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The Morning Dispatch: Why Two Senators Are Pushing 'Masks for All'
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The Morning Dispatch: Why Two Senators Are Pushing ‘Masks for All’

Plus, a DoJ inspector general report details countless FISA errors.

Happy Thursday. We thought we told you yesterday that April Fools’ Day was canceled—what is this garbage?

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • As of Wednesday night, there are now 216,515 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States (a 14.5 percent increase from yesterday) and 5,119 deaths (a 31.3 percent increase from yesterday), according to the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, leading to a mortality rate among confirmed cases of 2.4 percent (the true mortality rate is difficult to calculate due to incomplete testing regimens). Of 1,209,647 coronavirus tests conducted in the United States, 17.4 percent have come back positive, per the COVID Tracking Project, a separate dataset with slightly different topline numbers.

  • President Trump accused Iran Wednesday of planning a “sneak attack” by proxy on U.S. troops in Iraq, and warned that any such attack would be met by heavy reprisals “up the food chain” in Tehran. 

  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, one of the last U.S. governors to hold out against declaring a coronavirus stay-at-home order, finally declared one Wednesday afternoon.

  • The Trump administration has decided against declaring a special enrollment period for the Obamacare markets, which some called for as a way for people who have recently lost their jobs to enroll quickly through a public option. The New York Times reports that “the decision will not prevent Americans who recently lost their jobs from obtaining health insurance if they want it,” but applicants will need to “provide proof that they lost their coverage.”

‘Masks for All’?

In yesterday’s Morning Dispatch, we touched on the shifting conventional wisdom around mask wearing and the general public. Just a few weeks ago, Surgeon General Jerome Adams was telling Americans to “stop buying masks” because “they are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus.” The World Health Organization said healthy people “only need to wear a mask if [they] are taking care of a person with suspected #coronavirus infection.” But now the CDC is reconsidering that guidance, with Dr. Robert Redfield—the agency’s director—telling Atlanta’s WABE their recommendations to the public are “being critically re-reviewed.”

Up to a quarter of individuals infected with the coronavirus show no symptoms, Redfield noted, but “they do contribute to transmission” all the same. Thus, widespread mask usage could limit those carrying the virus—unbeknownst to them—from spreading it, through respiratory droplets present in sneezes, coughs, and spit. But widespread mask usage could also exacerbate existing personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages for doctors, nurses, and medical professionals who most need it. This latter point undoubtedly played into the government’s downplaying of face coverings—a public run on masks would overwhelm an already depleted supply chain.

So some are calling to split the difference. Sens. Pat Toomey and Michael Bennet held a conference call with reporters Wednesday to promote their campaign to encourage Americans “to wear simple, homemade masks when they go out in public for essential travel.”

Toomey made clear on the call he was not recommending Americans rush out to buy N95 respirator masks, which filter out most airborne particles. Those “need to be preserved for our health care professionals who are routinely coming in contact with people infected with this virus,” he said. Rather, the Pennsylvania Republican advocated for the use of homemade barriers—scarfs, bandanas, etc.—that will “reduce the spread of droplets from people from our breath, and when we talk.”

Dr. Scott Gottlieb—former FDA commissioner—has endorsed the idea. “Prior guidance in [the] U.S. discouraged a mask,” he wrote, “but it was a time when there were probably hundreds and maybe low thousands of cases (and officials maintained there was no community spread). Now there are clear hot spots and sustained transmission, so risk has grown a lot.”

“There is a growing and consistent body of evidence that wearing homemade masks can help limit the spread of coronavirus,” Sen. Bennet added. “Wearing a mask can’t be an excuse for making unnecessary trips and it can’t be an excuse for not social distancing, but these things—in combination—can make a difference. … Simply put, my mask protects you, your mask protects me.”

Toomey and Bennet asked the CDC to update its guidance for Americans and encourage the widespread donning of masks, and called on manufacturers and amateur sewers to “step up and make masks of their own.”

Toomey said he spoke to President Trump about the campaign, and added that Trump “listened carefully to the arguments [Toomey] made,” and seemed “very open to this” in his Tuesday evening press conference.

Bennet acknowledged a formal CDC recommendation could lead both to hoarding of PPE needed for medical professionals and misplaced feelings of invulnerability among those wearing protective masks. “I think we can manage both of those communication problems and make people understand that this is not an either/or proposition,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure that health care workers have the equipment they need, that we are social distancing, and that we are protecting ourselves with homemade masks.”

Asked about the surgeon general’s earlier directive not to buy masks, Toomey didn’t want to speculate about his motives, but assumed Adams was concerned about a rush on N95 respirators needed for health care workers. “We now know something we didn’t originally know,” he added, “which is that the viral load of an infected person can reach a very high level prior to the person showing symptoms. That means the person is extremely infectious just before they start to show symptoms. I think that was not originally known, but the fact that it is now known makes a strong argument that asymptomatic people should be wearing some kind of mask because, if they are infected, they could be extremely contagious.”

Toomey did not rule out Congress allocating money to be spent on masks for the general public, and said he did not oppose President Trump invoking the Defense Production Act to produce them if current levels of manufacturing aren’t cutting it.

