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The Morning Dispatch: The Pressure Builds on Kevin McCarthy
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The Morning Dispatch: The Pressure Builds on Kevin McCarthy

Plus: Europe's move against Big Tech.

Happy Wednesday! All the musical theater fans in the house (aka Esther) are thrilled/enraged/bemused at the news that the long-awaited movie adaptation of the musical Wicked will now be spread over two movies. Call that the Lord of the Rings effect.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Gazprom—the state-owned Russian energy company—informed officials in Poland and Bulgaria on Tuesday it will halt gas supplies to their countries beginning today, making them the first two European countries to be cut off from Russian gas since the invasion of Ukraine in February. To lessen the blow of sanctions, Russian President Vladimir Putin had insisted countries importing Russian gas pay for it in rubles—a demand leaders in Warsaw and Sofia rebuffed. Only Hungary has thus far agreed to those terms, meaning additional embargos could be implemented shortly.

  • In a shift from its previous hesitance to supply heavy weaponry, Germany’s government reportedly authorized on Tuesday the transfer of 50 Gepard anti-aircraft tanks to Ukraine. “We will continue like this,” Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said yesterday at a U.S. Air Force base in Germany. “Step by step, whatever Ukraine needs, we will consider with our allies what is possible.”

  • In an interview with state TV on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused NATO of engaging in a “proxy war” with Russia by arming Ukraine, warning that the threat of nuclear conflict “should not be underestimated.” His comments came hours after Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Russia was thus far “failing” to achieve its war aims. 

  • Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas issued a memo on Tuesday outlining the Biden administration’s plan for the southern border if and when Title 42—the pandemic-era policy that allows border officials to quickly turn away asylum seekers—is lifted next month. The memo concedes “migration levels will increase” in response to the move, and pledges DHS will surge additional resources to the border and increase processing efficiency.

  • In an effort to increase distribution of COVID-19 therapeutics like Paxlovid, the Biden administration announced Tuesday it plans to open a “federal pharmacy channel” that will allow more pharmacies and distribution sites to order the drugs directly from the federal government. The White House hopes to nearly double the number of sites carrying Paxlovid—currently about 20,000—in the next few weeks. Axios reported yesterday a significant portion of the government’s Paxlovid supply is currently going unused, in part because “patients and providers may still be acting as if there’s a shortage of pills.”

  • Vice President Kamala Harris tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday. Kirsten Allen, a spokeswoman for Harris, said the vice president had exhibited no symptoms, but began a regimen of Paxlovid after consultation with her physicians. She was not deemed to have been in close contact with President Biden because of recent travel.

  • Bloomberg and the Washington Post reported Tuesday that Daleep Singh—President Biden’s deputy national security adviser for international economics—is planning to take an “extended” leave of absence for family reasons. Singh has overseen the United States’ sanctions response against Russia. Cedric Richmond—a former representative and senior adviser to President Biden—plans to leave the administration for the DNC in the coming weeks, and Vice President Kamala Harris’ Chief of Staff Tina Flournoy is stepping down from her role as well.

  • The Senate voted 52-43 Tuesday to confirm Lael Brainard as vice chair of the Federal Reserve, a position to which President Joe Biden nominated her back in November. Brainard worked in the Treasury Department in the Obama administration and has been a member of the Fed’s Board of Governors since 2014. The Senate is expected to vote on three more of Biden’s Fed picks—including the renomination of Jerome Powell as chair—in the coming days.

  • President Biden announced Tuesday he was granting clemency to 78 people, issuing full pardons to three and commuting the sentences of 75 others. It was the first batch of pardons and commutations of his presidency, and the list primarily included people serving sentences for non-violent drug offenses.

Are Cracks in McCarthy’s Support Beginning to Show?

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

If your goal is to win a popularity contest among House Republicans, it’s … unhelpful, to say the least, for Tucker Carlson to plaster a picture of your face on primetime Fox News and label you a “puppet of the Democratic Party” who “sounds like an MSNBC contributor.” But if House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tuned into the network a little after 8 p.m. ET last night, that’s exactly what he would’ve seen.

Carlson was referring to comments McCarthy made on a January 10, 2021, call—first reported by the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin and Alex Burns last Thursday—in which he lamented that, unlike Donald Trump, certain fringe Republican House members still had access to social media in the aftermath of the Capitol riot. “Can’t they take their Twitter accounts away, too?” he said on a leadership call with Reps. Liz Cheney and Steve Scalise. On the same call, McCarthy said he planned to recommend then-President Donald Trump resign from office.

