Biden’s Toothless Response to the State-Run Hijacking in Belarus

A Ryanair aircraft, carrying Belarusian opposition blogger and activist Roman Protasevich and diverted to Belarus, lands at Vilnius Airport in Vilnius, Lithuania, May 23, 2021. (Andrius Sytas/Reuters)

On the menu today: President Biden issues a — sigh — “tough” statement against the Belarusian state-run hijacking of an Irish airliner, pledges to “develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible,” and follows the European lead. Meanwhile, the lab-leak-theory party gets larger.

Belarus and the Weak, Toothless, ‘International Order’

Americans don’t spend a lot of time thinking about Belarus. It’s been ruled by a Vladimir Putin and Russia-aligned dictatorship for more than a quarter century. As the Editors characterized it with appropriate scare quotes last summer, Alexander Lukashenko “won” his latest “election” on August 9 by “80 percent.” They summarized, “he quickly turned Belarus — which had enjoyed democracy for a scant three years — into a personal fief. He took control of the courts, the banks, the universities, and so on. The Belarusian intelligence agency works for him, strictly. Charmingly, it is the only such agency in the post–Soviet Union to retain the old name: ‘KGB.’”

As noted in yesterday’s newsletter, the Belarusian state-security agents effectively hijacked a flight that was legally flying over Belarusian airspace in order to arrest dissident journalist Roman Protasevich:

The flight took off from Athens, Greece and was initially scheduled to land in Vilnius, Lithuania. However, Ryanair said that the flight crew was informed of a potential threat of explosives on board while flying in Belarusian airspace, and the plane was diverted to Minsk.

Lukashenko gave an “unequivocal order” to “make the plane do a U-turn and land,” according to a press release from his office translated by the New York Times. Belarus’s Investigative Committee, the country’s top investigative body, said it had opened a probe into a false bomb threat after no explosives were found on the plane.

Oh, and a Belarussian MiG fighter jet “escorted” the airliner to Minsk. A fighter jet can’t really do much to stop a bomb on board. But it sure as hell can intimidate the pilot and crew to obey orders to divert to Minsk.

Over at The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum — a few years after demonizing John O’Sullivan as “a combination of boulevardier (jovial, witty, fond of champagne) and James Bond villain” notes that borders no longer matter to authoritarian regimes; they pursue whomever they want, the way they want, whenever and wherever they want, regardless of who gets hurt.

Applebaum writes that:

Authoritarian states in pursuit of their enemies no longer feel the need to respect passports, borders, diplomatic customs, or — now — the rules of air-traffic control. In this new world, dictators are ever more prepared to arrest or murder political dissidents anywhere, no matter what citizenship they might have or which foreign laws or bureaucratic procedures might theoretically protect them. Sometimes these regimes put pressure on other countries to help them. Other times they kidnap people unassisted. The price they have to pay as a result, in sanctions or in bad relations with the outside world, clearly no longer bothers them.

As examples, Applebaum lists “Russian use of radioactive poisons and nerve agents against enemies of the Kremlin in London and Salisbury, England; Saudi Arabia’s brutal murder of one of its citizens inside a consulate in Istanbul; Iranian assassinations of dissidents in the Netherlands and Turkey; and Beijing’s kidnapping and detention of Chinese nationals living abroad and foreign citizens of Chinese origin.”

I’d also throw in the time in May 2017 when the North Korean government assassinated Kim Jong-un’s half brother, Kim Jong-nam, using VX nerve agent in the middle of Kuala Lumpur International Airport, with the female assassin wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan “LOL.” It’s not just that these regimes are ruthless in their use of lethal force against enemies of the regime abroad; it’s that they choose to do so in what seems like the most recklessly dangerous way they can imagine. (VX, polonium, Novichok nerve agent . . . Doesn’t anybody just shoot anybody anymore?)

Applebaum is correct that the trend is worsening, but this era of extraterritorial lawlessness and intimidation did not arise alongside the Trump administration or Brexit or any of the political turning points that Applebaum vehemently opposes. Putin’s regime poisoned Alexander Litvinenko with radiation in 2006. and in the process left radiation trails on three British Airways jets. In 2011, agents of the Iranian regime plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States by blowing up Café Milano in Georgetown in Washington, D.C.; one plotter was recorded saying, “They want that guy [the Ambassador] done [killed], if the hundred go with him, f*** ‘em.”

Why do these authoritarian regimes not fear the consequences of their actions? Because in so many cases, there are no consequences to those actions, or at least not significant ones. The modern “international order” envisioned by the center-left doesn’t really offer any international order.

Donald Trump was generally soft on authoritarian regimes with human-rights abuses, but he replaced a presidency who, as Human Rights Watch described, “delivered more hope than change. . . . [Obama] often treated human rights as a secondary interest — nice to support when the cost was not too high, but nothing like a top priority he championed.”

Freedom House attempted to catalog all of the cases of extraterritorial intimidation and assassinations from 2014 to 2021, and concluded:

. . . the shifting international balance of power has encouraged states to take greater risks, as democracies and international bodies focused on human rights lose the political will to push back against egregious violations. The erosion of norms is reflected in the lack of accountability for transnational repression. Even when a case is as flagrant as it could possibly be—as with the horrifying and well-documented murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul— leading democracies have failed to enforce accountability. Economic sanctions and visa bans against Russian entities and individuals for a series of assassinations on European soil have not deterred the Russian regime from continuing to kill abroad. In effect, states can now threaten, kidnap, or murder exiles with little fear of punishment.

In some cases, the U.S. government inadvertently cooperates with the intimidation and harassment. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement arrested a Russian dissident living legally in the U.S. who had committed no crime because the Russian government issued an Interpol “Red Notice” — a request to law enforcement worldwide to locate and provisionally arrest a person pending extradition, surrender, or similar legal action. Did it ever cross the mind of Interpol or the U.S. government that a regime such as Putin’s might abuse the authority to issue Red Notices?

Despite a lot of talk on the campaign trail, President Biden chose to waive any punishment for Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Yesterday, Biden issued what reads like a tough statement against Lukashenko’s regime . . . but if you read carefully, the U.S. government is waiting for the Europeans to take the lead:

The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms both the diversion of the plane and the subsequent removal and arrest of Mr. Pratasevich. This outrageous incident and the video Mr. Pratasevich appears to have made under duress are shameful assaults on both political dissent and the freedom of the press. The United States joins countries around the world in calling for his release, as well as for the release of the hundreds of political prisoners who are being unjustly detained by the Lukashenka regime.

I join the many calls for an international investigation to ascertain the complete facts of the case. I welcome the news that the European Union has called for targeted economic sanctions and other measures, and have asked my team to develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible, in close coordination with the European Union, other allies and partners, and international organizations.

We’ll see if the sanctions make much of a difference. EU countries make up 18 percent of Belarus’s trade. Russia makes up almost half. Trade with the United States is a very small piece of the Belarusian economy, one to five percent of Belarusian exports.

The international order envisioned by President Biden and German chancellor Angela Merkel and most other Western leaders is ultimately toothless. It prioritizes the illusion of stability and order — and attempts to sweep outrageous and dangerous actions such as the Belarusian hijacking under the rug — over the short-term difficult actions that might create genuine stability and order in the long term. The center-left convinced itself that the “cowboy unilateralism” of the Bush administration was the worst possible option, and kept insisting that they alone could wield “smart power” or “soft power” or “lead from behind.” The whole “reset button” ceremony with Hillary Clinton and Russia’s Sergey Lavrov was a formal commemoration of the incoming administration’s naïveté. The “famously stormy” relationship between Condi Rice and Lavrov was not a matter of Rice’s not being diplomatic enough or nice enough or trying hard enough.

The world is full of bullies, who will continue bullying others until they learn a hard lesson about consequences. If someone — maybe the Pentagon’s Cyber Command, maybe the NSA — can shut down the Internet Research Agency in Saint Petersburg for two days in 2018, the U.S. could shut down the Internet for the entire Belarusian government for a day or two. In the run-up to the Iraq War, selected senior officials in Iraq’s army received calls on their private telephone lines, asking them to turn against Saddam Hussein and avoid war. (Unfortunately, the Arabic-speaking agents of the coalition making the request were so fluent, the Iraqi officials thought it was a trick to test their loyalty to Hussein.)

How would Alexander Lukashenko respond to a message of strong disapproval of his actions, arriving on a personal, private phone that he’d believed to be a closely guarded secret?

ADDENDA: The Editors welcome Dr. Anthony Fauci to the party of those open-minded about the possibility that a lab leak set off the COVID-19 pandemic.

Glenn Kessler writes that “the Wuhan lab-leak theory suddenly became credible.” Suddenly! I’ll bet you can guess whose coverage doesn’t appear in his timeline.

If you ever need to go on the run from the mob, become a conservative journalist, because then no one will ever see you.


The Circumstantial Evidence at Wuhan Lab Keeps Growing

Volunteers from the Blue Sky Rescue team disinfect at the Qintai Grand Theaters in Wuhan, the epicentre of China’s coronavirus outbreak, April 2, 2020. (Aly Song/Reuters)

Today’s newsletter reads like a thriller novel: The Wall Street Journal gives us a slightly better look at what U.S. intelligence knows about researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology requiring hospitalization in November 2019; why you should never fly over Belarussian airspace; and summer beach-reading season is almost upon us.

Did COVID-19 Put Three Wuhan Lab Researchers in the Hospital? Or Just ‘Common Seasonal Illness’?

It would be preferable if this Sunday’s big Wall Street Journal scoop had a few more specifics attached to it:

Three researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick enough in November 2019 that they sought hospital care, according to a previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence report: the researchers with symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and common seasonal illness.

That’s kind of a big distinction, now, isn’t it?

Let’s observe that most people who work in biosafety-level-four laboratories such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology are in their adult years and are in good health. While I suppose it is possible that a lab technician or virologist who handles dangerous pathogens could be immunocompromised or elderly, that seems like a significant and unusual risk for both the individual and the institution. If you go midway down the page on my April 3, 2020, examination of the evidence, you’ll see five photos of the staff from the website of the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s Lab of Diagnostic Microbiology available at the start of the pandemic; the staffers appear to be in their 20s, 30s, or 40s.

Perhaps “common seasonal illnesses” in central China are more likely to put a healthy adult in the hospital. Here in the United States, the two groups at the highest risk of developing serious complications from influenza during flu season are the elderly and the immunocompromised. While it’s not unheard of for a healthy adult to require hospitalization from the flu, it’s pretty rare. The CDC offers two sets of estimated figures for the 2017–2018 winter season. In the first, roughly one out of every 177 American adults between the ages of 18 and 49 years who was diagnosed with the flu required hospitalization. A second estimate calculates that 221 out of every 100,000 American adults between the ages of 18 and 49 years required hospitalization, which comes out to one out of every 452. Neither figure separates out immunocompromised adults; either way, it’s really rare for an American adult to require hospitalization for our “common seasonal illnesses.”

And yet, if this previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence report is accurate, the Wuhan Institute of Virology had three hospitalizations either simultaneously or in rapid succession. This means that one of three things happened. Either three employees of the WIV caught a particularly virulent common seasonal illness, bad enough to put healthy adults in the hospital, right before the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2, and completely unrelated to that outbreak; their illness was connected to their work at the WIV, but what they caught was not SARS-CoV-2; or they caught SARS-CoV-2 and were the first cluster of COVID-19 cases.

Yes, this is circumstantial evidence, but the circumstantial evidence keeps piling up higher and higher.

You may recall that back in March of this year, virologist Marion Koopmans, who was part of that World Health Organization team that traveled to Wuhan earlier this year, told NBC News that “maybe one or two” scientists working on coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology did get sick with flu-like symptoms in autumn of 2019, shortly before the first cases of COVID-19 — but that she’s confident those illnesses are unrelated to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“There were occasional illnesses, because that’s normal,” Koopmans told NBC News. “There’s nothing that stood out. . . . It’s certainly not a big thing.”

She added that she knows these illnesses couldn’t be connected to the COVID-19 outbreak, because the Chinese government told the WHO that those researchers tested negative for COVID-19.

And as we all know, the Chinese government would never lie about this virus, except for all the times it did.

The Journal reports that “Shi Zhengli, the top bat coronavirus expert at WIV, has said the virus didn’t leak from her laboratories. She told the WHO-led team that traveled to Wuhan earlier this year to investigate the origins of the virus that all staff had tested negative for Covid-19 antibodies and there had been no turnover of staff on the coronavirus team.”

A little more than a year ago, Chinese social-media users and those watching China’s Internet kept hearing rumors that a Wuhan Institute of Virology researcher named Huang Yanling was “patient zero,” and a statement from the institute named her specifically, denying the rumor, and declaring she left the institution in 2015. A public appearance by Huang Yanling would dispel a lot of the public rumors and is the sort of thing the Chinese government could and would quickly arrange in normal circumstances, but that never happened. Huang Yanling has not been seen in more than a year, and her fate remains unknown:

A post purporting to be from Huang later appeared on social media platform WeChat.

“To my teachers and fellow students, how long no speak,” the message said. “I am Huang Yanling, still alive. If you receive any email (regarding the COVID-19 rumour), please say it’s not true.”

Her former boss made a separate post on social media claiming that she had left the institute in 2015, while a Chinese news agency claimed that it had spoken with her new employer but provided no other details.

Inexplicably, however, Huang has disappeared from social media and has not been heard from since being identified as Patient Zero, while her biography and research history have been scrubbed from the institute’s website.

Almost one year on, the only trace of the student researcher is a grainy picture of her salvaged from the institute’s website and circulated on the internet.

In the days after the initial reports, bloggers and internet users in China suspicious of officials’ denials pleaded with Huang to make a public appearance to prove she was alive. ‘To stop this rumour spreading, Huang should just come forward and do a blood test,’ said one. Another posted: ‘No matter where you live, Huang, you will be found.’

China’s internet censors quickly stamped out discussion of Huang, and extensive enquiries within the country by The Mail on Sunday, including messages to her former colleagues, have failed to turn up any trace of her.

Maybe Huang Yanling is indeed alive, well, and merely very afraid of making a public appearance. Maybe she’s being detained by the Chinese government. Or maybe she’s dead.

Remember, dear readers, you and I are lab-leak-theory hipsters. We were into it before it was cool. Now, no less a figure than Dr. Anthony Fauci is no longer willing to say it’s too farfetched to be plausible:

PolitiFact’s Katie Sanders noted that there is still “a lot of cloudiness around the origins of COVID-19” and asked Fauci if he is “still confident that it developed naturally,” according to footage of the event which was resurfaced by Fox News on Sunday.

“No actually,” Fauci said at the “United Facts of America: A Festival of Fact-Checking” event.

“I am not convinced about that,” he added. “I think we should continue to investigate what went on in China until we continue to find out to the best of our ability what happened.”

He continued: “Certainly, the people who investigated it say it likely was the emergence from an animal reservoir that then infected individuals, but it could have been something else, and we need to find that out. So, you know, that’s the reason why I said I’m perfectly in favor of any investigation that looks into the origin of the virus.”

On the home page today, Michael Brendan Dougherty declares that, “If COVID-19 is a man-made disaster, searching for the people, the institutions, and the governments that authored this disaster is not scapegoating, it’s necessary fact-finding before doing justice.”

From the beginning, there have been people in the West who were understandably deeply uncomfortable with the thought that this could be the result of the Chinese government’s recklessness, as opposed to just bad luck or those darned animal smugglers. Everybody hates animal smugglers. They’re the perfect villain. They don’t have lobbyists. They don’t have public-relations firms. There’s no International Association of Illegal Animal Smugglers, addressing international conferences about the joys of black-market pangolin scales. You know what animal smugglers have zero impact upon? Apple’s manufacturing; Disney’s revenues from movies, theme parks, and merchandise sales; America’s exports of soybeans, oil, natural gas, microchips, cotton, and corn — $124 billion in U.S. trade revenues.

