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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Trump allies work to place supporters in key election posts across the country, spurring fears about future vote challenges

Election challengers seek entrance to a Detroit facility to observe the counting of absentee ballots on Nov. 4, 2020. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

“In Michigan, local GOP leaders have sought to reshape election canvassing boards by appointing members who expressed sympathy for former president Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 vote was rigged.

In two Pennsylvania communities, candidates who embraced election fraud allegations won races this month to become local voting judges and inspectors.

And in Colorado, 2020 doubters are urging their followers on conservative social media platforms to apply for jobs in election offices.

A year after local and state election officials came under immense pressure from Trump to subvert the results of the 2020 White House race, he and his supporters are pushing an ambitious plan to place Trump loyalists in key positions across the administration of U.S. elections.

The effort goes far beyond the former president’s public broadsides against well-known Republican state officials who certified President Biden’s victory, such as Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey. Citing the need to make elections more secure, Trump allies are also seeking to replace officials across the nation, including volunteer poll watchers, paid precinct judges, elected county clerks and state attorneys general, according to state and local officials, as well as rally speeches, social media posts and campaign appearances by those seeking the positions.

If they succeed, Trump and his allies could pull down some of the guardrails that prevented him from overturning Biden’s win by creating openings to challenge the results next time, election officials and watchdog groups say.

“The attacks right now are no longer about 2020,” said Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold (D). “They’re about 2022 and 2024. It’s about chipping away at confidence and chipping away at the reality of safe and secure elections. And the next time there’s a close election, it will be easier to achieve their goals. That’s what this is all about.”

A spokesman for Trump did not respond to a request for comment.

Supporters of the former president who are seeking offices that would give them oversight of elections say they just want to make the system secure.

Voters have a right “to scrutinize the election process,” Kristina Karamo, a candidate for Michigan secretary of state, told several hundred demonstrators gathered on the lawn of the state Capitol in Lansing last month in support of a “forensic” audit of the 2020 results.

Karamo — who shot to prominence after making unsubstantiated allegations that she witnessed fraudulent voting as a poll challenger in Detroit — said one of her top priorities as the state’s top election administrator would be to “make sure every citizen across the state of Michigan’s voice is heard. That way illegal ballots do not nullify legal votes.”

Few states have seen more fervor for replacing election officials than Michigan, where the push extends from candidates for statewide office down to the most local level of election administration — county boards of canvassers, whose members served as bulwarks against Trump’s efforts in 2020.

One leader of the effort to challenge the 2020 vote in the state, West Michigan lawyer Matthew DePerno, is seeking the GOP nomination for attorney general. DePerno, who waged a failed legal battle over an election-night vote-counting error in Antrim County, has built his campaign around a vow to expose fraud.

“The elites in this state, the elected officials they don’t want you — the voter, the common man, the taxpayer — they don’t want you to see the voting data,” DePerno told the cheering crowd at the Lansing rally, adding: “The Democrats and the establishment don’t understand the power of the grass roots movement in Michigan.”

Neither DePerno nor Karamo responded to requests for comment.

Trump has endorsed both candidates, part of a wave of Republican contenders across the country who have embraced the former president’s false assertions about the 2020 election — including 10 running for secretary of state and eight running for attorney general, according to a tally by The Washington Post.

Earlier this year, the GOP-led Michigan Senate Oversight Committee issued a report that found no evidence of widespread or systematic fraud in Michigan’s 2020 election.

But the 2020 vote is such an animating force among Republican activists in Michigan that there is now intense focus in some large counties on the four-member canvassing boards charged with verifying the vote, certifying the results and transmitting the numbers to a state board for final certification.

These boards are typically made up of an even number of Republicans and Democrats, who in the past approached certification as a ministerial duty determined by the outcome of the popular vote.

But last fall, multiple Republican canvassers came under fire from pro-Trump forces for voting to certify the results. William Hartmann and Monica Palmer, the two Republican board members in Wayne County, home of Detroit, received calls directly from Trump, they later said in interviews.

Both initially voted not to certify, then reversed themselves after receiving promises that the vote would be audited. They then tried unsuccessfully to rescind their votes.

