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The Morning Dispatch: The Coronavirus Is Not Politics as Usual
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The Morning Dispatch: The Coronavirus Is Not Politics as Usual

Plus, a quick 2020 update.

Happy Monday! With the switch to Daylight Saving Time, we had a one hour less on Sunday to work on this newsletter, so no fun header today, sorry. Let’s jump right in.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • After a little more than a year on the job, Mick Mulvaney is out as President Trump’s acting chief of staff. President Trump announced Friday that Mulvaney would be replaced by Rep. Mark Meadows, a retiring member of the House Freedom Caucus and staunch presidential ally, while Mulvaney will serve as special envoy to Northern Ireland.

  • Another batch of Democratic primaries will take place tomorrow in six states, in what has quickly become a two-man race between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Each candidate notched notable endorsements over the weekend: Rev. Jesse Jackson for Sanders, Sen. Kamala Harris for Biden. Still notably unaffiliated: Elizabeth Warren, who dropped out after Super Tuesday.

  • The U.S. economy added a robust 273,000 jobs in February, with the unemployment rate holding steady at a slim 3.5 percent. 

  • North Korea fired a handful of unidentified projectiles into the Sea of Japan Sunday evening.

  • The number of COVID-19 cases in the United States has risen to at least 539, with 22 confirmed deaths, and the stock market is poised to plunge again today over coronavirus fears, with futures triggering circuit breakers meant to stop a market panic overnight.

  • Overseas, Italy is implementing heavy new travel limitations and quarantines in an effort to contain its rapidly worsening coronavirus situation, as the death count has risen to 366 in that country.

The Coronavirus Is Not Politics as Usual

On Thursday morning, President Trump tweeted that despite 100,000 coronavirus cases worldwide, “the United States, because of quick action on closing our borders, has, as of now, only 129 cases (40 Americans brought in) and 11 deaths. We are working very hard to keep these numbers as low as possible!”

Signing into law the $8.3 billion Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act the next day, he touted his decision to shut down international travel from China to combat COVID-19, saying, “I heard about it [the coronavirus] in China. It came out of China, and I heard about it. And made a good move: We closed it down; we stopped it.”

Also that day, Larry Kudlow—director of the Trump administration’s National Economic Council—went said on CNBC: “I will still argue to you, that this [the coronavirus] is contained.” He acknowledged that “it can’t be airtight,” and “there are things in front of us,” saying he doesn’t “want to downgrade this thing,” but, ultimately, he concluded, “I think it is relatively contained, yes I do.”

Here are some coronavirus-related things that happened over the weekend.

  1. The number of COVID-19 cases in the United States rose to at least 539, with 22 confirmed deaths.

  2. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued new guidance recommending older adults and people with underlying health issues to avoid crowded places, non-essential travel, and especially cruise ships.

  3. Pennsylvania, Indiana, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Connecticut, Kentucky, Nebraska, South Carolina, Hawaii, Utah, Kansas, Virginia, Missouri, Vermont, and Washington D.C. reported their first cases of COVID-19.

  4. The city of Austin, Texas canceled its annual South by Southwest (SXSW) conference, which was scheduled to take place from March 13-22, over coronavirus fears.

  5. A CPAC attendee tested positive for COVID-19, leading Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Paul Gosar—both of whom interacted with the individual—to self-quarantine “out of an abundance of caution.”

  6. The AFL-CIO called off its planned forum in Orlando with presidential aspirants Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.

  7. Stanford University scrapped all in-person class meetings for the final two weeks of the winter quarter. Columbia University did the same for the week. 

  8. One of tennis’ biggest tournaments, the BNP Paribas Open, was canceled.

Public health officials in the Trump administration made the rounds on Sunday shows, approaching the spread of the pathogen with a heightened sense of caution—not quite panic, but not quite calm, either.

Speaking with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday yesterday, Dr. Anthony Fauci—director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) since 1984—said “we’re having obviously an acceleration of cases now,” and that “we have to be realistic.”

“Right now,” Fauci continued, “I’m telling the American people, based on everything that’s agreed upon in the task force, that if you are an individual who has an underlying condition, particularly an elderly person with an underlying condition, right now, not wait, you should start to distance yourself from the risk, crowds, getting on a plane, on a long plane trip, and, above all, don’t get on a cruise ship.”

On CNN’s State of the Union, Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams told Jake Tapper that the administration is “shifting into a mitigation phase” from a containment one, acknowledging the United States is “going to see more cases” and “going to see more deaths.”

“We want people who are older people who have medical conditions to take steps to protect themselves, including avoiding crowded spaces, including thinking very carefully about whether or not now’s the time to get on that cruise ship, and whether now’s the time to take that long-haul flight,” Adams said. “For most people, you’re going to be fine. But if you have medical conditions, or you’re older, now’s the time to rethink that.”

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), told Margaret Brennan on CBS’ Face the Nation, “We have an epidemic underway here in the United States … The next two weeks are really going to change the complexion in this country. We’ll get through this, but it’s going to be a hard period. We’re looking at two months probably of difficulty.”

