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Mitt Romney Blasts Trump for Commuting Roger Stone’s Sentence

Mother Jones Magazine -

Utah Senator Mitt Romney once again emerged as the leading anti-Trump voice in the Republican Party, with a Saturday morning statement laying into Donald Trump’s Friday night commutation of his old friend Roger Stone’s prison sentence for his convictions on charges he obstructed investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election, even as many of his GOP colleagues remained silent.

Unprecedented, historic corruption: an American president commutes the sentence of a person convicted by a jury of lying to shield that very president.

— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) July 11, 2020

In June, Stone was convicted in a jury trial on seven charges that he obstructed justice and lied under oath during Congressional investigations into Russian interference. Stone, who has known Trump for decades and encouraged him to run for president, has proclaimed his innocence and claimed that he was only charged as a way for prosecutors to put pressure on him to flip on the president. As late as Friday afternoon, hours before the commutation, Stone told an interviewer that he felt he deserved a break for the way he protected the president against investigators. 

Romney was the sole Republican senator to vote for Trump’s impeachment, and has emerged as one of the few nationally-prominent Republicans willing to not only disagree with the president, but criticize him. In June, Romney made clear his support for racial justice protesters and the need to address their concerns, not just forcefully repress them, earning him further ire from the president. Romney has also been vocal in his criticisms of Trump’s handling of COVID-19, warning repeatedly that it is too early for declarations of success—as Trump has regularly done since the pandemic hit American shores and steadily spread.

Coronavirus Growth in Western Countries: July 10 Update

Mother Jones Magazine -

Here’s the coronavirus death toll through July 10. We are now on our fourth day of rising mortality in the US and it’s now looking like a genuine upturn. The lag time between the rise in cases and the rise in deaths appears to be four weeks this time around, as you can see in this Washington Post chart:

If this chart is any indication, four weeks of rising cases means we’re now in for four weeks of rising deaths. And if the rise in deaths matches the rise in cases, our mortality rate won’t plateau until we hit about three times our current death rate.

On the other hand, it’s still true that COVID-19 is now targeting younger people, who are less likely to die from it, and that our hospitals have gotten better at treating it. So even if deaths rise for the next few weeks, they may never get as high as 3x our current rate. We’ll just have to wait and see.

The raw data from Johns Hopkins is here. The Public Health Agency of Sweden is here.

“Million-Mile” Batteries Are Coming. Are They a Revolution?

Mother Jones Magazine -

This piece was originally published in Grist and appears here as part of our Climate Desk Partnership.

Electric vehicles (EVs) have a clear environmental advantage over their gas-guzzling counterparts, but when it comes to longevity, the two are in a dead heat. Two hundred thousand miles is considered a good, long run for a car built today, regardless of whether it’s powered by a lithium battery or an internal combustion engine. But if a flurry of recent reports are to be believed, EVs may soon surge ahead in this long-distance competition—not by mere thousands of miles, but by 800,000.

Recently, multiple EV battery makers have announced the imminent arrival of “million-mile” batteries, power packs that supposedly have enough juice to be driven to the moon and back twice. In May, a top executive at General Motors said the company was “almost there” on development of a million-mile battery; in June, Chinese battery maker Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd. (CATL) told Bloomberg it was ready to produce batteries that last 1.24 million miles. For months, rumors have swirled that Tesla will soon roll out a million-mile battery on its own. Its 2019 Impact Report, released in early June, certainly reinforced that impression when it emphasized the environmental advantages of a “future Tesla vehicle with a million mile battery.”

But what does the million-mile battery revolution actually mean? According to experts in battery storage technology and the EV market, claims of new batteries that will last a million miles don’t tell us much on their own. How these batteries can be used is going to depend, first and foremost, on how they perform and degrade over their so-called “million-mile” lifespan. Several experts pointed out that true million-mile batteries are likely to outlast whatever cars they’re built for, meaning their arrival could dramatically impact both second-use markets and battery recycling.

“What they’re talking about with million-mile batteries is not so much that an average consumer would put a million miles on the clock,” said Simon Lambert, a co-lead investigator at the Recycling of Lithium-Ion Batteries project (ReLiB) at the UK’s Faraday Institution, “but that you’d potentially be able to use the battery multiple times, either in vehicular energy storage or grid-connected stuff.”

Most EV batteries on the road today—nearly all of which are lithium-ion batteries employing one of several different chemistries—are warrantied to last 8 to 10 years or 100,000 miles. Some automakers guarantee that the battery will retain at least 70 percent of its original capacity over that period, meaning the car’s range—the distance it can drive before needing to be charged—won’t degrade by more than 30 percent.

In practice, early data suggests today’s EV batteries often last considerably longer with less degradation, said James Frith, an energy storage analyst for BloombergNEF, a clean energy research firm. Tesla’s recent impact report, Frith notes, claims that Model S and X batteries lose less than 20 percent of their original charge capacity after being driven 200,000 miles. A Nissan executive, meanwhile, recently estimated that a Nissan Leaf battery will last about 22 years based on battery degradation data the company is collecting on EVs sold in Europe, according to Automotive News.

“What they’re talking about with million-mile batteries is not so much that an average consumer would put a million miles on the clock.”

“We’re only just getting to the point where we’ve had EVs on the road for 10 years, and we can really see how well those claims of battery life last,” Frith said. “But in general, we see EVs do tend to perform quite well.”

In many cases, EV batteries are already outlasting the cars they are being put in. Hans Eric Melin, the founder of Circular Energy Storage, a market research firm focused on second-use and recycling of lithium-ion batteries, says that it’s “very unusual” for a car to be pulled off the road today because its battery has degraded fully. While this is sometimes the case for heavily-driven electric taxis or Ubers, more often, the battery experienced some sort of electrical malfunction, other components of the EV became worn out, or the car was totaled in a crash.

“For Tesla Uber drivers that might have driven 300 to 400 thousand miles max, they might have to replace the batteries,” Melin said. “But usually, the battery will outlive the car.”

That’s not to say even longer-lived batteries are a bad idea. For one, they could offer a significant advantage for companies operating fleets of taxis or delivery vehicles, which often rack up considerably more miles per vehicle than the average consumer. Even for individual drivers, million-mile batteries could change the calculus around EV ownership. Frith said that many prospective buyers are still worried about how long the battery will last and how the car’s charge capacity and range will decline over time. Batteries warrantied to maintain a good state of health over a million miles—or even a more conservative half-million—would go a long way toward assuaging these concerns. Longer-lived batteries also could be a boon to the emerging used EV market: “If you have a battery that can last a million miles, you’re not going to be worried that after 50,000 to 100,000 [miles] the capacity will be too low to sell to a second market,” Frith said.

What’s more, since batteries take considerable energy to produce, there’s a solid environmental argument for extending their life. In general, companies should be able to claim that million-mile batteries are more climate friendly than their 200,000-mile counterparts because the carbon emissions, resource consumption, and pollution associated with their production will be spread over many more years of use.

Still, there’s a lot we don’t know about the million-mile batteries companies are working on, including how their performance will decline over time, which has very practical ramifications for what actually driving a million miles on one would be like. All lithium-ion batteries inevitably deteriorate as a result of both cycling (being charged and discharged) and simple calendar aging. This degradation affects both the battery’s energy storage capacity (which dictates the car’s range) and its power capability, or how quickly the battery can discharge energy (and thus accelerate).

“The rate at which each of those things comes down really affects the performance of the battery in terms of second life,” Lambert said.

Lambert suspects that in practice, batteries with a “million-mile” rating might have to be cycled through a series of less demanding applications as they get on in years and miles. Perhaps a million mile battery would spend its first 100,000 miles in a sports car before getting transplanted into an electric cab for the next 400,000, before eventually being repurposed for grid energy storage or backup power systems, less performance-demanding applications. While there is already an emerging industry around collecting and repurposing EV batteries—data shared by Melin shows there are more than 300 megawatt-hours of repurposed EV batteries being used for energy storage throughout Europe in 2020, compared with just 18 megawatt-hours in 2016—there is still a lot of room for this industry to grow.

However, such reuse could have tradeoffs, says Gavin Harper, a research fellow at the Faraday Institution. Various studies and reports have projected that rapid growth of the EV industry could lead to shortages of key battery metals, like cobalt, in the not-too-distant future. If that happens, it might be better to recycle cobalt-rich batteries sooner rather than delay recovery of this critical material. (While there is no global policy governing end-of-life recycling of EV batteries, the European Union and China are developing policies that hold producers responsible for this waste.)

“I think the cobalt content of the battery will have a real bearing on its value in reuse relative to recycling,” Harper said. The EV industry’s shift toward battery chemistries with less cobalt, he says, means that each battery recycled today potentially could supply enough of the metal to furnish multiple future batteries.

Even if we don’t face a raw materials supply crunch, radically extending the lifespan of EV batteries has implications for how we meet our rising metals demand in the future, notes Linda Gaines, the chief scientist of Argonne National Laboratory’s ReCell Center, which focuses on lithium-ion battery recycling.

“It means you’re not going to get the material back for recycling for a really, really long time,” Gaines said. “Which means, until that happens, you’re reliant on virgin raw materials” that need to be mined from the earth.

And while million-mile batteries might seem to suggest that we’ll need fewer batteries (and thus fewer raw materials) overall, Harper says it’s also possible they could increase battery demand since “often, when we make improvements in efficiency, we just end up consuming more.”

But this is one case where that may be a good thing for the planet.

“If those batteries are displacing higher carbon energy stores” like gasoline, Harper said, “this may just accelerate our transition to decarbonization.”

Many Children Drink Water From Private Wells. They’re Risking Lead Exposure.

Mother Jones Magazine -

This piece was originally published in The Guardian and appears here as part of our Climate Desk Partnership.

American children whose homes rely on private wells for drinking water are 25 percent more likely to have high lead levels in their blood than those with access to regulated community water services, according to new research.

The lead exposure is worse for poor and Black children due to historic discriminatory public policies.

Lead, a heavy metal which has no smell and is invisible to the naked eye, is a suspected carcinogen and highly toxic to the brain and nervous system, as well as most other organs.

The water scandal in Flint, Michigan, in 2014 exposed concerns about lead in regulated city drinking water supplies, but little attention has been paid to dangerous contaminants in unregulated private wells which provide drinking water to 42.5 million Americans, the equivalent of 13 percent of the population.

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to specifically analyze lead exposure in children who rely on private wells.

Researchers, who examined the water sources and health records from almost 60,000 children in North Carolina, found that those relying on private wells had blood lead concentrations that were 20 percent higher, on average, than children with community water service.

The study also found that children living in older, lower-value houses suffered higher lead levels and had higher risks of elevated blood lead, as did those in majority-Black neighborhoods.

“Risks are especially high for children in low-income households and in African American neighborhoods that remain excluded from access to nearby municipal water service—a legacy of discriminatory zoning practices,” said Jackie MacDonald Gibson, author of the study and chair of the department of environmental and occupational health at the Indian University school of public health.

“This unfortunate legacy contributes to persistent intergenerational poverty through its impacts on children’s cognitive development.”

There is no safe lead level, according to the CDC, and childhood exposure has been linked to reduced IQ, ADHD, school failure and criminality.

The increased exposure is probably due to corrosion of indoor plumbing and well components.

Private wells are excluded from the Safe Drinking Water Act, which since 1991 has required all community water utilities to monitor lead levels as part of the Lead and Copper Rule provision.

This means households with private wells must monitor their own water quality, and, when necessary, replace parts and install and manage their own corrosion-control systems.

But it is seldom done, according to Gibson, because lead control requires awareness of the risks, knowledge about testing, and money.

“This study highlights the need for an overhaul of the Safe Drinking Water Act to provide support for households relying on private wells,” Gibson said. “That includes financial support, and education and support on proper testing. No level of lead exposure is safe. This is an issue that must continue to be addressed.”

