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The Morning Dispatch: Will Facebook Reinstate Trump?
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The Morning Dispatch: Will Facebook Reinstate Trump?

Plus: Breaking down two state GOP approaches to regulating vaccine passports.

Happy Thursday! The Cubs just swept the reigning World Series champion Dodgers. Last night’s extra-inning, walk-off win almost gave one Morning Dispatcher a heart attack, but it was well worth it! 

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Facebook’s independent oversight board on Wednesday upheld the social media company’s decision back in January to restrict then-President Donald Trump’s ability to post on his Facebook and Instagram accounts, but added that the platform’s “indefinite” suspension of him is “not appropriate.” Facebook now has six months to “reexamine the arbitrary penalty it imposed on January 7 and decide the appropriate penalty.”

  • U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced Wednesday that the Biden administration would support the World Trade Organization’s proposal to temporarily waive intellectual property patent restrictions on COVID-19 vaccines, citing the need for developing nations to vaccinate their populations as quickly as possible. Pharmaceutical companies oppose the move, with the industry’s trade association saying it will “sow confusion between public and private partners, further weaken already strained supply chains and foster the proliferation of counterfeit vaccines.”

  • The U.S. birthrate fell by 4 percent in 2020 according to CDC data released yesterday, marking the sixth straight year of decline. At 3,605,201, 2020 saw the fewest number of births reported in the United States since 1979.

  • U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich on Wednesday struck down the eviction moratorium first put in place by the Centers for Disease Control last year during the Trump administration, and extended until June 30 by the Biden administration. Friedrich did, however, put a temporary hold on her ruling until May 15 after the Justice Department filed an appeal.

  • Former President Trump and House Republican Whip Steve Scalise on Wednesday formally endorsed GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York to replace Rep. Liz Cheney as House Republican Conference Chair, increasing the likelihood that the Wyoming Republican will be ousted for her leadership role at a conference meeting next week.

  • CVS Health announced Wednesday that thousands of its pharmacies across the country are now accepting walk-ins for COVID-19 vaccine appointments, joining Walmart, Walgreens, and Rite Aid.

  • The United States confirmed 46,009 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 5.2 percent of the 888,699 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 844 deaths were attributed to the virus on Wednesday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 579,265. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 34,374 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. Meanwhile, 1,797,771 COVID-19 vaccine doses were administered yesterday, with 148,562,891 Americans having now received at least one dose.

Trump Still Booted From Facebook—For Now 

When Facebook took the unprecedented step of banning then-President Trump from its platform on January 7—one day after he described the Capitol riots as “the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly unfairly treated for so long”—it did so almost in a panic, without an overarching plan. (Disclaimer: The Dispatch is a participant in Facebook’s Fact-Checking Program.)

“We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote. “Therefore, we are extending the block we have placed on his Facebook and Instagram accounts indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete.”

Two weeks came and went, and Facebook opted to punt on making a final call about Trump’s fate on the platform, instead referring the case to its recently established “Oversight Board,” a collection of 20 academics, journalists, activists, and former politicians from around the globe tasked with adjudicating the tech giant’s thorniest content moderation questions. It is an “independent body,” Facebook maintains, and “its decisions are binding—they can’t be overruled by CEO Mark Zuckerberg or anyone else at Facebook.”

The political world waited anxiously Wednesday morning for the Board to render its verdict. But the body’s judgment was inconclusive, upholding Facebook’s initial decision while criticizing the vague and indeterminate nature of the punishment.

“Given the seriousness of the violations and the ongoing risk of violence, Facebook was justified in suspending Mr. Trump’s accounts on January 6 and extending that suspension on January 7,” the case decision read. “However, it was not appropriate for Facebook to impose an ‘indefinite’ suspension. It is not permissible for Facebook to keep a user off the platform for an undefined period, with no criteria for when or whether the account will be restored.”

The Board, passing the buck back to Facebook, gave Zuckerberg & Co. six months to decide what to do with the former president, saying the penalty must be “based on the gravity of the violation and the prospect of future harm” and “consistent with Facebook’s rules for severe violations.” It laid out a sampling of acceptable options: “Removing the violating content, imposing a time-bound period of suspension, or permanently disabling the page and account.”

Nick Clegg—the former deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom who now serves as Facebook’s vice president of global affairs and communications—said he was “pleased” the Oversight Board found the company’s “exceptional measure” to be justified. “We will now consider the board’s decision and determine an action that is clear and proportionate,” he wrote. “In the meantime, Mr. Trump’s accounts remain suspended.”

Trump—and those in his orbit—were banking on a reinstatement yesterday according to Axios’ Jonathan Swan, who reported the former president sees the platform as “crucial” to an increasingly likely 2024 campaign. Trump’s political superpower was his ubiquity—for half a decade, he proved able to hijack any news cycle with a flick of the wrist—and his absence from social media the past several months has severely hampered his reach. According to data from the media analytics firm NewsWhip, social media interactions involving Trump have plunged 91 percent since January.

