Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:
The Wall Street Journal on U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr's comments that no widespread fraud was detected in the recent presidential election:
Bill Barr can take the heat, and on Tuesday the stalwart Attorney General guaranteed he’ll get it when he said “to date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”
Mr. Barr told the Associated Press that allegations of “particularized” fraud, with some that “potentially cover a few thousand votes,” are being explored. But President Trump is down by 150,000 votes in Michigan, 80,000 in Pennsylvania, and 20,000 in Wisconsin. As for the idea that voting machines were compromised, Mr. Barr said the feds “have looked into that, and so far, we haven’t seen anything to substantiate that.”
As specific claims of fraud get knocked down, however, the broader tale of election theft takes on the nature of the unfalsifiable. “We won the election easily,” Mr. Trump said Sunday. He later added: “It’s not like you’re going to change my mind.” But where’s the hard evidence to convince the country? Many of the theories floating around don’t withstand scrutiny.
— “Ballot dumps”: It’s being painted as suspicious that big batches of votes were reported in the early hours of Nov. 4. To take Wisconsin: Mr. Trump complained in a tweet that Joe Biden got “a dump of 143,379 votes at 3:42AM.” But the explanation is prosaic: Contemporaneous reporting says this is when Milwaukee’s central counting location finished with roughly 170,000 mail ballots. They included votes for both candidates but broke heavily for Mr. Biden.
The timing is unfortunate, but Wisconsin law doesn’t let counties process absentee ballots until Election Day, unlike states that reported early, including Florida. Still, the margin in Milwaukee County doesn’t look crazy: Mr. Biden won 69% to 29%, compared with Hillary Clinton’s victory of 65% to 29%. As a share of Wisconsin’s vote total, Milwaukee County fell to 13.9%, from 14.8%. A recount finished last week increased Milwaukee’s tally by only 382 votes.
The same goes for Michigan, which reported a similar batch of ballots in the wee hours of Nov. 4. State law says mail votes can’t be processed until one day before the election. The overnight jump for Mr. Biden appears to have come from Wayne County, which includes Detroit. But again the margins aren’t wild: Mr. Biden won there 68% to 30%, compared with Mrs. Clinton’s 67% to 29%. As a share of Michigan overall, Wayne County fell to 15.8%, from 16.2%.
Where Mr. Biden shined was the suburbs. To take Pennsylvania, he won Philadelphia with 81% to 18%, notably worse than Mrs. Clinton’s 83% to 15%. Meantime, Philly shrank to 10.7% of the state total, from 11.6%. But look at the surrounding areas: Mr. Biden beat Mrs. Clinton’s share by 3.1 points in Bucks County, 3.4 in Delaware County, and 3.7 in Montgomery County.
— Vote totals: “I got 74 million votes, the largest in the history of a sitting president,” Mr. Trump said Sunday. It’s 11 million more than in 2016. Yet he lost to Mr. Biden, who Mr. Trump said “did not get 16 million more votes than Barack Hussein Obama.”
What’s unbelievable? The electorate grows. Since 2012, the voting-eligible population has risen by 17 million, according to estimates by the U.S. Elections Project. Turnout in 2020 was historic, helped by expanded absentee voting. If enthusiasm was also high, perhaps it’s because Donald Trump has been a polarizing President and drove Democratic as well as Republican turnout. As for the failure of bellwether states, they’re predictive until they’re not. Florida and Ohio have trended red for years.
— Poll watchers: Judges have dismissed affidavits submitted by the Trump camp as “rife with speculation and guess-work” and “inadmissible as hearsay.” Other claims made in public circulate largely without being tested. A poll watcher from Delaware County, Pa., alleged last week, without giving any evidence, that 47 USB cards used in the election “are missing, and they’re nowhere to be found.” Where’s the proof? “We are aware of these allegations,” says Laureen Hagan, the chief elections clerk in Delaware County. “They are false. All votes on all scanners have been accounted for.”
— Dominion: On Sunday, Mr. Trump called Dominion voting systems, used in dozens of states, “garbage machinery.” But the totals from Georgia’s hand recount closely matched the results from its scanners. How does Mr. Trump explain that? In an op-ed for these pages, Dominion’s CEO denied the “bizarre” claim that his company is tied to Hugo Chávez. Third-party labs, he said, “perform complete source-code reviews on every federally certified tabulation system.”
