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The Daily 202: Biden shifts from ‘Vaccinate America First’ to dose diplomacy

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with Mariana Alfaro

Welcome to The Daily 202 newsletter! Today, we look at the Biden administration's U-turn on sharing vaccines abroad. But don’t miss the latest on the president's trip to Atlanta and his relationship with labor unions. Send me links to politics or policy stories you think deserve more attention! And tell your friends to sign up here.

Just weeks ago, President Biden was bluntly turning down requests from Canada and Mexico to share America’s coronavirus vaccine stockpile. That all changed this week with plans to send millions of doses to each ally.

The remarkable about-face on Thursday came after India as well as U.S. rivals Russia and China have stepped up vaccine diplomacy over the past few months, sending free inoculations abroad as a way of cultivating goodwill and influence. 

The news also followed by mere hours Mexico’s announcement that it would shut its southern borders to all nonessential travel through at least April 21. “The toughening on the southern border is happening amid an increase in the flow of immigrants from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala bound for the United States,” the Mexican daily Reforma noted.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki later confirmed the outlines of a plan to send 2.5 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine to Mexico and 1.5 million to Canada. Psaki strove to portray the developments as “parallel” and not a quid pro quo fueled by the U.S. need for more Mexican help to contain an escalating immigration crisis.

“There have been expectations set outside of unrelated to any vaccine doses or request for them that they would be partners in dealing with the crisis on the border. And there have been requests, unrelated, for doses of these vaccines,” she told reporters.

“Every relationship has multiple layers of conversations that are happening at the same time.”

Pressed on whether this amounted to a U.S. foray into vaccine diplomacy, Psaki replied, “I wouldn’t read into it more than our ability to provide, to lend vaccine doses … to a neighboring country where there is a lot of traffic that goes back and forth between the countries.”

Still, it’s a big shift for the Biden administration, which had long promised to vaccinate Americans first despite the massive global inequality in access to vaccines. The new approach comes just as Biden announced the United States would reach his goal of administering 100 million shots within his first 100 days by today just 58 days into his term which makes sending vaccines overseas politically easier. 

Biden must juggle pressure to contain the pandemic at home with a vast shortage of doses abroad that stands as an obstacle to herd immunity worldwide. High-income countries representing just a fifth of the global adult population have purchased more than half of all vaccine doses, per the Kaiser Family Foundation. And the U.S. has bought enough vaccines to vaccinate 750 million people, well over the threshold needed to fully immunize the 260 million adults in the United States who are eligible for vaccination, as my colleague Paige Winfield Cunningham reported last week. But around the country, people are still scrambling for vaccine appointments and the herd immunity threshold remains a ways away. While about 75.5 million people have received at least one dose of a vaccine, only 41 million have been fully vaccinated, per the CDC

Mexico’s announcement was notable in part because this weekend marks one year since its border with the United States was shut to nonessential travel. The decision to extend the policy to its southern borders could help stall U.S.-bound immigrants, who have been trekking northward in larger numbers since Biden took office.

My colleagues Nick Miroff, Karen DeYoung and Kevin Sieff report

“Mexican and U.S. officials who described the agreement said it was not a quid pro quo conditioning the delivery of vaccine doses on an enforcement crackdown. Rather, the United States made clear it sought help from Mexico managing a record influx of Central American teenagers and children. Mexico pledged to take back more Central American families ‘expelled’ under a U.S. emergency health order, while also urging Biden to share the U.S. vaccine supply, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the conversations.”

At the New York Times, Natalie Kitroeff, Maria Abi-Habib, Zolan Kanno-Youngs, and Jim Tankersley noted:

“Anticipating a surge of migrants and the most apprehensions by American agents at the border in two decades, Mr. Biden asked President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico in a video call this month whether more could be done to help solve the problem, according to Mexican officials and another person briefed on the conversation.”

Just weeks ago, the White House took a vastly different line.

Hours before Biden held virtual meetings with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Feb. 23 and on March 1 with López Obrador, Psaki had ruled out sharing vaccines.

She told reporters that America would not be sending vaccines northward because “the president's first priority is ensuring every American is vaccinated. And our focus right now is getting shots in arms at home.” 

She was even blunter a week later when asked whether the United States would be sharing its vaccine supply with its southern neighbor. “No. The president has made clear that he is focused on ensuring that vaccines are accessible to every American,” Psaki said. “That is our focus.”

Biden plans to announce another vaccination goal next week. 

“We’re way ahead of schedule, but we’ve got a long way to go,” the president said Thursday. “We will not stop until we beat this pandemic.”

What’s happening now

Biden and Vice President Harris are heading to Atlanta this morning “to visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and meet with Asia American leaders in the wake of the spa shootings in Georgia that left eight people dead, including six Asian women,” John Wagner and Colby Itkowitz report. At the CDC, they will receive an update “from the team of health and medical experts who are helping lead the fight against the pandemic,” per the White House. Later, they will visit with Asian American leaders at Emory University to discuss threats to the community.  

