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The Morning Dispatch: Trump's Rough Day
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The Morning Dispatch: Trump’s Rough Day

You ever get the feeling there's too much news?

Happy Thursday! Man, was yesterday a news day for the ages. If it’s any indication of what’s to come in the days leading up to the election, we’re in for quite a ride. Strap in and let’s get to it.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The United States confirmed 32,617 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday, with 5.5 percent of the 593,993 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 1,145 deaths were attributed to the virus on Tuesday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 190,784.

  • President Trump admitted to downplaying the threat of the coronavirus to the public in a series of interviews with Bob Woodard for the journalist’s forthcoming book Rage. “I wanted to always play it down,” the president told Woodward on March 19. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.” During a press conference on Wednesday, the president did not deny making these comments. “I don’t want to create panic, as you say,” he told reporters Wednesday. “And certainly, I’m not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy.”

  • Brian Murphy, the former head of the Homeland Security Department’s intelligence branch, said in a whistleblower complaint on Wednesday that several top DHS officials—including DHS acting secretary Chad Wolf and deputy secretary Ken Cuccinelli—ordered him to downplay the threat of Russian election interference and make the threat of white supremacy “appear less severe.” The complaint implies that the DHS officials involved acted outside their authority to censor intelligence that could threaten the president’s re-election chances.

  • A Norwegian lawmaker has nominated President Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize, citing the U.S. role in brokering a groundbreaking peace deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates this year.

  • The president has updated his 2016 shortlist of candidates to fill possible Supreme Court vacancies should he win a second term. Among those on the list: Sens. Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, and Josh Hawley.

  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday that there is a “substantial chance” Russian authorities were involved in the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. 

Trump’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

With less than two months until Election Day on November 3, Donald Trump had the kind of news day that would threaten to sink a traditional candidate. The revelations, any one of which might have dominated news cycles in a less frenzied time, came in rapid succession, leaving even those of us whose job it is to follow and report political news struggling just to keep up. They were not the kinds of stories whose meaning depends primarily on where you sit politically or how you view anonymous sources. Instead, they were developments that grew out of the words and actions of top Trump administration officials—with the most damaging revelations coming from the mouth of the president himself, in recordings of interviews he gave the country’s most prolific chronicler of modern presidencies.

Woodward: Is it a cover-up if you admit it?

First, there were the details leaked in advance from Rage, Bob Woodward’s upcoming second book on the Trump White House. In the critical earliest days of the pandemic’s intrusion into America, Trump frequently pooh-poohed the possibility that it could pose a problem here: “When it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away,” he said during a rally in early February. American cases would “soon be down to zero.” 

But a full month before he hit send on that tweet, Trump made clear in a call with Woodward that he understood the lethality of the virus and knew well that it posed a far greater threat than the flu.

In an intelligence briefing on January 28, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien warned Trump about the challenge ahead. “This will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency. …This is going to be the roughest thing you face.” Matthew Pottinger, a highly respected Asia specialist on the National Security Council, echoed these concerns, comparing the coming crisis to the influenza pandemic of 1918, which killed tens of millions worldwide. O’Brien, in an interview Wednesday afternoon with Fox News anchor Bret Baier, confirmed his dire warnings.

In a conversation with Woodward on February 7—audio excerpts of which were released Wednesday—Trump was clear-eyed about the dangers presented by the virus.

“It goes through air—you just breathe the air, and that’s how it’s passed. And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than, you know, even your strenuous flus,” Trump told Woodward. The coronavirus was “deadly stuff,” he repeated—five times deadlier than the flu, perhaps more. 

It would be weeks before Trump would be anything close to that bracing in public. “That’s a little bit like the flu, it’s a little like the regular flu that we have flu shots for,” he said during a February 26 press conference. “And we’ll essentially have flu shots for this in a fairly quick manner.”

Why the divergent rhetoric? Trump explained during another interview with Woodward in mid-March: “To be honest with you, I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

The desire to try to stave off public paranoia wasn’t unreasonable on its face. But the president’s idea of “playing it down”—insisting all was well while dismissing or ridiculing those who were warning that the opposite was true—didn’t just fail to calm down the nation as public health specialists contradicted his happy talk. It set the tone for the fragmentary, echo-chamber partisan reaction to the virus that dogs us to this day.

