Mother Jones Magazine

Rudy Giuliani Has a Record of Being Very Opposed to Anti-Corruption Efforts

President Donald Trump and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, insist that their bid to pressure Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden reflected their broader concern about rampant corruption in the former Soviet republic. That is, of course, ridiculous.

Trump’s request to Ukranian president Volodymyr Zelensky for a “favor” that would help him politically smacks of corruption. As Sen Mitt Romney (R-Utah) noted Friday, asking for an investigation of an electoral rival is pretty clearly aimed at political gain, not stamping out graft. And as Trump has continued to profit as president from US government and foreign spending at his properties, his critiques of corruption in other countries ring hollow.

Then there is Giuliani, whose recent record also makes him a poor champion for rooting out corruption in other countries. As Trump’s lawyer, Giuliani has helped Trump to engage in behavior that triggered the whistleblower complaint at the center of the impeachment inquiry by the House. And while working for Trump, Giuliani has also engaged in what might be described as anti-anticorruption efforts in several countries.

In Ukraine Giuliani sided with officials and businessman accused of corruption in a bid to smear former 2020 presidential hopeful Joe Biden. As Vice President, Biden joined an international chorus of critics who advocated firing Viktor Shokin, a state prosecutor, whose failure to pursue corruption cases was considered to be, in itself, deeply corrupt. Giuliani argued, without evidence, that Biden wanted to protect his son Hunter Biden, who sat on the board of Ukrainian gas company.

Giuliani has also disparaged anti-corruption activists there since last year, arguing Ukrainians who helped to expose secret cash payments by Ukrainian politicians to Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort improperly interfered in US politics. His reasoning is that they interfered in US elections because Manafort’s exposure in August 2016 harmed Trump’s campaign. 

His anti-anti-corruption portfolio extends to Romania. In August 2018, while working as Trump’s lawyer, Giuliani, seemingly out of the blue, wrote a letter to Romania’s president, Klaus Iohannis faulting the country’s National Anticorruption Directorate for alleged excesses in its prosecution. Giuliani said the anti-corruption effort had included “intimidation of judges; defense lawyers and witnesses; unconstitutional phone tapping; forced confessions; and unfair judicial processes.” Romania should give amnesty to officials convicted “through the excesses” of Romanian prosecutors, he wrote.

This missive contradicted official US policy. The State Department had encouraged the crackdown on corruption and reacted to the letter by declaring: “Rudy Giuliani does not speak for the US government on foreign policy.” 

“Rudy Giuliani does not speak for the US government on foreign policy.” 

What led to Giuliani”s concern about Romanian prosecutors’ alleged excesses? Giuliani says he acted at the behest of Freeh Group International Solutions. This company run by President Bill Clinton’s FBI director Louis Freeh represented at least one Romanian facing the prosecutors Giuliani attacked. Giuliani told Politico that Freeh paid him for the letter, but he refuses to  disclose the amount. 

The letter was also useful to Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania’s ruling Social Democrats, at the time Romania’s most powerful politician who was then also fighting a June 2018 conviction abusing his office, one of an array of allegations of corruption or official misconduct against him. Dragnea capitalized on Giuliani’s proximity to Trump and pointed to letter as an expression of official American policy, declaring that it demonstrated that “trust in the Romanian justice system is seriously shaken when it comes to foreign partners.” This statement was part of an effort by Dragnea to discredit Romanian prosecutors, a campaign with notable similarities to attacks made by Trump and his allies those who attempted to investigate the president’s alleged wrongdoings. Dragnea was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison earlier this year.

Giuliani declined to say how much Freeh’s firm paid him for the letter or to comment substantively on it. “I’d bet on Louis Freeh anytime and he was right on this,” he wrote. Asked if he knew who Freeh’s clients in Romania were, he did not respond.

Meet the GOP Megadonor at the Center of the Ukraine Scandal

As the extent of President Donald Trump’s campaign to pressure Ukraine into helping him undermine a political opponent becomes clear, the role played by Gordon Sondland, America’s ambassador to the European Union, is coming into focus. Included in text messages turned over to House investigators on Thursday are exchanges between Sondland and fellow American diplomats suggesting Sondland knew there was a quid pro quo being proposed—and that he wasn’t comfortable with it. The Washington Post reported Saturday that Sondland will be testifying on Tuesday as part of the impeachment inquiry in the House. 

Initially, when another diplomat said to him over text that “it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Sondland responded by denying a quid pro quo, but then added that the conversation should not continue over text. On Friday, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson (Wisc.) told the Wall Street Journal that Sondland had told him in late August that the Trump administration’s offer of aid to Ukraine was tied to the country’s willingness to try and dig up dirt on Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, who had previously worked for a Ukrainian company. Johnson told the Journal that he brought the issue up with Trump, who denied a quid pro quo. Sondland also travelled to Ukraine and met with the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25, the same day Trump had his now infamous call with the Ukrainian leader. 

How did Sondland, who is not a career diplomat but was appointed to his post in 2018 by President Trump, wind up in the middle of this delicate situation? Not by spending years developing expertise in the region. Instead, Sondland’s experience is something much closer to Trump’s—developing hotels.

Prior to his appointment as a top Trump ambassador, Sondland, a 62-year-old native of Seattle, spent decades operating, and then owning and building high-end luxury hotels in the Pacific Northwest, mostly around Portland, Oregon, but as far as New Orleans. Unlike the president gold-plated excess, Sondland’s hotels are not branded with his name, but instead with a particularly cosmopolitan, quiet, and trendy style. Sondland appeared in industry publications as a hospitality industry executive in the early 1980s, but his big break was in 1998, when he and a partner purchased four older hotels in Seattle, Portland and Denver, and redeveloped them. Where Trump likes to slap his name on flashy new towers in exotic locations around the globe, Sondland has specialized in rebuilding classic American hotels.

Along the way, he developed a reputation as a prominent local businessman who dabbled in moderate Republican politics, occasionally partnering with Democrats and attempting to convince Hollywood producers to film in Oregon. According to his personal financial disclosure filed when he was nominated for his ambassadorial position, he served on the boards of several charitable organizations and Duke University’s business school advisory board. His net worth is listed as well north of $60 million, and he disclosed owning a Lear jet. In a video introducing himself to his new co-workers at the State Department, Sondland explained that he flies planes as a hobby, as he is shown climbing into the cockpit of a jet.

Real estate, luxury hotels, and planes would seem to make him a perfect match for the president, but he also was known for more refined taste—he has a large art collection, for instance, which he values as being worth as much as $25 million. 

His role now is as the ambassador to the European Union, based in Brussels and tasked with representing America when it comes to Europe’s broader issues. His predecessor, Obama-appointee Anthony Gardner, came to the job from the world of private equity, but he had a degree in international relations from Harvard, speaks French, Spanish and Italian and had previously served in diplomatic roles. Sondland, however, got his diplomatic job the old fashioned way—by making large political donations. According to OpenSecrets.org,  Sondland has given at least $446,000 to federal candidates in the last few decades. Almost all the recipients were Republicans, but of the more moderate type—Jeb Bush’s Right to Rise PAC, for instance.

As the 2016 election ramped up and Jeb Bush was eclipsed by Trump, Sondland quickly aligned himself with nominee. The relationship hit a hiccup, however, when Trump denigrated Gold Star mothers at the Republican convention in 2016, Sondland and his business partner very publicly insisted that their names be taken off the invitations as hosts of a Trump fundraiser. 

Sondland is not listed as a donor to Trump’s campaign—though he did donate the maximum amount to the Republican National Committee before Trump was nominated. Nonetheless, the hotelier and Trump must have patched things up, because Sondland appears on a list of the 2016 Trump campaign’s bundlers—a fundraiser who taps a network of other deep-pocketed donors to support a candidate. And, perhaps most importantly, OpenSecrets reported, Sondland wound up donating $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee. 

