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The Morning Dispatch: New Reports Detail Trump Briefings on Russian Bounty Intel
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The Morning Dispatch: New Reports Detail Trump Briefings on Russian Bounty Intel

Plus, the Supreme Court hands down decisions on abortion and the fate of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Happy Tuesday! We’ve got great news. The next edition of Dispatch Live is officially set for Thursday, July 2, at 5:30 p.m. ET / 2:30 p.m. PT (it’ll be available to replay later as well). Paying members can register for the event here!

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • As of Monday night, 2,588,022 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the United States (an increase of 39,030 from yesterday) and 126,131 deaths have been attributed to the virus (an increase of 328 from yesterday), according to the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, leading to a mortality rate among confirmed cases of 4.9 percent (the true mortality rate is likely much lower, between 0.4 percent and 1.4 percent, but it’s impossible to determine precisely due to incomplete testing regimens). Of 31,557,407 coronavirus tests conducted in the United States (569,394 conducted since yesterday), 8.2 percent have come back positive.

  • The New York Times reports President Trump received a written briefing in late February about a Russian military intelligence unit paying bounties to the Taliban in exchange for killing American and coalition troops in Afghanistan. The Associated Press has sources saying top White House officials were aware of such an arrangement as early as March 2019. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said in a statement that “because the allegations in recent press articles have not been verified or substantiated by the Intelligence Community, President Trump had not been briefed on the items.”

  • On Monday, the Supreme Court paved the way for the federal government to resume executions as early as July. The court also struck down a Louisiana law that would have required abortions providers in the state to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, and held that the president may remove the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau at will.

  • The Department of Health and Human Services announced Monday that the Trump administration has procured large quantities of antiviral drug remdesivir—a therapeutic demonstrated in a NIAID study to be effective against COVID-19—from Gilead Sciences. The agreement will allow hospitals to secure the drug through September in amounts determined by HHS and state health departments.

  • China officially passed a new national security law—unanimously—that would increase Beijing’s authority and control over Hong Kong and limit Hong Kong citizens’ fundamental freedoms.

  • A growing number of advertisers—including Starbucks, Levi Strauss, Unilever, and Patagonia—are boycotting Facebook and other social media sites, citing concerns about the unrestricted spread of hate speech and misinformation on online platforms.

  • Two tech companies made moves against Trump content in separate actions on Monday, citing violations of their terms of service. Reddit shut down its “r/The_Donald” subreddit—along with 2,000 other channels—and streaming site Twitch temporarily suspended the president’s channel.

  • Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan proposed slashing his state’s budget by $1.45 billion due to a fall in revenue brought on by the coronavirus.

New Reports Detail Trump Briefings on Russian Bounty Intel

Questions about intelligence on Russian funding for attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan dogged the Trump administration Monday, with top Trump officials continuing to deny that President Donald Trump had been briefed on the matter and high-profile leaks indicating, with greater specificity, the opposite. “While the White House does not routinely comment on alleged intelligence or internal deliberations, the CIA director, NSA—national security adviser, and the chief of staff can all confirm that neither the president nor the vice president were briefed on the alleged Russia—Russian bounty intelligence,” said Kayleigh McEnany, White House press secretary, at a briefing Monday afternoon, contradicting reporting over the weekend from the New York Times and others. 

But late Monday, the Times added detail to its previous reporting. The intelligence on allegations that Russia had provided “bounties” to Taliban operatives and associates for attacks on coalitions troops “was included months ago in Mr. Trump’s President’s Daily Brief document—a compilation of the government’s latest secrets and best insights about foreign policy and national security that is prepared for him to read. One of the officials said the item appeared in Mr. Trump’s brief in late February; the other cited Feb. 27, specifically.” And: “a description of the intelligence assessment that the Russian unit had carried out the bounties plot was also seen as serious and solid enough to disseminate more broadly across the intelligence community in a May 4 article in the C.I.A.’s World Intelligence Review, a classified compendium commonly referred to as The Wire, two officials said.” 