“What Facebook, Twitter, and Google have done is a total disgrace and an embarrassment to our Country,” Trump wrote on his new blog, arguing the “corrupt” companies “must pay a political price” for their actions. “Free Speech has been taken away from the President of the United States because the Radical Left Lunatics are afraid of the truth, but the truth will come out anyway, bigger and stronger than ever before. The People of our Country will not stand for it!”

Trump has not definitively said whether or not he plans to mount a comeback in 2024—he told Fox News last week he is “beyond seriously” considering it but “[doesn’t] want to talk about it yet”—but not having access to Facebook (or Twitter, or Snapchat, or YouTube, or Twitch) could be a real problem for him if he does. “His attempt to build some type of political structure, continue to raise money, etc.—not getting back on Facebook or Twitter will inhibit all of those ambitions,” California-based GOP strategist Rob Stutzman told The Dispatch. The former president’s makeshift website, he noted, has “nowhere near the type of data targeting ability behind it that these established social platforms have.”

Predictably, the Oversight Board’s move outraged Republicans, who had been gunning for Facebook—and Big Tech more broadly—long before it cut their party’s standard bearer off from one of his most effective means of reaching voters.

“The American people should fear any company that sees itself as so powerful it establishes a biased, quasi-judicial entity to adjudicate our First Amendment rights,” said GOP Rep. Ken Buck, ranking member on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law. “Facebook’s status as a monopoly has led its leaders to believe it can silence and censor Americans’ speech with no repercussions. Now more than ever we need aggressive antitrust reform to break up Facebook’s monopoly.”

The move didn’t satisfy Facebook’s progressive critics, either. “Donald Trump has played a big role in helping Facebook spread disinformation, but whether he’s on the platform or not, Facebook and other social media platforms with the same business model will find ways to highlight divisive content to drive advertising revenues,” said Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone, chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. “Every day, Facebook is amplifying and promoting disinformation and misinformation, and the structure and rules governing its oversight board generally seem to ignore this disturbing reality. It’s clear that real accountability will only come with legislative action.”

Vaccine Hesitancy and Passports

As of this morning, according to the CDC, 56.7 percent of U.S. adults have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 41.3 percent are fully vaccinated. Vaccine hesitancy has shrunk in recent months as well. Gallup reported yesterday that three quarters of U.S. adults say they are already vaccinated or plan to be, up from 65 percent last December.

But the country’s rate of vaccination—which rapidly increased for months—has peaked, and is now trending downward as demand starts to wane. And with vaccines now available essentially anywhere you look, some portion of the remaining holdouts are looking less and less gettable—more and more dug in on vaccine hostility. Like so many other things in the pandemic, skepticism toward the vaccine—or at least toward the notion that everyone should get it—has become for some a populist and anti-establishment shibboleth.

In a piece for the site today, Andrew digs into this phenomenon, and the divide within the GOP over what, if anything, to do about it.

Why does this vaccine hesitancy matter? What’s wrong with people who want one getting one, and letting everyone else be?

The rise of more contagious variants of the virus means experts have spent recent months glumly revising their herd immunity estimates upward, pegging the population immunity number needed to truly stamp out the virus up from the 60-70 percent ballpark last year to, frequently, north of 80 percent now.

This doesn’t mean things aren’t still improving fast—every day more shots go into arms is another day COVID’s foothold in America grows weaker. But it does mean it’s starting to dawn on more and more people that the virus isn’t going away completely anytime soon, and that we need to start figuring out how vaccinated and unvaccinated people should behave toward and around one another in the meantime.

Israel has implemented a “vaccine passport” of sorts, allowing those vaccinated to return to something that more or less resembles normal life. Is that in the works here?

In recent weeks, a number of Republican state governments have moved to ban so-called vaccine passports—to forbid, in other words, government entities and/or businesses from requiring employees or customers to show proof of vaccination. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson have each signed some version of such a ban into law; a similar bill is making its way through Iowa’s GOP-run legislature. The governors of several other states, including Texas, Montana, and Arizona, have issued bans via executive order.

The thinking behind such passports is that, in a society still structured in many ways to minimize transmission of COVID, it makes sense to be able to know who has acquired immunity. Why should the fully vaccinated, for instance, be required to continue wearing masks in public? Israel, a current leader in the fight to crush COVID, implemented a passport system called the “green pass” earlier this year.

But there remain good reasons to be skeptical of government-implemented passports in particular, including privacy concerns around a national database of vaccine recipients and concerns about widespread adoption creating a “two-tiered society” wherein some are allowed to participate in public life and others are not. President Biden has ruled out pushing for any such national system, although his administration is working with tech companies to help create standards for proprietary passport systems.

What do Republicans think of these private sector passport systems?

