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The Morning Dispatch: The White House Shakes Up Its Coronavirus Response
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The Morning Dispatch: The White House Shakes Up Its Coronavirus Response

Plus, FISA reauthorization is already getting messy.

Happy Thursday! We here at The Dispatch—well, at least Steve, Jonah, David, and Declan—spent most of Wednesday converting our non-CDC-compliant facial hair into much more manageable “walrus” mustaches. Can never be too careful nowadays.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

The Latest on COVID-19

On Tuesday, we wrote about the latest developments of COVID-19, the coronavirus originating in the Chinese city of Wuhan that has spread to more than 80,000 people worldwide. The human toll is staggering—at least 2,800 have died from the virus thus far across the globe—and the Centers for Disease Control has warned Americans the pathogen is likely to disseminate throughout the United States. The first American case of the virus unrelated to foreign travel or known contact with a confirmed patient was found in northern California last night, per the CDC.

“It’s not so much of a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen,” National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases director Nancy Messonnier said of COVID-19’s spread. “We are asking the American public to work with us to prepare, in the expectation that this could be bad.”

President Trump held a news conference on the subject at the White House last night, announcing Vice President Mike Pence would be taking charge of the administration’s coronavirus task force.

Trump touted his decision several weeks ago to restrict travel from China due to the virus, saying, “because of all we’ve done, the risk to the American people remains very low.” 

He made similar efforts throughout the hourlong press conference to reassure both the American people and investors. “We’re very, very ready for this, for anything,” the president said, “whether it’s going to be a breakout of larger proportions or whether or not we’re at that very low level. And we want to keep it that way.”

Trump also responded to Senate Democrats’ request for $8.5 billion in emergency coronavirus funding—a figure much higher than the administration’s initial $2.5 billion plan. “We were asking for $2.5 billion and we think that’s a lot,” the president said. “But the Democrats—and I guess Senator Schumer—wants us to have much more than that. And normally in life I’d say, ‘we’ll take it, we’ll take it.’ If they want to give more, we’ll do more. We’re going to spend whatever’s appropriate. Hopefully we’re not going to have to spend so much because we really think we’ve done a great job in keeping it down to a minimum.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar echoed the president’s confidence, but acknowledged the realities could shift rapidly. “The immediate risk to the American public has been and continues to be low,” he said. “At the same time, what every one of our experts and leaders have been saying for more than a month now remains true. The degree of risk has the potential to change quickly and we can expect to see more cases in the United States.”

Azar outlined what the emergency funding will be used for, including expanding surveillance networks to monitor the disease’s spread, support for state and local governments, development of therapeutics and vaccines, and the manufacturing of personal protective equipment such as masks.

Principal Deputy Director of the CDC Dr. Anne Schuchat said “we do expect more cases,” and that now is “the perfect time for businesses, health care systems, universities, and schools to look at their pandemic preparedness plans, dust them off, and make sure that they’re ready.”

Trump contradicted the CDC.’s assessment that the spread of the virus is “inevitable,” saying “it may get a little bigger, it may not get bigger at all.”

But asked about conspiracy theories floated by Rush Limbaugh and others that the virus is being “weaponized” by the CDC and others to damage Trump politically, the president defended the health professionals in his administration. “No, I don’t think the CDC is at all. They’ve been working really well together,” Trump said. “They’re professional. I think they’re beyond that. They want this to go away, they want to do it with as little disruption, and they don’t want to lose life. I see the way they’re working, these people behind me.”

How Disruptive to the Economy Will the Virus Be?

President Trump is reportedly furious over the stock market’s coronavirus-inspired selloff—the Dow has fallen more than 2,000 points, or about 7 percent, since Friday—and futures fell further during his press conference. But when asked about this, he tried to pin some of the blame for the dip on Tuesday night’s Democratic debate. 

“The stock market is something I know a lot about, I think it took a hit maybe for two reasons,” Trump said. “I think they look at the people you watched debating last night and they say ‘if there’s even a possibility that can happen,’ I think it really takes a hit because of that. And it certainly took a hit because of [the coronavirus, and I understand that also, because of supply chains and various other things.”

Major companies like Apple, Under Armour, and Nike have disclosed publicly that the coronavirus outbreak is hurting their bottom lines, in part due to decreasing revenue in China, but also from disruptions to their supply chains.

