Before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin attempted to defend President Trump's $4.1 trillion budget, whose nearly $30 billion in cuts he attributed to "hard choices." Ranking Democrat Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) wasn't buying it.
"Mr. Secretary, I've often said that a budget proposal is a statement of values and priorities," Lewis began. "This administration's proposal makes crystal-clear that the hungry, the middle class, the elderly and the struggling will be left out and left behind."
Trump's $1 trillion-plus cut to social programs would hurt many of his own voters the most, despite an increase in military and border security funds.
"This budget says, more money for war, for guns, for weapons," Lewis noted. "It raised Medicaid and Social Security; it cut funding for food assistance."
Of all departments, Education, Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development are set to get hit the hardest ($9.2 billion, $4.834 billion and $6.2 billion cut, respectively).
"We have a right to know what is in the food we eat, what is in the water we drink and what is in the air we breathe," hammered the Georgia congressman. "This budget cuts the EPA," in addition to breaking "promise after promise to the American people."
"I have a strange feeling," he added, "this budget is not respecting the American people. I think we can do much better."
At last, Trump has set the stage for a sequel to his first book of lies, The Art of the Deal—and in grand style. He’s found the right investor. He may have received a gold necklace from the Saudi king and looked regal; he is actually acting as a broker to have Saudi Arabia invest $40 billion in Blackstone, so Trump can give away our crown jewels in the guise of fixing our crumbling infrastructure. Like all Trump deals, being the showman, he'll leave the details to others.
However, the real priority of his infrastructure plan is now abundantly clear. We now know what he means when he heralds a public-private partnership. Simply put, it means giving private enterprise the public’s assets, so investment can build something for a return on investment. While the New Deal's WPA had government turning to private enterprise to build projects like public buildings and structures like the great dams to create hydro-electric power for millions of people and employing millions of workers, this is about selling our bridges, tunnels and roads to investment bankers. Does Trump even have the power to make these deals without congressional approval? I hope not.
Last week Jared Kushner called Lockheed and supposedly convinced it to lower its prices for the benefit of a foreign customer. Is that the administration’s way of putting America first? This week, Kushner and his father-in-law met the Saudis and worked out a deal to sell them a variety of weaponry, while getting them to invest $40 billion in Blackstone, so they can invest in our crumbling infrastructure. In this no-bid asset sale, with nothing more than a handshake, Trump has given Blackstone the funds to end up owning our infrastructure. I suppose this is what Trump means when he declares, “Buy American.”
It is becoming abundantly clear that we have a group of businessmen running our country in an attempt to take as much as they can for their former companies, whether it’s Rex Tillerson’s Exxon/Mobil, or Steven Mnuchin’s Goldman Sachs. It is hard to reconcile this charade on so many levels. For one, since when does a president think he has the right to sell our country? Secondly, when did we lose the ability to have our other elected officials—by that I mean Republicans—continue to permit this administration to go on a jaunt around the world, speaking for the American people in the very same week they are proposing to gut any aid to those most in need? Big business gets tax breaks and incentives to pillage our country to benefit Trump's cronies in the White House. It’s one thing to take from Peter to pay Paul, but quite another to take from Peter and give everything to Paul.
By the time this “president” is gone, his brand will only be welcome in the most repressive and authoritarian countries in the world. It’s a perfect match, with no regulations and full-on government handouts. He couldn’t have asked for a better deal. Warning to France: Watch out for the Eiffel Tower.
The first time I saw the painting of Andrew Jackson beside your desk in the White House, it felt like getting a punch in the stomach. I also assumed that it had been there before you took office. Now, I know it was your choice to have it put up in the Oval Office because Jackson is your favorite president. Now, I know who you have chosen to emulate.
Republicans have invoked his name to explain your own shocking rise, your mood swings, your “unorthodox” vitriol directed at anyone and everyone who stands in your way. Yes, you have upended the apple cart. Yes, you shocked a nation tired of the same old seemingly stagnant politics and business as usual.
You have mimicked his bigotry, his hatred and his disregard for justice.
You are about to meet, arguably, the ethical leader of the world. Pope Francis put up a picture of St. Francis of Assisi behind him and named himself after the saint. As was Francis, the Holy Father is a man of peace and reconciliation. The Pope meets prisoners, the homeless, refugees and world leaders - all the time with love.
Images count. Symbols count. Vision counts. St. Francis of Assisi is the Pope’s symbol. Yours is President Jackson.
When Jackson opposed Chief Justice Marshall and pushed ahead the forced removal of the so-called “five civilized tribes,” he showed his true colors. The tribes were called “civilized tribes” because, as a means of survival and self-preservation, many of them had taken to speaking English and wearing “white man” clothing. They were landowners and business people, had their own newspapers and had centuries’ long roots in the land of the southeastern United States. But, most of all, they were just human beings trying to care for their families and live and die where they were born.
I think of the Trail of Tears – the brutal and dehumanizing forced march of the Cherokee, Seminole, Choctaw and Creek peoples – and I cannot help but think of your dream of a border wall. I think of the bloody feet, the starvation and disease, the children who died as they walked their way from Florida and Alabama all the way to Oklahoma, and then I think of the people today being shipped back from this country to the countries where they may be killed. I think of their own journeys, the desperate risk to cross the border into Texas or California, and then the detention centers they are bound for if they are caught. The forced return of these people to somewhere they can no longer call home. The deaths along the way.
And I think of whom Jackson was as a man; his own wealth, built on the backs of a family of plantation owners and slave traders. From his gilded office, he claimed to represent the common man, to understand his struggles, to worry about their children. I look at you in your golden resorts, your fortune built on the debt of others, and I see you reach out to the common man. I see you lie to him, tell him you understand, that you care, even. That you not only have the power but the desire to fix his troubles.
I see you turn a blind eye to the descendants of those native people that Jackson slaughters, as you push ahead with the Keystone Pipeline despite the sacrifice of tribal leaders and the powerful protest of Americans standing with them. I doubt you know or care who Leonard Peltier is, convicted of shooting a police officer on tribal lands, who still rots in prison despite prosecutorial misconduct and two Democratic Presidents denying him clemency despite his failing health.
Regarding Leonard Peltier, you should know that the Holy Father joined the many voices that called for clemency as President Obama was leaving office – only to be denied.
I ask myself, does decency not demand the removal of Jackson’s portrait from the Oval Office? Do you know the harmful destruction to the American Indians the man in that portrait has done?
And then I realize, maybe you do. You seem desperate to repeat those atrocities, to emulate those betrayals of your own people, out of some sort of twisted desire to appear strong. Your administration, like his, is built on a foundation of bigotry and hatred. It is that which we have begun to remember him for, a legacy that does not stand the test of time. It is that which we recognize in you.
You may have met the three great religions of the world on this trip. We all pray that your travel will bring peace, hope for betterment in the lives of the refugees and the easing of tensions worldwide. These may or may not occur – we will see.
But there is one thing you can do, if you have absorbed the wisdom of the three great religions you visited. Take down that portrait of Jackson. My suggestion for a replacement is Abraham Lincoln.
After visiting Yad Vashem, a Holocaust memorial in Israel, it is tradition for world leaders to leave a message. The differences in these two messages could not be more stark. One was a heartfelt, elegant letter (which you can read in full below) and the other essentially a yearbook scribble from the random dude in your 5th hour algebra class.
President Obama’s letter:
I am grateful to Yad Vashem and all of those responsible for this remarkable institution. At a time of great peril and promise, war and strife, we are blessed to have such a powerful reminder of man's potential for great evil, but also our capacity to rise up from tragedy and remake our world. Let our children come here, and know this history, so that they can add their voices to proclaim 'never again.' And may we remember those who perished, not only as victims, but also as individuals who hoped and loved and dreamed like us, and who have become symbols of the human spirit.
Donald Trump’s letter:
It’s a great honor to be here with all of my friends—so amazing + will NEVER FORGET!
MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough said voters might not punish Republicans for defending President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia and attacks on the rule of law — but they’ll hold the GOP accountable for legislative failures.
“We’re worried about the Constitution, we’re worried about the rule of law, we’re worried about separations of powers, we’re worried about somebody going to the office and doing great violence to our Constitution that has held this country, this republic, together for 240 years — these are just distractions,” Scarborough said.
“What people in middle America are focused on are jobs and the performance of this president and the performance of this Republican Congress,” he continued. “I mean, of course people care about all that, but I say, at the end of the day, somebody’s not going to go into a voting booth and say, ‘Hmm, he said something bad about a judge in Hawaii. They’re going to say, ‘What have they done to get me back to work?'”
The “Morning Joe” host slammed Trump as “a rank amateur,” and he said his failure to achieve any legislative successes would hurt Republicans more than his continuing scandals.
“He creates so much chaos that there’s just absolute dysfunction,” co-host Mika Brzezinski said. “You have a candidate that promised to make America great again, to rebuild the military.”
Scarborough interrupted, and threw another Trump campaign promise in the president’s face.
“Are you tired of winning so much?” Scarborough said. “I’m exhausted by what’s been going on here. He said he’d get so tired of winning, we’d be exhausted. I speak for America when I say, we’re exhausted.”
“It’s exhausting,” she said. “I think everybody, Americans who really are hurting out there were expecting more from this president and probably are feeling a bit uneasy, whether they’re ready to say it or not. If you listen to what happened on Capitol Hill yesterday, it doesn’t make things better.”
With its multibillion-dollar cuts to programs for the poor and working-class, Trump's $4.1 trillion budget, titled “A New Foundation for American Greatness," will harm some of his most adamant supporters the most.
“It turns out he’s building that foundation out of the ground-up bones of poor people, because this budget cuts things like the food stamp program (SNAP) and the children’s health insurance program (CHIP)," "Late Show" host Stephen Colbert explained Tuesday. "So he’s cutting SNAP and CHIP, to which America’s children replied STOP and HELP!"
Then, echoing former first lady Michelle Obama's criticism of the administration's school food plan, Colbert deadpanned what should be a wakeup call.
“I know this is an unpopular position these days," he lamented, "but I believe children should go to the doctor and eat."
As for Trump's voters, "It’s all there on Trump’s new hat: 'Make the Poor Live on Squirrel Meat Again,'" the host quipped.
According to The Hill, Trump's budget would completely eliminate 66 federal programs, saving $26.7 billion. The biggest cut? Health and Human Services at $4.834 billion.
“This budget is filled with brutal, senseless cuts to medical research... including an unbelievable cut of 19 percent from the National Cancer Institute’s budget," the "Late Show" host added. "Trump said we’d be sick of winning, and he is ready to deliver on the first half of that sentence.”
Senator Al Franken is said to return to his roots as a Saturday Night Live alum with a new book, set to be released next Tuesday.
Al Franken, Giant of the Senate is the latest literary endeavor for the second term senator. Previous Franken books have reached to top of bestseller lists.
“I like Ted Cruz more than most of my other colleagues like Ted Cruz,” Franken quipped about his colleagues. “And I hate Ted Cruz.”
According to Susan Page of USA Today, the entire chapter titled “Sophistry,” is devoted to Senator Cruz and describes him as “singularly dishonest” and “exceptionally smarmy.”
Franken, though, has his reasons for disparaging his Senate colleague.
“I have to say, he’s an exception to my rule, which is you basically have a rule that if you have a conversation with somebody and it makes them look bad — it’s a private conversation — you don’t repeat it,” Franken said. “But I made an exception with him because he broke that rule, he broke the protocol of the Senate. It wasn’t quite that rule, but he got up to speak and called Mitch McConnell a liar. And that was completely against protocol. So I make him an exception. So I don’t say bad stuff about my other colleagues.”
Franken isn’t the only member of congress who has described Ted Cruz in such a way.
“I’m not endorsing Ted Cruz, I hate Ted Cruz,” said Representative Pete King (R-New York) last April. “I think I’ll take cyanide if he ever got the nomination.”
Longtime federal budget experts quickly slammed the White House’s proposed 2018 budget on Tuesday. Its $1.4 trillion in cuts over the next decade would endanger tens of millions of households, especially the poor and vulnerable, while rewarding the wealthy with unneeded tax cuts and giving contracts to military contractors and others to privatize many government functions.
But inside the right-wing bubble that is the Trump White House and GOP-majority Congress, what’s taken as serious policy ideas, spending principles and rationales for the president’s 2018 budget is reality-averse craziness.
Even as budget watchers say there’s no way Trump’s blueprint will make it through Congress, the starting line—before compromises, concessions and deals begin—is not just mean, cruel and uninformed; it’s delusional. Not only would the budget hit working-class white voters who bet on Trump like a lottery ticket, but the budget also shows a White House living in a land of make-believe.
Here are 15 excerpts from the transcript of White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney’s briefing Tuesday. The excerpts reveal this crew lives in a land where red ink bleeds, but people don’t; where the only deserving Americans are those who served in the military, not the poor, disabled, hungry nor fixed-income seniors; and where freezing health care spending isn't seen as a cut, even if the marketplace keeps jacking up prices year after year.
There have been many credible, lucid and analytical comments about this proposed budget, but sometimes it's important to listen to what the actual authors say, as it is revealing about their thinking and values—or the lack thereof. Take a look.
1. This isn’t a budget, it’s dressed-up tax cuts. Mulvaney said as much at the start of his press briefing. “The name on the cover is ‘The New Foundation for American Greatness.’ As I read through it over the weekend, as I did—in fact, we've been working on this since before I actually got here—it struck me that the title should have been different; that the title should have been, "A Taxpayer-First Budget." Because that's what this is... We looked at this budget through the eyes of the people who are actually paying the bills.”
2. If they’re hurting people, well, that’s compassion. The George W. Bush administration used to label itself the “compassionate conservatives.” The Trump administration has updated that by saying government needs to take pity on taxpayers, not the recipients of government benefits—even if they are people who have paid taxes for years! “Compassion needs to be on both sides of that equation. Yes, you have to have compassion for folks who are receiving the federal funds, but also you have to have compassion for the folks who are paying it. And that is one of the things that is new about this president’s budget.”
3. It’s official. Trump-economics means 3 percent growth. People have been asking, what is their economic philosophy. It is what it has always been for Trump: exaggerated predictions about the future. “What is Trumponomics?" Mulvaney asks, then answers: "What is it? It’s sustained, 3 percent economic growth. Everything that we do in this administration, every single time I am called into the Oval Office, whether it’s on immigration policy, health care policy, tax reform policy, trade policy, budgets and spending—the focus is sustained, 3 percent economic growth.”
4. $54 billion for military, cops, border walls. Anybody in the business of creating arms or using force will get more, whether they need it or not. “National security, obviously [is] a priority for this president. Border security [is] another priority for him… The total plus-up, again, for the 2018 budget is $54 billion over the Congressional Budget Office baseline. The law enforcement gets a significant increase here, and that's both at the federal and the state and local level as we follow through on our efforts to enforce the law."
5. The needy always wear uniforms! This is where Mulvaney abandoned any pretense of having a moral compass. Mulvaney basically stated that only veterans are deserving of safety nets, and everyone else is a freeloader. “If I can look you in the eye and say, ‘Look, I need to take this [tax] money from you so that I can help this injured vet,’ I can do that in good conscience—I can look you in the eye, and my guess is you're okay with that. I am a lot less comfortable to the point of not wanting to look you in the eye and say, ‘Look, I need to take this money from you to give to this person over here who really isn’t disabled but is getting a disabled benefit, or this person over here who is supposed to use the money to go to school...”
6. Unless they happen to be corporate privateers. The budget is a big boon to those seeking to privatize federal services: “We also increase spending for school choice and paid parental leave, making this president the first president of either party to propose a nationwide paid parental leave program for parents and adopted parents. There’s $20 billion in that over the course of the 10-year window... National security, border security, law enforcement, veterans, school choice, paid parental leave. They are all campaign promises that the president made while he was running for office.”
7. Red ink matters more than bleeding in real life. They want to cut federal spending regardless of the real-life consequences and say that’s compassion. “We're no longer going to measure compassion by the number of programs or the number of people on those programs, but by the number of people we help get off of those programs. We're not going to measure compassion by the amount of money that we spend, but by the number of people that we help. And that is how you can get 3 percent economic growth. That is how you can balance the budget in 10 years.”
8. They say spending freezes don’t amount to cuts as the years go by. This incredible claim, which presumes a world without price inflation, concerns their spending on state-run Medicaid, the health care program for poor people. “There are no Medicaid cuts in the terms of what ordinary human beings would refer to as a cut. We are not spending less money one year than we spent before. What we are doing is growing Medicaid more slowly over the 10-year budget window than the Congressional Budget Office says that we should or says that we will under current law.”
9. They would privatize Medicaid or turn it into block grants rationing care. “We happen to think, for example, that Medicaid is designed for more of an urban poor population than a rural poor, as predominates in South Carolina. And we would ask them every single year—would ask them, the federal government—give us more control over how this money gets spent. We think we can do it better. We think we can either provide the same services to the same number of people cheaper, or we can provide better service to more people at the same amount of money if you let us do it better. And the federal government always said no. In the [House-passed Obamacare repeal] American Health Care Act, we say yes, and we give the governors and the state legislatures a lot more control over Medicaid.”
10. Yes, that's more than $800 billion in future cuts they're touting. The Obamacare repeal passed by the House takes more than $800 billion out of future Medicaid spending over the next decade. Mulvaney says that will help treat the needy better: “Everyone is interested in seeing the truly needy in their state and in our nation get the care that we promised them in Medicaid. But there's a better way to do it than under current law, which is Obamacare. We can also talk about what a failure that is. But there's a better way to do it, and that's what the American Health Care Act does.”
11. They could collect half a trillion in taxes, but will cut safety nets. This exchange from the Q&A part of Mulvaney’s press conference is stunning, as the White House budget director said there are hundreds of billions in uncollected taxes out there, but they don’t think it’s a good thing to collect the funds.
Mulvaney: “The tax gap is the amount of money that we should collect in taxes every single year, but don’t. 2016—that number is $486 billion. Almost enough to close the deficit that year. And we don’t assume an additional penny of that being closed as part of our tax reform. Why is that important? There's probably two reasons that people—well, three reasons people don’t want to pay tax. Number one, they just don’t pay tax, and there's always a certain number of people who don’t want to do that. Number two, it's just too hard for them to do it. It's too complicated for them to do it. Two reasons. Now I feel like I'm a Monty Python skit. But two reasons. And we think that—”
Question: “Airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.”
Mulvaney: “Exactly. That if it's a simpler tax code, that people are more likely to pay. That simply makes sense. If you can really fill out your tax reform—tax returns on a single piece of paper, you're much more likely to actually do it. It's also easier for us to see if you're paying the right amount. A simpler code is easy for you to pay and easy for the government to see if you're paying the right amount, which would allow us very reasonably to assume a reduction in the tax gap. And we don’t do a single penny of that.”
12. The EPA cuts are anti-climate science, but that's not anti-science! Huh? Here, Mulvaney said the Obama administration was overreacting to climate change and the only way to stop that was to eviscerate the Environmental Protection Agency. “What I think you saw happened during the previous administration is the pendulum went too far to one side, where we were spending too much of your money on climate change and not very efficiently. We don’t get rid of it here. Do we target it? Sure. Do a lot of the EPA reductions aimed at reducing the focus on climate science? Yes. Does it mean that we are anti-science? Absolutely not. We're simply trying to get things back in order to where we can look at the folks who pay the taxes, and say, look, yeah, we want to do some climate science, but we're not going to do some of the crazy stuff the previous administration did.”
13. They still want to build a border wall. They don’t want to do crazy stuff like staving off climate change, but they want to build a Mexican border wall. “We are absolutely dead serious about the wall. In fact, after taking care of national security and the vets, my guess is, it's in the president's top three. In fact, I know for a fact that it is. And we've made that very clear to the folks on the Hill that while we did not get as much money as we wanted for border security in the 2017 omnibus—we didn’t get a lot; many of you were here for the presentation I gave on that—that we will see increased border security between today and the end of the calendar year. By the same token, we're going to continue to press on.”
14. People on SSDI—disability—are not really on Social Security and not really disabled. Trump promised older voters would not touch Social Security or Medicare, but Mulvaney says recipients of Social Security’s disability assistance are not really on Social Security and are just lazy and trying to avoid work. “Social Security disability. It is a welfare program for the long-term disabled. It is not what most people would consider to be Social Security... There are people who are getting SSDI who should not be getting it.”
15. Same with food stamps; people pretend to be hungry. This is unbelievable, pretending that there is no such thing as hunger in America, because national economic statistics are saying we’ve emerged from the 2008 recession. “During bad economic times, more people will go onto food stamps. So it's completely within reason to look at that number—it went from 28 million on food stamps before the recession to 47 million at the height. It's 44 or 42 today. Yet here we are, eight years removed from the end of the recession. We've had economic growth, albeit slow. We're at what we consider to be full employment… Why is the number still that high?
