Mother Jones Magazine

Mitt Romney Blasts Trump for Commuting Roger Stone’s Sentence

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

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

— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) July 11, 2020

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

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

Coronavirus Growth in Western Countries: July 10 Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe Arpaio

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

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

Dwight and Steven Hammond

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

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

Rod Blagojevich

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

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

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

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

Scooter Libby

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

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

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

— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) April 13, 2018

Bernard Kerik

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

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

Michael Milken

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

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

Paul Pogue

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

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

David Safavian

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

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

Pat Nolan

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

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

Kristian Saucier

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

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

Dinesh D’Souza

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

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

Conrad Black

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

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

Angela Stanton

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

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

Eddie DeBartolo Jr.

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

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

Michael Behenna

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

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

Mathew Golsteyn

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

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

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

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

Clint Lorance

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

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

Eddie Gallagher

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

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

Donald Trump Frees Roger Stone…and Pardons Himself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Decades, the Unsolved Mysteries Theme Has Haunted My Dreams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday Cat Blogging – 10 July 2020

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

Why Aren’t We Extending the $600 Unemployment Benefit?

Today is July 10th. In 21 days the extra $600 per week in unemployment benefits ends.

COVID-19 cases are already skyrocketing, deaths are starting to rise, and states are beginning to close up again. Without the expanded UI, millions of Americans will soon be penniless and back in food lines.

That’s three weeks away. Why are we waiting on this? Why do we keep doing things at the last second, which allows states no time to respond? Extend the benefits now. It would be nice to toss in some aid to states and cities at the same time, but the bare minimum we need to do is extend the UI benefits.

What’s the holdup?

Energizing Words of Insight and Hope From Alicia Garza, Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter

After this marathon week of fireworks, and last week’s, and those of every week and minute, the inspiring words of Alicia Garza are both timely and timeless. Garza co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement when she wrote “Black lives matter” in a Facebook post almost seven years ago, and she’s featured in an insightful, wide-ranging interview this week by NatGeo’s Rachel Hartigan. Since launching the Black Lives Matter Global Network with Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors, Garza has rallied and amplified the voices and lives of countless people who drive change—bearing witness to what has changed, and what still needs to. The interview touches on the construction of the phrase “Black Lives Matters,” the basis for maintaining hope, the ways a movement for change can stay its course, and the unifying threads of collective action, particularly with women leading it. Catch it here, and have a safe, healthy, strengthening weekend, whatever each means to you. (Let us know what each does mean to you, and stories you’d like boosted, at recharge@motherjones.com.)

Donald Trump Says a Lot of Stuff

Can Donald Trump ban TikTok? Can Donald Trump withhold funding from schools that don’t open up in the fall? Can Donald Trump take away the tax-exempt status of universities if he doesn’t like what they say?

No, no, and no. Trump likes to pretend that he can, because it makes him look tough, but that’s all. So let’s stop pretending that these are genuinely open questions that require deep dive explainers. OK?

The COVID-19 Recession Is All On Trump

A couple of months ago, I remember arguing that it would be fairly easy to restart the economy once we had defeated COVID-19. My reasoning was pretty simple: unlike a normal recession, which breeds a tremendous amount of uncertainty, an artificial recession can be brought to a clean end. Once COVID-19 is gone, businesses can be certain that the economy will recover immediately, especially since government aid programs ensured that consumers had plenty of money saved up to begin buying stuff again.

Now, I’ll fess up to being a little too cavalier about this. It was probably always going to be harder than I thought. But one thing I never took into consideration—because it seemed ridiculous—was the notion that we would just give up on COVID-19 and therefore cause precisely the kind of uncertainty you get with a normal recession. I mean, that’s just crazy, right? No one would do that.

But in the era of Trump, that’s exactly what we did. So not only do we have a deep recession, but nobody knows when it will end. And even if it looks like it’s about to end, nobody can be sure that it’s really ending. If anything, Trump has created an economic doom loop with even more uncertainty than any recession we’ve ever had. And I guess the public is finally catching on to that:

Notre Dame Will Remain Notre Dame

Good news!