More details of how much Sondland knew, and perhaps why he was so concerned about there being a text record of the conversation, may emerge next week, during his deposition before the House impeachment inquiry. 

Donald Trump Got Really, Really Mad at Mitt Romney This Morning

President Donald Trump lashed out at Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) Saturday morning, calling him a “pompous ‘ass’,” and saying that the senator is bad for Republicans.

After tweeting that “the so-called Whistleblower’s account of my perfect phone call is ‘way off’,” Trump aimed his twitter fusillade at Romney, a frequent critic of the president.

Somebody please wake up Mitt Romney and tell him that my conversation with the Ukrainian President was a congenial and very appropriate one, and my statement on China pertained to corruption, not politics. If Mitt worked this hard on Obama, he could have won. Sadly, he choked!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 5, 2019

Mitt Romney never knew how to win. He is a pompous “ass” who has been fighting me from the beginning, except when he begged me for my endorsement for his Senate run (I gave it to him), and when he begged me to be Secretary of State (I didn’t give it to him). He is so bad for R’s!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 5, 2019

 

One reason for the president’s recent assault on a man he once interviewed to be his Secretary of State is likely Romney’s tweet on Friday that described Trump’s “brazen and unprecedented appeal to China and to Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden” as being “wrong and appalling.”

By all appearances, the President’s brazen and unprecedented appeal to China and to Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden is wrong and appalling.

— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) October 4, 2019

The former GOP presidential nominee is among the very few Republicans to go after Trump on his use of American foreign policy to target a domestic political rival. He is joined by Sen. Ben Sasse, (R-Neb.) who on Thursday slammed the president for asking China to investigate the Biden family.

“Hold up: Americans don’t look to Chinese commies for the truth,” Sasse, who is not running for reelection, told the Omaha World-Herald on Thursday. “If the Biden kid broke laws by selling his name to Beijing, that’s a matter for American courts, not communist tyrants running torture camps.”

Trump fired off the tweets en route to the Trump National golf course in Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC. They came after Trump spent Friday night into early Saturday morning tweeting attacks on Biden and clips from Fox News.

Mike Pompeo Just Accused House Democrats of Harassing State Department Employees

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday accused House Democrats of harassing State Department employees as they undertake formal impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. The inquiry has focused on Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukranian leaders to launch an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter for his business dealings in Ukraine.

“There’s been a congressional increase that harassed and abused State Department employees by contacting them directly and seeking to have them provide documents…that belong to the State Department,” Pompeo said in response to a question at a press conference during his visit to Greece as part of NATO meetings, according to AFP. “That’s harassment. And I’m never going to let that happen to my team.”

The comments come a day after Pompeo and the State Department missed a deadline to turn over Ukraine-related documents to several House committees, according to USA Today. An anonymous House committee official told the paper that even as Pompeo missed the deadline, “The State Department has contacted the Committees on this matter and we hope the Department will cooperate in full promptly.”

The State Department did not respond Saturday morning to questions about the failure to turn over documents related to a whistleblower complaint that triggered the impeachment proceedings. USA Today notes that the White House has signaled that it will not release any documents until the full House authorizes an impeachment inquiry by vote; it’s not clear if Pompeo’s approach is part of the White House’s strategy.

Earlier this week Pompeo tweeted a letter he’d sent to Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, in which he said he was “concerned” that the committee’s request “can be understood only as an attempt to intimidate, bully, and treat improperly the distinguished professionals of the Department of State, including several career Foreign Service Officers, whom the Committee is now targeting.” The letter said that State Department officials would not appear before any House committee without executive branch lawyers, and that the timelines set by House Democrats, both for documents and interviews, was too compressed. “Let me be clear,” Pompeo wrote in a subsequent tweet. “I will not tolerate such tactics, and I will use all means at my disposal to prevent and expose any attempts to intimidate the dedicated professionals” of the State Department.

A few days after he sent that letter, former US envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker testified behind closed doors for more than eight hours, providing the committee with what Democrats say is evidence of a “shadow shakedown” by Trump and his private lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, according to Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee. House Democrats subsequently released text messages that they say show State Department officials working to pressure the Ukrainian government into announcing an investigation into Biden in exchange for a meeting with Trump. House Republicans have alleged that the texts released by the Democrats are incomplete and “cherry picked” in order to bolster a partisan agenda.

Meanwhile, Pompeo’s department is in the midst of investigating the email practices of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and as many as 130 current and former State Department officials, according to the Washington Post. The officials under review—which range from low-level to senior officials who had reported directly to Clinton—have been told that their emails have been re-categorized as “classified” years after they were originally sent. State Department officials told the Post that the investigation has been ongoing since the end of the Obama administration, but the paper noted indications that the review is politically motivated and that some State Department investigators “made it clear that they were pursuing the matter reluctantly, and under external pressure.”

Airbnb Goes to Antarctica

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

Travel is terrible for the environment, particularly if it is by plane. It’s such “a major contributor to ecocide,” that it had one travel writer vowing in The Atlantic to “cherish my own home turf more.” As concern about climate change reaches a fever pitch (finally), we’re finally realizing we might need to balance seeing the world with preserving it. What does this mean if you are a company whose very existence depends on users being tempted around the globe by … a lakeside one-bedroom in Italy, a cabana in Colombia, a yurt in France? All are vacation rentals that Airbnb served up to me when I recently browsed the home page—which also included a large banner advertising “the Antarctic Sabbatical.”

Welcome to Airbnb’s glitzy, greenwashing PR stunt: In December, the vacation rental platform will send five lucky volunteer “citizen scientists” to the desolate continent for 10 days. There, according to an online brochure featuring animations of chilly remote landscapes, they’ll explore an icefall, ride fat bikes with wide tires to grip the frozen terrain, and collect samples of snow. It’s these snow samples that are ostensibly the point of this scientific journey: They will be later analyzed, with help from real scientists, for signs of microplastics. Airbnb doesn’t list the price tag of the trip, which it is footing, but for reference a seven-day trip organized by Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions, the tour company Airbnb is working with costs $26,000 a person. After the trip, the volunteers will “work with Ocean Conservancy to become ambassadors for protecting the oceans, sharing with the world how others can help minimize their collective plastic footprint and act as stewards to our planet.” Conveniently, the volunteers will also be de facto ambassadors for Airbnb, as Caroline Haskins pointed out in Vice, as well as ALE (which advertises the trip on their site), and the entire concept of trekking to far-flung locales.

The Antarctic trip is the second trip in Airbnb’s “sabbatical” program; over the summer, the company sent five volunteers to “save the Italian village of Grottole” (i.e., drum up tourism interest and therefore economic growth). The line that Airbnb is telling reporters (Haskins, me) is that it hopes to show how travel can be a “positive catalyst for change.” Airbnb is not, as a spokeswoman emphasized to me, trying to expand its services into Antarctica, nor is it intending to encourage people to travel there, as was the case with the Grottole trip. The goal here, ostensibly, is science.

So, can this trip produce good science? Melanie Bergmann, a marine ecologist whose work charts how microscopic bits of plastic make their way through the atmosphere to faraway locations, wrote to me in an email that it’s difficult to say without knowing more about the particulars. It’s certainly possible for ordinary folk to help with collecting microplastic samples, as Airbnb intends participants to: Bergmann and her team had regular people living on a Norwegian archipelago pack up snow samples for a study themselves. The main challenge there was ensuring they did so in a way that wouldn’t further contaminate the snow; the lab provided pre-rinsed plastic containers.

“The last thing that Antarctica needs right now is more people going down there.”

