Category Archives: Politics

Why Bernie Sanders Should Promise to Serve Only One Term as President

UNITED STATES - MARCH 14: Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Calif., greet students while attending a rally on the West Front of the Capitol to call on Congress to act on gun violence prevention during a national walkout by students on March 14, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Grace Napolitano greet students while attending a rally at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on March 14, 2018.

Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/AP

“We began the political revolution in the 2016 campaign, and now it’s time to move that revolution forward,” Bernie Sanders said on Tuesday morning, as he announced his candidacy for president of the United States. Within 24 hours, he had raised a whopping $6 million from more than 200,000 donors. And according to the latest polls, he is the most popular of the declared candidates.

Sanders has gone from 2016 insurgent to seeming 2020 frontrunner.

Nevertheless, his age is still an issue. It would be mad to pretend otherwise. “Since 1828,” reported Axios on Wednesday, “only 3 Democratic presidents have been in their 60s when inaugurated — and none came close to Sanders, who would be 79 if elected in 2020.”

If he were to win the next election, the independent senator from Vermont, who is five years older than Donald Trump, would be the oldest president in the history of the United States — six years older than Ronald Reagan was when he won re-election in 1984. In terms of the Democratic primaries, if 77-year-old former Vice President Joe Biden chooses not to run, Sanders will be the only candidate above the age of 70 come the first round of Democratic presidential debates this summer.

So how does he neutralize this issue?

There is a possible — if unconventional — solution: Sanders should promise to serve only one term in the White House. Four years max! 2020 and done!

A one-term pledge isn’t as crazy as it might sound. As the Washington Post’s Philip Bump noted in 2015:

Three American presidents made — and kept — pledges to serve one term at most. Rutherford B. Hayes and James K. Polk made one-term pledges; each served one term. William Henry Harrison, our second-oldest president at 68, also took a pledge to serve only one term, a pledge that was in keeping with his Whig Party. That pledge turned out not to matter; he barely served a full month before dying.

In recent years, high-profile — and older — figures in both parties have seriously entertained the idea. Seventy-year-old John McCain was “inches away” from making a one-term pledge when he announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in 2007. Then-73-year-old Biden considered it in 2015, and may do so again this time around.

Think about it: There are several clear advantages to any older candidate, but especially Sanders, renouncing any ambition to serve a second term in the Oval Office. For a start, while Sanders and his surrogates might be able to defend the idea of a president who is in his late 70s, they might struggle to convince voters that he’d be as effective in his late 80s (he’d be, ahem, 87 at the end of his second term).

There are benefits beyond just Sanders’s age. Making such a pledge would be a dramatic and bold move that could shake up the Democratic primaries. Whether we like it or not, horse race-obsessed reporters and pundits love dramatic and bold moves. The more unconventional, the better. Sanders would immediately stand out from a crowded Democratic field, many of whom have adopted his ideas on everything from health care to higher education. It would make the Vermont senator look like he is interested only in the issues — in contrast to the naked ambitions of some of his younger rivals.

In fact, one of Sanders’s biggest selling points has always been that he is an independent and an outsider. A one-term pledge would only reinforce that iconoclastic image and boost his anti-establishment appeal with the millions of Americans who loathe the Washington political class.

His rationale for such a pledge could be both simple and popular: As president, he would be free of re-election pressures and distractions, allowing him to devote a full four years to two or three major issues: Medicare For All, a Green New Deal, and, maybe, free college for all, too.

A one-term pledge would only reinforce that iconoclastic image and boost his anti-establishment appeal.

There is a danger, of course, that a one-term president would be seen as a lame-duck. Maybe. On the other hand, Sanders would come to office with a very specific and time-sensitive mandate to get things done. His pledge might make it harder for Republicans in the Senate to block his agenda, given he’ll have been elected to serve only four years and won’t face the re-election pressures that they will. And, in terms of his legacy, he would also be dodging the second-term curse that has plagued so many previous presidents.

Finally, in declaring that he would only serve four years in office, Sanders could bestow much more significance on whomever he picks as his running mate. There is an opportunity here for the senator to address the “identity politics” objection to his candidacy, or what some might call his “old white guy” problem.

This is the most diverse field of Democratic presidential candidates in American history. Plenty of people in the party’s base, even those who are ardent fans of the Vermont senator and his politics, don’t want an all-white or all-male presidential ticket (and for good reason!).

So why not put Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for Georgia governor in 2018, on the ticket — and all but guarantee her the Democratic presidential nomination come 2024? She is black (check), a woman (check), progressive (check), and unites the various wings of the Democratic Party like no other politician in the United States.

How about Sen. Kamala Harris? Could Sanders-Harris 2020 be the unity ticket that the Democrats are looking for? The Jewish, male democratic socialist and the mixed-race, female former prosecutor? I have my own objections to her controversial record as a “law and order” district attorney and attorney general in California, but the fact of the matter is that Harris has the most progressive voting record of any Democrat in the Senate.

Why wouldn’t an ambitious politician want to run on the bottom half of a presidential ticket whose top half has pre-announced that they’ll be gone in four years? (This is assuming, of course, that Sanders wins the Democratic primary.)

To be clear, then: By making a one-term pledge, Sanders could help shut down the debate over his age; grab media attention from his rivals; elevate a progressive, nonwhite woman in the process; make it easier for himself to win a mandate; and improve his own effectiveness as a leader once he’s seated behind the Resolute Desk.

What’s not to like about any of that?

The post Why Bernie Sanders Should Promise to Serve Only One Term as President appeared first on The Intercept.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Budget Proposal Would Force Grassroots Activists to Register as Lobbyists

When activists in New York get together to send letters to their elected officials, they pool together money to pay for postcards, stamps, and even pizza to chow on as they do their work. Printing out flyers to advertise their events can also cost a pretty penny.

These efforts are almost always volunteer-funded, but if Gov. Andrew Cuomo gets his way, activist organizations will have to register as lobbyists if they spend $500 a year on such activities.

A lobbying proposal tucked away in Cuomo’s executive budget would lower the annual spending threshold for what counts as lobbying from $5,000 to $500 requiring grassroots organizations, run largely by volunteers, that engage in even a bit of issue-based advocacy to register as lobbyists.

Cuomo’s Good Government and Ethics Reform law comes after a year in which the governor faced a primary challenge from the left and faced pressure from grassroots groups to disband the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of Democrats who caucused with Republicans and gave them a constructive majority in a Democrat-held state Senate.

Other lobbying reforms included in the package are a requirement for lobbyists to disclose campaign contributions; a ban that would prevent political consultants from lobbying elected officials whose campaign they previously worked for; and increased penalties for lobbyists who fail to follow disclosure rules. The lobbying reforms will be considered in negotiations with the legislature ahead of an April 1 budget deadline.

Activist organizations say the spending threshold proposal is meant to attack and stifle grassroots movements, which backed Cuomo’s primary opponent, Cynthia Nixon, and helped vote IDC members out of office. Some opponents say the move — which would subject regular volunteers, with full-time jobs and children, to the same reporting requirements as professional, paid lobbyists — appears to be vindictive.  

More than 100 grassroots groups across the state last week signed onto a legislative memo, saying they are “strongly opposed” to the measure. Signatories to the memo, spearheaded by the True Blue NY grassroots coalition, include organizations that were formed after the 2016 election, like dozens of local Indivisible chapters and Rise and Resist, as well as groups that have long advocated for more progressive policies, like Concerned Citizens For Change.

Unlike actual lobbyists, the high school students, retirees, public school parents and others who devote their spare time to state politics, whether as individuals or as members of grassroots groups like Indivisible, do not work on behalf of a monied special interest,” the memo said. “We are not paid for our efforts. Rather, our groups rely on their volunteers chipping in whatever they can.”

Opponents say the $500 threshold is unrealistically low and can be met quickly. Ricky Silver, a lead organizer for the progressive group Empire State Indivisible, told The Intercept that for a group like his, the cost of renting a charter bus for volunteers to make a trip or two to Albany is enough to reach the spending threshold. The group tries to keep expenses down to an absolute minimum, he said, and didn’t come close to reaching the threshold of $5,000 last year. But $500 annually is “an impossibly low bar,” given that in a typical week members might have to spend money on clipboards and pens to go out to a park and get signatures or on donuts and coffee. Having to collect receipts from volunteers and keeping track of the frequent expenses on top of filing spending reports will stifle engagement, he added.

In January, Empire State Indivisible, in addition to other advocacy groups, went down to Albany to lay out their policy priorities for the first 100 days of the newly elected Senate majority, including comprehensive campaign finance reform; and small-donor match, publicly financed elections; voting right reforms; and “Medicare for All.”

The measure would also create logistical and financial burdens. Registered lobbyists are required to complete a mandatory online ethics training and pay a fee of $200, according to the lobbying manual of the the New York state Joint Commission on Public Ethics. They would also have to fulfill the reporting requirements, which include filing spending reports a minimum of six times per year and submitting semi-annual reports.

“We are not set up with the legal resources or the accounting resources or the time to spend on what would be the requirements,” Silver said. He added that, beyond his individual group, “the lack of confidence in what the rules would be, would also be a big deterrent for individuals.”

When asked about the opposition from progressive groups, Rich Azzopardi, a senior adviser to Cuomo, said the lobbying proposal is part of a larger suite of changes the governor is trying to enact: “It’s not just lobbying reform. It’s lobbying reform, and campaign finance reform, and independent expenditure reform, and voting reform, and procurement reform,” Azzopardi wrote in an emailed statement. “It’s all related and we have an unprecedented opportunity to increase transparency and disclosure and improve our democracy for the better. The fact that some self-described reform groups are against reform speaks to the problem in better ways than I can.”

Zephyr Teachout, a law professor who focuses on corruption, and a 2018 candidate for New York attorney general, slammed Cuomo for the move. In a tweet, she described it not as a solution to corruption in New York, but a solution to “Cuomo’s grassroots-activists-stopping-his-plans problem.”

Cuomo dissolved the IDC last year after Nixon launched her primary challenge against him. It has been reported that the governor was “deeply involved in the creation of the IDC, though his office has previously denied playing a role.

Julie Goldberg, who challenged a former IDC member last year, said a network of over 60 progressive organizations had already been formed to oppose the IDC by the time she had begun her campaign. Though she herself was not elected, six of the eight former IDC members in the Senate were unseated in the state’s Democratic primaries.

Empire State Indivisible was among the groups that worked to expose the IDC, backed primary challengers to IDC members, and got involved in races that helped flip the New York Senate from red to blue last November, Silver said.

Because Cuomo’s proposal would impact the groups that backed insurgent candidates who took down the IDC, Silver said he believes the move “is nothing more than an attempt to stifle the work we’ve been doing. And the main folks it would impact are the folks that helped build a Democratic majority in the state. It’s worrisome that the governor doesn’t seem to support or relish in that majority.”

Seventeen elected officials joined with dozens of grassroots organizations to issue a joint statement in opposition to Cuomo’s move. State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, who signed onto the statement, said the goal of ethics reforms should be to take money out of politics, “not to remove the voice of the people from our government.”

State Sen. Robert Jackson, D-Manhattan, whose election was propelled by activist groups, concurred. “Governor Cuomo’s proposal to lower the reportable lobbying threshold to $500 is a shameful swipe at the very grassroots volunteer groups who helped me and other IDC-challengers get elected in 2018 and break the log-jam in Albany in 2019,” Jackson said in a statement.

The post Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Budget Proposal Would Force Grassroots Activists to Register as Lobbyists appeared first on The Intercept.

Beyond the Rising Tide: Reparations for Slavery Have to Be More Than a Threat

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., listen as Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh, Friday, Sept. 28, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. The committee advanced Brett Kavanaugh's nomination for the Supreme Court after agreeing to a late call from Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., for a one week investigation into sexual assault allegations against the high court nominee. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Sen. Cory Booker, left, and Sen. Kamala Harris listen during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 28, 2018.

Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

When hip-hop radio host Charlamagne tha God asked Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris if they had a “specific agenda” for black Americans on his show, “The Breakfast Club,” earlier this month, it was clear that neither did.

“I have a specific agenda for the American people,” started Booker. But for Charlamagne, and many other black Americans, a generalized American agenda isn’t a substitute for a plan that specifically addresses the needs of black folks.

“They always say a rising tide lifts all boats,” Charlamagne interrupted, “but we don’t really see that in our communities.”

Charlamagne elaborated on this idea during his interview with Harris: “I think when it comes to black people in America, Democrats, for whatever reason, when you ask them … usually we get that whole ‘rising tides raise all boats’ or ‘all Americans’ rhetoric, and I think black people just want to hear specific things for them, and I always wonder, ‘Why are people afraid to say what they would specifically do for black people?’”

The desire expressed by Charlamagne is understandable and legitimate. After committing overwhelmingly to the Democratic Party for decades, black Americans have seen the racial wealth gap widen, not shrink. As a result, some are increasingly skeptical of the value of programs that aren’t narrowly tailored to accrue to our benefit.

While it is true that the neoliberal strategies embraced by the Democratic Party since the 1980s have failed to close the racial wealth gap, the growing disdain for programs that don’t accrue to the exclusive benefit of black Americans is a red herring.

The problem isn’t that universal or economically driven programs can’t significantly close the racial wealth gap. It’s that the means-tested programs backed by the Democratic Party simply don’t go far enough.

Sen. Bernie Sanders was buffeted repeatedly by criticism that he didn’t do enough to connect with black Americans in the course of his 2016 presidential run. Much of that criticism was fair. But Sanders’s failure was in articulating how his policies would benefit black Americans, not in advancing policies that would benefit us.

Prior to the 2016 election, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who ultimately voted for Sanders, wrote, “Sanders’s basic approach is to ameliorate the effects of racism through broad, mostly class-based policy — doubling the minimum wage, offering single-payer health-care, delivering free higher education. This is the same ‘A rising tide lifts all boats’ thinking that has dominated Democratic anti-racist policy for a generation.”

But the Democratic Party has never backed anything approaching the redistributive goals contemplated by Sanders’s 2016 agenda. The party’s economic plan has historically focused on economic mobility, “access” to “opportunity,” and removing barriers to participating in a capitalist economy. Child care programs, paid sick leave, and job training initiatives are promoted as strategies to ensure that all Americans can participate in what most Democrats see as a fundamentally functional system.

By contrast, politicians like Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren challenge the system itself, because they view it as fundamentally inequitable. Leftists support traditional interventions that meaningfully ease the burdens of those struggling under capitalism. But they also seek to change the fact that profits in this country currently flow disproportionately to a privileged few at the very top — at the expense of wage growth for the workers whose labor generates those profits. As Sanders argues, if 90 percent of profits go to the top 1 percent, having technical “access” to the 1 percent isn’t enough; the system itself must change.

This structural approach is a game changer for African-Americans. Because the value of wealth compounds, capitalism rewards the historical possession of wealth; the ability to invest today is worth more than the ability to do so in the future. That being the case, how can black Americans, first enslaved and then legally barred from participating in capitalism for the overwhelming majority of this country’s history, begin to catch up with a systemic adjustment to the system?

The answer is we can’t. There will be no racial equality under capitalism.

It would take an estimated 228 years for black Americans to earn as much wealth as white Americans possess today, at which point blacks still would not have drawn even, because whites would presumably have accrued more wealth during that time as well. Simply put, closing the racial wealth gap demands a systemic approach.

It is true that universal programs without race-specific interventions are not enough. The failures of the New Deal illustrate how universal solutions can inadequately provide for the needs of the marginalized. But the reality that universal programs don’t always go far enough should not be perverted into an argument that universal programs aren’t integral to the task of closing the racial wealth gap.

During his “Breakfast Club” interview, Booker tried explain that the issue with the “rising tides raise all ships” argument is not that the thesis is fundamentally flawed, but that universal programs historically were designed to either exclude African-Americans or, at best, were indifferent to structural reasons why African-Americans were less able to access benefits. “A lot of the programs that built the middle class in this country, African-Americans were excluded from,” said Booker, pointing to the Fair Housing Act and the GI Bill. “You had devaluations of American communities through mortgage lending and the like.”

But that’s not to say that a new New Deal shouldn’t be a goal. After all, New Deal programs like the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps employed over 600,000 African-Americans. The Public Works Administration established quotas for the number of blacks to be hired for construction jobs, and New Deal education programs taught more than a million African-Americans how to read and write. It was in part because of the New Deal that African-Americans shifted their political allegiances to the Democratic Party in the first place. In the course of ensuring that we improve upon the New Deal’s mistakes, we shouldn’t lose sight of its benefits and the potential benefits of similar programs.

Unfortunately, in some circles, that’s exactly what’s happening.

Some liberal commentators affect indifference to the racial implications of policies that directly target the wealth gap because they aren’t explicitly cast as race policies. “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism?” Hillary Clinton famously asked in the course of her 2016 campaign. “I would love to wake up in the morning and have my first thought be ‘I hate Wall Street,’” tweeted journalist Imani Gandy. “That’s the whitest shit I’ve ever heard.”

Similarly, when Booker offered up his baby bonds plan as part of a black-centric agenda, Charlamagne was skeptical on the basis that it wouldn’t exclusively help blacks. It “addresses all Americans,” Booker explained, “but it actually helps the racial wealth gap in a significant way,” by creating a savings account for low-income students.

Booker went on to make the case for his criminal justice bill, the beneficiaries of which are overwhelmingly African-American: “When you fix the system, you help poor white folks who get screwed by the system as well, but disproportionately, you’re gonna help those people who are most affected by an unjust criminal justice system,” he argued.

Booker is right. The unfortunate overlap between poverty and some historically marginalized identity groups means that when programs are equitably designed, a rising tide will disproportionately improve their fates: Since 1 out of 3 non-elderly Latinos and 1 out of 4 non-elderly blacks lack health insurance, those groups stand to be some of the biggest beneficiaries of “Medicare for All.” Blacks and Latinos are more likely to rely on Social Security benefits as an exclusive source of retirement income than whites, meaning attacks on Social Security threaten those groups disproportionately as well. Blacks and Latinos are overrepresented among minimum wage jobs, meaning we stand to gain more from a $15 minimum wage. And on, and on, and on.

In fact, most programs embraced as “race-specific” are economic programs or criminal justice programs — many of which, like bail reform, are race-neutral. Various “welfare programs” may be coded as “for black Americans,” but few are narrowly tailored to exclusively benefit us.

Arguably, Affirmative Action is race-based, but the biggest beneficiaries have been white women. And even though it was designed to address race-based disparities, it’s not clear that it has the intended reparative effect: The beneficiaries of Affirmative Action are disproportionately recent African and Caribbean immigrants, whose parents and grandparents were not victims of the pre-civil rights-era discrimination for which Affirmative Action is ostensibly supposed to compensate.

The one initiative that truly targets black people exclusively is reparations, for which Coates famously made a compelling case. But although he was incredibly successful at proving why African-Americans deserve reparations, at the end of his argument Coates is honest about not having a clear answer to how to deliver them, beyond Rep. John Conyers’s H.R.40 bill, which would provide resources to explore possible avenues for reparations. It’s a good start. But it’s just that — a start. That being the case, a push for reparations or any other unspecified, racially targeted policy shouldn’t come at the expense of the most radical redistributive policies this country has seen since the New Deal.

That’s especially true since the growing popularity of universal programs may actually lead to increased support for race-based reparations.

In a recent article, Vann Newkirk II spoke to William A. Darity, a professor at Duke University who is a foremost thinker on the question of reparations. “I have to say that the policies that have received the [most enthusiastic] reception are those that I might describe as universal policies that are not race-specific, but they are race-conscious,” Darity told Newkirk, referencing Booker’s baby bonds program as well as Warren’s housing grant initiative. But Darity thinks that the growing popularity of universal policies might “begin warming Americans up to the idea of reparations.”

As Newkirk tacitly admits, programs that target poverty do seem to be the best way to target the racial wealth gap — at least until more research is done. What’s not clear, however, is whether that message will go over well with a black electorate that is understandably skeptical of the notion that universal programs will ever “trickle down to them.”

For some, a black face heading a campaign will be reassurance enough that African-American interests are being advanced. But following Barack Obama’s presidency, the assumption that a black president will put black interests first has been complicated. Obama’s approach to the mortgage crisis famously bailed out big banks before homeowners, and black Americans were hit harder than any other group — losing 40 percent of our collective wealth in the crisis.

If online chatter is any indication, black voters are increasingly skeptical of representation that ends at the epidermis. Widespread criticism among African-Americans of Harris’s criminal justice record seems to suggest that identity isn’t a perfect defense for anti-black actions, though some have defended her on the basis that she had no other choice than to be tough on crime as a black woman held to higher standards.

Still, during her appearance on “The Breakfast Club,” Harris encountered none of the pushback Booker received, despite the two giving similar answers to the “black agenda” question. Harris argued that the black agenda “must include HBCUs,” and she pointed to her LIFT bill, which would give families making under $100,000 a year a monthly tax credit. She also referenced criminal justice reform and maternal mortality.

When asked specifically about reparations during her “Breakfast Club” interview, Harris “recognized” the discrimination that black Americans have historically faced, and made the case for why reparations are deserved. But like Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Sanders before her, she declined to support a specific reparations program. “There are a number of ways to do it,” she finally answered, before gesturing again to racially unspecific means-tested programs like her LIFT Act.

Harris still has no policies posted to her campaign website, but based on what she’s articulated so far, her agenda is no more “race-specific” than that of Sanders, whose universal health care plan specifically addressed treatment disparities, and whose free college plan provided support for HBCUs. If anything, Sanders’s plans go further than most — redistributing more wealth from the top, which is likely the reason he received so much pushback from establishment gatekeepers in 2016 and now).

When Charlamagne asked Harris why politicians seem uncomfortable speaking to black Americans’ specific concerns, she answered with what has become a very familiar refrain about “speaking truths” before elaborating: “On this subject, it’s about recognizing that there are huge disparities based on race. They cannot be denied, and they must be addressed.”

She’s absolutely right. And many 2020 contenders have done exactly that. But voters should be clear that “recognizing” disparities and doing something about them through aggressive, redistributive policies are not the same thing. To achieve results, it’s important for black voters to focus on material interventions and the ways in which they are tailored to address racial disparities — not just symbolic recognition. Equality depends on it.

The post Beyond the Rising Tide: Reparations for Slavery Have to Be More Than a Threat appeared first on The Intercept.

CNN Hires Trump Official Who Used Same Anti-Press Rhetoric as Man Who Sent Bombs to CNN

“Boom,” wrote Sarah Isgur on Twitter in 2014, quoting a tweet from the publication Free Beacon: “The Clinton News Network is back!”

Two years later, Cesar Sayoc was ranting on Facebook about the “Clinton News Network.” By the end of 2018, Sayoc was sending a wave of pipe bombs to critics of President Donald Trump. Three of the bombs were addressed to CNN. None went off, but FBI Director Christopher Wray described them as “IEDs” — improvised explosives devices. Boom.

On Tuesday, Politico reported that Isgur, a longtime GOP operative who most recently was a top official in Trump’s Justice Department, has been hired by CNN. Isgur, who has no experience in journalism, will be one of several editors who coordinate the channel’s coverage of U.S. politics.

It’s incredible that CNN executives would require its employees to welcome any Trump administration official as a colleague. It’s not that news outlets haven’t hired political hacks before; they have. But Trump’s obsessive demonization of the media and the consequences of that demonization specifically for CNN — Trump’s top target are sui generis.

As Trump relentlessly repeats, CNN is “Fake News.” They demonstrate “extreme hatred and bias” toward him. They are the “Enemy of the People!” Most famously, Trump tweeted a video from his pro-wrestling days that was doctored to show him physically attacking someone with the CNN logo for a head.

According to Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes,” in the summer of 2016, Trump explained to her off-camera that he attacks the news media “to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.” It was inevitable that this tactic would move some members of Trump’s base to action.

The windows of Sayoc’s van was covered with pictures and text that were essentially Trump’s twitter account in collage form. Trump has called CNN “dishonest” over and over again. An image on Sayoc’s van read, “DISHONEST MEDIA/CNN SUCKS.”

Sayoc was photographed at a Trump rally holding up a sign that similarly read, “CNN SUCKS.” On Twitter Sayoc wrote, “More lies con job Propaganda bye failing failing CNN garbage. … They have nothing left but more lies.”

Beyond Sayoc, an Arkansas man was arrested for allegedly making multiple “terroristic threats” against CNN anchor Don Lemon. A Pennsylvania man called into C-SPAN to say that CNN “started the war” and that if he saw Lemon or CNN’s Brian Stelter, “I’m going to shoot them.” CNN contributor April Ryan has said that the Trump White House has “put a target on my head” and that she’s been forced to hire a bodyguard.

Even Sayoc’s bomb spree didn’t slow Trump’s incitement. In fact, soon after Sayoc was arrested, Trump explained that the right’s anger toward “the Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People” is understandable, and news outlets have only themselves to blame for whatever happens.

Isgur has worked for Ted Cruz, Mitt Romney, and the Republican National Committee and was deputy campaign manager for Carly Fiorina when Fiorina ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. She was hired by the Trump Justice Department in 2017 — but not until she, as the Washington Post put it, was willing to “kowtow to Trump” for criticizing him during the GOP primaries and swear fealty to his agenda.

Like everyone willing to serve in the Trump administration, Isgur is complicit in the president’s dangerous war on the media. And she’s also personally been an active foot soldier in the decades-long assault on journalism by the right that has culminated in Trump.

She sarcastically referred on Twitter to “balanced reporting today from CNN,” because the network’s chyron referred to the explicitly anti-gay and anti-abortion Family Research Council as “anti-gay and anti-abortion.” She tweeted out an article calling CNN’s Chris Cuomo “despicable” for asking if Fiorina — after the November 2015 mass shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs — had “any sense of regret” over her misleading, incendiary claims about Planned Parenthood.

Isgur herself said that “the liberal media tried to ignore truth about Planned Parenthood.” She also attacked “the liberal media” ahead of the Iowa caucuses. “Despite efforts of media & political class,” Isgur wrote, “Carly will not stop fighting to take our country back.” She was angry about “MSM bias.” And so on.

But none of this apparently matters to the people who run CNN. Have they asked Isgur to tell her new co-workers whether she disagrees with anything about Trump’s views on CNN? Does she have any regrets about participating in a brand of politics that has put their lives in danger? Do they think her presence will damage morale?

Who knows? Neither CNN nor Isgur responded to a request for comment.

The post CNN Hires Trump Official Who Used Same Anti-Press Rhetoric as Man Who Sent Bombs to CNN appeared first on The Intercept.

Interior Department Is Filled With Ex-Lobbyists Who Are Cozy with Their Former Employers, New Ethics Complaint Shows

Only a few short weeks after President Donald Trump nominated David Bernhardt, a former oil and agriculture industry lobbyist, to run the Interior Department, the agency is facing a slew of new allegations that top officials violated federal ethics rules by keeping cozy ties to their former employers.

A lengthy ethics complaint filed Wednesday by the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, outlines “a disturbing pattern of misconduct” at the scandal-plagued Interior Department, including meetings that violate the White House’s own ethical pledge and good governance standards.

The Campaign Legal Center used public records, some of which were first obtained by The Intercept, to lodge the complaint against six top Interior Department officials, including Benjamin Cassidy, a top official at the department’s external affairs office and former National Rifle Association lobbyist; Assistant Secretary for Insular Affairs Douglas Domenech; White House liaison Lori Mashburn, a former Heritage Foundation staffer; and others.

The officials are among a little-known but powerful group of Department of Interior political appointees — many of whom joined the agency after careers with fossil fuel groups or conservative lobbying organizations. Amid an environment of persistent ethics issues at the Interior Department, these officials are responsible for the Trump administration’s ongoing campaign to roll back environmental protections and open public lands to extractive industry interests.

Even as they’ve succeeded at this effort, however, several of these appointees have struggled to comply with federal ethics rules governing conflicts of interest, drawing intense and unwanted criticism from environmentalists, government watchdog groups, and the general public.

Among other allegations, the Campaign Legal Center contends that some of these officials have apparently used their government positions to provide their former private employers with access and insight into the Interior Department’s activities. Under the White House’s own ethics pledge, executive branch officials are explicitly prohibited for a period of two years from the date of their appointment from meeting or communicating with previous employers to discuss specific policy matters.

“This is a big deal. It not only reveals a pattern of indifference toward ethics at Interior’s highest levels, but it also calls into question the true motives of our public servants.”

“Based on what we know, it appears that top Interior Department officials have violated both the ethics pledge and the requirement that public officials avoid even the appearance of impropriety,” says Delaney Marsco, a legal counsel specializing in ethics at the Campaign Legal Center. “This is a big deal. It not only reveals a pattern of indifference toward ethics at Interior’s highest levels, but it also calls into question the true motives of our public servants tasked with the immense responsibility of managing the country’s natural resources.”

Provided with a detailed query outlining alleged ethical violations, an Interior Department spokesperson declined to comment on the specifics or make the involved officials available for interviews. “The Department takes ethics agreements very seriously,” said the spokesperson, deputy press secretary Faith Vander Voort. “All Interior political appointees received ethics training from career ethics officials in the fall of 2018. The Department is committed to creating a culture of compliance.”

The allegations, which the Campaign Legal Center filed with the department’s Office of Inspector General, come in the wake of a relentless stream of scandals, investigations, and damaging headlines that have battered the powerful Interior Department.

FILE - In this Oct. 24, 2018 file photo, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke arrives for an event with President Donald Trump on the opioid crisis in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Zinke says he’s “100 percent confident” no wrongdoing will be found in pending ethics investigations that have stirred speculation he could get ousted from Trump’s cabinet. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

Then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke arrives for an event with President Donald Trump in the East Room of the White House on Oct. 24, 2018.

Photo: Evan Vucci/AP

A Pattern of Ethical Lapses

A sprawling federal agency, the department controls approximately 500 million acres of public land, oversees endangered species programs, administers Native American trust lands, directs crucial scientific research, and controls rich deposits of federally owned oil, gas, and coal, among other essential duties. With roughly 70,000 employees and control over vast swaths of federal land across the country, the Interior Department is a cabinet-level agency whose impact on American life is difficult to overstate.

The most high-profile controversies to trouble the department over the course of the last two years involved former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a Montana Republican who left office in early January amid a torrent of federal investigations into his conduct.

Zinke’s resignation, though, has done little to ease the department’s ethics woes.

Some top officials at the department have been caught in apparent violation of federal ethics rules. Others have interfered with scientific research that the department funds or oversees. Still others have spent their time in office bending government policy to benefit industry lobbyists and conservative operatives.

The new Campaign Legal Center complaint comes at a particularly sensitive time for the Interior Department. On February 4, Trump announced in a tweet that he planned to nominate Bernhardt, a longtime lobbyist for the fossil fuel and agriculture industries, as his next Interior secretary. Bernhardt is currently serving as the Interior Department’s acting secretary and has earned a reputation as a savvy Washington insider with deep ties to corporate interests across the American West.

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Deputy Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt.

Photo: Tami Heilemann/Department of the Interior

As he prepares to appear before the Senate for his confirmation hearing, Bernhardt has made moves in recent weeks to rehabilitate the Interior Department’s battered reputation. In a letter sent earlier this month to the entire Interior Department staff, Bernhardt said he had recruited a cohort of new ethics officials in an effort to “dramatically transform a culture of ethics avoidance into one of ethics compliance.”

The Campaign Legal Center’s complaint, though, could undermine Bernhardt’s efforts to clean up the department’s public image. It can be expected to draw renewed attention to ethics problems among top Interior Department officials at a time when the agency is already facing heightened scrutiny from Congress.

NRA’s Man at Interior

A longtime lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, Cassidy enjoyed a lucrative career in Washington, D.C., before joining the Interior Department in the fall of 2017. Upon taking office, Cassidy promptly used his new position to involve himself in numerous policy issues that pertain directly to his former employer, the NRA, according to records The Intercept obtained using the Freedom of Information Act.

In one instance, Cassidy sent a former colleague at the hard-line gun group a tip about an Interior Department proposal to close a portion of federally owned land near Salt Lake City, Utah, to target shooting, a move which the NRA criticized.

“Are you all aware of this? Please share any concerns or insights.”

“Are you all aware of this?” he asked NRA Conservation Director Susan Recce, as well as a handful of other interested parties, in a November 2017 email sent little more than a month after he took office. “Please share any concerns or insights.” Recce responded shortly thereafter, describing the NRA’s specific problems with the shooting closure. (Recce did not return a request for comment.)

In another instance, according to his official calendar, Cassidy participated in an internal Interior Department meeting in March 2018 to discuss the membership of a newly formed Hunting and Shooting Sports Conservation Council, a body created by Zinke to help him shape federal wildlife and hunting policy. A little more than two months after that meeting, the Interior Department selected two NRA activists — including Chris Cox, the executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action — to be members of the council. Before joining the Interior Department, Cassidy worked and lobbied alongside Cox for the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action.

In still another case, Cassidy communicated with Recce, the NRA official, about a proposal to prohibit recreational shooting in parts of the Sonoran Desert National Monument in southern Arizona. According to Recce’s email summarizing the exchange, Cassidy provided the NRA with insight into the Interior Department’s stance on the matter and took the group’s objections. The Interior Department appears to have ultimately sided with the NRA on the issue, altering the details of its proposal and keeping more of the national monument open to shooting.

Government ethics watchdogs say Cassidy’s involvement in these matters, which has not previously been reported, are apparent violations of federal conflict of interest rules, including the White House’s own ethics pledge that Trump established by executive order in early 2017.

“Unless he received a waiver, Mr. Cassidy’s participation in these communications appears to violate the Trump ethics pledge and undermines its very purpose, which is to avoid the appearance of giving privileged access and influence to his former employer, the NRA,” said Virginia Canter, the chief ethics counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, in an email. Canter noted that Cassidy’s actions may have violated other federal ethics regulations too. “Mr. Cassidy should have known that his participation in these matters would cause a reasonable person to question his impartiality,” she added. “As a result, his participation in these matters undermines the agency’s integrity in carrying out these programs and operations in possible violation of his ethical obligations under the Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch (5 C.F.R. §§ 2635.101(b)(8),(14) and. 502(a))” — the parts of the Code of Federal Regulations that deal with ethics.

In its complaint with the Interior Department inspector general, the Campaign Legal Center draws a similar conclusion, contending that Cassidy clearly “violated the former employer provision of the ethics pledge” and it calls on federal investigators to probe Cassidy’s interactions with the NRA since taking office.

Right-Wing Advocates

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Douglas Domenech.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Other former officials from right-wing groups have gained a foothold in the Interior Department as well. Domenech, assistant secretary for insular affairs and a close personal friend of Bernhardt, is another top official who has maintained ties to a former employer. Domenech held two meetings in April 2017 with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a Koch-brother-backed nonprofit where he worked immediately before joining the Trump administration, as first reported by The Guardian and Pacific Standard last spring. According to his official calendar, Domenech met with the conservative group to discuss a pair of lawsuits it had filed against the Interior Department, one concerning property rights and the other concerning endangered species. Roughly six months after the meetings, the two parties settled one of those lawsuits in what Texas Public Policy Foundation described as a “major win.”

In its complaint, the Campaign Legal Center characterizes Domenech’s meetings with the Texas Public Policy Foundation as direct violations of the White House ethics pledge and asks the inspector general to probe them further.

Federal ethics rules appear to have tripped up the Interior Department’s White House liaison, Lori Mashburn, as well. Before joining the department in May 2017, Mashburn was a longtime staffer at the powerful far-right Heritage Foundation, where she worked as an associate director. Less than six months after taking office, Mashburn attended two private events whose participants included high-level Heritage Foundation officials, according to documents first uncovered by HuffPost. As with Cassidy and Domenech, the Campaign Legal Center alleges Mashburn’s decision to engage directly with her former employer in a private setting while on official business is a violation of the White House ethics pledge.

The Campaign Legal Center’s ethics complaint also highlights similar possible ethics infractions by Todd Wynn and Timothy Williams, both top officials at the Interior Department’s external affairs office. The complaint includes allegations against former Interior Department energy counselor Vincent DeVito, who left the agency last year to work for the offshore oil industry and did not respond to messages left with his new employer, Cox Oil Offshore LLC.

For Democrats on the House Committee on Natural Resources, who are charged with overseeing the Interior Department, this string of apparent ethical lapses is part of an ongoing problem at the crucial federal agency.

“The Interior Department’s culture of corruption under President Trump didn’t start or end with Ryan Zinke,” wrote Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., the chair of the committee, in an emailed statement. “These complaints need to be taken seriously, and this administration needs to stop filling our federal agencies with polluter industry loyalists. As Chairman I have no intention of looking the other way when Trump officials violate their ethics pledges or sell out the public trust.”

The post Interior Department Is Filled With Ex-Lobbyists Who Are Cozy with Their Former Employers, New Ethics Complaint Shows appeared first on The Intercept.

Regime Change We Can Believe In: The U.S. Agenda in Venezuela, Haiti, and Egypt

Subscribe to the Intercepted podcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlayStitcherRadio Public, and other platforms. New to podcasting? Click here.

 

The Trump administration has set a deadline of February 23 for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to bow down to the U.S. This week on Intercepted: U.S. military aircraft have landed in Colombia under the pretext of delivering humanitarian aid, as Trump vows to overthrow the government in Caracas. Venezuela scholar George Ciccariello-Maher and journalist Kim Ives discuss recent developments and examine the massive protests rocking Haiti’s U.S.-backed president. The Intercept’s Jon Schwarz details the bloody and murderous career of Elliott Abrams, the man now in charge of U.S.-Venezuela operations. And journalist Sharif Abdel Kouddous explains the failed revolution in Egypt and outlines U.S.-backed dictator Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s plot to make himself president for life.

Transcript coming soon.

The post Regime Change We Can Believe In: The U.S. Agenda in Venezuela, Haiti, and Egypt appeared first on The Intercept.

Bernie Sanders Is Running for President and He Wants One Million Campaign Volunteers

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent whose 2016 campaign for the presidency helped shift the Democratic party to the left on issues like “Medicare for All” and free college tuition, announced on Tuesday that he is running for president again. The self-described democratic socialist immediately set an ambitious target for his supporters, calling on them “to be part of an unprecedented grassroots campaign of one million active volunteers, in every state in our country.”

Sanders made the appeal across his popular social media accounts, in a variety of forms.

The appeal was also featured in an 11-minute YouTube video, in which Sanders laid out the rationale for his campaign, offering far more specifics on policy than rivals like Sen. Kamala Harris, whose website lacks a policy section.

Hours before Sanders joined the race, Harris was asked by Fox News if his popularity in New Hampshire meant that she needed to move further to the left to compete in that state’s primary. “I will tell you that I am not a democratic socialist,” she replied.

Another rival who is far closer to Sanders on the issues, and has laid out specific, radical policies, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, has attempted to distinguish herself from him by telling reporters, like Ruby Cramer of Buzzfeed News, that the core difference between the two is that, “he’s a socialist, and I believe in markets.”

“I am a capitalist,” Warren told John Harwood of CNBC last year. “I believe in markets. What I don’t believe in is theft, what I don’t believe in is cheating,” she added.

In an interview with CBS News, Sanders dismissed concerns that President Donald Trump would try to associate him with the collapse of Venezuela’s socialist experiment and defended his brand of democratic socialism in common sense terms. “When I talk about democratic socialism, if somebody wants to call me a radical, okay, here it is: I believe that people are inherently entitled to health care,” Sanders said. “I believe people are entitled to get the best education they can. I believe that people are entitled to live in a clean environment.”

Sanders, who would be the oldest nominee ever, at 79 on election day in 2020, told Vermont Public Radio on Tuesday morning that his age should not be a factor in the race. “We have got to look at candidates, not by the color of their skin, not by their sexual orientation or their gender and not by their age,” Sanders said, adding that he has been blessed with good health and still has “a great deal of energy.”

“I think we have got to try to move us toward a non-discriminatory society which looks at people based on their abilities, based on what they stand for,” he added.

The Sanders campaign reported that it had received more than $1 million in donations, from supporters in all 50 states, less than four hours after he announced his run.

The post Bernie Sanders Is Running for President and He Wants One Million Campaign Volunteers appeared first on The Intercept.

Big Corn and Big Oil Are Warring Over Trump’s Nomination of Andrew Wheeler

Two of the Republican Party’s biggest corporate allies — agribusiness and the fossil fuel industry — are waging an epic, if obscure, battle in the halls of Congress. And Big Oil, through its proxies in the Senate, has taken a hostage: Acting Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler.

After the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee advanced Wheeler’s nomination for permanent EPA chief on a party-line vote, a group of five senators issued a veiled threat to the nominee: Promise to rewrite regulations on renewable fuels that are more favorable to oil refineries, or forget about being confirmed.

It’s a fight without a decent resolution for any human being needing to breathe clean air or inhabit a sustainable planet. The prodigious amount of energy used in producing corn-based biofuels is not much cleaner than the energy from burning oil-heavy gasoline. The fight is more over who will get to earn more money in the final, dying days of dirty energy dominance. It’s also a preview of the kind of battles that the advocates of a Green New Deal will have as they take on entrenched incumbent industries who have been spending heavily, for years, to generate government favors they are loathe to see disappear.

The regulation at issue is called the renewable fuel standard, or RFS, which requires all gasoline sold in America to contain a minimum volume of renewable sources — which are dominated by corn-based ethanol. Big Ag wants the standard to be higher; Big Oil wants to be free from the corn burden.

The oil-backed senators are mimicking a tactic used previously by their colleagues representing corn-producing states, who successfully made a similar threat to a lower-level EPA official in 2017, in exchange for guarantees that refiners would be required to blend more ethanol into gasoline.

The biggest player of all in this debate is Trump confidant and corporate raider Carl Icahn, who remains under investigation for using his role as a White House deregulatory czar to try to tip the scales in favor of oil refiners, which would have benefited a refinery he owns to the tune of $200 million per year.

The behind-the-scenes fight is symptomatic of a growing trend in an increasingly corporate-controlled government. In the Second Gilded Age, senators have become little more than traffic cops, mediating the grievances of competing sets of business giants. And Wheeler, himself a former lobbyist for all sorts of energy companies, has gotten caught in the middle of the latest showdown.

The situation is made stranger by the fact that the hostage-takers — the oil-state senators seeking guarantees from Wheeler — have been winning under the Trump administration. Refiners have seen compliance costs for biofuel blending drop fourfold since 2017 and have benefited from a significant ramp-up in discretionary waivers from the EPA, including for Icahn’s refinery.

“These senators, and Icahn, are saying that right now, what you’re doing is fine, but we need a long-term solution to rid us of this obligation,” said Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program and an adviser to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. “What’s very interesting here is the continuing fight within the core Republican base, between Big Ag and Big Oil.”

One of the more arcane elements of the current rule is that oil refiners are responsible for making sure the rule is followed — not the gasoline wholesalers (or “blenders”). In regulatory-speak, this is known as the “point of obligation.”

If a refiner does not blend enough ethanol, they can purchase renewable fuel credits, known as renewable identification numbers, or RINs, from those who have over-blended, to comply with their obligation. It’s sort of a cap-and-trade system for biofuels, ensuring that the required amount is blended into the nation’s fuel supply.

Each side wants something from the RFS. Corn producers want the EPA to mandate higher levels of biofuel blending. In a midterm visit to Iowa, President Donald Trump approved a year-round “E15” ethanol mandate, requiring 15 percent of the product to be placed into gasoline. Under current law, ethanol blends are reduced in the summer, over concerns that E15 produces more smog (which corn producers, of course, contest). That regulation has yet to be finalized, and corn producers have lobbied heavily to complete the task.

Refinery interests simply want somebody else to do the blending, freeing them from either having to undergo the costly process of blending themselves, or purchase RINs to satisfy the regulation. If the point of obligation were shifted from refiners to gasoline wholesalers, it could save some refiners a fortune — particularly CVR Energy, the refinery company of which Icahn is the majority owner. CVR does not have the infrastructure to blend ethanol, and in 2016 it spent $205.9 million on RINs.

When Icahn received the formal title of White House special adviser on regulatory reform, in 2017 —without having to divest from any of his stocks — he got right to work. The Trump administration started floating that it would change the point of obligation. And an ethanol lobbying group suddenly struck a deal with Icahn: It would support a change in the point of obligation, in exchange for year-round E15. It even wrote the executive order with the policy update.

Amusingly, the Renewable Fuels Association, which reached the deal with Icahn, includes the renewable division of Valero Energy, the oil giant which, like Icahn, owns refineries that cannot blend ethanol.

This all eventually blew up in Icahn’s face. Senate Democrats demanded an investigation into whether Icahn violated conflict of interest laws. Under criticism, Icahn resigned from his White House adviser position in August 2017. By November, the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York had subpoenaed Icahn for “information pertaining to … Mr. Icahn’s activities relating to the Renewable Fuels Standard and Mr. Icahn’s role as an advisor to the President.”

This would all be terrible for Icahn if he hadn’t profited handsomely from his meddling. The trading price for RINs has dropped from 90 cents after Trump’s election in November 2016 to 20.5 cents today. One reason for that is that the EPA has been rapidly handing out “financial hardship waivers” to refiners to exempt them from the point of obligation requirements, including to Icahn’s CVR Energy in April 2018.

We don’t know precisely how many waivers the EPA has granted, because the agency initially kept that information secret. But Reuters has reported that 29 refineries across the country received them in 2018, including such financially strapped companies as Exxon Mobil. That’s up from just seven waivers in 2015, and it translates into sharply lower demand for RINs, causing the price to drop. (Icahn was also shorting the market for RINs, profiting off the plummeting prices.)

The hardship waivers have led to reduced ethanol blending overall — 2.25 billion fewer gallons annually, according to one report. The EPA says its hands are tied by court rulings to give hardship waivers to “small refiners” who cannot afford blending or RINs. Corn producers are not buying it, arguing that such actions throw the biofuels market into chaos. “There’s no good reason multibillion-dollar oil refining giants should be able to skirt the law,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told Reuters in December.

These developments, however, have made it a good time to be a refiner, though it’s a temporary solution, Slocum said. “[Refiners] accurately understand that these low RIN prices are not a given going forward.”

With Wheeler seeking confirmation as permanent EPA director, both Big Oil and King Corn saw a point of leverage. Wheeler’s confirmation hearing was suffused with talk of this relatively minor renewable fuels issue.

Corn-state senators, like Mike Rounds, R-S.D., demanded clarity on finalizing the year-round E15 rule — Wheeler committed to finalizing the rule by summer — while hitting the EPA on hardship waivers. “I don’t think the intent of Congress was that [hardship waiver granting] reduces the total amount of ethanol that is actually being marketed,” Rounds said. Republican Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota also pushed Wheeler on ethanol.

Meanwhile, oil-state senators pushed back. “Corn is not the only stakeholder in this program,” bellowed Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., despairing of real-world costs borne by refiners. “There is growing concern the administration is only listening to one side of the argument and that those arguments are not based on actual real-world conditions.”

The near-term issue is that the EPA must regularly reset how many gallons of biofuels the market is required to produce, based on market conditions. Wheeler said in his testimony that the agency would propose a reset sometime in February.

After the hearing, the oil lobby escalated the fight. Five Republican senators — Texas’s Ted Cruz, Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy, Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, and Utah’s Mike Lee (Utah has a couple major refineries within its borders) — wrote a letter to Wheeler on February 11. “As we continue to evaluate your nomination to be Administrator,” the Senators wrote, “it is important that we have a better understanding of your views and approach to administering the RFS (renewable fuel standard). … [W]ithout an adequate proposal to meaningfully lower the regulatory burden of Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs), we will have serious concerns with your nomination.”

There was no need to read between the lines. The oil-state senators want Wheeler to lower that reset to reduce costs on refiners, or they will vote no on his confirmation. They also want him to continue issuing hardship waivers to refiners, without reallocating the waived amounts to nonexempted refiners. And they asked for an unspecified “reform” of the RIN market to prevent manipulation (which represented some rare interest from Republicans in market manipulation of any kind).

While Icahn was not formally involved with the letter, and while he has not traditionally been a donor to the Republicans on the letter (except for one small donation to Toomey in 2010), Slocum speculated that he had some involvement. “Just because we’re not seeing Icahn’s name, that doesn’t mean he’s sitting on the sidelines,” Slocum said. “He’s too big a player on this issue.”

The fact that Republican senators would threaten the confirmation of Wheeler, one of the most fossil fuel-friendly EPA administrators ever to hold the job, boggles the mind. Especially because, as acting administrator, Wheeler has continued to hand out hardship waivers like candy. But because Democrats are expected to be almost entirely opposed to Wheeler’s confirmation, the votes of these five senators could absolutely block his appointment.

That said, a coalition of corn-state senators could also be in a position to block Wheeler. In fact, in 2017, Ernst blocked the confirmation of Bill Wehrum, who runs the EPA office that deals with the biofuel mandate, until the Trump administration backed down on changing the point of obligation.

“You have two very powerful core Republican corporate constituencies going to battle with each other,” said Slocum. “And a full-time professional lobbyist who’s represented corporate interests is the key influencer who will play some role in brokering a compromise.” That compromise is difficult to see, as any relief for refiners will likely be reflected in lower demand for corn-based ethanol.

But this is Washington’s role these days: picking and choosing which industry to gift and which to burden.

The post Big Corn and Big Oil Are Warring Over Trump’s Nomination of Andrew Wheeler appeared first on The Intercept.

‘State-backed hackers’ targeted Australia’s main political parties

Politicians and their parties are high-value targets for foreign agents looking to disrupt elections, as we've seen in the US and elsewhere in recent years. Now, Australia is in the crosshairs. The main political parties there were the targets of a state-sponsored cyber attack, according to Prime Minister Scott Morrison. It's not clear what, if any, information they obtained from the parties' systems.

Via: The Verge

Source: The Guardian

How the Federal Government Undermines Prison Education

Aaron Kinzel grew up poor in Toledo, Ohio, and from an early age, he was pulled into a life of crime. He didn’t know his father, and his mother’s partners encouraged him to break into houses, sell drugs, and engage in various forms of violence. “I just grew up around a lot of bullshit,” he says. “I was really groomed to be a professional criminal.”

He was a teenager on probation in 1997 when he left the Midwest on an ill-fated road trip to Maine with his girlfriend. He was carrying drugs and a loaded gun when he was pulled over by a state trooper. With the officer standing outside his car window, Kinzel panicked. He pulled his weapon and fired at the officer, who fired a return shot into the air as he dropped to the ground. That prompted the trooper’s partner to unload: He fired 15 rounds from a 9 mm Beretta into Kinzel’s car. Amazingly, no one was injured — not even the state trooper. Kinzel’s shot had missed him completely. “It was miraculous,” he recalls.

After a high-speed chase and a night on the lam, Kinzel and his girlfriend were apprehended. Kinzel was charged with the attempted murder of a police officer and sentenced to 19 years in prison.

Behind bars, his life changed. He earned a GED while awaiting trial, and once in prison, that made him eligible to take college-level classes. He was encouraged to do so not only by the teachers working inside his Maine correctional institution, but also by the lifers he met there. “They were scholars,” he recalls. “They have just been reading for decades and had changed their lives.” They told Kinzel to eschew a life of violence and pursue an education. While still incarcerated, he scraped up enough money to take one for-credit college course. He was hooked. Once he was released, at age 28, Kinzel kept going. He got bachelor’s and master’s degrees and is currently working on a doctorate at the University of Michigan, Dearborn, where he also teaches classes in criminal justice. “I think about the dumb shit I did as a kid and think, God, night and day as compared to how I am now.”

Kinzel’s story is included in a comprehensive new report from the Vera Institute of Justice and Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, which encourages the government to take an important step toward expanding access to postsecondary education for incarcerated individuals: reinstate access to federal Pell Grants for eligible students behind bars. Doing so would lower recidivism, pump millions into local economies, and save state taxpayers hundreds of millions in correctional costs, advocates argue. “It is a common-sense investment,” says Vera’s Fred Patrick, “and a win-win for states, the country, and for incarcerated individuals, because they’re able to come home and thrive.”

To Kinzel, this makes perfect sense. “I think formally incarcerated people, for the most part, are some of the hardest workers. If you give people the opportunity, nobody wants to go back to prison. Nobody wants to sell drugs and do all this grimy shit. It’s just sometimes, you don’t have a choice.”

A Counterproductive Ban

The federal Pell Grant program was created in 1972 to provide funding to students who lack the resources to pay for higher education, including incarcerated individuals. (Unlike typical federal student aid, a Pell Grant generally does not have to be repaid.) By 1982, there were 350 postsecondary education programs in prisons, and by the early 1990s, the number had risen to nearly 800 programs spread across some 1,300 facilities.

But in 1994, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which helped to increase the nation’s ballooning prison population while also blocking incarcerated individuals from accessing Pell Grants. It was an ill-conceived move: Access to education behind bars, and the resulting boost to employment after release, wards against recidivism, which in the U.S. runs at roughly 50 percent during the first three years after release. (A government study tracking former inmates from 2005 to 2014 found that 83 percent would be rearrested at least once during those nine years.)

After the Pell Grant ban was implemented, the number of prison-based educational programs rapidly declined. Currently, some 60 percent of individuals in prison will not get any in-prison educational opportunities beyond a GED, though in 2014, 70 percent of people in prison expressed a desire to pursue postsecondary education.

The new report from Vera and the GCPI argues that providing the education that incarcerated individuals want would deliver rich rewards — not only lowering recidivism and saving the broader public millions per year in correctional costs, but also increasing wages and providing a foundation to break intergenerational cycles of poverty and crime.

The vast majority of incarcerated individuals are of prime working age — 78 percent of men and 83 percent of women are between the ages of 18 and 54 — yet they do not fare well in finding work upon release. According to a recent study by the Brookings Institution, just 55 percent of men report any income within a year of release; the median earnings for the group is roughly $10,000.

Vera estimates, conservatively, that if half of all state inmates eligible for Pell Grants (roughly 463,000) were given access to funding and educational programming, rates of employment would increase significantly, while earnings over the first year after release would collectively increase by more than $45 million. And because education relates to a significant drop in recidivism — lowering the odds by 48 percent — states would stand to save more than $365 million per year in correctional costs, according to the report. Texas and New York could each see annual savings of roughly $38 million; in California the annual savings would be almost $67 million.

Arthur Rizer, a former cop and federal prosecutor who now works for R Street, a center-right think tank, is a serious fan of the idea of bringing educational opportunities back into prisons. “It’s bat-shit crazy the way that we’ve handled this in the past,” he says. He notes that the vast majority of jobs require some postsecondary education, so providing that to inmates just makes sense — for individuals, businesses, and the community at large. “I call it trickle-down criminal justice.”

Ultimately, he says that data should be driving criminal justice reforms. “The takeaway for me is that this makes us safer. Period.”

There has been bipartisan support for legislation that would reinstate Pell Grant access. Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, who is chair of the chamber’s education and labor committee, has signaled a willingness to do so as part of reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, while Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz has previously proposed a standalone bill — the Restoring Education and Learning Act of 2018 — to repeal the ban. “Most prisoners, sooner or later, are released from prison, and no one is helped when they do not have the skills to find a job,” Alexander told the New York Times last year. “Making Pell Grants available to them in the right circumstances is a good idea.”

Rizer says he is confident that there is an appetite in the White House for this reform too. Coming off passage of the First Step Act (despite the controversy surrounding it), he said he has heard from the White House that President Donald Trump sees criminal justice reform “as his legacy issue.” The iron “is really hot right now for these kinds of issues.”

And even if the feds drag their heels, he says there is plenty of energy in the states to return meaningful education to incarcerated students. Part of the energy is likely attributed to the Obama-era second-chance Pell pilot program, which is funded through 2020. As of fall 2017, enrollment in the program, which pairs 67 colleges with correctional institutions in 27 states, was up to just over 5,000 inmates. There’s movement in Texas, Michigan, and elsewhere to expand educational operations further. And despite the larger ban on access to Pell Grants, a number of institutions have longstanding partnerships to provide postsecondary education to incarcerated students. The Bard Prison Initiative has awarded nearly 550 degrees since 2001; Bard’s graduates have a less than 3 percent recidivism rate. Boston University has been educating students behind bars since 1972 through a program funded by alumni.

Jose Bou dropped out of high school in the 10th grade in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and ran away from home. He sustained himself mainly by stealing from unlocked cars. He was eventually caught and locked up for a couple of years and that got him thinking: no more stealing. He wanted something more lucrative, so he became a drug dealer. Eventually, he was busted after selling 300 grams of cocaine to an undercover cop. He pleaded guilty and got a 12-year prison sentence.

Like Kinzel, it was while he was down on that bid that he turned himself around. He enrolled in the BU program and four years later was awarded a bachelor’s degree in English and American literature. He graduated with a 3.98 grade-point average. He told the Chronicle of Higher Education that he remembered sitting in his prison bunk, feeling the raised lettering on his degree and thinking to himself: “This is … the first thing I’ve ever really finished.”

He mentored other prisoners as he finished out his time, and after his release, he enrolled in a master’s program in criminal justice at BU. He taught community college before taking on a new job as the manager of Equity, Family and Community Partnerships for the Holyoke School District. He has come full circle: Once a Holyoke district dropout, he now fosters engagement to keep kids in school and away from the prison pipeline in the same community where he grew up.

Bou is wary about having his story held out as an example, mostly because he knows that the way things are now, he was pretty lucky to end up at an institution with a robust educational program. “It was just cosmic luck,” he says. “Don’t look at Jose Bou and say, ‘Why don’t you do it just like Jose? Straighten up, just like Jose?’ Because they don’t have the opportunity.”

And he agrees that returning Pell Grant opportunities to incarcerated students is important. “You can see the change in people. That’s awesome to see. It’s more fulfilling than locking someone up — of course, we’re always going to need to lock some people up,” he said. “But what are we doing to prepare society for that individual to return?” It’s not as though people in prison don’t have any skills, he notes, but it’s a matter of trading those for more productive skills. “I’ve got other skills I can use: robbing, stealing, violence. So, if you don’t teach me new skills, I’m still going to survive. It’s just, what skills do you want me using?”

The post How the Federal Government Undermines Prison Education appeared first on The Intercept.

Ilhan Omar, AIPAC, and the 2020 Democratic Presidential Contenders

Last week, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., ignited a controversy by tweeting a song lyric implying that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the flagship Israel lobby group in the U.S., leveraged the financial means at its disposal to enforce Washington orthodoxies about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Republicans quickly piled on, denouncing Omar as an anti-Semite. Almost as quickly, Democratic leaders in both chambers swiftly issued statements saying that Omar’s tweets — though not the member of Congress herself — were anti-Jewish.

In a tweet Monday afternoon, Omar apologized for offending constituents. But amid a political landscape where progressives are increasingly critical of money in politics and human rights abuses, Omar also doubled down on the substance of her initial salvos. “I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry,” she wrote. “It’s gone on too long and we must be willing to address it.”

Lurking behind the weeklong Omar controversy is a rapidly shifting battlefield over Israel inside the Democratic Party.

The reception to Omar’s tweets and her subsequent apology may be viewed as a cautionary tale for those who wish to see a more progressive policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet the mere discussion of Israel lobby groups’ influence, the cash behind those efforts, and Palestinian human rights can also be seen as something of a step forward.

Meanwhile, lurking behind the weeklong controversy is a rapidly shifting battlefield over Israel inside the Democratic Party.

Omar has not been alone at the center of recent firestorms over the politics of the Mideast conflict: Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the Palestinian-American freshman from Michigan, has also faced backlash for purported anti-Semitism. Underlying the accusations against the first two Muslim women to be elected to Congress, however, is the fight over the growing movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel for its human rights abuses, which is known as BDS. Omar and Tlaib find themselves at the vanguard of these public scuffles not least because they are the first and only members of Congress to publicly support the BDS movement.

There are signs for pro-Palestinian activists to take heart. Omar’s and Tlaib’s strong stances reflect progressive voters’ desires for a more even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but they certainly aren’t the only politicians paying attention. Democrats seem to be drifting left on the Mideast conflict, even some powerful figures in the party — including contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

Just last month, several 2020 presidential contenders broke with Democratic Party leadership in an attempt to thwart a major legislative priority for AIPAC: passing a law that attacks the BDS movement.

Twenty-six states across the country have taken up a some form of anti-boycott law to insulate Israel from criticism, part of a broader Israel lobby effort focused squarely on combating the BDS movement. Some of the measures have been pilloried for restricting free speech, but many have passed without issue. Such anti-boycott bills have also made an appearance on the national stage — frequently with strong AIPAC backing. And yet hesitance to support the measures within the Democratic Party has sometimes squashed such efforts — as with a congressional effort to impose criminal penalties for those who engaged in boycotts.

When another anti-boycott law came up in the new Senate — the upper chamber’s very first bill — liberal opposition was not enough to squash it. The bill, known as S.1, gave Congress’s blessing to state- and local-level BDS bans.

Almost every major announced or potential Democratic presidential candidate voted against the AIPAC bill.

The bill passed with an overwhelming vote — but a curious thing happened on the way: Almost every major announced or potential Democratic presidential candidate voted against it. Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Sherrod Brown all voted no, with only Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a longshot candidate, casting an “aye” vote.

Some of these 2020 hopefuls’ positions constituted reversals of a sort. In the cases of Booker and Gillibrand, both had been previous sponsors of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which would have criminalized certain forms of participation in BDS, making their departures on this softened measure noteworthy. Gillibrand abandoned her support of the 2017 bill after public outrage at its free-speech implications, particularly with the American Civil Liberties Union declaring the bill unconstitutional.

Explaining his vote against S.1, Booker threaded the needle. He told The Intercept that he opposed the bill because of free speech concerns but suggested that he still supported the larger anti-boycott bill that he previously co-sponsored.

“I have a strong and lengthy record of opposing efforts to boycott Israel, as evidenced by my co-sponsorship of S. 720, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act,” Booker said in the statement. “I drafted an amendment to help address these widely held concerns, but there was no amendment process offered to allow for this bill to be improved. There are ways to combat BDS without compromising free speech, and this bill as it currently stands plainly misses the mark.”

Booker is still planning to find other ways to combat BDS, his spokesperson told The Intercept, but S.1 wouldn’t be one of them.

Though S.1 contained many provisions apart from the anti-BDS language, activists working for civil and human rights in Israel and Palestine say the reversal from Booker — who has staunchly opposed the BDS movement – was undoubtedly influenced by that portion of the measure. The change, the activists said, signals a broader attempt among Democratic presidential hopefuls to position themselves on BDS in a way that won’t alienate the leftward-shifting base in the run-up to 2020.

“As a recently announced presidential candidate, Sen. Booker’s recent vote appears to be designed to appeal to the base of the Democratic Party, a majority of whom support sanctioning Israel to end its colonization of Palestinian land,” said Josh Ruebner, policy director at the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. “Sen. Booker’s vote against debating a bill that would encourage states to punish individuals who boycott for Palestinian rights is an indication that his position on this issue is evolving for the better.”

Ruebner also pointed to the other 2020 hopefuls who voted against the new anti-boycott bill amid the long run-up to the Democratic primaries next year. Other activists saw the same dynamics at play.

“We’re seeing progressives in this country steadily uniting behind a shared platform of human rights, freedom, and equality for Palestinians,” Michael Deheeger, a congressional organizer with the Jewish Voice for Peace, said in a statement to The Intercept. “And the fact that 21 Democratic senators supported our right to boycott by voting against S.1 shows that they see this shift too.”

A corollary to the rise of BDS has been efforts by pro-Israel figures — including elites in the Democratic Party — to expand the definition of anti-Semitism to include any criticism of Israel at all. This was the storm that Omar stepped into.

The tack was laid out by Israel lobbyists when an undercover Al Jazeera reporter infiltrated several right-wing pro-Israel groups for a documentary that was never aired, but leaked nonetheless. In one of the clips in the documentary, Kenneth Marcus, then the head of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law but now a Trump administration appointee, told Al Jazeera about plans to link allegations of “anti-Israel politics” with anti-Semitism. “What you’ve got to show: that they’re not the same, but they’re not entirely different either,” said Marcus, who has been a vocal critic of BDS movements across the country.

Initiatives pushed by Israel lobby groups that blur the line between criticisms of Israel and anti-Semitism have sometimes been championed by Democrats.

Initiatives pushed by Israel lobby groups that blur the line between criticisms of Israel and anti-Semitism have sometimes been championed by Democrats — including those gearing up for a 2020 run. The most notable arena has been the U.N.

In 2017, Sanders, Warren, Harris, Booker, Gillibrand, Brown, and Klobuchar joined every sitting senator in signing a letter to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres claiming that the world body has an anti-Israel bias. The letter implored the U.N. to “improve its treatment” of Israel and “eliminate anti-Semitism in all its forms.” The same year, Klobuchar, Booker, Harris, Brown, and Gillibrand joined 73 other senators in co-sponsoring a congressional measure objecting to a late 2016 U.N. Security Council resolution deeming Israeli settlements illegal and calling for their end. Israeli settlements are in fact considered illegitimate under international law and according to longstanding U.S. policy.

In the two years since, several of these 2020 hopefuls have taken stands against lines pushed by Israel lobby groups. Sanders, who says he does not support BDS, sent a letter, along with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, urging Senate leadership to keep the anti-boycott measure out of the year-end appropriations bill.

