Mother Jones Magazine

Trump Signed an Executive Order to “Protect” Medicare. Good Luck if You Have Any Other Type of Insurance.

In an apparent attempt to appeal to senior voters—and to divert attention away from the impeachment inquiry rocking the White House—President Donald Trump signed an executive order Thursday that changes aspects of Medicare Advantage, the private-sector health plan that covers one third of the nation’s Medicare beneficiaries. During his speech, though, the president was far more occupied with attacking Democrats’ health care proposals than with delving into the specifics of what his executive order would do. The Trump administration touted the changes to Medicare Advantage as an alternative to Medicare for All, a universal health insurance plan supported by several Democratic presidential candidates.

“We’re delivering better, fairer, and more affordable health care for all Americans,” Trump said while announcing the executive order at the Villages, a senior living community in central Florida. Shortly before the event, the White House changed its name from “Protecting Medicare from Socialist Destruction” to “Protecting and Improving Medicare for our Nation’s Seniors,” the Tampa Bay Times reported. Instead of defending Medicare against “socialist destruction,” though, the executive order simply reduces Medicare Advantage premiums and allows it to cover more a broader range of services, such as adult day care and Telehealth, The Washington Post reported.

Despite his claims to the contrary, though, Trump has taken significant steps during his presidency to weaken health care in the United States. Trump claimed on Thursday that premiums for Obamacare were too high, but he himself has contributed to a rise in premiums. He has extended the duration of so-called “junk insurance” plans, which do offer lower premiums, but at the price of subpar care that doesn’t comply with the Affordable Care Act. And he has repeatedly attempted to implement work requirements for Medicaid beneficiaries, which has left thousands of Americans in Arkansas and Kentucky uninsured. Last year, the uninsured rate increased from 7.9 percent to 8.5 percent of the population, the first time it had risen since Obamacare passed.

“We eliminated Obamacare’s horrible, horrible, very expensive and very unfair, individual mandate,” Trump said on Thursday. But by eliminating the individual mandate, Trump undermined the basis on which the Supreme Court upheld the ACA in 2012 and jeopardized the future of Obamacare. Republican state attorneys general are now arguing that without the individual mandate qualifying as a tax, the entire law is invalid. If the Supreme Court hears the case and overturns Obamacare, 19.9 million people could lose their insurance. How’s that for “better, fairer, and more affordable health care”?

Following Trump’s Threat, the EPA Suddenly Cares a Lot About Water Quality in SF

On Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a notice of environmental violation to San Francisco after President Donald Trump claimed that the city’s large homeless population was causing water pollution.

Addressed to Harlan Kelly Jr., the general manager of San Francisco’s Public Utilities Commission, the letter alleges that discharges in San Francisco’s drainage system contained heavy metals and bacteria, which were subsequently polluting the ocean and nearby beaches. The letter further alleged that the city had failed to properly clean, inspect, and repair its wastewater treatment and sewer system.

“The failure to properly operate and maintain the city’s sewage collection and treatment facilities” have resulted in main and pump station failures “that have diverted substantial volumes of raw and partially-treated sewage to flow across beaches and into the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean,” the letter states. The EPA charged that “approximately one and a half billion gallons of combined sewage annually” had ended up in beaches and recreational areas, a point that the city’s leadership strenuously denies. 

All of this began last month, when after visiting San Francisco, President Trump warned that the city was potentially in violation of the Federal Clean Water act. He claimed that the size of the homeless population resulted in needles and human waste being poured into the ocean. 

“We’re going to be giving San Francisco—they’re in total violation—we’re going to be giving them a notice very soon.”

“It’s a terrible situation that’s in Los Angeles and in San Francisco,” Trump said to reporters on Air Force One. “And we’re going to be giving San Francisco—they’re in total violation—we’re going to be giving them a notice very soon.”

San Francisco Mayor London Breed and other city officials vehemently denied that claim, arguing that the city has some of the most advanced filtration systems in the country. “In San Francisco we are focused on advancing solutions to meet the challenges on our streets,” she wrote in a statement, “not throwing off ridiculous assertions as we board an airplane to leave the state.”