The White House’s Right-Wing Bubble
The release of the White House’s proposed FY 2018 budget, for the year starting October 1, has prompted plenty of serious analyses—including some saying its assumptions fall apart if its 3 percent growth prediction is off. But those mainstream analyses are playing along as if this is a serious proposal grounded in grown-up governing. It’s not. Mulvaney, you may have noticed, did not discuss real details from federal programs to be fine-tuned.
This is another dressed-up version of the only thing this administration wants to do—cut taxes for the rich and make an army of contractors rich via privatization. This budget stops government revenues and blows up federal programs, leaving it up to states to clean up the mess. At the end of the briefing, Mulvaney was again asked by a reporter about cutting food stamps. Only on Monday did NPR air a report on how hunger was widespread throughout Appalachia and in many states that voted for Trump.
“Folks who are out there who are on food stamps and want to work, we'll be able to work with them to solve the problem,” he replied. “They are not what’s causing the difficulties in SNAP [food stamps]. It's the folks who are on there who don't want to work. And that's what we're trying to point out to people is, look, if there’s 44 million people on there, eight years from the end of the recession, maybe, maybe it's reasonable to ask if there are folks who are on there who shouldn’t be. That is a reasonable question to ask. I would even suggest to you it's a compassionate question to ask.”
Well before the Russia scandal became a national soap opera, comparisons between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin were a media staple. Trump encouraged these comparisons by praising the Russian president, widely regarded as an authoritarian, dozens of times in the past four years.
But the more apt analogy may be post-Soviet Russia’s first president, the late Boris Yeltsin, who served from the eve of the Soviet breakup in 1991 to 1999, when he handpicked Putin as his successor. Initially greeted in the West as a hero and a democratizer, Yeltsin is now regarded as an embarrassing failure in Russia. Famed for his public alcoholism and erratic behavior, he became an international laughingstock while allowing the oligarchs who surrounded him to loot the country. Yeltsin was also known for issuing heavy-handed, unconstitutional decrees in a failed attempt to exert authority, and for the war crimes committed in his botched war in Chechnya. His approval ratings were consistently pathetic, as he oversaw a collapse in living standards due to the rigged privatization of the economy, which his advisers forced through with minimal public oversight. Nevertheless, he was reelected due to media manipulation, and arguably, the covert interference of a foreign power, the United States. In retrospect, Yeltsin's catastrophic tenure is seen as paving the way for Putin’s strongman presidency.
The parallels are inexact and shouldn’t be overstated. The point is that Trump isn't much of an autocrat, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t doing lasting damage to American democracy. He lacks some of the tools of an effective authoritarian, like a centralized secret police force that would give him control over the everyday lives of Americans; moreover, he lacks the discipline and intelligence to build and operate such an apparatus. Unlike Barack Obama, who could hardly be called a dictator, he lacks even the discipline and intelligence to pass major legislation. But it is precisely Trump’s absence of authority that makes his presidency so dangerous. He has created a vacuum in the executive branch, and the worst forces in American life have rushed to fill it.
Despite his pledge to “drain the swamp” in Washington, Trump's policymaking has amounted to little more than an open house for industry lobbyists to draft executive orders and legislation aimed at enriching themselves at the public’s expense. The prospect of historic tax reform legislation in particular has buoyed markets for most of Trump’s presidency, regardless of his dismal approval ratings or constant scandals. Far from viewing Trump as a threat to their power, corporate executives and the mainstream Republicans who represent them in Congress understand the Trump presidency as a unique opportunity to defund the government, including vital programs like Medicaid, and rack up profits. Early in his tenure, Putin famously jailed, exiled or marginalized those oligarchs who threatened him politically, to ensure loyalty from the rest. By contrast, Trump’s presidency has benefited all of the wealthiest Americans, including the ones who find him distasteful.
But it isn’t just industry lobbyists and wealthy donors who are exploiting Trump’s weak presidency. The president can be influenced by anyone, from white supremacists and conspiracists like his adviser Steve Bannon to national security establishment figures like Defense Secretary James Mattis and even the Russian government. While the idea of Trump as a Manchurian candidate has always seemed over the top, what is likely closer to the truth (as far as one can tell during an ongoing murky investigation) is that Russia was able to compromise key Trump advisers, such as Michael Flynn, any other president would have avoided. This suggests not that Trump is a Russian sleeper agent, but that he’s uniquely vulnerable to influence by foreign powers in a way that compromises U.S. interests.
Indeed, it was recently revealed that Flynn successfully pushed policies favorable to Turkey in the U.S. campaign against ISIS, after accepting large sums of money from the Turkish government. That doesn’t make Trump a Russian or a Turkish puppet, it makes him a dupe whose policies can easily be swayed by rival powers. This was certainly on display in his visit to Riyadh on Sunday, where he posed menacingly with a glowing orb beside Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Egypt’s dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi after signing off on a massive arms deal with the country he once blamed for the 9/11 attacks.
As of this writing, it seems plausible either that Trump could be removed from power within months, or that he could serve out at least one full term. Regardless, he is likely to leave the presidency a diminished office. While this might seem to have some upsides, given longstanding concerns about the dangers of an imperial presidency, in practice it means power will have been ceded to corporate and overseas actors—an ironic outcome given Trump’s superficially populist and nationalist campaign. An intelligent and well-intentioned president can serve as the one nationally accountable figure in the dysfunctional American government, the role Obama saw himself as playing for eight years. In the absence of such a president, Washington devolves into little more than a free-for-all for unaccountable wealthy interests.
It’s also worth considering who might succeed Trump. One hopes Americans will rebound from his failed, humiliating presidency by electing a progressive Democrat who will stand up for the interests of regular Americans in 2020. But it is also possible that Trump, like Yeltsin, will leave behind a demoralized, traumatized and cynical country, where the social contract lies in tatters and faith in existing institutions is weaker than ever. Under such circumstances, America would be ripe for a genuine authoritarian. Surveying Trump’s party, it’s not hard to identify figures who might relish the role—starting with Vice President Mike Pence, whose newly launched PAC and far-right tenure as governor of Indiana suggest an impatience to govern with the kind of ruthlessness Trump seems incapable of summoning.
Trump, in short, is no strongman, but his presidency is the kind of emergency that makes a strongman seem like a reasonable alternative.
For years, conservatives warned that liberals were “defining deviancy downward.” They said that by tolerating bad social behavior, liberals in effect lowered what was deemed acceptable behavior overall – allowing social norms to decline.
There was never a lot of evidence for that view, but there’s little question that Donald Trump is actively defining deviancy downward for the nation as a whole – whether it’s by lying, denigrating basic democratic values, celebrating tyrants around the world, using his office to build his family wealth, or stopping at nothing to win the presidency.
Now comes his budget. Budgets are overall expressions of values and priorities. Trump’s budget is cruel and deviant. He proposes to cut federal spending by more than $3.6 trillion over the next decade, much of it for programs that help the poor (Medicaid, food stamps, Social Security disability, and health insurance for poor children) – in order to finance a huge military buildup and tax cuts for corporations and the rich.
Trump’s budget won’t get through Congress, but it defines deviancy downward in 3 respects:
1. It imposes huge burdens on people who already are hurting. Not just the very poor, but also the working class. In fact, among the biggest losers would be people who voted for Trump – whites in rural and poor areas of the country who depend on Medicaid, food stamps, and Social Security disability.
Yet will they know that Trump is willing to sell them out to the rich and corporate interests, or will they fall for the right-wing Republican propaganda (amplified by Fox News and yell radio) that the budget is designed to help people take more responsibility for themselves?
2. It sets a new low bar for congressional and public debate over social insurance in America, and of government’s role – far lower than anything proposed by Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. It pushes the idea that each of us is and should be on our own, rather than that we are part of a society that benefits from social insurance – spreading the risks and costs of adversity that could hit any one of us.
As White House OMB director Mick Mulvaney absurdly put it, the government should show “compassion” for low-income Americans but it should “also…have compassion for folks who are paying [for] it.” That illogic eliminates the justification for social insurance altogether.
The budget thereby frames the debate over Trumpcare, for example, as “why should I pay for her pre-existing health problem if I’m healthy?”
3. Finally, the budget eviscerates the notion that an important aspect of patriotism involves sacrificing for the common good – paying for public services you won’t use but will be used by others and will thereby help the nation as a whole, such as schools, roads, clean air, and health care.
Trump’s budget celebrates a cruel and virulent form of individualism – much like Trump himself. Until Trump, this view of America was considered deviant. But Trump is defining deviancy downward.
We are a better nation than this.
AS A NEONATAL INTENSIVE CARE NURSE, Lauren Bloomstein had been taking care of other people’s babies for years. Finally, at 33, she was expecting one of her own. The prospect of becoming a mother made her giddy, her husband Larry recalled recently — “the happiest and most alive I’d ever seen her.” When Lauren was 13, her own mother had died of a massive heart attack. Lauren had lived with her older brother for a while, then with a neighbor in Hazlet, New Jersey, who was like a surrogate mom, but in important ways she’d grown up mostly alone. The chance to create her own family, to be the mother she didn’t have, touched a place deep inside her. “All she wanted to do was be loved,” said Frankie Hedges, who took Lauren in as a teenager and thought of her as her daughter. “I think everybody loved her, but nobody loved her the way she wanted to be loved.”
Other than some nausea in her first trimester, the pregnancy went smoothly. Lauren was “tired in the beginning, achy in the end,” said Jackie Ennis, her best friend since high school, who talked to her at least once a day. “She gained what she’s supposed to. She looked great, she felt good, she worked as much as she could” — at least three 12-hour shifts a week until late into her ninth month. Larry, a doctor, helped monitor her blood pressure at home, and all was normal.
On her days off she got organized, picking out strollers and car seats, stocking up on diapers and onesies. After one last pre-baby vacation to the Caribbean, she and Larry went hunting for their forever home, settling on a brick colonial with black shutters and a big yard in Moorestown, not far from his new job as an orthopedic trauma surgeon in Camden. Lauren wanted the baby’s gender to be a surprise, so when she set up the nursery she left the walls unpainted — she figured she’d have plenty of time to choose colors later. Despite all she knew about what could go wrong, she seemed untroubled by the normal expectant-mom anxieties. Her only real worry was going into labor prematurely. “You have to stay in there at least until 32 weeks,” she would tell her belly. “I see how the babies do before 32. Just don’t come out too soon.”
When she reached 39 weeks and six days — Friday, Sept. 30, 2011 — Larry and Lauren drove to Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch, the hospital where the two of them had met in 2004 and where she’d spent virtually her entire career. If anyone would watch out for her and her baby, Lauren figured, it would be the doctors and nurses she worked with on a daily basis. She was especially fond of her obstetrician-gynecologist, who had trained as a resident at Monmouth at the same time as Larry. Lauren wasn’t having contractions, but she and the OB-GYN agreed to schedule an induction of labor — he was on call that weekend and would be sure to handle the delivery himself.
Inductions often go slowly, and Lauren’s labor stretched well into the next day. Ennis talked to her on the phone several times: “She said she was feeling okay, she was just really uncomfortable.” At one point, Lauren was overcome by a sudden, sharp pain in her back near her kidneys or liver, but the nurses bumped up her epidural and the stabbing stopped.
Inductions have been associated with higher cesarean-section rates, but Lauren progressed well enough to deliver vaginally. On Saturday, Oct. 1, at 6:49 p.m., 23 hours after she checked into the hospital, Hailey Anne Bloomstein was born, weighing 5 pounds, 12 ounces. Larry and Lauren’s family had been camped out in the waiting room; now they swarmed into the delivery area to ooh and aah, marveling at how Lauren seemed to glow.
Larry floated around on his own cloud of euphoria, phone camera in hand. In one 35-second video, Lauren holds their daughter on her chest, stroking her cheek with a practiced touch. Hailey is bundled in hospital-issued pastels and flannel, unusually alert for a newborn; she studies her mother’s face as if trying to make sense of a mystery that will never be solved. The delivery room staff bustles in the background in the low-key way of people who believe everything has gone exactly as it’s supposed to.
Then Lauren looks directly at the camera, her eyes brimming.
Twenty hours later, she was dead.
THE ABILITY TO PROTECT THE HEALTH OF MOTHERS AND BABIES in childbirth is a basic measure of a society’s development. Yet every year in the U.S., 700 to 900 women die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes, and some 65,000 nearly die — by many measures, the worst record in the developed world.
American women are more than three times as likely as Canadian women to die in the maternal period (defined by the Centers for Disease Control as the start of pregnancy to one year after delivery or termination), six times as likely to die as Scandinavians. In every other wealthy country, and many less affluent ones, maternal mortality rates have been falling; in Great Britain, the journal Lancet recently noted, the rate has declined so dramatically that “a man is more likely to die while his partner is pregnant than she is.” But in the U.S., maternal deaths increased from 2000 to 2014. In a recent analysis by the CDC Foundation, nearly 60 percent of such deaths were preventable.
While maternal mortality is significantly more common among African Americans, low-income women and in rural areas, pregnancy and childbirth complications kill women of every race and ethnicity, education and income level, in every part of the U.S. ProPublica and NPR spent the last several months scouring social media and other sources, ultimately identifying more than 450 expectant and new mothers who have died since 2011. The list includes teachers, insurance brokers, homeless women, journalists, a spokeswoman for Yellowstone National Park, a co-founder of the YouTube channel WhatsUpMoms, and more than a dozen doctors and nurses like Lauren Bloomstein. They died from cardiomyopathy and other heart problems, massive hemorrhage, blood clots, infections and pregnancy-induced hypertension (preeclampsia) as well as rarer causes. Many died days or weeks after leaving the hospital. Maternal mortality is commonplace enough that three new mothers who died, including Lauren, were cared for by the same OB-GYN.
The reasons for higher maternal mortality in the U.S. are manifold. New mothers are older than they used to be, with more complex medical histories. Half of pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned, so many women don’t address chronic health issues beforehand. Greater prevalence of C-sections leads to more life-threatening complications. The fragmented health system makes it harder for new mothers, especially those without good insurance, to get the care they need. Confusion about how to recognize worrisome symptoms and treat obstetric emergencies makes caregivers more prone to error.
Yet the worsening U.S. maternal mortality numbers contrast sharply with the impressive progress in saving babies’ lives. Infant mortality has fallen to its lowest point in history, the CDC reports, reflecting 50 years of efforts by the public health community to prevent birth defects, reduce preterm birth and improve outcomes for very premature infants. The number of babies who die annually in the U.S. — about 23,000 in 2014 — still greatly exceeds the number of expectant and new mothers who die, but the ratio is narrowing.
The divergent trends for mothers and babies highlight a theme that has emerged repeatedly in ProPublica’s and NPR’s reporting. In recent decades, under the assumption that it had conquered maternal mortality, the American medical system has focused more on fetal and infant safety and survival than on the mother’s health and well-being.
“We worry a lot about vulnerable little babies,” said Barbara Levy, vice president for health policy/advocacy at the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and a member of the Council on Patient Safety in Women’s Health Care. Meanwhile, “we don’t pay enough attention to those things that can be catastrophic for women.”
At the federally funded Maternal-Fetal Medicine Units Network, the preeminent obstetric research collaborative in the U.S., only four of the 34 initiatives listed in its online database primarily target mothers, versus 24 aimed at improving outcomes for infants (the remainder address both). Under the Title V federal-state program supporting maternal and child health, states devoted about 6 percent of block grants in 2016 to programs for mothers, compared to 78 percent for infants and special-needs children. The notion that babies deserve more care than mothers is similarly enshrined in the Medicaid program, which pays for about 45 percent of births. In many states, the program covers moms for 60 days postpartum, their infants for a full year. The bill to replace the Affordable Care Act, adopted by the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this month, could gut Medicaid for mothers and babies alike.
At the provider level, advances in technology have widened the gap between maternal and fetal and infant care. “People became really enchanted with the ability to do ultrasound, and then high-resolution ultrasound, to do invasive procedures, to stick needles in the amniotic cavity,” said William Callaghan, chief of the CDC’s Maternal and Infant Health Branch.
The growing specialty of maternal-fetal medicine drifted so far toward care of the fetus that as recently as 2012, young doctors who wanted to work in the field didn’t have to spend time learning to care for birthing mothers. “The training was quite variable across the U.S.,” said Mary D’Alton, chair of OB-GYN at Columbia University Medical Center and author of papers on disparities in care for mothers and infants. “There were some fellows that could finish their maternal-fetal medicine training without ever being in a labor and delivery unit.”
In the last decade or so, at least 20 hospitals have established multidisciplinary fetal care centers for babies at high risk for a variety of problems. So far, only one hospital in the U.S. — NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia — has a similar program for high-risk moms-to-be.
In regular maternity wards, too, babies are monitored more closely than mothers during and after birth, maternal health advocates told ProPublica and NPR. Newborns in the slightest danger are whisked off to neonatal intensive care units like the one Lauren Bloomstein worked at, staffed by highly trained specialists ready for the worst, while their mothers are tended by nurses and doctors who expect things to be fine and are often unprepared when they aren’t.
When women are discharged, they routinely receive information about how to breastfeed and what to do if their newborn is sick but not necessarily how to tell if they need medical attention themselves. “It was only when I had my own child that I realized, ‘Oh my goodness. That was completely insufficient information,’” said Elizabeth Howell, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “The way that we’ve been trained, we do not give women enough information for them to manage their health postpartum. The focus had always been on babies and not on mothers.”
In 2009, the Joint Commission, which accredits 21,000 health care facilities in the U.S., adopted a series of perinatal “core measures” — national standards that have been shown to reduce complications and improve patient outcomes. Four of the measures are aimed at making sure the baby is healthy. One — bringing down the C-section rate — addresses maternal health.
Meanwhile, life-saving practices that have become widely accepted in other affluent countries — and in a few states, notably California — have yet to take hold in many American hospitals. Take the example of preeclampsia, a type of high blood pressure that only occurs in pregnancy or the postpartum period, and can lead to seizures and strokes. Around the world, it kills an estimated five women an hour. But in developed countries, it is highly treatable. The key is to act quickly.
By standardizing its approach, Britain has reduced preeclampsia deaths to one in a million — a total of two deaths from 2012 to 2014. In the U.S., on the other hand, preeclampsia still accounts for about 8 percent of maternal deaths — 50 to 70 women a year. Including Lauren Bloomstein.
WHEN LAUREN MCCARTHY BLOOMSTEIN WAS A TEENAGER IN THE 1990S, a neighbor who worked for a New York publishing firm approached her about modeling for a series of books based on Louisa May Alcott’s classic “Little Women.” Since her mother’s death, Lauren had become solitary and shy; she loved to read, but she decided she wasn’t interested. “Are you kidding? Go do it!” Frankie Hedges insisted. “That would be fabulous!” Lauren relented, and the publisher cast her as the eldest March sister, Meg. She appeared on the covers of four books, looking very much the proper 19th-century young lady with her long brown hair parted neatly down the middle and a string of pearls around her neck. The determined expression on her face, though, was pure Lauren. “She didn’t want sympathy, she didn’t want pity,” Jackie Ennis said. “She wasn’t one to talk much about her feelings [about] her mom. She looked at it as this is what she was dealt and she’s gonna do everything in her power to become a productive person.”
In high school, Lauren decided her path lay in nursing, and she chose a two-year program at Brookdale Community College. She worked at a doctor’s office to earn money for tuition and lived in the garage apartment that Hedges and her husband had converted especially for her, often helping out with their young twin sons. Lauren “wasn’t a real mushy person,” Hedges said. “She wasn’t the type to say things like ‘I love you. ’” But she clearly relished being part of a family again. “You can’t believe how happy she is,” Ennis once told Hedges. “We’ll be out and she’ll say, ‘Oh, I have to go home for dinner!’”
After graduating in 2002, Lauren landed at Monmouth Medical Center, a sprawling red-brick complex a few minutes from the ocean that is part of the RWJBarnabas Health system and a teaching affiliate of Philadelphia’s Drexel University College of Medicine. Her first job was in the medical surgical unit, where her clinical skills and work ethic soon won accolades. “I cannot remember too many healthcare employees that I respect as much as Lauren,” Diane Stanaway, then Monmouth’s clinical director of nursing, wrote in a 2005 commendation. “What a dynamite young lady and nurse!” When a top hospital executive needed surgery, Larry recalled, he paid Lauren the ultimate compliment, picking her as one of two private-duty nurses to help oversee his care.