Compared to other Democratic presidential contenders, Warren has made perhaps the most drastic changes in her stances on Israel in recent years. In 2014, at a local town hall, the senator defended her vote — along with Booker, Gillibrand, Brown, and Klobuchar — to approve a 2013 bill that sent $220 million in military support to Israel for its Iron Dome weapons system. Sanders was the only non-GOP member to vote against that measure.

“America has a very special relationship with Israel,” Warren said at the town hall, in remarks that closely hewed to pro-Israel groups’ talking points. “Israel lives in a very dangerous part of the world, and a part of the world where there aren’t many liberal democracies and democracies that are controlled by the rule of law. And we very much need an ally in that part of the world.”

Along with Gillibrand, Booker, Brown, and Klobuchar, Warren also joined 76 senators co-sponsoring another measure reaffirming a “strategic partnership” with Israel that same year.

Soon after, however, Warren began to pivot. In 2017, she joined Sanders and eight Democratic senators in a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging his government not to proceed with demolishing and forcibly evicting Palestinian communities from the villages of Susiya and Khan al-Ahmar in the occupied West Bank. Last year, she signed a letter with Sanders and Brown asking Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to “do more to alleviate the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.” Last May, she spoke out against Israeli attacks that killed more than 60 Palestinian protesters in the Gaza Strip, joining Sanders in calling for the Israeli government to respect their right to protest.

Not all the 2020 hopefuls have made such drastic changes. After the killings in Gaza, demonstrators assembled outside Harris’s Los Angeles office and Booker’s Newark office, asking them to condemn the violence. Harris’s and Booker’s offices offered to have meetings with the protesters. After one such meeting in Booker’s office, the senator merely released a statement stating that the senator and his colleagues “believe deeply in the democratic process and folks speaking up on the issues that matter to them.” No condemnation of the killings came.

AIPAC’s role looms large in the Democratic Party shifts. There was a time when any serious political contender would make it a priority to appear before the influential Israel lobby group’s annual summit. Harris gave a formal address to AIPAC in 2017, and both Booker and Gillibrand have spoken at the group’s conferences in the past. Sanders was slated to speak at the group’s 2016 conference, but skipped it, citing his travel schedule. Last year, however, Klobuchar was the only major Democratic 2020 contender who spoke at the AIPAC confab.

The once tight-knit relationship between Democrats and AIPAC saw its first major rifts open up with the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. AIPAC worked tirelessly to kill the deal, spending millions of dollars. But it was a major achievement for a Democratic president, Barack Obama, and so almost every single Democrat backed it. Notably, among the Democratic dissenters in the Senate — Sens. Chuck Schumer, Bob Menendez, Ben Cardin, and Joe Manchin — are figures who hold powerful positions in the party’s caucus and constitute some of the closest Democrats to AIPAC.

The Iran deal vote signaled that AIPAC was losing it bipartisan grip on Capitol Hill Democrats. The threat of political backlash was no longer enough.

The Democrats who voted with the deal were in tune with public opinion, which largely supported the Iran deal. But those party elites who opposed the deal had to catch up. And some have: Schumer, four years later, has since opposed President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the agreement.

Schumer’s tale is instructive. Even as some Democrats step away from AIPAC in order not to transgress the progressive base ahead of the 2020 primaries, they must contend with a reticent and virulently pro-Israel party leadership.

“I think there is some disagreement over the BDS because of the free speech issue. But I reject it, I don’t find that a compelling argument at all.”

Take the unfolding fight over BDS, where Schumer has supported AIPAC’s positions on S.1. and other bills. Likewise, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the chair of the influential House Foreign Affairs Committee, is staunchly against BDS and supports anti-boycott measures over the First Amendment objections.

“I think BDS is a horrific thing,” Engel told The Intercept. “I think you have to look at some of these issues not politically. You have to look at what’s right and what’s wrong.” Engel rejected the idea that pro-Israel politics were no longer a guarantee in Congress and said he thought there was “clearly” still a pro-Israel majority among both parties in the House. “I think there is some disagreement over the BDS because of the free speech issue,” he said. “But I reject it, I don’t find that a compelling argument at all.”

With Israel’s body politic shifting to the right, so too have Israel lobby groups — and with them the staunchest of pro-Israel Democrats. Yet the Democratic Party as a whole seems to be moving to the left.

The Democratic Party’s shift might best be embodied in the rise of politicians like Omar, Tlaib, and New York’s Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They ran on reimagining of the political process, lifting even the most radical voices of their constituents, and beating mainstream predictions that they couldn’t win. They’ve attracted an energetic following owing to their unapologetically progressive positions — something 2020 contenders are surely heeding as they move into presidential campaign mode.

Consider the way Harris has come around on criminal justice reform. Known as a tough-on-crime prosecutor who ran to unseat a progressive district attorney, she’s been criticized for policies that unfairly delayed justice and threatened to hit poor communities of color the hardest. Later, though, Harris pivoted to a “smart on crime” approach, joining the public push for a humane and restorative approach to justice reform. In addition to warming up to broader criminal justice reform, she’s since lightened up on marijuana, too. Originally opposed to legalizing recreational pot, she joked last week on a radio show about smoking during college.

Moves like Harris’s will be necessary for all the 2020 contenders if they want to capture the energy around the new crop of freshmen members who don’t hesitate to buck the conventional wisdom in Washington. It will be tough for more establishment-oriented politicians to keep up. When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the principled stances of the new progressive Democrats might eventually clash with the cautious political opportunism of some of the 2020 candidates.

The post Ilhan Omar, AIPAC, and the 2020 Democratic Presidential Contenders appeared first on The Intercept.

The Supreme Court Will Decide if Census Citizenship Question Is Legal. Democrats Should Also Work to Block It.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., accompanied by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., second from left, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., third from right, Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., second from right, Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., right, and others speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 8, 2018, on the Trump administration's decision to add a new question on citizenship to the 2020 Census. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks at a news conference on the decision to add a new citizenship question on the 2020 Census in Washington D.C., on May 8, 2018.

Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

In a closed-door meeting Friday morning, the Supreme Court voted to fast-track review a lower court ruling that would have prevented the Trump administration from asking about citizenship on the 2020 census. Arguments in the case, the outcome of which could affect the balance of political and economic power in this country for years to come, are scheduled for the week of April 22. The last time the high court granted such a petition for expedited review, which bypasses the appeals court, was in 2004.

“Granting cert before judgment here shouldn’t be seen as any reflection of how the Court is likely to rule on the merits,” said Steve Vladeck, a law professor at University of Texas. “It’s just a sign that the Justices all understand the need to decide the matter, one way or the other, by June.” The census questionnaire must be finalized by June 30, census officials say, in order to start printing paper forms on time.

Democrats have an opportunity, and a moral responsibility, to push for answers on why the Trump administration is so keen to include the question.

The legal showdown over the census has been brewing since March 2018, when Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that the decennial enumeration of adult and child in America would — for the first time in 70 years — ask about immigration status. The move was quickly condemned by census experts and advocates as a politically motivated effort to undermine the accuracy of the count by discouraging immigrants and their families from participating. Led by New York, 18 states, several cities, and civil rights groups sued the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, to block the question.

Now, as the legal proceedings move forward, Democrats, with their oversight power in the House of Representatives, have an opportunity, and a moral responsibility, to push for answers on why the Trump administration is so keen to include it.

As it stands, the 2020 questionnaire either will or will not ask every person in America whether they are U.S. citizens. In the balance between those two outcomes hang billions of dollars in desperately needed federal aid for poor, urban, and minority communities; a legislative map that could be drawn to favor white, conservative districts; and the question of whether America will continue its descent toward white minority rule.

“Final census preparations and grassroots ‘get out the count’ efforts are unfolding amidst great uncertainty,” Terri Lowenthal, who was staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee from 1987 to 1994, told The Intercept, “making it hard to reassure fearful communities that it is safe to answer the census.”

Former Census Bureau Director Ken Prewitt concurred. “The census arrives in less than a year, when Alaska is enumerated and media campaign launched. And its schedule is relentless,” said Prewitt, who is now a professor at Columbia University. “The citizenship question hangs there, and distract from many other things that need attention. One way or the other, [the Supreme Court] needs to erase this uncertainty.”

If Democrats want to prevent this manmade catastrophe, they don’t have to wait and see what the Supreme Court decides.

Through hearings in the House, Democrats can work to further expose the Trump administration’s nefarious intentions. Ross, who evaded giving testimony in the New York case, will appear before the House Oversight Committee on March 14. Chair Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, has said that investigating the administration’s reasoning for adding the citizenship question would be an oversight priority. “To be frank with you, we have been told some untruths,” Cummings said in November.

Meanwhile, the chair of the subcommittee overseeing the Census Bureau, Jamie Raskin of Maryland, told Bethesda Beat, “We would like to put the nail in the coffin for the ill-fated citizenship question.”

Another route is through legislation. There are now two stand-alone bills in the House and Senate that would effectively prohibit a citizenship question on next year’s census. The 2020 Census IDEA Act, sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney and Sen. Brian Schatz, prohibits changes to census design that have not been “researched, studied, and tested” for at least three years before the count. The Every Person Counts Act, sponsored by Sens. Bob Menendez and Catherine Cortez Masto, specifically prohibits census questions “eliciting any information regarding U.S citizenship or immigration status.”

Fifty-two House Democrats have co-sponsored the Census IDEA Act and 20 senators have sponsored the Every Person Counts Act. If House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rallies her caucus, it is possible that the 2020 Census IDEA Act could pass in the House, but passage in the Senate — and the president’s signature — is unlikely.

Another option would be to attach a census measure to a must-pass bill, like raising the debt ceiling, supplemental appropriations, or disaster relief. In November, House Democrats, led by New York Rep. José Serrano, sought to use the government funding showdown to block the citizenship question. House Democrats could add language to future appropriations bills blocking funding for a census questionnaire that includes the question.

Even if the chances of passage are low, a symbolic effort by Democrats would still be meaningful. “An undercount would result in leaving communities without vital resources, health care, and fair representation,” said Beth Lynk, Census Counts campaign director at the Leadership Conference Education Fund. “Congress must now step in to remove the citizenship question from the 2020 Census and ensure the Census Bureau gets sufficient resources, so that all communities are accurately and fairly counted.”

Census stakeholders were reassured last month when Judge Jesse Furman, who sits on the federal bench in New York, ruled that Ross’s decision to include the question constituted an “arbitrary and capricious” violation of the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs federal agency decision-making processes. In the decision that prompted the Trump administration’s appeal to the Supreme Court, Furman wrote that “hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of people will go uncounted in the census if the citizenship question is included.”

Furman’s decision “revealed how the Census has been manipulated to undermine this cornerstone of our democracy,” said Arturo Vargas, CEO of the NALEO Educational Fund, which works to get Latinos involved in the political process. “We hope the Supreme Court will be able to approach this matter with a keen sense of objectivity and respect for the Constitution’s requirement for a complete count of all persons.”

Prewitt, the former Census Bureau director, said he’s hopeful that the Supreme Court will affirm Furman’s ruling, likely on “narrow, technical” grounds. But even if that happens, he said, considerable damage has already been done. “The lost trust in the census will be hard to walk back,” Prewitt said.

Meanwhile, the Census Bureau is going ahead with an unorthodox, last-minute test run of the citizenship question. In June, 480,000 U.S. households will receive one of two forms: one with the citizenship question, another without. “This test is not to determine whether or not we’re including the citizenship question on the 2020 census,” Victoria Velkoff, an associate director in the Census Bureau told a meeting of census stakeholders. Rather, the bureau explained, the purpose is to determine how to maximize responses and “inform staffing, training, and planning decisions.”

The highly unusual 11th-hour test, Lowenthal said, confirms what stakeholders have been asserting for over a year: The Census Bureau added the citizenship question without having comprehensively tested its effect on response rates. The latest test won’t solve that problem, Lowenthal said. “It’s not broad enough to assess the full impact.” For example, the test will not capture any data about noncooperation during the door-to-door phase — when Census workers will come knocking.

Though the extent of the potential damage is unknown, experts agree that the outlook is not good. In a January 26 letter to Ross, the commerce secretary, six former Census Bureau directors, from both Republican and Democratic administrations, warned, “We believe that adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census will considerably increase the risks to the 2020 enumeration.”

In a January 2018 memo to Ross, the Census Bureau’s own top scientist cautioned that adding the question would “harm the quality of the census count,” and would result in “substantially less accurate citizenship status data than are available from administrative sources.”  

Beyond the politics, a citizenship question would cause real, material harm to young people, Latinos, Asians, and city-dwellers. These communities are more likely to be undercounted (even more so than they already tend to be) because they are more likely to live in households with noncitizens.

 “An undercount would result in leaving communities without vital resources, health care, and fair representation.”

A more severe census undercount in these communities will impact have a devastating impact on federal aid. Congress allocates $675 billion in annual federal funds on the basis of census data. Medicaid distributes $312 billion; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, distributes $69.5 billion; Medicare Part B distributes $64.2 billion; and Section 8 housing distributes $38.3 billion. By undercounting undocumented immigrants and sewing fear in their families, the Trump administration will redirect federal funding away from the neediest. And because the census is used to apportion congressional seats and statehouse districts, undercounted populations will be further disenfranchised and left more unable to rectify these harms.

Punishing poor and brown communities in this way is not an unintended side effect of the administration’s approach to the decennial count; it’s the purpose.

Furman, in his ruling, declined to decide whether the citizenship question was designed to discriminate against noncitizens, but documents revealed during the trial suggest a deliberate plot by nativist Trump officials to sabotage the count.

Ross claimed that the decision to add a citizenship question was prompted by a December 2017 request from the Justice Department, which claimed to want better data for enforcing the Voting Rights Act. But emails reveal that months before the Justice Department request, Ross discussed the citizenship question with former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach — who briefly helmed a controversial “voter fraud” commission — and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon months before the DOJ request. In his ruling, Furman said the Commerce Department used DOJ to “launder” and “obtain cover for a decision they had already made.”

The absence of a citizenship question on the census “leads to the problem that aliens who do not actually ‘reside’ in the United States are still counted for congressional apportionment purposes,” Kobach wrote in a July 2017 email to Ross. The Justice Department later admitted that the conversation between Kobach and Ross was arranged by Bannon.

Justin Levitt, a former Justice Department civil rights overseer, told me last year that there is no valid voting rights reason for including a citizenship question on the census.

Levitt said, “These emails suggest that the Commerce Department’s rationale was, to use a technical term, horseshit.”

The post The Supreme Court Will Decide if Census Citizenship Question Is Legal. Democrats Should Also Work to Block It. appeared first on The Intercept.

Even for Washington, the Fight Over Online Gambling Has Been Unusually Shady

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., talked to U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein “several times” about changing the Justice Department’s interpretation of a law that banned interstate betting, he told The Intercept. A 2011 Justice Department analysis of that law effectively legalized online gambling; last month, the department reversed that opinion.

“I’ve been pushing this from the day it came out under the Obama administration,” Graham said. “Sen. [Dianne] Feinstein and myself have been asking for them to change this absurd interpretation because it leads to the Wild Wild West.” Asked whether he’d spoken to then-Acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who had recused himself from the issue, about it, Graham, in a brief interview in the Capitol, said, “I don’t know.” (On Thursday, the Senate confirmed William Barr as attorney general, replacing Whitaker.)

In 2011, the Department of Justice issued a legal opinion clarifying that the Wire Act, a federal law passed in 1961 to stop interstate betting, applied only to sports betting and not other forms of gambling. This announcement opened the doors for states to begin legalizing online gambling — now an industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Last week, The Intercept reported on the Justice Department’s recent reversal of its 2011 stance, a long-sought cause of Sheldon Adelson, the Republican billionaire casino mogul. The new Justice Department interpretation was released in the middle of the government shutdown, on January 14, the night before U.S. Attorney General nominee William Barr’s confirmation hearing.

Graham himself has been the Senate sponsor for the Restoration of America’s Wire Act, or RAWA, legislation that would effectively ban all forms of online gambling, since 2014. His advocacy on the issue coincided with an increase in political contributions from Adelson. In 2015, when Graham announced that he would run for president, it was widely understood that Adelson’s largess would be key to his campaign strategy.

In 2017, Graham and Feinstein, a California Democrat who had previously co-sponsored Graham’s RAWA legislation, wrote to Rosenstein urging him to overturn the Justice Department’s 2011 opinion.

As The Intercept previously reported, the deputy attorney general had wanted little to do with the gambling brouhaha, according to people close to him. “We’ve checked in over the last two years with Rod Rosenstein, and he’s consistently said he has no interest in this issue, that there’s more important issues going on,” said one gaming industry executive who opposes the ban. The Justice Department did not return a request for comment on Rosenstein’s involvement.

Several hours after The Intercept’s story was published last Friday, Whitaker appeared before the full House Judiciary Committee to testify on Justice Department matters. At the hearing, Whitaker, who had been acting attorney general since November, hotly denied having any influence over his agency’s new Wire Act opinion. Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., specifically grilled Whitaker about whether Adelson had influenced the reversal.

“Your inferences on how that process was corrupted or corrupt is absolutely wrong,” Whitaker said. “And the premise of your question, I reject.” He also said that he has never met with Adelson or spoken to any of his lobbyists about online gambling.

Raskin’s line of questioning stood out in a hearing that focused primarily on the Trump-Russia probe. Raskin himself has received more than $38,000 since 2016 from individuals associated with law firms that represent national and international online gambling companies.

Before Whitaker came to the Department of Justice, he directed the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, an organization that formed in 2014 to purportedly hold Democrats accountable for ethics violations. Whitaker was its sole employee, and he earned more than $1.2 million over three years. In November, the Center for Responsive Politics reported that a single six-figure donor accounted for 100 percent of funding raised by Whitaker’s old organization.

At Friday’s congressional hearing, Raskin asked Whitaker if he knew the identity of that sole donor and suggested that the money had come from Adelson. Whitaker said it was from Donors Trust, a conservative donor-advised fund, but that he has “no idea” who specifically donated the money.

While Raskin emphatically defended the 2011 Justice Department interpretation of the Wire Act, saying that the statute’s language “plainly prohibits only sports betting,” the 2011 opinion actually has its own set of critics who say that it was issued on corrupted grounds. Eric Holder was the U.S. attorney general at the time, and despite having previously represented companies with ties to the gambling industry, according to a former U.S. attorney who dealt with him on those issues, he did not recuse himself from gambling matters.  

Michael Fagan, who served as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri for 25 years, told The Intercept that he personally worked with Holder and his Covington & Burling colleague Lanny Breuer in the early 2000s while prosecuting forfeiture cases related to illegal offshore gambling.

“I can’t remember who they represented, some big multinational company, but I would say on at least two different occasions, they came to St. Louis to meet me and work out an agreement, and I had phone calls with both of them about this too,” said Fagan. “In the end, they agreed their client would forfeit a substantial amount of money in the hundreds of thousands or millions, I believe.”

As U.S. attorney general, Holder brought on his old partner Breuer to lead the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. It was Breuer who then asked the Office of Legal Counsel to revisit the agency’s position on the Wire Act, citing inquiries from New York and Illinois about selling online lottery tickets. Like Holder, Breuer did not recuse himself, despite his past involvement with companies tied to the gambling industry. Eventually U.S. Assistant Attorney General Virginia Seitz quietly issued an opinion changing the Justice Department’s long-held stance. Holder, Breuer, and Seitz did not return requests for comment. 

Seitz’s Wire Act interpretation hinged on a close reading of the punctuation of the law, as well as the fact that on the same day the Wire Act was originally enacted, Congress passed a separate statute regulating other forms of gambling. She said this suggested that the Wire Act was exclusively targeting sports betting.

Though the Office of Legal Counsel opinion is dated September 20, 2011, it was released on December 23, 2011 — the Friday before Christmas as lawmakers were leaving D.C. and one day after Nevada approved the first-ever state regulations for online poker. (Harry Reid, D-Nev., who was then Senate majority leader, would say later that legalizing online poker on the federal level “may be the most important issue facing Nevada since Yucca Mountain.” Reid’s 2010 re-election campaign was strongly backed by Caesars Entertainment Corp. and MGM, both of which wanted to establish national online poker sites.)

Seitz was an Obama appointee who had previously worked in the president’s old Chicago law firm, Sidley Austin. She returned there after leaving the Justice Department in 2013 and still works there. Newsweek reported in 2014 that Sidley Austin expanded its business operations in the gambling space after the 2011 Justice Department decision came down. Other Obama alumni got involved with the gambling industry too, with 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina joining the American Gambling Association in 2014 to work on “grassroots initiatives” that included online gambling. “Jim is as politically astute as they come and he will be a great resource for us,” AGA President Geoff Freeman told The Hill at the time. Today, Holder works as a partner at a law firm that represents MGM casinos.

The criticisms of online gambling extend beyond Adelson’s vested interest in shutting it down. Les Bernal, the national director of the Washington-based Stop Predatory Gambling, a group that advocates against commercialized gambling, told The Intercept that there is “no grassroots movement” for online gambling. In March 2017, he sent a letter on behalf of his group’s members to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions urging him to reverse the 2011 Wire Act opinion. “The error of the OLC opinion is conclusively established by the carefully-researched, well-reasoned law review article ‘Understanding the Wire Act: Why the Department of Justice Missed the Mark When It Overturned Fifty Years of Interpretation of the Act,’” Bernal wrote in his letter, referencing an article co-authored by Darryl Nirenberg, an attorney and longtime registered lobbyist for Adelson. In April 2017, Nirenberg delivered a legal memo to a top-ranking official at the Justice Department, outlining reasons to reverse the 2011 Wire Act opinion.

Bernal told The Intercept that his organization takes no money “directly or indirectly” from the gambling industry, does not work with Adelson, and opposes all forms of commercialized gambling. “I know Nirenberg is a lobbyist for Adelson, but on that specific law review article, his opinion was correct,” Bernal said.

Fagan, the retired assistant U.S. attorney who now teaches a course on international money laundering and corruption at Washington University School of Law, said he also was quite impressed by the Nirenberg article, despite the author’s ties to Adelson. “It’s quite good and shows very convincingly why the 2011 opinion is wrong,” Fagan said.

In 2015, Fagan spoke before Congress at a hearing for the Restoration of America’s Wire Act and submitted testimony criticizing the 2011 Justice Department opinion in detail. He called it “rushed, biased, and flawed by reliance on intuition rather than careful analysis.” Fagan also argued that Seitz’s opinion was worded to “favo[r] moneyed corporate interests” and that she had taken up this action less than 90 days after having been confirmed for her Justice Department job. He pointed out that Seitz, Breuer, and Holder all had “represented — and, presumably earned substantial fees from — huge clients, either to advocate for increased Internet gambling or to avoid liability for the client’s role in facilitating and promoting Internet gambling” and that none had disclosed those histories beforehand.

Bernal of Stop Predatory Gambling said many people were advocating for the Justice Department to reject its 2011 interpretation, though “certainly” Adelson’s voice helped boost the effort. He noted Americans lost $118 billion in personal wealth to government-sanctioned gambling schemes in 2018, with another trillion dollars projected to be lost over the next eight years. “A lot of people were outraged at how Holder’s Department of Justice acted in 2011,” Bernal said. “I think Adelson’s voice was influential but that he was the lynchpin is a phony narrative that the gambling industries in this country are pushing to try and get the new opinion flipped.”

The post Even for Washington, the Fight Over Online Gambling Has Been Unusually Shady appeared first on The Intercept.

Six GOP House Members Who Need to Resign for Anti-Semitism Before Ilhan Omar

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Clockwise from top left: Matt Gaetz, Louie Gohmert, Paul Gosar, Kevin McCarthy, Steve Scalise, and Steve King.

Photo: AP


“She should either resign from Congress or certainly resign from the House Foreign Affairs Committee.”

So declaimed President Donald Trump in the White House on Tuesday, as he denounced Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., for her “terrible” remarks and her “lame” apology.

To be clear: Omar apologized “unequivocally” for her two tweets on Israel and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, yet Trump has never apologized for any of his bigoted, sexist, racist, Islamophobic, and — yes — anti-Semitic remarks.

Here’s Trump’s problem: The modern GOP is riddled with bigots, Islamophobes, and anti-Semites.

There is a bigger issue here, though. Trump said that “anti-Semitism has no place in the United States Congress.” I agree with him. But here’s his problem: The modern GOP is riddled with bigots, Islamophobes, and anti-Semites.

If the president wants Omar to resign from Congress over alleged anti-Semitism, here are six Republican members of the House, including the two most senior members of the GOP leadership, who need to resign first.

Kevin McCarthy

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, representative for California’s 23rd Congressional District, has promised to “take action this week” against Omar over her tweets.

This is the same McCarthy who took to Twitter in October 2018 to accuse three Jewish billionaires — George Soros, Tom Steyer, and Michael Bloomberg — of trying to “buy” the midterms. He posted his tweet just a day after Soros received a pipe bomb at his home in New York.

Steyer called the tweet “straight-up anti-Semitic.” McCarthy, though, continues to refuse to apologize for it, saying he did nothing wrong. So why did he delete it? And why isn’t Trump calling on him to resign from Congress too?

Steve Scalise

Earlier this week, Steve Scalise, the House Minority Whip and representative for Louisiana’s 1st Congressional District, demanded that Democratic Party leaders “remove [Omar] from the Foreign Affairs Committee” over her “disgraceful anti-Semitic remarks.”

Yet, in 2002, Scalise, then a Louisiana state representative, attended and spoke at a convention of the white supremacist European American Unity and Rights Organization, a group founded by David Duke. You remember Duke, right? The Holocaust-denying former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who has been described by the Anti-Defamation League as “perhaps America’s most well-known racist and anti-Semite.”

Scalise later said he “regretted” — but did not technically apologize for — attending the EURO event. When Louisiana-based political reporter Stephanie Grace first met Scalise, he likened himself to Duke. Grace recalled, “He told me he was like David Duke without the baggage.”

Why is Scalise still in Congress?

Louie Gohmert

Rep. Louie Gohmert represents Texas’s 1st Congressional District and is a darling of the tea party.

In December, he appeared on the Fox Business channel to discuss Google, but then decided to pivot and attack — yep, you guessed it — the right’s favorite Jewish billionaire.

“George Soros is supposed to be Jewish, but you wouldn’t know it from the damage he’s inflicted on Israel,” Gohmert said. “And the fact that he turned on fellow Jews and helped take the property that they owned. It’s the same kind of thing.”

This ludicrous and anti-Semitic claim that Soros helped “take the property” of fellow Jews during World War II has been repeatedly and thoroughly debunked. Soros, for the record, was 14 years old at the end of the war.

“Congressman Louie Gohmert for some reason went out of his way to bring up George Soros and made unsubstantiated and false allegations against him,” host Stuart Varney later announced, live on air. “I want to make clear those views are not shared by me, this program, or anyone at Fox Business.” How anti-Semitic and unhinged do you have to be for a Fox host to have to loudly disown you?

And why is Gohmert still a member of Congress?

Matt Gaetz

I’ve referred elsewhere to Rep. Matt Gaetz, who was elected to the House of Representatives from Florida’s 1st Congressional District in 2016, as “the most despicable and shameless member of the United States Congress.”

You want anti-Semitism? Where to begin with Gaetz? He invited the notorious Holocaust denier Chuck Johnson to be his guest at the State of the Union and later defended Johnson: “He’s not a Holocaust denier; he’s not a white supremacist. Those are unfortunate characterizations of him.”

He has appeared on Alex Jones’s “Infowars” show. Jones has said that “it’s not that Jews are bad, it’s just they are the head of the Jewish mafia in the United States. They run Uber, they run the health care, they’re going to scam you, they’re going to hurt you.”

He suggested the caravan of migrants that set out from Central America in October 2018 was funded by George Soros, who might be “giving cash 2 women & children 2 join the caravan & storm the US border.”

Trump has called Gaetz “one of the finest and most talented people in Congress.” Why hasn’t he called on the Florida representative to resign over anti-Semitism?

Steve King

“A newcomer member of Congress has apologized for her remarks,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., belatedly defending Omar from Republican attacks on Wednesday. “It took them what, 13 years to notice Steve King?”

Pelosi is correct. In January, House Republicans agreed to remove Rep. Steve King from two House committees after the Iowa Republican was quoted telling the New York Times, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”

The GOP has tried to draw an absurd and offensive comparison between King and Omar.

The GOP has since tried to draw an absurd and offensive comparison between King and Omar — aided and abetted by irresponsible members of the media — while demanding credit for taking action against King. But King has a long history of white nationalism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism that was ignored and overlooked by House Republicans — and a GOP presidential candidate! — for years. “Steve King Is A White Supremacist, And The GOP Doesn’t Care,” read a HuffPost headline in the summer of 2018.

Long before his racist remarks to the New York Times, King retweeted a neo-Nazi. He sat on a panel with white nationalists. He praised both the German and Austrian far right. According to the ADL, he even “denigrated the Jewish history of the Holocaust.”

Why is there a place for him in the United States Congress?

Paul Gosar

Rep. Paul Gosar, the Republican who represents Arizona’s 4th Congressional District, has claimed that the far-right rally held in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 — at which marchers chanted “Jews will not replace us” — was “created by the left” and led by an “Obama sympathizer.” He has also suggested that Soros funded the event and falsely claimed that the Jewish billionaire “turned in his own people to the Nazis.”

In fact, Gosar is so brazen in his conspiratorial, anti-Jewish bigotry that his own family has felt the need to publicly denounce him. “We are aghast that Paul has sunk so low that he now spews the most despicable slander against an 87-year-old man without a shred of proof,” a letter signed by seven of his siblings said in October 2017. “It is extremely upsetting to have to call you out on this, Paul, but you’ve forced our hand with your deceit and anti-Semitic dog whistle.”

In October 2018, Gosar’s brother David went even further, describing the representative’s rhetoric as having “helped feed the anti-Semitism that just resulted in the murder of 11 people in a Jewish synagogue and an attempt on Mr. Soros’s life.”

When will Gosar be quitting the House?

“Fundamentally,” as the prominent Jewish-American journalist Peter Beinart observed on Twitter, “the furor over @IlhanMN’s tweets isn’t about policing bigotry or even anti-Semitism. It’s about policing the American debate over Israel.” I would go further: It’s also about smearing and demonizing women of color, especially Muslim women of color, in the Democratic Party.

Republicans don’t give a damn about anti-Semitism. They just don’t care. And we’ll know for sure that they do when they ask these six white Republican men to resign from Congress.

Just don’t hold your breath.

The post Six GOP House Members Who Need to Resign for Anti-Semitism Before Ilhan Omar appeared first on The Intercept.

Rep. Ilhan Omar Went After Elliott Abrams for Lying to Congress. Then He Did It Again.

Elliott Abrams, President Donald Trump’s special envoy for Venezuela, appeared before the House Committee on Foreign Relations on Wednesday.

About two hours into the hearing, committee member Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., noted that Abrams pleaded guilty in 1991 to withholding information about the Iran-Contra affair from Congress. “I fail to understand,” Omar said, “why members of this committee or the American people should find any testimony that you give today to be truthful.”

Omar’s skepticism was well-founded: Just moments later, Abrams told her several egregious lies.

Abrams’s most notable lies occurred during this exchange about his actions as assistant secretary of state in the 1980s during the Reagan administration:

OMAR: On February 8, 1982, you testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about U.S. policy in El Salvador. In that hearing, you dismissed as communist propaganda reports about the massacre at El Mozote in which more than 800 civilians, including children as young as 2 years old, were brutally murdered by U.S.-trained troops. During that massacre, some of those troops bragged about raping a 12-year-old girl, girls, before they killed them. You later said that the U.S. policy in El Salvador was a “fabulous achievement.” Yes or no, do you still think so?

ABRAMS: From the day that President Duarte was elected in a free election, to this day, El Salvador has been a democracy. That’s a fabulous achievement.

Abrams’s words were “not only factually, demonstrably untrue, but grossly so,” according to Alejandro Velasco, a professor of modern Latin American history at New York University. His testimony, said Velasco, “continues a pattern he has shown since the 1980s of hubristically rejecting out of hand any suggestion that defeating social justice struggles in the 1980s, through the most brutal means, should in any way be seen as anything other than a resounding victory for the U.S.”

To start: When José Napoleón Duarte was elected president of El Salvador in 1984, it was not “a free election.”

Duarte was one of many Salvadoran politicians who spent time on the CIA’s payroll. In March 1980, he joined a junta that had recently seized power, and by the end of the year had become the junta’s head. He stayed there for the next year and a half — a period of stunning, gaudy brutality by the Salvadoran military against the country’s population. Tens of thousands were slaughtered with U.S support, including those killed during the El Mozote massacre described by Omar.

Pratap Chitnis, a member of the U.K. House of Lords, traveled to El Salvador to witness the 1984 election on behalf of the British Parliamentary Human Rights Group. “Crucial to the whole standing of the exercise,” he reported, “was the fact that no politicians to the left of [Duarte’s] Christian Democrats” could participate. Why? Because, said official British observers, “had these representatives campaigned openly, they would have run a very high risk of being assassinated” by right-wing death squads.

This was something like a U.S. presidential election in which the furthest-left candidate was Ted Cruz. Duarte’s only real competition was Roberto D’Aubuisson, founder of the ultraright wing ARENA party, who several years before had ordered the assassination of Óscar Romero, the beloved archbishop of San Salvador.

Many Salvadorans he encountered, Chitnis wrote, “laughed at the significance of the elections” given “the atmosphere of terror and despair, of macabre rumour and grisly reality.”

However, the Reagan administration realized that D’Aubuisson would be a PR disaster. So after enabling the elimination of El Salvador’s left, they intervened with massive covert support for Duarte, the “moderate.”

Thomas Carothers, a colleague of Abrams at the State Department, later wrote a book titled “In the Name of Democracy: U.S. Policy Toward Latin America in the Reagan Years.” Carothers was sympathetic to Abrams’s perspective and in fact, interviewed him for the book. Carothers states that “the administration approached the elections with two goals: ensuring that technically credible elections were held and that the Christian Democratic candidate, José Napoleón Duarte, won.”

To that end, Carothers said, the CIA provided “a significant amount of funds, possibly between $1 million and $3 million, for Duarte’s campaign.” In addition, the U.S. Agency for International Development overtly provided significant funds to help him. Jesse Helms, then North Carolina’s far-right senator and a supporter of D’Aubuisson, complained bitterly that the CIA bought the election for Duarte, whom he described as “a socialist.”

“An election was held within a very limited range of the political spectrum; choices were given but very few,” Chitnis wrote. “I asked relatives of the disappeared and brutally murdered, ‘Do you think things will be better now that President Duarte has been elected?’ ‘It was under President Duarte that these things happened in the first place’, they replied.”

Thus, Abrams obviously knows that this was no “free election.” As in the past, he was consciously attempting to deceive Congress.

Needless to say, it also is not the case that “El Salvador has been a democracy” since 1984. Control of the country remained in the hands of the military, with Duarte a largely powerless figurehead. The cruel war of the government against Salvadorans ground on for years. In 1986, the archbishop of El Salvador condemned indiscriminate bombing of civilians by the air force, and the establishment of free fire zones in which any inhabitants were deemed to be guerrillas and hence worthy targets.

When Duarte’s term was ending in 1989, the FMLN guerrilla group proposed a peace plan under which they would participate in the elections for a new president. Duarte rejected it, setting up a second election in which his party would be the left-most boundary of the possible. This time, however, ARENA “won.” According to the center-right Economist magazine, the “army frightened the voters, [ARENA] fixed the results, and its electoral commission delayed announcing them” until the vote tallies could be adjusted.

ARENA celebrated its democratic triumph with the notorious murder of six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper at Central American University in San Salvador. When Congress sent a delegation to investigate what was going on in El Salvador, they found that 14 of the top 15 highest-ranking Salvadoran military officers had ties to death squads.

By the time the next two elections came in 1994 and 1999, Abrams was out of office. Perhaps coincidentally, both were largely legitimate, at least formally. By 2004, Abrams was back in government in the George W. Bush administration, and the U.S. again attempted to intervene to pick the election’s winner. In 2009, with Abrams out of power once again, the FMLN won a presidential election for the first time.

The Economist now characterizes the Salvadoran political system as a “hybrid regime,” meaning that “elections have substantial irregularities that often prevent them from being both free and fair.” They have not permitted any genuine change that would allow the deep wounds of Salvadoran society to heal.

El Salvador now has by far the highest murder rate in the world — 15 times that of the U.S. and about 50 percent higher than Venezuela, itself notoriously violent. It is beset by “pervasive criminal gangs.” At $8,900, its per capita GDP ranks 146th in the world. According to the CIA Factbook, at least 20 percent of its population lives abroad, compared to 10 percent of Venezuelans — a situation which is rightfully seen as a crisis.

So Abrams is just as willing now as he was 30 years ago to mislead Congress. But what’s most ominous is that — given that he sees El Salvador as a “fabulous achievement” — he presumably would see a similar outcome for Venezuela as a fabulous achievement as well.

“No one who even marginally believes in democracy, human rights, and the self-determination of peoples can count Abrams as an ally, as his actual record amply demonstrates,” said Velasco. “Anyone who does so is either willfully ignorant or worse, complicit in the very crimes they say they are trying to combat in Venezuela.”

The post Rep. Ilhan Omar Went After Elliott Abrams for Lying to Congress. Then He Did It Again. appeared first on The Intercept.

Ralph Northam Still Doesn’t Understand What It Takes to be Forgiven

CHILHOWIE, VIRGINIA - FEBRUARY 09: Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam watches as the casket of fallen Virginia State Trooper Lucas B. Dowell is carried to a waiting tactical vehicle during the funeral at the Chilhowie Christian Church  on February 9, 2019 in Chilhowie, Virginia. (Photo by Steve Helber - Pool/Getty Images)

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam during a funeral at the Chilhowie Christian Church on Feb. 9, 2019, in Chilhowie, Va.

Photo: Steve Helber/Pool/Getty Images


It feels unfair to be forced to entertain the question of forgiveness when someone has transgressed as badly as Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. For too long, calls for forgiveness have been used to elide real accountability. Apology letters — some better than others — anticipate social absolution while victims still smart from harms. Understandably, a counterculture has emerged that all but shuts out the possibility of forgiveness in favor of “canceling” transgressors. But forgiveness and personal accountability needn’t be at odds. What’s missing in this conversation is a fulsome discussion of repentance.

Northam, of course, is infamous for including a picture of two men, one in blackface and one dressed as a Ku Klux Klansman, on his 1984 medical school yearbook page. The governor first apologized for the photograph before denying he was in it, but has admitted that he “darkened” his face to dress as pop icon Michael Jackson on another occasion.

Either way, Northam has much to atone for.

To don blackface is to choose to degrade a population of Americans whose free labor and exploitation enabled the fortunes of men like Northam — men who continue to enjoy enormous power. It’s a choice, in short, to punch down. Even worse, dehumanizing black Americans serves the purpose of justifying continued inequities. That was the case in 1884 and in 1984, and it remains the case today.

Who, a person flipping through the yearbook might ask, is Ralph Shearer Northam? A man who enjoys cars, cowboy hats, and Klansmen.

Northam didn’t “just” participate in a one-off racist joke, either. Weeks, months, or years later, he chose to incorporate a picture of the episode on his yearbook page — a space students typically use as a time capsule of their experience in school. Of all that he experienced during those four years, this incident made the curated pastiche of Northam’s life. Who, a person flipping through the yearbook might ask, is Ralph Shearer Northam? A man who enjoys cars, cowboy hats, and Klansmen.

The governor now says he didn’t understand the full social implications of blackface. But he certainly understood enough to be in on the “joke.” Transgressive humor doesn’t work without understanding the transgression, and it’s not credible to think Northam didn’t know that blackface and the KKK were potent symbols of racism. There’s a reason the man in KKK robes is posing with a mocking simulacrum of blackness. It’s a tableau vivant of racial violence.

But as Northam’s defenders have pointed out, rarely can a person’s character be understood in such black-and-white terms. The governor’s record includes plenty to recommend it. For eight years, Northam served in the U.S. Army as a medical officer. He became a pediatric neurologist before entering politics. He opposed a bill that would require women seeking abortions to get vaginal ultrasounds; opposed right-to-work laws; advocated for the state to adopt a $15 minimum wage; and voted against a bill that would have banned sanctuary cities in Virginia. On Tuesday, he restored voting rights to 10,000 former felons.

A blue governor in a historically conservative state, Northam represents a symbolic victory for Democrats — a model for how to gain a foothold on an electoral map that skews red, even as demographic trends predict the opposite. Moreover, the timing of the photo’s release — days after Northam defended late-term abortions — casts a political tint over the controversy. Would supporting his resignation ultimately be a capitulation to Republicans, whose political agenda threatens black American interests much more than a 35-year-old photograph?

Unsurprisingly, the public is divided on this issue.

One camp believes Northam is disqualified from holding office. In an op-ed titled “Ralph Northam must resign,” the Washington Post’s editorial board argue that “Northam can no longer effectively serve the people of Virginia.” It pointed to his “shifting and credulity-shredding explanations for the racist photograph” and the fact that after promising to do the “‘hard work’ of atonement,” he slipped into silence for days. “Facts do matter,” they write, “and the ones surrounding the Northam fiasco remain unsettled and unanswered. How could he possibly have admitted to something as damning as appearing in the photo if he wasn’t one of the people in it? How did that photo wind up on his page if he didn’t furnish it to the yearbook editors?” How, they ask, does Northam’s response to the controversy reflect on his judgment? “Virginians deserve better,” they write. “Mr. Northam’s time is up.”

Others disagree, citing the age of the picture, the fact that there’s an outstanding question of whether Northam is actually in it, and the absence of any evidence that Northam committed other racist acts between 1984 and the present.

“Ask yourself this,” writes Virginia conservative Daniel Payne in the Washington Enquirer. “Do we want to be a culture that can forgive very old, offensive behavior when a transgressor recants and seeks forgiveness? Or do we want to be the kind of culture that ruthlessly seeks out past transgressions and savagely drives all transgressors from polite society, whether or not they are sorry?”

There’s truth, I think, in both takes.

When Payne asks whether we want a society in which forgiveness is possible rather than one where mistakes are irredeemable, my answer is yes. It seems clear to me that progressive politics require that response.

But as my former colleague Zaid Jilani recently pointed out, there can be “a curious dissonance” between the compassion the left extends to some, like the formerly incarcerated, versus others, like those who’ve committed more minor social transgressions. When it comes to crime, factors like poverty and a lack of educational opportunity are understood to constrain individual choice. There’s a distaste for punitive measures both because they’re inhumane and because they’re known to have little deterrent effect: When we consider that various social factors predict crime, it makes sense to broaden our focus to root causes — not just punishing individuals. The result isn’t to diminish the role of individual responsibility; in properly contextualizing the role of individual will, it increases our faith in rehabilitation.

The problem isn’t just Northam. It is the culture from which he sprang.

The broad left understands that rehabilitation is not only a social good — a benefit to both individuals and their communities — but is ethically compelled. We understand that human lives have intrinsic value that must be protected and that a humanistic approach to crime can be more effective than punitive alternatives.

But even though liberals acknowledge external factors that influence bigoted behavior (we live in a racist culture, just as we live in a rape culture and a heteronormative culture, etc.), blame and retribution are often focused on individual bad actors while broader social forces are dismissed as less significant. Northam’s yearbook page is abhorrent, yes, but not anomalous. As disconcerting as the image is, more unnerving is the reality that perhaps a dozen decision-makers who produced the yearbook didn’t think twice about including it, because it wasn’t disconcerting to them. The problem isn’t just Northam. It is the culture from which he sprang.

Acknowledging this doesn’t absolve Northam. But it does shift one’s consideration of whether his bias is static and irredeemable or fluid and forgivable — informed by the world around him and subject to change. And that, of course, informs what you think should happen next.

To be clear: None of this means that Northam deserves to keep his job.

Where I depart from Payne and Jilani is that their analysis insufficiently considers the role of atonement. Preserving space for Northam to be forgiven does not mean that Northam is entitled to stay governor of Virginia. To justify remaining in office, he must earn forgiveness. Repentance precedes absolution.

Penance is an effort to fix the damage caused by a transgression. It’s an act, not merely a feeling. The restorative justice approach to criminal justice is helpful here in teasing out the path forward. It emphasizes accountability and making amends over punishment. It asks victims what they need to repair the harm done to them, not merely what vengeance should be exacted on the transgressor.

In his recent piece on Northam and the question of mercy, Jilani compared the governor to Lewis Conway Jr., who, after two decades in jail for murder, ran for the Austin City Council. Jilani questioned why some on the left championed Conway’s rehabilitation while remaining skeptical of Northam’s ability to evolve from a much less heinous offense. But the difference is in how they’ve atoned for their crimes.

The governor has spent more effort creating factual ambiguity around his yearbook photo than engaging in the hard work of penitence.

Whereas Conway served 20 years in prison, Northam couldn’t sit in judgment for 24 hours before revising his apology into a disclaimer: It wasn’t me. The governor has spent more effort creating factual ambiguity around his yearbook photo than engaging in the hard work of penitence. In his Sunday CBS interview with Gayle King, he claimed that “this is really the first time I have ever really seen that picture,” citing as proof how unprepared his reaction was. When asked why he apologized for being in a picture he now claims he isn’t in, he blamed the “state of shock” he was in following the revelation. This is the opposite of accountability.

Northam’s dodge is even more frustrating given that it only marginally improves his moral position. Yes, traditional blackface — with its coal-black paint, crimson lips, and affected minstrelsy — is technically worse than efforts to achieve a facsimile of a black person as part of a costume. Why? Because while the intent to degrade can exist in either instance, it’s always present in the former. But this isn’t a criminal trial, and the lack of intent doesn’t save Northam from critique. The effect of blackface is always degrading, because of the historical legacy of blackface in this country. To wear blackface is to trade in either ignorance or indifference. The latter is more forgivable. But it is not above rebuke.

Moreover, Northam has shown little to no substantive understanding of what he’s done wrong. At an initial press conference, he seemed to take the controversy so lightly that he contemplated doing the “moonwalk” when asked if he had the moves. (He owes his wife an above-average Valentine’s Day gift for steering him away from that disaster.)

Although the purpose of the CBS interview was ostensibly for Northam to demonstrate his new understanding of racial issues, he compounded public frustration by calling slaves “indentured servants from Africa,” appearing to sanitize the subject. And while Northam (sort of) acknowledged his racial privilege, he failed to connect that privilege to his behavior — missing the point that his ignorance about race is not just an excuse for his actions, but a symptom of a larger problem that might continue to undermine his effectiveness as governor.

Northam characterized the racist yearbook photograph as reflecting “unconscious attitudes” and said that white people did not realize how “impactful” and “offensive” certain “racial insensitivities” were to black people. “I have learned, I admit to my mistakes,” Northam told King, “and I am going to improve my life and do better and be in a position where I can help other people.”

But he hasn’t fully admitted his mistakes or demonstrated that he understands why, precisely, he’s in the wrong. He’s said nothing concrete about how he is going to improve his life and “do better” or help others, and he certainly hasn’t said anything about how he specifically plans to help the constituency his actions have harmed: black Americans.

Northam told King that “the man you’re looking at and talking to right now is not who I was in my early 20s.” But he’s offered no evidence of this, pointing only to the absence of a smoking gun from the last 34 years that would “prove” the yearbook incident was a one-off. But that’s not how racism works.

Racial ignorance often manifests in the indifference to policies that are racist in outcome, if not in design. Connecting the dots between his subconscious biases and his policymaking really would make this a “teaching moment.” Instead, what we have is a lesson in how cheaply absolution is bought.

Northam says he’s not stepping down. Instead, he’s embarking on a “reconciliation tour” to engage with his constituents about race and healing. Given what we’ve heard from him so far, I’m not optimistic, but it could be the start of a restorative process that turns this yearbook controversy into a genuine opportunity for Virginians. What will make the difference is whether the public pressures him to take active responsibility for his actions — to find solutions in collaboration with the injured parties and community members and make amends — or whether it focuses exclusively on his resignation. At this point, Northam has made clear that he’s “not going anywhere.” But that only means justice can’t be served if the public maintains a narrow, purely punitive framework for what justice entails.

As Rev. William Barber eloquently put it in an op-ed on Northam last week:

Scapegoating politicians who are caught in the act of interpersonal racism will not address the fundamental issue of systemic racism. We have to talk about policy. But we also have to talk about trust and power. If white people in political leadership are truly repentant, they will listen to black and other marginalized people in our society. They will confess that they have sinned and demonstrate their willingness to listen and learn by following and supporting the leadership of others. To confess past mistakes while continuing to insist that you are still best suited to lead because of your experience is itself a subtle form of white supremacy.

Amen.

The post Ralph Northam Still Doesn’t Understand What It Takes to be Forgiven appeared first on The Intercept.

Immigrant Rights Groups Trash Border Deal: “Immigrant Families Will Pay the Price”

Immigrant rights groups are reacting angrily to the border deal to keep the government open, which President Donald Trump has said that he will sign into law, averting a shutdown. The bill, which has not yet officially been drafted, gives Trump more than $1 billion in funding for new barriers on the southern border, and funds a potential increase in immigrant detention capacity.

The barriers that the bill would fund are a rhetorical downgrade from Trump’s signature policy of erecting a border wall, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has repeatedly rejected to fund. Funding for immigration detention, which has soared under the Trump administration, was a key issue in talks over keeping the government open. Democrats had pushed for cuts to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s detention budget, but ceded that demand in the interest of moving negotiations forward. The bill would fund the government through September 30.

The central problem with the deal, leaders of the immigrant rights community say, is that Democrats, from a position of strength given their control of the House of Representatives, merely entrenched Trump’s immigration policy. The deal, they say, puts a bipartisan stamp of approval on the dark chapter of American history that Trump’s policies have brought upon us.

Ana María Archila, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, said that Democrats appeared to be negotiating as if the November elections hadn’t happened. Trump made the midterms a referendum on his border wall, driving 24/7 news coverage of a migrant caravan walking through Central America. He declared the caravan a national crisis and sent the military to the border.

Voters responded by giving Democrats the biggest midterm win since Watergate.

Schumer needs to understand that his mandate is different. He’s negotiating as if the elections didn’t matter,” said Archila, referring to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “I think that the deal essentially accepts Trump’s paradigm that there is a security crisis at the border that needs more investment and enforcement. It displays a level of a lack of moral grounding in some ways. The country now knows what enforcement looks like. It’s ugly. It’s children in cages. It’s families that’ll never see each other again. That’s what this funding will do.”

Javier Valdes, co-executive director of Make the Road NY, an immigration group, said that if the details of the deal match the reporting, he would urge Congress to reject it. His biggest objection is that it expands immigration enforcement, he said. “There’s been a national conversation about the role of ICE and detention, and folks expected we’d see something that actually decreased the level of detention and came with actual oversight. It’s not just about the wall. It’s the other enforcement mechanisms and the impact they’re having on our communities on a day-to-day basis.”

Republican leaders Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. Kevin McCarthy are pushing the deal, but it is not entirely clear how the rest of the GOP caucus, many of whom wanted to see a wall built, will vote on the funding bill. In some ways, opposition from immigration groups and progressives could make the deal more likely to pass, as the outrage convinces Republicans that the deal Trump got does indeed expand his deportation regime.

There are, on average, about 50,000 people in immigration detention on any given day, even though a 2018 spending deal provided funding for 40,520 beds. Democrats had fought to shrink or limit the number of beds available to immigration authorities, in an effort to slow the expansion of the administration’s deportation infrastructure. But the party withdrew that demand under pressure from Republicans, and the new bill allows for the further increase of detention capacity from the current level.

Silky Shah, executive director of Detention Watch Network, lambasted the deal for “making major concessions on detention.”

“The funding bill was a chance to put a check on the detention system, which is a key driver of mass deportations.”

“ICE’s budget has skyrocketed and despite this, they keep getting bailed out for overspending. Some action needs to be taken and reducing funding is a start,” Shah said. “The administration is quietly expanding detention all over the country in behind-the-scenes deals with local counties and private contractors, and the funding bill was a chance to put a check on the detention system, which is a key driver of mass deportations.”

Democrats were hamstrung in negotiations by their own previously enthusiastic support for deportations and border enforcement. Before Trump made the issue partisan by demanding a wall during his presidential campaign, both parties eagerly spent billions to militarize the southern border.

“For decades, both parties have built up the deportation [machine] without question, and this deal represents the ‘enforcement-only’ status quo that Washington has been stuck in for too long,” said Greisa Martinez Rosas, deputy executive director of United We Dream and a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. On Wednesday, activists from United We Dream, which advocates for immigrants who arrived in the United States as children, occupied a portion of the Cannon House Office Building.

“This was an old-fashioned shakedown — Trump threatened to shut down the government again unless Congress gave him and his deportation force more cash to execute their racist vision of mass deportation, and while Democrats gave him the money, immigrant families will pay the price,” Rosas said.

One senior Democratic aide, who was close to the negotiations but not authorized to speak publicly, said that the alternative to the deal that was struck was a continuing resolution, a temporary funding measure that would keep the system running as is. That meant that either way, there would be a further expansion of beds. “That’s the best argument,” he said.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said on Wednesday that she’s still trying to get all the details of the deal, but is strongly leaning toward voting no because of “the lack of accountability around the detention system” and the increased number of detention beds.

She said she would like a guarantee from the Trump administration that the Department of Homeland Security will use its funds as appropriated by Congress, instead of moving money around to fund the wall, as Trump has threatened. “Without that accountability, it becomes very difficult to approve that,” Jayapal said.  

Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., said he’s “leaning as a strong no” on the deal. “I think for far too many times, Dreamers and immigration reform in general get pushed to the back,” Espaillat told The Intercept. “And we won’t have comprehensive immigration reform on a nice sunny day or on a spring morning. We will have it in the middle of a crisis that will yield a give and take, that will force people to reach a consensus, and I think we missed another opportunity.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., also told The Intercept she will “probably be voting no.”

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As Rudy Giuliani Calls for Regime Change in Iran, Benjamin Netanyahu Raises the Specter of “War”

Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City who now serves as President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, called for the overthrow of Iran’s government on Wednesday during a rally in Poland staged by a cult-like group of Iranian exiles who pay him to represent them.

Speaking outside the Warsaw venue for an international conference on the Middle East attended by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Giuliani said that his message for the 65 governments discussing ways to confront Iran was simple. “The theocratic dictatorship in Tehran,” Giuliani said, “must end and end quickly.”

Giuliani went on to suggest that peace in the region would only come when Iran was ruled instead by his clients, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an exile group of former terrorists also known as the Mojahedin-e Khalq, or People’s Mujahedin. The group’s leader, Maryam Rajavi, already refers to herself as “President-elect.”

Off-stage, the U.S. president’s lawyer admitted that he was paid by the exile group, but stressed to reporters that he was in Warsaw on behalf of the MEK in his personal capacity and would not be attending the diplomatic conference organized by the State Department.

Even before the conference began, the Israeli prime minister appeared to shrug off efforts by the State Department and the Polish government to portray the gathering as broadly focused on Middle East peace, describing it as primarily a meeting of Iran’s enemies.

In video posted on the prime minister’s official Twitter feed, Netanyahu characterized a meeting with Oman’s foreign minister as “excellent,” and one focused on “additional steps we can take together with the countries of the region in order to advance common interests.”

According to the English translation of Netanyahu’s remarks in Hebrew prepared by his office, the prime minister then added: “What is important about this meeting — and it is not in secret because there are many of those — is that this is an open meeting with representatives of leading Arab countries that are sitting down together with Israel in order to advance the common interest of war with Iran.”

A screenshot from video posted on the official Twitter feed of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s use of the word “war” seemed to throw Israel’s diplomatic corps into chaos. Within minutes, as journalists speculated that the prime minister’s office might have mistranslated his comment, Netanyahu’s spokesperson to the Arab media, Ofir Gendelman, wrote that the Israeli leader had described his nation’s common interest with Arab nations as “combatting Iran,” not “war with Iran.”

The subtitled video produced by the prime minister’s office was then deleted from his Twitter feed and replaced with the text of Gendelman’s alternative translation.

As my colleague Talya Cooper explains, however, Netanyahu did in fact use the Hebrew word for “war” in the video, which has not yet been deleted from his Hebrew-language YouTube channel. In a separate video, posted by Netanyahu’s office on Facebook earlier in the day, the prime minister had used the Hebrew word for “combat.”

Aron Heller, an Associated Press correspondent based in Jerusalem, also filmed the remarks and reported that although Netanyahu had mentioned “war,” his office said later that he was referring to “combatting Iran.”

Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, seized on the Israeli leader’s apparent Freudian slip as evidence that Netanyahu’s true aim of provoking a war with Iran was now out in the open.

Zarif also suggested that the Trump administration and the exiles of the MEK might have been behind a suicide bombing on a bus in southeastern Iran on Wednesday, which killed 41 members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

“Is it no coincidence that Iran is hit by terror on the very day that #WarsawCircus begins?” Zarif tweeted. “Especially when cohorts of same terrorists cheer it from Warsaw streets & support it with twitter bots? US seems to always make the same wrong choices, but expect different results.”

The foreign minister was clearly referring to the MEK, which spent three decades trying to achieve regime change in Iran through violence, including terrorist attacks. The well-funded exile group was also suspected of being behind social media trickery discovered by the BBC, which reported that Twitter bots had been deployed “to artificially create a trend which hints at popular support for the summit and — by extension — widespread resentment towards the Iranian establishment.”

The Iranian exiles have been caught in the past paying nonsupporters to fill out its crowds at rallies, a tactic reportedly used at the event in Warsaw on Wednesday, according to journalists on the ground.

Members of the MEK helped foment the 1979 Iranian revolution, in part by killing American civilians working in Tehran, but the group then lost a struggle for power to the Islamists. With its leadership forced to flee Iran in 1981, the MEK’s members set up a government-in-exile in France and established a military base in Iraq, where they were given arms and training by Saddam Hussein as part of a strategy to destabilize the government in Tehran that he was at war with.

In recent years, as The Intercept has reported, the MEK has poured millions of dollars into reinventing itself as a moderate political group ready to take power in Iran if Western-backed regime change ever takes place. To that end, it lobbied successfully to be removed from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations in 2012. The Iranian exiles achieved this over the apparent opposition of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in part by paying a long list of former U.S. officials from both parties hefty speaking fees of between $10,000 to $50,000 for hymns of praise.

Despite the claims of paid spokespeople like Giuliani and John Bolton — who predicted regime change would come at a lavish MEK rally in Paris just months before being named Trump’s national security adviser — the MEK appears to be as unprepared to take power in Iran as Ahmad Chalabi’s exiled Iraqi National Congress was after the American invasion of Iraq.

Ariane Tabatabai, a Georgetown University scholar, has argued that the “cult-like dissident group” — whose married members were reportedly forced to divorce and take a vow of lifelong celibacy — “has no viable chance of seizing power in Iran.”

If the current government is not Iranians’ first choice for a government, the MEK is not even their last — and for good reason. The MEK supported Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. The people’s discontent with the Iranian government at that time did not translate into their supporting an external enemy that was firing Scuds into Tehran, using chemical weapons and killing hundreds of thousands of Iranians, including many civilians. Today, the MEK is viewed negatively by most Iranians, who would prefer to maintain the status quo than rush to the arms of what they consider a corrupt, criminal cult.

Despite such doubts, spending lavishly on paid endorsements has earned the MEK a bipartisan roster of Washington politicians willing to sign up as supporters. At a gala in 2016, Bolton was joined in singing the group’s praises by another former U.N. ambassador, Bill Richardson; a former attorney general, Michael Mukasey; the former State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley; the former Homeland Security adviser Frances Townsend; the former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I.; and the former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. That Paris gala was hosted by Linda Chavez, a former Reagan administration official, and headlined by Newt Gingrich, the former speaker who was under consideration to be Trump’s running mate at the time.

Fears about Bolton’s apparently open desire to start a war with Iran have been exacerbated by his boosting of the MEK and his steadfast denial of the catastrophe unleashed by the invasion of Iraq that he worked for as a member of the Bush administration. Last year, when Fox News host Tucker Carlson pointed out that Bolton had called for regime change in Iraq, Libya, Iran, and Syria, and the first of those had been “a disaster,” Bolton disagreed.

“I think the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, that military action, was a resounding success,” Bolton insisted to Carlson. The chaos that followed in Iraq, he said, was caused by a poorly executed occupation that ended too soon. On the bright side, Bolton said, the mistakes the U.S. made in Iraq offered “lessons about what to do after a regime is overthrown” in the future.

Earlier this week, Sen. Chris Murphy pointed out, Bolton appeared to be laying the groundwork for war in a belligerent video message from the White House to mark the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution.

The post As Rudy Giuliani Calls for Regime Change in Iran, Benjamin Netanyahu Raises the Specter of “War” appeared first on The Intercept.

Goldman Lobbyist Turned Schumer General Counsel Is Hiding Most Former Clients’ Names

A former Goldman Sachs lobbyist who now works as the top lawyer for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., declined to name 19 of his 20 former clients in his financial disclosure last year.

Mark Patterson, who also served as former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s chief of staff during the Obama administration, joined Schumer’s office last year. He had been a co-chair of the Perkins Coie law firm’s public and strategic affairs practice since 2014.

An archived version of Perkins Coie’s website says that Patterson provided “policy analysis and strategic counsel to clients such as major corporations, financial institutions and nonprofit organizations.” He gave few specifics in his 2018 financial disclosure, asserting that he had to withhold the identities of nearly all of his clients based on rules of professional conduct for lawyers.

It’s the same rationale that former Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., used last month to avoid naming nine of his 36 previous clients, as The Intercept previously reported.

A Schumer spokesperson did not respond to questions.

At Schumer’s office, Patterson is now at the center of a fight over corporate governance. Since President Donald Trump took office, organizations like Demand Progress and the Revolving Door Project have pressured Schumer to use the limited powers at his disposal to encourage stricter oversight by recommending progressive watchdogs to regulatory agency boards. (Schumer, as minority leader, selects appointees for Democratic seats on regulatory bodies, who then need to be formally nominated by the White House).

The effort has produced mixed results: Although Schumer last year proposed nominees that progressives support, the White House didn’t nominate two of them, and Republicans didn’t hold votes on the other two nominees.

A coalition of 20 organizations recently wrote to Schumer demanding that he work to fill Democratic vacancies at the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the Merit Systems Protection Board. The letter faulted Schumer for allowing Trump’s judicial nominees to win confirmation by unanimous consent. Schumer could have used those vacancies as leverage to force votes on his party’s regulatory nominees, the progressives argued.

HuffPost this week called the fight over the regulatory bodies a “moment of truth” for Schumer and Senate Democrats. Jeff Hauser, who leads the Revolving Door Project in Washington, D.C., believes that Patterson deserves some blame for the botched vacancies. After Patterson was hired, Schumer’s office told The Nation that the former Goldman lobbyist — unlike his predecessor — wouldn’t be involved in vetting appointments to federal commissions. That’s a problem, said Hauser.

“I think we should in general try to not hire people for senior jobs where they’re going to be recused from certain matters,” Hauser said. “It would make sense that your chief counsel would be involved in the SEC and FDIC hiring process. It’s something you want your chief counsel to be involved in. If he is complying with his recusal, that might explain the relative indifference, because the senior person on leadership staff who should be raising alarms that these nominations are languishing with Trump is disempowered.”

Hauser said Patterson’s financial disclosure “illustrates a lot of the weakness in our ethics rules, because there is insufficient skepticism about self-reported matters.”

“We only have his word that those 19 clients required that level of confidentiality,” Hauser said. “If he’s hiding his clients, it’s hard to even know what we don’t want him involved in, by definition, because he’s preventing us the ability to know what is a conflict of interest.”

This story is a collaboration between The Intercept and MapLight, a nonpartisan research organization that tracks money’s influence on politics.

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Black Critics of Kamala Harris and Cory Booker Push Back Against Claims That They’re Russian “Bots”

American descendants of slaves identifying themselves with the hashtag #ADOS have been openly critical of 2020 presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Cory Booker over the past weeks.

Some prominent black political commentators are now speculating that these critics are Russian bots.

Angela Rye, a CNN political commentator and board member of the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, has said she believes that some ADOS arguments are not organic, but were “paid for by Russia.” She added that she’s “not saying everyone who uses the hashtag is a Russian bot,” but she does believe “it originated from Russian bots.” Rye went on to argue that the same is true of critiques relating to “some of the stuff around the crime bill” circa 2016 — presumably referring to critics of Hillary Clinton who questioned her support of the bill now widely understood to have caused overwhelming harm to black Americans.

On a segment of Joy Reid’s MSNBC show titled “how to spot a bot,” Shireen Mitchell, founder of Stop Online Violence Against Women, argued that the ADOS hashtag is a way to identify foreign influence. “A lot of the ones that are pretending to be black people, black women in particular, who are focusing on black identity, have these sort of aspects in the ways that they’re talking about language,” she said. She went on to say that bots are posing as black Americans using “the vernacular or the language of someone that believes they are a part of our community” to claim authority to represent black Americans.

“This has become a challenge particularly for the Democratic candidates because obviously, in 2016, all this activity was directed to help Donald Trump, or to hurt Hillary Clinton, to do both,” Reid said. “So I’m wondering if this time the party is going to be a bit more prepared. Reid appeared to co-sign Mitchell’s claim, saying, “I did see a huge uptick of bot activity when Kamala Harris announced,” focusing on critics who argue that Harris “is not really black.”