Even as Trump acknowledged that he’d deliberately played down the virus, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany insisted he hadn’t done so. “The president never played down the virus,” she said, breaking a promise from her first press briefing when she told reporters, “I will never lie to you, you have my word on that.”

The president also boasted to Woodward about his diplomatic dalliance with North Korean strongman Kim Jong-un. According to Trump, his relationship with Kim had a kind of instant lust-at-first sight quality that he’d sometimes experienced with women. “You meet a woman. In one second, you know whether or not it’s going to happen. It doesn’t take you 10 minutes and it doesn’t take you six weeks. It’s like, whoa. OK. You know? It takes somewhat less than a second.”

The president called the U.S. military “suckers” for failing to receive adequate compensation for America’s longtime troop presence in South Korea. “We’re defending you, we’re allowing you to exist,” Trump told Woodward, speaking of our South Korean allies.

While Trump’s own words dominated the news out of the first leaked excerpts of Rage, other reporting on the book’s contents make clear there is more coming, including the kind of in-the-room background reporting for which Woodward is famous—and controversial.

Trump is reported to have disparaged his top military advisers as copulative felines for their unwillingness to upset alliances in pursuit of a more confrontational trade policy. Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s former secretary of defense, is supposed to have described him as “dangerous” and “unfit.” Former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats is reported to have expressed similar sentiments. Woodward reports that intelligence officials wondered aloud about Trump’s odd behavior toward Vladimir Putin and Russia.

Dr. Anthony Fauci is supposed to have said that Trump’s attention span is “like a minus number” and that “his sole purpose is to get re-elected.” For his part, Dr. Fauci has (sort of) disputed those quotes. “If you notice, it was ‘others’ who have said that,” he told Fox News yesterday—referring to the fact that Woodward claims to have gotten his quotes secondhand. “You should ask ‘others.’ I don’t recall that at all.” Fauci also said that “I didn’t get any sense that he was distorting anything” about the pandemic.

Woodward’s book will not be released for another five days, but it’s clear that these early leaks are just a preview of what’s to come. Trump gave Woodward 18 on-the-record interviews for the book, a fact that prompted much finger-pointing among supporters yesterday and led Tucker Carlson to cast Trump as a hapless victim of Sen. Lindsey Graham who, Carlson claims, had urged the president to cooperate with Woodward.

Department of Homeland Security

Last week, the political discussion in Washington was dominated by a debate over anonymous sources and when to trust them. An article in The Atlantic by editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg reported that the president had disparaged military leaders, calling them “suckers” and “losers.” Trump critics seized on the report as more evidence that Trump doesn’t respect the sacrifices of military leaders and his defenders dismissed the claims as unreliable, given the unwillingness of Goldberg’s sources to go on the record. 

The second major story Wednesday involved claims from a senior official at the Department of Homeland Security, who put his name to several, detailed accusations that top DHS officials had manipulated intelligence for political purposes. Brian Murphy, who formerly headed the DHS intelligence branch, accused top Trump officials of repeatedly ordering him to massage intelligence reporting to better fit the White House’s political messaging. Several of those orders are detailed in the complaint:

  • In late October 2018, Murphy says he was ordered “to ensure the intelligence assessments he produced … supported the policy argument that large numbers of KSTs [known or suspected terrorists] were entering the United States through the southwest border.” Murphy declined to do so on the basis that he believed following such an order would constitute a felony. This order came just days before that year’s midterm elections; such supposed terrorist infiltrations were a major political theme of the president’s at that time.

  • In May of this year, Murphy says acting DHS secretary Chad Wolf ordered him to “cease providing intelligence assessments on the threat of Russian interference in the United States, and instead start reporting on interference activities by China and Iran”—an instruction that, Murphy testifies, came directly from the White House. Russia, the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center has said multiple times this summer, continues its covert efforts to boost Trump’s presidential campaign and to damage Joe Biden; it has also said that China and Iran would prefer to see Biden in the Oval Office.

  • Also this May, Murphy says DHS leadership pressed back against a Homeland Threat Assessment from his office that labeled white supremacy and Russian influence in the United States as U.S. security concerns because of “how the HTA would reflect upon President Trump.” Murphy claims acting Deputy DHS Secretary Ken Cuccinelli specifically ordered him to modify the section on white supremacy to “make the threat appear less severe,” and to “include information on the prominence of violent ‘left-wing’ groups.”

