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The Morning Dispatch: Revisiting Michael Flynn
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The Morning Dispatch: Revisiting Michael Flynn

Plus, checking in on Sweden and the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Happy Friday! By the time you’re reading this, Joe Biden may have already appeared on Morning Joe to finally address the sexual assault allegation made against him by Tara Reade. How did he do? 

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • As of Thursday night, there are now 1,069,424 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States (an increase of 29,515/2.8 percent since yesterday) and 62,996 deaths (an increase of 2,029/3.3 percent increase since yesterday), according to the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, leading to a mortality rate among confirmed cases of 5.9 percent (the true mortality rate is likely much lower, but it’s impossible to determine precisely due to incomplete testing regimens). Of 6,231,182 coronavirus tests conducted in the United States (205,012 conducted since yesterday), 17.2 percent have come back positive. Meanwhile, 153,947 have recovered from the virus (an increase of 33,227/27.5 percent since yesterday). 

  • Another 3.8 million Americans filed for unemployment last week, putting the total number of jobless claims in recent weeks at more than 30 million. The stock market, meanwhile, wrapped up April by posting its greatest monthly gains since January 1987.

  • Another round of protests erupted at the Michigan Capitol yesterday, as Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer clashed with the state’s GOP-led legislature over whether to prolong Michigan’s state of emergency. 

  • The Senate will reconvene Monday, despite warnings from the body’s physician that there are no measures in place to perform coronavirus tests on all 100 senators.

Checking In With the Wuhan Lab

Was the novel coronavirus accidentally released from a Chinese biotech lab that performs research on such pathogens? This question about the origins of our global pandemic remains unanswered, although circumstantial evidence supporting the theory has grown in recent weeks. In an unusual move yesterday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence stated explicitly that such a finding could not be ruled out.

The intel community “concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified,” the statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence reads, adding: “The IC will continue to rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.”

The ODNI statement came after a report in The New York Times that U.S. intelligence officials were concerned that the Trump administration was pushing for a conclusion that the virus came from the lab. “Some intelligence analysts are concerned that the pressure from administration officials will distort assessments about the virus and that they could be used as a political weapon in an intensifying battle with China over a disease that has infected more than three million people across the globe,” according to that report.

“Most intelligence agencies remain skeptical that conclusive evidence of a link to a lab can be found, and scientists who have studied the genetics of the coronavirus say that the overwhelming probability is that it leapt from animal to human in a nonlaboratory setting, as was the case with H.I.V., Ebola and SARS.”

But in a news conference later in the day, President Trump reasserted his belief that the virus came from the lab and appeared to go much further than the ODNI’s guarded statement. Asked by Fox News’s John Roberts whether he had seen evidence that made him certain that the virus had come from the lab, Trump was unequivocal: “Yes, I have.”

“What gives you a high degree of confidence that this originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology?” Roberts continued.

“I can’t tell you that,” Trump replied. “I’m not allowed to tell you that.”

As always, it’s important to distinguish between two different iterations of the lab origin theory. One theory, that the virus was genetically created or tampered with to be deadlier in the Chinese lab, has been thoroughly debunked by scientists who have studied its genetic code. In this sense, we know that the virus did not originate in the lab. But it remains entirely possible that a naturally occurring strain of the virus that was being studied there accidentally escaped into the broader population.

The lab itself continues to deny any involvement in the outbreak. “There is absolutely no way that the virus originated from our institute,” its Communist Party chief Yuan Zhiming told Chinese state TV last week. “They don’t have any evidence of this. What they rely on is only their guess.” Yuan went on to accuse numerous Americans of deliberate smears against his institute, including Sen. Tom Cotton and reporters for the Washington Post

The Ballad of Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn’s defense lawyer released notes this week taken by an unidentified FBI agent that include the controversial bullet point: “What is our goal? Truth/admission or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired.” She also released evidence that the FBI almost dropped the investigation against Flynn but that call was overridden by FBI leadership. Now the question is: 1) is any of this legally relevant, and 2) is it politically relevant?

David French provided a lot of the extensive history of this case in his newsletter (🔒) last night. But here are some quick takeaways. 

Why is Flynn releasing these notes now?

Flynn pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to investigators about his conversations with Russian diplomat Sergey Kislyak. Since then, he switched defense counsel and has tried to withdraw his plea, arguing that he is innocent and that he has been the victim of malicious prosecution by the Department of Justice. The defense attorney is arguing that the notes comprise new “evidence that proves Mr. Flynn’s allegations of having been deliberately set up and framed by corrupt agents at the top of the FBI.”