A late-breaking report from the Associated Press put the briefings—or similar ones— even earlier, “top officials in the White House were aware in early 2019 of classified intelligence indicating Russia was secretly offering bounties to the Taliban for the deaths of Americans.” The AP reports that former National Security Adviser John Bolton said privately that he’d briefed Trump on Russian financing for Taliban attacks. 

Russia is one of several U.S. foes to back the Taliban, along with Iran and Pakistan. U.S. commanders have publicly criticized Russia for its “destabilizing” efforts in Afghanistan, supplying arms and additional military equipment for Taliban fighters engaged in battle with American and coalition forces. In an interview with the BBC in early 2018, the former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, James Nicholson, complained of stepped-up Russian backing for the Taliban. The Russians, he said, claimed to be fighting ISIS, and justified their support to the Taliban because of its competition with its jihadist rivals. Taliban commanders spoke openly of the support from Russia. “We’ve had stories written by the Taliban that have appeared in the media about financial support provided by the enemy. We’ve had weapons brought to this headquarters and given to us by Afghan leaders and said, this was given by the Russians to the Taliban. …We know that the Russians are involved.”

Russia has also sought to undermine U.S. efforts in Afghanistan through its sometimes-contradictory propaganda efforts, at times suggesting the U.S. is aligned with ISIS and at others criticizing U.S. backing of the Afghan government. But top Trump administration officials have spoken about shared U.S.-Russia interests in Afghanistan. In May 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News’ Guy Benson that because Russia faces a terrorist threat like the U.S., the two countries working together “could achieve a reduction in violence there.” Providing direct support in the form of bounties for American and coalition troops would represent an escalation in Russia’s backing of the Taliban. 

The Trump administration continued to face tough questions about the reports from Democrats and Republicans alike. Sen Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told the Times: “This is a time to focus on the two things Congress should be asking and looking at: No. 1, who knew what, when, and did the commander in chief know? And if not, how the hell not?”

After similar questions from top Republicans over the weekend, the White House provided a briefing on the Russia intelligence for top House GOP members Monday. One member who attended, Rep. Jim Banks (R-Indiana), suggested the Trump administration was looking into the intelligence only to have its efforts compromised by the Times’ reporting. 

But Reps. Liz Cheney and Mac Thornberry, respectively the No. 3 Republican in the House and top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, also attended the briefing and left with a different set of concerns, per a statement

“After today’s briefing with senior White House officials, we remain concerned about Russian activity in Afghanistan, including reports that they have targeted U.S. forces. It has been clear for some time that Russia does not wish us well in Afghanistan. We believe it is important to vigorously pursue any information related to Russia or any other country targeting our forces.”

The Latest From SCOTUS

On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to take up a case on the death penalty, paving the way for the resumption of executions at the federal level, and handed down two closely watched—and closely divided—opinions on state abortion restrictions and the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Louisiana abortion law.

In a 5-4 ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court’s liberal wing in voting to strike down a Louisiana law that would have required doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. Abortion clinics and providers challenged the legislation before it took effect, arguing that the law would place an unconstitutional burden on patients seeking an abortion within their state. According to lawyers for Hope Medical Group, the law would have left only one abortion clinic open to serve Louisiana’s 4.6 million residents. 

Justice Roberts—writing separately from the other four justices in the majority—refused to overturn the Supreme Court’s 2016 decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which struck down a similar law in Texas. Roberts noted, however, that he dissented in that case and reaffirmed his belief that it was wrongly decided. But his decision relied on the legal doctrine of stare decisis, meaning that the court “stands by things previously decided.”

Stare decisis instructs us to treat like cases alike,” Roberts wrote, “The result in this case is controlled by our decision four years ago invalidating a nearly identical Texas law.”