Airbnb is partnering with a scientist for the trip: Kirstie Jones-Williams, a graduate student at the University of Exeter, is taking time off from her Ph.D. program to lead the trip along with Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions. They’ll be staying at Union Glacier Camp, ALE’s main hub for tourist trips. There will be two opportunities for data collection, Jones-Williams explained via email: one at the camp to understand its footprint, and again at various locations on the glacier, “places where we would not expect to find microplastics.” Though the trip includes several excursions to common tourist destinations like the Elephant’s Head and Charles Peak Windscoop, “This trip couldn’t be further from a tourist trip!” Jones-Williams wrote, noting that “the more our volunteers learn about this unique environment,” the more they will be motivated to tell people about what they learned on the trip.

It’s the same talking point of travel: “a positive catalyst for change”! I should point out that I was not allowed to email Jones-Williams directly. When I reached out to her, a PR person responded on her behalf. I sent her questions to send to Jones-Williams, and in turn, I received replies from Jones-Williams via the spokesperson. Jones-Williams plans to submit the results in a peer-reviewed paper—presumably with additional review by Airbnb and ALE—emphasizing that this is all typical of citizen science projects.

It’s not a typical citizen science project, which is often designed to widen the number of people (and their computers, binoculars, and other common tools) that can contribute to data collection and processing. They center around seeking out people who are already advantageously placed, as Bergmann did in asking folks who lived in Norway for snow samples, rather than hauling them across the ocean to put yet more footprints in a fragile ecosystem. Airbnb’s efforts are, instead, a company co-opting and twisting the notion of citizen science in order to use science (even perhaps a little real science!) to sell its mission and product. “The last thing that Antarctica needs right now is more people going down there,” says Jessica Green, who studies the politics of climate change at the University of Toronto. She sees tourism as one of the biggest threats to the continent. “Putting forth the idea that just anyone can go is not very helpful.”

Here are some alternate ideas of how Airbnb could straightforwardly support science: providing a research grant, sponsoring a scientist’s fare, even partnering with ALE to have folks already on tour in Antarctica do data collection. Or just asking scientists what they need and supplying that. “You need quite fancy technology to actually find the microplastics,” Bergmann explains. The hard work of analysis once you return to the lab “is the bottleneck, not getting the samples.”

Death or the End of a Relationship? To Nakaya They’re One and the Same

Nakaya insists she isn’t a sad person. “I have my dark days,” says the LA-born and Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter, “but I’m a very social, outgoing person.” 

Her music is another matter. Sadness suffuses her songs. Like anything from Sufjan Stevens, Mitski, or Phoebe Bridgers (to name a few), Nakaya’s songs engulf you in a moment of anguish, refusing to let you go until the track meets its end. In tracks like “Something More” and her latest, “Wither,” she treats the loss and loneliness that come in the aftermath of a relationship as a sort of death, rather than as passing mood.

“I write a lot of songs about loss, because it feels really distinct,” she says with a smile on her face. “It’s very visceral, and to take that physical experience and turn it into something that’s auditory is what makes music so special.” Music, she says, is “a beautiful way to explain an experience.”

I first heard Nakaya by chance, as a featured singer on Glassio’s “Daydream.” There was an eeriness to her voice that diverged from the usual electro-pop femme vocal feature. (You know the kind—anything Chainsmokers.) Nakaya’s voice stood out from the background without overwhelming it. In 2017, Nakaya had only a few tracks out, but in each she sounded like an artist who’d been around for years. Without the upbeat production of Glassio’s synth pop, Nakaya’s voice was left to its own splendid devices, delivering lyrics with a creepy accuracy of emotion.

 

Nakaya relies on a multitude of musical influences, which she traces back to her time growing up in LA with her Panamanian hip-hop–producer father. “He was a sample-based producer. Not only was he listening to other hip-hop music, but, like, random shit. Sometimes we would listen to Bulgarian women’s choir or Icelandic folk music, or just really oddball things,” she says. “I really do think because of my upbringing, my work is a very clear amalgamation of, like, a whole mess of things that in the end very much feel like me, but are a little less easy to define.”

Nakaya left LA for school in NYC, where she studied how to turn her experiences into an auditory experience. “I’m just a really emotional person who has all of these feelings all the time, and music is just an amazing way for me to get it out,” she says, voice rising. She recalls writing a song called “Dear Skin” when she was 18. “It was really personal,” she says. “I cried in class when they forced me to play it for critique. It was way too personal for me. I just felt like I was seen in this uncomfortable way. But being seen in that way now makes me feel very powerful. It takes away the shame of the things that I feel sometimes.”

Her latest, “Wither,” is likewise a work of personal reckoning. “I went through a really nasty breakup last year that wrecked me for a long time, and I didn’t think that I was going to be able to come back from that,” she explains. “I wrote ‘Wither’ about my ex and that literal feeling of knowing you just have to let it go. I have acceptance that this is not a thing in my life that serves me anymore.

“I am just so close to the people in my life. The loss of a relationship really feels like the end of a track, in a certain regard, in my life. Everyone has fucked something up and lost someone important in their lives. And that is a theme that feels very potent in stages of my life.”

Throughout our conversation Nakaya’s eyes never break from mine. She is serious about sadness, about the strength that can come from submitting to your emotions.

“There is something so freeing about being able to sit with the thoughts that feel really scary and let them happen and understand that they’re going to move and that they’re not always going to be there,” she says. “You can relinquish some of the power that it has over you.”

Friday Cat Blogging – 4 October 2019

When we bought our house, the side yard was set up as a dog run. We haven’t changed much, but it’s now a cat rolling area. Both Hopper and Hilbert love to trot over here in the noonday sun and then plonk down and beg for a tummy rub. I’m not really sure why this particular patch of concrete is so popular, since we have plenty of other sunny spots too. But along with the sidewalk in front of the house, this is one of their two favorite rolling places.

Microsoft Says Iranian Hackers Are Targeting a 2020 Presidential Campaign

Microsoft announced Friday that it had uncovered a hacking group associated with the Iranian government that had targeted journalists, current and former government officials, and at least one US presidential campaign.

The company released a statement saying that four consumer Microsoft email accounts had been compromised by a group its calling “Phosphorous,” but that those accounts did not belong to anyone associated with a presidential campaign or the government. The attackers were first observed making more than 2,700 attempts to identify specific Microsoft accounts over a 30-day period beginning in August, Microsoft said, and then targeted 241 specific accounts with phishing emails, fake LinkedIn accounts, and password-reset requests.

“Phosphorous is highly motivated and willing to invest significant time and resources.”

“While the attacks we’re disclosing today were not technically sophisticated, they attempted to use a significant amount of personal information both to identify the accounts belonging to their intended targets and in a few cases to attempt attacks,” wrote Tom Burt, a Microsoft vice president overseeing customer security. “This effort suggests Phosphorous is highly motivated and willing to invest significant time and resources.”

The Democratic National Committee also issued a warning to campaigns on Friday revealing that the committee had been contacted by Microsoft, suggesting they check system logs for a related IP address, and offering advice as to how to defend against such attacks.

The announcement comes amidst President Donald Trump’s urging the governments of Ukraine and China to get involved in the 2020 election by investigating former Vice President Joe Biden, one of his chief political rivals and among the most prominent Democratic candidates to replace him.

Dem Focus Should Be on Military Aid, Quid Pro Quo

Regular reader AM writes today about something I’ve been meaning to mention for a while. I’ll let him go first since he has family and friends in middle America:

My concern is that Dem messengers of all stripes; chyrons on MSNBC and CNN; and print media sources are now all but uniformally stating things like “No White House dinner for Ukraine until investigation into Bidens.” But the screaming horror of it all was extortion (i.e. no military aid/Javelins for you till you do us a “favor”).

Now my own anecdotal research with my veteran, right-leaning friends back in real America is that if you don’t prove and emphasize the denial of lethal aid it sounds like something for Emily Post to suss out. I can’t tell you how CRITICAL this component is and I think it applies to a lot more than my Marine, combat vet friends.

I have a related but similar complaint about the widespread belief on the left that the quid pro quo doesn’t matter. All that matters is that Trump asked Ukraine for help investigating a political opponent. The fact that he offered something in return is neither here nor there.

Legally, that might be right. Politically, it’s dead wrong, and impeachment is a political process. It’s absolutely critical that Trump is shown to have withheld vital military aid to an ally unless they agreed to help Trump in his reelection campaign. And like AM, I agree it’s the military assistance that’s key. No one really cares about visits to the White House, which are widely viewed as political favors in the first place.

Obviously the news is coming down on us like a firehose these days, and there are lots of things to report. That’s fine. All of them are worth following up. But underneath it all, we should all be focused 24/7 on one key issue: Donald Trump withheld military aid from an ally unless they would help him smear a political opponent in order to gain a leg up in his reelection campaign.

We Had the Quid, Now We Have the Quo

Ukraine has gotten its $400 million in military assistance and its visit to the White House, where President Zelensky dutifully reported that he had felt no pressure from the Trump administration to open an investigation into the Biden family. So this, I suppose, is just an amazing coincidence:

Ukraine’s new chief prosecutor said Friday his office will conduct an “audit” of an investigation into Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company that had recruited Hunter Biden for its board.

Prosecutor General Ruslan Ryaboshapka reiterated at a news conference Friday that he knows of no evidence of criminal activity by Biden. He said that he is aware of at least 15 investigations that may have touched on Burisma, its owner Nikolai Zlochevsky, an associate named Serhiy Zerchenko, and Biden, and that all will be reviewed. He said no foreign or Ukrainian official has been in touch with him to request this audit.

See? Ryaboshapka has been on vacation on Mars for the past few months and just got back. And when he did, he immediately turned around to his deputy and said, “Hey, we really need to audit the investigations of Burisma. It just seems like the right thing to do.”

Then he picked up a paper and saw what had been going on. But, honest man that he is, he’s going ahead anyway. After all, his decision had absolutely nothing to do with anyone asking about this.

Snark aside, I suppose this is a good thing. Ryaboshapka will probably find nothing especially wrong with Burisma that isn’t known already, and he’s sure to give both Joe and Hunter Biden a clean bill of health. I doubt that will assuage the fever swamp, but it will help everyone else.

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in September

The American economy gained 136,000 jobs last month. We need 90,000 new jobs just to keep up with population growth, which means that net job growth clocked in at a sluggish but decent 46,000 jobs. The headline unemployment rate dropped to 3.5 percent, the lowest rate in half a century.

The numbers below the surface were decent too. Employment was up, unemployment was down, and only a small number of people dropped out of the labor force—probably accounted for by older folks retiring. The labor participation rate stayed steady.

At the same time, as you can see, the trend line recently has been steadily downward for the past year or so. If this continues at its current rate, we’ll hit zero net job growth in the first quarter of 2020.

Blue-collar wages grew just slightly faster than inflation. There’s still a little bit of wage pressure in the economy, but it’s fading away.

SCOTUS Just took a Case that Could Challenge Abortion Rights—in the Midst of the 2020 Election

The Supreme Court decided Friday to hear June Medical Services v. Gee, a Louisiana case that could greatly restrict abortion access across the country and overturn a previous ruling on the issue. 

The case concerns a 2014 Louisiana law requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their facility. If this sounds familiar, it’s because the law is nearly identical to a Texas statute that also required abortion providers to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. The Texas law was ultimately deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2016. Despite that precedent, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decided to uphold the Louisiana law in the face of a challenge by abortion providers, and in February, the Supreme Court agreed to temporarily block Louisiana’s law pending a final decision.

As Mother Jones reported in March after the Supreme Court first made temporarily halted the Louisiana law:

The…law will shutter three of the four clinics left in Louisiana. This means that for many women, the closest option will be the clinic in Jackson, Mississippi, which is the only clinic remaining in Mississippi, where strict abortion regulations took the number of clinics from 14 in 1981 to just 1 in 2012.

The Louisiana law, which was signed by Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2014, requires physicians who perform abortions to have “active admitting privileges at a hospital that is located not further than thirty miles from the location at which the abortion in performed.”

Attorneys for the abortion providers who would be affected argue that the precedent established by the earlier Texas case is clear and that the Louisiana law is therefore obviously unconstitutional. But one major difference between the 2016 decision and the current case is the composition of the court. Since 2016, President Donald Trump has appointed two conservative Justices—Brett Kavanaugh, and Justice Neil Gorsuch—who are both believed to be hostile to abortion rights. In February, Kavanaugh dissented from the majority decision to temporarily stay the law until the court could make a final decision on the merits.

TJ Tu, an attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights, who is representing one of the abortion clinics and two physicians impacted by the case, is hopeful that despite the new justices, the Supreme Court will uphold the 2016 precedent.

“Our view is that the makeup of the court should not alter the requirements of the constitution,” says Tu. “Because our case is so clearly controlled by an existing precedent, we’re confident that all of the Justices and certainly a majority could easily reach a decision in our favor.”

If the majority of justices decide to uphold the Louisiana law, they could do so in one of two ways. “If the court ruled…that Whole Women’s Health [the 2016 case] is still good law but is applied [differently] from state to state…that’s a setback for abortion rights, but it may not to be a devastating one,” explains Stephen Wermiel a professor of constitutional law at American University. But, he adds, “if the court overruled Whole Women’s Health, that would be devastating.”

Although a lot of attention has been paid to the rash of bills earlier this year banning abortion in states like Alabama, Louisiana, and Missouri, Tu argues that restrictive laws like admitting privilege requirements can do just as much, if not more, damage.

“The public imagination is so captured by all of the abortion bans that have been enacted, but it is cases like ours that are a much greater threat to abortion access,” says Tu. “In states like Louisiana, they are going to effectively make abortion completely out of reach before the Supreme Court ever has the chance to take up the question of Roe v. Wade.”

For conservative justices who might be unsure whether or not they want to overturn Roe, going after Whole Women’s Health could be an easy way to erode abortion rights, argues Wermiel.

“If you believe Roe and Casey [a 1992 case reaffirming abortion rights] were wrong and that the Constitution doesn’t protect the right to abortion, but you’re not sure whether you…are prepared to go that far,” he says, “this an easy first step.”  

Donald Trump Jr. Is Outraged By Hunter Biden’s “Conflict of Interest.” Where to Begin?

On Wednesday, Donald Trump Jr. joined his father’s ongoing effort to smear Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, over the younger Biden’s role as a board member of a Ukrainian energy company. In a tweet, Trump Jr. claimed the situation created the “appearance of impropriety” and represented a clear “conflict of interest.” Given that his father is the most conflict-riddled commander-in-chief in American history and the Trump family has profited in various ways through the presidency, Trump Jr.’s comments bordered on self-parody. But he did make a valid point: when the relatives of prominent political figures engage in overseas business dealings or receive payments or benefits from foreign individuals or entities, ethical issues often arise. Trump Jr., his siblings, and his brother-in-law, Jared Kushner, know this well—at least they should, considering the questions that have been raised about their families’ foreign entanglements.

Why didn't @JoeBiden recuse himself from dealing with Ukraine?

His son was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company that had been investigated by the prosecutor who Joe pushed to be fired.

At the VERY LEAST, there’s the appearance of impropriety. A clear conflict of interest.

— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) October 2, 2019

The Trumps’ sudden outrage about conflicts of interest and corruption rings somewhat hollow. That is because, before Trump took office, his company cut deals in some of the most corrupt corners of the globe. In one case, the Trump Organization—in a venture in which Ivanka Trump took a lead role—entered into a hotel development deal in Azerbaijan, which ranks 152nd out of 180 on Transparency International’s index of the world’s most corrupt countries. The Trumps’ partner in that project? The son of the country’s then-transportation minister, Ziya Mammadov— an official once described in a US diplomatic cable as “notoriously corrupt, even for Azerbaijan.” In 2017, the New Yorker reported that the Mammadov family were linked to a corrupt scheme involving operatives from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

In Brazil, Trump joined forces with Paulo Figueiredo Filho, the grandson of a former Brazilian dictator, on a proposed hotel project. The deal came undone shortly after Trump’s election, when Brazilian prosecutors began investigating Figueiredo. He was arrested in Florida earlier this year and is awaiting extradition to Brazil for his alleged role in a scheme to divert pension funds into real estate developments—including the planned Trump hotel and tower in Rio de Janeiro. 

