The Morning Dispatch: A State-Backed Hijacking

Plus: Capitol Hill negotiations over infrastructure turn chilly.

Happy Monday! After a relaxing week off, Declan is back to remind you all that this is a Chicago Cubs newsletter—not a St. Louis Cardinals one—and that the Cubs just won two of three games in St. Louis this weekend. (Andrew suggests that’s big talk from a team that’s still two games back in the NL Central.)

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Iranian parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf said Sunday that the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency will no longer be allowed to monitor Iran’s nuclear sites after a three-month agreement expired over the weekend.

  • The Biden administration moved on Saturday to grant 18 months of Temporary Protected Status to approximately 150,000 Haitians living in the U.S. illegally. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas justified the deportations pause in a press release over the weekend: “Haiti is currently experiencing serious security concerns, social unrest, an increase in human rights abuses, crippling poverty, and lack of basic resources, which are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

  • Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko ordered a fighter jet to intercept a Ryanair flight traveling from Greece to Lithuania on Sunday and force it to land in Minsk so that Belarusian forces could detain an opposition journalist, Roman Protasevich, who was aboard.

  • The two Bureau of Prisons workers responsible for monitoring Jeffrey Epstein the night he killed himself admitted to falsifying records regarding their inattentiveness, but struck a deal with federal prosecutors to avoid any jail time.

  • The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend that Abubakar Shekau—leader of the Islamic militant group Boko Haram—died after detonating a suicide vest following a confrontation with another sectional group. Shekau’s death, however, has been erroneously reported several times in recent years.

  • The United States confirmed 12,777 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 1.3 percent of the 1,013,032 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 190 deaths were attributed to the virus on Sunday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 589,893. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 23,917 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. Meanwhile, 1,779,363 COVID-19 vaccine doses were administered yesterday, with 163,309,414 Americans having now received at least one dose.

A State-Backed Hijacking

Longtime Morning Dispatch readers might remember our coverage of Belarus last fall, when a fraudulent presidential election and reactionary protests led to mass detainments nationwide. According to the Viasna Human Rights Centre—an activist organization based out of Minsk—more than 33,000 opposition politicians, bloggers, and voters were arrested in the months-long unrest. At least 1,000 were tortured in jail.

While the protests never fully let up, Belarus had largely fallen out of international headlines in recent months. It soared to the top of the press over the weekend, however, when President Alexander Lukashenko—often referred to as Europe’s last dictator—ordered an MiG-29 fighter jet to divert Ryanair flight FR4978. The move, which European nations have denounced as an act of “air piracy” and “state terrorism,” was an apparent effort to arrest an opposition activist.

Raman Pratasevich was taken into custody for his role in scheduling and publicizing last year’s demonstrations after being deboarded en route from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania on Sunday. The activist is best known for his co-founding of the app Telegram’s Nexta channel, which provided up-to-date information on last year’s anti-government protests.

Belarus’ KGB security service added Pratasevich to a terror watch list for his anti-government advocacy in late 2020, which may have provided the pretext—reports of a “bomb threat”—for the forced landing in Minsk. Authorities later reported finding no explosives on board.

“We don’t yet know everything, but from the facts reported so far, it appears to be a truly egregious violation of international rules and human rights standards for political reasons, which should be of grave concern to the international community,” Matthew Rojansky, director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, told The Dispatch. “If intended to intimidate the domestic opposition, the move may actually further inflame and mobilize them.”

And indeed, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya—the opposition candidate “beaten” by Lukashenko in the illegitimate 2020 elections—was among the first to draw attention to Pratasevich’s arrest. In an interview with CNN on Sunday, Tikhanovskaya argued that because Lukashenko’s move endangered people from across the world, it “should raise much more attention to our question and should lead to stronger actions from democratic countries.” She noted that Belarus’ opposition politicians had spoken to officials from Greece, Ireland, Lithuania, Poland, and the United States in a plea for help.