Gottlieb argued cities and states are going to need to shut down their economies—“close businesses, close large gatherings, close theaters, cancel events”—and that the federal government will eventually end up passing a significant bailout package: “We’re better off doing it upfront and giving assistance to get them to do the right things than do it on the back end after we’ve had a very big epidemic.”

Brennan asked Gottlieb if those comparing COVID-19 to the standard flu were correct. “No, this is not the flu,” he responded. “China didn’t shut down their economy because they had a bad flu season … The case fatality rate here is going to be higher all through the age ranges. This is a more severe disease.”

This tension has been obvious from the beginning of our public discussion of coronavirus in the U.S. The president, some of his top advisers, and many of his media boosters have sought to downplay the threat. Rush Limbaugh compared coronavirus to “the common cold.” Then-chief of staff Mick Mulvaney mused about coronavirus as the seasonal flu, acknowledging that coronavirus is real but minimizing the threat. “You saw the president the other day—the flu is real.”

“This is not Ebola … it’s not SARS, it’s not MERS,” Mulvaney added.

“We sit there and watch the markets and there’s this huge panic and it’s like, why isn’t there this huge panic every single year over flu?”

Mulvaney told the crowd at CPAC that media coverage of coronavirus developments were primarily political. “The reason you’re seeing so much attention to [the coronavirus] today is that they think this is going to be what brings down the president. That’s what this is all about.”

Which brings us back to the president himself. 

The Washington Post has a report on Trump’s private response to the coronavirus crisis, and it doesn’t paint a pretty picture. And in his public commentary, Trump appears to be approaching the spread of the coronavirus like he would any other domestic political squabble, and with his looming re-election battle top of mind.

In his remarks to the press on February 27, Trump said: “You have 15 people, and the 15, within a couple of days, is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”

Trump compared CDC testing kits—early iterations of which Dr. Fauci said had a “technical glitch,” explaining the initial shortfall—to his call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “The tests are all perfect, like the letter was perfect. The transcription was perfect, right? This was not as perfect as that, but pretty good.”

The president was also asked about a Grand Princess cruise ship off the coast of California with several coronavirus patients onboard, and whether the sick should be allowed off the boat into a quarantine. “Experts, including our Vice President … would like to have the people come off,” Trump said. “I’d rather have the people stay, but I’d go with them. I told them to make the final decision.” 

“I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship. That wasn’t our fault, and it wasn’t the fault of the people on the ship, either. Okay?  It wasn’t their fault either. And they’re mostly Americans, so I can live either way with it.”

On Thursday, Trump (misleadingly) boasted about his administration’s response to COVID-19, tweeting that “Gallup just gave us the highest rating ever for the way we are handling the CoronaVirus situation.”

The president feels his opponents are weaponizing the epidemic to damage him politically. And some are! Many Democrats accused Trump of cutting the CDC budget when he has not. The fact that COVID-19 originated in China did not stop New York Times columnist Gail Collins from writing an op-ed titled, “Let’s Call It Trumpvirus.” As David wrote about in his Sunday French Press, a tweet went viral mocking Pence for praying with his coronavirus team.

So, the coronavirus, like so much of our public debate these days, is seen through the prism of polarization. Many conservatives, taking their cues from Trump and his boosters, have concluded that coronavirus is more hype than cause for concern. And some on the left do see it as the thing that can finally bring Trump down.

There’s a risk here for Trump. Reality will render the final verdict. Boasting that coronavirus is “contained” when it’s spreading, likening it to the seasonal flu when it’s a greater threat, predicting lower numbers even as experts warn about an outbreak — these tactics only work if they end up being right. Over the course of his administration, Trump has used polarization successfully frame his battles in reductionist terms: I say this, my opponents say the opposite – who do you believe? And with Democrats often overzealous and some journalists clearly out to get him, it’s worked. But on coronavirus, if the experts’ concerns are validated and the U.S. sees significant disruptions in public health and the economy, what will matter most is that Trump and his boosters were downplaying the challenge when scientists and others were issuing stark warnings.

A 2020 Update

Is Bernie Sanders already in “last stand” territory? It almost feels silly to even ask: He was the front-runner until about five minutes ago, and is still only a handful of delegates behind Joe Biden. But now that the race has snapped into a virtual head-to-head between the two—setting aside Tulsi Gabbard’s ongoing quixotic effort—Sanders is staring down a tough reality check this week that may determine whether there’s any gas left in the tank. 

The states that go to the polls tomorrow are Michigan, Idaho, Missouri, Washington, North Dakota, and Mississippi. Two, Missouri and Mississippi, are states Hillary Clinton carried in the 2016 primary; this time, Biden is likely to carry Missouri and all but guaranteed to take Mississippi by a sizable margin. 

But it isn’t those states that spell potential trouble for Sanders. It’s the other four, the ones he won last time around—particularly Michigan, the biggest delegate prize this week and a state that breathed life back into his insurgent 2016 campaign after he pulled off an upset there during that campaign. 

