The Morning Dispatch: Biden's Speedy Start

Plus: The GOP drifts back toward the pro-Trump status quo.

Happy Monday! If you don’t hear from us tomorrow, it’ll be because the suits have granted your Morning Dispatchers’ longshot bid for a snow day.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Johnson & Johnson announced Friday that its single-shot COVID-19 vaccine was 72 percent effective against moderate to severe infection among American clinical trial participants, and 57 percent effective among South African participants. Twenty-eight days post-inoculation, the vaccine demonstrated “complete protection against COVID-related hospitalization and death.”

  • Myanmar’s military reportedly staged a coup on Sunday night, detaining leader Aung San Suu Kyi and declaring army chief Min Aung Hlaing to be in charge. Suu Kyi’s political party had performed well in November’s election over the military-backed party, leading military leaders to allege voter fraud. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last night that “the United States opposes any attempt to alter the outcome of recent elections or impede Myanmar’s democratic transition, and will take action against those responsible if these steps are not reversed.”

  • Ten Republican senators—led by Sen. Susan Collins—sent a letter to President Biden over the weekend outlining their counterproposal to Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. The group will meet with Biden at the White House today to negotiate further.

  • STAT News reported Sunday that Trump administration officials lobbied Congress last fall to limit the amount of COVID-19 vaccine rollout funding for state governments.

  • Donald Trump’s impeachment defense team was shaken up over the weekend, as his five defense attorneys—including Butch Bowers and Deborah Barbier—stepped down. His office announced Sunday night that David Schoen and Bruce L. Castor, Jr. will replace them. The Washington Post reported that the initial five attorneys left the team because Trump asked them to argue debunked conspiracies about election fraud, rather than a constitutional case against a post-presidency conviction.

  • Former FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith, who pleaded guilty last year to doctoring an email in order to get a FISA warrant to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, was sentenced to a year’s probation on Friday. 

  • The Centers for Disease Control issued an order on Friday mandating mask-wearing on public transportation, from planes to busses to subways. The order goes into effect tonight at midnight.

  • Two members of the far-right militia group the Proud Boys have been hit with federal conspiracy charges over their alleged role in helping to coordinate the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. 

  • Russian security forces arrested at least 4,400 protesters who took to the streets over the weekend in a second round of demonstrations calling for the release of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was jailed late last month upon his return to Moscow. A Russian court had denied a request to free Navalny late last week.

  • Abu Yasir al-Issawi, a top Islamic State leader in Iraq, was killed in an air-and-ground strike by U.S. and Iraqi forces last week.

  • Anti-Trump group the Lincoln Project has parted ways with co-founder John Weaver following allegations that he made unsolicited sexual overtures to a number of young men involved in Republican politics, including offers of professional help in exchange for sexual favors.

  • The United States confirmed 116,105 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 7.2 percent of the 1,623,861 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 1,899 deaths were attributed to the virus on Sunday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 441,319. According to the COVID Tracking Project, 95,013 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1,545,397 COVID-19 vaccine doses were administered yesterday, bringing the nationwide total to 31,123,299.

The Executive Presidency (Again)

President Biden has wasted little time since taking office 12 days ago, enacting as much of his agenda as possible via phone and pen. All in all, he’s announced about 40 executive actions: 25 executive orders, 10 presidential memos, and four proclamations.

While it’s common practice for presidents to implement “Day One” campaign promises with early-term executive actions, Biden has substantially outpaced his predecessors. Over the same timeframe, Donald Trump and Barack Obama had both signed 20, George W. Bush five, and Bill Clinton 11.

Article II of the Constitution does not make explicit reference to executive orders other than to say the president “shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” but every president dating back to George Washington has, to varying degrees, issued his fair share. A 1957 House Government Operations Committee report declared that executive actions “have the force and effect of law” as long as they are “founded on the authority of the President derived from the Constitution or statute.”

What do the orders and memoranda actually do? Many—including the climate-specific ones we looked at last week—take aim at Trump administration policies, just as President Trump looked to undo Obama administration priorities four years ago. In an executive order signed the day he took office, Biden reversed his predecessor’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization. Another returned the United States to the Paris Agreement, in a move Biden said will “promote a significant increase in global climate ambition to meet the climate challenge.” The president also issued an order ending a Trump-era ban on transgender troops in the U.S. armed forces.

Biden also took direct aim at Trump’s immigration policies. In an inauguration day proclamation, Biden terminated his predecessor’s emergency declaration and made clear that the authorities invoked by that declaration would “no longer be used to construct a wall at the southern border.” That same day, Biden revoked Trump’s January 2017 directive targeting sanctuary cities.