This year, Palmer was replaced with Robert Boyd, a Republican who said in an interview that he probably would not have voted to certify the 2020 results.

“No deals are to be made with an election,” Boyd said, referring to Hartmann’s and Palmer’s decision to certify in exchange for the pledge of an audit. “I wanted to make sure that it wouldn’t happen that way again.”

Boyd said he sought the post because “I am really interested in the integrity of elections, and I am a Christian, so I want to make sure that we do the best job we can and be as transparent as we can . . . so elections can be trusted.”

Hartmann said he regretted losing Palmer’s experience and expressed wariness about some of those being nominated to canvassing boards around the state.

“I am concerned about this,” Hartmann said in an interview in late October, before he was hospitalized this month with covid-19. “When you are on that board, you are sort of a nonpartisan. It doesn’t matter which party you are in, it matters how the numbers shake out. I am concerned that they are appointing people with strong views. We need to make decisions off the law. Not on gut emotion.”

Boyd was selected by the Wayne County Board of Commissioners from a pool of three people nominated by the county GOP committee to succeed Palmer, all of whom have expressed support for Trump’s false claims of fraud. The others were Josephine Brown, who has spoken publicly about attending the Jan. 6 rally in Washington to protest the outcome and has said she probably wouldn’t have certified the 2020 result; and Hima Kolanagireddy, whom Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani called as a witness to voter fraud at a legislative hearing last year in Lansing.

Kolanagireddy said in an interview that she withdrew her nomination because of the threatening environment. Brown did not respond to a request for comment. The Wayne County Republican Committee did not respond to email inquiries.

GOP officials also have replaced local canvassing board members in other key counties in the state, as the Detroit News first reported. In Michigan’s third-largest county, Macomb, Republican officials appointed to the canvassing board a former Republican poll challenger, Nancy Tiseo, who tweeted shortly after the 2020 election that Trump should suspend meetings of the electoral college and have “military tribunals” investigate claims about election fraud. Tiseo did not respond to a request for comment.

“This is a great big flashing red warning sign,” said Jeff Timmer, former chair of the Michigan Republican Party and a Trump critic. “The officials who fulfilled their legal duty after the last election are now being replaced by people who are pledging to throw a wrench in the gears of the next election. It tells you that they are planning nothing but chaos and that they have a strategy to disrupt the certification of the next election.”

In Genesee County, home of Flint, Michelle Voorheis, a 13-year Republican veteran of the county canvassing board, said in an interview that she believes the local GOP committee did not renominate her this year because she defended the outcome of the last election on social media.

“It makes me sad,” said Voorheis, who has participated in national and local GOP politics for decades and recently served as Genesee party chair. “I vouched for the integrity of the 2020 election, I answered peoples’ questions on Facebook and tried to explain there was no evidence” of widespread fraud.

She was replaced on the Board of Canvassers by Eric Stewart, a local pastor. In an email to The Post, Stewart did not address a question about his views on the 2020 election, but he said he was looking forward to working with the other election officials. “All I am focused on is doing the job I have been asked to do with the team members I will be working with,” he wrote.

The county clerk, Democrat John Gleason, said in an interview Friday that Stewart impressed him and had not raised questions about fraud, unlike some other GOP nominees. But Gleason lamented Voorheis’s departure, which he blamed on pressure from what he called “wacko” Republicans.

The local GOP chairman, Matthew Smith, did not respond to an email seeking comment. Smith pleaded guilty last week to a misdemeanor for “malicious use of telecommunication services,” admitting that he called Houghton County Election Clerk Jennifer Kelly, a Democrat, in March 2020, to harass her. She has said Smith threatened to kill her dogs. Since the election, Kelly has contended with a wave of claims by local residents that 2020 election was rigged.

Similar upheaval is taking place in other states. In two Pennsylvania counties earlier this month — Lancaster and York — a handful of candidates who have supported Trump’s false 2020 claims won elections to serve as local election judges and election inspectors, according to research by the States United Democracy Center, a nonpartisan group focused on free and fair elections.

“Having election deniers run elections is like having arsonists take over the fire department,” said Joanna Lydgate, who leads the organization.