Why Did Trump Commute Roger Stone’s Sentence Instead of Pardoning Him?

Mother Jones Magazine -

President Trump has come through for his crooked pal Roger Stone:

President Trump commuted the sentence of his longtime confidant Roger Stone on Friday, using the extensive powers of the presidency to protect a felon and political ally while also lashing out against a years-long probe into Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

….While the 643-word statement recited a litany of Trump supporters’ complaints about Stone’s “unfair prosecution, arrest, and trial” — including several complaints about the media — the commutation leaves Stone’s conviction standing. Unlike a pardon, which would have absolved the GOP operative of any wrongdoing, the White House action only lifted Stone’s punishment, a 40-month prison sentence set to begin Tuesday.

That’s kind of a drag for Stone. Why the second-class treatment of a commutation instead of a pardon? Wasn’t Stone important enough for a pardon?

But wait. Someone who gets a pardon can no longer invoke the Fifth Amendment as a justification for refusing to testify in court. If Stone were called in some other case, he’d be required to spill any beans he had. But if I understand the law correctly, a commutation is more limited. The conviction stands, and the possibility of putting yourself in further jeopardy remains. Thus your Fifth Amendment rights stand.

So if you wanted to help out a buddy, but you also wanted to make sure he couldn’t be forced to provide dangerous testimony in the future, commutation sure seems like the best bet, doesn’t it?

Not Just Roger Stone: A Shockingly Long List of Trump’s Controversial Pardons and Commutations

Mother Jones Magazine -

A version of this story was first published on April 13, 2020.

Donald Trump has added yet another name to his burgeoning list of friends, loyalists, and conservative celebrities who have received presidential pardons or commutations. This time, the beneficiary was Roger Stone, a longtime adviser convicted of lying to Congress, obstruction, and witness tampering in connection with the Russia investigation. Stone’s 2019 trial revealed that Trump likely lied to special counsel Robert Mueller about his own role in the scandal, but Stone himself has remained staunchly loyal to the president. Trump returned the favor. He repeatedly sought to intervene on Stone’s behalf—publicly berating federal prosecutors, the judge in the case, and even a juror. Senior Justice Department officials allegedly pressured government attorneys to “cut Stone a break.” And on Friday evening, Trump commuted Stone’s sentence, just days before he would have been required to report to prison.

Trump’s use of executive clemency has figured prominently in his reelection bid. One widely discussed campaign ad, aired during the Super Bowl, featured Alice Johnson—a black woman who served 21 years in prison for a nonviolent drug offense before Trump commuted her sentence in 2018. “Thanks to President Trump, people like Alice are getting a second chance,” the ad stated. In February, Trump freed several women who served time with Johnson. 

But Johnson’s case is far from typical. More often, Trump has used his clemency powers to reward political allies like Stone. Here’s a list of right-wing icons, corrupt public officials, accused war criminals, and other controversial figures who previously received clemency from Trump.

Joe Arpaio

During his 24 years as the sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, Arpaio called himself “America’s toughest sheriff” and became known for his severe treatment of immigrants and the harsh conditions in his county jail. When a judge ordered him to stop detaining people based solely on suspicion of their immigration status, which amounted to racial profiling, he refused. In 2017, he was found guilty of criminal contempt of court for violating that order.

The Trump connection: Arpaio endorsed Trump in January 2016, citing his stances on immigration and stumping for him in Iowa. The two men also share a fondness for racist conspiracy theories. At the same time Trump was pushing the false claim that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, Arpaio sent one of his deputies and a member of his volunteer birther posse to Hawaii to investigate Obama’s birth certificate. At an August 2017 rally in Phoenix, Trump hinted at a pardon. “Was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job?” he said. “I’ll make a prediction: I think he’s going to be just fine.” Days later, the president followed through. “Sheriff Joe is a patriot,” he declared. “Sheriff Joe loves our country. Sheriff Joe protected our borders. And Sheriff Joe was very unfairly treated by the Obama administration.”

Dwight and Steven Hammond

When Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond were convicted of arson for burning more than 100 acres of federal land, their case became a flashpoint in the fight for control over public lands. (Witnesses testified the fire was intended to cover up evidence of illegal hunting; the Hammonds said they started the fire on their own property to burn off invasive species and it accidentally spread.) “They have become symbols of the way many rural Americans feel they’ve been wronged by federal overreach,” BuzzFeed News reported. Their case sparked a 41-day standoff with federal agents at a wildlife refuge in Oregon, led by Ryan and Ammon Bundy. Many people joining the protest were members of unofficial militias, armed with long guns and pistols and dressed in full tactical gear. One Arizona rancher was killed by police.

The Trump connection: The Hammonds had support both from right-wing extremists willing to take up arms against government regulation and from a multimillionaire oil magnate. Forrest Lucas—a GOP megadonor who holds naming rights to the Indianapolis Colts stadium and has close ties to Vice President Mike Pence—made the Hammonds a personal cause as a symbol of his anti-regulation agenda. Trump pardoned them in July 2018. Lucas flew the Hammonds home in his private plane after they were released.

Rod Blagojevich

Blagojevich was governor of Illinois in 2008 when then-Senator Barack Obama won the presidency, leaving Blagojevich to pick Obama’s successor. The governor was convicted of trying to shake down a children’s hospital and sell Obama’s Senate seat. “I’ve got this thing and it’s fucking golden,” he said on a secretly recorded call, referring to the Senate seat. “I’m not just giving it up for fucking nothing.”

The Trump connection: Blagojevich appeared on Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice reality show after leaving office but before going to prison. (He was fired from Celebrity Apprentice, Trump told him, because his “Harry Potter facts were not accurate.”) In recent years, Blagojevich’s wife Patti became a regular on Fox News, hoping to catch the president’s ear as she pleaded for clemency and shopped the theory that Robert Mueller and James Comey—two of the key law enforcement officials who later investigated the Trump-Russia scandal—were behind her husband’s downfall. (Mueller was head of the FBI at the time of Blagojevich’s conviction; Comey was in private practice.) “They took down a governor, and now they’ve got their sights much higher,” she said. Trump commuted Blagojevich’s sentence on February 18, freeing him from prison six years early. 

Rod Blagojevich did not sell the Senate seat. He served 8 years in prison, with many remaining. He paid a big price. Another Comey and gang deal! Thank you to @LisaMarieBoothe who really “gets” what’s going on! @FoxNews

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 19, 2020

Scooter Libby

Former Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in 2007 in an infamous case involving the disclosure of the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame. At the time, Plame was married to a diplomat who had accused the Bush administration of twisting intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq.

The Trump connection: Comey, who was deputy attorney general at the time, appointed Patrick Fitzgerald—the same US attorney who prosecuted Blagojevich—as special counsel to investigate the Plame scandal. Bush commuted Libby’s sentence in 2007, allowing him to avoid prison time but leaving the conviction on his record. Libby’s defenders continued to argue that he’d been railroaded by overzealous prosecutors, and Trump pardoned him in 2018. Victoria Toensing—who was Libby’s lawyer, as well as vocal Trump ally and a key player in the Ukraine scandal—told the Washington Post that Libby was the victim of an “injustice inflicted on him and his family” by Comey and Fitzgerald. The White House gave a similar explanation. “Many people think that Scooter Libby was the victim of a special counsel gone amok,” Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said. The same day Trump pardoned Libby, he attacked Comey.

On the day the President wrongly attacks Comey for being a “leaker and liar” he considers pardoning a convicted leaker and liar, Scooter Libby. This is the President’s way of sending a message to those implicated in the Russia investigation: You have my back and I‘ll have yours.

— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) April 13, 2018

Bernard Kerik

Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner under Rudy Giuliani, pleaded guilty in 2009 to eight felonies, including tax fraud and lying to White House officials. During sentencing, the judge said Kerik had made “a conscious decision to essentially lie to the president of the United States to get a cabinet position”—a reference to the fact that Bush had nominated him in 2004 to serve as Homeland Security secretary. He served three years in prison.

The Trump connection: Kerik has been a regular on Fox News, where he has suggested House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) should be arrested over their roles in Trump’s impeachment. According to a White House statement, Giuliani and Fox host Geraldo Rivera were among those who pushed for a Kerik pardon, which Trump granted on February 18.

Michael Milken

Billionaire Michael Milken, once the highest-paid man in the history of Wall Street, helped create the market for junk bonds in the 1980s. The “junk bond king” was charged with insider trading and convicted of securities fraud in 1990. He served 22 months in prison.

The Trump connection: Trump pardoned Milken on February 18. The president’s adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, lobbied for Milken’s pardon, as did Giuliani, whose US attorney office had prosecuted Milken. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin—a longtime friend who flew on Milken’s private jet last year—pushed for the pardon. So did Rupert Murdoch, who relied on Milken’s services to fuel the growth of News Corp. According to the White House, the pardon was also supported by GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson, Trump fundraiser and inaugural committee chairman Tom Barrack, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

Paul Pogue

Pogue, who owned a Texas construction company, was convicted of underpaying his taxes by nearly $500,000 in 2010. He was sentenced to three years of probation.

The Trump connection: Pogue’s son Ben and daughter-in-law Ashleigh donated more than $200,000 to the Trump Victory PAC. The Daily Beast reported that on the day of their first donation, Ashleigh posted an Instagram photo of the couple posing with Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle, a former Fox News host, in the Hamptons. The president pardoned Pogue on February 18.

David Safavian

Safavian was convicted of obstruction of justice and making false statements in 2008 in connection with the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. (Abramoff pleaded guilty to, among other things, defrauding Native American tribes). Safavian, who was working in George W. Bush’s budget office at the time, went on a golf trip to London and Scotland with Abramoff. Safavian was sentenced to a year in prison.

The Trump connection: Safavian is general counsel at the American Conservative Union, which is chaired by Matt Schlapp, whose wife Mercedes was formerly the White House director of strategic communications and is now a spokesperson for Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign. Trump pardoned Safavian on February 18.

Pat Nolan

Nolan, a Republican former California state legislator, pleaded guilty in 1994 in an FBI political corruption sting known as “Shrimpscam,” in which federal agents pretending to represent a shrimp business offered bribes to lawmakers. He served 26 months in prison. He’s since become a leading conservative voice on criminal justice reform.

The Trump connection: Nolan leads the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union Foundation. Nolan was also an influential voice in favor of the First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal justice reform law that Trump sees as one of his signature legislative achievements. (The measure was highlighted in Trump’s Super Bowl ad that featured Alice Johnson.) Trump pardoned Nolan in May 2019.

Kristian Saucier

While a sailor in the Navy, Saucier illegally retained photographs he took of classified areas of a nuclear submarine. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 months in prison.

The Trump connection: On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump frequently referred to Saucier’s conviction as an example of punishment for what he deemed a lesser offense than Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of State. He pardoned Saucier in March 2018.

Dinesh D’Souza

D’Souza—a conservative provocateur and former Reagan adviser—is known for his incendiary articles and films, including ones that have focused on Obama-related conspiracy theories. He was convicted in 2014 of making illegal campaign contributions to Wendy Long, a Republican Senate candidate in New York, funneling $20,000 through straw donors to evade campaign finance limits. He was sentenced to five years probation, including eight months of confinement in a community center.

The Trump connection: D’Souza claimed that Obama’s Justice Department had pursued the case because D’Souza had made a movie critical of Obama. A judge at the time called this theory “nonsense,” but it resonated with Trump. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was among those who lobbied for a pardon for D’Souza, which Trump granted in May 2018. Jeanine Pirro, a Fox News host and former judge who is one of Trump’s most vocal supporters, applauded it. Roger Stone cited D’Souza’s pardon as a signal that Trump had the backs of former aides who had been indicted in the Mueller investigation. “It has to be a signal to Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort and even Robert S. Mueller III: Indict people for crimes that don’t pertain to Russian collusion and this is what could happen,” Stone told the Washington Post.

