Mother Jones Magazine

The Trump Files: The Saga of Donald’s Short-Lived Weight-Loss Program

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 October 3, 2016.

Donald Trump has long had a fixation with other peoples’ weight. He called Rosie O’Donnell a “fat pig,” criticized Jennifer Lopez’s butt, and said a pregnant Kim Kardashian shouldn’t dress “like you weigh 120 pounds.” After Hillary Clinton noted at the first presidential debate that Trump had once called the Venezuelan Miss Universe “Miss Piggy” because of her weight, Trump couldn’t help himself. The next morning, he insisted he had been correct. “She gained a massive amount of weight, and it was a real problem,” he told Fox & Friends.

Trump has not just used fat-shaming as ammunition in his feuds—he also turned it into a business venture. In the midst of the Great Recession in 2009, he began hawking a rapid-results weight-loss and nutrition program as part of a pyramid-like company called the Trump Network. And the venture flopped.

The Trump Network was a multi-level marketing company that recruited regular people to act as salesmen for its products (usually some kind of nutrition supplement) and saddled them with the losses if they couldn’t find buyers. The Federal Trade Commission received numerous complaints from people who claimed the Trump Network had taken advantage of them. “They are scamming and deceiving people, making them believe that if they ‘just hang in there’ they will make money,” one person wrote. (The FTC never took action against the company.)

As with many Trump business deals, Trump had licensed his name and endorsement to an existing company called Ideal Health, which rebranded itself with his name and logo when he signed on. Although he took no leadership role in the company, he enthusiastically endorsed its products, and his name—and promises of riches at a time of economic malaise—were central to its appeal.

“The Trump Network works with some of the best nutritionists, scientists, and technologists,” Trump explained in a letter posted on the company’s website. “As a result, our products are leaders in their categories—designed to help improve your health and wellness, putting you on a path to the lifestyle you’ve always wanted.”

In another letter to potential customers, Trump billed the company as a way for people who had lost their jobs or savings in the Great Recession to pull themselves back to prosperity. “The good news is: The Trump Network can provide you with a solution to help you and your family create a more secure future. Diversifying is a way to protect your income so that you can continue to do what you know and love, and still make money.” A chart posted on the Trump Network website predicted that it was already on a path to becoming a $1 billion company.

Trump Network

One Trump Network product was a Trump-branded vitamin that the company offered to custom-tailor to your body if you provided them with a urine sample. Another was a “botanical infusion supplement” called Quickstik, designed to “help you manage your energy throughout the day.”

And then there was the Silhouette Solution, a weight-loss program similar to SlimFast, that offered its own brand of bars, snacks, soups, and drinks. Here’s how the Trump Network website sold it:

The Silhouette Solution Program was designed to keep your hunger satiated while supporting your body with the nutrition it needs for healthy weight loss. The carefully-calibrated foods in Silhouette Solution’s 19 unique snacks ensure that the proportion of proteins to carbohydrates, fats, and calories is exactly what your body needs to satisfy hunger. You’ll receive two full months of carefully-calibrated foods. In fact, your introductory shipment contains several samples of every one of our Silhouette Staples®. This enables you to try them all and then choose the ones you prefer going forward with. The idea is that if you are eating foods you enjoy, you are more likely to stick to—and achieve—your weight loss goals. Just think, you could be slimmer, healthier, and happier than you have been in years.

The solution was to eat one “calibrated” meal per day, and a bunch of Trump Network snacks, known as “Silhouette Staples.” Those offerings, designed to “melt” the fat off your body, included “BBQ puffs,” a “Chocolate colossal shake,” a “Peanut passion bar,” and a “Vanilla creme shake.” A starter kit containing bulk packages of those snacks cost $1,325.

The Trump Network promised to deliver results in 80 days, and as with most such schemes, there were ample opportunities to buy more products. If a customer signed up the for a two-month trial of the Silhouette Solution, the Trump Network threw in a free PrivaTest, its urine-test for customized vitamins—at a savings of $140.

Here’s Trump and Trump Network president Lou DeCaprio, explaining how the Trump Network could help you make money and lose weight:

The Silhouette Solution wasn’t the only weight-control program offered by the Trump Network. The company also sold a product for kids called Snazzle Snaxxs, aimed at steering young people away from junk food. Snazzle Snaxxs, such as chocolate Snazzle Barzzs, sour cream and onion Snazzle Twissters, and cinnamon apple protein puffs were designed to “provide the same satisfaction as ‘junk’ food while helping, not hurting our kids,” according to an informational brochure.

With the purchase of either the Silhouette Solution or Snazzle Snaxxs, customers received a free book from the renowned Harvard nutritionist Dr. David Ludwig. (Ludwig told CBS News in April that he had never endorsed Trump Network’s products and was “mortified” that had been used in connection with the Trump Network’s products.)

Trump Network

Despite Trump’s predictions that customers who signed up to sell the company’s weight-loss bars and urine kits would obtain financial success, the company failed. In 2013, its owners filed for bankruptcy and the company was sold to a new firm, Bioceutica, which continued to sell its products. Trump continued his wellness education the same way he always had—shaming individuals in public.

From Our Archives, an Excerpt From Maxine Hong Kingston

Each week, we take a look at our archives for boosts to propel you into the weekend.

In Maxine Hong Kingston’s “The Brother in Vietnam,” which we excerpted in 1980, the main character is simply “the brother.”

It is the Vietnam era. The draft looms. He, “the brother,” does not have a religion, a wife, a physical disability, or a desire to go to war—he has only a job teaching high school in California. So “the brother” does that, at first; he teaches. The brother waits to be called up to the war. He hopes not to be. He spouts a bit of anti-capitalism to his students in the meantime. Kingston writes:

During Current Events, [the brother] told his class some atrocities to convince them about the wrongness of war. They looked at the pictures of napalmed children and said, “Sure, war is hell.” Where had they learned that acceptance? He told them the worst torture he knew: the Vikings used to cleave a prisoner of war’s back on either side of the spine, and pull the lungs out, which fluttered like wings when the man breathed. This torture was called the Burning Eagle. The brother felt that it was self-evident that we ought to do anything to stop war. But he was learning that, upon hearing terrible things, there are people who are, instead, filled with a crazy patriotism…

He explained how water, electricity, gas and oil originally belonged to nobody and everybody. Like the air. “But the corporations that control electricity sell it to the rest of us.” “Well, of course they do,” said the student; “I’d sell the air if I had discovered it.” “What if some people can’t afford to buy it?” “Whoever discovered it deserves to be paid for it,” said the stubborn boy. “It’s Communist not to let him make all the money he can.” Although the students could not read or follow logic, they blocked him with their anti-Communism, which seemed to come naturally to them, without effort or study.

Some have written that “the brother” is likely Kingston’s own brother. Her work often swirls into an autofiction, as Hua Hsu wrote in a profile this year in the New Yorker. This roots Kingston’s story in a tangible haze of guilt. Perhaps one we all recognize today.

Hsu’s article begins where most do with Kingston: her iconic The Woman Warrior, which “changed American culture.” He describes the process of her writing the book—she burned out on Berkeley counterculture, moved to Hawaii, and, on vacation in Lāna’i, Kingston in 1973 began writing by moving a desk to face the wall.

But it is his description of her process of writing her second book—China Men, a series of stories about immigrant men published in 1980, which includes “The Brother in Vietnam”—that caught me, and made our excerpt make more sense. He writes: 

When she completed “China Men,” she and [her partner] flew to New York. After reading the manuscript, [her editor] told her that she had failed. “You don’t understand men,” she remembers him saying. “They’re lonelier than this.”

Devastated, Kingston got on a bus uptown to her friend Lilah Kan’s apartment, where she and Earll were staying. “I just felt terrible,” she said. She was met by [friends] who greeted her with champagne and pot to celebrate her big meeting. They went ahead with the party, as she retreated into the corner with her Selectric typewriter and wrote a scene based on her father’s time in New York. So much of the immigrant story is joyless hard work. America is so free that you are even free to work through the holidays, Kingston wrote. She wanted to give the immigrant workers a day off. Her father enjoys a night out on the town, ending up at a tearoom, where Chinese men could buy dances with white women. Her father fox-trots with as many blondes as he desires, then returns home alone, wondering if his wife will ever make it to America.