In the days since Martin and Burns’ story was published, most of the attention has focused on the wannabe speaker’s relationship with Trump—and whether the leaked audio would result in a falling out. Events can change, of course, but much of that speculation was put to rest when Trump spoke to the Wall Street Journal Friday night.

“I heard the call. I didn’t like the call,” Trump said of McCarthy’s comments. “But almost immediately as you know, because he came here and we took a picture right there—you know, the support was very strong. … I think it’s all a big compliment, frankly. They realized they were wrong and supported me.” The former president said he still “likes” McCarthy, and that he didn’t know of anybody else running for speaker.

But if the GOP does take back the House in November—as it seems increasingly likely to do—Trump won’t have a vote in the chamber’s leadership election. It’s McCarthy’s fellow House Republicans who will control whether his dream of securing the speaker’s gavel comes to fruition. Thus far, they’ve mostly stood behind the man who’s led the conference since 2019.

“Nobody cares about that,” said Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, who’s chairing the National Republican Congressional Committee this cycle. “Nobody but the media and journalists.”

“I’m for Donald Trump being the next president and Kevin McCarthy being the next speaker,” Rep. Jim Jordan—long a thorn in Republican leadership’s side—added.

“Nobody’s talking about it,” Rep. Rodney Davis added. “And frankly, I can’t wait till Speaker McCarthy is sworn in.”

McCarthy himself seems confident. “I don’t think [the tape] has any impact at all,” he told Fox News Friday when asked about his likely speakership bid. “That’s not really what’s critical, what happened 15 months ago. What’s happening, is what’s happening on this border right now. Our border is not secure.”

But there were some defectors on Tuesday. Far-right Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona told OANN yesterday the saga was “incredibly undermining” for McCarthy, and that it resulted in him having a “huge trust issue” with the potential leader. Rep. Matt Gaetz—who’s long harbored disdain for McCarthy—said Tuesday the recordings show the minority leader (and Scalise) to be “weak men.”

Biggs and Gaetz could soon have company, as Martin and Burns dropped another tranche of McCarthy leaks last night, in which the Californian and his fellow leadership members criticized a number of Republicans for their extreme—and inflammatory—rhetoric around January 6. “Our members have got to start paying attention to what they say,” McCarthy warned on a call days after the Capitol attack. “The country is too crazy. … I do not want to look back and think we caused something or we missed something and someone got hurt. I don’t want to play politics with any of that.”

Reps. Lauren Boebert, Mo Brooks, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Barry Moore, Matt Gaetz, and Louie Gohmert were among those McCarthy mentioned by name on the call.

The episode highlights a fundamental flaw in McCarthy’s leadership style, as he tries to be all things to all people. Despite talking a big game on private phone calls, McCarthy never really did crack down on these fringe characters—frustrating the conference’s more moderate members. But now that those fringe members know how McCarthy talks about them behind closed doors, they’re likely none too happy with him either.

In a brief interview with The Dispatch last night, Brooks—who’s now running for Senate in Alabama—didn’t say whether he believed McCarthy deserved backlash for his comments. “That’s going to be up to the members of the House in January of 2023,” he said. “I will not be in the House in January 2023. … So I will leave that issue to those who will be here.”

How many defectors McCarthy will be able to afford depends on how big a majority Republicans win in November. If the margin is similar to what Democrats have in the House now, just a handful of GOP lawmakers could block McCarthy from the speakership—or vote him in, and demand constant concessions in exchange for their continued support. Acting as a bloc in the 115th Congress, the House Freedom Caucus was often able to give then-Speaker Paul Ryan headaches even with a 40-plus member majority. 

Jordan—one of the Freedom Caucus’ most vocal members—still backs McCarthy. But others sounded more on the fence. “Everybody is accountable for what they say and do,” Rep. Scott Perry said, offering only that the House Freedom Caucus discussed the border in its meeting last night. The criticism could grow louder—and more explicit—if Carlson keeps up the pressure on his TV show. 

“Unless conservatives get their act together right away, Kevin McCarthy, or one of his highly liberal allies like Elise Stefanik, is very likely to be Speaker of the House in January,” he told his millions of viewers. “That will mean we will have a Republican Congress, led by a puppet of the Democratic Party.”

Europe Strikes Big Tech (Again)

European Union lawmakers last week reached a deal to pass the most sweeping tech regulation law since the one they agreed on last month, which was the most sweeping tech regulation since the one they passed in 2018. Altogether, it puts Europe at the forefront of the international effort to crack down on Big Tech companies—and American lawmakers want in on all that sweet, sweet regulatory action.