Larry Bloomstein, who joined the unit as an orthopedic surgical resident in 2004, was dazzled, too. He liked her independent streak — “She didn’t feel the need to rely on anyone else for anything” — and her levelheadedness. Even performing CPR on a dying patient, Lauren “had a calmness about her,” Larry said. He thought her tough upbringing “gave her a sense of confidence. She didn’t seem to worry about small things.” Lauren, meanwhile, told Ennis, “I met this guy. He’s a doctor, and he’s very kind.” Their first date was a Bruce Springsteen concert; five years later they married on Long Beach Island, on the Jersey shore.
One of Lauren’s favorite books was “The Catcher in the Rye” — “she related to the Holden Caulfield character rescuing kids,” Larry said. When a spot opened at Monmouth’s elite neonatal intensive care unit in 2006, she jumped at it.
The hospital has the fifth-busiest maternity department in the state, delivering 5,449 babies in 2016. Monmouth earned an “A” grade from Leapfrog, a nonprofit that promotes safety in health care, and met full safety standards in critical areas of maternity care, such as rates of C-sections, and early elective deliveries, a hospital spokeswoman said. Its NICU, a Level III facility for high-risk newborns, is the oldest in New Jersey.
“With NICU nursing, it’s one of those things either you get it or you don’t,” said Katy DiBernardo, a 20-year veteran of the unit. “The babies are little, and a lot of people aren’t used to seeing a teeny tiny baby.” The NICU staff included nurses, neonatologists, a respiratory therapist and residents. Lauren, DiBernardo said, “just clicked.”
One of the things Lauren liked best about her work was the bonds she formed with babies’ families. Nurses followed the same newborns throughout their stay, sometimes for weeks or months. She was a touchstone for parents — very good at “calming people down who have a lot of anxiety,” Larry said —and often stayed in contact long after the babies went home, meeting the moms for coffee and even babysitting on occasion.
She also cherished the deep friendships that a place like the NICU forged. The neonatal floor was like a world unto itself, Lauren Byron, another longtime nurse there, explained: “There’s a lot of stress and pressure, and you are in life-and-death situations. You develop a very close relationship with some people.” The environment tended to attract very strong personalities. Lauren’s nickname in the Bloomstein family football pool was “The Feisty One,” so she fit right in. But she could stand her ground without alienating anyone. “She was one of those people that everyone liked,” Byron said.
ANOTHER PERSON EVERYONE LIKED was OB-GYN John Vaclavik. He had come to Monmouth as a resident in 2004, around the same time as Larry, after earning his bachelor’s from Loyola College in Baltimore and his medical degree at St. George’s University on the island of Grenada. Medicine was the family profession: Two uncles and two brothers also became doctors and his wife was a perinatal social worker at the hospital. Lauren and her colleagues thought he was “very personable” and “a great guy,” Larry said.
“She was good friends with my wife and she felt comfortable with me,” Vaclavik would recall in a 2015 court deposition.
After his residency, Vaclavik joined Ocean Obstetric & Gynecologic Associates, a thriving practice that counted numerous medical professionals among its clients. Vaclavik was a “laborist” — part of a movement that aimed to reduce the number of C-sections, which tend to have more difficult recoveries and more complications than vaginal births. In a state with a C-section rate of 37 percent, Monmouth’s rate in 2016 was just 21 percent.
The neonatal nurses had plenty of opportunity to observe Vaclavik and other OB-GYNs in action — someone from NICU was called to attend every delivery that showed signs of being complicated or unusual as well as every C-section. “We always laughed, ‘They’ll call us for a hangnail,’” DiBernardo said. Lauren was so impressed by Vaclavik that she not only chose him as her own doctor, she recommended him to her best friend. “She kept saying, ‘You have to go to this guy. He’s a good doctor. Good doctor,’” Ennis said.
In other ways, though, the NICU staff and the labor and delivery staff were very separate. The neonatal nurses were focused on their own fragile patients — the satisfaction that came from helping them grow strong enough to go home, the grief when that didn’t happen. Once Ennis asked Lauren, “How do you deal with babies that don’t make it? That’s got to be so bad.” Lauren replied, “Yeah, but we save more than we lose.”
Loss was less common in labor and delivery, and when a new mother suffered life-threatening complications, the news did not always reach the NICU floor. Thus, when a 29-year-old special education teacher named Tara Hansen contracted a grisly infection a few days after giving birth to her first child in March 2011, the tragedy didn’t register with Lauren, who was then three months pregnant herself.
Hansen lived in nearby Freehold, New Jersey, with her husband, Ryan, her high school sweetheart. Her pregnancy, like Lauren’s, had been textbook perfect, and she delivered a healthy 9-pound son. But Hansen suffered tearing near her vagina during childbirth. She developed signs of infection but was discharged anyway, a lawsuit by her husband later alleged.
Hansen was soon readmitted to Monmouth with what the lawsuit called “excruciating, severe pain beyond the capacity of a human being to endure.” The diagnosis was necrotizing fasciitis, commonly known as flesh-eating bacteria; two days later Hansen was dead. One of Vaclavik’s colleagues delivered Hansen’s baby; Vaclavik himself authorized her discharge. According to court documents, he said nurses failed to inform him about Hansen’s symptoms and that if he’d known her vital signs weren’t stable, he wouldn’t have released her. The hospital and nurses eventually settled for $1.5 million. The suit against Vaclavik and his colleagues is pending.
Vaclavik did not respond to several interview requests from ProPublica and NPR, including an emailed list of questions. “Due to the fact this matter is in litigation,” his attorney responded, “Dr. Vaclavik respectfully declines to comment.”
Citing patient privacy, Monmouth spokeswoman Elizabeth Brennan also declined to discuss specific cases. “We are saddened by the grief these families have experienced from their loss,” she said in a statement.
LARRY BLOOMSTEIN’S FIRST INKLING that something was seriously wrong with Lauren came about 90 minutes after she gave birth. He had accompanied Hailey up to the nursery to be weighed and measured and given the usual barrage of tests for newborns. Lauren hadn’t eaten since breakfast, but he returned to find her dinner tray untouched. “I don’t feel good,” she told him. She pointed to a spot above her abdomen and just below her sternum, close to where she’d felt the stabbing sensation during labor. “I’ve got pain that’s coming back.”
Larry had been at Lauren’s side much of the previous 24 hours. Conscious that his role was husband rather than doctor, he had tried not to overstep. Now, though, he pressed Vaclavik: What was the matter with his wife? “He was like, ‘I see this a lot. We do a lot of belly surgery. This is definitely reflux,’” Larry recalled. According to Lauren’s records, the OB-GYN ordered an antacid called Bicitra and an opioid painkiller called Dilaudid. Lauren vomited them up.
Lauren’s pain was soon 10 on a scale of 10, she told Larry and the nurses; so excruciating, the nurses noted, “Patient [is] unable to stay still.” Just as ominously, her blood pressure was spiking. An hour after Hailey’s birth, the reading was 160/95; an hour after that, 169/108. At her final prenatal appointment, her reading had been just 118/69. Obstetrics wasn’t Larry’s specialty, but he knew enough to ask the nurse: Could this be preeclampsia?
Preeclampsia, or pregnancy-related hypertension, is a little-understood condition that affects 3 percent to 5 percent of expectant or new mothers in the U.S., up to 200,000 women a year. It can strike anyone out of the blue, though the risk is higher for African Americans, women with pre-existing conditions such as obesity, diabetes or kidney disease, and mothers over the age of 40. It is most common during the second half of pregnancy, but can develop in the days or weeks after childbirth, and can become very dangerous very quickly. Because a traditional treatment for preeclampsia is to deliver as soon as possible, the babies are often premature and end up in NICUs like the one where Lauren worked.
As Larry suspected, Lauren’s blood pressure readings were well past the danger point. What he didn’t know was that they’d been abnormally high since she entered the hospital— 147/99, according to her admissions paperwork. During labor, she had 21 systolic readings at or above 140 and 13 diastolic readings at or above 90, her records indicated; for a stretch of almost eight hours, her blood pressure wasn’t monitored at all, the New Jersey Department of Health later found. Over that same period, their baby’s vital signs were being constantly watched, Larry said.
In his deposition, Vaclavik described the 147/99 reading as “elevated” compared to her usual readings, but not abnormal. He “would use 180 over 110 as a cutoff” to suspect preeclampsia, he said. Still, he acknowledged, Lauren’s blood pressure “might have been recommended to be monitored more closely, in retrospect.”
Leading medical organizations in the U.S. and the U.K. take a different view. They advise that increases to 140/90 for pregnant women with no previous history of high blood pressure signify preeclampsia. When systolic readings hit 160, treatment with anti-hypertensive drugs and magnesium sulfate to prevent seizures “should be initiated ASAP,” according to guidelines from the Alliance for Innovation on Maternal Health. When other symptoms, such as upper abdominal (epigastric) pain, are present, the situation is considered even more urgent.
This basic approach isn’t new: “Core Curriculum for Maternal-Newborn Nursing,” a widely-used textbook, outlined it in 1997. Yet failure to diagnose preeclampsia, or to differentiate it from chronic high blood pressure, is all too common.
California researchers who studied preeclampsia deaths over several years found one striking theme: “Despite triggers that clearly indicated a serious deterioration in the patient’s condition, health care providers failed to recognize and respond to these signs in a timely manner, leading to delays in diagnosis and treatment.” Preeclampsia symptoms — swelling and rapid weight gain, gastric discomfort and vomiting, headache and anxiety — are often mistaken for the normal irritations that crop up during pregnancy or after giving birth. “We don’t have a yes-no test for it,” said Eleni Tsigas, executive director of the Preeclampsia Foundation. “A lot of physicians don’t necessarily see a lot of it.” Outdated notions — for example, that delivering the baby cures the condition — unfamiliarity with best practices and lack of crisis preparation can further hinder the response.
The fact that Lauren gave birth over the weekend may also have worked against her. Hospitals may be staffed differently on weekends, adding to the challenges of managing a crisis. A new Baylor College of Medicine analysis of 45 million pregnancies in the U.S. from 2004 to 2014 found mothers who deliver on Saturday or Sunday have nearly 50 percent higher mortality rates as well as more blood transfusions and more perineal tearing. The “weekend effect” has also been associated with higher fatality rates from heart attacks, strokes and head trauma.
According to Lauren’s records, Vaclavik did order a preeclampsia lab test around 8:40 p.m., but a nurse noted a half-hour later: “No abnormal labs present.” (According to Larry, the results were borderline.) Larry began pushing to call in a specialist. Vaclavik attributed Lauren’s pain to esophagitis, or inflammation of the esophagus, which had afflicted her before, he said in his deposition. Around 10 p.m., according to Lauren’s medical records, he phoned the on-call gastroenterologist, who ordered an X-ray and additional tests, more Dilaudid and different antacids — Maalox and Protonix. Nothing helped.
Meanwhile, Larry decided to reach out to his own colleagues in the trauma unit at Cooper University Hospital in Camden. In his training, perhaps the most important lesson he’d learned was to ask for help: “If there’s a problem, I will immediately get another physician involved.” By chance, the doctor on call happened to be a fairly new mother. As Larry described Lauren’s symptoms, she interrupted him. “You can stop talking. I know what this is.” She said Lauren had HELLP syndrome, an acronym for the most severe variation of preeclampsia, characterized by hemolysis, or the breakdown of red blood cells; elevated liver enzymes; and low platelet count, a clotting deficiency that can lead to excessive bleeding and hemorrhagic stroke.
Larry’s colleague urged him to stop wasting time, he recalled. Lauren’s very high blood pressure, the vomiting, and the terrible pain radiating from her kidneys and liver were symptoms of rapid deterioration. “Your wife’s in a lot of danger,” the trauma doctor said. (She didn’t respond to ProPublica’s and NPR’s requests for comment.)
EARLIER THIS YEAR, an analysis by the CDC Foundation of maternal mortality data from four states identified more than 20 “critical factors” that contributed to pregnancy-related deaths. Among the ones involving providers: lack of standardized policies, inadequate clinical skills, failure to consult specialists and poor coordination of care. The average maternal death had 3.7 critical factors.
“It’s never just one thing,” said Roberta Gold, a member of the Council on Patient Safety in Women’s Health Care, whose daughter and unborn grandson died from a pregnancy-related blood clot in 2010. “It’s always a cascading combination of things. It’s a slow-motion train wreck.”
The last 16 hours of Lauren’s life were consistent with that grim pattern. Distressed by what the trauma doctor had told him, Larry immediately went to Lauren’s caregivers. But they insisted the tests didn’t show preeclampsia, he said. Not long after, Larry’s colleague called back to check on Lauren’s condition. “I don’t believe those labs,” he recalls her telling him. “They can’t be right. I’m positive of my diagnosis. Do them again.’”
Meanwhile, Lauren’s agony had become almost unendurable. The blood pressure cuff on her arm was adding to her discomfort, so around 10:30 p.m. her nurse decided to remove it — on the theory, Larry said, “We know her blood pressure is high. There’s no point to retaking it.” According to Lauren’s records, her blood pressure went unmonitored for another hour and 44 minutes.
Larry had given up on getting a specialist to come to the hospital so late on a Saturday night, but he persuaded Vaclavik to call in a general surgical resident. Around 11:55 p.m., according to the nurses’ notes, Lauren begged, “Do anything to stop this pain.” Vaclavik prescribed morphine, to little effect.
Just after midnight, her blood pressure about to peak at 197/117, Lauren began complaining of a headache. As Larry studied his wife’s face, he realized something had changed. “She suddenly looks really calm and comfortable, like she’s trying to go to sleep.” She gave Larry a little smile, but only the right side of her mouth moved.
In an instant, Larry’s alarm turned to panic. He ordered Lauren, “Lift your hands for me.” Only her right arm fluttered. He peeled off her blankets and scraped the soles of her feet with his fingernail, testing her so-called Babinski reflex; in an adult whose brain is working normally, the big toe automatically jerks downward. Lauren’s right toe curled as it was supposed to. But her left toe stuck straight out, unmoving. As Larry was examining her, Lauren suddenly seemed to realize what was happening to her. “She looked at me and said, ‘I’m afraid,’ and, ‘I love you.’ And I’m pretty sure in that moment she put the pieces together. That she had a conscious awareness of … that she was not going to make it.”
A CT scan soon confirmed the worst: The escalating blood pressure had triggered bleeding in her brain. So-called hemorrhagic strokes tend to be deadlier than those caused by blood clots. Surgery can sometimes save the patient’s life, but only if it is performed quickly.
Larry was a realist; he knew that even the best-case scenario was devastating. Chances were that Lauren would be paralyzed or partially paralyzed. She’d never be the mother she had dreamed of being. She’d never be a nurse again. But at least there was a chance she would live. When the neurologist arrived, Larry asked, “Is there hope here?” As he recalls it, the neurologist responded, “That’s why I’m here. There’s hope.”
Larry began gathering Lauren’s loved ones — his parents, her brother, Frankie Hedges and her husband Billy, Jackie Ennis. On the phone, he tried to play down the gravity of the situation, but everyone understood. When Larry’s mother arrived, the hospital entrance was locked, and Larry and Vaclavik came to meet her. “The obstetrician just said, ‘She’s going to be all right,’” Linda Bloomstein said. “And Larry was standing behind him, and I saw the tears coming down, and he was shaking his head, ‘No.’”
Around 2 a.m., the neurosurgeon finally confirmed what the trauma doctor had said four hours before: Lauren had HELLP syndrome. Then he delivered more bad news: Her blood platelets — essential to stopping the hemorrhage — were dangerously low. But, according to Larry, the hospital didn’t have sufficient platelets on site, so her surgery would have to be delayed. Larry was dumbfounded. How could a regional medical center that delivered babies and performed all types of surgery not have platelets on hand for an emergency? Vaclavik called the Red Cross and other facilities, pleading with them to send any they had. “In my understanding, there was a complete shortage of platelets in the state of New Jersey,” he said in the deposition. Hours passed before the needed platelets arrived.
The neuro team did another CT scan around 6 a.m. Larry couldn’t bring himself to look at it, “but from what they’ve told me, it was horrifically worse.” While Lauren was in surgery, friends began dropping by, hoping to see her and the baby, not realizing what had happened since her cheerful texts the night before. Around 12:30 p.m., the neurosurgeon emerged and confirmed that brain activity had stopped. Lauren was on life support, with no chance of recovery.
All this time, Hailey had been in the newborn nursery, being tended by Lauren’s stunned colleagues. They brought her down to Lauren’s room and Larry placed her gently into her mother’s arms. After a few minutes, the nurses whisked the baby back up to the third floor to protect her from germs. A respiratory therapist carefully removed the breathing tube from Lauren’s mouth. At 3:08 p.m., surrounded by her loved ones, she died.
IN THE U.S., UNLIKE SOME OTHER DEVELOPED COUNTRIES, maternal deaths are treated as a private tragedy rather than as a public health catastrophe. A death in childbirth may be mourned on Facebook or memorialized on GoFundMe, but it is rarely reported in the news. Most obituaries, Lauren’s included, don’t mention how a mother died.
Lauren’s passing was more public than most, eliciting an outpouring of grief. Hundreds of people attended her wake and funeral — doctors and nurses from the hospital, friends from around the country, families Lauren had taken care of. Vaclavik was there, utterly devastated, Larry’s family said. The head of Monmouth’s OB-GYN department paid his respects and, according to Larry, promised in a private conversation at the wake to conduct a full investigation.
In the days after Lauren’s death, Larry couldn’t dwell on the implications of what had happened. He had to find a burial plot, choose a casket, write a eulogy. He was too shattered to return to the Mooresville house, so he took Hailey to his parents’ place, a one-bedroom apartment they were renting while they renovated their home, and slept with the baby in the living room for the first month.
After the funeral, he turned all his attention to his daughter. He knew nothing about newborns, always imagining Lauren would teach him — “What could be better than having your own NICU nurse to take care of your baby?” he had thought. He relied on his mother and sister and Lauren’s friends to guide him. He took time off from his job at Cooper, figuring three months would be enough. But as his return date approached, he knew he wasn’t ready. “I don’t think I can see a patient that’s on a ventilator right now,” he realized. “Or even just a hospital bed.” He didn’t want to leave Hailey. So he quit.
He sold the house, though he couldn’t bring himself to attend the closing — “I couldn’t stand handing those keys over to someone else.” He took Hailey a couple of times to stay with his sister and her family in Texas, where he didn’t have to answer the constant questions. But traveling with his baby daughter was painful in its own way. People didn’t know what to make of him. “It’s strange for people to see a father alone.” Wherever he went, he felt disconnected from almost everything around him. “You’re walking around this world and all these people are around you, and they’re going on with their lives and I just felt very, very isolated and very alone with that.”
Back in New Jersey, Larry found a job closer to his parents’ place, performed one operation and tried to quit. His new employers, though, persuaded him to stay. To avoid reliving the funeral, he returned to Texas for the first anniversary of Hailey’s birth and Lauren’s death in late September 2012. In one of his suitcases, he packed a giant cupcake mold Lauren had bought when they first married — she thought it would make a perfect first-birthday cake for the kids she yearned for. He baked the cake himself — chocolate, Lauren’s favorite, covered with sprinkles.
OTHER PEOPLE IN LAUREN’S AND LARRY’S CIRCLE had been asking questions about her care since the night she died. “That was the first thing I literally said when I walked [into the hospital] — I said, ‘How did this happen?’” Jackie Ennis recalled. In the next week or two, she probed Larry again: “‘Did they do everything they could for her?’ He said, ‘No, there were warning signs for hours before.’” Ennis was too upset to dig any deeper.
As Larry’s numbness wore off, his orthopedist friends began pushing him as well. Larry was hesitant; despite the missteps he had witnessed, part of him wanted to believe that Lauren’s death had been unavoidable. “And my friends were like, ‘We can’t accept that. … With our technology, every single time a woman dies [in childbirth], it’s a medical error.’”
Lauren’s death, Larry finally admitted to himself, could not be dismissed as either inevitable or a fluke. He had seen how Lauren’s OB-GYN and nurses had failed to recognize a textbook case of one of the most common complications of pregnancy — not once, but repeatedly over two days. To Larry, the fact that someone with Lauren’s advantages could die so needlessly was symptomatic of a bigger problem. By some measures, New Jersey had one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the U.S. He wanted authorities to get to the root of it — to push the people and institutions that were at fault to change.
