broward, and Orange counties, meaning that more than half of the state’s students are starting school in districts where mandates are in place. The schools cited updated guidance from the CDC, which earlier this month resumed recommending that all students mask in school regardless of their vaccination status.

“Protecting our children must be a top priority as we continue to combat the serious threat of COVID-19,” Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said last week.

Last Friday, DeSantis’ Department of Education began notifying counties that they were in violation of the order and that their schools would face a loss of state funds equivalent to the salaries of their boards if they did not change course. Originally, the governor had threatened explicitly to revoke school board members’ salaries—a plan that failed to take into consideration the particular disbursement of the funds given to the school boards themselves.

Then, over the weekend, President Biden waded in and further complicated matters. “Let me be clear: We will do everything we can to support local school districts in safely reopening schools,” he tweeted. “American Rescue Plan funds can be used to backfill the salaries of the brave Florida school board members, superintendents, and other educators keeping our children safe.”

DeSantis immediately fired back against Biden’s “absolutely outrageous” response. “To have the federal government come in and overrule the rights of the parents as if they know better?” he said at a press conference. “They want to kneecap the parents and empower teachers unions.”

Whether due to the cover provided by Biden’s announcement or simple momentum, however, DeSantis’ woes have only increased since the weekend, as the number of counties opting to flout his order has risen to 10.

Could Biden follow through on his threat? It seems likely: The executive branch has a large amount of leeway over the final destination of much of the money disbursed by Congress in legislation like the American Rescue Plan, particularly when that money is earmarked for a purpose that aligns with what the executive wants to do—in this case, implement COVID protections at schools.

“It’s very hard to get any sort of judicial remedy [for a specific executive use of appropriated funds],” Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, tells The Dispatch. “The ordinary route is to have Congress scream and rant about the use of funds for things they weren’t appropriated for, and this Congress is not going to scream and rant about that. So it’s hard to get any real relief these days.”

That’s not, of course, to say Biden would be legally justified in taking that action—whether DeSantis or the schools are right about the prudence of mask mandates, it seems safe to say that giving state institutions cover to ignore state laws and orders was far from the purpose of the American Rescue Plan. Small government types who fret that handing ever-larger sums of money over to the executive with only vague directions of how to disburse it might call such a thing a teachable moment.

Regardless of the outcome, the whole kerfuffle goes to show how entrenched and impossible the debate over mask mandates in schools has become. It’s not hard to see why: As we saw again and again last year, there’s no easy or obvious way to perform a quantitative analysis of two qualitatively different goods that are in conflict with one another.

For much of last year, the issue was the public health damage of the virus arrayed against the economic and societal damage of shutdowns. Now, the Biden administration and the CDC are warning against the dangers of COVID transmission in schools, while those in the DeSantis camp say they are primarily concerned with the damage to educational outcomes of mask-mandated classrooms. (They also argue that the medical benefits of masking a room full of second-graders all day are significantly overrated.)

Update on the Afghan Refugee Process

As is often the case with foreign policy questions, logistics surrounding the evacuation of Kabul and eventual resettlement of thousands of Afghans have been distorted through the lens of Washington’s domestic political discourse.

Take, for instance, this claim from former President Donald Trump on Tuesday: “Biden surrendered Afghanistan to terrorists and left thousands of Americans for dead by pulling out the Military before our citizens. Now we are learning that out of the 26,000 people who have been evacuated, only 4,000 are Americans …  Instead, we can only imagine how many thousands of terrorists have been airlifted out of Afghanistan and into neighborhoods around the world. What a terrible failure. NO VETTING. How many terrorists will Joe Biden bring to America? We don’t know!” 

Severalotherpundits have peddled similar versions of the former president’s alarmism since Afghanistan’s fall, which raises fair questions: Which Afghans qualify for relocation to the U.S., how are they getting here, and what does the vetting process look like? 

On Tuesday, Secretary Blinken held a press conference to update Americans about the ongoing airlifts from Hamid Karzai International Airport, which have evacuated more than 82,000 people since August 14. Approximately 45 percent of the evacuees are women and children.

“While evacuating Americans is our top priority, we’re also committed to getting out as many Afghans at risk as we can before the 31st. That starts with our locally employed staff, the folks who’ve been working side by side in our embassy with our diplomatic team,” Blinken said. “And it includes Special Immigrant Visa program participants and also other Afghans at risk. It’s hard to overstate the complexity and the danger of this effort.”

The two categories of Afghans being evacuated, broadly speaking, are those who qualify for the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program and “other vulnerable Afghans” identified by the U.S. State Department. 

The process to qualify for the former is rigorous and time consuming. According to a September 2017 State Department report, the process takes more than 900 days on average. Proof of employment by the U.S. government and documentation that the employment poses a danger, a letter of recommendation, and evidence of Afghan nationality are all required. Alec broke down the various screening processes built into the visa application program in a Dispatch Fact Check:

The application process for visas is typically a long one, and in light of the challenges of completing the entire process in Taliban-controlled Kabul while simultaneously trying to evacuate, the U.S. is currently focused on getting those interested in applying for the SIV program to military sites in other countries. On a background press call Tuesday, a senior Biden administration official said that “our Defense Department is using a number of military bases around the country to temporarily house SIV — Special Immigrant Visa — applicants and other vulnerable Afghans.” Once these individuals have been moved to one of these bases—such as in Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Germany—they undergo security checks so that unscreened Afghans are not sent straight to the United States.

The administration official stated that this screening includes “biometric and biographic security screenings conducted by our intelligence, law enforcement, and counterterrorism professionals.”