Fighting such claims is like whack-a-mole. No, Pennsylvania didn’t count more mail votes than it sent out. No, Wisconsin didn’t have 89% turnout. No, several states didn’t simultaneously quit counting ballots on election night. No, ballots in Arizona filled out with Sharpie markers weren’t discounted. In an election with 155 million votes, there are no doubt irregularities and maybe some fraud. But for Mr. Trump to win the Electoral College, he’d need to flip tens of thousands of votes in multiple states.
We’re open to evidence of major fraud, but we haven’t seen claims that are credible. Now comes Mr. Barr, who has no reason to join a coverup. He likes his job. He wanted Mr. Trump to win. As the election timetable closes, Mr. Trump should focus on preserving his legacy rather than diminishing it by alleging fraud he can’t prove.
The Guardian on an Iranian nuclear scientist’s assassination:
As any dramatist could tell you, when can be as important as what. The assassination of the Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh last week was a reckless and provocative act, tagged as a potential breach of international law not only by the UN rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, but also by the former CIA chief John Brennan. Though no one has claimed responsibility, US officials have indicated that the killing is the work of Israel; previous assassinations of nuclear scientists have been attributed to Mossad.
What is truly striking is the timing. Fakhrizadeh was a top target, but the last such killing was in 2012, and the Obama administration had warned Israel off other hits. It is hard to believe it is a coincidence that this took place as Donald Trump prepares to reluctantly leave office. As such, it appears to have less to do with events in Iran than with politics in the US and indeed Israel, where Benjamin Netanyahu is looking once more to his electoral prospects. The real damage done is not to the Iranian nuclear programme, but to diplomacy. The suspicion is that the intent is to provoke a reaction that the president-elect, Joe Biden, might feel unable to ignore, making his plans for a return to the nuclear accord even tougher – or, worse still, which allows the Trump administration to hit back harder. Iran has vowed to respond. Though it understands the forces in play and is usually careful to calibrate its actions, the killing – coming months after the US killed Iran’s most powerful general, Qassem Suleimani – has highlighted its vulnerability. This is a dangerous moment.
The real problem, however, is not the actions of the last few days, but of the last four years. Mr Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the Iran nuclear deal – despite Iranian compliance, and since then has done all he can to destroy it. From a combination of ideology and, in Mr Trump’s case, a narcissism and vindictiveness that made him determined to dismantle his predecessor’s signature achievement, the administration has undermined Iran’s moderates, including the president, Hassan Rouhani, and strengthened the hardliners. The damage has been compounded by actions such as approving the sale of nuclear technology to Iran’s great foe, Saudi Arabia.
The message Mr Trump sent was that the US is both untrustworthy and unreliable, and that any agreement is likely to be temporary and to rest upon the president’s whim. That Mr Biden will be regarded as a more predictable player may affect short-term calculations; but in the longer term, other countries see the US as fundamentally less dependable. These lessons will be heeded not only by Tehran, but by others; notably Pyongyang.
The E3 – UK, France and Germany – have battled to hold the line against intense US pressure and done all they can to shore up the JCPOA. This has only limited the damage. Iran has steadily been breaching its commitments in the deal, in what it portrays as a response to US betrayal and an attempt to increase support from the other JCPOA signatories. Creating a roadmap to bring Iran and the US back into line with the original agreement would be helpful.
But Mr Biden is not inaugurated until 20 January. The screws are still tightening on the Iranian economy. We already know that Mr Trump mooted the possibility of an attack on nuclear facilities, but was warned off by aides. He has since reportedly given his advisers the go-ahead to turn up the pressure as long as they don’t “start world war three”. Some hope that the Israeli Defence Forces and Pentagon could slowroll any especially dangerous initiatives. But the risk is real that the harm done since 2016 could soon be magnified. Though Mr Trump’s departure is a cause for relief, it cannot come soon enough.
The San Francisco Chronicle on Justice Amy Coney Barrett shifting the Supreme Court’s balance:
It didn’t take long for Justice Amy Coney Barrett to shift the balance of the U.S. Supreme Court. On Wednesday night, the high court issued a ruling against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s restrictions on religious services to curtail the spread of COVID-19.
The 5-4 ruling won’t have any immediate practical effect. New York had already loosened the guidelines days earlier. But Barrett’s alignment with the court’s most conservative justices — Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh — removed any doubt that the nomination that was rushed through just before the election was going to have an impact.
Chief Justice John Roberts, while conservative, had sometimes served as a moderating influence on the court before the Sept. 18 death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He had cast the deciding votes to remove a U.S. citizenship question from the 2020 census and to uphold the Affordable Care Act.