Notre Dame Cathedral will be restored exactly as it was before the 2019 fire that destroyed much of the historic landmark, the French government announced Thursday evening.

….The concern for President Emmanuel Macron was “not to delay the construction site nor to complicate the issue” with a contemporary gesture, according to an Élysée official. But the plans will include an apparent concession to those who preferred a more modern design. The statement said there will be a contemporary dimension in the “redevelopment of the surroundings of the cathedral, in close collaboration with the city of Paris.”

Well, it’s good news if you think Notre Dame should be restored to its former look, rather than getting a contemporary upgrade. Which is exactly what I think.

As for the “contemporary dimension” to the surroundings, I’m all for that too even though I have no idea what it means. I just figure that if you’re going to muck around with something, better to muck around with the supporting cast than the star itself.

Coronavirus Growth in Western Countries: July 9 Update

Here’s the coronavirus death toll through July 9. The “holiday spike” in the US is starting to look a lot more like a permanent turnaround in the mortality rate. Still too early to say for sure, though.

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

The Trump Files: Donald’s Mega-Yacht Wasn’t Big Enough For Him

This post was originally published as part of “The Trump Files”—a collection of telling episodes, strange but true stories, and curious scenes from the life of our current president—on August 18, 2016.

Donald Trump’s yacht, the 282-foot-long Trump Princess, was probably the Trumpiest of all the tycoon’s toys. It was one of the largest yachts in the world when he bought it from the Sultan of Brunei in the late 1980s, featuring plenty of marble and gold decor and over-the-top amenities including a helipad, a disco, and a movie theater. Trump even had to dredge the Atlantic City channel so it could accommodate his ship.

But the yacht still wasn’t big enough.

Just a year after he bought the Trump Princess, Trump announced he was looking for an upgrade. He told Newsday in June that he planned to build a new yacht—”something in excess of 400 feet long, closer to 500 feet”—so that it could fit all the casino high-rollers who liked to come aboard.

A Dutch company reportedly had the inside track with plans for a 420-footer that Dutch journalist Peter Degraaf of De Volkskrant told Newsday was “maybe the greatest ship ever built in the world, and it’s exactly what Mr. Trump wants—the greatest and most luxurious yacht.” Trump figured he might simply name it the Trump Princess II rather than paying homage to his then-wife Ivana as a reporter suggested. “I like to keep things low-key,” he explained.

But the new and improved Princess was never built, and Trump soon had no yacht at all. After his net worth crashed under a gargantuan debt load in 1990, Trump was put on a strict monthly allowance by his creditors. He was allowed to keep the yacht, but by 1991 he was forced to sell the Trump Princess—or had it repossessed, according to some reports.

 

The Science About Whether It’s Safe to Send Kids Back to School Is a Total Mess

Ask any parent in the Mother Jones office and it’s clear they are eager to get their kids back to school. But as more schools move to reopen this fall—and as President Trump increasingly pressures and even threatens schools to reopen—experts warn there’s still quite a lot we don’t know about kids and COVID-19. What role do children play, for instance, in spreading this virus? Are they just as likely to get infected as adults? Are they just as infectious? And why have a small number of children developed a potentially deadly inflammatory illness after testing positive for COVID-19? 

At this point, “following the science” to safely reopen schools simply doesn’t mean much.

Reopening schools may very well be a risk worth taking—after all, so much of our economic recovery depends on it—but it’s unlikely that we’ll have clear answers to many of these questions in the near future and know with any certainty just how safe schools would be for kids, teachers, and communities. While it feels like we’ve been living with the coronavirus forever, we’re still in the early phase of understanding it; the research on children and COVID-19 is relatively limited, and the studies that do exist have shown conflicting results. At this point, “following the science” to safely reopen schools simply doesn’t mean much—and it’s near impossible to try to rely on data to help you decide whether you should send your kids back to school.