“We have every reason to believe that what happened in those two counties — individuals who promote lies about the 2020 election running for and winning local seats — is happening in other places around the state and nationwide,” she added.

One of the winning candidates for election judge in Windsor Township, Pa., was Shane Lehman, who embraced claims of fraud on his Facebook page after the 2020 election and has shared statements from state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R), who has been pushing for an audit of the 2020 results in Pennsylvania. Lehman did not respond to a phone message seeking comment.

Some activists have encouraged Trump supporters to get hired inside election offices in Colorado and Pennsylvania, according to social media posts viewed by The Post.

One activist from Colorado who is a member of a Telegram channel called “Colorado Election Audit News” shared a job listing for an “IT Technical Project Manager” in the office of Griswold, the Colorado secretary of state.

The activist, Barb Crossman, declined to talk about the job posting or whom she hoped would fill it. Instead, she wrote in an email that she was hoping to invite Trump ally Stephen K. Bannon to Mesa County, Colo., to bring attention to the case of Tina Peters, the clerk barred by a judge from supervising an election after she admitted copying the hard drives of election equipment in search of evidence of corruption.

Crossman wrote: “We have to get the TRUTH out because our Colorado courts are so so so corrupted!!!”

Colorado officials said they have collected additional election job listings that have been shared on conservative social media sites.

Griswold said in an interview that she was “aware that election conspiracists are encouraging people to apply for jobs in our office.” But she added that safeguards are in place that will screen out such applicants.

“Many of the positions require a high level of expertise or skill that just can’t be falsified” she said. “Positions are available only to Colorado residents. You have to pass reference checks and background checks.”

Still, the evidence is mounting that some local officials are receptive to arguments that the 2020 vote was tainted. The FBI is investigating the incident in Colorado involving Peters and another in Ohio in which a county official appears to have provided an outsider access to a government computer system to assess claims of fraud.

The push to take over the country’s election administration is being fueled by figures including Bannon, a former senior adviser to Trump who has promoted a blueprint he and others call the “precinct strategy” to take over every level of the GOP, from statewide officeholders to volunteer poll watchers and local committee members.

“We’re taking over school boards, we’re taking over the Republican Party — through the precinct committee strategy,” Bannon said on an episode of his “War Room” podcast broadcast Nov. 12. “We’re taking over all the elections.”

“They’re there to have a free and fair count,” Bannon added, referring to those seeking election and voting oversight positions. “And we’re going to continue that and we’re going to get to the bottom of 3 November and we’re going to decertify the electors. Okay? And you’re going to have a constitutional crisis. But you know what? We’re a big and tough country, and we can handle that.”

The movement is also getting oxygen from local GOP organizations across the country. In Myrtle Beach, S.C., where the state GOP recently gathered, county Republicans who have embraced Trump’s false election claims staged a separate event called the “I Pledge Allegiance Tour.” They have also pushed for an audit in surrounding Horry County, despite the fact that Trump won overwhelmingly there.

“We took over the Republican Party in South Carolina. We kicked out the RINO b------,” Tracy Beanz Diaz, a state executive committeewoman who has touted QAnon theories, said at a Florida conference this year, according to footage reviewed by The Post. (RINO stands for Republican In Name Only and has been invoked by Trump and his allies to refer to those in the party viewed as insufficiently loyal to him.) Diaz did not respond to a request for comment.

Some national Republican leaders have shown more reluctance to fully embrace Trump’s false claims, but as the GOP base has followed the former president’s lead, party officials have faced building pressure to address concerns about election security.

In a presentation to donors last spring obtained by The Post, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel announced the formation of a “Committee on Election Integrity” that has placed public-records requests in numerous states “to ensure election officials are administering elections in a free, fair and transparent manner.”

The party is also growing its Election Day poll-watching operation into a permanent infrastructure staffed with attorneys and organizers year-round, according to RNC officials. Target states will have their own director focused on recruiting, training and deploying volunteers and poll watchers.

“We’re doing more recruitment ahead of time, instead of just a few months before Election Day,” Justin Riemer, chief counsel at the RNC, said in an interview.