You know what does have an impact on $124 billion in U.S. trade revenues? The Chinese government, which is why a whole lot of America’s business, political, cultural, and social elites don’t want to antagonize the Chinese government. For 30 years, most of America’s leaders have pushed all their chips to the middle of the table and bet that the U.S. and China “can continue to advance our mutual interests for the benefit not only of our two peoples, but for the benefit of the world.”

It’s increasingly clear that for 30 years, America’s leaders bet wrong on China — and they’ve been in denial of how wrong they were for ten to 15 years. And if Beijing was experimenting with dangerous viruses and accidentally set off a worldwide pandemic that, as of this morning, has 167 million cases and 3.4 million deaths worldwide, it means that the Chinese regime is far too reckless and irresponsible to be trusted with any kind of power — never mind nuclear weapons, one of the world’s largest militaries, biological-weapons research, DNA databases of American citizens, groundbreaking artificial intelligence, and God knows what other tools and weapons the People’s Liberation Army is developing.

Every Airline Should Avoid Belarusian Airspace Immediately

Get ready for another big test of what the Biden administration is willing to do when an autocratic Eastern European country metaphorically takes international law and blows its nose into it, as agents of the Belarusian government pretty much hijacked an Irish airliner yesterday:

A prominent opponent of Belarus’ authoritarian president was arrested Sunday after the airliner in which he was traveling was diverted to the country after a bomb threat, in what the opposition and Western officials denounced as a hijacking operation by the government.

Raman Pratasevich, who faces charges that could bring 15 years in prison, was aboard the Ryanair flight from Athens, Greece, to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius when it changed course to head for Minsk . . .

The press service of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said the president himself ordered that a MiG-29 fighter jet accompany the airliner after he was informed of the bomb threat. Deputy air force commander Andrei Gurtsevich said the plane’s crew made the decision to land in Minsk.

Oh, really? What’s a MiG going to do to help stop a bomb threat?

The statement from Secretary of State Anthony Blinken calls it a “forced diversion” of the flight, not a hijacking, which does not seem like a good start.

ADDENDUM: Thanks to Oliver Wiseman for the kind words in his column about the lab-leak theory in The Critic, a new publication over in the U.K.

Memorial Day is approaching, which means summer is almost here, and lots of folks will be looking for summer beach reading. My first thriller, Between Two Scorpions, is up to 281 ratings and reviews on Amazon and is just $3.99 on Kindle. The post-pandemic-focused sequel, Hunting Four Horsemen, is at 124 ratings and reviews, and is just $7.99 on Kindle. The Weed Agency, a comic satire of the federal bureaucracy that would have been useful reading for anyone coming to Washington and worried about a “deep state” undermining their efforts, is at 173 ratings, and is $11.99 on Kindle. (While they’re very different genres, there are a few clues that the thrillers and The Weed Agency are occurring in the same “universe.”)


It’s Confirmed: The Cuomo Brothers Are the Worst

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (L) speaks at a church in Harlem, N.Y., March 17, 2021; CNN anchor Chris Cuomo poses as he arrives at an event in New York, N.Y., May 15, 2019. (Seth Wenig; Mike Segar/Reuters)

On the menu today: a soup-to-nuts indictment of the Cuomo brothers, anti-Semitic violence in the streets of America’s biggest cities, a familiar face returns to the NFL, and a counterargument on those flying objects that are not yet identified.

The Worst Governor of This Century, and the Worst Anchor on Television

As I’ve noted, you’d have to look far and wide to find a publication that has covered and discussed New York governor Andrew Cuomo as thoroughly, skeptically, critically, and even furiously as National Review. The past year and a half has been a period of spectacular upheaval in American life, but somewhere in the top-five revelations is the fact that the governor most praised and celebrated by the national media during the pandemic was probably the very worst among them.

Cuomo enacted a policy from late March to May 2020 forcing nursing homes to accept coronavirus-positive patients after they were discharged from hospitals, causing the virus to spread like wildfire among elderly nursing-home residents. One study found that more than 6,300 coronavirus-positive patients were readmitted to nursing homes, and that more than 5,700 nursing-home residents died between April 12 and June 4. “In the upstate region, facilities that admitted at least one positive patient during this period accounted for 82 percent of coronavirus deaths among nursing home residents, even though they had only 32 percent of the residents.”

Cuomo and his aides attempted to prevent the New York State Health Department from releasing the true number of coronavirus victims in nursing homes for at least five months. The FBI and Department of Justice are investigating whether Cuomo and his staff misled the federal government when it provided data on COVID-19-related deaths of nursing-home residents. Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, admitted to New York legislators that the administration had withheld information from them about the true number of nursing-home deaths because it feared a DOJ investigation.

One study concluded that New York state suffered the worst combination of excess deaths and job losses out of all 50 states.

State troopers were used to rush testing samples of Cuomo family members to a lab for expedited processing.

Separate from the pandemic, nine women, including several former aides, a member of the Executive Chamber staff, a wedding-reception guest, a current aide, and a former reporter in Albany have accused Cuomo of sexually harassing them. The accusations were so plausible and numerous that Cuomo allies such as Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand saw no other option than to call for his resignation.

Cuomo’s initial response to the accusations was to agree to appoint someone to investigate himself. Cuomo aides allegedly leaked the personnel file of a former staffer to the press after her sexual-harassment accusations went public. As the accusations piled up, the head of New York’s vaccine-distribution effort called county officials to assess their loyalty to Cuomo.

And after all that, Cuomo is set to be paid more than $5 million for his victory-lap book, one that he allegedly misused state resources to write, having state employees help him write it during working hours.

Our entire system for how a public official is supposed to be held accountable for his actions broke down completely. Cuomo emoted effectively in his first press conferences during the pandemic, and a whole lot of people in major national media and quite a few New Yorkers decided they loved him. Some people changed their minds about him, but not nearly enough.

I get why Democrats look at Donald Trump’s supporters in the Republican Party and gasp, with outrage, derision, and disbelief, “How can they still support that guy? Don’t they want to hold him accountable for anything he’s done?” But what few of them can see is that the same phenomenon of unflinching loyalty and reflexive dismissal of misbehavior flourishes on their side, too. This week, 71 percent of New York City Democrats told a pollster they approve of the job Cuomo is doing.

But now there is a new and fascinating wrinkle to all this, as we now know there is no longer a boundary separating CNN’s prime-time programming and the governor’s office. Andrew Cuomo popped up on his brother’s show so often during the pandemic, you would think CNN’s 8 p.m. hour had become an Albany-based, government-affairs-focused, public-access television. That is, until the wacky prop comedy began, and the two Cuomos lapsed into their Smothers Brothers “Mom always liked you best” schtick.

You heard a lot of people accusing Fox News of being “state-controlled television” during the Trump years, or MSNBC of being “state-controlled television” during the Obama years. But in the case of CNN, at least for this show in prime time, it really was a de facto extension of the governor’s office — and now we know Chris Cuomo was advising his brother on how to respond to the sexual-harassment accusations:

CNN anchor Chris Cuomo participated in strategy calls advising his brother, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, on how to handle the sexual harassment allegations made against the governor earlier this year, according to a new report.

Chris Cuomo reportedly joined a series of conference calls with his brother’s top aide, communications team, lawyers and a number of outside advisers, according to the Washington Post

The cable news anchor helped advise his brother as more and more women claimed the governor had made inappropriate comments or touched them without their permission.

Chris Cuomo told the governor to take a defiant position and not to resign from office, the report says. He reportedly cited “cancel culture” as a reason to not back down in light of the growing scandal.

Cuomo Prime Time wasn’t just the public-relations extension of the governor’s office; the CNN employee was effectively working as a political and media strategist for the governor.

CNN issued a bland statement declaring Cuomo’s actions “inappropriate.” No Shinola, Sherlock.

Think about that: A CNN anchor is advising a governor on how to handle the media and minimize the reputational damage from multiple accusations of sexual harassment. How do you think the women who work at CNN feel this morning? Do you think they feel as if Chris Cuomo genuinely believes that harassment in the workplace is unacceptable? Or do you think they now suspect that the network’s prime-time anchor believes that certain figures are entitled to misbehave and escape any consequences?

As the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple observes, through the coverage of the MeToo scandals, CNN’s coverage generally insisted that accusers needed to be taken seriously and treated with respect. Dismissing nine women, including former employees who made detailed and specific allegations about harassment, as “cancel culture” is a dramatic departure from how CNN covered other sexual-harassment allegations.

Wemple concludes, “Cuomo deserves every bit of ridicule thrown his way. Folks who work in journalism make a decision: We’re here to cover politicians and their consiglieres, not to work with them.”

But I’m not sure ridicule is going to be sufficient. Chris Cuomo just verified every accusation of every conservative critic CNN has ever had; the network became the reputational bodyguard of a notoriously corrupt and utterly shameless Democratic official.

Kyle Smith is right; Cuomo’s continued employment at CNN is proof that anything can be forgiven if you’re liberal. (Kyle also offers the brilliant moniker, “Cuomo Nepotism Network.”)

Circling back, as Jen Psaki would say, why do we have a news media? To tell us what’s going on in the world. Sometimes what’s going on in the world will please us, like learning that the seven-day-average for daily new deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. is at its lowest point since July 7. Sometimes what’s going on in the world will upset us, but that doesn’t change our need to know.

And in American society, the news media is supposed to be a key tool for ensuring accountability in government. If somebody in government is screwing up in a consequential way, we’re not supposed to only care if it’s a member of the party we oppose. We’re supposed to hold our own guys to a high standard, too. I’m sure CNN employs a lot of people who usually, almost always, or always vote for the Democrats, and that doesn’t inherently mean that they can’t be good journalists. But it does mean they have to work against their internal preferences and biases and be willing to call out a Democrat who makes bad decisions or behaves badly. They can’t see themselves as narrative muralists painting an elaborate portrait of why Democrats are good and Republicans are bad.

And if the news media is so ensnared by its partisan preferences that it ends up celebrating the governor who did arguably the worst job — say, the governor in Albany whose state suffered the second-highest COVID-19 deaths per million residents — while demonizing, say, the governor in Tallahassee whose state suffered the 27th-highest COVID-19 deaths per million residents . . . we end up with a media system that acclaims bad decisions and castigates good decisions. We will be doomed to bad governance because the media has become an anti-accountability system.

Are Political Disputes Quicker to Get Violent These Days?

This seems like the sort of thing that might be more than just a local news story: “At least 26 people were arrested after chaos erupted in Times Square during a clash between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine protesters, police said. Nearby in Manhattan’s Diamond District, a bystander was burned by a firework set off, sending a woman and two police officers to the hospital. The NYPD Hate Crimes Task Force also launched an investigation into a gang assault of a Jewish man near the protests.”

Particularly since similar abominable actions are occurring on the other side of the country as well: “An attack on a group of men at a restaurant in the Beverly Grove area, which was being investigated by police Wednesday as a possible hate crime, drew condemnation from a Los Angeles city councilman who said the victims were Jewish diners targeted by a pro-Palestinian group.”

This is terrifying, and some people are understandably asking how something like this could happen in the United States — and in New York City of all places. Then again, those of us old enough to remember the Crown Heights riots in 1991 may not be entirely shocked to see a sudden outburst of violent anti-Semitism on New York’s streets.

ADDENDA: Over on the Corner, some thoughts on Tim Tebow’s return to the NFL . . . focused not so much on Tebow’s faith, kneeling, or the broader cultural war, and more on what the Jacksonville Jaguars already have at the tight-end position.

For what it is worth, Andrew Follett writes on NRO today that all of the videos of flying objects featured on 60 Minutes last Sunday have “obvious potential terrestrial explanations” that do not involve advanced technology. He contends one might be a Canada Goose.

Politics & Policy

Washington’s Short-Term Memory on Commissions

Police stand guard at the U.S. Capitol during a protest against the certification of the 2020 presidential election results by Congress in Washington, D.C., January 6, 2021. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

On the menu today: Washington wants another bipartisan commission to investigate another attack on our government, but the establishment’s rosy memories of the 9/11 Commission edit out a lot of partisan wrangling and infighting; how certain problems persist, long after the national media stops paying attention to them; and why the CDC’s masking guidelines for children don’t make sense.

We Could Use a Thorough Investigation of January 6, but We May Not Get One

I’d like to see a bipartisan, respected, even-handed, independent commission thoroughly investigate the Capitol Hill riots of January 6. The U.S. Capitol Police have never held a press conference or answered questions from the media about their decisions on that day. We’ve gotten conflicting answers about why the National Guard wasn’t deployed before that day and the delays in deploying them once the rioting started. We’ve heard claims that President Trump was initially pleased to see a halt in the counting of the Electoral College votes.

The country could use some straight answers on all of these fronts, but it’s an open question if we’re going to get them.

Advocates of a January 6 Commission often cite the example of the 9/11 Commission that was established in 2002 and offered its final report in 2004. But I think most of Washington has a rosy-colored view of that commission and how it worked.

People forget there were a lot of accusations that each side had appointed its share of partisan hacks whose primary objective was to defer blame, either from the Clinton administration or the Bush administration. Jamie Gorelick had been deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, and Attorney General John Ashcroft charged in public testimony that Gorelick herself had been the architect of the metaphorical wall that separated criminal investigators from intelligence agents. Commission member Richard Ben-Veniste attended the VIP screening of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Former Georgia senator Max Cleland resigned from the commission to take another government job, after emerging as the harshest critic of the Bush administration on the panel. (Bush had campaigned for his defeat in 2002.) The commission’s executive director, Phillip Zelikow, had worked on the Bush administration’s transition team. Former senators such as Slade Gorton and Bob Kerrey, and former House members such as Lee Hamilton and Tim Roemer, were investigating the consequences of foreign-policy decisions that they themselves had voted to enact.

The commission agreed to a variety of strict rules for collecting testimony from President Bush and Vice President Cheney — joint testimony, no taking of an oath, no transcripts or electronic recordings, no publication of commission members’ notes, and the interview would occur in the Oval Office.

In 2008, New York Times reporter Philip Shenon published his book The Commission, offering the most in-depth portrait of how the 9/11 Commission went about its work, and charging that the panel made “a series of oversights, omissions, and distortions that raise fundamental questions about 9/11 and the government’s failure to prevent it.” Whether or not you buy into that assessment, it’s clear there was much more behind-the-scenes disagreements and infighting than the public ever saw or heard.

The commission’s co-chairmen, Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton, began their 2007 book Without Precedent with the words, “We were set up to fail.” They elaborated, “both of us were aware of grumbling around Washington that the 9/11 Commission was doomed — if not designed — to fail: the commission would splinter down partisan lines; lose its credibility by leaking classified information; be denied the necessary access to do its job; or alienate the 9/11 families who had fought on behalf of its creation.”

Eventually Kean and Hamilton agreed that their mission was to lay out the facts, not to point fingers. And by a lot of standards, the 9/11 Commission report was a success; it may well be the most widely read government report in history.

Regarding the accusations of conflicts of interest for commission members, people in government know other people in government and often work for or with one another in one capacity or another over the years and decades. If this January 6 commission does come to fruition, you will have a hard time finding five prominent retired Democratic officials who have not publicly criticized Trump, and you will probably have a hard time finding five prominent retired Republican officials who have not praised him in one form or another.

A lot of Trump critics will want the commission to confirm their narrative that Donald Trump riled up a crowd and attempted to launch an insurrection against Congress, disrupting the certification of the Electoral College vote, and somehow delaying or revering the 2020 election results. A lot of Trump fans will want the commission to confirm their narrative that this was a legitimate exercise of First Amendment-protected protests that got way out of hand, exacerbated by an unprepared U.S. Capitol Police force and Washington, D.C., mayor Muriel Bowser not wanting additional federal police personnel on the streets.

Some of us can envision a scenario in which neither political party’s elected officials get to play the hero.

The Unseen News

One of the themes I try to emphasize in this newsletter is that certain trends and events occur or continue to occur, whether or not they get a lot of attention in the national media at any given time. Trees that fall in the forest do make a sound, even if no one is around to hear them.