This work follows a similarly sly trajectory. Unsure what to do, Kingston’s “brother” actually enlists in the Navy. “He arrived at his decision by reasoning like this,” she writes. “In a country that operates on a war economy, there isn’t much difference between being in the Navy and being a civilian.” If every microwave purchase fuels the bombs what point is there?

Yet the brother cannot fully give up his hatred of the Vietnam War. As much as he tries to give in, Kingston finds that the brother keeps fighting: in small, subtle ways. It is the “sadness” of men that her editor wanted. But the strength too.

The brother cannot fully go limp, cynical, and evil. He is complicit, yes, in war, but never wages it fully. In Vietnam, as part of the Navy, he refuses to kill. And he refuses to die.

There’s a shrewd lesson there. Sometimes we must just survive.

Check out Hsu’s profile, and pick up a copy of any of Kingston’s books.

Grinding Your Teeth at Night Is No Joke

Emily Sohn writes about her recent trips to the dentist:

It was bad luck, I figured, or maybe just the reality of middle age. My dentist, Jennifer Herbert, suggested otherwise. Ever since the pandemic started, she says she has seen a surge in problems related to tooth-grinding and jaw-clenching. Perhaps, she suggested, pandemic stress was the culprit for my tooth woes, too. “It’s astronomical,” she says. “I’ve seen more patients with problems from grinding in the last few months than I have in the rest of my career.”

This is no joke. Six years ago, when my cancer diagnosis was brand new and I was undergoing my first round of chemotherapy followed by a stem cell transfer, Marian was beside herself with anxiety.¹ She didn’t know it at the time, but it turned out that as a result she was grinding her teeth at night. By the time it was all over a year later, she had undergone months of dental work and had five new crowns.

This is also an easily solved problem: your dentist can provide you with a custom-fitted mouthguard that you wear at night. If the COVID-19 pandemic and everything else going on has you worried enough to be grinding your teeth at night, get it looked at right away. There’s no need to wait until your teeth are half gone.

¹And me? I’m just not the worrying type, I guess. I snore, but I don’t grind my teeth.

Federal Judge Says USPS Delays Were “Intentional Effort” to Undermine Fair Elections

A federal judge blocked a series of actions implemented by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy that have led to widespread mail delays, calling them “an intentional effort on the part of the current Administration to disrupt and challenge the legitimacy of upcoming local, state, and federal elections.”

In a strongly worded opinion released Thursday, District Court Judge Stanley A. Bastian of Washington state issued a nationwide injunction prohibiting DeJoy from implementing changes ranging from cutting overtime to removing 671 mail sorting machines to forcing mail trucks to leave on time even if the mail is not ready .

“Although not necessarily apparent on the surface, at the heart of DeJoy’s and the Postal Service’s actions is voter disenfranchisement,” Bastian wrote. “This is evident in President Trump’s highly partisan words and tweets, the actual impact of the changes on primary elections that resulted in uncounted ballots, and recent attempts and lawsuits by the Republican National Committee and President Trump’s campaign to stop the States’ efforts to bypass the Postal Service by utilizing ballot drop boxes, as well as the timing of the changes.”

Trump has already admitted that he’s refusing to support $25 billion in funding for the USPS in an attempt to sabotage mail voting, while Bastian noted that “72% of the decommissioned high speed mail sorting machines that were decommissioned were located in counties where Hillary Clinton receive the most votes in 2016.”

It remains to be seen what impact the ruling will have. Amid public outcry, DeJoy agreed to suspend some of his changes until after the election, such as cutting overtime, reducing post office hours, and no longer treating election mail as first-class mail. Other reversals ordered by the court, such as reinstalling the removed sorting machines, could be difficult to achieve since many of the machines have already been taken apart. Meanwhile, mail delays persist in much of the country—election expert Daniel Smith of the University of Florida tweeted yesterday that mail in Gainesville is running three days behind schedule, according to a local mail driver.

But the scrutiny on DeJoy is playing out in the courts, which in recent days have issued significant rulings to combat mail delays. On Thursday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said that ballots postmarked by Election Day could be counted until three days after the election and the state could set up drop boxes where voters could return mail ballots. A day earlier, an Ohio court ruled that the secretary of state could not mandate that local boards of elections have only one drop box per county. Both opinions cited delays under DeJoy as a reason to expand access to the ballot.

Emails Show the Meatpacking Industry Drafted an Executive Order to Keep Plants Open

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.

In late April, as COVID-19 raced through meatpacking plants sickening and killing workers, President Donald Trump issued a controversial executive order aimed at keeping the plants open to supply food to American consumers.

It was a relief for the nation’s meatpackers who were being urged, or ordered, to suspend production by local health officials worried about the spread of the coronavirus.

But emails obtained by ProPublica show that the meat industry may have had a hand in its own White House rescue: Just a week before the order was issued, the meat industry’s trade group drafted an executive order that bears striking similarities to the one the president signed.

The draft that Julie Anna Potts, the president of the North American Meat Institute, sent to top officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture was written using the framework of an official executive order and stressed the importance of the food supply chain and how outbreaks had reduced production—themes later addressed in the president’s order.

It invoked the president’s powers under a Korean War-era law known as the Defense Production Act and proposed that the president make a simple and straightforward proclamation: “I hereby order that critical infrastructure food companies continue their operations to the fullest extent possible.”

What happened next within the USDA and White House isn’t clear from the records. The USDA declined to answer questions, and the White House did not respond to requests for comment. But while the final wording wasn’t verbatim, Trump’s order emphasized the points the industry had proposed and furthered the same goal, directing the agriculture secretary to take action “to ensure that meat and poultry processors continue operations.”

The order provided a lifeline for meatpacking companies stressed by dozens of plant closures, severe staffing shortages and supply chain disruptions that would cause fast food restaurants to run out of hamburgers and grocery stores to ration meat purchases.

But it has also generated significant criticism from labor unions and Democratic senators who said it prioritized the bottom line of the nation’s meatpackers over the health of their workers.

The executive order effectively provided a justification, sanctioned by the White House, for meat companies to continue operations even as tens of thousands of the industry’s workers contracted the disease.

“It certainly gives rise to at least the appearance of favoritism that the executive order was done not because the White House thought it was the right thing to do but because they were getting pressure from outside groups that wanted it done,” said Stephen Vladeck, a constitutional law professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

In a statement, Potts said that the meat institute had been working as a liaison between the government and industry on many issues related to COVID-19. “Trade associations of all types routinely suggest legislative language, comment on proposed rules, and other provisions that are shared with the government,” she said.

The documents obtained by ProPublica offer a rare look at the process of drafting an executive order and a glimpse into the meat industry’s influence and access to the highest levels of government. Such political support has been crucial for the industry, which had dismissed years of warnings from the federal government to plan for a pandemic, sowing chaos in rural communities as they battled local health departments over outbreaks in their plants.

The draft executive order was one of hundreds of emails between the companies, industry groups and top officials at the USDA since March. Together, they show that throughout the coronavirus crisis, the meatpacking industry has repeatedly turned to the agency for help beating back local public health orders and loosening regulations to keep processing lines running.

While special interest groups often submit draft legislation and regulations to policymakers, legal experts said executive orders are less common and aren’t subject to the same public scrutiny.

In interviews, former White House lawyers from Democratic and Republican administrations said that there is great latitude in how executive orders are generated and it wasn’t unusual for private interest groups of all types to promote their causes by pushing for an executive order. It is also reasonable for the White House to seek input from outside entities during the process. But there would typically be an effort to consult a range of parties who might be affected by it before the order received legal scrutiny, they said. The quick seven-day turnaround, even amid an emergency like COVID-19, is notable, some said.