For years, identifying as a black American “descendant” of slaves or ADOS has been a way for black Americans to advocate for the specific needs and interests of those brought to the United States via the transatlantic slave trade hundreds of years ago, as distinct from the interests of more recent African and Caribbean immigrants.

Some critics using the ADOS hashtag have focused on Harris’s race, pointing to Kamala’s Indian and Jamaican heritage as a possible explanation for why, as a prosecutor, she supported policies that disproportionately harmed black Americans. The ADOS movement does have some nativist elements. But it is also true that much of the commentary surrounding Harris appears to relate less to her racial background than her public record. Booker, also a target of ADOS criticism, is an American descendant of slavery himself.

The creators of the hashtag — Antonio Moore, an attorney in California, and Yvette Carnell, a political commentator — are neither Russian nor bots and are demanding an apology.

Carnell told The Intercept that she thinks calling out ADOS is an effort to delegitimize the grassroots movement they’ve worked to cultivate and to “undermine a real debate that we have about Kamala Harris within the black community.” For years, Moore and Carnell have been doing regular YouTube and radio shows together where they discuss issues like reparations and the racial wealth divide under the lens of “native descendants of American slaves.”

“We thought that there wasn’t enough policy and policy initiatives, policy proposals for Americans who descended from slavery and had ancestors who lived through Jim Crow, reconstruction, all of that, so we came up with the hashtag American DOS or ADOS,” Carnell said, adding that they started the hashtag around two years ago.
Moore said that accusations like Reid’s are a McCarthyite tactic in the same vein as the attempts to publicly discredit Martin Luther King Jr“It’s troubling, the lengths that these people will go to undermine authentic Black advocacy in order to prop up the Democratic establishment,” he said in an email. An MSNBC spokeswoman declined to comment. 

Indeed, people of color who challenge the Democratic Party from the left are often erased or dismissed as somehow not being real. During the 2016 Democratic primary, the hashtag #BernieMadeMeWhite spread as a response to the “Bernie Bro” stereotype, which wrongly claimed that nearly all Bernie Sanders supporters were young white men.

Carnell and Moore cited a truancy program Harris created as San Francisco’s district attorney that threatened parents with prosecution if their children missed school — a policy that progressives argue disproportionately hurts minority and low-income communities — as one of their main criticisms of her. As for Booker, they said they have a problem with his corporate alliances, specifically his ties to the pharmaceutical industry and widely criticized vote against allowing drug reimportation to the United States.

“We have to be very careful and we have to be very intentional about what your specific policies are for the black community and what does that mean for us if and when you get elected,” Carnell said. “We can’t just sit here and do identity politics anymore. We have to do agenda politics and that’s what has really driven it.”

Moore said they will be holding their first American DOS conference in Louisville, Kentucky, on October 4-5, and intend to ask Booker and Harris to attend to “talk to black Americans about what their black agenda is.”

This is not the first time Reid has dabbled in conspiracy theories. Last year, Reid found herself in hot water when decade-old homophobic blog posts resurfaced. Instead of immediately apologizing, Reid told Mediaite — without offering any evidence — that hackers planted the offensive blog posts as “part of an effort to taint my character with false information by distorting a blog that ended a decade ago.” 

Correction: February 13, 2019, 11:52 a.m.
Due to editing errors, a previous version of this article stated that Cory Booker is a “defendant” of slavery, rather than a “descendant.” The article also misgendered Yvette Carnell, who uses “she” pronouns.

The post Black Critics of Kamala Harris and Cory Booker Push Back Against Claims That They’re Russian “Bots” appeared first on The Intercept.

The Battle Lines Have Been Drawn on the Green New Deal

“I really don’t like their policies of taking away your car, taking away your airplane flights, of ‘let’s hop a train to California,’ or ‘you’re not allowed to own cows anymore!'”

So bellowed President Donald Trump in El Paso, Texas, his first campaign-style salvo against Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey’s Green New Deal resolution. There will surely be many more.

It’s worth marking the moment. Because those could be the famous last words of a one-term president, having wildly underestimated the public appetite for transformative action on the triple crises of our time: imminent ecological unraveling, gaping economic inequality (including the racial and gender wealth divide), and surging white supremacy.

Or they could be the epitaph for a habitable climate, with Trump’s lies and scare tactics succeeding in trampling this desperately needed framework. That could either help win him re-election, or land us with a timid Democrat in the White House with neither the courage nor the democratic mandate for this kind of deep change. Either scenario means blowing the handful of years left to roll out the transformations required to keep temperatures below catastrophic levels.

Back in October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a landmark report informing us that global emissions need to be slashed in half in less than 12 years, a target that simply cannot be met without the world’s largest economy playing a game-changing leadership role. If there is a new administration ready to leap into that role in January 2021, meeting those targets would still be extraordinarily difficult, but it would be technically possible — especially if large cities and states like California and New York escalate their ambitions right now. Losing another four years to a Republican or a corporate Democrat, and starting in 2026 is, quite simply, a joke.

So either Trump is right and the Green New Deal is a losing political issue, one he can smear out of existence. Or he is wrong and a candidate who makes the Green New Deal the centerpiece of their platform will take the Democratic primary and then kick Trump’s ass in the general, with a clear democratic mandate to introduce wartime-levels of investment to battle our triple crises from day one. That would very likely inspire the rest of the world to finally follow suit on bold climate policy, giving us all a fighting chance.

Those are the stark options before us. And which outcome we end up with depends on the actions taken by social movements in the next two years. Because these are not questions that will be settled through elections alone. At their core, they are about building political power — enough to change the calculus of what is possible.

That was the lesson of the original New Deal, one we would be wise to remember right now.

The New Deal was a process as much as a project, one that was constantly changing and expanding in response to social pressure from both the right and the left.

Ocasio-Cortez chose to model the Green New Deal after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s historic raft of programs understanding full well that a central task is to make sure that this mobilization does not repeat the ways in which its namesake excluded and further marginalized many vulnerable groups. For instance, New Deal-era programs and protections left out agricultural and domestic workers (many of them black), Mexican immigrants (some 1 million of whom faced deportation in the 1930s), and Indigenous people (who won some gains but whose land rights were also violated by both massive infrastructure projects and some conservation efforts).

Indeed, the resolution calls for these and other violations to be actively redressed, listing as one of its core goals “stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.”

I have written before about why the old New Deal, despite its failings, remains a useful touchstone for the kind of sweeping climate mobilization that is our only hope of lowering emissions in time. In large part, this is because there are so few historical precedents we can look to (other than top-down military mobilizations) that show how every sector of life, from forestry to education to the arts to housing to electrification, can be transformed under the umbrella of a single, society-wide mission.

Which is why it is so critical to remember that none of it would have happened without massive pressure from social movements. FDR rolled out the New Deal in the midst of a historic wave of labor unrest: There was the Teamsters’ rebellion and Minneapolis general strike in 1934, the 83-day shutdown of the West Coast by longshore workers that same year, and the Flint sit-down autoworkers strikes in 1936 and 1937. During this same period, mass movements, responding to the suffering of the Great Depression, demanded sweeping social programs, such as Social Security and unemployment insurance, while socialists argued that abandoned factories should be handed over to their workers and turned into cooperatives. Upton Sinclair, the muckraking author of “The Jungle,” ran for governor of California in 1934 on a platform arguing that the key to ending poverty was full state funding of workers’ cooperatives. He received nearly 900,000 votes, but having been viciously attacked by the right and undercut by the Democratic establishment, he fell just short of winning the governor’s office.

All of this is a reminder that the New Deal was adopted by Roosevelt at a time of such progressive and left militancy that its programs — which seem radical by today’s standards — appeared at the time to be the only way to hold back a full-scale revolution.

It’s also a reminder that the New Deal was a process as much as a project, one that was constantly changing and expanding in response to social pressure from both the right and the left. For example, a program like the Civilian Conservation Corps started with 200,000 workers, but when it proved popular eventually expanded to 2 million. That’s why the fact that there are weaknesses in Ocasio-Cortez and Markey’s resolution — and there are a few — is far less compelling than the fact that it gets so much exactly right. There is plenty of time to improve and correct a Green New Deal once it starts rolling out (it needs to be more explicit about keeping carbon in the ground, for instance, and about nuclear and coal never being “clean”). But we have only one chance to get this thing charged up and moving forward.

The more sobering lesson is that the kind of mass power that delivered the victories of the New Deal era is far beyond anything possessed by current progressive movements, even if they all combined efforts. That’s why it is so urgent to use the Green New Deal framework as a potent tool to build that power — a vision to both unite movements and dramatically expand them.

Part of that involves turning what is being derided as a left-wing “laundry list” or “wish list” into an irresistible story of the future, connecting the dots between the many parts of daily life that stand to be transformed — from health care to employment, day care to jail cell, clean air to leisure time.

Right now, the Green New Deal reads like a list because House resolutions have to be formatted as lists — lettered and numbered sequences of “whereases” and “resolveds.” It’s also being characterized as an unrelated grab bag because most of us have been trained to avoid a systemic and historical analysis of capitalism and to divide pretty much every crisis our system produces — from economic inequality to violence against women to white supremacy to unending wars to ecological unraveling — in walled-off silos. From within that rigid mindset, it’s easy to dismiss a sweeping and intersectional vision like the Green New Deal as a green-tinted “laundry list” of everything the left has ever wanted.

Now that the resolution is out there, however, the onus is on all of us who support it to help make the case for how our overlapping crises are indeed inextricably linked — and can only be overcome with a holistic vision for social and economic transformation. This is already beginning to happen. For example, Rhiana Gunn-Wright, who is heading up policy for a new think tank largely focused on the Green New Deal, recently pointed out that just as thousands of people moved for jobs during the World War II-era economic mobilization, we should expect a great many to move again to be part of a renewables revolution. And when they do, “unlinking employment from health care means people can move for better jobs, to escape the worst effects of climate, AND re-enter the labor mkt without losing” (her whole Twitter thread is worth reading).

SAN ISIDRO, PUERTO RICO - OCTOBER 05:  Resident Mirian Medina stands on her property about two weeks after Hurricane Maria swept through the island on October 5, 2017 in San Isidro, Puerto Rico. Residents in her section of the town remain without grid power or running water. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage including most of the electrical, gas and water grid as well as agriculture after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, swept through.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

A woman stands on her property on October 5, 2017, about two weeks after Hurricane Maria, in San Isidro, Puerto Rico.

Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Investing big in public health care is also critical in light of the fact that no matter how fast we move to lower emissions, it is going to get hotter and storms are going to get fiercer. When those storms bash up against health care systems and electricity grids that have been starved by decades of austerity, thousands pay the price with their lives, as they so tragically did in post-Maria Puerto Rico.

And there are many more connections to be drawn. Those complaining about climate policy being weighed down by supposedly unrelated demands for access to health care and education would do well to remember that the caring professions — most of them dominated by women — are relatively low carbon and can be made even more so. In other words, they deserve to be seen as “green jobs,” with the same protections, the same investments, and the same living wages as male-dominated workforces in the renewables, efficiency, and public-transit sectors. Meanwhile, as Gunn-Wright points out, to make those sectors less male-dominated, family leave and pay equity are a must, which is part of the reason both are included in the resolution.

Drawing out these connections in ways that capture the public imagination will take a massive exercise in participatory democracy. A first step is for every sector touched by the Green New Deal — hospitals, schools, universities, and more — to make their own plans for how to rapidly decarbonize while furthering the Green New Deal’s mission to eliminate poverty, create good jobs, and close the racial and gender wealth divides.

My favorite example of what this could look like comes from the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, which has developed a bold plan to turn every post office in Canada into a hub for a just green transition. Think solar panels on the roof, charging stations out front, a fleet of domestically manufactured electric vehicles from which union members don’t just deliver mail, but also local produce and medicine, and check in on seniors — all supported by the proceeds of postal banking.

To make the case for a Green New Deal — which explicitly calls for this kind of democratic, decentralized leadership — every sector in the United States should be developing similar visionary plans for their workplaces right now. And if that doesn’t motivate their members to rush the polls come 2020, I don’t know what will.

We have been trained to see our issues in silos; they never belonged there. In fact, the impact of climate change on every part of our lives is far too expansive and extensive to begin to cover here. But I do need to mention a few more glaring links that many are missing.

A job guarantee, far from an opportunistic socialist addendum, is a critical part of achieving a rapid and just transition. It would immediately lower the intense pressure on workers to take the kinds of jobs that destabilize our planet because all would be free to take the time needed to retrain and find work in one of the many sectors that will be dramatically expanding.

This in turn will reduce the power of bad actors like the Laborers’ International Union of North America who are determined to split the labor movement and sabotage the prospects for this historic effort. Right out of the gate, LIUNA came out swinging against the Green New Deal. Never mind that it contains stronger protections for trade unions and the right to organize than anything we have seen out of Washington in three decades, including the right of workers in high-carbon sectors to democratically participate in their transition and to have jobs in clean sectors at the same salary and benefits levels as before.

A job guarantee, far from an opportunistic socialist addendum, is a critical part of achieving a rapid and just transition.

There is absolutely no rational reason for a union representing construction workers to oppose what would be the biggest infrastructure project in a century, unless LIUNA actually is what it appears to be: a fossil fuel astroturf group disguised as a trade union, or at best a company union. These are the same labor leaders, let us recall, who sided with the tanks and attack dogs at Standing Rock; who fought relentlessly for the construction of the planet-destabilizing Keystone XL pipeline; and who (along with several other building trade union heads) aligned themselves with Trump on his first day in office, smiling for a White House photo op and declaring his inauguration “a great moment for working men and women.”

LIUNA’s leaders have loudly demanded unquestioning “solidarity” from the rest of the trade union movement. But again and again, they have offered nothing but the narrowest self-interest in return, indifferent to the suffering of immigrant workers whose lives are being torn apart under Trump and to the Indigenous workers who saw their homeland turned into a war zone. The time has come for the rest of the labor movement to confront and isolate them before they can do more damage. That could take the form of LIUNA members, confident that the Green New Deal will not leave them behind, voting out their pro-boss leaders. Or it could end with LIUNA being tossed out of the AFL-CIO for planetary malpractice.

The more unionized sectors like teaching, nursing, and manufacturing make the Green New Deal their own by showing how it can transform their workplaces for the better, and the more all union leaders embrace the growth in membership they would see under the Green New Deal, the stronger they will be for this unavoidable confrontation.

One last connection I will mention has to do with the concept of “repair.” The resolution calls for creating well-paying jobs “restoring and protecting threatened, endangered, and fragile ecosystems,” as well as “cleaning up existing hazardous waste and abandoned sites, ensuring economic development and sustainability on those sites.”

This is a potential lifeline that we all have a sacred and moral responsibly to reach for.
There are many such sites across the United States, entire landscapes that have been left to waste after they were no longer useful to frackers, miners, and drillers. It’s a lot like how this culture treats people. It’s what has been done to so many workers in the neoliberal period, using them up and then abandoning them to addiction and despair. It’s what the entire carceral state is about: locking up huge sectors of the population who are more economically useful as prison laborers and numbers on the spreadsheet of a private prison than they are as free workers. And the old New Deal did it too, by choosing to exclude and discard so many black and brown and women workers.

There is a grand story to be told here about the duty to repair — to repair our relationship with the earth and with one another, to heal the deep wounds dating back to the founding of the country. Because while it is true that climate change is a crisis produced by an excess of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it is also, in a more profound sense, a crisis produced by an extractive mindset — a way of viewing both the natural world and the majority of its inhabitants as resources to use up and then discard. I call it the “gig and dig” economy and firmly believe that we will not emerge from this crisis without a shift in worldview, a transformation from “gig and dig” to an ethos of care and repair.

If these kinds of deeper connections between fractured people and a fast-warming planet seem far beyond the scope of policymakers, it’s worth thinking back to the absolutely central role of artists during the New Deal era. Playwrights, photographers, muralists, and novelists were all part of a renaissance of both realist and utopian art. Some held up a mirror to the wrenching misery that the New Deal sought to alleviate. Others opened up spaces for Depression-ravaged people to imagine a world beyond that misery. Both helped get the job done in ways that are impossible to quantify.

In a similar vein, there is much to learn from Indigenous-led movements in Bolivia and Ecuador that have placed at the center of their calls for ecological transformation the concept of buen vivir, a focus on the right to a good life as opposed to more and more and more life of endless consumption, an ethos that is so ably embodied by the current resident of the White House.

The Green New Deal will need to be subject to constant vigilance and pressure from experts who understand exactly what it will take to lower our emissions as rapidly as science demands, and from social movements that have decades of experience bearing the brunt of false climate solutions, whether nuclear power, the chimera of carbon capture and storage, or carbon offsets.

But in remaining vigilant, we also have to be careful not to bury the overarching message: that this is a potential lifeline that we all have a sacred and moral responsibly to reach for.

The young organizers in the Sunrise Movement, who have done so much to galvanize the Green New Deal momentum, talk about our collective moment as one filled with both “promise and peril.” That is exactly right. And everything that happens from here on in should hold one in each hand.

The post The Battle Lines Have Been Drawn on the Green New Deal appeared first on The Intercept.

How the Government Shutdown Caused a Foreclosure — and Could Cause More

Congress has reportedly reached an agreement to fund the government and avoid another shutdown on Saturday, though with the grumbling in conservative circles about the deal, it’s anyone’s guess whether President Donald Trump will sign it. But even if the government doesn’t shut down again, the rare breakout of competence will have come too late for people like Dorothy Leong of Stratford, Connecticut.

Leong, 83, took out a reverse mortgage on her home in 2004, which gives seniors with equity in their home the opportunity to take money out and defer repayment until they die or resell the property. She used up the line of credit from the reverse mortgage long ago and receives no more money from the deal, but as with all reverse mortgages, she’s still required to cover property taxes and homeowner’s insurance. At the same time, Leong suffers from multiple medical maladies, including a recent heart attack and problems with her legs. With health care bills mounting, and her family’s only means of support being her Social Security check and a meager income from her disabled adult son, Leong eventually fell behind on tax and insurance payments.

Leong’s condition qualifies her for a government program called an “at-risk extension.” The Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, which oversees the reverse-mortgage program, allows homeowners over 80 who have serious medical conditions to avoid foreclosure if they miss housing-related payments. The program seeks to avoid the cruelty of throwing sick elderly people out onto the street.

The at-risk extension, however, must be renewed every year. Leong was approved at the end of 2017 but needed a renewal at the end of last year. “Our experience is, if the doctor says these are the issues, HUD approves it,” said Sarah White, an attorney representing Leong, who sent her request for an extension to HUD on December 10. The government shut down 12 days later, and nobody at HUD ever approved the renewal.

Leong’s at-risk extension lapsed, and she was served with a foreclosure notice in late January on the home she’s lived in since 1962.

The case is one of several scenarios in which lack of staffing during a government shutdown could leave borrowers at risk of preventable, unnecessary foreclosures. HUD and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, which is also involved with home loans, have provided no data about how many foreclosures were advanced during the shutdown. But with critical bottlenecks inherent in the process, housing advocates warn that the number could be high — and even one preventable foreclosure is a policy tragedy.

A sign that reads "Meeting In Progress" hands on a door of a closed meeting room at the Capitol as bipartisan House and Senate bargainers trying to negotiate a border security compromise in hope of avoiding another government shutdown on Capitol Hill, Monday, Feb. 11, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

A closed meeting room at the Capitol, as bipartisan House and Senate bargainers negotiate to avoid another government shutdown in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 11, 2019.

Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

If another shutdown hits, the backlog of cases would only increase. “People are losing homes that don’t need to,” said Alys Cohen, staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center’s Washington office.

HUD spokesperson Brian Sullivan said that the agency is finalizing its contingency plan in the event of another government shutdown, including how to address foreclosure timelines. He declined to comment on how HUD was handling leftover cases from the initial shutdown, like Leong’s. USDA did not respond to a request for comment.

Over 9 million borrowers have loans provided or insured by either HUD or USDA. The majority of them are low-income individuals, seniors, or rural residents.

In addition to reverse mortgages, HUD insures loans through the Federal Housing Administration. Meanwhile, the USDA’s Farm Service Agency has two types of loan programs: a loan-guarantee program, which, like the Federal Housing Administration, backs mortgages made with private lenders, and a Direct Farm Ownership Loan program, in which the government issues the mortgages itself.

Direct loans can go toward the down payment or purchase of farms or ranches, expansion or renovation of an existing plot, or to fund capital expenses. They are often heavily subsidized, with monthly payments rising or falling depending on farm income. “I have clients with payments of $120 a month,” said Geoffrey Walsh, a staff attorney with the National Consumer Law Center.

These variable payments mean that farmers must constantly report their income so that the Farm Service Agency can adjust payments or approve an alternative to foreclosure. All FSA direct loans are handled through one centralized servicing center in St. Louis. And when the shutdown happened, that servicing center closed its doors.

“Nobody was answering the phone for 35 days,” said Walsh, describing the chaotic situation during the nation’s largest-ever government shutdown. Not only could alterations to direct-loan payments not be updated, but struggling borrowers at risk of foreclosure could also not be considered for loss mitigation programs to stay current on their loans.

While foreclosures on direct USDA loans are handled by private servicing companies or in some cases the local U.S. Attorney’s office, if there are disagreements over the amount owed or requests for hardship assistance, answers must come through the USDA’s centralized servicing center. Meanwhile, most foreclosures have timelines for borrower action to stop the march toward eviction and sale of the property. “None of those clocks stopped running during the shutdown,” Walsh said.

Eventually, the USDA caught on to the shutdown’s detrimental impact on farmers — yet it seemed unperturbed by the specific harms facing mortgage borrowers. On January 22, the agency reopened Farm Services Agency offices to assist farmers, but explicitly excluded Farm Ownership loans from the list of programs that would be serviced. The USDA told the National Consumer Law Center that it stopped foreclosure sales during the shutdown, but it never clarified how it handled foreclosure timelines.

The National Consumer Law Center asked the USDA for a stay of all foreclosure activity on its loans during the shutdown, but received no response. “There was no written guidance from USDA about what they were doing,” said Steven Sharpe, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio.

In January, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution profiled Willie Donaldson, a homeowner caught up in this situation. After losing his job due to a stroke, Donaldson appealed to the USDA’s rural housing program, which assisted him with his loan to help prevent foreclosure. But nobody answered the phone. His foreclosure hearing was scheduled for February 5.

When the shutdown ended, problems for USDA borrowers were not immediately alleviated. The centralized servicing center needs to work through a tremendous backlog of claims and appeals, with no additional funding support to accelerate the process. “We think it’s still a mess,” said Walsh.

The situation at HUD is similar to the USDA. In addition to reverse mortgage homeowners with at-risk extensions like Leong, newly widowed spouses whose names aren’t on the reverse mortgage need assistance from HUD to keep foreclosure at bay. But HUD officials who typically approve this deferral were furloughed during the shutdown. Borrowers with Federal Housing Administration-insured loans can normally contact HUD personnel for assistance to prevent avoidable foreclosures, like loss mitigation options; this help was also not available during the shutdown since the main point of assistance, the agency’s national servicing center, was almost entirely furloughed.

Advocates asked HUD for a foreclosure moratorium during the shutdown, without a response. “A couple times, we wrote to HUD and someone responded that they would do something on that case,” said Cohen of NCLC. “But it can’t be the case that you have to send an email to Alys Cohen to get your foreclosure stopped.”

White, Leong’s attorney, said her client was served with foreclosure on January 23. Connecticut has a mandatory mediation program that will prevent the foreclosure from occurring immediately. However, the stress of the situation has led to a further decline in Leong’s health. “She should not be in foreclosure again,” White said.

Any completed foreclosures could trigger payouts from the USDA and HUD’s mortgage insurance funds, costing the government money for no good reason.

Attorneys and housing advocates want the USDA and HUD to extend all foreclosure-related deadlines by 35 days to account for the shutdown. They also want an immediate stay on foreclosures in their programs and extended deadlines for assistance until the backlog is cleared. Finally, all foreclosures executed during the shutdown should be rescinded, they said.

If the government shuts down again, not only would the backlog of cases continue to pile up, but borrowers awaiting an answer on their particular situation would again have no recourse at the USDA or HUD, and find themselves at the mercy of a relentless foreclosure timeline. Many borrowers don’t have attorneys helping them through the intricacies of the system. Low-income rental assistance could also be affected by a renewed shutdown, and if that dries up, substantial numbers of evictions could ensue.

But merely averting a shutdown won’t avert the foreclosure the first shutdown caused.

The post How the Government Shutdown Caused a Foreclosure — and Could Cause More appeared first on The Intercept.

Neoliberalism or Death: The U.S. Economic War Against Venezuela

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The U.S. is weaponizing humanitarian aid in an effort to sell its regime change campaign against Venezuela. This week on Intercepted: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi officially endorses the attempted coup in Venezuela, joining forces with Donald Trump and his posse of neoconservatives. Venezuela’s Vice Foreign Minister Carlos Ron responds to the threats of military action, the reports about covert U.S. activity in the country, and discusses the impact of the sanctions on Venezuela. Former United Nations rapporteur Alfred de Zayas is accusing the U.S. of attempting to “asphyxiate” Venezuela with economic warfare and says the U.S. should be investigated by the International Criminal Court. Zayas wrote a UN report on Venezuela in late 2018 that was scathing in its assessment of U.S. policy towards Venezuela under both Obama and Trump. He talks about what he found during his investigation. And we go inside the mind of journalist Sam Husseini who tried to ask convicted criminal Elliott Abrams about his past and the present U.S. lies about Venezuela.

Transcript coming soon.

The post Neoliberalism or Death: The U.S. Economic War Against Venezuela appeared first on The Intercept.

Insurgent Candidate Kerri Harris Has a New Job: Lobbyist for the Working Poor

Kerri Harris, the insurgent candidate who lost her primary challenge to Sen. Tom Carper in Delaware, will be taking a new national advocacy director position at Working Hero Action, a nonprofit organization advocating for the earned-income tax credit and other anti-poverty policies.

Harris, a 39-year-old queer woman of color and an Air Force veteran, rose to national prominence when she decided to challenge Carper, a powerful Democrat who had held his seat for three terms, from the left. While Harris, whose campaign was outspent 10-to-1 by Carper’s, ended up losing the election by a 30-point margin, the 35 percent she pulled was more than Delaware politicos had thought was possible against Carper, a local icon.

“If I just went back and got a regular 9-to-5 job, so much of the work that had been done would be halted,” Harris told The Intercept. “It would make many people who were inspired lose some of that inspiration, thinking, Well that’s it? You run a race and then it’s over? What about us, what about the movement?”

For a politician, Harris brings an unusually intimate understanding of the effects of policies she’ll be pushing for, especially the need for a cash benefit. Even during her Senate run, as she was profiled in glossy national magazines, she remained mired in poverty, cycling through the same few outfits that bore the brunt of the campaign. Growing up in poverty gives a politician an important understanding of its character, but grinding through it as an adult puts it into even sharper focus. She says that getting the new job is in and of itself a relief.

Harris told me that only recently, she had been asking her daughter, who was turning 8 years old, whether she wanted a birthday party. “She kept saying no,” Harris said. “And then she confessed a couple of weeks ago that she did want one, but she knew that I didn’t have a lot of money, so she didn’t want me to feel stressed. I felt horrible.”

“I don’t want any other kids to have to feel that way,” Harris said. “I don’t want any other parents to feel that way.”

Harris says that she’s thinking of running again in the future. But for now, she sees her role as using the platform she built from her campaign to highlight working-class issues in her new position at Working Hero Action.

Working Hero Action is an organization that advocates for ending poverty, mainly through state-level campaigns to expand the EITC and by helping low-income people claim their benefits. During the 2018 election, the organization’s founder, Joe Sanberg — a wealthy investor and co-founder of Aspiration.com, a financial company that helps direct users toward socially conscious banking and spending — created a PAC to support progressive candidates, one of whom was Harris. “Kerri speaks with passion and heart that she also marries with an intellectual mastery of the policy issues,” Sanberg said. “So to have her as our national advocacy director for the culture change we want to create, and ultimately the agenda to end poverty, is a natural fit.”

Sanberg himself grew up in a low-income household raised only by his mother, and their family ended up losing their home to foreclosure. “It sure felt like poverty, at least to her,” Sanberg said, “because she was always struggling to make ends meet, pay the bills, and also trying to shield me and my brother from all of that.” While most Americans are not currently under the official poverty line at any given time, 40 percent are one missed paycheck away from falling into poverty.

The EITC, which is touted as a policy with bipartisan support, is the country’s primary mechanism for delivering cash benefits to low-income workers through an annual tax refund. But it’s often criticized by progressives because the benefit only goes to the working poor — that is, only those who have an earned income of at least $3,000 get the full benefit. Those who have no earned income, as the name suggests, get nothing.

The EITC’s exclusion of the poorest Americans is a feature, not a bug, of the tax credit, which was massively expanded during the Bill Clinton welfare-reform era and designed to encourage working. It has drawn criticism from some on the left for playing into the idea of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor people. Clinton’s presidency also saw the decimation of what we usually think of as cash welfare for the poor. The result has been the number of households in extreme poverty, or those living on $2 a day, more than doubling in the two decades since welfare reform.

Even the two big plans put forward by Democrats over the past few years to increase the EITC — Sen. Kamala Harris’s LIFT Act and Sen. Sherrod Brown and Rep. Ro Khanna’s GAIN Act — still exclude the nonworking poor. On the other hand, because the EITC encourages work and can act as something of a subsidy for wages, it has maintained a level of bipartisan support even in an increasingly polarized political climate. And though Harris ran as an insurgent, she talked often in her campaign about finding common ground on policies to make immediate improvements in poor people’s lives, arguing that the poor couldn’t afford to wait.

Harris says that expanding the EITC to cover those gaps is part of the policy issues that she is looking to push for in her new position, including making the benefit available to those who are excluded from the traditional definition of “work,” such as caregivers.

What constitutes “work” is often circumscribed by one’s socioeconomic circumstances. During the 2012 presidential campaign, the elite political world took great umbrage at the suggestion that Ann Romney, a stay-at-home mom, did not “work,” arguing that domestic labor should count. Yet, in order to obtain TANF benefits, poor parents must participate in what are described as “work activities” — and raising small children does not count as work.

“How many moderate- to low-income households choose for a parent to stay home because it’s cheaper than day care?” Harris asked. “If we are not providing for those people to make sure that they are doing better, then there are concerns. ”

Harris’s group will also be supporting policies like the Green New Deal and universal health care, as well as proposing a “green EITC” that would give people working in green jobs an even larger tax credit. “If we start to show people what counts as a green job and how you can benefit, it’s easier to push long-term for something like a Green New Deal because people see themselves in it,” Harris said.

Expanding the EITC is often seen by progressives as a step toward better and more comprehensive goals, such as a universal basic income or something that could work in concert with other cash benefits that would cut into deep poverty, such as a child allowance. Brown and Sen. Michael Bennett have already proposed child allowance legislation, which would give families $3,000 a year for children between the ages of 6 to 18 and $3,600 for children under 6, transferred through a monthly benefit. Such a policy is far from radical — most wealthy countries already have some type of child allowance benefit. Harris told me that they were not yet looking into universal basic income or child allowance proposals, yet stressed that “EITC is just the start.”

The politics of universal income decoupled from work are still tricky, and fraught even on the left, as the rollout of the Green New Deal showed. The office of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez erroneously posted a draft version of an FAQ that said the Green New Deal would offer economic security for those “unwilling to work.” That led to several days of conflicting reactions, with Ocasio-Cortez suggesting, though not outright saying, that the document had been doctored. It culminated with her chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, acknowledging that the draft was real and explaining that what the office had in mind was a policy such as pensions for coal miners who had put decades in the ground and weren’t interested in being retrained for something new.

Sanberg pointed out that while he was excited about the competing progressive ideas to combat poverty, there are still billions of dollars of EITC left unclaimed by low-income families. One of his organizations, CalEITC, was founded to help low-income Californians claim the credit. “We don’t have to choose between policy advocacy, policy debate, and progressive community service,” Sanberg said. “We have to do all at the same time.” They recently launched an arm of the organization in Iowa to help people claim their EITC benefits and to raise the issue of poverty for presidential candidates coming through the state during their campaigns.

“It is truly personal,” Harris said of fighting for issues affecting the poor and working-class. “I feel it every day.”

The post Insurgent Candidate Kerri Harris Has a New Job: Lobbyist for the Working Poor appeared first on The Intercept.

Donald Trump Responds to Beto O’Rourke’s March for Truth in El Paso With Flagrant Lies

In El Paso, Texas on Monday night, Donald Trump responded to the March for Truth — a protest against his false claims about the city led by its most famous resident, Beto O’Rourke — by lying about it.

In remarks transmitted live and uncorrected by the news networks, Trump claimed that a crowd of about 13,000 supporters at his rally in the city numbered, “let’s say 35,000 people,” while the march addressed by O’Rourke had drawn, at most, “300 people.” El Paso’s police department estimated that the number of protesters was in fact between 10,000 and 15,000.

While skeptics following events online could find out the truth, networks like ABC shared Trump’s entirely false claims on social networks with no indication that they were untrue, suggesting that a core error in coverage of his 2016 campaign looks set to be repeated for 2020.

“He has long since figured out something important, and perhaps dangerous,” Ray Suarez, the veteran broadcaster, observed on Twitter about Trump’s willingness to lie. “He knows it doesn’t really matter if he tells the truth about the O’Rourke crowd, or his own. By tomorrow morning, who’s going to care beyond those who already care? He may gain little, but loses nothing.”

Video of O’Rourke’s 22-minute speech, shared by the potential candidate for the presidency, showed that thousands of marchers had indeed crowded onto a baseball diamond across from the arena where the president’s rally took place, to hear their former Congressman call out Trump’s lies about the city’s crime rate.

Far from being a city saved from violent crime only by the construction of a border wall in 2008, as Trump had falsely claimed during his State of the Union speech, O’Rourke stressed that El Paso’s crime rate had already plummeted before the partial barrier was constructed.

As Bob Moore and Carlos Sanchez reported for The Texas Tribune, Trump opened his speech, beneath banners reading “Finish the Wall,” with the blatant lie that construction of a border wall along the Texas-Mexico border was underway. “I don’t know if you heard, right, today we started a big beautiful wall right on the Rio Grande, right smack on the Rio Grande,” Trump claimed, falsely. When the president’s supporters launched into the familiar chant, “Build the Wall!” the former real estate developer invited them to pretend along with him: “You mean, ‘Finish the Wall.'”

Trump later continued his long-running war on observable reality by claiming, without evidence, that El Paso’s Republican mayor had manipulated the FBI statistics that showed a sharp drop in violent crime before the construction of the barrier.

The president’s attempt to clear a path for his lies by attacking the media once again incited his supporters to such hostility that one even attacked a cameraman for the BBC.

Trump supporters, desperate to combat credible reports from journalists on the ground, and the crowd-size estimates of local fire and police officials, resorted to circulating screenshots of the protest taken nearly an hour after O’Rourke’s speech ended.

Trump’s attempt to gaslight the nation about his popularity in El Paso relative to that of O’Rourke was clearly pre-planned, since his lie about the rival protest march drawing only a few hundred people was promoted before his speech by both his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, and his son, Donald Trump Jr. — who introduced his father by falsely claiming that “about 200 people” were at the “Beto rally,” and then posted a photograph of what he said was a crowd of 35,000 waiting for the president to speak.

Even before leaving the White House for El Paso, Trump had hinted that his decision to hold his first campaign rally of the year in O’Rourke’s hometown on the Mexican border was at least partly an attempt to show up a potential rival. Hours before the rally, Trump bragged, “We have a line that is very long already… And I understand our competitor’s got a line too, but it’s a tiny little line.”

The post Donald Trump Responds to Beto O’Rourke’s March for Truth in El Paso With Flagrant Lies appeared first on The Intercept.

Unions See an Opening in the Wake of a Ruling That Was Supposed to Finish Them Off

The last year has been a whirlwind for the labor movement. There have been unexpectedly positive developments, like the forceful rise in teacher activism across the country, and negative ones, like the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME, which found that unions could no longer collect agency fees for bargaining from workers who do not pay membership dues. The labor movement had been grinding its teeth over that possibility for several years, bracing for its already strained coffers to further deplete.

But last weekend, when labor leaders and activists gathered at a two-day conference in Washington, D.C., to discuss their movement, the mood was overwhelmingly jubilant. With Democrats now controlling the House of Representatives, the immediate financial pain of Janus less severe than expected, and public opinion for unions standing at a 15-year high (Gallup reported recently that 62 percent of Americans approve of unions), movement activists seemed far more energized than one might have expected them to be one year ago. It almost felt like a pep rally.

Speaker after speaker at the Future of American Labor conference spoke confidently and animatedly about the progress unions have made in the United States, organizing strikes and winning some protections for contract workers — gains they expect to continue even in the wake of Janus.

“For every member that we lost, we gained seven.”

Labor leaders said the losses from Janus were not as severe as they had feared, citing their proactive organizing efforts as primary reasons. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, for example, lost 100,000 agency-fee payers since Janus, Lee Saunders, president of the union, said at the conference. Yet they also managed to flip 310,000 agency-fee payers into dues-paying members through new organizing. “For every member that we lost, we gained seven,” Saunders said.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, reported similar gains. The AFT lost 84,500 agency-fee payers after Janus, but between November 2017 and November 2018, Weingarten said the union’s membership numbers actually went up by 88,000. (Some experts anticipate unions will eventually feel the financial hit from Janus, especially if the well-funded “opt-out” movement, which targets public-sector workers to disaffiliate with their union, gains traction.)

Weingarten said the Supreme Court’s ruling gave unions an opportunity to reflect on what their membership means. “The real challenge becomes six months, eight months, a year after Janus — what is the value of belonging?” she said. “What’s the community you are creating? And what are the values that people connect with — not just what’s the transaction — but what are the values? That’s what we’re learning.”

Much of the conference focused on the national teacher insurgency, which continues this week as Denver Public Schools teachers go on their first strike since 1994. Last month, teachers in Los Angeles went on strike for six days, and thousands of Virginia public school teachers also stormed the state capitol in January for a one-day demonstration of power. Oakland teachers may be next to strike.

DENVER, CO - FEBRUARY 11: Denver teachers and community members picket outside Abraham Lincoln High School on February 11, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. Denver teachers are striking for the first time in 25 years after the school district and the union representing the educators failed to reach an agreement after 14 months of contract negations over teacher pay. (Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

Denver teachers and community members picket outside Abraham Lincoln High School in Denver, Colo., on Feb. 11, 2019.

Photo: Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

The strike in Denver, which started on Monday, is seeing comparatively low levels of participation. It comes after drawn-out negotiations between teachers and the district, and it has been mired in some controversy, including about giving financial incentives to educators who work in the district’s highest-poverty schools. The union calls these “failed incentives” and prefers to raise the base pay for all teachers in the district instead. This school district, which has already offered to raise base pay for all teachers from $43,255 to $45,500, wants to keep the incentives in place to attract and retain teachers in those more challenging schools and demonstrate a commitment to equity. The teachers want the starting pay to be $45,800.

In an interview, Becky Pringle, vice president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest public-sector union, said she agreed that schools in high-poverty districts should get more support, but that it shouldn’t happen at the expense of other schools.

“Those schools absolutely should get more investment,” Pringle said. “But here’s what we’ve been forced to choose: The [district] say[s], Here’s the pie and those teachers [in high-poverty schools] should get the incentives. No, no, no. You need to redefine the pie, and that’s the false choice. Since the recession, we’ve been dealing with a smaller pie, but we’re not going to accept that narrative, that premise. A progressive agenda doesn’t start from their premise.”

Pringle did not say whether the teachers themselves should be paid more to work in those schools. “We know the equity means you give kids what they need,” she said. “So of course the kids who are coming to our schools that have suffered trauma or who don’t have food to eat have to have more, they have greater needs. Of course they do. But let’s stop having that conversation about taking [from one school] and giving to [another]. The state has the money to do what they need. The federal government has the money. So we’ve got to turn that [conversation] on its head.”

Despite the labor activists’ positive energy, the conference was short on commitments regarding what the movement would push for next and where things are headed.

“Right now there is an adrenaline high. … It took two years to get to the point where people were ready to strike,” said Mary Best, president of AFT-Oklahoma. (Oklahoma teachers went on strike in April 2018.) “We kind of have to see where the membership takes us [next].”

“We’re open to continuous learning, we don’t have all the answers,” said Pringle. “I love saying we have 3 million members, but we never have really realized the power of a 3-million member organization because we haven’t figured out how to leverage that collectively in a real way.”

Two panel sessions were dedicated to the prospect of “sectoral bargaining,” in which workers across entire industries, such as all finance workers or all retail workers, bargain together. Establishing sectoral labor standards has been an important strategy for workers in countries like France, Germany, and Brazil. The United States has laws that make it harder to establish multi-employer bargaining than elsewhere across the world, yet panelists were excited about the possibility of pushing for similar measures in this country.

Harold Meyerson, executive editor of the American Prospect and a panel moderator, asked union leaders how they plan to capitalize on the cross-union solidarity forged from mobilizing around and after Janus. Would the unions consider making a joint list of policy demands for 2020 candidates, for example?

“I think we’ll definitely do that,” Saunders answered.

“2020 is not the end in and of itself,” added Weingarten. “The work that we’re trying to do is to create coalitions for a better life.”

Whether cross-sector union solidarity actually continues in the years to come is an open question, but SEIU President Mary Kay Henry pointed to the “solidarity strikes” her members took in Los Angeles last month to support the teachers walking in the streets. “That was a huge act of courage for a worker earning $23,000 a year,” she said. (Firefighters also marched along with the striking teachers.)

“The work that we’re trying to do is to create coalitions for a better life.”

Union leaders noted the high support for unions among millennials, but they paid less attention to the issue of independent contractors and the rise of the so-called gig economy, in which many millennials participate. In a small press briefing, The Intercept asked what union leaders are doing to help organize labor-supportive workers in nontraditional workplaces. Henry pointed to the 2018 California Supreme Court decision in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles that made it harder for companies to misclassify workers as independent contractors as an example of progress on that front.

“We have a history of organizing contract workers. And I think what is going to be hugely impactful is what the entire labor movement has been doing in California with the governor and state legislature in responding to the Dynamex court case and inside the SEIU,” she said. ”We have a national advisory committee to our leaders in California because we’re organizing contract workers all over the country and are listening to what the key demands are.”

She also said her union is “trying to seize opportunities to support workers, while being careful not to undermine global standards.” The European trade movement, she explained, is currently making strides organizing around labor conditions for platform and contract workers, and Henry implied that the U.S. labor movement is interested in following the EU’s lead.

Weingarten agreed. “It’s often a legal fiction between independent contractors and employees, and we worked with freelancers on the New York wage theft bill,” she said, referring to a 2016 law that penalizes employers who delay payments to freelance workers. The AFT is working with adjunct professors and school substitutes, too, Weingarten added. “We’re working in coalitions, but I would say we do not have a holistic view yet about how to actually deal with [contractors] who need the protection of unionization and collective action.”

Saunders said his union is generally eyeing other areas in public service that could potentially be organized, like emergency medical services in the nonprofit sector. He also pointed to Nevada, a state that is likely to pass a new law this year granting collective bargaining rights to state workers. “We are primed to organize 20,000 new members because of that,” he said.

The post Unions See an Opening in the Wake of a Ruling That Was Supposed to Finish Them Off appeared first on The Intercept.

Pro-Israel Lobby Caught on Tape Boasting That Its Money Influences Washington

A debate about the power in Washington of the pro-Israel lobby is underway, after Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., responded sharply to reports that Republican leader Kevin McCarthy was targeting both Omar and fellow Muslim Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat from Michigan.

Omar quoted rap lyrics — “It’s all about the Benjamins baby” — to suggest McCarthy’s move was driven by the lobby’s prolific spending. Asked specifically who she was referring to, Omar responded, “AIPAC!”

The debate over the influence of pro-Israel groups could be informed by an investigation by Al Jazeera, in which an undercover reporter infiltrated The Israel Project, a Washington-based group, and secretly recorded conversations about political strategy and influence over a six-month period in 2016. That investigation, however, was never aired by the network — suppressed by pressure from the pro-Israel lobby.

In November, Electronic Intifada obtained and published the four-part series, but it did so during the week of the midterm elections, and the documentary did not get a lot of attention then.

In it, leaders of the pro-Israel lobby speak openly about how they use money to influence the political process, in ways so blunt that if the comments were made by critics, they’d be charged with anti-Semitism.  

“Congressmen and senators don’t do anything unless you pressure them.”

David Ochs, founder of HaLev, which helps send young people to AIPAC’s annual conference, described for the reporter how AIPAC and its donors organize fundraisers outside the official umbrella of the organization, so that the money doesn’t show up on disclosures as coming specifically from AIPAC. He describes one group that organizes fundraisers in both Washington and New York. “This is the biggest ad hoc political group, definitely the wealthiest, in D.C.,” Ochs says, adding that it has no official name, but is clearly tied to AIPAC. “It’s the AIPAC group. It makes a difference, it really, really does. It’s the best bang for your buck and the networking is phenomenal.” (Ochs and AIPAC did not immediately return The Intercept’s requests for comment.)

Without spending money, Ochs argues, the pro-Israel lobby isn’t able to enact its agenda. “Congressmen and senators don’t do anything unless you pressure them. They kick the can down the road, unless you pressure them, and the only way to do that is with money,” he explains. 

He describes a fundraiser for Anthony Brown, a Democrat running for Congress in Maryland, as typical. “So we want the Jewish community to go face to face in this small environment, 50, 30, 40 people, and say this is what’s important to us. We want to make sure that if we give you money that you’re going to enforce the Iran deal. That way, when they need something from him or her, like the Iran deal, they can quickly mobilize and say look we’ll give you 30 grand. They actually impact,” Ochs tells the reporter.

Such a claim is not so different from what Omar was describing, and for which she was roundly condemned. In the wake of Omar’s tweets, the Washington Post, for instance, reported: “The American Jewish Committee demanded an apology, calling her suggestion that AIPAC is paying American politicians for their support ‘demonstrably false and stunningly anti-Semitic.’” (On Monday, Omar apologized for her tweets but insisted that AIPAC and other lobbyist groups are harmful to U.S. politics.)

In the censored documentary, Ochs went on to describe a fundraiser hosted by Jeff Talpins, a hedge fund giant, as similar, as well. “In New York, with Jeff Talpins, we don’t ask a goddamn thing about the fucking Palestinians. You know why? Cuz it’s a tiny issue. It’s a small, insignificant issue. The big issue is Iran. We want everything focused on Iran,” Ochs says. “What happens is Jeff meets with the congressman in the back room, tells them exactly what his goals are — and by the way, Jeff Talpins is worth $250 million — basically they hand him an envelope with 20 credit cards, and say, You can swipe each of these credit cards for a thousand dollars each.”

Ochs explains that the club in New York required a minimum pledge of $10,000 to join and participate in such events. “It’s a minimum commitment. Some people give a lot more than that.”

AIPAC, on its own website, recruits members to join its “Congressional Club,” and commit to give at least $5,000 per election cycle.

Eric Gallagher, a top official at AIPAC from 2010 to 2015, tells the Al Jazeera reporter that AIPAC gets results. “Getting $38 billion in security aid to Israel matters, which is what AIPAC just did,” he notes at one secretly recorded lunch. “Everything AIPAC does is focused on influencing Congress.”

The film, called “The Lobby,” was produced by Al Jazeera’s investigative unit, and features hidden-camera footage obtained by the reporter, who posed as a Jewish pro-Israel activist from Britain who wanted to volunteer with The Israel Project.

Outfitted with a luxury apartment in Dupont Circle, the reporter hosted multiple gatherings and otherwise socialized broadly within the pro-Israel community, winning the confidence of senior officials, who divulged insider details, many of which have been leaked and created international news.

A companion version of the film, which looked at the Israel lobby’s influence in the United Kingdom, did make it to air and was the subject of intense controversy. It exposed a plot by an Israeli embassy official in the UK to “take down” pro-Palestinian Members of Parliament, leading to his resignation.

That film, however, included a snippet of footage from the United States. Officials here quickly realized that they, too, had been infiltrated. In the UK, the Israel lobby lodged an official complaint claiming the series was anti-Semitic, but the UK’s communications agency rejected the claim, finding that “the allegations in the programme were not made on the grounds that any of the particular individuals concerned were Jewish and noted that no claims were made relating to their faith.”

Pro-Israel officials in the United States, rather than file an official complaint, exerted political pressure. A bipartisan group of 19 lawmakers wrote to the Justice Department requesting an investigation into “the full range of activities undertaken by Al Jazeera in the United States,” and suggesting that the organization be made to register as a foreign agent. Ultimately, Qatar bent to the pressure, and killed the documentary.

The post Pro-Israel Lobby Caught on Tape Boasting That Its Money Influences Washington appeared first on The Intercept.

Pox Americana: Vijay Prashad on Venezuela, India, Mexico, Congo, and U.S. Hegemony

There is a brazen, bipartisan push by the U.S. government for regime change in Venezuela with the Trump administration officially declaring opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the “legitimate” president. The economic sanctions imposed on Venezuela by the U.S. are aimed at starving the population into submission with notorious neoconservatives John Bolton and Elliott Abrams coordinating the campaign to overthrow the government of Nicolás Maduro. What we are witnessing right now in Latin America is a modern iteration of the same dirty tactics that the U.S. has historically used against the nations south of the U.S. border. Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world. The U.S. has tried since the early 2000s to overthrow its socialist government beginning with Hugo Chávez. At the same time, it poured money into right-wing movements and backed open fascists like Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. All of this is a modern version of the era of overthrowing leftists who won at the ballot box or by ousting U.S.-friendly dictators. And all of the mass murder, the sanctions, the regime changes, the election interference, the covert support for anti-democratic forces determined to be good for so-called free markets is, today, as it was in the 1950s, sold in the name of bringing freedom and democracy.

Powerful Democrats and Republicans alike have sold the notion that economic sanctions are somehow a cleaner way of forcing change than military action. They portray sanctions as targeting the dictators, the oligarchs, the criminally corrupt. But the filthy truth is that not all sanctions are created equal. Yes, there are sanctions that go after individual criminals. But the sanctions we’re talking about on Venezuela right now are not going harm Maduro and his inner circle personally. No, these sanctions are aimed at punishing the Venezuelan people by depriving them of food, medicine, wages, and their very humanity. The strategy is to use these sanctions as a cudgel against an already suffering people in a campaign to torture them into submission.

The former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela William Brownfield has been aggressively lobbying for more sanctions, saying “perhaps the best solution would be to accelerate the collapse.” He says this while actually openly acknowledging that sanctions will kill innocent people, increase malnutrition, and bring “fairly severe punishment” for “millions and millions” of Venezuelans. Brownfield recently admitted the following:

If we can do something that will bring that end quicker, we probably should do it, but we should do it understanding that it’s going to have an impact on millions and millions of people who are already having great difficulty finding enough to eat, getting themselves cured when they get sick, or finding clothes to put on their children before they go off to school. We don’t get to do this and pretend as though it has no impact there. We have to make the hard decision — the desired outcome justifies this fairly severe punishment.

This is the former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela speaking at a Washington D.C. think tank, publicly saying that it is worth the price of lives and health and humanity of ordinary Venezuelans in order to overthrow a government the U.S. does not like. These sanctions are going to cost Venezuela $11 billion in oil revenue in 2019 alone. That amounts to nearly 95 percent of the money that Venezuela spent on the import of food and other goods last year. This isn’t targeting Maduro. Even The Economist stated the following about the logic behind the sanctions: “Mr. Guaidó and Mr. Trump are betting that hardship will topple the regime before it starves the Venezuelan people.” That’s not Chávez speaking from the grave. That’s The Economist.

When powerful political leaders in the U.S. want to change governments, the price of killing innocent people is always worth it. It’s the American way. And this is why Trump is being embraced on his Venezuela policy. He is promoting and advancing the bipartisan politics of empire. It is the same dynamic when the so-called adults on Capitol Hill support giving Trump sweeping surveillance powers or unending funds for an already insane military spending budget. For all the screaming about Trump being a grave threat to democracy, the worst president ever, or an unhinged maniac, when he boosts the policies of imperialism, he gets to join the club of the cops of the world.

On Intercepted this week, historian and journalist Vijay Prashad joined us to discuss the state of imperialism in the world, the situation in Venezuela, the upcoming elections in India, and the recent one in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Prashad is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. That’s a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is the executive director of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research and the chief editor of LeftWord Books. Prashad is a prolific writer, authoring 25 books, including “The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World” and “The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.” An excerpt of this conversation aired on Intercepted. What follows is the complete, unedited conversation.
This interview begins at 20:03.

 

Jeremy Scahill: Vijay Prashad welcome to Intercepted.

Vijay Prashad: Thank you so much.

JS: Vijay, I want to start by asking your response to the recent developments in Venezuela. Earlier this week, the New York Times did a big profile on the opposition leader Juan Guaidó who has declared himself president and the Times notes that more than 20 countries have now recognized Guaidó as the legitimate interim president of Venezuela. Among those countries: The United States, Canada, most of South America. Then on Monday several European Union countries [joined] that list, among them: France, Germany, Britain, Spain, Austria, Sweden, and Denmark. You recently wrote that what happened to Chile in 1973 — when there was a U.S. initiated coup against the democratically elected leader Salvador Allende — is precisely what the United States has attempted to do in many countries of the Global South, and you say the most recent target for the U.S. government and Western big business is Venezuela. What are the parallels that you see between the overthrow of Allende in 1973 and what we’re seeing now with the push to overthrow Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela?

VP: I’m glad we’re starting here, Jeremy, because this is really the most important issue, I think, of our period. Which is, you know, this very extravagant set of claims made by particularly the United States and its closest allies about countries in the Global South — whether it’s Iran, or Venezuela, or a host of other countries. Let’s think about the Chilean example. In 1970, when Salvador Allende was coming close to winning a very legitimate election to come to office, the United States government said, we will not tolerate it if people like Allende decide to nationalize resources. In the case of Chile, it was copper, and so they began to plan to, in a way, undermine Allende through barricading his economy long before Allende even won the election. And after he won the election they did everything possible to prevent Chile from selling copper outside its boundaries, therefore bankrupting Chile, creating distress within the country, and then winking to the military to take over. And by the way, Chile is not the beginning of this.

We saw this in 1954 in Guatemala where the issue was the nationalization of the United Fruit Company and we saw this in 1953 in Iran when the issue was oil. The government of Mohammad Mossadegh nationalized the oil company. This was something seen as totally inappropriate by Western oil companies, the so-called Seven Sisters. And the United States in alliance with Great Britain conducted a coup against Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran and against Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala. I mean, there [are] so many examples of precisely this situation.

With Venezuela, just very quickly, it’s got to be said that this is a country that has never been able to diversify its economy. About 98 percent of its external revenues comes from oil and from petroleum products. In the last few years, oil prices have collapsed by 50 percent which means that Venezuela’s external revenues have also collapsed by about 50 percent.

When Venezuela was swimming in oil money and when there were difficulties in the United States, and Britain, and other countries, the Venezuelan government provided cheap oil to poor people in Boston, in the Bronx in New York, — in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in London, and other places. But when Venezuela went into a crisis, rather than tending to the problem — which was basically a problem of a one-commodity economy — rather than help the Venezuelans, what we begin to see is the Obama administration in 2015 declaring Venezuela a national security threat and now the Trump administration with the very close help of Mr. Trudeau from Canada [is] trying to essentially overthrow the government of Mr. Nicolas Maduro. You know, the people will concentrate and they’ll say well, you know, Maduro did this, Maduro did that, but before Maduro can do anything is the suffocation of the one commodity economy.

JS: Well, and Vijay, you have this exception in the sanctions, the latest round of sanctions that the Trump administration has imposed on Venezuela and its state oil company allowing Chevron to continue doing business as usual and also the former company of Dick Cheney, Halliburton, [is] also allowed to continue on in Venezuela.

VP: See, one of the interesting things about the Trump administration and Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton is they just don’t seem to care. I mean, they don’t have any pretense about anything that they’re doing. Whereas one saw, even with George W. Bush’s administration, we saw some measure of pretense. You know, they’d come up with theories about humanitarianism and whatever it is — there [are] weapons of mass destruction. All kinds of shifting goal posts that they used as a fig leaf for the invasion of Iraq. Even, of course, with Mr. Obama, we saw all kinds of high-minded principles. Obama was an expert at concocting high-minded principles to defend essentially naked aggression. With Trump and with Bolton, I mean, we’re at a situation where they just don’t care. Include with Trump and Bolton, Senator Rubio. They just don’t care. They come out directly and say, “we’re in this for the oil.” They come out directly and say these people can’t behave like that. I mean, of all audacious things Nicolas Maduro is a bus driver. You know, how dare he be the president of a country? You should be an oligarch, one of the old aristocracy from Venezuela. That’s the kind of person that should run things in collaboration with Chevron and Halliburton and so on. So, you know, they’re not even [trying] to pretend that this is about democracy.

JS: Briefly, Vijay, you also have many prominent Democrats including Dick Durbin of Illinois, but also members of the Democratic side of the House Foreign Relations Committee backing the Trump Administration. And over the weekend, we saw huge protests in Venezuela. The ones that were in support of Juan Guaidó were covered everywhere and the footage was shown everywhere. But the massive protests that were Venezuelans in the streets to defend Maduro, that was not shown. Or there were allegations, “Oh, they’re just doctoring the video.” So, it’s clear that we are seeing a major propaganda push, on the one hand, in the news media with glowing coverage of Juan Guaidó, and then on the other hand, Democrats who are screaming on the top of the hill that Donald Trump is the biggest threat ever to American democracy and he’s going to ruin the country. The Democrats on this issue are saying “Oh no, but we were actually with Trump on this one and Nicolas Maduro has to go.”

VP: The American political establishment makes a big deal of bipartisanship. And in a sense, the real arena where bipartisanship can be seen is when it comes to foreign policy. Particularly the behavior of the United States government against its so-called adversaries — whether it’s Iran or it’s Venezuela. You know, people get confused on Iran thinking that the Obama administration was on one side of the issue and Trump was on the other. In fact, they were both on the same side of the issue, which is that the United States has the right to intervene, to pressure Iran. To use its various controls of things like the control of the U.S. dollar, trade with Iran, to use pressure on the Europeans against the SWIFT network. That’s the network that moves currency around. Both Obama and Trump are in agreement that it’s perfectly permissible for the U.S. to use any instrument to control Iran. There was some difference in strategy. Obama wanted to use the multilateral agreement that would essentially prevent Iran from doing certain things and Trump said no, let’s go a different way. But they totally agreed in the final aim and in the attitude of the United States to other countries in foreign policy.

Much the same in Venezuela. There is no difference in attitude across the political spectrum from Democrats, to Republicans, to the New York Times. You know, utter unanimity of opinion that the United States can interfere in another country’s political matters, can come in and, in fact, anoint leaders. Here’s the irony, you have a country, the United States, which is up in arms about Russian interference in the elections. I can’t watch Rachel Maddow’s television show any longer because there she is going on and on about, you know, how the Russians are doing this, the Russians are doing that. Meanwhile, the United States is there openly, brazenly intervening in Venezuela as they do in so many other countries and these people have no problem with it. I mean, you know, Rachel Maddow, Ph.D. from I think Oxford — have some decency — at least let the goose and the gander be treated by the same standard, but that is just not going to happen. In fact, things are so bad, Jeremy, that when Medea Benjamin went in twice to intervene, to shame the Organization of American States and to shame people anointed by this Lima Group as representatives of Venezuela, CNN Spanish used footage of Medea to make the case that she was protesting on behalf of the opposition against Maduro. So, not only do they frame these issues in a way that’s quite, you know, just inconsiderate of the truth, but here they are openly lying.

JS: Well, let me ask you: I, of course, agree with your analysis on the U.S. intervention. But we are seeing millions of Venezuelans over the past several years fleeing the country. Yes, the opposition, some elements of the opposition to Maduro, have killed people. There has been racist action on the part of some sectors of the opposition. At the same time, Maduro controls most of the state mechanisms of organized violence: the police, the military, etcetera. And we have seen real brutality and lethal force used over, and over on the opposition. My question for you is, and I’ve been hearing this from Venezuelans who say look, we are not Trump supporters. We are not fans of any kind of a “lighter-skinned Venezuelans are the one that should be in control of the country” mentality that seems to be permeating a lot of the so-called opposition. But Maduro is running the country into the ground. Yes, we understand sanctions. Everything Vijay is saying we agree with that. At the same time, Maduro has built himself a kleptocracy. Are you saying that there is no legitimacy whatsoever to any sector of the opposition against Maduro right now?

VP: Well, look let’s put it this way. There are obvious problems. As I said, when your revenues declined to almost 50 percent you’re going to suffer great problems inside the country. You’ve got an economic stranglehold by the sanctions regime and so on. Yes, there are Venezuelans fleeing the country. But, Jeremy, there are 69 million people who have been displaced around the world. And that’s a very conservative figure, largely displaced because of the very structural policies that are disturbing countries, not only Venezuela but countries across West Africa, in Central Asia. You have wars, you have economic policies that are displacing people. So, of course, there are people moving, you know? Of course, there are people who feel that this government is not representing them, but that’s what the political process is about. I mean, are we saying that Nicolas Maduro is a dictator? Now in the last election, which the opposition only partly boycotted, he only won 67 percent of the vote. You know, if this was truly a dictatorship, let’s look at the case of our old friend, you know, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Mubarak won almost 90 percent of the votes. That’s [a] questionable election and when that election took place, the U.S. State Department said this is a new day for Egypt.

In this case, Maduro won 67 percent. The opposition is politically divided. It’s not able to come together. One section of the opposition has turned to the United States and said essentially give us a hand to use any means to overthrow this guy. Why don’t you build the opposition? On any day in Caracas, Jeremy, you open the newspapers, they’re all deeply critical of the Maduro government. If this is a dictatorship, I don’t understand what freedom, you know, in our limited sense is. He gets hammered on television. He is getting hammered [in] the newspapers. The fact is the opposition is not able to come together. And the deep residues of Chavista loyalty to the Maduro government, but also to the institutions of the missions, and so on is not to be set aside. In other words, you have this very loyal section of Chavistas who are committed to the Bolivarian Revolution. They understand the problems. They’re willing to fight to defend the government and they come out in large numbers to vote for the government. But yet their large numbers, as I said, amount to 67 percent. There is a political process. Maduro has said let’s go back. Let’s have a negotiation. Let’s think about a new election. You know, the Venezuelan government in this last election last year, asked the United Nations to send monitors. Why did the United Nations not send monitors? You know, why is the United States government attempting to cripple the political process in Venezuela to create the preconditions where you can then think there’s nothing else to be done except U.S. intervention to anoint somebody as the president? A deeply undemocratic act.

JS: Also, I wanted to point out — and you’ve been writing about this and offering analysis on it — that at this moment in Latin America, you have this rise again of overt authoritarian fascist leaders like Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. But you also have a leftist president who came to power in Mexico, Andres Manuel López Obrador known by his initials AMLO, and you wrote about López Obrador — that he comes to the presidency as a man of the left but the space for maneuvering that he has for a left agenda is minimal. I feel like if this was 10 years ago there would have been a lot more excitement about what’s happening in Mexico with López Obrador coming to power but that has sort of been drowned out by the situation in Venezuela on the one hand. And then Trump’s inane dangerous threats about building a border wall and then also the active, ongoing threat of separating families from their children, militarizing the border patrol, ICE, which serves as a kind of storm front for enforcement of extremely racist xenophobic immigration policy. But what is your sense of what room to maneuver López Obrador has right now in Mexico?

VP: You see Mexico, like Venezuela, like any of these countries, their space for what we call fiscal creativity is almost zero. These countries are reliant upon borrowing commercial capital going to, you know, private banks to raise money. There’s been immense pressure on these countries from the IMF not to run deficits. So, that means that if you can’t raise enough money from banks to cover your basic running operation of your government, what you’re going to do is you’re going to end up cutting social services. I mean, let’s put this in some context, Jeremy. Oxfam’s recent report showed that last year, that is in the calendar year of 2018, 2,230odd billionaires increased their wealth by 2.5 billion dollars per year and meanwhile the lowest 50 percent of humanity lost eleven percent of its wealth. Why am I raising this? The top 10 people among those 2,230 odd billionaires, of them there’s only one person who’s not from North America, that is not from the United States, and from Europe, and that person is Carlos Slim of Mexico.

You see what we have to remember is the very top people, these 2,000 odd billionaires and their families, no longer pay tax. You know, they are essentially bloating tax havens. They are hiding their money in banks. They’re just not paying tax anymore. They have gone on, what I consider, a tax strike. Because these elites like Carlos Slim of Mexico have gone on a tax strike the governments of countries like Mexico have a very difficult time raising, financing to do anything on the humane side of government policy. So, they’ve been cutting health care, they’ve been cutting education, they’ve been slicing everything that produces civilization. So, for, you know, for López Obrador, the government he’s inherited is basically a government which doesn’t have any ability to provide the good parts of life for people, which is why he was very eager to take back control of PEMEX — which is the Mexican petroleum company — take back control of it, put some money to invest in it to revive PEMEX. The moment he made those comments after he won the election, he was told directly by banks, by the IMF, and by international oil companies that don’t you dare do that. Don’t you dare try to use public financing to revive PEMEX. The only thing we’re going to allow you to do is to basically sell more parts of PEMEX off to international privately-held, you know, energy companies.