Biden issued an order focused on “preserving and fortifying” Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). In another, he invalidated the Trump administration’s memo excluding undocumented immigrants from the 2020 census. The new president also dismantled Trump’s various travel bans on Muslim-majority and African nations, which Biden said undermined the United States’ national security by disrupting global networks of alliances and partnerships.

Many more executive actions centered on economic recovery and debt relief. One compelled the secretary of education to freeze federal student loan collections and keep the interest rate at zero percent, while another extended additional food assistance to families in need. A more symbolic action encouraged federal departments and agencies to “promptly identify actions they can take within existing authorities to address the current economic crisis resulting from the pandemic.” 

Biden also used executive power to address the COVID-19 crisis, beginning with orders enforcing a mask mandate on federal property and creating the position of coordinator of the COVID-19 response. Afterward, he instructed Cabinet officials to determine how the Defense Production Act could be used to bolster the manufacturing of tests and vaccination equipment.

Like his five predecessors, Biden also weighed in on the global gag rule—rescinding the Reagan-implemented policy barring federal funding to foreign nongovernmental organizations that provide abortion services or referrals. Also known as the “Mexico City policy,” the rule was repealed under Clinton and Obama, but reinstated under Bush and Trump.

Republicans have expressed frustration with Biden’s governing style thus far, particularly given the president’s oft-repeated promises of bipartisan compromise.

“One week ago, President Biden stood in front of the Capitol and stressed unity and healing,” Sen. Pat Toomey said in a statement last Wednesday. “He expressed respect for those who did not vote for him and committed to working with Congress. And then he got to the White House and immediately started a record-breaking, left-wing executive order binge that has not stopped.”

“These unilateral, partisan actions to unwind the work of the previous administration create an unpredictable regulatory environment that undermines any economic recovery while dividing us even further,” Toomey continued. “Unifying the country requires more than just words, and it is time for President Biden to take tangible action that matches his aspirational tone.”

Asked about such criticisms last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki argued the influx of executive actions was a necessary first step in repairing the damage of the Trump years.

“[Biden] ran with a commitment to take steps immediately to address the pain and suffering that the American people were feeling, and that includes overturning some of the detrimental, harmful and at times immoral policies and actions of the prior administration,” Psaki said.

A group of 10 Republican senators announced last night they had accepted an invitation to meet with Biden at the White House later today to discuss coronavirus relief legislation. 

The GOP Is Figuring Some Stuff Out

For the better part of a half decade, one of the two viable political parties in the United States has operated almost entirely in response to the whims of one man. Sure, there were some defectors (though most of them have left either Washington or the GOP by now). But for the most part, whatever Donald Trump said he was for or against, a majority of Republicans—both in Congress and around the country—would find themselves for or against as well.

It would have come as no surprise, then, if the removal of Trump from the center of the political universe last month had caused the disparate and precarious coalition the president had assembled behind him to implode. But it hasn’t. We’re only 12 days into the Biden era, but early indications are that Trump—Twitterless and golfing at Mar-a-Lago—is going to remain a key powerbroker in the Republican Party for years to come.

In the hours and days following the January 6 assault on the Capitol, Trump’s post-presidency kingmaker status was in serious jeopardy. Republican lawmakers—whose lives Trump’s rhetoric had threatened—were furious. Executive branch officials were actually discussing invoking the 25th Amendment, and Cabinet officials resigned en masse. Even Trump’s loyal famulus Sen. Lindsey Graham said the president could count him out, adding that “enough is enough.”

But as the immediate shock of the Capitol siege wore off—and the right-wing media ecosystem went into overdrive downplaying and deflecting blame for what took place—Republicans began returning to the fold. Whereas only 41 percent of Republican voters in a January 7 Politico/Morning Consult poll said they wanted Trump to play a “major” role in the GOP going forward, that number rebounded to 50 percent by January 25.

Perhaps in response to this rebound, several Republican leaders who had sought to create some space between themselves and Trump in mid-January have spent the past week closing the gap. On January 13, Mitch McConnell—then Senate majority leader—made clear he was open to convicting Trump, telling his colleagues he hadn’t made a “final decision.” But last week, McConnell—who said January 26 that he hadn’t spoken to Trump since December 15—voted with 44 of his Republican colleagues against tabling a motion dismissing the former president’s impeachment trial as unconstitutional.

Speaking on the House floor against impeachment a few weeks ago, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy conceded that Trump “bears responsibility” for the January 6 attack on Congress. Trump, McCarthy said, needs to “accept his share of responsibility, quell the brewing unrest and ensure President-Elect Joe Biden is able to successfully begin his term.”