Coverage and discussion of the waves of migrants attempting to cross the U.S.–Mexico border pops into the news cycle intermittently, but U.S. Customs and Border Protection makes large numbers of arrests just about every day: 43 at a hotel in Pharr, Texas, 45 in a trailer home in Edinburg, Texas, 69 illegally present migrants in a home in Garceno, Texas, a group of 278 migrants near Hidalgo, Texas — and that’s just this week. We won’t get the updated figures for what the CBP labels “Southwest Land Border Encounters” — people attempting to cross the border — until sometime in early June. But it looks like after an astounding jump in the figures for March and April, May’s numbers will be high, too.

You don’t always hear a lot about the border, but the issue is still there.

We were always going to have a big explosion of the federal debt as soon as the pandemic walloped us; tax payments took a nosedive, while the government’s expenditures skyrocketed. No one complained about the deficit or debt because it was an emergency. One year ago, in April 2020, as the economy screeched to a halt, the U.S. government had a $737 billion deficit, the largest in 40 years, in part because of the passage of the CARES Act.

The good news is that this year’s April monthly deficit is lower than last year. The bad news is that at $225 billion, it’s about 30 percent of the previous year, at a time when the economy has largely reopened and the pandemic’s effect on American life is fading:

Cumulative year-to-date revenues are up substantially: 16 percent greater than at this point during the last fiscal year (although later filing deadlines in fiscal year 2020 inflate this difference) and 5 percent greater than in fiscal year 2019 — even though the deadline for paying individual income taxes fell in April 2019 but has not yet arrived in 2021. Greater revenues this fiscal year are partly the result of growing wages and salaries . . . Even though revenues have stepped up, spending has leapt further ahead: Cumulative outlays are 21 percent ($687 billion) greater than at this point last fiscal year and 56 percent ($1.4 trillion) greater than at this point in fiscal year 2019.

You don’t always hear a lot about the deficit, but the issue is still there.

From October 2018 to October 2019, the U.S. saw more than 69,000 deaths from a drug overdose. From October 2019 to October 2020, the U.S. saw almost 89,000 deaths from a drug overdose — an increase of 28.3 percent.

You don’t always hear a lot about the drug trade, fentanyl, methamphetamine, and overdoses, but the issue is still there.

Sometimes it feels as if the national media are playing peek-a-boo; when they can’t see something, it is as if it has disappeared.

ADDENDUM: An important argument from Phil Klein:

Based on the low transmission rates of the coronavirus among children, an unvaccinated adult without a mask is more likely to spread the coronavirus than an unvaccinated child. Yet because unvaccinated adults are impossible to distinguish from vaccinated adults, they are in effect not required to wear masks under CDC guidelines. Put another way, children are being treated differently by the CDC not because they are more likely to spread disease, but merely because they are more easily identifiable than unvaccinated adults.

National Security & Defense

The Conventional Wisdom on UFOs Is Shifting

U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Skyler Stevens uses new night optics technology during Advanced Naval Technology Exercise 2018 at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., March 19, 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Rhita Daniel/Handout via Reuters)

On the menu today: A deep dive into the U.S. military — and former president Barack Obama! — declaring that indeed, pilots encounter flying objects that we cannot identify on a regular basis.

Obama on UFO Videos: ‘We Don’t Know Exactly What They Are’

Much like the sudden shift on the conventional wisdom around the lab leak, the conventional wisdom about UFOs — not necessarily space aliens, but the existence of flying objects that authorities cannot identify — is shifting rapidly; it’s like you can feel the ground moving beneath your feet. 60 Minutes did a lengthy and credulous report, featuring declassified videos of objects that don’t look like any conventional aircraft, and interviews with former Pentagon officials and retired Navy pilots who seemed convinced.

No less a figure than former president Barack Obama is weighing in, indicating that he, as president, was kept in the loop about what U.S. military pilots were seeing the skies and unable to identify.

Last night on The Late Late Show with James Corden, Obama declared, “What is true, and I’m actually being serious here, is that there is footage and records of objects in the skies that we don’t know exactly what they are.” He continued: “We can’t explain how they move, their trajectory. They did not have an easily explainable pattern. And so I think that people still take seriously, trying to investigate and figure out what that is.”

What’s going on here? There are four main possibilities. These pilots could be witnessing secret U.S. government or military technology, secret technology from the private sector, secret technology from an unfriendly country, or . . . aliens. (Insert “I’m not saying it’s aliens . . . but it’s aliens” meme here.)

One: Secret U.S. government or military technology. Every now and then, government officials make comments that suggest our government has made amazing technological breakthroughs. 

Several times during his presidency, Donald Trump referred to a “super-duper missile.” In May 2020, he said at a press conference about the Space Force, “We’re building, right now, incredible military equipment at a level that nobody has ever seen before. We have no choice. We have to do it — with the adversaries we have out there. We have a — I call it the ‘super-duper missile.’ And I heard the other night, [it’s] 17 times faster than what they have right now.” Pentagon officials later elaborated that the president was referring to research and development of hypersonic weapons that can travel 17 times faster than the speed of sound.

For what it’s worth, one of the retired government officials interviewed in the 60 Minutes report, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for intelligence Christopher Mellon, said it’s not one of ours.

Former president Obama could be lying — come on, it’s happened before — and it could be that the highest levels of the U.S. government do know what these things are, but doesn’t want to say, as part of an elaborate effort to maintain the secrecy of a U.S. aerial-combat or surveillance advantage. But if we had technologies so advanced that our own pilots, who were not read into the program, thought they were beyond the capacity of human beings . . . well, wouldn’t we be doing a lot better on a lot of fronts? Does our military and intelligence community act like they’ve got access to technology that, in the words of one Pentagon investigator, “can do 6-to-700 g-forces, that can fly at 13,000 miles an hour, that can evade radar and that can fly through air and water and possibly space”?

And if you had that technology, would you be flying around off the coast of Virginia Beach “every day for at least a couple years,” as one former Navy pilot lieutenant told 60 Minutes?

Wouldn’t you spend more time buzzing the Natanz nuclear-research site in Iran or something?

Compared to other technological breakthroughs, classified aviation projects are a lot harder to keep secret, because they need to fly around. Sure, those testing the crafts can try to keep them in restricted airspace such as Groom Lake, a.k.a. Area 51, but sooner or later, someone will see something, either on the ground, in the air, on radar, or in a satellite image. The same is true for our space-based programs. Even when NASA has something secret, like the X-37B Secret unmanned Space Shuttle, sky-watchers know they’re launching it, they just don’t know what that shuttle’s mission is. And when NASA runs tests of aircraft near cities, it sends out a press release; it doesn’t want large numbers of people convinced they’ve just seen alien spacecraft.

And companies that develop these aircraft are often itching to showcase them to the world, like Northrop Grumman’s B-21 heavy bomber and Lockheed Martin’s new Speed Racer drone.

Then again, sometimes our defense establishment can keep secrets from the rest of the world. Last September, the U.S. Air Force revealed it had secretly designed, built, and flown at least one prototype of its Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter, years ahead of schedule. And the concept art, revealed just last month, makes it look a little like the flattened, dart-like alien fighters from the movie Independence Day. It’s not hard to imagine someone seeing a test flight of that craft and thinking it was something alien.

Similarly, in the 1980s, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and Northrop Grumman developed an odd, boxy craft named “Tacit Blue.”

One problem with this theory is that one of the sightings discussed in the 60 Minutes report occurred in November 2004, almost 17 years ago. We’ve had aviation breakthroughs in the past 17 years, but nothing like what the Navy pilots described in that incident — the speed, the maneuverability, the ability to virtually disappear.

Two: Secret technology from the private sector. SpaceX and Blue Orchard are doing some amazing things, but what they’ve shown the world is nothing like what is seen on the Navy jets’ infrared-targeting cameras. And we’re stuck with the same question as this being a secret government project: If someone had the ability to do this 17 years ago . . . what have they been doing with it since? If you developed these kinds of extraordinary stealth and surveillance abilities, wouldn’t you want to apply it to some sort of goal other than checking out sunbathers around Virginia Beach?

Three: Secret technology from an unfriendly country. This is arguably the most ominous potential explanation.

We know China is developing its own stealth fighters, and it is believed that the FC-31 Gyrfalcon completed a flight test late last year. But the publicly available images of the Gyrfalcon suggest it looks like . . . a jet fighter, nothing like the circular or tube-like images seen on 60 Minutes.

Russia’s Okhotnik unmanned combat air vehicle is now being tested, and drones can definitely look more “alien” because they don’t need to fit a human pilot inside. They don’t need windows, and they don’t need wings. If talented tinkerers can create floating versions of the “Baby Yoda” cradle, Russian or Chinese flight engineers could create a flying drone that looks like a sphere or Tic-Tac. The question is whether they could make a vehicle that could move the way these images move.

And while China or Russia may seem aggressive and confident on the world stage right now, if they really had technology that was several generations ahead of the U.S. military’s, wouldn’t they be even more aggressive than they are now? Why rattle the saber on Taiwan or Ukraine when you’ve got an unbelievably lopsided air-superiority advantage?

And finally . . .

Four: They’re aliens. Weirdly, if these are alien craft, that almost seems more reassuring than a hostile human foreign power. These craft certainly don’t seem hostile, or at least immediately hostile. They certainly don’t seem to be interested in appearing in a giant craft above our cities, like in V. Maybe they have something akin to a “Prime Directive,” and believe they should only quietly observe humanity, and not interfere in our development. Maybe we’ve become a giant reality show for some alien civilization.

The isolated tribesmen of North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal have never had serious contact with the outside world because they attack anyone who comes near them. The Indian government strongly discourages efforts to contact the tribesmen; attempts to contact them or interact usually are met with a volley of arrows and spears. The Sentinelese presumably have little to no sense of life outside of their island, in part because of their uniquely isolated culture.

Maybe we look like that to an alien culture. Human beings are messy, divided, sometimes mean. We’re capable of great acts and great mercy, but also atrocities and cruelty. Collectively, some group of people somewhere on Earth has been fighting wars over territory, resources, cultural differences, and faith for the entirety of human existence. Our societies are getting better — gradually — but human nature hasn’t changed much if it has changed at all. We exhibit short-term thinking, self-destructive bad habits, impulsive decision-making, greed, arrogance, stubborn denial of inconvenient facts, and lie to others and ourselves.

An alien civilization capable of developing the technology to travel between star systems — and to create stealthy surveillance craft! — probably worked a lot of these issues out a long time ago. We must look like unruly toddlers to them. Maybe we are best watched from a safe distance.

ADDENDUM: When you have 90 minutes or so to spare, check out my long chat with old friend Jonah Goldberg on The Remnant podcast.


The Taboo on the COVID Lab-Leak Theory Lifts

Members of the World Health Organization team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus sit in a car at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, February 3, 2021. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

On the menu today: Out of nowhere, it’s seemingly hip and cool to point out the long-obvious fact that SARS-CoV-2 could well be the result of a lab accident in Wuhan. And Politico drives me to do the unthinkable: call for people to get off Kamala Harris’s back.

Oh, Sure, Now It’s Okay to Speculate about a Lab Leak in Wuhan

Some of us are COVID-origin hipsters, I guess; we were into the lab-leak theory before it went mainstream.

I’m glad Donald G. McNeil Jr., the prize-winning former science reporter for the New York Times, has concluded that, “the argument that [SARS-CoV-2] could have leaked out of the Wuhan Institute of Virology or a sister lab in Wuhan has become considerably stronger than it was a year ago, when the screaming was so loud that it drowned out serious discussion.”

I’m glad that 18 scientists have written to Science magazine that, “We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data.”

I’m glad that the Washington Post editorial board declared yesterday, “If the laboratory leak theory is wrong, China could easily clarify the situation by being more open and transparent. Instead, it acts as if there is something to hide.”

I’m even sort of glad that Matt Yglesias saluted New York magazine, declaring that publication “brought the lab leak hypothesis into the mainstream,” because he acknowledges “the insta-consensus on Twitter and among media fact-check columnists never reflected a real consensus among practicing scientists who seem to me to mostly just really not know.”

Back when this pandemic began, I was like most people; I thought the virus most likely jumped from an animal at a wet market, because virologists had been warning about this sort of scenario for years.

Back on April 3, National Review published what turned into one of the most-read articles I’ve ever written, “The Trail Leading Back to the Wuhan Labs.” It started as a simple project: going through all of the claims one of the YouTube videos alleging the pandemic was the result of a lab accident, and seeing what could be independently verified. As it turned out, quite a bit could be verified:

  • The Wuhan Institute of Virology was indeed studying novel coronaviruses found in bats, as was the Wuhan Centers for Disease Control.
  • Wuhan is indeed a great distance away from the natural habitat of bats who are most likely to carry viruses like this one, well beyond their natural migration patterns.
  • Shi Zhengli, the Chinese virologist nicknamed “Bat Woman” for her work with that species, told Scientific American that when she heard about the outbreak, her first thought was, “Could they have come from our lab?”
  • The never-quite-definitively-proven contention that the virus required an intermediate species such as pangolins was complicated by the fact that no one had yet found evidence that pangolins were at the Huanan Seafood Market, or even that venders at that market trafficked pangolins.
  • Botao Xiao, a doctor who had been a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, had published a paper arguing that the “bat soup” theory was unlikely and contending the virus was more likely to be an accident at one of the city’s two labs working on these kinds of viruses. But after a few days, Xiao withdrew his paper and declined to elaborate why.
  • Virologist Tian Junhua, who worked at the Wuhan Centers for Disease Control, indeed traveled into caves to collect virus samples from bats, and in past interviews, he had described self-quarantining because he had come in contact with bat blood, urine, etc.
  • The Chinese government lies as easily as it breathes; it had spent three to six weeks telling the world that the virus was not contagious.

That wasn’t a definitive case, but the circumstantial evidence kept piling up. What were the odds that a novel coronavirus that originated in bats would spontaneously and independently cause an outbreak in the middle of a city that housed not one but two laboratories researching novel coronaviruses that originated in bats? If about 40 percent of those infected with SARS-CoV-2 are asymptomatic, would a lab technician or other employee even know they had been infected?

I think what was most bothersome in the response to that very early look at the evidence were the knee-jerk, non-thinking dismissals of the concept. Start with the insistence that the Wuhan scientists were too careful to make such a consequential mistake. The history of lab accidents says otherwise. I made this point, again and again, with more and more examples of comparable lab accidents involving dangerous pathogens, and yet there was this brick wall of disbelief, an insistence that these scientists in these labs were just too careful and too diligent to ever have one screw-up, ever. That is a contention on par with “car accidents never happen” or “plane crashes never happen.”

At that point, we hadn’t even known about the U.S. State Department memos warning about a lack of trained personnel at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Or the claim that cell-phone use in part of the WIV stopped for three weeks in October 17, suggesting a potential evacuation or decontamination. Or the World Health Organization investigation concluding that some Wuhan Institute of Virology staffers got sick with flu-like symptoms in autumn of 2019, but that it’s “not a big thing,” because the Chinese government said they tested negative for COVID-19. Or Chinese state-run media running articles about “chronic inadequate management issues” at laboratories, including problems with biological disposal, or Chinese lab employees illegally selling off lab animals on the black market. Or even the use of “gutter oil” in wet markets!

Then some people would cling to rejected scenarios. Long after the Chinese government publicly declared that the evidence did not support the theory that the Huanan Seafood Market was the source of the outbreak, idiots at other publications sneered at what I wrote because the virus had to have come from the market.

Until I started working on the book, I didn’t know just how much evidence there was that China’s government never stopped its dual-use research into potential biological weapons. (One scenario that I think has gotten almost no attention is that the Chinese government’s secrecy surrounding the Wuhan Institute of Virology could be entirely separate from the origin of the virus, but because that lab is doing dual-use research that would violate treaties on biological weapons.)

We’ve got the lab-leak theory that has a lot of circumstantial evidence but no definitive proof. And we’ve got the naturally-jumped-to-someone-outside-of-the-lab theory, which . . . doesn’t really have any definitive proof, either. As the Post editorial notes, “already, more than 80,000 wildlife, livestock and poultry samples were collected from 31 areas in China, and none tested positive for the virus before or after the outbreak.” This virus spreads like wildfire in human beings; why is it so hard to find it in other animals?