Supply chains—the complex and interconnected network of engineers, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers that bring products to life and deliver them—are as reliant on China as ever. An iPhone, for example, may be designed in California, but those designs are transmitted to a Chinese supplier like Foxconn, which then assembles the phones using parts and other materials that have been sourced from countries like Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Singapore. A mass outbreak—along with the travel and shipping barriers that accompany it—would inevitably throw a wrench into these systems.

To more fully understand the impact the virus is having on these networks, we talked to recent Remnant guest (and resident scholar/China expert at the American Enterprise Institute) Derek Scissors. 

Scissors emphasized that he’s not an expert on COVID-19 itself. But if, as Chinese authorities have said, the number of new cases within the country is beginning to drop, he doesn’t see the pathogen driving significant economic disruption beyond the immediate term. “Everyone knows the Chinese are involved in the consumer electronics chain. But it doesn’t matter,” he told The Dispatch. “So Apple sales go down in the second quarter. That just means they’ll rise more sharply in the second quarter of next year.”

More significant for future business decisions than the virus itself, Scissors argued, is how the Chinese Communist Party handles the outbreak. “For a firm standpoint, you’ve got to decide, do my operations get put at risk because of the way China responds to this?” he said. “China’s labor force is the same. The productivity of their labor is the same. Their logistics chains are the same … The underlying competitiveness of China hasn’t changed. But Chinese policy may make people uncomfortable—both the transparency and the policy response.”

The Chinese Communist Party might reason: “‘The outbreak is economically destabilizing because the private sector is too vulnerable to it. So let’s just get rid of private sector involvement in certain areas.’ And now you’re dealing with a state-owned partner instead of a private partner. So that’s the kind of thing that gets people to think about supply chain changes.”

Such changes are typically thought about by companies along a five- or 10-year time horizon. Scissors—a China skeptic—argued increased debt, an aging workforce, and policy decisions on state control of enterprise should have multinational corporations thinking about moving operations out of China in the medium-term. The coronavirus outbreak, along with trade tensions, could expedite timelines for some companies.

The problem? “Just because China’s become less competitive doesn’t mean there’s a place for you to go to. … The constraint is not that people think things in China are going to be great five years from now. They don’t,” he argued. “But you’ve got to find someplace else to go, and the rest of the world didn’t get any better.”

“I think more companies are looking at cumulative problems in China—its own loss of competitiveness, bad policy, fighting with the U.S., now the virus—and they probably want to speed up their relocation decisions. But I don’t think they’ll be able to. We’ll get a lot of companies talking about it, but very little action, and the relocation will happen at the same speed it was going to before.”

FISA Reauthorization is Already Getting Messy

In yesterday’s Morning Dispatch, we discussed the deep disagreements that remain among congressional Republicans regarding the broad surveillance powers granted to the state by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. We also talked about how the coming fight over reauthorizing key parts of FISA would provide a good opportunity to survey whether the intraparty battle lines had shifted: in particular, the FISA markup that was scheduled for yesterday afternoon in the House Judiciary Committee.

What we didn’t expect is that Republicans wouldn’t get the opportunity to display those disagreements—because they would be precluded by a FISA breakdown among the Democrats. But that’s exactly what happened Wednesday, as the markup was canceled mere minutes before it was scheduled to begin.

This postponement was a big deal. The House isn’t working with unlimited clock here: Several of the government’s key counterterrorism surveillance authorities are set to expire March 15, and even small delays make getting reauthorization done by then dicey.

So why did committee chairman Jerry Nadler pull the plug? Because Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren signaled at the last minute that she would introduce five amendments to the FISA package during the markup process—amendments Democratic leadership feared would scupper the bill altogether on the House floor.

The amendments haven’t been released publicly, but Lofgren has long been one of House Democrats’ most prominent civil libertarians; previous FISA fights have seen her tag-teaming with Rep. Justin Amash to try to beef up privacy protections.

One proposed amendment is particularly interesting: a House Republican source tells The Dispatch it would’ve ensured that a “citizen advocate” be made part of the FISA process, to present to the FISA court in any given case the best available arguments against granting the government permission to surveil. If you read yesterday’s Morning Dispatch, that should ring a bell: It’s pretty much the same reform idea that Rep. Jim Jordan and Sen. Mike Lee have been pitching all year.

What’s more, it seems plausible those amendments would have made it through the markup process. After all, the GOP source pointed out, “Why pull the markup if not for fear that they would pass?”

Unsurprisingly, Democratic leaders—who tend to be just as surveillance-hawkish as their GOP counterparts—are a bit grouchy with Lofgren. A senior Dem aide kvetched to Politico that “the committee and Chairman Nadler have been working very carefully in intense negotiation for months with all the interest groups and had worked out a very carefully negotiated reform bill of FISA.”