The rhetorical response by the international community, particularly from nations within the European Union, was swift and condemnatory. 

“The forced landing of a commercial plane to detain a journalist is an unprecedented, shocking act. We demand all passengers’ immediate release,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis tweeted Sunday. “Tomorrow’s #EUCO must address the need to step up pressure on Belarus. Enough is enough.”

Lithuanian officials, who had numerous citizens aboard the flight, also called for punitive action. On Sunday, President Gitanas Nausėda called on the European Union to bar Belarus aircrafts from EU airports and close Belarusian airspace to EU flights. Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė, meanwhile, chided Belarus for “state terrorism” against other European countries. 

“Diverting a flight between two EU states under the pretext of a bomb threat is a serious interference in civil aviation in Europe,” German foreign minister Heiko Mass added in a statement. “Such an act cannot remain without clear consequences on the part of the European Union.”

U.S. officials and politicians also denounced Lukashenko’s behavior.

Rep. Michael McCaul, GOP ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was one of the first Americans to respond with a statement yesterday. “To arrest a journalist for simply exposing the truth of the regime-sanctioned police brutality against anti-government protests in Belarus is abhorrent,” McCaul said. “To force an Irish aircraft with nearly 200 innocent civilians to land in order to make that arrest is an egregious affront to democratic societies around the world. The Belarusian dictator and those who continue to support him cannot go unpunished.” 

“This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last night. “Independent media are an essential pillar supporting the rule of law and a vital component of a democratic society. The United States once again condemns the Lukashenka regime’s ongoing harassment and arbitrary detention of journalists. We stand with the Belarusian people in their aspirations for a free, democratic, and prosperous future and support their call for the regime to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.” 

An Infrastructure By Any Other Name

Thus far in year one of his term, President Joe Biden—who campaigned on his experience as an aisle-crossing dealmaker —hasn’t exactly put those supposed skills into practice. After a quick  feint toward bipartisanship during negotiations over his pandemic aid bill weeks after taking office, Biden quickly changed course, opting instead to pass a mammoth package with only Democratic support.

Republican lawmakers who’d gone into pandemic negotiations in good faith felt stung by Biden’s about-face, but held out hope that later negotiations might look different—particularly those concerning Biden’s next major domestic initiative, a massive infrastructure bill. Lately, however, lawmakers are sounding more cynical about striking a deal—raising the prospect that Biden and the Democrats might soon wedge another piece of multi-trillion-dollar legislation through the evenly divided Senate via budget reconciliation.

The White House already dropped its asking price on infrastructure somewhat on Friday—from an original price tag of $2.3 trillion to a somewhat more svelte $1.7 trillion. But Senate Republicans poured cold water on that offer, saying in a statement it remained “well above the range of what can pass Congress with bipartisan support.” (The GOP offer on the table sits at $568 billion—less than a third of what Biden’s asking for, and even less when you consider that a decent chunk of that amount includes previously anticipated congressional spending for reauthorizations this year instead of totally new spending like Biden’s plan. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has previously said Republicans could stomach a bill as large as $800 billion.)  

The key difference is the same as it’s been all along: Disagreement about how wide a range of programs and projects should qualify as “infrastructure.” Republican Sen. Susan Collins, one of the Senate’s most centrist members, said on Sunday that “fundamental differences” remain between the GOP and Democratic definitions, for the purposes of the bill.

“I think negotiations should continue, but it’s important to note that there are some fundamental differences here, and at the heart of the negotiations is defining the scope of the bill,” Collins told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “What is infrastructure? We, Republicans, tend to define infrastructure in terms of roads, bridges, seaports and airports, and broadband. The Democratic definition seems to include social programs that have never been considered part of core infrastructure.”

The biggest gap between the Republican and Democratic proposals is $400 billion in Biden’s proposal funding home care services for elderly and disabled Americans under Medicaid and raising wages for home caregivers. In the White House plan, another $300 billion would go to beefing up U.S. manufacturing, $213 billion would go to building new homes and retrofitting old ones for better energy efficiency, and $180 billion would go to research and development. (For a more detailed outline of the contours of Biden’s proposal, check out this breakdown from CNN.)