“All policy is shaped by people who have a stake in it,” said Rakesh Kilaru, associate counsel and special assistant to President Barack Obama from 2015 to 2017. “But I can’t think of something that was so direct between the stakeholder asking for action and getting it.”

Jonathan Adler, a constitutional and administrative law professor at Case Western Reserve University, said there’s nothing “inherently inappropriate” about the industry helping to draft the order. “The concern is that, in a case like this, if the executive order is slanted to a particular interest rather than the public at large,” he said.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents workers responsible for the majority of U.S. beef and pork production, said no one from the White House or the USDA sought its input before the executive order was issued.

Mark Lauritsen, the UFCW’s director of food processing, packing and manufacturing, said he believes the Meat Institute “along with some of the other bigger players in the industry pulled every lever they could.”

The order has been effective as a political tool because it is widely perceived to have far more legal force than it actually does. From a legal standpoint, the executive order gave Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue additional power to issue his own orders related to the food supply—something he hasn’t done.

But many state and local health officials view the order as superseding their authority or decided to back off in the face of political pressure from the Trump administration. Within a week of the executive order, the USDA was working with companies and local health authorities to reopen shuttered plants. With workers back on the line, operations ramped up again. Pork production, for example, had fallen by more than half by the end of April, causing steep financial losses. But by early June, meatpacking plants were nearly back to capacity.

Since the order, however, COVID-19 infections among meatpacking workers have multiplied. To date, there have been more than 43,000 cases and at least 195 deaths among meatpacking employees, according to data compiled by ProPublica from public health agencies and news reports.

Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that almost from the start of the crisis, the meatpacking industry and the USDA were largely focused on how to keep workers on the line.

In March, governors across the country tried to stem the spread of COVID-19 with shelter-in-place orders, coming up with their own varied lists of essential industries. Companies were sometimes faced with unclear and conflicting directives. This was especially true in meatpacking, a highly consolidated industry where a handful of companies run multiple operations across the country with hundreds of employees working side by side.

To seek clarity, 60 food and agricultural trade groups sent a letter on March 18 to federal, state and local officials asking for exemptions from curfews and public gathering bans so they could keep their businesses running. Copies of the letter were sent to the White House and members of Congress, and Tyson Foods circulated it among several governors.

The next day, the Department of Homeland Security issued guidance and noted Trump’s previous comments that “if you work in a critical infrastructure industry, as defined by the Department of Homeland Security, such as healthcare services and pharmaceutical and food supply, you have a special responsibility to maintain your normal work schedule.”

But the meatpacking companies soon found themselves facing another hurdle. By April, waves of workers who debone chickens or carve up pork elbow-to-elbow with their co-workers were falling ill from the virus. Some feared coming to work while others walked out of plants to protest the lack of infection control measures.

With plant slowdowns came a backlog of pigs, cows and chickens waiting for slaughter. Millions of animals had to be euthanized.

As some plants partially suspended operations or contemplated closing because of staffing shortages, Potts of the Meat Institute arranged an April 3 call between Perdue and top executives of major meatpacking firms Tyson, Smithfield Foods, Hormel, JBS, Seaboard and Cargill. Before the call, Potts emailed the USDA’s undersecretary for food safety, Mindy Brashears, with a list of discussion topics, including clear messaging that employees who failed to show up for work because they were scared would not qualify for unemployment benefits.

“I want to re-emphasize that the slowdowns and shutdowns you heard described today are significant and getting worse each day,” Potts wrote in a follow-up email. “Hearing a strong and consistent message from the President or Vice President like that delivered by the Governor of Nebraska yesterday is vital: being afraid of COVID-19 is not a reason to quit your job and you are not eligible for unemployment compensation if you do.”

Two days later, the Labor Department, which had been hearing similar complaints from across the business community, issued guidance clarifying that workers who quit to avoid contracting the disease wouldn’t receive jobless benefits.

As outbreaks overwhelmed hospitals in April, pressure from local public officials grew, leading to the rapid-fire closures of some of the nation’s largest slaughterhouses.

The threat of closure led the meatpacking industry to ramp up its efforts to seek intervention not only from the USDA but from other government officials as well. Emails obtained by ProPublica show that as state and local health officials sought to order JBS to shut down its Greeley, Colorado, plant, the company appealed to Gov. Jared Polis and then to Vice President Mike Pence.

State health director Jill Hunsaker Ryan told the head of the county Health Department that she had received a call from Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“JBS was in touch with the VP who had Director Redfield call me,” she wrote in an email, first reported by The Denver Post. “They want us to use CDC’s critical infrastructure guidance, (sending asymptomatic people back to work even if we suspect exposure but they have no symptoms) even with the outbreak at present level.”

JBS said that it reached out to Pence because it was “receiving guidance from local authorities that conflicted with federal CDC guidance,” but that it ultimately agreed to shut down the plant to “stop any potential chain of infection.”

Tyson and National Beef made similar appeals to the Kansas Department of Agriculture when the state Health Department wanted workers to stay off the line for two weeks if they had come in contact with a positive COVID-19 case, public records first reported by The Kansas City Star and The Wichita Eagle show. The state’s secretary of agriculture coordinated with meat companies and the director of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, who then agreed to follow the less-strict CDC guidance.

Despite these varied efforts to keep plants open, absenteeism and public health orders continued to cripple production lines. Government experts had long predicted a pandemic would cause food shortages. And those worst-case scenarios were now playing out.

The major meat and agriculture trade groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Meat Institute, wanted the White House to get directly involved in preventing plant closures.

In an April 17 letter to Trump, they detailed the disruptions caused by plant closures and the inconsistency of health and safety actions from state to state—a point later echoed in the executive order.

“To ensure livestock producers, poultry growers, and all food processors and their workers can continue to feed the nation,” they wrote, “we respectfully request you emphasize the importance of allowing critical infrastructure food companies to responsibly and safely continue their operations to the fullest extent possible without undue disruption.”

For emphasis, Potts of the Meat Institute followed up with an email to Stephen Censky, the USDA’s deputy secretary, who led the American Soybean Association before joining the Trump administration. She attached the letter to Trump and added, “The situation is continuing to get worse and worse at the local level (it’s hard to overstate how dire it is) and I want to explore with you what might be possible as a tool to help.”

Early the next morning, Potts had a call with top officials from the USDA, and shortly after 9 a.m., she sent them an email, writing: “Attached is a draft EO for consideration.”

The records don’t include a reply, and White House and internal deliberative agency conversations are exempt from public records laws, making it difficult to verify how much or little influence the meat industry’s draft had on the final executive order.

But over the next week, the drumbeat for action on behalf of the food and agriculture sector continued. Governors from the poultry producing states of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia wrote to Trump asking for the designation of one federal agency to lead on COVID-19 and poultry workers, access to protective equipment and financial relief for farmers and companies. Industry representatives convened a call with the USDA, the Food and Drug Administration and DHS about the impending disaster facing farmers, who would need to mass euthanize their animals if plants remained shuttered. In that conversation, utilizing the Defense Production Act was discussed, according to an industry representative on the call. Tyson took out a full-page ad in major newspapers to warn that the food supply chain was breaking.

Even on the day the executive order was issued, there was still a flurry of activity to get the White House to help the meat industry. That afternoon, records show, the director of the Washington office for North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper forwarded a letter from pork producers to his counterparts in Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, Colorado and Pennsylvania to ask their opinion on it and whether their governors were going to sign on.

The draft letter, addressed to Pence, asks for his help in invoking the Defense Production Act to assist in “the humane euthanasia of animals,” to indemnify farmers and pork producers and to “utilize every authority available to keep plants open.”

A representative from Michigan said her state would pass, noting the lack of worker protection language in the letter, while an aide to Pennsylvania’s governor cited the need for “advocacy on behalf of all sectors.”

On April 28, a week after Potts sent the suggested language for an executive order, Trump issued the “Executive Order on Delegating Authority Under the DPA with Respect to Food Supply Chain Resources During the National Emergency Caused by the Outbreak of COVID-19.”

