Opinion
September 29, 2020

Whatever oddities and outrages occur during the rest of Tuesday's first general election debate between President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden, the problem is unlikely to be the moderator, Fox News host Chris Wallace. In the grand scheme of plausible debate moderators — not our fantasy picks, but people who might actually be chosen for the role — Wallace is about the best we'll get.

His first advantage is he is widely considered a real journalist. That is, in marked contrast to many of his fellow hosts on Fox, Wallace evinces an interest in truth and reportage. He is not merely an opinionator, and he is not a hack.

Wallace's second advantage is the simple fact of being an old (though, at 72, younger than Trump or Biden) white guy from Fox. He said on his show, Fox News Sunday, this past weekend that he aims to be "as invisible as possible" during this debate, and his identity will help. Trump is notorious for mocking personal characteristics of people who irritate him, and he seems to particularly relish lashing out at those he considers lesser than himself, especially women, minorities, and progressives. Facing Wallace, who in a superficial demographic sense is quite similar to Trump, the president may find such gross and distracting attacks more difficult to land. He cannot, for example, accuse Wallace of having "blood coming out of her wherever."

Finally, Wallace won't perform live fact checking this evening, acting on the direction of the Commission on Presidential Debates, which is run by the Democratic and Republican Parties. But his history of interaction with Trump and members of his administration suggests Wallace won't go easy on the candidates, and neither will he be cowed by their bluster. In a July interview with Trump, Wallace fact checked him repeatedly, antagonizing Trump to the point of declaring the journalist "fake news." In 2018, he taught Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that line-item vetoes are unconstitutional live on air, and in 2019, he factually steamrolled White House senior adviser Stephen Miller's claim that there's a national emergency on the southern border.

Wallace's debate questions will be as tough and pragmatic as we can hope for in a modern debate. If (when?) the evening descends into lies and drivel, don't blame the moderator. Bonnie Kristian

5:29 p.m.

A number of Republican lawmakers have reportedly claimed to be unable to attend votes due to the COVID-19 pandemic — even though they're able to appear in person at CPAC.

Several allies of former President Donald Trump in the House of Representatives have "skipped Friday's votes and enlisted their colleagues to vote on their behalf," signing letters declaring they can't themselves attend due to "ongoing public health emergency," yet at the same time, they're expected to speak at the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida, CNN reported on Friday.

Among these lawmakers is reportedly Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who already spoke to CPAC attendees on Friday. But he's not alone, as CBS News' Rebecca Kaplan reports that a total of 13 House Republicans appearing at CPAC have made proxy voting requests, citing the pandemic as the reason.

Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) was another one of these lawmakers, and his spokesperson told CBS that he "was forced to proxy vote for the first time" after the "Democrats rearranged the House schedule with extremely late notice," adding that "mentioning the pandemic in the letter is the standard language that both parties are required to use to proxy vote." The spokesperson also said that Budd "remains philosophically opposed to proxy voting" despite plans to do so himself.

Notably, Kaplan points out, "among the votes they will miss tonight: one on the COVID relief bill." Brendan Morrow

5:27 p.m.

Democrats are calling the Biden administration's airstrikes in Syria unconstitutional.

President Biden on Thursday ordered airstrikes against facilities in eastern Syria used by Iranian-backed militant groups, his first military action since taking office. The strikes were in response to several rocket attacks against U.S. targets in Iraq.

While Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the limited scope of the airstrikes "aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq," many Democrats expressed concerns on Friday that the move has done just the opposite, and argued it wasn't legally justified.

"Some Democrats said that Congress has not passed an authorization for the use of military force specifically in Syria," reports CNN.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said "there is absolutely no justification for a president to authorize a military strike that is not in self-defense against an imminent threat without congressional authorization ... we need to extricate from the Middle East, not escalate."

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) agreed, calling for an immediate congressional briefing and saying "offensive military action without congressional approval is not constitutional absent extraordinary circumstances."

Republicans, however, were seemingly largely pleased with the move. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the U.S. response a "necessary deterrent" to tell Iran that attacks on U.S. interests "will not be tolerated," reports CNN. As Fox News notes, Republican Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), among others, also applauded the strike, calling it "proportional."

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki defended the action as "necessary," and said Biden "has the right to take action" as he sees fit. She said "there was a thorough, legal response" and the Defense Department briefed congressional leadership in advance. Summer Meza

3:44 p.m.

Scientists say you can start getting optimistic about a summer with fewer pandemic restrictions — but maybe not too optimistic.

A report in The Washington Post goes so far as to say "there is a good chance that by summer ... many aspects of life will be reminiscent of a time before coronavirus." David Rubin, director of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's PolicyLab, says "the probability of a great summer is really increasing," and the article outlines a tantalizing array of activities that may soon be within reach: everything from family reunions to indoor dinner parties to even summer vacations.

Similarly, a USA Today op-ed heralds "the beginning of the end of the pandemic," attributing a major fall in infection rates largely to natural immunity following such widespread exposure to COVID-19. Vox describes epidemiologists with an attitude "of guarded optimism that the pandemic is entering its last stage," with one public health expert tentatively predicting a "normal-ish" summer.

"There are wild card factors that could change this, but I've been telling people if there are things you've been wanting to do, think July or late summer," Jeffrey Shaman, an infectious-disease expert at Columbia University told the Post.