Most pertinent to this conflict of public health and religious liberty, Roberts sided with California and Nevada earlier this year in their orders to put stricter restrictions on houses of worship than on other indoor gatherings. In the California case, Roberts wrote that government officials should not “be subject to second-guessing by an unelected federal judiciary, which lacks the background, competence and expertise to assess public health and is not accountable to the people.”
With Roberts suddenly outnumbered, that is exactly what happened in the New York case. At issue were the limits to 10 attendees in the red zones, where infections are highest, and 25 in the more permissive orange zones. Those restrictions were challenged by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Jewish individuals, synagogues and organizations as a violation of religious liberty.
Justice Neil Gorsuch, one of three Trump appointees on the court, argued that the state was treating secular activities more favorably than religious gatherings. “It is time — past time — to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues and mosques,” he wrote.
Actually, in the real world, people spend less time and in less proximity to others in a liquor store or bike shop than they would in a house of worship. Roberts noted as much in citing the activity in banks, grocery stores and laundromats in his opinion that upheld the California restrictions.
In the New York case, Roberts’ dissent did acknowledge that the New York guidelines on religious services seem “unduly restrictive.” But he rightly noted that there was no pressing need to address this “serious and difficult question,” considering that the restrictions had been lifted.
This case has been drawing outsize attention because conflicts involving claims of religious freedom and other individual rights have been reaching the court in recent years — and Barrett’s arrival was either greeted or dreaded, depending on one’s perspective, as solidifying the majority toward religious prerogatives. For example, a divided court in 2014 allowed family-owned companies to deny contraceptive coverage under Obamacare on religious grounds and in 2018 held that a Christian baker could refuse to make a wedding cake for same-sex couples. In a recent speech to the Federalist Society, Justice Samuel Alito bemoaned that the pandemic has resulted in “previously unimaginable” restrictions on individual liberty. “It pains me to say this, but in certain quarters, religious liberty is fast becoming a disfavored right.”
The New York ruling suggests that has become the prevailing view on the nation’s highest court.
The New York Times on how the Biden Administration could support a regional effort to stabilize Afghanistan:
For years, the stalemate in Afghanistan has left American officials torn between two bad options: Prop up a corrupt, hopelessly divided Afghan government indefinitely or admit defeat and go home, leaving the country to its fate. At 19 years and counting, the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan is already the longest war in American history. A consensus has been forming that it is time for U.S. troops to come home. But the speed of the withdrawal and whether any residual force will be left behind to carry out counterterrorism operations remain open questions.
The Trump administration has taken laudable steps toward a U.S. exit. In February, it struck a deal with the Taliban to withdraw American forces from the country within 14 months. In exchange, the Taliban agreed to cut ties with Al Qaeda, prevent terrorists from using Afghanistan as a base for international attacks, help reduce violence and participate in talks with Afghanistan’s political leadership to try to end the conflict.
American diplomats have been pressing the Taliban to live up to their end of the bargain. Qaeda fighters are still believed to be embedded with the Taliban, although Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, may now be dead, according to Pakistani media. Intra-Afghan peace talks began in Doha, the capital of Qatar, in September but have stalled over a fresh wave of attacks and uncertainty over whether the Biden administration will honor the deal with the Taliban. Over the weekend, the Taliban announced on social media that both sides had agreed to a set of guiding principles for the talks, but President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan has reportedly pushed back on that claim, denying that an agreement has been reached.
The two sides have yet to begin confronting a host of seemingly irreconcilable differences, including whether to be a theocracy or a republic, and the status of women and followers of the Shiite sect of Islam. The Taliban claim that they now accept Shiites as fellow Muslims. But previously Taliban leaders have justified persecuting them as infidels. In 1998, Taliban commanders massacred thousands of Hazaras, an ethnic minority that predominantly follows Shiite Islam, when they took power in their region. Today, two commanders of that bloody operation are among the Taliban negotiators in Doha. Some Hazaras fear the Taliban are simply going through the motions of peace talks until U.S. forces leave.
Efforts to hold the Taliban accountable for their commitments have been undercut by the Trump administration’s abrupt announcement that it will pull all but 2,500 American troops out of the country by Jan. 15, regardless of whether the conditions the Taliban agreed to have been met. President Trump, who spent Thanksgiving 2019 with U.S. soldiers at Bagram Airfield, wants to keep a promise to bring American soldiers home before he leaves office. But NATO’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, expressed alarm at Mr. Trump’s announcement and said the alliance would continue to train Afghan security forces even with the planned U.S. reductions. NATO has 12,000 personnel in the country, about half of whom are often American troops, and relies heavily on the U.S. military for transportation and logistics.