As David Abramson, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at NYU’s School of Global Public Health, explains, getting kids back in classrooms means that students “will serve as potential vectors back into the community.” But at the same time, “it’s almost impossible to imagine not opening schools given all that is at stake. And so it’s like a devil’s bargain.”

It’s probably no surprise then that there’s no clear consensus among health experts about schools reopening. In late June, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a recommendation that school administrators aim to have children “physically present in school” for the next school year. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains that virtual-only classes are the lowest risk option for schooling. And while some countries, including Denmark, Austria, and Germany have had success in reopening schools, other countries, including Israel and Japan, and South Korea, have opened and re-closed schools after seeing a surge in new cases.

So, what gives? Why don’t we have a clearer picture of how kids transmit and are impacted by the coronavirus? Part of the reason is that conducting research on a new virus at lightning speeds is difficult enough in adults—for kids, it is significantly harder. Here’s a breakdown of a few key reasons why studying kids and COVID is so difficult—and why reopening schools now would mean doing so with a lot of uncertainty.

Many children with COVID-19 appear to be asymptomatic. That makes it hard to understand the full scope of the problem. 

When it comes to kids and the coronavirus, one of the few things that is clear is that children can become infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19, at all ages. “There are a number of papers that show that children can become infected,” explains Dr. Steven Zeichner, a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Virginia. “Some of them are symptomatic, there’ve been a few deaths”—but, he adds, “a large number are asymptomatic.” And for children who do show symptoms, he says, research shows their “disease course” tends to be milder than in adults.

A study of 2,135 pediatric COVID patients in China, initially published in mid-March in Pediatrics, for instance, found that more than 90 percent had asymptomatic, mild, or moderate cases. And in the US, a recent report from the CDC shows that about 5 percent of lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases between January 22 and May 30 were in people 19 years old or younger, or nearly 70,000 individuals; less than 50 people in that group died from COVID, according to the CDC’s analysis. 

But because so many children are likely to show mild symptoms or be asymptomatic, the true number of cases is likely to be much higher than we know.

But because so many children are likely to show mild symptoms or be asymptomatic, the true number of cases is likely to be much higher than we know. “At this point, primarily, we’re testing people who are symptomatic, except in the case of health workers and others where we need to know if there’s been a lot of exposure,” says Dr. Cynthia Haq, a clinical professor and chair of the Department of Family Medicine at the University of California, Irvine, “and because children are less likely to be symptomatic, you’re less likely to be tested.”

All this begs the question that’s crucial for schools in particular: If children show milder symptoms, does that mean they aren’t spreading the virus as much? That’s not totally understood, Zeichner says. “The likelihood of transmission depends on the amount of virus that somebody is producing, and the interaction of the person with the virus with the person who isn’t infected,” he says. “It is likely that children and adults with fewer symptoms may be producing less virus, which probably makes them less likely to transmit the infection.” But researchers are still investigating whether that’s the case.

To study children, researchers have to jump through lots of hoops.

“When we conduct research on children, there are special levels of protection because children are more vulnerable,” Haq says. “We don’t want them to be exploited for research purposes.” As a protected group, children can’t formally consent to testing. In general, she adds, “we don’t like to conduct studies on children unless there’s clearly no evidence of harm from the study or definite evidence of benefit.”

On top of that, “you have to be really mindful of what you’re saying to a child,” says Abramson, who also directs a health disaster research center. “You can’t be saying things that are going to upset them. You can’t ask them questions in ways that will be potentially harmful to them. If you’re going to talk directly to children, that’s going to be a very difficult and challenging event.”

“We don’t like to conduct studies on children unless there’s clearly no evidence of harm from the study or definite evidence of benefit.”

For these reasons, random testing of children on a large scale is not always feasible. And if you’re going to rely on parents to report on their children’s health or behavior, research shows that’s not always reliable. For example, in a 2017 study, Abramson and colleagues asked a group of children and their mothers about the child’s mental health following the BP oil spill; they had a difference of opinion about a third of the time.