If Donald Trump Jr. is really concerned about the appearance of impropriety, he could start by looking at the operations of his own family business, including the Trump International Hotel in DC. Not only is the hotel housed in a government building (conflict!), placing the government in the awkward position of being a landlord to the nation’s chief executive, but it has become a magnet for foreign officials (conflict!) and others seeking to curry favor in Washington.

The ongoing overseas business dealings of the Trumps pose another set of conflict-of-interest concerns. Before taking office, Trump pledged his company would engage in no new business deals abroad, but this ban on doing international business didn’t apply to projects that were already in various stages of development. Each of the Trump Organization’s foreign relationships carries its own ethical baggage, because foreign governments can attempt to use these ventures to influence President Trump. 

Setting the stage for his conflicted presidency, Trump feted a handful of his foreign partners at his inauguration. Among those who attended was  billionaire Hussain Sajwani, the chairman of Emirati real estate company DAMAC, which licensed the Trump name for two luxury golf course developments in Dubai. Donald Jr. and brother Eric jetted to Dubai for the opening of one of the clubs shortly after their father took office, then vacationed with the Sajwanis in the Maldives. Sajwani is close to Dubai’s royal family—Dubai’s crown prince attended the wedding of Sajwani’s daughter last year, as did Donald Jr. and Eric Trump.

View this post on Instagram

It was great having my dear friend and business partner Donald Trump Jr. over for lunch. Discussing new ideas and innovation always make our meetings even more interesting. يسرني استضافة صديقي العزيز وشريك الأعمال دونالد ترامب الابن على مأدبة الغداء. إن مناقشة الأفكار الجديدة ومجالات الابتكار دائماً ما تجعل من اجتماعاتنا وقتاً شيقاً

A post shared by Hussain Sajwani (@hussainsajwani) on May 16, 2017 at 4:56am PDT

The Sajwanis have not hidden their interest in developing a close financial relationship with the Trumps, especially after Trump emerged as a powerful American political figure. At a press conference in early 2017, Trump bragged that Sajwani had recently pitched him on a new multi-billion dollar development (which he turned down). On Inauguration Day, Sajwani’s son posted on Instagram about how lucrative the administration would be for his family.

Also on hand for Trump’s inaugural was Indonesian media magnate Hary Tanoesoedibjo, with whom Trump inked a deal in 2015 to build two resorts in that country. Tanoesoedibjo, who has been likened to the Trump of Indonesia, has dived into that country’s complicated politics, funding an upstart political party and floating a bid for president himself—inspired, he said, by the path blazed by Trump. Foreign Policy described Tanoesoedibjo as “knee-deep in dirty politics” and dogged by accusations of tax evasion (which he has denied). In 2016, Tanoesoedibjo purportedly introduced Trump to Setya Novanto, who was at the time the speaker of the Indonesian parliament. Trump brought Novanto onstage at a political event—three months later, Novanto resigned from office after getting caught on tape asking for a $4 billion kickback from an Australian mining company. (Novanto has since been convicted in a separate corruption case.) Since Trump’s election, Tanoesoedibjo has bragged about his access to Trump and has hobnobbed with the Trump children on multiple occasions. This summer, Tanoesoedibjo purchased one of the Trump’s Los Angeles mansions, and in September he welcomed Donald Trump Jr. to Indonesia to help drum up publicity for the yet-t0-be-built resorts. While construction has yet to kick off, local media has reported that Chinese state-owned construction companies could be involved in the project, not a great look due to Trump’s ongoing trade war with the country. 

Speaking of China, the country—not known for its friendliness to American brands claiming intellectual property rights—has granted Ivanka Trump 34 trademarks since her father took office. At least three were approved the same day she dined, in her capacity as a presidential aide, with Chinese president Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in March 2017. Another batch of trademarks were granted in the days before and after President Trump publicly announced he would take steps to keep Chinese cellphone manufacturer ZTE afloat. Were these trademarks approved on their merits or as part of an effort to influence Trump administration policy? That’s the pesky thing about conflicts of interest—it’s difficult to know whether business arrangements are legitimate or an attempt at influence-peddling. Ivanka’s in-laws, the Kushners, have been involved in their own questionable dealings in China, where Jared Kushner’s sister appeared to actively promote the family’s connection to Trump as she marketed an EB-5 investment program on behalf of Kushner Companies.

Donald Trump’s efforts to muddy a political rival with corruption allegations has already backfired, landing the president in the middle of a growing impeachment scandal. But the strategy—if this ham-handed effort at political-dirt digging could be called that—also seems likely to lead to uncomfortable questions about the Trump clan’s own business dealings.  

Ukraine to Review Investigation Into Firm Connected to Biden’s Son

The office of Ukraine’s top prosecutor announced Friday that it is reviewing a past investigation into the owner of Burisma Holdings, the natural gas company where Hunter Biden previously served as a board member. The move comes as President Donald Trump and his allies have privately and publicly pushed for Ukraine to probe Joe Biden and his son, an effort now at the center of impeachment proceedings. The prosecutor’s decision raises questions about whether Ukraine is caving to pressure from the Trump administration to embark on a politically motivated probe of Trump’s top Democratic rival 

To date, there has been no evidence of wrongdoing by the Biden’s in Ukraine. Nevertheless, the president’s false corruption claims have since been widely parrotted and amplified, including by sites known to disseminate Russian disinformation

As the President of the United States, I have an absolute right, perhaps even a duty, to investigate, or have investigated, CORRUPTION, and that would include asking, or suggesting, other Countries to help us out!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 4, 2019

The prosecutor’s announcement comes less than 12 hours after a trio of House committees released a trove of text messages that appear to show Trump officials dangling desperately needed military aid to Ukraine in exchange investigations that could boost Trump’s reelection. Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine, provided House Democrats with the damning texts during his deposition before Congress on Thursday. 

“The President and his aides are engaging in a campaign of misinformation and misdirection in an attempt to normalize the act of soliciting foreign powers to interfere in our elections,” three House committee chairmen wrote in a letter releasing the texts.

Here’s What Russian Disinfo Sites Want You to Believe About Impeachment

As President Donald Trump battles impeachment, key allies have rallied to his defense: close GOP lawmakers in Congress, Fox News, and far-right internet users. And then there is the ally that Trump doesn’t like to talk about: Russia.

Russia helped elect Trump, and as he faces impeachment, Russian state media is standing behind him. Propaganda outlets RT and Sputnik, which target Americans with English language content, provide a clear view of Russian messaging on the Ukraine scandal and Trump’s impeachment. Together, they present a picture of a propaganda machine working to exonerate Trump, condemn former Vice President Joe Biden, and spread doubt about the trustworthiness of American government.

The particulars of the Ukraine scandal make a natural fit for the Kremlin’s playbook for destabilizing western democracies: sowing distrust of authority and turning corruption into a “both sides” problem, encouraging citizens to resign themselves to grift and propaganda. That Russian media has jumped on stories that paint the scandal as a deep state coup—a theory that Trump himself has dangerously expounded during the Mueller investigation—is predictable.

The dynamic was on display on Monday morning, after Trump falsely accused the intelligence community of changing its rules to allow whistleblower complaints to contain second-hand information.

WHO CHANGED THE LONG STANDING WHISTLEBLOWER RULES JUST BEFORE SUBMITTAL OF THE FAKE WHISTLEBLOWER REPORT? DRAIN THE SWAMP!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2019

RT picked this up and ran with it, running multiple segments that parroted Trump’s soon-debunked claim that this had occurred, and that it was evidence of a deep state operation against Trump. In one video shared on twitter, Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst and RT regular who argues Russia’s 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee was an inside job, is quoted speaking conspiratorially about a group of “people who are behind all this,” as the segment emphasizes the narrative that the whistleblower’s complaint is untrustworthy because it involved second-hand information.

Trump wants to meet the anonymous whistleblower who caused his impeachment inquiry pic.twitter.com/TpCBcpQS1E

— RT (@RT_com) October 1, 2019

Russian media has also worked hard to portray Biden as the corrupt figure in the scandal. The president set off the whistleblower complaint by using his office to pressure the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, to help him investigate Biden, a political rival. Trump’s claim—now repeated by Russian media—is that Biden withheld money from Ukraine in order to force the ouster of a Ukrainian prosecutor general who was investigating an energy company that his son, Hunter Biden, sat on the board of. The allegations have not been borne out by the facts: the prosecutor Biden helped push out was widely seen as corrupt and was not actively investigating the company. But with impeachment underway, the president has continued to argue that it is Biden who should be scrutinized—and Russian media is doing just that

“While the transcript from Trump’s call does show that he asked Zelensky to look into the Bidens’ corruption as a favor, it does not show him using money as leverage or demanding anyone’s job in the same obvious way that his rival did just a few years ago,” RT correspondent Rachel Blevins stated last week on a show hosted by Scottie Nell Hughes, a former director of the Tea Party News Network and a former CNN contributor who has run multiple segments about Biden’s alleged corruption during her show on RT.

The Ukraine scandal is “such a perfect thing for them” according to Bret Schafer, who tracks Russian propaganda at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, an initiative of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. This is true not only because it fits into their destabilizing efforts, but because it also revives the narrative that Russian interference in 2016 was faked by Democrats and anti-Trump bureaucrats.

With events moving so quickly, Schafer believes that Russia is still developing a unique, and likely conspiratorial, narrative about the Ukraine allegations. “I’m waiting for them to find the angle to this that is different—that is really unique to the Russian perspective,” he says. One possibility already hinted at is the conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that meddled in the 2016 elections. 

“I’m waiting for them to find the angle to this that is…really unique to the Russian perspective.”

Last week, RT focused on a piece of the scandal that has gotten comparatively little attention from US media: Trump’s request that Zelensky investigate CrowdStrike, an American cybersecurity firm that the Democratic National Committee hired in 2016 to determine if it had been hacked, ultimately uncovering two sophisticated Russian intrusions into the committee’s network. According to the White House’s call record of Trump’s conversation with Zelensky, Trump asked Zelensky to investigate the company, suggesting without evidence that the DNC’s server may currently be in Ukraine. It’s not clear why the president might believe this, and the notion that any one server could be revelatory seems misguided: the DNC told a federal court this year that more than 140 of its servers had been affected. Conspiracists have baselessly alleged that CrowdStrike, which is headquartered in California, not only has meaningful links to powerful Ukrainians, but that it manufactured evidence of the DNC  hacks even though Trump’s own Department of Justice has affirmed in court that it has “independently verified” the company’s conclusions. 

Trump’s CrowdStrike ask seems to be part of a larger effort among him and his allies (including Attorney General William Barr’s efforts to investigate the origins of the FBI’s Russia probe) to construct an alternate reality in which Russian interference in the US election was somehow a hit job pulled off by Democrats and the deep state. 

“The Ukraine-CrowdStrike server angle seems like an avenue that has been less traveled that they can work a little bit harder to keep it in the bloodstream,” says Schafer. “I would not be surprised if we saw them go a bit more in on that in the coming weeks.”

“It’s not known right now if CrowdStrike’s server really is in Ukraine,” RT host Rick Sanchez said on his show last week. “The president seems to be saying so… But the president’s off-handed—maybe ‘calculated’—mention of this CrowdStrike issue, it could set off a new round of questions of whether Democrats were using a server on a foreign soil for their own political gain. As Yogi Berra would say, ‘curiouser and curiouser.’” 

Sanchez was actually quoting Lewis Carroll’s Alice and Wonderland, but the network’s implication was clear: Russia’s 2016 hacking operation was really just make believe.

Bite Podcast’s New Series Explores How Climate Change Is Transforming Dinner

Climate change has already started to unleash its fury, from megastorms to flooding to ravenous fires. But the way many people will first experience this phenomenon is in the quiet of their homes—at the dinner table. As Amanda Little, author of The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World, puts it: “Climate change is becoming something we can taste.” And the flavorful foods we treasure are in peril.

In this special series from Bite, we explore how farmers, chefs, policymakers, and food lovers are reckoning with this shift. We traipse through rye fields and vineyards, peek inside futuristic laboratories, and catch up with some of the politicians vying to lead the country. 

While there’s plenty cause for concern, we promise not to completely ruin your appetite. Although the food system plays a huge role in driving climate change, it also holds the key to how we might tackle it. “What the new science tells us is, actually, we can solve it,” argues environmental activist and chef Anthony Myint—“and we’ll eat better, too.”

Trailer: Eating in Climate Chaos Episode 1: “All the Delicious Foods Are Dying”

Which foods will climate change hit first? Journalist Amanda Little has some warnings about the tastiest delicacies—from cherries to coffee. Delicious foods aren’t the only thing we need to worry about: We hear from a scientist who’s studying how increasing carbon dioxide levels are making plants less nutritious. But it’s not all bad news! We visit a farm in California to learn how a tiny berry could have huge lessons for us about droughts.

Episodes 2 and Beyond

Stay tuned!

Pramila Jayapal Doesn’t Want to Give Trump “a Dollar More” for His “Vanity Wall”

Forget about President Donald Trump’s wild dreams of fortifying his border wall with a snake-filled moat: The immigration policies he has implemented have wreaked havoc at the border and expanded a cruel detention system rife with health and safety violations. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) says this system is in desperate need of reform—and in recent months has pushed to keep the issue a top priority for legislators. 

On September 26, the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship held a hearing on the continued expansion and current state of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s detention system. Chaired by Jayapal, the hearing included testimonies from former detainees, advocates, and former ICE Director Thomas Homan. In February, Congress approved funding for ICE for about 45,000 beds per day in the hopes of reducing that number to 40,500 beds by October 1. NBC News reported that in August, the Department of Homeland Security transferred $169 million from other agencies, including FEMA and the Coast Guard, to ICE. Now, there are about 51,000 people in ICE detention. “It is a universally accepted fact that immigration detention is supposed to be a civil, non-punitive function,” Jayapal said in her opening statement, “However, the immigration detention system is a virtual replica of the criminal incarceration system.”

Jayapal has sponsored a House bill, the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act, that would completely overhaul that system, including eliminating for-profit immigration detention. Though Jayapal’s bill would be ignored by a Republican-led Senate, it’s reflective of how progressive Democrats think about fixing an unjust punitive system.

In the wake of last week’s hearing, Jayapal spoke with Mother Jones about the bill and how she thinks the immigration process could be transformed. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Give a quick summary of what your bill would do.

The Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act would transform the detention system from its currently cruel and inhumane and costly system to one that is much more humane and cost-effective. It would transition all for-profit immigration prisons to government-run and funded detention centers over a period of three years. It would also eliminate mandatory detention. It would protect the rights of vulnerable populations, in particular, by introducing alternatives to detention for those who do not need to be in a jail, have never been charged, much less convicted of anything, and are simply waiting for their asylum papers to come through. It streamlines the whole detention process so that we are really only retaining people who really need to be in detention and we are not using it as a punitive incarceration system for 56,000 people every day.

What are some of those alternatives to detention?

“The immigration detention system is a virtual replica of the criminal incarceration system.”

