The Morning Dispatch: Hurricane Fiona Pummels Puerto Rico
Plus: Nick Catoggio games out when Trump v. DeSantis will go from cold war to hot.
Happy Tuesday! Today is #WorldPaellaDay—one of the year’s more compelling made up holidays. If you can’t get anything else done today, have some paella and pretend it’s an accomplishment.
Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories
Russia’s troubles in Ukraine appear to be continuing, with Ukrainian military officials claiming Sunday their forces had captured the eastern bank of the Oskil River near Kharkiv. If the report is true, Ukrainian forces are now just a handful of miles from the Russian-controlled Luhansk region of the Donbas. “The Russian soldiers in Ukraine have only two options: flee our land or surrender,” Zelensky said in a nationwide address yesterday.
The Hengaw Human Rights Organization claimed Monday security forces had killed as many as five protesters on Monday in the Kurdish region of Iran and injured dozens more. Iranians are taking to the street across the country—particularly in western Kurdish cities and the capital of Tehran—in response to the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody. Amini was arrested by Iranian religious police last week for neglecting to wear a headscarf, and died days later of what officials claimed was a heart attack. Her family, however, suspects foul play, and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi ordered an investigation into her death.
The White House announced Monday that the Taliban had freed American hostage Mark Frerichs—a Navy veteran, engineer, and government contractor held in Afghanistan for more than two years—as part of a prisoner swap for Bashir Noorzai, imprisoned 17 years in the U.S. for smuggling more than $50 million worth of heroin. Frerichs is reportedly in Qatar en route to the United States, and he is said to be in fine physical and mental condition.
Customs and Border Protection reported Monday that border enforcement has had more than 2 million encounters with undocumented immigrants on the southern border in under a year—a new record. About a third of encounters in August were with migrants from Venezuela, Cuba, or Nicaragua, a 175 percent increase over last August, while encounters with people from Mexico and northern Central America had dropped for the third straight month.
Sheriff Javier Salazar of Bexar County, Texas, announced Monday he’d opened a criminal investigation into the individuals who transported 48 migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken credit for the transfer, and promises more. Salazar says the migrants were “lured under false pretenses,” and lawyers have reported migrants were given brochures with misleading promises of “up to 8 months of cash assistance” among other benefits.
January 6 House committee members Rep. Liz Cheney and Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren on Monday proposed overhauls to the Electoral Count Act intended to prevent efforts to overturn presidential election results. They suggest changes that would direct election challenges to courts, specify that a vice president’s role in counting electoral votes is “ceremonial,” and require approval from one-third of the House and Senate to challenge a state’s electors. Their proposal is broadly similar to bipartisan legislation headed for committee markup in the Senate.
Hurricane Fiona Pummels Puerto Rico
Five years ago today, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm, causing widespread flooding and months of power outages. Due in large part to a sluggish emergency response, approximately 3,000 people died in the storm and its aftermath. Fast forward to Sunday: Another hurricane—Fiona—hit the island as a Category 1 storm, bringing more than two feet of rain to some parts of the island, where blue tarps still serve as makeshift roofs over thousands of homes. Power lines were downed, roads ripped up.
“I think all of us Puerto Ricans who lived through Maria have that post-traumatic stress of, ‘What is going to happen, how long is it going to last, and what needs might we face?’” Puerto Rican Danny Hernández told the Associated Press while stocking up for the storm.
It’s been a remarkably quiet hurricane season so far, but Fiona demonstrated that it only takes one storm to wreak havoc: Just about all of Puerto Rico lost power over the weekend, and emergency crews rescued more than 1,000 people from the flooding. The storm gained steam on Monday as it moved westward over the Dominican Republic, and forecasters expect it to continue strengthening into a Category 3 this week as it makes its way north, threatening northern Haiti, Turks and Caicos. and the Bahamas.
But while the worst of Fiona has passed in Puerto Rico, rain continues to fall and the island is still facing “life-threatening and catastrophic” flooding and the risk of landslides. Most people remained without power Monday, and more than 2,000 Puerto Ricans were staying in emergency shelters. So far officials have reported at least two deaths from Fiona, a toll that will likely rise in the coming days.
The damage from Fiona also demonstrates lingering problems post-Maria. Floods this weekend swept away a bridge installed after the 2017 hurricane that was intended to be temporary but hadn’t yet been replaced. The Federal Emergency Management Agency set aside $28 billion for Maria recovery projects, but Puerto Rican officials have only spent about $5.3 billion, according to Government Accountability Office official Christopher Currie. Most of that $5.3 billion went toward more immediate needs like debris removal, with only a fraction spent on long-term improvements like a more resilient power grid and better roads. The delay—which left Puerto Rico less prepared for Fiona than it could have been—was due in part to Trump administration red tape that slowed the disbursement of funds, in part to the island’s own bureaucratic hangups, and in part to universal problems like pandemic-related supply chain delays.