A lot of studies coming out right now aren’t always the “gold standard” of research.

If you wanted to answer the question of how much children spread the coronavirus, there are a number of scientific avenues you could take—hypothetically speaking. Randomized controlled trials are considered the most rigorous way to conduct research, but in this case, that might not be possible: an experiment in which you expose a group of children to the coronavirus and see how many become infected is, for obvious reasons, unethical.

Aside from that, you could:

  1. Observe transmission dynamics in a single household or group of households.
  2. Analyze data from a large population.
  3. Build a model to estimate how an action (e.g., opening schools) will affect the public.

But each of the above methods of research can be biased. As Dr. Sheila Nolan, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Boston Children’s Health Physicians, puts it, in general, “there’s lots of things being published and lots of stuff coming out, but most of it is either retrospective or somewhat anecdotal. And it’s not that gold standard of how to really do a research study, which is exceedingly difficult to do while you’re in the middle of a crisis.”

Take, for example, a recent survey in New York. Researchers went around the city testing thousands of people at grocery stores and other shopping locations for coronavirus antibodies. From the results, they estimated in April that nearly 14 percent of New Yorkers have likely had COVID-19. But if you only look at grocery store shoppers, Abramson says, you aren’t getting a representative sample of the population. You’d miss, for example, people in prison or nursing homes. In effect, the design biases the study.

“There’s lots of things being published and lots of stuff coming out, but most of it’s either retrospective or somewhat anecdotal. And it’s not that gold standard of how to really do a research study.”

The fact that so many childhood cases are asymptomatic can further complicate study design and introduce bias in research, says Justin Lessler, an associate professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a co-author of an early contact tracing study in China. To measure how this virus spread within households, for instance, researchers in early contact tracing investigations typically identified homes with at least one infected individual, tested everyone else in the household, and observed who picked up the virus. The problem is, “primary cases” tended to be adults with symptoms, so “if children are asymptomatic more frequently,” Lessler says, “it’d be harder to find them as a primary case because usually, the first person you find is sick.” As a result, you might only see how adults spread the coronavirus to kids—missing how kids spread it to adults—and could fail altogether to capture homes with infected children. (There are other times, Lessler explains, where you may see the opposite effect, like when school is in session during a seasonal flu epidemic.)

One researcher I spoke with, Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, a professor of pediatric infectious diseases and of health research and policy at the Stanford School of Medicine, told me her “ideal study” would be to follow children in school settings and their households. She’d track their infection rates and antibody development over time to see how COVID-19 spread among children. She and her colleagues had actually planned to do a study along these lines—until schools shut down. Now, she’s limited to only doing that study in households. “Because children aren’t actually interacting with other kids, etcetera, the whole interaction is gone now, it’s not there,” Maldonado says. “So we might have limited data here, but it’s still worthwhile to consider.”

Finally, researchers are trying to understand the virus in kids through modeling, which is “essentially generating data,” Abramson says. Models are built on a series of assumptions, so one model on its own might be an outlier. Therefore, Abramson says, it makes little sense to rely on just one model; when models are done well, he says, “they really give you a great understanding of how dynamics can shift an outcome.” But because models are not observations of real events, he says, “no model will accurately reflect reality.”

The research on kids and COVID that has been done hasn’t shown coherent results. 

If anything, the coronavirus has reminded us that science is messy, it’s slow, and it doesn’t always make sense. For example, consider Lessler’s contact tracing study, which included 391 people in China with coronavirus infections and 1,286 of their close contacts. One of the key findings was that children under 10 years old were just as likely to be infected with COVID-19 as adults, but less likely to show symptoms. When it first published as a preprint in early March—that is, as a preliminary finding and before undergoing peer-review—it “really scared everybody,” Alasdair Munro, a pediatric infectious diseases researcher at University Hospital Southampton in the UK, told Nature in May.