Sanders has been focused heavily on Michigan in recent days, canceling events in Mississippi to focus his efforts in Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Ann Arbor over the weekend. Along the way, he’s leaned into the messaging that helped him win white working-class voters in droves during the last primary: in particular, his opponent’s long-time support for free trade deals, which Sanders argues have been disastrous for American workers. 

But there are indications that Sanders is fighting uphill even there. The polling of the state is rather muddled at the moment, of course: Most recent polls were conducted when there were still four or five major candidates for voters to choose from. But the single poll conducted since Super Tuesday, an operation from state pollster Mitchell Research over the weekend, put Biden 21 points up over Sanders in the state. It’s just one data point—but not one you thrilled to see if you’re a big Sanders fan. 

Losing Michigan—as well as any of the other states he picked up last time—would be a striking blow to Sanders’ prospects, not just because of the delegate math, but because of what it would signify about the narrative of the race. 

For Sanders supporters, the story of the 2020 campaign has been simple: “It’s 2016 again, except we’ve got a better shot.” The perils of running a “centrist” candidate like Hillary Clinton—relatively pro-business, pro-capitalism, and pro-war—were exposed by her loss to Trump. Meanwhile, Sanders had consolidated his position as the left wing’s standard-bearer, and was in a far stronger position going in this time: better-funded, better-known, with a bigger and farther-reaching campaign operation. Insofar as Biden was just this campaign’s Hillary Clinton—the centrist who nobody’s really stoked about—they believed they had a pretty good shot. 

But what if it turns out that there actually is a significant difference between Biden and Clinton—namely, that far fewer voters see Biden as uniquely unlikable and distasteful? That would indicate that a sizable portion of Bernie’s support last time around came more for his status as the candidate challenging Hillary than for the things he himself stood for—a coalition that’s far less stable, unsurprisingly, in a race Hillary’s not in. Now that we’re in a head-to-head situation, these parallels will be easier to analyze. And it starts tomorrow in Michigan.

Worth Your Time

  • Here’s a story that reads like a particularly bizarre crossover from the Trumpworld Expanded Universe: Court documents show that Erik Prince—the Navy SEAL brother of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and founder of the private military company Blackwater—has recently been recruiting former U.S. and British spies to help right-wing activist James O’Keefe and his organization Project Veritas carry out undercover sting campaigns on Trump-hostile groups, from labor unions to Democratic congressional campaigns. The piece is written by New York Times reporters Mark Mazzetti and Adam Goldman, and you can read it here.

  • During President Trump’s impeachment hearings, America was very briefly introduced to a whole rotating cast of executive-branch characters who ordinarily work in relative obscurity: ambassadors, charges d’affaires, members of the president’s National Security Council. One of the most striking witnesses was Dr. Fiona Hill, the erstwhile top Russia expert in the federal government, who used her time to urge Congress to brace itself for Russia to interfere again in the 2020 election. On Sunday, CBS’s 60 Minutes aired a lengthy interview with Hill, which is full of interesting discussions on what separates today’s U.S.-Russia struggle from that of the Cold War and what motivates Russian president Vladimir Putin. You can watch the interview or read the transcript here.

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Something Fun

The coronavirus may be forcing schools in China to conduct class remotely, but some ingenious students found a workaround. From The London Review of Books

Children were presumably glad to be off school—until, that is, an app called DingTalk was introduced. Students are meant to sign in and join their class for online lessons; teachers use the app to set homework. Somehow the little brats worked out that if enough users gave the app a one-star review it would get booted off the App Store. Tens of thousands of reviews flooded in, and DingTalk’s rating plummeted overnight from 4.9 to 1.4.

Toeing the Company Line

  • On the website today, Thomas Joscelyn reports that while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was on Fox News claiming that “al-Qaeda is a shadow of its former self,” the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau was hosting an international conference in Morocco warning about al-Qaeda’s strength and continued growth.

  • In his Friday G-File, Jonah ponders the need to defend against the ongoing diminishing and befuddlement of the English language, en route to a discussion about Joe Biden’s use of the word “literally,” Brian Williams’ math woes, and Elizabeth Warren’s exit from the race.

  • David has another great edition of the Sunday French Press for you to chew on, all about the temptation each one of us faces to see each outrageous thing that crosses our social media feeds—a cruel joke, a foolish take—as synecdoche for our ideological enemies, broadly considered: “the media,” “the left,” or what have you. “Our public discourse is trapped in an outrage cycle,” he writes. “We look for tweets and comments that appear to confirm our worst fears about our opponents, and when we find an outrageous comment, we retweet it, quote it, and repeat it as ‘proof’ that our fears were true… With each salvo in the endless war we retreat farther and farther from the perspective we truly need.” 

  • Thomas Joscelyn continues his good coverage of the Afghanistan deal. Today on the website, he compares Mike Pompeo’s statements that al-Qaeda is a “shadow of its former self,” with the conclusions that came out of the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau’s conference last week, that the group was “resilient” and committed to continuing its operations.

  • Alec Dent has a new fact check up on the site about a deceptively truncated Joe Biden clip that pinged around Twitter over the weekend after the Trump campaign shared it.

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