If this was a lab accident, it would rank among the most consequential mistakes in human history. As of this morning, the virus has spread to 164 million cases and caused 3.4 million deaths worldwide. Now look at these from the perspective of a scientific, government, diplomatic, or media leader. What are the consequences if this is just a farmer stepping in the wrong guano? What are the consequences if this is just a small-time animal smugger grabbing the wrong bat or pangolin?

And what are the consequences if this is the direct result of the Chinese government’s reckless research into dangerous viruses, including how to make them more virulent and contagious?

Finally, let’s observe how conventional wisdom gets stealth-edited. Back on April 6, 2020, I noticed that Vox assured us, “The emergence of the virus in the same city as China’s only level 4 biosafety lab, it turns out, is pure coincidence.”

Sometime in the past year, that sentence was changed to “The emergence of the virus in the same city as China’s only level 4 biosafety lab, it turns out, appears to be pure coincidence.”

Someone’s hedging their bets.

For Once, Get Off Kamala Harris’s Back

Politico: “After nearly four months in office, Harris faces criticism that she hasn’t struck the right balance, that she’s focused more often on being the United States’ first Black vice president than the first Asian American one.”

Politico’s Anita Kumar writes, “she’s been accused of not being Black enough, criticized for not touting her Asian heritage and faulted for choosing to say she’s Asian over Indian. Some Americans are unaware of her biracial background while others forget she has any Asian heritage at all.”

Words you will not often read in this newsletter: Get off Kamala Harris’s back, at least in this particular situation. It’s Kamala Harris’s life. Let her address and discuss her two heritages as she sees fit. The complaint amounts to a gripe that since becoming vice president, Harris has done too many African-American themed events and appearances and not enough Asian-American or Indian-American themed ones.

So what? How can you possibly look at this administration and moment in American life and conclude that’s the problem worth complaining about? That’s such a non-problem, it feels like the sort of non-problem people latch onto when they don’t want to discuss actual problems.

Some people are inevitably going to respond, “Geraghty, you’re white, you can’t possibly understand.” The thing is, the vice president’s job isn’t just to be a symbol that placates various slices of the demographic pie by participating in various identity-politics-themed events. The vice presidency is an actual job, and this vice president has particular duties.

You want a complaint? How about the fact that back on March 24, Biden named Harris to lead efforts to stem migration across the U.S.–Mexico border, declaring that, “she’s the most qualified person to do it — to lead our efforts with Mexico and the Northern Triangle and the countries that help — are going to need help in stemming the movement of so many folks, stemming the migration to our southern border.” Then in March and April, we’ve had the two worst months for migrants caught attempting to cross the southern border in about two decades.

The outlook for May doesn’t look so good, either. This weekend, the Customs and Border Protection Rio Grande Sector agents, with the assistance of state and local law enforcement, “interdicted thirteen human smuggling events that resulted in the arrest of 97 individuals,” about a week after they “interdicted six human smuggling events that resulted in the arrest of 136 individuals.” The Weslaco Border Patrol Station agents encountered a large group of 119 migrants during inclement weather in Hildalgo, Texas. A McAllen Air Branch-based UH-60 crew encountered over 33 migrants in the ranch lands near Falfurrias, Texas. In Sierra Blanca, Texas, “20 undocumented migrants were discovered in both the bed of the truck, covered by a hard plastic cover that was sealed shut, and in the trailer that could only be opened from the outside, with no source of ventilation or space to move freely. Two undocumented tender-aged migrant children were also found in the trailer.”

At this point, the only thing that appears likely to slow down the waves of migrants is the summer heat. The Biden administration’s new approach is to insist that high numbers of apprehensions do not reflect policy failures. “Apprehensions don’t tell the full story, and getting to zero is not a measure of success,” Tyler Moran, one of Biden’s top immigration-policy advisers, told the Washington Post.

Really? Could we try getting the number of apprehensions at the border as close to zero as possible and just see what happens?

It is not surprising that Democrats who represent border states, such as senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, are losing patience with the Biden administration’s insistence that the situation at the border isn’t really a crisis: “The reality is that this is a crisis. We all know it.”

Vice President Harris hasn’t visited the border. (Well, she came close to the Canadian one.) She hasn’t taken any questions on this topic, nor has she given a speech on this topic. She’s hosted a “virtual roundtable” of experts and made some calls with regional heads of state, but that’s it.

When the Economist/YouGov survey was released earlier this month, it showed Harris with 41 percent having a favorable opinion of her and 49 percent having an unfavorable opinion of her.

ADDENDUM: Not what Democrats expected: “Glenn Youngkin, the GOP’s newly minted nominee for Virginia governor, stands a surprisingly good chance of being the first Republican in 12 years to win a statewide race in the Old Dominion, according to politicians from both parties and independent analysts.”

Health Care

The Conventional Wisdom on the Vaccine Wall Is Wrong

A child rubs his arm after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine in Los Angeles, Calif., May 13, 2021. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

On the menu today: how the conventional wisdom that America has hit the vaccine wall is just flat wrong; how Ohio’s vaccine-encouragement lottery system had an immediate impact; and the risk-vs.-reward calculation of professional athletes when it comes to COVID-19 vaccinations.

No, America Isn’t Really Hitting a Vaccine Wall

Axios, April 9: “America may be close to hitting a vaccine wall.”

I’m not fond of that metaphor, because when you hit a wall, you stop. The daily average of administered vaccines did peak at 3.37 million shots a few days later on April 13, but it’s not like vaccinations suddenly dropped like a stone after that. The average daily rate slowly and steadily declined, to just under 2 million per day.

We’ve enjoyed a nice little bump in the past few days; the preliminary figure for Saturday, May 15, was 2.39 million, and the preliminary figure for Sunday was 2.71 million.

The U.S. was always going to reach a point when those most eager to get vaccinated got their shots, leaving a pool of those who were less enthusiastic; it took us about four months. According to to Bloomberg’s COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker, Our worst day in the past month appears to be May 4, with just 985,000 shots administered, but there was such a surge in the subsequent days — more than 2.3 million from May 6 to 9 — that the severe one-day dip might just reflect a delay in reporting data.

Would it be better if every American dutifully and diligently scheduled an appointment or went into a walk-in vaccination site on the first day they were eligible? Sure, but that was never a realistic option. Some Americans will mosey and procrastinate. And some just want to win a prize.

On May 12, Ohio governor Mike DeWine announced that starting on May 26 and once a week for five weeks, the state would award $1 million dollars to one person who had gotten vaccinated. (The anti-vaxxers think creating this kind of incentive is an evil plan, but I think it’s more accurately described as a Dr. Evil plan.) Separately, Ohioans ages twelve to 17 who get vaccinated are eligible to win “a four year, full ride scholarship to any Ohio state college or university, including room and board, tuition and books.”

The day before DeWine’s announcement, 12,757 Ohioans received their first shot. On the day after the announcement, 21,574 Ohioans did the same, and the day after that, another 20,311 walked through the vaccination-site doors for the first time.

The national increase in the past few days probably reflects the fact that teenagers from twelve to 15 are now eligible, and we should expect the vaccination rate among younger Americans to continue to improve. Quite a few colleges and universities will make a COVID-19 vaccination a requirement to enroll in the autumn. Public-school districts will probably not require them for high schoolers on that timetable, as it would require changing state laws, and the vaccine only now became available for younger teens. But a vaccination requirement for the 2022–2023 school year might be in the cards.

Not only is the U.S. national media coverage of the pandemic particularly pessimistic and negative, it also appears tailor-made to divide Americans, telling those who are already vaccinated that they are personally endangered by the vaccine hesitant and those who refuse to get vaccinated. Once you’re fully vaccinated, your body is as prepared as it can get for an encounter with SARS-CoV-2. (Mind you, fully vaccinated people can still end up in the hospital from COVID-19, but it is rare; adults 65 years and older were 94 percent less likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than people of the same age who were not vaccinated.) Yes, you might need a booster shot sometime in the future; it’s hard to measure how long the vaccine is effective because it’s so new.

While the details are complicated, the vaccines work against the variants — at least well enough to prevent severe reactions and death. Could some future variant emerge here or overseas that the vaccines cannot defeat? Anything is theoretically possible, but keep in mind, the world has had roughly 163 million diagnosed cases. The virus has had plenty of opportunities to mutate since the autumn of 2019 and has yet to change into a vaccine-proof form.

Why Some Athletes Aren’t Rushing Out to Get Vaccinated

People have wondered what’s going on with the New York Yankees, who had eight players and staff test positive, despite being vaccinated; all except one are asymptomatic. But the vaccine does not guarantee that you will never catch the virus or never generate a positive result on a COVID-19 test. The vaccine ensures that if you catch the virus, you are extremely unlikely to have a severe reaction, require hospitalization, or die from the virus.

You’ve seen some reluctance to get vaccinated among professional athletes, and while the logic of the hesitation is wrong, it’s easy to see why some athletes did not rush out to get vaccinated at the first opportunity. Start with the fact that most professional athletes were in age groups that were not eligible to get vaccinated in most states until mid April or so.

Most professional athletes are young and in tip-top physical shape. They rank among the people least likely to have a severe reaction to COVID-19. (It’s not impossible, of course.) It’s easy to see why they would feel the least threat from the virus, and rank among those feeling the least urgency to get vaccinated.

Second, the athletes have probably heard that the vaccination shots can generate their own short-lived intense reactions — chills, headaches, fever, sore arms, fatigue, nausea, dizziness.

These guys may fear that getting vaccinated could knock them out for a game or two at a critical point in the season. Most professional athletes are competitors who hate to miss any game, particularly if they feel their teams need them.

In the past few weeks, the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League have wrapped up their regular seasons and began their playoffs, and Major League Baseball just started its season. All of these sports are playing three to six games a week, leaving players with limited downtime and considerable travel.

This article, written by an anonymous caddie on the Professional Golfers’ Association Tour, offered a fascinating look into the calculations of risk vs. reward in some corners of the professional sports world:

. . . on the whole — please underline “on the whole” — guys on tour aren’t spooked by the coronavirus. It’s not that they think it’s made up. A lot of them just think of it like the flu despite scientific evidence to the contrary. Before you judge, let me try to explain.

First, we don’t have a “bubble,” at least not like what the NBA or NHL had during the playoffs last year. Players and caddies have traveled across the country for 10 months since this madness started, and we have all taken the tour’s safety protocols seriously, especially after the 2020 Travelers Championship, where several withdrawals over COVID fears almost derailed the PGA Tour’s season. Everyone’s social lives were curtailed, but we were still in public airports and hotels. The fact that only a dozen or so players have tested positive has relieved that fear for some. A few of the guys who did test positive got really sick, more than fans have been led to believe, and that certainly got our attention. But there’s also a difference between knowing about it and being sick yourself.

Second, a lot of these guys, players and caddies, are 30 or younger. Regardless of what your profession is, at that age a lot of us have a tendency to think we’re invincible. Combine that with the hubris professional athletes have, and there’s a belief that it won’t happen to us. I’m not making excuses. It’s just how it is. I know I’ve been guilty of thinking, If I haven’t gotten sick by now, I must be good.

A number of players and caddies will pass on getting vaccinated—anywhere from a fourth to a third would be my estimate. However, the consequences of not getting vaccinated are much different for caddies than for players, and it has nothing to do with health.

If a player tests positive, he misses a tournament, two at max, and the tour will give him $75,000 for his trouble. Once the player tests negative or shows he is asymptomatic, he can resume play. To the tour’s credit, if a caddie tests positive, he gets $5,000. But there’s no guarantee that caddie will be back. As we’ve mentioned in this space before, caddies are always one bad tournament, round, shot or decision away from being replaced.

ADDENDUM: Hmmm: “The National Survey of Public School Parents, conducted online from April 22 to May 3, 2021, found that 73 percent of parents said they are comfortable with in-person learning for their child this fall.”

By September, every teacher will have been eligible to get vaccinated for more than half a year. Kids ages twelve and over will have been eligible for four or five months. What more does the other 27 percent of parents need to see to be comfortable with in-person learning?

National Security & Defense

The Colonial Pipeline Hack: A New Era of Cyberwarfare

Holding tanks at Colonial Pipeline’s Linden Junction Tank Farm in Woodbridge, N.J. (Colonial Pipeline/Handout via Reuters)

On the menu today: a deep dive into what appears to be a frightening new era of cyberwarfare and ransomware — because the Colonial Pipeline hack and extortion was only the highest-profile example this week; this kind of crime and terrorism is taking off like a rocket.

Suddenly, Ransomware Is Everywhere

Apparently, ransomware attacks are like the latest TikTok dance: rapidly growing in popularity and not easily understood by anyone over the age of 30. You’ve heard about the Colonial Pipeline hack. But you probably didn’t hear that Ireland’s health service shut down its computer systems after being hit with a ransomware attack. DarkSide hit Toshiba Corporation and compromised more than 740 gigabytes of information including passports and other personal information. The Washington, D.C., police just suffered the biggest hack of a police force ever, exposing “hundreds of police officer disciplinary files and intelligence reports that include feeds from other agencies, including the FBI and Secret Service.” The city government of Gary, Ind., has to restore and rebuild all of its servers after they were attacked.

And that’s just in the past 24 hours or so.

One of the oddities of the Die Hard movie series is that none of the movies started out with a script for a Die Hard movie; they were all adaptations of scripts for previously written different novels and other movies, and altered to fit the John McClane character.

The fourth movie, Live Free or Die Hard, actually started not as a novel or a screenplay, but as a nonfiction article in Wired magazine. Written in 1997 and titled “A Farewell to Arms,” it laid out the United States’ vulnerability to cyberattacks on its critical infrastructure.

The closing paragraphs of that Wired article warn about the emerging era of information warfare, which “includes electronic warfare, tactical deception, strategic deterrence, propaganda warfare, psychological warfare, network warfare, and structural sabotage”:

When the threat everyone’s talking about is from faceless foreign hackers, terrorists, and bomb makers — why not throw in a few child pornographers — it is a fair bet that paranoid demagoguery will not be absent. It’s happened before: look at the 1950s. The best will lack all conviction, the worst will be full of passionate intensity, and the political fabric will start to fray.

All of which, of course, could sound a lot like what our Chinese friends call “soft destruction.” As William Church says, “The most damaging form of I-war is political war or psychological war.” And pretty much anything can be part of it: power outages, network breakdowns, clever disinformation campaigns — anything “to get the populace to feel that the country is going to hell.”

As we contemplate a brief but intense interruption to the gasoline supply to the East Coast, the fact that law enforcement never developed any leads on those pipe bombs left at the RNC and DNC, mass shootings, the conspiracy theories of QAnon, and all of the other chaotic forces in American life, that 1997 prediction feels . . . unnervingly prescient, doesn’t it? I’ll remind you that a guy who believed in “lizard people” blew up downtown Nashville on Christmas Day. Events that would have once seemed shocking have turned into one-day news stories.

Way back in 2009, I wrote: “cyber-warfare is, generally speaking, more controllable than a biological weapon, doesn’t run afoul of as many established treaties as a chemical weapon, is nowhere near as expensive and visible as a nuclear weapon, and is much harder to attribute than conventional terrorism. It is another asymmetrical tool that allows weaker countries and groups to play on the same field as the big boys.” Earlier in the year, I had attended a gathering of some of the corporate world’s top cybersecurity experts and wonks, and they had shared the familiar potential horror stories about our insecure infrastructure: attacks and shutdowns of electricity grids, air-traffic control, finance and banking, telecommunications, etc.

Lots of people, including most elected officials, can’t quite fully understand the threat of cyberwarfare because they can’t see it. (Most people are visual learners.) One day, a computer system is working as it should, and the next day, it isn’t. There are no masked gunmen, no explosions, no enemy helicopters or hijacked planes. We can see Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Qasem Soleimani. Hacker groups such as DarkSide are faceless. And don’t buy into these guys’ spin that they just want money. There are lots of ways to make money. These guys want to make money by threatening, and in some cases creating, chaos.