So what’s happening to Venezuela is just a much more vulgar and dangerous, kind of, portfolio of events than what is happening to Mexico where things are not yet at a boiling point. But basically, López Obrador has been told there is no exit for Mexico. No way for you to raise finances to basically enrich the population and therefore you’re going to see people continue to move towards the border. You’re going to see people continue to move, put pressure on the United States to build these walls, and to create essentially a military force that stands there the border and shoots at people.

JS: Now, let’s jump to the other side of the globe for a moment. One of the major areas of focus of the Trump administration that, I think, has the potential to be the most dangerous is the obsession with Iran and the fact that the Trump administration is littered with people including notorious neocons who have always wanted regime change in Iran. You have the situation in Yemen, which the Trump administration has used as, really, a proxy war against Iran and, of course, there’s a lot of issues with facts in this administration and certainly, that’s been the case in Yemen. But you do have Yemen being used as a proxy war. You have this network of allies that’s emerged where you have the Saudis, Israel, The United States, and then some lesser states that really seem to be pushing in that direction. The U.S. has been quietly negotiating with the Iraqi government to have hundreds of Special Operations forces, troops from the United States deployed inside of Iraq with the purpose of potentially striking against Iran. How do you see the fact that Trump is saying that he’s going to take U.S. troops out of Syria, take U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, but now re-deploy some of the most elite hunter-killer teams in the U.S. arsenal in Iraq with the explicit purpose of, number one, confronting Iran and then, secondarily, dealing with ISIS?

VP: Well, Trump made a comment to CBS News where he said that we have American troops in Iraq to monitor Iran. The word he used was monitor. And within hours, the Iraqi Prime Minister made a comment saying, you know, this is inappropriate, that the United States’ presence in Iraq is to combat terrorism. Not to, essentially, rattle the cage with Iran, because we, that is the Iraqi government, have a relationship both with the Iranians and the United States. So, again Trump, no ability to hold back, just says things openly and the contradictions then emerge on the world stage. I think the United States is going to have a very difficult time using Iraq as a lily pad. Using any of the neighboring states apart from those that you mentioned. That is Saudi Arabia, the UAE. These states would be quite happy to help. But remember, Saudi Arabia cannot have American troops located there. So, I don’t know what kind of practical support — the Turks are not going to allow troops to come in. So, it’s going to be very difficult for the United States practically to take on Iran apart from, you know, occasional bombing runs maybe and one or two special forces people going in to do sabotage operations.

You know, when Nicolas Maduro was under immense pressure he made a little video where he warned the American [saying] don’t come and invade us, we’ll make this another Vietnam. I want you to consider, Jeremy, that the population of Iraq is just about 40 percent of the population of Iran. The Iranian population is highly motivated. If the United States decided to do any kind of military action against Iran it would, I think, be a great mistake. I mean Maduro evokes Vietnam. I would also evoke Vietnam at a different scale for the for the Iranian situation. I think that they are trying to intimidate the Iranian government and they’re trying to do something which — this is why the playbook between Iran and Venezuela is the same — they’re trying to produce so much, you know, economic hardship in the country that you’re going to have millions of people get disaffected with the government. You will have immense propaganda saying that it is this government’s fault and not these other external policies and you will try to create some kind of internal uprising which then gets cracked down upon by the government because it naturally doesn’t want to have some internal uprising, you know, just continue and [the] moment that crackdown takes place, the United States is going to say to the Europeans “look they are authoritarian, they’re a dictatorship, they’re crushing their people, let’s go in.” And NATO is going to say yes, and they go in, you know, all guns blazing.

It’s an incredibly similar playbook that they are following in all these countries which is why these countries are all sort of, you know, in a similar way, concerned. I think it’s silly how people talk about the axis of resistance, and so on. I don’t think anything like that exists. These countries have very different approaches to foreign policy. But at the same time, since they’re all under the same kind of playbook, there’s a kind of sympathy in these capitals for what’s happening in each place. And I think this is also why the Russians are very keen to be involved in each of these places to provide a shield. I think the question of a Russian shield over Iran is already there. The issue of a Russian Shield over Venezuela is also there. And I would say, Jeremy, this is exactly the reason why the United States has withdrawn from the missile treaty. This is why the United States is going to try directly to undermine Russian military power in the next few months.

JS: Well, but in fairness, Russia has its own imperial agenda as well. It’s not like Russia is only acting in the human interest of the world. I mean, Russia clearly is facing down NATO encroachment on the part of the United States. The U.S. moving further and further to the east. You have the potential, and it’s been there for some time, to have an all-out hot war between U.S. and Russian forces in Syria. Certainly, that would be the case if the U.S. did escalate even a little bit in Iran. But, let’s be clear here, though. I mean, Russia is not an ideological actor trying to stand up for the Global South. They’re also acting on their own imperial interests that occasionally aligned with the agenda that you’re describing there.

VP: Well, I would say stronger than that. I wouldn’t use the word imperial. I would say Russia is entirely a defensive power. Why do I say that? You know, it’s interesting when you look at military bases, particularly naval bases. The United States has a hundred and some-odd naval bases around the world. In fact, has the ability to encircle the planet. Years ago I was talking to a senior U.N. official — this is in March of 2011 when the Security Council was debating U.N. resolution 1973, that was the resolution that allowed the war in Libya — and I asked the U.N. official I said, you know, it’s so funny you guys, you produce these resolutions which say any member state can act under chapter seven, which means any member state can use armed forces to defend, you know, to help this resolution along and, of course, that means the United States because who else has bases all over the world? You know, the Indians can’t intervene in Libya, and so on. Well, the Russians had only, not a hundred naval bases around the world, but they had two warm water bases and I think it’s important to underline this.

One warm water base was in Sevastopol in the Crimea and the second warm water base is in Latakia in Syria. It’s no secret, therefore, that from 2013-14 the Russians were terrified about losing the Sevastopol naval base and the intervention into Ukraine, particularly into Crimea. I think this is the reason for the intervention to Crimea. They were defending that warm water base. And secondly, in2015, in September when Russian planes entered Damascus and they intervened militarily to prevent an American bombing run on the city. It was to defend their naval base in Latakia. So what I would say is that it’s an entirely defensive power. It’s much weaker than the United States but it’s basically using military force and using, you know, its ability as limited as possible to secure these alliances. It’s not out there to defend the south. I totally agree with that, but it has its own agenda and these agendas contradict those of the United States. At present, what’s interesting about this agenda that the Russians have is that, from let’s say the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989 to the attempted overthrow of the Syrian government in 2012-13, I think in that space there was no check on U.S. power. And when the Russian planes entered Syria in 2015, that was the first time in about, you know, almost 25 years that somebody had come in to check U.S. power. And it’s my feeling that this current tussle over missile defense over space, overall these kinds of new tensions around military hardware, the presence of the military, etcetera between the United States and Russia is to, once again, weaken the Russian ability to provide these shields. These shields are not there for humanitarian purposes. But nonetheless, these are shields.

JS: Now, you mentioned India there and I want to remind people that India is a massive country not just in land mass, but in population — upwards of 1.3 billion people like what, you know, we’re talking about like one in every six people in the world is from India. And India has very, very important elections that will be coming up in the spring, scheduled for May. Right now India is under the control of a far-right extremist. The BJP won the majority in India’s Parliament. I want to ask you about the resistance to Narendra Modi in a second and what your analysis is of the upcoming elections there and there [have] been huge protests and you’ve been tweeting about that and showing pictures and videos. But first, explain for people the impact that the far-right BJP government has had on India.

VP: Well, Jeremy, in 2013 when the last parliamentary elections took place, the far-right won 31 percent of the vote. But because of the nature of the Indian parliamentary system, they got a majority in Parliament. But I want to start there because people should understand that they are essentially a minority government in terms of the votes they were able to get. Even though Mr. Modi rules India as if he had won a major majority of the population’s favor. You know, 60 percent plus of the public did not vote for the BJP or its allies. I think that’s very important to remember. Nonetheless, Mr. Modi didn’t govern as if he represented India. He governed from the agenda of his political party. He attempted to push the fascistic agenda of the BJP. In terms of what does it mean to be an Indian? No longer does the BJP want India to be composite plural country. As you say 1.3, 1.4 billion people, you know with — let me say, you know, a hundred, tens of hundreds of different kinds of cultural worlds, over a hundred different kinds of languages, highly diverse population, yet more they wanted to govern it in a very narrow, suffocating, cultural way.

He also attempted certain dramatic economic, you know, let’s call them gimmicks. Demonetization, which meant that suddenly one day you wake up and two of your main currency bills have been withdrawn from circulation. This was supposedly to go after black money. You know that is money hoarded by the rich. Of course, the rich, no longer keep their hoarded money in bank accounts under their beds. They keep it in tax havens, in shelters all around the world. So this was a big gimmick, which backfired, created a lot of distress for people and so on. So Modi attempted to push the country in a rightward direction. But right from the beginning, there was immense resistance against him and, interestingly, even on foreign policy.

When Modi tried to move into, basically, the American camp, he was prevented. He was the first Indian Prime Minister to go to Israel but he was forced by the political class and by the Indian foreign ministry to also have continued relations with the Palestinians — which he wanted to break. Modi was very eager to join in the American project to isolate Iran. That was prevented, not only by the foreign ministry and by the other political parties, but also, of course, by the needs of India which is entirely reliant on import of oil and imports quite a large amount of Iranian oil.

In the case of Venezuela, there was pressure on Mr. Modi to join with some of these European countries and the Lima Group to isolate the government of Maduro, but, the political class just wouldn’t have it. And India had to put out a quite a strong statement saying that “no foreign intervention is permitted and the sovereignty of Venezuela must be respected.” So, I want to just say at the same time as Modi is quite a ruthless, nasty piece of work, he was not able to capture fully the institutions of Indian government and the imagination of the Indian people and it’s quite likely, Jeremy, that he is going to lose this election quite badly.

JS: Well, that’s interesting. I want to ask you more about that. I also want to just draw people’s attention to the fact that just last month in January there were upwards of 200 million workers in India that took part in a two-day strike protesting the government’s labor policies. And then at the same time, over the weekend, you tweeted a photo of a sea of people in red and you wrote the following “My home city of Kolkata bristled today with the energy of the Left Front with our comrades thronging the Brigade Ground. There are many photographs of our comrades as they interact with each other, dance with each other from the bus stands and the train stations to the maidan.” What is the Left Front and how are they challenging the BJP?

VP: Well, you know, it’s let’s begin with the major labor protest. I was driving up and down the length of Kerala during those two days of the strike in January —

JS: I mean, that’s just for people to understand! I mean 200 million workers – I mean that’s like two-thirds of the population of the United States in, you know, in the streets on strike.

VP: That’s quite right and these are workers from not only where you’d expect them, rail workers, people closed down the trains in different parts of the country, but also Anganwadi workers. These are workers who are child care workers, ASHA workers. These are health care workers went out on strike. We saw IT workers. The internet workers in Bangalore in some IT companies go on strike. It was a range of workers to add up to 200 million and these workers were on strike not for wages. I think that’s very important to recognize. But they were angry with the direction of economic policy. They were angry with the kind of political culture in the country. It’s a very broad set of demands and quite a very powerful strike.

But before that, last year there was an immense wave of agrarian struggles. People may not know that in the past 18 years almost 300,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide. They’ve committed suicide largely because there is a deep agrarian crisis with no exit that has struck India. You’ve had — because of the commercialization of agriculture — you’ve had input prices rise, prices of fertilizer, prices of pesticide, prices of seeds. And you’ve had the government cut support prices to buy the goods. That means that the input prices [have] risen and the buying price has dropped which has left farmers in immense debt. And what you’ve seen, which is so tragic, is many of these farmers commit suicide by drinking pesticide, the very thing that has bankrupted them. Well over the course of these 15 odd years, the Kisan Sabha which is the Farmers’ movement in India has been struggling very hard to build the political confidence of farmers. And you saw in Bombay last year, you know, hundreds of thousands of farmers, march for over two weeks into the city of Bombay and force the right-wing state government to accede to the demands. So, what I’m saying is that we move from suicide to the politicization of the agrarian crisis. This had an enormous impact in three state elections last year in the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh.

And it’s because of this farmer’s protest which has been, you know, organized by the left, by the communists, by the socialists, and other constituents of the Left Front. Because of these farmer’s protest you’ve seen a shift in the political needle away from the BJP in these key states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh. And in the very large, the largest state in India, the state of Uttar Pradesh, where there are 80 members of parliament — you know, the parliament in India has about 500 members, 80 of them come from Uttar Pradesh. In the 2013 election, Modi’s party won 70 of those seats but this year the two, I mean, so-called socialist parties, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, have united. They are going to fight the elections together. And it’s actually a marriage that is made in heaven, as they say, because in 31 seats in the 2013 election, in 31 of those seats the Samajwadi party, the socialist party came second, and in 34 seats the Bahujan Samaj Party, which is the party of oppressed castes, came second. So, that means they don’t actually compete with each other in 65 of the seats where the BJP won.

So, what we are anticipating is that this alliance is going to win about 50 to 60 seats out of 80 Uttar Pradesh. Because the BJP cannot win seats in South India because it’s going to have a hard time in those agrarian states of Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh and because it’s going to lose in this very large state of Uttar Pradesh to this new alliance of socialists and oppressed caste parties. Because of that, there is no way BJP is going to get a plurality in the Parliament and I think, in fact, it will it will not be able to form a government in April and May of this coming, this year.

JS: What are the chances that a new Indian government would be legitimately leftist or anti-imperialist?

VP: No, no, no. I mean, Jeremy, that’s not the –

JS: I’m asking you, brother!

VP:[Laughter] You see the issue is — this is the situation that we are going to face for a generation. Which is that again in these three state elections, it was really immense work done by the left among, you know rural communities, farmers, landless workers, and so on to build a political momentum that defeated the BJP governments. But of course, the left doesn’t have the kind of political structure needed to win elections. You know, whether this is in Brazil or it’s in India, we have to recognize that democracy has been completely shattered as an institutional form. It requires so much money to run in elections. There are so many crooked things that have happened to the democratic process. You know, in Brazil Jair Bolsonaro’s friends were sending WhatsApp messages, to WhatsApp groups that number, you know, hundreds and thousands of people. These WhatsApp messages, that were very cruel, they were suggesting that the Workers’ Party in Brazil, you know, was going to force their children into sex education and so on, you know, as if that’s a problem. I mean children deserve sex education but they were doing it in an extremely nasty way and delegitimizing the Workers’ Party in Brazil. We see the same thing in India. In other words, you know, lots of money being put by corporations into BJP deniable groups that are creating these WhatsApp networks and you know, inking essentially the political process by, you know, saying things about other candidates that are not true where it’s very difficult for the candidate who doesn’t have money to come out there and say look that’s just not true and let me show you how. So, you know to capitalize on the kind of mass mobilizations, on the struggles and so on into this democratic sphere is becoming increasingly difficult which is why I think that you know, we need to very seriously consider reconsider what democratic institutions are and what has become, what has happened to them.

JS: Last month was the anniversary of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the independence leader in Congo who was the first prime minister of the independent Democratic Republic of Congo. He was assassinated and the United States, we know for a fact, had previously plotted to assassinate him. Just recently there were elections in Congo and you had the election of Felix Tshisekedi. He is now Congo’s fifth president taking over from Joseph Kabila. You recently, with Kambale Musavuli wrote a piece about the legacy of the crisis in Congo and how Patrice Lumumba-inspired-youth are trying to break the culture of plunder and corruption that has been foisted upon the political system in Congo. Explain today’s crisis, how it began in Congo, the significance of this new election, and the fact that the so-called opposition in Congo right now is headed by a former ExxonMobil executive.

VP: You know, it’s a great tragedy and I’d like to just back up for a minute. It’s not just a situation of the Congo. You have to look at this belt that runs through the center of Africa including Zambia, you know, including any country in the center of Africa and the many of them that are rich in rare earth minerals, in various raw materials from cobalt, which is an essential ingredient in electric batteries, to coltan which is essential for you know, the smartphones, the iPhone and so on. So, these countries —

JS: Oh many, many people are probably listening to you right now, Vijay, on devices that contain some natural resources from Congo or this belt that you’re describing.

VP: Well, they will definitely have devices that have cobalt and coltan which mainly come from this belt of countries. And it’s very important to say that however much there is, kind of, this dismay about the Chinese intervention in Africa, that actually most of the companies that are able to work to mine these goods are actually not Chinese. Many of them are Canadian. We, in fact, are doing a study about these Canadian firms like Barrick and so on which dominate the mining in these parts of the world. And what you’ve seen is that these mining companies essentially misprice what they’re doing. They pay these countries revenues based on a very deflated price for the goods. These goods as soon as they cross the border from the Congo, say they go to Mwanza port in Tanzania. As soon as they cross the border into Tanzania or into Uganda, the prices of these goods rise by miracle because within the Congo they keep the price low. So they say to the government we’ll give you 20 percent per ton of coltan’s price but the price is, you know, only so many hundred dollars. As soon as it crosses the border the price increases. This is what we call mispricing.

So places like the Congo have essentially been plundered and stolen from for over a hundred years. They haven’t been able to build up any kind of public finances. They haven’t been able to build up proper institutions to take care of the people of the Congo or of Zambia, wherever. And what you see in the Congo is, I mean you cannot imagine what corruption looks like. It’s the corruption of these big Canadian and other mining companies, resource companies, Australian companies and so on. Then it’s the corruption of the political class. At this moment, the kind of tentacles of Joseph Kabila who governed, you know, almost entirely since democracy came to Congo.

I mean democracy, again that word, you know, what does it mean for places like the Congo where you know, you strong arm people you have elections which means so little and, bizarrely, elections which means so little but in the case of a place like the Congo because it’s pliant, because it allows its raw materials and rare earth materials to leave the country at low cost, every time there is an election the State Department and, you know, all the Europeans, everybody says, well, you know, they’re moving towards democracy. I mean, if you are a pliant government, then your stolen election is validated. If you are not a pliant government, this is coming back to Venezuela, then you’re going to be told your election was fraudulent. So, they have had fraudulent election after elections and it got to such a point that Joseph Kabila simply refused to have an election. You know, his term ended in 2016. He just refused to allow an election to take place and nobody said peep. There was no statement about moving American troops into Tanzania. I mean nothing. Why? Because essentially all the minerals are being looted from that country so that we can have iPhones which cost — Okay, the huge price of $999 dollars, but if you actually priced the minerals inside the iPhone, the price may go up to $30,000 per iPhone. Some people have estimated $100,000 per iPhone. Imagine that. Walking into the Apple store and saying I’ll take three of those. I mean, who can afford that?

So, as long as you have a pliant government, and Kabila was pliant, they allowed him to keep going even though his mandate ended in 2016. You had these massive protest — yes, Lumumba inspired youth but also, you know, some of them are devout Christian groups and so on — out on the street demanding change. The pressure was too high. They allowed an election. They thought that Kabila’s, you know, his successor would come in. And here’s the whole trick of it, you know, again what is a democracy? Who can afford to build a political party? Necessarily you get people from the elite who build the opposition. And here? Yes, of course, it’s an ExxonMobil, you know, executive who becomes the face of the opposition. I mean, there is no real opposition in a country like Congo until it’s built from the grassroots. From these young people and so on.

And that is why, Jeremy, I’m sorry to say that, for at least a generation, places like the Congo will not be able to have, you know, robust political movements. Movements that will have any kind of impact in the electoral domain. In Zambia, a socialist party is being built up particularly in the copper belt. They are going to run for presidential elections. The candidate is going to be Fredman Membe. Fred used to run a newspaper in Zambia. He has been arrested several times by this government. His newspaper has been confiscated. The press was confiscated. The men’s pressure against the Socialist Party of Zambia and I can bet you that 99 percent of the people listening to this have never heard of the Socialist Party of Zambia or of Fred, you know, because of course, these are people who will not be pliant when it comes to mining companies, if they ever come to power.

JS: Well, and I also want to remind people, just briefly, of the history that you’re talking about here of the Congo, which was under the brutal reign of Belgian colonialism. And then you had the CIA-backed government of Mobutu Sese Seko and he himself was an actual CIA asset who ran that country with extreme brutality and kept it open for U.S. president after U.S. president.

You also had Dwight Eisenhower authorizing the CIA to develop a chemical poison that was made to look like toothpaste that they wanted to try to assassinate Patrice Lumumba with. We’ve seen so many of these independence movements or nationalist movements in Africa and Asia, around the Global South just be completely obliterated or severely damaged in the ensuing decades of imperialist encroachment around the world.

VP: Well, it is a very great tragedy. I mean, again, the playbook is similar. You look for the most charismatic person, assassinate that person, and then squeeze the rest of the political forces into exceeding to your demands. I mean, you take the case of any of these countries when they attempted to do something, put forward an alternative project. Suddenly, there’s an assassination: whether it’s Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in 1961, or it’s AmílcarCabral, or it’s the coup against Kwame Nkrumah. I mean, none of them was allowed to have a tenure where they were able to develop independent economies. And, of course for my generation, the assassination of Thomas Sankara in May of 1987, the very charismatic and important political leader in Burkina Faso which used to be known as Upper Volta but then when Sankara came to power he changed the name of his country. [He] said, “why should we be called Upper Volta? Why should we be defined by colonialism? We are Burkina Faso, the land of upright people.” And he pushed an agenda to revive the agriculture of Burkina Faso. He pushed an agenda for the sovereignty of the country. It’s such an interesting agenda that he pushed that he set for instance, by government fiat, by law, on Wednesday, men must do childcare. He said I would like to have half the week be for men to do childcare and domestic — take care of the house, clean things, cook food, but I’m going to start only with Wednesday. I mean, this was a man who understood that political power is not about the parliament. It’s not even about the boardroom of companies — it’s the kitchen, the house.

You know, it’s the old saying Jeremy that it’s not enough to be Che Guevara on the street and Pinochet in the kitchen. You have to be [a] liberated person from you know, your house out onto the streets and Sankara pushed a great agenda for his country, Burkina Faso, and he was assassinated. You know, just seven years later the hope of South Africa, Chris Hani, you know, the leader of [the South African Communist Party], the leader of the urban poor in South Africa. Just as South Africa was coming out of Apartheid, before the elections, Chris Hani was shot to death. I mean, every time you look at an African country when a young leader is produced that comes up with an agenda that is not blind to mining companies, not pliant to the Western capitals, that person is killed almost immediately and I think people need to really reflect on that, reflect on the assassinations of Houari Boumédièneat the north of the country in Algeria all the way down to Chris Hani at the South.

JS: You know, as we wrap up Vijay, I wanted to get your big picture take on the ascent of Donald Trump to the chamber of ultimate power in the United States at the White House. Taking into account this history that you and I are discussing of populist movements, leftist movements, socialist movements, and the kind of expansion of the imperialism of the United States. Set Donald Trump’s rise to power in the context of all of this history that you and I have been discussing.

VP: Well, you know it brings us back to this tax strike that began about 40 years ago. About 40 years ago when basically government policy allowed the big elites to no longer pay taxes, corporate tax rates began to fall. You saw government budgets desiccate. You saw municipal budgets basically devolve to nothing. At this point, the kind of liberal consensus, the liberal agenda, was to move in a direction [of] what we call neoliberalism. They produced a policy framework called neoliberalism which basically accepted the fact that the rich were not going to pay taxes. And they tried to raise public financing, whether it’s the budgets of governments or municipalities, they wanted to raise funds by selling off hard-won public assets, whether it’s concessions to water delivery, or it’s, in fact, education institutions, and so on. They privatized, they opened up parts of human existence that had not been for money and commodified them.

So again, water is a great example. You had water utilities which basically ran things as a not-for-profit entity. You start privatizing water, making water into a commodity. This was the way in which the liberals tried to finance this crisis of government budgets because the rich were not paying taxes. And they were not going to challenge the rich. In fact, they said that’s good. It creates entrepreneurialism. You see jobs trickle down. Essentially, this is the agenda of Tony Blair, of Bill Clinton, and you know, around the world they have their cognates. But by the financial crisis of 2007, the liberals with the neoliberal policies were essentially totally delegitimized.

I mean, nobody took seriously, after the financial crisis, the idea that you should just go out there and become an entrepreneur as if it’s so easy. I mean, as if it’s so easy to go out there and just start a business. Have an idea and somebody will finance it. Who? Who is going to finance it? Which bank is going to give me money for my idea when banks are basically hoarding wealth on behalf of the wealthy, not lending for business purposes at the rates at which they should, and so on? So, when these neoliberals are delegitimized, from the right appears characters, people like Donald Trump. But again, this is not a specific American story. This is a global story. The delegitimization of the liberals, whether it’s the Congress party in India, or it’s to some extent, the Workers Party in Brazil, the Democratic party in the United States, these far-right people show up and they make strong claims saying that “we’re going to come, we’re going to grab the economy by the throat, we’re going to make it cough out jobs.” And then they make [an] even more dramatic statement saying that “the reason you don’t have a job has nothing to do with the fact that you’re not an entrepreneur or that you’re not a get-up-and-go person. The reason you don’t have a job is because the migrants, because these migrants come in and take your jobs.” I mean, it’s a classic bait and switch.

On the one hand, they quite correctly attack the neoliberals saying that “you’ve basically hollowed out the economy.” They attack them saying that “you’re not able to provide well-being for the population.” Well, that’s true. But then the bait and switch is they turn around and they say “the reason why this is happening is because of the migrants.” They, in other words, the Trumps of the world, just like the Clintons of the world, don’t point their fingers at those 2,000 billionaires and so on who are just not paying taxes. Who are sucking up social wealth and not providing any return to public finances to improve health to improve education. And, by the way, to create public institutions that prevent people from desperation like universal health care. If you had publicly funded universal health care, individual families wouldn’t have to scramble to pay premiums and struggle to get health insurance and so on. This is what public financing should have been. But because the left is weak now, the liberals have been delegitimized. The field is open to the right and not only to the right but [to] these very vicious strongmen. So, my sense is that for some time now, we’re going to have to tolerate this right-wing political presence until we build up the forces of the left to produce a robust critique of the way in which the wealthy have not been contributing at all.

I mean, I don’t really want philanthropy. I want them to pay taxes.

JS: Well on that note, we’re going to leave it there. Vijay Prashad, thank you so much for joining us.

VP: Thanks a lot.

The post Pox Americana: Vijay Prashad on Venezuela, India, Mexico, Congo, and U.S. Hegemony appeared first on The Intercept.

Larry Krasner Responds to Progressive Critics: Mumia Abu-Jamal Appeal Is “Incredibly Complex and Nuanced”

In his first public comments about his office’s January decision to fight a new appeal from incarcerated activist Mumia Abu-Jamal, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner asked for patience from critics.

The appeal, argued Krasner, is based on a judge’s decision that has implications that stretch far beyond Abu-Jamal’s case. Once his motion is filed, he said, opponents may view it differently.

“This is a narrow, technical decision in one sense, but incredibly complex and nuanced and affects many other cases,” Krasner said, adding that his previous discovery of six boxes of evidence in the case, which he turned over to the defense, should be evidence of his commitment to a just outcome.

Last week, the organizers of the Rebellious Lawyering Conference at Yale Law School disinvited Krasner as their keynote speaker, citing the Abu-Jamal case.

Despite the emotional and political potency of the Abu-Jamal appeal — he was convicted in 1982 of killing a police officer, and his case, which his supporters say was a frame up by police, has generated controversy in Philadelphia and around the country for decades — Krasner told The Intercept, the process must play out.

“I hope that the people who are critical take a deep breath and wait and see what it is we actually say in the brief that we file in this matter,” said Krasner.

The Abu-Jamal case is a test of Krasner’s limits.

Philadelphia voters elected Krasner as district attorney in 2017 on the back of his radical, criminal justice reform-minded platform. Thus far, results have been generally in line with those promises: Krasner’s office has effectively decriminalized marijuana possession and stepped in to allow parole for members of the MOVE 9. He fired a bloc of prosecutors he said were unwilling to rethink their approach to justice and issued sweeping new guidelines for bail and prosecutions that have become a model for reformers.

But the Abu-Jamal case is a test of his limits. Critics say that by attempting to block Abu-Jamal’s appeal, Krasner is acting in line with police interests — even though he sued the department 75 times before becoming the district attorney. The district attorney, for his part, says there’s much more to Abu-Jamal’s case than meets the eye.

Abu-Jamal was accused of murdering police officer Daniel Faulkner on December 9, 1981, and he was convicted and sentenced to death the following year. Abu-Jamal was a longtime Philadelphia activist with the city’s famous MOVE organization, and his supporters have consistently held that the case was corrupted from the beginning by a police setup and the cooperation of the city’s judicial system. They believe the city was prepared to sentence Abu-Jamal to death whether or not he committed the crime, a view that they say is backed up by the contradictory evidence brought forth by the prosecution and the possibility of another gunman at the scene. (Abu-Jamal’s sentence was changed in 2011 to life in prison.) Meanwhile, throughout the lengthy appeals process that is typical of death penalty cases, advocates for Faulkner’s family, including his widow, Maureen, fought vociferously to keep Abu-Jamal behind bars.

Abu-Jamal’s case, for opponents of police brutality and mass incarceration, was a cause célèbre for decades in progressive circles, and took on just as much symbolism for police unions, who see any support of Abu-Jamal as justification of violence against police.

Abu-Jamal’s right to appeal appeared exhausted in 2012, when an attempt to rehear forensic evidence was rejected by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. But the process was revived in 2018, when Abu-Jamal’s defense team identified a new target: one of the judges on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Ronald Castille, who ruled on a number of Abu-Jamal’s appeals between 1998 and 2012. Abu-Jamal’s team argued that Castille should not have been involved in the case because he was Philadelphia’s district attorney from 1986 to 1991, a period overlapping some of Abu-Jamal’s appeals. On December 28, 2018, Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Leon Tucker agreed and ruled that Abu-Jamal had the right to appeal.

“There is no evidence that Justice Castille was directly involved with the case as a prosecutor,” wrote Tucker, “but it would be difficult for a judge in his position not to view a case being reviewed on appeal that was handled by his office when he was the District Attorney, as a criticism of his former office and perhaps of his own leadership.”

Following Tucker’s decision, Krasner’s office filed notice on January 25 that it would be submitting a brief in opposition to Abu-Jamal’s request for a new appeals process. Krasner, who told The Intercept he was limited in what he could or couldn’t say about the ongoing litigation, repeatedly stressed that Tucker’s order could have ramifications beyond the Abu-Jamal case.

“The opinion that was written by the court contained language that, potentially, could result in having to rehear possibly thousands of cases,” Krasner said. “Thousands.”

A protestor holds up a poster depicting Mumia Abu-Jamal during a demonstration outside the offices of District Attorney Larry Krasner, Friday, Dec. 28, 2018, in Philadelphia. A judge issued a split ruling Thursday that grants Abu-Jamal another chance to appeal his 1981 conviction in a Philadelphia police officer's death. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

A protester holds up a poster depicting Mumia Abu-Jamal during a demonstration outside the offices of District Attorney Larry Krasner on Dec. 28, 2018, in Philadelphia.

Photo: Matt Slocum/AP

Abu-Jamal’s advocates widely celebrated Tucker’s decision and are very critical of Krasner’s position on the issue. Criminal justice reform advocates have also rebuked Krasner for the move.

Retired attorney Rachel Wolkenstein, who spent decades of her life fighting for Abu-Jamal’s freedom as an activist and represented him during the appeals process from 1995 to 1999, told NPR that the ruling was “the best opportunity we have had for Mumia’s freedom in decades.”

In an interview, Sam Spital, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund who works on the Abu-Jamal case, said that Tucker’s ruling underscored the importance of a lack of bias in a case like Abu-Jamal’s. “This is an incredibly important principle,” said Spital. “The decision-maker, the judge, has to not have actual bias or the appearance of bias.”

Rebecca Kavanagh, a New York City based public defender, found Krasner’s decision to have his office fight Abu-Jamal’s appeal baffling — and a fall from grace for an inspirational figure who instituted a reformist agenda in his office. By attempting to block Abu-Jamal’s efforts to continue his appeal, Kavanagh said, Krasner betrayed the principles that put him into office and made him a national figure.

“It is difficult to read this as anything other than District Attorney Krasner bowing to pressure from the police unions, which was something we have not seen him do before,” wrote Kavanagh. “To do it now in this seminal case, to speak the usual spin we hear from district attorneys, but not normally from him, is profoundly disheartening.”

“I am no less concerned about all of the unfamous, poor, nameless people whose cases deserve individual justice.”

Krasner, in his interview with The Intercept, suggested that people invested in reopening Abu-Jamal’s case might unknowingly be ignoring how the ruling might affect other cases. “I understand that Mumia Abu-Jamal is a celebrity. I understand that his story, much like Meek Mills’s story, captured the interest of people because he’s a known figure,” said Krasner, referring to the rapper whose 2017 arrest brought attention to criminal justice issues in Philadelphia. “But I am no less concerned about all of the unfamous, poor, nameless people whose cases deserve individual justice.”

Kavanagh pushed back on that framing of the case. “There is nothing about doing justice for Mumia Abu-Jamal individually here that would somehow prevent justice being done for others,” Kavanagh said. “Krasner is clearly putting Mr. Abu-Jamal into a category separate and apart from other people who have also been targets of state-sponsored violence and corruption.”

Local activist Mike Africa Jr. said he suspected a different motivating factor for Krasner. In an interview with the District Sentinel on Wednesday, Africa said that Krasner’s decision to fight Abu-Jamal’s appeal was hard to understand — though it could have something to do with city politics.

“He has a lot of pressure on him from the [Fraternal Order of Police],” said Africa, in comments emblematic of a lack of faith in the system. “And I know that he has a lot of pressure on him from Maureen Faulkner and that side of the politics.”

The police organization, which has referred to Abu-Jamal as “our country’s most notorious cop-killer” cheered Krasner’s decision. Philadelphia Police Foundation President John McNesby, a member of the city’s Fraternal Order of Police, called the decision to fight the appeal “the right thing to do” in January comments to Philly.com.

In support of his argument that the situation is more complicated than critics say, Krasner cited the fact that his office had turned over six boxes of previously unseen files to Abu-Jamal’s attorneys on January 10. Abu-Jamal’s supporters have said that the existence of so many files that had not previously been accounted for could be evidence of Abu-Jamal’s innocence.

“What these missing boxes represent is confirmation of what we’ve known for decades,” Wolkenstein told NPR. “There’s hidden, exculpatory evidence in Mumia’s case, and that is evidence that Mumia’s guilt was intentionally manufactured by the police and prosecution and the truth of his innocence was suppressed.”

The district attorney also acknowledged the political trickiness of the process. “This is a case that, no matter what decision you make, you’ll have a lot of upset people,” said Krasner. He said he hopes that “people on both sides take a breath, look at all the developments in the case, including our revelation of the existence of the six boxes we found and including our brief in this matter and understand that this is part of a decades-long period of litigation in this case, that doesn’t look like it’s going to end anytime soon.”

According to Krasner, decisions his office has made in the case thus far shouldn’t be seen as indicative of future choices in pursuing the case. The top priority for his office remains justice, the district attorney told The Intercept, making clear that he would attempt to find the balance between the interests of both sides.

“As this case evolves, we will continue to try to make the right decisions and to see things in all their complexity and nuance,” said Krasner. “At the same time, we will try to do individual justice to all of the people affected by the case involving Mumia Abu-Jamal.”

The post Larry Krasner Responds to Progressive Critics: Mumia Abu-Jamal Appeal Is “Incredibly Complex and Nuanced” appeared first on The Intercept.

New York Democrats Could Eliminate Ocasio-Cortez’s District After 2020

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is prepared for the possibility that Democrats in New York could redraw her district after the 2020 election, she told The Intercept in an interview.  

Following the 2020 census, every state will draw new district boundaries to reflect changes in the population, the political implications of which will stretch for at least the next decade. In 2014, New York approved a constitutional amendment establishing a nonpartisan redistricting commission, which is set to take over the redistricting process starting in 2020. The 10-member commission, meant to be independent from the legislature, is made up of individuals selected by leaders from the state Senate and Assembly, and the original eight members pick two additional members.

But Ocasio-Cortez’s most determined adversaries are not partisan Republicans, but Democrats who say that she has been a disruptive influence. On Tuesday, The Hill reported that at least one member of Congress has been urging New York party leaders to recruit a Democratic primary challenger to Ocasio-Cortez. But the news led to a surge of donations to Ocasio-Cortez, suggesting that a more efficient means of ousting her might be simply to eliminate her district.

The 29-year-old congressperson noted (accurately) that it’s generally expected that New York will likely lose a seat, despite the city itself growing at a consistent pace. “I don’t know if that means that all of our districts are going to be redrawn dramatically, because they have been historically gerrymandered, or what will happen, but there’s certainly a possibility, if not a guarantee, that my district in the coming years will not look like my district today,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “So I think it’s entirely possible, and New York politics being what it is, we have no idea where things are going to go.”

New York politics are famously insular, with a tight circle controlling major decision-making for years. That began to shift in 2018, not just with Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, but also wins from a number of insurgent candidates against Democrats who had caucused with Republicans in the state Senate.

Ocasio-Cortez, during a podcast interview with The Intercept, was joined by former North Carolina Rep. Brad Miller, who earned his “former” status as a result of statewide redistricting that eliminated his seat in 2012. The 2010 tea party wave handed control of the legislature to Republicans, who drew him out of the district. He decided not to run for re-election. He told The Intercept that his work on the House Financial Services Committee taking on powerful banks “probably” played a role in the redistricting. “And Republicans, it turned out, did not value my service, and they divided my district six different ways, and there was no one piece that was really recognizably the old district. And also it was true on the Democratic side,” he said, noting that his own party leaders weren’t thrilled with his work in a state dominated by financial interests, such as Bank of America.

Miller, however, did not have Ocasio-Cortez’s national profile, suggesting that the lesson may be that if you’re going to be a problem for party bosses, it’s better to be a huge problem than a medium-sized irritation.

Indeed, Ocasio-Cortez could just run, and probably win, in any nearby New York City district the party may try to draw for her. She noted that when it comes to future redistricting, she’s in a unique situation because her name recognition is so strong “that even when I won my primary in New York [District] 14, we won like a third ballot, a third-party primary in a different congressional district the same day.” And that was in November 2018, before an endless media cycle that has been all Ocasio-Cortez, all the time.

Moving her into a different district would pit her against another incumbent Democrat, and that Democrat has an incentive to avoid that race. ”Maybe some people wouldn’t want trouble for themselves,” she noted.

Another reason not to target Ocasio-Cortez would be Chuck Schumer. The Democratic Senate minority leader, and a major player in New York politics, is up for re-election in 2022. The commission redrawing the lines may be technically independent, but Schumer’s power is no secret. If Ocasio-Cortez were gerrymandered out of the House, she’d need something new to do — and primarying Schumer would be an obvious option on the table. That could make Schumer Ocasio-Cortez’s strongest advocate at the redistricting negotiating table.

The potential loss of a congressional district as a result of falling population has focused extra attention on the Trump administration’s push to add a controversial citizenship question to the next census. That ploy is driven in significant part by a desire to dampen participation in the process. “This is one of the reasons why we’ve been fighting the 2020 census question, and between the federal government really looking to fund the census at a much lower rate, communities like mine are the ones that are essentially targeted by the current administration,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

Opponents say the citizenship question would intimidate immigrants and their families into not completing the form, reducing the participation of people of color and undercounting the population. A federal judge earlier this month blocked the citizenship question, but the Trump administration is appealing the ruling in the lead lawsuits. Aside from the court battles, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is set to testify about the citizenship question before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which Ocasio-Cortez is now a member of.

“Communities that are poor, more working class, communities that are diverse, communities that have high immigrant populations, whether they’re documented or not,” she said. “It’s all, all the actions that the administration is taking is around really dense urban areas losing congressional seats.”

So far, the effort to primary Ocasio-Cortez, however, isn’t going well. The Daily Caller followed up on the article in The Hill and spoke to New York Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who said three names were floating around as potential challengers to Ocasio-Cortez: New York City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, Sen. Julia Salazar, and Assembly Member Catalina Cruz.

“The Daily Caller is trash. 1. I would never primary @AOC, even if I lived in her district (which I do not). 2. I have no intentions of ever running for Congress. 3. Who on earth calls Jimmy Van Bramer ‘James?’” Salazar tweeted.

Van Bramer tweeted “This whole thing is crazy. I’m kind of loving having @AOC as my Congressmember! I’m not taking her on. I’m backing her up!”

The post New York Democrats Could Eliminate Ocasio-Cortez’s District After 2020 appeared first on The Intercept.

Democrats Echo Israel’s Far-Right by Refusing to Even Use the Word “Occupation”

Here’s a riddle any Democrat hoping to be elected president at the crest of a progressive wave in 2020 should be able to solve: what do you call Israel’s military rule over millions of disenfranchised Palestinians in the territories it seized by force in 1967?

The answer, “an occupation,” is obvious to anyone familiar with the laws of war, but in recent years American progressives who use that term to describe Israeli control of the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights have come under intense pressure from Democratic leaders concerned about exposing the party to charges of bias against Israel.

This hesitancy to acknowledge that the territories are indeed occupied, rather than contested or disputed as right-wing Israelis insist, is particularly strange to anyone who recalls that one of Israel’s most revered leaders, Ariel Sharon, made a point of using the term repeatedly in a televised news conference almost 16 years ago.

Sharon, who was then Israel’s prime minister, told fellow members of the Likud party in 2003 that a political solution to the conflict with the Palestinians was necessary because “the idea that we can continue holding under occupation — and it is occupation, you might not like this word, but it’s really an occupation — to hold 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation is, in my opinion, a very bad thing for us and for them.”

“It cannot continue forever,” Sharon added. “Do you want to stay forever in Jenin, in Nablus, in Ramallah, in Bethlehem? I don’t think that’s right.”

Of course, Ariel Sharon was eventually succeeded as Israel’s leader by the man who sat silently to his right during that news conference, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the current Israeli prime minister has led the way in making a very opposite case: that the territories Israel conquered in 1967 are not occupied at all. Netanyahu recently told members of his party that speaking of describing lands that have either been annexed by Israel or will remain under its control forever as “‘the occupation,’ is nonsense.”

While right-wing Israelis prefer to say that the land where they rule a Palestinian population that is denied basic civil rights is contested, the occupation is a fact under international law, and is routinely referred to that way left-wing Israelis.

So what explains the skittishness of the American political establishment, both Democrat and Republican, to be as candid about using the word occupation now as Israel’s ultranationalist leader was in 2003? That question has been particularly evident since the election of a handful of young Democrats — Representatives Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York — openly critical of the occupation, unafarid to call it what it is, and supportive of measures to end it, like the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. All three Congresswomen have been attacked by Republicans and members of their own party for denouncing the occupation as a humanitarian and moral outrage akin to Jim Crow segregation in the United States or apartheid in South Africa.

Their outspoken support for Palestinian rights — which reflects a growing unease among young American progressives with unconditional support for an increasingly far-right Israel — has even prompted a new group, the Democratic Majority for Israel, to launch an online ad campaign intended to convey the message that “Israel is a progressive country.”

That group’s president, Mark Mellman, also accused another progressive Democrat, Representative Betty McCollum of Minnesota, of “employing an anti-Semitic canard” in her criticism of Israel. “The right-wing, extremist government of Benjamin Netanyahu and its apartheid-like policies are at the core of what is alienating Democrats and a growing number of Americans,” McCollum told Vice News. “What has changed is that there are now members of Congress who are not willing to ignore the Israeli government’s destructive actions because they are afraid of losing an election.”

Simone Zimmerman, a co-founder of IfNotNow, a progressive group working “to shift the American Jewish public away from the status quo that upholds the occupation,” pointed out in an interview that Democrats had confronted their differences over this issue in 2016 too. That summer, representatives of Bernie Sanders tried, and failed, to amend the 2016 Democratic party platform to include language calling for “an end to occupation and illegal settlements.” That amendment was opposed by representatives of Hillary Clinton, and the platform’s final version called only for solution to the conflict “that guarantees Israel’s future as a secure and democratic Jewish state with recognized borders and provides the Palestinians with independence, sovereignty, and dignity.”

“I think today,” Zimmerman said, “definitely among the more progressive elements of the Democratic party, that it would be impossible not to use the word occupation” in the 2020 platform.

“I think that’s the fight that’s playing out right now,” she adds. “What’s happening is that supporters of Palestinian rights are becoming way more vocal and way more organized and the establishment is trying desperately to stop that shift, and that kind of cracking open of a more critical discourse. And it’s frankly what we’re seeing happen on a lot of issues right now. We’re seeing a backlash from the establishment that wants to preserve the old business as usual, as younger, bolder, more progressive voices are starting to really lead inside the party.”

Meanwhile in Israel, Zimmerman notes, dozens of ministers and senior lawmakers from Netanyahu’s Likud party and other right-wing parties just signed a pledge to support massively increased settlement construction, with the goal of settling an additional 2 million Jews in the occupied West Bank, which would more than triple the current Jewish population.

Of course, establishment Democrats are not alone in their willingness to acquiesce to the official Israeli preference to not even use the word occupation. Republicans are far more united in their refusal to call the occupation what it is, and have even admitted to journalists that their recent support for an anti-BDS bill in the Senate was proposed in part to expose rifts in the Democratic party. (Although one of the bill’s co-sponsors was a Democrat, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, nearly half of the Democratic minority in the Senate opposed the measure, including six declared or likely presidential candidates: Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sherrod Brown of Ohio).

The intensity of this identification with Israel’s position on the American right was obvious last summer, when Ocasio-Cortez came under sustained attack from Fox News pundits simply referring for to “the occupation of Palestine” when she was pressed to explain why she had described the killing of dozens of Palestinian protesters by Israeli soldiers as “a massacre.”

Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, suggested last month that the long-running Israeli effort to contest the use of the word occupation seems to have had an impact on how Israel’s control of the territories has been described in the American press. As evidence, Munayyer points to a recent study by a Canadian research group, 416LABS, looking at 99,594 headlines on articles about Israel-Palestine published in the first 50 years of the occupation, from 1967 to 2017, in five leading American newspapers: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune.

The researchers found that over time, in headlines focused on Israel or Israelis, “a large decline in the term occupation can be observed. From the late 60s till the end of 80s, there was a 42% drop in the instances of the word occupation and its affiliated unigrams, and then a further 70% decline from the 90s to the 2010s, an overall drop of 85%.” In headlines focused on Palestine or Palestinians, “there was a 67% increase in the use of the term from the late 60s to the end of the 80s, but subsequently declined by 76% from the 90s onwards – an overall decrease of 65%.”

It is important to keep in mind that this attempt to constrain the debate over the occupation, which has seeped into the American political discourse, originated in Israel immediately after the territories were conquered in 1967.

“In the early years of the occupation, the state argued the territories were not at all occupied, as before Israel seized control of them, they had not been recognized as the sovereign territory of any other country,” Hagai El-Ad, the executive director of the Israeli rights group B’Tselem, explained in an email. “Therefore, goes Israel’s argument, it is exempt from upholding the rules governing occupation. Israel declared that, nonetheless, though not required to do so by law, it would uphold the ‘humanitarian provisions’ of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which addresses the protection of civilians. Israel has never stated which provisions it considers humanitarian.”

“It’s totally absurd that after more than half a century this is still somehow an issue,” El-Ad continued. “Of course it’s a non-issue – there is no serious factual or legal question with regard to the status of the, well, occupied territories. What does exist is an ongoing propaganda effort, both in Israel and abroad, not only to solidify Israeli control over Palestinians and their land, but also to control the mere conversation discussing this injustice.”

As the Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf explains, perhaps the most important reason for Israel to deny that the territories are occupied is that the Geneva Conventions specifically prohibit occupying powers from moving any part of their own civilian populations into such lands. That means that admitting that the territories are occupied would force Israel to confront the fact that all of the Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where over half a million Israelis now live, are illegal.

In 2012, an expert panel of Israeli legal experts appointed by Prime Minister Netanyahu attempted to obscure that reality by concluding that the territories were not, in fact, occupied. “Now that we found out that there is no occupation and there never was,” Sheizaf observed when the panel’s report was released, “I wonder how the great minds of the Israeli legal community would justify the two separate legal systems Israel has in the West Bank — one for 20 percent of the population (Jews) and one for the other 80 percent. If it’s not occupation, how do we call a situation in which millions of people are deprived of freedom of movement, tried in military tribunals, and don’t even have a recognized nationality or a passport? And don’t say Apartheid, because you’ll be called an anti-Semite.”

Daniel Seidemann, director of Terrestrial Jerusalem, focuses professionally on crisis management and conflict resolution in the city, but he also devotes a portion of his time to correcting people on Twitter who argue that the territories seized in 1967, including East Jerusalem, are not occupied.

The Israeli military, which enforces the occupation, “defines this as occupied territory, so does the Israeli Supreme Court,” Seidemann explained in an interview. “That is not a value judgement… that is the fact. You may like it, you may not like it, but that is the fact.”

“Personally, when I started dealing with Israeli rule over East Jerusalem, and that was 27 years ago, I would not use the term occupation,” Seidemann recalled. “I bought into the mantra this is part of Israel, and it took years for me to acknowledge empirically that that was the case.”

“One of the pillars of Netanyahu’s policy is to bully both Israeli society and the international community into what I call Clinical Occupation Denial,” Seidemann added. “His approach is that the world will acquiesce to Israeli rule and the Palestinians will submit to it.”

Seidemann holds out little hope for the Trump administration’s peace plan, since it has been formulated by envoys who appear unwilling to press Netanyahu to end the occupation, and an ambassador who refers to the “alleged occupation.”

“If you are incapable of recognizing the reality of occupation, you will not understand this conflict,” he says, “and if you don’t understand the conflict, you won’t be able to formulate policy, and whatever plan you come up with that is a denial of occupation is going to be a train-wreck.”

The post Democrats Echo Israel’s Far-Right by Refusing to Even Use the Word “Occupation” appeared first on The Intercept.

Sheldon Adelson Got a Surprise Gift in the Middle of the Government Shutdown

Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire Republican casino mogul, is associated with a singular political project: his long-running mission to uproot the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and plant it in Jerusalem instead.

But there’s a second project — lower profile, but no less of a passionate priority — that Adelson has long been gunning for, and that’s his war against online gambling. Adelson’s casino empire is comprised of brick-and-mortar establishments, to which online gambling is a major threat, but Adelson says he is at war with online gambling for the good of society: Gambling in casinos is one thing, but gambling online is a public health nightmare.

Adelson’s crusade against online gambling led to an attorney general recusal, tense debates within the Justice Department, and a standoff with the White House that culminated with an extraordinary reversal of policy in the middle of the government shutdown, when the Trump administration issued the legal opinion against online gambling that Adelson had long sought.

His mission dates back to 2011, when the Justice Department issued an opinion clarifying that the Wire Act, a 1961 federal statute designed to stop interstate betting, only applies to sports betting and no other forms of gambling. The opinion paved the way for states to begin establishing legalized online gambling, so long as they did not create interstate sports betting arrangements. Today, Nevada, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania have all legalized online gambling, and 22 states have pending gambling legislation for a mix of casino, poker, and sports.

For years, Adelson has poured money into lobbying efforts to override the Justice Department opinion, corralling his closest congressional allies to pass legislation, bluntly called the Restoration of America’s Wire Act, or RAWA. Adelson pledged to spend “whatever it takes” to ban online gambling, claiming his motives are purely altruistic, an effort to prevent the exploitation of children and the poor. “I am in favor of [gambling] as a form of entertainment, but I am not in favor of it exploiting the world’s most vulnerable people,” he said of his opposition. “I know I am a Republican, and I am not supposed to be socially sensitive, but I am very socially sensitive.”

In 2014, Adelson began bankrolling a new advocacy group called the Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling, and that same year, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, first introduced RAWA in Congress. Graham had not previously been a vocal opponent against online gaming, but in 2013, Adelson began significantly scaling up his political contributions to the South Carolina senator, even hosting a high-dollar fundraiser for Graham at his Las Vegas Venetian hotel. Also in 2014, Adelson emerged as the top GOP donor, giving $13.2 million to help Republicans take control of the Senate.

Despite all this, RAWA gained little traction. Republicans felt uncomfortable pushing for a new federal ban, and many Democrats were both interested in the new tax revenue streams that could be directed toward things like public education, and suspicious of helping a pet cause of Adelson.

“Adelson worked with [John] Boehner, [Harry] Reid, and Chaffetz for years trying to move legislation on this, and wasn’t able to get so much as even a hearing in the committees of jurisdiction,” said one Republican lobbyist, referring to the House and Senate judiciary committees. “He also tried to get [RAWA] inserted in must-pass omnibus legislation, but they could never get it through. Lawmakers knew it would look terrible to pass a bill that couldn’t even get a hearing in the committees of jurisdiction.”

RAWA did manage to get one House Oversight Committee hearing in 2015 when Chaffetz was serving as chair, but the proceedings backfired, with both Democrats and Republicans challenging the witness testimony and voicing opposition to the legislation. Most Republicans opposed RAWA on the basis that it’s an intrusion on states’ rights. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., noted that if RAWA passed, it could pave the way for a national ban on firearms. Rep. Elijah Cummings,D-Md., came right out and said this whole debate was “about money” — namely the profit margins of brick-and-mortar casinos.

But Adelson was not deterred and poured more than $83 million into Republican races in the 2016 cycle, including at least $20 million to elect Donald Trump.

Shortly after the inauguration, at a small dinner at the White House, Adelson, accompanied by his wife, brought up two issues he said were extremely important to him: relocating the U.S Embassy in Israel, and online gambling, according to two gaming industry sources who learned of the dinner. A spokesperson for Adelson did not return request for comment.

In January 2017, during his Senate confirmation hearing, Jeff Sessions testified that he was “shocked” by the 2011 Justice Department opinion on online gaming, and would “revisit it” as attorney general. The question had been put to him by Graham.

A month later, a law firm headed by Charles Cooper, a former lobbyist for Adelson’s Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling, drafted a legal memo outlining why the 2011 Wire Act opinion was incorrect. By April, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, an attorney, Darryl Nirenberg, who has worked as a registered lobbyist for Adelson for the past two decades, delivered the legal memo to a top-ranking official at the Justice Department. By May, the department’s criminal division forwarded the Cooper memo to the Office of Legal Counsel and asked them to “reconsider” their 2011 stance.

Then came June, and Sessions hired Cooper, his longtime friend, to personally represent him in the ongoing investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election. By July, Sessions announced that he would recuse himself from all gambling matters, given the involvement of his own lawyer.

That left the online gambling issues under the jurisdiction of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, just like when Sessions recused himself from the special counsel probe into Russia, also for conflicts of interest.

According to people close to Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general wanted little to do with the gambling brouhaha. “We’ve checked in over the last two years with Rod Rosenstein and he’s consistently said he has no interest in this issue, that there’s more important issues going on,” said one gaming industry executive who opposes the ban.

Adelson hadn’t fully given up on Congress, and in 2017, Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., tried to squeeze language banning online gambling into appropriations bills. He was unsuccessful, and Dent ultimately resigned from Congress in the spring of 2018.

But finally, Adelson found his golden opportunity, in the middle of the five-week government shutdown, which coincided with the transition between U.S. attorneys general. The new nominee to lead the Justice Department, William Barr, is a well-known, staunch advocate for states’ rights, and supporters of banning online gambling knew his confirmation would make overturning the 2011 opinion that much more difficult.

Barr made his opposition to revising the 2011 memo known during his prep time for his confirmation hearings, people familiar with the deliberations said, which is why Graham ended up not asking him any questions about it, unlike the questions Graham posed to Sessions during his 2017 hearings. Asked whether the senator had advance knowledge of Barr’s stance on the question, Graham’s spokesperson did not respond directly to the question, and instead forwarded a public statement praising the new Wire Act policy.

Barr was asked about his views on enforcing marijuana laws, and he pledged in his confirmation hearing “to not go after companies” that had been relying on a separate Obama-era memo that said the Justice Department would not prosecute companies in states that legalized the drug. Sessions had overturned that memo at the start of 2018.

Knowing both Barr’s position on the Wire Act memo and that Barr was planning to give a states’ rights defense of marijuana legalization at his confirmation hearing, Justice Department officials scrambled. Acting Attorney General Mark Whitaker and other Justice officials met with their White House counterparts and described the plan to overturn the previous memo. White House officials, according to sources briefed on the meeting, advised caution, but ultimately left the decision to the Justice Department. The night before Barr’s hearing, the Justice Department circulated a new legal memo attributed to Steven Engel, an assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel. That document conspicuously lacked a signature, leading some to wonder if this was even real or just a draft.

The circulated opinion was dated November 2, 2018, but released publicly on January 14, raising further questions about whether it was a draft or was official. The new memo insisted that most forms of online gambling are in fact illegal under the Wire Act, and that this new analysis “supersedes and replaces” the 2011 opinion on the subject. Observers noted that much of the new opinion mirrored arguments and language reflected in the Cooper memo submitted to the Justice Department in 2017. On January 15, the agency circulated a memo to U.S attorneys, Assistant Attorneys General, and the FBI Director, announcing their new Wire Act position.

A spokesperson for the Justice Department did not return request for comment.

Blanche Lincoln, the former Democratic senator from Arkansas and a current lobbyist for Adelson’s Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling, praised the Justice Department for its new legal opinion. “Today’s landmark action to rightfully restore the Wire Act is a win for parents, children, and other vulnerable populations,” she said in a statement.

Adelson’s company, Las Vegas Sands, has paid Lincoln’s lobbying firm $820,000 since 2014, according to federal disclosures.

Ron Reese, a spokesperson for Adelson, did not answer questions about the casino mogul’s involvement with the new Justice Department opinion or his general reaction to it. In a statement to the Washington Post, Reese claimed that the new Justice Department opinion would have “little or no impact” on Las Vegas Sands.

Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii who sits on the Judiciary Committee, told The Intercept that the online gambling issue has not been a real focus in Congress. “I really don’t know who, besides Sheldon Adelson, was supporting the ban. It’s not as though it’s hit our radar screen. In my view, the world is in flames right now with so many other Trump [things],” she said. Hawaii and Utah are the only states that outright ban online gambling, and in 2015, Chaffetz tried to argue that a federal ban on online gambling would serve to further protect states like Utah and Hawaii.

Sara Slane, a spokesperson for the American Gaming Association, released a statement calling the Justice Department’s new opinion “unfortunate” and said the federal law enforcement agency has provided no “compelling reason” to reverse their 2011 stance. Casino gaming, she added, “is one of the most highly regulated industries in the country” and her association encourages the Justice Department to investigate and shut down illegal and unregulated gambling operators.

Mark Brenner, the president of the Poker Alliance, an advocacy group that focuses on the rights and interests of poker players, told The Intercept in an email that his group strongly opposes the Justice Department’s decision. “Make no mistake, DOJ’s Wire Act reversal was a well-coordinated attack against the regulated iGaming, sports wagering, and poker industries carried out by Las Vegas special interests seeking to protect their own bottom line,” he said. “In doing so, they are trampling on states rights and individual rights, while undermining a growing bipartisan coalition of Governors and legislators across the country who are responsibly modernizing gaming in their respective states. Perhaps worst of all, this move will expose more innocent consumers to a gambling black market that is beyond the reach of law enforcement and regulators.”

The ultimate impact of the Justice Department memo is not yet clear, and some expect it will face further challenge in court. Online gambling supporters say that despite Barr’s stance on respecting states’ rights, if investors think they could potentially be at risk of criminal sanction, far fewer businesses will want to get involved.

“I think the gaming community is still uncertain about what this means, and the opinion is now open for interpretation for how far it reaches,” said Jennifer Roberts, the associate director of the International Center for Gaming Regulation at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “It’s pretty clear that according to this new opinion that it would affect interstate gaming, but what’s not clear is does it affect any activities intrastate?”

The North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries said the new Justice Department opinion would have a “substantially detrimental impact” on their lottery industry, which “currently provide[s] more than $23 billion in annual revenue to … good causes [governments] support within their jurisdictions, from education to the environment to economic development to senior citizen and veteran programs, and much more.”

On Tuesday, the state attorneys general in New Jersey and Pennsylvania sent a letter to the Justice Department, saying the new Wire Act opinion “undermines the values of federalism and reliance that our states count on.” The attorneys general, Gurbir Grewal of New Jersey and Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania, urged the department to withdraw the opinion or guarantee that the Justice Department “will not bring enforcement actions against companies in our states that are acting lawfully under state statutes.” They also filed Freedom of Information Act requests for, among other things, any information that relates to outside lobbying efforts to influence the Justice  Department’s opinion on this issue. The FOIA request specifically names the Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling, Charles Cooper, Darryl Nirenberg, Blanche Lincoln, the Lincoln Group, and Sheldon Adelson.

The post Sheldon Adelson Got a Surprise Gift in the Middle of the Government Shutdown appeared first on The Intercept.

House Republicans Warn That Bill Combatting Big Money in Politics “Resembles Russian government Policy”

Republicans on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform denounced a major new initiative by Democrats to clean up elections and expand voter participation as a power grab that will corrupt the political process and infringe on the rights of free speech and association.

In nearly apocalyptic terms on Wednesday, Republican committee members took turns laying out the dire consequences of H.R. 1, decrying the consequences of a federal holiday on Election Day, matching public funds for congressional candidates, increasing transparency in campaign finance, and making it easier to register to vote. More stringent disclosure requirements for political spending would encourage partisan monitoring and even doxxing, Republicans argued, citing the Obama-era scandal where the Internal Revenue Service was accused by conservatives of targeting conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.

During the Wednesday hearing, several minority members described the bill — an attempt to implement sweeping reforms to the way we finance elections and oversee the executive branch — as “chilling.” Ranking Member Jim Jordan said the bill was designed to benefit the majority by “tilting the playing field in their favor.”

Jordan denounced the bill for requiring states to offer early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, same day voter registration, automatic voter registration, paid leave for federal workers to be poll workers, to allow released felons to vote, to make Election Day a federal holiday, and to have taxpayer contributions finance campaigns. 

“So lets take a whack at a little summary here, professor,” Jordan said during his questioning of Bradley Smith, chair of the Institute for Free Speech and former chair of the Federal Election Commission, who testified at the invitation of the minority.

“H.R. 1 requires taxpayers to pay for a holiday on Election Day for government workers. H.R. 1 requires taxpayers to pay for six days of paid leave for government workers who want to be poll workers. H.R. 1 requires taxpayers to pay for politicians’ campaigns. And if those same taxpayers give to some organization, some (c)(4), they can be outed under H.R. 1 so that the left can — or anyone — could harass them or their family.”

“Yes,” Smith said. “Such a deal for the taxpayer, right?”

The bill, sponsored by Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes, is the first serious attempt in decades to revamp the model for public financing of presidential campaigns and establish a national program to publicly finance congressional campaigns. It also expands rights and protections for voters; bans senior federal officials from getting private sector perks after they leave office; prohibits senior federal employees from working on issues in which they have financial interests; and strengthens the call for Trump to divest his business holdings and place them in an independent, blind trust. Trump is the only president who hasn’t done so.

Georgia Rep. Jody Hice said in opening remarks that he was “extremely alarmed” by the bill and that while its provision for automatic voter registration “may sound good on the surface,” it would “open the floodgates for fraudulent voting by illegal individuals in this country.”

“It’s virtually 600 pages. Almost every page has issues of great concern,” he said. In just under three minutes, the congressperson referenced “illegals” or being in the country “illegally” nine times.

The bill also equips the Office of Government Ethics with subpoena power and the authority to impose disciplinary action on agencies and employees within the executive branch — “needed teeth,” as the office’s former director Walter Shaub said in written testimony to the committee.

But Jordan and his Republican colleague Rep. Mark Meadows argued that taxpayers shouldn’t have to finance elections, let alone contribute to the campaigns of candidates whom they oppose. Meadows pointed to the fact that his own campaign was largely funded by small individual donors, and that under the measure, he’d get $3.8 million for re-election.

Tennessee Rep. Clay Higgins conceded that the bill might have some worthwhile measures, but said he wanted to see it broken down into smaller components that would suit individual state needs. He also said the bill “resembles Russian government policy.”

Bipartisan legislation to strengthen democratic institutions in ways similar to those outlined in H.R. 1 have already passed at the local and state levels, Karen Hobert Flynn testified. She’s the president of Common Cause, a nonpartisan organization focused on reducing the role of big money in politics. In written testimony to the committee, Flynn cited “more than 20 red, blue and purple states and localities [that have] passed pro-voter democracy reforms, with strong support from Republican, Independent, and Democratic voters.”

Smith said his primary concern with the bill was its infringement on first amendment protections of free speech — wherein political spending is a form of speech. He said the bill would expand the universe of what Congress could regulate as political spending or speech, including ads. And he argued that in public financing there “tend to be avenues for corruption in many ways.”

But in all the concerns raised about voter fraud and abridging freedom of speech by reining in the influence of large donors, the minority never addressed the specter of partisan gerrymandering that’s historically benefited their party, Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley pointed out. The ACLU filed suit last year to challenge gerrymandering in Ohio, citing Jordan’s 4th District as one of seven that were drawn with “borders that defy explanation by any political boundary or geographical feature.” H.R. 1 would put an independent commission in charge of redistricting duties, taking that responsibility away from state legislatures.