That’s the approach in the United Kingdom, where maternal deaths are regarded as systems failures. A national committee of experts scrutinizes every death of a woman from pregnancy or childbirth complications, collecting medical records and assessments from caregivers, conducting rigorous analyses of the data and publishing reports that help set policy for hospitals throughout the country. Coroners also sometimes hold public inquests, forcing hospitals and their staffs to answer for their mistakes. The U.K. process is largely responsible for the stunning reduction in preeclampsia deaths in Britain, the committee noted its 2016 report — “a clear success story” that it hoped to repeat “across other medical and mental health causes of maternal death.”
The U.S. has no comparable federal effort. Instead, maternal mortality reviews are left up to states. As of this spring, 26 states (and one city, Philadelphia) had a well-established process in place; another five states had committees that were less than a year old. In almost every case, resources are tight, the reviews take years and the findings get little attention. A bipartisan bill in Congress, the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act of 2017, would authorize funding for states to establish review panels or improve their processes.
New Jersey’s review team, the second-oldest in the U.S., includes OB-GYNs, nurses, mental health specialists, medical examiners, even a nutritionist. Using vital records and other reports, they identify every woman in New Jersey who died within a year of pregnancy or childbirth, from any cause, then review medical and other records to determine whether the death was “pregnancy-related” or not. Every few years, the committee publishes a report, focusing on things like the race and age of the mothers who died, the causes of death, and other demographic and health data. In the past, the findings have been used to promote policies to reduce postpartum depression.
But the New Jersey committee doesn’t interview the relatives of the deceased, nor does it assess whether a death was preventable. Moreover, like every other state that conducts such reviews, New Jersey “de-identifies” the records — strips them of any information that might point to an individual hospital or a particular woman. Otherwise, the medical community and lawmakers would refuse to go along. The goal is to “improve care for patients in general,” said Joseph Apuzzio, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Rutgers-New Jersey Medical School who heads the committee. This requires a process that is “nonjudgmental” and “not punitive,” he said. “That’s the best way to get a free discussion of all of the health care providers who are in the room.”
Yet the result of de-identification, as Larry soon realized, is that the review is of little use in assigning responsibility for individual deaths, or evaluating whether some hospitals, doctors or nurses are more prone to error than others. To Larry, this seemed like a critical oversight — or perhaps, willful denial. In a preventable death or other medical error, he said, sometimes the who and the where are as important as the why. “Unless someone points the finger specifically,” he said, “I think the actual cause [of the problem] is lost.”
SOMEONE EVENTUALLY STEERED LARRY toward the New Jersey Department of Health’s licensing and inspection division, which oversees hospital and nursing home safety. He filed a complaint against Monmouth Medical Center in 2012.
The DOH examined Lauren’s records, interviewed her caregivers and scrutinized Monmouth’s policies and practices. In December 2012 it issued a report that backed up everything Larry had seen firsthand. “There is no record in the medical record that the Registered Nurse notified [the ob/gyn] of the elevated blood pressures of patient prior to delivery,” investigators found. And: “There is no evidence in the medical record of further evaluation and surveillance of patient from [the ob/gyn] prior to delivery.” And: “There was no evidence in the medical record that the elevated blood pressures were addressed by [the ob/gyn] until after the Code Stroke was called.”
The report faulted the hospital. “The facility is not in compliance” with New Jersey hospital licensing standards, it concluded. “The facility failed to ensure that recommended obstetrics guidelines are adhered to by staff.”
To address these criticisms, Monmouth Medical Center had implemented a plan of correction, also contained in the report. The plan called for a mandatory educational program for all labor and delivery nurses about preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome; staff training in Advance Life Support Obstetrics and Critical Care Obstetrics; and more training on the use of evidence-based methods to assess patients and improve communications between caregivers.
Some of the changes were strikingly basic: “Staff nurses were educated regarding the necessity of reviewing, when available, or obtaining the patients [sic] prenatal records. Education identified that they must make a comparison of the prenatal blood pressure against the initial admission blood pressure.” And: “Repeat vital signs will be obtained every 4 hours at a minimum.”
An important part of the plan of correction involved Vaclavik, though neither he nor the nurses were identified by name. The head of Monmouth’s OB-GYN department provided “professional remediation for the identified physician,” the Department of Health report said. In addition, there was “monitoring of 100% of records for physician of record per month x 3 months.” The monitoring focused on “compliance of timely physician intervention for elevated blood pressures/pain assessment and management.”
The department chairman, Robert Graebe, found Vaclavik’s charts to be 100 percent compliant, Vaclavik said in the deposition. Graebe was asked in a March 2017 deposition if Vaclavik was in good standing at the hospital at the time of Lauren’s treatment. “Was and is,” Graebe replied.
In a separate note, the Department of Health told Larry that it forwarded his complaint to the Board of Medical Examiners and the New Jersey Board of Nursing. Neither agency has taken disciplinary action, according to their websites.
Larry’s copy of the DOH report arrived in the mail. He was gratified by the findings but dismayed that they weren’t publicly posted. That meant hardly anyone would see them.
A few months after the DOH weighed in, he sued Monmouth, Vaclavik and five nurses in Monmouth County Superior Court in Freehold, New Jersey. For a medical malpractice lawsuit to go forward in New Jersey, an expert must certify that it has merit. Larry’s passed muster with an OB-GYN. But beyond the taking of depositions, there’s been little action in the case.
AS THE MATERNAL DEATH RATE has mounted around the U.S., a small cadre of reformers has mobilized. Some of the earliest and most important work has come in California, where more babies are born than in any other state — 500,000 a year, one-eighth of the U.S. total.
Modeled on the U.K. process, the California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative is informed by the experiences of founder Elliott Main, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Stanford and the University of California-San Francisco, who for many years ran the OB-GYN department at a San Francisco hospital. “One of my saddest moments as an obstetrician was a woman with severe preeclampsia that we thought we had done everything correct, who still had a major stroke and we could not save her,” he said recently. That loss has weighed on him for 20 years. “When you’ve had a maternal death, you remember it for the rest of your life. All the details.”
Launched a decade ago, CMQCC aims to reduce not only mortality, but also life-threatening complications and racial disparities in obstetric care. It began by analyzingmaternal deaths in the state over several years; in almost every case, it discovered, there was “at least some chance to alter the outcome.” The most preventable deaths were from hemorrhage (70 percent) and preeclampsia (60 percent).
Main and his colleagues then began creating a series of “toolkits” to help doctors and nurses improve their handling of emergencies. The first one, targeting obstetric bleeding, recommended things like “hemorrhage carts” for storing medications and supplies, crisis protocols for massive transfusions, and regular training and drills. Instead of the common practice of “eye-balling” blood loss, which often leads to underestimating the seriousness of a hemorrhage and delaying treatment, nurses learned to collect and weigh postpartum blood to get precise measurements. Hospitals that adopted the toolkit saw a 21 percent decrease in near deaths from maternal bleeding in the first year; hospitals that didn’t use the protocol had a 1.2 percent reduction. By 2013, according to Main, maternal deaths in California fell to around 7 per 100,000 births, similar to the numbers in Canada, France and the Netherlands — a dramatic counter to the trends in other parts of the U.S.
“Prevention isn’t a magic pill,” Main said. “It’s actually teamwork [and having] a structured, organized, standardized approach” to care.
CMQCC’s preeclampsia toolkit, launched in 2014, emphasized the kind of practices that might have saved Lauren Bloomstein: careful monitoring of blood pressure and early and aggressive treatment with magnesium sulfate and anti-hypertensive medications. Data on its effectiveness hasn’t been published.
The collaborative’s work has inspired ACOG and advocates in a few states to create their own initiatives. Much of the funding has come from a 10-year, $500 million maternal health initiative by Merck, the pharmaceutical giant. Originally intended to focus on less developed countries, Merck for Mothers decided it couldn’t ignore the growing problem in the U.S. The U.S. maternal mortality rate is “unacceptable,” said Executive Director Mary-Ann Etiebet. Making pregnancy and childbirth safer “will not only save women’s lives but will improve and strengthen our health systems … for all.”
But the really hard work is only beginning. According to the Institute of Medicine, it takes an average of 17 years for a new medical protocol to be widely adopted. Even in California, half of the 250 hospitals that deliver babies still aren’t using the toolkits, said Main, who largely blames inertia.
In New York state, some hospitals have questioned the need for what they call “cookbook medicine,” said Columbia’s Mary D’Alton. Her response: “Variability is the enemy of safety. Rather than have 10 different approaches to obstetric hemorrhage or treatment of hypertension, choose one or two and make it consistent. … When we do things in a standardized way, we have better outcomes.”
One big hurdle: training. Another: money. Smaller providers, in particular, may not see the point. “It’s very hard to get a hospital to provide resources to change something that they don’t see as a problem,” ACOG’s Barbara Levy said. “If they haven’t had a maternal death because they only deliver 500 babies a year, how many years is it going to be before they see a severe problem? It may be 10 years.”
In New Jersey, providers don’t need as much convincing, thanks to a recent project to reduce postpartum blood loss led by the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses. A number of hospitals saw improvements; at one, the average length of a hemorrhage-related ICU stay plunged from 8 days to 1.5 days. But only 31 of the state’s 52 birthing hospitals participated in the effort, in part — perhaps — because nurses led it, said Robyn D’Oria, executive director of the Central Jersey Family Health Consortium and a member of the state’s maternal mortality committee. “I remember having a conversation with [someone from] a hospital that I would describe as progressive and she said to me, ‘I cannot get past some of the physicians not wanting to buy into this.’”
So New Jersey hospitals are about to try again, this time adopting mini-toolkits created by the ACOG-led Alliance for Innovation on Maternal Health for hemorrhage and preeclampsia. “We’re at the very beginning” of a rollout that is likely to take at least two years, D’Oria said. Among those helping to create momentum has been Ryan Hansen, the husband of the teacher who died at Monmouth Medical Center a few months before Lauren Bloomstein.
Still, as hospitals begin to revamp, mothers in the state continue to perish. One was Ashley Heaney Butler. A Rutgers University graduate, she lived in Bayville, where she decorated the walls of her house with anchors, reflecting her passion for the ocean. She worked for the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services as a counselor, and served as president of the New Jersey Rehabilitation Association. Her husband Joseph was a firefighter. She gave birth at Monmouth last September to a healthy boy and died a couple of weeks later at the age of 31, never leaving the hospital. It turned out that she had developed an infection late in her pregnancy, possibly related to a prior gastric bypass surgery. She was under the care of several doctors, including Vaclavik.
HE DEATH OF A NEW MOTHER is not like any other sudden death. It blasts a hole in the universe. “When you take that one death and what that does, not only to the husband, but to the family and to the community, the impact that it has in the hospital, on the staff, on everybody that’s cared for her, on all the people who knew them, it has ripple effects for generations to come,” Robyn D’Oria said.
Jackie Ennis felt Lauren’s loss as an absence of phone calls. She and Lauren had been closer than many sisters, talking several times a day. Sometimes Lauren called just to say she was really tired and would talk later; she’d even called Ennis from Hawaii on her honeymoon. The night Lauren died, Ennis knew something was wrong because she hadn’t heard from her best friend. “It took me a really long time not to get the phone calls,” she said. “I still have trouble with that.”
During Lauren’s pregnancy, Frankie Hedges had thought of herself as Hailey’s other grandmother. She and Lauren had made a lot of plans. Lauren’s death meant the loss of their shared dreams for an entire extended family. “I just feel she didn’t get what she deserved,” Hedges said.
Vaclavik’s obstetric practice is “larger” than in 2011, and he continues to have admitting privileges at Monmouth and two other hospitals, he said in his deposition. “I will never forget” Lauren’s death, he said. “… I probably suffer some post-traumatic stress from this.”
Hailey is five years old, with Lauren’s brown hair and clear green eyes. She feels her mother’s presence everywhere, thanks to Larry and his new wife Carolyn, whom he married in 2014. They met when she was a surgical tech at one of the hospitals he worked at after Lauren died. Photos and drawings of Lauren occupy the mantle of their home in Holmdel, the bookcase in the dining room and the walls of the upstairs hallway. Larry and Carolyn and their other family members talk about Lauren freely, and even Larry’s younger daughter, 2-year-old Aria, calls her “Mommy Lauren.” On birthdays and holidays, Larry takes the girls to the cemetery. He designed the gravestone — his handprint and Lauren’s reaching away from each other, newborn Hailey’s linking them forever. Larry has done his best to keep Lauren’s extended family together — Ennis and Hedges and their families are included in every important celebration.
Larry still has the video of Lauren and Hailey on his phone. “By far the hardest thing for me to accept is [what happened] from Lauren’s perspective,” he said one recent evening, hitting the play button and seeing her alive once more. “I can’t, I literally can’t accept it. The amount of pain she must have experienced in that exact moment when she finally had this little girl. … I can accept the amount of pain I have been dealt,” he went on, watching Lauren stroke Hailey’s cheek. “But [her pain] is the one thing I just can’t accept. I can’t understand, I can’t fathom it.”
Earlier this month, hundreds of so-called alt-right protesters occupied the rotundaat Boston Common in the name of free speech. The protest included far-right grouplets old and new, from the Oath Keepers to the Proud Boys. But there were no swastikas or shaved heads in sight.
Instead, the protest imagery was dominated by ostensibly comedic images, mostly cribbed from forums and social media. It looked a little like an animated version of a favorite “alt-right” message board, 4chan.
At least one attendee was dressed as the cartoon frog Pepe (a character co-opted by the movement against the wishes of its creator). Others carried the flag of “Kekistan," the imaginary country created by 4chan members. Kyle Chapman, the man who became the “based stick man” meme after attacking anti-fascists armed with a gas mask and a Captain America shield, also addressed the crowd. The same crowd later confronted a counter anti-fascist protest in the street.
A hundred are gathered with Kekistan flags, shields, stickman helmets and ski masks — "Normies out! Normies out!" pic.twitter.com/iMSeuWPG92— Jack Smith IV (@JackSmithIV) May 13, 2017
Until recently, it would have been hard to imagine the combination of street violence meeting internet memes. But experts say that the “alt-right” have stormed mainstream consciousness by weaponizing irony, and by using humour and ambiguity as tactics to wrong-foot their opponents.
Last week, the Data & Society Institute released a report on the online disinformation and manipulation that is increasingly shaping US politics. The report focused on the way in which far-right actors “spread white supremacist thought, Islamophobia, and misogyny through irony and knowledge of internet culture”.
One the report’s authors, Dr Alice Marwick, says that fascist tropes first merged with irony in the murkier corners of the internet before being adopted by the “alt-right” as a tool. For the new far-right movement, “irony has a strategic function. It allows people to disclaim a real commitment to far-right ideas while still espousing them.”
Marwick says that from the early 2000s, on message boards like 4chan, calculatedly offensive language and imagery have been used to “provoke strong reactions in outsiders”. Calling all users “fags”, or creating memes using gross racial stereotypes, “serves a gate-keeping function, in that it keeps people out of these spaces, many of which are very easy to access”.
Violating the standards of political correctness and the rules of polite interactions “also functions as an act of rebellion” in spaces drenched in adolescent masculinity.
This was played up by Milo Yiannopoulos in an infamous Breitbart explainer last year, in which he insisted that the “alt-right” movement’s circulation of antisemitic imagery was really nothing more than transgressive fun.
“Are they actually bigots?” Yiannopoulos asked rhetorically. “No more than death metal devotees in the 1980s were actually satanists. For them, it’s simply a means to fluster their grandparents.”
What Yiannopoulos left out, according to Marwick, is that these spaces increasingly became attractive to sincere white supremacists. They offered them venues for recruitment, and new methods for popularising their ideas.
In other words, troll culture became a way for fascism to hide in plain sight.
Marwick points to another guide to the “alt-right”, published last on Andrew Anglin’s prominent Nazi site, the Daily Stormer, which credited “troll culture” with bringing about “non-ironic Nazism masquerading as ironic Nazism”:It also allows individuals to push boundaries in public, and to back away when they meet resistance. When Richard Spencer led a fascist salute to Donald Trump at his National Policy Insitute conference in the wake of Trump’s win, he said it was done in “a spirit of irony and exuberance”.
A compounding difficulty for opponents of the “alt-right” is that online, it’s always been difficult to tell the difference between sincerity and satire.
Ryan Milner teaches Communication at the College of Charleston, and is the co-author of a new book called The Ambivalent Internet. The book ponders the implications of Poe’s law, an internet adage that points to the difficulties of online communication and of distinguishing extremist views from parodies.
“Unless you have an obvious marker of another person’s intent, you can’t really gauge their intent. They could be messing around. They could be deadly serious. They could be a mix of both,” Milner says.
But ironic, playful content can have effects in real life. Milner offers the example of Edgar Welch, who turned up at Comet Ping Pong Pizza in Washington DC with a gun after imbibing too deeply of the so-called Pizzagate conspiracy theory. The theory was ginned up by forum trolls and amplified by fringe rightwing media. It asserted, on the basis of some of John Podesta’s leaked emails, that the restaurant was the hub of an elite pedophile ring.
Last December, Welch drove to Washington from North Carolina with three firearms. When he arrived, he texted a friend: “Raiding a pedo ring, possible sacrificing the lives of a few for the lives of many.” He fired shots inside the restaurant, but fortunately was arrested without harming anyone.
“A lot of the people propagating the Pizzagate conspiracy were doing it winkingly. But in the moment that somebody walked into that shop with a gun, then that playful buzzing participation around that conspiracy turned into real consequences,” Milner says.
More generally, every “ironic” repetition of far-right ideals contributes to a climate in which racism, misogyny, or Islamophobia is normalised.
“Every time you see a viral video of somebody shouting down a person of Muslim descent in a supermarket line, what you’re seeing are the effects of an environment where it’s increasingly normal, increasingly accepted and expected to speak in this register, whether or not that started out as a joke,” Milner says.
Author Alexander Reid Ross agrees that irony has been deployed by the far right in chipping away at whatever prohibitions have existed around publicly adopting far-right politics. His book, Against the Fascist Creep, published late last year, explores the long history of fascists attempting to mainstream their ideas, or even sell them to the left.
“Fascism is more or less a social taboo. It’s unacceptable in modern society,” Ross says. “Humour or irony is one of the ways that they can put forward their affective positions without having to fall back on any affirmative ideological positions.”
He adds: “They’re putting forward the anger, the sense of betrayal, the need for revenge, the resentment, the violence. They’re putting forward the male fantasies, the desire for a national community and a sense of unity and a rejection of Muslims. They’re doing all of that, but they’re not stating it.”
The best response is to stubbornly take the “alt-right” at their word. Angela Nagle’s book about the “alt-right”, Kill All Normies, will be released next month. She says that for the “alt-right”, online irony “is a mechanism for undermining the confidence of their critics”.
“The thing that people have to realize is that it isn’t that complicated. We know what they believe in, and if you say that you’re ‘alt-right’, presumably you believe in those things too.”
Rather than getting lost in the weeds of a fast-moving internet culture, we should be bearing down hard on those core beliefs.
“Journalists should be saying, ‘I don’t want to talk about Pepe memes and hand signs. Tell me what are the limits of what you’re prepared to do’. We should force them to talk about what they really stand for,” Nagle says.
In future, the best step may be to meet irony with sincerity.
Syria Civil Defense, popularly known as the White Helmets, can be seen in a new video assisting in a public execution in a rebel-held town in Syria. It is at least the second such execution video featuring members of the Nobel Prize-nominated group.
The White Helmets have received at least $23 million in funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), a wing of the State Department. The British Foreign Office and other European governments have pitched in as well.
Frequently cited as an invaluable source of information by major Western media outlets, the group was the subject of an Academy Award-winning 2016 Netflix documentary, The White Helmets.
Endorsements from A-list Hollywood celebrities like George Clooney and Justin Timberlake, as well as Hillary Clinton and British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, have followed.
Large corporate media networks have yet to report on the dark side of the White Helmets, however, and films like the widely celebrated Netflix feature function as uncritical commercials for the group, helping to keep the public in a state of ignorance about the domination of the Western-backed Syrian armed opposition by extremist Salafi jihadist groups, and about the civil conflict in general.
While CNN and other outlets rely heavily on footage taken by White Helmets members, not one major Western media outlet has reported on the latest execution video starring the group’s uniformed members.
The video, which Syrian opposition activists uploaded to Facebook, shows three men from the White Helmets rushing into the center of a crowd, mere seconds after an alleged criminal was shot in the head, and removing the body on a stretcher. A member of the White Helmets can be seen celebrating along with the crowd of onlookers.
WARNING: This video features violence that may disturb viewers.
The men in the video were clearly identified by their signature white helmets, along with vests embroidered with the Syria Civil Defense logo.