As I noted after Trump proposed a joint cybersecurity effort with the Russians, “It’s the deniability and ability to ‘mask’ the origin of cyber-attacks that make them particularly tempting for malefactors, rogue states, and hostile superpowers alike. It’s a chance to sucker-punch your foe anonymously. Way back when, one of those cyber-security experts compared cyber-warfare by asking ‘how do you win a boxing match when you’re blindfolded?’ The answer was ‘you put the boxer in a suit of armor.’ The only real way to win the fight is to harden your defenses until they’re impenetrable and no one wants to step into the ring with you.”

It seems fair to wonder whether a sustained and impregnable wall of cybersecurity is possible. Hackers develop new tricks, which spurs institutions to develop new firewalls, which spurs the hackers to throw away their old tricks and try new ones, until one works. And if a lasting, impregnable firewall is possible, the U.S. federal government does not seem to be the institution most likely to quickly adopt new technologies and innovations.

Back during the “Russia hacked the election results!” panic in December 2016, I went back and looked at the little-discussed cyberattacks upon federal-government systems over the previous two years:

In 2014, the U.S. Postal Service “suspended telecommuting for employees while it works to remediate a network intrusion that has exposed data on some 800,000 postal workers and an additional 2.9 million customers.”

Also in 2014, a private firm that performs background checks for U.S. government employees suffered a hack that “compromised data of at least 25,000 workers, including some undercover investigators.”

Also that year, China hacked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service, requiring the agencies to seal off data vital to disaster planning. A review determined that the agency did not notify the proper authorities when it learned of the attack.

In 2015, the IRS “disclosed a massive security breach that allowed hackers to obtain detailed tax-return information on 104,000 taxpayers.” In 2011, the Treasury Department’s Inspector General found the IRS did not have an adequate “screening process” nor adequate “minimum requirements” to ensure security and privacy.

The biggest hack of them all, at the Office of Personnel Management, involving the personnel records and security clearance files of 21.5 million federal employees. In March 2014, OPM became aware of a partially successful Chinese hack into its systems. In July, after a New York Times report, OPM director Katherine Archuleta publicly denied that any hack had occurred: “We did not have a breach in security. There was no information that was lost. We were confident as we worked through this that we would be able to protect the data.”

That was not only a lie, it represented blind denial of just how bad the consequences were. The information stolen basically amounts to a “how-to” guide for blackmailing federal employees with security clearances, with the confidential records including the intimate personal details of federal workers’ infidelity, drug abuse, and personal debts uncovered during the background-check process.

In February, an unknown hacker published contact information for about 20,000 FBI employees and threatened to publish information on another 9,000 Department of Homeland Security employees.

The general public doesn’t pay attention to this stuff until there’s no fuel in any of the area gas stations. And a lot of people in government prefer it this way; greater awareness of cybersecurity failures would undermine public confidence in the government, possibly start a panic, and encourage copycats.

Why have ransomware attacks increased 62 percent in just two years? One big reason is the pandemic; people working from home created bigger, broader, more spread-out networks for institutions, giving the hackers more potential metaphorical cracks and crevices to sneak through. And the pandemic, quarantine, lockdowns, and social distancing made people, companies, and governments more dependent upon the Internet and computer networks than ever.

But it’s hard to shake the sense that this sort of crime flourishes when the potential risk is low and the potential reward is high. Hackers on foreign soil are unlikely to get SEAL Team Six kicking down their door, or a pair of 500-pound bombs coming through their roofs like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Maybe they’ll get tracked down and arrested.

We now know that Colonial Pipeline got the oil flowing again by paying the ransom. Yesterday, at the White House:

Q: One more, Mr. President? Just one more on the ransom: Were you briefed on the fact that the company did pay the ransom?
THE PRESIDENT: I have no comment on that. Thank you.

On Monday, Deputy National-Security Adviser for Cyber and Emerging Technologies Anne Neuberger made an odd comment:

Q: Did you — would the administration offer any advice on whether or not to pay a ransom?
MS. NEUBERGER: So, typically, that is a private-sector decision, and the administration has not offered further advice at this time.  Given the rise in ransomware, that is one area we’re definitely looking at now to say, “What should be the government’s approach to ransomware actors and to ransoms overall?”

As Charlie Cooke asked, “In what universe is this primarily a ‘private sector decision’? And in what universe does the Biden administration, which seems to want pretty much every aspect of American life to fall under the purview of the state, believe that ransom demands made against core energy infrastructure is outside of its remit?”

From those comments from Biden and Neuberger, we don’t know that the president and his team encouraged Colonial Pipeline to pay the ransom, or tacitly supported the company’s metaphorical surrender. But the administration certainly doesn’t seem all that opposed to Colonial Pipeline sending the money, now, do they? If the administration thinks paying the ransom is a bad idea that will only encourage more ransomware attacks, it’s been awfully quiet about those objections. Keep in mind, when Texas suspended its statewide mask mandate, Biden quickly labeled that “Neanderthal thinking.” But a big U.S. pipeline company sends $5 million to a bunch of Russian hackers, and Biden is suddenly tight-lipped and reluctant to criticize.

Paying the ransom is always the easier answer in the short term — but it’s an answer that sets you up for worse problems in the long term. You have to wonder if the flourishing of ransomware is a consequence of annual accumulations of short-term thinking. Apparently, the U.S. government has had different public and private policies for a while now: “For example, the FBI’s standing guidance is that victims should not pay a ransom in response to an attack in order to discourage perpetrators from targeting more victims. But multiple sources have previously told CNN that the FBI will, at times, privately tell targets that they understand if they feel the need to pay.”

If the U.S. government’s stance is to publicly insist no one should ever pay ransomware, and then with a wink-and-a-nod acceptance and/or encouragement of paying ransom . . . why would anyone be surprised that ransomware is becoming more common?

Finally, as David Harsanyi observes, it feels really odd to see Joe Biden going before the cameras and repeatedly insisting that as far as the U.S. government knows, Vladimir Putin and the Russian government had nothing to do with this.

ADDENDA: If you’re not reading Jimmy Quinn on the publication of a letter in Science calling the COVID lab-leak theory “viable,” you’re missing out. Come to think of it, if you’re not reading Jimmy Quinn period, you’re missing out.

Oh, and the suits are offering a subscription to NRPlus and the magazine for $1.25 a week for a year, which feels like the kind of deal that might be a misprint or something, so grab it before someone notices. For perspective, one copy of the weekday print edition of the New York Times is three dollars!

White House

Biden’s Throwback Presidency: A Return to Dukakis

President Joe Biden speaks about the at the White House in Washington, D.C., May 12, 2021. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

On the menu today: how the early months of Joe Biden’s presidency give us a good look at what a Michael Dukakis presidency would have been like in 1989; and the administration’s odd, vague, soft response to the hacking attack on the Colonial Pipeline.

The Long-Delayed Dukakis Presidency

Joe Biden is not a young, woke, revolutionary progressive, and in many eyes, including that of most Democratic primary voters, that made him the safer option. Biden is the oldest of old-school Democrats, a throwback to an earlier time and an increasingly distant era.

But being the oldest of old-school Democrats has its own set of flaws, ones that are becoming clearer the more Biden settles into the job.

The popular concept in the conservative commentariat these days is to point to the return of inflation and gas lines on the East Coast, and conclude, not-so-jokingly, that Biden represents the return of Jimmy Carter, and to insert jokes about disco and bell bottoms somewhere around here. And that’s as fine, as far it goes. The moment is ripe for that comparison, as Biden did visit former president Carter and offered that weird optical-illusion photo suggesting the current president had somehow cruelly transformed the Carters into marionettes.

And something about Biden really does carry the vibe of That ’70s Show. For a while now, progressives within the Democratic Party have argued that Biden is “stuck in the 1970s.” A writer at The New Republic observed that the old Onion caricature of Biden as “Diamond Joe” “is a creature wholly of the late 1970s and ’80s.”

But in terms of how President Biden approaches his job, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that there is something distinctly pre-Bill-Clintonian about Biden. He’s reversed many of the Democratic policy concessions on welfare, crime, and trade from that era. Bill Clinton famously said that, “The era of big government is over.” Chuck Todd recently summarized Biden’s message as, “The era of big government being over is over.”

By the late 1980s, Biden was considered a “New Democrat,” even though he was not a particularly new Democrat. The Daily Kos crowd contends that Biden was a founding member of the Democratic Leadership Council, but Biden is (literally) a footnote in some histories of that movement. The notion of Biden as a centrist reformer pulling his party to the middle is overstated by both his critics and supporters; Biden’s Senate voting record doesn’t really fit him into either the center or left-wing factions within the Democratic Party. “Biden was on average more liberal than about 75 percent of the Senate overall. Among Democrats, he was in the middle of the pack. On average, he stood at almost exactly his party’s center line.”

In 2020, Biden might as well have run on Dukakis’s unofficial slogan, “This election is about competence, not ideology.” (Whenever a candidate doesn’t want to talk about his ideology, you should worry about his ideology.) Dukakis ran on the fairly generic message, “Good jobs at good wages.” Biden’s $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan,” $2.3 trillion “American Jobs Plan,” and $1.8 trillion “American Families Plan” all offer variations of the promise to create good jobs at good wages.

In the brochures for his 1988 presidential campaign, Dukakis promised he wouldn’t “go along with new taxes until the federal government goes after the tax cheats who cost us $100 billion last year.” Likewise, Joe Biden believes that by increasing the IRS budget by $80 billionthe agency’s current budget is just under $13 billion — the federal government will recover $700 billion in illegally dodged taxes.

Biden voted for the welfare-reform bill in 1996, but the early Biden presidency is all about the expansion of the welfare state through the above $6 trillion in new spending. The 1996 reform package included work requirements for recipients; when the Trump administration made the same move, Biden called the proposal “morally bankrupt.” The 2021 edition of Joe Biden is vehemently opposed to the 1996 edition of Joe Biden. The man is not a centrist in the sense that he is in the center of American politics; he is a centrist in the sense that he is always in the center of his party. As the Democratic Party moves dramatically to the left, Biden moves with it. There are glaring differences, of course; Michael Dukakis suffered from a dearth of personality while Biden suffers from a surplus.

But like Dukakis, Biden represents Reagan-era liberalism, mentally set on autopilot. It apparently never crossed Biden’s mind that people might prefer a check from the government to taking an offered job; in fact, he still doesn’t believe it. Earlier this week he said, “I know there’s been a lot of discussion since Friday — since Friday’s report that people are being paid to stay home rather than go to work. Well, we don’t see much evidence of that.” A few days after the jobs report showed 9.8 million Americans looking for work, new data showed 8.1 million new jobs. Bigger unemployment checks aren’t the only factor keeping unemployed people from applying for all of those jobs . . . but it’s hard to believe they’re not a factor.

It never crossed Biden’s mind that dumping this much money into the economy this fast could create inflation. It never crossed Biden’s mind that loudly and publicly reversing Trump’s immigration-enforcement policies could create an incentive to try to cross the border illegally. Even with a shortage of steel, Biden is keeping steel tariffs in place.

Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have fired 1,600 rockets toward Israel since Monday evening, and Biden is sending an envoy to “urge de-escalation.” Biden and his team offer old, tired, predictable responses to events, straight out of a late 1980s Democratic playbook.

The One Area Where Biden Doesn’t Deserve Blame

Continuing my streak of never pleasing anyone, let me point out the inconvenient truth that the hack of the pipeline that created gas lines in the southeast isn’t Biden’s fault, and there’s little he or his administration could have done to prevent it. It’s not like Biden manages cyber-security for Colonial Pipeline. A dirty little not-so-well-kept-secret is that the vast majority of elected officials can barely get their minds around the details of cybersecurity, much less take an active role in crafting good policy. This is why, way back in 2009, I argued that for all of the criticism of Obama administration’s “czars,” a cyberczar made sense.

But Charlie Cooke is right: It’s weird that the Biden administration apparently has no position on whether the company should pay the hackers’ ransom demand. (Hasn’t anybody in this administration read Kipling’s Dane-Geld? What do you think happens when people hear you’re willing to pay a ransom?)

But I’ll go even further than Charlie. While we’ve got limited reason to believe the hack of the Colonial Pipeline was the work of a hostile state, the FBI is publicly saying “DarkSide” is the perpetrator — they’re believed to operate in Russia and never seem to hit targets who are friends of the Russian government. For what it’s worth, a former NSA hacker appearing on CNBC said yesterday he thinks Putin is “100 percent” connected to the DarkSide attack. “They are absolutely working in cahoots with the government,” David Kennedy said. “They are sanctioned by the government to conduct these operations. Nothing happens in Russia, from a cybercrime perspective, without it going through the Kremlin.”

In light of this, why is Biden talking about a summit with Putin sometime in June? If Russia wants to use cut-outs to fight cyberwarfare and disrupt and harass American life, why are we pretending not to notice? What’s the upside for us to play along with the charade?

ADDENDUM: Speaking of Charlie, you must read his revelatory profile of Rebekah Jones, the not-a-whistleblower in Florida.

Politics & Policy

Government Stats Don’t Lie: Biden Is Getting It Wrong across the Board

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the April jobs report from the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., May 7, 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Today is one hell of a hump day already: New government figures show that the Biden administration is getting it wrong on the border, getting it wrong on the economy and job creation, and getting it wrong on inflation.

No, Mr. President, This Is Not the Usual Seasonal Migration

I told you, back on April 19, that this month’s immigration numbers were going to be high, and represent a blinking red light. On May 4, I reminded Jen Rubin that no, nothing “happened” to the border crisis, the media just stopped discussing it. On Monday, I pointed out that the federal government’s official statistics were undermining Biden’s argument that what Americans were seeing on the border was just a routine seasonal pattern.

“The truth of the matter is, nothing has changed,” President Biden insisted in his press conference on March 25. “It happens every single, solitary year: There is a significant increase in the number of people coming to the border in the winter months of January, February, March. That happens every year.”

I’m sorry, Mr. President, but that is a load of bull. It is not a regular seasonal pattern to break a two-decade-old record two months in a row. In the month of April, U.S. Customs and Border Protection caught 178,622 individuals attempting to cross the U.S.–Mexico border, one month after they had caught an eye-popping 173,348 individuals.

The Biden administration is going to try to take a victory lap over the fact that the number of unaccompanied minors dropped from 159 in March to 134 in April. (That’s what NBC News chose to spotlight in this headline.)

(Over at the Center for Immigration Studies, Andrew Arthur wondered why it took until May 11 to release the numbers for April. No doubt it takes time to check and collate all of the data, and as of now, there’s no indication of any deliberate delay from CBP. But any time that new information that makes the administration look bad takes a while to get released, some people will fairly wonder if someone in the chain of command was dragging his feet.)

On April 30, when asked about March’s numbers, Biden insisted in an interview with NBC News, “Look, it’s way down now. We’ve now gotten control.” But the April numbers are not way down; they’re up a bit over the previous month’s record. At the time of that interview, did Biden genuinely believe that CBP encounters at the border had dramatically declined? (The other day a commenter on our site had a good observation: Biden’s usual reflexive denial of making a mistake and his habitual fuzziness with the facts make it very tough to tell when he’s lying, when he’s misinformed, and when he’s having any memory issues.)

Biden told NBC News that he “inherited a Godawful mess” from Trump at the border, but in January, CBP had only 78,443 encounters at the southern border. The first big jump came in February when it rose to 101,120, and then it continued rising into March. Hey, what happened in late January?

These are cold, hard numbers which prove that Biden’s assessment of the situation in late March was completely wrong. Whether or not Biden wanted to tell Central America that the border is open, his first moves on immigration — halting construction of border fencing, new guidelines to ICE agents to sharply curb arrests and deportations, an attempted moratorium on deportations, proposing a path to citizenship — all sent a signal to migrants and human traffickers that the door was wide open and everyone was welcome.

Recall this anecdote at the border, reported in the New York Times in mid March:

Jenny Contreras, a 19-year-old Guatemalan mother of a 3-year-old girl, collapsed in a seat as Mr. Valenzuela handed out hand sanitizer.