There are a number of community-based programs that have been incredibly effective where you can release individuals into the community. You can provide them with legal resources and support so that they know what the processes and then they can come back into the system for this hearings. The woman who was testifying today from the Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants talked about how they have 100 percent rate of people showing up for their hearings when they are in the alternatives to detention program because they get resources along with that, so that they really understand what they need to do and when they need to show up. So most of the programs are based in the community. They’re run by community-based nonprofits, and they are done in conjunction with government officials so that people are released, and then they come back to be processed through the system.

As far as detention centers, how should those be operating?

Right now, the vast majority of immigration jails—we call it detention because it sounds better but they’re actually immigration jails—are largely operated by for-profit prison companies, and that is CoreCivic and the GEO Group. They make hundreds of millions of dollars on detaining people who have committed no crime. We are actually using some county jails now to hold people as well. But the private prison contractors have very little incentive to lower their prices or to provide some of the basic standards that should be met within detention centers, which is why we have so many inspector general reports and other accounts, data around how badly the detention centers operate and some of the horrendous things like nooses, hanging, dirty moldy food, no medical care. These have all been documented by the [Homeland Security] inspector general, including by the inspector general’s office that has been serving under Trump. If we could eliminate a huge number of the people being held in detention, then the much, much smaller number of people in detention could be held in government facilities. 

The bill also sets up a penalty system for facilities that are noncompliant with a certain set of standards. Why is it important to have these types of accountability measures?

“The private prison contractors have very little incentive to lower their prices or to provide some of the basic standards that should be met within detention centers.”

Because even though we do have some standards, they are applied extremely inconsistently. Even when the attorney general says there are problems and writes a report, and says that a facility is not meeting the standards, nothing is done. That facility continues to get money; that facility continues to operate. And there’s really no enforcement of the requirements that we have. We also do need to strengthen those standards, and make sure that they’re being adhered to. I think all of that means that we’ve got to have accountability and enforcement. Those penalties are a way to say you don’t get to continue to operate if you don’t meet the standards and if you don’t meet the requirements that we’ve set out for detention center to operate.

ICE has rapidly expanded its detention network in the Deep South this year even though Congress directed it to detain fewer people. What do you want the House to do to prevent that from happening again?

Well, we should pass my Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act so that we transform the detention centers. We should end some of the programs that the administration started that have led to the surges and spikes in detention. We should institute alternatives to detention, including down at the border. But we have to end Remain in Mexico and the asylum ban and some of these other things that have caused, in part, the buildup of people along the southern border and therefore into our detention centers.

One of the things that’s also happening is this overload in immigration courts around the country and this backlog of cases. Do you have a plan for how to tackle that?

The reality is that most of the people that are being processed at the border through Trump’s cruel Remain in Mexico policy are essentially bumping everybody else that is in the immigration court. So as we’ve criminalized immigration and we’ve put more people who really should not be in that system in front of a judge, and we’ve taken away the prosecutorial discretion, what it’s meant is this giant backlog in the immigration courts, and no due process. People are essentially being tried in groups. I just came back from a court in Texas, in El Paso, observing what had happened. Five courts there have been taken over by Remain in Mexico individuals who now have to be processed. And because they don’t have attorneys, they are clogging up the courts. They don’t need to be processed in that way. They don’t need to be held and criminally prosecuted for seeking asylum. We should be processing them separately. There’s been a problem with backlogs of cases because we keep adding to the list of people that now are going through immigration proceedings in front of a judge. That doesn’t need to be the case.

What can be done to create legal pathways so that people don’t migrate through these unauthorized routes?

We’ve been working on comprehensive immigration reform for almost 20 years now. It’s just a travesty that we use the work and the labor and the services and the contributions of immigrants, but we don’t allow a way for our system to function effectively. So, you know, we need to legalize the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are living here in the country, many of them have been here for more than a decade. So first, we need to take care of that. And then we need to also ensure that the 4 million people or so that have been waiting in line to reunite with their families that they are processed. Once we’ve done that, then we can start and say, “Okay, what’s the system we want to have?” What we want to make sure we do is that we have a flow of workers in the industries that need workers, many of which are industries that are populated by women like home healthcare, but they don’t get prioritized the same way that industries populated by men do. So we need to make sure that we are dealing with the needs of the economy, that we have a future flow workers, that respects workers of all classes and recognizes the value of all workers. We need to make sure that we continue to have a robust family immigration system.

“It’s just a travesty that we use the work and the labor and the services and the contributions of immigrants, but we don’t allow a way for our system to function effectively.”

If we do all of that, then we would not have the enforcement problems we have. We could have sane, humane, and reasonable enforcement along our borders and in the interior with the ability to penalize employers who continue to break the law. But we’ve got to change the rules so that workers can work and can have benefits and rights on the job, even if they come here for a short period of time as workers. So the pillars are pretty clear. In addition to that, we have got to deal with the root causes of migration. And that is making sure that we’re investing in the development of countries that send a lot of immigrants, but also making sure that we have particular ways for regions like the Northern Triangle region right now that is experiencing tremendous violence to be able to process and send people to the United States, so that there is a place of refuge for people to come to. We have to continue to be that country that welcomes people from all over the world.

Do you think House Democrats are going to be willing to spend the political capital to make all this happen?

It is certainly something that I am deeply committed to. I know the Progressive Caucus, and the Hispanic Caucus, we have many members who feel we absolutely cannot give this administration a dollar more for this kind of enforcement. They’re already stealing it from other places, like our troops, just to build a vanity wall that hasn’t even been authorized by Congress. But they’re also spending over the amount that Congress authorized for detention right now. Every year they do this, we only authorize a certain amount, and then they end up spending more because they’re detaining more. They need to set a clear set of priorities. Whether or not we’re able to hold on to that is complicated because we have a Democratic House, a Republican Senate, and a cruel, cruel, lawless, Republican president, which makes it very difficult. We have 133 co-sponsors on my bill, and many of my colleagues understand the dire circumstances that immigrants in this country face today.

Of the current presidential candidates, whose immigration policies have you been impressed with?

Julián Castro has done a great job of kind of talking about some of the travesties of immigration. All of the progressive candidates—Sen. Warren and Sen. Sanders have both talked about the ways in which we need to transform our system and pass comprehensive reform. Sen. Harris and I have introduced a number of bills together, including around access to legal counsel. Sen. Booker actually has cosponsored my Dignity for Detained Immigrants bill in the Senate. We have a number of champions on this issue. It’s starting to take more and more prominence and people are starting to understand in spite of the language, the rhetoric that is so divisive and that really criminalizes immigrants. In spite of that rhetoric that’s coming from the White House and the administration, the reality is the vast majority of people in the United States understand what our values are. They understand that immigrants contribute to this country, that we wouldn’t be here without immigrants from all over the world.

This Ancient Fruit Holds Secrets for How to Farm in Climate Change

Cloverleaf Farm, a small produce operation in Davis, California, managed to do okay during the extreme drought that lasted from 2012 to 2016. But in the first wet year after the long dry period, the farm lost its entire apricot crop to disease—$40,000 to $50,000 down the drain.

Researchers predict that as climate change worsens, there will be more frequent shifts between extreme dry spells and floods. As Cloverleaf learned the hard way, the phenomenon is already taking a toll on growers in the country’s largest food producing state. During the drought, California’s agricultural and related industries lost $2.7 billion in one year alone. Big cash crops like almonds and grapes are at particular risk in the future, unnerving farmers and vintners already taking hits from erratic and extreme weather.

Katie Fyhrie, a grower at Cloverleaf Farm, worries that the farm won’t be able to keep producing stone fruits—which depend on the timing and duration of winter chill—in the long-term. “It can be confusing to figure out how to move forward,” Fyhrie says. “Where we’re at right now, versus where we’re going to be 10, 20, 30 years down the line. It’s a really tricky thing to balance.”