Trump’s final order reflects what the meat industry had been requesting for weeks as the pandemic had unfolded: “It is important that processors of beef, pork, and poultry (‘meat and poultry’) in the food supply chain continue operating and fulfilling orders to ensure a continued supply of protein for Americans.”

It also notes that “recent actions in some States have led to the complete closure of some large processing facilities” and that such closures “threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency.”

The order invokes the Defense Production Act and orders the agriculture secretary to “take all appropriate action under that section to ensure that meat and poultry processors continue operations consistent with the guidance for their operations jointly issued by the CDC” and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

It had immediate effect.

In June, the Bear River Health Department in northern Utah, where nearly 400 JBS workers have tested positive for COVID-19, told the press it couldn’t shut the plant down because of the executive order.

In Virginia, state health officials had initially recommended that poultry companies close their plants for two weeks, “allowing deep cleaning and allowing symptomatic and asymptomatic infected workers to run their course of disease and recover,” records obtained under a separate public records request show. But the state backed off “to maintain the critical food production infrastructure.”

Meanwhile, meat companies and their trade groups continued to seek help from the USDA when public health officials tried to take action.

The day after the executive order was announced, the National Chicken Council wrote to the USDA with complaints that the county Health Department in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was requiring testing of all employees at poultry plants in the area. This would have the effect of closing down the plants, the trade group warned, because they were already short-staffed and testing could cause fear among the remaining workers.

Weeks later, the Chicken Council wrote that local officials were threatening plant closures and issuing public notices because they believed the plants were “operating with an imminent health hazard.”

“We want to push back on 100% testing and would like your assistance,” the trade group wrote.

The Chicken Council didn’t return calls or emails seeking comment.

Smithfield also went to the USDA for help dealing with a local public Health Department in Kane County, Illinois, which had closed the plant days before Trump’s executive order was issued. “The Kane County Illinois health department continues to be a challenge regarding our St. Charles processing facility,” Michael Skahill, Smithfield’s vice president of government affairs, wrote to Brashears, the USDA’s undersecretary for food safety. “I really did not want to have to get you involved but it has now come to the point where we need you to referee.”

Asked why it had gone to the USDA to intervene, Keira Lombardo, Smithfield’s executive vice president for corporate affairs, said: “We are a leading American agriculture company. Considering that fact, why wouldn’t we engage with the United States Department of Agriculture amid an unprecedented pandemic?”

Two days after Skahill’s plea for help, Smithfield continued to press the issue. Amy McClure, Smithfield’s associate general counsel, wrote to Brashears again, this time citing a central tenet of the executive order. “To reiterate our conversation, our St. Charles plant in Kane County, Illinois is in an urgent situation,” McClure wrote. “We need to reopen to prevent further disruption in the nation’s food supply.”

Six hours later, Brashears and her chief of staff received a grateful email from Skahill. “Thank you for your support today with the Smithfield St. Charles Kane County issue,” he wrote. “I think we have a resolution that will allow us to process next week and put protein on America’s table.”

The Trump Files: Trump Finds a Silver Lining in an Ebola Outbreak

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 October 21, 2016.

Donald is a famous germophobe who hates shaking hands so much that he called the practice “one of the curses of American society” in one of his books. “I happen to be a clean-hands freak,” he told The Hill earlier this year. So it’s no wonder that the Ebola outbreak of 2014 appealed to him on at least one level.

Something very important, and indeed society changing, may come out of the Ebola epidemic that will be a very good thing: NO SHAKING HANDS!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 4, 2014

When Donald wasn’t heralding the imminent worldwide demise of hand-shaking, though, he was having an epic, monthslong Twitter freakout over the Ebola scare.

Ebola patient will be brought to the U.S. in a few days – now I know for sure that our leaders are incompetent. KEEP THEM OUT OF HERE!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 1, 2014

The U.S. must immediately stop all flights from EBOLA infected countries or the plague will start and spread inside our “borders.” Act fast!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 2, 2014

We must immediately stop all air traffic coming from the Ebola infected areas of Africa—before it is too late.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 16, 2014

How dumb is our president to send thousands of poorly trained and ill-equipped soldiers over to West Africa to fight Ebola. Stop all flights

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 1, 2014

This Ebola patient Thomas Duncan, who fraudulently entered the U.S. by signing false papers, is causing havoc. If he lives, prosecute!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 4, 2014

A single Ebola carrier infects 2 others at a minimum. STOP THE FLIGHTS! NO VISAS FROM EBOLA STRICKEN COUNTRIES!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 10, 2014

Needless to say, the United States would be well equipped to calmly handle any medical emergencies under a Trump administration.

 

“Everyone Is Tired of Always Staying Silent”: Inside a Worker Rebellion in the Central Valley

It was still dark outside when Veronica Perez arrived at Primex Farms, a nut packing facility in Kern County, California. Crickets murmured from the almond and pistachio groves stretching for miles in either direction. Inside the double doors, Perez, 43, usually stands next to other nut sorters alongside a conveyor belt and picks out the unseemly pistachios. But on June 25, at 4:30 a.m., Perez didn’t go in. Instead, for the next five hours, she and her colleagues formed a picket line. Some 30 employees joined on foot, with more circling and honking in their cars. They held homemade signs with the names of their infected coworkers. One sign in Spanish read, “The wise see danger and leave, but the foolish go on and suffer the consequences.” The employees chanted, “Somos esenciales!” We are essential.

In more than a decade of picking and packing food in California, Perez had never joined a protest. There hadn’t been many to join: Fewer than 2 percent of farmworkers are unionized. But in recent months, things at Primex had become unbearable. In March, when employees concerned about the coronavirus requested to wear masks, Primex allegedly prohibited them from doing so, citing food safety concerns. When the company later allowed masks, instead of distributing them, it sold them for $8 apiece, according to several workers. (Primex denies ever selling masks.)

By early June, employees were falling ill. Those who stayed home sick reported not getting paid while they were out. Others kept coming to work, coughing and coughing. Meanwhile, Primex executives reportedly remained tight-lipped on any illness at their facility. “They said that they were going to let us know if anyone came down with it,” said maintenance worker Remigio Ramirez, “but they didn’t.”

When Ramirez told his boss in mid-June that he wasn’t feeling good, the supervisor “said we were short-staffed and needed more hands,” recalled Ramirez. It was probably just the flu, said the supervisor, urging Ramirez to take some medicine and come in.

A few days later, Ramirez, 54, was diagnosed with COVID-19. He stayed home, quarantining himself in his bedroom. “When I got up the next day, I didn’t see anyone—not my wife, not my daughters,” he said. “And I thought to myself, what’s happening? Did they leave me alone? But no, each one was in their room, sick.”

Veronica Perez

Wesaam Al-Badry

For many employees, the last straw came on June 23, when a local news channel reported that, according to Primex, 31 workers had tested positive for COVID-19. Employees watched the news in shock. Company leadership hadn’t told them about the cases, the first of which had been confirmed more than two weeks before. (Primex didn’t comment specifically on the lack of communication to employees, but said, “We began implementing [anti]-virus spreading steps long before the CDC guidelines were published. We are proud to say that we are one of the cleanest and most sanitized plants in the industry.”) 

Primex was far from the only food production facility in the area where the coronavirus was spreading. Over the summer, the disease tore through the Central Valley, the vast, dry interior of California that produces a quarter of the nation’s food, including 40 percent of the country’s fruits and nuts. By mid-August, the Kern County fairgrounds had been transformed into a federal surge testing site, and more than 1 in 5 coronavirus tests were coming out positive. “The problem we’re seeing is not whether you’re going to get infected,” said Armando Elenes, secretary treasurer of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union. “It’s no longer a matter of if—it’s a matter of when.”

“The farm supervisors aren’t interested in if you have it or not. You might feel sick, but it’s fine—as long as you don’t die.”