The screening process for the SIV program is lengthy, with a 14-step application process split into four phases: the Chief of Mission (COM) application process; Form I-360 petition adjudication by the Department of Homeland Security; visa interview and security screening; and final visa adjudication.

To optimize the SIV designation, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas invoked his parole authority to allow eligible Afghans to enter the U.S. while their visa applications are being processed, a senior administration official said Tuesday. Refugees, who undergo a thorough vetting process before reaching U.S. soil, will be housed at U.S. military bases during the processing time. 

“The secretary of homeland security is using his parole authority, including his ability to impose particular conditions of parole on those arriving, to ensure that those who are reaching here are doing so obviously with the appropriate legal status,” the official said.

The administration is also working with third-party countries to temporarily relocate or permanently resettle refugees. Countries across Europe and the Middle East have expressed willingness to serve as a transit point as the U.S. air base in Doha, Qatar fills up.

According to an email from an official at U.S. Central Command leaked to Axios, the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East is tantamount to a “living hell,” with rat infestations, loose human waste, and resource shortages plaguing its thousands of temporary inhabitants.

And they’re the lucky ones. Tens of thousands of Afghans have yet to be evacuated from the country, and the Taliban has vowed that they won’t be. The Biden administration, meanwhile, seems determined to adhere to its self-imposed August 31 military withdrawal deadline—given Taliban warnings that a remaining American presence into September crosses its “red line.” 

Many Afghans have been stopped at Taliban checkpoints to the airport, and some SIV-eligible Afghans have reportedly been turned away by U.S. troops even after reaching its gates.

Past the final evacuation of the U.S. military on August 31, Blinken said, the U.S. will utilize “every diplomatic, economic, political, and assistance tool” at its disposal to get Americans and Afghan allies out of the country. 

Worth Your Time

  • As we mentioned in yesterday’s TMD, Reps. Seth Moulton and Peter Meijer traveled to Kabul earlier this week on an unauthorized trip to get a sense of how evacuation efforts were playing out on the ground. The move enraged the Biden administration, which argued the gambit led U.S. personnel to divert time and resources away from their mission. Meijer and Moulton spoke to Catie Edmondson at the New York Times on Wednesday to defend themselves—and share what they learned from their time at HKIA. “At the end of the day, the impact of our visit on ongoing operations, I believe, will pale in comparison to the impact of the visit,” Moulton said. “Almost every veteran in Congress wants to extend the Aug. 31 deadline, including us, and our opinion on that was changed on the ground, because we started the evacuations so late. There’s no way we can get everyone out, even by Sept. 11. So we need to have a working relationship with the Taliban after our departure. And the only way to achieve that is to leave by Aug. 31.”

  • Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts died earlier this week at the age of 80, and rock historian Jack Hamilton has the best piece we’ve read on the band’s longtime heartbeat. “[Watts] wouldn’t have been anyone’s pick for the world’s most technically accomplished drummer,” he writes in Slate. “His chops were fine but unremarkable; his sense of time would never be mistaken for a metronome. It speaks to the wonder of music, and rock ’n’ roll music in particular, that these objective shortcomings were, in fact, crucial to what made him so great. … You can’t learn to play music like this; you’re born with those ears or you’re not. No one will ever play drums like Charlie Watts, the perfect drummer in what was, once upon a time, the perfect band.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Also Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • On Wednesday’s Dispatch Podcast, Sarah, David, Jonah, and Steve discuss the United States’ impending deadline in Afghanistan, House Democrats’ rollercoaster week, the 2022 midterms, and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s political fate in California.

  • Scott Lincicome’s latest Capitolism (🔒) examines America’s innumeracy problem—and how it often leads to bad policy. “The summer’s COVID-19 events have really hit home just how important an understanding of numbers and basic math concepts is to public policy and life more broadly,” he writes, pointing to the national debt, vaccine efficacy, and more. “Innumeracy can encourage cynical or unsavory people to try to profit—politically or financially (or both)—from Americans’ misunderstanding of basic, but important, statistics.”

  • In yesterday’s G-File(🔒), Jonah reflects on his daughter’s leaving for college—and draws a parallel between helicopter parenting and certain forms of government. “Giving children the freedom to make mistakes is one of the hardest, but most important, requirements of parenting,” he writes. “And anyone who’s been a parent knows that, however difficult it is for us, it would be impossible for strangers. We will never have perfect knowledge about when or how to intervene in our kids’ lives, but we will always have a better idea than someone who doesn’t know them at all.”

  • Because Jonah was doing the aforementioned dropping-off-at-college thing, David filled in for him on The Remnant yesterday, hosting a discussion with national security and technology policy expert Klon Kitchen. The two discuss whether the crisis unfolding in Afghanistan was avoidable, the United States’ frightening lack of preparedness for cyber threats, and how to reform Section 230, if at all.

  • Khaya reports on the latest from Maricopa County. Election officials are trying to get ahead of a report on the unofficial audit of the county’s 2.1 million ballots that they anticipate will include misinformation. Cyber Ninjas, the company hired to carry out the review, was late turning in the complete report because of a COVID outbreak among staff.

  • One country in particular aided the Taliban and al-Qaeda in its efforts in Afghanistan, and Danielle Pletka argues it’s high time for Pakistan to get the scrutiny it deserves—and for the U.S. to stop providing the country with so much aid.

Let Us Know

One senior Dispatch staffer contends the Rolling Stones have long been overrated (though not as overrated as Neil Young). Is he right?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), Harvest Prude (@HarvestPrude), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).