The government is responding far more quickly to the fallout from this storm than it did to Maria. President Joe Biden declared a state of emergency in the territory as the storm approached and has authorized FEMA—which decided after Maria’s devastation to store more emergency supplies like water and tarps on the island—to respond. The federal government has more than 300 personnel already assisting in Puerto Rico, and Biden promised Monday to send more. New York will dispatch more than 100 Spanish-speaking state troopers to help clear roads and direct traffic, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced, and Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said he’s already been in touch with Biden and leaders in New Jersey and California to get extra help. More than 450 National Guard members have joined rescue efforts.
Puerto Rican healthcare facilities are now required to operate generators after long power outages post-Maria endangered patients. Problems with some generators on Sunday required repair crews and the evacuation of a handful of patients, but Puerto Rico Health Secretary Dr. Carlos Mellado López said Sunday that the island’s chief medical complex had full power. The island’s power grid hasn’t recovered from Maria—residents endure regular blackouts—but Pierluisi said he expects the majority of households to get power again “in a question of days.” Power company LUMA Energy said it has restored power to about 100,000 customers of the island’s more than 3 million residents.
Though Puerto Ricans are still scrambling to find fuel and clean water, officials insist the response to Fiona will be better than post-Maria. “Maria served as an exercise for the people who handle emergencies, at all levels,” Pierluisi declared Monday. “The coordination during Fiona has been exemplary.”
“But this is not over,” he continued. “We keep going.”
Nick (Allahpundit) Makes His Dispatch Debut
After a few well-deserved weeks off, Nick Catoggio has re-entered the political fray with his first piece for the site, bringing his sharp analytical eye to a rivalry that may define the next era of American politics: Donald Trump v. Ron DeSantis. Trump has made it clear, Nick writes, that he’s soured on the Florida governor’s copying his mannerisms and sucking up his oxygen in national news coverage. What remains to be seen is when and how the proverbial gloves will come off—but that isn’t an easy strategic calculation.
Trump credits himself for DeSantis’s successes so far, and has chafed at the governor’s growing willingness not to kiss the ring.
Trump’s resentment toward those who profit from their association with him at his expense seems to have turned personal with respect to DeSantis. It’s not just a matter of the governor imitating Trump’s mannerisms or “stealing” his ideas for publicity stunts. Unfailingly, when he’s asked about DeSantis, Trump will remind the interviewer that DeSantis owes his victory in the 2018 gubernatorial primary to Trump’s endorsement. “I made Ron,” he’s been known to say privately, per Vanity Fair. DeSantis hasn’t just profited from Trump’s image; to hear Trump tell it, he matters politically thanks purely to Trump’s largesse.
The sense that DeSantis owes Trump an enormous debt yet refuses to show him the deference due a creditor permeates the reporting on Trump’s view of their relationship. Earlier this year, Trump grumbled to friends that DeSantis hadn’t pledged not to run in 2024 if Trump entered the race, the so-called “magic words” that other contenders like Nikki Haley had been willing to utter. As of June, despite Trump’s endorsement being eagerly sought by every other Republican candidate in the country, DeSantis had pointedly declined to ask for it, a de facto declaration of independence from the man who “made” him.
If Trump opens fire against DeSantis sooner rather than later, he may damage the governor’s likely margin of victory in his current race, weakening his electability argument in a 2024 contest.
DeSantis’ entire case against Trump in the 2024 primary rests on electability. One can’t get to Trump’s right in a primary on policy—although DeSantis has done his cynical best on the subject of vaccines and may yet convince a few MAGA stalwarts that their hero was too soft on COVID lockdowns and the bureaucrats like Anthony Fauci pushing them. Trying to flip Trump voters by convincing them that their hero, a man who attempted an honest-to-God coup last year, doesn’t “fight” hard enough is a fool’s errand.
Convincing them that a different nominee can fight smarter and more successfully has more promise.
Because DeSantis will be more or less attractive to Republican voters in 2024 depending upon how gaudy his margin of victory is, Trump has every incentive to do what he can to hold down that margin of victory. That means attacking DeSantis now—before the gubernatorial election—in the hope that some meaningful number of MAGA diehards will decline to turn out for the governor in November in protest. After all, if DeSantis were to beat Crist by only 3 points instead of 7, that might functionally end his 2024 hopes. What would be left of his electability argument if he couldn’t outperform Trump at the polls in his home state against a weaker candidate than Joe Biden?
But DeSantis has taken pains to build a brand immune to Trump’s customary RINO accusations. If Trump is going to try to outflank him on policy, his options are limited.
I can think of two possibilities, both of which would carry risks for the party.