Conrad Black

Black was a media mogul who at one point ran the world’s third-largest newspaper company, which owned papers such as the Chicago Sun-Times and the Daily Telegraph. In 2007—in yet another case prosecuted by Patrick Fitzgerald—Black was convicted of obstruction of justice and fraud for swindling his company out of $60 million that should have gone to stockholders. Black served three and a half years in prison, though parts or his conviction were ultimately overturned.

The Trump connection: At Black’s 2007 trial, Trump had been expected to testify that Black’s wife’s $62,000 birthday party was a business event, rather than a social gathering—but Black’s lawyers changed their minds at the last minute. In recent years, Black has become a prolific writer of op-eds praising the president, as well as the sycophantic book Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other. Rush Limbaugh and Henry Kissinger were among those who pressed Trump to pardon Black; he did so in May 2019.

Angela Stanton

Stanton was convicted on federal conspiracy charges for her role in a car theft ring in 2004. After serving her two-year prison sentence, she became a television personality and author, starring in a BET docuseries and writing an inflammatory book called Lies of a Real Housewife, alleging that one of the stars of Real Housewives of Atlanta had been part of her “hustler’s life of crime” years ago.

The Trump connection: Stanton helped push for the First Step Act. In 2019, she participated in a Fox News panel of black voters as a Trump supporter. After being pardoned on February 18, she’s announced plans to run for Congress as a Republican against civil rights legend John Lewis (D-Ga).

Eddie DeBartolo Jr.

DeBartolo, a former owner of the San Francisco 49ers, was convicted in 1998 of failing to report a $400,000 bribe the governor of Louisiana solicited from him. He was sentenced to two years’ probation and $1 million in penalties.

The Trump connection: DeBartolo supported Trump’s presidential campaign and hosted a pre-inauguration party headlined by Kimberly Guilfoyle and Omarosa Manigault. DeBartolo is also a local celebrity in his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio. As Philip Bump writes in the Washington Post, Trump’s pardon of DeBartolo, issued on February 18, could be part of his effort to keep Ohio red in 2020.

Michael Behenna

Behenna was an Army lieutenant who served five years in prison for the 2008 murder of Ali Mansur, an Iraqi prisoner. US forces took Mansur into custody after a roadside bomb killed two of Behenna’s friends and platoon members, but he was freed when the military couldn’t conclusively link him to the bombing. Behenna was supposed to drive Mansur back to his village. Instead, Behenna stripped him naked, interrogated him without authorization, and fatally shot him. He later claimed self-defense.

The Trump connection: Fox & Friends—one of Trump’s favorite shows—treated Behenna’s case favorably and gave Behenna’s parents a platform to lobby for a pardon. Trump pardoned him in May 2019, freeing him from his parole restrictions five years early.

Mathew Golsteyn

Major Mathew Golsteyn was charged with murder in 2018 when he acknowledged having killed an Afghan man in 2010. The man was suspected of making bombs and had been ordered to be released after questioning. According to documents unearthed by the Washington Post in 2015, an Army investigation found that Golsteyn and other soldiers buried the man’s body, dug it up, and then burned it. Golsteyn’s lawyer had told the Post at the time that the documents “are taken out of context and are biased,” adding that “it’s fantasy to say he confessed to shooting an unarmed detainee.”

The Trump connection: Pete Hegseth—a Fox & Friends host and a buddy of Trump—lobbied for months on air and off for Trump to intervene in the cases of Golsteyn and two other service members, Eddie Gallagher and Clint Lorance. Hegseth said that doing so would be “heartening for guys like me and others in the service.” Golsteyn’s wife, Julie, repeatedly appeared on Fox & Friends with Hegseth to plead her husband’s case. Trump pardoned Golsteyn in November 2019, while he was still awaiting trial. The next month, Golsteyn appeared on stage at a fundraiser with Trump. The Daily Beast reported that Trump wants the accused war criminals he pardoned to campaign for him in 2020.

The case of Major Mathew Golsteyn is now under review at the White House. Mathew is a highly decorated Green Beret who is being tried for killing a Taliban bombmaker. We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill! @PeteHegseth

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 12, 2019

Clint Lorance

Lieutenant Clint Lorance received a 19-year prison sentence for second-degree murder after ordering troops to fire on unarmed Afghan civilians in 2012. Two of them died.

The Trump connection: Lorance benefited from Hegseth’s campaign to secure Trump’s intervention in the cases of convicted and accused war criminals. Trump pardoned Lorance in November 2019, freeing him from prison after six years. Lorance has since praised the president on Fox News and, along with Golsteyn, took the stage at a fundraiser with Trump.

Eddie Gallagher

Special Operations Chief Gallagher, a Navy SEAL, was charged with war crimes in 2018. He was acquitted of the most serious charges, sentenced to time served, and demoted.

The Trump connection: The case first came to Trump’s attention when Bernard Kerik became an advocate for Gallagher’s family in conservative media, the AP reported. Hegseth lobbied hard on behalf of Gallagher. So did Trump allies Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and then-Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), who resigned in January after pleading guilty to conspiracy to misuse campaign funds. Trump didn’t grant Gallagher a pardon or commutation, but he did reverse Gallagher’s demotion.

Donald Trump Frees Roger Stone…and Pardons Himself

Mother Jones Magazine -

On Friday night—as Americans across the country continued protesting dangerous and divisive disparities in the criminal justice system—Donald Trump commuted the prison sentence of his longtime adviser Roger Stone, who was convicted of lying to Congress and witness tampering during the Trump-Russia investigation. “Roger Stone is now a free man,” the Trump White House declared.

It’s easy—and appropriate—to see this as brazen cronyism. Stone, the veteran dirty trickster, has been a Trump intimate for decades. He served him as a lobbyist and political adviser, and for years he encouraged him to run for president—until Trump said yes. Then Stone helped birth Trump’s White House bid in 2015. Though he has Richard Nixon’s visage tattooed on his back, Stone, a veteran conspiracy theorist and purveyor of the politics of paranoia, has had Trump in his heart. Yet Trump’s grant of clemency—as it’s officially called—was not merely an act of friendship or a reward for Stone’s devotion. It was part of a coverup of Trump’s own wrongdoing, which included an action that might have been a crime. 

Recall what Stone lied to Congress about. While being grilled by the Democrats of the House Intelligence Committee in 2017, he prevaricated about his efforts to make contact with WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign, when Russian intelligence was using Julian Assange’s website to disseminate material its hackers had stolen from Democrats. The Russian-WikiLeaks operation was mounted to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump, and Trump and his campaign were delighted by the Kremlin’s intervention.

As Stone’s trial demonstrated, Trump and Paul Manafort, then the chairman of the Trump campaign, tried to use Stone as a go-between with WikiLeaks, at least to find out what Assange had on Clinton so they could best exploit it. (The portions of the Mueller report that covered this were redacted when released publicly over a year ago. Consequently, this piece of Trumpian skullduggery never received significant media attention. In June, these parts of the report were unredacted and released.) At Stone’s trial, Rick Gates, Trump’s former deputy campaign manager, testified he had witnessed a phone conversation between Trump and Stone that he concluded was about WikiLeaks and its plans to release material hacked by the Russians. Gates’ statements to the court also indicated that Trump was briefed on what Stone was telling other campaign officials about WikiLeaks. 

Whether Stone interacted with WikiLeaks on behalf of the Trump campaign remains murky. At the time, Stone declared publicly that he was in contact with Assange. Later, he claimed he was just boasting—that is, lying. He told the House Intelligence Committee, which was investigating Russian interference, that he had only heard about WikiLeaks plans through an intermediary—a radio show host named Randy Credico—but it turned out that this story was false and that Stone had attempted to enlist Jerome Corsi, a rightwing journalist and fellow conspiracy theorist, to be a conduit with WikiLeaks.

This lie and others landed Stone in court, and a jury found him guilty of five counts of making false statements to Congress. He was also found guilty of witnesses tampering and obstructing a congressional inquiry. In other words, he was convicted of preventing Congress and the American public from learning the truth about the Trump campaign and the Russian attack. A side note that should not be forgotten: during the 2016 campaign, Stone repeatedly maintained that Russia had not hacked the Democrats and insisted the Russians’ phony cover story—a hacker named Guccifer  2.0 was solely to blame—was accurate. That means Stone was helping to disseminate Kremlin disinformation and aiding and abetting Moscow’s effort to sabotage the election.

After Stone’s conviction, Justice Department prosecutors requested a sentence of seven to nine years. But Attorney General Bill Barr intervened, and the department filed a new sentencing memo that called for a lesser penalty of three to four years. Stone was eventually sentenced to 40 months. He was set to report to federal prison by June 30, but that date was pushed back to mid-July.  In a statement explaining Trump’s executive order freeing Stone, the White House bitterly assailed the Russia investigation mounted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and proclaimed that Stone was a “victim of the Russia Hoax.” But not even Barr agreed with that assessment. In a recent interview, the attorney general, in what seemed to be a slight shift in his position, called the prosecution of Stone “righteous.”

Though Stone’s lying about his WikiLeaks contacts initially seemed convoluted and even pointless, the trial made clear what Stone had been up to. Prosecutors submitted evidence that Stone had used Corsi to gather intelligence related to WikiLeaks for Trump and his campaign. By refusing to disclose this, Stone was covering up Trump’s efforts to connect with WikiLeaks while WikiLeaks was part of a Russian operation targeting American democracy. That’s certainly a secret worth keeping—an American presidential candidate seeking a back-channel to an overseas entity involved in a clandestine assault on a US election. Should this have become publicly known, some people might have viewed it as an instance of Trump trying to collude with the Russian operation.

Stone, the Trump loyalist, would not want the world to learn this—especially when Trump was insisting there had been no collusion at all. Thus, his lies. As lead prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky said in his opening statement at the Stone trial, “The evidence in this case will show that Roger Stone lied to the House Intelligence Committee because the truth looked bad. The truth looked bad for the Trump campaign and the truth looked bad for Donald Trump.”

Hours before Trump granted the commutation, Stone essentially acknowledged that he had smothered information that would have been damaging to Trump, telling journalist Howard Fineman, “[Trump] knows I was under enormous pressure to turn on him. It would have eased my situation considerably. But I didn’t.”

Stone’s lies did work to an extent. Trump’s attempt to hook up with WikiLeaks through Stone never became part of the Russia scandal narrative. But the investigation of Stone’s lies led to another somewhat-ignored aspect of the controversy: Trump apparently lied to Special Counsel Robert Mueller. And lying to the special counsel—like lying to Congress—is a crime. 

During their investigation, Mueller and his investigators examined the key question of whether Trump and his campaign had communicated with WikiLeaks. But Trump refused to be interviewed in person by Mueller’s team. He would only answer written questions on a limited number of subjects. So Mueller sent him a list of queries, including whether he was ever told that Stone had been in touch with WikiLeaks and whether he or anyone associated with his campaign had spoken to Stone about WikiLeaks.

In his written response, Trump replied, “I do not recall being told during the campaign that Roger Stone or anyone associated with my campaign had discussions with any of the entities named in the question regarding the content or timing of release of hacked emails.” He also answered, “I do not recall discussing WikiLeaks with [Stone], nor do I recall being aware of Mr. Stone having discussed WikiLeaks with individuals associated with my campaign.” Trump, who has frequently boasted of possessing a prodigious memory, offered a wide denial, claiming to have “no recollection of the specifics of any conversations I had with Mr. Stone between June 1, 2016” and Election Day. Trump was saying that as far as he knew, he and his campaign had had nothing to do with Stone regarding WikiLeaks. That was false. 