Primex is relatively small by California agribusiness standards. Roughly 400 employees work in its Kern County packing facility, processing about 6 percent of California’s pistachios each year. But despite the company’s size, its workers made a rare, risky decision with sweeping implications: While the pandemic has driven many vulnerable populations further into the shadows, Primex employees, many of whom are undocumented, took to the streets.

Perez knows this is not how the playbook is supposed to go. “Most workers prefer to keep quiet for fear of losing their jobs or for fear of retaliation,” she said. “I was amazed myself at the quick response we got from our coworkers. It may be that everyone is tired of always staying silent.”

Last month, I drove to the Central Valley to talk to agricultural workers about the effect of the rapidly proliferating virus on their lives. Nearly everyone I interviewed suspected that others they worked with had had the virus at one point. But no one wanted to bring it up with their coworkers or bosses: Just as pervasive as the virus is the secrecy around it.

The mentality is, “if I feel good, even though I have the virus, I’m not going to tell you,” said one farmworker in Lost Hills. “The farm supervisors aren’t interested in if you have it or not. You might feel sick, but it’s fine—as long as you don’t die.”

An estimated half of the nation’s farmworkers are undocumented immigrants, according to the US Department of Agriculture. (Some estimate the rate to be significantly higher.) This open secret has long left farmworkers suspended in a contradiction: critical to feeding the country, yet deportable at the drop of a hat. With the pandemic, the dichotomy has only become more clear. Essential workers, including farmworkers, “have a special responsibility” to maintain normal work hours, according to President Trump’s guidance in March, yet undocumented workers don’t benefit from the federal coronavirus relief measures granted to citizens. (Those who are in the US on temporary work visas aren’t in a much better position: Some have been fired and lost their visas after getting the virus.)

Many agricultural workers now carry letters from their farms and packing plants identifying them as critical employees in case law enforcement picks them up. “I am a farm worker helping to protect our food supply during the Coronavirus pandemic,” read one such letter that a berry picker shared with me. “My job is considered essential so that we can produce food.”

Many agricultural workers carry letters from their employers identifying them as essential during the pandemic.

Under federal coronavirus legislation and subsequent additions by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, many undocumented workers are eligible for two weeks of paid sick leave, deemed “COVID pay.” But in practice, enforcement is spotty. “If an employer is not paying them COVID pay, that sends a message to everybody else to not say anything,” said the UFW’s Elenes. And if an undocumented worker loses their job, they don’t get the unemployment stipend that the federal relief promises to other residents. “Most employees accept that they don’t have health insurance,” Elenes added. “But not having any income? That’s not something they can resolve.”

So begins a lethal feedback loop: The fear of lost wages and of immigration enforcement breeds silence, which in turn breeds transmission. “People are scared to say anything—or they take it like it’s a common cold, and they continue going to work,” said a 45-year-old who we’ll call Esperanza. Esperanza described a scene at her workplace, a plant nursery in Oxnard, similar to that at Primex: Over the summer, her coworkers started coming in sick, knowing they wouldn’t get paid if they stayed home. The nursery didn’t give out masks. But the worker response at the nursery was far less dramatic than that at Primex, and far more typical. Instead of protesting to demand better conditions or higher pay, workers simply went on working. Esperanza spoke to me over the phone in a quiet, cracking voice; just a couple weeks before, she had come down with the coronavirus.

The fear also complicates COVID-19 testing efforts. Since mid-July, Kelly Gladden, a volunteer who spearheads a mobile coronavirus testing unit, has criss-crossed Kern County to test farmworkers. Since most other testing sites are far away from farms, and some workers don’t have transportation, the idea is to meet workers literally where they’re at. The operation was initially run out of a van, but the associations of a van with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement made Gladden change tacks. Now her team, a group from the Bakersfield-based Good Samaritan Hospital, sets up the testing tent in a field, between rows of grapes, or under the awning of a food processing or packing plant. Even still, the team encounters skeptics. Some growers don’t love the idea of using up work hours for testing, and some workers are afraid that their information will be shared, or that they won’t get paid if they test positive.

Fernando Perez, who works at a dairy outside of Bakersfield, explained that he purposely didn’t get a COVID-19 test when his coworkers, including his brother, came down with the virus. Perez, who is undocumented, didn’t want to risk the financial toll of testing positive—his brother wasn’t paid for his time at home. Plus, someone needed to operate the complex machinery to feed the cows. “If no one comes in, the animals don’t eat. If they don’t eat, they don’t produce,” he explained. “If we don’t go to work, 10,000 cows will die. Our work is very, very important.”

The shroud of silence adds to a host of environmental and situational factors that had already made agricultural workers perfect targets for the virus. Few farmworkers have regular access to health care. Many live with extended family members, with several generations under one roof, or in dormitories for temporary workers, where the virus proliferates. It’s common to carpool to job sites, some of which are greenhouses or packing houses with limited air circulation. Between the pollution from the pesticides, the oil fields, and the freeways, the Central Valley has atrocious air quality: Its largest cities, Bakersfield and Fresno, have the worst air particle pollution in the country, according to the American Lung Association. Rates of asthma, the fungal lung disease Valley Fever, and other respiratory ailments soar. It’s perhaps no surprise that, according to a recent Politico analysis, the nation’s key agricultural counties have disproportionately high coronavirus infection rates.

Making matters even worse, workers have had to contend with another hazard this month: A ring of fires around the Central Valley has turned the fields into a hot, soupy smog. “People look at us and don’t pay us much attention. We’re out in the rain, the heat, every other condition,” one worker told me. “They’re not taking into account that we need help.”

On Tuesday June 23, Perez, the Primex employee, sent a message to Elenes over Facebook. He was a near stranger, but she was desperate, reeling from the news of the COVID-19 cases at the company. At Elenes’ urging, Perez reached out to other concerned coworkers asking them to join a WhatsApp group, called Justicia en Primex Farms, and to invite their other colleagues. (Primex isn’t unionized, but the UFW organizes and advocates for agricultural workers in general, regardless of union status, said Elenes.) Within 24 hours, 100 people had joined. They gathered over Zoom the following evening, many using the video chatting platform for the first time, to plan a demonstration.

Farmworkers line up for Kern county’s mobile coronavirus testing unit

Kelly Gladden

When her coworkers showed up for the strike early Thursday morning, Perez was a jumble of emotions: thrilled that so many people had joined, terrified that they would face consequences. She carried a sign with a list of three demands: sick pay, job protection, and “respect.” Ramirez, the maintenance worker who’d tested positive the week before, showed support from the confines of his truck.

The effects of the demonstration appeared to be immediate. Later that day—more than two weeks after the first reported infection at Primex—the company closed for cleaning and announced it would contract with a mobile testing unit and implement other safety precautions, like installing plexiglass dividers at the sorting tables and more outdoor seating areas so employees on breaks could spread out.

When the company opened after a few days, workers gathered once again to protest. They alleged that Primex still wasn’t cleaning adequately or providing sick pay. This time, their numbers had grown to more than 60. But the demonstration lasted only a day. “We went back because we needed the work,” Perez said.

It was around that point that Elenes suggested employees start a coronavirus census, suspecting far more people than just the 31 that the company had reported were infected. Workers started coming forward in the chat, admitting they had tested positive. Since Primex is a 24-hour operation, the messages came in day and night. Elenes recalled waking up and finding message after message about positive tests among employees and their family members. One woman reported that not only was she infected, but 16 other family members were as well. The youngest was nine months old.

In the weeks after the protests, OSHA opened an investigation into the company; it remains open. But by that point, the virus was everywhere. Within three weeks, the employee census found that 97 of 400 employees were positive, along with more than 60 family members. The separate mobile testing unit provided by Primex would later find that 150 employees—more than a third of the plant’s workforce—had the virus. 

“It makes me want to cry because my coworkers—I’ve tried to be really strong in front of them, but I can’t anymore.”

In mid-July, a 57-year-old employee named Maria Hortencia Lopez was taken off life support and died of the coronavirus. Perez had known Lopez as a lively coworker on the assembly line who often brought in fruit to share and asked after Perez’s family. “I couldn’t believe that a person so full of life, such a happy and a good person, suddenly isn’t with you anymore,” she said.