A delay may give Democrats time to whip out the thumbscrews and straighten Lofgren out. Or it may give them time to realize the new reality in Washington. And, this time around, “all the interest groups” may have to include real concessions to the civil libertarians in both parties.

Either way, strap in for a bumpy, interesting few weeks. There’s a lot more to play yet.

Worth Your Time

  • Many Americans are freaked out by the prospect of Russia meddling again in the 2020 election—so much so that many have seemingly adopted a “Whatever Russia Wants, We Want The Opposite” approach to domestic politics. Reporting that the Kremlin is gearing up to support the Trump and Sanders campaigns this year is treated by some as proof positive that those candidacies are bad for America. But what if that sort of simplistic knee-jerk response helps do the Russians’ work for them? That’s what Charlie Warzel argues in this piece for the New York Times: “If we don’t adapt to this information war, our panic over election meddling could become self-fulfilling. And we will become useful idiots in the undermining of our own electoral legitimacy. That, more than electing any one leader, is the true goal of Russian interference.” 

  • The electoral strategy of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign can be summarized this way: Trying to win by playing to the middle is a fool’s errand for Democrats. A message of revolutionary change that’s keyed to the needs of working people might alienate moderates and suburbanites, but it can more than make up for it by tapping into populations of people who are new to the political process. That such habitual nonvoters tend to favor leftist politics is taken as a given. But as Yascha Mounk writes for The Atlantic, the numbers don’t appear to support this theory: “Many advocates of what I have called the ‘progressive theory of mobilization’ assume that the typical nonvoter is young, brown or black, and very progressive. But while, of course, some nonvoters fit that description, an overwhelming majority don’t.” 

  • Okay, so technically we should’ve shared this one yesterday—don’t anybody cancel your memberships over it—but we only saw it today, so today’s when you get it. Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of one of the wildest social-media days since the dawn of the Internet: the day two llamas captivated the nation as they ran wild for hours in Sun City, Arizona, and the day a photo of a black and blue (or was it white and gold?) dress exploded across all our screens pretty much at once, tearing friends and families apart. If you’ve got fond memories of all that, BuzzFeed has a fun oral history of the day—give it a read.

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Something Fun

Happy anniversary to an absolute legend.

Toeing the Company Line

  • Two podcasts for the price of one: Check out the latest Dispatch Podcast to get the gang’s thoughts on the Democratic race, Trump’s post-impeachment emboldening, Harvey Weinstein, and coronavirus. Then head over to the Advisory Opinions feed, where Sarah and David discussed Bernie Sanders, religious freedom, nondiscrimination statutes, and emergency hockey goalies.

  • We’re still getting used to this whole “Wednesday G-File” thing (or whatever he decides to call it), but Jonah pumped out another one for paying members (🔒) yesterday. Come for the debate analysis, stay for an explanation of the Democratic Party’s position on Fidel Castro and why praising Cuban literacy programs is barking up the wrong tree.

  • Scott Lincicome was a little surprised to see Oren Cass’s new group, American Compass, complain that U.S. trade policy is too libertarian: “To the extent that U.S. policy has fostered import liberalization, it has done so not because of a blind, idealistic embrace of Adam Smith but instead due to the cold reality of protectionism’s costs and myriad failures.” 

  • Have you been paying attention to the crisis in Idlib? Danielle Pletka has. She writes, “How is it possible that in this day and age, half a million people can die, 7 million can be internally displaced, with almost as many having fled, and yet the killing can go on and on, as the great powers of the world stand by?”

Let Us Know

Mirroring the final question of Tuesday’s Democratic debate, we asked you yesterday for your life motto. We got dozens of fantastic responses. Here are a few of our favorites.

  • From Veronica: “There are three sides to every story … yours, mine, and the truth.”

  • From Kenneth: “Never miss a chance to simply shut up.”

  • From Ray: “You can ignore reality, but you can’t ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.” (Ayn Rand)

  • From Jay: “Subscribe to The Dispatch.”

  • From Isaac: “Life is not fair—but we must proceed with the faith that over the course of all our lives, it will be more or less equally unfair to all of us.”

  • From Jenny: “Our greatest hopes and our worst fears are both seldom realized.”

  • From Jeffrey: “Almost every sandwich is better with cheese.”

  • From Vinay: “Never trade up to draft Mitch Trubisky.” (Low blow, but fair!)

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