The tough reality, of course, is that Republicans simply don’t hold a very strong negotiating hand according to the basic legislative math of the current Congress. Democrats control the White House, the House, and the barest possible tiebreaking majority in the Senate. Under the procedures of the modern Senate, the Democrats could use the process of budget reconciliation to pass a bill without facing the possibility of a Republican filibuster. Reconciliation is a fiddly thing—not all bills are eligible, particularly those that permanently increase federal spending—but having that option on the table only strengthens Democrats’ temptation to simply bulldoze through GOP objections in any given legislative fight.

Republicans, then, have to put their hope for compromise on something else: The notion that either Biden or moderate Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema put enough of a premium on bipartisanship as an end in itself that they’ll be willing to hold that party-line reconciliation train hostage should Democrats try to use it too frequently.

Worth Your Time

  • “The paroxysms of outrage, panic, hatred, and denunciation that play out online and in real life every day hide our failing institutions in plain sight,” Kevin D. Williamson writes in his latest for National Review. “What is necessary to understand in the present is that our current cultural convulsion—the constant, distracting storm of outrage and panic and hatred and denunciation that plays out over social media and in real life every day—is being used as moral camouflage for failing institutions, from city governments to federal agencies and from the college campus to the commanding heights of media and technology.”

  • Over at Reason, C.J. Ciaramella reviewed Maurice Chammah’s new book on the history of the death penalty in the United States. “Let the Lord Sort Them opens with the U.S. Supreme Court’s momentous 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia, which struck down every state’s death penalty scheme as unconstitutionally arbitrary and discriminatory,” he writes. “Rare though it has become, the death penalty commands a big hold on the public imagination. It is the most dramatic display of the state’s power over an individual, and the question of whether state-sanctioned killing is acceptable cuts to the core of one’s worldview.”

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • For last week’s Uphill, Haley asked more than 20 Republican senators for their thoughts on a bipartisan, 9/11-style commission looking at the events leading up to January 6. Most struggled to come up with good answers. “It’s clear much of the opposition among Republicans to the commission boils down to that point,” she writes. “They don’t want to look into Trump’s behavior or pursue information that could harm Republicans at the ballot box, even as the former president continues to spread lies about the 2020 election. And some of them are willing to say so directly.”

  • Rep. Chip Roy dropped by The Dispatch Podcast on Friday to discuss his vote against forming a commission looking into January 6, as well as his decision to run (unsuccessfully) against Rep. Elise Stefanik for House GOP conference chair, his vision for the future of the GOP, and much more.

  • Jonah’s Friday G-File focused on—what else—cicadas (with a political philosophy detour). There’s a cottage industry out there that has for years been pushing an insect-based diet, and Jonah isn’t having it. “I don’t want to eat bugs, because I don’t want to, and I shouldn’t have to tell you why,” he writes. “Because in a free society, you can’t make me.”

  • David’s Sunday French Press is a sobering one. With the recent violence in Israel leading to a wave of renewed anti-Semitism here in the United States, David dives into the long history of anti-Jewish sentiment in this country and around the world—and how American ideals were intended to overcome it. “It is no coincidence that the United States is home to the second-largest Jewish community in the world,” he writes. “The presence of a thriving Jewish community is evidence that American aspirations could become reality. Jewish safety and security is thus deeply rooted in the American founding. It’s part of our nation’s origin story.”

Let Us Know

It’s partially a result of weekend reporting delay, but the 12,777 new COVID cases we saw nationwide today was the lowest number in a long, long time. So here’s a bookkeeping question: How long should we keep doing the daily numbers update and chart? Is it nearly time to retire them for the sake of newsletter brevity—or, having kept it this long through all the depressing parts of the pandemic, should we keep it around for now for the pure pleasure of seeing those numbers (knock on wood) continue to flatline?

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).