Riemer said the party plans legal action in up to 10 states, including key battlegrounds. He said the replacement of election officials doesn’t particularly concern him. “The election officials who you’re seeing removed or potentially removed are the elections officials who have messed things up,” he said. “Like any job, if you don’t perform, you’re going to be replaced.”

Meanwhile, Trump is demanding fealty to the lie that he won in 2020 and has thrown his weight behind candidates who have touted claims of fraud. In Georgia, he has endorsed U.S. Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), who is challenging Raffensperger for secretary of state after the incumbent refused Trump’s entreaties to reverse Biden’s win in the state.

“People do not understand why you and Governor Brian Kemp adamantly refuse to acknowledge the now proven facts, and fight so hard that the election truth not be told,” the former president wrote in an open letter in September calling on Raffensperger to decertify the 2020 results.

Hice and Trump have been in touch throughout the year, Trump advisers said. Hice declined a request for an interview.

Trump has tried to spur 2020 reviews in other states — even after a recount of ballots in Arizona’s Maricopa County reaffirmed Biden’s victory earlier this year. He recently began promoting claims that the Wisconsin Election Commission “committed felony crimes” related to voting practices at nursing homes during the pandemic.

The former president is briefed some mornings by his spokeswoman, Liz Harrington, who promoted false claims about election fraud before she left the RNC last December, according to people familiar with the matter. Harrington collects allegations of fraud posted online and has written many of Trump’s detailed statements, particularly those attacking local politicians, according to Trump advisers. Harrington did not respond to requests for comment.

Some Republicans have refused to follow the party’s new direction — and worry that it will push away reasonable voters.

“Mainstream elected officials have become so fearful of these people that it’s pushing them to the crazy fringe,” said Walter Whetsell, a GOP consultant in South Carolina. “They fear them. I’m not positive there are significantly more of them. I’m certain they are emboldened and louder than they’ve ever been before.”

Others have urged the party faithful to look ahead and stop litigating the 2020 results.

“We have to talk about the future,” said Henry Barbour, an RNC committeeman from Mississippi. “Most people in Mississippi are concerned about gas prices, covid overreach. I think candidates are making a mistake getting in those weeds.”

He added: “I don’t hear people in Mississippi talking about whether the election was or wasn’t stolen.”

Marc Elias, a leading Democratic election lawyer, said the public should pay attention to the surge of pro-Trump forces taking over the local workings of elections, because it was at that level where the system withstood its most difficult test last year.

“The closest call was not on the floor of the House or the floor of the Senate,” Elias said, referring to efforts leading up to Jan. 6 to persuade Congress not to accept the electoral college count. “The closest call was at the Wayne County Canvassing Board, where Republicans tried to intimidate appointees not to certify the results.”

It didn’t work. But it’s a different board now, Elias said.

Emma Brown and Alice Crites in Washington and Kayla Ruble in Lansing, Mich., contributed to this report.“

Opinion: If the Supreme Court throws out ‘Roe v. Wade,’ it will tear the country apart

Opinion: If the Supreme Court throws out ‘Roe v. Wade,’ it will tear the country apart

Abortion rights and antiabortion activists protest outside the Supreme Court on Oct. 4 in D.C. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

“I remember that day well, because it was also the day when former president Lyndon B. Johnson died. I was one of the editors of the Michigan Daily, the student newspaper at the University of Michigan, and we had a passionate argument that went late into the evening over which should be our lead story. Should it be legalized abortion across the nation? Or the man who sent tens of thousands of young Americans to die in the Vietnam War?

Most of the female editors saw the historic importance of Roe and understood the impact it would have on women’s lives. Most of the male editors — myself included, I confess — could not see past Vietnam and pushed hard for LBJ. We won, sort of: The paper ended up stripping Johnson’s death across the top of the front page and putting the Roe decision right beneath it, still above the fold, with a boldface two-line headline. For history’s sake, I thought that was the right call.

I was spectacularly wrong. Johnson was indeed a towering figure, but he’d been long out of office and had to die at some point anyway. Roe was like a bolt from the blue, and with it the nation took a giant stride toward treating women as full and equal citizens under the law. The decision’s impact continues to this day — but perhaps not for many days longer.