“That is really convenient, and rich, and hypocritical,” Pressley said.

“H.R. 1 has been described as a wishlist by the Democrats,” she continued. “Well, you got us there. A wishlist for an inclusive, expanded democracy and electorate.

“Characterizations of H.R. 1 as a power grab — you got us again,” Pressley said, referencing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s comments on the push to make Election Day a federal holiday.

“Guilty,” she said. “We wouldn’t have to grab back the power for the people if through policy you weren’t complicit in, or perpetuating, the disenfranchisement and marginalization of the people. And disproportionately, people of color. And disproportionately, black people.”

Meadows had a heated exchange with Shaub, the former head of the OGE, in which he suggested the latter’s support for an investigative mandate for OGE was politically motivated against President Donald Trump. Meadows cited Shaub’s testimony to an oversight subcommittee in December 2015 in which he said he thought the OGE didn’t need an investigative mandate, expressing shock at Shaub’s change of heart “all of a sudden.”

“No, it’s not all of a sudden at all,” Shaub said. “It’s after watching, for two years, somebody prove to me that the executive branch ethics program is much weaker and much more fragile than I ever thought it was. Frankly, I was naive.”

“I never imagined,” Shaub went on, “a president would come in and refuse to eliminate his conflicts of interest, have appointees who are completely disinterested in government ethics, and have — with all respect — a Congress refuse to exercise oversight over them in that respect.”

Meadows argued that he made the same point in 2015 and Shaub disagreed with him then. “I’ll just say, you were right,” Shaub conceded to laughter. Meadows agreed.

Ohio Rep. Bob Gibbs said that during his time in the state Senate, he helped pass legislation to implement no-excuse absentee ballots and early voting within 30 days before the election. “We don’t have lines anymore, and we don’t need a federal holiday so you can go vote. You got 30 days to go vote. If you can’t vote in 30 days by mail or by absentee, that just raises a lot of interesting questions about your voting — your abilities.”

During her questioning, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked Flynn, “If I want to run a campaign that is entirely funded by corporate political action committees, is there anything that legally prevents me from doing that?”

“No,” Flynn said.

Ocasio-Cortez later pulled out an op-ed Smith authored for the Washington Post titled, “Those payments to women were unseemly. That doesn’t mean they were illegal.”

“Okay, great. So, green light for hush money,” she said. “I can do all sorts of terrible things. It’s totally legal right now for me to pay people off. And that’s considered speech — that money’s considered speech.”

The post House Republicans Warn That Bill Combatting Big Money in Politics “Resembles Russian government Policy” appeared first on The Intercept.

In Her First Race, Kamala Harris Campaigned as Tough on Crime — and Unseated the Country’s Most Progressive Prosecutor

The 1990s were among the most punishing decades in the recent history of American justice. Zealous prosecutors competed to put the most people behind bars, and politicians were eager to pass new laws to extend sentences. In San Francisco, Terence Hallinan was one of only prosecutors in America bucking the trend.

A legendary civil rights activist, defense attorney, former city supervisor, and an outspoken advocate for marijuana legalization, Hallinan rode a wave of discontent and squeaked by in his election to become San Francisco district attorney in 1995. He swiftly fired senior prosecutors in order to hire more minorities and reformists. He instructed his deputies to avoid the practice of objecting to a proposed juror for a criminal trial — an unusual stance that weakened the hand of the DA’s office — to avoid empaneling all-white juries.

Sex work, said Hallinan, was a public health problem — not a criminal offense. He quickly made waves by claiming that he would fight for nonviolent offenders to receive social services over jail time and called drug use a victimless crime, an argument that invited contempt from law enforcement officials.

Yet Hallinan — considered one of the “most left-wing politicians in the country” — was expelled in 2003 after just two terms in office, despite San Francisco’s notorious liberal bent. An up-and-coming young career prosecutor named Kamala Harris, running in her first bid for public office, unseated him.

Many in San Francisco view the campaign as a defining moment for Harris, who carefully cultivated a base of support among police officers, domestic violence advocates, wealthy donors, and a diverse range of local officials and community leaders who had bristled at Hallinan’s leftist politics and abrasive style.

Despite starting the race as a relatively unknown candidate against an incumbent viewed as a radical icon, Harris vaulted over Hallinan and easily won a runoff election. The race launched Harris’s political career, which culminated in her announcement last month at a rally in Oakland to seek the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.

Far from the “smart on crime” mantra she touted later, Harris’s first campaign reflected familiar tactics in an era of booming mass incarceration.

The 2003 race stands apart from the image she has projected in more recent years. Far from the “smart on crime” mantra she touted in her successful bid to become California’s attorney general or promoting her efforts to hold corporations accountable when she ran for the U.S. Senate, Harris’s first campaign reflected familiar tactics in an era of booming mass incarceration.

The Intercept reviewed debate records, news clips, and original campaign materials from the race between Harris, Hallinan, and Bill Fazio, another former prosecutor who ran for the seat. (Harris’s presidential campaign did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Hallinan.)

The 2003 race for San Francisco district attorney showcased a campaign strategy that has become a familiar and at times unseemly dynamic of America’s criminal justice system. Throughout much of the campaign, Harris attacked Hallinan as too weak and ineffective to keep communities safe from dangerous criminals. In contrast, Harris promised to get tough.

In the years leading up to the election, the DA’s office under Hallinan had the lowest felony conviction rates of any county in California. In 2001, the felony conviction rate in San Francisco was as low as 29 percent, far below the state average of 67.5 percent. Hallinan, defending his record, pointed out that his office expanded rehabilitative justice initiatives, diverting drug crimes into alternatives rather than turning to incarceration.

“We have 3,000 people who are in diversion,” Hallinan told the San Francisco Chronicle. “That’s hell on your conviction rate.”

Cases that are diverted to rehabilitation programs in order to avoid criminal penalties count as a dismissal, resulting in a prosecution loss, the newspaper noted. Moreover, San Francisco’s jury pool is notoriously liberal, Hallinan argued, making convictions even for violent crimes difficult. His office also avoided “three strikes” prosecutions in many cases, to get out of having to seek mandatory life imprisonment for defendants.

If the conviction rate had been measured by actual cases pursued, rather than all cases referred by police, Hallinan said, his office would have had a conviction rate that was relatively similar to Los Angeles and other major cities.

And Hallinan was getting results. Overall, crime rates were plummeting. Violent crime had gone down close to 60 percent in San Francisco since Hallinan took office.

Still, the low conviction rate resulted in headline after headline about San Francisco’s permissive attitude toward crime, a media environment harnessed by the Harris campaign.

In one election flyer sent by the Harris campaign to mailboxes across the city, a tattooed and shirtless man, presumably Latino, is seen gripping a pistol and flashing a gang sign. “Enough Is Enough!” reads the title. Inside the flyer, the Harris campaign argued that Hallinan had failed to keep communities safe from surging gang violence, pointing to his low conviction rate.

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Kamala Harris for District Attorney mailer. (Click here to see the full mailer.)

Photo: Lee Fang/The Intercept

“Each one of those cases, those violent cases, represents a victim who deserves to have a district attorney’s office that is competent and that is professional,” Harris argued during a debate on the San Francisco public radio station KQED, sharply critiquing her opponent’s conviction rate record. “And let’s be clear. I’m not running for public defender. We need in our city to have a district attorney who recognizes her responsibility for making sure the consequences occur for serious and violent crime.”

In campaign events across the city, Harris stoked anger at the lack of criminal convictions. In the Mission District, SF Weekly reported on a scene in which Harris sharply criticized Hallinan for failure to prosecute anti-war protesters for property destruction. “It is not progressive to be soft on crime,” Harris said.

“Terence Hallinan is lying to us about his domestic violence record, and women are dying because of it.”

Outside the Hall of Justice, the city’s criminal courthouse, Harris campaigned with the mother of Claire Tempongko, a woman slain by her estranged boyfriend. Tempongko, Harris said, had filed police reports that her boyfriend had abused her in violation of his parole. The failure of the DA’s office to act had left Tempongko defenseless, Harris argued.

“Terence Hallinan is lying to us about his domestic violence record,” she said at the event, “and women are dying because of it.”

Hallinan’s supporters, however, charged that Harris was exploiting the tragedy. The prosecutor who handled the domestic violence unit at the time said that she never saw a crucial police report filed by the victim because police had incorrectly labeled it as a drunk-in-public offense, rather than an incident of domestic violence.

Nonetheless, more tough-on-crime campaign advertisements flooded mailboxes around the city.

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Kamala Harris for District Attorney flyer. (Click here to see the full mailer.)

Photo: Lee Fang/The Intercept

Inside another mailer, the Harris campaign produced a chart showing Hallinan’s low conviction rate and a list of lenient plea bargains struck by the district attorney. The outside of the mailer included a glossy image of a murder chalk outline, along with the message: “An Outline for Disaster. Which District Attorney has ranked last in convictions for the last eight years?”

The Harris campaign’s message got out to voters in part because she had gained the trust of much San Francisco’s political and donor class, including Vanessa Getty, one of the city’s wealthiest philanthropists. Early in the campaign, the San Francisco Ethics Commission, a city body that oversees local elections, handed Harris the largest fine in its history for breaking fundraising limits. She apologized for the error, but little could stop her fundraising machine.

As SF Weekly noted, Harris’s cash advantage came “from the city’s social and legal elites, people with power and money, people who respond well to Harris’ message that Hallinan is erratic, divisive, and soft on crime.” The Golden Gate Restaurant Association, a lobby group for the dining industry, backed Harris with independent campaign advertisements, and major real estate and professional societies donated to her campaign.

In the end, Harris built a campaign war chest of over $600,000 — twice the amount raised by Hallinan.

Harris also had the benefit of support from the outgoing San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. Brown donated to Harris’s 2003 campaign and — without her consent — had worked his connections to raise money for her.

The other two candidates in the race seized on the issue. Though they had once been political allies, the relationship between Hallinan and Brown had soured. Hallinan had begun investigating City Hall officials for corruption, landing cases of graft between municipal officials and developers. Though Hallinan endorsed Brown for re-election in 1999, he showed up at a rally that year for Tom Ammiano, appearing to lend his support to the mayoral challenger.

Brown retaliated by openly mocking Hallinan. He asked California Attorney General Bill Lockyer to step in and prosecute drug dealers, claiming that Hallinan refused to do his job. In an interview, Brown called Hallinan a “son of a bitch [who] should have been recalled” over refusing to prosecute homeless people for public intoxication and defecating in the streets.

In his advocacy for a new approach to homelessness, Hallinan went so far as to hand out soup to homeless people alongside volunteers from Food Not Bombs.

Hallinan had indeed taken a liberal policy toward crimes related to homelessness. He notably reversed longstanding city policy around arresting and charging panhandlers. He also sought to clear charges brought against volunteers who had been cited for feeding homeless people, an illegal offense at the time. In his advocacy for a new approach to homelessness, Hallinan went so far as to hand out soup to homeless people alongside volunteers from Food Not Bombs — one of the criminalized groups — outside City Hall. After winning the election as the city’s top prosecutor, he dropped the charges against the volunteers. “This district attorney and this city intend to grapple in a different way with the homeless problem,” Hallinan said.

The Hallinan campaign trumpeted Harris’s ties to Brown, warning that she would not prosecute lingering corruption in the Brown administration. For many, this accusation reeked of sexism. Brown had briefly dated Harris, and she had left him shortly after he won his first mayoral race in 1995. The Fazio campaign hit a similar note, mailing a flyer to San Francisco residents stating that “Kamala accepted two appointments from Willie Brown to high-paying, part-time state boards — including one she had no training for — while being paid $100,000-year as a full-time county employee.”

Brown was known to reward friends and allies. He gave Harris a brand-new BMW and also appointed her to two commissions in state government where, according to SF Weekly, she was paid $400,000 over five years. One of the positions, an appointment to the California Medical Assistance Commission, paid a $99,000 annual salary for attending two meetings a month.

Harris largely brushed off the criticism. “Willie Brown is not going to be around. He’s gone — hello people, move on. If there is corruption, it will be prosecuted. It’s a no-brainer, but let’s please move on,” she said in one interview. “His career is over; I will be alive and kicking for the next 40 years. I do not owe him a thing.”

As soon as Hallinan won his seat in 1995, he was viewed as a fox in the henhouse by the San Francisco Police Department.

Hallinan was the city’s most unusual occupant in the DA’s office in its modern history. At age 22, he was charged with felony assault, though later acquitted. He was born to a famous left-wing family. His father, Vincent Hallinan, had defended union leaders over Red Scare-related charges and ran for president on the Progressive Party ticket in 1952. Terence Hallinan began his life as an amateur boxer and eventually gravitated to the practice of law.

He participated in civil disobedience protests over racial discrimination at the Palace Hotel and Bank of America, as well as at restaurants and businesses across San Francisco. In 1963, he spent the summer organizing African-American voters in Mississippi. Archival footage of the most iconic 1960s-era protests in the city are filled with appearances by Hallinan, who frequently served as counsel to striking workers, student sit-ins, and anti-war demonstrators. Later in life, he served as a criminal defense attorney to a range of clients, including drug dealers and accused murderers.

For nearly 40 years, it was Hallinan representing clients against San Francisco law enforcement. In at least one occasion, he was the victim of police assault. Now the shoe was on the other foot.

(Original Caption) 5/22/1968-San Francisco, CA- Attorney Terence Hallinan, his face bloody from a gash in his head, confronts the police officer he claims laid his head open while he was trying to help a girl to safety, away from the police. The incident took place after police arrested some 27 demonstrators who were conducting a sit-in in the Administration Building at San Francisco State College late 5/21.

Terence Hallinan confronts the police officer he claims beat his head open while he was trying to help a girl to safety away from the police during a sit-in at San Francisco State College, Calif., on May, 22, 1968.

Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

During his first campaign for district attorney, Hallinan pledged to crack down on police misconduct. “I will not hesitate to treat them like any other citizen and prosecute them,” he said of the city’s police department after his victory.

In 2002, three off-duty police officers beat two San Francisco men over a bag of fajitas. The incident sparked outrage and Hallinan indicted not only the officers, but also the police department’s top brass, alleging a conspiracy to cover up the crime. The case led to the creation of Proposition H, a successful city ballot measure, crafted in part by Hallinan, to expand oversight over the police department. The case against the police, however, fell apart, with a judge dismissing the charges.

The incident further strained relations between police and the DA’s office. Behind the scenes, Harris courted law enforcement officials, earning the endorsements of the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, the incumbent sheriff, and a host of former prosecutors. In a recent Politico piece examining the history of the race, Gary Delagnes, a former police union official, remembered Harris coming up to him at a party, poking him in the chest and demanding, “You better endorse me, you better endorse me. You get it?”

The San Francisco police union’s 32-member board voted unanimously to endorse Harris after she advanced to the runoff election. “We should be working together, and she’s committed to that,” announced Chris Cunnie, the Police Officers Association president. “When the district attorney indicts 10 officers in one year, that’s a problem.”

In debates and events following the endorsement, Harris touted the law enforcement support. “We have, at best, a hostile relationship between the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office and the San Francisco Police Department,” Harris said during a debate with Hallinan on KQED. She stressed her ability to repair relations with the police.

The conservative-leaning editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle cited support from the police and Hallinan’s low conviction rate in its endorsement of Harris. “Harris, for law and order,” the editorial’s headline blared.

Harris carried the runoff election by nearly 13 percent. Though she repeatedly slammed her opponent as soft on crime on the campaign trail, Harris struck a new approach at her inauguration, one that would later define her balanced approach to criminal justice. “Let’s put an end right here to the question about whether we are tough on crime or soft on crime,” she said. “Let’s be smart on crime.”

After taking office, Hallinan’s legacy could be seen throughout Harris’s work in many ways. As DA, her office extended the light-touch approach to most medical marijuana dispensaries and promoted drug-diversion programs. Harris repaired relations with the police department but faced backlash from law enforcement when she declined to seek the death penalty for a gang member convicted of murdering San Francisco police Officer Isaac Espinoza in 2004.

There was also sustained pressure to increase conviction rates and obtain longer sentences. SF Weekly interviewed a number of former prosecutors who said that Harris adopted inflexible charging procedures to look tough on crime in preparation for running for statewide office one day. In her re-election campaign four years later, she was touting a new felony conviction rate record, 67 percent, and a new focus on cracking down on drug dealers, quality of life crimes, and other criminals.

More recently, the landscape for criminal justice reform has changed drastically, with a wave of district attorneys embracing an approach resembling Hallinan’s. Newly elected district attorneys across the country — from St. Louis County’s Wesley Bell to Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner — are now promising to prioritize social justice over doling out brutal sentences and garnering higher conviction rates. There’s even a growing backlash against election season fearmongering on crime. An increasing number of liberals now view electoral penal populism as a factor that contributes to the country’s mass incarceration crisis.

On the campaign trail in 2019, Harris has been recast as an insurgent reformer who spent her entire career fighting against draconian criminal justice enforcement. At her presidential campaign announcement rally, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf opened the event by declaring, “When it was still popular to be ‘tough on crime,’ she was smart on crime.” The crowd cheered and clapped. The history, however, is a little more complicated.

The post In Her First Race, Kamala Harris Campaigned as Tough on Crime — and Unseated the Country’s Most Progressive Prosecutor appeared first on The Intercept.

The Green New Deal Takes Its First Congressional Baby Step, as Pelosi Mocks “Green Dream or Whatever”

The first hand of the Green New Deal has been dealt. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., on Thursday unveiled a five-page, nonbinding resolution that frames a 10-year “national, social, industrial, and economic mobilization” to confront the climate crisis.

The plan envisions the creation of millions of “good, high-wage jobs” and will serve to “counteract systemic injustices.”

The resolution sets a framework for legislation to be hashed out over the next two years, and gives Ocasio-Cortez, Markey, and climate groups something to organize around.

Their goal is to meet 100 percent of the demand for power in the U.S. with “clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources,” in line with the scientific consensus on climate change, as well as to provide “all people of the United States” with clean air and water, “healthy and affordable food,” high-quality health care, “affordable, safe, and adequate housing,” and economic security.

As part and parcel of this transition, the resolution calls for a federal jobs guarantee, a massive infrastructure build-out, building efficiency upgrades and robust investment in public transit, to name just a few of the measures listed. It would ensure a dignified quality of life for workers and communities that rely on coal, oil, and natural gas jobs (“a fair and just transition”), and says that steps toward reaching zero-emissions — such as building new wind turbines — should not impose on indigenous peoples’ land rights or abuse the power of eminent domain. A full plan, the resolution states, will be developed “in transparent and inclusive consultation, collaboration, and partnership with frontline and vulnerable communities, labor unions, worker cooperatives, civil society groups, academia, and businesses.”

The resolution provides the most detail yet of what Ocasio-Cortez and company mean by a Green New Deal, but it does not map out precisely what a Green New Deal will entail. If the House had created a Select Committee on a Green New Deal, per Ocasio-Cortez’s original resolution, that would have been the two-yearlong mandate of a team of policymakers and experts. In laying the groundwork for an eventual legislative package, the document will create pressure on the select panel created by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in lieu of the one called for by Ocasio-Cortez. Dubbed the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, it will be chaired by Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla.

Pelosi on Thursday morning announced Ocasio-Cortez would not be on that select committee, though she was approached for a seat and declined to join. In a separate interview with Politico, Pelosi mocked the notion of a Green New Deal. “It will be one of several or maybe many suggestions that we receive,” she said. “The green dream or whatever they call it — nobody knows what it is but they’re for it right?”

 

The resolution makes clear that the phrase isn’t just a talking point, but connected to a specific set of policy priorities.

Over the last few months, support for the Green New Deal has become a litmus test for 2020 Democratic hopefuls, and the resolution serves dual purposes: to unite lawmakers around the idea of a Green New Deal, and to offer a basic definition of what that means. For 2020 contenders who have conceptually supported the Green New Deal, the resolution makes clear that the phrase isn’t just a talking point, but connected to a specific set of policy priorities. Confirmed and rumored presidential hopefuls Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, and Bernie Sanders will be among the nine senators co-sponsoring the resolution. Sixty-four House Democrats will also be co-sponsoring the legislation, including Reps. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Joe Neguse, D-Colo.

“We’re going to be pressuring all of the 2020 contenders to back this resolution,” said Stephen O’Hanlon, a spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement, which helped launched the Green New Deal into the national spotlight with its sit-in at Pelosi’s office last November. “That’ll make it clear who’s using the Green New Deal as a buzzword and who’s actually serious about what it entails. For our generation, the difference between the Green New Deal as a buzzword and substantive policy is life and death.” Indeed, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned last year that if massive changes to limit global warming are not undertaken by 2030, the planet will face widespread, catastrophic changes.

On Tuesday, the Sunrise Movement hosted some 500 watch parties around the country for a livestream laying out its next steps to support the resolution. As of Wednesday, the group was in the process of organizing visits to 600 congressional offices nationwide, for constituents to demand that their representatives co-sponsor Ocasio-Cortez and Markey’s measure. Supported by Justice Democrats — the group that backed Ocasio-Cortez’s primary run — Sunrise will also be launching a 15-city campaign tour through early primary states.

The resolution’s preamble lays out both the existential threat and expected cost in dollars and lives to the U.S. posed by climate change, as well as “several related crises” facing the United States, including “a 4-decade trend of wage stagnation, deindustrialization” and “a large racial wealth divide amounting to a difference of 20 times more wealth between the average white family and the average black family.”

Unlike the original resolution calling for a Select Committee on a Green New Deal — which called for 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 — this one calls for the U.S. to reach net-zero emissions by 2030. The difference is more than semantic, and energy wonks have hotly debated it since Ocasio-Cortez, Sunrise, and other groups began pushing the call for the latter in November. While full reliance on renewables would have all energy come from sources such as wind and solar, net-zero entails an openness to so-called negative emissions technologies, a suite of measures ranging from the experimental — like carbon capture and storage, machines to extract carbon from industrial processes and put it underground — to the conventional, like afforestation, or planting trees that suck up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The phrasing is also a recognition of the fact that certain “hard-to-abate” industries, including steel, transportation, and agriculture, are more difficult to decarbonize than others. Negative emissions are ubiquitous in pathways to capping warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius created by climate modelers and compiled in the IPCC’s report from last year on reaching that goal. While many negative emissions technologies remain unproven at scale, the resolution states that a Green New Deal will pursue negative emissions “through proven low-tech solutions that increase soil carbon storage, such as land preservation and afforestation.” The resolution further refers broadly to greenhouse gas emissions, not just carbon.

The sheer scale of investment laid out by the Green New Deal also makes it possible to imagine eliminating emissions from those hard-to-abate industries altogether, which the Energy Transitions Commission predicts would cost just 0.5 percent of global GDP by 2050.

Though carefully worded, net-zero by 2030 is a hugely ambitious target — although still the only one remotely consistent with something known as equity pathways pursuant to the amount of carbon the world can continue to emit under a “carbon budget.” That is, the world only has so much carbon left to burn before we cross a certain threshold of warming. The U.S. is what’s called a historical emitter, meaning that we’ve both spewed more greenhouse gasses into the air over time, and as a result have developed more economic capacity to mitigate and adapt to climate change. In equity pathways, historical emitters carry a responsibility to peak and drive down their emissions quicker than the rest of the world, effectively leaving room in the global carbon budget for countries that haven’t collected massive amounts of wealth off coal, oil, and natural gas room to develop — a process that, at least for now, means emitting more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. In the U.N. Framework Conventions on Climate Change, this is known as “common but differentiated responsibility,” although historical emitters — including the U.S. — have consistently tried to contest the meaning of that phrase.

“Global CO2 emissions need to go down about 10 percent per year to meet a 1.5 degree target,” said Peter Erickson, senior scientist at the Stockholm Environmental Institute. “If you take into account that the U.S. is more responsible than any other country for historic emissions, and also one of the wealthiest countries in the world, U.S. emissions need to go down even faster than that.”

The U.S. has a role to play in speeding along the transition off fossil fuels for the rest of the world.

The resolution also references the fact that the U.S. — because of its vast resources and contribution to the problem — has a role to play in speeding along the transition off fossil fuels for the rest of the world. Indeed, President Donald Trump bragged in his State of the Union address this week that the United States has become a net-exporter of oil and gas. Fossil fuel companies are continuing to explore for new reserves — mostly for export — in places like the Permian and Appalachian basins, which could have a catastrophic climate impact. Companies being able to exploit those reserves hinges on their ability to build new infrastructure like Liquid National Gas terminals that allow for exports and on continuing to receive generous subsidies. The resolution notes that any Green New Deal in the U.S. will promote “the international exchange of technology, expertise, products, funding, and services, with the aim of making the United States the international leader on climate action, and to help other countries achieve a Green New Deal.”

There’s room for interpretation as to what getting to net-zero could mean for a Green New Deal, and the resolution doesn’t reference any specific regulatory measures, like a ban on new oil and gas exploration or a renewable portfolio standard, a tool states like California have in order to bring down their emissions by requiring utilities to procure a certain amount of their power from renewable sources. Much of the action detailed in the resolution is focused on getting to net-zero by building up the country’s supply of renewable energy, with comparatively less focus on explicitly phasing out fossil fuels — a phrase that, to the chagrin of some environmental activists, does not appear in the resolution’s text.

We already have an international climate agreement that fails to include the words ‘fossil fuels’; we can’t afford a Green New Deal that does the same,” Oil Change International’s David Turnbull wrote in a statement about the resolution Thursday morning, referencing the Paris Climate Agreement. While generally supportive of the resolution and its goals, Turnbull noted that “the science is clear: If the oil, gas, and coal in currently operating wells and mines is dug up and burned, we will blow well past our climate goals.” Erickson cautioned that any Green New Deal legislation that is eventually produced should seek to explicitly limit fossil fuel production and oversee a managed decline of the industry. “Even if the U.S. was successful at reducing its own emissions but still went on being a fossil fuel producer and exporter, that’s going to flood the global market with coal, oil, and gas. That’s going to undermine global targets and has real emissions consequences,” he said.

A list of frequently asked questions about the resolution provided by Ocasio-Cortez’s office clarified that it “calls for any infrastructure measures before Congress to address climate change and additionally calls for an end to the transfer of pollution overseas.” “This provision goes farther than just calling for a ban on new fossil fuel infrastructure,” the document says, instead tackling “all greenhouse gas emitting and pollution emitting sources in our economy and global trade.”

However the details of legislation eventually shake out, the Green New Deal represents a massive departure from the landmark bill Markey introduced back in 2009 with former Sen. Henry Waxman to create an elaborate cap-and-trade system. That bill passed the House but not the Senate, and the version that was voted on ended up making several compromises to accommodate Republicans and fossil fuel interest groups — including dramatic limitations on the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory authority. With the clock running out to rein in emissions, Green New Deal advocates are eager not to repeat history.

“There’s pieces of the GND that are yet to be defined, and they’ll be defined as the policy is developed,” O’Hanlon said. “The way that we’re ensuring that the legislation is as science and justice demand is by building a grassroots movement all across the country that can make sure that we’re holding all politicians’ feet to the fire.”

The post The Green New Deal Takes Its First Congressional Baby Step, as Pelosi Mocks “Green Dream or Whatever” appeared first on The Intercept.

Trump Wanted to Goose Paychecks, but Now a Surprise Bill May Be Coming Due for Tax Filers

At Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, President Donald Trump hailed a booming economy (which is booming at roughly the same rate and with an even bigger tilt toward the wealthy as it did in the Obama administration) and warned that the only barriers standing in the way of this “economic miracle” were “foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations.”

But there’s one other possibility: folks getting socked with unexpectedly high tax bills.

As Americans head into the first tax season under the Trump tax cuts, there is broad uncertainty about how much the Internal Revenue Service will return in refunds, which are a surprisingly important component of consumer spending. And the amount of the refund you get is directly tied to how much was withheld from your paycheck over the year.

If workers had too little money withheld from their paychecks throughout the year to cover their tax liability — say, perhaps, because the administration was hoping to win converts to its tax cut by goosing paychecks — that would translate into a smaller refund this spring. If the opposite occurred, the refunds would be bigger. If it’s off by too much, a taxpayer would actually owe the government money.

There’s no consensus on what truly happened with paychecks, and the final outcome won’t be known for weeks as people send in their tax returns. But critics of the Trump administration have long suggested that the administration sought to lowball the withholding tables to get more money into taxpayers’ hands on the front end. Politico reported last January that the IRS was “under pressure to take as little as possible so people will see big increases in their take-home pay ahead of this year’s midterm elections.” Major political figures like the Senate Finance Committee’s ranking Democrat, Ron Wyden of Oregon, questioned the IRS on manipulating withholding tables.

As we know, economic growth did not translate into large gains for Republicans in the midterms. And now, the president could face a major political — and economic — problem on the back end, if large numbers of Americans expecting big tax refunds don’t get them this year. This would be an amazing political own-goal, as jiggering with the withholding tables would result in no net benefit on the front end — Republicans still lost the House — and a large net detriment on the back end.

In theory people should be happy about a lower refund — that means they didn’t give the government an interest-free loan throughout the year. But normal humans don’t think that way, and the lack of a refund would feel like a loss, tax experts agreed. “Ask people how much they paid in taxes, nobody knows. Ask them how much they got in their refund, people know,” said Howard Gleckman, a senior fellow with the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. “Everyone focuses on size of the refund and it does affect perception.”

Beyond perception, there’s the reality that traditionally, about three-quarters of Americans receive tax refunds each year. It’s typically their largest single check annually. They plan consumer purchases, particularly durable goods and big-ticket items, around them. There’s an entire cottage industry of refund advance loans, where filers get refunds immediately from their tax preparer and pay them back when the IRS completes the return.

If those refunds don’t come through, even if people saw higher paychecks throughout the year, those planned purchases will not get made. “There would be some consumption that won’t happen and that’s potentially significant,” said Gleckman. “What we’re going to see we just don’t know yet.”

Because 2018 was the first year with the new tax regime, withholding tables required some tweaks. And the elimination of personal exemptions — which workers previously used as allowances on their W-4 forms — removed the main way to map a worker’s personal situation cleanly onto tax withholding.

The IRS had to guess how the changes in the law would impact individual tax burdens, and then apply that to withholding, and they had to do all this under the constant strain of underfunding. Congress gave the Treasury Department and the IRS the authority to accomplish this in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act; previously Congress had a role in withholding, because the legislative branch is well aware of the political potency of the question.

Eventually withholding tables were completed in time for workers to see changes to paychecks by February. But Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin asked workers to use an IRS calculator to ensure that the correct amount of money was being withheld from their paychecks.

The calculator wasn’t even available at the time that Mnuchin suggested this. And the idea that hundreds of millions of people would voluntarily do the IRS’s job for it and double-check their withholding burden, rather than let their employer figure it out, is fanciful. Damon Jones, a public policy professor with the University of Chicago, explained in a paper in 2010 that the common reaction to tax withholding changes is inertia. And indeed, payment processing firm ADP released an analysis stating that the “vast majority” of taxpayers didn’t change W-4 forms for 2018.

That means success or failure in estimating withholding was up to Treasury and the IRS. And there have been wild variations in how outside observers think they handled it. A UBS analysis estimated an increase in tax refunds of anywhere between $42 billion and $66 billion this year; Morgan Stanley came up with a similar number. In particular, UBS predicted higher refunds for married filers with children and lower ones for single taxpayers.

But the Treasury Department, in an analysis provided to the Government Accountability Office, simulated 2018 withholding, estimating that 3 percent more Americans will have taxes underwithheld in the calendar year, and 3 percent fewer will have them overwithheld. That translates to around 4 million fewer Americans receiving refunds on their 2018 taxes. GAO also criticized Treasury for failing to properly document roles and responsibilities for making annual updates to withholding.

The Congressional Budget Office, in a midyear review, found that withholding revenues grew at a rate of less than half that of the overall economy, suggesting that withholding was smaller than expected. In a later report, CBO said it “now expects tax withholding to be lower during fiscal year 2018.”

The IRS has tipped its hand slightly as well. In an announcement in January, the agency said it would waive some penalties for those who underpaid withholding throughout the year. Typically those who pay less than 90 percent of their tax liability during the year pay the underpayment penalty; the IRS adjusted that to 85 percent. “We realize there were many changes that affected people last year, and this penalty waiver will help taxpayers who inadvertently didn’t have enough tax withheld,” said IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig in a statement. The American Institute of CPAs responded that the IRS’s relief was too meager, warning that “many taxpayers were unable to accurately calculate their tax liability for 2018 and may have inadvertently under-withheld their taxes and potentially face penalties.”

“There’s no consensus on what will happen,” said the Tax Policy Center’s Gleckman, who added that there was little indication that taxpayers did what Treasury wanted them to do: check their withholding to see if the IRS was accurately taking the proper amount throughout the year.

What we do know is that 102 million taxpayers received refunds last year, with an average of $2,778. And most of those went out the door for some wish-list item or a crucial household necessity that had been put off.

“People love them,” Gleckman said. “They’re especially important for low- and moderate-income people who count on getting the refund. The evidence is that they very often use them to make significant capital expenses, like a new refrigerator or the down payment on a car.” A study from JPMorgan Chase suggests that Americans defer health care decisions until they get their tax refunds.

It’s an indictment of American capitalism that so many people are so cash-strapped that they wait all year for a refund, something that they should have been getting in smaller increments every week, to make big purchases. Common sense would indicate that it’s better to get paid properly from the start of the year than to wait until the following year for a lump-sum refund. But people are now conditioned to getting the refund, and they plan around it throughout the year.

The fact that in 2018 workers may have received a bit more each week in their paycheck probably didn’t bear much thought. Most people receive pay stubs digitally and through direct deposit, and changes to hours, health insurance premiums, or contributions to 401(k) plans or pensions can all affect weekly take-home pay. So it’s difficult to disaggregate everything and know what corresponds to what.

We saw this with the Obama administration’s 2009 “Making Work Pay” tax credit, which dribbled out $400 to individual weekly paychecks through changes to withholding. Studies showed that nobody actually knew they received a tax cut.

From a political standpoint, many will see the lower refund as confirmation that the tax cuts didn’t benefit them, regardless of how accurate that may be. There’s already anecdotal evidence of this from early filers.

If refunds do come back lower, experts agree that there will be a decided impact on consumer spending, as those big-ticket items don’t get purchased. To the extent that filers rely on their refund for necessities, it could have more dire consequences than just slower economic growth. This could add to a reduction in growth from the 4 percent levels of mid-2018. That unusually high growth would fit with a story of keeping withholding too low throughout the year: it would be as if spending were pulled forward, only to snap back around tax time.

Ultimately, the effect of tax refunds will bubble up in taxpayer complaints and consumer spending levels in the first quarter. But the political ripples could further cement the already dim views of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act among the public.

The post Trump Wanted to Goose Paychecks, but Now a Surprise Bill May Be Coming Due for Tax Filers appeared first on The Intercept.

Trump’s State of the Union Address Reveals His Growing Anxiety Over Encroaching Left-Wing Populism

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 05: President Donald Trump arrives before delivering the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol Building on February 5, 2019 in Washington, DC. President Trump's second State of the Union address was postponed one week due to the partial government shutdown.  (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump arrives before delivering the State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol Building on Feb. 5, 2019 in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Last night’s State of the Union address and rebuttals were a fight over what constitutes “real America.” They weren’t a rehash of the debate about whether American authenticity is clustered at the coasts or spread out over the heartland. Rather, it was a contest for which politician, party, or movement has the most accurate assessment of what it feels like to be American today.

This is Trump’s home turf, or it used to be. Since he launched his presidential bid in June 2015, he’s painted a picture of an America in disarray. “Our country is in terrible trouble,” he said back then. “We don’t have victories anymore.” He evoked Mexicans invading and Chinese people stealing jobs. “When was the last time you saw a Chevrolet in Tokyo? It doesn’t exist, folks. They beat us all the time,” he said.

The media at the time hashed and rehashed Trump’s remarks, fact checking lies and condemning his racism, laughing all the way. Trump’s candidacy was a joke, they said — a clumsy Charybdis of falsehoods and xenophobia that would swallow itself before it caused too much trouble. But of course, those predictions were wrong.

What most missed then, but which should be obvious now, is that between his bigoted bromides, Trump was painting a picture of an America that felt more familiar to millions of viewers than anything they’d been served for years.

He acknowledged that although unemployment numbers were low and declining, the “real unemployment” numbers were higher — “anywhere from 18 to 20 percent.”

“Don’t believe the 5.6,” he warned during that first Trump Tower address. “Don’t believe it.”

“A lot of people up there can’t get jobs,” he said. Health care costs were going up. We spent relatively more on education, with fewer returns. Deductibles were “going through the roof.” Obamacare needed to be replaced with something “much better for everybody.” The infrastructure, airports, roads, “everything” was like “a third world country.” And the thing is, he wasn’t all wrong.

He struck his darkest note on his first day in office, during his inaugural address:

Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.

Trump was successful in large part because he is impressively adept at diagnosing America’s problems. “Make America Great Again” is not only a regressive slogan that recalls more prejudiced and unequal historical periods fondly; it’s also an acknowledgement that America, as it is, needs improvement. Or as Barack Obama put it, it could be “more perfect.” In 2016, the Democratic Party at times lost sight of the fact that making America great was a goal shared by both parties. Instead, it defaulted into “America is already great,” offering a platitude which couldn’t compete with the reality of unpaid bills and soaring health care costs.

Increasingly, however, Trump is in a political pickle — one that flows from a promise made during that inaugural address: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” Trump’s brand is diagnosing America’s ills, but as he ages into his incumbency, those ills increasingly manifest on his watch, and he’s forced to lean more heavily on new manufactured crises that can’t be attributed to his leadership.

As in his January Oval Office address, Trump’s State of the Union remarks were full of inaccurate fearmongering about the border. He criticized the high cost of health care and, in a somewhat unexpected turn, the scourge of childhood cancers and HIV.

But now it is Trump who must defend his record. It’s Trump who feels pressured to make the case that America is already great.

In the first portion of his remarks, he did exactly that. He celebrated combat veterans from WWII (when America presumably was great) and then lauded American astronauts who are “once again” going into space, drawing a rhetorical line between these achievements. He bragged about an “unprecedented economic boom” — a boom that started before his presidency and continues despite it — and held up low unemployment numbers as evidence of his leadership prowess.

 Trump is facing is the impotence of incumbency.

The Trump who advised Americans to consider “real unemployment” numbers is long gone. In his place stands a man so eager to defend his record that he reported employment statistics, his best Trump card, four different ways so as to magnify the impression of his success: “5.3 million new jobs”; “600,000 new manufacturing jobs”; blue-collar jobs, growing faster than anyone else thought possible; more people working than at any time during American history. Jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs.

Trump’s focus on jobs numbers is understandable given how little else he has to brag about: Cutting more regulations in two years than any other administration had done in four; a transparent greed-driven tax cut for millionaires and billionaires that’s growing more difficult to spin as tax season approaches and Americans start to see the consequences on their returns; America becoming the world’s No. 1 oil producer at a time when scientific consensus says that oil dependence is a death sentence. The accomplishments enumerated during last night’s address were underwhelming at best.

But what’s important to note here is that Trump is facing is the impotence of incumbency. Without being able to point to policies that have materially improved people’s lives, he’s forced to argue that his paltry efforts have made America great. And given the state of the nation, that’s no enviable position to be in.

 

In her reply, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams was able to capitalize on Trump’s new posture. To justify his lack of accomplishment, Trump had to invent a twisted fantasy-scape of marauding Mexican murderers, while tiptoeing around his broken promises with vague references to health care costs that didn’t directly implicate his attacks on existing health care infrastructure.

Abrams was free to fill the role Trump once played so well, accurately identifying America’s problems.

But Abrams was free to fill the role Trump once played so well, accurately identifying America’s problems: Voter suppression; farmers hobbled by a tariff war; factories closing; children caged at the border. Even Fox News pundits had to acknowledge: “She seemed to get more to what people’s lives are like in the reality.” With a diverse crowd standing behind her and a message that gave voice to a broad range of concerns, Abrams won the fight over what America really looks like.

Abrams deftly ran through the panoply of policy issues ignored by Trump, and offered a warm, compassionate alternative to Trump’s drowsy teleprompter recital. Our strength as a country, she argued, is our ability to pull together to advance common goals. “We may come from different sides of the political aisle, but our joint commitment to the ideals of this nation cannot be negotiable.” Unfortunately, Abrams argued, Republicans have bargained away their commitment to the ideals shared by most Americans. “Under the current administration, far too many hard-working Americans are fall behind, living paycheck to paycheck, most without labor unions to protect them from even worse harm. The Republican tax bill rigged the system against working people. Rather than bringing back jobs, plants are closing, layoffs are looming, and wages struggle to keep pace with the actual cost of living.”

Her message was concise and effective: “With a renewed commitment to social and economic justice, we will create a stronger America together. Because America wins by fighting for our shared values against all enemies, foreign and domestic. That is who we are, and when we do so, never wavering, the state of our union will always be strong.”

And while centrist hacks (and complicit mainstream media outlets) attempted to construe Sen. Bernie Sanders’s State of the Union response as a racially motivated upstaging, his State of the Union response, which he has given for the past two years, was, in fact, a complement to Abrams’s successful rebuttal.

Whereas Abrams had only 10 minutes to respond, a limitation intrinsic to the party’s official address, Sanders had the space to articulate, in detail, exactly where Trump went wrong. If winning the game is about accurately diagnosing the country’s problems, then Bernie came to play.

“I want to talk to you about the major crisis facing our country that, regrettably, President Trump chose not to discuss,” began Sanders. America is great again, he offered, appropriating Trump’s thesis before flipping it on its head: At least it is “for the members of his Mar A Lago Country club.”

“For many of President Trump’s billionaire friends, the truth is they have never ever had it so good,” argued Sanders. “As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘This country has socialism for the rich, and rugged individualism for the poor.’” Today, as then, the economy is great for the rich. Twenty-five hedge fund managers on Wall Street made nearly twice as much as all 140,000 kindergarten teachers in America, explained Sanders. Meanwhile, the “real wages for the average American worker are lower today then they were in 1972 … 46 years ago.” If Trump once wanted Americans to focus on “real wages,” Sanders was happy to oblige.

Sanders adroitly undermined Trump’s claim that his leadership resulted in low unemployment numbers, pointing out that job creation tapered off during Trump’s first year. He explained that the average worker received a raise of merely $1.60 a week, while “the three richest people in America saw their wealth increase by more than $68 billion.” He argued that Trump was right to want to address infrastructure, but wrong to try to privatize our highways — selling them off to the highest bidder for individual gain at the cost of citizens.

Sanders painted a clear picture of the winners and losers of the Trump era. Under this administration, Walmart, Pfizer, and other big corporations have paid out big bonuses to their CEOs while laying off employees — many of whom were already struggling to get by with the support of the social safety net. And the Vermont senator called Trump out for vowing to protect that social safety net as he supported cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

Sanders pointedly highlighted Trump’s hypocrisy about violence committed by undocumented immigrants, explaining that they commit less crime than natural-born Americans. He called out Trump for talking about the murder of Americans by an undocumented man in Nevada while staying silent about the deadliest incident of gun violence to ever happen in America, which also took place in Nevada in 2017. Sanders castigated Trump for failing to mention climate change, and for undermining the security of “Dreamers.”

But in the most powerful part of his address, Sanders didn’t merely react to Trump. In an ad lib not captured in the official transcripts, Sanders asked the only question that really matters: “Why don’t you do what the American people want you to do rather than what wealthy campaign contributors want?”

What do the American people want? Sanders ran down the stats:

  • According to a Fox News poll, 70 percent of Americans support a tax increase on families making over $10 million.
  • According to Reuters, 70 percent of Americans and 52 percent of Republicans support “Medicare for All.”
  • Seventy-two percent of Americans, including 51 percent of Republicans, want to expand Social Security benefits.
  • According to Gallup, 76 percent of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, want the country to spend on infrastructure.
  • Ninety-two percent of Americans want Medicare to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.
  • Sixty-four percent of Americans, including 51 percent of Republicans, believe marijuana should be legal.
  • Over 94 percent of Americans support background checks for all gun purchases.

… And on and on and on.

A $15 minimum wage; free public college; government assistance for child care — what Americans want are progressive policies. So, Sanders asked, “why isn’t Congress and the White House doing what the American people want them to do?”

The answer is not complicated, he explained in a familiar but still salient refrain. “The answer has everything to do with the power of the monied interests.” Greed is destroying the nation, says Sanders, not Mexicans. The 1 percent is the source of American hardship, not the border.

In a separate response for the Working Families Party, Mandela Barnes, Wisconsin’s new lieutenant governor and a rising progressive star, hit some of the same notes as Sanders, singling out the wealthy few as a barrier to social justice advocacy. “We need a movement that sees our fights for economic justice, and racial justice, and climate justice, and for a real and reflective democracy as all bound up together,” he said. “Our movement seeks not only to change what is possible, but what is expected. We must commit ourselves to an America that works for the many, not the few.”

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 05:  Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) looks at his notes as he watches the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol Building on February 5, 2019 in Washington, DC. President Trump's second State of the Union address was postponed one week due to the partial government shutdown.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Senator Bernie Sanders looks at his notes as he watches the State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol Building on Feb. 5, 2019 in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

There was perhaps no greater testament to the power of Sanders’s reframing than the fact that Trump’s remarks seemed to anticipate not the official Democratic Party’s response, but rather the rhetoric most famously advanced by Sanders and fellow democratic socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Here, in the United States,” said Trump, “we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence — and not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free, and we will stay free.”

But Sanders, who was spotted scribbling notes during Trump’s address, was prepared to respond to this line of attack: “Trump said, ‘We are born free, and we will stay free.’ Well, I say to President Trump: People are not truly free when they can’t afford to go to the doctor when they are sick. People are not truly free when they cannot afford to buy the prescription drugs they desperately need. People are not truly free when they are unable to retire with dignity. People are not truly free when they are exhausted because they are working longer and longer hours for low wages. People are not truly free when they cannot afford a decent place in which to live. People certainly are not free when they cannot afford to feed their families.”

By the end of Sanders’s remarks, it was clear why Trump felt the need to call out socialism. Genuine, progressive populism — messaging that put society’s and people’s interests first — is a threat to Trump’s oligarchy-dressed-in-populist-clothing. Ocasio-Cortez agrees.

“I think that he needs to do it because he feels like — he feels himself losing on the issues,” Ocasio-Cortez told Rachel Maddow following Trump’s remarks. “Every single policy proposal that we have adopted and presented to the American public has been overwhelmingly popular, even some with a majority of Republican voters supporting what we’re talking about.”

“I think he sees himself losing on the issues, he sees himself losing on the wall in the southern border, and he needs to grasp at an ad hominem attack, and this is his way of doing it. What we need to realize is happening is this is an issue of authoritarian regime versus democracy. In order for him to try to dissuade or throw people off the scent of the trail, he has to really make and confuse the public. And I think that that’s exactly what he’s trying to do.”

Ocasio-Cortez is right; fear tactics and money only go so far. To paraphrase both Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders: They’ve got money, but we’ve got people.

The post Trump’s State of the Union Address Reveals His Growing Anxiety Over Encroaching Left-Wing Populism appeared first on The Intercept.

South Carolina Spent $9 Billion to Dig a Hole in the Ground and Then Fill it Back in

The objection raised most frequently when it comes to a Green New Deal is its cost. It’s preposterous; it’s too expensive; we just can’t afford it.

But before scoffing at the prospect of the wealthiest nation in the history of the world funding such a project, it’s worth taking a look at what one of the country’s poorest states was recently able to spend.

South Carolina, in a bid to expand its generation of nuclear power in recent years, dropped $9 billion on a single project — and has nothing to show for it.

The boondoggle, which was covered widely in the Palmetto State press but got little attention nationally, sheds light on just how much money is genuinely available for an industrial-level energy transformation, if only the political will were there.

There are no firm figures tied to a Green New Deal, but former Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein’s proposed version of the project would have cost between $700 billion and $1 trillion. The new plan, being crafted with the help of progressive groups like the Sunrise Movement and pushed to the top of the House legislative agenda by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives, promises more substantial change on a much shorter schedule. In addition to moving the U.S. to 100 percent renewable energy in 10 years, upgrading all residential and industrial buildings for energy efficiency, and eliminating greenhouse gases from manufacturing and agriculture, it includes a jobs guarantee and a recognition of the rights of tribal nations. Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey are planning to introduce legislation for the plan this week, Axios reported.

In South Carolina, lawmakers greenlighted a multibillion-dollar energy project and stuck utility customers with the tab. “In the private sector,” former Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Gregory Jaczko told The Intercept, “you would never be able to justify this.”

The saga, and related nuclear project failures, calls into question the role of new nuclear energy production in the effort to decarbonize the economy. New plants, Jaczko said, take too long to build for the urgency of the climate crisis and simply aren’t cost effective, given advances in renewable energy. “I don’t see nuclear as a solution to climate change,” Jaczko said. “It’s too expensive, and would take too long if it could even be deployed. There are cheaper, better alternatives. And even better alternatives that are getting cheaper, faster.”

The Nuclear Boondoggle

It started in 2008. SCE&G and Santee Cooper announced plans to add two nuclear reactors to the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in Jenkinsville, South Carolina, and contracted Westinghouse Electric Company, owned by Toshiba, to handle construction. The state’s Public Service Commission (PSC) approved the plan in early 2009, with construction slated to begin in 2012, and the first reactor set to begin operating in 2016.

In late 2011, SCE&G announced the project’s first delay in a quarterly report to the Office of Regulatory Staff, which represents utilities in front of the PSC, citing “module redesign, production issues, manpower issues and Quality Assurance and Quality Control (QA/QC) issues.” The company estimated an 11-month setback and said its contractor, the Shaw Group, operating out of a facility in Louisiana, reported that the issues had been resolved. But SCE&G said they were still monitoring the situation “carefully” and considered “it to be a focus area for the project.” The Shaw facility would later face a federal probe over unrelated allegations that workers broke protocol and falsified records, which employees admitted to.

The company alerted more delays in mid-2013, citing manufacturing issues. Soon, Santee Cooper asked SCE&G to bring in another company to manage the project. Not long after that, both companies announced the project would cost $1.2 billion more than they’d expected. Again, they pushed back the project’s completion date.

Documents released as the project unraveled show that both SCE&G and Santee Cooper were well aware of shortcomings, mismanagement, and lack of oversight that eventually made the reactors impossible to complete, years before Westinghouse declared bankruptcy and both companies pulled out.

“They were allowed to charge the customers for all the money that they spent, plus a return,” Jaczko explained. “Even though they failed to deliver the project.”

Only 48 percent of South Carolinians know about the failed program, according to an October statewide poll surveying electric ratepayers.

“The utilities are incredibly powerful political lobbies in the state,” Jaczko said. “It’s now $2.3 billion that they’re gonna be able to get,” he said, and that doesn’t include the rate of return Dominion says it’s entitled to.

“It’s insane for a project that’s done nothing, and never will. And is just a giant hole in the ground,” he said. “Well, a filled-in hole now, at this point.”

V.C. Summer Nuclear Station's unit two's turbine, right, and containment unit, center, are shown under construction near Jenkinsville, S.C., during a media tour of the facility Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016.  SCE&G is seeking a 3.1 percent residential raise that would be the largest single rate increase since the utility began charging its 700,000 customers for the reactors' construction. The hike, which would take effect at the end of November if approved, would be the ninth such increase to pay for the $14 billion reactors since 2009. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

V.C. Summer Nuclear Station’s unit two’s turbine, right, and containment unit, center, are shown under construction near Jenkinsville, S.C., on Sept. 21, 2016.

Photo: Chuck Burton/AP

Left With the Tab

Thanks to a state law passed in 2007, residents in South Carolina are footing the bill for a massive failed nuclear reactor program that cost a total of $9 billion. Analysts say that corporate mismanagement and poor oversight means residents and their families will be paying for that failed energy program —  which never produced a watt of energy — for the next 20 years or more.

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson has since called parts of the law, the Base Load Review Act, “constitutionally suspect,” and state senators have voted to overturn it —  but that wouldn’t necessarily get ratepayers off the hook for paying for the failed project.

Both the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission opened separate investigations into the failed project, and at least 19 lawsuits have been filed against one company involved.

The two South Carolina companies, South Carolina Electric & Gas and Santee Cooper, a state-owned utility, spent $9 billion on a plan to build two nuclear reactors and eventually canceled it due to a series of cost miscalculations and corporate buyouts that left one construction company bankrupt and sent shockwaves all the way to Japanese tech giant Toshiba.

Dominion Energy, an energy giant in the region, has since bought out SCE&G’s parent company, SCANA Corp., for $7.9 billion — almost the entire cost of the failed project — pledged to partially refund ratepayers and cut electricity rates, which SCE&G hiked at least nine times throughout the project’s first eight years in order to pay for it.

When asked about the failed project, South Carolina Republican Rep. William Timmons laughed. He said ratepayers would still pay “a substantial portion” of the bill. “The SCANA portion, which is — approximately half has been substantially dealt with, with their restructuring and the purchase of Dominion,” he told The Intercept. “What’s left now is the Santee Cooper portion, and I think that’s still yet to be decided.”

“It is a major issue that the legislature’s dealing with,” Timmons said. The congressman didn’t have any updates on how or when the remainder of the bill would resolved.

After Dominion bought out SCANA and settled their portion of the bill, ratepayers are still responsible for about $2.3 billion. “For nothing, they get nothing,” Jaczko told The Intercept.

“They basically pay money up front for a project that never materialized, and now are still gonna be asked to pay for it. And that is a significant break from the way that traditional rate recovery used to work,” he said.

“It used to be that you didn’t start charging for a plant unless it was done and operating. Whether it was a nuclear plant, or a coal plant, or any other kind of thing.”

But because nuclear power involves heavier upfront capital costs and financing charges, Jaczko explained, states looking to revive nuclear power tried to bypass those extra costs by passing laws allowing companies to save money by recovering the cost of financing the projects during the period of construction.

“Even the law that was written in South Carolina envisioned the fact that the project could get canceled. But of course everybody promised that that wouldn’t happen,” Jaczko said.

Sen. Tim Scott told The Intercept that it was hard to pin the blame for the disastrous project on any one entity. “But certainly the Westinghouse bid coming back three times higher than their original estimation made the likelihood of success challenging. And then all the decisions that were made pending that being an accurate price all fell apart,” he said. He did not answer a question of whether ratepayers would have to pay $2.3 billion for nothing.

For conservatives and corporate-friendly Democrats, the idea of spending absurd amounts of money on a comprehensive national plan to wean the economy off dirty energy and create sustainable jobs is out of the question. It’s an idea much easier to swallow when its stated purpose is corporate profit, as in South Carolina. Or at the federal level, national defense. President Donald Trump signed into law last summer a $717 billion defense bill, up from $600 billion in 2016, and around $300 billion in 2000. In December the president tweeted that U.S. military spending was “Crazy!”

For scale, the national deficit for fiscal year 2019 is just shy of $1 trillion. Of the $4.4 trillion federal budget, military spending across agencies makes up close to $800 billion. The federal government spent about $1.1 trillion on health care in 2018. The latest government shutdown cost the U.S. an estimated $11 billion, the Congressional Budget Office reported. Trump requested $5.7 billion for a border wall, and Republicans in the House found it.

But $9 billion and zero nuclear reactors later, ratepayers in South Carolina have no say after their legislators played with the state’s resources and lost. If one state can throw away $9 billion on a project that never happened, legislators in Washington will have a difficult time claiming that they can’t find federal dollars to finance a plan that 81 percent of registered voters support.

“We can pay for a Green New Deal in the same way we pay for — whether it’s wars, or tax cuts, or any of the other great social programs that we have,” Greg Carlock told The Intercept. He’s a senior adviser at Data for Progress, where he authored a report outlining policy proposals for the Green New Deal. Unlike Ocasio-Cortez, Carlock says he disagrees with the argument that you have to tax the wealthy, or the middle class, to pay for a Green New Deal. Instead, he argues, Congress should just authorize new spending, like it does for everything else.

“There has been a really well-crafted narrative to bring up fears about deficit spending and the debt,” Carlock said. “I think that we, one, have to just break out of this fear that somehow this number that we call debt is a bad thing. Because it’s not the same kind of debt that a household has, or that a business has,” he said.

“The driver of inflation is not how many ones and zeros we’ve put out there,” Carlock said. “The driver of inflation is the availability of limited biophysical resources that that money is trying to go out and buy. And that’s why, when you think about this from a sustainability perspective, a Green New Deal that tries to improve the sustainability of our natural resources, is actually meant as a deflationary role.”

“The greatest threat to our economy and inflation is not the debt, it’s the climate crisis,” he added, “which will put an even greater strain on our resources. The whole point of a Green New Deal is to mitigate those threats, and it will be cheaper than the cost of future climate disasters.”

Investing in clean energy, sustainable jobs, and a basic standard of health care would actually save money in the long run — tens to hundreds of billions of dollars per year, according to a climate assessment released under the Trump administration this year. The argument that the money isn’t there just doesn’t hold up.

“Any politician whose first question about the Green New Deal is how to pay for it isn’t taking seriously the millions who will die if we fail to take action on the scale scientists say we need,” Stephen Hanlon, communications director for the Sunrise Movement, said in a statement to The Intercept.

“What we are talking about is a putting millions of people to work so they can buy food for their families, etc. This is the greatest investment in the American economy in generations, and that kind of investment pays substantial dividends,” Hanlon said.

“We will pay for this the same way we paid for the WWII (sic) and the original New Deal: deciding it’s a priority as a nation and that we can’t afford not to take action.”

Meanwhile, a $28 billion nuclear project in Georgia is headed for a similar fate.

The post South Carolina Spent $9 Billion to Dig a Hole in the Ground and Then Fill it Back in appeared first on The Intercept.

Trump Ripped This Immigrant Family Apart. They Watched the State of the Union Together From the Congressional Gallery.

Last summer, Albertina Contreras could never have imagined that she would be spending an early February evening sitting in the gilded chamber of the U.S. Congress. In May, Contreras was locked in solitary confinement for eight days, without her daughter, Yakelyn — who had recently been taken from her by armed border guards.

Last night, Contreras was in Washington, D.C., listening to the man whose signature policies had incited those guards to tear Yakelyn away from her. President Donald Trump’s deluded fulminations against people like Contreras came to the fore again on Tuesday, as he stood on the dais and proclaimed that he was creating a “safe, lawful, modern, and secure” immigration system. And there Contreras was, with Yakelyn — it was the young girl’s 12th birthday — as special guests of Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., watching Trump spout his anti-immigrant anger to the nation.

“It’s still a hard reality for all the moms and dads who are still not reunited with their kids. Really, it’s a moment of desperation.”

Trump — in line with his Republican Party’s agenda — took the time to bring up the tragic cases of people whose family members were allegedly killed by undocumented immigrants, noting “the heartache they have had to endure.” The children who recently died in Border Patrol custody went unremarked upon; nothing was said of the humanitarian aid workers being prosecuted and convicted for leaving water on trails where migrants die of thirst; no thought was spared for the heartache endured by families — like Contreras’s — who were torn apart by government agents, nor for those who remain separated from one another.

“Very happy,” Contreras said when I asked, a few hours before the State of the Union, how she would feel about being in the same room as Trump. “Thankful to be here. I don’t feel fear.” What would she say to Trump if she got a chance to speak directly to him? “I’d tell him that he should look into his conscience, that as migrants we have rights, that we are all worthy of that.”

signal-attachment-2019-02-05-145633-1549425470

Yakelyn holds up an official invitation to the State of the Union address.

Photo: Courtesy of Taylor Levy

Contreras knows that even as she sits free in the congressional gallery, others face the same fate she once did. A recent report from the Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General revealed that not only are family separations continuing, but the thousands of officially reported cases did not include all of the separations. “It’s still a hard reality for all the moms and dads who are still not reunited with their kids,” Contreras said. “Really, it’s a moment of desperation.”

Contreras is one of a handful of immigrant guests at the State of the Union — their stories highlighting the injustices of Trump’s bigotries and his policies toward people who come to the U.S. seeking refuge. Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., invited Yeni González, another mother who was separated from her three children at the border. And Victorina Morales, an undocumented woman, worked as a housekeeper for years at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. She will attend the speech as the guest of Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J. “I’m not scared to show my face,” Morales, who recently quit her job and came forward, told the New York Times after being invited to Washington. “I am not speaking for me, I’m speaking on behalf of millions of undocumented immigrants who live in the United States.”

Trump’s immigration policies have led to a broad crackdown on people like Morales and Contreras — those who seek to come here out of desperation and, in some cases, arrive only to continue living in insecurity. Trump has used U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the interior to chase down people who are in the country without authorization. ICE has targeted their places of work of work, their homes, hospitals, and courts, as well as the sanctuaries where they organize to help those forced to navigate the byzantine bureaucracies of immigration law. The result has been devastated families and communities. Simultaneously, Trump uses the rhetoric of nativist demagogues to create the impression of a migration crisis at the border — when the real crises have been of his own making. The activists who work to help immigrants on the border have, again, been targeted, to say nothing of the families that were ripped apart in a jarring display of American cruelty — the kind of cruelty Contreras experienced firsthand.

Trump’s rhetoric at the House of Representatives Tuesday, though bowdlerized for a national audience, mirrors the sort of language Contreras encountered when she first crossed the border. “You’re animals,” a border guard told her. “Don’t you watch the news? We don’t want to see more immigrants here.” The venomous guards prompted Contreras’s daughter, Yakelyn, and other children to scream, but Contreras was used to that kind of language, that kind of cruelty — it was why she was fleeing Guatemala.

“You’re animals. Don’t you watch the news? We don’t want to see more immigrants here.”

Guatemala has one of the highest rates of deadly violence against women in the world, and Contreras’s ex-boyfriend regularly beat her in front of her children, she said. After going to the police for help and realizing they weren’t going to protect her, she set out for the United States. While she left her two youngest boys with her sister, Contreras didn’t want to leave her daughter, who would soon be a teenager, to suffer gender-based scorn and physical abuse.

For the last few years, the U.S. had served as an inconsistent refuge for women fleeing such violence. But last fall, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions ruled on a case limiting women fleeing domestic violence from access to asylum protections. (The ruling applies to other countries as well.) Sessions’s argument was that domestic violence is a “private” crime — a notion that leaves women unprotected by the law and reinforces misogynistic tropes.

Such a senseless overturning of a legal precedent was pulled off without much fanfare, perhaps because it came in a country where violence against women remains entrenched — indeed, in a country where the president, who stood tonight before Contreras to give a celebrated speech, has lewdly boasted of groping women.

It’s not hard to imagine Contreras cringing when she heard Trump say, “I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.” Contreras twice tried to cross the bridge in El Paso, Texas, to ask for asylum — an act that is legal under both U.S. and international law. Both times, Customs and Border Protection guards turned her away, forcing her to make a dangerous crossing with her daughter.

After suffering the first eight days of her detention at the border in solitary confinement, Contreras was held for more than 40 additional days before she was released in El Paso. She found temporary refuge at the Annunciation House, a faith-based charity that operates a shelter. At that point, she hadn’t spoken to her daughter for over 50 days, according to Taylor Levy, the legal coordinator at Annunciation House. Yakelyn, meanwhile, was almost 12 hours away in an Office of Refugee Resettlement facility in the southern tip of Texas. Levy told me Yakelyn attended classes and was comfortable there, but she was also scared. She recalled watching other separated children getting calls from their parents and bursting into tears. Some of the kids were learning that they or their parents were being deported — without being reunified first. Yakelyn’s tribulation was to know nothing: She hadn’t heard from her mother.

Finally, with the help of Levy, Contreras and her daughter were reunited. They moved to Tennessee to fight their immigration case. Another attorney representing the mother-daughter pair, Andrew Free, told me that Yakelyn is pursuing Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, a classification afforded to children who have been abandoned, abused, or neglected by their parents — in Yakelyn’s case, her father. And Contreras is applying for “withholding of removal,” a legal status that protects people from deportation but does not allow them to become citizens or travel outside of the country.

Free said that newly discovered memos by senior administrators and legal decisions in federal courts cast Trump’s family separation policy as an act comparable to kidnapping. What happened to Yakelyn “contains all of the essential elements of kidnapping,” he said. If Contreras doesn’t receive the protection of withholding of removal, Free explained, she may qualify for a U-visa, which is for people who have suffered a crime and are willing to work with law enforcement. “It shouldn’t matter that the people who effectuated the kidnapping, who took someone against their will and without legal justification,” are the U.S. government, he said.

Contreras, for her part, had a message for the family members still separated from each other: “That they have faith and patience. And that they be very courageous, like we’ve had to be.” She told me she wants to speak up and be present at the State of the Union for their sakes. She said, “I hope they get their kids back soon.”

The post Trump Ripped This Immigrant Family Apart. They Watched the State of the Union Together From the Congressional Gallery. appeared first on The Intercept.