Mueller’s report characterized Trump’s responses as “inadequate.” And the recently released portions contain a carefully written passage that suggests Mueller and his team suspected Trump had lied to them:

Witnesses have stated…that candidate Trump discussed WikiLeaks with Stone, that Trump knew that [former Campaign Chairman Paul] Manafort and Gates had asked Stone to find out what other damaging information about Clinton WikiLeaks possessed, and that Stone’s claimed connection to WikiLeaks was common knowledge within the Campaign. It is possible that, by the time the President submitted his written answers two years after the relevant events had occurred, he no longer had clear recollections of his discussions with Stone or his knowledge of Stone’s asserted communications with WikiLeaks. But the President’s conduct could also be viewed as reflecting his awareness that Stone could provide evidence that would run counter to the President’s denials and would link the President to Stone’s efforts to reach out to WikiLeaks.

The Stone trial certainly produced evidence that Trump had indeed lied to Mueller, though the president had deployed the I-have-no-recollection dodge. He and his campaign had been in contact with Stone about WikiLeaks and its release of the Democratic documents swiped by Moscow’s cyberthieves. Clearly, Stone and Trump did not want this revealed. So Stone broke the law to keep this hidden. And Trump may have done so as well. (Mueller concluded that under Justice Department policy he did not have the power to indict Trump for any crimes, and it’s often tough for prosecutors to prove someone has lied when that person claims they cannot recall.)

Now Trump and Stone, political soulmates, are both off the hook for any criminal cover-up. Stone stonewalled to protect Trump, and Trump has protected Stone from prison. They both have perverted the criminal justice system. Through his years as president, Trump has abused his pardon and commutation power to rescue political allies and dodgy characters. He has also relentlessly waged war on the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation, seeking revenge on anyone who was part of it and championing subjects of that probe who have been found guilty of crimes, most notably his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. (Trump is desperately trying to wipe clean the very real Russian taint on his electoral victory.) But Trump’s commutation of Stone’s sentence is in a category of its own. With this wave of the wand, Trump not only frees a scoundrel; he rewards a co-conspirator and safeguards his own deception. 

California Will Release Up to 8,000 Prisoners by Summer’s End

Mother Jones Magazine -

Up to 8,000 incarcerated people across California will be released by the end of August in response to the COVID-19 crisis in the state’s prison system, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said on Friday.

The newest release plan—announced as corrections officials struggle to cope with an explosive and deadly outbreak at San Quentin State Prison in the San Francisco Bay Area—targets some of the most vulnerable prisoners and institutions in the state’s overcrowded, 112,500-person prison system. Officials said Friday they will now consider releasing people with less than 365 days left on their sentences from San Quentin and seven other prisons with high numbers of sick, older, or medically vulnerable inmates. People from across the prison system who are at heightened medical risk for COVID-19 due to age or an underlying medical condition will also be eligible for release, so long as they are considered a “low risk” for violence and are not serving life-without-parole or death sentences. And CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz announced on Thursday that nearly all prisoners’ sentences will be reduced by 12 weeks. All prisoners will be tested for COVID-19 within seven days of release, according to CDCR.

“These steps represent great progress,” says Stefano Bertozzi, the former dean of the University of California, Berkeley’s public health school, who last month coauthored a memo raising alarms about the outbreak at San Quentin and calling for large-scale releases. “The critical issue now is how quickly it can be implemented.”

In prisons, health care is limited, sanitation is poor, and social distancing is often impossible. A paper released Wednesday in JAMA found that the COVID-19 case rate for prisoners was 5.5 times higher than in the general population; prisoners who got sick were three times more likely to die.

In April, California released about 3,500 people who had less than 60 days as long as they were serving time for nonviolent offenses and were not considered a “high risk” to the community. State corrections officials had announced in June that early releases would be extended to another 3,500 prisoners with 180 days left on their sentences starting this month. But those eligible prisoners tend to “skew young and are not necessarily the inmates with the lowest risk of violence upon release,” Bertozzi says.

“In a place like San Quentin, the platform is already burning,” Bertozzi says. In the other seven targeted prisons—including the California Health Care Facility, California Medical Facility, and Central California Women’s Facility, which house the state’s oldest and sickest prisoners—the situation could be “out-of-control tomorrow,” Bertozzi says. “CDCR needs to prioritize those releases and to move as quickly as possible.”

While James King, an anti-incarceration activist with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, called the plan a “step in the right direction,” he added that further releases would be necessary to allow for physical distancing inside prisons.

That includes at San Quentin. On Monday, Gov. Newsom said state officials plan to reduce the population to 3,082 people, or exactly 100 percent of its capacity (the prison has been operating with hundreds of excess prisoners for years). But that might not be enough. Last month, Bertozzi and other public health experts called for San Quentin’s population to be cut by 50 percent. “I strongly believe that 100 percent capacity is far too condensed and confined to keep people safe,” says King, who was released from San Quentin in December. “It needs to be half of that.”

It’s still unclear how many prisoners will qualify as both “high risk” for COVID-19 and eligible for release. Newsom has previously said that 42 percent of California prisoners are at heightened medical risk for the coronavirus, or nearly 50,000 people. CDCR says its officials will now consider people over the age of 65 who have chronic conditions, and those with respiratory illnesses like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which may not capture the full swath of people vulnerable to the coronavirus, according to Bartozzi. “It’s just so discretionary,” Alison Hardy, an attorney for the Prison Law Office, says.

Additionally, all prisoners will receive a 12-week credit on their sentences “to recognize the immense burden incarcerated people have shouldered through these unprecedented times” CDCR said in its press release. Sick or vulnerable prisoners have been isolated, sometimes in solitary confinement, while whole prisons have been locked down, with programs and visitation canceled. “While this will in no way make up for the multitude of changes and impacts to your lives this pandemic has necessitated, I hope it will play a part in recognizing your sacrifice and the role you continue to play in keeping the institutions safe and peaceful, which enables staff to focus on providing care to those who are ill,” Diaz wrote in a letter to incarcerated people on Thursday.

On Monday, state officials are expected to brief a federal judge on how much space is available for quarantines and COVID-19 treatment in each state prison, according to Hardy; until then, she says, it’s difficult to tell just how much of an impact the 8,000 expected releases by August will make. “Definitely, we’re moving in the right direction,” Hardy says. “If they’re estimating 8,000 people, I hope that that’s enough to respond to emergencies like San Quentin.”

‘Hate Speech and Disinformation Flow on Facebook’ - CounterSpin interview with Jessica González on Facebook's promotion of hate

Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting -

Janine Jackson interviewed Free Press’s Jessica González about Facebook promoting hate for the July 3, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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MP3 Link

Washington Post (6/28/20)

Janine Jackson: Civil rights and social justice groups have been grappling for years with ways to address hateful speech, harassment and disinformation on Facebook. The issue is on the front burner again, as major companies like Unilever and Starbucks are pausing their ads—the platform’s source of revenue—as part of a coordinated effort to get Facebook to change policies that allow politicians and others to make false and incendiary claims.

A Facebook security engineer quit in disgust when the platform refused to take down a post from Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro that said, “Indians are undoubtedly changing. They are increasingly becoming human beings just like us.” That would seem to be a clear violation of internal guidelines against “dehumanizing speech,” but as revealed in a recent Washington Post exposé, the engineer was told that it didn’t qualify as racism, and “may have even been a positive reference to integration.”

That sort of casuistry has marked Facebook’s actions, and activists have heard enough. The group Free Press has been one of those working for change; we’re joined now by Free Press co-CEO Jessica González. She joins us by phone from Los Angeles. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Jessica González.

Jessica González: Hi, Janine. Thanks for having me.

Stop Hate for Profit

JJ: It’s worth stating at the outset that Free Press, like FAIR, opposes censorship, believes in the free flow of ideas and in debate. That doesn’t require acceptance of the promotion of dangerous medical misinformation, Holocaust denial or instigations to violence against people protesting police brutality. We have to grapple with the tremendous influence of social media somehow. So that said, tell us about the Stop Hate for Profit campaign, which companies from Adidas to Williams-Sonoma are taking part in. What are the problems that the campaign is looking to address?

JG: You’re right, Janine; Free Press stands for a free press. And we imagine a free press that frees people from oppression. We imagine a free press that holds the powerful accountable. So unlike calls for government to censor speech, the Stop Hate for Profit campaign is seeking for advertisers to vote with their feet. It’s seeking to hold up the really vast amount of hate, bigotry and disinformation that is happening on Facebook’s platform.

Facebook has known about this problem. Our organizations have been in dialogue with Facebook for some time. We’ve been calling on them to institute a comprehensive change, to keep people safe on the platform, because we understand that when hate speech and disinformation flow on Facebook, that it puts people’s lives at risk in real life, and that it also makes it harder for people from historically oppressed groups to speak out, when we speak out and face an onslaught of hate and harassment.

So what the campaign is calling for is for all major advertisers on a global scale to drop their advertising on Facebook for the month of July. And we’re now up to over 700 advertisers that have agreed to drop from Facebook, including Honda, Ford, Unilever, Coke and other major brands that have essentially called on Facebook to meet our requests. And the interesting thing here is that the companies came along really easily, because it’s not good for their brands to be associated with the types of hate and disinformation that are running rampant on the platform.

JJ: It isn’t that Facebook just allows extremist or toxic content. There’s something, isn’t there, in the business model that encourages polarization?

JG: You’re absolutely right. Ninety-nine percent of Facebook‘s business model is advertising. And we are the product on Facebook: Facebook is selling access to us, consumers, individuals that use the platform. That’s what they’re selling to their advertisers.

So how do they make the most money? By keeping us, their product, on the platform as much as possible. And we know that hate, harassment and wild disinformation are the types of content that garner high attention and high engagement, and keep us on the platform, even when we don’t agree with those things and we’re, in fact, fighting back against hate and disinformation, it’s still generating time on the platform, engagement on the platform, and that is how they make their money.

So, yes, this is built right into their business model. And until now, nobody’s really been talking about that. Or we’ve been talking about it, but it hasn’t received the widespread attention that it’s receiving in this moment.

Wall Street Journal (5/26/00)

JJ: The Wall Street Journal, some may listeners may know, reported an internal Facebook report that executives got in 2018, that found that the company was well aware that its recommendation engine stoked divisiveness and polarization. But they ignored those findings, because they thought any changes would disproportionately affect conservatives, which is just, I think, mind blowing. So this is not a problem that they don’t know about. And the Journal also cites a separate report in 2016, that said that 64% of people who joined an extremist group on Facebook only did so because the company’s algorithm recommended it to them. So this is, as you’re saying, it’s not passive.

JG: Right. It’s absolutely not. This is intentional. They’ve known these things. This reminds me of how the tobacco industry hid information about the damaging health effects of cigarettes, back in the day. This is Facebook hiding information about the toxic effects of their own platform. And it’s really shameful, frankly, that it’s taken this much to get the attention on to what Facebook has been up to.

JJ: It’s not passive, but it’s also not equal opportunity. It tends to go in one direction, right?

JG: No, and this whole conservative bias red herring that gets thrown out there as a reason for not to do anything ought to be really offensive to conservatives. Last time I checked, they haven’t said that conservatism and antiracism are opposites. I think this is a nonpartisan issue, or at least it should be. We all have an interest, regardless of political party, race, religion and whatnot, to end racism in our society, and to use this red herring as a reason not to is really immoral.

Forbes (7/2/20)

JJ: It seems relevant that a group of Black workers at Facebook just filed a class action with the EEOC, alleging that Facebook discriminates against Black workers and applicants in hiring, evaluations, promotions and pay. Black people are just 3.8% of Facebook‘s workforce; 1.5% of tech workers, and that hasn’t increased, even as the company’s gone from 9,000 workers to nearly 45,000. One wonders how that company culture has bearing on their decision-making about when is something racist.