The official notice on Wednesday came a week after EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler sent a letter to California Governor Gavin Newsom accusing the state of allowing human waste from homeless populations in San Francisco and Los Angeles to pollute water systems. 

Kelly responded to Wheeler, saying, “All combined sewer overflows are subject to equivalent-to-primary treatment before discharge. The frequency and volume of combined sewer overflows is consistent with the expected performance of the city’s combined sewer system and has been specifically authorized—for decades—by permits either issued jointly by EPA and California or by permits that have received EPA’s concurrence.”

San Francisco’s mayor London Breed also issued a response. “I’m sick of this president taking swipes at our city for no reason other than politics,” NPR reported she said. “As I’ve said before, there are no needles washing out to the Bay or ocean from our sewer system, and there is no relationship between homelessness and water quality in San Francisco.”

None of the claims made by Trump’s EPA connecting the city’s homelessness crisis to water pollution have been supported by city officials, who say that catch basins—grates on top of drainage pipes—trap debris such as needles coming out of storm drains, and that pollutants are subsequently processed in one of two treatment facilities located in the city. No specific repercussions were laid out in relation to this violation notice, but the EPA warned San Francisco that it could be hit with fines and penalties related to the Clean Water Act.

Trump’s fight over water pollution in San Francisco is part of a general attack on California, which includes the administration’s recent revocation of the state’s ability to set stricter automobile fuel admission standards than the national standard. 

“We welcome EPA’s sudden interest in enforcing the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, which has been conspicuously absent since President Trump took office,” said Eric Schaeffer, former Director of Civil Enforcement at EPA and current Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project said in a statement. “But a regulatory agency’s enforcement authority is not supposed to be used as a political weapon, which is obviously happening here. It makes no sense to decide that homeless encampments are a major priority for Clean Water Act enforcement, when EPA has done so little to enforce illegal discharges from much larger sources across the US.” 

Lunchtime Photo

You may recall that six months ago I posted a picture of Chapman Avenue at sunset. Chapman is a major thoroughfare around these parts that runs due west for much of its length, and there’s a nice hill at one end that allows for good picture taking. I was there at the spring equinox to try and get a picture of the sun setting directly over the street. Sort of a suburban version of Manhattanhenge.

As it happens, I got there a few days too late and the sunset was already too far north of west to get what I wanted. However, I marked my calendar for the autumn equinox and figured I’d try again. This time I got there a bit early, and circumstances conspired to prevent me from going back. So once again the sunset is a little off center.

However, there was less haze this time around and I discovered that in the far distance is not just the Pacific Ocean, but the hills of the Palos Verdes peninsula. So even if I timed it perfectly, I’d never get the sun precisely over the street just as it dipped below the horizon. My quest was a fruitless one all along.

But there are other streets. Perhaps I’ll try one of them next spring.

September 21, 2019 — Orange, California

EITC or $15 Minimum Wage? Why Not Both?

The Earned-Income Tax Credit is one of the largest social welfare programs run by the federal government. It’s available only to people who work—primarily those with children—and takes the form of a tax refund that generally amounts to a few thousand dollars each year.

Conventional wisdom has long held that the EITC motivates people to work, but a new study suggests this isn’t so. Dylan Matthews says today that this undermines conservative support for the program:

Conservatives and business interests have long grudgingly tolerated or outright supported modest expansions of the EITC because of its tie to work: It isn’t welfare, but an earned benefit that helps the economy by increasing labor force participation. If it doesn’t help labor force participation, that rationale goes away.

Let’s unpack this a bit. What it means is that the business community likes the EITC because they think it increases the size of the labor force. This in turn pushes wages down. In other words, part of the EITC is captured by corporations: they get to cut wages, which are are then made up by the EITC.

As you can imagine, this is a black mark against the EITC among liberals. Why should corporations end up getting a piece of a program meant to help the poor? If, instead, it turns out that the EITC has little impact on labor force participation, that’s a good thing. It means that the poor are getting 100 percent of the benefit.

Back in the days of old, this would probably be a net political negative: maintaining bipartisan support is a good thing even if it costs a bit in terms of help for the working poor. But these are not the olden days, and there hasn’t been bipartisan support for the EITC in ages. So I’d call this unalloyed good news if it’s true. It means the EITC’s benefits are going exactly where we want them, and we could even sever the connection to work if we wanted to. Republicans wouldn’t support this, but so what? They wouldn’t support it anyway.

In other semi-related news, the New York Fed recently completed a detailed study of minimum wage hikes in New York state. There have been loads of similar studies before, but most of them have focused on fairly small changes in the minimum wage, which still leaves us in the dark about the effect of larger changes. This study, however, tracks a minimum wage increase of nearly 50 percent over the course of six years by comparing border counties in New York (which saw an increase) with those in Pennsylvania (which didn’t). Here’s the result:

As the authors says, New York’s minimum wage increase “appears to have had a positive effect on average wages but no discernible effect on employment.”

This is tentatively good news for the $15 minimum wage campaign, since it suggests that even sizeable increases in the minimum wage don’t reduce employment. Keep in mind, however, that it’s still tentative for at least two reasons. First, it’s just one study. Second, it took place entirely during an economic expansion. The effect of a big minimum wage increase might be quite different during a recession.

Bottom line: it appears that both the EITC and the $15 minimum wage are pretty good programs for helping the working poor. What’s more, both have different pluses and minuses and they complement each other pretty well. Given what we know, progressives ought to support them both.

Facebook Just Gave Trump Permission to Lie

President Donald Trump is taking advantage of a Facebook exemption that allows politicians to lie in advertisements to spread disinformation about former Vice President Joe Biden’s 2015 diplomatic trip to Ukraine. Even though the ads contain misinformation, a Facebook spokesperson says they did not violate their company’s advertising policy because of carveout for politicians.

The ads fly in the face of Facebook’s stated intent to crack down on disinformation, and appear to violate the company’s policies.

“Joe Biden PROMISED Ukraine $1 BILLION DOLLARS if they fired the prosecutor investigating his son’s company,” reads one ad the campaign started running on Wednesday, according to Facebook’s public ad archive.

“Joe Biden boasted that as vice president he threatened to withhold $1 billion in foreign aid from Ukraine unless they fired the prosecutor looking into a lucrative contract held by his son, Hunter Biden,” reads another Trump ad that began running the same day. The Trump campaign also ran ads with similar language earlier in the week which are now inactive.

The ads, which both include the false claim that Biden’s son Hunter was under investigation during the vice president’s Ukrainian trip, are accompanied by a video with a narrator voicing each ad’s text over a backdrop of ominous music and grainy footage.

The advertisements fly in the face of Facebook’s stated intent to crack down on disinformation, and would appear to violate the company’s policies “prohibit[ing] ads that include claims debunked by third-party fact checkers.” But a Facebook spokesperson told Mother Jones that because the disinformation comes directly from the Trump campaign, it is exempt from those rules as a result of other company policies that prevent it from taking action on the speech of politicians—regardless of how much or how brazenly they may lie. 

According to Popular Info, the provisions that allow Trump and other politicians to lie in Facebook ads are the result of a policy change implemented last week. 

The president’s campaign ads seek to further a narrative based on false assertions about the former vice president’s actions in Ukraine. While his son Hunter’s work with a Ukrainian energy company may have opened Joe Biden to charges of hypocrisy and been ethically problematic, factcheckers that Facebook has officially partnered with suggest his business dealings were legal and unrelated to the vice president’s work in making sure prosecutor Viktor Shokin was fired.

While Trump has tried to peddle a contrasting and unsubstantiated narrative that Biden tried to remove Shokin as a move to protect his son, there are at least two key details that suggest this wasn’t the case: Bloomberg News found that the investigation involving Hunter had been dormant for a year before Biden called for the Ukranian prosecutor to step down. Also, at the time there was separate international pressure for Ukraine to remove the prosecutor who was widely seen, by both foreign and local good government advocates, as broadly soft on corruption. Politifact, an official Facebook factchecking partner, has closely examined the claims and said it found no evidence to “support the idea that Joe Biden advocated with his son’s interests in mind.” Factcheck.org, another Facebook factchecking partner, came to the same conclusion.

