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The Morning Dispatch: New York Sours on Cuomo
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The Morning Dispatch: New York Sours on Cuomo

Plus: New data on the South Africa COVID variant's effect on vaccines, and Congress tackles the GameStop affair.

Happy Friday! In case you missed the best news of the week, pitchers and catchers have officially reported to spring training. ⚾

Oh, and new Dispatcher Ryan Brown wrote his first solo TMD item today. He joins us from NBC’s Meet the Press. Welcome him aboard!

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • After traveling nearly 300 million miles over the past six months, NASA’s Perseverance rover successfully touched down on Mars Thursday afternoon. The rover now begins its two-year mission to search for life on the planet and collect samples.

  • South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster on Thursday signed into law a bill prohibiting doctors from performing an abortion if a fetal heartbeat is detected, unless the pregnancy threatens the mother’s life or she was the victim of rape or incest. Less than an hour after the bill became law, Planned Parenthood and the Greenville Women’s Clinic filed a lawsuit in an effort to prevent it from going into effect.

  • The amount of debt held globally reached an all-time high of $281 trillion at the end of 2020, according to the Institute of International Finance. Global debt is now about 355 percent of global GDP.

  • U.S. life expectancy dropped by one full year—78.8 to 77.8—from 2019 to the first six months of 2020, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control. It fell more for men than women, and more for black and Hispanic Americans than white ones.

  • The Biden administration is pledging $4 billion to global COVID-19 vaccine efforts—$2 billion now, $2 billion over the next two years—through the COVAX initiative, which aims to vaccinate the populations of low- and middle-income countries. 

  • The State Department said yesterday that the United States would be willing to meet with Iranian and European Union officials in the coming weeks to jumpstart talks regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Iran, however, hasn’t yet agreed to participate.

  • Initial jobless claims increased by 13,000 week-over-week to 861,000 last week, the Labor Department reported on Thursday. About 18.3 million people were on some form of unemployment insurance during the week ending January 30, compared with 2.1 million people during the comparable week in 2020.

  • The United States confirmed 68,813 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 5.1 percent of the 1,455,940 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 2,552 deaths were attributed to the virus on Thursday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 492,999. According to the COVID Tracking Project, 62,300 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1,455,940 COVID-19 vaccine doses were administered yesterday, bringing the nationwide total to 57,737,767.

New York Democrats Move to Revoke Cuomo’s Pandemic Powers

It’s been a rough week for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Just as news broke of the FBI and U.S. attorney’s probe into the Cuomo administration’s mishandling of COVID-19 nursing home deaths, the New York Times confirmed that the New York State Senate would vote on a bill to revoke his unilateral emergency powers. Republicans in the State Assembly introduced a resolution on Thursday to begin Cuomo’s impeachment process.

Meanwhile, Cuomo continues to deflect blame for the botched response and political repercussions onto everyone from New York health officials to unfair media coverage to Democrats in his state’s legislature.

But as more information emerges about Cuomo’s pandemic response, some lawmakers are now arguing that the three-term governor’s cover-up could constitute a criminal abuse of power. New York Democratic Assemblyman Ron Kim told CNN Wednesday that Cuomo called him last week in an effort to strong-arm him into covering for Melissa DeRosa, a top Cuomo aide who confessed to withholding the nursing home death toll to avoid scrutiny by federal prosecutors.

“He tried to pressure me to issue a statement, and it was a very traumatizing experience,” Kim recounted. According to Kim, Cuomo then said “we’re in this business together and we don’t cross certain lines.”

“He said I hadn’t seen his wrath and that he can destroy me.”

A spokesman for Cuomo disputed Kim’s characterization of the call, saying it was “calm” and that the governor never threatened to “destroy” him.

A group of New York Assembly Democrats—including Assemblyman Kim—circulated a letter on Tuesday demanding that the governor be stripped of his unilateral pandemic emergency powers, which were granted in March of last year and are set to expire at the end of April. “It is now unambiguously clear that this governor has engaged in an intentional obstruction of justice, as outlined in Title 18, Chapter 73 of the United States Code,” nine Democratic Assembly members wrote. 

The state Senate—led by its Democratic members—is now introducing a bill that would repeal expansions to the governor’s power passed by the legislature at the outset of the pandemic. If passed, it would create a 10-person commission of state assembly members and senators to oversee the Cuomo administration’s pandemic-related mandates. 

“These emergency powers were extended to the governor back in March of last year. I was one of a few legislators in the New York legislature who voted against extending these powers. I believed then, as I do now, that the governor has the constitutional authority without these emergency powers to deal with the pandemic,” Democratic State Sen. Gustavo Rivera, chairman of the health committee and outspoken critic of Cuomo’s coronavirus response, told CNN earlier this week. “I hope that we take them away from him soon.”

Even if Cuomo is stripped of his emergency pandemic powers, it’s highly unlikely the Republican effort to impeach him will gain any steam. Although Democrats—who control both houses in the state legislature—are upset with Cuomo, impeachment will likely prove a bridge too far. “It’s hypocritical,” State Democratic Chair Jay Jacobs said Thursday. “Here you have a reporting inaccuracy—which no matter how you look at it, is not criminal—and the Republicans are choosing to politicize the governor’s handling of the pandemic and an extraordinarily difficult crisis while they were silent while a Republican president was fomenting insurrection in the nation’s Capitol.”

The governor’s fall from grace can be traced back to March 25 of last year, when his administration issued a mandate ordering all New York nursing homes to admit patients who were being discharged from hospitals, even if they tested positive for COVID-19.

The governor and his health department have repeatedly denied any causal link between the decision and the staggering number of nursing home deaths in the state. A July report from the New York Department of Health and McKinsey & Co. found that “nursing home admissions from hospitals were not a driver of nursing home infections or fatalities.” Instead, the report blamed nursing home staff for transmitting the virus to residents.

But that report was revised last week, and if this surge in deaths can’t be causally linked to Cuomo’s March 25 mandate, why did his administration go to such great lengths to obscure the true number of nursing home fatalities? After New York Attorney General Letitia James issued a 76-page report that found New York officials undercounted the number of COVID-19 nursing home deaths by as much as 50 percent, the official count reported by his office jumped from 8,500 to 15,000. 

Vaccines and Variants

Even with coronavirus case numbers continuing to drop, the South African strain’s arrival in America has provided new cause for concern as the COVID-19 pandemic enters its second year. This week, both Pfizer and Moderna released new lab data confirming what has long been feared about the variant: It is at least somewhat resistant to the antibodies produced by both companies’ vaccines.

On its face, that’s a devastating headline—after all, these vaccines are our escape boat out of pandemic purgatory. But it’s important to emphasize that the data do not indicate the vaccines are ineffectual against the new variant—or even that they’re necessarily less effective at all when it comes to the primary public-health goal of keeping people from getting seriously sick.

“This is not good news,” Dr. Paul Offit, a virologist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and authority on vaccines, told The Dispatch. “The question is, how bad of news is it?”

Both companies ran similar trials involving pseudoviruses with spike proteins matching the South Africa variant’s (known in technical parlance as the B.1.351 spike), and both summarized their findings in Wednesday evening letters to the New England Journal of Medicine. In Pfizer’s case, when the “standard” U.S. form of the coronavirus and the variant were introduced to serum samples from vaccinated patients, “neutralization of the B.1.351-spike virus was weaker by approximately two thirds.” Moderna reported similar reductions in effectiveness.

Those findings sound dire, and it’s natural to wonder whether public health experts who continue to urge vaccine optimism are whistling past the graveyard. But as we’ve noted in the past, things get murkier when it comes to assessing a vaccine’s efficacy in the human body. After all, killing a virus solution in a test tube and preventing illness are not identical aims.

Pfizer hinted as much in its letter. To paraphrase their jargon: Antibodies from the vaccine have a harder time killing the South Africa variant than previous variants, but antibodies aren’t the only protection the vaccine provides—it also activates virus-slaying CD8+ T-cells to start going after the disease. We know these T-cells are at least partially responsible for the protection the vaccine gives, because data shows a certain level of vaccine efficacy even after a single dose, before antibody protection is fully online. And we further know that T-cells, generally speaking, aren’t as susceptible as antibodies to being dodged by sudden mutation—where antibodies kill with a scalpel, T-cells use a sledgehammer.

Pending further knowledge of how vaccine-activated T-cells will respond to the South Africa vaccine, therefore, it’s not necessarily implausible that we might not see diminished on-the-ground effectiveness in the vaccine at all.

If the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines do turn out to be less effective against the South Africa variant, it’s additionally important to note that could mean several different things. If it turns out that the vaccine does worse at preventing mild to moderate disease—but still does well at warding off severe cases—the new variant will be a headache, but won’t cause a dramatic prolonging of our total-war pandemic.

“A line gets crossed on these variants when you have people who either have disease-induced immunity or vaccine-induced immunity, but nonetheless are hospitalized because they’ve been infected with one of these variants,” Dr. Offit said. “That’s when you know that we’re going to have to come up with a second-generation vaccine strategy. But for right now that line hasn’t been crossed.”

Still, public health officials and pharma companies are understandably taking no chances. Andy Slavitt, one of the Biden administration’s top advisers on COVID-19, told the Washington Post yesterday that plans for booster vaccines were already well underway in case the need for them should arise.

“Each of the vaccine companies—and I’ve talked to all of them, both the ones approved and the candidates—have plans to continue to update their vaccines, and if need be, create boosters down the road if there continue to be additional mutants, as there likely will be,” Slavitt said.

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, GameStop

Remember that whole GameStop thing? It feels like an eternity ago now, but it’s actually only been three weeks! If you want to brush up on the details you can read our January 28 and January 29 newsletters, but here’s a quick refresher: A bunch of retail investors organized on Reddit, executed a short squeeze on GameStop and a handful of other “meme stocks,” and drove their prices remarkably and unsustainably high for a few days before they crashed back down to Earth. A number of top hedge funds took a pretty significant hit in the process, and a few trading platforms—most notably Robinhood—restricted users’ ability to buy some of the stocks, infuriating customers and lawmakers alike.

Yesterday, the House Financial Services Committee held what will likely be the first of a series of hearings looking into the phenomenon. 

In his opening statement, Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev apologized for the way his company handled the volatility of the market in late January. “Despite the unprecedented market conditions in January, at the end of the day, what happened is unacceptable to us,” he told lawmakers. “To our customers, I’m sorry and I apologize. Please know that we are doing everything we can to make sure this won’t happen again.”

Still, Tenev looked to dispel rumors that had popped up in recent weeks, chiefly that the company halted trading on GameStop to provide cover for larger institutional investors. “I want to be clear,” he wrote in his opening statement before delving into the complex relationship between the broker, clearing broker, and clearinghouse in any given financial transaction. “The action we took was for one reason and one reason only: to allow us to continue to meet our regulatory deposit requirements.”

Robinhood, he said, had no choice but to halt purchasing of certain stocks in order to protect its customers. Tenev said the company’s clearing broker, Robin Securities, which acts as a liaison between an investor and a clearinghouse to ensure that transactions are executed successfully, did not have enough collateral to back up the investments its customers were trying to make.

Some Republicans sided with Tenev on this point. “If anyone has a problem with your decision to halt trades,” Rep. Andy Barr of Kentucky told the CEO, “it’s fair to say that their frustration should be directed toward federal regulation.”

Democrats weren’t satisfied, expressing concern with Robinhood beyond just the GameStop craze. Robinhood does not charge commission on trades for retail investors; it makes its money through “payment for order flow,” selling its customers’ order data to “market makers,” larger trading firms and institutional investors. “There is an innate tension in your business model between democratizing finance, which is a noble calling, and being a conduit to feed fish to sharks,” said Rep. Sean Casten of Illinois.

Worth Your Time

  • Back in November, we wrote to you about Ethiopia being on the verge of civil war. Internet and telephone service has been blocked in the country’s Tigray region for much of the past few months, and journalists have been barred from entering. But the Associated Presss Cara Anna has a heartrending story on a massacre that took place in Axum, a holy city where Ethiopian Orthodox believe the Ark of the Covenant resides. A deacon who spoke with the Associated Press believes some 800 people were killed over one weekend in late November. “Bodies with gunshot wounds lay in the streets for days in Ethiopia’s holiest city,” Anna writes. “At night, residents listened in horror as hyenas fed on the corpses of people they knew. But they were forbidden from burying their dead by the invading Eritrean soldiers.”

  • Several days after the second impeachment trial of former President Trump came to a close, Sen. Mitt Romney entered a statement into the congressional record, which is worth reading in full. “There is a thin line that separates our democratic republic from an autocracy: it is a free and fair election and the peaceful transfer of power that follows it. President Trump attempted to breach that line, again. What he attempted is what was most feared by the Founders. It is the reason they invested Congress with the power to impeach,” Romney writes. “Throughout history, only one thing has been able to unite a divided nation: great leaders—leaders like Churchill who inspired a fearful nation; leaders like Lincoln who mustered the national will to save the Union; and leaders like Reagan who raised our spirits from suffocating malaise. Leaders like these also have been essential in our churches and universities and businesses and charities, and just as importantly, in our homes. With our nation so divided, so vulnerable to economic distress or to civil violence or even to foreign adversaries, the need for leadership that unites and uplifts, that calls on our better angels, is as great as we have ever known. The corollary is that the failure of leaders to unite, to speak truth, to place duty above self, is as dangerous as we have ever known.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Presented Without Comment: Thank You, NSA Edition

Toeing the Company Line

  • Thursday’s French Press (🔒) looks at the life and legacy of Rush Limbaugh, who died this week after a battle with lung cancer. David didn’t listen to Rush for most of his career, but he did in the early 1990s and again after 2016. The differences were stark. “I felt that something was changing—he seemed to be losing the ‘happy’ aspect of the happy warrior,” David writes. “America is more prosperous than it was when Rush launched his career. It’s more free. Crime is down from its highs. Abortion is down. Divorce is down. Protections for individual liberty are more robust than they’ve been in decades. But tribalism is worse. Polarization is more profound. In such a circumstance, the ideas that helped improve our republic have taken a back seat to the attitudes that help us confront our opponents. The ideology is malleable. The confrontation is mandatory. That’s the migration Rush made. That’s a migration millions made. Rush was a symbol of a generation’s despair.”

  • In yesterday’s Vital Interests newsletter (🔒), Thomas Joscelyn zeroes in on this week’s rocket attack on a U.S. military base in Erbil, Iraq—and how the Biden administration will respond. “It doesn’t appear that any Americans were killed, but that outcome easily could have been different,” he writes. “The Biden administration will have to determine its course in Iraq sooner rather than later. A more deadly attack could force the issue.”

  • On yesterday’s episode of Advisory Opinions, Sarah and David break down the latest in a series of free speech lawsuits on college campuses, talk nondelegation doctrine, assess the likelihood that President Trump actually faces criminal prosecution, and reflect on Rush Limbaugh’s role in creating the Republican Party of today.

Let Us Know

We’ve heard from a few of you in recent days about some hostility in the Dispatch comment sections lately (less so in TMD, TMD readers are the best). Consider this your quarterly reminder to keep it neighborly in there.

In that spirit, let us know your comment section highlights: Favorite exchanges, a time you’ve had your mind changed about something through conversation, CynthiaW’s special animal friend of the day, etc.

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).