JG: Oh, absolutely. And I’m not surprised at all that workers are facing discrimination inside of Facebook, because the product itself is discriminatory. There’s discriminatory algorithms at play, and there’s a business model that is essentially hate profiteering. So this isn’t much different than things I’ve thought about in the past with hate radio, for instance, some of these really hateful pundits that are often on iHeartRadio, that you hear a lot of complaints about hate and harassment within. This is a pervasive cultural issue at companies that trade in hate.

JJ: This June 28 Washington Post piece charts how Facebook shifted its policies to accommodate Trump. The engineer who quit in disgust, David Thiel, is quoted saying, “The value of being in favor with people in power outweighs almost every other concern for Facebook.” For Trump, that’s meant that everything he says is newsworthy just because he said it, no matter how false or racist or inflammatory, and that carveout for politicians is galling to people, but it’s not, of course, the only problem. But that does seem to be a serious thing, to simply say that because someone’s a politician, they can say whatever they want.

JG: Right. This really speaks to the question of, “What are we talking about when we talk about a free press?” When I think of a free press, I think of the Fourth Estate, one that holds the powerful accountable. And he’s done just the opposite. There’s a set of content moderation rules that users have to follow, that the president doesn’t, [or] other powerful leaders. That’s an incredibly big problem. The free press is supposed to hold power accountable; it’s not supposed to give them a free ride.

And, frankly, it shows an appalling lack of awareness about the moment we’re in, the cultural moment we’re in, where we are reckoning with racism across the government, in our society, in our businesses, and in our own organizations and minds. All of us need to be thinking about anti-blackness in particular. And it shows that he’s really not thinking about that, or if he is, he’s made a calculated decision to put profit over morals.

JJ: Let’s talk about some of the recommendations or next steps that the campaign has put forward. What would you like to see happen? What are some of the elements?

JG: We have a number of recommendations that are on our website, StopHateForProfit.org, but I’ll highlight a few of them. Facebook needs a permanent civil rights infrastructure and accountability system inside the company. They need to comply with regular third-party audits that track how they are doing in complying with the civil rights infrastructure that needs to be built, and they need to overhaul their content moderation system.

The Change the Terms Coalition, which is a coalition of over 55 civil rights and racial justice organizations, has put forth a comprehensive set of model policies aimed at Facebook and other social media companies. And we’re asking them to ban hateful activities, to ban white supremacists, and to significantly invest in enforcement, in transparency about their content moderation process, in rights of appeal, so that people of color and religious minorities and others who are protesting racism and hate are not the ones that get taken down, but, in fact, it’s actually the hate and proliferation of racism and recruitment into white supremacist groups that gets taken down. We’re calling for Facebook to ban all state actor bot and troll campaigns that trade in hateful activities.

And so we have a larger set of policy recommendations on StopHateForProfit.org, including a call for Facebook to develop a hotline, so that its users who are experiencing hate and harassment have somewhere to call, to take care of when they’re experiencing hate, much like you might call your internet service provider or your water company if you are having a problem there.

So those are some of the policy changes that we’re calling for from Facebook.

JJ: At the end of this Washington Post piece, we see Mark Zuckerberg saying Facebook is going to start labeling problematic newsworthy content. I read somewhere they’re talking about commissioning research on polarization. Does this look like genuine engagement with the problems that you’re talking about to you? And I wonder,  you’ve been working with them for so long, do you think that they have evolved? Or has your way of engaging with them changed over time? And how real, how seriously do you think they’re taking this right now?

JG: I think this is more chipping away at the edges and failing to do comprehensive reform. So if they think they’re done, they’re sorely mistaken. And while I think it’s a step in the right direction, we’re super tired of steps in the right direction. I don’t know whether or not this is sincere; I think not. I think it’s a response to all the bad PR that they’re experiencing and all the dissent they’re feeling, even inside the company. And while there are some things that I’m interested in tracking–for instance, they’ve claimed that they are going to ban hateful activities aimed at people based on immigration status. They’ve claimed they’re not going to allow hate in ads, they claim they’re going to apply the rules towards politicians. I frankly don’t believe them, because they’ve made a lot of promises over the years and failed to enforce them.

JJ: What, finally, comes next? What if they do the same kind of hand-waving that they’ve done in the past and nothing really changes? Where do we go from there?

Jessica Gonzalez: “There’s a real question over whether Facebook is just too damn powerful, and whether we need further regulatory and legislative interventions to hold this company accountable to the people.”

JG: That’s a really good question. Right now, we are continuing to organize to move this campaign to the global level. So we will continue to levy advertiser pressure. And, listen, there’s a real question over whether Facebook is just too damn powerful, and whether we need further regulatory and legislative interventions to hold this company accountable to the people. And those are not off the table as far as Free Press is concerned. We’ve already called, at Free Press, for an ad tax on Facebook, taxing 2% of their profit, and reinvesting that money back into quality local and Independent news production, to support reporters who are going to have to do the hard work of putting Facebook‘s hate in context, and correcting the record on the disinformation that runs rampant on their sites.

We’ve also called for robust reform in the privacy realm, and we have a piece of model legislation that we are recommending the US Congress adopt, to make sure that Facebook is not violating our privacy rights, our civil rights, and that the power about the kind and the ways that Facebook collects data about us, and then monetizes our data, is in the control of us, the people, and that we have more transparency about what they’re collecting, and that we have a private right of action when Facebook is violating our rights.

So I think, at a minimum, those need to be seriously considered now, and I think there’s probably further interventions that need to happen in Congress. If Facebook refuses to comply with these demands, and perhaps even if they do comply, this really shines a light on just how powerful they are.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Jessica González, co-CEO of the group Free Press. They’re online at FreePress.net, and you can learn more about this campaign at StopHateForProfit.org. Jessica González, thank you so much for joining us today on CounterSpin.

JG: Thank you for having me, Janine.

 

For Decades, the Unsolved Mysteries Theme Has Haunted My Dreams

Mother Jones Magazine -

For more than two decades, the theme to Unsolved Mysteries—the cult classic ’90s true crime/paranormal investigation TV show that was equal parts terrifying and mind-numbingly sillyhas haunted my dreams: a chilling, synth-laden earworm that seeped into my subconscious.

I thought I could escape, or expel, the parasite. But because no intellectual property is truly dead until it is also a Netflix show, Unsolved Mysteries is back. And so is the song.

Unsolved Mysteries paved the way for the gorge of true crime shows and podcasts that have dominated pop culture in recent years. Most episodes focused on a mysterious murder or a bizarre disappearance that often didn’t make national newspaper headlines or evening news programs. Each episode blended cheesy reenactments with interviews with the real-life people involved in each case, ruminating on theories as to what might have happened. Sometimes, the show dipped into the paranormal, with stories of UFO abductees and unexplained sightings of ghastly specters. And at the end of each episode, host Robert Stack, often sporting his trademark trench coat that made him look like a character ripped straight from the pages of a Raymond Chandler novel, would address the camera and ask viewers to contact the show if they had any information to help solve one of the featured mysteries. 

None of this might seem that novel now, considering how overcrowded the true crime genre is these days, but it was special then. Still, there’s one thing that both the original Unsolved Mysteries, and now its revival, have that no show in the genre does: A fucking terrifying theme song.

When I turned on the reboot, I could remember, like Proust with his madeleines, watching as a kid, the hairs on the back of my neck raised. “We used to get letters all the time from parents saying, ‘Could you please change the theme music? Our children are terrified of it,’” Gary Malkin, who co-wrote the show’s signature theme song, recently told the Los Angeles Times

I disagree. I am scared. But, also, I am a fan. Do not change the song. That theme song, and the rest of the show’s eerie soundtrack, isn’t just terrifying, it’s fantastic.

As an avowed horror fan, I’ve come to develop an affinity for the soundtracks that score some of my favorite spooky films and shows: the minimalist piano jingle of John Carpenter’s Halloween; the signature ki ki ki ma ma ma of Friday the 13th; the mysterious whistling of the X-Files. Unsolved Mysteries‘ theme is as iconic in the horror soundtrack world as all of these. Carpenter said the score’s drone “sets up a kind of inevitability.” The feeling? “Dread,” he said.

Like many fans of the original series, I was skeptical when I heard that Netflix would be reviving it. For starters, Stack, the original host, had died in 2003 and the attempts to replace him in later seasons didn’t work out so well. Who could possibly fill that trench coat-sized hole?  As it turns out, no one could; the new reboot doesn’t have a host.

But most importantly, if the new Unsolved Mysteries didn’t have the same theme song, it simply wouldn’t be Unsolved Mysteries. Thankfully, the show’s producers didn’t just keep it intact, but offered an update score that’s somehow creepier than the original. 

 

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A post shared by Unsolved Mysteries (@officialunsolvedmysteries) on Jul 1, 2020 at 8:00am PDT

It took me years to get the original theme out of my head when I got even mildly scared. Now, I have to start all over again.

Corporate Media Team With Trump to Disparage Public Health Experts

Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting -

 

To the New York Times‘ Michael Powell (7/6/20), what’s interesting about public health experts’ recommendations about protests and Covid is not whether they were accurate, but what he saw as the experts’ “conflicted feelings.”

Public health experts, unaccustomed to the spotlight, have really taken a beating lately. As they tirelessly work to unravel the mysteries of the Covid pandemic (and are increasingly burning out), the president of our country has constantly attacked and undermined them—and, lately, so have corporate media.

In a July 6 report, the New York Times seemed bizarrely eager to cast doubt on those experts’ intentions. “Are Protests Dangerous? What Experts Say May Depend on Who’s Protesting What,” read the headline over Michael Powell‘s report. The subhead continued the framing of the experts as hypocrites:

Public health experts decried the anti-lockdown protests as dangerous gatherings in a pandemic. Health experts seem less comfortable doing so now that the marches are against racism.

Many readers wouldn’t be terribly surprised at the story, since it’s a curiously late addition to the small flurry of coverage around a letter circulated more than a month ago, signed by more than 1,200 public health experts, that supported the wave of anti-racist protests that erupted around the country after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The letter—which the Times notably did not link to, though it did link to two negative media responses to it—began by recognizing that many public health experts had condemned the white armed protesters who took over the Michigan State Capitol building, who were “protesting stay-home orders and calls for widespread public masking to prevent the spread of Covid-19.”

After explaining that “white supremacy is a public health issue that predates and contributes to Covid-19,” they wrote that while they support staying at home, social distancing and public masking, they

do not condemn [anti-racism] gatherings as risky for Covid-19 transmission. We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States.

The letter carefully distinguished this from the protests against stay-at-home orders, which “not only oppose public health interventions, but are also rooted in white nationalism and run contrary to respect for Black lives.” It continued by offering guidance for protesters and allies to minimize transmission risk at protests, like wearing masks, maintaining distance where possible, staying home when sick and providing hand sanitizer to protesters.

It seems pretty clear: Black people and other people of color are disproportionately hospitalized and dying of the disease, not as a result of some biological difference but because of the ways that systemic racism has put them at greater risk. Therefore, racism is a vital public health issue—both in general, as people of color suffer worse overall health outcomes than white people, and specifically concerning Covid-19.

So it’s clearly not a question of “who” is protesting, as the Times‘ headline suggests. It does matter very much “what” is being protested. In the case of the anti-lockdown protesters, the entire goal was to make government officials flout public health experts’ recommendations for infection control. Obviously, those actions couldn’t be supported from a public health perspective—not to mention that, given their agenda, most protesters were not wearing masks or keeping distance.

It’s worth noting, too, that experts’ understanding of the novel coronavirus’ transmission has played a role in shifting recommendations. Early on, less was understood about transmission, which is why full lockdowns were encouraged: If people aren’t near each other, they can’t pass the virus to each other, whatever its preferred mode of transmission.

As more research has emerged showing that outdoor activities are far less dangerous, and that masks seem to make a big difference in preventing transmission, experts can make finer-grained recommendations about which activities are higher and lower risk. Since anti-racism protesters were largely compliant with mask wearing, moving around rather than staying in one place, and in many cases attempting to keep distance from others, many experts judged that their outdoor activities were relatively low risk, particularly when weighed against the potential benefits from any outcomes that worked to dismantle systemic racism.

(Note that public health experts are not a monolith—they are individuals with individual perspectives and judgments—and not infallible. The public health experts at the WHO, in the most obvious example of both of these points, clung to their recommendation against universal mask wearing until well after the pandemic was underway—CNN, 3/30/20—and likewise refused to acknowledge mounting evidence pointing to airborne transmission until just this week, under pressure from hundreds of other health experts around the world—Reuters, 7/7/20.)

But like many who came before him (FAIR.org, 6/10/20), the Times‘ Powell was eager to skim over all these nuances, erasing the public health distinctions between the two kinds of protests. He played up the political distinctions to paint epidemiologists and other health experts as hypocritical, feeding the media narrative that they were “politicizing science.”

At the time of the letter, other outlets similarly cried foul. “Suddenly, Public Health Officials Say Social Justice Matters More Than Social Distance,” huffed Politico (6/4/20). “The Protesters Deserve the Truth About the Coronavirus; Public Health Experts Should Strive to Provide a Neutral Accounting of Risk,” scolded the Atlantic (6/4/20). The right wing, which has been attacking public health experts since the beginning of the pandemic, went predictably nuts; Jonah Goldberg (Dispatch, 6/5/20) went so far as to accuse epidemiologists of “treason.”

Some on the left, too, offered up false arguments to condemn the public health experts who supported the anti-racist protests, arguing that if they counseled everyone to stay at home in the face of the pandemic, at extreme economic and psychological cost, they certainly couldn’t say it’s okay for some to now go out and protest. In a widely-cited essay in the Guardian (6/8/20), Thomas Chatterton Williams (who later spearheaded a letter at Harper’s decrying so-called cancel culture and the “vogue for public shaming” on the left) leaned on ideas of political correctness gone amok to argue that “two weeks ago we shamed people for being in the street; today we shame them for not being in the street.” Public health experts, he wrote, are “politicizing science” and “have hemorrhaged credibility and authority.”

According to the Intercept‘s Glenn Greenwald (6/11/20), “People who left their homes for any reason other than officially approved ‘essential’ functions were—no matter how careful they were—publicly shamed if not fined and arrested.”

Glenn Greenwald in the Intercept (6/11/20) was similarly outraged, calling the letter’s distinction between the two kinds of protests

plainly political judgments, not scientific ones, and the shoddy, glaring conflation of them is nothing less than a manipulation, an abuse, of public health credentials. For scientists to purport to dictate which citizens can and cannot safely choose to leave their house — based not on health judgments but on their political ideology — is repressive, and certain to erode the credibility of their profession. Yet this is exactly what they are doing: explicitly and shamelessly.

Again, it’s not about “which citizens” can leave their house, it’s about the purpose of the leaving: Why would public health experts not condemn efforts to pressure governments to rescind public health measures? And it expressly is about health judgments—both about the relatively low risks of sporadic, masked outdoor protests versus the high risks of people going about their normal business, and about the health judgment that protests against racism could improve health outcomes for people of color, during and beyond Covid-19.

Moreover, Greenwald, like Williams, the Atlantic‘s Conor Friesendorf and others, seems convinced that public health ought to be somehow objective, scientific and neutral, not political. But public health can’t avoid being political. Managing the health of an entire population is done through policy decisions, many of which people will disagree about. Gun control, smoking, obesity—so many of our major public health issues are highly politicized. If we want public health experts to tell us how to maximize our health, we can’t at the same time insist that they only tell us about certain narrow kinds of health outcomes, or health outcomes for certain kinds of people.

Williams and Greenwald appeared less concerned about hypocrisy concerning different kinds of protests and mostly upset about—as Greenwald put it—the apparently sudden deviation from the previous “dictate” from public health experts “that we could not go outside for any reason.” Greenwald wrote:

One of two things is true; either 1) these protests will lead to a significant spike in coronavirus infections and deaths, in which case public health experts should reconcile that outcome with how they could have encouraged and endorsed them; or 2) it will not lead to such a spike, in which case it will appear that the months of extreme, draconian lockdowns—which caused great suffering and deprivation around the world—were excessive, misguided and unwarranted.

First of all, stay-at-home orders were not intended to keep people locked up inside; since the beginning of the pandemic, health experts have been recommending that people continue to get outdoor exercise while maintaining social distance (NPR, 4/1/20).

Perhaps more importantly, the economic hardship caused by lockdowns does not happen in an apolitical bubble; as public health experts Julia Marcus and Gregg Gonsalves pointed out in the Atlantic (6/11/20), they and many other such experts have long been pushing for massive economic assistance to help forestall such fallout, as has been done quite successfully in many other countries. In other words, lockdowns do not have to lead to the kind of suffering and deprivation being experienced right now in this country, and no public health expert is advocating that.

There’s now been more than enough time to judge the impact of the protests on infections—and, despite nefarious police tactics that raised risks of transmission (like kettling, using tear gas, and not letting arrested protesters wear masks while they were held for long periods in police custody), there is no evidence that the protests spurred outbreaks; no increases in infection rates in places that saw some of the biggest protests, like Minneapolis, New York City and Washington, DC, and in fact an increase in social distancing in places where protests took place, which presumably helped drive down transmission (NEBR, 6/20). On the other hand, in several US states that have relaxed their “draconian” lockdowns in a manner at odds with public health experts’ recommendations, infections are beginning to escalate exponentially.

So, in fact, neither of Greenwald’s two things are true: Public health experts did not recklessly abet a spike in protest-related infections, nor have their recommendations for lockdowns in the face of increasing transmission been proven unfounded.

Which brings us back to the Times article, which came a full month after the letter was first published, and well after the outcome was clear. Perhaps to justify the existence of his article, Powell left open a wide berth for alternate interpretations of the data: “There is as of yet no firm evidence that protests against police violence led to noticeable spikes in infection rates.” But of course, it’s not just no “firm” evidence—Powell offered no evidence, period. So why run this story, framed in this way, now? With nothing new to contribute, the article serves only to further erode trust in the very people we have to rely on to get us out of the disaster we’re currently in.

 

The Deaths Trump Wants You to See and the Deaths He Wants You to Ignore

Mother Jones Magazine -

Two stories went viral this week. One was how the New York Times was forced to sue the Centers for Disease Control in order to get data on how the number of coronavirus cases broke down by race. The story provided the facts behind what we already know: COVID-19 is disproportionately infecting and killing people of color across the United States. The other was a Washington Post story about President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign’s plans for finessing the catastrophic mounting death toll from the pandemic. They are apparently counting on the voters experiencing a kind of psychic numbing. They hope Americans will just shrug their shoulders as the mostly Black, brown, old, and poor bodies pile up around them.

But pay attention, because there are deaths they want you to ignore and deaths they want to make a public spectacle. Next week, the Trump administration intends to open up the federal execution chamber for business after it has been dormant for 17 years. As the government hopes you won’t really notice the deaths that reveal their gross incompetence, they’re seeking to highlight the ones they believe demonstrate what tough leaders they are. “The four murderers whose executions are scheduled today have received full and fair proceedings under our Constitution and laws.” Barr said last month. “We owe it to the victims of these horrific crimes, and to the families left behind, to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”

But what do we owe to the victims of the president’s mishandling of the coronavirus response?

The President has been public about his affection for the death penalty since 1989, when he took out full page ads calling for execution of the five Black and Latino teenagers who were falsely accused of rape in New York’s Central Park. When he became president, even as executions at the state level declined and public support for it has waned—polling data shows 56 percent of Americans favor the death penalty, down from 80 percent in 1994—Trump pondered imposing the death penalty for drug dealers. For a year, Attorney General William Barr has been trying to revive the death penalty at the highest levels of government, and, after a long legal battle, the pathway was cleared late last month by the US Supreme Court’s refusal to take up the case of several of the federal inmates scheduled to be executed this summer.

Next week, Daniel Lee, Wesley Purkey will be put to death on July 15, and Dustin Honken on July 17. Keith Nelson will be executed next month. Only three people have been executed by the federal government since its reinstatement in 1988. If Trump is successful, his administration will double that number in just one summer.

“Asking hundreds of people from around the country to go to Indiana right now to attend this execution is like asking them to run into a burning building.”

Almost nobody is asking for this. Faith-based groups, mental health experts, criminal justice reform activists, and the family members of the victims are demanding the US government not carry out these executions. Some are citing the pandemic, others their moral opposition to capital punishment. Earlene Peterson, the mother of one of Lee’s victims has also asked Trump, whom she supported in 2016, to halt the execution saying it would not bring her justice. Executions are also exceedingly difficult to socially distance, usually involving prison staff, witnesses, lawyers, even next of kin.  

Since March, the only states that have carried out an execution are Missouri and Texas, despite the public health concerns. For some inmates, simply being in prison these days can be tantamount to a death sentence. The coronavirus risk in prisons is heightened for a number of reasons. Crowded conditions make it hard to socially distance, there’s often a lack of hand soap, and hand sanitizer can be considered as contraband. Plus, incarcerated people tend to have more chronic illnesses and health concerns than the general population. And Black and brown people are more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts.

Across the country, cases of the virus have dramatically increased, especially in states like Florida, Texas, and Arizona, which reopened early. In Indiana, which is where the federal execution chamber is located, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb halted plants to fully reopen the state after an increase in hospitalizations. “Asking hundreds of people from around the country to go to Indiana right now to attend this execution is like asking them to run into a burning building,” Cassandra Stubbs, director of the Capital Punishment Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. “We haven’t had a federal execution in 17 years; there is absolutely no reason for the government to rush forward with such a reckless and dangerous plan.” 

But there may be a reason hiding in plain site: The Trump campaign’s strategy for a November victory that appears to be predicated on the assumption we will collectively ignore the deaths of the most vulnerable among us actually isn’t that insidious. After all,  it’s what we’ve always done. All of the coronavirus hot spots—nursing homes, communities of color, and prisons in particular—were already places where easy-to-ignore deaths have taken place even when there was not a global pandemic. The racial disparities in health outcomes that were reasons for the mortality of people of color didn’t suddenly happen because of this virus. When the Trump campaign asks you to look away, what they’re really saying is that it is unwilling and incapable of navigating the country to a new normal. Instead, they’d rather just go back to the status quo of not caring at all.

Since George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis man, was killed by a white police officer over Memorial Day weekend, massive protests demanding a myriad of changes, including an overhaul of the criminal justice system, have swept the country. The Trump administration has chosen to dole out the harshest punishment the system has to offer, while people are in the streets decrying the very system that has perpetuated these injustices. The signal this sends—not a dog whistle but a bullhorn—is bad enough. Sending it while also hoping more than 130,000 other deaths will go unnoticed is craven.

Supreme Court Correctly Rules that Trump is Not Above the Law

ACLU News -

Donald Trump, who often behaves as though he has never read the Constitution, received an important civics lesson from the Supreme Court yesterday when it ruled in two cases involving his personal financial records, including tax returns that he has long sought to conceal, that there is an important difference between being president and king. As the Supreme Court emphatically – and on this point, unanimously – reminded us all, the president may occupy the highest office in the land, but he is not above the law.
 
Chief Justice Roberts wrote the Court’s opinion in both cases. The first case, Trump v. Vance, arose when a New York State grand jury investigating possible financial crimes issued a subpoena to the President’s long-time accountants, requiring production of the President’s own tax returns as well as tax returns filed on behalf of various of his business entities. Grand jury proceedings are secret, and the Manhattan District Attorney has refused to say whether the President himself is a target of the investigation. He has said, however, that the grand jury is looking into the conduct of “multiple individuals.”
 
The second case, Trump v. Mazars, began when three congressional committees issued subpoenas seeking tax and other financial records from two banks with which Trump has done business in addition to his accounting firm. The congressional subpoenas were issued as part of ongoing inquiries into foreign interference with the 2016 presidential election and the possible need to strengthen federal laws addressing money laundering, terrorism, and conflicts of interest.
 
Donald Trump’s response was to file federal lawsuits in both New York and D.C. insisting that each of the subpoenas was invalid and therefore none of them could be enforced. He lost that argument in the lower courts and he has now lost it in the Supreme Court. The two cases nonetheless presented different claims and the Supreme Court approached them differently. The ACLU filed amicus briefs in both cases.
 
Trump’s position in the grand jury case was that he is absolutely immune from state judicial process (meaning a subpoena) while in office even if, as here, the subpoena solely concerns his conduct as a private individual unrelated to the performance of any presidential duties and even if, as here, the subpoenaed documents are relevant to the grand jury’s investigation of other individuals and organizations.
 
No one on the Supreme Court accepted that position, and with good reason. Since the early days of the Republic, as Chief Justice Roberts put it, presidents have been required to produce evidence in federal criminal proceedings. It was true for Thomas Jefferson when Aaron Burr was on trial for treason. It was true for Richard Nixon when a grand jury sought the Watergate tapes. And it was true for Bill Clinton during the Whitewater investigation. Donald Trump’s tweeted complaint following the Supreme Court’s decisions that other presidents in similar situations have received judicial deference, “BUT NOT ME,” is not only self-pitying, but wrong.
 
Indeed, as the Supreme Court recognized, Trump’s claim to absolute immunity was considerably weaker than in the Watergate case, where President Nixon had claimed executive privilege over conversations that took place in the Oval Office. Trump did not and could not claim executive privilege over his private business affairs. For that reason, the Supreme Court also rejected Trump’s plea to apply the same heightened standard of need that it had applied to the Watergate subpoena. But, like every other recipient of a grand jury subpoena, Trump remains free to argue that the subpoena is unduly burdensome or was issued in bad faith.
 
The congressional subpoena case involved a different set of concerns and a different balancing of interests by the Supreme Court. In contrast to a 200-year history of presidential compliance with criminal subpoenas, Chief Justice Roberts began his opinion in Mazars by pointing out that the Court had never previously addressed a congressional subpoena for information concerning the president. Rather, he noted, such disputes have historically been resolved by negotiation between the political branches.
 
Writing on a clean slate, the Chief Justice articulated two important principles at the outset. First, Congress’s power to obtain information through subpoena is a necessary and important adjunct to its power to legislate and conduct oversight of the executive branch. Second, the power to investigate is subject to limits to prevent a recurrence of the abuses that occurred most notably during the McCarthy era. The most important of those limits is the requirement that a congressional subpoena be pertinent to a valid legislative purpose.
 
Citing Watergate again, Trump argued that something more should be required when the president is involved. Again, the Court disagreed, reiterating the distinction between an inquiry into the president’s conduct in office and his conduct as a private citizen. The standard proposed by the President, the Court noted, “would risk seriously impeding Congress in carrying out its responsibilities.”
 
The ACLU accordingly argued in its amicus brief that the congressional subpoenas were proper and should be upheld. The Supreme Court took a different course, sending the case back to the lower courts for a closer look at whether the information Congress was seeking could be obtained elsewhere and whether the subpoenas could be narrowed.
 
As a practical matter, that means that Congress is unlikely to obtain any documents before the upcoming election unless the parties can settle the dispute, which would undoubtedly be the Court’s preferred resolution but seems even less likely given the current toxic political environment.
 
That outcome has led some to describe the congressional case as a political victory for Trump, even if his legal position did not prevail. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the significance of the fundamental principle that underlies both of yesterday’s decisions, or the fact that a Court that is so frequently fractured was unified in recognizing that Trump’s broad claim to presidential immunity is incompatible with our constitutional democracy and the system of checks and balances that was designed to preserve it.

Mexico State Oil Company Files $22 Billion Debt Swap amid IMF Threats and White House Visit

Mint Press News -

Mexico’s president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known colloquially as AMLO, arrived back in his nation’s capital yesterday aboard an American Airlines flight after his first state visit to the United States since taking office in a historic, landslide victory in 2018. The commercial flight included a stopover at Miami International Airport as coronavirus-induced protocols have resulted in the suspension of direct flights in and out of the North American country.

AMLO’s choice of traveling commercial instead of flying on the official presidential airplane is part of a carefully-crafted everyman image he has been cultivating for years since he left the ranks of the once immovable conservative ruling party, the PRI, and joined the left-leaning PRD in the late 1980s. In 2014, Obrador formed a new party called MORENA after having served as Mexico City’s mayor for four years and later losing his first bid to become president in 2006.

The Trump White House hosted AMLO on Wednesday, one day after Pemex – the embattled Mexican state-owned petroleum company – announced a $22.4 billion debt swap to mitigate its massive financial liabilities. The swap will be the largest of the recent refinancing operations carried out by the once state-owned company; and while the filing with the U.S. SEC did not specify when the bonds would be issued, the action was intended to alleviate pressure mounting on the oil giant, which Obrador had planned to use as a “pillar” in his strategy to turn the Mexican economy around. Falling oil prices, however, have severely hampered the execution of that idea.

In addition, the coronavirus-induced economic crisis is being evoked by entities like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to predict a veritable collapse of the Mexican economy. In their June World Economic Outlook Update titled “A Crisis Like No Other, An Uncertain Recovery,” the Atlanticist organization forecasts a devastating 10.5 percent contraction for Mexico this year, nearly four percent lower than its April forecast.

 

The IMF threatens Mexico

The IMF’s dire estimate comes on the heels of the official start of the USMCA, which went into effect on July 1 and comprised a significant portion of the state visit’s agenda. The revamped NATFA agreement has mostly modest improvements over its predecessor and has served mostly as a political tool by all three heads of state.

The one sector that did get a complete overhaul in the new trilateral agreement was the U.S. tech sector, which secured important concessions from both Canada and Mexico, such as the fact that they cannot be sued for “the content appearing on their platforms” or forced to store their data on in-country servers. Intellectual property protections heavily skewed in favor of American companies were also expanded.

Related to these provisions are ones surrounding biotechnology that could have critical implications for the agricultural sector provisions in the trade deal. The original NAFTA made Mexico a net corn importer through unfair rules allowing the U.S. to subsidize its own corn industry while prohibiting the same of the country that gave birth to corn, itself. New biotech rules are sure to exacerbate these problems for the Mexican agricultural sector and a multitude of groups have come out in opposition.

 

The USMCA’s “new normal”

In a letter signed by more than 80 agricultural associations in Mexico petitioned the government to prohibit the introduction of GMO seeds into the country. The coalition, which calls itself “Group in Defense of Agricultural Diversity and Mexican Food Against Genetically Modified Organisms” warns of the “grave danger” posed by the lack of defined rules against the introduction of GMOs throughout the national territory. In addition, the group condemns the provisions in the USMCA, which forces Mexican farmers to adhere to the UPOV 91 protocol that makes seed hoarding and trading illegal.

Casting a shadow over the implementation of the USMCA is compliance to the extraneous COVID-19 “new normal” policies, which are forcing a “rethinking about global supply chains” and are sure to affect exactly how the new trade deal is ultimately enforced.

AMLO’s trip to D.C. may have been a signal to the Atlanticist power bloc that he is ready to give in to their demands, recently outlined in an article authored by a CFR senior fellow, where the Mexican president is called on to “save his presidency” by embracing globalization lest the country slip into a more severe recession. Presciently, the author recommends that AMLO “welcome foreign money and expertise into the energy sector,” foreshadowing the debt swap announcement a day prior to Obrador’s official White House visit.

“Adherence to market-based rules” are also endorsed by the perennial Atlanticist mouthpiece as a way to carve a “path out of the permanent poverty of subsistence farming” by enabling the “specialization in more profitable fruits, vegetables, coffees and other products,” a strategy first implemented by NAFTA and which has resulted in the precise opposite effect.

Feature photo | President Donald Trump and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador wait to sign a joint declaration at the White House, July 8, 2020, in Washington. Evan Vucci | AP

Raul Diego is a MintPress News Staff Writer, independent photojournalist, researcher, writer and documentary filmmaker.

The post Mexico State Oil Company Files $22 Billion Debt Swap amid IMF Threats and White House Visit appeared first on MintPress News.

Africa to Become Testing Ground for “Trust Stamp” Vaccine Record and Payment System

Mint Press News -

A biometric digital identity platform that “evolves just as you evolve” is set to be introduced in “low-income, remote communities” in West Africa thanks to a public-private partnership between the Bill Gates-backed GAVI vaccine alliance, Mastercard and the AI-powered “identity authentication” company, Trust Stamp.

The program, which was first launched in late 2018, will see Trust Stamp’s digital identity platform integrated into the GAVI-Mastercard “Wellness Pass,” a digital vaccination record and identity system that is also linked to Mastercard’s click-to-play system that powered by its AI and machine learning technology called NuData. Mastercard, in addition to professing its commitment to promoting “centralized record keeping of childhood immunization” also describes itself as a leader toward a “World Beyond Cash,” and its partnership with GAVI marks a novel approach towards linking a biometric digital identity system, vaccination records, and a payment system into a single cohesive platform. The effort, since its launch nearly two years ago, has been funded via $3.8 million in GAVI donor funds in addition to a matched donation of the same amount by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In early June, GAVI reported that Mastercard’s Wellness Pass program would be adapted in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Around a month later, Mastercard announced that Trust Stamp’s biometric identity platform would be integrated into Wellness Pass as Trust Stamp’s system is capable of providing biometric identity in areas of the world lacking internet access or cellular connectivity and also does not require knowledge of an individual’s legal name or identity to function. The Wellness Program involving GAVI, Mastercard, and Trust Stamp will soon be launched in West Africa and will be coupled with a Covid-19 vaccination program once a vaccine becomes available.

The push to implement biometrics as part of national ID registration systems has been ongoing for many years on the continent and has become a highly politicized issue in several African countries. Opposition to similar projects in Africa often revolves around the costs surrounding them, such as the biometric voter management system that the Electoral Commission of Ghana has been trying to implement ahead of their 2020 general election in December. Bright Simons, honorary VP of the IMANI policy think tank, has questioned the “budgetary allocation” for the new system, claiming that the “unnecessary registration of 17 million people all over again” represents millions of dollars “being blown for reasons that nobody can explain in this country.”

 

Masking ulterior motives

Trust Stamp’s biometric identity system, largely funded by Mastercard’s massive investment in the company in February, utilizes a technology it calls Evergreen Hash that creates an AI-generated “3D mask” based on a single photo of a person’s face, palm or fingerprint. Once this “mask” is created, much of the original data is discarded and encryption keys are created in place of a person’s name or other more traditional identifiers.

“Only a small percentage of the data that originally existed is in the hash,” Trust Stamp CEO Gareth Genner has stated. “What you have is something safer for storing because it can’t be used to directly identify you. No one would recognize you in this huge jumble of numbers.” The result, according to Genner, is an “irreversible non-personally identifiable information” system that “protects privacy, reduces potential for misuse and allows effective inclusion when there is no other form of legal record.”

Genner also explained in a recent press release that the unique “hash” is capable of “evolving” as a new hash with updated health information is created every time a child or individual gets a vaccine. Trust Stamp’s AI algorithms can accurately determine if different hashes belong to the same individual, meaning that “the hash evolves over time just as you evolve,” said Genner.

It is unclear how much the Wellness Pass initiative is motivated by public health concerns as opposed to free market considerations. Indeed, the GAVI alliance, largely funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller Foundations, as well as allied governments and the vaccine industry, is principally concerned with improving “the health of markets for vaccines and other immunization products,” rather than the health of individuals, according to its own website. Similarly, Mastercard’s GAVI partnership is directly linked to its “World Beyond Cash” effort, which mainly bolsters its business model that has long depended on a reduction in the use of physical cash.

 

Dual use tyranny

Trust Stamp also shares this market-focused vision for its digital identity system as the company has stated that it is looking for new commercialization options for its Evergreen Hash technology, specifically with prison systems. Talks with private and public prison systems have revealed an interest in their utilization of Trust Stamp’s technology to provide identification for individuals on parole “without making them pay for pricey ankle bracelets that monitor their every move,” as Trust Stamp’s platform would ostensibly provide that same function but in a “touchless” and less expensive manner.

Trust Stamp’s interest in providing its technology to both COVID-19 response and to law enforcement is part of a growing trend where numerous companies providing digital solutions to  COVID-19 also offer the same solutions to prison systems and law enforcement for the purposes of surveillance and “predictive policing.”

For instance, contact tracing software originally introduced as part of the COVID-19 response has since been used by police departments across the U.S. to track protesters during the country’s recent bouts of protests and civil unrest. Similarly, a controversial Israeli tech firm currently being used in Rhode Island offers AI-powered predictive analytic to identify likely future COVID-19 hotspots and individuals likely to contract COVID-19 in the future, while also offering governments the ability to predict future locations of and participants in riots and civil unrest.

What is perhaps most alarming about this new “Wellness Pass” initiative, is that it links these “dual use” digital solutions to cashless payment solutions that could soon become mandated as anything over than touchless, cashless, methods of payment have been treated as potential modes for contagion by GAVI-aligned groups like the World Health Organization, among others, since the pandemic was first declared earlier this year.

Feature photo | A boy sells fish at his street stall in front of an informational mural warning people about the dangers of the new coronavirus and how to prevent transmission, with words in Swahili reading “We are the Cure” painted by youth artists from the Uweza Foundation, in Nairobi, Kenya, July 8, 2020. Brian Inganga | AP

Raul Diego is a MintPress News Staff Writer, independent photojournalist, researcher, writer and documentary filmmaker.

The post Africa to Become Testing Ground for “Trust Stamp” Vaccine Record and Payment System appeared first on MintPress News.

Latin America’s Neoliberal Leaders Are Making the Coronavirus Pandemic Far Worse

Mint Press News -

While other continents have largely dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic, much of Latin America is in meltdown, as cases soar, bodies pile up, and anger mounts. Its new wave of neoliberal leaders, mistrustful of collective action in any situation and extolling the virtues of individualism in a collective public health crisis, are making the problem far worse.

Despite having months to prepare for the worst, over 100,000 people have (officially) died in South America already, over two-thirds of them in Brazil. The country’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, who came to power in a highly dubious election in 2018 marked by the imprisonment of the runaway favorite Lula da Silva of the left-wing Workers’ Party, has constantly downplayed the threat, describing it as merely a “little flu” and decrying the decision by the governor of Sao Paulo to initiate a lockdown, calling it a “hysterical” overreaction. Even amidst a deadly wave of disease, he continued to hold public rallies, declaring that the coronavirus was nothing to worry about. In a remarkable turn of events, Rio de Janeiro’s criminal gangs showed themselves to be more responsible and committed to public safety than the government, imposing their own curfew to stop the spread of COVID-19. “We want the best for the population. If the government won’t do the right thing, organized crime will,” read their statement. “We are at the mercy of a deranged lunatic,” concluded independent outlet Brasil Wire.

Now, Bolsonaro himself has tested positive for COVID-19. But he still refuses to wear a mask all the time, saying they are only for “fairies” or “faggots,” depending on the translation. The Brazilian Press Association is suing him for deliberately endangering them by not self-isolating but telling them face-to-face, without a mask, about his positive test.

Bolsonaro took off his mask while announcing in a press conference that he tested positive for #COVID19 https://t.co/j7QSBMZ5sS

— Nathália Urban (@UrbanNathalia) July 7, 2020

Ecuador has given up even pretending to record infections. On April 24, it announced 7,595 had tested positive; the two days after that, zero cases. Its president, Lenín Moreno, was elected on a promise to further Rafael Correa’s social-democratic agenda. Instead, on orders from Washington and the IMF, he slashed the country’s health budget by 36 percent, rescinded the country’s support for whistleblower Julian Assange and began persecuting Correa, who was forced to flee to Belgium. Like in Brazil and Bolivia, the Ecuadorian government quickly purged the country of its contingent of Cuban doctors, some of the only medical professionals serving Latin America’s popular classes. The coastal city of Guayaquil is thought to be the worst-affected in the world by COVID-19.

Hardline Christian conservative Jeanine Añez came to power in Bolivia in November in a military coup that ousted Evo Morales and his Movement Towards Socialism Party. She wasted no time in mass privatization of the country’s state-owned resources, leading hospitals across the countries to close. Añez herself has now tested positive for the virus, and six of the country’s seven worst days for total infections have happened in the past week.

Cuban doctors in Bolivia provided free healthcare until they were pushed out by the US-backed coup. The hospitals they worked at are still closed, leaving working class communities vulnerable. Report from @OVargas52 pic.twitter.com/s3m0K8E3v7

— MintPress News (@MintPressNews) January 8, 2020

In Chile, billionaire president Sebastian Piñera has seen his personal wealth increase substantially during the lockdown. This week the pro-business leader vetoed a bill with bipartisan support that protected important public services during the pandemic, ensuring they remained open to all. Critics say the move is hardly likely to improve the situation across the country and puts profits before people.

Meanwhile, in Colombia, neoconservative president Ivan Duque is opening up the economy, even as the pandemic reaches new heights. Thursday saw a new record number of infections in the country, 5,335, beating Tuesday’s previous high of 4,213. Duque, who came to power in a highly questionable election that, had it occurred in an enemy state, would have likely been labeled a sham. His leftist challenger, Gustavo Petro, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt from government-aligned paramilitaries, while American election observers, mistaken for ordinary citizens, report being offered money to vote for Duque. The president is now using the pandemic to end the country’s long peace process while government-linked paramilitaries are taking the opportunity of the lockdown to assassinate their foes, including union leaders and activists. The economic and social confusion has led to large numbers of people crossing over the long and porous border to Venezuela, contributing to an increase in cases there as well.

One of the few bright spots in the region is Cuba, the island having squashed its curve. The worst days in the past month have seen only 15 new cases and one death. Its strong public services, particularly its famous health system, have aided the fight against the virus. In March, MintPress spoke to an American student doctor training in Havana, who said she was optimistic about the country’s preparedness in dealing with COVID-19. “I am very confident of Cuba’s public health and epidemiology system, it is all very organized: nationally, provincially, regionally and locally,” she said.

While these governments might have got what they want by deposing the wave of progressive, anti-imperialist governments in the last decade, their ideological drive to privatize and destroy any public institution is reaping what it sowed during this pandemic. Unfortunately, it is the people of Latin America who are suffering the most because of it.

Feature photo | Employees and family members during collective burials at Vila Formosa Cemetery, east side of São Paulo, Brazil on July 10, 2020. Bruno Rocha | Fotoarena | Sipa

Alan MacLeod is a Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent. He has also contributed to Fairness and Accuracy in ReportingThe GuardianSalonThe GrayzoneJacobin MagazineCommon Dreams the American Herald Tribune and The Canary.

The post Latin America’s Neoliberal Leaders Are Making the Coronavirus Pandemic Far Worse appeared first on MintPress News.

Friday Cat Blogging – 10 July 2020

Mother Jones Magazine -

For the past few years, photojournalists have been fond of taking pictures with a large, out-of-focus element in the foreground. For example, here, here, and here. Hopper doesn’t want to be left out, so I took this picture of her outlined by the handle of a water pitcher.

Avoid This Kind of Coverage Like the Plague

Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting -

 

An isolated case of bubonic plague in Inner Mongolia isn’t likely to cause problems elsewhere in China, let alone in the rest of the world—but the New York Times (7/6/20) thought you should know about it anyway.

“Bubonic Plague Found in a Herder in Inner Mongolia, China Says,” read the New York Times headline (7/6/20). “A city put control measures in place after one confirmed case of the disease, which caused the Black Death in the Middle Ages,” the subhead elaborated. The story’s lead described the case as “a reminder of how even as the world battles a pandemic caused by a novel virus, old threats remain.”

In the article’s last paragraph, Times Hong Kong correspondent Austin Ramzy acknowledged that cases of the plague are not so novel:

Plague cases are found in limited numbers across much of the world. In the United States, about seven cases, usually the bubonic form, are reported on average each year, most often in rural areas of Western states, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

The Times was not the only Western outlet to see the Inner Mongolian plague case as a story. Bloomberg (7/5/20) seems to have kicked off the coverage, in a story originally headlined “Does Bubonic Plague Still Exist? China Confirms Case.” The Bloomberg report noted:

While the ailment is treatable, unlike the novel pathogen which has caused the ongoing pandemic, Chinese health authorities are wary of any infectious disease spreading after a hard-fought containment of the coronavirus outbreak.

The BBC (7/6/20) had the headline “China Bubonic Plague: Inner Mongolia Takes Precautions After Case,” but the story reassured: “The bubonic plague was once the world’s most feared disease, but can now be easily treated…. It’s unlikely any cases will lead to an epidemic.”

Newsweek‘s story, “What Is Bubonic Plague? China’s Inner Mongolia Reports ‘Black Death’ Case” (7/6/20), reminded readers:

The Yersinia pestis bacteria was the cause of the Black Death—widely considered to be the deadliest pandemic in human history, which killed anywhere between 75 and 200 million people across Europe, Asia and North Africa in the 14th century.

“While cases of are rare today, outbreaks do still occur—although modern treatments have significantly reduced the mortality of the disease,” Newsweek went on to say.

Bloomberg (7/5/20) seems to have been the first Western outlet to sound the false alarm.

USA Today (7/8/20) had a “factcheck” that reported, “The World Health Organization considers the threat of a bubonic plague outbreak minimal”—but not before telling readers in the lead that “diseases will thrive in whatever vector they’re given.”

New York Post (7/6/20) went the “news you can use” route, with “What Is Bubonic Plague and How Is It Treated?”

Here’s a more useful question: Why is this story news?

As the various articles do a better or worse job of explaining, bubonic plague is a disease that’s been around for centuries; some people get it every year, in the United States as well as in China, but it’s easily controllable with antibiotics. There’s essentially zero chance that a case found in Inner Mongolia will spark an epidemic that will reach Beijing, let alone the other side of the world.

So why does this medical misfortune, one of hundreds of cases of plague that will occur worldwide this year, deserve a story in major news outlets? A microbiologist quoted in another BBC piece (7/6/20) provides a clue: “Although this might appear alarming, being another major infectious disease emerging from the East, it appears to be a single suspected case which can be readily treated.”

“Another major infectious disease emerging from the East”—well, that sounds like a story, doesn’t it, in the sense of fitting in with longstanding, emotionally resonant preconceptions? And not just anywhere in the East; there were a handful of cases that appeared earlier this year in Mongolia, but they didn’t get coverage of their own, because Mongolia doesn’t play the role that China does in the corporate media imagination of powerful, sinister rival (FAIR.org, 5/7/20, 5/15/206/21/20).

In other words, bubonic plague in Inner Mongolia is more newsworthy than the same disease in New Mexico because it plays into racist stereotypes. Media commentators rightly scorn Donald Trump talking about the “Chinese virus” and the “kung flu“—but this kind of medical cherrypicking is just as pernicious.

Featured image: BBC image (7/6/20) of a medieval plague mask, used to illustrate a story about a disease that no longer causes mass death.

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