There are those who claim that Roe is divisive, that the ruling set the stage for years of bitter conflict by recognizing a constitutional right to abortion that cannot be unduly infringed by the states. But I believe that analysis is wrong. What’s truly divisive is abortion itself — an issue on which, for many Americans, there simply is no middle ground.

Some people believe that all abortion is murder and that every pregnancy should be brought to full term. I do not share this view. But for those who do, how could there ever be compromise? What does it matter whether an abortion takes place in the first, second or third trimester, or whether it takes place before or after the point at which the fetus would be viable outside the womb? What is the difference between taking a Plan B pill and having a surgical abortion after 15 weeks? If both are “murders,” how can one be acceptable and one not?

Like most Americans, I do not believe that all abortion is murder. It doesn’t matter whether I think a line should be drawn at viability or how I believe the health and well-being of the pregnant person should be factored in. What matters is that my view, whatever its nuances, can never be acceptable to those who take an absolutist position against abortion.

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This is why I see Roe as unifying rather than divisive: It makes a yes-no decision. It sets a baseline that some of us cannot abide but that most of us applaud or can live with. It says that, yes, the Constitution, in its words and its penumbra, does protect a woman’s fundamental right to terminate her pregnancy.

Like all of our constitutionally protected freedoms, the right to choose can be restricted, but not taken away. That has been the status quo for nearly five decades, and the nation has muddled through. But if Roe is reversed — if the court rules, as its most conservative justices have argued, that no protected right to reproductive choice exists — then the political cold war over abortion will flare immediately into a roaring blaze.

If states such as Texas pass laws that effectively eliminate all abortions, those with the means will travel to other states to terminate their pregnancies. Many poor people will risk their health by seeking illegal abortions. Some doctors will most likely risk imprisonment. There will be intense pressure for pro-choice federal legislation, and abortion will be a hot-button issue in every congressional district.

As if our politics needed more heat.

Roe will never please everyone, but it has served the country well. I fear this Supreme Court is foolish enough to throw it away.“

President Biden said South Africa has turned down vaccine doses. But the issue is more complicated than that.

President Biden said South Africa has turned down vaccine doses. But the issue is more complicated than that.

A nurse prepares a dose of the coronavirus vaccine Nov. 29 in South Africa as the new omicron variant spreads. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

President Biden on Monday rebutted criticism that the United States is hoarding doses of coronavirus vaccines at the expense of South Africa and other middle- and low-income countries, pointing to the fact that South Africa has turned down additional doses in recent days.

But the story of vaccines in Africa is far more complicated than a matter of supply — a reality that became evident as vaccine availability emerged as a flash point in the days after a potentially dangerous new virus variant, dubbed omicron, was identified in southern Africa.

That story includes issues of access, fragile health-care systems and the difficulty of making sure Pfizer’s vaccine remains ultracold.

South Africa faces challenges that mirror many of those that plagued the United States in the early days of its vaccination campaign and even today. South Africa did not begin its vaccination efforts until May, six months after the United States and other Western countries. And it has struggled to get doses to hard-to-reach populations and faced significant vaccine hesitancy, much like the United States and several European countries.

“Why should we be surprised that we need to do vaccine education and behavioral interventions in South Africa when it took us a pretty heavy lift?” said Saad B. Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health. “We are not done with that job in the U.S.”

The U.S. government has “all these people who understand these end-to-end solutions — from increasing supply to actually delivering vaccine — and they are nowhere to be found” in Africa, Omer said.

Experts have said the omicron variant, which has now been confirmed in numerous countries, is the predictable outcome of vast vaccine inequity. They have called on the United States, European countries and global bodies such as the World Health Organization to do more to get doses shipped to low- and middle-income countries. As long as large numbers of people remain unvaccinated, experts argue, the coronavirus has opportunities to mutate and continue spreading. It remains unclear where the omicron variant originated.

On Nov. 28, South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa condemned countries that imposed travel bans on his country and its neighbors over the omicron variant. (Reuters)

Drugmaker Pfizer said five of the eight countries included in a travel ban imposed by the United States — Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe — have asked the company in the last several months to pause shipments because of challenges with vaccine uptake.