President-elect Joe Biden is unlikely to depart radically from the Trump administration’s exit plan. Mr. Biden opposed the Obama-era surge in Afghanistan and wrote in the spring in Foreign Affairs magazine that “it is past time to end the forever wars.”
But an American withdrawal does not have to mean ending financial support for the Afghan people or leaving the region in chaos. The United States has a moral obligation to work with regional partners to try to clean up the mess we are leaving behind.
Americans have the geopolitical luxury of flying away from a war they plunged into in 2001 in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Afghanistan’s neighbors do not. Six countries share a border with Afghanistan. Not one wants a failed state on its doorstep. Afghanistan has been at war almost continuously since 1978, partly because its powerful neighbors have all tried to manage the chaos inside it by funding proxies. A debilitating free-for-all might be prevented if Afghanistan’s neighbors work together to support a peace process.
This is a rare instance where Iran, Russia, China, Pakistan and the United States all share a common interest: the orderly departure of American troops and preventing Afghanistan from imploding.
Mr. Trump, who has a well-known allergy to multilateral cooperation and a zero-sum mentality toward Iran and China, has been unable to fully engage Afghanistan’s neighbors in the effort to stabilize the country. In March 2019, American diplomats threatened to veto the U.N. Security Council resolution renewing the mandate of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan because it referred to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. And the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran scared off international investors in Chabahar, an Iranian port considered essential for increasing trade in landlocked Afghanistan.
Barnett Rubin, a former State Department official who is now the director of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Regional Project at New York University, argues that the United States would benefit from having a strategic vision for the region that was bigger than “no Al Qaeda.”
“Stop looking at Afghanistan as either ‘war on terror’ or nothing and broaden the aperture to see that it is a country in a region with China, Russia, Iran, India and Pakistan — four nuclear powers,” he said. “They all have a very strong interest in trying to stabilize Afghanistan. Even though they want our troops out, they are worried we are doing it too quickly.”
The Biden administration is better positioned to test the limits of regional diplomacy. While it is far from clear that Afghan talks can negotiate a political settlement that will end the war between the Taliban and the Afghan government, a coordinated regional approach is more likely to produce success than a rapid unilateral American withdrawal. American soldiers should not be held hostage to a peace agreement that might never come. But with U.S. troops down to 2,500 soldiers, some portion of which is needed as a security umbrella for the embassy, the costs of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan have fallen sharply. The Biden administration has time to craft a more responsible withdrawal.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch on the Trump Administration’s decision to lift federal protected-species status from the gray wolf:
Perhaps it’s President Donald Trump’s well-documented dislike of animals that has prompted his administration’s premature move to lift federal protected-species status from the gray wolf in the lower 48 states. But more likely, it’s the same reason this White House has long treated America’s majestic wildlife as if it’s an infestation: because it is determined to grant business interests whatever they might ask, no matter what the environmental costs. This move, like previous short-sighted attacks on protected wildlife by Trump, deserves challenge in court as well as review once President-elect Joe Biden takes office.
When Europeans arrived in North America, about 2 million gray wolves prowled from coast to coast. Aggressive eradication left that population at about 1,000 by around 1950. The gray wolf was put on the federal endangered species list in 1974. The population has rebounded — further proof that such protection works — but it isn’t yet out of the woods, so to speak. Only around 7,000 gray wolves are believed to be in the contiguous U.S. now, roaming just 10% of their original range.
Yet the administration has announced it is imminently “turning gray wolf population management back over to states and tribes.” In other words, state and tribal officials will again be allowed to sanction hunting and other methods of killing the wolves in their jurisdictions, as they did before the gray wolf was listed as an endangered species.
Ranchers have long fought to lift the wolf protections because of attacks on livestock. Hunters also are eager to have the wolves de-listed from protected status because they compete for game — which seems somewhat unsportsmanlike. The wolves’ advocates say the livestock losses are actually marginal and can be mitigated by adequate fencing and other nonlethal means, and that wolves’ role in keeping down grazing by elk and deer aids in new growth of trees and vegetation, which is an overall environmental benefit.
What does Trump’s White House have against wildlife? Last year, the administration weakened the Endangered Species Act to reduce the amount of set-aside habitat — the goal being to allow unfettered drilling and mining on previously protected land. It also moved to reinterpret the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to eliminate liability for industry that fails to take basic steps to ensure its activities don’t kill birds. The administration has even changed the rules in Alaska’s natural preserves to allow hunters to bait hibernating bears and cubs from their dens to kill them, and to shoot swimming caribou from boats and planes. Again: sportsmanship?