The whistleblower complaint was released by the House Intelligence Committee, whose chair, Rep. Adam Schiff, subsequently subpoenaed Murphy to testify before the House Intelligence Committee later this month. Schiff has been an outspoken and highly partisan critic of the Trump administration, a fact that the president’s defenders noted immediately. “The complaint alleges repeated violations of law and regulations, abuses of authority, attempted censorship of intelligence analysis, and improper administration of an intelligence program related to Russian efforts to influence the U.S. elections,” Schiff said in a letter announcing the complaint.

Attempting to silence Fauci

The Woodward book wasn’t Wednesday’s only big Fauci-related story, nor was the whistleblower complaint Wednesday’s only big story alleging the White House exerted political pressure on its experts to present misleading information to the public. Internal Health and Human Services emails obtained by Politico show a senior HHS public affairs staffer repeatedly trying to get the National Institutes of Health to change Fauci’s planned remarks for media interviews.

“I continue to have an issue with kids getting tested and repeatedly and even university students in a widespread manner,” Paul Alexander, a senior adviser to HHS assistant secretary for public affairs and longtime GOP political strategist Michael Caputo, said in one such email. “And I disagree with Dr. Fauci about this. Vehemently.”

“Can you ensure Dr. Fauci indicates masks are for the teachers in schools. Not for children,” Alexander said in another email just this week. “There is no data, none, zero, across the entire world that shows children especially young children, spread this virus to other children, or to adults or to their teachers.”

“No one tells me what I can say and cannot say,” Fauci told Politico. “I speak on scientific evidence.”

Pence and QAnon

After all that, this wacky affair reads almost as an afterthought: the Associated Press reported yesterday that Vice President Mike Pence plans to attend a fundraiser next week whose hosts are apparent adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory, “a wide-ranging conspiracy fiction spread largely through the internet, centered on the baseless belief that Trump is waging a secret campaign against enemies in the ‘deep state’ and a child sex trafficking ring run by satanic pedophiles and cannibals. It is based on cryptic postings by the anonymous ‘Q,’ purportedly a government insider.”

The QAnon theory is nearly three years old now, but has gained new notoriety at several points this year—a candidate espousing it won a Republican primary in Georgia earlier this year, and President Trump has described her as a “future Republican star.” Pence himself formerly told CBS in August that “I don’t know anything about QAnon, and I dismiss it out of hand.”

Will It Matter?

The obvious question, after a brutal day like Wednesday was for Trump: Will it matter?

We won’t speculate here. It’s clear that Trump defenders struggled to minimize or dismiss the flurry of reporting yesterday, whether the mendacity of McEnany or the odd theorizing of Tucker Carlson on Fox News. Carlson wondered why Trump would talk to Woodward at all and placed the blame on Senator Lindsey Graham. But Carlson’s theory— deflecting any blame for the decision from Trump and placing the culpability on Graham alone—was an odd one. “Why would he do something like that? You’d have to ask him. But keep in mind that Lindsey Graham has opposed, passionately opposed, virtually every major policy initiative that Donald Trump articulated when he first ran, from illegal immigration, to pulling back from pointless wars, to maintaining law and order at home. Lindsey Graham was against all of that more than many Democrats. So, maybe you already know the answer.” A senator who has been one of Trump’s most enthusiastic and obsequious congressional supporters for his entire presidency is secretly sabotaging the president by recommending Trump talk to a journalist?

If the subtext of Joe Biden’s pitch to America—and sometimes the text—is a return to normalcy, understood roughly as an end to current chaos, days like yesterday would seem to bolster his case. But it’s worth noting that there have been many stories over the past five years that would have extinguished the careers of a conventional politician but haven’t proven fatal to Trump. And while yesterday was an intense news day by typical standards, we may look back from November and see it instead as relatively normal.

Worth Your Time

  • Jessica Krug, a left-wing African history professor at George Washington University, resigned Wednesday after admitting she lied about being black for most of her career in academia. Commentary’s Noah Rothman has some insights as to how such a woke professor was able to get away with such an outrageous lie for so long. “A survey of some of the material she was expostulating explains why she coasted under the radar,” Rothman explains. “Krug was saying what her colleagues wanted to hear, and what they want to hear is apologia for violent radicalism.” 