FISA Problems

Earlier this week, the Department of Justice inspector general (IG) reported its findings after reviewing 29 FISA applications to determine whether and to what extent each one had complied with the FBI’s own policy that every factual assertion in an application have supporting documentation, in what is referred to as a “Woods File.” It did not. Instead, the IG found that every one of the 29 FISA applications it reviewed had errors, inadequately supported facts, or in four instances, Woods Files that could not even be located. 

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was established in 1978, and because the vast majority of its work is classified, conducts almost all of its business ex parte, meaning that the court relies exclusively on the government’s version of facts without hearing from the potential target of the surveillance. This is why Woods Files, named after the FBI special agent who came up with the procedure, were created—as a way of assuring the court and the public that every factual assertion was, in fact, verified. (As the folks over at Just Security helpfully explained it, this doesn’t mean that the fact itself is verified, but for example, “[i]f the application relies upon a source for some claim, does the documentation in the case file support that the source actually said what the application presents the source as saying?”)

But Tuesday’s report concluded the opposite, finding instead that “a deficiency in the FBI’s efforts to support the factual statements in FISA applications through its Woods Procedures undermines the FBI’s ability to achieve its ‘scrupulously accurate’ standard for FISA applications.” 

This review was started in the wake of its report on the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 election, which found that all four of the FISA applications sought during the course of that investigation were “inaccurate, incomplete, or unsupported by appropriate documentation.” In response, Rosemary Collyer, presiding judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, rebuked the department in a public letter, writing that the report “call[ed] into question whether information contained in other FBI applications is reliable.” 

Notably, the relevant FISA authorizing statutes expired on March 15, and while the Senate passed a 77-day extension earlier this month, the House recessed on Friday without taking up the bill. Asked about the House recess, Sen. John Cornyn said, “even if you think that we need to have further debate and discussion, I don’t think leaving town without addressing it is the responsible thing to do.”

Worth Your Time

  • Be sure to read Andy Ferguson’s Atlantic obituary of Tom Coburn, the former Republican senator from Oklahoma, whose pre-Tea Party distaste for deficit spending distinguished him as “a fanatic … in the very best sense of the word.” “Both houses of our national legislature are overrun by a certain human type: men and women whose careers began in the second grade with their first campaign for hall monitor and who have stayed the course ever since, not counting the occasional detour to law school. Not Coburn.”

  • Here’s a sort of goofy piece that you might nevertheless find interesting. The coronavirus has given a wide swath of the nation an unexpectedly enormous amount of time on its hands. Sure, you could read a few novels, pick up an instrument, learn a language—but how about finally getting into video games? Seth Schiesel walks you through how in the pages of the New York Times

  • The longer the coronavirus crisis goes on, the better an idea we’ll have of what has worked for countries hit ahead of us. Writing in CityLab, Marie Patino gives us a good rundown of what we know worked in Asian countries like Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea—and why European countries continue to struggle.

Presented Without Comment

Something Fun

Even Jesus and his disciples are having to adapt to our new reality.

Toeing the Company Line

  • In this week’s Dispatch Podcast, the crew digs into what we know about the question of China’s culpability for the coronavirus, and why it matters going forward. They also discuss various governors’ responses and President Trump’s new habit of daily media briefings. 

  • Tom Joscelyn’s latest Vital Interests newsletter is an informative retrospective on the rise and partial fall of the Islamic State, one year after the U.S. and its allies liberated the last ISIS-controlled town in eastern Syria. Although the caliphate is no more, Joscelyn goes in-depth to explain how the terror organization that birthed it remains far from dead.

  • Is it a Hump Day Epistle? A Wodin’s Day Correspondence? Some other as-yet-unheard of appellation for a midweek missive from Jonah? We’re not sure. What we do know is that there is one, that it’s a thoughtful critique of the idea—proposed in recent days by Harvard Law professor Adrian Vermeule in The Atlantic—that we ought to be trying to bend the administrative state to implement a socially conservative vision on the nation by fiat, and that it’s well worth your time to read. Do so here.

  • Vice President Mike Pence said this week that the U.S. had “suspended all travel from China,” updating a frequent claim from the White House that travel from China has been banned or “closed off.” In the latest Dispatch Fact Check, Alec Dent takes a closer look at the claim and finds that while there have been restrictions on travel from China, it’s not true that all travel has been suspended.

Let Us Know

Asked yesterday what he made of reports that China is massaging its coronavirus case numbers, President Trump responded that “their numbers seem to be a little bit on the light side,” but added that “I’m not an accountant from China.” This struck us as a very useful formulation. How else should we hope to see it deployed in the days ahead? 

  • On whether Gov. DeSantis made the right decision locking down Florida: “I’m not a beach bum from Miami.” 

  • On whether the Olympics should have been canceled this summer: “I’m not a pole vaulter from Brazil.”

  • On whether the Toomey/Bennet proposal for widespread homemade masking should be implemented: “I’m not a bandit from Boise.”

  • On whether the DNC should go ahead with its convention this summer: “I’m not a Democrat from Delevan.”

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

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.