What do these notes mean?

There’s a lot we don’t know about the notes, including who wrote them and what exactly they even mean. It is the FBI’s role to investigate crimes under federal law. It is not the FBI’s role to get people fired when they come up a little short proving a crime. But other parts of these notes call into question whether the FBI agent was actually advocating for this goal at all. 

As David points out, “it seems as if there was a question as to whether FBI agents should show Michael Flynn they had evidence that he violated the Logan Act (a 1799 law that in essence prohibits American citizens from engaging in unauthorized diplomacy with foreign powers), or whether they should hide the evidence from him to see if he would lie.” 

The person speaking in the notes is advocating for showing Flynn the evidence because “[w] e regularly show suspects evidence with the goal of getting them to admit their wrongdoing.” The notes end by suggesting that not showing Flynn the evidence could be seen as “playing games” by the White House and that the FBI should “protect the institution by not playing games.” But, again, without knowing who wrote the notes or what conversation they are even taking notes about (their own thoughts? someone else’s?), it’s only speculation at this point. And there’s the fact that the speaker lost this argument because as far as we know the FBI did not, in fact, show Flynn any evidence during this meeting.

Will Flynn be able to get out of his plea deal?

Despite what partisans on Twitter may say (on either side), this question is far more murky and the notes released this week aren’t really relevant. As David laid out in some detail, there’s quite a bit of evidence that Flynn entered “into a plea deal against the backdrop of much wider criminal behavior, striking a bargain in exchange for his cooperation.” These notes, however bad they may look, won’t be enough to attack such a deal. 

But, wait, there’s more. Other documents that haven’t gotten nearly as much attention “indicate that prosecutors and defense counsel may have struck a confidential side deal as part of the Flynn plea agreement.” Uh-oh. That’s a legal problem for the government’s case. “If there was a secret arrangement that would reveal that prosecutors had threatened to prosecute Flynn’s son to coerce a guilty plea,” David writes, “this may bring the case within the scope of the Supreme Court’s 1972 ruling in Giglio v. United States, ‘which requires the government to disclose to the defense any promises made or benefits given in exchange for the testimony of a witness called by the prosecution.’”

Are the Flynn notes politically relevant?

You bet. The president told reporters in the Oval Office “if you look at those notes from yesterday, that was total exoneration.” Vice President Pence said he was “deeply troubled by the revelations of what appears to have been investigative abuse by officials in the Justice Department.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy described it as “bigger than Watergate.” Rep. Jim Jordan, the president’s attorney Jay Sekulow, and the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page have all taken similar positions. 

Gallup reported yesterday that “approval of [Trump’s] handling of the COVID-19 crisis is down 10 percentage points from last month, including a 10-point decline among independents and a 16-point decline among Democrats.” After another week trying to manage the intricacies of a global pandemic that has brought with it staggering unemployment numbers, these latest revelations may be a welcome media narrative relief for the president’s allies.

The Swedish Model Still Ain’t All It’s Cracked up to Be

Ever since we entered into this “new normal” that brands and corporations keep telling us about on TV in between innings of baseball games from 2006, Sweden has been chugging along with something much closer to its “normal normal.” While the United States—and, to varying degrees, much of the rest of the Western world—has opted for stricter shutdowns to combat the coronavirus (moving school online, shuttering bars and restaurants, closing retailers and salons), Sweden has done the opposite, merely banning gatherings of more than 50 people, canceling sporting events, and—more recently—limiting access to nursing homes.

With frustrations beginning to bubble up over lockdown measures stateside, some Americans are advocating we shift gears and follow the Swedes—loosen the restrictions, trust people to social distance, and eventually develop herd immunity. After all, Sweden—with its population of 10.2 million—“only” has 21,092 coronavirus cases and 2,586 deaths.

But President Trump took to Twitter yesterday to put Sweden’s numbers into context.

The numbers have moved a little since he tweeted that—210 deaths in Norway, 211 in Finland, and 452 in Denmark—but the point is a valid one. Sweden, with its lax mitigation techniques, has not seen the coronavirus spread disproportionately out of control: About 0.21 percent of its population has been infected, compared to 0.32 percent of the United States’. But relative to its more tightly locked down Scandinavian neighbors—with whom it shares a similar population density, demographic makeup, and climate—Sweden is clearly doing much worse. Accounting for variations in population, about 0.004 percent of Norway and Finland’s population has died from COVID-19; about 0.03 percent of Sweden’s has—an increase by a factor of 7.5.