America’s astounding natural treasures, including the furred and feathered ones, are an irreplaceable part of the national heritage. They must not be sacrificed to the whims of business interests that care about nothing but profit — and a president who has opened the store to them.
The Chicago Tribune on an imminent coronavirus vaccine:
In three separate announcements in recent weeks, three scientific teams at different pharmaceutical companies have given a weary, frightened world what it needs: a verifiable path to defeat the coronavirus pandemic, end the suffering and start the process of returning life to the normal rhythms of “before.”
Imagine again going to work and school, to restaurants and concerts without significant risk of infection. Imagine being able to travel. Imagine hugging family members and friends. We are likely to get there in 2021 because a safe, effective COVID-19 vaccine appears on pace for emergency regulatory approval and fast rollout. This gift of science will be ready — if we accept it.
Wait, if we accept it?
The big question about a COVID-19 vaccine has shifted from efficacy to whether enough Americans will agree to receive it. Skepticism of inoculations is frustratingly widespread, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that they work. Shots are unpleasant and sometimes come with side effects. The anti-vaxxer movement has attacked vaccines for mistakenly believing they may cause autism. In the Black community, suspicions run deep because of the legacy of past abuses by the medical system.
Dr. Susan Bailey, president of the Chicago-based American Medical Association, tells us she trusts the career scientists in charge of the regulatory process to approve a safe COVID-19 drug. Yet she worries: “I think our biggest concern is that we have a great vaccine and people don’t take it.”
A Pew Research Center survey in September of about 10,000 adults found that just 21% of U.S. adults would definitely get a COVID-19 vaccine, and 24% said they definitely would not. The rest were somewhere in the middle, leaning for or against. This is troubling news. If the vaccine becomes an optional response to the pandemic, the virus will continue to spread and cause harm to families and the economy. The country can’t get back to work fully until the outbreak is contained, and the vaccine is the way to get there. “We have to have a significant number of people take it to get to herd immunity,” Bailey warns.
The Pew survey asked a theoretical question about a vaccine. We now have some confirmed details and early results from clinical trials of three different vaccines. Those results are promising. Versions from two U.S. drugmakers Pfizer (with German partner BioNTech) and Moderna are about 95% effective, the companies report. Both vaccines rely on revolutionary technology that uses messenger RNA, or mRNA, to create protection at the molecular level by injecting a piece of genetic code that primes the body’s defenses. Bailey says this would be the first mRNA vaccine to get broad use.
A third vaccine, developed by Europe’s AstraZeneca and Oxford University, relies on a more traditional method of using a modified inactive cold virus to trigger an immune response. AstraZeneca says its vaccine is about 70% effective, but there is some confusion about the data. When researchers injected test subjects with a half dosage the effectiveness jumped to 90%. AstraZeneca’s vaccine would be less expensive and easier to distribute than the other two because it doesn’t have to be kept in a deep freeze.
There are still plenty of questions about what the national vaccination project will look like, the timing of distribution and who might get which version of the two-injection regimen. The vaccine is expected to be administered without charge because the federal government is paying. Washington is coordinating with the states on the rollout, which should begin before the end of the year. It will take months until most Americans are inoculated. Will it be a one-time shot, or every five years? Not yet know. Side effects? Maybe some temporary flu-like discomfort for some people.
Those are details. The crucial step will be to break through vaccine anxiety, and the best way to do that is for vaccine developers, regulators and experts to share as much information as possible about the COVID-19 vaccine’s effectiveness, and about any shortcomings. Its fast development makes some people uneasy. The power of the anti-vaxx movement, based on bogus science, hurts credibility. Members of the Black community harbor distrust that dates at least to the infamous Tuskegee experiment, when Black men in Alabama were left untreated for syphilis as part of a study. Those concerns need to be addressed by the medical establishment and by doctors and nurses speaking frankly to individual patients.
Need reassurance that vaccines work? Diseases like polio and smallpox were eradicated in the United States by vaccines. Measles disappeared 20 years ago, but it’s made a small comeback — because some parents stopped vaccinating their children.
Need a further dose of confidence? Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading authority on infectious diseases, tells USA Today that once the vaccine gets FDA approval, he’ll take it and recommend that his family does too. He says COVID-19 can be defeated, and life can begin to return to normal. But only when the overwhelming majority of people are protected by the vaccine and herd immunity kicks in.
“It’s kind of dependent upon us,” Fauci says.
He’s right. Prevention is always better than treatment.
The vaccine is coming. Get ready to accept it.