The deal means the Digital Services Act is likely to pass, though official approval could take months and the actual text of the legislation won’t be out for a few weeks. But lawmakers say it requires tech companies to share more information about their recommendation algorithms, allow users to flag harmful content, and develop clear steps for removing illegal content such as hate speech. It bans all targeted advertising to children and blocks some types of companies from using sensitive characteristics like religion and sexual orientation to target advertising. 

One section, a “crisis mechanism” clause, allows the European Commission to control how tech companies respond to crises. This provision could have, for example, allowed lawmakers to compel Twitter to block Russian state media after the invasion of Ukraine, or forced Amazon to remove fake N-95 masks from its marketplace to stop COVID-19 scammers. Companies with more than 45 million European Union users face stricter rules and fines of up to 6 percent of global revenue if they don’t show—via required yearly assessments—that they’re making progress on reducing the forbidden practices.

The new package adds to last month’s Digital Markets Act agreement, which tries to rein in tech giants and force them to treat smaller companies fairly—to stop, for instance, Amazon from privileging its products in search results on its site. The 2018 General Data Protection Regulation law requires companies to justify their collection of personal data and explain it to users. Europe has struggled to enforce that, but this time Commission leaders plan to charge tech companies a “supervisory fee” and hire more than 200 enforcement staffers.

“It’s not a slogan anymore that what is illegal offline should also be seen and dealt with as illegal online,” said European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager, who helped drive the new regulations. “Now it is a real thing. Democracy is back.”

The proposal is leaps and bounds beyond other countries’ tech regulations, but some lawmakers argue it falls short in some areas and goes too far in others. “Our online privacy will not be protected by a right to use digital services anonymously, nor by a right to encryption, a ban on data retention, or a right to generally opt-out of surveillance advertising in your browser,” European Parliament member Patrick Breyer said in a statement, adding that it also gives countries too much power, so that nations with different speech rules could end up restricting content published across each others’ borders. “Cross-border removal orders issued by illiberal member states without a court order can take down media reports and information that is perfectly legal in the country of publication. Industry and government interests have unfortunately prevailed over digital civil liberties.” 

Tech companies aren’t likely to roll these policies out worldwide if they can help it—the rules hamper revenue streams, limit competitive advantages, and add a regulatory burden. And U.S. officials have complained that most of the companies with more than 45 million users in the EU are U.S.-based. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo in December warned proposed regulations could “disproportionately impact U.S.-based tech firms and their ability to adequately serve EU customers and uphold security and privacy standards.”

What with worries about censorship by social media companies, evidence that Facebook knew its products harmed teens’ mental health, fears of tech giants crushing upstart competitors—not to mention the whole “Elon Musk can just buy Twitter now??” saga—American lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are antsy to join Europe in regulating tech companies. But there are a few key differences between our neighbors across the pond and us, including the First Amendment—which stops Congress from dictating companies’ moderation policies—and Section 230, which protects platforms from being sued for those content moderation policies. 

Still, Congress has lots of tech regulation legislation sloshing around. The last two sessions of Congress have seen introduced (or re-introduced) nearly 40 bills to change or repeal Section 230, according to a Slate count, all of which would fundamentally change how social media companies operate. Other proposals focus on disrupting giants like Amazon and Google—the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICO) tries to prevent monopolies by forbidding companies from privileging their own products over competitors, among other measures. A slate of bipartisan bills more than two years in the making from the House Antitrust Subcommittee would block Big Tech from forcing smaller companies to pay for extra services to use their platforms and increase merger fees that would then go to the Federal Trade Commission’s antitrust enforcement budget. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission have been investigating Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon for potential antitrust violations, and the Justice Department supports AICO.

So far, lawmakers haven’t passed major changes, and they don’t have a lot of time to do so before the distraction and partisanship of midterm elections make collaborating on bipartisan legislation much less likely. Plus, last time they did manage some Section 230 changes, it backfired. The 2018 Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act lifted Section 230’s liability shield from websites that facilitate sex trafficking violations, but research suggests it increased risk for sex workers and didn’t help prosecutors pursue trafficking charges.

While the feds flounder, states have taken initiative. California, Colorado, Utah, and Virginia have passed their own privacy laws, but they all have slightly different rules. North Dakota and Texas have attempted Section 230 reform. “There needs to be a consistent approach across the states,” Tom Romanoff, director of the Technology Project at the Bipartisan Policy Institute, told The Dispatch. “Otherwise, you’re going to start getting into a cost prohibitive regulatory regimen, with [companies] trying to be compliant with all these disparate government entities.”