If anything, the coronavirus has reminded us that science is messy, it’s slow, and it doesn’t always make sense.

But in the months since, other studies have shown that kids are less likely to get infected with the coronavirus. It’s still unclear if these differences in results were due to bias in the study designs, real differences in the population, or something else. “It’s possible that our study is an outlier,” Lessler told me early last month. “The numbers are small, so it’s perfectly possible that our result is not going to be borne out over time. And that’s the nature of science.”

Modeling studies have also produced head-scratching results. One study, which initially published in Science in late April, estimated that school closures could delay the pandemic and essentially flatten the curve by 40 to 60 percent. “My simulation shows that yes, if you reopen the schools, you’ll see a big increase in the reproduction number, which is exactly what you don’t want,” Marco Ajelli, a mathematical epidemiologist then at the Bruno Kessler Foundation in Trento, Italy, told the New York Times in May. But other modeling studies have since suggested that school closures don’t have much effect at all on slowing viral transmission.

Though frustrating, it’s not particularly surprising that we’re seeing conflicting results in research on a virus that nobody’s ever seen before, that’s being conducted at rapid speeds, and in the middle of a pandemic. And, of course, no single finding is definitive. As time goes on, we’ll almost certainly gain a better understanding of the transmission dynamics among children. Until then, administrators will be left to “safely reopen schools” without knowing what that really means. As Haq puts it, “We need to get children back to school to support their psychosocial development, but this will inevitably increase the risk of transmission. There are no easy answers. We’re in the land of tradeoffs.”

GOP Senate Candidate Praises Libyan Warlord Accused of War Crimes

Khalifa Haftar, a warlord who is attempting to overthrow Libya’s internationally recognized government, is short on friends in the United States. Haftar has cozied up to Russia and other autocratic regimes. He and his forces have been accused of a slew of war crimes, including indiscriminately bombing civilians and torturing opponents. And he is losing, pushed into retreat by a ragtag group of militias with Turkish support.

But Haftar, who has generally denied the war crimes allegations, does enjoy support from an unexpected place. In New Hampshire, Don Bolduc, a retired brigadier general, is running for Senate on a platform that includes calling for the United States to aggressively back Haftar’s bid to seize power in Libya.

“All Haftar wanted was to be the supreme commander, so give it to him.”

Bolduc’s military background is impressive. It includes 10 tours in Afghanistan, two awards for valor, five Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts and status as one of the dozen “horse soldiers” who famously rode into battle against the Taliban in 2001. Bolduc, who is competing for the GOP nod to take on Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in November, has a blunt pitch: “If you want a true American badass who won’t back down, Don Bolduc is ready to ride.” Citing his own struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, Bolduc has also become a prominent advocate for soldiers seeking mental health treatment.

After serving in Afghanistan, Bolduc headed the military’s Special Operations Command Africa from 2015 to 2017. And he says that this stint, during which he combated terrorist-linked militias in Libya, informs his foreign policy views. Bolduc oversaw troops who worked directly with Haftar during this period. He’s said that he found the Libyan warlord to be “a very reliable guy” who wanted “to take it to ISIS and al-Qaida and hand them their ass.”

“We should have always supported Haftar,” Bolduc—a rare Senate candidate who obligingly fields cold calls from reporters—told me recently.

Haftar is a former officer in Moammar Qaddafi’s military who spent 20 years in the United States, during which time he established a relationship with the CIA. He returned to Libya in 2011 after Qaddafi’s overthrow. By 2016, Haftar had acquired control of most of the eastern part of country and boasted some success against militias claiming allegiance to terror groups. Bolduc commanded a small special forces team that worked with Haftar to gather counterterrorism intelligence and plan attacks on militants. But Bolduc says the Obama administration ordered him to stop working with Haftar’s militia in mid-2016.