“Change Is Taking Too Long” — Cabinet Member Speaks Out Amid Gov. Ralph Northam’s Blackface Fallout

Pressure for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam to resign is mounting after a medical school yearbook page surfaced showing a photo of a man in blackface, initially understood to be Northam, standing next to a man in Ku Klux Klan robes. Over the weekend, Northam denied being in the photo, but apologized for wearing blackface while impersonating Michael Jackson on another occasion. Reports also revealed that Northam’s Virginia Military Institute yearbook page listed him with the nickname “Coonman.”

Northam has not yet decided whether he’ll resign, but patience among members of his cabinet is wearing thin.

Virginia Education Secretary Atif Qarni posted a statement on the progressive political blog Blue Virginia in which he called his state to reflect on its “ugly history.” He argued that “change is taking too long” and denounced statewide political leadership for its lack of racial and ethnic representation. He went on to express empathy for the disparate treatment that Black Americans face at the hands of police.

“Experiences of several marginalized communities pale in comparison to the Black experience in America,” Qarni wrote. “I have had a few unpleasant experiences with law enforcement; however, I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be slammed to the ground and handcuffed without cause. Or even worse, shot dead.”

The secretary compared anti-black racism to the experiences of him and his wife, Fatima. “My wife wears a hijab and when she and I travel by air, I feel like all eyes are on us; however, I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have your actions be monitored and scrutinized every day of your life, even while running basic errands.”

“I feel anger that my ancestors were colonized by white people; however, I can’t imagine living in a country where my ancestors were trafficked, shackled, beaten, raped, lynched, and enslaved,” Qarni’s statement continues. “White and other people of color can empathize and try to relate to the Black experience in our nation; however, no one can truly grasp the depth of the pain, trauma, humiliation and anguish felt by Black Americans over the last 400 years in this country.”

The governor called an all-staff meeting Monday morning, but made no decision on how to respond to an increasing number of requests from state and national political leaders for him to step down.

In an email to The Intercept, state Finance Secretary Aubrey Layne said that while he serves “at the pleasure of the Governor, I work for the people of Virginia. I just plan to keep doing my job.” Other members of Northam’s cabinet did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe; Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner; Rep. Bobby Scott; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; Congressional Black Caucus Chair Karen Bass; former Attorney General Eric Holder; and former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton are among Democrats who’ve called for the governor to resign. Democratic presidential hopefuls Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; Kamala Harris, D-Calif.; and San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro have also called for Northam to resign.

Virginia’s Democratic leader in the state Senate defended Northam in an interview with the Washington Post on Friday, saying there is no need to examine “something that occurred 30 years ago.” Sen. Dick Saslaw, who’s facing his first primary challenge as a state senator in June, has a controversial history of questioning whether racial or religious minorities could win in the majority-white, majority-Christian state and of defending the state’s Confederate history. Qarni, in 2015, wrote an op-ed detailing challenges he faced while running as a Muslim candidate for the state House of Delegates, and in a comment on a Facebook post criticizing the op-ed, he named Saslaw as part of the problem.

The post “Change Is Taking Too Long” — Cabinet Member Speaks Out Amid Gov. Ralph Northam’s Blackface Fallout appeared first on The Intercept.

GOP Leadership Instructs Lawmakers to Play Up Gruesome Murders and Rapes by Immigrants

House Republican lawmakers are being encouraged by their party’s leadership to play up gruesome murders, rapes, and other crimes committed by undocumented immigrants in the United States.

In a newsletter sent on Friday, House Republican Conference Chair Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., provided the caucus and staff with a messaging update that compiled immigrant crimes by date and congressional district. The newsletter is used by the GOP caucus to provide talking points and messaging guidance. The edition of the newsletter dealing with immigrant crimes, which was obtained by The Intercept, offered a messaging opportunity to leverage the government shutdown against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

“Speaker Pelosi made one thing clear during the government shutdown: she doesn’t care about the tragic consequences of illegal immigration on American families,” the newsletter says.

Under the header “The Democrats’ far-left immigration agenda has tragic real-world consequences,” the newsletter goes on to list crimes committed over the last two decades.

The list includes alleged crimes and points out which Republican House members’ districts the events took place in. In one case, “an illegal immigrant from El Salvador was charged with murdering four people” in Rep. Mark Amodei’s Nevada district, the newsletter says. In another, it recounts “the story of a 16-year-old, who was killed in 2000 by an illegal immigrant in a car crash on Father’s Day” in Rep. Barry Loudermilk’s Georgia district. Yet another bullet point describes “an illegal immigrant who previously had been deported in 2015 for a felony drug trafficking conviction [who] was charged with first degree rape” in Rep. Gary Palmer’s Alabama district.

The congressional document mirrors recent tweets by President Donald Trump linking crimes committed by immigrants to the need to expand the wall along the U.S. southern border with Mexico.

Just before the midterm election last year, Trump tweeted a 53-second video featuring Luis Bracamontes boasting about murdering two sheriff’s deputies in 2014. After the clip of Bracamontes, the video flashes text that claims, “Democrats let him into our country … Democrats let him stay.” As independent fact-checkers noted, the message was highly misleading. Bracamontes was deported under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

The House Republican Conference messaging document includes several stories that were simply shared by Republican lawmakers without any names or news stories attached. The House Republican Conference spokesperson declined to comment on the newsletter.

Studies have consistently shown that crime rates are actually lower among foreign immigrants than among native-born Americans. But the strategy does not appear to be a fair-minded discussion of immigration policy — or crime, for that matter.

Across the world, demagogues have deftly exploited bigotry to whip up anger using incidents of murder and rape. Increasingly, social media has become an effective way to weaponize tragic acts and use them for partisan political goals. In Germany, the far-right Alternative for Germany party has singularly focused on several cases of murders committed by refugees to intensify hatred of Middle Eastern immigrants. In Myanmar, lurid stories posted on Facebook detailing purported acts of rape and murder by the Muslim Rohingya minority against the Buddhist majority were used to justify a brutal ethnic cleaning in the northwest Rakhine State. In some cases, the stories were false. Viral stories that focus on the identity of killers to stoke ethnic tension can also be found in India, Sri LankaNigeria, and beyond.

In the U.S., there is a long history of racist violence following politicians’ focus on crimes — real or imagined — by particular minority groups. Across the ideological spectrum, many on social media continue to fixate on the racial or ethnic identity of criminals. Trump’s embrace of the strategy now appears to have reverberated across the Republican Party, with GOP lawmakers now openly encouraged to stoke fear over immigrant crime.

The post GOP Leadership Instructs Lawmakers to Play Up Gruesome Murders and Rapes by Immigrants appeared first on The Intercept.

Top Nancy Pelosi Aide Privately Tells Insurance Executives Not to Worry About Democrats Pushing “Medicare for All”

Less than a month after Democrats — many of them running on “Medicare for All” — won back control of the House of Representatives in November, the top health policy aide to then-prospective House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met with Blue Cross Blue Shield executives and assured them that party leadership had strong reservations about single-payer health care and was more focused on lowering drug prices, according to sources familiar with the meeting.

Pelosi adviser Wendell Primus detailed five objections to Medicare for All and said that Democrats would be allies to the insurance industry in the fight against single-payer health care. Primus pitched the insurers on supporting Democrats on efforts to shrink drug prices, specifically by backing a number of measures that the pharmaceutical lobby is opposing.

Primus, in a slide presentation obtained by The Intercept, criticized single payer on the basis of cost (“Monies are needed for other priorities”), opposition (“Stakeholders are against; Creates winners and losers”), and “implementation challenges.” We have recreated the slides for source protection purposes.

Democrats, Primus said, are united around the concept of universal coverage, but see strengthening the Affordable Care Act as the means to that end. He made his presentation to the Blue Cross executives on December 4. “We don’t discuss private meetings, if there was such a meeting,” said a BCBS spokesperson. Primus said that he did not discuss any kind of deal with the insurers. Henry Connelly, a spokesperson for Pelosi, said that the assessment of single payer was not related to any dealmaking with the industry. “We’re not going to barter lower prescription drug costs for inaction in the rest of the health care industry. The presentation was a broad look at the health care environment and some of House Democrats’ legislative priorities over the next two years in a period of GOP control of the Senate and White House,” Connelly said.

The debate over Medicare for All is playing out on a number of different levels, with no clear consensus over how the government-run, single-payer health plan ought to take shape. Presidential candidates are arguing over whose plan is stronger and gets to full Medicare for All faster, with a debate raging over whether private insurance should be banned outright or operate in addition to universal Medicare coverage.

In the House, even as the idea has picked up momentum with voters and members of the Democratic caucus, Democratic leadership has remained deeply skeptical. Pelosi’s consistent messaging, instead, has been around protecting the Affordable Care Act and lowering prescription drug prices.

“Speaker Pelosi has ensured that Medicare for All will have hearings in the House and tapped Congressman Brian Higgins to take the lead on Medicare buy-in legislation. For the first time, House committees will be seriously examining and tackling some of the questions and possible solutions raised by Medicare for All legislation,” said Connelly.

“The biggest obstacles facing Medicare for All right now are Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump,” he added.  “But in the near term, there is a window for Democrats to press Trump to help pass aggressive legislation to negotiate down the skyrocketing price of prescription drugs.”

Primus concluded his presentation with a bullet point that summarized Pelosi’s mission on health care: “Lower your health care costs and prescription drug prices.”

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Slide: Recreated by The Intercept

The “your” refers to insurers, who bear costs for medical expenses covered under their plans. That puts insurers and Pelosi, at least in one sense, in alignment, as both have an interest in lower costs. Indeed, insurers regularly negotiate to lower their health care costs, but in practice their efforts have had little effect on the general trend in costs. Drug company patents give pharmaceutical giants outsized power to set prices, and hospital consolidation has also given providers more power in those negotiations. Even where insurers have been able to negotiate lower prices for their own customers, that has done little to shrink the list price of drugs for the public.

At the briefing, Primus mentioned three avenues that Pelosi, a California Democrat, sees toward lower drug prices, sources said. The first, the CREATES Act, is bipartisan legislation, strongly opposed by Big Pharma, that would make it easier for generic drug companies to get access to a sufficient quantity of medications needed to produce generics.

The second measure addresses what’s known as “pay for delay,” in which a drug company pays a generic manufacturer to not produce a generic version of an expensive drug. Democratic leadership wants to ban that practice. The third revolves around the issue of “evergreening,” which is a pharmaceutical industry practice of extending patent protection for a particular drug through a variety of practices. Democrats want to restrict evergreening to encourage cheaper generics make it to the market faster.

Primus’s approach has a strong political logic to it, as taking on every health care stakeholder at once is arguably more difficult than singling out one industry and hammering away, even if the effort is out of step with where progressive energy is at the moment.

Primus is known in Congress as one of the staunchest foes of Big Pharma, while Pelosi’s posture toward Medicare for All is more complicated. Publicly, she has long said that she supports it aspirationally. “I was carrying around single-payer signs probably before you were born, so I, you know, I understand that aspiration,” she said in 2017 during an interview with TV host Joy Reid.

“This is an idea that if we had a tabula rasa, if we were just starting clean, would be the most cost-effective way to go forward. We don’t have that,” she said. “Over 120 or 150 million people in our country have employer-based access to their health coverage and insurance.”

At the time, her objection to Medicare for All was that it distracted from the fight to defend the ACA, which Republicans were trying to gut. “So right now, I’m going to be crude. Now we’re in my living room, so I can be crude. It isn’t helpful to tinkle all over the ACA right now,” Pelosi said. “Right now, we need to support the Affordable Care Act and defeat what the Republicans are doing.”

At other moments, she has said that single payer isn’t popular, arguing, also in 2017, that “the comfort level with a broader base of the American people is not there yet.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which operates under Pelosi, in 2017 presented House Democrats with survey data, claiming that it showed that single-payer was a political loser, and that Democrats should focus their messaging on lowering drug prices and protecting the ACA.

Yet a significant number of Democrats who flipped Republican districts blue in 2018 were publicly supportive of Medicare for All, suggesting that it isn’t necessarily the albatross Pelosi and the DCCC believe it to be. A poll from October found that more than half of Republicans support the concept.

Pelosi’s agreement to hold House hearings on Medicare for All came after pressure from the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Yet the hearings will be held by the Budget Committee, which, unlike the powerful Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce committees, would not have final jurisdiction over Medicare for All in the event of a genuine attempt to pass it.

Primus, like Pelosi, is well-known to be a deficit hawk, and both subscribe to the argument put forward by the late Pete Peterson that the debt and deficit are among the gravest threats facing the country. When Peterson, a billionaire who spent hundreds of millions of dollars to push Washington policymakers toward austerity, died in 2018, Pelosi delivered a floor speech that praised him and his vision effusively, speaking of the man as if he’d dedicated his life to eradicating child malnutrition or curing cancer, rather than as a Wall Street tycoon who spent millions pushing for major cuts to Social Security and Medicare. “Pete was a clarion voice for fiscal responsibility, and a strong moral conscience in Washington,” Pelosi said in her House floor eulogy of Peterson, who, by 2012, had already spent half a billion dollars targeting Social Security, Medicare, and other spending programs.

“Pete’s prophetic voice on the importance of fiscal sustainability brought together generations of policymakers, no matter their political background,” Pelosi said. “His legacy will endure in many ways, but especially through the work of the Peterson Foundation, which continues to focus on solutions to America’s fiscal and economic challenges.”

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Slide: Recreated by The Intercept

Two of Primus’s five objections to single payer before the Blue Cross audience related to such alleged fiscal challenges. That argument, though, runs headlong into a surge of new interest among Democrats in Modern Monetary Theory, the idea that policymakers are still constrained by a mindset that was justifiable when the U.S. was on the gold standard, but is no longer defensible. Now that the U.S. issues a currency independent of its gold reserves, the obstacle to government spending is inflation, not the debt or deficit, proponents of MMT say. “This zero-sum mentality has no place in a post-Bretton Woods world,” said economist Stephanie Kelton in reaction to Primus’s argument that spending on Medicare for All would foreclose other priorities. (Post-Bretton refers to the global agreement that the dollar will be the global economy’s reserve currency, ultimately decoupled from gold.)

“The U.S. dollar is no longer tethered to gold, which means the federal government is not constrained in its spending by the need to raise revenue. The federal government cannot run out of dollars. This should be painfully obvious, but the gold-standard mentality continues to grip many lawmakers,” Kelton said.

As long as inflation remains low, the government can continue to authorize additional spending. That’s not so much an argument as it is simply an observation of the post-gold-standard reality that austerity advocates like Peterson have spent billions to distort. “The government can afford any new program it chooses to fund. The limits are in the real economy — if producers can’t keep up with the additional demand, inflation will result,” said Kelton, a former adviser to the Senate Budget Committee when it was chaired by Sen. Bernie Sanders. “The federal government — as the issuer of the U.S. dollar — can create all the money that is needed to guarantee health care for all of its people. It’s the rest of us — who merely use the dollar — who have to worry about costs and where to come up with the money to pay a huge medical bill when our private insurer refuses to cover the cost of care.”

This reality has been recognized by former Federal Reserve Chairs Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke, as well. “The United States can pay any debt it has because we can always print money to do that. So, there is zero probability of default,” Greenspan once said.

Ryan Grim is the author of the forthcoming book “We’ve Got People: The End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement.” Sign up here to get an email when it’s released.

The post Top Nancy Pelosi Aide Privately Tells Insurance Executives Not to Worry About Democrats Pushing “Medicare for All” appeared first on The Intercept.

Neomi Rao, Nominee to Replace Brett Kavanaugh, Heads Agency That’s Been Stalling Sexual Harassment Guidance

The federal agency managed by Neomi Rao, the nominee to replace Brett Kavanaugh on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, has been stalling a critical employer guidance on workplace sexual harassment for over a year.

Rao, who is the director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, is already reported to be on the Trump administration’s shortlist for a future Supreme Court position, should one open up, and faces senators in confirmation hearings on Tuesday.

OIRA is a division of the Office of Management and Budget, which evaluates regulations from across the federal government. In November 2017, just a month after the Harvey Weinstein revelations kicked off the #MeToo movement, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an independent agency, delivered the new harassment guidelines to OIRA. The federal government hasn’t updated its workplace guidance, which helps set human resources policy across the country, since the 1990s. A January 2017 proposed draft, issued just before President Donald Trump’s inauguration, was the product of a bipartisan task force and subject to months of public comment. But it has fallen into a black hole under Rao.

Recently, writings of Rao’s while at Yale University have been unearthed. “A good way to avoid a potential date rape is to stay reasonably sober,” Rao wrote in 1994. “And if she drinks to the point where she can no longer choose, well, getting to that point was part of her choice. … Implying that a drunk woman has no control of her actions, but that a drunk man does strips women of all moral responsibility.”

The cache of writings included an essay from 1994 in which she stated, “Trendy political movements have only recently added sexuality to the standard checklist of traits requiring tolerance.” Rao added: “No one knows whether sexuality is a biological phenomenon or a social construct. The truth may lie somewhere in the middle.” In a separate piece, she chided “homosexuals” for wanting “to redefine marriage and parenthood.”

Now, as OIRA administrator, Rao’s office has sat on the most important federal response to the #MeToo movement, which would clarify to workers and employers what the EEOC considers workplace sexual harassment. “I absolutely think it’s relevant to considering her record when it comes to civil rights,” said Maya Raghu, director of Workplace Equality and senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center.

Debra Katz, the sexual harassment lawyer who represented Christine Blasey Ford in her allegations against Kavanaugh last year, told Bloomberg Law last June, “In a moment where we have a huge cultural and societal reckoning, this administration is showing it’s not going to take a leadership role in preventing sexual harassment.”

In a statement to The Intercept, EEOC spokesperson Kimberly Smith-Brown described a “normal course” of back and forth on the content of rules and regulations with OIRA. “At this point, the ball is back in our hands here at the EEOC, and we’re evaluating it internally,” Smith-Brown said.

But experts in the regulatory process claim that the situation is unusual. As an independent agency, the EEOC is not required to send guidance to OIRA for review; the agency submitted it voluntarily. The normal timeline for guidance review is 90 days; the EEOC guidance is at 15 months and counting. And the guidance does not appear on any list of documents under review at OIRA, making it impossible for stakeholders and the public to track its status.

“You can’t find it on the website,” said Amit Narang, a regulatory policy advocate at Public Citizen. “They are using OIRA to keep this stuck.”

The Trump administration, as part of its deregulatory agenda, has waged a kind of war on agency guidance, which attempt to clarify or interpret statutes for regulated entities without having the force of law. Rao herself has said that the administration wants to limit agency guidance documents, saying that it relies on a “thinner constitutionality” standard, and “if there’s a guidance document that imposes significant costs — it’s economically significant, or otherwise significant from a policy perspective — we should be taking a look at that.”

The EEOC has not updated its sexual harassment guidance for employers since the 1990s. According to a 2016 task force report co-chaired by Democratic commissioner Chai Feldblum and Republican Victoria Lipnic, nearly one-third of the 90,000 charges received by the EEOC in fiscal year 2015 involved allegations of workplace harassment. Charges have spiked since then, as the #MeToo movement has only widened awareness of the realities of sexual misconduct in the workplace. The agency unanimously approved the guidance on a bipartisan basis when sending it to OIRA.

Feldblum’s proposed re-nomination to the commission was seen at one point as a major stumbling block in getting the guidance approved. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, put a hold on the nomination of Feldblum, who is openly gay, for another term, blocking two Republican nominees for EEOC in the process. Feldblum eventually chose to exit the EEOC at the end of 2018, leaving the agency with only two of five commissioners, not enough for a quorum.

Even with the political dispute out of the way, the guidance has been stalled at OIRA under Rao’s leadership.

The guidance accomplishes what conservatives often regard as an important function: providing clarity to businesses. Consolidating several earlier guidance documents under a single legal analysis, the EEOC lays out what types of harassing workplace conduct it would consider as violating federal equal employment opportunity and anti-discrimination statutes. “An updated guidance would be important for employers, so they know what the law is,” said Raghu, of the National Women’s Law Center. “It’s especially important for small businesses, many of whom don’t have HR directors or legal counsel to interpret the law for them.”

While not legally binding, EEOC defines in the guidance when it believes an employer is specifically liable, how it can limit liability through prevention and prompt corrective action, and what protected classes are covered.

The latter appears to be the sticking point with the administration. The guidance included gender identity and sexual orientation as covered under the interpretation of sex-based harassment. This has been EEOC policy since at least 2012, but it diverts sharply from the Justice Department’s views throughout the Trump presidency.

In October 2017, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions prohibited transgender people from protections against workplace discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the same statute EEOC cites in its guidance. Sessions’s Justice Department even filed legal briefs asking an appeals court and then the Supreme Court to reaffirm this interpretation of Title VII, in a case involving the EEOC.

Justice Department spokesperson Andrew Hudson referred questions about the updated guidance to the Office of Management and Budget, which did not respond to The Intercept’s queries. Hudson did note that the Justice Department and the EEOC recently signed a memorandum of understanding to work together on addressing workplace harassment within state and local governments. The MOU elided the sexual orientation issue.

Sessions is no longer attorney general, but the influence of social conservatives within the Trump administration remains strong. The Supreme Court recently allowed the administration to temporarily ban transgender service members from the military.

Rao’s inflammatory college writings have put her under the microscope for bias against LGBTQ Americans and a cavalier attitude toward sexual assault, which critics believe she will carry into her judgeship. People for the American Way is rallying opposition to Rao’s confirmation, saying in a petition that “Neomi Rao’s bigoted views have no place on the federal bench.”

More broadly, as OIRA administrator, Rao has been known as the “deregulation queen,” proudly blocking any number of regulatory measures. Questions of administrative law generally go to the D.C. Circuit, where Rao would sit if she were confirmed. “There are a whole host of rules that she has blocked that have a significant negative impact on a lot of people, especially vulnerable people,” said Raghu. Rao’s confirmation hearing is scheduled for February 5.

The post Neomi Rao, Nominee to Replace Brett Kavanaugh, Heads Agency That’s Been Stalling Sexual Harassment Guidance appeared first on The Intercept.

Four Reasons I’m Cautiously Optimistic About the Democratic Party in 2020

An American flag waves in front of the U.S. Capitol Dome as a winter storm arrives in the region Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

An American flag waves in front of the U.S. Capitol Dome in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 13, 2019.

Photo: Alex Brandon/AP


The 2016 elections — all of them — were painful. Democrats failed to take back the House and Senate and lost the presidency to a bigoted fraudster. I don’t intend to relitigate the whole thing here, but those losses, as well as key defeats in local and state races across the country, have caused real harm to legions of everyday Americans.

Some people blame the losses on Russia — and that’s ridiculous. Others make it out like the hacking and interference had no impact at all — and that’s ridiculous too. The Democrats lost for dozens of reasons, but the hacking and interference was damn sure one of them. It was a major distraction during the campaign. My fear was that it would also be such a distraction for the Democratic Party moving forward that the party would ignore all of the substantive changes it needed to address.

Don’t get me wrong, I think election interference is a huge deal. The safety and integrity of our elections is no small thing, but since the losses of 2016, Democrats have needed to find a way to walk and chew gum at the same time. There’s good news here: I see four things happening right now that makes me cautiously optimistic about the future of the Democratic Party.

Embracing Progressive Ideas

A few years ago, if you supported “Medicare for All,” you were probably either a hippie, a Bernie supporter, or both. Today, polls show that 70 percent of Americans like it, and mainstream Democrats are finally embracing it publicly. When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez began talking about how essential it is that the United States embrace a “Green New Deal,” on Day 1 her idea only had support from a few of her closest allies in government. In just a few weeks’ time, you’d now struggle to find a Democrat who doesn’t support it. Speaking of Ocasio-Cortez, she’s got the entire country talking about finally making the ultrarich pay their fair share of taxes. And a few years ago, I struggled to find a single mainstream Democrat talking about ending cash bail or decriminalizing weed — now those are basic talking points for presidential candidates.

I’m glad about all of this, but here’s why I’m cautiously optimistic. It’s easy as hell to talk about your bold policy choices when your party doesn’t have the power to enact them. I just want to make sure the Democrats don’t lose their nerve when it matters most.

Candidates Hiring Diverse Staff

One key reason why presidential candidates are so often tone deaf on issues of race and class is because their senior staffs are often primarily made up of white men. Democrats have completely changed this for the upcoming primaries. Julián Castro hired an amazing black woman, a highly skilled organizer named Maya Rupert, as his campaign manager. Kamala Harris announced that her campaign manager will be Juan Rodriguez, who also ran her Senate race in 2016. In Kirsten Gillibrand’s new staff, she announced six new hires — four of them are women. Of those six, two are African-American and one is Latina. This is a big deal. These early candidates are not just setting the tone for the candidates who will follow them, they are building teams that will actually be able to skillfully advise them on how to reach the entire nation.

Race Barriers Fall in Senate

I have long railed against the lack of diversity of Senate Democrats’ senior staffs. It’s still a serious problem, but it’s getting so much better. When Alabama’s Doug Jones was elected, he appointed the Senate’s first African-American chief of staff, Dana Gresham. Of course it’s embarrassing we had to wait this long. Thankfully, Sen. Elizabeth Warren just hired Anne Reid as her new chief of staff; an Obama administration alum, Reid became the first black woman to serve in this role for any Senate Democrat. She wasn’t the only black woman in that role for long. Gillibrand just hired Joi Chaney to serve in the same role for her office. Yes, I am celebrating the fact that we went from zero African-American chiefs of staff for Democrats to three — because it’s trending upward.

Competitive and Healthy Primaries

The 2016 Democratic presidential primaries were weird. A dozen serious candidates should’ve jumped in there to run, but they were either flagged off or chose not to, in order to make room for Hillary Clinton. I ultimately think that that was actually bad for Clinton. In the end, two people who nobody thought stood a chance, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, ignored the chatter and ran anyway. Sanders shocked the world and won 20 states, but a robust, competitive nationwide primary — with a normal number of candidates — would’ve been better for the winner. In 2008, Barack Obama beat out a who’s who of Democrats to win the nomination and went into the general with a ton of momentum. In some ways, that’s what Donald Trump actually did on the Republican side in 2016.

The upcoming Democratic primaries are going to be altogether different from the previous ones. Clearly, it appears that we will have a healthy number of candidates running. Already, with Warren, Harris, and Tulsi Gabbard in the race, it appears that the primary will set a record for the number of women running. Not only that, but this cross-section of candidates is already on pace to be the most ethnically diverse ever as well. These candidates look more like America. And with Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, now in the race, we have the first openly gay candidate to run for president. Whoever wins is going to have to fight in all 50 states to do so. And again, that’s going to be good for their chances at defeating Trump in 2020.

The post Four Reasons I’m Cautiously Optimistic About the Democratic Party in 2020 appeared first on The Intercept.

“‘Vicious’ And ‘Brutal’” — Life Inside a Freezing Federal Prison With No Heat

On Saturday morning, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., arrived at the Metropolitan Detention Center in New York City to demand answers.

Hundreds of people incarcerated at the federal detention facility in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn have been living without heat, light, telephone access, and lawyers for the past week, as the region endured arctic temperatures. After touring the facility with other elected officials, Nadler, the newly seated chair of the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said what he found was disturbing.

“There’s a total lack of urgency or concern on the part of the prison administration with respect to getting the heat and the hot water.”

“There’s a total lack of urgency or concern on the part of the prison administration with respect to getting the heat and the hot water, getting the services we need,” he said on the steps of the detention facility after his visit. Several hundred people, many of whom have family members inside, had gathered in protest outside the facility. While some cells did have heat, others were extremely cold, Nadler said, and all were without power.

While the elected officials toured the detention facility, the Metropolitan Detention Center’s surroundings echoed with the sound of incarcerated people banging on their windows in protest. In answer, hundreds of their family members and other supporters massed outside, chanting, “Humane treatment for all! Get those lights on! Get that heat on!”

“I’m just worried about my son’s health,” said Tina Mongo, through tears. “I haven’t been able to speak with him, and I haven’t been able to visit, and I don’t know if he’s alright. I just don’t know.”

A number of people incarcerated at Metropolitan Detention Center have a medical condition called sleep apnea and without functioning medical equipment they run the risk of a stroke, Nadler said. “When I said to the warden, how many people do you have people with CPAP machines, he said he didn’t know. I said, ‘Did you know there was a problem?’ He said, ‘No one raised it to me until now.’ Basic medical conditions are being ignored.”

Prison officials are in no rush to improve the situation, he said. “In an emergency condition, they are so eager to solve this condition that the contractors have left for the day and won’t be back until Monday.” Nadler said. “This shows the complete lack of urgency.”

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Hundreds rally in front of the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York, on Feb. 2, 2019, in protest of conditions at the federal prison facility.

Photo: Josh Begley

Other elected officials who toured the prison described similar medical concerns. New York City Council Member Jumaane Williams said he spoke to an incarcerated person with an untreated eye infection and another in need of psychiatric care who was not receiving it.

State Sen. Zellnor Myrie, D-Brooklyn, told The Intercept he was shown a cell in which an asthmatic man deprived of a nebulizer was lying on the floor of a poorly ventilated cell trying to suck air through the gap under the door.

“I saw a young man on the floor, holding a bright red inhaler, and he was saying through tears that he doesn’t know if he’s going to wake up tomorrow.”

“As they took us inside, I saw a young man on the floor, holding a bright red inhaler, and he was saying through tears that he doesn’t know if he’s going to wake up tomorrow,” Myrie said. “This man is pre-trial, he hasn’t been convicted of anything. I grew up using a nebulizer, so I know what it’s like to need it and not have it.”

Bureau of Prisons Warden Herman Quay was standing next to Myrie during the exchange inside the prison, the state senator said. The warden was apparently unmoved. “There was no sense of urgency,” Myrie said. “He was extremely elusive, and all of his answers to our questions were non-committal.”

New York City Council Member Brad Lander, who toured the Metropolitan Detention Center with other elected officials, described the prison’s Facilities Manager John Maffeo as “openly contemptuous” of the congressional representatives’ inquiry into conditions at the incarceration site.

The Metropolitan Detention Center houses more than 1,600 federal prisoners, ranging from around a half-dozen people convicted on federal terrorism charges to defendants who have not yet been found guilty of any crime. Union officials representing prison employees told the New York Times that power first went out at the jail on January 5, but that the heating issues began in earnest the week before last. On January 27, an electrical fire knocked out primary power to the jail. Under emergency power, lights were kept on in hallways, but not in the cells, and the prison went into lockdown.

“It’s awful,” said David Patton, the head of the public-interest legal advocates Federal Defenders of New York, who also toured the facility. “They’ve been on lockdown. There is no lighting. There is some heat, but it’s sporadic unit-to-unit. We were in one cell where the temperature was 50 degrees and there was water leaking into the cell.”

In some units, the heat is functioning, Patton said. “But even then,” he added, “you’re talking about the high 60s, and people are wearing essentially short-sleeve hospital scrubs.”

Patton said his office began getting frantic reports about conditions at the Metropolitan Detention Center on Wednesday. He and his colleagues began filing dozens of emergency bail applications and applications to modify incarcerated people’s conditions of confinement in an effort to get people out of the freezing jail. Those motions are pending, but the earliest hearings scheduled aren’t until Monday in the Eastern District of New York and Tuesday in the Southern District.

The hearings, which will include testimony on conditions inside the prison, will force Bureau of Prison officials to defend their public assertions — contradicted by accounts from inside — that all cells in the prison have light, that the incarcerated people are receiving hot meals, and that the detention facility’s heat has been unaffected throughout the ordeal.

“He described the past week as ‘torturous,’ ‘vicious’ and ‘brutal;’ a ‘mindfuck.’ He was desperate for a hot cup of tea.”

Armed with a court order, one defense lawyer made it into the Metropolitan Detention Center on Saturday to meet with this client. A publicly filed letter to the court from the lawyer, Anthony Cecutti, describes what he found. His client “arrived shivering and sick, with a cough and runny nose,” Cecutti wrote. “He described the past week as ‘torturous,’ ‘vicious’ and ‘brutal;’ a ‘mindfuck.’ He was desperate for a hot cup of tea, and grateful to walk from his unit to the West Building. He described himself as ‘broken.’” Cecutti’s client described a detention unit in which the cells are dark, meals are cold, and there continues to be neither heat nor hot water.

A spokesperson for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city has offered the jail assistance in the form of generators, blankets, and handwarmers, but has so far been rebuffed. In a tweet sent Saturday evening, de Blasio announced the aid was coming anyway, “whether they like it or not.”

The Bureau of Prisons did not answer emailed questions Saturday, referring instead to a press release. “A work ticket has been submitted by the electrical contractor to schedule a work crew to restore power to the new temporary service switch,” the release reads in part. “The current estimate is that the work is expected be completed by Monday.” The release states that incarcerated people are receiving medical care and notes that the detention facility is accepting blankets from the New York City Office of Emergency Management.

Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., who was part of the delegation that visited the federal detention facility Saturday afternoon, announced on Twitter afterwards that she had spoken with the director of the Bureau of Prisons, who agreed that the situation was unacceptable.

For many family members gathered outside the Metropolitan Detention Center Saturday, the most resonant statement seemed to come from Williams, the city council member. “Those people in there do not care what’s happening,” Williams told the gathered crowd. “The only way they probably would have cared is if it was white, preppy students who were in there.”

In the wake of the fire, “nobody had a plan to make this system run; nobody cared about the people who were in there,” Williams said. “Whatever happened here only exacerbated the problem that already existed. When the heat finally comes on, we have to make sure that people are getting medical. We have to make sure people are treated as human beings.”

The post “‘Vicious’ And ‘Brutal'” — Life Inside a Freezing Federal Prison With No Heat appeared first on The Intercept.

How the Green New Deal Became the Green New Deal

The signature effort that has become attached to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., the “Green New Deal,” was originally intended to go by a different name, she told The Intercept in a recent podcast interview. But as social media and news outlets covering the platform began coalescing around the term, which had long been used by the Green Party, Ocasio-Cortez ceded to the public, she said. 

With more than 2.6 million followers on Twitter and more than 2.1 million on Instagram, Ocasio-Cortez has a social media presence that surpasses any of her peers, including Democratic leadership, and her level of engagement on Twitter regularly rivals President Donald Trump. Key to that, she said, is using social media to gauge the public mood and respond accordingly.

Earlier this month, the 29-year-old democratic socialist held a crash course about Twitter for her Democratic colleagues in which she covered her approach “and how we can better get a party message to really resonate with people,” she said.

In addition to using social media to teach her followers about the inner workings of Congress and some of the more complex policy fights, Ocasio-Cortez said she also uses Twitter to listen and see what kind of messaging gains traction. “That’s probably one thing that I that I did not share in this Twitter 101, because maybe that’s more of a 201, in that it’s not just an outlet, it’s also an inlet, in that it is a place where you can — where you take temperature, where you take pulse, and it’s not just how to tweet but it’s also how to listen and how to read,” she said.

“And, and that really tells you where people are at, where the zeitgeist, so that you can kind of be speaking in a way that is not going against the tide of of the language and the mood in the sentiment of where people are.”

She cited the Green New Deal as an example of a time she used social media to gauge public reaction to the branding of a policy. Her campaign had been floating the idea of a Green New Deal before the general election, interviewing policy experts, academics, and activists about it. At the time, though, “Green New Deal” was only a working title and the campaign hadn’t yet settled on what they would call it or how they would talk about it to the public, “I wasn’t 1,000 percent sure on that kind of branding, if you will, or how we would talk about that.”

The term had long been floating around left-wing policy spaces. A Green New Deal has been part of the Green Party’s platform for more than a decade, and Jill Stein had been campaigning on it since 2012. Early use of the term traces back, oddly, to Thomas Friedman, who wrote a New York Times column in 2007 about the concept and later expanded the idea in a book. The following year, Barack Obama made a Green New Deal, or “Green Jobs,” part of his presidential platform, and brought Van Jones into his administration to try to implement a small a version of it. The concept didn’t fully take off until a new wave of progressive candidates campaigned on a more aggressive version of it — but its sudden surge into the mainstream happened after Sunrise, a youth-led environmental organization, held a sit-in in Nancy Pelosi’s office.

Ocasio-Cortez dropped by to cheer on the young activists, and in the ensuing weeks Sunrise pushed dozens of members of Congress to adopt a resolution calling for a new select House committee on climate change. Ultimately, Democratic leadership didn’t completely give in to the demand, as the panel will not have any of the major features progressives were asking for. The committee won’t have the authority to approve legislation or any subpoena power to compel testimony from oil industry executives or obtain documents.

“Green New Deal was a working title, and we almost had the understanding that was going to be called something else,” she said. “But it kept leaking, and catching, and people just started writing articles calling it a Green New Deal before we even said anything or called it that ourselves. And so because of that, that was in a moment where it was listening, and I was like OK let’s not try to force our own thing on this, if this is building traction, if it’s easily being communicated, then let’s just run with it.”

The post How the Green New Deal Became the Green New Deal appeared first on The Intercept.

The U.S. Helped Push Venezuela Into Chaos — and Trump’s Regime Change Policy Will Make Sure It Stays That Way

Venezuela's National Assembly president Juan Guaido gestures as he speaks before a crowd of opposition supporters during an open meeting in Caracas, on January 16, 2019. - A dozen intelligence service agents were sent to prison by a Venezuelan court Wednesday over the brief detention of parliamentary president Juan Guaido, a judicial source said. Guaido was heading to a political rally outside the Venezuelan capital on Sunday when his car was stopped on a highway and he was briefly detained by intelligence service agents. (Photo by Federico PARRA / AFP)        (Photo credit should read FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images)

Venezuela’s National Assembly president Juan Guaidó speaks before a crowd of opposition supporters during an open meeting in Caracas, Venezuela, on Jan. 16, 2019.

Photo: Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images

Washington has been trying to topple Venezuela’s government for at least 17 years, but the Trump administration has taken a more openly aggressive tack than its predecessors. Last week, administration officials kicked their efforts into high gear by anointing their chosen successor to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro Moros in advance of any coup d’etat. The 35-year-old Venezuelan member of Congress Juan Guaidó announced that he was now president, and the Trump administration, along with allied governments, immediately recognized him — in accordance with a previously arranged plan.

It is clear that President Donald Trump’s goal is regime change; his administration is not even trying to hide it. And his allies, like Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., have long made it obvious what they are after.

It would be a terrible mistake to keep going down this road. Trump’s policies have only worsened the suffering of Venezuelans and made it almost impossible for the country to pull out of its prolonged economic depression and hyperinflation.

A negotiated solution is necessary to resolve the political conflict in Venezuela, yet the Trump administration’s commitment to extralegal regime change is rapidly precluding this option.

A negotiated solution is necessary to resolve the political conflict in Venezuela, yet the Trump administration’s commitment to extralegal regime change is rapidly precluding this option. Worse still, Trump’s apparent strategy is to increase suffering through sanctions — more of which were just announced — until a fraction of the military carries out a coup to create a new, pro-Washington government.

The fairness of the 2018 presidential election, which the opposition boycotted, is up for debate, but the main problems with the regime change strategy have to do with other considerations. Venezuela is a polarized country and overthrowing the government — even if Washington were not involved in the fight — would only increase this polarization and the chances of greater violence or even civil war.

Consider the example of Nicaragua, where in 1990 the leftist Sandinistas and their U.S.-backed opponents agreed to settle their differences through an election. The sides had to agree on certain conditions so that the losers would not be persecuted: The Sandinistas kept control over the army after they lost the elections, and peace was maintained.

These sorts of necessary compromises would be impossible under the regime change strategy being pursued by the Trump administration.

Venezuela is polarized along political lines and has been ever since Hugo Chávez was elected president in 1998 and launched his Bolivarian Revolution. The opposition’s attempt to overthrow Chávez in a military coup in 2002, aided and abetted by officials in the George W. Bush administration, as well as the opposition leadership’s vacillating willingness to accept the results of democratic elections in subsequent years laid the groundwork for many years of distrust.

Venezuela’s political polarization, however, also intersects with a great chasm that permeates most of Latin American society: a division by class and race. As in most of the Americas, the two are correlated. In the opposition protests that have occurred over the past decade, one could see these differences in the clothes worn by pro- versus anti-government protesters and in their skin tones. The opposition crowds and their leaders have been considerably whiter and from higher income groups than Venezuelans who supported the government. In the most recent protests, there has been an increase in anti-government actions in working-class and poor areas in Caracas, but the class and racial divide between Chavistas and opposition has not gone away.

Another line of Venezuelan polarization is the belief in sovereignty and self-determination. The Chavistas have made independence from the U.S. a centerpiece of their agenda, and their government, when it had money, pursued policies in the hemisphere that sought more independence for the region as well. The opposition and enemies of the Chavista governments, by contrast, have worked closely with the U.S. government for the past two decades — as can be seen in the coordination of this latest attempted coup. Washington’s intervention aggravates the polarization along the lines of sovereignty, and opens the opposition to charges of alignment with a foreign power — and a power that has historically played a terrible role in the region. To appreciate the animosity that this would create, think of how much ill will has been generated in the U.S. by Russian intervention in the 2016 presidential election, and multiply that by a few orders of magnitude.

The polarizing impact of the Trump regime change operation is what makes it so dangerous.

The polarizing impact of the Trump regime change operation is what makes it so dangerous. Inflation is probably over 1 million percent annually, and the economy is estimated to have shrunk by a Latin American record of 50 percent over the past five years. Millions have left the country to look for work. The opposition would almost certainly have won the last presidential election if they had participated. (For the record, the U.S. reportedly threatened an opposition candidate who did participate, Henri Falcón, with personal financial sanctions if he ran for president.)

Though the government’s economic policies have played a role in Venezuela’s woes, the Trump sanctions have made things considerably worse since August 2017, decimating the oil industry and worsening shortages of medicine that have killed many Venezuelans. The Trump sanctions also make it nearly impossible for the government to take the necessary measures to exit from hyperinflation and depression.

Though the U.S. media is quiet on the matter, it’s important to note that the Trump sanctions are both violently immoral — again, they kill people — and illegal. They are prohibited under the Organization of American States Charter, the United Nations Charter, and other international conventions that the U.S. is party to. The sanctions also violate U.S. law, since the U.S. president must state, absurdly, that Venezuela presents “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security” of the United States in order to impose these measures.

Venezuela cannot exit from this political crisis by one side vanquishing the other, as the proponents of regime change assume. The Vatican played a role as mediator in 2016, and Uruguay and Mexico — who have remained neutral in the political conflict — offered this week to help mediate. But the Trump team is a powerful influence on the opposition, and they have so far shown no interest in a peaceful solution.

The post The U.S. Helped Push Venezuela Into Chaos — and Trump’s Regime Change Policy Will Make Sure It Stays That Way appeared first on The Intercept.

“We Have Exhausted All Our Options”: Oakland Teachers May Be the Next to Strike

Backed by millions in spending by a handful of billionaires, the charter school movement has been on the march for years, nowhere more so than in California. As its momentum has grown, traditional public education has been on the retreat throughout the state, resulting in school closures, overburdened teachers, and fiscal crises for school districts.

Then came the Los Angeles teachers strike.

Last week, the Los Angeles Board of Education passed a resolution asking the state to impose an eight- to 10-month moratorium on new charter schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The measure, which was among the demands on the bargaining table during the strike, was unprecedented for the school district and even more surprising given the school board’s pro-charter slant. The vote demonstrated the breadth of the victory achieved by the strike, which halted the charter school movement’s relentless advance in the second-biggest school district in the state.

Now, the front line of the fight over public schools is shifting to Oakland, where today, teachers are casting ballots on whether to strike as soon as mid-February. As in LA, the issues on the bargaining table in Oakland include higher teacher salaries, smaller class sizes, and more support staff in schools. And, also as in LA, looming in the background is a years-long fight between billionaires who aim to eliminate traditional, democratically controlled public schools and teachers who wish to preserve them.

Billionaires vs. Teachers

The Oakland Unified School District is in a fiscal crisis. The school board has halted construction projects and is planning to cut over 100 central administrative jobs, impose across-the-board cuts to all of its schools, and close two dozen schools over five years in a desperate scramble to forestall a $30 million budget deficit for the 2019-20 school year.

The impact of the deficit at the classroom level is most apparent in the Oakland school district’s sky-high teacher turnover rate. Oakland teachers are among the lowest-paid in the Bay Area, and 1 in 5 of them leave the district annually, compared to just over 1 in 10 statewide. “We’re grinding them out,” said Ismael Armendariz, a 32-year-old special education instructor, of the churn rate for teachers in the district. Armendariz took a job with the union in 2014, but when he was employed by the district, he made $56,000 a year in one of the most expensive metropolitan areas in the world. “I lived paycheck to paycheck,” he said.

A major contributor to the crisis is the rapid and uncontrolled expansion of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run.

In recent years, the charter school industry and its supporters have dumped huge sums of money into elections in California in an aggressive bid to expand its presence in public school districts throughout the state. Last year, a record $50 million was spent in the race for state superintendent of public instruction, two-thirds of it on behalf of the pro-charter candidate. A state legislative race in the East Bay drew $1.4 million in spending from outside groups, much of it from the charter school industry. In 2017, the Los Angeles school board race became the most expensive in U.S. history, at a combined $15 million, with close to $10 million of it coming from the charter side.

But Oakland in particular seems to hold special significance for charter school boosters. The city has drawn a deluge of money from pro-charter billionaires that is rare to see in municipal elections. Last year, Michael Bloomberg donated $120,000 to an independent expenditure committee connected with GO Public Schools, a nonprofit organization that organizes and advocates on behalf of charter school expansion, which went on to drop more than $150,000 on a single 2018 Oakland school board race.

The investments have paid dividends. Out of the seven seats on the Oakland school district’s board, five are occupied by GO Public Schools-endorsed candidates. “Oakland is one of the cities where the charter school industry thinks maybe they can flip the whole district,” said University of Oregon political economist Gordon Lafer. GO Public Schools did not return a request for comment.

It’s extraordinarily easy to open a charter school in California. “Anybody minimally legally and financially compliant cannot be stopped from opening a school,” said Lafer, who has studied the growth of charters in the state. By law, school districts cannot deny a petition to open a charter school unless its educational program is unsound or it is “demonstrably likely” to fail at its educational mission.

According to Lafer’s research, the proliferation of charter schools in Oakland costs the school district $57.3 million per year, yet the district cannot take into account the impact a new charter will have on the finances of existing schools when deciding on an application.

Charter schools directly compete with traditional public schools; they fill their classrooms by drawing students away from district-run schools. In California, schools are funded on a per-pupil basis. That means that when a student leaves a school, her apportionment of funding goes with her, costing the school district money. The district also saves the expense of educating that student, but given the fixed costs of running a school, Lafer’s research shows, the amount of money lost to the school district always outpaces the amount saved.

Compounding this dynamic is the requirement that traditional schools take in all students who come their way, while charters have no such obligation. Through the enrollment process, charters often filter out students whose education would require more resources, including special needs students, homeless youth, students learning English as a second language, and those who recently arrived as refugees. “They recruit kids and they say, ‘We want you to write an essay; we want your parents to write an essay; we want your parents to volunteer in school,’” Lafer said, which has the effect of pushing away less self-motivated students and children of parents who are, by habit or circumstance, less focused on their children’s education. “You have a system where the neediest and most expensive kids to educate are concentrated in traditional public schools.”

The disparity is particularly pronounced with special needs students. In California, funding for special education is based on the overall student population, not on the percentage of special needs students a school enrolls. By enrolling fewer special needs students, charter schools are able to receive funding for services they do not provide, while public schools’ efforts are underfunded.

As a special education instructor, Armendariz experienced the consequences of this shortfall. “We wouldn’t get the support we needed,” he said. “When we reached out [to the district], we were at the bottom of the list. Mental health support, slots with counselors — it was hard to get people with experience working with kids with disabilities.”

“All of those burdens fall on our district, because we have a moral and a legal obligation to serve them,” Armendariz said. The system, he added, seems “designed to fail.”

oakland-teachers-strike-signs-1549042482

At a meeting for parents about a possible upcoming strike, the Oakland Education Association distributed signs to community members to show their support for public school teachers.

Photo: Leighton Akio Woodhouse for The Intercept

“The Nail in the Coffin for Democratic Control of Our Public Schools”

The growth of Oakland charter schools has been so explosive it has led to a fear among charter school operators that in their competition to recruit new students, charters are cannibalizing not just traditional schools, but each other. That concern is one impetus for an effort by charter school advocates to establish a new model of overseeing the district, called the “portfolio model,” under which the school board is transformed from a governmental oversight body into something more like an investment portfolio manager. Rather than determine rules and regulations and allocate budgets based on need, under the portfolio model, the board evaluates school performance and invests and divests from them accordingly, like publicly traded stocks.

The model could rationalize and streamline the explosion of charter schools in Oakland and bring a measure of order to a largely unregulated market. It could also lead to further expansion of the charter school sector at the expense of traditional public schools, weaken the city’s teachers union, and undermine democratic control of the city’s schools.

That’s what happened in New Orleans, where after Hurricane Katrina, the state took over the public school system and converted it almost entirely into nonunion charter schools. Last year, control was handed back to a locally elected school board, but unelected staffs of charter management organizations maintained power over financing, personnel, and pedagogy.

In 2014, when the district was still under state control, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings attributed what he believed to be the success of New Orleans charter schools to the fact that “they don’t have an elected school board.” He described school boards as an impediment to long-term education planning and charter schools as a vehicle to “evolve America” beyond them.

Elected school boards — where advocates for district schools, including teachers unions, can exercise political power — have traditionally resisted the expansion of charter school chains, whose growth can benefit tech industry moguls like Hastings. Charter management organizations such as the Knowledge is Power Program, whose board Hastings sits on, are known for “blended learning,” an approach to teaching that puts a heavy emphasis on integrating screens and internet into classroom instruction. This pedagogical method has helped fuel a booming $43 billion market in educational technology, which tech giants like Google, Apple, and Microsoft have battled to dominate, and in which Mark Zuckerberg’s foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, has invested heavily, with mixed results.

Hastings has spent eye-popping amounts to move California school boards in his direction, including $7 million on LA’s 2017 school board race, which resulted in the city’s first ever pro-charter majority. The portfolio model would solidify these gains by permanently transferring school boards’ power over key areas of decision making to privately held, nonprofit charter management organizations — essentially deregulating charter schools. It is the vision behind GO Public Schools’s Oakland initiative, which has proven divisive even among charter school advocates and has been excoriated by defenders of district schools. Keith Brown, the president of Oakland’s teachers union, said the plan would “put the nail in the coffin for democratic control of our public schools.”

Even without the portfolio model, Oakland public school teachers are faced with a school board that largely favors the partial privatization of public education, which has put their district in chronic fiscal crisis, bled their schools of resources, and overburdened them with the most expensive students to teach. With the conventional political process effectively controlled by pro-charter billionaires, teachers are turning to their most direct and foundational source of power: the ability to withhold their labor.

“We have exhausted all of our options,” said Armendariz. “Teachers feel that the only way we’re going to make any change is to take the fight to the privatizers.”

The post “We Have Exhausted All Our Options”: Oakland Teachers May Be the Next to Strike appeared first on The Intercept.

With Green New Deal Committee Neutered, Energy and Commerce Democrat Says “Smash and Grab” Is Over

House Energy and Commerce Democrats weren’t thrilled about the suggestion of a new select House committee on climate change, worried that its power would creep into their expansive jurisdiction. Committee leaders flexed what internal muscle they had to make sure that the committee, established at the behest of progressives behind the “Green New Deal,” was defanged, withholding subpoena power and the authority to approve new legislation.

Rep. Bobby Rush, the No. 2 Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, told The Intercept that he was pleased to see the end of a “smash and grab” that’s pushed the committee to cede “too much of our jurisdiction over the years.”

“The grab is over, as far as I’m concerned, in terms of Energy and Commerce, this smash and grab that’s been going on for too long in this Congress,” he told The Intercept in an interview.

“We’re gonna return to regular order as we have exercised it in the past, and we stand on it now. You know, we’re not ceding any of the Energy and Commerce jurisdiction. I’m not in favor of not one measure, not one iota of Energy and Commerce’s jurisdiction to be ceded to other committees.”

Asked what he planned to do with that power, Rush said, “We’re gonna do what we’ve always done. Legislate, deliberate, legislate, move bills to the floor. And we’re going to continue to work hard on behalf of the American people.”

But while Chair Frank Pallone said he understands and shares concerns “about the need for transformational action” laid out in the Green New Deal, he added in a statement to The Intercept that he wants to prioritize “actions we can take this year that will make a difference now.”

That doesn’t square with the Green New Deal’s 10-year plan to get to 100 percent renewable energy, which foresees drafting and organizing around transformative legislation in the next two years, and then enacting it in the beginning of a new Democratic administration. To pull that off, the advocates of the select committee argued that none of its members should take money from fossil fuel companies.

Stephen Hanlon, communications director for the Sunrise Movement, which led the occupation in the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, told The Intercept that walking and chewing gum was preferable. “With Trump in the White House, we’re focusing on building the public and political support to elect a Congress and president in 2020 that can make the Green New Deal law in 2021,” Hanlon said. “We certainly should take what action we can in the interim, but that is no substitute for putting forward a plan in line with the ambition the latest science says is necessary.”

Pallone argued that the fossil fuel industry dollars flowing through the committee won’t have any impact on the agenda.

The committee’s first hearing will assess the environmental and economic impacts of climate change, Pallone said, and it will be “the first of many hearings on the subject.” He pointed out the “stark difference from past Republican House majorities, which refused to hold hearings on climate change and denied that it even existed.” Asked if oil and gas executives would be called before the committee, a spokesperson told The Intercept that no decisions have been made about specific hearings or who would testify.

Pallone plans to prioritize investing in green energy infrastructure, energy efficiency, and other programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and reversing a long list of environmental rollbacks under the Trump administration, he said, which included lifting restrictions on coal plant greenhouse gas emissions and opening parts of the Arctic to oil and gas drilling.

But when asked whether the committee would reconsider how it addresses contributions to members from the fossil fuel industry, Pallone — who does not take oil and gas money — noted his longstanding support of public campaign finance and said he believes that lawmakers should be judged instead by their record and agenda.

Asked if he thought the pledge by incoming Reps. Nanette Barragán and Darren Soto to refuse fossil fuel money would spread to other members of the committee, Rush — who receives the second least oil and gas money of the eight committee members who take it — told The Intercept that he wasn’t sure. “And that’s an individual decision among members of the committee. I would not dare try to dictate their fundraising strategies or techniques,” he said. Neither Barragán nor Soto responded to requests for comment.

Rep. Kurt Schrader, former chair of the conservative Blue Dog caucus, took the most money from the oil and gas industry last cycle at $77,500, with $75,500 coming from PACs and $2,000 from individuals. Next is incoming committee member Rep. Marc Veasey, who took a total of $63,050, including $40,500 from PACs and $22,550 from individuals. Rep. Gene Green took $24,000 from the industry, including $23,500 from PACs and $500 from individuals. Rep. Paul Tonko took $24,000 in PAC money. Rep. Mike Doyle took $18,000 from oil and gas PACs, and Rep. Peter Welch took $18,000. Rush took $13,000 in oil and gas PAC money, and Rep. G. K. Butterfield took $11,500.

Of 31 Democrats on the committee, those who signed the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, in addition to Barragán and Soto, are Reps. Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois.

Asked if Veasey would continue taking oil and gas money, his office did not answer the question but directed The Intercept to a tweet from his account announcing his support for public campaign financing, as laid out in H.R. 1. Schrader did not respond to a request for comment.

Vice Chair Yvette Clarke of New York, who has not signed the pledge but does not take oil and gas money, told The Intercept that she didn’t have a position on the issue. “I think that if that is a determination about how you vote or how you shape policy, that it’s definitely a conflict,” she said, but added that during her time in the committee minority, Democrats were unified in pushing back against bad actors. “I haven’t seen that as a major factor, as a factor at all,” she said.

Rep. Eliot Engel, also of New York, said he doesn’t take money from the industry. Asked if he thought his colleagues should join the pledge, he said he thought it was an independent decision. “I don’t take the money because I don’t agree with the philosophy, but I’m not gonna point the finger at anybody else,” he told The Intercept. He said he doesn’t think that taking oil and gas money presents a conflict of interest but that he “would love to see money get out of politics,” referencing New York City’s public campaign finance program as a model.

“Politicians making climate policy should not be taking money from the lobbyists and executives who have spent the past decades deceiving the public about the science and doing everything they can to protect their bottom lines, even when that means imperiling the entire planet,” said Hanlon, the Sunrise Movement spokesperson. “Any politician who wants the votes of young people in 2020 needs to sign the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge and back a Green New Deal. If Frank Pallone is serious about taking action on climate, he will use his chairmanship to put forward a vision for a Green New Deal in line with what science and justice demands.”

The post With Green New Deal Committee Neutered, Energy and Commerce Democrat Says “Smash and Grab” Is Over appeared first on The Intercept.

Elizabeth Warren Will Make Her Presidential Bid Official in February

Sen. Elizabeth Warren will make her presidential campaign official with a major speech and announcement on February 9, according to two sources with knowledge of her plan. The announcement will convert her current exploratory phase into a full-blown bid for the presidency.

The Massachusetts Democrat was the first major candidate to formally declare her intention to run, announcing the formation of her exploratory committee on New Year’s Eve. She was able to capture large crowds and attention before being joined in the field by Sen. Kamala Harris, who made her announcement on January 21, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. On Sunday, Harris officially kicked off her campaign with a massive gathering in Oakland.

Warren has garnered headlines with her proposal for a wealth tax aimed at reducing inequality. It would be the first federal policy of its kind, and it plays into a newfound interest in taxing the ultrarich triggered by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s call for a 70 percent tax rate on incomes above $10 million. Warren’s wealth tax would kick in at $50 million. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has followed with a proposal for a large estate tax on the extremely rich.

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s curious decision to saunter into the presidential race has also been a gift to Warren. Since he declared his interest in the presidency on Monday, she has pounded away at the billionaire coffee mogul, who opposes taxing the wealthy and insists that the nation is too poor to provide health insurance to all its citizens. Sanders, who has yet to announce a campaign, has largely left Schultz alone, ceding the pummeling — and the resulting headlines and donations — to Warren.

Warren’s broadly successful January comes after a bruising several weeks at the end of 2018, after she released the results of a DNA test confirming distant Native American heritage. A number of high-profile Native Americans, as well as representatives of major tribes, welcomed Warren’s announcement, but others panned it. Most famously, Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. issued a scathing rebuke.

A DNA test is useless to determine tribal citizenship. Current DNA tests do not even distinguish whether a person’s ancestors were indigenous to North or South America. Sovereign tribal nations set their own legal requirements for citizenship, and while DNA tests can be used to determine lineage, such as paternity to an individual, it is not evidence for tribal affiliation. Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong. It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven. Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.

On Thursday, Hoskin Jr. returned to the issue in a more gently worded column in Tulsa World, an Oklahoma newspaper. “When someone boasts they are Native American due to the results of a DNA test, it perpetuates the general public’s misunderstanding about what it means to be a tribal citizen,” he wrote.

The senator’s move was also broadly condemned by a wide range of columnists — including at The Intercept — and she has been doing cleanup since. In December, she sought to right the perception that she was claiming some sort of marginalized status. “I’m not a person of color. And I haven’t lived your life or experienced anything like the subtle prejudice, or more overt harm, that you may have experienced just because of the color of your skin,” she said at a commencement address at the historically black Morgan State University. On the campaign trail, she has noted repeatedly that she does not claim citizenship in any tribe nor was she trying to.

But she’s quietly since gone a step further. Warren has been in touch with Cherokee Nation leadership, apologizing for furthering confusion over issues of tribal sovereignty and citizenship and for any harm her announcement caused, two sources with knowledge of her overture said. The Warren campaign declined to comment; the Cherokee Nation did not respond to requests for comment.

The field is expected to continue to expand, with Sanders, who has been interviewing staff and building a team, likely to announce his bid soon. Sanders and Warren occupy a similar space on the ideological spectrum, while Harris, along with potential entrants Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, have more elastic politics.

The post Elizabeth Warren Will Make Her Presidential Bid Official in February appeared first on The Intercept.

US will map and disrupt North Korean botnet

The US government plans to turn the tables on North Korea-linked hackers trying to compromise key infrastructure. The Justice Department has unveiled an initiative to map the Joanap botnet and "further disrupt" it by alerting victims. The FBI and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations are running servers imitating peers on the botnet, giving them a peek at both technical and "limited" identifying info for other infected PCs. From there, they can map the botnet and send notifications through internet providers and foreign governments -- they'll even send personal notifications to people who don't have a router or firewall protecting their systems.

Source: Department of Justice

Primaries Matter: How a Long-Shot Challenge Shifted the Debate on the War in Yemen

Congress made its most aggressive use ever of the War Powers Act to end an ongoing conflict at the end of 2018, with the Senate approving — and the House coming just short — a resolution that would have required the United States to end its support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

On Wednesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., re-introduced that resolution, and with the House in Democratic control, it’s expected to pass both chambers this year and head to the president’s desk, setting up a confrontation over U.S. involvement in the war.

Since 2015, the United States has provided logistical support to Saudi Arabia, in addition to tens of billions of dollars in arms sales. The resolution, which seeks to end that, picked up momentum in the wake of the butchering of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

But inside the House, a much lower-profile development played a critical but overlooked role: a Democratic primary campaign in Washington state. Significant credit for that resolution’s earlier momentum, say people closely involved in the process, belongs indirectly to Sarah Smith, a long-shot congressional candidate who challenged Democratic Rep. Adam Smith in Washington last year, making it to the general election before losing. Adam Smith at the time was the top-ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee and is now the panel’s chair, and Sarah Smith mounted her challenge largely in opposition to what she cast as his hawkish foreign policy approach, with a specific emphasis on Yemen.

Adam Smith, facing the challenge from Sarah Smith, became an outspoken advocate of using the War Powers Resolution in the fall to go up against the Trump administration, including by becoming a leading sponsor of a new War Powers resolution on Yemen. Now that he has won re-election, he remains a supporter of the effort, but his enthusiasm for it has changed noticeably.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 12:  House Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) questions witnesses during a hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill April 12, 2018 in Washington, DC. The Trump administration's top war-fighters, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, testified before the committee about their FY2019 defense budget request, the possible military response to alleged chemical attacks in Syria and other subjects.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

House Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) questions witnesses during a hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill April 12, 2018 in Washington, DC.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“The War Powers resolution thing,” Smith told trade reporters who cover the Pentagon and the weapons industry in a post-election interview in December, before groaning. “There’s no way in the world you can write these stories that’s going to come out in a way that’s positive for me, but I’ll say it anyway: The War Powers resolution is only so useful.”

His shift in rhetoric underscores the impact primary challenges can have on internal House politics, but it also could make him vulnerable to another challenge in two years.

“Primary challenges put pressure on Democrats in many blue districts to be more accountable to progressive and Democratic voters in their districts.”

“For nearly a year Adam Smith faced a primary challenge from Justice Democrat Sarah Smith who routinely brought up his hawkish foreign policy views and campaign donations from defense contractors as central issues in the campaign,” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesperson for Justice Democrats, which backed Sarah Smith’s candidacy. “In many of our races, even when we lost, there was a clear ‘primary effect’ when Democratic incumbents started to embrace more progressive policies and rhetoric. Primary challenges put pressure on Democrats in many blue districts to be more accountable to progressive and Democratic voters in their districts.”

Adam Smith might think it’s hard to write this story in a way that comes out positively for him, but let’s try anyway. It’s fair to say he is not by any stretch the most hawkish member of Democratic leadership and is regarded by progressive foreign policy advocates as somebody who’s willing to work with them. “From Afghanistan to Yemen to the budget, it’s never been Smith we had to move, to be honest,” said one advocate who works with Smith, but asked not to be named for fear of repercussion from House leaders. “Sometimes his staff severely holds him back, but often, he’s been rather helpful behind the scenes in triangulating to move Steny off one bad position or another,” the advocate said, referring to Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., a pro-Israel hawk and the No. 2 Democrat in the House.

Smith is a politician, and even if his primary race, and the anti-incumbent mood that swept the party in 2018, influenced his Yemen posture, there’s nothing inherently immoral with taking into account the views of the public when it comes to public policy positions. According to people involved with the effort to pass the Yemen resolution, the starkest change in Smith’s approach came in the wake of the June 26 primary victory by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, who shocked the political world by unseating Joe Crowley, who was in line to be speaker of the House.

That appeared to focus Smith’s mind on his own primary election, scheduled for August 7. Washington state uses a top-two system, meaning that all candidates run in the same primary, and if the top-two finishers are from the same party, both of those candidates go on to the general election. Polls showed that Sarah Smith, dogging him relentlessly, was in striking distance of finishing second.

Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory had confused many veteran politicians, who sensed that things were changing, and nothing could be taken for granted. Throw in two people named Smith on the ballot, and things could go terribly wrong for one of them. When the primary came around, Adam Smith was the top vote-getter, and Sarah Smith narrowly edged out the top Republican challenger, winning the second spot on the general election ballot.

“All of a sudden, Adam started to change his tune.”

Sarah Smith said she could sense Adam Smith becoming less hawkish in real time. “I went after him about Yemen every time I got an opportunity to and I kept hammering him. When Ro [Khanna] was leading the charge, I started talking about how Ro is a junior congressman in his first term and he is leading on this, where Adam has failed for years, and I talked about how we didn’t just get involved in Yemen. And then Alex [Ocasio-Cortez] won and people started noticing my campaign and me talking about getting us out of Yemen and they started to become very interested, and all of a sudden, Adam started to change his tune,” Sarah Smith said.