Only Justice Clarence Thomas expressly argued that the court should review its entire line of abortion cases, including Roe and Casey. “Because we can reconcile neither Roe nor its progeny with the text of our Constitution,” he wrote in his dissent, “those decisions should be overruled.”

Richard W. Garnett—a law professor at Notre Dame—told The Dispatch that the Chief Justice’s reliance on stare decisis seemed overly deferential. “Four years does not seem substantial enough to insulate a wrong decision from reversal,” he said.

But Garnett also noted that Roberts’ choice to write a separate opinion—rather than join the plurality opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer—included language that will help states that want to pass abortion restrictions in the future. “His formulation is different,” Garnett said, “and gives states more leeway to regulate abortion than Breyer’s formulation does.”

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

In another big decision, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the president can remove the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) at will. Previously, the head of the financial watchdog organization served for five years and—in an effort to shield the position from political targeting—could only be fired for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.” 

The CFPB was created by Congress as part of the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010, in response to the financial crisis of 2008. Even as a relatively unaccountable bureaucracy, it was given sweeping authority over the financial sector—regulating all manner of financial institutions like banks, securities firms, and credit unions.

The majority opinion—written by Roberts and joined by the conservative wing of the court—will keep the organization intact but limit its power and independence. 

“In our constitutional system, the executive power belongs to the President, and that power generally includes the ability to supervise and remove the agents who wield executive power in his stead,” Roberts wrote, “The Constitution requires that such officials remain dependent on the President, who in turn is accountable to the people.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren—who advocated for the agency during her time as a Harvard University law professor—responded to the court’s decision yesterday morning on Twitter, writing “The CFPB is here to stay.”

Worth Your Time

  • “I have rape-colored skin.” So begins an essay in the New York Times by poet Caroline Randall Williams, who goes on to explain “I am the descendant of black women who were domestic servants and white men who raped their help. Williams writes that her very existence stands as a monument to the South’s history. But it’s not the mythical “Lost Cause” historical narrative that some Southerners espouse. It’s that the suffering of black slaves is therefore literally in her DNA. “What is a monument but a standing memory? An artifact to make tangible the truth of the past,” William writes. “My body and blood are a tangible truth of the South and its past.”

  • Robin DiAngelo’s best-selling 2018 book, White Fragility, has experienced a resurgence in popularity in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the mass civil unrest that followed. But should the anti-racist manifesto be accepted uncritically as a road map for a more equal and just future? In a scathing review, Matt Taibbi argues no. “DiAngelo isn’t the first person to make a buck pushing tricked-up pseudo-intellectual horseshit as corporate wisdom,” he writes, “but she might be the first to do it selling Hitlerian race theory.”

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • David and Sarah cleared up any lingering confusion regarding Monday’s SCOTUS decisions on yesterday’s Advisory Opinions podcast. Be sure to listen to catch up on the Supreme Court’s newest rulings on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the First Amendment, and the first abortion case since Trump appointed Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

  • In yesterday’s Dispatch Fact Check, Alec dispels rumors that a radical Muslim group will soon be patrolling the streets in Minneapolis with Sharia law. “There is no evidence to support claims that Muslims in Minneapolis are attempting to create a vigilante patrol to enforce Sharia law and those making such claims misrepresent New York City’s Muslim Community Patrol & Services.”

  • Jonah considers the possibility that the NBA will allow players to put social justice slogans on their uniforms, and he has a few arguments against it. “I’m a conservative in large part because I want politics to play a smaller role in people’s lives. Many of the problems in America today are attributable to the fact that politics has become a kind of secular faith, a lifestyle choice, that infects social relations and undermines institutions.”

  • You might have seen the viral video of a couple in St. Louis standing outside their home, brandishing weapons as protesters marched by. Andrew talked to the Washington Free Beacon’s Stephen Gutowski, one of the country’s best reporters on firearms, about whether their behavior was legal.

Let Us Know

Let’s get an early start this week. What are you hoping to hear the gang discuss on Thursday’s Dispatch Live?

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