The conditions in Scandinavia are such that Sweden’s relatively dismal outcome within the region does not register as inordinately disastrous worldwide. Its 0.03 percent overall mortality rate puts it on par with Ireland, for example, and well ahead of Italy or Spain’s 0.05 percent. But that doesn’t mean its approach—implemented in a Rome, or a Madrid, or a New York—wouldn’t be catastrophic. In fact, it almost assuredly would.

About 2,000 doctors, scientists, and professors in Sweden recently signed a petition imploring the government to put stricter measures in place. “They are leading us to catastrophe,” a virus immunology researcher told The Guardian.

And what of the argument that avoiding stricter measures would save the economy? Thus far, Sweden’s economy hasn’t received the memo that things aren’t locked down: Its central bank released projections showing that—best case scenario—the country’s GDP will shrink about 7 percent in 2020. Another scenario shows a 9.7 percent contraction. From CNBC:

The International Monetary Fund predicted earlier in April that Germany and the U.K. will see their economies contract by 6.5% and 7% this year, respectively. France is expected to see a 7.2% contraction, Spain an 8% contraction and for Italy to see its economy shrink 9.1%.

Sweden’s neighbors Finland and Denmark, which also imposed lockdowns, are also expected to see their economies contract by 6% and 6.5%, respectively.

Proponents of the Swedish model have pointed to the potential for a more rapid attainment of herd immunity, but Swedish public health officials themselves say that is not their goal. “We believe herd immunity will of course help us in the long run, and we are discussing that, but it’s not like we are actively trying to achieve it as has been made out (by the press and some scientists),” Sweden’s Public Health Agency chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell told USA Today. “If we wanted to achieve herd immunity we would have done nothing and let coronavirus run rampant through society.”

“There is no strategy to create herd immunity in response to COVID-19 in Sweden,” Minister for Health and Social Affairs Lena Hallengren told CNN. “Sweden shares the same goals as all other countries—to save lives and protect public health.”

Worth Your Time

  • New York Times media columnist Ben Smith took TV networks to task in his column yesterday for their unwillingness to put Tara Reade on the air to discuss her allegation against Joe Biden, comparing the saga to one that played out twenty years ago with Juanita Broaddrick and Bill Clinton. “There are, as with Ms. Broaddrick, reasons to doubt [Reade’s] story,” he writes. “There aren’t good reasons not to hear her out.”

  • As the coronavirus crisis stretches on, a harsh truth has emerged: Getting through this requires balance between maintaining public health and preserving an economy. And nobody has any real way of assessing what the just and right way to balance those two goods is. This Politico piece from John Harris gets a little armchair-philosophical, but is a great rundown of the difficulties surrounding this fundamental question—and our collective distaste for even acknowledging it exists.

Something Fun

If you still need to order a face mask…

Presented Without Comment

https://twitter.com/kathrynw5/status/1255922620832329729

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • The latest Advisory Opinions podcast breaks down the latest in the Michael Flynn saga, the viability of third-party presidential candidacies, and a few other legal odds and ends.

  • Alec has two new new Dispatch Fact Checks: First he explores a claim Joe Biden made in an interview Monday: That President Trump “owes apparently millions of dollars to the Bank of China.” You can read it here. Next up, he investigates whether, per a claim by Bernie Sanders, that the White House Gift Shop is selling coronavirus commemorative coins.

  • A study from French scientists found that smokers are strongly underrepresented among patients with coronavirus symptoms. On the site, Dr. Sally Satel—a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute—breaks down the study and explains what we know and what we don’t about the relationship between nicotine and the coronavirus.

  • On the site today, Emanuele Ottolenghi of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies writes about how Iran is only too happy to be airlifting supplies to Venezuela. He looks at what the Islamic Republic stands to gain from the effort, and it’s more than just some gold bars from the country’s central bank.

Let Us Know

With hundreds and hundreds of companies stepping up in recent weeks to start manufacturing hand sanitizer, the FDA is beseeching them to make the stuff taste worse. At this stage in the pandemic, is that going to stop you?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Sarah Isgur (@whignewtons), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images.