Perez’s grief was undergirded by a quiet rage. She couldn’t shake the feeling that all of this could have been prevented. “That’s what hurts the most,” she said.

Just 25 minutes away from Primex sits Delano, where, in 1966, striking grape workers famously began the 340-mile march to protest the work conditions of farm laborers. The following decade marked a brief golden era for the UFW, with Cesar Chavez at the helm. At its peak, the union was 50,000 members strong, having secured in 1975 the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the nation’s only legislation allowing collective bargaining among farmworkers.

In the 1970s, the conditions at Primex “would have been an invitation to organize,” said Marshall Ganz, who directed organizing in the early years of the UFW and now lectures at the Harvard Kennedy School. “There’d be a grievance, and people would call out the union to come and help.”

Those days were short lived. Internal squabbling, fueled by Chavez’s increasing paranoia and refusal to decentralize power, seeded mistrust, and the union quickly found itself in a downward spiral. Fewer contracts were renegotiated, leaving those left behind to shoulder the costs. The successive Republican governor chipped away at state labor laws. Today, with just 7,500 members, the UFW is a shell of what it once was; it now represents less than one percent of farmworkers in California.

Recent months have brought blips of COVID-related organizing up and down the West Coast. Just a month before the Primex strike, hundreds of apple packers in Washington’s Yakima Valley walked off production lines to protest a lack of safety precautions and hazard pay. One worker inquired to Oregon Public Broadcasting, “Are their apples worth more than our lives?” The UFW is pushing for $2 per hour of hazard pay at poultry giant Foster Farms, which temporarily closed one of its California facilities this month after eight workers died of complications related to the coronavirus. 

I asked Ganz: Could the pandemic lead to more organizing among farmworkers? “The whole question of where you find courage to take risks is always a question in organizing,” he said. “Where do you find courage to take risk? Grievances don’t generate courage. They generate anger or rage. They generate despair. So unless there’s some hope source, people don’t really engage. So then the question is, under these conditions, are there unusual or new sources of possibility? Hope isn’t about certainty at all—it’s just about possibility.”

Remigio Rameriez

Wesaam Al-Badry

But the reality is that hope is in short supply. In many ways, the pickers and packers of food in America find themselves facing the same challenges as the grape strikers of the 1960s: stagnant pay, perilous conditions, and backbreaking labor. The rate of farmworkers who are undocumented has shot up, from an estimated one in seven three decades ago to one in two today. Agribusiness companies increasingly rely on third party, hard-to-regulate staffing agencies to hire, transport, and house employees, notes University of California-Davis agricultural economist Philip Martin in his upcoming book, The Prosperity Paradox. This, combined with the eroded power of unions, makes agricultural workers today especially vulnerable. As Martin concludes, “Government enforcement of labor laws depends on complaints, and vulnerable workers rarely complain.”

At Primex, employees report that they are finally getting paid sick leave. Yet they told me that despite this small victory, the atmosphere at the plant has become increasingly oppressive.

On July 22, about a month after the first protest, dozens of workers lost their jobs when Primex canceled its contract with a temporary staffing agency. The company attributed the reduction to typical changes in seasonal production, but according to the UFW and Primex employees, the cuts included many of the most vocal workers. Primex promptly hired new workers to take the place of those who were terminated, prompting the UFW to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. (The case is open; Primex declined to comment on the case but said of the UFW, “all they do is just play the blame game without any accountability.”)

In late July, a colleague of Perez’s tried to record a video inside the plant showing that that social distancing and mask wearing weren’t happening consistently, despite the company’s statements to the contrary. Shortly thereafter, that worker was fired, according to another NLRB complaint, and the company required workers to sign a policy prohibiting video recording. Perez refused to sign. “That’s when [the production manager] pulled me into the office. He likes to scream a lot,” recalled Perez.

Workers arriving at the Primex facility early in the morning.

Wesaam Al-Badry

Later, Perez and Ramirez, the maintenance worker, were separately called into meetings with Primex’s manager of human resources and instructed to retract statements they made to the media over the course of the protests. Business was declining because of all the bad press, Perez and Ramirez were told—if the company went down, it would be because of employees like them. “They said, ‘This company should mean something to you,’” recalled Ramirez, who has worked at Primex for 13 years. As they spoke, he seethed, thinking about his sick wife and daughters.

Perez recalled the human resources manager “said her head was hurting from hearing me talk so much, and she didn’t want to hear from me anymore.” Despite the warnings, a lingering thought keeps Perez talking to reporters: “If it’s happening to this company, it could happen to a lot of other companies where there’s no one to talk.”

Some of the fallout from the demonstrations has been more subtle. Ramirez said that most of his remaining coworkers didn’t agree with his decision to strike, and they now say very little to him. Instead of regularly fielding requests for help, like usual, he now spends his work hours walking around, looking for broken things to fix. Another organizer was moved from operating a forklift inside to sweeping and painting outside in the sweltering heat. He’s considered quitting. “It’s hard to keep working there when the people who manage the plant don’t want you there,” he said.

At the end of July, Perez participated in a Facebook Live panel put together by Líderes Campesinas, an advocacy group for female farmworkers. She admitted to the group that things had been very difficult lately. Just that day, she’d been yelled at by the production manager for refusing to sign the policy against taking videos.

“I’m really short, and he’s tall,” explained Perez in Spanish. And then she began to weep. “It makes me want to cry because my coworkers—I’ve tried to be really strong in front of them, but I can’t anymore.” It seemed that when they spoke up, things got worse.

“We’re only asking for a safe place to work,” she exclaimed. “What do we have to do?”

Camille Squires contributed to this story.

Eric Trump Is Trying to Stonewall a Fraud Investigation Into His Company Until After the Election

Eric Trump says he will now cooperate with an investigation by New York Attorney General Letitia James into whether the Trump Organization committed tax and banking fraud—but only after the election.

Last month, James filed a motion to compel Eric Trump and the Trump Organization to abide by subpoenas her office has issued for details of the company’s financial history. Specifically, she is trying to determine whether the president and his company misrepresented the Trump Organization’s finances to get better loans and tax benefits.

The investigation also focuses on whether Donald Trump paid taxes on more than $100 million in forgiven debt. Trump borrowed $120 million from private-equity fund Fortress Investment Group in 2006. In 2012, when the outstanding amount he owed had ballooned to roughly $150 million, he convinced Fortress to settle for $48 million. The rest of the debt was forgiven. Around that time, Trump said at least once publicly that he had purchased a loan from a lender. (When a loan is forgiven, the borrower owes a hefty tax bill, but if he or she buys it, the borrower can defer that tax liability at least temporarily.) Since he ran for president, Trump has listed a mysterious debt on his personal financial disclosure that he claims to owe to himself; it is worth $50 million or more and linked to the Chicago project. Trump has implied this debt was purchased from a lender. Mother Jones reported last year that this loan may be evidence of tax fraud if Trump in fact settled the debt and did not purchase it.

As part of her investigation, James confirmed that Trump did not buy the Fortress loan, and she asked the Trumps to provide documentation showing they paid the taxes on the forgiven portion of the debt. According to last month’s filing by her office, James also is scrutinizing whether Trump overstated the value of his properties to convince banks he was a better credit risk and whether Trump misreported a conservation easement on a large property he owns north of New York City.

James said in her filing that the Trump Organization readily supplied most of the information her office requested and that Eric Trump—who has largely been running the company while his father serves as president—was scheduled to sit for an interview under oath on July 22. However, according to James, Eric Trump abruptly cancelled the interview. When James’ office tried to reschedule, Trump’s attorneys told investigators “we cannot allow the interview to go forward…pursuant to those rights afforded to every individual under the Constitution.”