Whatever Congress does, some analysts say it shouldn’t take a page from Europe’s book. “There’s a reason why there’s not a top 10 global tech company based in Europe, and there’s a reason why there’s a bunch of them based in the U.S.,” Jessica Melugin, director of the Center for Technology and Innovation at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, told The Dispatch. “Part of that is our regulatory environment versus theirs. Europeans are nice enough to go first and try it—we can probably learn from their mistakes.”

Worth Your Time

  • Are American cities in decline? According to new census data, the nation’s largest metropolitan areas—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Boston, Seattle, and a few others—lost a combined 900,000 residents in 2021. “The rise of remote work has snipped the tether between home and office, allowing many white-collar workers to move out of high-cost cities,” Derek Thompson writes in his latest newsletter. Why, then, are rents at or near all-time highs? “[One possibility is that] America’s densest cities are becoming playgrounds for the rich and mostly childless. In 2001, L.A. County recorded 153,000 live births. In 2021, it recorded fewer than 100,000 births. Perhaps middle-class workers and families with young kids used the pandemic as an opportunity to accelerate their move to the suburbs or cheaper towns. As poorer and younger families left, richer and older people stayed, and some affluent young people moved in. In this scenario, some cities might have gotten richer even as they got smaller, pushing up rents and home prices.”

  • What’s actually accomplished by banning Russian and Belarusian tennis players from participating in Wimbledon? Not much, Will Leitch argues in New York Magazine. “Daniil Medvedev, the No. 2 player in the world, can’t play, and neither can No. 8 Andrey Rublev. If that last name sounds familiar to non-tennis fans, he’s the guy who, in the first days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, wrote on a camera, ‘No War Please,’” Leitch notes. “Remember, too, what Rublev was doing that very week: playing a doubles match with his partner, Denys Molchanov, who is Ukrainian. … There is something inherently cowardly in Wimbledon’s decision. It isn’t trying to fight Putin; it’s trying to cover its ass. It’s attempting to avoid anything uncomfortable, lest it possibly detract from the sacred tournament. But erasing Russians and Belarusans doesn’t erase the conflict. It just allows Wimbledon to hide from it. It’s the sort of move an organization makes to look as if it cares without actually caring about anything but protecting itself.”

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Toeing the Company Line

  • When Speaker Nancy Pelosi expanded proxy voting for House members in 2020, the measure was intended to be used only for pandemic-related reasons. Enter Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist of Florida. “Lawmakers who vote by proxy must submit letters citing the ongoing pandemic as the reason for their absence,” Haley writes in Tuesday’s Uphill. “Crist has not publicly disclosed having a case of COVID at any point in the pandemic. … His social media accounts, meanwhile, show he has held campaign events in Florida on days he voted by proxy in the House.”

  • David’s latest French Press (🔒) argues it’s healthy for men to indulge in a little stoicism. “Yes, there’s such a thing as too much repression, but there is also such a thing as too much emotion,” he writes. “In moments of crisis or trouble, do you look to the people who are losing their minds? Or do you find yourself immediately gravitating to those who remain calm?”

  • In this week’s Sweep, Sarah looks at the latest Cook Political Report ratings for the 2022 midterms, wonders whether New York City’s lone Republican representative will hang onto her seat, and checks in on “crossover districts” that split their presidential and congressional vote by party in 2020. Plus: Andrew on whether Trump might endorse Eric Greitens in Missouri’s hotly contested U.S. Senate race.

  • David joined a fever-ridden Jonah for an episode of The Remnant filled with so much rank punditry it’ll make your head spin. What does Ron DeSantis’ feud with Disney reveal about American polarization? What kind of change should we expect from Elon Musk’s version of Twitter? How would Jonah and David change the site if they were in charge?

  • Thanks to those of you who joined us for Dispatch Live last night! On this week’s episode, David and Andrew were joined by Matthew Continetti for a conversation about his new book on the history of American conservatism. If you weren’t able to tune in, never fear: Dispatch members can rewatch the hour by clicking here.

  • On the site today, Charlotte reports on who’s behind continued violence in Israel and how long it might continue, Jonah points out that politicians—such as DeSantis—giving in to mobs only produces more mobs, and Bill Wirtz examines what’s next for French President Emmanuel Macron after winning reelection.

Let Us Know

Do you think Kevin McCarthy can ride out this scandal and become speaker, assuming the Republicans take the House in November? If not, who will take the gavel?

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.