“I did not make it,” she sobbed into the phone as she spoke with her husband, a butcher in Chicago.

“Biden promised us!” wailed another woman.

Many of the migrants said they had spent their life savings and gone into debt to pay coyotes — human smugglers — who had falsely promised them that the border was open after President Biden’s election. [Emphasis added]

There is only one way that people in the poorest and most isolated communities in Central America will disbelieve the false promises of human smugglers and coyotes and understand that the border is not open. It requires the U.S. president to send a clear signal, loudly, frequently, and publicly, that U.S. immigration laws are still enforced, and that those caught crossing the border illegally will be criminally charged and quickly deported. I suspect that deep down, Biden and many other Democrats think those actions are inherently mean and unjust. This is why half the Democratic presidential field supported a repeal of the criminal statute for entering the country without permission. Additionally, almost all Democrats believe illegal immigrants should be covered by a government-run health-care plan, and they’re iffy at best on the use of E-Verify.

Many Biden supporters will insist that a continuing wave of migrants wasn’t the intended consequence of his early actions on immigration, and many Biden foes will insist this was precisely the intended consequence of his early actions on immigration. But that argument is almost moot; the waves of migrants are coming — and still coming.

Usually, a Record Number of Job Openings Would Be Good News

Yesterday, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the number of job openings across the country had reached 8.1 million, the highest that the agency had ever recorded.

On Monday, President Biden said, “Families — families who are just trying to put food on the table, keep a roof over their head — they aren’t the problem. We need to stay focused on the real problems in front of us: beating this pandemic and creating jobs.”

But the BLS numbers show we’re already doing pretty darn well at creating jobs, or at least creating job openings. An economy in which there are a record number of job openings is not one that is sluggish, or struggling, or that desperately needs another round of stimulus spending. What it needs are the currently nonworking job applicants to walk through the door. Right now, in Massachusetts, the maximum weekly unemployment-benefit amount is $855 per week. In a 40-hour work week, that comes out to $21.37 per hour.

Meanwhile, Prices Keep Going Up . . .

The updated unfilled-jobs numbers released Tuesday morning were bad. The updated immigration numbers released Tuesday evening were bad. Guess how the updated inflation numbers released Wednesday morning look?

How about “an absolute disaster”?

The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) increased 0.8 percent in April on a seasonally adjusted basis after rising 0.6 percent in March, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Over the last 12 months, the all items index increased 4.2 percent before seasonal adjustment. This is the largest 12-month increase since a 4.9-percent increase for the period ending September 2008.

The index for used cars and trucks rose 10.0 percent in April. This was the largest 1-month increase since the series began in 1953, and it accounted for over a third of the seasonally adjusted all items increase. The food index increased in April, rising 0.4 percent as the indexes for food at home and food away from home both increased. The energy index decreased slightly, as a decline in the index for gasoline in April more than offset increases in the indexes for electricity and natural gas.

The index for all items less food and energy rose 0.9 percent in April, its largest monthly increase since April 1982. Nearly all major component indexes increased in April. Along with the index for used cars and trucks, the indexes for shelter, airline fares, recreation, motor vehicle insurance, and household furnishings and operations were among the indexes with a large impact on the overall increase.

The all-items index rose 4.2 percent for the 12 months ending April, a larger increase than the 2.6- percent increase for the period ending March.

ADDENDA: Psst! The website says the suits are offering twelve weeks of NRPlus for six dollars. That’s full access to everything for 50 cents a week! For all I know, that might be a misprint. Go sign up and register before anybody notices!

In other news: Jennifer Granholm, during a press conference yesterday about the hack of the Colonial Pipeline, said, “We have doubled down on ensuring that there’s an ability to truck oil in — gas in. But it’s — the pipe is the best way to go. And so that’s why, hopefully, this company, Colonial, will, in fact, be able to restore operations by the end of the week as they have said.”

Oh, pipe is the best way to go, huh? Safer, more secure, more efficient, less risk of accidents? Then maybe this administration shouldn’t be canceling pipeline projects!

Health Care

China’s Unreliable COVID Vaccines Are under Fire

Medical workers vaccinate students with the coronavirus vaccine at a university in Qingdao, China, March 30, 2021. (China Daily/via Reuters)

On the menu today: A country that has done gangbusters at vaccinating its citizens finds itself with a significant outbreak among people who were already vaccinated — raising questions of just how much good the Chinese vaccine actually does; the pause on the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine “made it harder for enthusiasm to bloom among the skeptical,” in the eyes of one analyst; and an undiplomatic choice for U.S. ambassador to Japan.

The World Grows Increasingly Reliant on Unreliable Chinese COVID Vaccines

Say it with me, China enthusiasts: “Vaccine diplomacy” is only a masterstroke if the vaccine works. Otherwise, you might as well just send other countries syringes full of soy sauce. As the April 21 Morning Jolt observed, “the Chinese-made vaccine works about as well as the Chinese-made personal protective equipment: It’s really hit-and-miss.

The Chinese vaccines appear to sort of work, sometimes. And if you’re in a situation like India is currently, with COVID-19 deaths around 4,000 per day, or afraid your country could end up in a situation like India’s, the Chinese vaccine probably looks a lot more appealing than nothing.

Today, the Wall Street Journal reports that the “Seychelles, which has vaccinated a higher proportion of its population against coronavirus than any other country, is struggling to contain a new surge in COVID-19 infections, raising questions about the effectiveness of a Chinese shot the island nation has administered to the majority of its vaccinated residents . . . According to the health ministry, more than one third of new active cases are people who are fully vaccinated. Authorities in the Seychelles haven’t said how many of those cases arose among people vaccinated with the Chinese shot.”

The thing is though, the signs have been there all along.

As I noted last week, the Chinese government insists that the COVID-19 pandemic effectively ended in their country last February, that their deaths and case numbers have been astoundingly low since early last spring, and that none of the variants have had any impact on their country in any significant way.

The Chinese government is so committed to this narrative that it said it could not conduct the usual testing of the effectiveness of the vaccines, because the virus was so rare in China: “China’s vaccines have had to be trialed elsewhere because the country didn’t have enough transmission itself to conduct them, says George Gao, who heads the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing.” As of this date, there is still no public large-scale trial results of the Sinopharm or SinoVac vaccines among the Chinese people.

China approved the Sinopharm and SinoVac vaccines for emergency use back in July. The Sinopharm vaccine is currently being administered into arms in 38 countries, mostly across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and the Sinovac vaccine is being administered in 24 countries, including Brazil, Mexico, Turkey, and Ukraine.

The pandemic in India is so severe, the government there has halted exports of the Indian-produced version of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine, called CoviShield. With India’s exports suddenly no longer available, countries such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are turning to the Chinese vaccines. For a lot of countries, the choice is not between the iffy Chinese vaccines and the more reliable Pfizer or Moderna ones. The choice is between the iffy Chinese vaccines and nothing.

The best news for Sinovac vaccine came from a study in Turkey with more than 10,000 participants that began in September and ended in March, and found the efficacy of 83.5 percent. That’s not up in the 90s like Pfizer, but numbers like that suggest the Sinovac vaccine is more than sufficiently effective for large-scale use. (Remember, “90 percent efficacy” doesn’t mean 90 people wouldn’t catch the virus and 10 would. It indicates “a 90 percent reduction in disease occurrence among the vaccinated group, or a 90 percent reduction from the number of cases you would expect if they have not been vaccinated.” If you had two samples of 100 people, you would not expect all 100 people in the placebo group to catch the disease.)

The bad news is that another large-scale study of the Sinovac vaccine on the other side of the world told a dramatically different story: On January 12, Brazilian scientists “announced that China’s Sinovac vaccine was far less effective than originally touted, at just 50.38 percent effective against COVID-19 in late-stage trials, nearly 30 percentage points lower than initial data showed.”

When two studies research the effectiveness of a vaccine and come back with dramatically different results, researchers start wondering if they measured infections and efficacy differently, or whether one study involved a more contagious and virulent version of the virus than another. Maybe the Brazilian study had a lower threshold for “infected” than the Turkish one did. And it’s worth keeping in mind that the primary goal in fighting COVID-19 is first to avoid death and second to avoid hospitalization to prevent overwhelming the medical system. A vaccine that keeps someone out of the hospital probably is indeed “good enough.”

But in early April, the head of China’s CDC publicly acknowledged that the Sinovac vaccine is just not effective enough, and then quickly backtracked a day later. Over in Cameroon, some health workers said they were reluctant to take the coronavirus vaccines donated by China because they doubt the drug’s efficacy.

The World Health Organization announced a few days ago that it was approving emergency use of Sinopharm, “the first time that any Chinese-made vaccine received emergency authorization from the WHO.” While I enjoy denouncing the WHO as a puppet of the Chinese government as much as the next guy, this decision does fit within the organization’s previously stated parameters of a threshold of 50 percent: “The 50 percent efficacy threshold set for COVID-19 vaccines is because COVID-19 was deemed such a severe disease, that if a vaccine is only 50 percent effective, it’s still worth using.” Even if the Brazil study represented the true efficacy of the Sinovac vaccine, it just barely cleared the threshold at 50.38 percent efficacy.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, our rate of vaccinations has no doubt slowed from the mid April peak, but we’re still averaging more than 2 million per day; nearly 3 million doses were administered Friday. With the Pfizer vaccine now approved for those between the ages of twelve and 15, we’re going to throw another 17 million or so Americans into the eligible pile. It has become somewhat trendy to sneer that we’ve hit the wall of vaccination demand, and that we’re doomed because of vaccine skeptics. Over at The Atlantic, Derek Thompson sizes up the considerable evidence that the government’s pause on the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine represented an irreversible inflection point, noting that average daily vaccinations peaked the very same day of the government warning. Thompson concludes that “the government’s underselling of the vaccines (and overselling of their risks) did not exactly cause the dip, but did make it harder for enthusiasm to bloom among the skeptical.”

Well, the Japanese Are a Famously Patient and Understanding People

Great news, everyone: President Biden has decided to appoint a raging maniac infamous for mailing people dead fish, stabbing tables, and threatening Tony Blair with profanities to one of America’s top diplomatic positions! Sorry in advance, Japan. If we’re lucky, Ambassador Rahm Emanuel will not be the most chaotic and destructive force to hit that country since Godzilla.

ADDENDUM: Up in North Dakota, Rob Port asks the question that should be on everyone’s mind: Gosh, maybe we need more pipelines?

Elsewhere on NRO today, Kevin Williamson lays out the cold, hard, truth:

When the fuel stops moving, then people and goods stop moving in short order. A relatively brief interruption in one pipeline can have severely disruptive effects. To my mind, that means: lay more pipe.

And there are other pipelines that serve some of the areas that depend on Colonial — but not with sufficient capacity to replace what has been taken offline. And so we face the age-old question of pricing risk: Would we rather have more capacity than we usually need and bear the expense that goes along with that, or would we rather have less capacity than we sometimes need and bear the risk that goes along with that?

Economy & Business

‘Too Much Free Money’: Employers Refute Dem Claims on Hiring Slump

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the April jobs report from the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., May 7, 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

On the menu today: As the Biden administration is mystified by low hiring last month, we’re left wondering if they’ve tried talking to employers; Meanwhile, already-high gas prices are expected to jump again, in part because hackers have managed to shut down the most important oil pipeline on the East Coast; and in sad news, a farewell to a former boss.

‘The Government Is My Main Competitor Right Now’

Boy, some Washington Post copy editor must’ve enjoyed writing this headline: “GOP governors slash jobless aid to try to force more Americans to return to work.

The most updated information we have on job openings nationwide from the Federal Reserve is for February, and that month, the country had 7.36 million job openings. We bottomed out in pandemic-driven closings in April 2020, with just 4.6 million job openings. In March, the National Federation of Independent Business survey found 42 percent of owners reported job openings that could not be filled, a record-high reading.

Democrats and their fans in the media keep insisting that the expanded unemployment benefits passed during the pandemic to help people get through have nothing to do with last Friday’s abysmal jobs numbers.

The problem is that employers keep saying otherwise.

Consider this story out of Indiana:

For Todd Hein, president of Terre Haute-based Labor Link, the current shortage is simple — “There’s too much free money sitting out there to stay home,” he said.

Hein specifically addressed unemployment benefits, with Hoosiers typically getting about $298 a week, plus an additional $300 in pandemic-related funds. “That is hard to compete with and it seems equivalent to about $15 an hour,” he said.

As an example, Hein said his company “had an employee who called in and wanted a pay stub to continue his unemployment when the job that he was laid off from would like to have him back and is hiring,” Hein said. “The government is my main competitor right now,” he said.

“I have never seen anything like this,” he said.

Some companies are giving $1-an-hour incentives and $2 for night shifts, raising their $14 hourly rate to $15 for days and $16 for evenings, Hein said.

“We have had other clients raise their pay from $11 to $14,” Hein said. In addition, Labor Link is giving workers a $40 per week bonus if workers complete their full work schedule, “which is the equivalent of a dollar an hour bonus,” Hein said.

However, getting people to accept employment remains a challenge.

“We did a four-hour job fair (on April 27) and had zero people show up,” Hein said of a recent event at a manufacturing facility. “It was set up at their site, it was advertised and was on TV, and nobody showed up.”

Notice this similar-sounding comment from Huntington, W.Va., restaurant manager Jason Webb: “I feel like I am competing against the enhanced unemployment benefits and the stimulus. It is making it hard to find workers when they can make so much not working.”

And this comment from New York City:

Philippe Massoud, CEO of the Lebanese eatery Ilili, in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, said he’s “left no stone unturned” in an effort to fill 15 positions — but it’s tough to compete with the hefty unemployment checks.

“If I was working a back-breaking job and making $600 a week and I had had the option of making $600 and not breaking my back — the choice is obvious,” he said.

And this from New Jersey: “I think we’re all having trouble, a lot of restaurants, all kinds of businesses, really,” said Dimitri Koniarelis, the owner of the Bridgewater Diner and two other restaurants in the state. “I think, from the feedback I get, a lot of people are collecting unemployment and they would rather stay home.”

Over the weekend, the Washington Post profiled Miami restaurants desperate for staff: “Beltran said that for every 10 résumés he gets, maybe one person shows up for an interview.” A Chattanooga restaurant features the sign, “We are short staffed. Please be patient with the staff that did show up. No one wants to work anymore.

And it’s not just restaurants, as seen in western New York:

Sumitomo Rubber USA’s tire-making plant in the Town of Tonawanda is trying to fill about 40 jobs, said Paola Palm, talent acquisition recruiter.

“Our most challenging positions are for general production,” Palm said. “It appears the largest obstacle is the motivation people have, or don’t have, to get back to work.”

“If employers can’t find enough workers, they should just pay more!” Well, a bunch of employers are; certainly not all, and maybe not enough, but as seen above, employers are offering all kinds of pay hikes and signing bonuses and still not seeing applicants walking through the door. The problem isn’t that these employers are competing with each other; they’re competing with the government offering $14 to $25 per hour for not working.

The government is offering depth-of-pandemic-era unemployment benefits in an emerging-from-the-pandemic economy.

Hack Attack

The Corner, May 5, contemplating whether we are in what could fairly be characterized as an era of crisis, compared to past eras: “There’s a buffet table of doom in the headlines: rising China, hostile Russia, the Iranian nuclear program, artificial intelligence, another pandemic or weaponized viruses, extremism and radicalization of every kind, cyber-threats, natural disasters and climate change, economic instability or another crash. . . .”

That was Wednesday. On Friday, a ransomware attack shut down the largest petroleum pipeline between Texas and New York, a pipeline that carries 2.5 million barrels a day — 45 percent of the East Coast’s supply of diesel, gasoline, and jet fuel. This is going to hike fuel prices, at least in the short term, and “the national average for a gallon of gas stood at $2.962 on Sunday, up 60 percent from a year ago, according to AAA.

The current top suspect is a group of hackers called “DarkSide,” and I don’t know whether to credit them for truth in advertising, or mock them for the generic label. Sure, they better run and hide, not only from law enforcement, but from Lucasfilm and Disney’s lawyers, too.