Adam Smith rejects this characterization entirely. “I was actually on the Yemen stuff before I even knew she existed,” he told The Intercept. “It’s not just about Yemen, it’s about Saudi Arabia more broadly, the authoritarian crackdown, obviously the murder of Khashoggi. They are becoming more and more lawless in the way they’re acting and not just in Yemen, but elsewhere. … I’m happy to push our administration and Congress to do more on that issue.”

His opposition to U.S. involvement in Yemen, however, became decidedly more forceful as Sarah Smith’s candidacy became more potent. In 2016, Smith was just one of 16 Democrats to vote against defunding Saudi Arabia’s use of cluster bombs. On July 26, 2018, Smith trumpeted his success in winning restrictions on war activity in Yemen in a defense appropriations bill passed by the House. It wasn’t terribly strong, however. The bill, also backed by Khanna, prohibited the U.S. military from providing in-flight refueling to Saudi and other coalition aircraft involved in the Yemen war, unless the secretary of state could certify that “the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE are taking certain actions related to the civil war in Yemen.”

On September 6, a month after Sarah Smith clinched a primary win, Adam Smith announced that he was introducing a War Powers Resolution, with Khanna, and Mark Pocan, D-Wisc., to end the Yemen war.

Given his perch on the Armed Services Committee and his influence on matters of foreign policy, Adam Smith’s public push for the resolution was a signal to rank-and-file Democrats that it was an issue worth supporting, and the party broke en masse in favor of the resolution. Both Hoyer and Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is another leading hawk in the House, endorsed the Yemen resolution in late September.

Adam Smith went on to win the general election easily, beating Sarah Smith, 68-32. A week after Election Day, House Republicans beat back the resolution. A month later, it came up again, and this time it barely failed, with five Democrats voting with Republicans against it.

That same morning, Smith sat down with the trade reporters to offer his pessimistic take on the resolution.

His anger at how Saudi Arabia and the UAE were carrying out the war — “the closing of ports, the cutting off of aid and food, a relentless bombing campaign, and the civilian devastation that’s resulted from that is largest humanitarian crisis in the world” — was undiminished, but the War Powers Resolution wasn’t going to stop it, he said, Breaking Defense reported.

He noted that U.S. presidents have almost unfettered control over the military, and that Congress would have to completely cut funding from the military to block the president’s actions. “It’s not so much that the War Powers Resolution is going to make the administration go, ‘Oh, shit, well we really wanted to do this, but since you hit us with this, we won’t,’” Smith told the reporters in December. “It’s that it will put public pressure on them to change what they are doing — and we’ve already seen they’ve stopped the refueling.”

When Smith referenced the resolution that he and Khanna had introduced, he characterized it as solely Khanna’s resolution. “I’ve worked with Ro Khanna, and even in his resolution, he makes it very clear he’s not stopping us from confronting Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups within Yemen,” Smith said. Indeed, the resolution carved out an exception for U.S. operations targeting Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Despite doubting the effectiveness of the resolution, Smith said that Khanna and Sanders’s efforts are important “because it raises awareness and attention to the problem and the question of what we ought to be doing in Yemen.”

That type of endorsement, however, leaves plenty of room for advocates of war to believe that the chair of the Armed Services Committee is no longer part of the Sanders-Khanna posse working furiously to end U.S. involvement in the conflict.

Asked by The Intercept where he would rank the War Powers Resolution as an effective tool to nudge Saudi Arabia in the right direction, he demurred. “I wouldn’t rank these things. Look, I mean, we cannot dictate to Saudi Arabia their foreign policy, so we shouldn’t have illusions about that. We have to figure out where can we nudge and prod and push them in a direction that is better. So I think it’s a mistake to look at it as if there’s something we can do that would just like that change the way they interact,” he said. “My great hope for that region is that the Sunni and the Shia and the Persians and the Arabs can find some sort of peaceful resolution to their current disputes.”

In this photo taken Friday, Oct. 26, 2018, House candidate Sarah Smith poses for a photo in Seattle. Smith thought her campaign to unseat longtime Rep. Adam Smith might receive a lot more attention after little-known Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upset a 10-term incumbent in New York last summer. Like Ocasio-Cortez, Sarah Smith is a young woman, a political newcomer and a Bernie Sanders-supporting Democratic Socialist challenging an entrenched fellow Democrat. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

House candidate Sarah Smith campaigns to unseat longtime Rep. Adam Smith on Oct. 26, 2018, in Seattle, Wash.

Photo: Elaine Thompson/AP

Sarah Smith said that if Adam Smith backslides on Yemen, she’s willing to challenge him again, but she’s watching to see how he does as the chair of the House Armed Services Committee before making the decision. (Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Sarah Smith in 2018, and given Ocasio-Cortez’s higher profile, Smith noted, a second endorsement could mean that the challenge would pose a bigger threat.) “I’m not an opportunistic person. I’m just a calculated person. And so if he says he’s as progressive as he is, and if he makes all these promises on the campaign trail, I will be as supportive as I can be, as long as he is meeting his end of the bargain,” she said. “If he fails to meet his obligation, I’m going to make notes of every single time he’s failed and I’m going to challenge him again.”

One area Sarah Smith tried but did not succeed in pushing Adam Smith last year was the Stop Arming Terrorists Act, which would bar the Pentagon from arming three militant groups with a presence in Syria, including Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. (The Pentagon has armed Syrian rebels on the condition that their weapons be used only in the fight against ISIS, and the assertion that the U.S. has actively armed terror groups in Syria has little basis in fact.) The bill was introduced by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, and co-sponsored by a small bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Khanna and Rep. Barbara Lee, but Adam Smith declined to co-sponsor it. “He’ll talk about, ‘Oh, I’m so progressive, I’m working with Ro very closely on this. It’s abhorrent what we’re doing in Yemen,’” Sarah Smith said of her former opponent, “but if you push him on any other bill beyond that, he won’t talk about it, radio silence, or he’ll have a million excuses. He is the excuse king.”

Adam Smith, though, said that his position on Yemen has nothing to do with Sarah Smith. Asked about her contention that his resistance to the Stop Arming Terrorists Act suggested weakness on his willingness to confront Saudi Arabia, he took a swipe at her residence, which sits just across the district. “I’m happy to talk about the issue, but I really don’t care what that one individual is going to say. She’s not even actually a constituent,” he said.

Ryan Grim is the author of the forthcoming book We’ve Got People: The Rise of a New Force in American Politics. To get an email when it’s released, sign up here.

The post Primaries Matter: How a Long-Shot Challenge Shifted the Debate on the War in Yemen appeared first on The Intercept.

Elliott Abrams, Trump’s Pick to Bring “Democracy” to Venezuela, Has Spent His Life Crushing Democracy

On December 11, 1981 in El Salvador, a Salvadoran military unit created and trained by the U.S. Army began slaughtering everyone they could find in a remote village called El Mozote. Before murdering the women and girls, the soldiers raped them repeatedly, including some as young as 10 years old, and joked that their favorites were the 12-year-olds. One witness described a soldier tossing a 3-year-old child into the air and impaling him with his bayonet. The final death toll was over 800 people.

The next day, December 12, was the first day on the job for Elliott Abrams as assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs in the Reagan administration. Abrams snapped into action, helping to lead a cover-up of the massacre. News reports of what had happened, Abrams told the Senate, were “not credible,” and the whole thing was being “significantly misused” as propaganda by anti-government guerillas.

This past Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo named Abrams as America’s special envoy for Venezuela. According to Pompeo, Abrams “will have responsibility for all things related to our efforts to restore democracy” in the oil-rich nation.

The choice of Abrams sends a clear message to Venezuela and the world: The Trump administration intends to brutalize Venezuela, while producing a stream of unctuous rhetoric about America’s love for democracy and human rights. Combining these two factors — the brutality and the unctuousness — is Abrams’s core competency.

Abrams previously served in a multitude of positions in the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, often with titles declaring their focus on morality. First, he was assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs (in 1981); then the State Department “human rights” position mentioned above (1981-85); assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs (1985-89); senior director for democracy, human rights, and international operations for the National Security Council (2001-05); and finally, Bush’s deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy (2005-09).

In these positions, Abrams participated in many of the most ghastly acts of U.S. foreign policy from the past 40 years, all the while proclaiming how deeply he cared about the foreigners he and his friends were murdering. Looking back, it’s uncanny to see how Abrams has almost always been there when U.S. actions were at their most sordid.

Abrams, a graduate of both Harvard College and Harvard Law School, joined the Reagan administration in 1981, at age 33. He soon received a promotion due to a stroke of luck: Reagan wanted to name Ernest Lefever as assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, but Lefever’s nomination ran aground when two of his own brothers revealed that he believed African-Americans were “inferior, intellectually speaking.” A disappointed Reagan was forced to turn to Abrams as a second choice.

A key Reagan administration concern at the time was Central America — in particular, the four adjoining nations of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. All had been dominated by tiny, cruel, white elites since their founding, with a century’s worth of help from U.S. interventions. In each country, the ruling families saw their society’s other inhabitants as human-shaped animals, who could be harnessed or killed as needed.

But shortly before Reagan took office, Anastasio Somoza, the dictator of Nicaragua and a U.S. ally, had been overthrown by a socialist revolution. The Reaganites rationally saw this as a threat to the governments of Nicaragua’s neighbors. Each country had large populations who similarly did not enjoy being worked to death on coffee plantations or watching their children die of easily treated diseases. Some would take up arms, and some would simply try to keep their heads down, but all, from the perspective of the cold warriors in the White House, were likely “communists” taking orders from Moscow. They needed to be taught a lesson.

Relatives and villagers hold a funeral to bury the exhumed and identified remains of 21 people killed during the El Mozote massacre, during the commemoration the 1981 killings, in El Mozote, 200 km east of San Salvador, on December 10, 2016. In December 1981, during the 1980-1992 civil war in El Salvador, members of the US-trained Salvadoran elite Atlacatl battalion killed more than a thousand villagers during counterinsurgency operations in El Mozote and neighbouring villages, in what is known as the El Mozote massacre.  / AFP / Marvin RECINOS        (Photo credit should read MARVIN RECINOS/AFP/Getty Images)

Relatives and villagers hold a funeral to bury the identified remains of 21 people killed in the 1981 El Mozote massacre, on Dec. 10, 2016.

Photo: Marvin Recinos/AFP/Getty Images

El Salvador

The extermination of El Mozote was just a drop in the river of what happened in El Salvador during the 1980s. About 75,000 Salvadorans died during what’s called a “civil war,” although almost all the killing was done by the government and its associated death squads.

The numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. El Salvador is a small country, about the size of New Jersey. The equivalent number of deaths in the U.S. would be almost 5 million. Moreover, the Salvadoran regime continually engaged in acts of barbarism so heinous that there is no contemporary equivalent, except perhaps ISIS. In one instance, a Catholic priest reported that a peasant woman briefly left her three small children in the care of her mother and sister. When she returned, she found that all five had been decapitated by the Salvadoran National Guard. Their bodies were sitting around a table, with their hands placed on their heads in front of them, “as though each body was stroking its own head.” The hand of one, a toddler, apparently kept slipping off her small head, so it had been nailed onto it. At the center of the table was a large bowl full of blood.

Criticism of U.S. policy at the time was not confined to the left. During this period, Charles Maechling Jr., who had led State Department planning for counterinsurgencies during the 1960s, wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the U.S. was supporting “Mafia-like oligarchies” in El Salvador and elsewhere and was directly complicit in “the methods of Heinrich Himmler’s extermination squads.”

Abrams was one of the architects of the Reagan administration’s policy of full-throated support for the Salvadoran government. He had no qualms about any of it and no mercy for anyone who escaped the Salvadoran abattoir. In 1984, sounding exactly like Trump officials today, he explained that Salvadorans who were in the U.S. illegally should not receive any kind of special status. “Some groups argue that illegal aliens who are sent back to El Salvador meet persecution and often death,” he told the House of Representatives. “Obviously, we do not believe these claims or we would not deport these people.”

Even when out of office, 10 years after the El Mozote massacre, Abrams expressed doubt that anything untoward had occurred there. In 1993, when a United Nations truth commission found that 95 percent of the acts of violence that had taken place in El Salvador since 1980 had been committed by Abrams’s friends in the Salvadoran government, he called what he and his colleagues in the Reagan administration had done a “fabulous achievement.”

SLUG: FO/EXHUME, 11 DATE: 07/27/2006 Neg number: 183425 PHOTOGRAPHER: SARAH L. VOISIN Guatemala City, GUATEMALA The Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation is a non-profit organization that investigates, documents and raises awareness about human rights violations, particularly unsolved murders, that occurred during Guatemala's 30 year civil war. They are doing thousands of exhumations throughout the country. One way they are finding bodies is by arrest records from the years of the conflict in the National Police Archives. PICTURED: The National Police Archives has recently gathered all the police documents from the country in several concrete buildings in the capital. The documents are being preserved and studied for clues about police atrocities committed during the conflict where hundreds of thousands of people were murdered. The records are in bad shape and completely disorganized. There are bags of loose photographs which have fallen off police records.  (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

The Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation sorts through bags of loose photographs from the National Police Archives on July 27, 2006, as they study police atrocities and murders committed during Guatemala’s 30-year civil war.

Photo: Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Guatemala

The situation in Guatemala during the 1980s was much the same, as were Abrams’s actions. After the U.S. engineered the overthrow of Guatemala’s democratically elected president in 1954, the country had descended into a nightmare of revolving military dictatorships. Between 1960 and 1996, in another “civil war,” 200,000 Guatemalans were killed — the equivalent of maybe 8 million people in America. A U.N. commission later found that the Guatemalan state was responsible for 93 percent of the human rights violations.

Efraín Ríos Montt, who served as Guatemala’s president in the early 1980s, was found guilty in 2013, by Guatemala’s own justice system, of committing genocide against the country’s indigenous Mayans. During Ríos Montt’s administration, Abrams called for the lifting of an embargo on U.S. arms shipments to Guatemala, claiming that Ríos Montt had “brought considerable progress.” The U.S. had to support the Guatemalan government, Abrams argued, because “if we take the attitude ‘don’t come to us until you’re perfect, we’re going to walk away from this problem until Guatemala has a perfect human rights record,’ then we’re going to be leaving in the lurch people there who are trying to make progress.” One example of the people making an honest effort, according to Abrams, was Ríos Montt. Thanks to Ríos Montt, “there has been a tremendous change, especially in the attitude of the government toward the Indian population.” (Ríos Montt’s conviction was later set aside by Guatemala’s highest civilian court, and he died before a new trial could finish.)

Nicaragua

Abrams would become best known for his enthusiastic involvement with the Reagan administration’s push to overthrow Nicaragua’s revolutionary Sandinista government. He advocated for a full invasion of Nicaragua in 1983, immediately after the successful U.S. attack on the teeny island nation of Grenada. When Congress cut off funds to the Contras, an anti-Sandinista guerrilla force created by the U.S., Abrams successfully persuaded the Sultan of Brunei to cough up $10 million for the cause. Unfortunately, Abrams, acting under the code name “Kenilworth,” provided the Sultan with the wrong Swiss bank account number, so the money was wired instead to a random lucky recipient.

Abrams was questioned by Congress about his Contra-related activities and lied voluminously. He later pleaded guilty to two counts of withholding information. One was about the Sultan and his money, and another was about Abrams’s knowledge of a Contra resupply C-123 plane that had been shot down in 1986. In a nice historical rhyme with his new job in the Trump administration, Abrams had previously attempted to obtain two C-123s for the Contras from the military of Venezuela.

Abrams received a sentence of 100 hours of community service and perceived the whole affair as an injustice of cosmic proportions. He soon wrote a book in which he described his inner monologue about his prosecutors, which went: “You miserable, filthy bastards, you bloodsuckers!” He was later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush on the latter’s way out the door after he lost the 1992 election.

Panama

While it’s been forgotten now, before America invaded Panama to oust Manuel Noriega in 1989, he was a close ally of the U.S. — despite the fact the Reagan administration knew he was a large-scale drug trafficker.

In 1985, Hugo Spadafora, a popular figure in Panama and its one-time vice minister for health, believed he had obtained proof of Noriega’s involvement in cocaine smuggling. He was on a bus on his way to Panama City to release it publicly when he was seized by Noriega’s thugs.

According to the book “Overthrow” by former New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer, U.S. intelligence picked up Noriega giving his underlings the go-ahead to put Spadafora down like “a rabid dog.” They tortured Spadafora for a long night and then sawed off his head while he was still alive. When Spadafora’s body was found, his stomach was full of blood he’d swallowed.

This was so horrific that it got people’s attention. But Abrams leapt to Noriega’s defense, blocking the U.S. ambassador to Panama from increasing pressure on the Panamanian leader. When Spadafora’s brother persuaded North Carolina’s hyper-conservative GOP Sen. Jesse Helms to hold hearings on Panama, Abrams told Helms that Noriega was “being really helpful to us” and was “really not that big a problem. … The Panamanians have promised they are going to help us with the Contras. If you have the hearings, it’ll alienate them.”

… And That’s Not All

Abrams also engaged in malfeasance for no discernible reason, perhaps just to stay in shape. In 1986 a Colombian journalist named Patricia Lara was invited to the U.S. to attend a dinner honoring writers who’d advanced “inter-American understanding and freedom of information.” When Lara arrived at New York’s Kennedy airport, she was taken into custody, then put on a plane back home. Soon afterward, Abrams went on “60 Minutes” to claim that Lara was a member of the “ruling committees” of M-19, a Colombian guerrilla movement. She also, according to Abrams, was ”an active liaison” between M-19 ”and the Cuban secret police.”

Given the frequent right-wing paramilitary violence against Colombian reporters, this painted a target on Lara’s back. There was no evidence then that Abrams’s assertions were true — Colombia’s own conservative government denied it — and none has appeared since.

Abrams’s never-ending, shameless deceptions wore down American reporters. “They said that black was white,” Joanne Omang at the Washington Post later explained about Abrams and his White House colleague Robert McFarlane. “Although I had used all my professional resources I had misled my readers.” Omang was so exhausted by the experience that she quit her job trying to describe the real world to try to write fiction.

Post-conviction Abrams was seen as damaged goods who couldn’t return to government. This underestimated him. Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., the one-time chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tangled fiercely with Abrams in 1989 over the proper U.S. policy toward Noriega once it become clear he was more trouble than he was worth. Crowe strongly opposed a bright idea that Abrams had come up with: that the U.S. should establish a government-in-exile on Panamanian soil, which would require thousands of U.S. troops to guard. This was deeply boneheaded, Crowe said, but it didn’t matter. Crowe presciently issued a warning about Abrams: “This snake’s hard to kill.”

WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 4:   Chief of Protocol Nancy Brinker, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, Elliott  Abrams, Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Global Democratic Strategy, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Stephen Hadley, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs stand in the background as U.S. President George W. Bush (R) meets with Saad Hariri, leader of the Lebanese Parliament, in the Oval Office of the White House on October 4, 2007 in Washington, DC. Hariri, the son of the slain former Prime minister of Lebanon, is in Washington for talks about the future of Lebanon.  (Photo by Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images)

Nancy Brinker, Dick Cheney, Elliott Abrams, Condoleezza Rice, and Stephen Hadley in the Oval Office as then-President George W. Bush meets with the leader of the Lebanese Parliament on Oct. 4, 2007.

Photo: Dennis Brack,Pool/Getty Images


To the surprise of Washington’s more naive insiders, Abrams was back in business soon after George W. Bush entered the White House. It might have been difficult to get Senate approval for someone who had deceived Congress, so Bush put him in a slot at the National Security Council — where no legislative branch approval was needed. Just like 20 years before, Abrams was handed a portfolio involving “democracy” and “human rights.”

Venezuela

By the beginning of 2002, Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, had become deeply irritating to the Bush White House, which was filled with veterans of the battles of the 1980s. That April, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, Chavez was pushed out of power in a coup. Whether and how the U.S. was involved is not yet known, and probably won’t be for decades until the relevant documents are declassified. But based on the previous 100 years, it would be surprising indeed if America didn’t play any behind-the-scenes role. For what it’s worth, the London Observer reported at the time that “the crucial figure around the coup was Abrams” and he “gave a nod” to the plotters. In any case, Chavez had enough popular support that he was able to regroup and return to office within days.

Iran

Abrams apparently did play a key role in squelching a peace proposal from Iran in 2003, just after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The plan arrived by fax, and should have gone to Abrams, and then to Condoleezza Rice, at the time Bush’s national security adviser. Instead it somehow never made it to Rice’s desk. When later asked about this, Abrams’s spokesperson replied that he “had no memory of any such fax.” (Abrams, like so many people who thrive at the highest level of politics, has a terrible memory for anything political. In 1984, he told Ted Koppel that he couldn’t recall for sure whether the U.S. had investigated reports of massacres in El Salvador. In 1986, when asked by the Senate Intelligence Committee if he’d discussed fundraising for the contras with anyone on the NSC’s staff, he likewise couldn’t remember.)

Israel and Palestine

Abrams was also at the center of another attempt to thwart the outcome of a democratic election, in 2006. Bush had pushed for legislative elections in the West Bank and Gaza in order to give Fatah, the highly corrupt Palestinian organization headed by Yasser Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, some badly needed legitimacy. To everyone’s surprise, Fatah’s rival Hamas won, giving it the right to form a government.

This unpleasant outburst of democracy was not acceptable to the Bush administration, in particular Rice and Abrams. They hatched a plan to form a Fatah militia to take over the Gaza Strip, and crush Hamas in its home territory. As reported by Vanity Fair, this involved a great deal of torture and executions. But Hamas stole a march on Fatah with their own ultra-violence. David Wurmser, a neoconservative who worked for Dick Cheney at the time, told Vanity Fair, “It looks to me that what happened wasn’t so much a coup by Hamas but an attempted coup by Fatah that was pre-empted before it could happen.” Yet ever since, these events gave been turned upside down in the U.S. media, with Hamas being presented as the aggressors.

While the U.S. plan was not a total success, it also was not a total failure from the perspective of America and Israel. The Palestinian civil war split the West Bank and Gaza into two entities, with rival governments in both. For the past 13 years, there’s been little sign of the political unity necessary for Palestinians to get a decent life for themselves.

Abrams then left office with Bush’s exit. But now he’s back for a third rotation through the corridors of power – with the same kinds of schemes he’s executed the first two times.

Looking back at Abrams’s lifetime of lies and savagery, it’s hard to imagine what he could say to justify it. But he does have a defense for everything he’s done — and it’s a good one.

In 1995, Abrams appeared on “The Charlie Rose Show” with Allan Nairn, one of the most knowledgable American reporters about U.S. foreign policy. Nairn noted that George H.W. Bush had once discussed putting Saddam Hussein on trial for crimes against humanity. This was a good idea, said Nairn, but “if you’re serious, you have to be even-handed” — which would mean also prosecuting officials like Abrams.

Abrams chuckled at the ludicrousness of such a concept. That would require, he said, “putting all the American officials who won the Cold War in the dock.”

Abrams was largely right. The distressing reality is that Abrams is no rogue outlier, but a respected, honored member of the center right of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. His first jobs before joining the Reagan administration were working for two Democratic senators, Henry Jackson and Daniel Moynihan. He was a senior fellow at the centrist Council on Foreign Relations. He’s been a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and now is on the board of the National Endowment for Democracy. He’s taught the next generation of foreign policy officials at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He didn’t somehow fool Reagan and George W. Bush — they wanted exactly what Abrams provided.

So no matter the gruesome particulars of Abrams’s career, the important thing to remember — as the U.S. eagle tightens its razor-sharp talons around yet another Latin American country — is that Abrams isn’t that exceptional. He’s mostly a cog in a machine. It’s the machine that’s the problem, not its malevolent parts.

The post Elliott Abrams, Trump’s Pick to Bring “Democracy” to Venezuela, Has Spent His Life Crushing Democracy appeared first on The Intercept.

The Unbearable Stupidity of Howard Schultz’s Presidential Fantasy

Former Chairman and CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, speaks during the presentation of his book 'From The Ground Up' on January 28, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP)(Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)

The former chair and CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, speaks during a presentation on his book “From the Ground Up” on Jan. 28, 2019 in New York City.

Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

Is this a joke?

Billionaire Howard Schultz is considering running for president of the United States. The ex-Starbucks CEO and former owner of the Seattle SuperSonics, who has zero experience in government or politics, thinks Donald Trump is “not qualified” to be commander-in-chief.

To misquote Phoebe Buffay from “Friends”: “Hello, kettle? This is Howard. You’re black.”

If Trump is “not qualified,” then what the hell is Schultz? In all fairness to the pretend president, Trump is able to command crowds and attention like no other politician on the right. His name recognition was off the charts when he ran in the Republican primaries in 2016. The former Starbucks boss, on the other hand, is a charisma-free zone; the only crowds he seems to attract are his humiliating Twitter ratios.

The truth is that despite claiming to be “bored” by Trump, and voicing his opposition to the president’s “vitriolic display of bigotry and hate and divisiveness,” Schultz has far more in common with the reality star-turned-POTUS than he might like to admit. His Trumpian ego has made him — an old, rich white guy who got rich selling coffee! — think he can be Leader of the Free World™.

There’s also his Trumpian dishonesty. Schultz, the “lifelong Democrat,” has spent the past few days hurling a series of false accusations not against Trump, but against Democrats. He attacked Sen. Kamala Harris’s support for “Medicare for All” as “not American,” which is absurd given that Medicare itself has been around for more than 50 years, while “Medicare for All” is polling at 70 percent, with majority support even among Republicans.

He claimed that the “majority of Americans” are opposed to “a 70 percent income tax in America,” as suggested by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Another lie. A recent Hill-HarrisX survey found that 59 percent of voters support the Ocasio-Cortez tax proposal (which only applies to income over $10 million), including a clear majority of independents.

Schultz also said that “the greatest threat domestically to the country is this $21 trillion debt hanging over the cloud of America and future generations.” Again, false. A number of leading economists disagree with him on the debt. And, as HuffPost’s Zach Carter points out, “his $21.5 trillion debt monster is an exaggeration: It includes trillions of dollars the government owes to itself.” (Oh, and for the record, a whopping 2 percent of Americans cite the federal debt as “the most important problem facing the country today.”)

There’s the Trumpian stinginess too. According to an investigation by The Young Turks, in 2017, Schultz donated less than 1 percent of his $3.4 billion net worth to his own charity. “All told,” reported TYT, “Schultz has given an estimated two-and-a-half percent of his wealth to the family nonprofit, based on tax filings dating back to 1999.” Sound familiar?

The former Starbucks CEO doesn’t like paying higher taxes, either. Schultz, the self-styled deficit hawk, isn’t opposed to Trump’s deficit-busting tax cuts — only the size of them. He has lambasted Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s new proposal for a wealth tax as “ridiculous.” Should we be surprised? As a billionaire himself, he’d have to pay a 3 percent wealth tax, according to the Warren plan.

His beloved overpriced coffee chain doesn’t have a much better record on taxation. In 2017, Starbucks’s European division paid a mere $5.9 million in taxes, on U.K. profits of $213 million — or an effective tax rate of just 2.8 percent.

Then there’s the Trumpian ignorance. The self-deprecating Schultz, unlike the president, is willing to concede that he is not the “smartest person in the room.” That may be an understatement, though. For a start, why does he think he has any chance of winning the presidency in 2020? What’s his route to victory in a two-party system? Schultz, the political neophyte, does not even understand how presidential candidates get on the ballot. He thinks that polls showing that 4 in 10 Americans identify as “independents” means his own independent presidential campaign will attract widespread support — when reams of evidence suggest that self-styled independents are (closet) partisans. “Only about 7 percent of people who identify as independents truly don’t like either party,” reported NPR on Tuesday, citing research from political scientist Samara Klar, author of the book “Independent Politics.”

Schultz, it seems, is Trump without the tan, the bluster, or the border wall. And if he decides to run in 2020, his independent candidacy, to quote former Obama strategist David Axelrod, will be a “gift” to the Republican incumbent — potentially splitting the anti-Trump vote and giving this racist disaster of a president another four years in the Oval Office.

Guess who agrees?

Team Trump. Consider the president’s very deliberate tweet on Monday, goading the coffee mogul to enter the 2020 race as an independent:

Consider also the very deliberate praise heaped on Schultz by the likes of Hugh Hewitt and the hosts of “Fox and Friends.”

Is there a way, then, of dissuading the ill-informed, egomaniacal Schultz from burning through hundreds of millions of dollars on a pointless, Trump-boosting presidential campaign? Will op-eds like this work? How about a consumer boycott of Starbucks? Maybe more protests at his book-signing events? Kudos, in fact, to the protester who heckled Schultz at a Barnes & Noble in New York on Monday evening, summarizing the case against him in eight pithy words: “Don’t help elect Trump, you egotistical billionaire asshole.”

The post The Unbearable Stupidity of Howard Schultz’s Presidential Fantasy appeared first on The Intercept.

Donald Trump and the Yankee Plot to Overthrow the Venezuelan Government

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The White House is openly plotting to bring down the government of Nicolas Maduro in Caracas. It is being openly promoted as a campaign to steal Venezuelan oil for the benefit of U.S. corporations, and some powerful Democrats are cheering Trump on and joining the conspiracy. Elliott Abrams, one of the premiere butchers of the U.S. dirty wars in Central America in the 1980s, has been named the point man in the effort to bring regime change to Venezuela. This week on Intercepted: Investigative journalist Allan Nairn talks about the history of U.S. crimes in Central America, the time he told Abrams, on national television, he should stand trial for war crimes, and the threat of U.S. military action in Venezuela. Corporate media coverage of Venezuela has been atrocious and largely uniform with the role of successive U.S. administrations in destabilizing the country almost never highlighted. Former Hugo Chávez adviser Eva Golinger and journalist and educator Roberto Lovato discuss how Venezuela was thrust into economic crisis, who is responsible, and what Washington really wants.

Transcript coming soon.

The post Donald Trump and the Yankee Plot to Overthrow the Venezuelan Government appeared first on The Intercept.

Coming Off LA Strike Victory, a New Wave of Teacher Protests Takes Hold

#RedforEd, the national teacher-led movement that started last year, continues to flex its muscles. On the heels of a successful six-day strike in Los Angeles, teachers in Virginia, Colorado, and elsewhere in California are voicing their demands for better working conditions, and, in some cases, threatening to strike.

On Monday, thousands of public school teachers flooded into Richmond, Virginia, for a one-day demonstration to pressure state lawmakers to increase funding for public education. The Richmond day of action was organized by a grassroots educator group, Virginia Educators United. It came after about nine months of planning, according to a Virginia Educators United spokesperson, and was backed by an “independent coalition” of stakeholders who support public schools, including union members, non-union members, educators, parents, administrators, and policymakers. Like the teacher uprisings in other states, supporters wore red in solidarity.

The teachers’ demands for increased funding come amid a steep drop in resources over the last decade. According to the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a Virginia think tank, per-pupil state funding for the 2018-2019 school year was 9.1 percent lower in real dollars than in 2008-2009.

The march garnered local and national teacher union support. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, marched in Richmond on Monday alongside Lily García, president of the National Education Association.

“Our folks, we’re not big in Virginia, but we’re mighty, and we have three or four very active locals that have been working closely with the Virginia Educators United,” said Weingarten in an interview Monday afternoon. “Virginia is a pretty rich state, but actually spends about a billion dollars less in education than it did before the recession, which means its priorities need to be reordered.”

Weingarten said the last straw for many Virginia educators was seeing how readily lawmakers were able to come up with a “bountiful set of tax breaks” for Amazon to open its HQ2 in the state. If the state can competitively invest in business development, the teachers say, it should be able to invest in its schools and teachers. According to data from the NEA, Virginia ranks 34th nationally when it comes to teacher pay, with the average teacher earning $51,049.

Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam expressed support for the rallying teachers.

About 1,670 miles west, in Denver, teachers are also preparing to go on what would be their first strike since 1994. While the strike was scheduled to take place on Monday, last week, Denver’s public school district requested state intervention, a move that could delay the strike for up to 180 days. Democratic Gov. Jared Polis has 14 days to decide if he will intervene, and his office has so far said he is undecided. If the state intervenes, Polis could call for a neutral fact-finder to assist in negotiations, or offer resources like arbitration or mediation. A strike in the middle of state intervention would be illegal, and teachers, guidance counselors, and nurses could face financial penalties and even the revocation of their licenses.

Lisa Calderón, a Denver mayoral candidate, urged Polis to stay out of the situation. “This is not a state issue, this is a local workers’ issue,” she said recently.

The Denver school district and union are at odds over teacher pay, as well as the size of bonuses for educators who work in schools where there are high levels of poverty among students. Denver educators are also highlighting the fact that administrative spending remains much higher in their city than in other parts of the state. Throughout 2018, there were signs of growing teacher militancy in Denver, and many parents, community members, and teachers began talking about the likelihood of a strike months ago. This past April, thousands of teachers descended on Denver, the state capital, to call on lawmakers to increase funding for public education. These demonstrations weren’t technically strikes (educators called them “walkouts”), as most school districts closed down beforehand in support of the teachers.

Teacher pay in Colorado ranks 31st in the country, and last year, the average educator earned just under $53,000, according to the state’s education department. Pay can vary widely across Colorado, with some districts averaging salaries above $70,000 and others with pay closer to $30,000. Last year in Denver, the average teacher pay (before bonuses) was $50,757.

In Northern California, the Oakland Education Association has called for a four-day strike authorization vote to begin Tuesday. Oakland educators, like their counterparts in LA, have been calling for smaller class sizes, more school nurses and counselors, and higher pay. They have been working without a contract since July 2017. In 2010, Oakland teachers went on strike for one day, and in 1996, they took the streets for 26 days.

Los Angeles teachers returned to work last Wednesday after a six-day strike, their first labor stoppage since 1989. Following the strike, 81 percent of United Teachers Los Angeles members voted to ratify their new contract, which includes new caps on class sizes and commitments to hire more nurses and librarians. The union also won a commitment from the Los Angeles Unified School District to develop a plan to reduce the number of standardized tests and explore limits on charter school growth, a big point of contention in the strike. Teachers also agreed to salary increases of 6 percent, which is what the district had offered prior to the strike.

The post Coming Off LA Strike Victory, a New Wave of Teacher Protests Takes Hold appeared first on The Intercept.

A World Divided: Trump and China Take Sides in Venezuela; Maduro Warns: ‘Blood’s on Your Hands’

The U.S and China have lined themselves up along either side of the ever-widening Venezuelan faultline, as Donald Trump continues to stoke the fire which rages between Nicolas Maduro and the new self-declared president Juan Guaido. On Monday Donald Trump and his cabinet cranked up trade sanctions against the troubled Venezuelan regime, while Maduro responded […]

The post A World Divided: Trump and China Take Sides in Venezuela; Maduro Warns: ‘Blood’s on Your Hands’ appeared first on Hacked: Hacking Finance.

A Member of Congress Tried to Go to an Immigration Activist’s ICE Check-in. ICE Tried to Block Her.

Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., said that what she saw Monday morning while accompanying a New York immigration activist to his mandated check-in at the New York field office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement left her with serious concerns about the agency’s secrecy and the way it treats the people it summons to its offices.

“It is very clear to me that there has been some skirting of the law, that the free flow of the public has been obstructed arbitrarily and unilaterally to create a pressurized environment in which human rights could be violated,” Clarke told the immigration activist’s friends and supporters at Foley Square, outside the federal building where the ICE check-in had taken place.

“It is very clear to me that there has been some skirting of the law, that the free flow of the public has been obstructed arbitrarily and unilaterally to create a pressurized environment in which human rights could be violated.”

Clarke was accompanying Ravi Ragbir, the executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, whose attempted deportation by ICE a year ago during a check-in generated a massive street protest and a strident condemnation from the federal bench. Ragbir has several ongoing legal proceedings — including a First Amendment lawsuit alleging that ICE is targeting him for deportation based on his political speech — and federal courts in both the 2nd and 3rd Circuits of the U.S. Court of Appeals have issued stays forbidding ICE from deporting him until those proceedings are resolved.

Even so, Ragbir’s supporters weren’t entirely sure that ICE officials wouldn’t attempt to deport him anyway, and so they asked elected officials, including Clarke and current as well as former members of the New York City Council, to escort Ragbir when he kept his appointment at 26 Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan.

Elected officials have joined Ragbir for many of his ICE check-ins in recent years. While there’s no telling whether their presence has made a difference in his treatment, it’s done a great deal to shine a public light on the quotidian workings of the deportation bureaucracy.

When Ragbir attended a check-in in 2017, then-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito was moved to tears by her conversations with mothers and children waiting without legal representation for meetings that could end in deportation. City Council Member Jumaane Williams called the spectacle “the most un-American thing I’ve seen.”

The City Council members were ordered to leave the hallway afterward by a man who, though he would not identify himself at the time, proved to be Scott Mechkowski, who as deputy director of ICE’s New York field office oversaw the attempted deportation of Ragbir last year. According to Ragbir’s First Amendment lawsuit, Mechkowski later told Ragbir’s lawyers that he still felt “resentment” over the encounter, naming Mark-Viverito and identifying Williams as “that guy from Brooklyn.”

In the interval, ICE has changed its policy, restricting access to the ninth-floor waiting room where people present themselves to find out whether they are being deported. Sara Gozalo, an organizer with the New Sanctuary Coalition, which organizes volunteers to accompany people to their ICE check-ins, said the restrictions began in the summer of 2017. “Their excuse was capacity issues,” Gozalo said, “but I personally accompanied people when the waiting room was empty, and was told I couldn’t go in.” Next, she said, ICE began denying family members entrance to the waiting room, making them wait three floors below in the sixth-floor cafeteria. “I’ve been with people just waiting in the cafeteria for hours, and they don’t know anything until they get the phone call saying their spouse is being deported,” Gozalo said. (ICE did not respond to emailed questions.)

Barring family and supporters from the waiting room isn’t just cruel to people facing difficult circumstances, Gozalo said. “It’s a way for ICE to continue doing their work in the shadows, like secret police,” she said. “It’s much easier to detain someone when nobody’s watching. You don’t have to account for what you’re doing, or deal with a family breaking down, or acknowledge all of the damage you’re doing.”

“It’s a way for ICE to continue doing their work in the shadows, like secret police. It’s much easier to detain someone when nobody’s watching.”

When Ragbir took the elevator to the ninth floor this morning, he was accompanied by his lawyers; his wife, Amy Gottlieb; and Clarke. Outside the waiting room, an officer in a Department of Homeland Security uniform, who refused to identify himself beyond the first name “Matt,” informed the group that they had been instructed specifically that only Ragbir and one of his lawyers, Alina Das, would be allowed in. “The wife can’t go in,” the DHS officer said.

Das asked whose order the officer was enforcing, and whether she could speak to him. The officer disappeared briefly, then returned and reiterated the order: The lawyer and the client could go in. Ragbir’s wife and the elected officials supporting him could not. As for the request to discuss the matter, the DHS officer said the ICE supervisor wouldn’t speak to Ragbir’s entourage. “He says he doesn’t have to talk with you,” the DHS officer said of the person giving the orders.

“That’s not true,” responded Clarke, who was recently named to the House Homeland Security Committee, now controlled by fellow Democrats. Clarke eventually made it past the guards, where she began pressing ICE officials to justify the ban. A delegation of current and former City Council members, including Williams and Mark-Viverito, soon joined the delegation on the ninth floor, but were again refused access by the Homeland Security officer.

“I remember last year, it was supposed to be civil, and it wasn’t civil,” the officer said, presumably referring to the street protest that attempted to block Ragbir’s unlawful deportation last January. “So I’m being pre-emptive.”

If the officer remembered some members of the delegation, they remembered him as well. Rhiya Trivedi, one of Williams’s defense lawyers in his trial on obstruction and disorderly conduct stemming from last January’s protest, recognized the officer from the hours of video of the protest she reviewed in preparation for the case. “He’s all over the tape shoving people,” Trivedi said.

After a quarter-hour or more, Clarke emerged into the hallway to announce that after her conversation with ICE officials, Gottlieb and the elected officials would be allowed into the waiting room. But she was quickly countermanded by the Homeland Security officer, and the stand-off continued until Ragbir and Das emerged from the meeting room. He was free to go, but must check in again in six months.

Back downstairs, Clarke said she found the entire episode troubling.

“I observed what I believe are a number of unilateral policies that aren’t necessarily in law or statute that we’ll be reviewing,” she said. “I am not casting aspersions on the workers here at all; they are simply following instructions. I found it interesting that in the back and forth about the public space, a call was made to Washington for guidance. So we know where these unilateral decisions are coming from, and it is now my responsibility, along with my colleagues, to get this right. Every elected official here should have the right to be by Ravi’s side observing the governance of this place. Amy, his wife, deserves to be by his side during this time of trial.”

Clarke, who was returning to Washington immediately, said her first order of business would be to speak with the new Democratic Homeland Security Committee chair “about the policies, practices and procedures in respect to removal, due process, and public accommodation for those who have to utilize the services of the Department of Homeland Security.”

Looking drained after the morning’s events, Gottlieb, Ragbir’s wife, said the new rules are needlessly cruel. “If there’s no public safety reason to not have people in there, why do this, except with the intention to really dehumanize?” she asked. “ICE refuses to be subjected to any oversight, and we’re going to continue to do everything we can to expose that.”

The post A Member of Congress Tried to Go to an Immigration Activist’s ICE Check-in. ICE Tried to Block Her. appeared first on The Intercept.

Podcast Special: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Her First Weeks in Washington

 

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the freshman New York representative, joins Intercept reporters Ryan Grim and Briahna Joy Gray for an in-depth conversation about her approach to politics and social media, her thoughts on the 2020 presidential election, and her out-of-nowhere congressional campaign. As a new member of the House Financial Services Committee, she’s already shaping the conversation with her call to raise the top marginal tax rate to 70 percent. Former North Carolina Rep. Brad Miller, a progressive Democrat who served for years on the Financial Services Committee, joins the conversation to talk about the challenges Ocasio-Cortez will face there.

Transcript coming soon.

The post Podcast Special: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Her First Weeks in Washington appeared first on The Intercept.

Climate Change, Not Border Security, Is the Real National Emergency

The shutdown might be over for now, but President Donald Trump’s threat to declare a national emergency still looms. The continuing resolution passed Friday afternoon does not contain funding for a border wall, and the president has suggested that if Congress doesn’t compromise on a funding plan within three weeks, he may still proclaim a national emergency at the border.

When Trump first threatened to use emergency powers to unlock $5.7 billion for his $20 billion border wall project, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. came out strongly against it — but not for humanitarian reasons or because he is concerned about an unmistakable creep toward authoritarianism. Rather, Rubio worried that normalizing the call for a state of emergency might make it easier for politicians to act on a genuine existential threat: “If today, the national emergency is border security,” said Rubio, “tomorrow, the national emergency might be climate change.”

Rubio is right to worry. Climate change is a legitimate emergency, unlike Trump’s border “crisis,” which is a fabrication sewn of foam-mouthed racism and vain partisan panic. Security and militarization at the border has increased steadily over the last decades; border crossings have been in decline for years; and most heroin smuggled over the border comes through legal border crossings, not the areas that are targeted for a wall.

Meanwhile, overwhelming scientific evidence says that climate change could take hundreds of millions of lives and trigger a global economic collapse in the next several decades, making anything we might recognize as human civilization physically impossible.

It’s not as if migration and climate are unrelated, either: Climate change is poised to cause the largest mass migration in human history, as millions are forced to leave homes rendered uninhabitable by rising sea levels, unbearable heat, and declining crop yields. Trump’s border and immigration policies, in other words, are climate policies, and efforts to restrict access to temperate parts of the world will be a defining political issue of the next century.

In addition to being justified, declaring a national emergency on climate change wouldn’t be all that novel. As Jeffrey Toobin pointed out in the New Yorker, the National Emergencies Act has been invoked 41 times since it was passed in 1976, and there are 31 emergencies currently in effect. What constitutes an emergency has never been clearly defined, and most of those currently in place allow the White House to place sanctions and restrictions on countries whose policies it disagrees with, such as regulating vessels that might enter Cuban waters or mobilizing the military as George W. Bush did in the days after 9/11.

Concerns about the expansion of executive authority are well-placed, but meeting the climate change goals recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change requires a level of mobilization that our balkanized, partisan government may be ill-equipped to handle. After all, decarbonization isn’t just about building a symbolic infrastructure project. It would involve transitioning every sector of the economy off fossil fuels at lightning speed. The sheer amount of administrative collaboration involved — across government agencies, industry, and civil society — is staggering, and would require massive levels of government investment and going toe-to-toe with one of the world’s most powerful industries.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., recently called the threat of climate change “our World War II.”

Because of the effort and exigency involved, climate scientists are urging a “wartime footing” to decarbonize the economy over the next 16 years. They’re increasingly joined by politicians like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who recently called the threat of climate change “our World War II” at a recent Martin Luther King Jr. Day event.

If climate change is our World War II, why shouldn’t our politicians should act like it?

As it became increasingly likely that the U.S. would enter World War II, Franklin Roosevelt and his advisers were eager to build up the country’s manufacturing capacity. But after years of feeling threatened by New Deal reforms, executives weren’t keen to have the state tell them what to do. Congress was also hesitant to appropriate more money to defense and have the state play a stronger role in directing industrial activity, mindful of public pushback to similar measures that were enacted during World War I.

But the cause of winning the war — an “unlimited” national emergency, as Roosevelt called it right before U.S. entry — was considered too important to be derailed by corporate executives or political squabbling. Declaring a limited national emergency in 1939 allowed the White House to begin its Protective Mobilization Plan, shifting resources to Britain’s Royal Navy, expanding military ranks, and building out industrial capacity to produce things like military aircrafts. Once Roosevelt declared a full national emergency after Pearl Harbor, federal agencies’ role in the economy was able to greatly expand. The government could now control prices and wages while directing industry leaders to meet manufacturing needs. Firms that refused to go along with government orders faced a federal takeover. By 1945, around a quarter of all U.S. manufacturing had been nationalized.

No doubt, this is the kind of outcome that terrifies Rubio. But without it, it’s not clear that the war effort would have been successful. And the pending battle against climate change is one that none of us can afford to lose.

There are serious risks to expanding executive authority. While Roosevelt’s war mobilization was ultimately critical to defeating Axis powers and ending the Depression, it also gave him the authority to intern over 100,000 Japanese-Americans, and wars abroad have reliably been an excuse to suppress civil liberties at home.

Because of these risks, and because leveraging the National Emergency Act sidesteps our democratic processes, it should be treated as a nuclear option. Such tools exist to intervene where our democratic processes fail. That said, there’s reason to suspect they already have.  

Eighty-one percent of registered voters, an overwhelming majority, support a Green New Deal, and a record number of Americans are “very worried” about climate change. If the will of voters were democratically weighted, climate action would be a bipartisan priority. But we live in an oligarchy, where extreme wealth depresses the popular will. Energy executives are willing to throw tens of millions of dollars into blocking comparatively small-bore climate policies, blanketing airwaves with as much disinformation as is needed to get the job done. BP alone spent $13 million to defeat a modest carbon fee in Washington state last cycle. The resistance to an economy-wide mobilization like the Green New Deal will be orders of magnitude greater.

The climate crisis advances at the behest of a small handful of of executives and the politicians bought by them. Left unchecked, it will make any kind of organized global community impossible — let alone democracy. In such a context, it’s hard to argue that the status quo is more democratic than the alternative. The question for the next Democratic president, then, is whether they are prepared to put up at least as much of a fight to save the world as Trump has to build his wall.

The post Climate Change, Not Border Security, Is the Real National Emergency appeared first on The Intercept.

There’s a Better Battlefield for the War Against Trump’s Lies: the Courts

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 19: U.S. President Donald Trump stops to speak to reporters as he prepared to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on January 19, 2019 in Washington, DC. Trump is traveling to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to visit with families four Americans who were killed in an explosion Wednesday in Syria. (Photo by Pete Marovich/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump speaks to reporters before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Jan. 19, 2019 in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Pete Marovich/Getty Images

President Donald Trump and his administration lie to and mislead the public as a matter of course. It’s a concerning but indisputable fact. So how do we combat propaganda and lies in our post-truth world?

The popular pre-Trump solution among news media outlets of fact-checking in real time — explaining to the public in dry, dispassionate language what’s true and what’s not — has proven ineffective and farcical at a time like this. In the bustling business of publicly fact-checking Trump, the Washington Post has counted more than 8,000 “false or misleading claims” from the 45th president. But that isn’t stopping his lies. However well-intentioned, the “Pants on Fire!” graphics are the equivalent of, in the eloquent words of antihero Erlich Bachman, bringing piss to a shit fight.

Consider the recent tweet from Trump about prayer rugs found near the U.S.-Mexico border: Its foundation was a report that — no joke — was based on the word of an anonymous rancher passing on what she said she heard from unnamed sources in the U.S. Border Patrol. How do you even fact-check such a claim?

Now, though, there might be a better battlefield for this information war: the courts.

The Information Quality Act requires government agencies to meet the same standards your local community college requires of its students.

The Information Quality Act, sometimes referred to as the Data Quality Act, is an obscure law enacted in 2001 as a rider in a spending bill. The initial idea behind the legislation was to guarantee that agencies of the U.S. government are held to reasonably high information-quality standards as more and more of their reports and data were made available on the internet.

The legislation directed the Office of Management and Budget to establish standards for information distributed by U.S. government agencies. The guidelines require information published by U.S. agencies to be objective and honest, with any analysis based on clear and transparent methodology.

Indeed, there’s nothing radical about the guidelines. Basically, they require government agencies to meet the same standards your local community college requires of its students. But the law also provides for a remedy: If a federal judge can be persuaded that an agency’s published information does not meet the standards, the judge can order the report to be removed and retracted.

Such an order has never been issued, largely because the Information Quality Act is a law with very little history of litigation. Before Trump’s election, special interest groups tried unsuccessfully to use the law to undermine distribution of government research they simply disliked. The libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute, for example, tried to force the Commerce Department, which includes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to halt distribution of the 2002 U.S. Climate Action Report.

Trump, however, has ushered in a new hope of relevancy — and use — for the law. We’ve never had a presidential administration whose lies are as frequent and blatant as this one’s. While previous administrations have certainly told lies, including some very big and consequential ones, the Trump administration is without equal in its prolific output of propaganda that can be debunked with readily available information. Enter the Information Quality Act.

There are plenty of areas in which public-interest lawyers can seek to make use of the Information Quality Act. One example came to us as the result of the executive orders that established the so-called Muslim ban. In one of the orders, Trump asked the departments of Homeland Security and Justice to create a report studying the risk of terrorism from immigrants.

The report, released in January 2018, claimed that 73 percent of 549 international terrorism defendants prosecuted in federal courts from September 11, 2001, to December 31, 2016, were born outside the United States — a striking data point that appeared to bolster the national security concern that the Muslim ban was ostensibly created to address.

A report from the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security has an information quality standard that might be politely described as equine feces.

The problem? The report’s standard of information quality might be politely described as equine feces.

Two coalitions of nongovernmental groups challenged the report under the Information Quality Act: Democracy Forward Foundation and Muslim Advocates filed a lawsuit in California and Protect Democracy, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the Brookings Institution filed a similar complaint in Massachusetts.

The Homeland Security and Justice report provided an ideal test of the Information Quality Act because it is demonstrably flawed and dishonest. As The Intercept noted after the report’s release, the 549 number that government officials used suggested that the Justice Department’s list of international terrorism defendants had been selectively edited to support the Trump administration’s predetermined conclusion.

Since 9/11, the Justice Department has periodically released its list of international terrorism defendants. In March 2010, then-Attorney General Eric Holder presented it to Congress as part of testimony. The list then included 403 defendants. A second version, updated through December 31, 2014, had 580 defendants. A third list ending in 2015 included 627 international terrorism defendants.

Somehow, according to the report from the departments of Homeland Security and Justice under Trump, the list shrunk from 627 international defendants in 2015 to 549 in 2016.

Where did the 78 missing defendants go? Impossible to say, because government officials refused to release the underlying data. And they still won’t — though they’re now struggling to defend the report under the Information Quality Act.

In a December 2018 letter to the Democracy Forward Foundation and Muslim Advocates, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Michael Allen admitted that the report had flaws but that the government can’t “control the way in which information in the report is used or interpreted.” Allen also refused to provide the report’s underlying data, noting that neither law nor policy requires government agencies to make available such work product.

In addition, Allen defended the report’s use of eight “illustrative examples,” which included terrorism defendants whose crimes took place in other countries, but who were brought to the United States only for the purpose of prosecution. With Clintonian wordplay, Allen claimed that “illustrative examples” are not “representative” examples.

“This letter is fascinating, right?” said Robin Thurston, senior counsel for Democracy Forward Foundation, a nonprofit established in 2017 to expose corruption in the executive branch. “It acknowledges a lot of our concerns and walks the line about as close as possible to admitting that the report is false and misleading — and yet they’re letting the report stand.”

Allen sent a similar letter to Protect Democracy, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the Brookings Institution. In the letter, he conceded that “the report could be criticized by some readers,” though he claimed that, despite not providing the underlying data, the Justice Department had been “reasonably transparent.”

The organizations challenging the report are now waiting for a response from the Department of Homeland Security. Once that arrives — and it’s safe to assume that the agency will not volunteer to retract the report — the issue will be on track to go before judges in California and Massachusetts, setting up an unprecedented challenge of Trump administration propaganda under the Information Quality Act.

This should be one of many court challenges. The Trump administration is consistently making dubious claims, bigly, that could be challenged under the Information Quality Act. Officials have said 3,700 people with terrorist ties were apprehended at the border; that a border wall will stop terrorists; and that more than 600 criminals were part of the migrant caravan in November. Democracy Forward Foundation has already challenged as “misleading and unreliable” statements made by Treasury Department officials, including Secretary Steven Mnunchin, in support of the Republicans’ 2017 tax cut.

No more Truth-O-Meters, please. They’re toothless in our Trumpian age. Let’s file some lawsuits and give judges an opportunity to play their constitutional role in our increasingly dysfunctional republic.

The post There’s a Better Battlefield for the War Against Trump’s Lies: the Courts appeared first on The Intercept.

A Corporate-Friendly Democrat Has Been Stalling Progress For 40 Years. Now a Primary Challenge Might Take Him Out.

A new court-mandated redistricting in Virginia has put Democrats in a prime position to retake both chambers of the state legislature in November 2019 elections for the first time since 1995. But there could still be one major obstacle standing in the way of the party enacting a bottled-up progressive agenda: Democratic Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw, a 39-year incumbent with a corporate-friendly voting record and close ties to the state’s dominant power company. As long as Saslaw remains the party’s Senate boss, little can get done without his acquiescence. But for the first time since he was elected senator, he’s facing a primary challenge.

Saslaw has stymied progressive efforts to push an anti-corporate agenda in the state, voting against bills that would lead to substantive regulation of the state’s two electric monopolies, and speaking out against campaign finance reform and increased ethics and transparency regulations. Yasmine Taeb, an American-Muslim human rights lawyer who immigrated to the United States from Iran as a child, launched her primary challenge to Saslaw in September — and she’s going after his ties to Dominion Energy, Virginia’s biggest private-industry political donor. The company gives heavily to both Democrats and Republicans, but Saslaw is its top recipient in the General Assembly and one of its biggest advocates in Richmond.

Taeb moved into the 35th District only last year, and her first foray into politics was in 2014, when she made a failed bid for the Virginia House of Delegates. She’s running on a platform that includes a $15 minimum wage, no corporate PAC donations, and “Medicare for All.” But she’s also focused on stemming Dominion’s influence in the state, fighting to stop the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines.

“My opponent has not faced a primary challenger since 1979. As a result, he has become severely misaligned with the values of our district, the most liberal in the Commonwealth,” Taeb told The Intercept. “I want to be a state senator who actually represents our district — one who stands with our working families rather than union busting employers; one who will fight to end Dominion’s control over our legislators rather than serving it; and one who embodies the diversity of our district rather than slowing down racial justice efforts.”

Her opposition to Saslaw comes amid changes to state and local governments around the country. Democrats flipped more than 300 state House and Senate seats and six state legislative chambers last year. Seven states now have Democratic trifectas, meaning that the party controls the governorship and both chambers in the state legislature. Progressives are more likely to be able to pass policies like a higher minimum wage or eliminating cash bail on the state level than in Congress.

“Dominion has become the key signal of a much broader push against the status quo.”

“There are increasingly two visions for Democratic politics in Virginia,” said Brennan Gilmore, executive director of Clean Virginia, a group advocating for stronger regulation of the state’s monopoly utilities and an end to two decades of manipulating legislation in their favor. “There’s the old-school Virginia Way, corporate friendly, pay to play, and then a new wave of legislators — many freshmen from last year, but a number of longtime incumbents as well — who are running on transparency and independence, putting constituent interests above special interests.”

The new lawmakers are not taking Dominion money, Gilmore said. “As the worst paragon of that old system of corporate cronyism, Dominion has become the key signal of a much broader push against the status quo. And no one represents the old school — or has done Dominion’s bidding — as much as Dick Saslaw.”

Virginia Democrats are angling to win control of the state legislature in 2019, and Saslaw’s re-election would make him the likely majority leader. A Democratic majority would make passing progressive legislation possible, but activists in the state worry that Saslaw, who has argued against proposals to strengthen campaign finance and ethics laws, would get in the way of that. Taeb is hoping that she can mobilize voters in their increasingly progressive district — which Saslaw helped redraw in 2011 — against him by highlighting his cozy, mutually beneficial relationship with Dominion ahead of the June 11 primary election.

MINERAL, VA - AUGUST 24:  The North Anna Power Station operated by Dominion Energy remains offline after losing offsite power in the wake of yesterday's 5.8 earthquake August 24, 2011 near Mineral, Virginia. The epicenter of the quake, the East Coast's largest since 1944, was located a few miles outside of Mineral, a town of 430 people located about 50 miles west of Richmond and about 7 miles from the North Anna plant.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The North Anna Power Station operated by Dominion Energy, near Mineral, Va., on Aug. 24, 2011.

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Dominion is known for helping to write legislation in its favor. The Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2017 ran a four-part series that found Dominion exerting significant influence to gradually gut the power of the State Corporation Commission, the regulatory agency tasked with overseeing the company’s dealings. The assembly last year passed a bill that further weakened the SCC’s ratepayer protections. Former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has described the relationship between the state legislature and the utility as “cronyism.”

“Dominion Energy is the strongest lobbying entity in Virginia, and that’s very evident in the fact that we’ve, for several years now, had legislation that further hurt ratepayers,” Delegate Sam Rasoul told The Intercept. “Objectively now, even Dominion agrees that it has overcharged ratepayers.”

Saslaw has consistently opposed bills pushing energy and spending efficiency, introducing and supporting Dominion-advised bills to allow the public utility to double-charge consumers and keep the excess profits, freeze electricity rates, and keep the SCC from regularly reviewing those rates. Saslaw is also known, according to a Democratic state legislator who spoke to The Intercept on the condition of anonymity given his relationship with the senator, for reprimanding individual members of the assembly for trying to amend Dominion-sponsored bills. According to local activist and Fairfax County Democratic Committee Member Stephen Spitz, who is volunteering with Taeb’s campaign, Saslaw is famous for scolding his colleagues for trying to rein in the company and going on unsolicited tangents singing its praises. Dominion, in turn, contacts Saslaw when it’s in trouble.

Saslaw’s campaign has raised just shy of $600,000 this cycle, including $22,500 from the Dominion Employees PAC, formerly known as Dominion Energy PAC. He’s also accepted donations from PACs associated with the weapons manufacturer, Raytheon, and controversial car-title lenders, which he’s been bashed for supporting. Taeb’s campaign, meanwhile, has raised just over $70,000. Fifty-thousand dollars of that came from Sonjia Smith, a longtime area Democratic donor who is married to Michael D. Bills, a billionaire investor who started an initiative to support candidates who refused to take money from Dominion.

The incumbent’s campaign manager, Andrew Whitley, said Saslaw respects candidates who have sworn off Dominion money, but he will continue to take money from the utility. “As the leader of the caucus, his main goal in 2019 is to take back the majority,” Whitley told The Intercept. “And of course, making that happen means that making sure that our campaigns have the resources to be successful. So yes, he does take contributions from Dominion, and he takes them with the goal of making Virginia more progressive and helping us take back the Senate.”

Whitley said that Saslaw’s voting record, and his endorsements by the League of Conservation Voters and advocates for solar, disprove the notion that Dominion’s donations have bought influence. “The senator has voted on initiatives that have been against Dominion’s influence,” Whitley said. He did not specify what initiatives those were.

Virginia is one of only six states that allow unlimited corporate contributions to state campaigns. Republicans Sen. Frank Wagner and Delegate Terry Kilgore are other lawmakers who have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the utility giant while in office. Wagner in 2015 sponsored a controversial rate-freeze bill, which he authored and passed with help from Dominion, that locked in rates for the utility and allowed it to overcharge consumers by estimates of up to $425 million.

Following public outcry over that legislation, Saslaw and Wagner co-sponsored another bill last year that they said was meant to right the wrongs of the rate-freeze bill. Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring publicly denounced that bipartisan, pro-Dominion bill for double-charging clients and installing inadequate consumer protections. The state Senate killed another bill introduced by Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen that would have more abruptly lifted the rate freeze and pursued the Wagner-Saslaw measure, which was more favorable to utilities instead. It was eventually approved and signed into law last March.

This year, Rasoul and Rep. Alfonso H. Lopez are co-sponsoring an omnibus bill that would reinstate biannual reviews of Dominion rates by the SCC and increase the amount of over-earnings the company must refund to consumers. It is unclear whether the bill will have enough support to pass.

“It’ll be difficult for it to pass as it comes through the powerful Commerce and Labor committee,” Rasoul said. But, he said, pledges by Democratic candidates, as well as the attorney general and the lieutenant governor, not to take money from Dominion are a good sign. “The bar has definitely been elevated, that you need to be on the right side of this in order to be a candidate.”

Some Democrats think it’s important to balance skepticism of corporate donations with the risk of losing elections. “If we were not to take money, and Republicans still take money, and Democrats lose, there’s a part of me that would regret seeing that,” said Peg Winningham, chair of the Falls Church Democratic Committee. “But I absolutely think that Virginia should have a lot stricter controls on campaign donations.”

In addition to his ties to Dominion, Saslaw’s critics have also turned their attention to the senator’s past comments that, they say, show he is out of step with an increasingly diverse Democratic Party.

In September, Saslaw was at George Mason University for a ­­senatorial debate between Tim Kaine and Corey Stuart. In a conversation with a group of people at that event, Saslaw suggested that voters in the 38th District would not vote for Taeb given that his district is majority white, according to two people with knowledge of the conversation.

Saslaw said Taeb “‘can’t win in a district like this,’ and then he went off spouting all these facts about his district,” said one person who was there, requesting anonymity because of their relationship with the senator. Saslaw pointed out that the district is “60 percent white, it was some percentage of older Virginians, it was some percentage of Christians,” the source said. “Basically the message I interpreted was that someone like Yasmine, who’s a diverse candidate and a young candidate, couldn’t win in the district.”

Headshot_YasmineTaeb-1548457755

Yasmine Taeb.

Photo: Courtesy of Yasmine Taeb

Whitley, Saslaw’s spokesperson, said the conversation could not have happened because Saslaw didn’t have time to speak to people on the margins of the debate, dismissing it as a “he-said-she-said” scenario.

Saslaw has previously been accused of being skeptical that a Muslim candidate could win. When Atif Qarni, now Virginia’s secretary of education, was running for the Virginia House of Delegates in 2015, he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that state Democrats warned him not to proceed with his campaign because, as a Muslim, he couldn’t win. Responding to a Facebook post criticizing the article, Qarni named Saslaw in relation to the challenges he faced securing funding as a Muslim candidate. “There was bias in this race. Religion was brought up,” Qarni wrote in a comment. “I brought up these concerns with several people–including some people you know well, but the typical response, was ‘this is politics’. People are too afraid to stand up to people like Dick Saslaw.”

In a 2015 meeting of the Mason District Democratic Committee, Saslaw opposed a proposal to change the name of the Jeb Stuart High School, which was named after a Confederate army general. He described the name-change effort as being overly politically correct and suggested that it would lead to a slippery slope, with calls to change the name of Virginia schools and landmarks named after Confederate leaders, according to Spitz; David Jonas, a Mason District Democrat; Sean Barnett, a Fairfax County Democrat; and two local Democrats who asked for anonymity given their working relationship with the senator, who were all at the meeting. (Barnett has endorsed Taeb for state senator.)

Though Saslaw originally opposed changing the name of Stuart High, he appeared this year at a fundraiser supporting the school board’s move. He also donated to the private fundraising efforts to support the change. The school is now called Justice High School.

Jessica Swanson, a Mason District Democrat, told The Intercept that she is extremely grateful for the senator’s $1,500 contribution to the name-change effort. She was at the 2015 meeting and said she doesn’t remember what, if anything, Saslaw said about it at the time.

Three years earlier, Saslaw had cut his sponsorship of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee’s annual dinner, after members changed the event’s name from the Jefferson-Jackson fundraising dinner — after the slave-owning presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson — to instead honor Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, according to Spitz and another person familiar with the matter. In 2014, the name of the dinner was changed back to Jefferson-Jackson, and Saslaw resumed his support.