This angered the outgoing president, leading McCarthy to reverse course and say he actually didn’t believe Trump provoked violence “if you listen to what he said at the rally.” Then, McCarthy headed down to Palm Beach in the hopes of patching things up with the former president. A readout of the meeting from Trump’s Save America leadership PAC described it as “very good and cordial,” adding that Trump “agreed to work with Leader McCarthy on helping the Republican Party to become a majority in the House.”

Members of the House Republican Conference, however, are at one another’s throats: Over Trump, over impeachment, over conspiracy theories, and over the future of the party. McCarthy reportedly told his colleagues to “cut that crap out” on a call last week.

By “that crap,” McCarthy could’ve been referring to any one of a handful of different brouhahas within the conference. Perhaps most significant is the backlash against Rep. Liz Cheney, who has faced immense pressure in recent weeks after voting to impeach President Trump. Trump’s most ardent defenders in the House have spent the past few weeks whipping up support for ousting her from her leadership position within the House, and she already has a Trumpy primary challenger back home in Wyoming. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida traveled to Wyoming on Thursday to attack Cheney on her home turf. 

While McCarthy initially offered a limited defense of Cheney, he has since echoed the complaints of those insisting on down-the-line loyalty to Trump. “Look, I support her, but I also have concerns,” he told Gray TV last week, days after his office said he opposed efforts to boot Cheney from her conference chair position. “She can have a difference of opinion, but the one thing if we’re going to lead within the conference, we should work together on that as a whole conference because we’re representative of that conference.”

And then there’s freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. It’s been obvious since the summer that the conspiracy-mongering Georgian was going to cause problems for the GOP once she got to Washington. Last week, a bevy of old Facebook posts and video clips came to light in which she had indicated support for executing prominent Democratic officials, blamed a Jewish-controlled space laser for California wildfires, and insinuated that the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was a “false flag” event.

But the attention has been nothing but good for Greene: She announced last week she’d raised $1.6 million since the initial story about her Facebook posts broke. Plus, on Saturday, she touted her support from the person who matters most.

“I had a GREAT call with my all time favorite POTUS, President Trump!” she tweeted. “I’m so grateful for his support and more importantly the people of this country are absolutely 100% loyal to him because he is 100% loyal to the people and America First.”

Worth Your Time

  • Last week’s GameStop stock market bonanza—with its ready-to-hand narrative of a plucky rabble pitted against stockbroking elites—was the event that launched a million hot takes. So we appreciated this even-keeled editorial about the event from National Review, which walked through online broker Robinhood’s much-derided decision to halt trading on Thursday, and why new legislation would be an unwise response. “One could argue that it is Robinhood’s responsibility to manage liquidity risks and ensure that trades get executed,” the editors write. “In response, Robinhood would argue that it has no obligation to execute excessively risky trades. We’ll leave it to the courts to settle that dispute. The bottom line is that the decisions of brokerages and clearinghouses to stop transacting in speculative stocks represents an organic, albeit incomplete, correction of a short-lived bubble.”

Toeing the Company Line

  • In his latest G-File, Jonah tracks what he sees as the Republican party’s descent into lunacy before advocating a retreat to “boring” conservatism. “The GOP and right-wing entertainers are twisting themselves into pretzels trying to keep conspiracy theorists, secessionists, buffalo-skin-clad insurrectionists, and the brave truth tellers willing to call out the Hebraic Meteorological Complex in their coalition,” he writes. “But they’re not lifting a finger to keep the boring, hardworking grown-ups like Rob Portman, who just want to govern responsibly.”

  • In his latest French Press, David digs into the distinction between Christian nationalism—involving “a deep emotional attachment to a particular and exclusive culture, a skewed version of history, and a false sense of ‘marked superiority’”—and Christian patriotism, which starts by loving your country “with eyes wide open” and realizing that “the aspirations of our founding have long been tempered by the brutal realities of our fallen nature.”

  • Republican Rep. Anthony Gonzalez was one of only 10 GOP House members who voted for President Trump’s second impeachment, and he’s experienced quite a bit of backlash from his constituents for doing so. “In the long arc of history, I believe it was the right vote, and I believe it sends the right message,” Rep. Gonzalez told Steve and Sarah on Friday’s episode of the Dispatch Podcast. Tune in to hear Gonzalez’s thoughts on social media regulation, our country’s crisis of leadership, and his NFL career with the Indianapolis Colts.

Let Us Know

February is our shortest month. But for those of who reside in places with a winter, it often feels like the longest—and in its relentless dreariness might be the worst. What’s your least favorite month and why?

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