Weirdly though, this group of hackers seems not just professional, but . . . professionalized:

Guaranteed turnaround times. Real-time chat support. Brand awareness. As ransomware becomes big business, its purveyors have embraced the tropes of legitimate enterprises, down to corporate responsibility pledges. In that same “press release,” posted to the operators’ site on the dark web on August 10 and first reported by cybersecurity news site Bleeping Computer, the DarkSide hackers pinky-swear not to attack hospitals, schools, nonprofits, or government targets.

“The groups are increasingly becoming ruthlessly efficient,” says Brett Callow, a threat analyst at antivirus company Emsisoft. “They have more of a chance of success the easier they make life for their victims—or the easier they make it to pay them.”

Say, fellas, who do you think uses all that oil from that pipeline you just shut down? Among others, hospitals, schools, nonprofits, and the government!

At the risk of irking every environmentalist who’s somehow convinced he can live without oil, maybe we should build more pipelines so we’re less dependent upon any single one? To adopt a common slogan running around these days, oil and natural-gas pipelines are infrastructure. As usual, there’s a list of natural-gas-pipeline projects waiting for approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. (FERC regulates the location, construction, and expansion for natural-gas pipelines, while crude-oil pipelines undergo a state-by-state siting approval process.)

Last July, the New York Times looked at various canceled and delayed pipelines and asked whether the construction of new pipelines in the U.S. was coming to an end: “The roughly 3,000 miles of affected pipelines represent just a fraction of the planned build-out nationwide. Still, the setbacks underscore the increasing obstacles that pipeline construction faces, particularly in regions like the Northeast where local governments have pushed for a quicker transition to renewable energy.” Yet President Biden famously canceled the Keystone XL oil pipeline upon taking office.

Sure, having redundant pipeline systems wouldn’t eliminate the threat of hackers. But it would double the difficulty of shutting down one avenue of getting oil or natural gas from point A to point B, particularly if the two pipelines had different cybersecurity systems — and lessen the leverage of those who want to get pipeline operators to pay a fortune in ransom.

ADDENDUM: Rest in peace, former Delaware governor Pete du Pont. Our John Fund contemplates du Pont’s legacy here, Kyle Smith remembers him here, you can watch his 1986 presidential-campaign announcement here, and you can see Kevin Nealon play du Pont in a Saturday Night Live sketch, proposing mandatory drug testing for Social Security recipients. Kids, back in the 1980s, the idea of a senior citizen being addicted to drugs was considered so farfetched, it was a punchline.

Way back in the mid-to-late-1990s, when the Internet was relatively new, the former governor and presidential candidate du Pont, by then out of public office, helped launch one of the first Internet-only political magazines, That publication was either desperate, foolish, or farsighted enough to hire me as an intern and then years later as a “web producer.” I remember during a small staff meeting on my first go-round, offering some sort of idea that only sounds good to an intern’s ears and du Pont staring at me and asking, “Were you dropped on your head as a child?” (Now you understand why I have so little patience for oversensitive Millennials.) While that anecdote might make him seem acerbic, I remember him being kind, funny, and quick-witted. R.I.P.


The Wuhan-Lab Theory Is Not Far-Fetched. Just Look at China’s Reckless Rocket Program

Security personnel keep watch outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology during a visit by the World Health Organization (WHO) team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China, February 3, 2021. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

On the menu today: The Chinese space program is about as careful and safety-conscious as the Chinese viral-research program; a deep look at the mounting evidence pointing to a lab leak; and why other companies can’t just rush out and make more doses of the Pfizer vaccine, even if the Biden administration suspends the patent.

What the Chinese Space Program Can Tell Us about the Wuhan Labs

Yes, as Michael Brendan Dougherty and everyone else says, you should set aside the 43 minutes or so and read Nicholas Wade’s deep dive into the possibility that not only did COVID-19 originate from a laboratory in Wuhan, it may very well have been deliberately optimized to infect human beings through gain-of-function research — and that the U.S. government may well have financed some of that research.

Before we dive into the Wuhan laboratories again, notice this story in the New York Times this week:

Part of China’s largest rocket, the Long March 5B, is tumbling out of control in orbit after launching a section of the country’s new space station last week. The rocket is expected to fall to Earth in what is called “an uncontrolled re-entry” sometime on Saturday or Sunday.

Whether it splashes harmlessly in the ocean or impacts land where people live, why China’s space program let this happen — again — remains unclear. And given China’s planned schedule of launches, more such uncontrolled rocket re-entries in the years to come are possible.

The article notes that the Chinese space program is the only one that has “lifted rocket stages this big to orbit and left them to fall somewhere at random,” and that the “Aerospace Corporation, a nonprofit largely financed by the federal government that performs research and analysis, predicts re-entry will occur on Saturday at 11:43 p.m. Eastern time. If that is accurate, debris could shower down over northeastern Africa, over Sudan.”

The good news is that Sudan has a lot of empty desert. The bad news is that as of this morning, the center of the circle on the Aerospace Corporation’s map is not that far from Khartoum, which is the home of 5.2 million people.

What’s more, this scenario of Chinese space debris landing on populated areas already happened. One year ago, when the world was grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, China launched experimental spacecraft and debris ended up landing on the Ivory Coast: “China’s successfully [sic] maiden flight of its Long March 5B which lofted an experimental spacecraft into orbit last week, has come under scrutiny with reports suggesting that debris has hit parts of the Ivory Coast in Africa. Had its 20 ton core stage passed through Earth’s atmosphere 15-20 minutes earlier during reentry, the rocket’s debris could have rained down on New York City, report those monitoring its progress.”

The Times article quotes astrophysicists who call the Chinese space program’s management “negligent” and “irresponsible.” That’s funny, because over the last year and a half, there’s been a lot of talk about Chinese government-run science programs being negligent and irresponsible. Why, it’s almost like this is a pattern of behavior from a negligent, irresponsible authoritarian regime!

The Chinese government does not give a rat’s patootie if it hurts or kills people in other countries. It wants what it wants, and it doesn’t care who pays the price in blood.

Oh, and one other point in that Times article: “Chinese space officials have not publicly addressed the uncontrolled re-entry since then, despite attention and worry around the world.”

When the Chinese government is confronted with a problem, the regime’s default setting is to deny the problem exists.

The Chinese government’s official statistics would have you believe that the COVID-19 pandemic effectively ended in that country in March 2020. The official statistics declare that the most populated country in the world, with more than 1.4 billion people, ranks 96th among all countries in cases, with just over 90,000, and 58th in deaths, with 4,636. To believe the Chinese official numbers, the entire country has seen four people die from COVID-19 since April 2020, and that they’ve never had more than 1,000 active cases on any given day over the past year. According to the Chinese government, no variant of COVID-19 has touched them in any significant way.

Meanwhile, just across the border, India reported 414,188 cases of infection and 3,915 deaths.

And that’s just today.

Want to see something really odd? The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, an independent global-health-research center at the University of Washington, published a new estimate of the total death toll from COVID-19, attempting to account for cases missed earlier and left out of data from unreliable regimes. The report concludes, “Our analysis estimates that by May 3, 2021, the total number of COVID-19 deaths was 6.93 million, a figure that is more than two times higher than the reported number of deaths of 3.24 million.”

But the only reference to China comes in a footnote.

Similarly, The Economist put together a fascinating and detailed chart showing the percentage increase in excess deaths in each country by month, from January 2020 to April 2021. It’s an absolute triumph of data visualization. But China’s not on it, because the publication could only use data from countries and localities that publish data on deaths from all causes.

I don’t begrudge these institutions not listing China if they can’t find reliable data. But shouldn’t someone be making a bigger stink out of this? We already know from leaked documents that China understated the number of cases and deaths and covered up the truth in the opening weeks of the pandemic by at least a third. Why is everyone just shrugging at absurdly implausible official numbers now?

And if a virus that originated in China ended up inflicting calamitous damage to the lives, public health, economies, and societies to all countries all over the world, but most severely the United States and India . . . isn’t that more or less what Beijing would have wanted all along?

We know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that we’re dealing with a regime that behaves negligently and irresponsibly, that barely cares about protecting the lives of its own citizens and absolutely doesn’t care about protecting the lives of foreign citizens, and that reflexively denies and covers up its worst actions and mistakes, no matter how implausible or obvious the counterevidence is. But some people still dismiss the notion of a lab leak as some sort of insane conspiracy theory. The insane stance is to trust the Chinese government’s denials!

I sometimes wonder if the widespread faith of the natural-spread theory relies in part on Western obliviousness about the geographical size of China — “They found a similar virus in bats in caves in China, and it must have spread from there.” Wade writes:

Start with geography. The two closest known relatives of the SARS2 virus were collected from bats living in caves in Yunnan, a province of southern China. If the SARS2 virus had first infected people living around the Yunnan caves, that would strongly support the idea that the virus had spilled over to people naturally. But this isn’t what happened. The pandemic broke out 1,500 kilometers away, in Wuhan.

That’s about the distance from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City, Mo. Imagine having a viral outbreak in New York City, and people arguing it naturally jumped into humans from bats found in caves outside of Memphis, Tenn. Sure, it’s possible, but you would expect to find some evidence or a trail of cases leading from the site of the outbreak to those caves. So far, we haven’t found those cases between Yunnan and Wuhan.

And there’s another complication for the theory that this virus just jumped from a bat into a random, unlucky person: We have yet to find the earlier, milder, less-virulent version of SARS-CoV-2. This is a bat virus that burst upon the scene in near-ideal form to do damage to human beings. A couple of days ago, a new research paper — not yet peer-reviewed — concluded:

In a side-by-side comparison of evolutionary dynamics between the 2019/2020 SARS-CoV-2 and the 2003 SARS-CoV, we were surprised to find that SARS-CoV-2 resembles SARS-CoV in the late phase of the 2003 epidemic after SARS-CoV had developed several advantageous adaptations for human transmission. Our observations suggest that by the time SARS-CoV-2 was first detected in late 2019, it was already pre-adapted to human transmission to an extent similar to late epidemic SARS-CoV. However, no precursors or branches of evolution stemming from a less human-adapted SARS-CoV-2-like virus have been detected.

But that’s not even the big news, says those researchers who looked at the genetic signatures of the samples from the Hunnan Seafood Market in Wuhan:

The market samples did not form a separate cluster from the human SARS-CoV-2 genomes. We compared the market samples to the human Wuhan-Hu-1 isolate, and discovered >99.9% genome identity, even at the S gene that has exhibited evidence of evolution in previous CoV zoonoses. In the SARS-CoV outbreaks, >99.9% genome or S identity was only observed among isolates collected within a narrow window of time from within the same species (Figure 5) (15). The human and civet isolates of the 2003/2004 outbreak, which were collected most closely in time and at the site of cross-species transmission, shared only up to 99.79% S identity (Figure 5) (37). It is therefore unlikely for the January market isolates, which all share 99.9-100% genome and S identity with a December human SARS-CoV-2, to have originated from an intermediate animal host, particularly if the most recent common ancestor jumped into humans as early as October, 2019 (54,55). The SARS-CoV-2 genomes in the market samples were most likely from humans infected with SARS-CoV-2 who were vendors or visitors at the market. If intermediate animal hosts were present at the market, no evidence remains in the genetic samples available.

If the outbreak of cases in the market didn’t come from animals, it means that the outbreak came from a human being — a human being who would have also traveled in other places in the city, infecting the individuals who made up the cases who couldn’t be traced back to the market.

Perhaps a lab researcher working on novel coronaviruses in bats.

ADDENDUM: Regarding the Biden administration’s decision to suspend the patents on the coronavirus vaccine, back when we were discussing the Defense Production Act, I noted that it was akin to telling “other pharmaceutical companies to make the Pfizer, Moderna, or some other vaccine is like instructing fireworks factories to start manufacturing thermonuclear weapons. Or, if you feel the comparison to nuclear fusion is hyperbole, instructing the Ford Focus plant in Wayne, Ind., to start manufacturing Lamborghinis. You would have to tear out almost all of the existing equipment, retrain the workers, and start over, if not quite from the ground up, then only a bit above it.”

Once again, we see the Biden administration wanting to be perceived as “doing something” even though the real-world effect will be pretty small, at least for a while. This isn’t just a matter of baking bread; all the equipment has to be specifically designed and custom-built.

Now every pharmaceutical company that has specially designed custom-built equipment for cold storage, bacterial broth vats, DNA harvesting, quality testing, DNA filters, freezers, packaging and shipping infrastructure, processing plants to turn the DNA into RNA, enzyme transcription machines, mRNA testing facilities, a second set of freezing, packing and shipping infrastructure, and oily lipid production equipment can take the formula for the best COVID-19 vaccines and make their own!

What’s that? None of the other companies already have that specially designed custom-built equipment? Oh.

Politics & Policy

The Cold, Hard Facts about the Liz Cheney Saga

Representative Liz Cheney addresses the media during a Conference in Philadelphia, Penn., January 25, 2017. (Mark Makela/Reuters)

On the menu today: There’s one big issue consuming Republican politics these days. Since some of my comments on the last edition of The Editors were idiotically misconstrued as an effort to “cancel” Liz Cheney, let’s walk through the facts, step by step.

What’s Going on in the Fight over Liz Cheney in the House GOP Conference

In the suddenly all-consuming matter of whether Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming should remain the House Republican Conference chair, here are the facts.

Donald Trump is still pretty darn popular among Republicans. He left office with an 82 percent approval rating among self-identified Republicans, and that was after the January 6 Capitol Hill riot. At the beginning of April, an Ipsos poll found 81 percent of self-identified Republicans still view Trump favorably. An early May Economist/YouGov poll found 58 percent of self-identified Republicans have a “very favorable” view of Trump, and another 20 percent have a “somewhat favorable” view of Trump. Ten percent characterized their view as “somewhat unfavorable,” and 9 percent characterized them as “very unfavorable.”

Not only is Trump popular, but at least half of those who identify as Republican believe what he says, even in the face of mountains of counterevidence. The same Ipsos poll found that 55 percent of Republicans said the 2020 election was “the result of illegal voting or election rigging,” and the same percentage agreed with the statement, “The Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol was led by violent left-wing protestors trying to make Trump look bad.”

Whether or not you think Republicans should still support and embrace Trump and his bonkers worldview, many of them do. A lot of the discussion surrounding Liz Cheney’s role in the House Republican leadership begins and ends with the sentiment, “The Republican grassroots should not feel this supportive of Trump and believe these things.” Yes, but they do, and these GOP grassroots voters do not appear likely to change their minds anytime soon. Any response from elected Republican officials who are critical of Trump has to account for the fact the Trump fan base is a big chunk of the party’s supporters.

Yes, there is some evidence Trump’s grip on the party has loosened a bit. An NBC News survey from late last month found “44 percent of Republicans saying they’re more supporters of Trump than the GOP, versus 50 percent who say they’re more supporters of the GOP than the former president.” But that’s still not a good spot for those who see Trump’s effect on American politics and public life as toxic and dangerous. A GOP civil war over Trump would just result in damage to both sides, further enhancing the advantages the Democratic Party and progressive Left currently enjoy.

There is no scenario in which galvanized anti-Trump forces purge the Trump supporters from the Republican Party — at least not anytime soon. But that NBC News poll did indicate that Trump’s support is slowly and gradually declining.

Trump is not going to change much from here on out. He is much quieter in post-presidential life than he was as president, which is not quite the same as saying he’s quiet. As noted yesterday, in addition to insisting that he won the 2020 presidential election, he is embracing every conceivable conspiracy theory about the election and insisting that the January 6 Capitol riot, “right from the start, it was zero threat. Look, they went in, they shouldn’t have done it. Some of them went in, and they are hugging and kissing the police and the guards.” Trump is not going to get any saner from here on out.

At this point, there is no plausible scenario where Donald Trump concedes he lost the 2020 presidential election, fair and square. Nor is there a plausible scenario where Trump leaves public life entirely, unless old age and Big Macs catch up with a man who turns 75 in July. (As Dan Patrick used to say on SportsCenter, He’s listed as day to day, but then again, aren’t we all?”)