But, of course, there are major caveats. Numbers were trending in the right direction for a few weeks, but have now plateaued or ticked back up, so we're not necessarily on a one-way path out of the woods. Experts offered a reality check in The Atlantic, saying "we still have a very long way to go." That's if we use annual flu hospitalizations and deaths as a benchmark for risk "largely considered acceptable by the public." But considering the flu kills an average of 55 to 140 Americans a day in recent years, our current COVID-19 toll of nearly 2,000 deaths per day is really far off, even if the "flu test" is "not a perfect apples-to-apples comparison," as the Atlantic writes.

Everyone is hesitant to make actual predictions at this point, and even the Post, after floating the idea of restaurants and game nights in our near future, notes CDC director Rochelle Walensky said stagnating infections numbers mark a "very concerning shift." "We may be done with the virus," said Walensky, "but clearly the virus is not done with us." Summer Meza

3:10 p.m.

After blaming Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Biden administration is announcing new sanctions against Saudi operatives, but not against the crown prince himself.

The U.S. on Friday declassified an intelligence report concluding that Mohammed bin Salman "approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi." Shortly after the report's release, Politico's Natasha Bertrand reported the U.S. Treasury Department is announcing new sanctions against General Ahmed al-Asiri, former deputy head of the Saudi intelligence services, as well as the crown prince's personal protective detail, over their alleged roles in the Washington Post journalist's killing.

However, according to Bertrand, "Crown Prince MBS will NOT be sanctioned," and Politico quotes a senior administration official as saying that the "aim is recalibration, not a rupture, because of the important interests that we do share" with Saudi Arabia. Similarly, The New York Times reports that President Biden "has decided that the price of directly penalizing" the crown prince "is too high" and that he's "simply too important to American interests to punish."

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday did, however, also announce a new "Khashoggi Ban" policy, under which the State Department will impose visa restrictions on individuals "believed to have been directly engaged in serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities" while "acting on behalf of a foreign government." Blinken also said the U.S. is now imposing visa restrictions against 76 Saudi individuals under this policy.

But a lack of direct punishment for the crown prince is likely to draw criticism, Politico's Nahal Toosi noted. "For activists, the WHOLE POINT was to punish MBS," Toosi said. "Will Biden's other new sanctions/policies appease them? Doubt it." And the Times writes that "in the end, Mr. Biden came to essentially the same place on punishing the young and impetuous crown prince as did Mr. Trump." Brendan Morrow

1:06 p.m.

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's ... a brand new Superman reboot courtesy of Ta-Nehisi Coates!

The acclaimed author is set to write a new Superman film in the works at Warner Bros. from producer J.J. Abrams, Deadline and Shadow and Act revealed on Friday.

"To be invited into the DC Extended Universe by Warner Bros., DC Films and Bad Robot is an honor," Coates told Shadow and Act. "I look forward to meaningfully adding to the legacy of America's most iconic mythic hero."

While serving as national correspondent for The Atlantic, Coates' work included pieces such as "The Case for Reparations," and he has authored books including the National Book Award-winning Between the World and Me. Coates also has experience in comic book writing, having written Black Panther and Captain America series.

Further details about the new Superman reboot, including who might direct it, haven't been revealed. It's also not clear whether Henry Cavill, who played Superman in Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Justice League, could return.

Warner Bros. Pictures Group chair Toby Emmerich praised Coates in a statement to Shadow and Act, saying his book Between the World and Me "opened a window and changed the way many of us see the world," while Abrams promised, "There is a new, powerful and moving Superman story yet to be told." Brendan Morrow

12:42 p.m.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) wanted to break the ice at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday, so he warmed up the Florida crowd with a questionable joke about his weather preferences.

"I gotta say, Orlando is awesome," Cruz said. "It's not as nice as Cancun. But it's nice."

Cruz was alluding to the trip he took to Cancun last week in the midst of a massive snowstorm plaguing Texas. Cruz's trip lasted just 11 hours, but the storm — which resulted in a yet-unknown number of deaths and widespread power outages — is still impacting Texans, making his CPAC icebreaker all the more unfunny.

As of Wednesday, more than a million Texans still lacked drinkable water in their homes, with 1.2 million people facing "water disruptions," The Texas Tribune reports. Yulissa Gonzalez, a mother of three in North Texas, detailed to The Dallas Morning News how burst pipes have caused her apartment to flood and reek of mildew. Gonzalez is one of hundreds of people in the area still awaiting post-storm repairs, writes The Dallas Morning News. One plumbing company in Austin, Texas, has over 2,500 unfulfilled customer requests, reports the Tribune, and supply chain shortages have only made the increased number of requests more daunting.

Cruz, for his part, did help pass out at least one case of water last week. Marianne Dodson

11:24 a.m.

Organizers of the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday politely reminded guests to wear a mask at the mid-pandemic event — a message that immediately drew backlash from the crowd.

At the conservative conference in Orlando, Florida, on Friday, the American Conservative Union's Dan Schneider and Carly Conley took the stage to remind those in attendance to please follow the hotel's rules that masks be worn amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a reminder that Schneider described as a "bit of a downer."

"Please, everyone, when you're in the ballroom, when you're seated, you should still be wearing a mask," Conley said. "So if everybody can go ahead, work on that. I know, I know, it's not the must fun."

The request at first draw a few stray claps, only to be followed immediately by boos and a member of the crowd yelling, "Freedom!"

This comes after Bloomberg's William Turton reported from the event on Thursday, "Just watched a #CPAC staff member ask an attendee multiple times to put his mask on," and "he turned toward her, coughed, and kept walking." Turton added, "I'd say about 60-70 percent of attendees are wearing masks, despite a rule requiring masks." American Conservative Union chair Matt Schlap told Turton he doesn't "know anything about that," also saying enforcing the mask rules is the hotel's job. Brendan Morrow

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