Biden confirmed his plans to nominate former senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) to lead NASA. Nelson, a key Biden supporter during the presidential campaign, flew in the space shuttle in 1986 and oversaw NASA’s space programs while in Congress.

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Lunchtime reads from The Post

  • How Cuomo put a political loyalist in charge of New York’s vaccine rollout,” by Josh Dawsey, Michael Scherer and Amy Brittain: “[Larry] Schwartz, who previously served as Cuomo’s top deputy before leaving government in 2015, is under scrutiny for calls he made earlier this month to county officials assessing their loyalty to the governor amid a burgeoning sexual harassment investigation. Since Cuomo tapped him to oversee the state’s vaccine rollout in December, Schwartz has exerted singular influence on distribution of the vital doses across the state, according to people familiar with his role. He is involved in decisions about where vaccines go and where to locate highly sought mass-vaccination sites being rolled out by the state, they said.”
  • Former lobbyist accuses Rep. Tom Reed, a potential Cuomo challenger, of sexual misconduct,by Beth Reinhard: “Nicolette Davis said she was 25, on her first networking trip as a junior lobbyist for an insurance company, when she felt the 45-year-old congressman’s hand on her back. … Reed, his hand outside her blouse, briefly fumbled with her bra before unhooking it by pinching the clasp, Davis told The Post. … Frozen in fear, she said, she asked the person sitting to her right for help. He obliged by pulling the congressman away … Davis’s account comes at a time when Reed is considering a run against Cuomo.”

… and beyond

  • A tax code optimized for White wealth leaves Black Americans behind,” by Bloomberg Businessweek’s Ben Steverman: “Generations of lawmakers have optimized the system for White people, argues [tax law expert Dorothy Brown in her new book], with the result that in the U.S.’s supposedly progressive and race-neutral tax code, Black people end up paying more than White people with the same incomes.”
  • A private jet of rich Trumpers wanted to ‘stop the steal’ – but they don’t want you to read this,” by Vanity Fair’s Abigail Tracy: “Their cohort is emblematic of a certain segment of rich, white American society where the so-called quiet part is cacophonous background noise — private schools, booster clubs, country clubs. In Memphis there is a black-tie ball and festival where men and women … dress up as royalty and anoint one another ‘queens,’ ‘princesses,’ and ‘kings.’ This society is for the manor-born, and the conservatives among it have little to do with the caricature of the down-on-their-luck, economically anxious Trump voter of media lore.”

The first 100 days

Top labor union officials and liberal House leaders are applying new pressure to increase the federal minimum wage. 
  • “AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry will join Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), civil rights leader the Rev. William J. Barber II and others on the left for a call with reporters to lay out their strategy,” Sean Sullivan reports. They’re demanding that Biden and Democratic congressional leaders increase the wage to $15 an hour this year by including it in a must-pass bill, or in a budget-related bill that can be passed without GOP support.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is heading to El Paso today with a bipartisan group of senators. 
  • “While there, Mayorkas and the senators will ‘view operations and receive a briefing on the processing, shelter, and transfer of unaccompanied children arriving at our border,’ the Department of Homeland Security said,” Wagner and Seung Min Kim report. The trip is closed to reporters “due to privacy and COVID-19 precautions,” according to DHS.
  • The lawmakers include Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), the Democratic chairman and ranking Republican of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security.
Biden is expected to announce his first wave of nominations to reshape the courts. 
  • Like Republicans before them, Democrats are preparing to move quickly on judicial vacancies, NBC News’s Mike Memoli and Sahil Kapur report.
  • “Biden and his team have put a premium on selecting a diverse field of candidates, seeking out civil rights lawyers and defense attorneys while deprioritizing prosecutors and corporate lawyers,” they write. Chief among the candidates is District Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who could potentially replace Merrick Garland on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals a move that would put her on the Supreme Court path, fulfilling Biden’s campaign promise to choose a Black woman for the court.
Antony Blinken’s Alaska meeting with China got testy. 
  • The secretary of state “chided Beijing for ‘cyberattacks on the United States’ and ‘economic coercion toward our allies,’” John Hudson reports, while “China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, detailed the United States’ own human rights problems, citing recent Black Lives Matter protests.” Also in the meeting where U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan and China’s State Councilor Wang Yi.
  • Accusations flew: Wang criticized U.S. sanctions against Chinese officials for actions in Hong Kong. Blinken then said the U.S. “is not perfect” but has dealt with its challenges openly, and Yang then accused Blinken of speaking in a condescending tone.
  • U.S. officials had already said that no agreements and no joint statements are expected to result from the meetings," Hudson writes.
  • As he left D.C. this morning, Biden said he’s “proud” of Blinken, per the White House pool.
Some White House staffers were suspended, asked to resign or placed in remote work over their past marijuana use. 
  • The Daily Beast’s Scott Bixby, Asawin Suebsaeng and Adam Rawnsley report that some staffers “were informally told by transition higher-ups ahead of formally joining the administration that they would likely overlook some past marijuana use, only to be asked later to resign. ‘Nothing was ever explained’ on calls [about the issue], they added, which were led by White House Director of Management and Administration Anne Filipic. ‘The policies were never explained, the threshold for what was excusable and what was inexcusable was never explained.’ ”
  • Last month, NBC News reported that the White House would, on a case-by-case basis, “waive a requirement that potential appointees in the Executive Office of the President be eligible for a ‘Top Secret’ clearance. Officials said a waiver would only be granted to those who have used marijuana on a ‘limited’ basis and who are in positions that don’t ultimately require a security clearance.”