In part because of the decisions by Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube to ban him, Trump has much less of a media megaphone than he did at the beginning of the year. From mid 2015 to January 2021, barely a day went by without Trump saying or doing something that dominated the headlines.

Despite Trump’s popularity among Republicans in polls, exactly how much influence he still has over the party is debatable. The first effort to oust Cheney from GOP House leadership flopped. A lot of Trump’s most high-profile loyalists keep stepping on rakes, or worse. God knows what’s going to happen to Matt Gaetz next. Lin Wood wants to be the GOP chairman in a state he moved to in February. Sidney Powell claimed in a court filing that reasonable people wouldn’t have believed as fact her assertions of fraud after the 2020 presidential election. “Trump TV” isn’t going to happen, and his much-touted new social-media platform is just a blog that allows users to share his posts on Facebook and Twitter.

(When measuring Trump’s influence over the party, I would not put a lot of stock in that Texas special-house-election jungle primary one way or the other. Yes, the candidate Trump endorsed, Susan Wright, finished with the most votes. But she’s the widow of the previous incumbent, and widows usually get a lot of public sympathy when they run for their late husbands’ seats. Wright won 15,052 votes, and second-place finisher Jake Ellzey received 10,851 to qualify for the runoff. What is clear is that up until recently, a Trump endorsement in a primary usually helped. In the 2020 cycle, 21 out of 23 Republican candidates that Trump endorsed in a primary won; Lynda Bennett and Denver Riggleman were the exceptions.)

At this point, Trump sounds as if he either definitely wants to run for president in 2024, or he wants to leave the door open to another campaign, to ensure he remains at the center of the discussion for Republicans through 2024.

The fact that Trump told Fox News’ Maria Bartiromo that he was considering Florida governor Ron DeSantis to be his running mate is an intriguing indicator that Trump realizes other, younger Republican figures who are still in office are exciting the GOP grassroots. (By the way, under the Constitution, the president and vice president cannot represent the same state, but it would be a simple matter for Trump to move his legal residence to one of his other homes in another state.)

Trump is extremely unlikely to be vanquished and driven from the Republican Party in a grand conflict. Conflict is the oxygen that keeps Trump going — that and media attention, and the mainstream media loves to cover Republican infighting. It is in Trump’s instinct and interest to maximize the intensity of every fight with every rival in the party, real and perceived: Cheney, Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell.

As we saw in the Georgia Senate runoffs, Trump doesn’t hesitate in the slightest in prioritizing his hurt feelings and nutty conspiracy theories over what the Republican Party at any given moment. He will happily enable more Democratic wins out of spite.

You know who doesn’t win when the intensity of every fight is maximized? The Republican Party and conservative objectives as a whole.

While it is inconceivable that Trump would lose a fight over control of the party now, it is conceivable that the air may slowly leak out of the Trump balloon, month by month, year by year. The news cycle, the political environment, and the national discussion moves on to other things. Tucker Carlson is filling the media’s giant need for a “You won’t believe what he just said” figure. You notice no one is asking what the former president thinks about the proposed infrastructure plans, Biden’s stance on any foreign-policy issue, how to persuade the vaccine-reluctant, or the potential for a bipartisan police-reform bill. Trump is, at best, intermittently interested in policy and usually not interested in the details at all. Donald Trump is primarily interested in Donald Trump. He wants the national discussion and the news environment to be all about him.

The Republicans can win a majority in the House of Representatives in 2022 with just the slightest wind at their back. The single best chance for Nancy Pelosi to remain speaker of the House is for the Republican Party to be consumed with infighting.

You would figure that one of the upsides of the end of the Trump presidency is that we wouldn’t have to spend every day talking about Donald Trump and what he said and did. And yet, here we are, in May 2021, doing this all over again. We are in this spot because at least four major forces want us to be in this spot: Donald Trump wants people talking about Donald Trump; a media that loved the ratings his constant controversy brought wants people talking about Trump; Democrats who benefit from the outrage want people talking about Trump; and I suspect a lot of media figures who figured out how to monetize the #Resistance want people talking about Trump.

If you’re a House Republican, you need to maintain a delicate balance amidst forces who are trying to pull out as many Jenga blocks as possible. You don’t want to antagonize Trump supporters; you can’t win without them, and depending upon your district and level of support among your constituents, you could well lose a primary challenge from someone who runs, exclusively, on the issue of loyalty to Trump.

But you also don’t want to get tied into the maelstrom of crazy emanating from Mar-a-Lago — soon to be Bedminster, N.J. You don’t think Liz Cheney is a “warmongering fool,” you don’t think Mitch McConnell is “gutless and clueless,” you don’t think the 2020 presidential election is a “BIG LIE,” and you cannot believe people are looking for “bamboo fibers” in the paper for Arizona’s 2020 ballots to prove they were smuggled over from China. You just want to go back to being a conservative Republican and opposing the overreach of the Biden administration and its progressive allies.

I don’t think Liz Cheney should be replaced in the House GOP leadership. But for someone who wants to lead her caucus, she seems really comfortable with continuing her battles with Trump and either can’t or won’t “read the room.” No one else in the GOP House caucus wants to see endless new chapters of a MAGA/Trump vs. Cheney/NeverTrump fight from now until the midterms. It’s really, really difficult to be a maverick against the rest of your party and be a leader of that same party. John McCain demonstrated that.

As Jack Shafer observes, a lot of the people cheering the loudest for Liz Cheney now have absolutely no interest in the success of the Republican Party and overall want to see it fail. Not everyone, of course. But when Nancy Pelosi says, “I do commend Lynne [sic] Cheney for her courage, for her patriotism. And, uh, I wish her well. Perhaps this challenge will make her stronger,” it’s fair to ask who the long-term beneficiary of this fight is going to be.

Over at CNN, GOP political consultant Scott Jennings sees the situation as a win-win-win for Cheney, House Republicans, and Cheney’s likely replacement, in Representative Elise Stefanik. I’m not so sure. I see a House GOP leader who was comfortable publicly positioning herself as the leader of the anti-Trump faction within the party while trying to lead the caucus as a whole — a GOP caucus that is going to get painted as a cult that demands so much fanatical loyalty that they make the Branch Davidians look relaxed — and another few news cycles wasted on arguing about “What do you think of Trump?” and the 2020 election results, instead of what the Biden administration is doing in the here and now.

ADDENDUM: You know it’s an odd week when I write that the lack of unity among Senate Democrats, not the filibuster, is what is really blocking the agenda of progressives, and the New York Times’ David Leonhart links and approves.

Politics & Policy

After Trump, the Woke Left Roars

Then-president Donald Trump addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) annual meeting at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Md., February 29, 2020. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

On the menu today: contemplating the uncomfortable question of whether the most lasting legacy of the Trump presidency will be a culturally dominant progressive left; a closer look at the early outlook for the 2022 House elections; the CIA offers a “duh” report; and an absolutely bonkers attempt to demonize Pfizer.

Were Woke Progressives the Real Winners from the Trump Presidency?

If you’re a Republican officeholder, it is a fact of life that most of the media will be against you, and look for opportunities to make you look stupid, reckless, ill-informed, malevolent, and hopelessly out of date. You will have your own media that will be friendlier — Fox News Channel, talk radio, etc. — but by and large, you’re going to have the wind in your face every day you’re running for office and in office. While this could change someday, it does not appear likely to change anytime soon, and is arguably getting worse, as more and more media prioritize dramatic and partisan narratives over the facts in pursuit of clicks and television ratings.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that the bias of the media is a hurdle that can be overcome; otherwise, no Republican would ever win anywhere. The Republican Party has 50 Senate seats, 212 House seats (with one more to be settled in a runoff soon), 27 governors’ mansions, 61 state legislative chambers, and a grand total of 4,008 state legislative seats. I would contend that many subpar GOP candidates use “the media was biased against me” as an excuse to cover their own bad decisions and flaws.

No doubt, communication skills matter a great deal for Republican officeholders, particularly the closer they get to the national stage. They’re not going to get the airbrushed, protective coverage that insists Nancy Pelosi is a master strategist.

But even the most brilliant communication skills in the world aren’t much help if they aren’t connected to good judgment. Maybe one of the most underrated and under-discussed duties of a GOP elected official is to not make the job of the opposition easier. Don’t hand them effective and accurate lines of criticism. Everybody’s going to make mistakes, but a good elected official avoids the dumb ones. Don’t practice cronyism or get caught in other scandals. Don’t tell lies, and if you must spin, try to make the spin plausible. Don’t overpromise, and whatever you promise, don’t under-deliver. Work hard, and make sure people see you working hard. Hold your own people accountable. Know what you’re talking about, and when you don’t know, don’t try to wing it. Have a set list of priorities that will product tangible results for your constituents, and don’t get distracted by every media controversy that comes down the pike. And for God’s sake, don’t waste any time or energy worrying about what Mika Brzezinski or Don Lemon is saying about you.

Our last Republican president broke just about all of those rules, and a recent Ross Douthat column spotlights the argument that the progressive Left was the true big winner from the Trump presidency:

[Richard Hanania, who runs the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology] argues that it’s not simply that the millennials and Gen Z are more liberal, or that the Democrats are the professional-class party and so liberalism dominates the professional spheres. These tilts are real, but there are still enough conservative-leaning consumers, enough young and wealthy and well-educated Republicans, to create incentives for institutions to be apolitical or politically neutral.

The key difference, he argues, isn’t sheer numbers but engagement, intensity and zeal. Liberals lately seem to just care a lot more about politics: They donate more, they protest more, they agitate more, in ways that change the incentives for public-facing institutions. Some of these gaps are longstanding, but others have opened only recently, with 2016 as the crucial turning point. That was the year when “the mobilization gap exploded,” creating irresistible pressure “from both within and outside corporations for them to take a stand on almost all hot button issues.”

Why 2016? Well, probably because of Donald Trump: In Hanania’s data, his nomination and election looks like the great accelerant, with anti-Trump backlash driving liberal hyper-investment in politics to new heights, enabling progressives to achieve “true mass mobilization in a way conservatives never have in the modern era.” That mobilization has consolidated progressive norms in almost every institution susceptible to pressure from activists (or activist-employees), and it’s pulled the entire American establishment leftward, so that conservatives are suddenly at war with Major League Baseball and Coca-Cola instead of just Harvard and the Ford Foundation, and the custodians of the national security state are eager to prove their enlightenment by speaking in the argot of the academic left.

For a long time, progressives and Democrats argued that Republicans were villains — and Trump cheerfully and gleefully embraced that role. Quite a few Republican grassroots voters signed on for that characterization as well; having seen Mitt Romney demonized, Republicans figured they might as well gain the advantages of nominating a devil. That paid off in 2016, although we will probably be arguing until the end of time whether only Trump could have beaten Hillary Clinton, or whether she was such a quietly weak and overrated candidate that multiple Republicans could have beaten her.

But the progressive Left is a much stronger cultural force in 2021 than it was on Election Day 2016, and it is hard to believe that Trump’s presidency had nothing to do with that. Nor is there much reason to think that any future version of Trump will be any less of a cultural accelerant; in a March interview with Laura Ingraham, Trump said of the January 6 Capitol Hill riot, “It was zero threat, right from the start, it was zero threat. Look, they went in, they shouldn’t have done it. Some of them went in, and they are hugging and kissing the police and the guards, you know, they had great relationships. A lot of the people were waved in, and then they walked in and they walked out.”

This is something to think about as House Republicans contemplate kicking Liz Cheney out of leadership while taking a “wait and see” attitude toward Matt Gaetz.

Full House

One day after this newsletter told you that “the odds of Democrats’ keeping the House keep getting worse. Post-census redistricting will help Republicans here and there, and the retirements of Democratic incumbents from swing-y districts keep piling up,” the New York Times informs its readers that “with 18 months left before the midterms, a spate of Democratic departures from the House is threatening to erode the party’s slim majority in the House and imperil President Biden’s far-reaching policy agenda.”

The Times notes that we probably haven’t seen the last Democratic House retirement from a swing district this cycle:

[In addition to Charlie Crist], two other Democratic representatives, Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park and Val Demings of Orlando, are weighing runs for statewide office.

All three now hold seats in districts President Biden carried handily last November, but with Republicans in control of Florida’s redistricting process, the state’s congressional map is likely to soon be much better for Republicans than it is now.

Representative Filemon Vela of Texas, whose Rio Grande Valley district became eight percentage points more Republican from 2016 to 2020, chose retirement rather than compete in what was likely to be his first competitive re-election bid.

Here’s a dirty little secret about the House of Representative elections: Very few Washington political reporters pay close attention to them until the very end of the cycle, because they’re way more complicated and harder to get a handle on than statewide Senate elections. If I say “Pennsylvania,” you probably picture the Liberty Bell, Valley Forge, and steel mills. If I tell you that “The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, chaired by Obama-era attorney general Eric Holder, released a statement calling for Pennsylvania’s 15th congressional district to be eliminated,” you probably have no idea where that district is. (It’s a big chunk of the northwest corner of the state, but does not include Erie or much of the Pittsburgh suburbs.)

There’s still plenty of road ahead between now and the midterm elections. But these trends tend to pick up momentum as the cycle progresses. When a president wins, he brings out a lot of grassroots supporters to the polls who won’t be as motivated in off-year special elections, gubernatorial elections, and midterm congressional elections. For the two-year span after a president wins, the opposition grassroots get fired up and the president’s grassroots get complacent. It doesn’t happen every year, but it happened in 2006, 2010, 2014, and 2018. (Yes, the GOP picked up two Senate seats in 2018, mitigating the effect somewhat. Republicans still got clobbered in the House and gubernatorial races.) White Houses and their affiliated party committees know about this pattern and exert enormous effort to counter it — but most cycles, their efforts don’t do much good.

All over the map, there are House Democrats who won in 2020 in part because turnout in a presidential year was just high enough to put them over the top. In New Jersey’s seventh district, Tom Malinowski won by 1.2 percentage points while Biden was carrying the district, 54 percent to 44 percent. In Illinois’s 14th congressional district, Lauren Underwood won by 1.4 percentage points while Biden won by two points. In Iowa’s 3rd congressional district, Cindy Axne won by 1.4 percentage points, while Trump won that district by a tenth of a percentage point. In Virginia’s seventh district, Abigail Spanberger won by 1.8 percentage points, while Biden won by one point.

It works the other way, too; Republicans Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa, Claudia Tenney of New York, Mike Garcia and David Valadao of California, and Burgess Owens of Utah all won by the skin of their teeth in 2020 and should expect serious challenges and have little room for error in 2022.

Control of the House will probably come down to the mood of the country and the issue environment in the fall of 2022 — and Biden’s approval rating will probably be one useful measurement tool. By October 2010, Obama’s approval rating in the Gallup poll had dropped from the post-inauguration 66 percent to 45 percent. In the FiveThirtyEight poll aggregator, Biden’s approval rating started at 53 percent . . . and remains at 53 percent.

Thanks a Lot, Guys

I don’t usually like to pick on the U.S. intelligence community, but sometimes you see a report that almost seems tailor-made to elicit a “duh” response: “U.S. intelligence agencies are warning that any gains in women’s rights in Afghanistan made in the last two decades will be at risk after U.S. troops withdraw later this year.

That’s great, guys. Now could we get an update to the National Intelligence Estimate that water is wet?

ADDENDUM: Former secretary of labor Robert Reich complains that Pfizer made $3.5 billion on its COVID-19 vaccine in the past three months.

How much should that company make for creating and mass producing 430 million doses of the most effective coronavirus vaccine out there, the first mRNA vaccine ever produced, that is helping to stop a global pandemic that has killed 3.2 million people around the world?

By my math, $3.5 billion divided by 430 million doses comes out to $8 a dose. Hey, Reich, let me find a Hamilton, a Lincoln, and a Washington and I’ll cover Pfizer’s profit on your doses.

The New York Times reports that Pfizer’s “profit margins on the vaccine would be in the high 20 percent range.” When you save the world, I think you’re entitled to bring home the bacon!