Obama wanted to avoid entanglement in Libya. And Bolduc says administration officials were concerned by Haftar’s autocratic ambitions. The warlord refused to work with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, which enjoys UN recognition and official US support.

But Bolduc remains miffed. “All Haftar wanted was to be the supreme commander [of Libyan military forces], so give it to him,” Bolduc said. “That’s his only ask, so help him out. Let him be the military leader. Let him set up a government. Who cares if he gets out in five years or so and wants to be prime minister or president? So what? What’s wrong with that? We had it in our country. We had Eisenhower.”

Even under President Donald Trump, the bulk of the US foreign policy establishment has steered clear of Haftar. But Bolduc isn’t his only booster. Haftar has backing from autocratic leaders in Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia. Last April, Trump and his then-national security adviser John Bolton—along with other hawkish Americans—encouraged a surprise offensive Haftar launched in a bid to quickly seize control of the country.

But this offensive has been both brutal and unsuccessful, and Haftar’s stock as a viable ally as fallen as he has cozied up to shady regimes. He has accepted Russian arms and relies on as many as 1,200 Russian mercenaries from the infamous Wagner Group, a confidential UN report has found, according to Reuters. A State Department official last month said the United States is looking into a visit by Haftar to Venezuela that drew suspicion that he might be attempting to negotiate an oil deal in violation of US and UN sanctions. 

Haftar’s claims to military competence, meanwhile, have suffered badly. Last year he reportedly told backers he could swiftly seize Tripoli and gain control of the country. Instead, his offensive stalled. In recent months, his forces have been pushed back by militias loyal to the Government of National Accord, which has relied on support from Turkey. This undermines Haftar’s main pitch to backers: his supposed ability to stabilize a country that has been divided among warring militias since the US-led overthrow of Qaddafi nearly a decade ago.

“He got all this support and he still couldn’t win,” said Thomas Hill, a senior program officer focused on North Africa at the US Institute of Peace. “He couldn’t take over a  capital that barely had functioning electricity. Really, I am not sure the guy could fight his way out of a paper bag.”

Bolduc, however, says he hasn’t changed his mind. He argues that Haftar’s military setbacks result from America’s failure to help him and to more forcefully keep Turkey out of the conflict. “He’s on his heels because we let him get on his heels,” Bolduc told me. And he claims Haftar’s ties to Russia could have been averted if he’d received more US support. “After we pulled our advisers out of there, he had to go to Russia for help,” Bolduc said. 

Describing his own experience working with Haftar, Bolduc said that the warlord “didn’t abuse people” or “commit military crimes.” But since Haftar’s Libyan National Army launched its offensive last April, it has been been accused of a host of such acts. In May 2019, a bipartisan group of US members of Congress asked the Justice Department to investigate “Haftar and his subordinates” over allegations of war crimes. Two lawsuits filed in federal court accuse Haftar of overseeing the indiscriminate bombings and extrajudicial murders and torture of Libyan civilians. (Haftar, who has generally denied such allegations, did not respond in court. But a magistrate judge has recommended that the court dismiss the cases because it lacks jurisdiction to rule on events in Libya.) Amnesty International and the United Nations have also condemned indiscriminate attacks on residential areas of Tripoli that occurred during Haftar’s assault, though those organizations have stopped short of saying whether Haftar’s forces were responsible for the incidents.

Asked about such allegations, Bolduc said, “If he did commit war crimes, that is something we can’t work with and allow him to do. He’s got to be held responsible for that.” But Bolduc said this would depend on whether the allegations can be proven.

President Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee have endorsed Bolduc’s GOP rival, attorney Corky Messner. But as he competes in a primary contest in which nearly all voters are strongly supportive of Trump, the former general is hesitant to criticize the president. While Bolduc faults the Trump administration for continuing what he calls an ineffective strategy in Libya, he says the responsibility rests outside of the Oval Office.

“I don’t blame President Trump for this,” Bolduc said. “I blame his advisers. I blame the people who should be telling him what we should be doing and who he should be supporting.”

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