More on the pandemic

More than 4 in 10 health-care workers have not been vaccinated, a Post-KFF poll found. 

“Health-care workers were the first group in the U.S. to be offered coronavirus vaccinations. But three months into the effort, many remain unconvinced, unreached and unprotected. The lingering obstacles to vaccinating health-care workers foreshadows the challenge the U.S. will face as it expands the pool of people eligible and attempts to get the vast majority of the U.S. population vaccinated,” William Wan, Frances Stead Sellers, Naema Ahmed and Emily Guskin report

  • According to [the] poll, barely half of front-line health-care workers (52 percent) said they had received at least their first vaccine dose at the time they were surveyed. More than 1 in 3 said they were not confident vaccines were sufficiently tested for safety and effectiveness.”
  • “As many as 1 in 6 health workers said that if employers required them to get vaccinated, they would leave their job.”

The Atlanta shooting

More details are emerging on the nine Atlanta shooting victims. 
  • Yesterday would’ve been Xiaojie Tan’s 50th birthday, Meryl Kornfield reports. She was the owner of Young’s Asian Massage, and she was a mother, a recent graduate from the University of Georgia, and “a very good friend, a kind, sweet person,” a friend said.
  • Delaina Yaun, another victim, had recently gotten married and last year became a mother of two. She had Tuesday afternoon off, “so she and her husband decided to treat themselves,” Derek Hawkins reports. The couple booked a massage at Young’s. “They were in separate rooms when the gunman entered the business and started shooting, according to DeLayne Davis, a relative. Yaun was killed. Her husband escaped.
  • The Fulton County Medical Examiner’s office released the names of the four victims killed in Atlanta's Gold Massage Spa and Aromatherapy Spa: Soon C. Park, 74; Suncha Kim, 69; Yong A. Yue, 63; Hyun J. Grant, 51. Investigators said this week they were waiting to identify the four victims, who are all Korean, because they had been unable to notify all their family members, Hawkins reports.

Quote of the day

“It’s not about policing speech. I served in active duty, so you can say whatever you want on the First Amendment,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said during a House hearing on crimes against Asian Americans in response to Rep. Chip Roy's (R-Tex.) claims that the hearing was meant to shut down Republicans' rights to criticize China. “You can say racist, stupid stuff if you want. But I’m asking you to please stop using racist terms like ‘kung flu’ or ‘Wuhan virus’ or other ethnic identifiers and describe them as a virus. I am not a virus.”

A House subcommittee held a hearing on discrimination and violence against Asian Americans on March 18, days after eight people were killed at Asian-run spas. (Video: Joy Yi/The Washington Post, Photo: Photo: Getty Images/The Washington Post)

Hot on the left

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) claimed he was not involved in Trump's efforts to overturn the election. “When asked by CNN's Manu Raju why it was acceptable for him to support Trump's efforts to overturn the presidential election in Congress but to criticize Democrats for doing the same in a contested Iowa US House race, McCarthy repeatedly rejected the notion that he was trying to overturn the election at all,” CNN reports. The reality is, “Trump tried to pressure Congress to overturn the election and McCarthy raised no concerns about it. He also backed a Texas lawsuit to invalidate millions of votes, and ultimately voted in favor of overturning the election results of two states during votes that took place after the January 6 insurrection.”  

Hot on the right

An American defense of Britain’s constitutional monarchy,” by the National Review’s Joseph Loconte: “The radical Left has seized upon Oprah Winfrey’s televised spectacle with Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex in a crusade to invalidate one of the most consequential conservative institutions on the world stage. Accusations of racism within the royal family are not the point. The aim of modern liberalism can be symbolically discerned in William Walcutt’s painting, Pulling Down the Statue of George III at Bowling Green, July 9, 1776. It is to tear down everything the monarchy represents: tradition, authority, virtue, duty, love of country, and biblical religion.” 

D.C.’s lost jobs, visualized

A year since the first reported coronavirus case in the region, nearly 180,000 people have filed unemployment claims in the District. Emily Davies and Michael Brice-Saddler report on how the pandemic upended lives and businesses across a region.

This week in Washington

Biden and Harris will visit the CDC in Atlanta at 2:15 p.m. They will meet with Asian American leaders at 3:35 p.m., and Biden will deliver remarks at Emory University at 4:40 p.m. 

After returning to Washington tonight, Biden plans to head to Camp David, where the White House says he will spend the weekend.

In closing

Seth Meyers called out Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for promising a “scorched earth” Senate if Democrats change the filibuster: