Mother Jones Magazine

Friday Cat Blogging – 27 November 2020

Our cats are both uninterested in people food. This is normally a good thing, but they take it to such extremes that I can’t even get them to take a sniff of a turkey for a Thanksgiving photo. This is the closest I got, and in reality Hopper is just walking around the turkey, which is in her way. She literally has no interest in it. That’s bad for catblogging, but pretty handy the rest of the time.

Here Are the Various Ways Donald Trump Could Be Prosecuted

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, James Comey, Christopher Steele, John Bolton, a Time journalist, flag burners—this is just a partial list of the people Donald Trump has wanted to see imprisoned during his ignominious presidency. Yet the moment he steps out of the White House, shedding the sheath of immunity that enshrines all presidents, it is Trump who should be most concerned about a legal reckoning. His list of alleged offenses, committed both during and before his presidency, includes tax and bank fraud, obstruction of justice, bribery, defamation, and more. Legal experts have even debated whether Trump could face criminal charges connected to his woeful response to the coronavirus pandemic.

In its 244-year history, the United States has never prosecuted a president (that is, outside the specialized judicial theater of impeachment). Not that some didn’t deserve it. The reticence is understandable. Locking up a former commander in chief would be politically divisive and potentially set a dangerous precedent. Would holding him accountable restore faith in the justice system or further erode it? But for Trump, whose antics and incompetence contributed to the deaths of tens of thousands, who attacked the very foundation of the democratic institutions that made the United States a beacon, and who pushed the nation to the threshold of autocracy, the American people might be willing, even eager, to take the risk.

Trump has offered state and federal prosecutors a buffet of options for criminal and civil charges. On the federal level, one of the most plausible crimes Trump could be charged with is obstruction of justice. In his two-part report on his Russia investigation, special counsel Robert Mueller all but laid out the case, chronicling Trump’s assorted efforts to stymie the probe. The report also includes evidence suggesting that Trump may have perjured himself in written responses to questions from Mueller’s team, though this claim is more difficult to prove. Mueller stopped short of concluding that Trump had committed a crime, but mostly because, as a sitting president, he was arguably immune from prosecution. But that protection no longer applies once he leaves office.

Barbara McQuade, a former US attorney in Michigan who led the corruption case against Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, argues an obstruction conviction would be easy to obtain and is the most likely route for federal prosecutors. (McQuade spoke to Mother Jones before joining Biden’s transition team; she stressed that she was not speaking on the new administration’s behalf.) But the body of evidence is only one consideration when it comes to placing Trump, or any former president, on trial. “The second question a federal prosecutor must ask is, ‘Would a prosecution advance a substantial federal interest?’” she says. “When a president is involved, that’s a much harder question. I’m sure there is some sentiment that the country should move on, but perhaps some sentiment that we should not let a president get away with crimes with impunity just because they’re the president.”

Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago who specialized in busting white-collar criminals, is less sure about convicting Trump of obstruction or other crimes—and not because there isn’t a bounty of evidence. “How would the fact that it’s Donald Trump impact a jury?” he wonders. Nevertheless, he thinks an obstruction prosecution is warranted if only for the message it sends. “To me the best argument for taking action is a future deterrence argument,” he says. “Trump is somebody who was focused on defeating the lawful functions of the Justice Department, so taking action sends a signal that presidents should not do that again.”

Both prosecutors warn that any case against Trump must be as free of politics as possible, not just to convince a judge or jury to convict but also to restore confidence in the Justice Department and avoid weakening democracy in the process. One way to buffer the case from political calculations would be for the new attorney general to appoint a special counsel who could pursue the investigation independently. “I think we’ve learned a lesson, hopefully, from, let’s say, the mistakes of James Comey and his handling of the Clinton matter,” Mariotti says, recalling the FBI’s infamous investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server before the 2016 election. “The best way to do it is to have an insulation from political appointees, and to essentially not have press conferences or anything like that—just make decisions about whether or not there’s anything worthy of prosecution and do it with as little fanfare as possible.”

Eager to turn the page on the Trump era, Biden, for his part, has expressed reservations about a federal prosecution targeting his predecessor. He has described such an effort as “probably not very…good for democracy,” though he’s also said he would not “interfere with the Justice Department’s judgment.” Kamala Harris took a different position on the campaign trail, saying the DOJ “would have no choice” but to pursue obstruction-of-justice charges against Trump.

According to the New York Times and other news outlets, Trump is keenly aware of the legal jeopardy he confronts as a private citizen and, as a result, was particularly fearful of losing the election. In fact, the possibility that he might be charged with a crime has been on Trump’s mind for much of his presidency. After the 2017 appointment of Mueller to oversee the Russia investigation, Trump declared in a tweet that he had the right to pardon himself. Some legal experts have speculated he might attempt such a gambit prior to leaving office.

However, says Philip Bobbitt, a professor at Columbia University who specializes in constitutional law, presidential pardon power is not unlimited. He raises what he says is a more likely scenario, similar to what occurred in 1974 when Richard Nixon resigned and was promptly pardoned by Gerald Ford. In the waning days or hours of his presidency, Bobbitt speculates, Trump could invoke the 25th Amendment and briefly surrender presidential authority to allow Mike Pence to pardon him. Alternatively, Trump could resign on the final day of his term, leaving Pence to momentarily assume the presidency and absolve his former boss of all federal crimes.

But a federal pardon will not help Trump at the state level, and it’s there where he and his company, the Trump Organization, may face the most legal peril. Two investigations targeting his company are underway in New York. Since 2019, New York Attorney General Letitia James has been probing the Trump Organization for bank, tax, and insurance fraud. One of the matters she is scrutinizing is whether Trump paid taxes on $50 million in forgiven debt related to his Chicago hotel and tower project. This aspect of her inquiry appears based in part on my reporting in Mother Jones, which revealed that Trump claims to hold a loan connected to a venture that may not exist. This potentially contrived liability may in fact be a scheme to dodge taxes on a debt, deeply discounted by a lender, that Trump paid off in 2012. (A loan is not taxable; forgiven debt is considered income.)

James’ case is civil, but it could nevertheless lead to steep fines, back taxes, and penalties. Moreover, her inquiry could provide fodder for criminal investigators, such as those in the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance. In 2019, following revelations that Trump had engineered a payoff of former adult film star Stormy Daniels to keep their alleged affair quiet during the 2016 election, Vance impaneled a grand jury to examine potential financial misconduct by Trump and his company. Since then, Vance has sought a variety of records from Trump’s accounting firm. Trump has battled the DA’s subpoena all the way to the Supreme Court, arguing that he was unfairly targeted. The court, however, cleared the way for Vance’s investigation to go forward. Court filings suggest Vance’s probe now goes well beyond the hush-money payment and may overlap with some of the issues James is investigating. Legal experts say that state-led cases may offer the best opportunity to hold Trump accountable while avoiding the polarizing debate that a federal prosecution could ignite. The investigations in New York also focus on matters that predate Trump’s presidency, unlike obstruction charges related to the Mueller probe.

In both New York cases, Trump and his lawyers have used delay tactics, deploying arguments that had little success in court but that substantially slowed the investigations. But soon Trump will no longer be able to use his office to stave off probes by claiming they are either politically driven or too time-consuming for a sitting president.

That may be just the start of his legal concerns. Media reports, and in particular the series of explosive New York Times articles based on copies of Trump’s tax records, may have left other breadcrumbs for investigators to follow in pursuit of Trump, his close associates, and his children. There’s also the possibility of yet-unrevealed investigations by state or local authorities, still lurking in sealed court filings.

And we’re just talking about the United States. In Scotland, where Trump has invested more than $200 million in his golf courses, lawmakers are pushing for their government to request an Unexplained Wealth Order to peer into Trump’s finances. This type of court order—invoked in the past against suspected money launderers—authorizes investigators to probe politically prominent individuals whose public spending does not match what’s publicly known about their finances.

Throughout his life, as he’s faced off against angry creditors or jilted business partners, Trump has honed a tried-and-true legal tactic of “punching back” at his antagonists—launching furious counterattacks that mired the other side in court filings and legal bills. Yet this strategy, as effective as it was when Trump was a private businessman, is unlikely to slow down prosecutors. “I think that when you are a private entity there are other equities you have to think about besides the outcome of the case,” McQuade says. “You have to think about your reputational risk, if he’s going to slam you in the press, and there’s a worry there’s going to be negative impact on your bottom line.” To a prosecutor, a defendant who blusters and threatens isn’t much of a deterrent. “Getting criticized is part of the job,” she says.

Attempts to hold Trump accountable in office were almost entirely unsuccessful. His loss in November was the first true check on his conduct. The next—which seems all but inevitable—may come in a courtroom.

Spent Rockets Are Dangerous Space Trash, but They Could Be the Future of Living and Working in Orbit

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

In early October, a dead Soviet satellite and the abandoned upper stage of a Chinese rocket narrowly avoided a collision in low Earth orbit. If the objects had crashed, the impact would have blown them to bits and created thousands of new pieces of dangerous space debris. Only a few days prior, the European Space Agency had published its annual space environment report, which highlighted abandoned rocket bodies as one of the biggest threats to spacecraft. The best way to mitigate this risk is for launch providers to deorbit their rockets after they’ve delivered their payload. But if you ask Jeffrey Manber, that’s a waste of a perfectly good giant metal tube.

Manber is the CEO of Nanoracks, a space logistics company best known for hosting private payloads on the International Space Station, and for the past few years he has been working on a plan to turn the upper stages of spent rockets into miniature space stations. It’s not a new idea, but Manber feels its time has come. “NASA has looked at the idea of refurbishing fuel tanks several times,” he says. “But it was always abandoned, usually because the technology wasn’t there.” All of NASA’s previous plans depended on astronauts doing a lot of the manufacturing and assembly work, which made the projects expensive, slow, and hazardous. Manber’s vision is to create an extraterrestrial chop shop where astronauts are replaced by autonomous robots that cut, bend, and weld the bodies of spent rockets until they’re fit to be used as laboratories, fuel depots, or warehouses.

The Nanoracks program, known as Outpost, will modify rockets after they’re done with their mission to give them a second life. The first Outposts will be uncrewed stations made from the upper stages of new rockets, but Manber says it’s possible that future stations could host people or be built from rocket stages already in orbit. In the beginning, Nanoracks won’t use the interior of the rocket and will mount experiment payloads, power supply modules, and small propulsion units to the outside of the fuselage. Once company engineers have that figured out, they can focus on developing the inside of the rocket as a pressurized laboratory.

Rockets headed to orbit are launched with at least two stages, each equipped with its own propellant tanks and engine. The large first stage boosts the rocket to the edge of space before decoupling and falling back to Earth—or, in SpaceX’s case, landing on autonomous drone ships in the ocean. The smaller second stage brings the payload up to orbital speed before releasing it. At that point, the upper stage typically has just enough fuel left to fire its engine so that it plummets back to Earth. If the upper stage doesn’t do a deorbit burn, it will keep circling the planet as an uncontrolled satellite.

The Nanoracks team is targeting these upper stages for development because they already have many of the qualities that are needed for a space station. A rocket’s fuel tanks are designed to hold pressure, and they’re made out of incredibly durable material to withstand the rigors of launch. They’re also roomy. The upper stage of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is 12 feet in diameter and around 30 feet tall, which is enough space to make a New York apartment dweller jealous.

But these tanks need a little sprucing up before they can host experiments or astronauts. The first step is to vent any remaining fuel to prevent an explosion. Then, the robots take over. These automatons will attach necessary components like solar panels, surface-mounted connectors, or small propulsion units. Nate Bishop, the Outpost project manager at Nanoracks, says the company will do several small in-space demos before attempting to convert a full upper stage into a functioning space station. “Right now, we’re not really modifying anything,” says Bishop. “We’re focused on showing we can control the upper stage with attachments. But in the future, just imagine a bunch of little robots going up and down the stage to add more connectors and stuff like that.”

There’s just one problem—no one has ever demonstrated the core metalworking and fabrication techniques needed to convert a space station in orbit before. Next May, Nanoracks will change that during its first Outpost demonstration mission. The company has developed a small chamber that will be deployed with several other payloads as part of a SpaceX ride-share mission. Inside the chamber, a small robotic arm tipped with a rapidly spinning drill bit will cut three small pieces of metal made from the same materials used in rocket fuel tanks. If the experiment goes well, the tool should be able to make a precise cut without generating any debris. It will be the first time that metal was ever cut in the vacuum of space.

The fundamental challenge of converting rockets in orbit is understanding how materials react to the space environment. For example, the temperature of a material can differ by hundreds of degrees if one side is facing the sun and the other side is facing away. Without going to space to try it, it can be difficult to predict how that material will react to standard manufacturing techniques like cutting or welding. Other techniques, like making thin film materials for solar panels, require an ultra-pure environment to prevent imperfections. Although space is a vacuum, it still contains a substantial amount of dust and radiation that could interfere with conventional manufacturing processes exported from Earth.

“It’s remarkable how little we still know about manufacturing in space after 70 years,” says Manber. “There’s a lot we need to learn if you really go into reuse in space hardware. These sorts of things seem mundane, but we just have to do it step by step.”

“There’s a lot we need to learn if you really go into reuse in space hardware. These sorts of things seem mundane, but we just have to do it step by step.”

Mission extension programs like Outpost are new to the space industry. Ever since Sputnik, the stuff that was put into orbit was either intentionally deorbited or abandoned and left to fall back to Earth. There simply wasn’t the technology to move a satellite once it ran out of fuel or to commandeer an abandoned rocket hull. And that meant there weren’t any regulations on how to do it safely—or any consensus on whether it was legal to do it at all.

But things are starting to change. Last year, a Northrop Grumman satellite successfully latched onto another satellite that had depleted its fuel supplies and moved it to a new orbit. This maneuver will extend the satellite’s lifetime by at least five years, and it officially ushered in the era of space mission extensions. During a talk at the International Astronautical Congress this year, Joseph Anderson, vice president of the Northrop Grumman subsidiary Space Logistics, described how the company had to work with several different US agencies to modify licensing requirements so that it could launch the historic mission. “It simply didn’t fit the licensing structure that the US government had established,” Anderson said. “Ultimately, we landed on a solution in which the FCC acts as our primary oversight agency.” (That’s the Federal Communications Commission, which also regulates things like radio, television and broadband systems.)

If Nanoracks wants to turn rockets into space stations, it will also have to forge new licensing policies to make it happen. Northrop Grumman’s mission may have laid the foundation for extending the lifespan of new rockets heading to orbit, but what is less clear is whether a company can refurbish rockets that have been abandoned in orbit without the permission of the country or company that launched them.

This is an issue that James Dunstan, the principal attorney at the space law firm Mobius Legal Group, has been grappling with for years. On Earth, international maritime law allows sailors to salvage wreckage they find at sea, but Dunstan says that under the Outer Space Treaty, an international agreement signed in 1967, spent rockets remain the property of whoever launched them. Under this law, if a company or country were to take over an abandoned rocket stage without permission, they would be trespassing on the property of the launching state. But Dunstan describes this interpretation of the law as a fallacy, because, he says, “neither the launching states nor launching companies really care about the spent stages. They’d love for them to go away.”

For now, though, Dunstan says “the legal risk would be significant” for any company that commandeered a rocket stage without asking. He’s spent more than a decade advocating that “find and salvage” maritime laws should be applied to orbital debris like rocket bodies, but he says regulators at agencies like the FCC and Federal Aviation Administration have been slow to act. “It really is going to take a test case to move the needle on the issue of salvage,” Dunstan says. And Nanoracks may very well be the company to do it.

Manber sees recycling rockets as the next logical step to increase orbital commerce and expand humanity’s reach in the solar system. Launching stuff into space is expensive, but developing the techniques to take advantage of resources that are already there could drastically lower the cost of living and working beyond Earth. “When I look 15 or 20 years ahead, there will be scout missions looking for good things to salvage,” Manber says. “You’re going to have prospectors looking for parts and using them for in-space assembly. It’s going to be one of the big markets of the future.”

Manber’s vision has been a long time coming. Over the past 50 years, engineers at NASA have explored several different methods for converting old rockets into habitats. The agency’s first space station, Skylab, was originally meant to be built out of the upper stage of a Saturn V, the massive launcher that carried Apollo astronauts to the moon. This concept, known as a wet workstation, was fairly developed before the engineers on the project decided it would be easier to just launch a bespoke space station instead. But the dream of recycling rockets didn’t die.

Bill Stone is an extreme caver who has been to some of the deepest places on Earth, and he is the CEO of Stone Aerospace, a company he founded to build robots for exploring the oceans on the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Before that, he spent a decade at the National Institute of Standards and Technology working to turn a space shuttle’s external tank into an orbital habitat. At the time, NASA was just beginning to explore engineering designs for Freedom, a space station concept that would eventually morph into the International Space Station. The leadership at NIST tasked Stone and his colleagues with assessing all the details of NASA’s plans to look for ways they could be improved.

“One of the things that kept popping up was the fact that the space shuttle was not 100 percent reusable,” says Stone. Although NASA could land the shuttle orbiter and occasionally recover the solid boosters from the ocean, the biggest element on the rocket—the external tank—was lost on every launch. For Stone and his team, this was a massive waste of resources. By the time the external tank was jettisoned from the shuttle, it had reached 98 percent of the velocity needed to achieve orbit. It wouldn’t take much of an extra boost to keep it in space where it could later be converted into an industrial laboratory.

“One of the things that kept popping up was the fact that the space shuttle was not 100 percent reusable.”

The shuttle external tank was actually two separate tanks—a small one for liquid oxygen and a much larger one for liquid hydrogen—that are connected by an intertank ring to create one massive structure. The NIST team’s plan was to use the intertank section as a temporary pressurized habitat for crew as they prepared one of the larger tanks for occupation. This would have required several modifications to the tank, such as a hatch to allow astronauts inside and a small motor attached to the bottom of the external tank so it could orient itself in orbit. But the payoff would have been a tremendous amount of space to use as a warehouse or research lab. The smaller liquid oxygen tank would have provided 25 percent more habitable volume than is currently available on the ISS. If the entire external tank was used, it would have had six times more volume than the space station.

“There was 65,000 pounds of aluminum and other aerospace-grade components capable of being pressurized for human habitation that was thrown away on every mission,” says Stone. “Even looking at the best rates that SpaceX will give you for a boost to low Earth orbit today, that’s pushing hundreds of billions of assets that were tossed away.”

As NIST’s plans came together in the 1980s, a consortium of 57 universities took a majority stake in a private venture called the External Tank Corporation that would convert spent shuttle tanks for NASA. As Randolph Ware, the company’s president, told The Los Angeles Times in 1987, the program wasn’t meant to compete with the agency’s plans for space station Freedom. “We are not a substitute for the space station, we are a warehouse on the edge of an industrial park,” Ware said. As the External Tanks Corporations led efforts to commercialize the project, Stone and his colleagues at NIST ran digital and physical simulations of their recycled space station. By the late ’80s, they had even built a mock-up of a shuttle tank in the pool at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center so astronauts could practice getting in and out of it. The plan was to use two astronauts during the first demo mission—and Stone was going to be one of them.

NIST wasn’t the only organization that had designs on the space shuttle’s external tank. A study led by an engineer at Martin Marietta Aerospace, one half of what would become Lockheed Martin, floated the idea of using the tank as the basis for a larger space station, and a separate Air Force proposal suggested using the tanks as scrap metal for building structures in orbit. Around the same time, a joint research project between Boeing and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency suggested converting the external tank into a large-diameter telescope. Even Hilton Hotels had plans for building orbital hotels called Space Islands out of shuttle boosters, although it seems the project never made it beyond a conceptual stage. (Hilton representatives did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment.)

The dream of turning spent shuttle boosters into a space station collapsed in 1993 when the Clinton administration gave a stamp of approval to the International Space Station. Stone and his team at NIST had recently submitted a proposal to turn shuttle boosters into space stations, which had worked its way up through the highest levels at NASA and into the White House. But as the Clinton administration prepared to move ahead with the ISS, Stone recalls, the director of NIST called him into his office to deliver the bad news: NASA had spiked the program. “The space station had become a national jobs program, and the project was viewed as a threat to the space station,” says Stone. “It was a tragic mistake that NASA didn’t store those external tanks, because they would have established the orbital depots that you need to implement an Earth-moon economy.”

For the next two decades, the idea of living and working in old rockets faded from memory as NASA engineers concentrated their efforts on the ISS. It wasn’t until 2013 that the idea made a modest comeback when Brand Griffin, a NASA contractor from Jacobs Engineering, led a study for the agency on how to turn a fuel tank from its next generation Space Launch System rocket into a habitat for deep space exploration. He called his reclaimed space station Skylab II.

Like its namesake, Skylab II would be launched in a single piece in the upper stage of NASA’s SLS, the rocket that the agency will use to send humans back to the moon. The crew compartment would be made from an unused hydrogen fuel tank that would be launched as a payload in the upper stage of the rocket. This is similar to the design of Skylab, which was built from the third stage of a Saturn rocket that had been modified on the ground, rather than converted from a spent upper stage in orbit. All the components needed to turn the tank into a viable habitat—solar panels, antennas, robotic arms—would be integrated before it was launched. Much like the Nanoracks Outpost idea, there would be no need for astronauts to assemble the station. The converted hydrogen tank would have enough space to host up to four astronauts and their provisions for a multiyear journey around the moon or Mars. Once Skylab II was in orbit, the crew would be delivered on a subsequent launch via the Orion crew vehicle, which could dock with the habitat and provide propulsion for the mission.

Griffin says the Skylab II study was motivated by the need to lower the cost of deep space exploration. Building the ISS was expensive, and it took dozens of launches to get all the components into orbit. A similar modular station around the moon or Mars would be more expensive still. But Skylab had demonstrated it was possible to launch a capable space station in one shot. “We wanted to bring that economy to a cislunar habitat,” says Griffin. After the study, Griffin and his team built a full-scale mock-up of a Skylab II station at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

But despite some enthusiasm for the project from NASA officials, the idea was shelved and the agency proceeded with Gateway, its new plan for a lunar space station. Unlike Skylab II, the Gateway is modular and more closely resembles a scaled-down version of the ISS. “There are lots of reasons why people don’t accept change,” says Griffin. “Sometimes people get an idea of where the solution is going to go and have invested too much already. It needed more pressure, but it wasn’t like people were against it.”

Manber and Bishop are well aware of the long history of failed attempts at turning space junk into space stations. But they believe that they can succeed where others have failed. Today, robots are able to carry out some of the tasks that, during the shuttle era, would have required a team of astronauts. A burgeoning space economy is driving demand for more orbital R&D platforms. And NASA’s lunar ambitions will require the agency to rethink the deep-space supply chain. Nanoracks still has to demo many fundamental technologies before the company can recycle a rocket, but for the first time in decades it seems plausible that future astronauts will be living in a secondhand space station.

Lunchtime Photo

I had a Thanksgiving themed photo in mind for today, but circumstances intervened and I’m afraid it just didn’t happen. So, um, how about an elephant instead? In any case, have a happy Thanksgiving no matter how you’re celebrating it this year, and please stay safe.

October 9, 2020 — San Diego Zoo, San Diego, California

At Sea and in Court, the Fight to Save the World’s Rarest Whales Intensifies

This piece was originally published in Yale Environment 360 and appears here as part of our Climate Desk Partnership.

Artie Raslich has been volunteering for seven years with the conservation group Gotham Whale, working on the American Princess, a whale-watching boat based in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. In that time Raslich, a professional photographer, has glimpsed a North Atlantic right whale, the world’s rarest cetacean, only twice. The first time was an unseasonably warm December day in 2016, when he managed to snap a striking image of a right whale’s dark tail against the backdrop of the New York City skyline. “That was a beautiful shot,” Raslich says, proudly. The second was just a few weeks ago, in early October, roughly 3 miles east of Sea Bright, New Jersey.

Unfortunately, both whales had suffered an increasingly common fate: They were entangled in fishing ropes and were likely to die.

The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered species on the planet. Scientists announced last month that there are only about 360 of the animals left, down roughly 50 from the previous year’s survey. They live along the East Coast, from northern Florida to Canada, where the 50-foot-long, 140,000-pound leviathans must navigate through millions of commercial fishing lines—primarily lobster traps—and one of the world’s most crowded shipping channels. Too often they become tangled in those lines, or are struck by a ship. The fight to save them, led by biologists and conservation groups, has grown urgent—in the water and in the courts.

Scientists are using cutting-edge acoustic technology to monitor right whales and identify where they are coming into contact with ships and fishing lines; rescue teams in the United States and Canada are scrambling to disentangle animals when they’re spotted; and environmental advocates are making significant headway suing state and federal agencies to enforce provisions of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Marine Mammal Protection Act, which were written to protect the whales from extractive industries like lobster fishing.

“If we don’t do anything, this species will be functionally extinct in 25 years.”

“The next five years are critical,” says Sarah Sharp, a veterinarian with the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “If we don’t do anything, this species will be functionally extinct in 25 years.”

Historically, as many as 21,000 North Atlantic right whales lived off the East Coast of the US and Canada. But by the early 1890s, the right whale, so named because commercial whalers considered it “the right whale to kill”—relatively slow, easily visible from the coast, and full of blubber so their carcasses would float—were on the brink of extinction.

Whale hunting was banned in the US in 1972, but humans remain the right whale’s biggest threat. In Maine alone, the creatures must traverse approximately 400,000 vertical buoy lines attached to roughly 3 million licensed lobster traps.

The buoys can get lodged in their baleen, the filter-feeding system inside their mouths. As the animals roll and spin, trying to free themselves, the ropes wrap around their bodies. The lines cut deeply, sawing into bone and slowly amputating fins or tails. “It’s a slow, painful death,” says Sofie Van Parijs, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist.

Once a whale becomes entangled, it can continue to pick up other gear, including lobster traps and crab pots, as it moves through the water column, a snowball effect with deadly consequences. Even if the gear doesn’t drown the whale, carrying such extra weight can weaken the animal and interfere with its ability to feed and breed.

Scientists have documented more than 1,500 entangled right whales since 1980. In fact, estimates suggest almost 90 percent of the surviving population has been entangled at least once, and more than half have been snagged twice.

Charles “Stormy” Mayo, a co-founder of the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts, developed some of the techniques used to remove whales from fishing gear, including deploying large floats to slow the animals and prevent them from diving while rescuers lean out of their boats and cut the whales free. It’s a dangerous job. In July 2017, a fisherman volunteering on a whale rescue team in Canada was crushed to death by the animal’s tail. Such rescue efforts have saved dozens of whales, says Mayo, “but disentanglement is not the answer to saving the species. The answer is keeping the whales out of fishing gear and from being hit by ships.”

Scientists attempting to better pinpoint where right whales encounter fishing gear and ships are using underwater acoustic technology to record the whales’ characteristic groans, grunts, and burps. Hydrophones mounted on the ocean floor collect data about their movements, while autonomous underwater gliders relay their calls in near real-time, providing opportunities to alert mariners to slow down when whales are in the area.

Peter Corkeron, who leads the whale research team at the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, says acoustic studies have revealed an important finding: North Atlantic right whales, which historically spend summers in the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy, are increasingly venturing north to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, a shift likely fueled by climate change. “The Gulf of Maine is like a giant bathtub filling up with hot water,” Corkeron says, making it less habitable for marine life, including the phytoplankton that right whales eat. “The whales are following their food to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence,” he says, “and that’s not working out so well for the whales.”

Only 94 breeding females are believed to remain, and those females are having fewer calves.

Since the whales did not historically frequent the Gulf, few measures existed to protect them prior to 2017. That’s when whale deaths suddenly skyrocketed, in what scientists are calling a “mass mortality event.” In three years, 31 whales have died in the US and Canada, more than half of them in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. In response to the deaths, the Canadian government has implemented speed restrictions for boats, seasonal and temporary fishing closures, and new rules for fishing gear to improve whale safety. It also finalized the designation of the Laurentian Channel Marine Protected Area, a deep submarine valley in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence that is a biodiversity hotspot and critical migration route for whales. However, industry objections to the plan resulted in it being drastically reduced in size to accommodate fishing interests, and largely open to oil and gas development. Some scientists now question whether the designation achieves the intended purpose of conserving wildlife.

So far this year, one right whale has been reported dead in New Jersey, the victim of a ship collision, and three right whales entangled in fishing lines have been spotted between there and Massachusetts. One of them was Artie Raslich’s whale. On October 11, Raslich was at his usual post on the left upper deck of the whale-watching boat. He saw a faint blow, and trained his camera on what appeared to be a “beat-up humpback.” But he quickly realized that the animal’s dark body was dotted with rough white patches, called “callosities.” The callosities, combined with a V-shaped spout, deeply notched tail, and absence of a dorsal fin confirmed that it was a North Atlantic right whale.

When Raslich downloaded his photographs to his computer that evening, he zoomed in and saw that the whale was wrapped in fishing line and badly injured. He sent his photographs to researchers at the Center for Coastal Studies and Marine Mammal Stranding Center, who cross-checked the pictures with a photographic catalog of known right whales, showing each animal’s unique pattern of callosities, comparable to human fingerprints. They determined that the whale was a four-year-old male, the calf of a 19-year-old female named Dragon who was last spotted in late February 2020 emaciated and pale, with a buoy lodged in her baleen.

Corkeron says it’s unlikely that either Dragon or the calf could survive their injuries. “They’re dead whales swimming.”

The loss of Dragon is especially tragic because only 94 breeding females remain, according to recent estimates. And those females are having fewer calves. Historically, North Atlantic right whales have given birth roughly every three years, but more recently females are birthing calves only every six to eight years, Corkeron says. Scientists do not know why the females are having fewer calves, but they suspect the lower production is related to changing habitat and stress caused by entanglements and ocean noise.

“The story of the North Atlantic right whale is complex, but it boils down to second-grade arithmetic,” says Stormy Mayo. “The number of animals born minus the number that die gives us a trajectory. Right now, the arrow points to zero—extinction—and that’s a very chilling finding.”

The right whale’s fate may ultimately depend on the courts. In 2019, US District Judge James Boasberg ruled that a plan to reopen gillnet fishing south of Nantucket for the first time in decades, without appropriate analysis required by the Endangered Species Act, was unlawful. It was a major victory for conservationists.

One strategy is to have fishermen transition to so-called ropeless fishing gear.

Last April, conservationists won again, when Boasberg ruled that Massachusetts regulators are violating the ESA by approving licenses for fishermen using vertical buoys, such as those deployed with lobster traps. The judge ordered an ESA-mandated analysis of the lobster fishery that takes into account the full scope of its harm to right whales, and directed fishery managers to issue new protections for North Atlantic right whales by the end of May 2021.

Erica Fuller, a senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, one of the nonprofits that filed the lawsuits that led to Boasberg’s rulings, says her group’s goal is to reduce the number of opportunities for right whales to hit vertical buoys. One strategy is to have fishermen transition to so-called ropeless fishing gear, allowing lobster traps to be retrieved using a remote acoustic signal to trigger their release. The devices—consisting of stowed buoys, rope, and lift bags—operate similar to keyless car entry; a radio signal unlatches them when a fisherman comes to retrieve his gear, and the traps float to the surface.

However, many fishermen oppose going ropeless. Dave Casoni, the secretary and treasurer for the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, says he tested the gear and found it “too time consuming and expensive.” Massachusetts lobster season is only six months long, and “if I spend a third of my day rigging these acoustic releases, that takes even more off the bottom line,” he says. “Rigging 800 traps [the maximum allowed] could cost more than half-a-million dollars.”

Casoni says fishermen have always been cooperative with restrictions to protect whales, and proactive by helping to investigate methods and technology that are practical. “We’re doing everything we can to minimize encounters with whales,” he says. “We’re using weaker ropes, lines that sink [rather than floating freely], and breakaways on buoys so they’ll pull through the whales’ baleen, instead of getting caught. We take all of these conservation measures, and yet there’s pressure to make us do even more.”

Fuller and other ropeless proponents are sympathetic, but they say that public and private subsidies should help fishermen adopt the new technology.

Still, fishermen are nervous about what may happen in the courts. They’re keeping a particularly close eye on a Massachusetts lawsuit filed by a controversial whale advocate named Richard “Max” Strahan, a self-taught scientist and amateur lawyer with wild gray hair and missing front teeth who calls himself the “Prince of Whales.” He sued the state of Massachusetts in federal district court, seeking to end the use of vertical buoy lines. Last July, the judge in that case ruled that state fisheries regulators are violating the Endangered Species Act by allowing vertical lines without first receiving an “incidental take” permit from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (Incidental take is defined as the killing or harming of an endangered species due to an otherwise lawful activity.) The judge stopped shy of shutting down the fishery, allowing it to stay open while the state seeks a permit. The proceedings are ongoing, with a trial scheduled for June 2021.

“The judge is worried about the economic consequences of enforcing the law,” Strahan says. “But if she rules that a commercial activity or licensed act is taking an endangered animal without a permit, that activity must stop until it can be figured out what to do.”

The solution he supports is to radically transform a centuries-old business. “This is not about shutting down the lobster fishing industry,” he says. “It’s about creating a marketplace for whale-safe fishing.”

Strahan wants states to change the current lobster license policies to favor “green lobstermen” and fishing companies willing to invest in ropeless gear and other methods that are safer for whales.

As the court fights drag on, though, the struggle in the water continues.

Recently, flight crews searching for Dragon’s entangled calf spotted another right whale in trouble south of Nantucket. The 11-year-old male, known as Cottontail, had a line wrapped over his head, through his mouth, and extending more than a hundred feet beyond his tail. The Center for Coastal Studies dispatched a rescue team to remove the gear. They succeeded in shortening the trailing line, but since they could not remove it entirely they attached a satellite transmitter to the whale so rescuers can try again when conditions are favorable.

Two School Districts Had Different Mask Policies. Only One Had a Teacher on a Ventilator.

This story was published originally by ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.

On a balmy August morning in Emanuel County in eastern Georgia, hundreds of children bounded off freshly cleaned school buses and out of their parents’ cars. They were greeted by the principal, teachers and staff at Swainsboro Middle School who hadn’t seen them in four months. Before allowing the children to enter, a longtime receptionist beamed a temperature gun at their foreheads and checked for violations of the public school’s strict dress code: mostly neutral colors, nothing tight and no shoulders exposed.

Masks were optional, and about half of the children wore them. So did the receptionist, but only sporadically, according to several teachers.

Within a couple of days, the receptionist was out sick. Another receptionist called in sick as well. Both had caught the coronavirus, according to social media posts. In the ensuing weeks, a wave of cases would rush through the building—an outbreak for which district leaders blamed the community rather than the lack of a mask mandate in the schools. At least nine middle school teachers would be infected, including four along a single hallway; one would spend four weeks on a ventilator, fighting for her life. More than 100 students were quarantined because of positive cases or exposure. Within the first two months of school, the county would have one of the highest proportions of school-age COVID-19 cases in the state.

“Not everything that could have been done or should have been done was being done in the school system to stop the spread,” said Dr. Cedric Porter, a local physician who pushed in vain for a mask requirement. “Everybody seemed to be intent on keeping it secret that there was a serious problem.”

When another school district in Georgia 200 miles northwest of Emanuel went back to school in early September, the rules and results were far different. The city of Marietta required masks, with even pre-kindergarteners donning them inside school buildings. It trained its own contact tracers. During its first month of classes, it reported no school-related transmissions of COVID-19.

The divide between Emanuel and Marietta reflects a national split over how far the government should go in imposing public health measures to combat the coronavirus. As COVID-19 cases skyrocket, political leaders have struggled to balance concerns about individual freedom and harm to the economy with the imperative of curbing the virus’s spread.

Nowhere does this gulf seem wider than in the debate over whether to require students and school staff to wear masks. While Dr. Anthony Fauci and other health experts have overwhelmingly promoted masks as an effective, research-backed tactic—and one that works best only if everybody participates—some policymakers have maintained that whether to wear them should remain a personal choice. President Donald Trump has opposed mask mandates, as have many Republican legislators.

The result is a patchwork of safety protocols colored by political views. Although several states in the past weeks have belatedly mandated masks, 11, including Georgia, don’t require students to cover their noses and mouths—even when gathered indoors, in small classrooms or in close contact during sporting events, ProPublica found. The states left the matter to local districts. Schools in only about a third of Georgia’s counties require masks.

No other precaution short of closing schools—a drastic measure that can set children back academically and developmentally, and deprive them of free meals and health care—is likely to be as effective as a mask mandate, experts say. Allowing staff and students to forgo them contradicts guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on reopenings.

“Masks are the most essential of all, especially because social distancing, quite frankly, is a challenge in most schools,” said Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Hospital and the editor in chief of JAMA Pediatrics.

“The bare minimum for the protection of kids and teachers needs to be universal masking and some increased ventilation,” said Dr. Joshua Barocas, an assistant professor at Boston University School of Medicine and an infectious diseases physician at Boston Medical Center. “If you can’t do that, you have no business being open.”

An emerging body of research has shown that younger children in primary schools typically experience mild or no symptoms of the virus and are less likely to transmit it. However, older children, particularly those in middle and high school, appear to have higher transmission rates, CDC researchers found in early October. The incidence among children ages 12 to 17 was about twice that of kids 5 to 11.

“Young persons might be playing an increasingly important role in community transmission,” the researchers warned.

In Georgia, the divide over masks sent school districts such as Emanuel and Marietta on two distinct trajectories this fall, data suggests. Children tended to make up a smaller proportion of total COVID-19 cases in counties with mask mandates in schools, a ProPublica examination of reopenings in Georgia revealed. Conversely, in counties that did not require masks in the classroom, children tended to make up a larger proportion of cases.

Overall, in Georgia counties where school-age children represented less than 6% of all coronavirus cases, roughly 80% of school districts required masks. In counties where children made up 10% or more of cases, 80% of districts did not mandate masks.

To be sure, in counties where they make up larger proportions of virus cases, children may be more likely to interact without masks outside school, in homes, playgrounds and other spots. But the findings suggest that a community’s attitude toward face coverings—as reflected in its school policies—plays an important role in transmission.

“If what you’re really showing is the places where they wore masks are doing better, that’s really the bottom line,” said Dr. Benjamin Linas, an associate professor of infectious diseases at Boston University School of Medicine. “Whether it’s specifically masks in schools or not is almost just like an academic question.”

As Georgia schools began reopening this past summer, they received mixed signals on whether to require masks. In phone calls with school superintendents, public health officials advocated mask wearing. But Gov. Brian Kemp refused to mandate their use in schools, or anywhere else, even suing the city of Atlanta to prevent it from requiring masks. (He later dropped the suit and has encouraged Georgians to wear masks.)

The Georgia superintendent of schools, Richard Woods, said through a spokesman that he lacks authority to mandate masks. He “has publicly encouraged mask wearing, has modeled that in school visits and public meetings, and specifically let districts know it can be addressed through updated dress codes,” the spokesman said. “He continues to encourage any mitigation efforts to decrease the spread, while allowing local districts to do what they think is best for their communities.”

Teachers’ groups favor a statewide requirement. “The more conservative counties are the counties that are [saying], ‘We’re going to be in school five days face-to-face, no masks are required,’” said Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, a professional association that sued the state in early October over COVID-19 safety (the lawsuit is pending). Political views, she said, are “making it very hard for students and educators to be safe.”

In the absence of a mask mandate, the Georgia Department of Public Health recorded 441 outbreaks of coronavirus tied to K-12 schools through Nov. 14. The department, which defines an outbreak as more than the expected number of cases in one place within a two-week period, would not say how many cases those outbreaks included or where they occurred.

Comparing school outbreaks between states is difficult because public health departments count and categorize cases differently. But in Illinois, a more populous state that does require masks in schools, the Public Health Department reported 10 outbreaks in schools during the 30 days ending Nov. 6. Illinois defines an outbreak as five or more cases where people from different households may have shared exposure on school grounds. And three weeks after the October reopening of schools in New York City, the nation’s largest district, which requires masks, only 20 staff members and eight students tested positive out of more than 16,000 tests. (New York shut down schools last week and returned to all-remote learning as the rate of positive tests in the city rose.)

There’s no available tally of school teachers or staff in Georgia who have died of COVID-19, but ProPublica was able to identify one such death.

Julie Carter was an employee of Appling County school district, which does not require masks.

An administrative assistant in the high school’s special education department, Carter also helped organize the local Special Olympics. Students “were her whole heart,” her husband Jimmy said.

Carter, an Appling County native, was eager to work at school this fall despite having respiratory problems. Classes didn’t start until Aug. 17, but staff returned several weeks earlier. Carter, who had her own office, put on a mask when people stopped by, her husband said. The mask offered her limited protection, but experts say if her visitor wasn’t wearing one, she was still at risk.

By mid-August, she was so weak that her husband took her to a local hospital. Later that month, she was airlifted to a hospital in Jacksonville, Florida. She died on Aug. 30 before her family, which was driving there, could arrive. She was 67.

The high school posthumously named her grand marshal of its homecoming celebration, giving her family a quilt with “ACHS Homecoming 2020” embossed on it during a pep rally. The school website paid tribute to her: “She will always be remembered for being a vital part of the life of ACHS and served the school with a kind and humble heart.”

Her death, though, did not spur a reversal of the county’s mask policy: Photos on the high school’s website show clusters of students posing in Halloween costumes in the hallways, without masks. School district officials did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Emanuel County, 90 miles west of Savannah, is a rural expanse dotted with pine forests and cotton fields. The county’s winding roads brim with American flags and Trump 2020 placards. It’s a Trump stronghold; the president received about 70% of the county’s votes on Nov. 3.

Many of the county’s 22,000 residents struggle to make ends meet, with households earning less than $40,000 on average. Only one in eight adults has a college degree. The school system is the region’s largest employer, followed by a local poultry plant and Walmart. More than 4,000 students attend the county’s schools, which include one primary, two elementary, one middle, a high school and a combined middle-high school. About half of the students are white, 43% are Black and 7% are Hispanic.

The school district had four months to determine how to reopen after Kemp closed schools across the state in early April and classes went remote. The board asked Superintendent Kevin Judy to develop a plan.

Judy, who has led the district since 2014, rose from a life sciences teacher to a principal to Emanuel’s superintendent, earning a doctorate in educational leadership and administration. While he opened all the district’s schools on Aug. 3 as scheduled, he empathized with families who hesitated to return to in-person schooling. Across the county, 30% of families chose virtual learning.

“My wife, she’s had breast cancer,” he said. “She’s a kindergarten teacher, and it’s something we worry about too. She teaches face-to-face every day with 20 to 22 kindergarteners in a classroom and has had a great year and wouldn’t change it for anything.”

Before reopening, Judy said, he sought guidance from the county Health Department and local physicians. He also held “informal discussions” with the school board about whether to require masks. They decided not to, without a public debate or vote. Instead, they simply encouraged the use of masks.

“The parents raised their kids, and that’s their decision to make what they feel comfortable with,” Judy said.

The county Health Department supported the school board. “You have to look at your community and see what’s best,” said Jennifer Harrison, a nurse manager at the department, who works directly with Judy to trace school cases. “They made it an optional thing and I agree with that. You’re not going to appease everybody every time no matter what you do.”

School board member Johnny Parker, who spent 40 years as a teacher and counselor, has worn a mask to the past four board meetings. Nevertheless, he said in a mid-October interview that masks should be optional. Although Trump had been hospitalized for COVID-19 two weeks earlier, Parker cited the president’s habits to defend the district’s policy. “The president, he doesn’t wear a mask.”

School reopenings, Parker said, had no effect on transmission rates. “Protests are spreading the virus more than the schools,” he said. “People who protest don’t have them on. The ones that are rioting and destroying people’s property, they don’t have them on. That might be the spread.”

On the south side of Swainsboro, the seat of Emanuel County, winds the Tiger Trail, a pine-wooded paved stretch where all of the town’s schools are located. More than 600 students attend the one-story, sand brick middle school. COVID-19 awareness posters line its hallways, showing children how to spot symptoms and encouraging them to socially distance.

The virus penetrated the school before the students returned. During a staff planning week, two employees tested positive for the virus, a middle school teacher said. “When it starts up before the kids even get back, that should be a signal,” the teacher said. All current teachers at the middle school who were interviewed asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.

After the receptionists fell ill and a teacher went home with symptoms at the end of the first week of school, some staff members hoped that the administration would take strong action, such as closing the middle school for cleaning or widespread quarantining. (One receptionist declined to comment, and the other did not respond to interview requests.) But the school remained open and contract tracing was limited, with only a handful of children sent home to quarantine, said four staff members. “It was just business as usual,” a teacher said.

As schools reopened, however, throngs of children, parents and grandparents began pouring into Porter’s office, a one-story brick clinic in central Swainsboro, a block away from the county’s only hospital.

Porter, one of the few African American physicians in the county, had moved to Emanuel 33 years before to start a family practice. Having grown up with severe asthma in a small Georgia town, he understood the importance of high-quality health care in rural communities. When the pandemic began in March, he scoured studies in the New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA and other top-flight medical journals, preparing himself, and his county, for the virus’s arrival.

“We had lots of cases amongst the children, and then the parents were getting it, and some of the grandparents were getting it, and we were having hospitalizations among some of the adults that got sick,” Porter said.

Data from the state’s Health Department confirms Porter’s experience. The county had nearly as many coronavirus cases among school-age children in the first month of school as in the first five months of the pandemic. Harrison, from the county’s Health Department, said that the district has had between 10 and 50 outbreaks since schools opened but could not be more specific.

Yet few Emanuel County parents were aware of the surge. For the first three weeks of school, the superintendent did not report the number of cases among staff and students on the district’s website.

“We are transparent, we’re not trying to hide anything,” Judy told ProPublica. “Did I report data the first three weeks of school? No, truthfully, it never crossed my mind.”

“I just felt angry that this was handled in the way it was handled,” Porter said. “If people really knew how bad it had been, and how bad at times it gets, there would be more outcry and more of a problem keeping the schools open. People didn’t know the extent of the problem.”

Porter surveyed his pediatric patients and their families in an attempt to trace how they had acquired the disease. When children described what went on in school, he was startled. Many teachers and students were not wearing masks. Kids were crammed into classrooms with up to two dozen desks, 2 to 3 feet apart. Children often did not socially distance in hallways and cafeterias, despite a slew of signs reminding them to do so. Sports practice and games played on, with hardly any players or coaches masked. Students were sardined into buses, where they were required to wear face coverings, but often tucked them under their chins or hung them off their ears. Children sometimes ate lunch in classrooms with closed windows, allowing aerosolized particles to spread. And in some cases, an exposed student might be sent home for quarantine, but older or younger siblings might still attend class in another school.

Many of these practices disregarded recommendations from the CDC and World Health Organization, which stressed the importance of consistent masking of children and staff; small classes with desks spaced 6 feet apart; staggered bell times to minimize crowding in hallways; limited mixing of student groups throughout the day; and thorough contact tracing. Schools can be opened relatively safely, numerous studies have found, but only with proper safeguards in place.

Concerned that keeping schools open without a mask mandate would foster the spread of the virus, Porter phoned the superintendent and asked him to reconsider. “If kids are going to be in school, everybody needs to wear masks,” he told Judy.

The superintendent told ProPublica that the district took proper precautions in opening schools: Custodians mist classrooms at breaks and frequently wipe down high-touch surfaces like door handles and light switches. Students socially distance in the halls. Every hallway has at least three hand washing stations. When children or staff test positive, school nurses work with the Health Department and use surveys to track anyone that might have been exposed. And siblings of sick children, he contended, are indeed quarantined.

Porter detailed his concerns in an impassioned op-ed in the local paper. “The science is clear that the way we’re doing things will lead to a large spike in cases,” he wrote, pleading for masking in schools. “We may not fear that students will get sick, but I promise you, too many teachers, paraprofessionals, and others will.”

The superintendent did not address why Porter’s recommendations weren’t followed. “He was saying what he felt to be factual,” Judy said.

English teacher Shonray Brooks was nervous about going back to school. She had respiratory difficulties that required an inhaler, making her more vulnerable to the virus. But she had no choice. The district required teachers in core subjects to teach in person. While some states have strong unions that have helped teachers negotiate for protections during the pandemic, Georgia does not permit collective bargaining, leaving Brooks with little recourse.

Brooks grew up in Emanuel. Her mother died when she was 7, and her grandmother stepped in to raise her and her siblings. Education took center stage. Brooks became the family’s “encyclopedia-dictionary,” said her younger sister Shonte Smith, as well as a cornerstone of the high school debate team and the preferred tutor for failing football players. After graduating from Georgia Southern University, she returned to Emanuel to teach.

Brooks taught in the district for 15 years, often arriving before 7:30 a.m. to prepare lessons, staying late to grade papers and help train the step team, and on exam days, she’d whip up grits and breakfast casseroles in her crockpot for her students.

Shonte, who works as a hair stylist in Warner Robins, Georgia, two hours away, knew that nothing would keep her sister from her students, not even a pandemic. “It was a COVID cesspool,” Shonte said, but “those kids meant the world to her.”

When school started, Brooks was in quarantine, with only her gray cat, Sassy, to keep her company. A family member had tested positive for the virus, and while she hadn’t had much contact with her, she was cautious. But after testing negative, Brooks began teaching, donning both a cloth mask and a face shield.

In her first week back, Brooks and several other staff attended the school board’s monthly meeting, hoping members would discuss how to combat the pandemic. In the cavernous high school cafeteria, Judy and the board sat before the socially distanced attendees. Of the board members, only Parker wore a mask. They talked about the virus for less than five minutes, according to Deanna Ryan, a former Swainsboro middle school science teacher who attended the meeting. Ryan had recently started teaching in a nearby charter school, which had instituted a mask mandate.

“We have roughly fifteen employees and four students that are at home positive,” reported the superintendent, according to the meeting minutes. “The student transmissions did not take place at school but through family situations. With our employees, the majority happened outside of school. We have had some that did occur with employees not following guidelines during preplanning.”

By the end of that week, Brooks felt lethargic and her body ached. She stayed home from school that Friday and got tested. She stayed in bed most of the weekend, soreness spreading through her body, her lungs heavy. “All of the symptoms you hear about, she started having them,” said Shonte, who had a friend deliver Gatorade and soup to her sister’s front porch. Brooks brought the care package inside but was so exhausted that she had to rest on her couch on the way to the kitchen. Even though she was ailing, she managed to finish her final paper for an online master’s degree in education technology at Central Michigan University.

After three days, she received her results. She had the coronavirus. Less than 12 hours later, she was rushed to the emergency room of Emanuel Medical Center, struggling to breathe.

The first day of school in Marietta looked much different from Emanuel. Masks were as common as backpacks on students stepping off buses, their waves and thumbs-ups compensating for hidden smiles as grown-ups snapped photos.

The universal masks reflected a change of heart by Grant Rivera, who has been superintendent of schools in Marietta for four years and often sports a polo shirt emblazoned with his schools’ trademark oversized M. Marietta, a city of 61,000 residents north of Atlanta, has its own school district but is part of suburban Cobb County, which is trending blue; Joe Biden carried the county over Trump by more than 14 percentage points.

When Rivera put forth a plan in June to offer students both virtual and in-person options to return to school in August, he didn’t propose a mask requirement. Parents reached out to Rivera, urging him to reconsider mandating masks. “Quite candidly, with every conversation I was having I found it harder and harder to defend why we weren’t requiring masks,” Rivera said. “I felt like I was in quicksand. I couldn’t even convince myself of the argument.”

Rivera has two young children and a formidable resume—with stints as a special education teacher, a principal and a chief of staff in the Cobb County district—along with a doctorate in education with an emphasis on school law. What he is not, he readily acknowledges, is a health expert, so he turned to local health departments and the CDC. The professionals’ advice: Mask up.

As cases and deaths soared statewide in July, the school board delayed the start of in-person schooling. By early August, Rivera had a new plan: Marietta would begin in-person schooling in September for the youngest students, as long as cases continued to drop from their July peak. Everyone would wear masks—from bus drivers to teachers to students to central office staff. The only exception would be students with a doctor’s letter documenting a valid health reason. “We started with masks, and we built everything else around that,” he said.

The school board unanimously backed his position. Chairwoman Allison Gruehn said conservative parents had been “very disappointed” with the district’s decision to start school remotely, and they were willing to accept a mask mandate since it meant that their children could learn in person.

As Marietta hashed out its safety protocol, Paulding County schools a short drive west opened without a mask mandate. Photos of maskless students packing North Paulding High School’s hallways went viral on social media, drawing national attention. Paulding reported 41 positive cases of students or staff during its first week of school, including 24 at North Paulding High, which was closed temporarily.

By the following week, the Cherokee County district just to the north had asked as many as 1,200 students and staff members to quarantine because of possible exposure to the virus. That system had also declined to mandate masks. After those uproars, Rivera told parents during a virtual meeting that “I don’t want to subject our kids to what we’re seeing in other districts.”

Few parents objected to Marietta’s mask policy. Two families emailed him asking that their kids be exempted, he said, vaguely citing “medical risks associated with masks.” Rivera relayed their concerns to public health officials, who assured him that masks don’t pose such dangers for children. One of the families withdrew a first grader from the district.

Amy Barnes was among the Marietta parents who pleaded with Rivera to reverse the district’s initial decision to make masks voluntary. Barnes, who had completed a contact-tracing course, believes that masks are an essential, science-based part of COVID-19 prevention.

She was worried about sending her three children back to school and had thought about going all-remote, until Rivera imposed the mask mandate. “What sealed the deal for my husband and I was that Marietta was requiring masks,” Barnes said. “We felt that masks were the only way to mitigate the spread in schools because it’s really hard to socially distance in classrooms.”

Still, Barnes wondered how her youngest, a fifth grader, would fare. He’d worn masks in stores, but never for seven hours straight. He started in-person classes in early October during the second phase of Mariettta’s reopening. She was relieved when he came home his first day and reported that wearing a covering all day was “not that bad.” He hasn’t complained since, she said.

Marietta mom Shamika Berger was reluctant to send her first grader, Elijah Brown, back to school because of worries about the virus. She, too, had watched the news coverage of Paulding and Cherokee counties. “I was like, ‘Nobody is taking this seriously,’” she said.

But Berger works during school hours in the deli at Walmart, and Elijah—like so many young children—had struggled staying focused in virtual class in the spring. So, with Mickey Mouse and Spider-Man masks at the ready, Elijah returned to Dunleith Elementary in early September. He, too, didn’t seem bothered by wearing the mask all day, she said. “He was just so excited to be back in school,” Berger said.

Unlike Emanuel, Marietta let teachers choose whether to return to the classroom or teach from home until Oct. 5, when more students would be coming back. The mask mandate helped reassure most teachers that it was safe to go back to school.

Second grade teacher Libby Coan said the kids in her classroom at Hickory Hills Elementary have had no problem keeping their masks on. She hasn’t had any pushback from parents, either. “I think their parents just want them in school,” she said.

First grade teacher Jenny Brems said she, too, was glad that the district didn’t leave the mask decision up to parents.“I didn’t want it to be a fudgy thing,” she said. Kids need reminders sometimes, she said, but have otherwise adjusted fine. The district allows “mask breaks” outside, she said, adding, “It’s not as traumatic as some people were afraid of.”

Wearing a mask all day in the classroom, though, has required extra effort when she teaches phonics to her students at A.L. Burruss Elementary, she said. Watching a teacher’s mouth form sounds helps kids learn how to read. Brems said she is using a clear mask her district provided, and she has become accustomed to gesturing, enunciating and projecting her voice more than usual.

She was hoarse after the first few days, she said. “I’m chugging the water like I’ve never done before,” Brems said. But the measures have kept her safe, she added—and allowed the kids to continue learning.

Still, opposition to the measures Marietta took could be found close by. Parent Jolynn Dupree, who lives in Acworth about a half-hour drive from Marietta, objected when the Cobb County district mandated masks. In July, Dupree started a Facebook group called “Masses Against Masks” for Cobb County parents who “demand that their schools not require masks while exercising their right to an education.” The group has 947 members.

“I felt like you have no voice if you are against the masks—you are looked at like you don’t like people, you want their grandma to die,” said Dupree. Her husband’s 97-year-old grandfather died of the virus in a nursing home in Marietta, but she and other family members caught it and recovered, she said. With a generally high survival rate, she said, the harm of forcing children to wear masks for seven or eight hours a day outweighs the benefit. Masks make it hard for children to breathe in steamy Georgia weather and to read facial cues, and the mandate puts too much pressure on them, she said.

“I don’t want to hurt people,” she said, “but I’m not going to psychologically hurt my kids.”

Dupree and her husband withdrew their four school-age children—who range from first to sixth grades—from the Cobb system. They now go to a private school, without masks, twice a week and are home-schooled the other days.

She said she might reconsider her stance if her children were in high school, since teenagers are more likely to spread the disease. But friends of hers in Paulding and Cherokee counties—which don’t have mask mandates—are doing fine, she said.

“When I hang out with my friends, their kids are living totally normal lives and everything seems good,” Dupree said.

When Shonray Brooks arrived at the hospital, the doctors transferred her to the intensive care unit, where she received supplementary oxygen and the antiviral medication remdesivir. Doctors monitored her for several days, examining her for blood clots and heart irregularities, common secondary symptoms of the virus. Her relatives couldn’t visit her, so they tried to keep her spirits up with text messages. “I love you, Sissy,” Shonte texted her. “I’m praying for you.”

Despite the treatments, Brooks’ condition deteriorated. Doctors decided to medivac her to a hospital in Augusta, the nearest city. By the time her helicopter landed, she was unresponsive. She was immediately placed on a ventilator.

Her friends and colleagues learned of her plight from her sister’s Facebook updates. Though school nurses spoke with several of Brooks’ students, the administration did not tell staff who had the virus, four employees said. “They were tight-lipped about everybody that had it,” said a teacher. “I’m not saying they should tell us details, but they should tell us if it was someone in the building that was around a lot of people.”

Several staff members told ProPublica that they believe the school was trying to conceal the extent of the spread. “Everybody knows, but no one knows through official channels,” said another teacher. “The general sense was, we’re not going to talk about it. We’re not going to tell you and I think at that point, teachers realized no one’s going to tell us if we’ve been exposed. No one’s gonna know until it’s too late.”

At a school board meeting in September, the teacher Deanna Ryan stepped up to the lectern. After flipping through choropleth maps from the state’s Health Department, showing the board how the virus was inundating the county, she began to talk about Brooks. When Ryan first moved to Emanuel county, Brooks quickly took her under her wing. During the 11 years they taught together at the middle school, they had lunch nearly every day and worked on each other’s class projects.

“There’s a teacher that I know who’s fighting for her life,” Ryan said, her voice quivering with each word. “She was the person who would get me to calm down and breathe. And now she’s struggling to.” Her words choked by tears, she hurried out of the room.

At least four more teachers at the middle school contracted COVID-19 after Brooks, including three other educators along the seventh grade hallway. Students rotated through classrooms together. While teachers tried to assign them to the same seats in each class, students had a way of shifting seats to be closer to their friends, broadening the potential exposure.

“Five classes a day is five sets of germs coming in and out of my class,” said a teacher. “If they are a carrier, but they are not showing symptoms, you don’t even know that they are sick. They are still spreading the germs around.”

Over the first two months of school, more than 100 students were quarantined, teachers and parents said. “I was scared,” one teacher said. “We started out with 25 kids. After three weeks, it was down to five. Kids were testing positive.”

Judy said he doesn’t dispute that the number of students quarantined was in triple digits, but he doesn’t know the exact number. “I don’t even want to ballpark it,” he said. “If you’re within 6 feet of someone for more than a cumulative 15 minutes, then that’s who gets quarantined.”

By mid-September, the county had the fifth-highest per capita rate of the virus in the state over a two-week period. Yet the schools carried on almost like normal. The high school crowned its homecoming king and queen, and sports teams played and scrimmaged before cheering parents, few of whom covered their faces.

Parental opinion over a mask mandate was divided. “I believe there’s a real virus, but I don’t believe people are dying like they say,” said one opponent, Roy Beneteau, while watching his teenage son play soccer at the local rec center. Beneteau delivers hundreds of packages daily, does not wear a mask and still hasn’t contracted the disease, he said.

Nana Davis disagreed. Sitting apart from a scrum of parents, in a folding plastic chair on the edge of a field, she was watching her 12-year-old son’s football game. He suffers from asthma and was wearing a mask under his helmet.

“I don’t think [schools are] safe,” said Davis, who enrolled her son in virtual learning. “A lot of kids touch each other, some could come to school with it, and it could endanger an asthma patient.”

Before the Emanuel school board’s October meeting, a photo was taken of members and the superintendent. Superintendent Judy donned a black mask for the picture and then quickly removed it. “I wanted to make sure everybody was able to hear,” he later said. Two of the six members who attended wore masks.

Only seven people were in the audience, including three district staff members and Ryan. Wearing her KN95 mask and a Kelly green rubber wristband with the words “Miss Brooks Strong” emblazoned on the edge, Ryan again spoke.

“Why are the adults who are leaders in this community not wearing masks?” she asked the superintendent and school board. “I’m still waiting for my friend to stand up. I would ask—no, I will plead—please wear your masks more often, especially when you’re close to people. You don’t know what you’re passing on.”

Neither the superintendent nor the board members responded. While they didn’t revisit a mask mandate, the superintendent suggested investing more than $175,000 to upgrade the district’s ventilation system with “needlepoint bipolar ionization,” which could cut down on dust, bacteria and viruses such as COVID-19. The district had just installed these devices in the middle school, Judy reported.

A couple of days after the meeting, Judy spoke with ProPublica for an hour in his office, which overlooks a parking lot in central Swainsboro. Seated behind his desk, he wore a black cotton mask and the green rubber wristband supporting Brooks. Shonte made and distributed the bracelets to honor her sister’s struggle, collecting donations for her care. Judy had ordered 100 for school staff.

Judy said he was confident that the schools had nothing to do with the outbreaks. “People were not as careful as they should have been,” he said. “They rode together in vehicles, went out to eat lunch and things like that caused it. The starting of school … there was not a spike there at all.”

Still, he acknowledged that it’s difficult to know how staff and students acquire the virus. “It could be that one of those teachers had it and shared it with the others. That’s a possibility. It could be that one of them got it from their home and the other one got it from their home. It could be a coincidence. That’s the nature of this,” he said.

Many public health experts have compared the effort to compel Americans to wear masks during the pandemic to the decades-long struggle to persuade people to wear seatbelts. Detractors said that mandatory seat belt laws were ineffective, uncomfortable or against their individual rights. The same arguments that have frequently been invoked against masks, even though they not only protect the wearers but also the people around them.

Though he doesn’t equate them with face coverings, Judy said, he’s opposed to mandatory seat belts, too. “I am not harming anyone else,” he said.

The view of Emanuel County officials, he added, is that “the great part of living in this country is that it is left up to individual people to make what they feel is the best decision for them and their family.”

Despite the mask mandate and other precautions, Rivera still wasn’t satisfied that Marietta was doing enough to stop COVID-19. He wanted to stay on top of whether the coronavirus was being transmitted in schools. Having heard from the Public Health Department that its contact tracing and testing program was overwhelmed, he said, “we built our own internal system.”

School nurses and other staff gained certifications in contact tracing and the district hired a part-time worker to help them. The system now has tracers who speak English, Spanish and Portuguese and can make calls from 8 a.m. to midnight. The program is crucial for reassuring parents that the schools are safe, he said.

Marietta continued to phase in students’ return to the classroom; high school students were the last to go back, on Nov. 9. Rivera kept in close touch with local health officials, checking in three times a week by phone. “I sometimes feel like I talk to them more than I talk to my wife,” he said.

Like Emanuel, Marietta upgraded its air ventilation. Sports continued too, with Marietta requiring anyone visiting its stadium to wear a mask. School officials walked through the stands during games, reminding spectators to keep theirs on or risk being ejected from the facility.

Cases were rising across the country, and a few surfaced in Marietta schools. The contact tracers looked into each one. The schools didn’t appear to be the source of any clusters, although, with the virus spreading ever faster, it was getting harder to tell.

With Shonray in a medically induced coma, Shonte checked in with her sister’s nurses daily and visited twice a week, every Thursday and Sunday. During her visits, she massaged Shonray’s arms and legs and painted her nails—a clear varnish for her fingers and an electric shade of green for her toes. After more than two weeks in the ICU, Shonte prepared for the worst.

“She’s been here 16 days, and she’s had no improvement,” a doctor told her, explaining that her sister still had a fever from a possible infection. “We’re playing this day by day.”

Shonte called family members with the somber update. “We have to be strong,” she said through tears. “We have to keep praying. She shall live and not die.”

Two days later, while she was driving to Augusta to visit her sister, a nurse called. They only contacted her for urgent reasons, and so apprehensively, she picked up the phone.

“The doctor told me to call,” said the nurse. “Shonray is up.”

Shonte shrieked in her car, too elated for words. The nurse told her that Shonray was nodding to commands and breathing over the ventilator. When Shonte arrived at her sister’s room, she pulled a chair up to the bed. “You’ve been gone for a little while,” Shonte said, stroking her sister’s hand. “And I’m so happy you’re here.” Painfully, Brooks’ lips curled into a faint smile.

A couple weeks later, after being taken off the ventilator, Brooks started her rehabilitation, slowly beginning to speak, eat and write on her own again. In early November, while her sister was visiting, Brooks walked 150 feet. Brooks, who declined to be interviewed, told Shonte that she hopes to return to teaching as soon as she’s physically able. She also heard some welcome news: With the paper she had submitted at the start of her battle with COVID-19, she had earned enough credits for her online master’s degree.

On Nov. 20, she was released from the hospital and moved in with Shonte. Waiting for her at her sister’s house: her diploma and a cap and gown she had ordered during her rehab.

Was Trump’s Pardon of Flynn Part of a Deal?

On November 22, 2017, John Dowd, then one of President Donald Trump’s lawyers, left a voicemail for Robert Kelner, who was representing Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser. Trump had fired Flynn for lying about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in late 2016, and Dowd suspected, correctly, that Flynn, who was under investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, was about to cut a deal with Mueller.

Dowd asked for a “heads up,” if Flynn was giving Mueller information “that implicates the President.” Apparently referring to the possibility that Flynn would cooperate without giving prosecutors damning information about Trump, Dowd also said, “remember what we’ve always said about the President and his feeling toward Flynn, and all that still remains.”

That sounded like a suggestion that Trump would pardon Flynn if he didn’t flip on Trump. In his April 2019 final report, Mueller cited the voicemail in a section analyzing whether Trump obstructed justice by dangling pardons to former aides being investigated by Mueller. 

Dowd denies that he was hinting at a presidential pardon for Flynn. “It’s nonsense,” he said when reached by phone Wednesday, after the news broke that Trump was pardoning Flynn. “It’s not true. It’s a fucking lie.” Then he hung up.

Flynn did cooperate without implicating Trump. Flynn told investigators that Trump was not aware of his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition. And on Wednesday, Trump gave Flynn that pardon.

It is my Great Honor to announce that General Michael T. Flynn has been granted a Full Pardon. Congratulations to @GenFlynn and his wonderful family, I know you will now have a truly fantastic Thanksgiving!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 25, 2020

The pardon is likely to end an ongoing legal fight over Flynn’s guilty plea, in which he admitted he had lied to the FBI about his conversations with Kislyak. In an odd move, Flynn had attempted to withdraw that plea, and his conservative defenders have portrayed him as a victim of a Deep State conspiracy. In June, at the behest of Attorney General Bill Barr, the Justice Department moved to drop charges against Flynn. But Emmet Sullivan, the federal judge overseeing the case, has held up that request to scrutinize its legitimacy. The pardon could put an end to this squabbling. Yet some legal analysts critical of Flynn argued Wednesday that Sullivan could hold a hearing on whether the pardon is corrupt and hence illegal.

As part of his plea deal with Mueller, Flynn also admitted to making “materially false statements and omissions” in documents he filed with the Justice Department about his lobbying work. He had stated he was lobbying for a Dutch company, but the true beneficiary of his efforts was the government of Turkey. Flynn had been lobbying for Turkey while he was advising Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016. Trump didn’t say if his pardon covered Flynn’s false statements about his Turkish lobbying. 

Flynn has been represented by Sidney Powell, a Texas-based attorney who was abruptly ousted from Trump’s legal team on Sunday after appearing at a press conference with Rudy Giuliani and asserting, without presenting any evidence, that Democrats conspired with international corporations, the CIA, and forces in Cuba, Venezuela “and likely China” to steal the election from Trump. Powell also suggested Republicans in Georgia, which Joe Biden won, were in on this diabolical scheme. That may have been too much even for Trump, who was reportedly unhappy with her performance. But since she became Flynn’s lawyer last year, Powell has used Flynn’s case to try to bolster Trump’s false claims that he and his advisers were improperly spied upon by Obama administration officials. Her faults as Trump’s lawyer were apparently not bad enough to cost her other client his long-awaited pardon.

Not Just Michael Flynn: A Shockingly Long List of Trump’s Controversial Pardons

Versions of this story were published on April 13, 2020, and July 10, 2020.

Donald Trump has added yet another name to the long list of friends, loyalists, cronies, and conservative celebrities who have received presidential pardons or commutations. This time the beneficiary is his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who in 2017 pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in connection with the Trump-Russia scandal. Weeks into his administration, Trump fired Flynn for lying about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. But in recent years, Trump, as he has falsely contended the Russia investigation was a hoax, has defended and hailed Flynn. 

It is my Great Honor to announce that General Michael T. Flynn has been granted a Full Pardon. Congratulations to @GenFlynn and his wonderful family, I know you will now have a truly fantastic Thanksgiving!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 25, 2020

Trump’s use—and abused—of executive clemency has figured prominently in his presidency. One widely discussed Trump 2020 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 pardon powers to reward political allies, such as Flynn. Here’s a list of right-wing icons, corrupt public officials, accused war criminals, and other controversial figures who have received clemency from Trump.

Roger Stone

Stone, a longtime Trump adviser, was convicted of lying to Congress, obstruction, and witness tampering in connection with the Russia investigation.

The Trump connection: Stone’s 2019 trial revealed that Trump likely lied to special counsel Robert Mueller about his own role in the scandal, but Stone 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.” On July 10, Trump commuted Stone’s sentence, just days before Stone would have been required to report to prison.

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 went on to serve as 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 announced plans to run for Congress as a Republican. She ultimately lost her race by more than 70 percentage points.

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 wrote in the Washington Post, Trump’s pardon of DeBartolo, issued on February 18, could have been 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 wanted 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.

Trump’s Lawyers Just Performed Another Embarrassing “Election Fraud” Show

President Trump called into a bizarre meeting disguised as a hearing on unsubstantiated election fraud on Wednesday. The sham meeting designed to look like legislative session was in fact just a GOP hosted session at a hotel, organized by Pennsylvania state Republicans and the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who’s leading the campaign’s legal effort to challenge the result of the election.

Trump, who originally was rumored to appear in person, instead called into campaign lawyer Jenna Ellis’ cell phone midway through the proceedings and ranted about the “stolen election” as Ellis held the cell phone up to a microphone (interrupted occasionally by the sound of another incoming call to her phone). “This election has to be turned around because we won Pennsylvania by a lot and we won all of these swing states by a lot,” Trump said over the phone, despite the fact that the states of Pennsylvania and Michigan—another key swing state that the president lost— have already certified their votes, giving president-elect Joe Biden the Electoral College margin he needed to win the 2020 election. “We have to turn the election over because there’s no doubt we have all the evidence, we have all the affidavits, we just need some judge to listen to it properly,” Trump said, as a crowd of supporters cheered in agreement.

The meeting was just the latest, fleeting attempt for Trump and his campaign to try overturn the election results by spreading unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud that allege a vast international conspiracy to fix the 2020 election. Leading the effort is Giuliani, who for hours on Wednesday presented a host of witnesses to a panel of Republican state senators that told stories of voting irregularities they witnessed on Election Day. But at no point did Giuliani nor any witnesses present any evidence of election fraud. Instead, Giuliani marveled incredulously that there were more absentee ballots than were mailed out. (That’s because people could go in person to an election board office to request a mail-in ballot). He suggested that thousands of dead people voted. (They didn’t). And at one point Giuliani suggested, with no evidence, that a single person may have cast nearly 700,000 ballots.

The witnesses that the president’s lawyer rolled out to show evidence of election fraud included a first-time poll worker who apparently did not understand that it is proper election procedure to separate envelopes from ballots to ensure voter secrecy, as well as an elderly voter who did not understand how an electronic voting machine worked and thought it was “odd.” There was also an attorney claiming to be an expert in Pennsylvania election law, though is only licensed to practice law in Florida and Illinois.

The president, who said over the phone he had been watching the meeting on OANN, soaked it all up. “This election was lost by the Democrats, they cheated, it was a fraudulent election, they flooded the market, they flooded everybody with ballots and I just want to thank everybody for being there,” Trump said.

It’s easy dismiss this latest stunt in the Trump campaign’s trifling effort to change the results of the election as another sad sideshow of American democracy, the final pitiful whimpering of the clown show coup, but there’s something sinister at play. As my colleague Ari Berman wrote, Trump and his enabler’s vast effort to undermine the legitimacy of the election could set the stage for GOP state lawmakers to pass new voter suppression measures:

It’s very easy to imagine state-level Republicans introducing legislation in early 2021 to cut back on mail voting or early voting, which helped lead to record turnout in 2020. Republican attorneys general have intervened in litigation to back the Trump campaign’s efforts to block mail ballots that legally arrived after Election Day from being counted in Pennsylvania, claiming that the authority of the state legislature, which refused to give voters more time to send their ballots back, should supersede the judgements of state courts that did allot this extra time—an argument that could give GOP-controlled state legislatures even more sway over voting laws in 2021.

Though Wednesday’s meeting doesn’t have any real consequence for the Pennsylvania state Senate—it was merely a caucus meeting for the state’s Senate majority policy committee—the lawmakers who led it vowed to investigate the election measures that allowed a record number of people to vote in Pennsylvania. While Giuliani and Ellis kept repeating that the state legislators should overturn the will of their state’s voters, the lawmakers’ questions were often more pointed toward looking at how they could use these erroneous claims of fraud as reason to push future voter restrictions.

Still, while the lawmakers seemed unlikely to intercede to subvert the 2020 election results, that didn’t stop them from kowtowing to the president’s ego, offering up histrionics to appease the president bunkered at the White House. “In a hundred years this will be the most important hearing this state senate committee has ever held,” Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano said.

Lunchtime Photo

While I was snapping photos on the pier at Huntington Beach on Saturday, a guy came up and asked if I was taking pictures of the sunset. I said no, but then thought twice about it. All I had to do was kill another hour, and the wispy clouds on the horizon suggested we might get a pretty good show.

Sure enough, we got a very nice, vivid sunset. So here’s the pretty picture I promised you to make up for the MAGA protesters on Monday.

November 21, 2020 — Huntington Beach, California

We Asked How You’re Observing Thanksgiving. Here’s What You Said.

Earlier this week, I asked how you planned to observe this very unusual Thanksgiving. I was overwhelmed with the responses. Some of you are planning very careful, socially distanced gatherings with family. Others are spending the day alone, or using it to honor Native Americans on whose stolen land we normally feast. Below are just a few responses that highlight the variety of ways people think about and practice the holiday.

From Kay and Lewis Olson in Minnesota:

We will forego the usual Thanksgiving gathering. We are over 80 and have underlying health concerns. The gathering posed an unacceptable level of risk. Our daughter-in-law will be delivering meals to us so we won’t miss out on the feast. It’s only one year. We can wait.

From Bill McCabe:

I don’t like to call the day Thanksgiving because it promotes systematic racism and has such a terrible history. I do enjoy the traditional food and since I live on a mountain with only a wonderful black lab for company we will share a meal.

He has ordered turkey (breast only) and gravy with a side of some nice pieces of cheese and a small amount of cherry pie for desert.

I will add a salad and some stuffing on my plate.

After the meal we will either walk in the woods or go for a “barking ride” along the Clinch River.

Peter Kenyon:

We don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in Australia, not now in spring or (more appropriately) in autumn either. That’s a pity. In Thanksgiving I see links to a past when people’s daily survival was less confident, when we had to be much more attuned to a local nature and its ability to sustain and nurture. Settlers couldn’t depend on a global food system to deliver food “from somewhere” and they were appreciative and humbled by getting through another year. It lent, perhaps, a small sense of being dependent on place, a notion that underpins Indigenous thinking all around the world and which settler agriculture and modern transport networks have done away with. The hubris of the modern food system has no need of Thanksgiving or its underpinning philosophy.

I don’t think it’s too far from the truth to suggest that our contemporary “from anywhere” food thinking supports a carelessness and dangerous disregard for our environment that has led to global warming, inhumane farming methods, soil erosion and loss of productive farmland, depletion and pollution of our water systems.

So Thanksgiving for me—a non-practicer—presents a chink of opportunity to note and respond to the carelessness with which we approach food and our connection to place. And an opportunity to more rigorously build into the celebration of Thanksgiving a more thoughtful regard for the small, local things that make life worthwhile and sustainable.

Isabella Lewis:

I am choosing to break tradition and use this opportunity to celebrate our Native American friends and neighbors. We were gifted a venison roast by a Native American friend who went hunting recently. He was lucky and got himself a deer. I have never eaten Bambi before, and I am not sure how much I will eat of this deer; but it is a gift and we feel we must honor the hunter and the prey. So I will pray to the spirit of the deer and give thanks to our hunter friend, thereby acknowledging the generosity they both bestowed upon us.

Looking forward to the return of the light and a brighter America, we will open a good bottle of wine and celebrate life and good health.

Joan Fenton:

After an extremely hot, record-breaking summer that lasted with several 90 degree days into November, we desert dwellers have finally received our reward: temperatures for a few months in the 60s to 80s.

As a result, our family’s Thanksgiving dinner will be held for 14 of us who live in the Valley of the Sun. We will gather outdoors under our trees, with everyone entering through a gate directly into the yard.

All food brought will be in crock pots. Each of our adult children and their families will sit at separated tables, and we will be at our own table. Everyone will use hand sanitizer before serving themselves buffet style. We’ll mask up when not eating.

We know how to be respectful and loving toward one another, especially at this perilous time, because we, their parents, are 77 and 80. We are truly thankful, and not just on November 26.

The painful and untrue Thanksgiving myth is slowly unraveling in many churches, mine included. At meetings for about the past three years, we publicly remember that our activities are being held on the land once inhabited, and usually stolen, from the ancestors of our Indigenous sisters and brothers. We Presbyterians have a long way to go, but we are beginning our journey, asking our Native American friends to guide us.

Mechelle Schneider:

Originally my daughter, a nurse, who lives in Wichita, KS, was planning to test Monday and head to Michigan for Thanksgiving. I haven’t seen her in about 18 months. Then on Thursday she came into contact with someone who was COVID positive. She realized that even if she tested negative on Monday, she could bring COVID with her. My other daughter invited me, but if I went to her home, there would be four households together. So I will roast a chicken, prepare my favorite side dishes and share my meal with my two Siamese cats.

Today I learned that my high school British lit teacher died of COVID. He was 94. The last time I saw him was at a coffee shop. He recited Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” for me. Even though he was 94, his parents were both over 100 when they died. I figure he was cheated of at least six years.

I want to survive this pandemic, and I want to survive the Trump administration. A little isolation will not hurt me. This is not what anyone wants, but I want to see our country, families, and friends come through to the other side.

No matter how you plan to spend the day, I hope you make the best of it. We at Mother Jones will be out Thursday and Friday, so we’ll see you next week. Eat up!

This post was brought to you by the Mother Jones Daily newsletter, which hits inboxes every weekday and is written by Ben Dreyfuss and Abigail Weinberg. It regularly features guest contributions by our much smarter colleagues. Sign up for it here.

What Giving Thanks Can Look Like This Weekend

As you gather with the ones you love in person or remotely or not, it is worth reflecting on the words of Edgar Villanueva—author, activist, founder of the Decolonizing Wealth Project, an Atlantic Fellow for Racial Equity, and, in full disclosure and celebration, a new member of Mother Jones’ board—from a conversation in Yes! magazine headlined “Healing From Colonization on Thanksgiving and Beyond”:

As a Native American, I’m often troubled by the way that Americans approach Thanksgiving. By holding onto an idealized image of a harmonious feast between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag, we’ve overlooked the brutality that Native people have faced since the arrival of Europeans. For many Native Americans, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning and remembrance—a reminder of the genocide of our people, the loss of our way of life, and the theft of our ancestral lands.

I propose seven steps to healing: grieve, apologize, listen, relate, represent, invest, and repair. I initially developed these steps in relation to my professional field of philanthropy, but they are also applicable to a personal process of decolonization.

The steps Edgar proposes are not easy, but I imagine they have the cumulative effect of bringing forth the actual goal of Thanksgiving—gratitude.

Gratitude for the opportunity to cross a bridge that you may not have known was there, or one you thought you couldn’t cross. Gratitude for the Navajo communities that organized get-out-the-vote efforts during a devastating pandemic that has imperiled the Navajo Nation at a disproportionate rate. Gratitude for the Gwich’in Native community in the Arctic for protecting the planet, risking life and livelihood. Gratitude for the Federated Indians of Graton Ranchería for supporting ways all of us can keep learning about wisdom that existed before so many of us arrived.

Happy healing and giving of thanks in the many ways we can and have yet to pursue.

—Venu Gupta is Mother Jones’ Midwest regional development director. Share your stories of gratitude and Thanksgiving with her at recharge@motherjones.com.

Enjoy the Holidays Like My Grandma Would: Talk Shit About Strangers

On Thanksgiving I think of my grandmother—a loud, kind, pugnacious woman who dyed her hair fiery red almost until the end. When she finally let her hair go white, I knew we were approaching a cliff. She died in early 2019.

Her absence makes the general loneliness of this pandemic Thanksgiving a bit easier. I think this year’s holiday would have always felt empty without her, as my family adjusts. On my dad’s side, she was our locus. The turkey dinner was less important than her ersatz Jewish brunch; Panera bagels were deemed good enough, lox was average at best, pimento cheese was added (which, I thought, until visiting New York City, was Jewish, not Southern, because we always had it as an optional schmear). It is not really because of food though or because of her warm embrace that I will miss her this season.

It is because my grandma, like me, basically enjoyed, above all, one activity: talking shit.

I will really miss talking shit with my grandma this year.

She was so ruthless, and funny, and biting. I loved it. She was an older Jewish woman glued to her chair or creeping along slowly in her walker around her home, constantly yelling insults about strangers—absolutely eviscerating people she’d heard about on TV.

She talked shit about everyone and everything. She watched CNN with the glee of gossip and without moral qualms. The point was entertainment. I don’t think she ever pretended to be some “citizen” interested in democracy or the nation. She liked Anderson Cooper because he was attractive, not a good journalist. And she liked cable news because it tore away the pretense of “policy” and got right into the bullshit. My father joked that if a horror was ongoing in the world somewhere, she’d wake up early and diligently turn on cable news like it was a job. The Trump era, obviously, treated her well.

Thanksgiving brought her prowess at this to a peak. Each year, we played a simple game: Who will be the Time Person of the Year? None of us really read the news deeply, except my dad, but mainly to write jokes; I don’t think anyone in my family subscribed to a print newspaper. This was all us just recklessly talking out of our asses. We’d yell and fight and laugh. This was a great way to be, and still is my preferred method of communication. I learned love is haranguing a family member for a slip of the tongue and a slightly bad take.

So, in her honor, and perhaps this will be of help to you too, I highly recommend doing as she would do. Talk some shit. If you’re doing pandemic Thanksgiving, no uptight family will grouse or condemn about your meanness. Lean in and talk some shit about someone. Just pile on for no reason! It’s fun.

And, yes, you can be thankful for all the good people in your life too, I guess.

A Netflix Doc Wants to Fix Our Food System With Capitalism. “Gather” Argues That’s How It Broke.

Early on in Gather, a new documentary about Native Americans searching for food sovereignty, we follow Nephi Craig on a tour of a former gas station on the White Mountain Apache Nation in eastern Arizona. Craig, a White Mountain Apache/Navajo chef, points to an empty refrigerated case once stocked with energy drinks and packaged snacks. It will soon be full of fresh produce from the farm outside, he explains. The Coke machine on a nearby counter will make way for a cooking fire.

Craig was once trained as a classical French chef, but the journey “was shadowed by chemical dependency,” addictions to drugs and alcohol. When he “crash-landed” back on the Rez, he began to explore the universe of Native ingredients­–agave, amaranth, squash, Anasazi beans. “That was one of the things that helped me get clean.”

It also changed his sense of purpose in the kitchen. Atop the bones of the former gas station, he’s now building a new kind of fueling station: Café Gozhóó, a restaurant designed to “nourish and celebrate our Ancestral Intelligence through fresh and local Western Apache cooking,” its menu states, and a professional training ground for people in recovery to learn Indigenous cooking techniques. During the film, local forager Twila Cassadore pushes Craig to expand his palate, including by offering him a sample of a traditional Apache protein, boiled pack rat.

Craig had to postpone the restaurant’s planned opening in the spring due to the coronavirus, which as of November has infected a fifth of the tribe. But when he finally opens its doors to the public, he envisions Café Gozhóó (the Apache word for harmony/beauty) helping those in the surrounding community break out of their food desert and its accompanying ills, such as high rates of diabetes.

“When you have food sovereignty, you’re free to be self-reliant, to grow your own food, to choose the foods you want to eat, to choose the foods you want to put in school systems, and really be self-sustaining,” Craig explains. “Our reservations across the United States are far away from being actually food sovereign.”

Gather, a beautifully shot film directed by Sanjay Rawal (Food Chains, Why We Run), traces three efforts by Native Americans to reclaim their ancestral foodways. These are not sentimental exercises, as Craig indicates. Food sovereignty is an act of resistance, a struggle against an agricultural production regime with violence at its root. Gather never loses sight of the struggle or the violence, unlike its autumnal counterpart and accidental counterpoint, Netflix’s celebrity-packed Kiss the Ground. Both documentaries raise questions about our food system, only from different perspectives and with different priorities. They make for a useful pair, with Gather showing what’s hiding in the white spaces of Kiss the Ground.

The struggle to recover their hunting and farming systems presents special challenges for Native Americans, because for hundreds of years, they’ve been blocked from doing so by a vicious campaign of colonial greed. European settlers obliterated their food supplies as a way of controlling them.

“The New World, Turtle Island, was colonized for its topsoil,” Rawal explained to me during a conversation earlier this month, citing books like Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and David Treuer’s The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee throughout our conversation. By the mid-eighteenth century, colonial farmers had cultivated the East Coast to the point where soils were being rapidly depleted, and they wanted to move west of the Appalachian Mountains. But the British King George III forbade them with the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which identified land west of the Appalachians as Indian Reserve (some historians point to the proclamation as the real driver of the Revolutionary War).

Huge land grabs by presidents Thomas Jefferson and later Andrew Jackson pushed that line further and further west, kicking tribes off rich farmland and resettling them onto reservations. As Natives in the Great Plains were forced onto shabbier soil, they increasingly depended on bison to survive. When the railroad companies plotted supply chains going east to west, the buffalo and their migratory hunters “were a complete anathema to that,” Rawal says. Political leaders looked the other way or encouraged settlers to “Kill every buffalo you can!” as one colonel reportedly put it, “every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”

In a letter to Major-General Phillip Sheridan on May 10, 1868, General William Tecumseh Sherman wrote that so long as buffalo roamed Nebraska, “Indians will go there. I think it would be wise to invite all the sportsmen of England and America there this fall for a Grand Buffalo hunt, and make one grand sweep of them all.” A mass of beasts 30 to 60 million strong shrank to a few hundred by the end of the 19th century. The government later doled out canned chicken and powdered milk to the decimated tribes as a pitiful substitution.

“We were almost wiped out, too. And we need to kind of grow back together. We can help each other.”

Amid the mixed-grass prairie of South Dakota, Fred DuBray, a member of the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation and another one of Gather’s subjects, is trying to bring the buffalo back by raising the animals on his ranch. “A lot of non-Indian people can understand the need to do that, and the good it can do for the land,” DuBray says. “Whereas they don’t understand the need to bring the culture back,” he adds. “We were almost wiped out, too. And we need to kind of grow back together. We can help each other.” Conservationists recognize the animal’s role in the ecosystem—they increase biodiversity, and their dust-wallowing habits help with seed dispersal and water retention, for instance.

The science doesn’t stop there. DuBray’s daughter Elsie, a high schooler when Gather was filmed, theorizes that the bison meat her family raises and harvests offers more nutrients—a higher proportion of healthy fats, and fewer saturated fats—than its more popular counterpart, beef. She’s out to prove it; the film’s most suspenseful plotline traces her journey to a regional science fair, where her analysis of bison and beef lipids is scrutinized by a panel of judges. (Elsie’s now at Stanford, where she continues to research Indigenous diets as a biology major.)

Gather, which was co-produced by the nonprofit First Nations Development Institute, does not pretend to take a comprehensive look at the fight for better access to fresh food in Native communities across the country; rather, Rawal shapes the film around three portraits. It avoids lengthy testimonies by university scholars and legal experts, instead leaning on its main subjects to fill in the needed context. “It was important for us to tell the story, straight from the viewpoint of our characters,” Rawal explains. If people want to do a deep dive into food sovereignty, they should read scholarly papers and books on the topic, he says. “If they want to get a snapshot of the emotion behind the movement right now, they could watch Gather.”

Sammy Gensaw

Courtesy Gather

The third storyline follows the Ancestral Guard, a group of young men in the Yurok tribe that teach local kids how to fish and smoke salmon along the Klamath River in California’s far north. “We’re salmon people,” says Sammy Gensaw III, the group’s leader.

Gold Rush prospectors once shot Yuroks on sight to clear them out of the way; only a fraction of them survived the genocide. Much of the Yurok’s remaining densely forested land is in the hands of timber companies or the National Parks system, which leases land to timber companies. More than a century of mining, logging, and the insertion of large dams have left the Klamath River in poor shape, and the supple Chinook and Coho salmon that once kept Yuroks well-fed are either extinct or critically endangered. Members of the Ancestral Guard feel a sense of duty to learn and practice their tribe’s fishing traditions so that they can be passed down to the next generation. “You’re born with a burden of being Indigenous,” Gensaw says. “If you don’t do this, they’ll be gone.”

There’s a hopeful postscript to this story, though it happened after Gather wrapped: After the Yurok and Karuk tribes organized and protested for decades to demand removal of the dams, PacificCorp, the energy and utility company that owns four dams on the Klamath, withdrew its final objection to their demolition just two weeks ago. The dams are set to come down in 2023. The plan may not be as sweeping as some had hoped, as a Los Angeles Times op-ed argued. But International Rivers, “the world’s most prominent anti-dam nonprofit,” called it “possibly the most important single initiative for river restoration anywhere and at any time.”

“The industrial revolution is over,” the Ancestral Guard’s Gensaw tells a class at the Yale School of the Environment in one of the film’s final scenes. “Now, if we want to survive, if we want to carry on life on earth, we need to be part of the restorative revolution.”

Restoration is also the focal point of Netflix’s Kiss the Ground, a documentary narrated by Woody Harrelson that centers on soil health. The film highlights regenerative agriculture, a “new, old approach to farming” that is gaining traction as a potential solution to climate change.

Harrelson introduces the approach as an antidote to the paralysis many of us feel in the face of rising temperatures and chaotic weather. With pristine diagrams and clear language, the film illuminates the science behind how it all works. I also wrote about it in-depth earlier this year. A recap: Plants inhale carbon dioxide during photosynthesis and turn it into fuel in the form of carbohydrates. Some of those sugars leak out the plant’s roots and nourish soil microbes. The enriched microbes, combined with the decaying stems and leaves of the plant, increase the health of the soil, allowing it to retain more carbon in the earth for longer periods of time.

Unfortunately, “modern agriculture was not designed for the betterment of the soil,” explains Ray Archuleta, a conservation agronomist and one of the film’s main scientific experts. Industrial agriculture currently leaves huge tracts of land bare, and the exposed soil releases massive amounts of carbon dioxide every year, contributing to global warming. But if farmers tweak their practices to keep fields covered with growth and stop applying synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, they can feed the soil rather than stripping it of its nutrients. The more we can coax soil into better health, the more it sequesters carbon, the more we can flip agriculture from climate change source to sink. As Harrelson puts it: “That’s a big deal.”

“Modern agriculture was not designed for the betterment of the soil.”

In order to further convince us that this is a big deal, Kiss the Ground stocks its scenes with celebrity advocates who seem ill-suited to the task. Model Gisele Bündchen and football icon Tom Brady are here to tell us about the wonders of a plant-based diet (which in their case is served to them on platters). The slick California governor Gavin Newsom is here to boast about San Francisco’s innovative composting system. Actors Patricia and David Arquette have arrived to brag about traveling to Haiti to teach the locals how to use composting toilets.

Husband-and-wife directing team Josh Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell previously worked together on The Big Fix, a 2012 documentary about the 2010 BP oil spill. Rebecca Harrell Tickell is a former actress, and the couple owns a film studio and organic avocado farm, Big Picture Ranch, in Ojai. Is that why, when searching for a farmer to school us on agroforestry, they settled on…pop star Jason Mraz? As he urges us to grow our own coffee beans, the earnest Mraz strolls through his tropical fruit tree grove in San Diego while lyrics from his own song echo behind him, like a Gap commercial.

The aforementioned scenes underscore the film’s greatest weakness: By fixating on celebrities and centering on mostly white experts and farmers, Kiss the Ground offers a narrow view of the regenerative agriculture movement. It fails to explore how its characters are drawing on and profiting from wisdom held by Indigenous farmers for centuries.

As blogger and podcaster Kamea Chayne points out, the film, in one of its promotional graphics, implies that it has documented a “new breakthrough.” In fact, Indigenous people across North America practiced agriculture in a way that promoted healthy soil and therefore carbon sequestration. They managed crops, trees, and animals together, for instance, and planted legumes to fix nitrogen into the ground.

“White people didn’t ‘discover’ how to care for Earth,” writes Rishi Kumar, a garden educator who goes by Farmer Rishi, in a response to Kiss the Ground that he posted on his Instagram page in October. Kumar says he worked as a contractor for the nonprofit Kiss the Ground, which is affiliated with the film, until he left the organization in August. Indigenous peoples, he writes, have been “robbed of their homelands, forced to forget their languages and cultural traditions.” Now they are being told, as Kumar puts it, “Hey, science (read: white people) has now validated what you’ve been doing” for millennia, but “you’re still not getting your land back.”

On Tuesday it was announced that the Tickells are being awarded a humanitarian award from the Red Nation International Film Festival. In a press release, Archuleta, the film’s star agronomist, described as “a person of both Native American and Latino heritage,” said that he was proud to be part of the project and saw it fitting that the directors should win the award. But critiques like Kumar’s may have seeped into the film’s orbit. The executive director of the nonprofit Kiss the Ground, Ryland Engelhart, called the film’s lack of cultural representation a “big miss” in an emailed statement and informed me that the organization was working on an educational cut of the documentary more focused on the Indigenous roots of regenerative practices.

Beyond its lack of diverse representation, Kumar argues, the film has a larger foundational problem: It refuses to view “the carbon in the atmosphere, and climate change more broadly” as a “symptom of a global colonial culture that treats Earth and people of color as resources to be mined.”

The film’s outlook remains sheltered under the auspices of modern capitalism. “The more you farm like nature,” Archuleta, the soil scientist, tells a group of white growers in Kansas at the start of the film, “the more money you can make.” He’s not alone in suggesting this. Tech companies have been exploring how to create financial incentives for carbon farming, and now so is Joe Biden’s team. But given where agribusiness has gotten us up until now, it’s worth asking: Should repairing the damage done by exploiting nature simply be a matter of recalibrating how we profit from a natural process? 

Kiss the Ground focuses on a practical solution for drawing down emissions that won’t require farmers to leave their industry or force people to give up the foods they love. At its best, it’s an informative film that might make you feel somewhat hopeful about the struggle against climate change.

But don’t get too cozy. As chef Nephi Craig says in Gather, “the first step in this is understanding violence in all its forms.” Kiss the Ground glosses over the political and cultural history at the root of today’s environmental havoc. It would have you forget the suppression of Indigenous farmers, who have practiced soil-friendly techniques for centuries. When a movement’s messengers are mostly over-hyped white-savior types, pro athletes, and sugary movie stars, it’s worth asking whom the message is for and whether the solution offered is meant to benefit us all.

How Twitter’s Disappearing Fleets Could Be a Disinformation Disaster

Last week, Twitter unveiled its latest piece of purported Silicon Valley innovation, Fleets—a feature that it copied from Instagram Stories, which the Facebook-owned company originally lifted from Snapchat.

The rollout allows Twitter users in the United States to share pictures and video that automatically delete after 24 hours. Almost immediately, social media researchers pointed out the format’s potential to serve as a vector for spreading disinformation and extremist content. 

So far I have been able to fleet banned URLs, videos and disinformation about the election results. Wonder if extremist content would be possible in fleets. Welp this is a promising feature for disinformation and extremism reaearchers

— Marc-André Argentino (@_MAArgentino) November 18, 2020

The gaps in moderation that Argentino and others pointed out—which Twitter’s terms of service already explicitly ban—aren’t Fleets’ biggest vulnerability—it’s the ephemeral structure of the format.

Unlike Instagram Stories, Fleets aren’t designed to be shared beyond an individual account’s followers. While a user could screenshot or screen record a Fleet and repost it themselves, that added step increases the friction of sharing the posts and reduces the ease of spreading disinformation in a way that Instagram Stories doesn’t. While that may slow the spread of bad information, repetition could help it go to large enough swathes of people to be damaging. It also means the messages will mostly remain inside closed circles, just as in Facebook groups. 

Closed, private Facebook groups and Instagram stories have already helped spread dangerous disinformation. In Oregon this past summer, false rumors about Antifa starting wildfires in the state spread quickly, almost certainly coming from within private Facebook groups. The stories inspired vigilantes with assault rifles to mount neighborhood patrols and set up military-style checkpoints. While no one ended up hurt, it’s not hard to imagine how a situation like that could turn deadly.

Private and ephemeral social media formats have already helped spread dangerous disinformation.

In April, as I was reporting on QAnon’s growing appeal in alternative health and wellness influencer communities, I noticed that the conspiracy was being trafficked largely through Instagram Stories. Influencers would post lengthy video monologues discussing false claims about how blood was being harvested from children kept in underground tunnels for elite liberal pedophiles. As I flipped through wellness Instagram accounts, I could watch QAnon content gain traction with other influencers, as they reposted Stories pushing Q. While the Stories were available to tens or hundreds of thousands of followers, the posts deleted themselves within 24 hours, making them difficult to document or debunk. And it was impossible to gauge how often they were being shared via private direct messages. 

By spotting and bringing to light false or dangerous posts, journalists have become a de facto free content moderation service for social media platforms. While this is a problematic dynamic, journalists can’t even do this properly when the posts in question are made in ephemeral formats. Tweets, for all of their issues, are searchable and remain on the platform by default. Fleets will not.

Peter W. Singer a senior fellow at the think tank New America and the author of Like War, a book on how social media has been weaponized in politics, says he’s been worried about the disinformation potential of Fleets since Twitter started testing the feature in Brazil in March. “So much of their system in actuality relies not on their own AI and content moderators, but on fellow users and researchers to flag violators. With Fleets, researchers won’t be able to see and track as much,” he told me via a Twitter direct message. 

These aren’t problems that hiring oceans of underpaid, overworked contract moderators will ever solve—there will never be enough moderators to get ahead of offending content. By creating Fleets, the company has introduced a structural problem by creating a space where people can post misinformation and extremist content at a faster rate than moderators can ever track, and where it won’t be easily viewable by concerned users. Twitter will always be at least two steps behind.

The Safest Ways to Celebrate Thanksgiving, According to Science

How are your Thanksgiving plans different this year? You may have heeded the urgent advice to put travel plans on ice, but you’re still trying your best to feel the holiday spirit, somehow? As the latest coronavirus surge continues unabated, and as various kinds of restrictions swing into effect across the country, the Mother Jones Podcast team is bringing you two chats with top infectious-disease experts on how to stop the spread and keep you and your family safe during a holiday season unlike any other.

Science communication expert Jessica Malaty Rivera, a microbiologist, has a few tips for you, and a couple for the incoming president, too. Rivera spoke to our senior editor Kiera Butler about Thanksgiving strategies—”a negative COVID-19 test is not an immunity passport,” she warns—as well as her work to document up-to-the-minute coronavirus data and trends at the COVID Tracking Project. “Nobody here is saying we should cancel Thanksgiving,” Rivera says. “What we’re saying is it needs to look very different from years past.” Some top-line tips: Stay at home, and if you are hosting a gatherings, keep it small, outdoors, and masked. Read more from Mother Jones’ interview with Rivera, and how the Biden administration must beat viral misinformation influencers at their own game to combat the coronavirus, here.

Also on the show, host Jamilah King spoke to Dr. Peter Hotez, a vaccine scientist, pediatrician, and dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, about the state of vaccine development right now, including which segments of the population are expected to get it first, and when. He gives his Thanksgiving tips, too: “We are in a public health crisis,” he says. “Don’t do reckless, irresponsible things. Let’s just hang on a few more months and everyone can get vaccinated and live.”

Listen to the full episode, below:

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Perdue and Loeffler’s Well-Timed Stock Trades Give Georgia Democrats an Opening

Sen. David Perdue has hit a tough string of headlines recently that are complicating his effort to win reelection as a Republican in Georgia. The coverage shares a theme: Perdue used his position in the Senate to enrich himself and his wealthy donors. The stories follow the revelation from this spring that Perdue, a multi-millionaire, traded stocks following a private January briefing on the coronavirus at the same time he publicly downplayed the pandemic’s threat.

Democrats have a chance to win the runoffs if high-turnout voters show up convinced the Republicans are crooked.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because his colleague Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) did the same thing, sparking a Senate ethics investigation. Together, Perdue and Loeffler make a unique pair: two uber-rich senators whose wealth helped bring them power and put them in a position where they could make more money. The last thing Perdue and Loeffler want is for their actions to become the theme of Georgia’s crucial runoff elections, which together will determine if the Senate remains under Republican control.

After both failing to notch over fifty percent of the vote on November 3, the senators are headed to January 5 runoffs against Democratic challengers, with Perdue facing Jon Ossoff and Loeffler vying against Raphael Warnock. Traditionally, runoffs in red southern states are a mechanism that have helped ensure Republican victories. But the old math may be different this year: Georgia went for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1992, in part because reliable voters in the suburbs bucked the GOP. Democrats have a chance to win both runoffs if those high-turnout voters show up in January convinced the two sitting Republicans are crooked.

Instead, the Republicans have sought to nationalize the race, and fan fears among their base of the consequences of Democrats taking control of the Senate. “We have to remind people of what the Democrats will do,” Perdue told supporters on a recent call that was leaked to the Washington Post. “It has nothing to do with Kelly or me.”

But Democrats see a clear opportunity in making the race all about Perdue and Loeffler and their stock trades. Perdue, who was elected in 2014, and Loeffler, appointed in January, are both very rich. In August, Forbes estimated Loeffler and her husband, Jeff Sprecher—the CEO of Intercontinental Exchange, which owns the New York Stock Exchange—are worth $800 million, making her the richest member of Congress. Perdue, the former CEO of Dollar General, is worth between $14.9 million and $42.6 million, according to his last financial disclosure, which reports value ranges for individual holdings.

While both Loeffler and Perdue have denied wrongdoing related to their investments and said they relied on portfolio managers to make day-to-day decisions, watchdog groups warn that lawmakers trading individual stocks, while legal and allowed under Senate rules, inevitably risks conflicts of interest while creating a perception they are personally benefiting from official actions. As a result, most members of the Senate refrain from trading in individual stocks.

“This has every appearance of insider trading and even if not, it creates the appearance of a conflict of interest,” says Craig Holman, an exert in ethics issues for the watchdog group Public Citizen, of the Georgia lawmakers’ trades. “They just don’t care.” 

On January 24, just three weeks into her Senate career, Loeffler attended a private Senate briefing by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Robert Redfield, the head of the Centers for Disease Control, about the coronavirus threat. Afterward, Loeffler continued to publicly downplay the risk from the virus and its economic impact. But in the three weeks following the meeting, Loeffler and Sprecher made more than 20 stock sales amounting to between $1.25 million and $3.1 million. Loeffler also bought stock in two companies that produce teleworking software.  

As a member of the Agricultural Committee, Loeffler oversees an agency that regulates her husband’s company.

Once markets began plummeting in late February, the couple sold $18.7 million in shares of Intercontinental Exchange stock in three separate deals. They also sold shares in retail stores like Lululemon and T.J. Maxx, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Loeffler has denied profiting off confidential information, and notes that her trading was investigated by the Senate Ethics Committee. The panel told Loeffler in a June letter it found “no evidence” she broke the law or Senate rules. In an April Wall Street Journal op-ed where she promised “to end the distraction,” the senator reiterated that her investments are managed by third party advisers, and claimed that the January 24 briefing included “no material or nonpublic information.” 

While Loeffler wrote that her household would “divest from individual stocks,” her subsequent financial disclosure form showed that she kept $5 million to $25 million worth of Intercontinental Exchange stock, while her husband held on to at least $10 million worth of the company’s stock and options. As a member of the Senate Agricultural Committee, Loeffler helps oversee the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. That agency regulates Sprecher’s company, giving her influence over the performance of a firm in which she remains heavily invested. Upon joining the committee, Loeffler said she would “recuse myself if needed on a case by case basis.” In May, she announced she was stepping down from a subcommittee with direct oversight of the CFTC in response to criticism, but she retained her seat on the full committee.

Perdue attended the same January 24 briefing, and was active in the stock market the very same day, buying, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported, as much as $65,000 worth of stock in DuPont, the chemical and materials giant that makes protective equipment including gloves, gowns, and masks. According to a financial disclosure report, between the day of the briefing and early March he made 10 different purchases of the firm’s stock, amounting to an investment of up to $185,000. Purdue made hundreds of other individual stock trades in the first months of 2020, including investing up to $50,000 in Netflix, while offloading stock in Caesar Entertainment, a casino company, and nearly $400,000 in shares of Kroger, the grocery store chain.

While the coronavirus briefings presented senators clear opportunities to make well timed trades, lawmakers are regularly involved in or have foresight of policy decisions that will affect the financial prospects of companies or entire industries. In September, the Daily Beast reported that Perdue bought stock in First Data, a card payment processing company with business in prepaid cards, after he pushed to weaken prepaid debit card regulations. Perdue, or a financial adviser working for him, repeatedly bought and sold First Data stock, with some transactions coinciding with federal policy announcements affecting the firm.

Senators are regularly involved in policy decisions that affect the prospects of entire industries.

In January 2019, Perdue, a vocal advocate of increased Navy spending, became the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower. In the six weeks before taking over, Perdue bought $40,000 to $290,000 of shares in a Navy contractor, BWX Technologies, the Daily Beast first reported last week. In the month after Perdue’s appointment, the stock’s value increased by more than 25 percent. Perdue quickly pocketed the profit, selling the stock between February and July 2019.

Perdue has responded to questions about these transactions by saying he relies on outside advisers who make trades “without his prior input or approval,” according to a spokeswoman. But Perdue, unlike some lawmakers, has not placed his assets in a blind trust, a widely accepted practice that would ensure he is not personally involved in buying and selling stocks, including those he could potentially influence with official acts.

Perdue hasn’t just been out to help himself. In 2017, Perdue unsuccessfully sought a tax break for the uber-wealthy owners of sports teams, a tax regulation that would have benefited several of his wealthy donors. Among them was Loeffler, who co-owns Atlanta’s WNBA team.

Self-dealing is never a good look when running for reelection, and Perdue and Loeffler clearly don’t want the runoffs to focus on this history. In October, Perdue bailed on his final general election debate after Ossoff called him a crook in their second debate and the moment went viral. Loeffler, for her part, is worried enough about the stock sales that she ran an ad claiming she’d been “cleared” and that she always “puts Georgia first.”

President-elect Joe Biden won Georgia in part by drawing support from Atlanta suburbs that not long ago were a Republican stronghold. These suburban Republicans “are the reason that we never had a chance in runoffs in the past, because they always voted,” says Chris Huttman, a Democratic strategist in Georgia. “They weren’t necessarily conservative, but they were very Republican.”

But in 2016, turned off by Trump, some of these Republicans began voting for Democrats, and continued doing so in the 2018 midterms and this November, as the counties that make up and surround Atlanta gave Biden his margin of victory. But returns in suburban Atlanta counties show that Perdue outperformed Donald Trump, and Ossoff underperformed Biden, meaning that a significant number of Republicans outside Atlanta split their tickets and voted for Biden and Perdue. Perdue and Loeffler must hold onto these voters in the runoff. “I’m talking about people that may have voted for Biden,” Perdue said on the leaked call with Republicans. “We think some of those people, particularly in the suburbs, may come back to us. And I’m hopeful of that.”

Democrats, on the other hand, need to turn Biden voters who supported Republican Senate candidates in November into Ossoff and Warnock voters in January. Perdue and Loeffler may be doing some of that work themselves. In an effort to keep Trump’s base engaged, Loeffler and Perdue have associated themselves with right-wing push to overturn Georgia’s November election results, calling on the Republican secretary of state to resign. The antics are part of a tricky dance: remaining as close as they can to Trump and his supporters while also trying to hold onto anti-Trump suburbanites. 

For the runoff, an anti-corruption and anti-crook message promises to be more straightforward.

For their parts, Ossoff and Warnock ran their general election campaigns on bread-and-butter issues, particularly health care. As the pandemic raged, they hammered their support for protecting coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, which Republicans repeatedly voted against while attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But that message didn’t get them across the finish line in November. 

“Republicans just lie about the pre-existing condition stuff,” says Huttman. “Their answer to that is like, ‘No, I’m the pre-existing conditions person.’” That’s left voters with a jumbled message. But for the runoff, an anti-corruption and anti-crook message promises to be more straightforward. “I do think there’s some opportunity there just to divorce yourself from the party aspect of it: ‘These are just bad people who you shouldn’t be trusting to make tough decisions.’ I definitely think that’s the way to go,” Huttman says.

The message could also dampen participation among the occasional voters who turned out for Trump, but whom Perdue and Loeffler might struggle to convince to vote in the runoff. “If you think about these Trump surge voters, the only person they’ve ever turned out to vote for is Trump,” he says, noting that they can be skeptical of other politicians. “Why not tell those people that there’s really nothing for you here, either? That really scrambles the traditional runoff turnout patterns that people have relied on,” Huttman says. The deficit could help put the swing GOP voters in the Atlanta suburbs, even though he says they might only make up about 3 percent of the voters taking part in the runoff, in the driver seat.

That’s not the race that Republicans want to run. On the leaked call, Perdue said the contest was about base turnout and that he wanted to keep the focus on Democrats. “This is really not about messaging. It’s not about persuasion in my race. It’s more about getting the vote out,” Perdue said, a statement that suggests an assumption that he’ll hold suburban Atlanta voters who checked his name over Ossoff’s in November.

A member of Ossoff’s campaign who spoke on the condition they not be named said corruption would be a key talking point in the runoff. “Georgians are struggling,” they said. “Georgians are struggling to make rent, small businesses struggling to stay open. People can’t spend Thanksgiving with their families. And David Perdue is looking to make a quick buck. And it seems to be a pattern in his career as a senator.”

Other Democrats have joined in, helping paint an unflattering picture of corruption and self-dealing around Georgia’s two Republican senators. As former President Barack Obama said during a Georgia campaign stop this month, Loeffler and Perdue “were publicly telling you that the virus would be no big deal, but behind closed doors they were making a bunch of moves in the stock market to try to make sure their portfolios were protected instead of making sure you were protected.”

“Man, that’s shady,” he concluded. “That ain’t right.”

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