Mother Jones Magazine

Lunchtime Photo

I visited the Long Beach aquarium this weekend but didn’t do very well on the picture-taking front. I guess I’ll consider it a practice run for a future visit.

However, I did get one or two good shots, including this one of some kids having a ball at the sea lion tank.

October 5, 2019 — Long Beach, California

The Case For Donald Trump

Last night I saw a TV ad blasting Democrats for trying to impeach Donald Trump. It made three points:

  • Hunter Biden made a bunch of money in Ukraine.
  • Joe Biden got Ukraine’s prosecutor fired.
  • The prosecutor claims he was fired because he was putting so much pressure on Hunter Biden.

This is simple, straightforward, and true. Needless to say, the ad leaves out quite a bit. Like the fact that the prosecutor in question was brazenly corrupt. And that everyone from the IMF to the EU wanted him gone before they’d commit any more aid money to Ukraine. And his claims about why he was fired are laughable.

Nonetheless, those three bullet points are narrowly true. This is why it’s going to be hard to persuade Trump supporters to turn on Trump. We can’t fight this ad by saying it’s a lie. We can only fight it by adding more detail, and that’s a tough thing to do. Three bullet points are about all that even an honest but low-information voter has time for.

But we can flood the zone. It’s probably our only hope.

Addiction and Mental Illness Are Rampant Among the Homeless

The LA Times reports today that the public perception of homelessness in Los Angeles is more accurate than the official happy talk:

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority…said only 29% of the homeless population had either a mental illness or substance abuse disorder….The Times, however, found that about 67% had either a mental illness or a substance abuse disorder. Individually, substance abuse affects 46% of those living on the streets — more than three times the rate previously reported — and mental illness, including post-traumatic stress disorder, affects 51% of those living on the streets, according to the analysis.

But wait. Even the LAT analysis might be too optimistic. A study from the California Policy Lab at UCLA comes up with even higher numbers for the US homeless population:

These numbers, it turns out, aren’t really disputed. So why does it matter? Partly because the right policy response depends on a realistic assessment of the problem. If most of the homeless are just down on their luck and need a temporary place to stay, that calls for a particular kind of housing response. But if the vast majority are mentally ill or struggling with addiction, that calls for an entirely different response.

But that’s not all. I’ve made this point before and gotten raked over the coals for it, but if you want to solve the homeless problem you have to understand the public resistance to building local homeless shelters. Is it because most of us are just flaming assholes who refuse to help the poor if it means even the slightest inconvenience to our otherwise comfortable lives? If that’s the case, the right response might be education or guilt or just plain political bulldozing.

If the Times analysis and the UCLA report are correct, however, maybe local resistance is actually based on understandable concerns, not just free floating racism and assholery. Maybe families with children have good reason to be anxious about having addicts and the mentally ill wandering around their neighborhood. Maybe you would be too.

Social problems are hard to solve already, and they’re even harder to solve if we tell ourselves fairy tales and then insist that anyone who sees things differently is a horrible human being. That gets us nowhere, especially if it turns out that these folks have a more realistic view of the problem than we do and are therefore going to become even more stubborn if we try to tell them they’re wrong about things they can see with their own two eyes. Just a thought.

Reminder: Trump Has a Massive Conflict of Interest in Turkey

Late Sunday night, the Trump administration announced that US troops would be pulling back from their positions northern Syria, allowing Turkey to move into a region controlled by Kurdish forces that had fought with the US against ISIS. Trump’s announcement is a big win for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and it has already enraged many in American national security circles—including Trump allies—who say it reverses years of US policy. Kurdish leaders are being more blunt, saying it qualifies as a betrayal.

“I have a little conflict of interest ’cause I have a major, major building in Istanbul.”

Whatever else it may be, Trump’s policy toward Turkey is also a significant conflict of interest, as Trump himself has admitted. In 2015, while running for president, Trump gave an interview to Stephen Bannon, not yet his campaign manager, in which he talked about Turkey. Right away, he admitted that his business interests in the country would make it difficult for him to deal with Turkey with a clear mind.

“I have a little conflict of interest ’cause I have a major, major building in Istanbul,” Trump told Bannon during a Breitbart radio show. “It’s a tremendously successful job. It’s called Trump Towers—two towers, instead of one, not the usual one, it’s two.”

Those Trump Towers are a pair of glass buildings in Istanbul that have borne Trump’s name since 2012. Trump doesn’t own the buildings—the situation might be less complicated if he did. Instead, Trump licenses his brand to the building’s actual owner, Turkish business magnate Aydin Dogan, who has been described as the single largest payer of taxes in Turkey. He’s a one-time antagonist of Erdogan who is now in step with the strongman.

The conflict of interest and the way it could affect Trump’s position on important issues—or at least the perception of how it could affect his position—quickly became obvious after Trump made this comment. In June 2016, after Trump said he supported a ban on immigration by people from countries he said were associated with Islamic terrorism—he called them “terror countries”—Erdogan objected, and so did Dogan, and both threatened to remove Trump’s name from the buildings.

That’s no small threat—according to personal financial disclosures filed by Trump, since he launched his bid for the presidency, he has earned somewhere between $3.2 million and $17 million in royalties from the deal. (The amounts are given in ranges; the precise figures are unclear.) 

Less than a month after the threat to remove his name was made, Trump very publicly voiced support for Erdogan when the Turkish leader faced a coup attempt. And his closeness with Erdogan has continued, even over the objections of some of Trump’s most reliable supporters. For instance, in May 2017, when Erdogan visited Washington, D.C., for a White House visit, Turkish agents violently attacked protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence—shoving past local police officers to do so. Video showed Erdogan calmly watching the attack from his car. Although the House of Representatives, then under GOP control, voted 397-0 to condemn the attacks, Trump refused to do so. A few months later, Trump praised Erdogan, describing him as “a very good friend” and saying he gets “very high marks” for the way he runs Turkey.

What’s more, the relationship between Erdogan and Trump’s partner, Dogan, is not an even one. Although Dogan is one of Turkey’s wealthiest men, he is not nearly as powerful as Erdogan. In 2009, as part of what was described in press reports as a feud between the two men, Dogan’s company was fined $2.5 billion for tax violations. At the time, the media empire controlled by Dogan was widely seen as critical of Erdogan; the Turkish president characterized Dogan’s publications as “newspapers that print lies.” Dogan later settled the tax case, and Erdogan attended the opening of the Trump Towers in 2012.

When he ran for office, Trump said he would handle conflicts of interest like this by turning over his businesses to his children. He didn’t. Instead, he simply stepped away from the daily operations of his business empire, but he retains full ownership of almost all of the assets, including the licensing company that collects royalties from Dogan.

Taxes Are Down For the Rich Yet Again

David Leonhardt presents us with a chart today based on data from a new book by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. It shows the effective total tax rate for all income levels in the United States. This includes all state, federal, and local taxes:

The effect of the latest Republican tax cut shows up in the 2018 line: the very richest Americans now pay a total effective tax rate of 23 percent. The poor and the middle classes, by contrast, pay about 25 percent. As you can see, the tax rate for the rich has been dropping steadily for half a century.

The federal income tax code, of course, remains progressive. But it’s no longer progressive enough to make up for payroll taxes and local sales taxes, which have always been regressive. As a result, conservatives have finally reached their dream of a flat tax by stealth. It makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, doesn’t it?

Health Note: Blood Pressure Edition

I’m at the infusion clinic this morning waiting for my monthly dose of high-tech cancer fighters. As usual, they took my blood pressure before we started. It was 142/83. Too high! So, again as usual, they took it again. Two minutes later, in exactly the same position with exactly the same machine, it registered 115/78.

Once again, I’m left wondering just what’s going on. Did my blood pressure really change that much over the course of 120 seconds? Does the machine have a really wide range of accuracy? Or what?

Racists in One of America’s Richest Counties Are Freaking Out Over a “Forced Busing” Proposal

“Blacks destroy school systems and schools,” read one letter to county officials about the busing plan. “Black families (as a core group) don’t value education like other cultural groups,” read another. “The Black Community needs to take responsibility for the behavior of its people,” a third declared, “or the white man will take them back to place where they don’t want to go.” Don’t worry, though. The writer insisted they were not being racist.

These letters were written in recent months in response to a Howard County (Maryland) Council resolution calling on the county school system to desegregate its schools. The letters’ target was a comprehensive redistricting proposal offered by Howard County schools superintendent Michael Martirano. The plan would ease overcrowding and, in Martirano’s words, “substantially improve equity and access to the best educational services” in the county’s schools. By redistributing students around the district and balancing the number of poor students in the district’s schools, the proposal would make the schools more economically integrated, and thus—in theory—more racially integrated.

Howard is one of the wealthiest counties in the country, with a median household income of $115,000. But Council member Mercer Rigby said in a statement that Howard County in recent decades has been “increasingly segregated by race and socioeconomic status” and added that redistricting was a “civil rights issue.” The Maryland Equity Project has deemed Howard County the most integrated school district in the state, but racial segregation persists once you enter the schoolhouse doors, with white students disproportionately taking Advanced Placement classes and Black students taking remedial classes, a 2017 Baltimore Sun investigation found. (A majority of kids in the district are Black, Latino, and Asian.) 

At a time when schools across the country are slipping toward resegregation, the Howard County proposal would move roughly 7,400 students to different schools in a district of 57,000 kids, an effort that would reduce the number of schools with high rates of students in poverty. At 14 of the district’s 62 elementary and middle schools, per the Baltimore Sun, at least half of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch, a proxy for poverty. The plan, Martirano told the Baltimore Sun, represented “a true example of equity in action, looking at our capacity and our poverty rate so children all across the school system can receive an equitable education.” Of the more than 12,000 kids who participated in free and reduced lunch in Howard County in 2018, roughly 47 percent of them were Black and 27 percent were Latino. 

The response? An all-too-familiar backlash in which race and poverty were freely conflated. In more than 400 pages of written testimony submitted to county officials since July, Howard County residents cover the whole gamut of American racism: There is the oafish, booming racism; there is the polite, cooing racism. There are the racists who cite “the data” and “the stats” to argue that Black people are subhuman; there’s the resident who cites “Dr. Ben Carson” as evidence that “disadvantaged” kids can succeed but only if their communities have “strong values.” Some decry “social engineering” and “socialism,” or warn that the plan would “destroy neighborhood schools.” Others are concerned that wealthy families would leave the district altogether. Parents and residents alike have protested against the redistricting proposal, waving signs like “No Forced Busing.” In all the aggrieved response bookended another incident in Howard County’s recent past. In May 2018, four white teenagers spray-painted the sidewalks of Glenelg High School, drawing swastikas and calling the black principal the n-word. They were later charged with hate crimes. “Howard County stands out as a place where diversity and acceptance are cherished,” Martirano had said at the time.

Decades of research—the data, the stats—has shown that integrating schools has a demonstrable effect on closing the achievement gap between Black and white students. Reading over the testimonies, though, you might begin to suspect that the fierce resistance to the desegregation plan isn’t despite the virtues of integration but because of them. In the middle of the letters is a quiet, almost plaintive testimonial, from a Columbia, Maryland, woman who supports the measure. She invoked the name of Columbia’s creator, James Rouse, who in the 1960s designed the city as an experiment in colorblind suburban development.  

My parents moved to Columbia in 1969 because of the promise of equal housing. Somewhere along the way, Rouse’s vision has been lost and we need to be reminded of what those original lofty goals were.

Already the redistricting discussions have taken an ugly, hateful, racist turn. Please help our communities to stay calm and see the benefits of change.

Below are some excerpts from the written testimony.

“A heavy influx of urbanized people of color (mainly Blacks and Hispanics)” heavy influx of urbanized people of color (p. 1)

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“It is not racism. It’s lasy good for nothing Blacks that have ruined Columbia.” mainly blacks (p. 3)

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“Children who are being reared by Parents or caregivers who care nothing about the education of their children” black resident (p. 5)

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black resident 2 (p. 6)

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“A large influx of urbanized people moved with their urbanized ways” black family (p. 7)

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this is what you want (p. 9)

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“It’s not racism. It’s reality.”  not racism it's reality (p. 1)

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“Bad undisciplined children spreading to all the Howard County Schools…All the council will do is DUMB DOWN all of Howard County Schools” bad undisciplined children (p. 3)

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children with their problems (p. 3)

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“Do you think we want to send our children with children of people like that?” can't call me racist because i am black (p. 6)

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“Baltimore City tried to forced integration and now the City is a crime infested”  blacks destroy (p. 7)

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“Dysfunctional Black parents DO NOT support the teachers” nothing to do with racism (p. 9)

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“Counterproductive…to our goal of creating a more cohesive community” argument against busing (p. 28)

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“Blacks destroy school systems and schools” radical black groups (p. 48)

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“This will cost a lot of money and increase pollution and traffic” invest (p. 9)

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“More time commuting to school, humiliation and intimidation”  busing children will not increase (p. 33)

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“CR112 will destroy neighborhood schools!” destroy neighborhood schools (p. 42)

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“Infringement upon individual civil rights” social engineering and government overreach (p. 56)

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forced separation of children from their neighborhood schools (p. 57)

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“Social engineering failed before and it will fail again!” social engineering failed (p. 63)

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“Equity and integration can only occur organically” ben carson is a good example (p. 68)

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“Using ‘segregation’ to spearhead school improvement is a wrongheaded plan” use of segregation (p. 71)

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this violates civil rights (p. 72)

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“Mandated school busing failed in the 1960s” mandated school busing failed (p. 88)

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“The discriminatory labeling of children by skin color or socio-economic status of their parents”  discriminatory labeling of children (p. 93)

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“As a child of the 60’s and the busing at that time for racial balance” child of the 60s (p. 102)

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“CR112 will not help poor or rich families” more troubles (p. 105)

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“You are making enemies with the middle class—the backbone that supports Howard County. We don’t want you even to try to experiment Socialism.”  Socialism (p. 14)

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“An ugly, hateful, racist turn”  Ugly racist turn (p. 20)

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“Racial segregation doesn’t exist in our school system in general”  racial segregation doesn't exist in our system (p. 29)

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“This move seems like a socialistic initiative in capitalistic America” socialistic initiative (p. 31)

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“Money that may be spent on bussing should be spent to bolster the schools in need”  bussing promises to be disruptive (p. 32)

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“On MY DIME, The Council want children of these people to go to school with my children” urbanized blacks (p. 40)

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“We resent being called racist because we want the best for our children”  equity (p. 42)

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“Black families (as a core group) don’t value education like other cultural groups”  urbanized (p. 45)

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core group (p. 45)

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“The idea of moving them to different schools for the fanciful political ideology”  proposed social engineering (p. 9)

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“The Black Community needs to take responsibility for the behavior of its people or the white man will take them back to place where they don’t want to go”  behavior of Blacks is unacceptable (p. 22)

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A Federal Judge Just Ruled That Trump Is Not Above the Law and Needs to Turn Over His Taxes

A federal judge on Monday struck down President Donald Trump’s argument that a sitting president cannot be criminally investigated, letting the Manhattan district attorney’s office subpoena eight years of Trump’s tax returns.

Trump’s lawyers are appealing the ruling.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. sought Trump’s tax returns while investigating whether the president, or his company, broke any New York State laws by reimbursing his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, for hush fund payments made to adult film actress Stormy Daniels, the New York Times reported. Cohen is currently serving a three-year prison sentence for campaign finance violations, fraud, and perjury.

In a 75-page ruling, federal Judge Victor Marrero rejected Trump’s claims of immunity to federal investigation, calling them “repugnant to the nation’s governmental structure and constitutional values.”

The Founding Fathers repudiated the notion that the president is above the law, Marrero wrote.

“The President asserts an extraordinary claim in the dispute now before this Court,” Marrero wrote. “He contends that, in his view of the President’s duties and functions and the allocation of governmental powers between the executive and the judicial branches under the United States Constitution, the person who serves as President, while in office, enjoys absolute immunity from criminal process of any kind.”

Read Marrero’s ruling below:

Does Rural America Know What’s Good For Them?

Monica Potts has gotten some attention for a piece she wrote over the weekend about her hometown of Clinton, Arkansas. As its hook, her story revolves around the fate of the local library.

Let me set the scene. Van Buren County has a population of 16,000. Its average income is way below the national average and its poverty rate is way above. The average private-sector wage is about $12. They are still suffering from the loss of revenue they used to get from shale gas operators, which has slashed the county budget by 20 percent. Back when times were better, Clinton built a new library, but they still owe $2.1 million on it and they aren’t sure where that money will come from. The library made budget cuts, but there was still a real chance that they might have to close up entirely.

In the midst of all this, the library board proposed increasing the pay of the head librarian by about a third. After all, the candidate for the job had a master’s degree. The residents of Clinton were unimpressed and declined to approve the raise:

I watched the fight unfold with a sense of sadness, anger and frustration….I didn’t realize it at first, but the fight over the library was rolled up into a bigger one about the library building, and an even bigger fight than that, about the county government, what it should pay for, and how and whether people should be taxed at all. The library fight was, itself, a fight over the future of rural America, what it meant to choose to live in a county like mine, what my neighbors were willing to do for one another, what they were willing to sacrifice to foster a sense of community here.

The answer was, for the most part, not very much.

This is the overall tone of the piece: residents of Clinton dislike government spending even when it benefits them, and they really dislike it when it benefits others—especially nonwhite others. But if they aren’t willing to pay higher taxes and spend more on things like libraries, they’ll never attract smart people and they’ll never prosper. They just don’t know what’s good for them.

I’m sort of hesitant to ask this, but am I the only liberal who read this piece and was badly put off by the condescension that ran through nearly every paragraph? Putting aside for a moment the larger problems of rural America, we have here a poor county that has lost a big chunk of revenue over the past few years, and in the middle of that the library board wants to raise the salary of the head librarian by a huge amount.

Can we talk? Does a small rural library really need a librarian with a master’s degree? Should a small rural library really try to pay a salary competitive with a large town or small city? Should anyone be even slightly surprised that the good folks of rural Clinton were not thrilled with the idea of giving their librarian a big raise in the middle of a budget crunch—especially at the same time that they’re already being asked to approve tax hikes to pay off the library building itself? Is it possible that this was a perfectly normal reaction, not a veiled expression of hatred toward immigrants and the poor?

Lord knows, I’m familiar with all the counterarguments. Rural areas are already subsidized by us big-city elites, taking in more in federal benefits than they pay in federal taxes—and showing damn little gratitude for it. Rural areas tend to be insular and, yes, often fairly racist. Rural areas are never going to be actually liberal, so who cares about them? Rural areas are overrepresented in our national discourse and in our national politics.

But even if all that is true, is it really surprising that a rural county with an average wage of $12 thinks that a big-city librarian is not the best use of their money? Does this really teach us a lesson about how they lack a sense of community? Or is it just common sense that maybe some of us big-city types don’t quite get?

Trump Justifies Betraying the Kurds: They “Fought With Us, But Were Paid Massive Amounts of Money”

President Donald Trump on Monday dismissed bipartisan condemnation over his announcement that the US is withdrawing from northern Syria to make way for a Turkish incursion—a move that abandons longtime Kurdish allies who have fought against ISIS in the region.

In a string of tweets defending the decision, Trump acknowledged the Kurdish role but appeared to argue that the Kurds had already been fairly compensated. Trump’s decision amounts to what many see as a stunning betrayal of a crucial ally, as Turkey has long viewed Kurdish forces as a terrorist organization. “The move marks a major shift in US foreign policy and effectively gives Turkey the green light to attack US-backed Kurdish forces,” according to CNN.

“The Kurds fought with us, but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so,” Trump said. “They have been fighting Turkey for decades. I held off this fight for almost 3 years, but it is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home.”

….almost 3 years, but it is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home. WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN. Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to…..

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 7, 2019

“I hope I’m making myself clear how short-sighted and irresponsible this decision is,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the president’s fiercest allies, said during a call with Fox & Friends. In a scathing thread, Brett McGurk, the former special envoy in the US’s fight against ISIS, slammed the president:

Donald Trump is not a Commander-in-Chief. He makes impulsive decisions with no knowledge or deliberation. He sends military personnel into harm’s way with no backing. He blusters and then leaves our allies exposed when adversaries call his bluff or he confronts a hard phone call.

— Brett McGurk (@brett_mcgurk) October 7, 2019

In announcing the decision late Sunday, the White House revealed that it came shortly after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. After posting five tweets on the situation, Trump resumed his attacks on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

What Cable News Anchors Get Right—And Wrong—About Real-Time Fact-Checking

We live in an age where disinformation is a serious and dangerous threat to our democracy. And that has never been more apparent than in the past couple of weeks, when the details of a phone call between Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky—in which Trump pressured the Ukrainian leader to investigate Joe Biden and his son in exchange for foreign aid—sparked an impeachment inquiry into the president. Just like with every other scandal President Trump has been involved in, he has dismissed each emerging detail about the Ukraine call as “fake news” or a “witch hunt.” And that go-to defense—to blatantly lie or dismiss proven facts as “pure fiction”—is echoed by his administration, allies, and base like never before.

So far, Trump has made 12,019 “false or misleading claims” since he’s been in office, according to the Washington Post. But while facts don’t matter to the president, they do matter to the public, and with the prevalence of so much disinformation being spread out in the world—from the Ukraine scandal to right-wing conspiracy theories such as the deep state, Q Anon, Pizzagate, and others—the role of fact-checking in the media has never been so vital. But how effective is fact-checking for dissuading the spread of misinformation, especially in the world of broadcast news? When cable news anchors like CNN’s Jake Tapper or MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow confront and challenge Trump administration officials on false claims live on air, does that actually change people’s views on issues like immigration, climate change, or Russia’s role in Trump’s election? Put simply: Do facts matter, or are people just going to believe what they want to believe?

To find out, I spoke with Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College who focuses on misperceptions in politics, about the role of fact-checking in media.

How effective is on-air fact-checking?

That’s a good question. I think that approach of aggressive fact-checking on television and interviews with newspapers is a good idea. What people believe can be confusing and emotional to an average person when there are competing claims going back and forth that may be hard to sort out. So it’s easy to imagine people relying on their partisan priors as far as what side to believe in the moment.

But I would make two points: The first is, in general, the cumulating body of research that’s out there suggests that fact-checking can help improve belief accuracy on the margin. It’s not a fantasy that people do tend to move in the direction of the information that they’re given, in terms of the effect on their beliefs. So, it does help. Fact-checking should, on average, improve the accuracy of people’s beliefs.



The other point, though, is that live fact-checking in particular may help deter elites from overrating the importance of fact-checking as a response to misinformation, and underrate it as a way to deter elites from promoting this information in the first place. So if you’re going to go on TV and be embarrassed for saying false things, you might not make those claims in the first place, because the extent to which the media will not tolerate the kind of open dissembling that we’ve so often seen from figures in this administration will influence their calculations going forward about what they will say. Trump himself, obviously, is undeterred, but other figures in the administration may be more sensitive to how they’re covered. Even Trump might be more extreme if he weren’t fact-checked so aggressively. 

The other thing is live fact-checking sends a cue to other members of the media about what kinds of falsehoods are being promoted and encourages them to similarly hold those claims up to scrutiny in their own reporting. The kinds of people who watch Jake Tapper are political junkies and news obsessive—they’re not normal people by default. If they’re watching cable news at 4 in the afternoon, they’re a very small minority of Americans. But those clips reach a larger set of journalists who, in turn, are providing news coverage that is reaching a much broader swath of the public. And in that way, fact-checking can have a more important cumulative effect.

What’s the best way for live fact-checking? Is the aggressive Jake Tapper way of confronting his guests into submission more or less effective than others?

I’d like to see news organizations being judicious about the extent to which they put people on air in the first place. Live fact-checking is a difficult enterprise and it’s one that people have a tough time doing effectively. Running video of the president talking is cheap. And it’s interesting to people, so there’s a temptation to do it. If you’re equipped to engage in effective live fact-checking, then I think that can be an appropriate news decision, but I think there needs to be a rethinking of just taking live video when you’re not prepared to adequately scrutinize it for your viewers.

And the same thing with these confrontational interviews. Every so often it’s important to plant a flag and challenge the talking points that are being offered on something important. But at some point it becomes a pointless exercise. Many organizations seem to have stopped booking Kellyanne Conway for this reason, because the interviews with her became kind of Dada nonsense-type conversations. There was no news value.

I’m starting to feel like it’s getting that way with Rudy Giuliani. It seems like shows are booking him more because he’s going to say something crazy than an actual value-add to the impeachment conversation.

Right. This is where the public service goals and the ratings orientation of the media are in direct conflict. It’s hard to imagine most cable news food fights informing people, but having Rudy Giuliani on will get people to tune in and create viral clips and bring more attention to your show, and so of course there’s incentive to keep booking him. Look, the media has to get serious. We’re talking about the impeachment of the president of the United States. The stakes are extremely high here and I think there’s a temptation to just treat it all as silliness and a food fight, but this is deadly serious. And journalists have to do their job.

I think it’s important to note, though, the media has been more aggressive in fact-checking during this administration than any time in my adult lifetime. While in some ways the media has not gone far enough, they’ve come a long way. This administration has pushed them to rethink approaches that were previously accepted. It was very rare to see wide fact-checking on cable news prior to this administration. And the kinds of confrontation interviews we’ve seen with Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway were much more rare in the past than they have been under this administration. So I do think the media, in some ways, is rising to the challenge, but that challenge is so profound that more needs to be done.



What comes to mind when you think of a good example of on-air fact-checking? What more can be done by the media?

There’s a couple of different models. CNN and MSNBC, in some cases, will have their anchor break in and clarify. In other cases, they’ll run graphics next to the video debunking what President Trump or other speakers are saying. In other cases, the chyron itself will contain a fact-check of the statement the speaker is making, and then that’s hopefully affirmed after the statement is aired, so that viewers are left with accurate information. So, there’s a number of different models.

In some ways, the worst coverage of this administration has not been the fact-checking itself—which, when it’s done, I think generally has been laudable—it’s the “Trump said X” style of coverage, which is still quite common because it’s cheap and easy and fast. So, Trump tweets something and it’s immediately amplified across the spectrum—on Facebook, on websites, and sometimes straight on to the television. It’s often the case that those initial reports on whatever Trump claimed lacked context or fact-checking. Maybe down the road that kind of context is added, but of course people may not be exposed to those follow-up reports. We’ve seen this pattern for a long time, that those initial reports get the most coverage, and the follow-ups saying, “Actually, the truth is something else,” get much less.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The Trump Administration Has Figured out How to Get Rid of Federal Workers Without Firing Them

“It’s nearly impossible to fire a federal worker,” acting White House chief of staff and budget chief Mick Mulvaney told the audience at a South Carolina Republicans’ dinner in August. “I know that because a lot of them work for me, and I’ve tried. You can’t do it.”

But Mulvaney reassured his audience that the Trump administration seems to have found a loophole. “By simply saying to people, ‘You know what? We’re going to take you outside the bubble, outside the Beltway, outside this liberal haven of Washington, DC, and move you out to the real part of the country,’ and they quit,” he explained. “What a wonderful way to sort of streamline government and do what we haven’t been able to do for a long time.”

Mulvaney was referring to the June announcement from Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, when he told 181 staff members at the USDA’s Economic Research Service office that in just three months they would be relocated to new offices over one-thousand miles away in Kansas City, Missouri. The National Institute of Food and Agriculture, another small scientific agency at USDA, would also be moving to the midwest. ERS conducts research on agriculture and economics, and Perdue said the move would help the staff be closer to midwestern farming regions and save taxpayer dollars. In return, officials in Kansas City offered $26 million in incentives, but Perdue refused to disclose the details. The workers could either uproot their lives and move or lose their government jobs.

The announcement was met with shock. The deadline to decide whether or not an employee was moving to Kansas City expired on September 30, but the union negotiated the option for employees to request another 60-day extension. It appears that most had already made their decision before the deadline. Of the 181 employees told to relocate, only 16 did. Another 24 will remain in their positions in DC. But a whopping 141 employees, or 78 percent, left ERS completely. The relocation also resulted in the number of women working in research and administrative positions dropping. According to data provided to Mother Jones, women made up 36 percent of the employees before the move. Now, that number is down to 30 percent. The numbers are even more striking in Kansas City. Of the 27 people working there, only one is a woman.

“None of us believed it would happen,” Laura Dodson, the acting Vice President of the ERS union, told me. “He didn’t have the authority, it wasn’t backed by Congress, and every scientist in our field said don’t [move the office.]” The USDA inspector general issued a report saying that while Perdue had the legal authority to move the offices, congressional approval is needed before any agency can be reorganized. Perdue argued that that provision was unconstitutional and forged ahead. 

Those who left were not necessarily giving up large salaries or a flashy job, what they did lose was security. The salaries for civil servants range from more than $19,000 to around $138,000, but federal employment also is accompanied by generous retirement packages and quality health care. Today, 364,000 federal government employees call the Washington, DC, metropolitan area home. Since Reagan insisted “government is the problem,” federal employees have been demonized by those on the right, and the Trump administration has been no exception. Donald Trump campaigned on “draining the swamp,” and that effort appears to include debilitating the civil service in government agencies. “It was done with malice,” Dodson argues. “They intended for us to leave.”

“It was done with malice. They intended for us to leave.”

One of those employees who opted to leave is Laura Tiehen, a senior economics researcher who had been with the agency for just over 20 years but did not want to retire. Tiehen recalls that she and her colleagues first realized something was amiss in August 2018, when the ERS administrator, Tiehen’s boss who was a career civil servant and not a political appointee, sent an email saying she was being relocated to a different USDA agency. “It was very clearly not her decision,” Tiehen explains, “tons of rumors were flying around.” Two hours later Tiehen received an email from Secretary Perdue. Their office would be relocating within a year, but he offered no details. 

When the government shut down for six weeks at the end of 2018 into early 2019, Tiehen and her colleagues felt confident that the Trump administration would not be able to orchestrate such a move in what was becoming an increasingly short time frame. But then came the June 13 announcement that made it official. “You have about two-and-a-half months to pull up your roots, get your spouse a job, get your kids in school,” Tiehen says, “it was just an absolutely shock.” 

“You have about two-and-a-half months to pull up your roots, get your spouse a job, get your kids in school.”

J. David Cox, the national president of the federal employees’ union the American Federation of Government Employees, said in June, “The USDA has provided no rational justification to employees, to Congress, or to its stakeholders for this move, which will make it harder for the agencies to coordinate with other science and research agencies,” He also called the relocation a backdoor way to slash the workforce and silence the parts of the agencies’ research that the administration views as inconvenient.” Which, presumably would mean any research on SNAP benefits for low-income households or scientific research on climate change, both of which the ERS studied.  

Tiehen has family members in Kansas City and contemplated moving, but her husband who works at the National Institutes for Health would have had to give up his job as well. “It was an agonizing decision,” she says about taking early retirement from a job she truly enjoyed. “Given the hastiness and recklessness of the move, it just didn’t feel like an agency where I’d still feel like I had a fulfilling job.” When she left, she was working on a database on how states are administering the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the food program for low-income and elderly people. “A lot of researchers rely on it,” she says.  

ERS staffers work on studies that deal with agriculture, economics, and food security. The employees left behind dozens of unfinished reports and studies—some may never be completed. A memo circulated to ERS higher-ups, first reported by Politico, describes a large number of reports that will be delayed. Those studies include one that looks into food security for military veterans of working age, the impact of the opioid crisis, and the impact of food stamps in the post-recession era. The final decision was made so abruptly, that no plans were put in place to figure out how to finish certain projects.

“We all knew this move made no sense and was driven by ideology over science,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) in August. “Secretary Perdue has some serious questions to answer, and this fight is not over.”

In the past, the notion of decentralizing the federal government enjoyed some bipartisan support. “This idea has been used to make government work better, and sometimes it’s been used to destroy government,” David Fontana, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University says. Some conservatives like the idea because they see it as a way to slash government; progressives also have supported it as a strategy for spreading power and resources more evenly throughout the country. “It needs to be a deliberate process,” Fontana explains. “Not just why, but the where too. The process is different if you’re moving to Colorado, or Oklahoma, or New York City.” In contrast to the way this was handled at USDA, it would also be wiser to phase in the relocation and give employees an option, even if this means that the government would “create a new outpost and not ask anyone to move,” he says.

“This idea has been used to make government work better, and sometimes it’s been used to destroy government.”

In shrinking the federal government, as in most things, the Trump administration has not opted for the incremental approach. And USDA isn’t the only agency Trump officials have disrupted. In July, the acting Bureau of Land Management director William Perry Pendley announced most of the employees at the agency would be relocated to Grand Junction, Colorado. Pendley has not been approved by the Senate for the role. As E&E News reported last month, the relocation announcement was met with disdain:

Not one of the more than 200 employees present expressed support for the move, exposing the true feelings of BLM’s Washington staff about the proposal announced in July and authorized by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. Some employees wore black at the meeting as a show of protest.

Staffers questioned the wisdom, timing and purpose of the planned move, as well as the “moral courage” of their leaders. They complained of political motivations and a general lack of transparency: The agency still hasn’t told staffers exactly who will be asked to move.

But officials may want to rethink their plans to hastily relocate BLM employees. After the mass exodus, the administrators at ERS is now forced to ask certain employees to come back for a short period of time, and that includes Tiehen. She was asked to return “in the short-term to close some of the gaps” but is still deciding if she will. Meanwhile, the ERS office in DC is down to just a handful of people. “I was just walking through the halls,” Dodson says. “It’s empty. Everybody’s gone.”

A Radical Approach to Helping Former Prisoners Start Over: Let Them Into Your Home

Sabina Crocette and London Croudy in the backyard of Crocette’s West Oakland townhouse.

Cayce Clifford

When she first got out, little things like crossing the street were difficult for London Croudy. “When you’re in prison, the only thing you’re thinking about is going home. You plan all these things in your mind, and then all of a sudden you get out and reality hits you,” Croudy says. “They are like, ‘Go find a job and get this ID,’ and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, Uber—what the hell is that?’ I feel left behind sometimes.”

After serving eight years of a 13-year sentence for conspiracy to distribute heroin, Croudy was released to live in a halfway house in Oakland, California, run by the private prison company GEO Group. She had to share a room with several people, and the beds and food were similar to those in prison. She had an hour of rec time and a strict curfew. “Just pretty much a step over incarceration,” she says. “Still walking around with fear.”

That changed when she met Sabina Crocette, a lawyer who was working at a prisoner-rights nonprofit. They started hanging out, and when Croudy asked Crocette if she knew anyone with an extra room to rent, Crocette remembered a new pilot program she’d heard about: the Homecoming Project, which pays people with a spare room to house those returning to the community after long prison sentences. Crocette had previously taken in formerly incarcerated people with mixed results, but she’d connected with Croudy and wanted to try it again. About two months later, Croudy moved in.

Croudy tears up remembering the first time she saw her new bedroom in Crocette’s West Oakland townhouse. Croudy assumed she’d basically be sleeping on the floor, but after she saw the queen-size bed and dresser dotted with fake candles, “this peace just came over me,” she says.

“I always try to tell them, ‘You are worth way much more than a cardboard box.’”

Few formerly incarcerated people land in such welcoming accommodations, particularly in the Bay Area’s absurdly overpriced housing market. In Alameda County, where the Homecoming Project operates, 4,800 people returned from state prisons in 2014. About one-quarter of the county’s residents have a criminal history, and at least 20,000 people—disproportionately people of color—face housing insta­bility because of their records. So the Oakland-based nonprofit Impact Justice looked to Airbnb’s model and flipped it on its head as a way to offer affordable, stable short-term housing. Since Impact Justice started the Homecoming Project in August 2018, it has settled 12 formerly incarcerated people in private homes, rent-free.

“There’s hidden assets in our midst, and if we were able to pay the homeowner for housing someone coming home from prison, what would that look like?” says Terah Lawyer, Homecoming’s program manager. There’s “a level of desperation” among people leaving prisons, she says, because “housing is such a great need and one of the biggest fears of individuals coming home.” Applicants have told her that they’d be happy to sleep in a box in someone’s backyard. “They will settle for less because they think that they deserve less,” she says. “I always try to tell them, ‘You are worth way much more than a cardboard box.’”

Croudy and Crocette knew each other beforehand, but that isn’t typical of the program’s pairings. Would-be tenants go through an extensive screening and matching process, answering questionnaires covering their bedtimes, cooking habits, and pet peeves. Hosts are asked whether there are drugs, alcohol, or weapons in the house. Once a pair is matched, they meet and can reject the other for any reason. Ultimately, housemates sign a six-month agreement, and the host gets a monthly stipend of about $750. During that time, the Homecoming team works with tenants to find more permanent housing.

Beyond providing shelter for a vulnerable popula­tion, the project aims to remove the stigma surrounding incarceration. “How can the community heal the community?” asks Lawyer. “What sets it apart from traditional transitional housing programs is that the funding doesn’t go into some for-profit transition program. It goes into the community, stimulating the economy.”

When Croudy first saw her new room, she says “this peace just came over me.”

 Cayce Clifford

Providing stable housing for former prisoners seems like a no-brainer: It reduces recidivism and prison populations, saving taxpayers money. Yet people getting out often have to hunt for space in shelters, sober living facilities, or halfway houses. Going it alone is virtually impossible for anyone with a criminal record, little money, and no credit or rental history. Finding decent housing is even harder for people who have finished long sentences. In part because they are less likely to reoffend, few programs serve them. Yet typically this group needs the most help, which is why the Homecoming Project primarily focuses on people who served 10 years or more.

Long-standing challenges to housing formerly incarcerated people have become more acute as California’s housing crisis deepens and criminal justice reforms chip away at decades of tough-on-crime policies. In California, statewide reforms reduced a quarter of the prison population between 2008 and 2018. At least 30,000 people are released from state prisons every year. The 2018 First Step Act has also led to thousands of early releases from federal prisons. Formerly incarcerated people are almost 10 times more likely to be homeless than the rest of the public.

Lawyer knows these challenges firsthand. After serving 15 years in prison, she was placed in a residential treatment facility in San Francisco. She couldn’t visit her family. She had to attend 30 hours of treatment classes weekly for a substance abuse problem she didn’t have. “In fact, I’m a certified drug and alcohol counselor that is able to facilitate the same classes that I was subjected to take,” she says. Program restrictions also kept her from starting the job she had lined up before leaving prison.

She used her experience to shape the Homecoming Project, which tries to foster independence while offering participants and their hosts extensive support. For hosts, the program offers workshops on conflict resolution and what it’s like to be incarcerated. A “community navigator” acts as a case mana­ger and life coach. One participant, Jesse Vasquez, went to prison as a teenager and served 19 years for attempted murder. In his first two weeks out, his community navigator went with him to the DMV and the doctor’s office, and to get his birth certificate. “He would stand there in line with me, guide me through the process. He taught me how to navigate a cellphone, how to set up email,” Vasquez says. The community navigator also brought Vasquez to volunteer at a food pantry and introduced him to new neighbors. “He was essential in kind of helping me get my roots into the community.”

“The problem was that I was still thinking that I’m still 17. But here I am, I’m 36, and how do I interact in an adult world?”

Adjusting to life on the outside, Vasquez says, “there’s a sense of an arrested development.” The first time he took a bath, he filled the water too high, and when he got in, it overflowed. His first time cooking in his new home, he set off the fire alarm and panicked that the cops or paramedics would show up. “The problem was that I was still thinking that I’m still 17. But here I am, I’m 36, and how do I interact in an adult world?”

While the Homecoming Project’s dozen placements are a small sample size, the results have been promising. All current and former program participants have jobs. Vasquez is pursuing a degree in child development and psychology while working with two nonprofits. Croudy works with a criminal justice group and is starting a multimedia platform to share the stories of formerly incarcerated women. Of the six people who have completed the program, three have gone on to live independently, while the others, including Croudy, have continued to live with their hosts under a separate lease agreement. Looking ahead, the Homecoming Project hopes it can help organizations outside the Bay Area replicate its model.

Eight months into living together, Croudy and Crocette have settled into a comfortable routine. Croudy no longer asks permission before making a move in the house, and Crocette doesn’t worry whether she should introduce Croudy as her “sis,” “new family member,” or just “housemate.” “London didn’t need a mother. She didn’t need a sister. She didn’t need a mentor. So just kind of learning the process of letting go a little bit,” Crocette says. “The intention was to make her feel welcome. At the same time though, it’s the balance of recognizing the person’s independence.” Sitting close to Crocette on the couch in their backyard, Croudy interjects, “The beauty of our two different walks in this same situation is that, in fact, I did need her. I did. [She] gave me the motivation and the confidence and the ease to be able to do these things.”

“She’s the one who sat me down,” Croudy adds, “and was like, ‘Hey, you don’t have to ask that. You’re a grown woman. Be you.’”

Even a Small Nuclear War Could Trigger a Global Apocalypse

This story was originally published by Wired and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Stipulated: A nuclear war would be real bad. But, like, how bad, exactly? What if it wasn’t all-out, the United States and Russia throwing thousands of warheads at each other, but instead something more limited? Longtime adversaries India and Pakistan have a couple hundred bombs each, tops, according to the best intelligence. Obviously it’d still be a localized nightmare—radiation, flattened cities, death. But whether a regional, so-called limited exchange could have global ecological consequences is a question on which nuclear strategy is disconcertingly quiet.

Climate science, though, is not. “I don’t like the term exchange,” says Alan Robock, a climate resesarcher at Rutgers who’s been studying nukes for three decades. “It’s jargon that nuclear war planners use to not think about the horror they’re planning.” Robock and a few colleagues have, for years, been running the numbers on what scientists in the 1980s called “nuclear winter,” the idea that multiple nuclear detonations would send enough dust, soot, and smoke into the atmosphere to literally block out the sun. With the end of the Cold War, fears of the world ending in both fire and ice faded, but reports of the demise of that demise may have been premature. Not only does President Trump seem to have a somewhat cavalier attitude toward the deployment of nuclear weapons and their wider accessibility, and not only are nuclear treaties crumbling around the world, but those two adjacent South Asian countries I mentioned have nuclear arsenals, and they’ve gone to war with each other before.

In 2007, Robock’s group tried to do the math. They approximated India and Pakistan’s arsenals at the time and imagined a war involving 100 Hiroshima-sized nuclear bombs—15 kilotons—over cities. The results were literally chilling: up to 5 million tons of carbon pumped into the atmosphere as smoke and soot, where climate models predicted it would remain for a decade. In just the first year that’d chop up to 20 days off the growing season in much of the northern hemisphere, resulting in global famines like the one in 1815, the “year without a summer” that followed the volcanic eruption of Mt. Tambora.

Not everyone bought it. In 2018 a team at Los Alamos National Laboratory—where they make, among other things, nuclear weapons—published a more detailed model of both the climate and the fires that’d produce all that carbon, and came to a different conclusion. Sure, that “limited exchange” would put about 4 million tons of carbon into the air, they said, but it wouldn’t stay there. No nuclear winter. We’re saved! Well, not the millions of people who’d die in the conflict, but still.

But now Robock’s back, and his news is not good. India and Pakistan, he says, “have more weapons and they’re more powerful. And they’re the only two countries that have this upward trend.” So for an article in the journal Science Advances this week, his people built a new scenario, something more intense, with about 100 bombs launched by both sides, aimed directly at cities. In that part of the world, those cities are denser, which means more people with more stuff—some percentage of which turns to carbon particles when it burns. And they ran the numbers on carbon again. “There would be between 16 and 37 million tons,” Robock says. “If India and Pakistan had a war, it would be a much larger potential for climate change.” The solutions to that cold equation: 50 to 125 million people dead in the first week. A reduction of as much as 35 percent in sunlight reaching Earth’s surface, translating to a decrease in temperature of up to 5 degrees Celsius, with rainfall decreasing between 15 and 30 percent globally … and the amount of food produced by an equal amount. That’s worldwide famine for a decade.

This map shows the percentage change in the amount of carbon that would be converted into plants by photosynthesis in the second year after a regional nuclear war.

Illustration by Cheryl Harrison

Now, for sure, you have to accept a few approximations here. You have to believe that the Indian and Pakistani arsenals are that big and that powerful, for one thing, and that they’d use them. Not everyone does. “I don’t think either side is going to unload their entire arsenal. Even in the worst case scenario, you have a few countervalue strikes, which are devastating and horrifying,” says Sameer Lalwani, director of the South Asia Program at the Stimson Center, “but not 60 cities being targeted. I don’t see that happening.”

You also have to believe in the way Robock’s group says nuclear airbursts and the resulting firestorms will behave. They predict pyrocumulonimbus clouds, thunderheads fueled by fire, that pull in the surrounding air and gunk and send it into the upper atmosphere, high enough that rain doesn’t bring the carbon back down to the ground. And you further have to believe they’re right about how cities burn. That requires knowing how much stuff is in a city in the first place—construction materials, consumer goods, and at what density. For now the team uses a per-capita estimate of 11,000 kg of flammable material per person. This was one of the disagreements between Robock’s team and the LANL group.

After an imagined regional nuclear war in 2025, Earth would stay colder for longer because of soot pumped into the upper atmosphere by the bombs and ensuing firestorms.

Illustration by Charles Bardeen

And you also have to figure out how it all burns, since soot’s the product of inefficient combustion. “We’re also working on explicitly modeling firestorms that would burn in a city and how they would propagate, and we’re doing an inventory of the actual material in specific cities in terms of each building and how much stuff it would have to burn,” Robock says. “Our next result will have much more explicit calculations of how much smoke.”

More data would help, of course. Robock’s hoping Google might contribute. “They have 3D images of every building on the planet,” he says. “But we haven’t been able to talk them into it yet.”

Whether or not Robock is exactly right might not be the most important part here. (He’s clearly the expert; one climate scientist I asked for perspective said they couldn’t help, because they’d “tend to ask Alan about questions on this, which obviously isn’t a good way of getting an independent opinion.”)

The broader point, whether a regional nuclear war causes a global winter or just a regional one—nuclear autumn, maybe?—isn’t even on most strategists’ agendas. George Perkovich, who runs the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and studies India and Pakistan specifically, says that in multiple interviews with people in the US nuclear weapons establishment, his sources say they’ve never even talked about ecological impacts. Few beside Robock even study the possibility. Robock’s studies are “alarming, and I think it points to what should be the political logic for everybody to conduct these studies,” Perkovich says. “Even if the nuclear war is between India and Pakistan and doesn’t involve the US, if these studies are right and US agriculture is going to be devastated and the global food supply is going to be severely undercut, American people are really going to be hurt.”

Commonly accepted rules of war demand avoiding civilian casualties—absurd enough if a military targets a city with a nuke, but even more absurd if a local war’s consequences spread globally. That’s the kind of thing that war planners should be building into their theories about the use (or, ideally, non-use) of a nuclear arsenal. But they aren’t. “The basic proposition you can derive from this paper is, we have no earthly conception how bad it’s going to be,” Lalwani says. “That extends to the Korean peninsula, the Middle East, to a Russia-US or a US-China exchange, because the assumptions are really hard to pin down, and could be orders of magnitude greater than we have considered.”

That’s the kind of math you’d hope even the most fervent nuclear advocates would build into their equations. “They can’t tell us what their targets are. That’s secret. But we want to build a tool so they can put in the targets and calculate the climate response,” Robock says. “They’re obligated not to kill civilians, but right now they don’t have any way of knowing.” Stipulated: Anything that limits one of these “exchanges” is a good thing—hopefully to the point that they never happen at all, and no one has to find out if Robock is right.

 

Trump Trades Prisoners for Turkish Invasion of Syria

Here’s a helluva statement from the White House tonight:

BREAKING: In an extraordinary Sunday night statement, the White House announces that the US “will no longer be in the immediate area” of Northern Syria, allow Turkey to launch an invasion in the region and give Turkey responsibility for captured ISIS fighters in the area. pic.twitter.com/Ytu8t3BLUg

— NBC News (@NBCNews) October 7, 2019

In return for taking a bunch of prisoners off our hands, the Trump administration apparently plans to abandon our Kurdish allies in northern Syria and give Turkey a free hand there. That’s quite some foreign policy we have in the Middle East these days.

Columnist at the Center of Ukraine Scandal Joins Fox News

For months, opinion columnist John Solomon has played a central role in stoking right-wing conspiracies about Ukraine’s role in the 2016 election and Joe Biden’s involvement with the country as vice president. Now, Solomon is making his alliance with pro-Trump forces official by joining Fox News as a contributor, according to the Washington Examiner and Mediaite.

Solomon, who was a columnist at the Hill until last week, was already making frequent appearances on Fox show, including Trump friend Sean Hannity’s show, where he pushed the pro-Trump Ukraine narrative. Those appearances have helped Trump’s theories about Ukraine gain credence on the right and made Solomon a figure of interest in the impeachment inquiry. 

The whistleblower, who’s complaint set off the current impeachment inquiry, included Solomon’s work in the complaint. “Beginning in late March 2019, a series of articles appeared in an online publication called The Hill,” one section of the complaint begins. Those articles gave voice to false narratives, including the debunked claim that Biden used his power as vice president to quash an investigation into a gas company where his son Hunter was a board-member, a now-retracted allegation that the former ambassador to Ukraine gave a Ukrainian prosecutor a list of people not to prosecute, and that the US embassy in Kiev had blocked Ukrainian prosecutors from delivering “evidence” about 2016 to US officials. 

Throughout the spring, Solomon became part of a campaign by Trump and Giuliani to gin up the Ukraine conspiracies. A main source for him was then the prosecutor general of Ukraine, Yuriy Lutsenko, who was also sharing information with Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s private attorney and the lead instigator of Trump’s Ukraine-related conspiracies. Lutsenko was known as an untrustworthy opportunist whose contacts with Giuliani and Solomon came as Ukrainian elections put his own career at risk. Solomon would discuss his stories on Fox, where they were picked up and trumpeted by the president, Donald Trump Jr., and Giuliani. 

“John Solomon: As Russia Collusion fades, Ukrainian plot to help Clinton emerges.” @seanhannity @FoxNews

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 21, 2019

Solomon began his career as an investigative reporter, including stints at the Washington Post. But in recent years, his work at the Hill has made him a favorite of the right while the rest of the media has noted his inaccuracies and tendency to push false narratives. Solomon produced multiple stories about the debunked Uranium One scandal. In 2017, he co-authored a story about attorney Lisa Bloom trying to secure payments for women considering coming forward to accuse Trump of assault that portrayed the women as out for money, which prompted a complaint from his colleagues to management. The Daily Beast described Solomon as a “one-man conservative investigative unit.”

Trump Ally Sen. Ron Johnson Had a Meltdown on “Meet the Press”

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) gave a wild performance on “Meet the Press” Sunday, refusing to answer questions posed by host Chuck Todd, instead peddling unfounded conspiracy theories about the 2016 election. The bizarre interview is a demonstration of how President Donald Trump’s allies have responded to the impeachment inquiry by rallying around debunked theories about Democratic plots and deep state set-ups during the 2016 election, while dismissing the findings of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference. 

Johnson’s refusal to answer questions, paired with Todd’s dismay that Johnson was embracing conspiracy theories, may also explain why other Trump allies refused to go on the Sunday news shows. In the midst of a tumultuous impeachment inquiry, no administration official or GOP leader from the House or Senate accepted an invitation to appear on any of the weekends news programs.

The interview went south at the very beginning. Rather than answer Todd’s first question about Ukraine, Johnson began his appearance with a jumble of old, debunked theories in which Johnson, reading from a paper on which he had prepared his comments, seemed to claim that former FBI agent Peter Strzok and former FBI director James Comey had framed Trump. “Senator, I have no idea why Fox News propaganda stuff is popping up on here,” Todd said in response.

Johnson went on to defend Trump by putting forward a far-right conspiracy theory that the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee worked with Ukrainians in 2016 to defeat Trump—this is the conspiracy theory which Trump seems to believe and which Attorney General Bill Bar and US Attorney John Durham are trying to substantiate both in Ukraine and through meetings with intelligence officials from multiple other countries. “I don’t know to what extent the Ukrainians” interfered in the 2016 elections, Johnson said. “I don’t know to what extent [the] DNC and [the] Hillary Clinton campaign were involved in kind of juicing up the Ukrainian involvement.”

WATCH: @chucktodd: "All right, senator, I have no idea why a Fox News conspiracy, propaganda stuff is popping up on here."@senronjohnson: "Because this is underlying exactly why President Trump is upset … at the news media." #MTP #IfItsSunday pic.twitter.com/onTZzhDo0s

— Meet the Press (@MeetThePress) October 6, 2019

Johnson is the senator most enmeshed in the Ukraine scandal. As the chairman of the Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over the region, Johnson attended the inauguration of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in May, alongside Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who stepped in after Vice President Mike Pence dropped out of the trip. In August, the US ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sonland, told Johnson that Trump was withholding military aid to Ukraine in order to pressure the country’s leadership to undertake investigations desired by the president. Johnson was troubled by this, and asked Trump about it on a phone call on August 31. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, Johnson says that Trump vehemently denied the quid pro quo. In his interview with Todd, Johnson repeated Trump’s denial.

But text messages released last week between Sonland and top diplomats show that the officials working on Ukraine believed aid was linked to a request for politically expedient investigations. “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Bill Taylor, a top US diplomat in Ukraine, texted Sonland.

During his “Meet the Press” interview, Johnson denied that Trump wanted Ukraine to investigate his opponents ahead of the 2020 elections—despite the significant public evidence to the contrary, including the fact that Trump explicitly asked Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son in the summary of the July 25 call.

When Todd pressed Johnson on whether he trusts the FBI and the CIA, Johnson said no, citing people who are no longer in those agencies like Strzok, Comey, and other career officials whom Republicans claim—in yet another conspiracy theory—tried to frame Trump as part of a deep state plot in 2016. “Do you trust them now?” Todd repeatedly asked. Johnson refused to answer the question.

WATCH: @senronjohnson says he doesn't trust Brennan, McCabe, Comey, or Strzok. #MTP

"I don't trust any of those guys in the Obama administration." pic.twitter.com/fI2QyTIwbv

— Meet the Press (@MeetThePress) October 6, 2019

A Second Whistleblower Is Coming Forward in Ukraine Scandal, Attorneys Say

The lawyers representing the first whistleblower, whose complaint about Donald Trump’s behavior provoked an impeachment inquiry, said Sunday that they now representing another whistleblower with knowledge of the Ukraine scandal. The second whistleblower poses a threat to the president’s attempts to downplay the scandal because the second person supposedly has first-hand knowledge of Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. 

Attorneys Mark Zaid and Andrew Bakaj at the DC firm Compass Rose Legal Group together represent both whistleblowers.

NEWS UPDATE: I can confirm this report of a second #whistleblower being represented by our legal team. They also made a protected disclosure under the law and cannot be retaliated against. This WBer has first hand knowledge. https://t.co/zYkUYgJ0mE

— Mark S. Zaid (@MarkSZaidEsq) October 6, 2019

IC WHISTLEBLOWER UPDATE: I can confirm that my firm and my team represent multiple whistleblowers in connection to the underlying August 12, 2019, disclosure to the Intelligence Community Inspector General. No further comment at this time. https://t.co/05b5aAVm2G

— Andrew P. Bakaj (@AndrewBakaj) October 6, 2019

The first whistleblower’s complaint was based in large part on second-hand information. Attacks on the whistleblower from President Donald Trump and his allies have focused on this fact, dismissing the complaint as “hearsay.” But according to Zaid, this second whistleblower has first-hand knowledge of Trump’s Ukraine dealings. 

After the first whistleblower, whose identity remains unknown, filed his complaint with the intelligence community inspector general, Michael Atkinson, on August 12, Atkinson launched his own investigation to try to corroborate the complaint. Atkinson found the original whistleblower’s complaint urgent and credible.

The Country’s “Most Polluted Air Basin” Braces for a Trump Plan That Will Make Things Worse

This story was originally published by City Lab and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Kieshaun White says that he doesn’t like to talk politics when it comes to the environment. He prefers to stick to the data.

A year ago, as a high school senior, he launched a network of air-pollution sensors and real-time app to monitor breathability around his native Fresno. White founded Healthy Fresno Air, using grant funds from the city’s Boys and Men of Color group, which was recently awarded $50,000 by former President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative.

Kieshaun White’s air quality app shows pollution levels around the city in real time.

Healthy Fresno Air

At first, he deployed a handful of monitors at high schools on Fresno’s heavily polluted southwest side; since then, he has expanded the network to other quadrants of the city. This spring, he launched a public-facing app that shows real-time information gathered by the sensors about levels of PM 2.5 and PM 10—the fine particulate matter (PM) that blow off freeways and smokestacks and into mouths and noses.

Kieshaun White displays an air monitor from his Healthy Fresno Air project.

Laura Bliss/CityLab The aim is to provide students and school staff with accurate and up-to-date information about how safe it is for young people to be active outdoors. One in six children in the San Joaquin Valley suffer from asthma. So does White. “I’ve always felt it was on myself to do something,” says the 19-year-old. But California’s air quality standards have become a major political football. Last month, the Trump administration moved to revoke the state’s ability to set its own, stricter vehicle emissions standards, which have been in place since the early days of the Clean Air Act. Days later, in a letter to the California Air Resources Board (CARB), which is the regulatory agency that sets and enforces the state’s high standards for tailpipe emissions, the Environmental Protection Agency threatened to hold back billions in federal highway aid to the state. California, the EPA declared, has “the worst air quality in the United States.”  Now California, 22 other states, and several cities in favor of the tighter emissions standards are suing the administration. “This is not about clean air,” Nathan Click, a spokesman for Governor Gavin Newsom, told the Washington Post. “This is political retribution against California, plain and simple.” To White, the back-and-forth underscores the reason why he started studying Fresno’s air pollution in the first place. “Politicians aren’t seeing the problem,” he said. “In their eyes, they live in a perfect world with no problems or stress. But for lower- or middle-class people that stay in polluted, poverty-stricken neighborhoods, this is our lives. Every day.”

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District headquarters in Fresno, seen on a September day that was rated unhealthy for sensitive groups.

Laura Bliss/CityLab

Apart from rampant respiratory disease, Valley residents also suffer from elevated rates of heart disease and stroke. Many health factors contribute to the high health risk, including widespread poverty and an economy that relies on low-paid hard labor. But air quality plays a large role. Fresno lies in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley air basin, a 250-mile-long bowl classified by the EPA as an “extreme non-attainment area.” For 30 years, the region has fallen far short of federal air quality standards, both in terms of ozone (commonly known as smog) and fine particulate matter.Especially lethal is PM 2.5., a tiny particulate that can move from the lungs into blood stream, constricting blood flows to the heart and brain. On days of elevated 2.5, hospitals see more heart attacks and strokes, said Genevieve Gale, the director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, a nonprofit advocating for cleaner air. (Between 2015 and 2017, Fresno had nearly 250 days that were rated “unhealthy” by the American Lung Association.)

“This is arguably the most polluted air basin in the US. And with a combination of vulnerable people and bad reactions, it’s a public health crisis.”

“This is arguably the most polluted air basin in the US,” said Gale. “And with a combination of vulnerable people and bad reactions, it’s a public health crisis.”

Further motivating White to take action on air quality issues—what got him “inflamed,” to use his word—was the huge disparity in health outcomes. Average life expectancy in his largely black and Latino community in southwest Fresno is about two decades less than in whiter, wealthier enclaves to the north. And his data has shown that the air is four times worse where he grew up, thanks to clusters of industry and highway interchanges. “I don’t want to die 25 years too soon,” White said.

The region’s pollution problems emerge from a toxic mix of human activity and natural topography. Heavy truck traffic going up and down the state’s inland freeways and agricultural machinery contribute a share of smog and particulates; so do wood-burning stoves, crop fires, and oil and gas extraction by the likes of Chevron, which drills across the land. Pollution from the Bay Area and Sacramento Valley can also waft its way south, sometimes joined by wildfire smoke from the nearby Sierras. Ringed by mountain ranges, the San Joaquin Valley is prone to temperature inversions that trap these pollutants, especially through hot summers and foggy winters.

The failure to comply with federal air quality standards isn’t for lack of trying, said Samir Shiekh, executive director and air pollution control officer at the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, the agency charged with regulating stationary sources of pollution for the region. “There are a lot of factors that have always made it more difficult than nearly any other area to bring ourselves into attainment of federal and state standards,” he said. “But there’s a positive story here.”

By issuing permits to businesses, requiring special vehicle registration fees, and investing billions of dollars in clean energy, waste processing, and vehicle fleet, the agency has measurably improved air quality since it began gathering data in 1980. Industry and agriculture used to be the primary sources of emissions in the Valley; today, both of those sectors now represent a fraction of the overall pollution. Now, the biggest source is from transportation.

There is much more to be done in order to come into compliance, said Sheikh. Recent strides include tighter rules on wood-burning fires and the release of two enormous community-led plans to reduce pollution in south Fresno and Shafter, a heavily polluted city in neighboring Kern County.

On the other hand, there’s also only so much that Shiekh’s agency has control over. Regulating tailpipe emissions and other “mobile” sources of pollution is the jurisdiction of CARB, which was formed in 1967 to help the state rein in its notorious vehicle smog. Now the Trump administration is in the process of undoing the strict fuel economy rules set by that agency. This puts the Valley in peril of getting hit with serious sanctions from the EPA, said Shiekh, since the region would still be held to the same high federal air quality standards without the state’s help in reducing smog and gas that doesn’t come from local emitters.

“The vast majority of our remaining air pollution challenge comes from those mobile sources,” he said. “Even if we were to shut down all of the stationary sources under our jurisdiction, that wouldn’t be enough to bring the Valley into compliance with the federal standards.”

Gale put it more bluntly. “Taking away tools from California to attain those standards is really dangerous,” she said. “We’ve been so far behind for so long that any additional time you add to the clock takes years off of people’s lives.”

In that sense, the federal government’s assault on California air quality rules appear to be the latest example of how White House policy directly harms some of the same people who voted for the president. (See also: the ongoing tariff war that is hurting some farmer livelihoods.) California may be a dependably progressive state, but much of the San Joaquin Valley votes Republican, and some of Trump’s closest allies in Congress represent the region. Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority Leader, hails from a district in neighboring Kern County; Devin Nunes’s district encompasses the Fresno suburb of Clovis.

The San Joaquin Valley Air Basin may not be in federal attainment, but it has made major progress in reducing emissions since 1980.

San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District

Aides for McCarthy did not respond to CityLab’s requests for comment; nor did those of Nunes. Jim Costa, the Democratic congressman who represents most of the city of Fresno, has condemned the Trump administration’s move. McCarthy has stated that he believes that a single emissions standard would be better for the state. “When you set emissions numbers that people can’t reach, and you aren’t taking economics into play… we could have one emission for everyone, and everybody would be happy,” he said in a 2018 interview with the Public Policy Institute of California.

For White, the political volleying feels like a dismaying waste of time. To him, the stakes are higher than Fresno’s bad air: White also organized Fresno’s local climate strike, leading youth marchers through downtown streets to call on leaders to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet. They chanted lines that he came up with: We walk as one, we breathe as one, we’re not going to stop ‘til the work is done. In an upcoming march, White plans to brandish signs asking Costa to pledge support for the Green New Deal.

After all, election results don’t always fully represent what people need or want. The San Joaquin Valley has some of the lowest voter turnout in the state. In White’s neighborhood, people feel disempowered, he said. He hopes his work will change that. Right now, he’s working with city officials to install an air quality monitor in each of the 115 square miles that make up Fresno, which will make his platform more accurate and useful. And he’s building a database that anyone can use to find air quality information. “We want to give this data to the community and let them press it to decision-makers,” White said.

And now that he’s 19, White intends to vote for leaders who care about the planet—and encourage his neighbors to do the same. “People in the southwest area of Fresno think their voices don’t matter,” he said. “But if we vote en masse, it’ll show a difference.”

Trump Wants to Shrink the National Security Council

In the wake of the whistleblower complaint at the heart of the biggest threat to his presidency to date, President Donald Trump has “ordered a substantial reduction in the staff” at the National Security Council, Bloomberg reported late Friday night. Some officials told Bloomberg that the reductions were part of an effort to increase efficiency following the departure of former National Security Adviser John Bolton. This point was underscored in late September, days after Trump named Robert O’Brien—a lawyer, United Nations delegate under George W. Bush, and, most recently, a State Department hostage negotiator—to be his new national security adviser. But the scandal underlying the whistleblower complaint certainly isn’t bolstering attempts to protect the job security of those working there.

The NSC is a national security planing and coordinating group within the White House that has been staffed, in part, by officials detailed from other agencies such as the FBI or CIA. Once a prestigious career booster, under Trump “some of the brightest minds are turning down” NSC assignments, while “others are avoiding the place altogether,” according to NPR, which detailed some of the morale issues in mid-September in the wake of Trump’s ousting of Bolton after disagreements over how to handle North Korea and Iran.

Under Trump “some of the brightest minds are turning down” NSC assignments, while “others are avoiding the place altogether.”

Since then, the worsening situation has been further exacerbated by the fact that one of the main allegations lodged in the whistleblower complaint is that the White House has been using a classified computer system designed for the most sensitive NSC information to stash politically-embarrassing or sensitive material the Trump administration doesn’t want others to see. Add to this, the speculation that the whistleblower, identified by the New York Times as a CIA analyst, may have been detailed to the White House as part of an NSC assignment.

Trump has attacked the whistleblower and has said the White House is working to “find out about” them. On Friday, he retweeted an unsubstantiated allegation that the whistleblower was “a registered Democrat & CIA analyst” detailed to NSC before the 2016 election “where he worked on the NSC’s Ukraine desk & met [with] anti-Trump Ukrainian officials before being sent packing by the Trump NSC & becoming disgruntled.” 

Saturday morning, Politico reported that the episode has “injected new tension and uncertainty into the grueling day-to-day routine” at the NSC. According to the report, those who are most worried are the experts on the Ukraine and Europe. “One question people are asking is, ‘Are the implicated NSC people going to stay or kicked out?'” one NSC official told Politico. “I’m surprised these people are still here.” 

The NSC has long been known as a tough place to work due to the intense pressure at any given time, but some have said things seem worse under Trump. Dan Shapiro, a former NSC official under President Obama, touched on the point Saturday:

The NSC is a tough place to work under the best of curcumstances, when there is ethical leadership and a transparent policy process. It must be impossible in the current morass of corruption, opacity, and mistrust. Its dysfunction harms US interests across the board. https://t.co/eU0XDTufqh

— Dan Shapiro (@DanielBShapiro) October 5, 2019

It remains unclear how deeply the NSC will be dragged into the impeachment battles on Capitol Hill, as one of the texts released by House Democrats this week refers to at least one NSC official who may have been involved in trying to coordinate a call between Trump and the Ukrainian president as part of normal duties.

Javed Ali, the Towsley Policymaker in Residence and a visiting professor at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy, and the former senior director for counter-terrorism at the National Security Council under the Trump administration, told Mother Jones that many of the issues now being raised have been concerns in the past. For example, there’s been a debate about the size of the NSC for many years under several administrations, as the office has grown far larger than originally conceived. Bloomberg pegged the NSC staff size at about 310, but in previous years it has been as high as 400, prompting concern from some that it had become more of an operational office than an organizational one.

Staffing and morale issues reported over recent weeks are also nothing new, as it has always been difficult to attract interest in these positions nearer the end of any administration’s term in office, or as a reelection campaign looms. Some people who had worked in Trump’s NSC and left, have returned, Ali says, suggesting that morale “can’t be that bad.” 

However, the main role of NSC staff is to offer policy makers the best analysis and advice and not get involved in political matters. “The more the NSC gets dragged into these political, partisan debates,” he says, “the worse it is overall.” The ongoing issues with Ukraine and the whistleblower could be having some effect on those who work there. Trump has also been accused of overtly politicizing the NSC in unprecedented ways, such as when he elevated former chief political strategist Steve Bannon to the Principals Committee, or when the White House and a former NSC staffer teamed up with Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) to bolster Trump’s claims that the Obama administration had spied on him. Trump is on his fourth national security adviser in less than three years, so time will tell how O’Brien manages the situation.

“The more you’re out of the limelight, the better things go organizationally,”Ali says, referring to the role of the National Security Adviser. “We’ll see how he does now that the NSC is dragged into this thing.”

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