The company said it expects by the end of the year to ship 43 million doses to the eight southern African countries covered by the U.S. travel ban.

“Given that we have sufficient stock on hand in the country, it doesn’t make sense to receive any more orders, so we have pushed back some of those orders into the early part of next year. We are well-stocked for the moment,” said Ron Whelan, who heads the covid-19 task team at health insurer Discovery Ltd., which has been involved in the rollout of vaccine doses in South Africa. Discovery worked alongside the South African government to secure vaccine doses and set up a distribution system across the country.

Whelan said South Africa’s vaccination program peaked at about 211,000 vaccinations a day. By September, the national vaccination rate had slowed to about 110,000 per day.

He pointed to three factors: significant vaccine hesitancy, apathy and structural barriers, which include people being unable to afford to travel to vaccine sites. He also noted that South Africa’s vaccination program started six months after those in Western countries, which began vaccinating people shortly after Pfizer-BioNTech’s and Moderna’s vaccines were authorized in December 2020.

“I can tell you it was extremely hard to get access to vaccines especially when you had countries like Canada and the U.S. and various other players ordering vaccines well in advance and in quantities three to four times more than they required,” Whelan said.

The White House said Monday that several federal agencies are working with African experts and institutions to provide resources and technical and financial support in the region to expand vaccine access. It said it has provided more than $273 million through the U.S. Agency for International Development to southern African countries, including nearly $12 million to deliver and distribute vaccine doses.

Just five African countries — fewer than 10 percent of the total on the continent — are projected to reach the year-end target of fully vaccinating 40 percent of their populations, unless the pace of vaccinations accelerates. Africa has fully vaccinated 77 million people, or just 6 percent of its population.

Nearly 60 percent of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated, and more than 40 million Americans have received a booster shot, according to The Washington Post’s vaccination tracker. In South Africa, about 35 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, according to the South African Department of Health, more than in most African nations. Just 3 percent of Malawi’s population, for instance, has been fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data.

The number of Americans who have received a booster shot exceeds the number of people who have gotten a single vaccine dose in the eight African countries combined on the U.S. travel ban, according to an analysis published Monday by Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group. About 30 million people total across Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe have received at least one dose, according to the analysis.

Higher-income countries have committed to donate 1.98 billion doses around the world; the United States has pledged more than half of those doses — 1.1 billion. About 20 percent of those doses have been delivered.

Global health experts said a confluence of factors, including sometimes unpredictable deliveries from vaccine manufacturers and limited health-care capacity, have created challenges in ensuring doses make it into arms. Many countries, including South Africa, also went several months without receiving any doses and then received millions at once, overwhelming health-care systems.

In the United States, the Trump administration established Operation Warp Speed to not only help manufacture millions of vaccine doses, but also to help quickly distribute those doses on an unprecedented scale. That effort faced significant challenges during the first weeks of the U.S. vaccination rollout, even as the Defense Department and Department of Health and Human Services worked to harness the military’s logistical infrastructure.

“There’s a reason that Operation Warp Speed didn’t just place an order with Pfizer and get vaccines. There was a whole infrastructure to mass-develop vaccines, expand vaccine production and work out some of the logistics around delivery,” said Zain Rizvi, research director at Public Citizen.

“The stat that always gets me is the Pfizer vaccine was authorized Dec. 11. … Imagine if on Dec. 11 last year, the U.S. government said we’re launching Warp Speed for the world,” Rizvi added.

Many African countries lack proper storage for vaccines such as Pfizer’s, which needs to be stored at ultracold temperatures. With some vaccine donations close to their expiration dates, some countries feel they will not have enough time to distribute and safely administer them, experts say. Whelan said that while South Africa has sufficient storage for vaccines such as Pfizer’s, most countries in Africa lack the resources.

“Supply remains important, but it’s now time to shift attention to delivery of doses,” said Amanda Glassman, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. “It would be great to have more visibility on how many vaccines do we have right now and what are we doing to get them out there and are we using all possible strategies to get them out there.”

Africa, the second-largest continent by size, consists of 54 countries, each with its own set of challenges in obtaining and distributing vaccine doses. While South Africa has struggled with hesitancy, among other issues, other countries have distributed their doses fairly quickly and have asked for more supply. In Botswana, national surveys showed there was a 76 percent acceptance rate of vaccines, Malebogo Kebabonye, director of health services at Botswana’s Ministry of Health and Wellness, told the World Health Organization.

“Vaccine distribution and vaccine acceptance arguments are weaponized against the idea of expanding supply,” Rizvi said. “You don’t say Canada doesn’t deserve vaccines because there are hesitancy challenges in the U.S., but somehow it’s acceptable to do that on the African continent.”

Monday, November 29, 2021

Dancer, singer … spy: France’s Panthéon to honour Josephine Baker The performer will be the first Black woman to enter the mausoleum, in recognition of her wartime work

Dancer, singer … spy: France’s Panthéon to honour Josephine Baker

The performer will be the first Black woman to enter the mausoleum, in recognition of her wartime work

‘Resistance heroine’: Josephine Baker entertains the troops at a London victory party in 1945.
‘Resistance heroine’: Josephine Baker entertains the troops at a London victory party in 1945.Photograph: Jack Esten/Getty Images

“In November 1940, two passengers boarded a train in Toulouse headed for Madrid, then onward to Lisbon. One was a striking Black woman in expensive furs; the other purportedly her secretary, a blonde Frenchman with moustache and thick glasses.

Josephine Baker, toast of Paris, the world’s first Black female superstar, one of its most photographed women and Europe’s highest-paid entertainer, was travelling, openly and in her habitual style, as herself – but she was playing a brand new role.

Her supposed assistant was Jacques Abtey, a French intelligence officer developing an underground counter-intelligence network to gather strategic information and funnel it to Charles de Gaulle’s London HQ, where the pair hoped to travel after Portugal.

Ostensibly, they were on their way to scout venues for Baker’s planned tour of the Iberian peninsula. In reality, they carried secret details of German troops in western France, including photos of landing craft the Nazis were lining up to invade Britain.

The information was mostly written on the singer’s musical scores in invisible ink, to be revealed with lemon juice. The photographs she had hidden in her underwear. The whole package was handed to British agents at the Lisbon embassy – who informed Abtey and Baker they would be far more valuable assets in France than in London.

So back to occupied France Baker duly went. “She was immensely brave, and utterly committed,” Hanna Diamond, a Cardiff university professor, said of Baker, who on Tuesday will become the first Black woman to enter the Panthéon in Paris, the mausoleum for France’s “great men”.

Josephine Baker in uniform.
Josephine Baker in uniform. Photograph: Hi-Story/Alamy

“There’s a lot we don’t know, and may never know, about exactly what espionage work she did, the secrets she actually transmitted,” said Diamond, an expert on second world war France who is researching a book about Baker’s wartime exploits.

“Bits of her life we know a great deal about: the humble beginnings in Missouri, the international sensation of 20s and 30s Paris, the US civil rights activist, the mother of an adopted, multiracial family … That’s not the case for the resistance heroine.”

President Emmanuel Macron decided this summer that 46 years after her death, Baker would become only the sixth woman to be memorialised in the Panthéon in a ceremony on 30 November – the anniversary of the marriage to Jean Lion that allowed her to acquire French nationality.

Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St Louis in 1906, Baker left school at 12 and landed a place in one of the first all-Black musicals on Broadway in 1921. Like many Black American artists at the time, she moved to France to escape discrimination.

‘The Black Venus’: Josephine Baker, 1935.
‘The Black Venus’: Josephine Baker, 1935.
Photograph: MARKA/Alamy

Emerging from the chorus line of La Revue Nègre, she became a huge star, tapping into colonialist, racist and male sexist fantasies in performances that both shocked and delighted audiences and won admirers from Ernest Hemingway to Pablo Picasso.

Dubbed “the Black Venus”, she danced the charleston in nothing but a string of pearls and a skirt made of 16 rubber bananas, performed with a snake wrapped suggestively round her neck, strolled down the Champs-Élysées with her pet cheetah, and became an international superstar.