One is abortion. For all his usual maximalist bravado, DeSantis is a shrewd politician with the good sense not to press his luck on the ultimate culture-war issue amid an apparent national backlash to the end of Roe. The 15-week ban he signed into law earlier this year is an uncharacteristically moderate compromise designed to prevent the issue from galvanizing Democratic turnout in Florida in November. Also uncharacteristically, DeSantis has ducked questions about imposing a stricter ban, making noises about doing more on abortion eventually but insisting that litigation over the 15-week ban should play out first. That’s his way of dodging the abortion debate until he’s safely reelected.
But there’s always the nuclear option.
Trump could demand that the governor answer forthrightly whether he believes the 2020 election was stolen or not.
DeSantis has practiced strategic ambiguity on that question for nearly two years. He won’t say that the election was rigged, but he will campaign for election deniers. He won’t declare that the election should have been overturned, but he did call on voters to report suspected lawbreaking to their state legislators around the time Trump was trying to convince swing states to certify his electors as legitimate. He has been and hopes to forever remain half-pregnant on the subject, kooky enough to satisfy populist voters that he shares their suspicions yet not quite so kooky as to scare suburban moms who otherwise favor DeSantis because of, say, his COVID policies for schools.
Trump can demand that DeSantis take an election-denial “pregnancy test” at any time, though. Depending on whether the governor passes or fails, he might lose votes on the right or in the center. Even if DeSantis skates to reelection, forcing him to hedge on whether the election was rigged might help Trump retain the loyalty of MAGA voters who currently find themselves DeSantis-curious after his months of grandstanding about populist flashpoints. To the diehard cultists, preferring DeSantis to Crist despite his squishiness about the legitimacy of Biden’s win is easy. But preferring him to Trump would become much harder.
Worth Your Time
We won’t link to the BBC’s 8-hour coverage of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, but here’s a lovely clip with highlights of the day’s pageantry and mourning.
Thanks to undercounts of drug overdoses and service record errors on death reports, military veterans’ suicide rate may be double the official federal count, a new study posits. “Officials from America’s Warrior Partnership, in a joint study with University of Alabama and Duke University, reviewed census death data from 2014 to 2018 for eight states and found thousands of cases of suspected or confirmed suicides not included in federal calculations,” Leo Shane III reports for the Military Times. “If those figures were to be repeated across the other states, it would push the veterans suicide rate from about 17 individuals a day (the official estimate released by the Department of Veterans Affairs last year) to 44 veterans a day.” Advocates say the imprecise data makes it harder to help veterans. “These are all preventable deaths,” AWP president and veteran Jim Lorraine told Shane. “The number is less important than the methodology of tracking them and making sure we have an accurate count … that can lead us to prevention steps.”
Major social media companies recently took down fake accounts posting ham-handed, pro-America foreign policy messages. Now, Ellen Nakashima reports in the Washington Post, the Pentagon is doing some soul-searching about its clandestine information warfare tactics. There’s the question of values, raised most prominently by the State Department: “Generally speaking, we shouldn’t be employing the same kind of tactics that our adversaries are using because the bottom line is we have the moral high ground,” a diplomat argued. “We are a society that is built on a certain set of values. We promote those values around the world and when we use tactics like those, it just undermines our argument about who we are.” Then there’s the practical fiasco of being dragged into the open: “Guys, you got caught,” one official told influence operatives. “That’s a problem.”
What’s chess in the age of computer programs designed to calculate the ideal move in every scenario? A bit more like poker, Matteo Wong writes in The Atlantic, complete with deliberate exploitation of human psychology and a push to cheat. “While training, a player might ask the software to suggest a set of moves to fit a given situation, and then decide to use the computer’s sixth-ranked option, rather than the first, in the hopes of confusing a human competitor who trained with similar algorithms,” Wong writes. “Or they might choose a move tailored to the weaknesses of a particular opponent. Many chess experts have adopted the new engines’ more aggressive style, and the algorithms have popularized numerous tactics that human players had previously underestimated. … In that context, cheating scandals may be nothing less than a natural step in chess’s evolution. Poker, after all, has been rocked by allegations of foul play for years, including cases where players are accused of getting help from artificial intelligence. When the highest form of creativity is outfoxing your opponent—as has always been true of poker—breaking rules seems only natural.”
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Toeing the Company Line
Yesterday, we welcomed Kevin Williamson to The Dispatch. Today, he explains why he’s here and fills readers in on what he’ll be up to. “Rage drives clicks,” he writes. “Quality drives subscriptions. And our business model is based on subscriptions, not clicks. … The idea is to make you say, ‘Huh, interesting, I didn’t really know anything about that.’”
To really hear it straight from the horse’s mouth, subscribers can tune in to tonight’s Dispatch Live (🔒) at 8 p.m. ET—Kevin will introduce himself and join David, Jonah, and Andrew to dive into some of this week’s headlines. They’ll discuss what’s going on with the migrant arrivals in Martha’s Vineyard, voter loyalty to Trump vs. the GOP, and more—with time for your questions.
Let Us Know
Do you think Trump will open fire on DeSantis before the midterms?