Willingham, chair of the Falls Church Democratic Committee who has worked with Saslaw, said she’s “never heard him say a bigoted word.” She knows Taeb as well and hasn’t endorsed either candidate.

In response to questions about Saslaw’s comments on Taeb and the school’s name change, Whitley said talking about these claims does a disservice to both candidates. “We also do a disservice to the constituents and to the party in general by having this kind of conversation,” he said.

The post A Corporate-Friendly Democrat Has Been Stalling Progress For 40 Years. Now a Primary Challenge Might Take Him Out. appeared first on The Intercept.

Trump’s CFPB Fines a Man $1 For Swindling Veterans, Orders Him Not to Do It Again

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau penalized a man $1 this week, for illegally exchanging veterans’ pensions for high-interest “cash advances.” Mark Corbett claimed in sworn statements to the bureau that he had an inability to pay any fine of greater value, and the bureau accepted $1 as payment for making illegal, high-cost loans to former members of the armed forces.

Somehow, two other state regulatory agencies, in Arkansas and South Carolina, assisted in the extraction of a single dollar bill from Corbett.

This is not the first time during the Trump administration that CFPB has taken an inability to pay into account to reduce a fine for violations of consumer protection law. Under the previous acting director, current acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, this type of reduction was so widespread that it came to be known as the “Mulvaney discount.” The American justice system rarely treats impoverished defendants with such mercy.

Mulvaney has since been replaced by a confirmed director, his former aide Kathy Kraninger. The discount, however, has remained.

“It looks like the Trump-appointed political leadership at the CFPB is letting a person who preyed on veterans get away with a slap on the wrist,” said Will Corbett, a litigation counsel with the Center for Responsible Lending, a consumer advocacy group, in a statement.

A slap on the wrist for eight years of scamming veterans might be something like $10,000. This is more like a handshake.

Since 2011, Mark Corbett served as an agent for companies that the CFPB declined to name, calling them the “Doe companies.” That almost certainly indicates a future enforcement action against those companies. But companies do not violate laws; people do. And while Mark Corbett was not required to admit or deny the facts or legal conclusions in the consent order, CFPB’s findings were detailed and substantial.

On websites he operated, Mark Corbett marketed a deal for veterans with retiree or disability pensions. He set them up with offers from the Doe companies to purchase some or all of those future pension payments in exchange for a lump sum. Veterans would then use an online portal to redirect pension payments to a bank account controlled by one of the Doe companies. If veterans only sold part of their pension, the Doe companies would reimburse a portion of the payment every month. This was virtually the only source of the Doe companies’ consumer-side business revenue.

It’s also completely illegal. Under federal law assigning veterans’ pensions to a third party is prohibited. In fact, several veterans complained to Mark Corbett that the transactions were illegal; according to those veterans, he denied it.

These deals effectively operated as loan products, with an up-front payment exchanged for installment payments. For that reason, Mark Corbett was required to inform customers of the interest rate, which he never did, insisting instead in written materials that “this is not a loan. … [Y]ou are selling a product for a set price.”

Moreover, after promising to issue the lump sum payment by a set date, the companies would often miss this deadline, sometimes by up to several months, even as veterans signed away their pension benefits.

In a consent order, CFPB lays out this deception, accusing Mark Corbett of brokering illegal contracts with misleading terms, often without even delivering the promised funds to consumers in a timely fashion. It’s unclear how much money Corbett earned from this activity over an eight-year period, but it’s a virtual certainty that it was more than $1.

And yet, that was the ultimate fine.

“Having an inability to pay based on sworn financial statements provided to the Bureau on November 8, 2018, Respondent must pay a civil money penalty of $1 to the Bureau,” the order reads.

In a darkly hilarious denouement, CFPB left in all the boilerplate language included with larger fines. So the consent order intones that $1 dollar must be paid within 10 days of the effective date, and thereafter distributed to the Civil Penalty Fund to compensate victims of financial crimes. Mark Corbett is prohibited from taking a fat tax deduction for paying out that 100-cent penalty, and “to preserve the deterrent effect of the civil money penalty,” he cannot use this greenback as an offset toward any future federal fines. And if Mark Corbett defaults on this four-quarter obligation, interest will accrue. The CFPB even asks for Mark Corbett’s taxpayer ID number, so that they can track him down if he fails to cough up the 10 dimes he owes. The bureau reserves the right to send Mark Corbett into collections for the dollar, and report the delinquency to credit reporting bureaus.

The $1 order also says nothing about whether veterans who suffered losses would receive restitution, although that could be resolved in a future enforcement with the Doe companies.

In an interview, freshman Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., a new member of the House Financial Services Committee and a consumer protection expert, expressed dismay over the $1 fine for scamming veterans. “We should, on a bipartisan basis, be able to say our military veterans should not be cheated,” Porter said.

Asked about declines in enforcement at the CFPB and other financial regulatory agencies, Porter responded, “After President Trump’s election, there’s no reason to think that those working in consumer financial services decided to begin complying with the law at an unheard-of rate.”

In addition to being out a buck, Mark Corbett is banned from brokering sales of veterans’ benefits ever again.

CFPB did not respond to a request for comment.

The post Trump’s CFPB Fines a Man $1 For Swindling Veterans, Orders Him Not to Do It Again appeared first on The Intercept.

Richard Ojeda Drops Out of Presidential Race

Former West Virginia State Sen. Richard Ojeda ended his long-shot presidential bid on Friday. A leader of the state’s teachers strikes last year, Ojeda concluded that the campaign ultimately wasn’t winnable and told his supporters that he could no longer ask people to contribute money to a cause he thought was lost.

“I don’t want to see people send money to a campaign that’s probably not going to get off the ground,” he said in a video he recorded and provided to The Intercept and The Young Turks.

Hints that he was picking up momentum were strong, he said in an accompanying statement, but not strong enough. “The indications were very positive from an overwhelming response to our videos, to thousands of volunteers, and a level of grassroots fundraising support that grew every day. However, the last thing I want to do is accept money from people who are struggling for a campaign that does not have the ability to compete,” he said.

Ojeda said he is planning to announce his next move soon. He launched his presidential bid in November, running as an unapologetic class warrior from an area of the country Donald Trump won handily. (Ojeda voted for Trump and turned on the president early in his term.) Last month, Ojeda released one of the strongest abortion rights platforms in contemporary Democratic politics. He waged an unsuccessful bid for the House in 2018, losing by 13 points in a district that Trump carried by 49 points two years earlier.

He recently joined striking Los Angeles teachers on a picket line.

The post Richard Ojeda Drops Out of Presidential Race appeared first on The Intercept.

Congress Is Pushing Sanctions Against Supporters of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives unanimously passed legislation to impose new sanctions on the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and its allies, and those who do business with them. The move comes a month after President Donald Trump’s announcement to withdraw troops from Syria, and as some Arab governments are thawing relations with the Assad regime, which has all but secured a military victory after nearly eight years of war. The measure has been passed by the House twice in previous sessions, and a companion bill currently remains pending in the Senate.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., reintroduced the standalone version of the Syria bill, H.R. 31, which passed under fast-track procedures. On the Senate side, the bill is one provision rolled into a foreign policy-related package called the Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act, with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio as a lead sponsor. Senate Democrats blocked the bill — designated as S.1, which symbolizes heightened importance — on the grounds that Congress should reopen the government before considering unrelated legislation.

The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act is named after the whistleblower who defected from the Assad regime and smuggled tens of thousands of photos of those tortured to death in regime prisons.

The current version of the bill imposes sanctions on anyone engaging in “significant financial, material, or technological support to, or knowingly engages in a significant transaction with” the Syrian government or the governments of Russia and Iran in Syria. It includes an exception for nongovernmental organizations operating in Syria, and it directs the president to come up with a plan regarding the delivery of humanitarian aid to Syrians in need.

The Syrian government has been courting investors to help rebuild parts of the country decimated throughout the multi-pronged Syrian war. Reconstruction plans have largely focused on areas destroyed by Syrian and Russian bombs, like parts of Damascus and Homs, and not cities like Raqqa, which the U.S.-led coalition flattened in its fight against the Islamic State. Western governments have said they will not contribute to reconstruction efforts until progress is made toward a peaceful settlement to the war. The European Union this week imposed a new round of sanctions on business executives and entities doing business with the Assad regime.

Some antiwar groups, including the Friends Committee on National Legislation and Just Foreign Policy, oppose the Caesar bill, considering it a rebuke to the Trump administration’s plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. “FCNL opposed the original draft of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act [the Rubio-Engel Syria-Iran-Russia sanctions bill] in 2017,” the group said in a statement before the House vote. “Since that time, important changes to the legislation have been made, but our core concerns remain the same. In light of President Trump’s recent decision to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria, support for this bill is widely being interpreted as an appeal for continued military involvement.”

Chad Brand, a government relations officer at the Syrian American Council, which consulted lawmakers throughout the drafting of the bill, rejects the criticism. He noted that the sanctions don’t endorse any kind of military action and are in no way tied to attempts to keep U.S. forces in the war-torn country.

“This isn’t targeted against the Syrian people, it isn’t targeting humanitarian aid,” Brand said. “If you look specifically at Section 3, to be precise, there’s waiver language that’s in there to ensure that NGOs are not penalized regarding the distribution of aid in the regime areas.”

The White House issued a statement in support of the bill last November. “This bill will help provide additional leverage to achieve the United States government’s objectives to de-escalate the military conflict and support the United Nations-led peace process and a transition to a government in Syria that honors the will of the Syrian people, respects the rule of law and human rights, and peacefully co-exists with its neighbors in the region,” the White House wrote.

The women’s anti-war group Code Pink is one of the more prominent opponents of the bill. Before the House vote, the group urged its supporters to contact their representative to voice their concern over the bill, which they described as an attempt to reverse U.S. withdrawal from Syria through sanctions with “unrealistic conditions” that would have to be met before the penalties could be suspended. “CODEPINK believes that the best way to end the bloodshed and humanitarian crisis in Syria is through a UN-led political negotiation process and that this is what Congress should be supporting,” a spokesperson for the group told The Intercept in an email.

Syria’s U.N.-sponsored peace talks have collapsed and restarted several times since the first round was held in Geneva in 2012. The diplomatic process, which was initially meant to lead to the creation of a transitional government, has not borne fruit partially due to the lack of a coherent opposition, as well as the Assad regime’s pursuit of a military victory rather than a negotiated settlement. Most recently, the U.N. has tried to merge the Geneva process with a separate track known as the Astana talks — spearheaded by Russia, Iran, and Turkey — to set up a constitutional committee. Analysts have noted that this process could give diplomatic cover to the government’s military victory.

The Caesar bill allows for sanctions to be suspended under a number of conditions, including if the Syrian government and its allies cease bombing civilian centers or release political prisoners. The sanctions could also be suspended if the Syrian government takes “verifiable steps to establish meaningful accountability for perpetrators of war crimes in Syria and justice for victims of war crimes committed by the Assad regime, including by participation in a credible and independent truth and reconciliation process.”

Despite its self-proclaimed commitment to grassroots organizing, Code Pink didn’t reach out to any Syrian groups before pronouncing its opposition to the legislation. “While we were not able to reach out to Syrians about this bill, we are part of a number of groups including Just Foreign Policy, Friends Committee on National Legislation, and the National Iranian-American Council who are opposing the legislation,” the group’s spokesperson wrote to The Intercept.

In addition to the Syrian American Council, the Syrian Emergency Task Force, which is also a Washington-based, anti-Assad organization, celebrated the bill’s passage in the House. The Day After, a Syrian anti-Assad group based in Istanbul, similarly endorsed the legislation. The SETF also advised lawmakers throughout the drafting process.

In the Senate, the Syria sanctions are included in S.1, the first bill of the 116th Congress. As The Intercept first reported, the Senate package also includes a provision aimed at the campaign to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel for its occupation of Palestinian territories. The Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which has been blasted by free speech groups, gives state and local governments legal authority to boycott any companies that participate in boycotts against Israel. Two of the newly elected Democratic members and the first two Muslim women in Congress, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, are both supporters of the BDS movement — marking a first for U.S. lawmakers.

When asked if he would be willing to put the bill on the House floor if it passes the Senate, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., last week told reporters that “we haven’t counted votes,” but “I think the overwhelming majority don’t want to see Israel hurt.” He added that his colleagues “also want to protect free speech, and I think there are a number of amendments that have been added to the bill since it was originally introduced to affect that end.”

The post Congress Is Pushing Sanctions Against Supporters of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad appeared first on The Intercept.

Elizabeth Warren Proposes Annual Wealth Tax on Ultra-Millionaires

Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign has rolled out a proposal for an annual tax on wealth, becoming the first major Democratic candidate to follow a recommendation outlined in Thomas Piketty’s blockbuster book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.”

The proposal, according to two University of California, Berkeley, economists who are leading experts on wealth and inequality, would shrink the wealth of the superrich by $2.75 trillion over a 10-year period, while only affecting around 75,000 U.S. households.  

A paper distributed by Warren’s campaign announcing the proposal notes that the United States contains “an extreme concentration of wealth not seen in any other leading economy.” As UC Berkeley’s Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman have demonstrated, the top 0.1 percent has had their wealth share nearly triple between the late 1970s and 2016.

Warren actually endorsed the concept of a wealth tax five years ago, in an interview with Piketty and The Intercept’s Ryan Grim. Asked how a bill to tax wealth would sound after Piketty described it, Warren said, “Oh, I’m in, I’m in, I’m in — in on the notion that we have to rewrite our tax code.” She added that the tax code “has to reflect the importance of work and people who achieve and people who accomplish, over being born into wealth.”

Piketty endorsed the Warren plan on Thursday. “In many ways, the US led the world toward the development of progressive taxation and the reduction of inequality at the global level during the first half of the 20th century,” he wrote in a statement. “I am confident that Senator Warren’s proposed progressive wealth tax will not only help curb inequality and ultimately promote growth in the US, but also have a major impact all around the world.”

Targeting wealth instead of income attacks a much larger source of inequality and economic distortion. Concentrated wealth has skyrocketed over the past several decades; an Oxfam study out this week estimates that the world’s billionaires grew their fortunes by $2.5 billion per day in 2018.

A large percentage of these daily gains are derived through capital ownership. Matt Bruenig of the People’s Policy Project has estimated that around 30 percent of annual national income comes from holding income-generating assets like real estate, stocks, and bonds. This is wealth created by owning wealth, and naturally, nearly all of it is earned by the wealthiest Americans. Increases to income tax rates, while important to curb income inequality, are mostly irrelevant at capturing capital income, or breaking up concentrated wealth.

America already taxes wealth in a minor way through property taxes, but that only covers one type of asset, and does not really correspond to wealth, because homeowners owe tax on the property regardless of what they own in home equity. Some would say that taxes on inheritance are taxes on wealth, but they only come into play after death.

This wealth tax proposal, then, seeks to confront an untapped pool of wealth. While how and whether these revenues would be redistributed is not defined, taxing wealth in an of itself would make society more egalitarian. Indeed, modern monetary theorists regularly point out that the purpose of taxation is not to produce revenue for the government to spend, because the U.S. government controls its spending regardless of taxation. Still, there are numerous potential applications of the revenues that could compress wealth even further.

The Ultra-Millionaire Tax, as Warren’s campaign describes it, would impose a 2 percent annual tax on household net worth on all dollars above $50 million. An additional 1 percent surtax would kick in above $1 billion in income. Wealth is defined in the plan as “all household assets… including residences, closely held businesses, assets held in trust, retirement assets, assets held by minor children, and personal property with a value of $50,000 or more.”

These are marginal tax rates, which conservatives have busily tried to misconstrue during the debate over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed 70 percent income tax rate above $10 million. Households with exactly $50 million in wealth would pay $0.00 in wealth taxes; the first dollar above that would trigger a tax of 2 cents.

That the Warren tax would raise far more than Ocasio-Cortez’s plan is a function of the extreme concentration of wealth in the United States. “While we must make income taxes more progressive, that alone won’t straighten out our slanted tax code or our lopsided economy,” the Warren proposal paper explains.

The Washington Post credibly estimates that Ocasio-Cortez’s 70 percent income tax bracket would bring in $720 billion over a 10-year period. The wealth tax above $50 million, according to Saez and Zucman’s estimate, would raise $2.75 trillion, a number that is around 1 percent of national gross domestic product. The economists use the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances and other sources like the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans to make the estimates.

Bruenig, of the People’s Policy Project, ran the same calculations as Saez and Zucman using similar data, and got a yield of $1.9 trillion over 10 years. He added that this was a lowball estimate, and that Saez and Zucman’s figures were plausible, “because I think their methods are plausible.” While Bruenig said that he would add a tax bracket between $10 and $50 million to avoid “leaving a lot of money on the table by starting so high,” in general he endorsed the concept.

Saez and Zucman build into their figures an expectation of capital mobility, where the rich hide their money in tax havens in response to attempted taxation. Based on studies of other wealth taxes around the world, and the details of Warren’s plan, they conservatively presume a 15 percent reduction in reported net worth.

Warren’s plan attempts to limit such evasion and avoidance. She would increase the IRS budget to enforce the new tax, and apply a minimum audit rate for those 75,000 households subject to it, potentially reversing the long campaign to gut the IRS and let high-net-worth individuals skirt taxation. If the wealthy attempted to renounce U.S. citizenship in response, the plan proposes a 40 percent “exit tax” on all wealth above $50 million.

In addition, the plan would encourage the IRS to close loopholes in valuing assets that already are used in inheritance tax calculations. Plus, she would leverage the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act to adopt third-party reporting and information exchanges with potential sites to park money, like Switzerland.

Those with high net worth but liquidity constraints – such as folks whose money is tied up in financial instruments or business ventures with long-term timelines – could defer payment for up to five years, but they would have to pay interest on what they owe.

The wealthy would still be able to enjoy the vast majority of their wealth. Saez and Zucman estimate that the top 0.1 percent will pay 3.2 percent of their wealth in taxes in 2019, and the wealth tax proposal would only increase that to 4.3 percent. Incidentally, the bottom 99 percent pays about 7.2 percent of their wealth in taxes, because they lack savings and rely heavily on labor income.

An annual tax on wealth exists in several countries around the world, including Spain and Norway. But it is a virtually unprecedented proposal in recent political memory. Bernie Sanders, in the wake of Piketty’s book, proposed a more progressive inheritance tax, but that would only trigger upon death. Sanders floated a wealth tax in a 1997 book, but never offered a formal proposal. None of the other Democratic candidates have suggested anything like an annual wealth tax.

In fact, the last presidential candidate with a legitimate wealth tax proposal was named Donald Trump. In 1999, when he was considering running on the Reform Party ticket, Trump endorsed a one-time 14.25 percent “net worth tax” for individuals and trusts worth over $10 million. According to Trump’s numbers, this would have generated $5.7 trillion, twice that of Warren’s proposal (though those numbers were disputed at the time) and enough to eliminate the national debt. Trump suggested using the savings from annual debt service payments to extend the solvency of the Social Security system (which doesn’t make a lot of sense, but this is Donald Trump we’re talking about here.)

Conservatives have suggested in the past that a wealth tax would decrease investment and economic growth, as the rich sell off assets to pay the tax. Of course, somebody else would have to buy those assets.

By itself, a wealth tax would begin to curb concentration of assets in U.S. society. The redistributive possibilities are also numerous. Cory Booker’s baby bonds proposal, to give every newborn a $1,000 low-risk savings account, with periodic additional payments, that they can tap as adults, would cost an estimated $82 billion per year, less than one-third of the Warren plan. Sherrod Brown’s child allowance bill, a universal cash payout that would cut the child poverty rate in half, would cost about $108 billion a year, not even half of Warren’s proposal. Kamala Harris’ LIFT Act, a massive series of tax cuts for middle-class families, has a $2 trillion price tag over a decade, again less than the Warren wealth tax.

Another option suggested by Bruenig would be to place the revenues into a social wealth fund, an investment portfolio of stocks, bonds, and other assets for which every American would have a non-transferable share. This would reduce the concern that asset sell-offs from wealthy taxpayers would depress share prices, since the social wealth fund would effectively buy them back up.

A universal dividend from the growth of the assets in the social wealth fund portfolio would be distributed to Americans, not unlike the dividend given to Alaskans from revenues generated by oil wealth (known as the Alaska Permanent Fund). “This way we snag the wealth and hold onto it permanently for the public,” said Bruenig.

The post Elizabeth Warren Proposes Annual Wealth Tax on Ultra-Millionaires appeared first on The Intercept.

Kirsten Gillibrand Defends Filibuster: “If You Don’t Have 60 Votes Yet, It Just Means You Haven’t Done Enough Advocacy”

With progressive momentum building ahead of 2020, the range of bold agenda items a new Democrat-controlled government might work toward continues to expand. Most recently, a “Green New Deal” has joined free public college, “Medicare for All,” and a significant hike in the minimum wage as likely policy priorities. Early polls show that essentially any Democratic challenger to President Donald Trump would top him in a head-to-head contest.

But that energy is on a collision course with the U.S. Senate, where a 60-vote threshold is needed to overcome a filibuster, which was once an an opportunity for open-ended debate, but now is merely used to block a vote on legislation that doesn’t have the support of 60 senators. That threshold, if it remains in place, would mean that all of the progressive ideas being generated will remain ideas. The 47-member Democratic Caucus would need to pick up three seats just to win back the Senate. That will be a challenge in itself, but grabbing 13 is effectively out of the question.

That procedural obstacle has increasingly turned the attention of Democratic activists to the existence of the filibuster itself. They’re calling for it to be abolished entirely, and putting the question to presidential contenders, because that’s likely the only way a Democratic majority could pass major legislation two years from now. It’s also about self-preservation: Maintaining the 60-vote threshold in 2021 would set Democrats up to fail to deliver on promises made during the campaign, leading to the possibility of midterm wipeouts, with nothing to show for their time in power, in 2022.

There’s precedent for narrowing the reach of the filibuster. In 2013, then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid reformed Senate rules to eliminate the use of the filibuster to block judicial nominations short of the Supreme Court. To change the rules, Reid needed a simple majority of 50 votes, which he got only after years of pressure from progressives pushed the Senate to act.

In 2017, in order to confirm Neil Gorsuch, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., eliminated the filibuster for Supreme Court justices. That element of the filibuster died with little more than a whimper in the news.

Not all Senate legislation requires 60 votes. A process known as budget reconciliation allows for a 50-vote threshold under certain circumstances. In 2010, Democrats relied on it to push through pieces of the Affordable Care Act after Republicans won an upset special election in Massachusetts, depriving Senate Democrats of their 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority. (The bulk of the ACA wasn’t eligible for the reconciliation procedure, but had already been passed by the Senate before Republican Scott Brown was sworn in; reconciliation was then used for some minor fixes.)

Republicans used reconciliation to bypass the filibuster in 2017 to pass Trump’s tax cut and in their effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Enough Senate Republicans support keeping the filibuster in place that McConnell had no ability to eliminate it, even if he had wanted to. But reconciliation comes with strict limits on what kinds of policies can be passed using the process; it’s extraordinarily complicated, but the gist is that a policy is only compliant with reconciliation if it has a significant budget impact. An attempt to ban abortion, for instance, wouldn’t qualify for consideration under reconciliation.

But in general, the Republican agenda — to repeal Democratic policies, cut taxes, and broadly deregulate — can be accomplished using reconciliation, which sets up an asymmetrical dynamic where progressive legislation needs 60 votes to pass, but just 50 to be repealed. (For instance, it took 60 votes to pass the ACA, but Republicans tried to repeal it with just 50.)

“Pod Save America” host Jon Favreau asked Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who announced her candidacy for president last week, about eliminating the filibuster during an interview that aired on Tuesday. Favreau, a former speechwriter for President Barack Obama, is not typically associated with the more radical wing of the party, and his question is a reflection of how broad the consensus is among Democratic activists that the filibuster needs to go.

“As president, would you push — hopefully — Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to get rid of the filibuster so you could pass something like ‘Medicare for All’ or a Green New deal?” Favreau asked.

Gillibrand, who is running as one of the more progressive candidates in the 2020 presidential race, demurred, an indication that the push to abolish the filibuster has a long way to go.

“The filibuster is mostly gone now, so it barely exists,” she said, going on to defend 60-vote threshold as a good thing because it forces the two parties to work together.

“I think it’s useful to bring people together, and I don’t mind that you have to get 60 votes for cloture” she said, using a procedural term for overcoming a filibuster and ending debate on the Senate floor. “That’s not an unreasonable goal, because if people don’t feel like you’re done with debate, and that they haven’t been heard enough, maybe you should debate a little more. And I think government only works when people who care deeply stand up and fight for what they believe in, and know how important their voices are; and so if you’re not able to get 60 votes on something, it just means you haven’t worked hard enough, talking to enough people and trying to listen to their concerns and then coming up with a solution that they can support. And so I’m not afraid of it one way or the other.”

Favreau pressed Gillibrand further. “So you would be open to getting rid of it for something big like ‘Medicare for All’?” he asked hopefully.

“I don’t think we should have gotten rid of it for the Supreme Court justices, because they’re lifetime appointments, and I do think you should be able to earn at least 60 votes,” she said. “I’ll think about it. I believe I can work well under either system, because if you don’t have 60 votes yet, it just means you haven’t done enough advocacy and you need to work a lot harder.”

In short, Gillibrand’s argument is that if advocacy groups and their allies in Congress can’t produce 60 votes for a bill, that’s because they haven’t done enough to convince people that it’s good policy. That’s a romantic vision for government, but it doesn’t align with the reality of a partisan Senate in the 21st century. Republican senators — and, indeed, no small number of Democrats — are not in opposition to a Green New Deal or “Medicare for All” simply because they haven’t debated them enough or thought them through. Entrenched interests are fundamentally opposed to those policies, and come a Democratic majority, they will use their influence to keep the Senate short of the 60-vote threshold. And then there is the GOP’s partisan interest in simply making sure that Democrats can’t enact an agenda.

That would allow Democrats who might prefer not to see those policies enacted to blame the GOP opposition for their failure to get enough votes. John McDonough, a former Senate staffer who played a key role in drafting the Affordable Care Act, wrote in his book “Inside National Health Reform” that some Democratic senators were hoping in late 2008 and early 2009 the party’s majority did not reach 60 members, so that the party’s progressive wing wouldn’t have high expectations for health care reform.

Ezra Levin, a co-founder of Indivisible, which is also not typically associated with the party’s bomb-throwing wing, called Gillibrand’s answer insufficient. “Senate conservatives used the filibuster to block civil rights legislation for decades. The idea that advocates just need ‘to work a lot harder’ is just wrong. Stop letting a tiny extremist minority block progress,” he said. He noted elsewhere, in the context of filibuster reform, that Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a strident defender of the filibuster, is up for re-election in 2020.

Opposition to the filibuster is an increasingly common view everywhere except inside the Senate. Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pa., who is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus but also the more centrist New Democrat Coalition, also panned Gillibrand’s answer.

Brian Beutler, who writes for Favreau’s Crooked Media, previously pressed Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., on the question of eliminating the filibuster. Whitehouse is one of the senators who is most outspoken about the risks of climate change. Whitehouse suggested that doing so would be politically impractical, and encouraged the use of reconciliation for a Green New Deal-type project instead.

“Pod Save America” is widely listened to by Democratic primary voters — an average of 1.5 million people listen to each episode — and all of the 2020 candidates are expected to be interviewed on the program. Favreau told The Intercept that he plans to ask each what they would do to overcome obstruction. “I think one of the most important questions Democratic presidential candidates can answer is how they intend to pass a progressive agenda in an environment where Republicans have refused to cooperate or compromise since 2009. We hope to ask all the candidates that question,” he said.

The post Kirsten Gillibrand Defends Filibuster: “If You Don’t Have 60 Votes Yet, It Just Means You Haven’t Done Enough Advocacy” appeared first on The Intercept.

Davos: What’s Bitcoin’s Role in Trump and China’s ‘New World Order’?

According to Investec CEO Hendrik du Toit, despite U.S, President Donald Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping not coming face to face at Davos this week, the event is still encapsulated by their simmering economic battle. The chief of the global investment firm suggested that Davos represents a thrashing out of the coming ‘new world […]

The post Davos: What’s Bitcoin’s Role in Trump and China’s ‘New World Order’? appeared first on Hacked: Hacking Finance.

The Plot Against George Soros Didn’t Start in Hungary. It Started on Fox News.

Paranoid conspiracy theories about George Soros — the liberal philanthropist and financier cast, in starkly anti-Semitic terms, as a shadowy puppet master bent on toppling governments — are now so common that it is easy to forget that this viral meme was first injected into the far-right imagination by Fox News more than a decade ago.

An otherwise valuable new article for Buzzfeed by the Swiss journalist Hannes Grassegger — which explains how Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, focused his entire re-election campaign on the imaginary threat posed by Soros, a Hungarian-born Jew — is marred by an incomplete history of the meme. Grassegger, who is perhaps lucky not to have access to Fox broadcasts, incorrectly attributes the creation of the anti-Soros meme to the late Arthur Finkelstein, an American political consultant who advised Orbán.

Grassegger is right to report that Finkelstein and his partner George Birnbaum “turned Soros into a meme” in Hungary, starting in 2013, portraying the billionaire as an enemy of the Hungarian people in posters and attack ads disguised as public service announcements. But his claim that the two men “created a Frankenstein monster that found a new life on the internet,” ignores the earlier role Fox News played in pushing the coded anti-Semitic attack on Soros.

Years before Finkelstein advised Orbán to use Soros as a punching bag — casting his financial support for education, human rights and democracy in Hungary as somehow nefarious — the Fox News hosts Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck had already vilified the Holocaust survivor in similar terms. O’Reilly started by accusing Soros of secretly giving “millions to politicians who will do his bidding,” before Beck went full Stürmer by describing Soros as “The Puppet Master.”

O’Reilly first introduced Fox News viewers to his caricature of Soros as a shadowy financier bent on “imposing a radical-left agenda” on Americans on April 23, 2007. The goal of Soros, O’Reilly warned darkly, was “to buy a presidential election.”

To do this, O’Reilly claimed, “Soros has set up a complicated political operation designed to buy influence among some liberal politicians and smear people with whom he disagrees.” O’Reilly’s complaint about Soros-backed smears was a reference to the billionaire’s support for Media Matters, a liberal watchdog group that had irked the Fox News pundit by regularly fact-checking and debunking his false claims.

O’Reilly’s analysis was then echoed by one of his guests, the conservative talk-radio host Monica Crowley, who claimed that Soros’s donations to liberal groups were “a brilliant way to get around the campaign finance laws in this country,” which he had been able to keep secret “before you just exposed him, because the mainstream media protects him.” Another guest, the far-right political activist Phil Kent, later chimed in to describe Soros as “really the Dr. Evil of the whole world of left-wing foundations” who “really hates this country.”

Although O’Reilly did not refer to Soros’s ethnicity, his criticism of the financier as a shadowy string-puller appealed to the imaginations of anti-Semites online. Less than a year later, Soros was portrayed as “a Jewish tycoon,” secretly directing American foreign policy from inside the White House, in a bizarre animated propaganda film broadcast on Iranian television.

In 2008, an animated Iranian public service announcement featured George Soros.

The public service announcement produced by Iran’s intelligence ministry warned viewers that Soros was “the mastermind of ultra-modern colonialism,” who “uses his wealth and slogans like liberty, democracy, and human rights to bring the supporters of America to power.” In the cartoon, Soros was shown plotting to overthrow Iran’s government, with the help of the CIA, John McCain and Gene Sharp, a political scientist whose theoretical work on nonviolent protest influenced color revolutions in Eastern Europe.

By October 2008, the idea that Soros was secretly controlling American politics was even lampooned on “Saturday Night Live,” in a sketch that identified the financier in an on-screen graphic as “Owner, Democratic Party.”

Will Forte played George Soros in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch broadcast on Oct. 4, 2008.

The actor playing Soros in the sketch, a mock C-SPAN broadcast, even joked that he had drained hundreds of billions of dollars from the American economy during the financial crisis and was planning to devalue the dollar.

Two years later, Fox’s Glenn Beck made the echo of anti-Jewish Nazi propaganda impossible to ignore, calling Soros a “puppet master” who “collapses regimes” in a broadcast — complete with actual puppets — that the columnist Michelle Goldberg described as “a symphony of anti-Semitic dog-whistles.”

In his long indictment of Soros, what Beck did not say about the list of governments he claimed the philanthropist had helped to topple was striking. Before claiming the United States would be Soros’s next “target,” Beck ominously intoned: “Soros has helped fund the ‘Velvet Revolution’ in the Czech Republic, the ‘Orange Revolution’ in the Ukraine, the ‘Rose Revolution’ in Georgia. He also helped to engineer coups in Slovakia, Croatia and Yugoslavia.” Beck failed to mention that in each of the countries he named, Soros had provided support to popular pro-democracy groups battling repressive regimes led by Communist or former Communist autocrats.

There were also no coups in Slovakia, Croatia or Yugoslavia. Slovakia was created by the so-called “velvet divorce,” the peaceful dissolution of the federal state of Czechoslovakia by democratically-elected leaders in 1993; Croatia’s wartime president, Franjo Tudjman, an authoritarian former Communist general, died in office in 1999 and was replaced by a former member of his party after a democratic election; Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav leader who was most responsible for the brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing that killed tens of thousands in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, resigned in 2000, following street protests after his loss in a democratic election.

Beck’s elaborate conspiracy theory, sketched out on both sides of a series of blackboards, was so unhinged that it inspired an extended parody by Jon Stewart.

Asked at the time what he made of Beck’s claims, “that you are the mastermind who is trying to bring down the American government,” Soros told Fareed Zakaria of CNN: “I would be amused if people saw the joke in it, because what he is doing, he is projecting what Fox, what Rupert Murdoch is doing — because he has a media empire that is telling the people some falsehoods and leading the government in the wrong direction.”

“Fox News,” Soros added, “has imported the methods of George Orwell, you know, Newspeak, where you can tell the people falsehoods and deceive them.”

While it is difficult to trace the influence of Fox News in Europe, where it is not broadcast on television, copies of Beck’s program, “The Puppet Master,” have been widely shared online, and the conspiracy theory soon became a matter of faith for far-right commentators on American websites.

An online editorial cartoon, published in 2011, showed how well-established conspiracy theories about George Soros were by then.

The conspiracy theories about Soros are now so widespread that earlier this week, Yair Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister’s son, shared a link to a post by Pamela Geller, a far-right blogger, who distorted remarks made by Soros about how he survived the Holocaust to falsely accuse him of having been “a Nazi collaborator.”

Even after parting company with both Beck and O’Reilly, Fox has continued to focus obsessively on spreading invective and false claims about Soros as a hidden mastermind of liberal causes.

In April, one of the network’s new stars, Tucker Carlson, declared on air that “George Soros hates the United States.” Another new arrival, Laura Ingraham, claimed that Soros was behind protests against the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, despite a credible allegation of sexual assault. And in October, Lou Dobbs of Fox Business News made no objection when Christopher Farrell, the head of the far-right Judicial Watch, claimed that Soros was funding a caravan of asylum seekers marching to the U.S. border, through the “Soros-occupied State Department.”

The same week, Fox News reported that a pipe bomb had been sent to the home of “Democratic mega-donor George Soros.”

“This comes at a time,” the Fox News correspondent Bryan Llenas observed from outside Soros’s home, “when Soros’s name has been recently evoked by right-wing activists, including with the caravan moving forward. Rep. Matt Gaetz, just a few days ago tweeted, suggesting that Soros perhaps was part of the funding — funding the migrant caravan moving to the border. And the president himself has evoked Soros’s name recently, in Missoula, Montana, talking about Soros perhaps funding liberal protesters.”

The post The Plot Against George Soros Didn’t Start in Hungary. It Started on Fox News. appeared first on The Intercept.

Trump Administration Grants South Carolina Foster Care Agencies Authority to Discriminate Against Jewish, Muslim Families

The Trump administration on Wednesday made a quiet move that opens the door for the religious right to use the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act to discriminate against able foster parents whose religious views are in conflict with those of an agency.

On the 33rd day of the government shutdown, Steven Wagner, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families signed a waiver giving special permission to a federally funded Protestant foster care agency in South Carolina to break federal and state law, using strict religious requirements to deny Jewish, Muslim and Catholic parents from fostering children in its network.

After months of lobbying by Reid Lehman, president and CEO of Miracle Hill Ministries, South Carolina lawmakers, and Governor Henry McMaster, Azar signed a waiver that lets the agency keep its federal funding despite warnings by the state Department of Social Services that it’s violating federal and state nondiscrimination law, as well as internal agency policy, by denying parents of the Jewish faith from fostering children. The agency also rejects parents who are agnostic and atheist — anyone who is not a Protestant Christian.

“We have approved South Carolina’s request to protect religious freedom and preserve high-quality foster care placement options for children,” Lynn Johnson, assistant secretary for children and families, said in a statement. “By granting this request to South Carolina,” she continued,“HHS is putting foster care capacity needs ahead of burdensome regulations that are in conflict with the law.”

The signed waiver, stalled for months, could have larger ramifications for other states waging battles over religious freedom in the foster care system, legal experts say. The waiver argues that HHS nondiscrimination regulations are broader than those outlined in the specific Foster Care Program Statute, which specifies that agencies receiving federal funding can’t deny foster parents based on race, color, or national origin — but not religion.

“You state that South Carolina has more than 4,000 children in foster care, that South Carolina needs more child placing agencies, and that faith-based organizations ‘are essential’ to recruiting more families for child placement,” the waiver reads. “You specifically cite Miracle Hill, a faith-based organization that recruits 15% of the foster care families in the SC Foster Care Program, and you state that, without the participation of such faith-based organizations, South Carolina would have difficulty continuing to place all children in need of foster care.” The letter then goes on to make the case that if Miracle Hill isn’t provided an exception to federal rules, other “faith-based organizations operating under your grant would have to abandon their religious beliefs or forego licensure and funding,” in violation of RFRA.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in December issued a similar request to the HHS Administration for Children and Families to either repeal the nondiscrimination rules governing federal child welfare funding, or to exempt Texas and providers in the state from it. It’s unclear whether the current waiver will apply to the Texas request.

The Texas request clearly asks for permission to discriminate based on religious belief and sexual orientation. The letter to ACF argues that the federal rules governing funding for child welfare programs “does not authorize HHS to prohibit discrimination on characteristics other than race, color, or national origin, or to mandate particular treatment of same-sex marriages.”

“Congress knows how to include or exclude nondiscrimination policies in its welfare funding statues,” Paxton’s letter reads, “and its decision to focus on only race, color, and national origin in Title IV-E means no other forms of discrimination are prohibited by funding recipients.”

The Trump administration has prioritized religious freedom for those of a Christian faith, and conservative lawmakers have used that momentum to try to chip away at a body of federal nondiscrimination law they argue unfairly burdens organizations that only want to serve people within their own religion.

Eighty Republican legislators in May signed a letter to President Trump on behalf of faith-based Child Placing Agencies they say are being targeted because of their mission. The letter includes a specific recommendation to repeal the federal rule that protects people from discrimination in HHS-funded programs on the basis of religion, race, ability, gender identity, sexual orientation or any other “non-merit” characteristic. The letter condemns the shortage of foster care parents and the growing population of children in the system, citing the opioid epidemic as a major contributor, and then requests a change to federal rules to allow agencies to deny qualified parents in the name of religious freedom.

“The decision by HHS to allow for taxpayer-funded discrimination is an affront to American values, jeopardizing the safety and protection of vulnerable children in South Carolina, and potentially across the country,” Oregon DemocraticSen. Ron Wyden said in a statement to The Intercept. “It’s appalling that the Trump administration continues to throw the interests of children out the window. There are foster kids sleeping in hotels and living in temporary shelters. To turn away qualified parents because of their religion, sexual orientation or gender identity and deny these kids a secure home is immoral.”

The episode bodes poorly for advocates of civil liberties and religious freedom alike, and opens the door for foster care agencies in other states and players at other HHS-funded agencies, including the offices for Medicare and Medicaid, NIH, the FDA, and the CDC, among others, to discriminate in the name of religious freedom while keeping their federal funding.

The post Trump Administration Grants South Carolina Foster Care Agencies Authority to Discriminate Against Jewish, Muslim Families appeared first on The Intercept.

The Monopolist in the House: Rep. David Trone’s Wine Company Seeks to Overturn a Constitutional Amendment

President Donald Trump has been reasonably condemned for attempting to trash the Constitution. But there’s only one active politician in America working to actually reverse a standing constitutional amendment.

He’s a freshman Democratic House member from Maryland’s 6th Congressional District.

David Trone was elected in 2018 to fill the seat of John Delaney, who seems to think that he’s running for president. Trone won a spirited primary with the assistance of $14.2 million in self-funded contributions and another $3.25 million in personal loans. This available fortune was generated from Trone’s personal alcoholic beverage empire. Total Wine, which Trone co-founded with his brother, is America’s largest privately owned retailer of beer, wine, and liquor, with 193 stores in 23 states. Trone served as president of Total Wine until December 2016 and is still listed as co-owner of the company on its website.

Total Wine is currently embroiled in a Supreme Court case that challenges the 21st Amendment, which ended Prohibition. In Tennessee Wine & Spirits Retailers Association v. Blair, Total Wine claims that Tennessee cannot impose a two-year residency requirement for obtaining a retail license to sell alcohol. This has proven a barrier for Total Wine and for Doug and Mary Ketchum, who recently moved to Tennessee after agreeing to take over a mom-and-pop liquor store in Memphis.

But the residency issue is a stalking horse for the question of whether states have the right to regulate alcohol sales within their borders. While the 21st Amendment is seemingly very clear on that, alcohol producers and retailers have persistently fought it. If the Supreme Court sides with Total Wine, state alcohol laws will have little or no force, making it easier for retail giants to dominate the sector and potentially roll back health and safety measures on alcohol in a drive for profit.

So you have David Trone, a proud member of the new Democratic congressional majority, trying to use a conservative judiciary to deregulate an industry so that his wine shops can pop up on every street corner in America.

Section 1 of the 21st Amendment, ratified on December 5, 1933, simply repeals the 18th Amendment, which ushered in Prohibition 14 years earlier. But Section 2 bans “the transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof.” In other words, all alcohol producers or distributors had to follow local laws in order to make legal sales. This was seen at the time as a compromise to allow “dry” counties or states to continue with their local preferences. (In fact, parts of Trone’s district were dry until recently.)

In this case, the Ketchums moved from Utah in July 2016 to open a wine shop in Memphis. The Ketchums’s daughter has cerebral palsy, and the weather in Tennessee was deemed better for her ailment. The Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission was actually ready to approve the application; the state hasn’t really enforced the two-year residency rule for several years, and Tennessee’s own former attorney general once claimed that it’s “probably unconstitutional.”

But the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association, a local trade association, threatened to sue the state for not adhering to the residency requirement. Tennessee’s law is actually even more restrictive: The initial license expires after one year, and applicants looking to renew must be residents for 10 years.

At the same time, Total Wine wanted to open two new outlets in Nashville and Memphis, which would have faced hurdles if the residency rule was newly enforced because a retailer’s directors and officers must all be residents (thanks to the lax enforcement, Total Wine already has a store in Knoxville). Total Wine, at the time still under Trone’s direction, argued that the 21st Amendment was in conflict with the so-called dormant commerce clause doctrine, which prohibits states from discriminating against out-of-state or foreign commercial enterprises.

In 2005, the court ruled that laws allowing in-state wineries to ship to local residents had to be available to out-of-state wineries as well, to conform to the Constitution’s delegation of interstate commerce to Congress. According to the ruling, even if Congress made no law specifically on wine sales, the very existence of the commerce clause prohibited restrictions.

But Congress did ratify the 21st Amendment, which gave exclusive regulatory rights over alcohol to the states. Therein lies the dispute.

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Total Wine and threw out the residency requirement, further opening the loophole to the 21st Amendment first breached in 2005, from alcohol producers and products to retail businesses. The Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association appealed to the Supreme Court.

You could view Tennessee’s residency requirement as protectionism to prevent outside companies from doing business in the state. After all, it’s not like Tennesseans, in the home of Jack Daniels whiskey, are forced to do without liquor; they’re just restricted from purchasing from out-of-state sellers.

But Sandeep Vaheesan of the Open Markets Institute argues that opinions about the regulation are besides the point; in plain fact, states have been empowered with oversight over alcohol. The 21st Amendment “sought to ensure that alcohol would still be subject to close public oversight and gave this power to the states to structure markets for alcohol in accordance with local preferences,” Vaheesan and John Laughlin Carter write in an amicus brief to the court.

Vaheesan and Carter believe that the 2005 ruling “violated the plain language of the Twenty-First Amendment” and worry about the broader degradation of states’ ability to regulate alcohol, particularly based on a judge’s prerogative to deem a regulation protectionist. “States should have the authority to structure commerce in alcohol to promote a range of public ends, including but not limited to the protection of public health, the promotion of the responsible use of alcohol, and the maintenance of decentralized markets with many distributors and producers of alcohol,” they write.

Much more is at stake than whether the Ketchums have to wait two years to open a liquor store (indeed, since the Ketchums moved to Tennessee in July 2016, they could legally procure a state liquor license today, at least for the first year). If the ruling is broad enough, it could nullify retail bans on direct-to-consumer wine shipping. That would allow Amazon or Walmart to sell wine over the internet.

More immediately, Total Wine would have fewer restrictions to expand its business from 23 to all 50 states. The national chain has already overrun states without residency laws and would almost certainly use its market power to dominate Tennessee and everywhere else. Ironically, the Ketchums, who teamed up with Total Wine in the lawsuit, may be at risk from Total Wine’s power if they prove victorious.

And if that succeeds, Total Wine and other giants can gain political power in the states, threatening other laws regulating the usage of alcohol. Whether by extrapolation from judicial precedent or brute force lobbying power, those laws could fall. Alcohol markets in the United Kingdom have been effectively deregulated, leading to high rates of intoxication among young people and a veritable public health crisis. Breaking the state regulatory apparatus could worsen alcoholism in America.

At the Supreme Court last week, in oral arguments held on the 100th anniversary of the original Prohibition amendment, several justices appeared skeptical of the residency requirement, with Justice Elena Kagan intimating that it is “clearly protectionist.” But Kagan and Justice Neil Gorsuch did seem to understand the slippery slope at play; Gorsuch wondered whether the next step would be to ask for license to “operate as the Amazon of liquor.”

Gorsuch added that “alcohol has been treated differently than other commodities in our nation’s experience,” and the 21st Amendment provided a barrier to an easy adjudication of the case. Attorneys for the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association made similar claims about the amendment’s granting of near-total regulatory power over alcohol to the states.

With Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg absent and uncharacteristic silence from Chief Justice John Roberts, SCOTUSBlog called it “a hard case to handicap.” But the outcome matters enormously for Trone and the ability to extend his wine empire.

Total Wine has often used tactics designed to corner markets. The company has paid fines in Connecticut for selling wine and liquor below cost, a form of predatory pricing to gain market share and drive competitors out of business. Massachusetts accused Total Wine of the same tactic in 2016, but the company sued the state and won on appeal. In 2016, Maryland cited Total Wine for giving campaign contributions above state limits.

Through it all, Total Wine has continuously expanded across the eastern seaboard and the Southwest, and it ships wine wherever state laws allow. Where expansion has been curtailed, Total Wine has employed lobbyists and lawyers, suing Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, and Massachusetts over its alcohol laws.

The midterm victory was Trone’s second attempt at a House seat; he unsuccessfully ran in 2016 for the seat vacated by Chris Van Hollen and now occupied by Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md. In 2018, he switched seats and ran in Maryland’s 6th, where residents mysteriously started receiving Total Wine circulars even though there are no outlets in the area.

Monopolists have served in Congress before; railroad baron Jay Gould was a U.S. senator. Trone’s ascendance offers another bridge back to the late 1800s in our new Gilded Age.

Hannah Muldavin, communications director for Trone, told The Intercept to contact Total Wine directly for comment. A spokesperson for Total Wine replied that the company doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

The post The Monopolist in the House: Rep. David Trone’s Wine Company Seeks to Overturn a Constitutional Amendment appeared first on The Intercept.

A Democratic Firm Is Shaking Up the World of Political Fundraising

When Kara Eastman pulled off a primary upset this past spring in Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District, a swing seat in the Omaha metro region, she did so with no help from the national Democratic party. Eastman, a social worker and first-time candidate running on an unapologetic left-wing platform, was competing against former Rep. Brad Ashford, who served for years in the Nebraska legislature and one term in Congress between 2014 and 2016.

Despite Ashford’s long track record of supporting abortion restrictions, pro-choice groups like EMILY’s List, Planned Parenthood, and NARAL Pro-Choice America opted to stay out of the race. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, or DCCC, elevated Ashford to their “Red to Blue” list, a signal of official party support for competitive races, and political action committees controlled by House leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., kicked in over $28,000 to Ashford’s bid.

Eastman, who embraced not only reproductive freedom but also policies like “Medicare for All,” tuition-free college, a $15 minimum wage, and increased gun control, struggled early on to compete. While her proposals and personal story were popular, finding donors was hard.

Yet by the time her primary rolled around, Eastman emerged the winner, raising close to $400,000  and benefitting from a flurry of late-stage media coverage. Using a new digital fundraising company to target customized groups of donors across the country — such as all Democrats who identify as social workers or those who back “Medicare for All” — Eastman’s team was able to change the trajectory of the race.

Her campaign credits Grassroots Analytics, an obscure tech startup that’s quietly shaking up the Democratic campaign finance world. Not a single article has ever been written about or even mentioned it, despite the company having aided some of the biggest upsets of the 2018 cycle, including Joe Cunningham in South Carolina, Lucy McBath in Georgia, and Kendra Horn in Oklahoma.

“Grassroots Analytics absolutely was what allowed us to be competitive in the primary and get on TV, otherwise there is no way we would have won,” said Dave Pantos, the finance director for Eastman’s campaign. “We were definitely not the mainstream candidate, and we didn’t have access to donor lists that more establishment candidates have.” Eastman ended up losing the general election, earning 49 percent of the vote, but has already announced that she’s jumping back in the fray for 2020.

Grassroots Analytics says it wants to level the playing field and to make it easier for candidates to run who don’t already have a built-in network of wealthy family, friends, and co-workers. Using an algorithm to clean and sort publicly available data spread across the internet, the company provides campaigns with customized lists of donors who they believe are most likely to support them. If you’re involved in the world of political fundraising, a thought has probably occurred to you just now: Wait, isn’t that illegal? Hold that thought.

Establishment groups like the Democratic National Committee, the DCCC, and EMILY’s List have largely given the firm the cold shoulder, despite its goals and the fact that it worked with 137 campaigns in the last cycle. Not even mainstream progressive organizations like Our Revolution or Justice Democrats would return Grassroots Analytics’s entreaties to work together.

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Danny Hogenkamp, founder and director of Grassroots Analytics, in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Justin T. Gellerson for The Intercept

Danny Hogenkamp, the 24-year-old founder and director of Grassroots Analytics, wasn’t expecting to end up in this kind of business. He had no background in politics; he studied Arabic at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and assumed he’d end up doing foreign policy or refugee resettlement work after college.

But after graduating in 2016, with no job yet to speak of, he decided to go crash with some relatives in Syracuse, New York, where he was born, and try his hand in a congressional campaign. He enlisted with first-time candidate Colleen Deacon, a 39-year-old single mother who had worked as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s regional aide in upstate New York. Deacon, who previously lived on Medicaid and food stamps, campaigned on putting herself through college with minimum wage jobs and student loans.

Hogenkamp was placed on the finance team, where he was charged with raising money and managing a team of 20 unpaid interns. It was there that he first encountered the opaque world of political fundraising — a world that even many organizers, pundits, and journalists can hardly grasp.

“I had no idea what campaigns were like, and it turns out that literally what candidates actually do to raise money, unless you’re really well-connected and famous, is sit in a room and call rich, old people to beg for $1,500, $2,000, or preferably [the federal maximum] of $2,700,” he said.

To run a competitive House race, Deacon’s campaign knew it needed to raise between $1.5 million and $2 million. Syracuse is one of the poorer metropolitan areas in New York, and after the campaign exhausted all the local prospective donors it could think of, the next step was the big open secret in political campaigning: finding similar candidates in other states and races and then researching who donated to their campaigns. So, for example, Deacon staffers would search for similar candidates — like Monica Vernon, who was running for Congress at the same time in Iowa — and then try and track down the contact information for the donors listed on their Federal Election Commission reports.

“Our interns would literally just Google people and try to find their phone numbers,” Hogenkamp said. “But donors change their numbers all the time, and they’re hard to find.”

The whole thing was invariably slow and disorganized. “It was the stupidest process,” he said. “It’s not digitized; there’s no math; it’s just random and stupid.”

Hogenkamp, still pretty much an idealistic novice, was convinced that there had to be a better way, some obvious step he was missing. So, from his perch as a relatively high-level finance staffer on Deacon’s team, he reached out to everyone he could think of — like the DCCC, EMILY’s List, liberal consulting firms, and other politicians — to find out how to make this fundraising process easier. “No one had any good answers; they said, ‘Well, this is just how you do it,’” he said. Hogenkamp recalled Gillibrand’s team telling him about its personal wealthy contacts in New York and how fundraising for the campaign meant going to those people and asking each of them to go out and find 10 more donors within their own networks.

Eventually, Hogenkamp connected with David Chase, a Democratic political operative who was then managing the campaign for Rubén Kihuen in Nevada’s 4th Congressional District. Chase offered a bit of help: He had developed a very rudimentary tool to aid his team’s fundraising efforts.

“Using OpenSecrets, I built some product that allowed you to search through all the federal and state contributions,” Chase told The Intercept. “It was very simple — I don’t have any advanced technological skills — but I wrote a script that allowed you to upload a list and it spit back the stats on the amount of times someone had given to state races and their average contributions.” In other words, for someone looking to discover who had given $500 or so to multiple candidates, Chase’s tool provided a way to more quickly glean that information.

Chase explained his tool, and Hogenkamp realized that there was a lot more he could do with an idea like that. During college, he had interned at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, where he learned to model how likely students were to default on their student loans. “I just randomly had a background in R and Python and zero-inflated negative binomial regressions from my time at the CFPB, so it was really just serendipitous that I actually knew what to do,” he said. Following that conversation, Hogenkamp went back and recruited a bunch of Syracuse University computer science students to help him build out his vision.

The result was effectively what he calls a “cleaner” of publicly available data, scraped from across the internet, that analyzes and sorts information for more than 14.5 million Democratic donors over the last 15 years. The tool would generate lists of individuals most likely to support a candidate given shared characteristics and shared views — ranging from race and ethnicity to a passion for yoga or universal health care.

“We know where you live; where you used to live; what issues you care about; if you’re trending Republican or Democrat; what other kinds of candidates you like to support; and contact information” he explained.

The lists aren’t perfect or fully comprehensive. They exclude some websites for legal reasons, and when I asked to see my own donor profile, recalling a $25 donation I gave in college to an Ohio Democrat, Grassroots Analytics had no record of it, because I’ve never given above the $200 reporting minimum to a federal candidate, and only some states and localities disclose small-dollar donations. Had I donated $5 to Stacey Abrams’s gubernatorial campaign, by contrast, I would have shown up in their system.

Nevertheless, the tool offers candidates — especially insurgent and working-class ones who lack rolodexes of wealthy friends — a real window into what is arguably the most important part of any political campaign: early-stage fundraising. The unspoken rule of viability in federal campaigning is that if you haven’t amassed at least $250,000 by your first quarter financial report, you’re probably not a candidate who people will take too seriously. EMILY’s List, an acronym for “Early Money Is Like Yeast,” was founded precisely to help female pro-choice Democrats compete against men who have long received the bulk of political contributions from the heavily white and male political donor class. Yeast makes the dough rise.

Connor Farrell, the finance director for Abdul El-Sayed, a left-wing former candidate who ran for Michigan governor this past cycle, credits Grassroots Analytics with fast-tracking his campaign’s fundraising, allowing the team to target progressives and doctors across the country. (El-Sayed campaigned on his credentials as a physician and public health expert.) “The applications of this new tool were valuable for our call-time operation, building for events, and some digital solicitations,” Farrell told The Intercept. “Grassroots saved us enormous research time, while allowing us to pivot quickly to new avenues of research. For a bootstrapped campaign, saving time and being flexible in your finance department is critical.”

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Campaign posters decorate the wall of Danny Hogenkamp’s office in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Justin T. Gellerson for The Intercept


Is Grassroots Analytics legal? And moreover, in the age when big tech companies are under fire for sharing personal information — not to mention Cambridge Analytica, the political consulting firm, hired by the Trump campaign in 2016, which gained access to more than 50 million Facebook users’ private data — is it ethical?

Depends on who you ask. Federal law prohibits “any information copied from” Federal Election Commission reports from being “sold or used by any person for the purposes of soliciting contributions or for commercial purposes.” Subsequent regulation prohibits “information copied, or otherwise obtained, from any [FEC] report or statement, or any copy, reproduction, or publication thereof” from being sold or used for soliciting contributions. But because these laws date back to before the advent of the internet, and campaigns across the country already scour through FEC lists for leads, Grassroots Analytics says it’s effectively just simplifying the process that hordes of interns and finance staffers already do every day when they set out to research donor prospects.

To comply with the legal prohibition, Grassroots Analytics bars its algorithm from scraping the FEC website and websites like OpenSecrets that aggregate data directly from the FEC. Instead, Grassroots Analytics collects campaign contribution data only from public record caches, newspaper articles, nonprofit reports, and secondary websites. However, there’s little question that most of the campaign finance information they do collect originated at some point from FEC reports.

The company, in other words, exploits an ambiguity in the law, which is whether they have in fact “obtained” information from FEC reports. How many layers removed does information have to be in the age of the internet to pass legal muster? In an advisory opinion produced at the request of Grassroots Analytics that was reviewed by The Intercept, an attorney with one of California’s top boutique firms specializing in political and election law determined that existing law, court cases, and the FEC’s enforcement history “provide no clear answer to this question.” But because Grassroots Analytics takes steps to omit FEC data and sites that aggregate directly from the FEC, the attorney hired to assess their legal status determined that the company has a “legally defensible” position that its products and services do not violate federal law and that in their expert opinion, the FEC, especially with a Republican majority, is unlikely to conclude that the firm or its clients are breaking the law.

“I obviously didn’t go into tens of thousands of dollars of credit card debt to get this thing going without getting extensive legal advice from multiple law firms,” said Hogenkamp. “I’m a little rash sometimes, but I’m not that stupid.”

But should donor information, even if it’s technically public, be made so easily accessible?

“They’re donor pimps, that’s all they are,” said one fundraiser. “If you don’t know people, if your staff doesn’t know people, then you actually shouldn’t run for office. You’re not actually a good candidate.”

Others shrug off the critics, saying that while the FEC and secretaries of state should work to clarify campaign finance rules in the age of the internet, including for political advertisements, right now it’s no secret that most campaigns utilize FEC data in some fashion for solicitation purposes. “Most people think it’s fine to use those lists to research people a little further, to get a better picture of their donor history, and then turn them into leads,” one senior finance director told me.

“I think part of the debate is that the folks who’ve traditionally run the finance side of our party tend to be a little older, more focused on relationships and identifying event hosts and bundlers,” said Chase, who now works for a Democratic consulting firm. “But I think from the last cycle or two, you’ve seen a pretty dramatic shift in the way our party raises money. Digital fundraising exploded, and with that came folks like Danny who said, ‘Well, maybe we can do some of this stuff better than the traditional way of just calling rich folks and trying to get nice checks.’”

The debate also stems partly from confusion over what Grassroots Analytics is or actually does. Some suspect they’re just farming out lists of rich people to clients and engaging in another disapproved practice that’s rampant in the campaign industry — taking donor data from one campaign to another. Trading rich donor contact information is also not unusual among senior finance staffers.

Hogenkamp understands the mistrust. “Don’t get me wrong: I’m so skeptical of everyone in this industry. I totally understand how very smart people would think we’re just some kids with a list of like a hundred thousand donors and that we just make money off that same list,” he said. “But it’s like, no, we have more than 14 million people.”

There is another data analytics company that bills itself as helping candidates (and nonprofits and universities) become more strategic in their fundraising efforts. RevUp, which promises to “revolutionize your fundraising,” was started in 2013 by a top Obama fundraiser and Silicon Valley investor named Steve Spinner. It’s a software company that works with both Republicans and Democrats, helping campaigns to analyze their existing social networks, like their email contacts or LinkedIn connections, to more efficiently find new prospects to hit up. (Grassroots Analytics also analyzes clients’ LinkedIn data for donor prospects.) In October, RevUp, which has won several campaign industry awards for fundraising and innovation, announced a new $7.5 million round of investment.

A key difference between RevUp and Grassroots Analytics is that the former doesn’t expand the universe of donor prospects beyond your own network — it just helps you navigate and analyze the contacts in your existing universe more efficiently. From one vantage point, that’s more respectful, and skirts the thorny questions of legality and ethics. From another, it doesn’t do much to change the problem of connected people hoarding access to connected people.

“At RevUp, we believe successful fundraising is all about respecting prospective donors,” Spinner told The Intercept. “Through our data analytics software, RevUp uniquely allows a candidate, staff, or volunteer to reach out to the right person, at the right time, with the right ask. Our mission is to expand the donor universe and grow the pie beyond the ‘low-hanging fruit’ — the 25,000 major donors that get constantly called.”

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Danny Hogenkamp, right, works with his colleague Derrick Flakoll, technical director of Grassroots Analytics, in their coworking space in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Justin T. Gellerson for The Intercept


When Hogenkamp first developed Grassroots Analytics, he hoped someone in the Democratic establishment would recognize the potential of this technology, buy him out, and give him the institutional support to make it grow. But despite his persistent appeals, almost no one would return his emails.

Yet while no groups would publicly associate with Grassroots Analytics, staffers for some major Democratic political organizations were discreetly referring their candidates to the company throughout the 2018 cycle. Two emails reviewed by The Intercept showed an EMILY’s List campaign operative connecting Grassroots Analytics to Sol Flores’s primary campaign in Illinois and to Veronica Escobar’s race in Texas. “Thanks again for all your work with all o[f] EMILYs List candidates,” they wrote.

Other emails showed Democratic consultants setting up deals with Grassroots Analytics, explaining that the DCCC would be the organization actually writing the check on behalf of their clients. (This was the case with Linda Coleman’s unsuccessful bid for Congress.)

The DCCC and EMILY’s List did not return multiple requests for comment. When the DNC rolled out its “I Will Run” program in April 2018, which was essentially a list of vetted technology companies they recommended campaigns to hire, DNC Tech Manager Sally Marx announced the committee had “surveyed the progressive tech ecosystem looking for tools that campaigns and state parties can use to upgrade their work.” Their list, the DNC said, was a “curated compilation of the best-in-class tools currently used by campaigns.”

RevUp was on there for recommended fundraising companies, but Grassroots Analytics was not. The DNC declined to make Marx available for comment, but in a statement provided by a spokesperson, the party committee claimed Grassroots Analytics “was not on our radar until recently. As we head into this cycle, we look forward to re-evaluating and potentially adding new vendors to our I Will Run marketplace.”

Spokespersons for Our Revolution and Justice Democrats also confirmed that they do not have relationships with Grassroots Analytics and have not referred their candidates to the company.

One person who did show an early interest and helped Hogenkamp break into the field was Molly Allen, a political consultant who runs the political action committee for Blue Dog Democrats. She met with him in 2017 and referred Grassroots to their first three clients.

“I’ve only met Danny a few times and haven’t formally worked with them more than a short-term one-off, so I can’t speak to their work in details, but Danny seems great and I respect his start-up idea and success!” wrote Allen in an email.

I asked Hogenkamp how he felt about his company breaking out by representing Blue Dogs, when they had envisioned being a fix to the barriers blocking progressives from running for office.

“It was weird, but I was desperate,” he said.

Over the course of the last two years, though, Grassroots Analytics has decided to work with anyone running in the Democratic caucus, a decision Hogenkamp says was made to avoid pitting themselves as arbiters of the left. (This could also just be a handy rationale to bolster their client lists and profit margins.) But Grassroots Analytics, Hogenkamp adds, does have some red lines for clients, saying they turned down someone last year who they felt had too strong of ties to charter school backers.

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Data analyst Josh Townsend, right, goes over donor research with Danny Hogenkamp in a common area of the coworking space where Grassroots Analytics operates in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Justin T. Gellerson for The Intercept


But if this all could be started by a young person with barely any political experience, why hadn’t it been done before?

Multiple people interviewed for this article chalked the problem up to monopoly in the political industry and the disincentives to innovate that come with monopolies.

Sean Adler, a New York-based software engineer, said he ran into this problem when he tried to insert some innovation into campaigning four years ago. A friend of Adler’s had mounted a bid for Congress in New Jersey, and Adler, then 23 years old, started developing phone banking tools for the campaign’s volunteers. He ended up co-founding a company to sell the technology and called it Partic.

“I wrote the whole thing from scratch. We took the whole data file of voters, and it would distribute lists and show a script and do all sorts of custom assignments,” he explained. “But one thing that ended up being a bummer was the DCCC