In a filing made on Thursday afternoon, however, the Trump Organization backtracked, saying Eric Trump would sit for an interview—just not any time soon. The Trump Organization’s attorneys said they didn’t allow the interview to go forward previously because they wanted to make sure James’ office didn’t provide the results of its investigation to other agencies that might be investigating Trump—possibly an allusion to New York City district attorney Cy Vance who is reportedly pursuing his own fraud investigation into Trump.

Although they didn’t get that assurance, the Trump attorneys wrote, they are now happy to make Eric Trump available, but not before November 19, “because of Mr. Trump’s extreme travel schedule and related unavailability between now and the election, and to avoid the use of his deposition attendance for political purposes.”

They added, “It is well known that most, if not all, law enforcement and regulatory agencies studiously avoid certain actions within the 60-day period prior to a major election.”

In a statement provided to Mother Jones, James said it wasn’t up to the Trump Organization to tell investigators when its executives are free to talk. “While we cannot comment on the particular steps we’re taking on specific litigation, we won’t allow any entity or individual to dictate how our investigation will proceed or allow anyone to evade a lawful subpoena. No one is above the law, period,” she said.

In its filing, the Trump Organization claims it has provided investigators with everything they requested regarding the Chicago loan—which the company’s motion confirms was paid off at a substantial discount—but most of the section on the deal was filed under seal and is redacted from the public version. 

The case is due in court on September 23 for an initial hearing. 

Fact of the Day: China Has Conquered COVID-19

Ever since China crushed its initial outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, the virus has been all but nonexistent throughout the entire country:

China is a country of 1.4 billion people spread over nearly 4 million square miles. Social distancing was relaxed in most places long ago, and even in Wuhan life returned to normal a month ago. Given this, it seems almost miraculous that China has managed to keep new cases under 50 per day and deaths at around one per day. Even their famously hardheaded approach to quarantines hardly seems like enough to explain it. I’d sure love to read a really good piece telling us how China has managed to accomplish this.

POSTSCRIPT: Vietnam and Taiwan also have very low case numbers, and their stories would be interesting too. However, neither of them ever had a big outbreak in the first place. China did.

Former Pence Staffer Condemns Trump’s “Flat Out Disregard for Human Life”

Another former member of President Donald Trump’s administration has denounced him and endorsed his Democratic opponent. This time it’s Oliva Troye—a former adviser to Vice President Mike Pence on homeland security and counter-terrorism and member of the White House’s coronavirus task force—who told the Washington Post she made her decision because of the president’s “flat out disregard for human life.” Troye left her position in August.

Coinciding with the announcement, the group Republican Voters Against Trump released a two-minute video with Troye in which she elaborates on that charge, detailing a meeting with the president in which, she claims, he suggested that the pandemic was a “good thing” because he’d no longer have to shake hands with “disgusting people”:

“Towards the middle of February we knew it wasn’t a matter of if Covid would become a big pandemic here in the United States, it was a matter of when,” Troye says in the video. “But the president didn’t want to hear that, because his biggest concern was that we were in an election year, and how was this going to effect what he considered to be his record of his success? It was shocking to see the president saying that the virus was a hoax, saying that everything was going to be okay when we know that it’s not.”

Troye describes herself as a supporter of George W. Bush and John McCain who simply can’t take another term of Trump. Her video is an echo, in some ways, of RVAT’s first big testimonial, in which Miles Taylor, former chief of staff to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, called his experience working in the administration “terrifying.” In fact, Troye uses that exact word.

On Thursday, Pence responded to Troye’s video calling her “one more disgruntled employee who’s left the White House to play politics during an election year.” It’s weird for an administration to repeatedly trash the people it once hired, but all things considered, it’s probably a better strategy than running on their response to the coronavirus.

Lunchtime Photo

Here’s a nice bright sunflower to take our minds off COVID-19 and apocalyptic wildfire skies.

March 29, 2019 — Santiago Canyon, Orange County, California

Between the Wildfires and the Pandemic, Live Music Is Safely and Resiliently Pulling Through

As wildfires ravage the West Coast and continue to engulf lives and homes, spreading the worst air quality in the world, it’s hard to imagine live music going strong. It does, remotely and safely, and just in time. One of the most thrilling this month comes from California, a powerhouse performance on September 26 by Zakir Hussain, Charles Lloyd, and Julian Lage, any one of whom is must-watch. This is the first time they’re performing as a trio.

Healdsburg Jazz is impressively unfazed by the heavy extra work of safely producing shows during the pandemic and fires, and they’re pulling in deep ones. Watch Hussain on tabla, Lloyd on saxophone, and Lage on guitar, and let us know at recharge@motherjones.com how you hear each and how you imagine their collective pulse to sound.

If you need a pulse check around the clock, our Recharge blog awaits. And mark the date.

Hey, Voters, Keep Sending Us Your Political Mail!

If you can remember as far back as January 2020, way back then, we at Mother Jones asked you to share your political mail. As my colleague Tim wrote at the time:

Facebook, for all its faults (actually, because of all its faults), makes it extremely easy to search political advertisements. Anyone can see what states are being targeted, how much reach an advertisement had, and how much money went into it. But there’s no such database for old-fashioned political mail. You know the kind—glossy, filled with impeccably lit photos of the candidate’s smiling family. Or perhaps improperly darkened, ominous-looking images of their opponent. Campaigns and outside groups often say stuff in mailers they don’t say in public—it’s where they show their true colors. (Remember those unseemly Ted Cruz mailers in 2016? Or this super-racist attack on an Asian-American candidate in 2018?) It’d be easier if campaigns and other organizations just sent us all this stuff, but they don’t, and so we need your help: Did you get a piece of political mail that caught your eye for one reason or another? Send it to us.

The instructions are simple:

  1. Take a photo of the mailer—the full thing, if you can
  2. Email it to our tipline, scoop@motherjones.com
  3. Use in the subject line: “Mailers” 
  4. Tell us your home state in the subject line or body of the email

We’re looking for mailers of all kinds, be they from presidential candidates or congressional candidates or would-be sheriffs and county assessors, be they about ballot initiatives or issues relevant to the election, be they funny or tacky or monstrous. Tips can be anonymous, and we’ll be sure to redact any identifying details from the photos before publishing them.

Abortion May Be the Sleeper Issue of 2020

Over at Politico, Tim Alberta takes the pulse of the very white, very leafy, very affluent suburb of Cedarburg, Wisconsin. It’s massively pro-Trump, of course, but when Alberta asks people why they like the guy he gets the same answer over and over: abortion. “The Democrats are so far to the left on abortion now that it’s impossible to vote for them,” says one resident. “I’m pretty close to a one-issue voter,” says another. “Abortion is the thing I care about most.” Half a dozen others followed suit.

Before you scoff at this as just the product of chance, check out the most recent Gallup poll on abortion as a voting issue:

Since Donald Trump was elected, the number of single-issue abortion voters has increased from 23 percent to 30 percent. Trump himself doesn’t talk much about abortion, but it’s an issue that’s driven a big change in voting behavior. With Brett Kavanaugh having taken the place of Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court, there are now five pro-life justices instead of four-and-a-half. If Ruth Bader Ginsburg (age 87) or Stephen Breyer (age 82) retires or dies in the next four years, a Trump presidency would install a sixth pro-life judge on the court and almost guarantee that Roe v. Wade gets overturned.

Social conservatives can practically taste victory at this point, and they’re voting like it. Social liberals are . . . not quite so single-minded. This is probably an underappreciated factor in the 2020 election.

Trump Endorses Bigger Stimulus Plan

There is almost literally no good news these days. Oh, sure, the Lakers won their series against the Rockets a few days ago, and the Dodgers clinched a postseason berth yesterday. But in the real world, things look grim.

So here’s some genuinely good news for you that didn’t get an awful lot of play:

President Trump on Wednesday called on congressional Republicans to support a massive economic relief bill with “much higher numbers” and stimulus payments for Americans, abruptly proposing an entirely different plan from what the Senate GOP sought to advance in recent days.