Learn more about how climate change is transforming dinner—and how farmers are fighting back—on the latest episode of Bite:

Ancient plant species might hold important clues about which crops will survive in a harsher climate. With that in mind, Fyhrie and her team have started growing elderberries. An indigo pearl-sized fruit that grows on a big bushy plant, the elderberry is relatively unknown in the United States; the majority of the commercial market comes from an imported European variety. But Native American communities have been using a Western elderberry subspecies for centuries.

The elderberry that’s native to California grows remarkably well in drought conditions. After a couple of years, you can completely remove irrigation and the plant will keep producing. This last season, Cloverleaf harvested 130 pounds of berries from each of its most mature trees, none of which are irrigated. “That is a huge deal that we’re getting berries that are good for you, really versatile for a lot of products, and that require no additional fertilizer or water,” Fyhrie says. 

Elderberries are just one of “many hardy ancient foods and crops that may be a poised to make a twenty-first century comeback.”

Elderberries are just one of “many hardy ancient foods and crops that may be a poised to make a twenty-first century comeback,” as Amanda Little puts it in her recent book The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World. Global warming is “forcing us to think differently about the quality and resilience of the crops we grow—both in the poorest parts of the world and the wealthiest,” she writes. Some researchers are trying to breed almonds, apples, and avocados that are more resistant to hot weather and drier saltier land. General Mills is now using Kernza—derived from ancient perennial wheatgrass native to the Kansas plains—in some of its cereals, snack bars, and crackers. In comparison to traditional wheat, Kernza is much more sustainable and better at sequestering carbon.

With support from a sustainability grant from the California Department of Food and Agriculture awarded in fall of 2018 and in partnership with the University of California–Davis, Cloverleaf is running field trials with elderberries, developing best practices guides for growers, and doing nutritional and market analyses. The idea is to explore boosting grower adoption and consumer interest in the berry.  

At Cloverleaf, Fyhrie uses the fruit in syrup, jelly, and even fruit leathers and an elderflower cordial. Dried elderberries can be used for tea and baked goods. They’re also used in food coloring and dyes. Because of the berries’ antioxidant and antiviral properties (in certain subspecies at least), they’re popular in the health food community and are commonly used as supplements or to treat colds and flu.

While not all native plants are going to fare well under climate change, many have survived millennia in their changing environments, adapting along the way. “There is so much food that grows everywhere without anybody really doing much at all. And here we are cover cropping, spreading compost, tilling, putting on plastic mulch, irrigating daily, weeding, constantly dealing with crop losses from pests,” Fyhrie says. “Everything that we’re growing for our profit is so high intensity in terms of labor and resources, and then we’re surrounded on all sides by these plants that are just producing and producing. It just didn’t compute that we would only be growing these really resource intensive crops and basically ignoring all the resources that just exist on this land.”

Elderberries won’t replace apricots any time soon. Developing ancient and native crops or breeding new ones comes with a host of complications and long lead times. Processing elderberries requires a lot of labor, and they can be hard to digest. Kernza grains are less than a quarter the size of standard wheat grains, making harvesting difficult and costly, as Little points out, and recent crop failures limited General Mills’ Kernza rollout. Plus, changing consumers’ tastes is no easy feat.

“The more that we start to incorporate those now—while we have the water to establish them—the more resilient small farms will be in the future.”

But, there’s potential. When I stopped by the Davis Food Co-op on my way home from Cloverleaf, the woman at the wellness counter told me elderberries haven’t reached CBD status, but she’s definitely noticed an uptick in products lining the shelves. At first, Kernza was only used in boutique west coast breweries and bakeries; now it’s being adopted by one the country’s largest multinational corporations. So to Fyhrie, exploring new options like elderberries feels worth the squeeze. 

She thinks it’s important to start to “really think about what type of plants can we get away with not watering, can we get away with putting less fertilizer, can deal with the heat, don’t need as much chill in the winter,” she says. “The more that we start to incorporate those now—while we have the water to establish them—the more resilient small farms will be in the future.”

Text Messages Dive Deeper Into Trump’s Extortion of Ukraine

The House Intelligence Committee has obtained a series of text messages that went back and forth this summer between the acting ambassador to Ukraine, Bill Taylor, and two of Donald Trump’s roving troubleshooters for Ukraine, Gordon Sundland and Kurt Volker. These came after Rudy Giuliani had already spent months trying to get the Ukrainians to open an investigation into Hunter and Joe Biden.

The following text was sent just before the now-infamous July 25 phone call between Trump and the new Ukrainian president, but after Trump had put a hold on Ukrainian military assistance and told his aides to lie to Congress about why he did it:

Volker is clearly saying that a visit to the White House is contingent on Ukraine opening an investigation—and convincing Trump that the investigation will really happen. After the phone call, Volker and Gordon Sundland are dispatched to help the Ukrainians “navigate” Trump’s demands. Two weeks later, we get this:

President Trump “really wants” the investigation opened. Does the president of Ukraine know this? “Yep.”

Sondland goes on to suggest that they draft a statement for the president of Ukraine to deliver, thus publically committing him to an investigation of the Bidens. A week later Sondland asks if they still want an “unequivocal statement” drafted and Volker says yes. A couple of weeks after that Ambassador Taylor asks about the plans for a White House visit:

Note that Taylor is a career diplomat. Sondland is a political appointee and a Trump loyalist. He obviously thinks it’s unwise to discuss this via text message.

Taylor and Sondland have their phone call, but obviously Taylor is still under the impression that military assistance is being directly held hostage to investigating the Bidens:

Sondland the loyalist dutifully says no, no, no; it’s not a quid pro quo. Nevertheless, he continues to think it unwise to discuss the details of what it is via text.

The upshot of all this is that it’s crystal clear to everyone that Trump is truly obsessed with getting Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. Both a White House visit and military assistance are being held hostage to this. Volker knows it and Taylor knows it, while Sondland plays the loyalist role of explaining what the pretext is supposed to be: that all Trump wants is a commitment to running a clean government.

Adding all this to the transcript of the July 25 phone call makes it obvious to anyone over the age of five what’s going on. But will it matter? Both the White House and conservative media have already taken the position that, sure, Trump extorted Ukraine to investigate a political opponent, but the Bidens totally deserved it because they’re so corrupt. No way is there anything impeachable about that.

So far, Republicans in Congress remain unmoved, text messages or no. Tick tock.

White Judges and Donald Trump

The Center for American Progress released a report today about the diversity of the federal judiciary, and you will be unsurprised to learn that it continues to be more male and more white than the general population. You can read the whole report here, but I want to highlight just a single chart:

As you can see, Republican presidents tend to appoint fewer nonwhite judges than Democrats, which is perfectly understandable. Republicans want to appoint conservative judges, but nonwhite judges tend to be more liberal than average. There just aren’t a whole lot of conservative nonwhite judges for Republicans to choose from.

However, as you can also see, Republican presidents have nonetheless produced steadily higher numbers of nonwhite judges through the years—until you get to Donald Trump. Then, for the first time ever, the share of nonwhite judges is lower than the previous Republican president.

It’s tempting to roll your eyes at this and mutter “Duh!” under your breath. But not so fast. You see, one thing that pretty much everyone agrees about is that Trump himself plays no part in his administration’s judicial appointments. Not even a tiny one. The whole operation, until very recently, was run by Don McGahn using lists of candidates mostly prepared by the Federalist Society. And there’s no special reason to think that either McGahn or the Federalist Society share Trump’s racial views.

So why the sudden drop in nonwhite judicial appointees? It almost certainly has nothing to do with Trump, who probably couldn’t even name any of his nominees, let alone express opinions about them. Why have McGahn and the Federalist Society been so halfhearted about finding nonwhite judges, even though they’re plainly available and it’s plainly good PR to nominate them?

I don’t know. However, one possibility is that the outlier isn’t McGahn, but George Bush. For a Republican, he was, perhaps, unusually committed to finding nonwhite judges. By this hypothesis, McGahn is right on the trendline of Republican appointments over time, and there’s nothing to explain.

Any other ideas?

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