Mother Jones Magazine

Democratic Candidates Take on a Tough Opponent: Their Own Past Selves

The Democratic presidential contenders spent less time attacking each other on Thursday than in their previous two debates, and more time confronting a different target: the ghosts of their own past stances that haven’t aged well.

The top 10 candidates who shared the stage Thursday embraced a range of progressive policies that were fringe ideas just three years ago in 2016. Some supported buying back assault weapons. Others vowed to support reparations for African Americans. The most progressive defended eliminating private health insurance.

But as the party moves to the left on most major issues, several candidates faced lingering questions about their past positions. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who leads in the polls, faced the biggest test as he was repeatedly grilled on stances he’s taken over nearly half a century in politics. But his sharpest challenge came on the issue of immigration. Moderator Jorge Ramos asked him to clarify where he stood on President Barack Obama’s record of removing millions of undocumented people from the United States—a record that earned Obama the nickname “deporter-in-chief” among immigration advocates. “Are you prepared to say tonight that you and President Obama made a mistake about deportations?” Ramos asked. “Why should Latinos trust you?”

Biden didn’t answer the question, instead highlighting Obama’s program to allow Dreamers to postpone deportation. When Ramos challenged that Biden hadn’t answered the question, Biden simply replied, “I’m the vice president of the United States.”  

Sen. Kamala Harris of California, whose path to the nomination requires winning over many of the more moderate and African American voters now supporting Biden, also faced questions about her past—in her case, as a prosecutor. The senator, moderator Linsey Davis of ABC noted, now supports criminal justice reforms that she opposed as a prosecutor in California.

It’s a question Harris has faced since entering the race, and she came prepared to answer it. “There have been many distortions of my record,” she responded. The reason she became a prosecutor, she said, was to “have the ability to reform the system. I would try to do it from the inside.” 

The candidates embraced a range of progressive policies that were fringe ideas just three years ago in 2016.

Harris had finally released a sweeping criminal justice platform on Monday that supported some policies she once opposed as a district attorney and attorney general, including ending cash bail and legalizing marijuana. But on Thursday, Harris framed her record as an asset: “Knowing the system from the inside, I will have the ability to be an effective leader and get this job complete.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota faced similar scrutiny of her record as a prosecutor in Minneapolis. Specifically, Davis pushed Klobuchar on accusations that when black men were killed by cops, she too often sided with the police. Like Harris, Klobuchar was ready for this question. Klobuchar acknowledged a little evolution on this issue: When she was district attorney in the late 1990s and early 2000s, she said, grand juries decided whether to prosecute police officers. Now she believes prosecutors should handle those decisions directly and be accountable for them. Beyond that, she framed her record as one of taking the concerns of the African American community seriously.

The candidates attempted a difficult balancing act between consistency and evolution, authenticity and opportunism—Biden most of all. Throughout the evening, he aligned himself with Obama’s record while distancing himself from policies that are now unpopular among liberal Democrats, like deporting millions of immigrants. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, the other Obama administration alum on the stage, confronted Biden on this, prompting Biden to clarify, “I stand with Barack Obama all eight years, good, bad and indifferent.”

It’s not uncommon for a candidate, particularly one with a link to a past administration, to struggle with defining himself in relation to the past. In 2016, Hillary Clinton attempted to champion the successes of her husband’s administration but distance herself from the parts that have fallen out of favor with the party. And Obama’s legacy hovered over the entire evening, from health care to foreign policy. The other candidates struggled with how to both hug and push away the popular 44th president. When the debate kicked off on the issue of health care, nearly all of them stopped to give credit to Obama for the Affordable Care Act before discussing how they would go further to expand access to affordable health care.

This struggle isn’t new, but it seems particularly poignant right now, as the Democratic candidates fall into two general camps: those who promise a more moderate return to a pre-Trump normalcy, and those arguing that today’s problems predate Trump and necessitate bigger solutions and a decidedly different chapter than the past.

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who revamped his campaign message after the mass shooting in his home town of El Paso, named the problem head on when it came to immigration. If elected, he promised to “face the fact that Democrats and Republicans alike voted to build a wall that has produced thousands of deaths of people trying to cross to join family or to work a job,” he said. “That we have been part of deporting people, hundreds of thousands just in the Obama administration alone, who posed no threat to this country, breaking up their families. Democrats have to get off the back foot, we have to lead on this issue, because we know it is right.”

After the third debate, it’s clear that some candidate are still figuring out how to lead on an issue when their past complicates their message.

“Hell Yes, We’re Going to Take Your AR-15”

On the debate stage in Houston Thursday night, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke promised to do the very thing that congressional Democrats have been promising all week not to do: Take away your guns. Well, some types of guns, anyway. “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” O’Rourke said, noting that those assault-style weapons are designed for the battlefield and intended to inflict as much death and destruction as possible.

Q: Are you proposing taking away AR-15s and AK-47s?@BetoORourke: "I am, if it's a weapon that was designed to kill people on a battlefield …Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47. We're not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore."

— Mother Jones (@MotherJones) September 13, 2019

This isn’t the first time O’Rourke has made this assertion, though it’s certainly the most prominent forum in which he has done so. When news broke that the perpetrator of the August 31 mass shooting in Odessa, Texas, had used an AR-type rifle to kill seven people, O’Rouke took to Twitter to declare, “Buy them all back”—a reference to the proposal he released in the wake of the August shooting in his hometown of El Paso that left 22 dead. That shooter used an AK-47-style assault rifle.

Since the El Paso shooting, O’Rourke drawn new attention to his a struggling White House bid with radical candor on the topics of gun control, racism, and immigration. That approach drew explicit praise from many of his opponents Thursday. And even if they haven’t quite matched O’Rourke’s rhetoric, many of them are backing the type of ambitious gun control legislation that previous Democratic presidential candidates had shied away from. Among the 10 candidates who qualified for the debate, each and every one of them supports an assault weapons ban (though some, like Sen. Amy Klobuchar, haven’t embraced mandatory buy-backs for existing weapons). Many of the candidates support even stricter measures that didn’t get a mention, such as licensing for firearms, which would require gun owners to register their weapons with the federal government. 

The presidential candidates’ positions stand in stark contrast to the situation in Congress after a summer of mass shootings in El Paso; Odessa; Gilroy, California; and Dayton, Ohio. Since February, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been blocking a House-passed bill to require a background check for every gun sale. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), and Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) have been in talks with the White House to come up with a compromise background checks proposal that President Donald Trump—ever the waffler on gun control—might agree to sign. “Right now on Mitch McConnell’s desk are three bills: Universal background checks, closing the Charleston loophole, and passing my bill to make sure domestic abusers don’t get AK-47s,” Klobuchar noted during the debate.

This week, the House Judiciary Committee advanced three more gun control measures—including a bill to enact so-called “red flag” laws that would allow law enforcement to take guns away from people who pose a risk to themselves or others. But congressional Democrats’ legislative package is nowhere near as ambitious as what the presidential hopefuls proposed in on the debate stage in Houston. Later this month, the House will hold a hearing on the various assault weapon bans that lawmakers have introduced, but there’s very little will among the Democratic caucus to actually pass them.

But in Houston, the 2020 hopefuls weren’t dealing with a GOP-held Senate or vulnerable Democratic lawmakers in swing districts. They’re dealing with a base that is sick and tired of congressional inaction in the face of repeated massacres. As conversation on the topic drew to a close, Sen. Elizabeth Warren proposed a tactical shift: Get rid of the Senate filibuster so that a simple majority can pass the measures that her NRA-backed Republican colleagues will not.

Castro and Biden Spar Over Semantics, Health Care

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro sparred with former Vice President Joe Biden in a contentious moment at Thursday’s third Democratic presidential debate, arguing that Biden couldn’t keep the facts straight about his own health care plan. But Castro seems to have misheard Biden’s own words.

Castro said that Biden’s plan would leave 10 million Americans without health insurance by requiring Americans to opt in to receive coverage.

“You would require them to opt in, and I would not require them to opt in. They would automatically be enrolled,” Castro said. “That’s a big difference, because Barack Obama’s vision was not to leave 10 million people uncovered.”

Wearing a shocked facial expression, Biden replied, “They do not have to buy in. They do not have to buy in.”

“Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” Castro said, as the audience gasped. “I can’t believe that you said two minutes ago that they had to buy in, and now you’re saying they don’t have to buy in.”

Earlier in the debate Biden had in fact said that those who couldn’t afford private insurance would be automatically enrolled in the public option.

“Anyone who can’t afford it gets automatically enrolled in the Medicare-type option we have,” he said about 10 minutes earlier. He did, however, use the phrase “buy in,” saying, “If you lose the job from your insurance company, from your employer, you automatically can buy in to this.”

I’ve re-watched the segments where Biden talked health care and it seems pretty clear to me that Castro is, well, wrong. He never said opt-in. He said that if people lose their jobs they can automatically buy into Medicare

— Sam Stein (@samstein) September 13, 2019

South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) were unamused with the squabble.

“This is why presidential debates are becoming unwatchable,” Buttigieg said. “This reminds everybody of what they cannot stand about Washington. Scoring points against each other. Poking at each other.”

Klobuchar chimed in, “A house divided cannot stand.”

Kamala Harris Delivers a Message to Donald Trump: There’s One Reason You Haven’t Been Indicted

During Kamala Harris’ opening statement at Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate, the former attorney general of California delivered a scathing message to the president, who, she said, “we all know is watching.”

“President Trump, you’ve spent the last two and a half years full-time trying to sow hate and division among us,” Harris said. “You have used hate, intimidation, fear, and over 12,000 lies as a way to distract from your failed policies and your broken promises.”

She suggested his conduct was not just hateful, but criminal.

“The only reason you’ve not been indicted is because there was a memo in the Department of Justice that says a sitting president cannot be charged with a crime,” she added, ending on a note of unity: “What you don’t get is that the American people are so much better than this and we know that the vast majority of us have so much more in common than what separates us, regardless of our race, where we live, or the party with which we’re registered to vote.”

Watch her full opening statement below:

.@KamalaHarris spoke directly to Donald Trump in her opening statement tonight: “The only reason you’ve not been indicted is because there was a memo in the Department of Justice that says a sitting president cannot be charged with a crime.”

— Mother Jones (@MotherJones) September 13, 2019

Things Are Pretty Good in America These Days

The latest American Family Survey sponsored by the Deseret News is out, and naturally I want to comment on something that’s not really the subject of the survey at all. Among other things, they ask people about trends in family life:

Does the American public have an accurate view?…The percentages are striking. Almost nine in ten people believe that the divorce rate is getting worse when it is not.

Well, yes, although the percentage is a little less striking when you take a look at divorce as a percentage of marriages:

I’m not arguing that this the right way to measure divorce—that depends on what precisely you’re interested in—just that it’s probably the way people think about divorce when they aren’t thinking too hard. And what you see is a big increase in the ’60s, a long stretch of flatness, and then a modest decline starting with the Great Recession.

So my question is this: how long does it normally take the public to realize that a long-term trend has turned around? The AFS finds that 88 percent of Americans think the divorce rate is increasing, even though (a) it hasn’t really increased since 1975 and (b) it’s been decreasing for the past ten years.

Now, one obvious thing to say about this is that most Americans don’t know very much about anything. And why should they? Most people simply don’t have the time or interest to follow the latest figures on hundreds of different trends. Is the inflation rate high or low? Are math skills among high school students up or down? What’s the trade deficit with China? Who knows? Who cares?

So when it comes to social trends, here’s my take: We are all still stuck in the ’60s and early ’70s. Yes, even you Gen Xers and Millennials to some extent. Changes in the ’60s—drugs, crime, sex, divorce, etc.—got a huge amount of attention and it takes an equal amount of attention to convince people that those things have turned around. Violent crime has been dropping for 30 years, but people still think crime is on the rise. Inflation has been well under control since the Reagan era, but people still worry about it. The growth of health care costs has softened enormously since 2000, but people still think that medical inflation is ruinous.

There are reasons for this, some good and some bad:

  • No serious researcher wants to declare that a trend has turned around until there’s good evidence for it. For social indicators that vary a lot from year to year, that means at least ten years of consistent evidence, and probably more like twenty.
  • In many cases, we still use the ’60s as a baseline. Violent crime may be down a lot, but it’s still higher than it was in 1959. Ditto for divorce and teen pregnancy and so forth.
  • Lots of people have ideological reasons for pushing doom narratives. If unleaded gasoline was the main cause of the crime spike of the ’60s and ’70s, then you can no longer blame the liberal elites and their embrace of the counterculture. If health care costs aren’t skyrocketing anymore, it hurts the arguments for universal health care.
  • The news media is addicted to bad news. A spike in gasoline prices generates hysterical news coverage, but when prices go down they produce little except for the occasional “good time to go on vacation!” feel-good story.
  • People generally respond to bad news more strongly than good news. A cut in your insurance coverage can be life-threatening. An increase in benefits is often barely noticeable.
  • Good news is often invisible. If no one has been mugged in your neighborhood in the past year, would you even know it?

There are other reasons, but I think these are the big ones. And they all contribute to both a lot of inertia in public attitudes as well as a strong bias towards bleak narratives.

Just about every social indicator you can think of has been moving in a good direction for the past couple of decades. Kids are better behaved. Crime is down. More people have access to health care. Divorce is down. Most indicators of racism are down. Income has risen considerably since the end of the Great Recession and is now significantly higher than it was when Bill Clinton took office. Etc.

So why are so many of us apparently convinced that America is going to hell in a handbasket? Well, there are some scary things going on. Climate change is real. Opioid abuse is up. Health care inflation may be down, but costs are still going up and things like surprise out-of-network billing are real problems.

And then there’s the big one: wages of working-class and middle-class men are way down over the past four decades. It’s quite possible that this is so overwhelming for a large segment of the population that it colors literally everything else.

Nickel summary: Things are generally pretty good in America! Not everything, but most things. We sure don’t act like it, though.

Am I missing anything important here?

2 Weeks After Hurricane Dorian, a New Disaster Threatens the Bahamas

Joseph Darville lives on Grand Bahama Island, and when he first heard there was an oil spill there after Hurricane Dorian what came to mind, he says, was “our pristine, beautiful beach and shallow waters.”

The grassy banks are home to turtles and bonefish. And there’s the “whole plethora of coral reefs that would be destroyed by any oil flow floating over them,” explains Darville, who works with Waterkeepers Bahamas.

After Hurricane Dorian made landfall on the Bahamas on September 1st with 185-mph winds as Category 5 storm, several of the covers on oil storage tanks at South Riding Point terminal blew off. Dorian killed at least 50 people in the Bahamas, reduced homes to rubble leaving tens of thousands homeless, and 1,300 people are still missing there. Now, efforts are underway to contain a second disaster: aerial surveillance has identified material that could be oil 43 to 50 miles away from the damaged terminal and part of the coastline might have been impacted, according to a press release from the Norway-based company Equinor, which owns the site. 

Oil spills have been a devastating consequence of some hurricanes in recent years. In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, more than 6.5 million gallons of crude oil spilled in at least seven major incidents from Louisiana to Alabama. Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas in 2017, resulted in spilling over 22,000 barrels of oil, refined fuels, and chemicals across the state, Reuters reported


Darville ventured out Tuesday with others involved in Waterkeepers Bahamas to survey the damage. He noticed that many of the pine trees were bent from north to south, yet another reminder of the hurricane’s force. Some of the storage tanks showed dark streaks from oil that swept passed the edge and onto the land.

Waterkeepers Bahamas

“It was a horrific revelation to me,” says Darville. “I never thought that they would have ever constructed oil tanks that would have been so easily decapitated and cast that dirty, filthy crude oil over our beautiful territory.”

Elizabeth Warren Just Released a Plan to Increase Social Security Through New Taxes on the Richest 2 Percent

Elizabeth Warren released a plan on Thursday to expand Social Security benefits through increased taxes on the rich.

The proposal, which the Massachusetts senator called the “biggest and most progressive increase in Social Security benefits in nearly half a century,” would see every retiree receive at least $200 more each month and extend the solvency of the Social Security fund by 20 years. It would be financed by two new mechanisms targeting the top 2 percent of earners in the country.

Currently, Social Security is paid for through a 12.4 percent payroll tax applied to salary and wages up to $132,900 a year, split equally between employer and employee. So a person who makes $132,900 pays the same amount as a person who makes $250,000 a year, who pays the same amount as someone who makes $1,000,000 a year, and someone who makes $10,000,000 a year. And none of it applies to investment income. Warren’s plan would change that two ways:

  1. a 14.8 percent payroll tax on individual salaries above $250,000, split equally between employer and employee. 
  2. a new 14.8 percent tax on net investment income for individuals who earn above $250,000. 

The plan, which was released hours before the third Democratic presidential primary debate, recasts the political conversation around entitlement reform, which for decades has played out almost entirely in terms of what can be cut. 

“It’s time Washington stopped trying to slash Social Security benefits for people who’ve earned them,” the senator urged. “It’s time to expand Social Security.”

Kevin Drum has more.

Lunchtime Photo

This photo is a commentary on tonight’s Democratic primary debate. Discuss.

May 26, 2019 — Hollywood, California

The Eurozone Gets a Big Stimulus

Donald Trump is mad again:

The European Central Bank cut its key interest rate and launched a sweeping package of bond purchases Thursday that lays the ground work for what is likely to be a long period of ultraloose monetary policy, jolting European financial markets and triggering an immediate response from President Trump.

….In a tweet, Mr. Trump said the ECB was “trying, and succeeding, in depreciating the Euro against the VERY strong Dollar, hurting U.S. exports.”

The ECB said that it wouldn’t raise interest rates “until it has seen the inflation outlook robustly converge” with its target of just below 2%. As you can see, inflation in Europe is considerably lower than it is in the US and is headed in the wrong direction:

Inflation in the eurozone area was only barely above 1.0 percent in July and shows no signs of turning around. This is why the ECB is getting kind of desperate.

Of course, Trump does have an alternative that the ECB doesn’t: he can spend money. All he has to do is convince Republicans to pass a big stimulus bill, which would probably accomplish more than any kind of rate cut or quantitative easing from the Fed. If it were directed toward subsidies for solar panels or a middle-class child care tax credit or something like that, he could even get Democrats on board. Unfortunately, Republicans would refuse, and that means Trump would have no one left to blame except his own party. Sad.

What’s the Deal With Trump and the Homeless?

This year’s Academy Award for the most pregnant use of an adverb goes to a Senior Administration Official speaking to the Washington Post about the homeless in Los Angeles:

We’re not rounding people up or anything yet. You guys in the media get too ahead of yourselves.

Quite so. All they’re doing is looking at cavernous storage facilities near the airport that might be used someday for rounding up the homeless. Why is everyone getting so upset already?

This whole charade with Trump and the homeless is hard to figure out. I mean, it’s obvious that Trump can’t actually do anything. The homeless haven’t broken any laws, and they certainly haven’t broken any federal laws. They can’t be swept up off the streets. Nor does the federal government have a police force to sweep them up even if they wanted to. Even Trump isn’t dim enough to think otherwise. So why the kabuki?

The most obvious answer is that Trump is putting on a show for his fans. We wanted to get the homeless off the streets but Democrats fought to keep their squalid, disgusting, disease-ridden camps right on city sidewalks where they’re free to murder your children.

Or is there something more subtle about this that I’ve missed?

Elizabeth Warren Wants to Boost Your Retirement Check

Elizabeth Warren has a new plan for shoring up Social Security:

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts unveiled a plan on Thursday to give all recipients of Social Security benefits an extra $200 per month and to pay for it by raising taxes on the rich, her latest economic proposal to redistribute wealth in the United States.

….The largest portion of her plan, raising benefits for 64 million recipients by $200 a month, would cost more than $150 billion in its first year. The plan would also fundamentally alter the funding structure of the program, forcing the very rich to pay much more into Social Security in taxes than they would get out of it in benefits, while most Americans would get far more than they pay in.

Hmmm. I like the general idea, but I don’t see much point in raising everyone’s benefits. The middle class and the affluent don’t really need an increase, after all. I’d prefer to add, say, $300 to the benefits of the bottom third and leave it at that. This would cost half as much and do more overall good.

Politically, of course, it would once again leave out the middle class from a Democratic proposal to expand the safety net. I suppose the politics of Warren’s proposal might outweigh the pure economics.

Inside the Pro-Andrew Yang Influence Machine

After the first set of Democratic presidential debates in June, Andrew Yang dominated several online surveys asking who won the contest. He came in first in one run by the conservative news aggregator Drudge Report, another run by the Washington Examiner, and second in one on The results seemed like a stroke of good fortune for an outsider candidate with no political experience, and who had barely qualified for the June 27 event.

But the results, of course, were the outcome of a manipulation campaign by Yang fans, orchestrated by a chat group that’s home to a devout, extremely online contingent of supporters of the entrepreneur turned universal basic income backer. Together, they’ve built out a robust digital operation designed to influence conversations about Yang—one that seems unrivaled by any grassroots effort pushing other, far-higher polling candidates. 

“Boost this,” one user posted in the largest pro-Yang chat hosted on Discord, a messaging app, linking to the Drudge Report’s post-debate survey. Other users of the board, which counts over 3,000 Yang supporters, posted the link, and Yang climbed to the top spot, ultimately winning the survey.

Supporter groups work to adjust conversations about Yang playing out on social media in real-time.

While the link was also boosted by Yang fans on Reddit and 4chan, the Discord server’s activity demonstrates that it plays host to the most developed and organized group of online grassroots Yang supporters. The group’s effects can be seen far beyond such surveys, as they work to respond to and adjust conversations about Yang playing out on social media in real-time. Before each of the party’s debates to date, a Discord group moderator has sent out suggested hashtags for members of the group to post on Twitter, helping ensure pro-Yang tweets will trend and be seen by more users. Their efforts appear to be working: The hashtag they came up with for the second debate in July, #ReturnOfTheYang, has been tweeted over 10,000 times according to RiteTag.

Before that July debate, a moderator in the group posted a link to a shared Google Drive full of infographics pushing Yang policy positions along with pro-Yang memes parodying Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and other pop culture works. “We NEED to be using the infographics from here,” the moderator wrote. ”They will allow us to flood the Twitter with the relevant points that Andrew makes.”

The group has also organized support for Yang apart from debate nights. In July, when Yang appeared on the daytime talk show The View, a moderator posted to Discord encouraging users to push the hashtag #YangOnTheView to make sure it trended on Twitter. They also organize around non-debate surveys. When the Democratic message board Daily Kos hosted a poll in late August, a Yang Discord member posted it, helping drive 8,522 votes, or 59 percent of the total participating. No survey is too small to be safe from the Yang Gang’s manipulation: The group ran up the numbers on an informal poll being conducted by a college student using Twitter replies. Within an hour Yang had 71 votes—more than doubling second-place finisher Beto O’Rourke.

Kayle Jellesma, a Yang campaign social media manager, downplayed the Discord’s effect on such surveys, saying she believed such numbers were likely driven by Yang enthusiasts on Twitter. 

While Jellesma says the campaign takes a hands off approach to the Discord—”They run it themselves. We’re not involved.”—she admits the campaign is appreciative of their efforts, keeps in touch, and sometimes takes steps to support their work.

“I have connections with people who are running it. Mostly we talk about what they’re working on and what they’re doing. If we have a clip from Yang event, and they’re looking for new content for their memes, then we’ll send it to them,” she says. “The Yang Gang does it on their own. We don’t have to point them in a direction, they’ll guide themselves.”

The Discord provides other evidence of links with people on the campaign. Members of the group have discussed a May video chat with “Carly,” two months ahead of the first debate. (The Yang campaign’s deputy chief of staff is named Carly Reilly.) Andrew Juan, who according to his LinkedIn helps run volunteer outreach and engagement efforts as an intern for Yang 2020, often posts updates in the chat and was formerly one of the Discord’s moderators. (Today there are about seven moderators, who have special abilities to police the channel.)

Juan frequently posts positive, rallying messages to members of the Discord. After Yang’s first debate performance netted mostly negative reviews, he tried to shine light on a silver lining. 

“This is not a loss for us,” he wrote to the group. “Andrew went up on stage and he let them scrap it out, they made themselves look like over aggressive politicians who cut each other off and refuse to listen to what others had to say.”

Campaigns have traditionally used technology not only to spread carefully crafted messages online, but to motivate people on the internet to do things off it, like phone bank, donate, canvass, and—eventually—vote. Users on the Yang Discord push these things too, but with its heavy emphasis on posting memes, boosting hashtags, and manipulating online polls, they are more focused on having supporters take action online. The server capitalizes on a devout core of Yang supporters to conduct a robust online effort mostly unseen in the other Democrats’  campaigns. 

“Often times campaigns don’t understand how quickly internet evolves and digital communication and ‘memetic strategies.’ And so supporters will take it on themselves,” says Ben Decker, who runs the media and tech investigations consultancy Memetica. “This has kept Yang a part of the conversation, because by no means has he been a standout candidate.” 

“Often times campaigns don’t understand how quickly internet evolves.. so supporters will take it on themselves.” 

The closest relative to this section of Yang’s online support may not lie on the Democratic side, but with the GOP, where The_Donald, a Reddit message board, presents an earlier version of large scale, seemingly organic internet organizing. But that group of Trump supporters appears to operate in a messier, less organized manner, and is just as interested in spreading misinformation and online trolling as they are in propping up their candidate.

While intense internet coordination among Yang’s supporters may have helped him gain a foothold in formal polling and with small-dollar donations—and therefore put him in the debates—it has failed to power much of a rise since. After Yang first broke into the Real Clear Politics polling averages with a single percent in March, he has struggled to outpace about 2.6 percent.

Of course, Yang’s primary stall is likely more a symptom of his general viability as a candidate than of the technology his supporters have adopted. Indeed, Decker points out that losing primary campaigns have often served as demonstration labs for the power of new technology. “It started with Howard Dean,” he says. “They used tech to help coral people online. And then that opened the door with what the Obama campaign did and what Trump ended up doing.” Dean also employed an innovative online small-dollar fundraising strategy that was an ancestor of elements of President Barack Obama’s successful effort, and that later helped propel Senator Bernie Sanders’ well-funded 2016 and 2020 bids.

“There is legitimate support for Yang in places that were maybe being missed by traditional political organizations,” says Decker. “This does flip the script on how we understand less traditional social media platforms.” 

Like Dean’s efforts back in 2004, the pro-Yang contingent’s digital grassroots efforts could portend what may come in mobilizing digital supporters across the country. Technology has its limits in changing the status quo, but it is generally good at making things more efficient. Future widespread digital efforts could help reach supporters who want to help a campaign but don’t necessarily want to leave their homes to canvas or phone bank. Such online supporters groups, unconstrained by geography, can attract and mobilize new groups of otherwise isolated supporters in districts the candidate may have a lock on or isn’t bothering contesting with others where they’re fighting.

While it’s unclear exactly the impact the Yang group is having, it appears to be the largest and most organized grassroots digital organizing effort of any Democratic campaign. On Discord, supporters of Tulsi Gabbard and Marianne Williamson have also established servers to organize posting memes and other content in favor of their candidates, but with follower counts in the hundreds, they’re a fraction of the size of Yang2020. Pete Buttigieg’s supporters have also made one with over 700 members, but it appears to be less active.

Whatever the actual impact of Discord groups organizing online, consultants used to judging campaign tools on their ability to move votes want to see more results.

“As young people tend to vote at a lesser rate in primaries, the question is, will all these people turn out to vote on their primary day?” said Kyle Tharp, communications director of Acronym, a left-wing digital political strategy group. “How do these online communities translate into offline support?”

An Interview With My Mom About Her Abortion

When my mom first told me over the phone about two years ago that she’d had an abortion in high school, she cried. I cried, too. Not because I was angry with her or because she regretted her decision. Quite the opposite. I was proud of her decision because I knew her choice wasn’t easy. It also served as a reminder that, regardless of how close we are, there are still things I don’t know about her, and that there was a time when I wasn’t around to support her.

Yes, the procedure was painful and scary, she told me. But my mom was more upset about the fact that she was put in the position of having to make a decision to terminate her pregnancy in the first place.

Her abortion, in 1985, wasn’t an especially traumatic experience, but she’s in her 50s now, perhaps unable to have another child, and sometimes she wonders “what if?” That feeling is mingled with relief that she made the right choice for herself.

While my mom never has to justify her decision to me or anyone else, I wanted to have a frank conversation with her about her abortion. That’s a lot to ask of someone who never told her own mother and who has never told her siblings. She had a few conditions before agreeing to be interviewed: Don’t include her name, location, profession, or any identifying information.

We spoke this summer, as statehouses across the country passed bills restricting abortion. The transcript below was edited and condensed for clarity.

Mom: I would have told you a long time ago if you’d asked me. I wasn’t going to bring it up, but if you’d have ever asked me or if you’d have been in that situation yourself, then I would have told you. In actuality, you had kind of tried to ask me something, but you were too young. When I started heading that way you started getting angry. So, then I said, “Okay, no, no, no.” I told you no, I hadn’t [had an abortion], because you started getting mad at me. So, I thought, you’re just not old enough to deal with this.

Me: I was upset about it just because I had friends tell me bad things about people who have had an abortion. I had a friend say very negative things about women and saying they would never get one because it was against God and women who “do that” are going to hell, and it upset me.

I was a senior in high school. Your dad, for years, we had been having sex, and the whole time he’d always said—I said, “What am I going to do if I get pregnant?” And he would just always say, “You’re going to get an abortion.” So, it was pounded in my head all those years. In my mind, I really didn’t think of another option. That was going to be it. And then I called my best friend.

How old were you at the time?

I had just turned 18, but I had probably gotten pregnant just a month or two after I turned 18 because I remember having it done in February.

How old was Dad at the time?

If I was 18, then he was probably 20. But I just remember being pregnant and knowing that I was going to have an abortion. I had told my best friend, and she told her boyfriend. I didn’t tell anybody else. I never told [my mom], and I didn’t tell any of my siblings. I would go stay with my best friend sometimes for the weekend, so that way [my mom] wouldn’t know. I went and spent the weekend with my best friend, and she actually paid for it. I paid her back, but she paid for it.

You had a good friend. How much did it cost?

I don’t remember. That was too long ago. I want to say it was around $200, but I really don’t remember. But she and her boyfriend both took me, and then when it was over we went to the mall because she needed something. The reason I remember this was because at the mall she kept looking at me, and I was like, “What’s wrong? Are you okay?” And she said, “Well, I was just wondering if you were upset or getting upset or anything about any of it because there’s little kids running around.” And I said, “No.” It really didn’t bother me. But I said, “Look, this is the way I thought about it, and this is the way I have to think about it—I had a problem, and I took care of the problem, and that’s it. I don’t think past that.” I was just thinking I had a major problem, I had to take care of that problem, I took care of it, and it’s done, and it’s over, and I don’t have to deal with it anymore.

What’s really crazy, though, was your dad never said anything, but later he acted kind of upset that I had done it. He never gave me any other option. I worked after that and paid my best friend back my half, and then he worked and paid her back, but it took him a really long time.

Did you have a surgical abortion, or did they give you a Pill?

They didn’t have the Pill back then.

So, they had to do a surgery?


How far along were you in your pregnancy?

Eight or nine weeks.

Oh, that’s nothing. Isn’t that just a heavy period?

Yeah, well, once they perform the abortion, yeah.

Did you experience any pregnancy symptoms like morning sickness?

No, I don’t think so.

How did you know you were pregnant?

I missed my periods. My periods have always been infrequent, so I could go six weeks. I’m sure that’s probably it. I probably went six weeks and missed my period, and then at six weeks I probably started thinking, “Oh, crap, what if I’m pregnant?” And then probably a few days after I still hadn’t started my period, so I probably took a pregnancy test—back then the pregnancy tests took a lot longer for the results to show. So I got one, I’m sure, and then it came up positive, and I’m sure I was freaking out and upset, and I probably took another pregnancy test a few days later, just to make sure, and was freaking out, and then at that point I called my best friend and said, “This is what’s going on.”

Did you tell your best friend you were pregnant before you told Dad?

I’m sure I told your dad I was pregnant first. I just remember he made the decision to have an abortion very easy. I think the pregnancy kind of scared him as well.

Have you and your best friend talked about your abortion since it occurred?

Yeah. When you went to go stay with her we were talking, and she was saying, “Well, since your daughter’s going to come and stay with me.” She wasn’t thinking of my abortion specifically. She just said, “Is there anything that I need to know that I should not say to her?” And I said, “Yeah, I meant to tell her about my abortion a long time ago. It’s not like I’ve been trying to keep it a secret from her, but I have never told her.” I told my best friend, “There just hasn’t been the right time. I haven’t seen her in so long, and I didn’t want to tell her over the phone. It just hasn’t come up.” I said, “It’s not like I’ve ever tried to keep it from her. It’s just not something you go around telling people.” I had kind of forgotten about my abortion until my best friend said that. After that, I kept trying to figure out how to tell you, but it didn’t come up, and I didn’t want to tell you in a restaurant, but then finally it was like, “Okay, yeah, I just need to tell her,” in case I die or something, and then somebody tells her and she’s like, “Oh, my god, my mother never told me that.”

Why did you tell me over the phone nearly two years ago that you had an abortion?

I don’t know. That’s what was in my head, though: “I don’t want to die somehow and then have somebody tell her and then her think, ‘Well, what else didn’t my mother tell me? What else was she lying about?’” So I thought, “Okay, I just need to tell her because there’s not going to be the right time.”

Why were you so upset when you told me you had an abortion?

Now you’re going to make me cry.

You know you made the right decision.


I love you.

It’s just a hard choice. And when you get to be my age you really look back and think, “What if I would have gone through with the pregnancy? Would it have been a boy or a girl? How old would they be? I wonder how they would be.” I’m not saying I made the wrong choice. I’m just saying you always still think, “Well, what if I wouldn’t have had an abortion?” It would have been a hell of a lot harder, but you still always second guess yourself. And like I’ve told people before, no matter what you do, you’re going to live with it for the rest of your life, either choice. And it’s especially hard now because I look back and I think, “I never really wanted just one child. I wanted at least two.” And I kind of ran out of time.

But you have the best daughter.

[Laughing] I think, “Well, if I would have had that child I probably wouldn’t have had you.”

Yeah, you probably wouldn’t have had me.

I don’t know. I don’t know what my life would have been because my life would have been very different if I wouldn’t have had the abortion.

You might not have gone to college.

Right. That was the big thing for me at the time: “Oh my god, for one, how embarrassing being in high school big and pregnant by the time I graduated.”

I had never thought of my life not going to college. That had always been my plan. I never knew what I was going to major in or what I wanted to do, but I knew I was going to college. So I just wonder what would have happened.

Since I was a kid, I’ve only heard from you that your views on it have always been pro-choice. I’ve never heard you say abortion was wrong. I always felt comfortable that if I did get pregnant I would be able to come to you and tell you, and we would have the conversation together, and you would be okay with whatever I decided.

Yeah, of course. My views on it have never changed. I felt like, even at the time I had an abortion, I knew enough about abortion to make the best decision. It’s a very personal choice, and whether you have the baby or have an abortion, it’s something you have to live with for the rest of your life. I don’t think anyone should go into it lightly.

Today’s Special: Grilled Salmon Laced With Plastic

Nearly 50 years ago, scientists studying the North Atlantic Ocean started noticing that tiny fragments of plastic were turning up in their plankton and seaweed samples. The microparticles, they found, absorbed toxic chemicals and were then eaten by flounder, perch, and other fish. Until recently, though, researchers thought these ingested plastics stayed in a creature’s guts and possibly its liver. Removing a fish’s entrails before serving it up appeared to eliminate the risk of eating plastic.

But recent research suggests that these tiny bits of plastic move into fish flesh. And now seafood, a recent study found, is the third-largest source of chemical-laden “microplastics” of sources analyzed so far for the average American consumer, behind bottled water and air. “Plastic is now part of our food system,” says Kieran Cox, a marine ecologist and PhD candidate at the University of Victoria in British Columbia who led the study. 

Americans are eating, inhaling, and drinking at least 74,000 pieces of microplastic a year.

Microplastics are bits of material that are smaller than 5 millimeters, the width of a pencil-top eraser. The vast majority of this debris comes from “single use” plastic products such as bottles, bottle caps, straws, and bags. The study, which was published in June in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, estimates that Americans are eating, inhaling, and drinking at least 74,000 pieces of microplastic a year. But that’s a “drastic underestimate,” Cox says, because no one has measured microplastic content in major food groups such as meat, dairy, and grains. 

It’s hard to say what consuming all this plastic means for human health. We don’t yet have standardized analytical measures to assess people’s exposures, says ecotoxicologist Jane Muncke, managing director of the independent Swiss charity Food Packaging Forum, who was not involved in the University of Victoria study. Such standards, along with biomonitoring studies to measure levels of microplastics in blood and urine, are critical to enforcing regulations designed to protect our health.

More than 9 billion tons of plastic has been produced since the 1950s. Today about 40 percent is used for packaging, mostly for single-use food and beverage containers. 

When marine biologists first discovered plastic particles fouling the ocean’s surface in 1972, they measured about 3,500 particles per square kilometer in the North Atlantic Ocean’s Sargasso Sea. The problem increased dramatically in the years following: In an analysis of samples taken from the same region between 1986 and 2008, reported in the journal Science, researchers found an average of 20,328 particles per square kilometer, with a peak concentration of 580,000 particles per square kilometer in 1997

Lakes and rivers transport a massive amount of this plastic debris, and up to 14 million tons of it reaches the ocean each year, researchers estimated in a 2015 study. They predicted a tenfold increase in just six years if current management practices continue. In a recent survey of the Great Lakes that hasn’t been published yet, chemist Sherri Mason, sustainability coordinator at Penn State Behrend, found 230,000 particles of plastic per square kilometer in Lake Ontario. Since Lake Ontario is the last lake in the Great Lakes chain, Mason points out, much of that plastic will flow into the St. Lawrence River, which empties into the North Atlantic. 

Plastics can take hundreds of years to break down in marine waters, fragmenting into smaller and smaller pieces, which litter the sea surface by the trillions. Researchers now find microplastics wherever they look, from the deepest ocean trenches to the remote reaches of the Arctic

Marine species mistake these plastic particles for food, filter feed them by accident, or ingest them by eating contaminated prey. Freshwater species also absorb microplastics through their gills and possibly their skin. Some 220 species and counting, including fish and shellfish, have gobbled up these particles, with a mounting array of negative effects. Microplastics can physically harm fish, crustaceans, and other animals by blocking their intestines, puncturing their organs, or filling their stomach with garbage. 

Once in a fish’s gut, these bits cause problems after entering the circulatory system, cells and tissues, including the liver and even the brain, altering how the animal hunts and feeds. Ingestion of microplastics has also been linked to inflammation, altered immune response, reduced feeding activity, and growth problems in offspring. These findings come primarily from lab studies that expose organisms to higher doses than have been seen in the wild. Still, public health experts worry that if exposures are chronic, lower doses could cause problems for marine life and humans.  

And though scientists once assumed that people could reduce the risk of eating seafood simply by gutting their fish, recent studies suggest that’s no longer a safe assumption. A team of Malaysian researchers reported in Scientific Reports in 2017 that the flesh of two species of dried fish had even higher levels of microplastics than their organs. And in August, in a study published in Food Additives & Contaminants, Iranian researchers reported finding microplastics in the flesh of all five seafood species they analyzed. 

The plastic particles that enter muscle tissue are so small that many labs don’t have the tools to detect them.

Until recently, most studies of microplastics in fish ignored their flesh in favor of the gastrointestinal tract. That’s partly because researchers thought microplastics stayed in the GI tract and partly because the particles that enter muscle tissue are so small that many labs don’t have the tools to detect them. Likewise, few studies have investigated whether microplastics can concentrate, or “biomagnify,” in animal flesh as they move up the food chain from prey to predators, and thereby pass along bigger doses, and potentially bigger risks, to humans. 

When the Iranian researchers examined that question in fish, crabs, and prawns taken from Persian Gulf fishmongers in their August study, they found no evidence that microplastics from crustaceans concentrated in the flesh of the fish that ate them. But they did report that 82 percent of the samples tested had the particles in their muscles—so families who eat local seafood are getting plastic with their meal. 

Americans eat more salmon than almost any other fish. Canadian scientists reported finding microplastics in the guts of juvenile chinook salmon earlier this year in the journal Environmental Pollution. No one has yet reported finding these plastic fragments in salmon flesh, but it’s probably just a matter of time before someone does. The potential of finding microplastics in such a popular seafood “is a major concern,” says Judith Enck, a visiting professor at Bennington College in Vermont and former regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Scientists have also documented microplastic contamination in farmed fish and shellfish. Whether farmed species pick up this plastic from the fishmeal they’re fed remains an open question. 

It remains unclear what, exactly, these particles do to us after we eat them, but it’s probably not good. Persistent chemicals like PCBs (once used as  coolants and lubricators in refrigerators and electrical equipment) and other contaminants lurking in our waterways glom onto particle surfaces. These plastic bits also carry with them endocrine-disrupting bisphenols, phthalates, and other toxic additives.

Earlier this year, an international team of researchers identified more than 900 chemicals associated with plastic packaging, including 16 linked to cancer, hormone disruption, and other health hazards. But it’s tricky to get a true picture of which chemicals we’re being exposed to. Plastic manufacturers guard their recipes as proprietary and the chemical reactions are so complex that even producers don’t always know what’s in the final product. So toxicologists have to guess what to test for.

Plus most studies are done on one chemical at a time, even though we’re constantly exposed to a chemical soup, says Maricel Maffini, an independent consultant and food safety expert who contributed to the analysis: “We have little to no data on how the body reacts to collective and chronic exposures to chemicals.” Making matters worse, toxicology studies usually test chemicals on adult animals, even though fetuses are more vulnerable.

“We have little to no data on how the body reacts to collective and chronic exposures to chemicals.”

And it appears that plastic particles may be able to cross the placenta to the fetus. In unpublished experiments in rodents presented at a meeting on microplastics in March,  Phoebe Stapleton, a Rutgers University developmental toxicologist, tagged nanoplastic particles (generally defined as smaller than a micron, about the width of a human hair) with fluorescent labels to track their movement. Then she exposed the lungs of pregnant rats to the particles for about two weeks, and saw the particles move first to several tissues in the mother, and then to many of the same tissues in its developing pup. More research is needed to explore the implications of these preliminary results, but they support earlier published work showing that plastic nanoparticles cross placentas donated by women after their babies were delivered.

Even though Stapleton’s results still have to be vetted through peer review, her approach was “pretty solid,” says Tracey Woodruff, director of the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at the University of California–San Francisco. “We know that industrial chemicals pass through these barriers because we’ve measured them in the fetal liver and placenta,” Woodruff says. The same thing has also been seen with particulate matter in air pollution, she says, and the finding that plastic nanoparticles can cross the placenta is consistent with the air pollution science.

A small pilot study found microplastics in the stool of eight people from eight different countries.

“The facts tell us that potentially the entire human population is exposed to micro- and nanoplastics,” says Muncke, of the Food Packaging Forum. Last October, researchers reported preliminary results of a small pilot study that found microplastics in the stool of eight people from eight different countries. The study, published in the peer-reviewed Annals of Internal Medicine last week, analyzed just one sample per person and did not determine whether the microplastics moved into the bloodstream or liver or had any health impacts.

With plastics production forecast to increase exponentially, we’ll likely continue to be exposed to more and more of the material. “The seafood industry would be well served by getting out in front on this issue,” Enck says, by working on laws to reduce plastic pollution. She believes that as concerns about plastics in the food system grow, people will stop buying seafood, starting with products like shrimp, oysters, and mussels that Americans typically eat whole. 

Cox is hesitant to suggest that people stop eating fish, which is a valuable source of protein and nutrients around the world. The biggest source of microplastics found in our diet so far is bottled water, he says. By cutting out bottled water, you not only reduce how much plastic you ingest, but also how much you throw away. 

Muncke thinks corporations bear the responsibility for this scourge. “Plastic producers have no right to distribute their products across the globe and into our foodstuffs,” she says—“especially if the consequences are unknown.”

This story was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit investigative news organization.


The Supreme Court Just Made It Virtually Impossible for Anyone to Seek Asylum at the Border

The US Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the Trump administration can begin denying asylum to the vast majority of migrants arriving at the US-Mexico border, overturning a lower court’s ruling that had stopped the White House from enforcing its controversial asylum ban.

The ruling would apply to the tens of thousands of migrants from Central America, South America, Africa, and other parts of the world who have been waiting to apply for months in Mexican border towns—even though the White House has said that if people want to apply for asylum, they must do it “the right way,” by waiting for their turn at official ports of entry. It also would apply to those who arrive at the US-Mexico border in the future. 

The brief, unsigned decision will allow the administration’s asylum policy to be in effect until at least December 2, when the next legal challenge will be heard in Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

As my colleague Noah Lanard explained earlier this week, the case has seen its share of twists and turns:

On Monday, California district court judge Jon Tigar reinstated a nationwide order blocking the ban. It was first enacted by the administration in July and made people who travel through a third country on their way to the United States ineligible for asylum, forcing them to apply instead in Mexico or elsewhere on their route. The US government makes it impossible for many asylum seekers to get visas to fly directly to the United States, so the ban ends asylum for people whose only option is to travel overland through Mexico and other Latin American countries.

One week after the ban went into effect, Tigar blocked it with a nationwide injunction after finding that the Trump administration was effectively “shortcutting the law,” since federal law gives people the right to seek asylum in the United States regardless of whether they’ve set foot in another country. In August, the progressive Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Tigar’s injunction, but only in the states represented by the Ninth Circuit. As a result, border crossers were eligible for asylum in California and Arizona, but ineligible in Texas and New Mexico.

The Ninth Circuit signaled in its August decision that Tigar could reinstate a nationwide ban if there was additional evidence for why it was necessary. The American Civil Liberties Union made the case for a new nationwide ban before Tigar in court on Thursday…

The government asked the Supreme Court last month to rule quickly on whether the new asylum ban can go into effect across the country.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled that it could. 

The Bolton Affair Exposes Trump’s Warring Instincts on War

If Donald Trump disagreed with John Bolton about everything, why did he hire him in the first place?  The most common answer to this question revolves around Trump’s basic incompetence and foreign policy ignorance, and that’s fair enough. But there’s something more interesting also going on here.

Trump has two warring traits when it comes to foreign policy. First, he likes to think of himself—and he likes others to think of him—as a tough guy. It’s central to his self-image. Second, he likes to think of himself as a dealmaker. He wants a deal in the Middle East. He wants a deal with North Korea. He wants a deal with China. He wants a deal with Iran.

This is a surprisingly unusual combination. In particular, most conservatives don’t want deals at all. Most of them won’t quite say this outright, but they don’t. We see this over and over, from START to the Law of the Sea to Iraq to Israel. They want to squash their enemies, not compromise with them.

This leaves Trump with no good people to hire. He could hire a dealmaker, but most dealmakers are too dovish for his taste. He can hire tough guys, but he’ll soon learn that they have no interest in deals. There’s hardly anyone around who truly shares Trump’s values.

Which is too bad. One of Trump’s few redeeming qualities is that he genuinely isn’t very keen on military intervention. I suspect this stems more from a fear of losing than anything else, but who cares? At least it’s the right instinct. If he could find a competent NSA who shared his nationalistic impulses but was also eager to make deals with adversaries, he might actually get somewhere.

Mar-a-Lago Intruder Convicted of Trespassing at Trump’s Private Club

A jury in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. on Wednesday convicted a Chinese woman for trespassing and lying to a Secret Service agent at Mar-a-Lago on March 30. The verdict did not clarify whether the intruder, Yujing Zhang, a 33-year old financial consultant from Shanghai, was spying for the Chinese government.

Zhang’s conviction, does, however, highlight lingering security and ethical concerns raised by President Donald Trump’s insistence on owning and regularly visiting his private club. This is the latest development in an ongoing saga of potential Chinese influence on the Trump administration. Zhang is connected to Li Weitian, a Chinese businessman who had a business relationship with Cindy Yang, a Chinese-American entrepreneur who peddled access to Trump and Mar-a-Lago, according to a Mother Jones investigation published earlier this year.

Zhang was in possession of an array of electronic equipment when she was arrested, including a laptop, an external hard drive, four cellphones, and device that could help detect security cameras, which prompted suspicions she was engaged in espionage. Prosecutors in the case filed information under seal, citing national security concerns, and the Miami Herald reported that the FBI has investigated both Zhang and Yang as part of a broad counterintelligence probe into Chinese intelligence operations targeting Trump and Mar-a-Lago. Still, prosecutors did not charge Zhang with espionage or related crimes, and neither her conviction nor her sentencing, scheduled for November 22, are likely to clarify her motives.

Zhang reportedly was at Mar-a-Lago because she says she thought she had purchased access to an event there through an organization run by Yang, who has helped fundraise for Trump and other prominent Republicans. A Mother Jones investigation revealed that Yang, who became a frequent guest at Mar-a-Lago in 2017, had set up a company that offered potential Chinese clients access to Trump and Mar-a-Lago. At the same time, she maintained positions as an officer in two groups with ties to China’s government. One of those groups was the Florida branch of the Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China has been described by experts as a vehicle for projecting Chinese influence in the West under the direction of the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department.

In 2017, Yang began selling tickets to Mar-a-Lago galas as part of travel packages pitched to Chinese clients eager to visit the Trump property in 2017. She sometimes offered clients the chance to meet members of the Trump family, such as his sister, Elizabeth Trump Grau. Yang’s efforts helped fill a void created after many organizations canceled plans at Mar-a-Lago due to Trump’s controversial comments that “there were many fine people on both sides” at a violent alt-right protest in Charlottesville, according to multiple reports. Li Weitian, also known as Charles Lee, resold some of Yang’s tickets via the Chinese social media site WeChat. Lee, the Herald wrote, recruited “clients for…events advertised by Yang as opportunities to pay for face time with Donald Trump.” Lee has founded multiple organizations with names that falsely imply a connection to the United Nations. Zhang paid Lee $20,000 for a travel package that supposedly included tickets to a “United Nations friendship event” at Mar-a-Lago.

Prosecutors said this week that prior to the supposed event, Lee told Zhang that it had been canceled. Zhang, in a text message, asked Lee for her money back. She traveled from Shanghai to Florida anyway and was caught trespassing at Mar-a-Lago, though she claimed to be there for an unscheduled event. Her motives remain unclear.

What is clear, though, is that Trump’s decision to keep operating Mar-a-Lago as president and to profit from guests eager to access and influence him has created a major conflict of interest, a market for access peddlers, and a target for foreign intelligence agencies. Spy or not, Zhang was a small fish in a big swamp.

I Really Hate Juul

There are objectively worse companies in the world than Juul, but few that flatly infuriate me as much. Here’s the sick-making ad they’ve been running around the country lately:

The crocodile tears on display here are enough to drown all of Silicon Valley. Practically everything about Juul from the ground up was designed to appeal to teens. The flavors. The design. The packaging. The “adults only” schtick. Everything. As a result, half the high schools in America are buried under an avalanche of Juulers, and Juul is so profitable that even tobacco companies are envious.

Juul’s goal of creating a new addiction for a new generation is obvious to everyone. They don’t have to literally create their own version of Joe Camel to make that clear. But the ghouls behind Juul continue to throw up their hands and declare themselves mystified. Why, they just wanted to do the world a service by helping adults kick the habit. They’re as aghast as any of us that teens have taken to it.

I’d love to see everyone associated with Juul bankrupted, but in the meantime I’ll settle for banning the worst of their products if the Trump administration actually follows through on its promise today:

Trump administration officials said on Wednesday that they would ban the sale of most flavored e-cigarettes, at a time when hundreds of people have been sickened by mysterious lung illnesses and teenage vaping continues to rise.

Sitting in the Oval Office with Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of Health and Human Services, and Dr. Ned Sharpless, the acting Food and Drug Administration commissioner, President Trump acknowledged that there was a vaping problem, and said, “We’re going to have to do something about it.”

Mr. Azar said that the F.D.A. would outline a plan within the coming weeks for removing most flavored e-cigarettes from the market.

It’s a start.

Mattis Aide’s Tell-All Book Cleared for Release After Months-Long Delay by the Pentagon

A former aide to Defense Secretary James Mattis is moving forward with the release of a book his publisher has hyped as a “sometimes shocking account” of the Pentagon under President Donald Trump, less than two weeks after he sued the Pentagon over claims that officials delayed its release to help Mattis. 

Guy Snodgrass, a retired Navy pilot who served as Mattis’ speechwriter for 17 months, told me that the Pentagon on Wednesday finally cleared his book for publication with only “very, very, very minor” redactions. A letter from the Pentagon, which Snodgrass provided to me, confirmed that his manuscript had been cleared for public release. 

The book, Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis, was originally scheduled to publish on Halloween, but Snodgrass said he is unsure whether that date will still be met. A spokesperson for Random House, which is publishing the e-book through its conservative Sentinel imprint, did not immediately respond to a question about the release date. 

In a lawsuit filed last month against the Pentagon, Snodgrass accused the department of slow-walking his manuscript’s review process to “benefit” Mattis, whose own memoir, Call Sign Chaos, was released last week. Mattis submitted his resignation as Secretary of Defense in December after objecting to Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria.

The Defense Department regularly reviews manuscripts by former government officials to ensure no classified information is included, but Snodgrass claimed in an affidavit filed as part of his lawsuit that Pentagon reviewers went beyond their official purview when screening his book. As I reported last week, officials “were particularly concerned with repeated references to the ‘Tank,’ an ornate Pentagon conference room where Mattis met with Trump and other senior government officials.” In emails included as part of Snodgrass’ case, a Pentagon official told Snodgrass that attendees at these meetings with Trump “need to have absolute confidence that their discussions, to include physical reaction and body language, will not be replicated, period.”

Mark Zaid, Snodgrass’ attorney, indicated Monday on Twitter that the Pentagon was planning to complete its review within the week “with minimal redactions.” That process has now apparently concluded, clearing the way for publication. 

Random House described the manuscript in promotional materials as a “fly-on-the-wall view” of Mattis during Trump’s tumultuous first months in office. In contrast to Mattis’ book, which avoids directly attacking Trump, the central argument of Snodgrass’ manuscript “will be that Mattis, during his first year at the Pentagon, was able to tame some of Trump’s more damaging instincts,” according to a New York Times article from March, when Snodgrass first announced the project. The summary of his book on Random House’s website describes Trump as “a President whose actions were frequently unpredictable and impulsive with far-reaching consequences.”

Mattis is portrayed flatteringly in the promotional materials—the Random House blurb calls him “the administration’s ‘adult in the room.'” But Mattis has been reluctant to criticize Trump since leaving his Cabinet, sparking criticism of the revered Marine Corps general during his much-publicized book tour last week. When Snodgrass emailed him in March to let him know the book was set to be announced, Mattis scolded his former aide for breaking his confidence. “I regret that you appear to be violating the trust that permitted you as a member of my staff to be in my private meetings,” he wrote, according to an exchange Snodgrass later released as part of his lawsuit.

The Pentagon evidently viewed Snodgrass’ project with similar disdain. In a Foreign Policy piece published earlier today, an anonymous former defense official accused Snodgrass of suffering “delusions of grandeur that were clearly misplaced.”

The former official added, “Unfortunately, he assumed a level of importance to his role that neither his responsibilities, position, nor rank afforded him.”

Lunchtime Photo

This is a California bluebell, a common wildflower around here. I have a million pictures of them, but there’s something arresting about this one that I can’t quite put my finger on. Whatever it is, though, it’s the reason you’re seeing it instead of one of the others.

April 20, 2019 — Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, Orange County, California