The public execution took place in the small city of Jasim, in Syria’s southern Daraa province — which is often described as a hub for "moderate" rebels. Activists posted the video on May 16 on the Facebook page Coordination of the City of Al-Harra, Mother of the Martyrs, a site for the opposition in the neighboring city of Al-Harra.
Two days later, Syria Civil Defense released a carefully crafted statement admitting its members were involved in the execution. The statement noted that a tribal council in Jasim had asked the White Helmets "to humanely dispose of the body of a person that had been sentenced to death, by the local court, for murder." The group said it had "conducted an investigation" into the execution, and in response dismissed a White Helmet leader, while temporarily suspending two other team members.
Executing an Oscar-worthy performance
This is not the first time the White Helmets have appeared as participants in a public execution.
A jarring execution filmed in 2015 in the rebel-held town of Haritan shows two members of Syria Civil Defense waiting just off camera while a member of Syria's al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, reads out a death sentence, before shooting a man dressed in street clothes in the head. Seconds later, the White Helmets team tosses the man's body onto a stretcher and scrambles away.
WARNING: This video features violence that may disturb viewers.
The 2015 video prompted a carefully worded statement by the organization, condemning the killing and claiming its members were simply fulfilling their task by performing “the emergency burial of the dead.”
A British public relations outfit called the Syria Campaign was hired by an influential British-Syrian billionaire, Ayman Asfari, to market the White Helmets to the Western public. As Max Blumenthal has reported for AlterNet, the Syria Campaign was itself the creation of a slick New York City- and London-based public relations firm called Purpose. Among the PR group’s greatest achievements was fundraising for the widely celebrated Netflix documentary.
This year, the makers of the film were awarded with an Oscar for Best Documentary Short. As he received the honor before millions of viewers around the world, director Orlando Einsiedel read a prepared statement from Read al-Saleh, the director of the White Helmets: “Our organization is guided by a verse in the Quran: ‘To save one life is to save all of humanity.’”
But the execution videos call into question the White Helmets’ claims to act as an impartial, life-saving rescue organization, and raise serious questions about the motives of its funders and promoters within public relations firms and mainstream newsrooms.
‘Hidden soldiers’ of al-Qaeda and ISIS?
The White Helmets operate exclusively within the armed Syrian opposition, working closely with al-Qaeda’s local affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, and even ISIS. The British journalist and ISIS hostage John Cantlie inadvertently exposed the group’s relationship with ISIS when he referred to a White Helmets team as “the Islamic State’s fire brigade” in a propaganda video he was forced to participate in.
Videos and photos of White Helmets members posing triumphantly on the corpses of Syrian soldiers and joining fighters in accosting an alleged political opponent have circulated throughout social media.
In March 2015, the extremist-sympathizing opposition media outlet Sarmeen posted a video featuring the White Helmets gleefully joining a chant with Salafi jihadist fighters in Idlib, as they fire a fusillade of bullets into the air.
A member of Syria Civil Defense grabs a flag from one of the militants and begins waving it: a black flag with the shahada in white letters, a common Salafi jihadist symbol, emblazoned with the name of Jaish al-Sunna, an extremist Islamist militia that is allied with Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate and that has reportedly recruited child soldiers with the help of the al-Qaeda-linked fundamentalist Saudi warlord Abdullah al-Muhaysini.
Another upload to YouTube, posted the same day by the rebel media outlet, shows White Helmets joining the extremist militants in songs and chants.
Al-Muhaysini, the ideological leader of Syria’s Salafi jihadist rebels, has repeatedly praised the White Helmets. The Saudi warlord, who has been implicated in numerous war crimes in Syria, including mass executions of captured Syrian soldiers, insisted in an interview that there is no difference between the “mujahideen” (Salafi jihadist fighters) and the White Helmets. He even favorably described Syria Civil Defense members as mujahideen.
In May 2015, a White Helmets member named Muawiya Hassan Agha posted a grotesque video to Facebook (since deleted) that showed extremist Syrian rebels torturing two captured soldiers they later executed. Agha had also been filmed celebrating the capture of Idlib by al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. Rumors circulated that Agha was dismissed from the White Helmets when his involvement in the atrocities came to light.
This March, a leader of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, the powerful newly rebranded al-Qaeda-led rebel coalition in Syria, hailed the White Helmets in a special video message as the “hidden soldiers of the revolution.”
A little more than a week ago, I said on CNN and wrote on Facebook that — based on reporting I’d just completed in Washington DC — it was clear that the controversy surrounding Russian contacts with advisers to President Donald J. Trump and his campaign team was about to become much more serious and much more directly focused on the president himself, and would have deeply troubling consequences for our democracy.
The revelations since then have confirmed all of that, and will be remembered as the point when an extraordinary but perhaps still manageable political embarrassment for the Trump administration mushroomed into the most serious controversy to engulf a presidency since Watergate.
Based on what we know already, and new revelations that will soon illuminate more key events in this sequence, our country faces a dramatic constitutional exigency. This crisis now is directly about the president himself, and one for which — with the firing of FBI Director Jim Comey — he now bears complete responsibility. Bluntly stated, it has become a catastrophic failure of conduct and leadership — and a debacle from which the Trump presidency will not recover.
What I couldn’t say last week was that, earlier on that day, I spent more than four hours conducting Sally Yates’ first media interview since being fired by President Trump as acting US attorney general. With me in the interview was The New Yorker magazine’s Washington correspondent, Ryan Lizza, whose profile of Yates appeared on Monday, May 22. (I have known Yates for more than 25 years, and in February wrote a profile of her for Slate.)
During our interview, and in subsequent conversations in the following days, Yates never disclosed any classified details of the ongoing investigation or specific new bombshells. But by the end of that long series of questions, answers and clarifications, important contours of the scandal — the boundaries of what is known or not known and the enormous scale of the stakes involved — became much more clear. Combined with that and other reporting, it became apparent that the Trump-Russia scandal was far more serious than understood when the first revelations of the investigation occurred, and since then have only grown more ominous. These observations are my own, based on my interviews with Yates, national security experts and other people close to these events, as well as close reading of congressional testimony, publicly available documents and disclosures by trusted fellow journalists.
To understand why this is so serious, it’s important first to realize what is truly important to the inquiry — and to escape some of the distractions of the past six months. Why Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in November, or exactly how Russian interests attempted to disrupt and influence our electoral process, is important, but ultimately not what matters most. Whether former Trump campaign officials and advisers failed to disclose past business dealings with interests in Ukraine, Russia and Turkey is a question that will be answered, but not a defining one. That President Trump and his family have had past business dealings or allegedly engaged in personal hijinks in Russia is hardly important at all.
No, this is an investigation about one thing: the now-undeniable fact that a Russian espionage conspiracy accomplished an objective that has never previously occurred in American history — compromising the highest levels of US government, penetrating the White House, establishing influence and leverage over the president’s national security adviser and planting false information with the vice president of the United States — who then, wittingly or unwittingly, repeated those fictions to the American people.
In our current toxic political atmosphere, filled with charges and countercharges, and ruthless accusations against and among media, it is sometimes easy to lose perspective and fail to see what is significant or insignificant. So let me be clear: What Russia accomplished in this operation represents a breathtaking danger to all Americans and an immeasurable humiliation to our global prestige. Russian spy agencies successfully reached inside the walls of the White House, the confines of the National Security Council and the thinking of, at least, the second-highest ranking elected official of our country. If the most powerful figures in our government can be duped into self-destruction as easily as this, none of our secrets are safe, the words of our leaders are unreliable and the most basic sense of judgment by our president is in doubt.
The penetration of the White House by Russian spy agencies was already known and incontrovertible at the time Sally Yates testified on May 8. Still unknown, though, are the answers to three crucial questions which will ultimately decide the fate of the current presidency:
Over the past two weeks, we’ve learned a lot related to Question #3, and the possibility that President Trump committed obstruction — a serious federal offense. Indeed, it was one of the primary indictments leading to the impeachment of Richard M. Nixon, and alone is likely enough to mortally wound this presidency.
The escalating revelations of recent days have included that President Trump allegedly sought an oath of loyalty from FBI Director Comey soon after the inauguration, then later asked him to shut down the investigation into possible ties between the administration and Russian espionage officials, then on May 9 fired the FBI director and publicly admitted he did so to stop the investigation. Shortly thereafter, President Trump clumsily shared highly classified information with top Russian officials visiting him in the Oval Office, and bragged to those Russians that his firing of Comey was done to shut down the investigation. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off,” Trump told the Russians, according to a leaked White House memo documenting the conversations.
Under the modern American system of government, a unique separation has been established between the White House and the Department of Justice — even though the attorney general who runs that department is an appointee of the president. It is required by law and tradition that the attorney general reach legal opinions independently of the president or other White House advisers, for instance. To insure that prosecution is never used to advance political interests or settle electoral scores, it is absolutely forbidden for the White House to have any influence over criminal investigations. That proscription is most critical regarding investigations of alleged misconduct by elected officials — and the greatest imaginable violation of that duty of separation would be for a president to directly interfere in a criminal inquiry examining the White House, or himself.
Given all that, the only possibly innocent explanation of the actions of the president to shut down the FBI investigation would be some form of incompetence — that he simply didn’t know such behavior was prohibited and likely illegal. That is a difficult defense for a president of the United States to maintain.
On questions #1 and #2, there is still much to be learned before the answers are clear. With the announcement on May 17 that the Department of Justice had appointed an independent special counsel to oversee the ongoing federal investigation, the odds have greatly increased that those answers will be forthcoming, and they are almost certain to damage President Trump.
Most important is what Flynn, the former national security adviser who lied about his discussions with the Russian ambassador, told FBI agents when he was interviewed on Jan. 24. Two days later, Sally Yates urgently informed the president’s lawyer, White House Counsel Donald McGahn, that based on at least one recorded conversation between Flynn and the ambassador, it was clear that the national security adviser had lied to the vice president and others in the White House. McGahn asked for another meeting with Yates the next day to go over the evidence again. Astonishingly, despite Flynn’s apparently improper behavior and deceptions to the president’s team, no action was taken for more than two weeks to remove Flynn from his position or restrict his access to the highest level of confidential national security information.
“We were concerned about the conduct, about what the Russians would know,” Yates told me in our interview. “What really aggravated that was that Flynn was lying to the vice president and others about it and sending them out to deceive the American people.”
Yates wouldn’t say what Flynn told the Russian ambassador or whether Flynn was truthful in his interview with FBI agents, saying that information remains classified. However, intelligence reports have since surfaced that the content of the Flynn conversation was a request that Russian Premier Vladimir Putin not retaliate for sanctions imposed by the Obama administration for Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Barack Obama was still president at the time of the conversation, and Flynn was still a civilian. Meddling by a citizen in a dispute between the US and a foreign government is illegal under a federal law enacted in 1799 called the Logan Act.
According to recent reporting, Flynn also assured the Russian ambassador that the Trump administration would “revisit” those sanctions once in office — a strong suggestion that it would likely reverse them. On the day after that phone conversation, Putin announced that Russia would not retaliate, just as Flynn had asked. Based on other reporting and suggestions in recent congressional testimony, it’s safe to believe that description of Flynn’s conversation.
Yates wouldn’t comment on this, but clearly she would have shared all of that with the White House counsel when she warned him that Flynn had been compromised by Russian agents.
“There was never any doubt among the national security experts, that this… was a situation that the Russians could utilize,” Yates told me. “That’s what they do. They’ve got a word for it… ‘Kompromat.’”
Indeed, Yates says McGahn, the White House lawyer, asked her whether Flynn was likely to be indicted. Yates says she declined to answer that question — that the White House had all the information it needed to see that Flynn had been implicated.
Obviously, if Flynn had been fully truthful with the FBI, and his actions were not suspect, there would have been no need for Yates to issue her urgent warning to the White House. That strongly suggests Flynn was not honest in his FBI interview — potentially another serious criminal offense.
Despite Yates’ warnings to the White House in January, President Trump took no action on Flynn for 18 days.
Instead, four days later, Trump fired Sally Yates, after she concluded that the president’s executive order banning immigration from some predominantly Muslim countries was illegal. Only after Flynn’s deceptions to Vice President Mike Pence were revealed in The Washington Post, more than a week later, was he removed from his job.
All that takes us back to Questions #1 and #2: What did the president know, and when did he know it? Did he know about Flynn’s improper communications? Did he try to hide them from the investigation? Why did he take no action when warned that Flynn had been compromised by Russia?
It is difficult, verging on impossible, to imagine that Michael Flynn did not proudly tell President-elect Trump of his success in persuading Putin not to impose retaliatory sanctions on the US. In fact, when Putin made that announcement on Dec. 30, a day after Flynn’s conversation with the Russian ambassador, Trump celebrated Putin’s gesture publicly on Twitter that day: “Great move,” the president tweeted. “I always knew he was very smart.”
If President-elect Trump in fact was aware of Flynn’s improper communications — or even approved of them — then the Russian espionage conspiracy successfully reached the highest official in the United States.
At that point, the president himself would have become vulnerable to Russian blackmail — a stunning and unprecedented compromise of national security and democracy itself.
If President Trump took action to conceal from the FBI investigation either Flynn’s conversation or a connection of his own to those calls, then there is a yet more serious possibility of obstruction of justice.
Flynn is the most apparent person able to answer those questions. Based on everything disclosed thus far, it is difficult to imagine that he is not in criminal jeopardy from the new special counsel’s investigation. Indeed, this week, on May 22, Flynn’s attorney announced that Flynn would invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and would not provide documents requested by the Senate Intelligence Committee. It is hard to imagine, however, that an American general faced with potential imprisonment for such actions would not at some stage, under some circumstances, testify honestly as to the conduct of President Trump.
Before Yates’ congressional testimony on May 8 and the president’s abrupt firing of FBI Director Comey on the following day, “Russia-gate,” as it’s being called by some, was a slowly accreting body of injury to the president’s political viability. It was very serious, no doubt. It undermined confidence in his leadership among Republican House members as they eye falling approval ratings before the 2018 midterm elections, and reflected the president’s staggeringly poor judgment in the selection of top aides, his astonishingly bad political instincts other than in the rawest theater of the campaign trail, and his establishment of a White House staff that can only be described as fully dysfunctional.
However, it remained a political blunder — a terrible one, but one that a series of wiser decisions by President Trump could conceivably have overcome: a new chief of staff, mass firings at the White House, a new willingness to listen to the judgments of others and to cut loose bad choices from his team.
Just as important — Democrats and committed Trump haters won’t like to read this — as recently as two weeks ago, there was no serious basis in publicly available information to believe that the Trump-Russia scandal extended beyond a series of ugly but limited contacts between parties friendly to, or under the control of, the Kremlin.
The conclusion by all major US counter-intelligence agencies that Russian espionage operators, under the specific direction of top Kremlin leadership, actively meddled in the 2016 election in an attempt to help Trump was aggravating to the president, but little pointed to his having any direct involvement. Trump’s public invitation during the campaign for the Russians to do more hacking to locate material damaging to his Democratic opponent could be written off as unwitting bluster.
The past coziness between Russian interests and former campaign manager Paul Manafort was ugly, but was likely legal and had no direct connection to Trump. The future president’s seizure upon an inconsequential Moscow dilettante named Carter Page as a “foreign policy adviser” was a sophomoric aggrandizement to make himself appear to have substantive advice on Russia, but it carried no suggestion of criminality. The false statements of Attorney General Jeff Sessions during his confirmation hearing that he had had no contact with Russian Ambassador Kislyak was a bumbling omission. But it came from an Alabama senator already assumed to be bumbling by everyone in Washington — except President Trump. In any case, it wasn’t illegal, and touched the president in no direct fashion.
No more. This scandal has metastasized more quickly and destructively than I could possibly have forecast.
I say that with no joy. In the months since Donald Trump was elected last November, I repeatedly cautioned on television and in print against a rush to judge Trump prematurely, or to exaggerate the danger of his bluster, or to see certain disaster in his general lack of knowledge or preparation. I said no one can become president without some strain of genius — no matter what else about him or her one may despise. And no genuine patriot can hope merely out of political disagreements for any presidency to end in disaster. My public promise was to give Donald Trump as much benefit of the doubt as possible. Internally I hoped his disdain for both parties and “dealmaking” instincts might actually lead to compromises around key issues. I wasn’t confident that would come to pass, but I felt obligated to hope for it.
There is no longer a rational basis to imagine any such scenario.
There also is no certainty yet that President Trump will be either impeached or choose to resign. But those possibilities, which 14 days ago were almost unimaginable to any informed and fair-minded observer, are now very real. Even if President Trump is able to remain in office through the end of next year, he will have been long abandoned by most serious conservatives in Congress, as the jeopardy of continued association with him becomes clear. Within a few months — and possibly in just weeks — most GOP elected officials will have acknowledged, at least privately, that Donald Trump has become the Republican Party’s greatest liability. No presidency can overcome that.
The collapse of this administration may or may not be swift.
But it is inevitable.
A version of this post first appeared on Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Douglas A. Blackmon’s Facebook page.
On the afternoon of June 4, 2016, a pleasant Chicago Saturday, Carmelita Woods was the last family member to come out of Cook County Central Bond Court. Her daughter, Bakirah, had been arrested the night before and had been the last person at bond court to get a hearing that day. The hearing had lasted ten seconds. No public defender had been present for the hearing.
Bakirah remained detained for six days. Her six days in custody, she told me, was the most traumatic experience of her life. And the major problem with her bond court hearings, she said, was that she could not hear or understand anything.
“Nobody explains anything,” Bakirah says. “I hear my name called, I come out, somebody says a few words, and then somebody shoves me to the back and that’s it. You get back in there, there’s a hundred women asking each other what the judge said and what the words meant. … We’re like roaches.
“How is there any justice in bond court?”
BOND COURT IS THE first court where one gets a hearing after an arrest. The hearing is intended to decide bond, otherwise known as bail: the amount of money a person needs to post to be released before their trial. In Cook County at least, it is a bewildering process. In the cavernous halls of the George N. Leighton Criminal Courthouse, confused and worried family members, predominantly African American or Hispanic, are a common sight. Many sob in a corner, worried sick that the bail amount decided will be too onerous. By far the most common complaint is that the hearing went by so fast that they didn’t even catch what the bond decision was.
Bond court and pretrial detention in Cook County have long been controversial. President Obama’s Department of Justice essentially took the position that holding the indigent before a trial because they can’t afford bail is unconstitutional. But in Cook County, the vast majority of people held in Cook County Jail—the largest single-site jail in the country—are those held pretrial, largely because they are unable to post bail. This is true nationally as well, but according to Cook County Justice Watch, in early October 2015, fully 95 percent of inmates in Cook County Jail were pretrial. The national average was 60 percent.
Recently, following the introduction of legislation to prohibit the use of cash bail in Illinois, the Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx agreed to release detainees held for nonviolent offenses if they could not pay $1,000 for bail. The move, however, affects only a few dozen of the 7,400 inmates in Cook County Jail.
When speaking to critics of bond court, the phrase heard most often is “assembly line.” On my first visit to bond court, it became obvious why. “Assembly line” recognizes a central characteristic of bond court: The entire process that allows so many inmates to remain in jail even before their trial hinges on the few seconds they get in front of the judge at their bond hearing. Across ten bond court–watching sessions and 276 hearings that I observed over three months, those few seconds began to fit a clear trend. Across all judges observed, the slim minority of defendants with private attorneys got an average of 166 seconds in front of a judge. By contrast, the vast majority of people with public defenders got an average of a mere 22 seconds. When I informed Cara Smith, a representative of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, about my findings, she agreed that despite recent changes supposed to improve the bond court system, defendants still got far too little time in front of judges.
The difference between the quality and duration of conversation between judges and private attorneys and those between judges and public defenders is glaring. Private attorneys often represent their clients with full-bodied defenses, vigorously and consistently calling their guilt into question. When a public defender speaks, on the other hand, in the vast majority of cases, he or she mentions solely the defendant’s age, number of children (if any), whether they went to high school or college, and where they work. A bonus second is granted if the defendant is a “lifelong resident of Chicago.”
As has been noted for years, the process also depends heavily on which judge is presiding over the courtroom that day.
Judges render predominantly three types of bond decision: a cash bail where the defendant must post 10 percent of the amount decided (by far the most common); a non-cash bond where a defendant is released without needing to pay bail; or a release with electronic monitoring, an ankle bracelet amounting to house arrest that can also be removed by posting a set amount of money. But because there are no mandatory guidelines specifying what bond is appropriate for which offense, each judge has complete discretion—resulting in large discrepancies among judges over cash bonds or non-cash bonds, the bond amount set, and (especially pertinently nowadays) how often they appeal to a new risk assessment tool.