In Arkansas, Hutchinson has argued that businesses are their own best judges of what sorts of pandemic safeguards they want to keep in place. “I think you have to give latitude to the private sector,” he said last month. “As a government, no, the state will not be requiring or mandating vaccinations.”

According to conventionally conservative ways of thinking about government power, this is as boilerplate as it gets: The state won’t mandate this; the rest of you do as you wish. Which is why it’s interesting that other major Republican-run states, including Texas and Florida, have adopted a different tactic: Forbidding even private businesses from asking for proof of vaccination and insisting that this is a victory for civil liberties.

Traditionally, Republicans have tended to leave this sort of decision in the hands of the private sector. What’s with this shift? 

The most plausible explanation is that the sort of balance struck by Hutchinson might be onetime conservative boilerplate, but it isn’t where the lines are drawn by today’s Trumpier, more populist right. According to this way of thinking, the most fundamental distinction in sorting out such matters isn’t the one between the government and the people—it’s the one between supposed leftist elites—whether in government, academia, public health, business, whatever—and “regular people.”

In a monologue on his primetime show this week, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson scoffed at the idea that there was a meaningful distinction between private and public vaccine passport programs: “Just because there’s no official federal requirement to take the coronavirus vaccine does not mean that you and your family won’t be required to take it. With the full backing of the Biden administration, private industry and nonprofits may be forcing you to. … Unless [Americans] speak up now, unless they resist this, they’ll be getting the shot whether they like it or not, and a lot more after this.”

A writer for the pro-Trump website American Greatness put the point even more succinctly this week: “Those who rule us in all these matters are essentially the same people … Whether the institutions they control are public or private under our Constitutional system has ceased to matter.” 

Worth Your Time

  • We rarely link pieces written by sitting politicians, but this Washington Post op-ed from Rep. Liz Cheney is pretty newsworthy given everything going on in the House Republican conference this week. In it, the third-ranking House Republican argues that the GOP is at a turning point, and must decide whether truth and fidelity to the Constitution will continue to be the party’s guiding principles. “While embracing or ignoring Trump’s statements might seem attractive to some for fundraising and political purposes, that approach will do profound long-term damage to our party and our country,” she argues. “Trump has never expressed remorse or regret for the attack of Jan. 6 and now suggests that our elections, and our legal and constitutional system, cannot be trusted to do the will of the people. This is immensely harmful, especially as we now compete on the world stage against Communist China and its claims that democracy is a failed system.”

  • Noah Rothman has a thoughtful piece in Commentary about this whole brouhaha, and what it signals about Republican voters’ priorities. “They like who [Trump] is,” he writes. “They like what he represents. And, most of all, they like who he irritates because those people deserve to be irritated. Republicans don’t want to move on. They want Donald Trump to be the leader of their party, even if that means sacrificing winnable races. Political power is nice and all, but it’s not everything.”

  • Tired of intra-GOP spats? Take a break from politics and read science reporter Ed Yong’s piece in The Atlantic about cicadas and the fragmented endosymbiotic bacteria that live permanently inside the 200-million-year-old insects’ cells. “Cicadas might seem like creatures with concerns quite different from our own. But like us, they have come to rely on an interconnected network of parts that becomes more unwieldy and fragile with time, and that they can barely control,” he writes. “After a year of straining supply chains, globally coursing misinformation, and the layered disasters of pandemic pathogens and a changing climate, the cicadas’ plight might feel eerily familiar. In a few weeks, Brood X cicadas will emerge into a world not unlike the ones inside them.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Also Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Jonah provided his thoughts on the House GOP leadership saga in his Wednesday G-File (🔒), arguing that Liz Cheney’s stand isn’t just about January 6—although that “singularly deplorable event” has certainly been a clarifying force. “Her real goal is to free the GOP from the Trumpian captivity and the ideological and political corruptions that stem from it,” he writes. “And she’s losing that effort, at least in the short run.”   

  • Speaking of Cheney, Sarah and the guys discussed the Wyoming Republican’s last stand—plus the special election in Texas, global economic competitiveness, and vaccine hesitancy—on Wednesday’s episode of the Dispatch Podcast.

  • U.S. Steel announced last week that it was canceling a previously proposed, $1.3 billion upgrade to its Mon Valley Works plant in Pittsburgh. When the project was first announced, trade protectionists touted it as evidence that then-President Trump’s steel tariffs were working. But in this week’s Capitolism (🔒), Scott Lincicome argues U.S. Steel’s decision to ditch the Mon Valley Works project was simply a “textbook case of protectionism doing what protectionism does.”

Let Us Know

Facebook is a private company, and not limited by the First Amendment in how it moderates or polices speech on its platform. But how do you feel about a handful of CEOs being able to effectively reduce the former president of the United States’ online reach by 91 percent?

Were Big Tech’s Trump bans a justified move in response to extraordinary circumstances, or a bridge too far?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Haley Byrd Wilt (@byrdinator), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).