  • In a symbolic head nod to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign in 2015—the woke Twitter trend that criticized Hollywood for its lack of racial diversity in Oscar nominations that year—the academy announced on Tuesday that best picture contenders will soon have to play by a new set of diversity requirements in order to win. But many believe that this decision might backfire on the academy. “That thunk you heard coming out of La-La Land on Tuesday was the sound of the Academy grandly planting its face in the sidewalk by announcing it was formally rejecting the pursuit of artistic quality in favor of a byzantine quota system,” argues Kyle Smith in the New York Post on Wednesday.

  • Matt Yglesias went on Tyler Cowen’s “Conversations with Tyler” podcast to talk about his new book, One Billion Americans, in which he advocates for massive population growth through immigration and large-scale policies that would make it easier for more people to have more children. He argues that America’s national greatness and achievements have always been predicated on its massive scale, and that the U.S. needs to become a much bigger country to fend off rising threats like China.

  • Those who consider themselves “NeverTrump” find themselves in a similar place to where they were four years ago—do you support the policies even if you find the man distasteful?—but now have the president’s record to inform their decisions. Where do they stand? Two very different opinion columns in the Wall Street Journal show the debate hasn’t changed. Last week, Michael I. Krauss, a professor emeritus at Geoge Mason, explained that he wrote in Paul Ryan in 2016 but would vote for Trump this time around: He writes: “Despite often-contemptuous hostility by the elite press, and outright civil disobedience by several federal judges, the president has performed his duties and genuinely tried to keep his promises.” Meanwhile, Walter Olson has watched Trump align with strongmen and fail to respond to the pandemic properly, and he has seen enough: “We don’t know when the next crisis will come. It might be a close election in which Mr. Trump needs to accept the decision of the judiciary. We might need national unity. Instead, this man’s tweets are the ground glass in the national milkshake.”

Something Fun

In a world of bloated, indistinguishable campaign spots, this one gets top marks for both brevity and originality.

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Critical race theory and radical diversity training initiatives have monopolized elite leftist culture to the point where white liberals are now doing everything they can to shed themselves of the alleged evil that is their skin color, all while distancing themselves from so-called “lower whites.” In yesterday’s French Press, David explains why white, elite Democrats are more likely to care about critical race theory and virtue signaling than their black and brown compatriots and why it’s a problem. “But what elites lack in electoral power, they often make up for in cultural and economic clout, and in that space radicalism can have an oppressive and distorting effect even on the black and brown people they seek to support,” David explains.

  • In his Wednesday G-File, Jonah explains why Trump’s leaked interviews with Bob Woodward—in which he admitted to downplaying the virus to the public on numerous occasions—didn’t really come out of the woodwork. In the end, the president’s comments aren’t the least bit surprising when you consider his propensity to twist the truth to suit his own personal motives. “My own theory has always been that Trump thinks he can wish, bluster, spin, and bully away inconvenient narratives, in large part because he has had so much success at it in the past,” Jonah argues.

  • On Monday, Trump said the “top people in the Pentagon probably aren’t [in love with me] because they want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy.” In his latest Vital Interests newsletter, Thomas Joscelyn explains why this smear is “grossly inaccurate.” “The chief reason the U.S. has forces in those countries in 2020—more than three and half years into Trump’s presidency—is that the jihadists have kept fighting,” he writes. “Trump could have pushed for a full withdrawal from the 9/11 wars by now, but he chose not to do so. It’s easy to see why—ISIS has survived the end of its territorial caliphate, and other terrorist threats continue to emerge.”

  • Trump decided to reduce U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan less than a week after Jeffrey Goldberg’s bombshell article in The Atlantic highlighted anonymous accusations of the president’s poor conduct toward American veterans. On yesterday’s episode of The Dispatch Podcast, Sarah, Steve, and Jonah tackle some of the move’s political implications for Trump’s re-election campaign before launching into a lively debate over the ethics of using anonymous sources in journalism. 

Let Us Know

Is President Trump serious about the prospect of nominating a current GOP senator to the Supreme Court? Hard to say. But if the screws were on you to choose: Hawley, Lee, Cotton, or Cruz?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), James P. Sutton (@jamespsuttonsf), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images.