IN THE FALL OF 2013, after much publicity about overcrowding in Cook County Jail as the average daily population exceeded 10,000, as well as calls for change from Sheriff Dart and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, the Illinois Supreme Court conducted an audit of Cook County bond court with a particular focus on “pretrial services,” which provide a “risk assessment” that a judge can take into consideration when issuing a bond decision.
The Supreme Court report was particularly scathing. It acknowledged the disparities between judges and concluded that “in practice, [risk assessment] has become largely aspirational.”
Since then, a highly lauded new risk assessment tool, the Public Safety Assessment (PSA), recommended by the court’s report, has been implemented. The purpose, proponents argue, is to identify defendants who pose little or no threat to public safety and thereby provide judges with more information on which to base their decisions.
The PSA, a tool created by the Arnold Foundation, has been applied in at least 29 jurisdictions. It considers “risk factors”—demographics, current offense, criminal history, substance use, mental health, education, employment, residence, and community ties—and determines two scores on a six-point scale. The scores indicate how likely a person is to fail to appear in court, and how likely that person is to engage in new criminal activity. The PSA has been implemented in jurisdictions as broad as the entire states of Arizona, Kentucky, and New Jersey, as well as the cities of Chicago, Phoenix, and Charlotte.
In Cook County, it was welcomed heartily. In February of last year, the Community Renewal Society, a Chicago-based faith-based organization that works on issues of poverty and racism, released a report that concluded that in 2015, the PSA was “being used to assess the risk of the vast majority of all defendants that go through Cook County Central Bond Court,” despite the fact that full implementation of the PSA wasn’t to go into effect until March 21, 2016. However, following reports that tools like the PSA can employ racially biased software, questions emerged.
What, then, has the PSA changed in Cook County?
After observing five of the six rotating judges who conduct bail hearings, it appears not much. Only one judge—Peggy Chiampas—actively seemed to have read PSA reports, referring to them in almost all bond hearings (with the exception of those for defendants from the Department of Corrections: a sizable proportion of defendants to whom pretrial services apparently does not have access).
When the other judges presided, however, any mention or consideration of the PSA scores remained absent from bond court proceedings, nor were its recommendations seemingly taken into account.
Obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, a report by the Sheriff’s Justice Institute concluded the same thing. The report noted that in more than 1,574 cases between early February and late March 2016, “collectively judges rarely administer[ed] the … recommended monitoring level” advised by the PSA.
The report also acknowledged the enormous differences in the ways defendants with private attorneys are treated in comparison with defendants with public defenders. Regarding an unidentified judge, the report stated, “In Judge B’s courtroom when a defendant was represented by private attorney and the defense explicitly stated the dollar amount their defendant could post, that bond amount stated was granted 70 percent of the time.”
“When a defendant was represented by a [public defender] and the defense explicitly stated the dollar amount, the bond amount stated was granted 1 percent of the time.”
WITH JUDGES RARELY referring to the PSA, has anything changed at all? Some, including the Community Renewal Society, claim that there has been a steep increase in the proportion of defendants receiving non-cash bonds. According to its report, in 2015, 61 percent of defendants received non-cash bonds, compared with 20 percent in 2011.
The sheriff’s office disputes those numbers. “Our information is not that there’s been a tremendous increase in [non-cash bonds],” Cara Smith tells me, although there has been “a tremendous increase in the use of electronic monitoring.”
Recent data from the chief judge’s office supports her assessment. Just in the first five months of 2016, the total percentage of defendants released on non-cash bonds was 24.4 percent—decidedly not a steep increase from the 20 percent in 2011—while 26.9 percent were released on electronic monitoring. But by far, most still got cash bonds: 44 percent.
Many dispute that the increase in electronic monitoring is a step forward in the administration of justice. Defendants and their family members often criticize it harshly. Sharlyn Grace, a co-founder of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, a revolving fund that posts bond for people charged with crimes in Cook County, argues that electronic monitoring merely replicates the financial incentives of the cash bond.
One of the people for whom the fund recently posted bond, Grace said, had an electronic monitoring bond that required the payment of $25,000 if he ventured outside the perimeter of his home. “He was working two jobs and then he got electronic monitoring. The conditions were so onerous that he was let go of both his jobs. And while on electronic monitoring, he didn’t have movement for any social activity—like attend church, be a member of his community, or be in a position where he could be rehabilitated.”
Ali Abid, formerly of the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, a legal advocacy group that argues that bond discriminates on the basis of financial means by detaining only the indigent, tells me that oftentimes people on electronic monitoring don’t fully understand the terms and conditions they must observe, making it all too easy to violate them. “And if you violate the terms of electronic monitoring, that’s a Class 3 felony,” he said. “Sometimes, paying $200 for bond is easier for people than electronic monitoring.”
THE SUNDAY AFTER Bakirah Woods’s first hearing, Tyjuan Coleman had his bond court hearing in Judge Chiampas’s courtroom. Coleman, unlike the vast majority of defendants on any given day, had a private attorney. Chiampas, the only judge I have observed to do this, asked Coleman’s family to stand and asked them how much they could post. They replied $2,000. She then set the bond at $20,000. The $2,000 was sufficient to ensure Coleman’s release.
I met with Chiampas two days after first observing her. I asked her about the stark difference between her and her fellow judges in how often she used the PSA tool. “I can’t speak for all judges, but it is one factor I consider among many and it is an important one,” she said. “I take the PSA tool into consideration in every case.”
How did she feel about the massive variation among judges? What could be done to standardize the wildly inconsistent bond amounts? “Every judge is individual and makes decisions based on the cases in front of them,” she replied. “Discretion lies with each individual judge.”
When I informed Chiampas that people with private attorneys seemed to get more time than people with public defenders, she disagreed. “Their cases are not treated any differently. Defendants do not get mere seconds in front of a judge. It is on a case-by-case basis.”
But over four visits to Chiampas’s courtroom hearings (17 defendants with private attorneys and 97 with public defenders), the average time for defendants with private attorneys was 150 seconds. The average time for defendants with public defenders was 25 seconds. Further, despite her heavy emphasis on the PSA, Chiampas tended to mete out more cash bond decisions than her fellow judges.
Thus, a troubling conclusion: Even with the use of the brand-new validated PSA, little seems to have changed with the state of pretrial detention in Cook County.
IN THE PSA LARGELY fails to reduce pretrial detentions, that is no small matter. A wealth of research has demonstrated that pretrial detention actually creates convictions by vastly increasing the incidence of guilty pleas. According to a 2012 New York City Criminal Justice Agency report, the more days that arrestees are detained, the more likely they are to plead guilty to their charge. Pretrial detention was the strongest single predictor of conviction. Another study, published in August by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found the same link between pretrial detention and convictions.
That the bail system is counterproductive is not news. In 2015, Nick Pinto wrote that “the open secret is that … bail is the grease that keeps the gears of an overburdened system turning. By encouraging poor defendants to plead guilty, bail keeps the system afloat.”
For Amy Campanelli, head of the Cook County Public Defender’s office, the entire concept of cash bond is the problem. “Cash bond is punitive towards the poor. Bond is not supposed to be punitive,” she says. “It’s supposed to make sure the person comes back to court, and to protect the public.”
THE DAY OF A HIGH-profile bond hearing for Shaquille O’Neal (not the basketball legend), Chiampas was presiding again.
Earlier that week, a video had surfaced online of 23-year-old O’Neal being tackled by Chicago Police Department officers. It showed a CPD officer stomping on O’Neal’s head until he was knocked unconscious. O’Neal was then taken to the hospital. The next day, about 100 protesters marched outside the CPD headquarters. O’Neal was released without charges, but re-arrested two days later, charged with aggravated battery to a police officer, aggravated battery by strangulation, and drug possession.
It was a combative hearing. O’Neal’s attorney made a comprehensive defense: He argued that O’Neal had been arrested on trumped-up charges just two days after being released, and that he was Tased by the police in addition to being stomped on. The hearing lasted over half an hour. Bond was set at $1 million for a first charge and $150,000 for a second.
After the long and exhausting hearing, the felony cases for people with public defenders began, and the rapid pace, the familiar beat of bond court, began to return. The hearings grew progressively shorter. Thirty-seven seconds. Twenty-five seconds. Fifteen seconds. Five seconds. I thought back to Amy Campanelli questioning the purpose of bond. She had asked me whether a $25,000 bond was really just to protect the public, if all one needs to post is $2,500.
“Or, is it just penalizing someone who’s poor?”
As the daughter of a sex therapist, the question I am most often asked at cocktail parties and in the carpool line is: What was it like growing up with a sex therapist as a mom? The question comes with the supposition that my mother dispensed a lot of sex advice, and that growing up with sex as an everyday dinner table topic somehow unlocked a goddess-like sexual prowess. That knowing what was in the box of sex toys in the closet somehow translated to mad sex skills. That having a library of pornography in the family room made me weirdly sexually proficient (whatever that would mean) or taught me lots of sex tricks (whatever those might be). I wish I could say that I know the secret to having more orgasms, or better yet, superhuman orgasms. Or that I am a repository of sexual secrets that cannot be found elsewhere, not even on the internet. But truth be told, who needs sex talk at the dinner table when all the advice you need can be found online?
One just has to google “best sex advice” to see that women’s magazines and their online companions seem to have it covered. Redbook promises the “Hottest Sex of Your Life;” Cosmopolitan’s “50 Best Sex Tips” are as fun, raunchy and useful as ever. Marie Claire has eight tips for being the “Best He’s Ever Had.” Even Buzzfeed schools us with their best sex tips, the ones that are actually helpful. If women’s words were the ground out of which all advice grew, the internet now gives men advice in their own image. Thus, Esquire tells their brothers they are never too old to learn new tricks and Maxim reveals “10 Strangely Fascinating Sex Facts You Need to Know.”
What to make of all the sybaritic possibilities unearthed online? How can we possibly feel adequate amid a world full of flashing fonts that look distinctly like body parts promising to increase our inner sex diva’s drive? Why even try to measure up when corporations pour billions into letting us know that when the moment is right you shouldn’t have to pause to take a pill or stop to find a bathroom?
All this might make you wonder whether there is any advice out there for us mortals. If you dig way down, like to the 84 millionth hit, you might come across a blog post like Psychology Today’s “Why Couples Have Sex Even When One Partner Isn’t in the Mood.” Dr. Sarah Murray notes that in the real world we don’t always get to have hot, raunchy, better-than-yesterday’s sex. And woe to the sap who thinks she’s an utter failure if she’s not quite grooving that way. In the Great Pacific Garbage Patch of internet sex advice, the notion that great sex is all about hallucinatory climaxes and Guinness World Record-breaking acrobatics can leave the rest of us questioning the efficacy of our perceptions and our gross motor skills.
What listicles and snarky sex advice stories rarely address is the cryptic convergences that go into great sex. Take Murray’s mind-blowing suggestion that there are countless reasons to have sex beyond just the desire to get off (she cites a study that found 237 unique reasons people report for getting down and dirty). All good for a Psychology Today blog post, but that headline — “6 Reasons Why Getting Off Isn’t All That” — probably won’t make the top 10-millionth hit on a Google search (although it may be found in the vicinity of “Top 10 Ways to Stop Being Too Tired for Sex”). But, sadly, none of that is as deeply buried in the cloud as my favorite sex advice listicle: “5 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Take Sex Advice from the Internet.” That one pretty much nails it.
"In the election campaign, he even said it was a Chinese invention to criticize America," Argentine Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo told Italian wire service ANSA. "But this president has already changed about several things, so perhaps on this as well."
Pope Francis dedicated his Laudato Si encyclical to climate change and called it "a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation." Trump, a climate doubter, has criticized the pope and does not agree with the pontiff about the global phenomenon.
"They will come to an agreement, since the president claims to be a Christian, and so he will listen to him," Sanchez Sorondo said.
Sanchez Sorondo, the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, works closely with the pope and has been outspoken on the issue of global warming and its effect on the world's migrant crisis.
In his interview with ANSA, he called the president's anti-climate executive orders "against science" and "against what the pope says."
Refuting Trump's infamous saying that climate change is a Chinese "hoax," Sanchez Sorondo commented, "Today the Chinese are actually very collaborative as concerns the commitments they took on climate with the Paris Climate Conference."
"Even large capitals that have thus far invested in fossil fuels are beginning to be concerned about the effects of climate change and see new investment and research opportunities to find different energy solutions that are 'clean' or renewable," he said.
Earlier this month, Pope Francis said he would be "sincere" with Trump over their diametrically opposed views on subjects such as immigration and climate change.
"Even if one thinks differently, we have to be very sincere about what each one thinks," Francis said. "Topics will emerge in our conversations. I will say what I think and he will say what he thinks. But I have never wanted to make a judgement without first listening to the person."
Also in the ANSA interview, Sanchez Sorondo claimed the fossil fuel industry tried to influence the pope's climate encyclical:
"When he was preparing the Laudato Si, oil lobbies did everything in their power to prevent the pope from saying what he did, meaning that climate change is caused by human activity that employ fossil fuels.
Perhaps the oil companies wanted a 'light' encyclical'—a romantic one on nature that wouldn't say anything at all.
Instead, the pope followed what the scientific community says.
If the president does not follow science, then that is the president's problem."
Trump's Syria strike, while widely praised in the mainstream media, drew significant backlash from the president's populist base. Now, five weeks later, Trump's first foreign trip has ushered in a new wave of criticism from his core group of supporters.
One week after the military action, British Infowars vlogger Paul Joseph Watson was joined on his Infowars show by Jack Posobiec, director at Citizens for Trump, where he explained why he'd jumped "Off the Trump train" the week prior.
"400,000 Syrians had died in this civil war over the past six years before the chemical weapons attack," he told Posobiec. "Assad had been killing his own people for six years... it's a civil war; that's what happens."
Watson also noted that at a news conference in the Turkish capital, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asserted on March 30 that the Syrian people would determine Assad's fate.
Posobiec's answer: "A fundamental shift within the administration."
"It's a fundamental shift basically with him out of the picture, and with [National Security Adviser] H.R. McMaster now there," he explained. "H.R. McMaster is tied to [former director of the Central Intelligence Agency] David Petraeus... [and] a lot of people that were involved with the Obama administration and the Bush administration, so having these people in there allows for them to create a way where they can feed Trump any assessments, any intel they want without any conflicting views."
According to Mike Cernovich, Trump isn't draining the swamp, he's drowning in it. And the Pizzagate-pushing conspiracy theorist also attributes Trump's shift to McMaster.
"More war is coming, and I don't know how to tell you the swamp is drowning Trump," he lamented.
On the other hand, there's been no shortage of ominous moments from Trump's first foreign trip, which kicked off with a record arms deal with Saudi Arabia ($110 billion) on Saturday.
"I think it was a bad idea to go to Saudi Arabia," Infowars commentator David Knight announced Monday. He then drew on some of the eerie symbolism viewers may have missed.
President Trump, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi were "all standing there holding this orb with our hands on it," Knight explained. "Everybody's having a lot of fun with that picture, because they look pretty bad when they're lit from the bottom... but what nobody is paying attention to is that that was all part of a ceremony about setting up a global organization."
Of course, the symbolism was not lost on everyone. As Vox summed up:
Think about it for a second: This is Donald Trump — the guy who campaigned on banning Muslim immigration to the United States and replacing “globalism” in foreign policy with “America First” — literally holding a globe surrounded by Muslims. That’s absurd!
"I think he's not being very well served by the people who planned this trip," Knight added, turning to what he believed was the worst photo-op; a sword dance with the Saudis and administration officials.
"I hope that... when they take these swords for the photo opportunities, that they've wiped the blood off of them," Knight said, referencing beheadings. "When you shake hands with people like that, sometimes you get blood on your hands, and we may wind up with blood on our hands in terms of this big arm deal, but of course [Trump's son-in-law] Jared Kushner was at the center of that."
Everyone is fully aware of Jared Kushner’s multitasking capabilities. The son-in-law of President Donald Trump wears many hats in the White House. He’s a senior adviser, the director of the Office of American innovation and is charged with fixing peace in the Middle East. He’s also a slumlord, apparently.
Alec MacGillis, reporting for New York Times Magazine, spoke with tenants of low-income housing in the Baltimore area that is managed by JK2 Westminster, Kushner’s management arm of his real estate empire.
One harrowing story — involving Joan Beverly, a probation agent who was named in a lawsuit brought by JK2 Westminster for $3,810.16 — epitomized the way Kushner’s real estate empire treated its tenants.
In 2010, Beverly’s daughter had moved out of a unit she rented months before her lease was up. Two years later, Kushner Companies bought the complex she had lived in, incurring the debt that was owed. Kushner Companies sued Beverly for several months of rent, plus $1,000 in repair costs and a $10 fine for failing to return a laundry room card, the story, co-published by the Times and ProPublica, reported.
Beverly was dealing with pancreatic cancer at the time, which caused extreme financial stress because she was not able to work. In the suit, Beverly submitted evidence showing financial hardship, but JK2 Westminster persisted with their case regardless. Baltimore County District Court eventually found in favor of Kushner’s company with a total judgment of $5,500 against Beverly.
She died two weeks later. The case is still pending in court, New York Times Magazine reported.
MacGillis spoke with Jennifer McLean, the chief financial officer of Kushner Companies, about its company’s litigious history.
“Westminster Management only takes legal action against a tenant when absolutely necessary,” McLean told New York Times Magazine. “If legal action is pursued, however, the company follows guidelines consistent with industry standards.”
McLean added: “While taking a tenant to court is far from an ideal outcome, that option — and clear rules governing it — must exist as a last resort.”
Read the full story in New York Times Magazine here.
Julian Assange has been vindicated because the Swedish case against him was corrupt. The prosecutor, Marianne Ny, obstructed justice and should be prosecuted. Her obsession with Assange not only embarrassed her colleagues and the judiciary but exposed the Swedish state’s collusion with the United States in its crimes of war and “rendition.”
Had Assange not sought refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, he might have been on his way to the kind of American torture pit Chelsea Manning had to endure. This prospect was obscured by the grim farce played out in Sweden. “It’s a laughing stock,” said James Catlin, one of Assange’s Australian lawyers. “It is as if they make it up as they go along.”
It may have seemed that way, but there was always serious purpose. In 2008, a secret Pentagon document prepared by the “Cyber Counterintelligence Assessments Branch” foretold a detailed plan to discredit WikiLeaks and smear Assange personally.
The “mission” was to destroy the “trust” that was WikiLeaks’ “centre of gravity.” This would be achieved with threats of “exposure [and] criminal prosecution.” Silencing and criminalizing WikiLeaks was the aim.
Perhaps this was understandable. WikiLeaks has exposed the way the U.S. government dominates much of human affairs, including its epic crimes, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq: the wholesale killing of civilians and the contempt for sovereignty and international law.
These disclosures are protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. As a presidential candidate in 2008, Barack Obama, a professor of constitutional law, lauded whistleblowers as “part of a healthy democracy [and they] must be protected from reprisal.”
In 2012, the Obama campaign boasted on its website that Obama had prosecuted more whistleblowers in his first term than all other U.S. presidents combined. Before Chelsea Manning had even received a trial, Obama had publicly pronounced her guilty.
Few serious observers doubt that should the U.S. get its hands on Assange, a similar fate awaits him. According to documents released by Edward Snowden, he is on a “Manhunt target list.” Threats of his kidnapping and assassination became almost political and media currency in the U.S. following then Vice-President Joe Biden’s preposterous claim that the WikiLeaks founder was a “cyber-terrorist.” Hillary Clinton proposed her own expedient solution: “Can’t we just drone this guy.”
According to Australian diplomatic cables, Washington’s bid to get Assange is “unprecedented in scale and nature.” In Alexandria, Virginia, a secret grand jury has sought for almost seven years to contrive a crime for which Assange can be prosecuted. This is not easy. The First Amendment protects publishers, journalists and whistleblowers, whether the editor of the New York Times or the editor of WikiLeaks. The very notion of free speech is described as America’s “ founding virtue,” or as Thomas Jefferson called it, “our currency.”
Faced with this hurdle, the U.S. Justice Department has contrived charges of “espionage,” “conspiracy to commit espionage,” “conversion” (theft of government property), “computer fraud and abuse” (computer hacking), and general “conspiracy." The favored Espionage Act, which was meant to deter pacifists and conscientious objectors during World War I, has provisions for life imprisonment and the death penalty.
Assange’s ability to defend himself has been severely limited by the U.S. declaring his case a state secret. In 2015, a federal court in Washington blocked the release of all information about the “national security” investigation against WikiLeaks, because it was “active and ongoing” and would harm the “pending prosecution” of Assange. The judge, Barbara J. Rothstein, said it was necessary to show “appropriate deference to the executive in matters of national security.” This is a kangaroo court.