Off stage, as the hit songs and starring movie roles succeeded one another, Baker cultivated a scandalous private life, having affairs with men and women including the novelist Colette, the architect Le Corbusier and the crown prince of Sweden.

After the war she fought for equal rights as energetically in public as at home, speaking before Martin Luther King at the 1963 March on Washington and adopting 12 children from around the world to live with her in her chateau in the Dordogne.

Josephine Baker and her husband, Jo Bouillon, stroll through the Tuileries in Paris with seven of the children they adopted.
Josephine Baker and her husband, Jo Bouillon, stroll through the Tuileries in Paris with seven of the children they adopted. Photograph: Bettmann/Getty Images

Her wartime spying activities, however, are – for obvious reasons – rather less reliably documented. Much of what is known, said Diamond, who recently published an initial, primary source extended essay on Baker’s war, comes from a book Abtey published in 1948.

“He was a maverick figure – a bit of an operator,” she said. “He was clearly telling his own story, making his own case, at least as much as he was telling hers. He was not, let’s say, disinterested, and it’s proving hard to track down original source material to verify his account.”

What is sure, though, is that Abtey recruited Baker after meeting her – reluctantly – in late 1939, introduced by a patriotic promoter. Determined to show her gratitude to the country that had made her and contribute to the war effort, the star was already performing for Allied troops, and working with refugees for the Red Cross. (Later in the war, she would refuse to perform for Germans).

“She had an unconditional love for France. She wanted to do her bit for the patrie,” said Diamond. “She also intuitively understood the dangers of Nazism. She helped Lion and his Jewish family escape the Germans. She had little formal education, but she associated Nazism with the racism she’d known.

Abtey was wary of what Baker could offer and sceptical of what a female superstar could realistically do. But she talked him into setting her a test, sending her to the Italian embassy where she extracted sensitive information from an attaché and successfully brought it back.

Abtey, who is widely assumed to have been the singer’s off-and-on lover, became her handler. He trained her in basic spycraft techniques – invisible ink, writing up your arm, reading upside down – but soon saw her real usefulness lay in her magnetic charm, and effortless ability to switch roles. She was a performer, and spying would be her greatest part.

Josephine Baker, right, as a volunteer in the Free French Women’s Air Auxiliary.
Josephine Baker, right, as a volunteer in the Free French Women’s Air Auxiliary. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“She subverts our notion of what spying is,” said Diamond. “It’s subterfuge, going under the radar. But here’s this huge star, hiding in plain sight. No one suspects her. And most importantly, she can travel anywhere, and take an entourage with her. For Abtey, that’s priceless. As much as she’s a spy, she’s an espionage facilitator.”

From early 1941 onwards, that is what Baker did. Instructed by London to base themselves in North Africa, she and Abtey went to Morocco. The singer travelled from Casablanca to Lisbon, Seville, Madrid, Barcelona, giving concerts, attending receptions in her honour, flattering attachés, politicians and envoys – and passing handwritten notes, generally pinned to her bra, to British agents.

For some months, she was seriously ill with blood poisoning, possibly after a miscarriage. But even while she was convalescing, her hospital room became a venue for secret meetings, with diplomats, personalities and officials summoned to Baker’s bedside where gossip was exchanged and secrets smuggled out.

Josephine Baker performs onstage for an audience that includes a number of uniformed military personnel, Casablanca, Morocco, 1943.
Josephine Baker performs onstage for an audience that includes a number of uniformed military personnel, Casablanca, Morocco, 1943. Photograph: PhotoQuest/Getty Images

With North Africa, following the Allied invasion of 1942, now De Gaulle’s operational and administrative springboard, Baker resumed travelling across the region after her recovery, giving concerts for the troops, fundraising for the resistance – and gathering intelligence as she went. In 1944, she enlisted as a women’s air force auxiliary.

“She absolutely saw herself as a soldier,” Diamond said. “She saw what she did as the best way, the most effective way, for her to fight her war. And while there’s this cloud of uncertainty over what exactly she passed on, she certainly passed on plenty.”

Ultimately, said Diamond, Baker “realised very early that she could use her celebrity for a cause. And she did. She took huge risks. She deserved her Légion d’honneur – and her Croix de Guerre.”