…Speaking at the White House on Wednesday evening, Trump expressed support — but not an explicit endorsement — for a $1.5 trillion plan unveiled Tuesday by the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus in the House. The proposal includes a new round of $1,200 stimulus checks to individual Americans, a provision omitted from an approximately $300 billion plan Senate Republicans tried unsuccessfully to pass last week.

“I like the larger amount, I’ve said that,” Trump said. “Some of the Republicans disagree, but I think I can convince them to go along with that because I like the larger number. I want to see people get money.

Trump’s motivation is almost certainly purely political, but who cares? That’s what politics is for. But will Republicans play along?

 

Biden Volunteers Are Encountering a Shocking Number of Voters Pushing an Unhinged Smear

Since she retired last year, my mom has spent a good deal of her free time knocking on doors and making phone calls for political candidates. During the pandemic, she’s turned to text-banking as a way to stay involved politically at a time when social distancing and travel restrictions have made it difficult to canvass in person. But when she started sending texts last month on behalf of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, the responses she got back from the occasional Trump voters on her list surprised her.

“They immediately start calling Biden a pedophile,” she told me. “I send out 500 texts in a pop and maybe it’ll come up five to seven times.” 

When you consider that not every text is going to yield a reply and only a fraction of the recipients are Trump voters, that’s a pretty high response rate. Sometimes, the Trump supporters go into “really filthy detail about what kinds of things he’s doing or likes to do,” she added, though she never takes the bait and engages. 

It is always disconcerting to hear that complete strangers are (digitally) shouting at your mom about pedophilia. But it turns out this is happening to many Biden text-bankers.

“I have been doing a lot of text banking and the number of people who think Biden is a pedophile is astounding,” one volunteer tweeted last week.

Another volunteer in Pennsylvania ranked it as the second most common response from Trump voters in her text-banking conversations.

What on Earth is going on? This smear appears to be an outgrowth of several years of right-wing disinformation and conspiracy-mongering. During the 2016 election, proponents of the “Pizzagate” conspiracy, including Trump’s disgraced first National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, came to believe—or pretended to believe—that prominent Democrats were involved in a child sex-trafficking ring located in the basement of a pizza parlor in Northwest Washington, DC. (They were not.)

In the Trump era, Pizzagate was superseded by QAnon, an almost-too-absurd-to-explain mind-warp of a conspiracy which, in the words of my colleague Ali Breland, “postulates that President Donald Trump is on the verge of arresting a throng of liberal elites for facilitating and participating in a sprawling child sex ring.” (He is not.)

Biden, meanwhile, has been the subject of his own form of disinformation on the subject. Even before Q became a fixture on t-shirts at Trump rallies and an article of faith among some Trump-backed candidates for Congress, the “Creepy Joe” meme, in which clips of Biden interacting with women and children are mashed together to suggest inappropriate or lascivious behavior, began circulating in right-wing circles. A YouTube video titled “Creepy Joe Biden Hair Sniffing Compilation” has nearly a million views. Over time, the implication of these images has gone from not respecting personal space—a charge for which Biden apologized—to, in the words of a meme shared by Donald Trump Jr. in May, that the Democrat is a “pedophile.” (Junior later said he was joking. LOL?)

The purveyors of Biden memes and conspiracy theories are not necessarily Q believers (though there’s certainly some overlap). But they end up in a similar place, often with the sanction of influential figures on the right. These Trump diehards reflexively view the president’s political opponents as not just ideological opposites, but as enablers of something far more sinister. Woe unto the poor Biden text-banker who encounters them. 

Bradd Silver, a Biden volunteer from California, recalled a recent text exchange with a voter who told him that “Biden never goes by a young girl without smelling her hair or touching her on the back.”

“My wife has gotten this about pedophiles a bunch, too,” he added. “We have a response for that, which is sort of, ‘this is just nonsense let’s talk about real issues.’ But no one wants to talk about real issues.”

After we spoke, Silver checked the Slack channel he’s in for Biden text-bankers to see if this had happened to anyone else. “Looks like 72 or so texters reported getting replies about Joe being a pedophile,” he wrote to me.

Another volunteer I spoke with, who said she gets at least one pedophile comment during every text-banking shift, sent along a smattering of screenshots of responses her fellow volunteers had received. One voter said, “I personally believe that pedophiles should be fed feet first in to a woodchipper.” Another said that they could not support a candidate who would “associate with know [sic] pedophiles while being accused by the public to be a pedophile.” 

“I’d rather catch COVID-19 then [sic] vote for that pedophile…Trump 2020 bitch,” responded yet another. 

Election season is a heated time and canvassers learn to deal with plenty of abuse (and a whole lot of rejection). But the pedophile attack is something different, at once something old and very new. As Ali wrote last summer, pedophilia has been the grist for conservative conspiracies for decades—an “outgrowth of the normal workings of reactionary politics,” part of the language of resistance to social change. What’s new is the extent to which it has been normalized in the context of the campaign, including at the highest levels.

What started on message boards is now hard to escape in real life. It’s winning primaries and permeating the president’s own campaign. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a near lock to win an open congressional seat in Georgia, has said that Trump is fighting a “global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles.” Another Q acolyte, Lauren Boebert of Colorado, unseated a five-term incumbent Republican congressman in a primary in June. She, too, is a favorite to win a congressional seat.

A recent survey by Daily Kos and Civiqs found that 33 percent of Republican voters agreed that “the QAnon theory about a conspiracy among deep state elites is true”—a broadly worded and perhaps leading question that nonetheless suggests that the theory has moved out of the shadows. When Crooked Media and Change Research asked undecided and infrequent voters for a one-word description of Biden, 46 different people said “pedophile.” A New York Times story last week noted the surge in interest in the conspiracy among white women. “Nobody is appropriately gauging how quickly QAnon (and Q by other names) has taken over among suburban and rural white women,” observed NBC News reporter Ben Collins recently. “It is everywhere.”

“I heard these are people that love our country,” the president said in August of QAnon supporters. By Tuesday, with 49 days to go until Election Day, he himself was sharing the pedophile meme, promoting a tweet with the hastag “#PedoBiden,” next to a .gif of Biden whispering in a woman’s ear. (That woman, Stephanie Carter, the wife of former defense secretary Ash Carter, has in fact written an entire Medium post about the harassment she’s faced from Biden critics over an image that was “misleadingly extracted from what was a longer moment between close friends.”)

It’s not just Trump supporters who are now dishing out these gross and debunked tropes. The disinformation is coming from the campaign itself.

Former Model Accuses Trump of Sexual Assault at 1997 US Open

A former model has accused President Trump of forcibly kissing and groping her while attending the 1997 US Open in Queens, New York. The alleged incident is the latest in at least 24 credible sexual assault allegations against Trump, ranging from similar accusations of unwanted touching and kissing to rape.

Amy Dorris, who was 24 at the time, came forward to the Guardian with her account. She alleges that Trump assaulted her “all over her body” outside the bathroom to the tournament’s VIP box. Several people have corroborated Dorris’s account, according to the Guardian, including a friend she immediately confided to after the alleged incident took place and her therapist. Trump, through his lawyers, denied the allegation, in the “strongest possible terms.”

Dorris recalled to the Guardian:

“He just shoved his tongue down my throat and I was pushing him off. And then that’s when his grip became tighter and his hands were very gropey and all over my butt, my breasts, my back, everything.

“I was in his grip, and I couldn’t get out of it,” she said, adding: “I don’t know what you call that when you’re sticking your tongue just down someone’s throat. But I pushed it out with my teeth. I was pushing it. And I think I might have hurt his tongue.”

Doris said that she had kept silent out about the alleged assault out of concern for her family but chose to speak out now that her two twin daughters are older. 

The allegation comes as the Justice Department, in a stunning and rare intervention earlier this month, moved to represent the president in his defense against the writer E. Jean Carroll’s defamation suit against him. Last November, Carroll filed the suit after Trump denied her claims that he had raped her inside the dressing rooms of Bergdorf Goodman more than twenty years ago, and claimed that he had never met Carroll. 

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