For Assange, his trial has been trial by media. On Aug. 20, 2010, when the Swedish police opened a rape investigation, they coordinated it, unlawfully, with the Stockholm tabloids. The front pages said Assange had been accused of the “rape of two women.” The word “rape” can have a very different legal meaning in Sweden than in Britain; a pernicious false reality became the news that went round the world. Less than 24 hours later, the Stockholm chief prosecutor, Eva Finne, took over the investigation. She wasted no time in canceling the arrest warrant, saying, “I don’t believe there is any reason to suspect that he has committed rape.” Four days later, she dismissed the rape investigation altogether, saying, “There is no suspicion of any crime whatsoever.”
Enter Claes Borgstrom, a highly contentious figure in the Social Democratic Party then standing as a candidate in Sweden’s imminent general election. Within days of the chief prosecutor’s dismissal of the case, Borgstrom, a lawyer, announced to the media that he was representing the two women and had sought a different prosecutor in Gothenberg. This was Marianne Ny, whom Borgstrom knew well, personally and politically.
On August 30, Assange voluntarily went to a police station in Stockholm and answered the questions put to him. He understood that was the end of the matter. Two days later, Ny announced she was reopening the case.
At a press conference, Borgstrom was asked by a Swedish reporter why the case was proceeding when it had already been dismissed. The reporter cited one of the women as saying she had not been raped. He replied, “Ah, but she is not a lawyer.”
On the day Marianne Ny reactivated the case, the head of Sweden’s military intelligence service, MUST, publicly denounced WikiLeaks in an article titled “WikiLeaks [is] a threat to our soldiers [under U.S. command in Afghanistan].”
Both the Swedish prime minister and foreign minister attacked Assange, who had been charged with no crime. Assange was warned that the Swedish intelligence service, SAPO, had been told by its U.S. counterparts that U.S.-Sweden intelligence-sharing arrangements would be “cut off” if Sweden sheltered him.
For five weeks, Assange waited in Sweden for the renewed rape investigation to take its course. The Guardian was then on the brink of publishing the Iraq “War Logs,” based on WikiLeaks’ disclosures, which Assange was to oversee in London. Finally, he was allowed to leave. As soon as he left, Marianne Ny issued a European Arrest Warrant and an Interpol “red alert” normally used for terrorists and dangerous criminals.
Assange went to a police station in London, was duly arrested and spent 10 days in solitary confinement in Wandsworth Prison. Released on £340,000 bail, he was electronically tagged, required to report to police daily and placed under virtual house arrest while his case began its long journey to the Supreme Court.
He still had not been charged with any offense. His lawyers repeated his offer to be questioned in London, by video or personally, pointing out that Marianne Ny had given him permission to leave Sweden. They suggested a special facility at Scotland Yard commonly used by the Swedish and other European authorities for that purpose. She refused.
For almost seven years, while Sweden has questioned 44 people in the U.K. in connection with police investigations, Ny refused to question Assange and so advance her case.
Writing in the Swedish press, a former Swedish prosecutor, Rolf Hillegren, accused Ny of losing all impartiality. He described her personal investment in the case as “abnormal” and demanded she be replaced.
Assange asked the Swedish authorities for a guarantee that he would not be “rendered” to the U.S. if he was extradited to Sweden. This was refused. In December 2010, the Independent revealed that the two governments had discussed his onward extradition to the U.S.
Contrary to its reputation as a bastion of liberal enlightenment, Sweden has drawn so close to Washington that it has allowed secret CIA renditions, including the illegal deportation of refugees. The rendition and subsequent torture of two Egyptian political refugees in 2001 was condemned by the U.N. Committee against Torture, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch; the complicity and duplicity of the Swedish state are documented in successful civil litigation and in WikiLeaks cables.
“Documents released by WikiLeaks since Assange moved to England,” wrote Al Burke, editor of the online Nordic News Network, an authority on the multiple twists and dangers that faced Assange, “clearly indicate that Sweden has consistently submitted to pressure from the United States in matters relating to civil rights. There is every reason for concern that if Assange were to be taken into custody by Swedish authorities, he could be turned over to the United States without due consideration of his legal rights.”
The war on Assange now intensified. Marianne Ny refused to allow his Swedish lawyers, and the Swedish courts, access to hundreds of SMS messages that the police had extracted from the phone of one of the two women involved in the rape allegations.
Ny said she was not legally required to reveal this critical evidence until a formal charge was laid and she had questioned him. So why wouldn’t she question him?
When she announced last week that she was dropping the Assange case, she made no mention of the evidence that would destroy it. One of the SMS messages makes clear that one of the women did not want any charges brought against Assange, “but the police were keen on getting a hold on him.” She was “shocked” when they arrested him because she only “wanted him to take [an HIV] test.” She “did not want to accuse JA of anything” and “it was the police who made up the charges.” In a witness statement, she is quoted as saying that she had been “railroaded by police and others around her.”
Neither woman claimed she had been raped. Indeed, both denied they were raped and one of them has since tweeted, “I have not been raped.” The women were manipulated by police, whatever their lawyers may say now. Certainly, they too are the victims of this sinister saga.
Katrin Axelsson and Lisa Longstaff of Women Against Rape wrote: “The allegations against [Assange] are a smokescreen behind which a number of governments are trying to clamp down on WikiLeaks for having audaciously revealed to the public their secret planning of wars and occupations with their attendant rape, murder and destruction… The authorities care so little about violence against women that they manipulate rape allegations at will. [Assange] has made it clear he is available for questioning by the Swedish authorities, in Britain or via Skype. Why are they refusing this essential step in their investigation? What are they afraid of?”
Assange’s choice was stark: extradition to a country that had refused to say whether or not it would send him on to the U.S., or to seek what seemed his last opportunity for refuge and safety.
Supported by most of Latin America, the government of tiny Ecuador granted him refugee status on the basis of documented evidence that he faced the prospect of cruel and unusual punishment in the U.S.; that this threat violated his basic human rights; and that his own government in Australia had abandoned him and colluded with Washington.
The Labor government of then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard had even threatened to take away his Australian passport, until it was pointed out to her that this would be unlawful.
The renowned human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce, who represents Assange in London, wrote to Australian foreign minister Kevin Rudd: “Given the extent of the public discussion, frequently on the basis of entirely false assumptions… it is very hard to attempt to preserve for him any presumption of innocence. Mr. Assange has now hanging over him not one but two Damocles swords, of potential extradition to two different jurisdictions in turn for two different alleged crimes, neither of which are crimes in his own country, and that his personal safety has become at risk in circumstances that are highly politically charged.”
It was not until she contacted the Australian High Commission in London that Peirce received a response, which answered none of the pressing points she raised. In a meeting I attended with her, the Australian Consul-General, Ken Pascoe, made the astonishing claim that he knew “only what I read in the newspapers” about the details of the case.
In 2011, in Sydney, I spent several hours with a conservative Member of Australia’s Federal Parliament, Malcolm Turnbull, now the Prime Minister of Australia. He had a reputation then as a free speech advocate. We discussed the threats to Assange and their wider implications for freedom of speech and justice, and why Australia was obliged to stand by him. I gave him Gareth Peirce’s letter about the threat to Assange’s rights and life. He said the situation was clearly appalling and promised to take it up with the Gillard government. Only his silence followed.
For almost seven years, this epic miscarriage of justice has been drowned in a vituperative campaign against the WikiLeaks founder. Deeply personal attacks have been aimed at a man not charged with any crime yet subjected to treatment not even meted out to a defendant facing extradition on a charge of murdering his wife. That the U.S. threat to Assange was a threat to all journalists, and to the principle of free speech, was lost in the sordid and the ambitious. I would call it anti-journalism.
Books were published, movie deals struck and media careers launched or kickstarted on the back of WikiLeaks and an assumption that attacking Assange was fair game and he was too poor to sue. People have made money, often big money, while WikiLeaks has struggled to survive.
The previous editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, called the WikiLeaks disclosures, which his newspaper published, “one of the greatest journalistic scoops of the last 30 years.” Yet no attempt was made to protect the Guardian’s provider and source. Instead, the “scoop” became part of a marketing plan to raise the newspaper’s cover price.
With not a penny going to Assange or WikiLeaks, a hyped Guardian book led to a lucrative Hollywood movie. The book’s authors, Luke Harding and David Leigh, gratuitously described Assange as a “damaged personality” and “callous.” They also revealed the secret password he had given the paper in confidence, which was designed to protect a digital file containing the U.S. embassy cables. With Assange now trapped in the Ecuadorean embassy, Harding, standing among the police outside, gloated on his blog that “Scotland Yard may get the last laugh.”
Journalism students might study this period to understand the most ubiquitous source of “fake news” — as from within a media self-ordained with a false respectability and as an extension of the authority and power it courts and protects. The presumption of innocence was not a consideration in Kirsty Wark’s memorable live-on-air interrogation in 2010. “Why don’t you just apologize to the women?” she demanded of Assange, followed by: “Do we have your word of honor that you won’t abscond?”
On the BBC’s Today program, John Humphrys bellowed: “Are you a sexual predator?” Assange replied that the suggestion was ridiculous, to which Humphrys demanded to know how many women he had slept with.
“Would even Fox News have descended to that level?” wondered the American historian William Blum. “I wish Assange had been raised in the streets of Brooklyn, as I was. He then would have known precisely how to reply to such a question: ‘You mean including your mother?’”
Last week on BBC World News, on the day Sweden announced it was dropping the case, I was interviewed by Greta Guru-Murthy, who seemed to have little knowledge of the Assange case. She persisted in referring to the “charges” against him. She accused him of putting Trump in the White House and she drew my attention to the “fact” that “leaders around the world” had condemned him. Among these leaders she included Trump’s CIA director. I asked her, “Are you a journalist?”
The injustice meted out to Assange is one of the reasons Parliament reformed the Extradition Act in 2014. “His case has been won lock, stock and barrel,” Gareth Peirce told me. “These changes in the law mean that the U.K. now recognizes as correct everything that was argued in his case. Yet he does not benefit.” In other words, he would have won his case in the British courts and would not have been forced to take refuge.
Ecuador’s decision to protect Assange in 2012 was immensely brave. Even though the granting of asylum is a humanitarian act, and the power to do so is enjoyed by all states under international law, both Sweden and the United Kingdom refused to recognize the legitimacy of Ecuador’s decision.
Ecuador’s embassy in London was placed under police siege and its government abused. When William Hague’s Foreign Office threatened to violate the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, warning that it would remove the diplomatic inviolability of the embassy and send the police in to get Assange, outrage across the world forced the government to back down. One night, police appeared at the windows of the embassy in an obvious attempt to intimidate Assange and his protectors.
Since then, Assange has been confined to a small room without sunlight. He has been ill from time to time and refused safe passage to the diagnostic facilities of hospital. Yet his resilience and dark humor remain quite remarkable under the circumstances. When asked how he put up with the confinement, he replied, “Sure beats a supermax.”
It is not over, but it is unraveling. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the tribunal that adjudicates and decides whether governments comply with their human rights obligations, last year ruled that Assange had been detained unlawfully by Britain and Sweden. This is international law at its apex.
Both Britain and Sweden participated in the 16-month U.N. investigation and submitted evidence and defended their positions before the tribunal. In previous cases ruled upon by the Working Group—Aung Sang Suu Kyi in Burma, imprisoned opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia, detained Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian in Iran—both Britain and Sweden gave full support to the tribunal. The difference now is that Assange’s persecution endures in the heart of London.
The Metropolitan Police say they still intend to arrest Assange for bail infringement should he leave the embassy. What then? A few months in prison while the U.S. delivers its extradition request to the British courts? If the British government allows this to happen it will, in the eyes of the world, be shamed comprehensively and historically as an accessory to the crime of a war waged by rampant power against justice and freedom, and all of us.
So Donald Trump screwed the pooch again. This time the president did it on camera, standing next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when he made a point of quieting the room and addressing reporters to say this out of the blue:
Just so you understand, I never mentioned it, the word or the name Israel. I never mentioned it during that conversation. They were all saying I did. So you had another story wrong. Never mentioned the word Israel.
He was referring, of course, to his infamous May 10 meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and ambassador Sergey Kislyak at the White House, the one in which he gave away sensitive foreign intelligence and explained to his guests that he’d gotten rid of that pesky little problem he had with Jim Comey. Although there has been some reporting that the original information came from Israeli intelligence, no one has ever claimed Trump told the Russians that. In fact, national security adviser H.R. McMaster had gone to great lengths to explain that Trump had no idea where the information came from. So this was simultaneously a confirmation of reporting that Israel was the source and a confirmation that all classified information should be kept far away from President Trump.
Meanwhile, back in the States, the gusher of news about the Russia investigation continued to flow. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn gave notice that he planned to assert his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination rather than testify before Congress, And then there was the usual late-breaking Washington Post bombshell, this time reporting that Trump had asked NSA Director Mike Rogers and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to push back on the Russia story after Comey’s congressional testimony, and that White House officials had tried to get them to encourage the FBI to drop the Flynn probe. It was just another day of gaffes, scandals and lawbreaking in the era of Trump.
But there have been a few stories over the past several days that may have Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner feeling a bit more nervous than usual. Last Friday among the cascading breaking news, one factoid was mostly overlooked in the big Washington Post story reporting that the Russia investigation had expanded to include a member of the White House staff who is close to the president:
Although the case began quietly last July as an effort to determine whether any Trump associates coordinated with Russian operatives to meddle in the presidential election campaign, the investigative work now being done by the FBIalso includes determining whether any financial crimes were committed by people close to the president …
While there has been a loud public debate in recent days over the question of whether the president might have attempted to obstruct justice in his private dealings with Comey, whom Trump fired last week, people familiar with the matter said investigators on the case are more focused on Russian influence operations and possible financial crimes. [Emphasis added.]
Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo observed that the investigation may be homing in on the story he’s been following for some time about Trump’s business and financial dealings over the decades with a whole cast of nefarious characters, including authentic mobster Felix Sater, who has ties to Russian oligarchs and gangsters and may be a U.S. government informant. Over and over again in Trump’s past you find connections to criminals and shady characters who operate on the very edge of legality. Marshall notes that for the past couple of decades, Trump has had a specific business model:
Cut off from capital from the big banks and most people interested in not losing their money, he had to do business with people with decidedly sketchier reputations. Those people, often looking for places to park wealth in real estate, had to accept much higher levels of risk than people with clean reputations. That seemed to lead them to Trump.
You may have heard that the congressional committees have requested the Treasury Department’s financial crimes enforcement network, or FinCEN, to provide any information it has on Trump, his businesses, his top officials and campaign aides. CNN got access to 400 pages of this FinCEN information on Trump’s casino operations in Atlantic City and found that the Trump Taj Mahal casino broke money-laundering rules 106 times in the first year and half of operation and paid nearly half a million dollars in fines in just one settlement agreement in 1998. The network reported:
According to a dozen anti-money laundering experts, casinos often run into these problems. But getting caught with 106 violations in the casino’s opening years is an indicator of a serious problem, they said. The violations date back to a time when the Taj Mahal was the preferred gambling spot for Russian mobsters living in Brooklyn, according to federal investigators who tracked organized crime in New York City. They also occurred at a time when the Taj Mahal casino was short on cash and on the verge of bankruptcy.
One might assume this is ancient history, but consider this story from Fortune in February 2015, just four months before Trump descended from his golden escalator to announce his candidacy:
The parent of Trump Taj Mahal, one of Atlantic City, New Jersey’s struggling casinos, has settled U.S. government charges that it violated federal laws designed to thwart money laundering, court filings show.Trump Taj Mahal agreed to the assessment of a $10 million civil penalty by the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, according to a proposed consent order filed on Tuesday with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Wilmington, Delaware.
The violations in that case went back to 2003.
Casinos are an obvious choice for money launderers. So is real estate, for that matter. And Trump has been closely associated for years with the kind of people who dabble in such behavior, including Russian mobsters. It’s entirely possible that Trump’s panic over the Russia investigation doesn’t stem from any collusion with the Russian government over the election but rather from his possible involvement with Russian mobsters and oligarchs involved in money laundering and other criminal activities.
Trump may not know much about how the presidency works, but he surely has enough street smarts to know that once the authorities get all up in your business they will follow wherever the trail leads.
There’s a reason that the president refuses to be transparent about his financial dealings and we know it isn’t because he’s so modest. He’s hiding something, and a special prosecutor with a mandate to look into financial crimes is probably going to find out what it is.
In normal times, Dee from New York would have ordered her copy of The Handmaid’s Tale from Amazon, but these are not normal times. Amazon is on the Grab Your Wallet list, a campaign to boycott retailers that sell Trump family products, which began as a response to the video revealing our now-president’s penchant for grabbing women "by the pussy." Dee bought her book from a smaller retailer instead.
Since Donald Trump’s election in November, and especially since his January inauguration, hundreds of small and not-so-small organizations have sprung up to oppose the president. They joined the ranks of established left-leaning and liberal groups already revving up their engines to fight the administration. Among all the ways you can now voice your dissent, though, there’s one tactic that this president will surely understand: economic resistance aimed at his own businesses and those of his children. He may not be swayed by protesters filling the streets, but he does speak the language of money. Through a host of tactics -- including boycotting stores that carry Trump products, punishing corporations and advertisers that underwrite the administration’s agenda, and disrupting business-as-usual at Trump companies -- protesters are using the power of the purse to demonstrate their opposition and have planned a day of resistance against his brand on June 14th.
Such economic dissent may prove to be an especially apt path of resistance, especially for the millions of Americans who reside in blue states and have struggled with a sense of powerlessness following the election. After all, it’s not immediately obvious how to take effective political action in the usual American way when your legislators already agree with you. But what blue-state dwellers lack in political sway they make up for in economic clout, since blue states have, on average, greater household incomes and more purchasing power than their red-state compatriots. The impact of coordinated blue-state boycotts could be enormous. That’s why Grab Your Wallet, along with Color of Change, a racial-justice group, and numerous other organizations are encouraging individuals to see their purchasing power as political muscle.
“It was close at the polls, but it’s not close at the cash register,” Shannon Coulter, a founder of Grab Your Wallet, told me recently.
And yet, even as throngs of organizations and hundreds of thousands of individuals throw their energy into economic tactics intended to weaken the president, it’s still an open question whether this type of resistance -- or, more specifically, its current implementation -- can precipitate anything in the way of meaningful change.
“A Sprawling Landscape of Resistance”
At first glance, Grab Your Wallet is a modest website: a Google spreadsheet that lists about 50 companies to boycott. Included are the department stores Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, and Lord & Taylor, as well as online retailers like Overstock.com, Zappos, and Amazon, all of which sell some type of Trump swag. (The precise number of companies listed continues to decline, as retailers dump the Trump brand.) The site gets an impressive two million unique visitors every month, and when I spoke with Coulter, she told me that 22 retailers had dropped Trump products since the start of the boycott. She believes that this is just the beginning.
“I don’t think we’ll see the full impact of the boycott until summer, because of how the retail cycle works,” she explained. The department store Nordstrom, for instance, the biggest company to date to drop the Ivanka Trump brand, sold through its existing inventory before indicating that it would not reorder. That announcement even attracted attention from the president, who tweeted: “My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person -- always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!”
Color of Change has long deployed strategies of economic resistance, specifically by going after advertisers who underwrite hate. Now that Trump is in the White House, Rashad Robinson, the group’s executive director, told me that they’re focusing on the role of corporate enablers “who’ve made this administration possible.” He described a strategy in which his organization carefully selects a corporate target and then rallies its million-plus members to participate in a campaign designed to tarnish the company’s brand -- unless its executives make more ethical advertising choices. Color of Change played a role in the recent ouster of Bill O’Reilly from Fox News by helping to influence some of the more than 50 major advertisers who pulled their financial support from his top-rated program. After advertisers fled, Fox gave O’Reilly the boot.
Progressive groups are proving increasingly savvy when it comes to designing such consumer-driven tactics. The Center for Popular Democracy and the immigrant-rights group Make the Road New York recently co-launched a campaign called Corporate Backers of Hate, which targets Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, The Walt Disney Company, and a handful of other corporations that have provided various forms of support for Trump and his agenda. Wells Fargo, for instance, has lent millions of dollars to the president’s companies, is an investor in immigrant detention centers run by private, for-profit contractors, and has loaned money to developers for the Dakota Access Pipeline, the 1,172-mile oil pipe that would cross Standing Rock Sioux Tribe lands in North Dakota. (Trump signed a memo authorizing that pipeline within days of taking office.) The Corporate Backers of Hate website allows protesters to bypass customer service staff at these corporations and send messages directly to top executives and board members to express their disapproval.
This strategy of going after the funding underlying Trump’s network has won some early victories. Several groups have been trying to cut off the flow of advertising dollars to Breitbart, the xenophobic pseudo-news site formerly run by White House strategist Steve Bannon. Leading the charge in this work is a Twitter-based group, Sleeping Giants, with a relatively simple proposition: it asks followers to take screenshots of ads on Breitbart -- preferably next to an offensive headline -- and then tweet that screenshot to the company in the ad along with a polite message asking it to stop underwriting hate. This approach has been wildly successful; according to Sleeping Giants, thousands of advertisers have pulled out of Breitbart.
Nicholas Reville is a seasoned online organizer who has become a leading figure in the campaign to, as he says, make “hate unprofitable.” He believes that the Sleeping Giants model of digital resistance represents a new and important type of political action. “It’s very, very rare that you have an activism campaign where people are doing something other than signing a petition, showing up to a rally, [or] donating money,” he told me. Instead, he pointed out, an individual can now take a discrete action on his or her personal device and actually help win a victory when an advertiser pulls out of Breitbart.
Some activists are going beyond screenshots and tweets. Journalist Naomi Klein recently released a video highlighting the fact that Trump’s brand is one of his most important sources of revenue and suggesting that “jamming” the brand -- by turning it from a money-maker into a money-loser -- would be a powerful form of resistance. She mentions tactics like clogging phone lines at Trump companies or making, and then canceling, reservations at his hotels.
One activist who has been working on jamming those Trump phone lines, and who spoke with me on condition of anonymity, said that resisters like her had discovered that it was surprisingly easy to disrupt the president’s businesses. “The phone lines do not have the capacity to handle even medium-volume call traffic,” she said, and assured me that there was more phone jamming planned for the future. When I asked what she hoped to achieve through this tactic, she responded that the goal was to weaken President Trump financially, politically, and in every way imaginable.
“These strategies are complements to other kinds of organizing,” she went on. “None of these tactics alone are going to bring down the Trump administration... that’s not how it works. This is part of a sprawling landscape of resistance.”
Easy to Resist, Hard to Win
The multitude of groups, campaigns, and individuals going after Donald Trump, Trump businesses, and companies supporting him or his political agenda do indeed form a sprawling, often chaotic landscape of resistance. I receive a dozen different, mostly uncoordinated action-alert messages in my inbox daily. In the weeks immediately following the inauguration, I found all that frenetic energy strangely appealing. After a couple of months of diffuse efforts, however, I began to wonder whether such efforts would be better spent on fewer, more coordinated campaigns. While Trump oppositionists undoubtedly feel a thrill of satisfaction when Nordstrom drops Ivanka’s product line and legions of advertisers pull out of Breitbart, it’s unclear whether these are steps on the path to a revised political landscape, or whether they are just feel-good wins leading nowhere in particular.
This dilemma is perhaps best exemplified by the Boycott Trump app, which has been downloaded 350,000 times. The concept behind it is similar to the one that animates Grab Your Wallet. The app is essentially a list of companies to boycott, though it includes more than 250 of them, rather than the dozens on Grab Your Wallet, many because they sponsored Trump’s NBC show The Apprentice back in 2011. I asked Nathan Lerner, who heads an organization called the Democratic Coalition Against Trump, which is responsible for the app, what qualifies a company to be listed, and he said that any company connected to the president was worth listing. I then asked if his group was collaborating with other boycott efforts.
“We’ve been a little frustrated with partnering,” Lerner told me. “Right now we’re seeing a ton of enthusiasm around boycotting Trump, but it’s fragmented. Folks are popping up doing great work, but they’re doing it on their own.” That seemed like a remarkably on-target summary of the situation, and Lerner’s group seemed to be an example of those working “on their own.”
In search of answers, I called up Marshall Ganz, who would surely be in the hall of fame of community organizing if there were one. He worked with Cesar Chavez in the 1960s to organize California farmworkers and was an architect of Barack Obama’s organizing strategy for his presidential run in 2007. A professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School (and, full disclosure, once my professor), Ganz defines “strategy” as “how we turn what we have into what we need to get what we want.” That applies nicely to the Trump boycott concept, in which activists are trying to turn their discrete consumer power into collective influence great enough to change where our country is headed.
When I mentioned to Ganz that so many different boycotts and related campaigns are happening without much coordination, he described the problem this way: “The mechanisms for starting my thing, my thing, my thing, they’re so easy in virtual space.” Bringing those initiatives together is the problem. As he pointed out, back in 2007 the San Francisco Bay Area alone had about 54 different pro-Obama groups registered online; the hard part was getting them to work together in a way that channeled their energy toward a shared goal. When it comes to fighting Donald Trump, Ganz suggested that it would be far more strategic for the many different boycott and pressure groups to pool their efforts. Were this to happen, he suggested, the anti-Trump movement could become more proactive, rather than reactive.
Not all experts agree with his assessment. L.A. Kaufman is the author of the recent book, Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism. “I think that the decentralized character of the resistance gives it resilience,” she told me in a phone interview. In her view, the fact that all this activity is totally grassroots and happening outside the Democratic Party is a sign of political renewal in this country. She has a point. Yet it’s hard to see how economic resistance, surely a suitable weapon against a businessman-in-chief, can be effective without a critical mass coalescing around an agreed-upon set of actions and goals.
I asked Shannon Coulter whether she’s coordinating with other campaigns, and she pointed out that Grab Your Wallet is now aligned with the organizers of the Women’s March, the vast post-inauguration protest that swept the country. Those same organizers were also the driving force behind the formation of roughly 5,500 groups of local activists who convened after the march to consider the next steps for the emerging anti-Trump movement. This alliance seemed like a promising sign.
Recalling what Ganz had said about uniting groups that supported Obama in 2007, I asked Coulter whether she would ever consider merging Grab Your Wallet into a larger organization. To this, she responded in the negative. “I say that,” she explained, “because Grab Your Wallet is one of the only women-led ones in the movement.”
Coulter isn’t the only one to offer such reasoning. Since the anti-Trump movement is a heterogeneous collection of groups representing women, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ folks, and lots of straight white people, there’s concern that combining efforts could result in a resistance dominated by white men who might compromise the priorities of specific groups and their constituents. In order to be effective, says Rashad Robinson of Color of Change, campaigns must carry the “moral authority of an impacted constituency.” He described situations in which white-led groups had tried to mimic campaigns led by Color of Change -- without realizing that they lacked the moral authority to do so effectively.
In 2014, Zeynep Tufekci, a professor at the University of North Carolina who studies social movements, gave a TED talk titled “Online social change: easy to organize, hard to win,” in which she described the March on Washington in 1963. That historic event, where Martin Luther King delivered his famed “I Have a Dream” speech, drew 250,000 people. Tufekci underscored the significance of attracting such a crowd in 1963, when organizers used landline phones, flyers, and word of mouth, in a landscape lacking today’s easy digital tools. Fifty years ago it was nothing short of awe-inspiring to draw a quarter million people to the National Mall. “If you’re in power,” said Tufekci, “you realize that you have to take the capacity signaled by that march, not just the march, but the capacity signaled by that march, seriously.”
The anti-Trump movement has yet to accomplish anything so awe-inspiring. Nearly half a million people gathered in Washington for the Women’s March -- a number that climbed to more than a million when all the protests around the country were added in -- but it’s not at all clear that such numbers carry the same weight today as smaller crowds did in previous eras. Though protesters filled the streets in Washington one day after the inauguration, anti-Trump activity remains fragmented several months into his term.
And when it comes to waging economic resistance against this billionaire president, the pressing question is whether innumerable people across the country, like Dee from New York, who are changing their spending habits, tweeting at advertisers, contacting chief executives, and jamming phones at Trump businesses, will do so in a way that converts their discrete actions into real influence and power.
It’s still too early to tell.
South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is the site of the 19th-century Wounded Knee Massacre and the 20th-century American Indian Movement rebellion. Pine Ridge, with an estimated population of 30,000, has 80% unemployment, eight times the U.S. rate of Type II diabetes, and four times the number of suicides.
Still, in many ways, Pine Ridge offers an inspiring, hopeful contrast to Washington DC, where I live.
For four days last month, I and a dozen of my colleagues collaborated with the Little Wound School on the first phase of a three-year program of youth suicide prevention. We taught the fundamentals of mind-body medicine to 90 school counselors, teachers and tribal elders, and 30 activist teenagers. They learned meditation to quiet stress and relieve historical and present psychological trauma; guided mental imagery to mobilize intuition and discover answers to previously insoluble problems; shaking and dancing to free bodies frozen with memories of pain; and mindful eating and basic nutrition to help the Lakota people find their way through the reservation’s food desert.
I arrived at Little Wound preoccupied with raising money for our global trauma programs and an overdue writing assignment, unsteady from the anti-human political winds blowing through my hometown. Five days later, my feet felt comfortably planted on the earth. My heart was more open, my mind easier.
What follows are some glimpses of the wiser, more hopeful perspective I brought back to Washington.
Mitakuye Oyasin ('All my relations'). This Lakota phrase of welcome and farewell is woven through our days on Pine Ridge, reminding us that we are connected to every living being and to trees and rocks as well. It reassures and invites generosity, urging the Lakota people and all of us to abandon petty quarrels and self-protective fear for the embrace of diversity as well as community.
Mitakuye oyasin offers an inevitable and painful contrast to the attitude of our president and our Congress, a government functioning for the benefit of a privileged few, decision makers who refuse to recognize that damage to any part of our nation inevitably harms us all.
Everything is sacred. This is the consequence and corollary of mitakuye oyasin.
Back in DC, I live in a world that separates the secular from the sacred. Sunday—or Saturday or Friday—for worship, the rest of the week for work. The separation is well-intentioned, ensuring that our government doesn’t demand allegiance to a particular god or his injunctions. But at Pine Ridge, on great rolling land, among otherworldly mesas of rock, under a wide sky, separation seems arbitrary and limited. “Lakota spirituality,” says Basil Brave Heart, the 86-year-old elder who first invited us years ago to Pine Ridge, “is not a religion. It’s a way of life.”
We begin each day with chanted prayers and smudging, cleansing with burning sage. When we teach the practices of mind-body medicine, elders and kids nod and smile in recognition. Our program, they tell us, is completely in harmony with the Lakota way. “Our footsteps are our prayers,” says Basil, “every breath is a communion with the sacred.”
Honesty is revered. Again and again the adults and young people in our groups feel the relief that comes from saying what is in their hearts, from sharing pain they have suffered in silence.
Many Lakota have used drink and drugs to avoid responsibility; they have invoked the terrible damage of dislocation and discrimination to justify their addiction. And people on Pine Ridge can be as guilty of deception and back-biting as any Washington player. There is, however, a growing commitment to realizing the consequences; they know they must break the cycle.
Warren “Bim” Pourier, long ago an alcoholic, now a respected elder and a school dean of students, speaks for everyone in our group when he says our meditative work helps him “to come, once again, to my center.” A musician is determined to “fix a brain bent by hereditary trauma, bad diet and drugs.” A teenage girl draws herself “being honest and kind” to family she had rejected.
Meanwhile, Washington is increasingly, aggressively, a city of deflection and projection. “It’s not my fault. It’s yours.” “You did it, too,” or “You did it first,” or both. Our president takes no responsibility for the hurt he does or the lies he tells. Critics, immigrants, the media, the previous president, or a defeated opponent are to blame. Fair enough for a child, but it seems to me, looking back from Indian country, utterly irresponsible, pathetic for our leader and the rest of us.
We listen respectfully. In our small groups, as in traditional ceremonial gatherings, we pass a talking stick. The group member's job is to respect the one who holds it, the speaker; to consider what her words teach, how her experience may reflect and inform our own. How different from cable news, where each head shouts to be heard over everyone else, where communication and learning are a poor second to declamation and self-justification.
What happens in Washington does affect the Lakota people. Charles Cuny, the Little Wound school principal, recalls Trump’s campaign commitments and recent executive orders. He shows me a digest of a Heritage Foundation report that the administration is using as a blueprint. In Washington these are casual cuts, but they would go deep into the flesh of daily life on every inch of the reservation.
“Eliminating discretionary education spending,” Charles explains, could cut the already tight school budget by 25%. Department of Agriculture food that sustains more than 800 hungry kids—three meals, four days a week, and breakfast and lunch on Friday—may disappear. Mental health and addiction services, already inadequate, have been marked for elimination. HUD funding to replace tiny shacks in which three generations are crowded may be cut. The numbers of tribal police and Indian Health Service clinicians could decrease. And opening nearby land to energy exploitation will likely pollute the reservation’s clear water and clean air.
And it won’t destroy the Lakota. “Regardless of who the president is,” Charles assures me, “and what he does, in spite of poverty, oppression, and despair, we’re going to survive.”
Sitting with Charles and in my small group, I feel that quiet, sustaining determination. I see it in the drawings our Lakota participants do at the end of four days of training, recognizing the hard work of breaking bad habits, but filled with hope and humor. I hear it in their commitment to share what they are learning with all the kids on the reservation and all those kids’ teachers and families. And I feel it in the closing ceremony the elders offer us: each of us moving slowly in a circle, all 130 of us looking in the eyes of each and every person, shaking hands or embracing.
Keith Olbermann broadcast an angry rebuke of Fox News and Sean Hannity.
The GQ special correspondent used his "The Resistance" platform to describe Fox News as, “these subhuman creatures, these Trump apologists.”
“It underscores yet again the lengths to which those who enabled Trump to seize power in our country will defend that power and him,” Olbermann reported. “There are no standards, there are no morals, there are no ethics, there are only Kellyanne Conway’s alternative facts.”
The longtime sports and politics broadcaster suggested that all of the conspiracy mongering is to divert attention from the investigations into the Trump campaign.
“That is the case for the defense of Donald Trump and the Trump campaign and the Trump White House and the Russians,” Olbermann charged. “And they can all burn in hell.”
According to sources who spoke to The Daily Beast, Fox News staffers are “befuddled” and “embarrassed” by Sean Hannity still peddling debunked conspiracy theories.
Watch the full video below:
The Supreme Court’s ruling Monday that North Carolina Republicans had illegally segregated voters by race to create two U.S. House seats after 2010’s redistricting is a snapshot into the Republican dynamics of power-hungry partisanship and institutional racism. It also shows what the Court's more liberal approach might have been if Senate Republicans hadn't refused to consider President Obama's nominee for the seat vacated by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
At issue was extreme partisan gerrymandering, when one party controls state government the year political boundaries are redrawn (usually after the once-a-decade Census) and ends up with outsized gains, or more seats in its legislature and U.S. House delegation than statewide divisions would suggest. The impact was seen in 2016 in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania where Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by less than 1 percent, but these state legislatures and congressional delegations remained two-thirds Republican. Segregating voters, or gerrymandering, was the cause.
In North Carolina, race and party overlap, with non-whites overwhelmingly voting for Democrats and whites overwhelmingly voting Republican. Last year, a federal district court ruled the state GOP made two congressional districts overly Democratic in 2011 by illegally packing blacks into them while bleaching surrounding districts to ensure they would be won by Republicans. The state’s then-Republican governor appealed, and the question before the Court was, what was the top motive? Was it partisan greed, which the Court’s conservatives have said is a part of politics and should be left alone, or was it race, which cannot be used under federal law to deprive non-whites of political representation?
Those two silos, party or race, reflected the arguments that came before the Court last December when there were eight members—Justice Neil Gorsuch had not been seated. On Monday, the Court issued a 5-3 opinion, written by Elena Kagan, concluding it was race, which is illegal. The modern Court has never thrown out congressional maps citing race. The ruling was praised by Democrats like former Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder and trashed by former George W. Bush administration Republicans like Hans von Spakovsky. The Court’s lone African-American justice, Clarence Thomas, broke with conservatives and agreed with the four liberals.
“A state may not use race as the predominant factor in drawing district lines unless it has a compelling reason. In this case, a three-judge District Court ruled that North Carolina officials violated that bar when they created two districts whose voting-age populations were majority black,” the majority opinion began. “Uncontested evidence in the record shows that the State’s mapmakers… purposely established a racial target: African Americans should make up no less than a majority of the voting age population.”
The Court noted how North Carolina Republicans boasted they were creating districts to empower blacks—a goal of the 1965 Voting Rights Act—when they packed black voters into fewer districts so the GOP could emerge with more House seats. The majority didn’t buy that, saying the state’s blacks had good representation and didn’t need the GOP's help. They noted the party’s mapmakers were unapologetic about their goals—“to make the map as a whole ‘more favorable to Republican candidates’”—and politely called that line a fraud. Citing the VRA as an excuse to sort voters by race “is the kind of ‘exception’ that goes pretty far toward swallowing the rule,” the majority opinion said.
But Chief Justice John Roberts—who wrote the Court’s 2013 opinion gutting the VRA, saying the country has outgrown racial divisions and no longer need its toughest federal oversight provisions—and oft-moderate Anthony Kennedy joined conservative Samuel Alito’s dissent. They said the majority went hunting and “found a smoking gun” on race.
“The Court below seemed to think that it found a smoking gun,” their dissent read. “The majority focuses almost all its attention on a few references to race by those responsible for the drafting and adoption of the redistricting plan. But the majority reads too much into these references. First, what the plaintiffs had to prove was not simply that race played some role in the redistricting process, but that it was the legislature’s predominant consideration.”
This is where legal distinctions subvert real life. North Carolina’s Republicans have one of the most racially divisive recent histories of any state, with the possible exception of Texas, where lower federal courts have also ruled the GOP drew political lines to dilute Latino political power. Last week, the Supreme Court let stand an appeals court ruling that threw out five North Carolina voting rules that the judges said were designed with “surgical precision” to suppress black voters, such as requiring state ID cards to get a regular ballot that more whites had and cutting early voting. In that decision, Roberts wrote, “the [Court’s] justices were not endorsing the 4th Circuit’s reasoning.”
Like that comment from Roberts, Alito’s dissent also turns a blind eye to race. This is no accident; it's how institutional racism endures, allowing discrimination to continue and painting those who challenge it as unhinged. What’s equally remarkable about Alito’s dissent is how he unapologetically describes the GOP coup that occurred after the 2010 Census, which turned purple North Carolina into a red state for this decade. He begins by describing the results of the state’s extreme partisan redistricting.
“In 2010, prior to the adoption of the current plan, Democrats won 7 of the 13 [House] districts, including District 8,” Alito wrote. “But by 2016, Republicans controlled 10 of the 13 districts, including District 8, and all the Republican candidates for House of Representatives won their races with at least 56% of the vote.”
That 56 percent figure is revealing. It’s a metric confirming the GOP identified and packed sufficient numbers of reliable Republican voters into districts to secure more seats. In contrast, in 2016 North Carolina’s Democratic delegation saw Rep. Alma Adams get 67 percent, Rep. David Price get 68 percent and Rep. G.K. Butterfield get 69 percent of the vote. This disparity shows how redistricting sorts voters. Alito’s dissent said this consequence was the political spoil of winning before redrawing lines for a decade. He added the Court has never thrown out districts for naked partisan greed.
“Gerrymandering dates back to the founding [of America], and while some might find it distasteful, our prior decisions have made clear that a jurisdiction may engage in constitutional political gerrymandering, even if it so happens that the most loyal Democrats happen to be black Democrats and even if the state were conscious of that fact,” Alito wrote. “If around 90% of African-American voters cast their ballots for the Democratic candidate, as they have in recent elections, a plan that packs Democratic voters will look very much like a plan that packs African-Americans voters.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling, in which its majority drew a line against the illegal use of race instead of the legal excuse of partisan greed, shows how a more left-leaning Court might have behaved if Obama had succeeded in seating his final nominee, Merrick Garland. Instead it is an open question where the Court will go when it next visits gerrymandering.
Its next big redistricting case is from Wisconsin and will be heard in the term starting in October. That case doesn’t involve race; just a partisan power play. As Alito’s defense implies, the Court’s conservatives have no problem with that. The only possible big case involving racial discrimination would come from Texas, where a lower federal court in March said race was illegally used to draw political lines. Texas Republicans have yet to appeal that ruling in a case that has gone on for years.
In the meantime, the Court’s newest member, Neil Gorsuch, is expected to be a firm conservative vote on redistricting, whether the question is party or race. That means Monday’s ruling could be a temporary liberal blip on the screen while the big picture is heading toward the political right. But for now, more than a half-dozen years after Republicans in North Carolina brazenly grabbed more state and federal power, the prospect of that state emerging as politically purple is more tangible.