Just last week, the company’s vice president of global affairs, Nick Clegg, wrote a Facebook post claiming that “when a politician shares previously debunked content including links, videos and photos, we plan to demote that content, display related information from fact-checkers, and reject its inclusion in advertisements.”

But neither Clegg’s post, nor remarks he gave in Washington, D.C. rolling out the policy, clearly noted that a politician’s own speech would be exempt from that fact-checking process and any ensuing consequences.  

Facebook did briefly remove a nearly identical set of ads run by Trump campaign’s earlier in the week, however a company spokesperson explained it was because the accompanying videos included a clip of Joe Biden saying “son of a bitch,” confirming that the ads did not otherwise violate its rules again misinformation. The spokesperson clarified that the politician exemption might not apply if Trump or another candidate were to share content from a third party website that contained information flagged by one of its factchecking partners.

According to Facebook’s archive, the ads have been displayed 270,000 to 600,000 times. While the archive only provides spending ranges, the approximately $2,200 to $7,100 the campaign outlaid to boost the adds is a tiny fraction of the more than $1.5 million they’ve spent on ads on the platform just since September 24.

Earlier this week, the CEO of the Democratic National Committee, Seema Nanda, criticized Facebook for not stopping Trump from “mislead[ing] the American people on their platform unimpeded, saying the party was “deeply disappointed in Facebook’s decision to exempt statements from political candidates from its fact-checking policy.”

Max Rose Showed Just How Easy Trump Has Made it to Talk About Impeachment

First-term Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.) had some big news to announce at his town hall on Staten Island Wednesday evening: split-tolling on the Verrazzano bridge had reduced congestion and shifted costs onto out-of-state drivers; R trains were running more consistently in Bay Ridge; and he had beaten back a Port Authority proposal to eliminate discounts for residents using any of the three bridges off the island. Staffers handed out leaflets explaining his position on various commuter-related issues, and officials from the Metropolitan Transit Authority and the local chamber of commerce were on hand to answer questions.

But first, some housekeeping. As a few dozen reporters, a Republican opposition research tracker, and a hundred or so attendees looked on, Rose announced that after much deliberation he had decided to “fully support this impeachment inquiry” into President Donald Trump’s attempt to coerce the Ukrainian government into investigating Joe Biden.

“If you look at the television, you just want to scream—if I had hair, I’d want to rip it out,” Rose said, announcing his support for an impeachment inquiry.

Rose, who knocked off Republican Rep. Dan Donovan last fall in one of the year’s biggest upsets, had been one of the final holdouts in the Democratic caucus after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced an impeachment inquiry last week. When a group of swing-district Democrats with national security backgrounds announced their support for an inquiry that week, Rose, an Army veteran, was not among them. Just a few weeks ago, he wrote an op-ed in the Staten Island Advance warning that a Trump impeachment would “tear our country further apart.”

But his comments on Wednesday were a reflection of just how quickly the ground on impeachment has shifted among Democrats of all stripes, and of how easy Trump has made it for cautious elected officials to get on board. As a representative from New York City’s most conservative borough, in a district Trump carried by 10 points, Rose has toed a moderate line in Washington and saved his rhetorical firepower for local issues. (This was the first of two town halls scheduled this week on commuting.)

But Trump’s alleged Ukrainian shakedown—and his subsequent, conspiracy-laden handling of the fallout—has made it possible for Rose to change his position without really budging from the safety of the middle-of-the-road. In his telling, it was less that Rose had come around on impeachment than impeachment had come around on Rose.

“If you look at the television, you just want to scream—if I had hair, I’d want to rip it out,” he said. He was stuck between Democratic colleagues who had prejudged the president before they’d even been sworn in and Republicans who have “suddenly…become deaf, mute, and blind whenever allegations against the president are brought up.” The White House, meanwhile, had “poured gasoline on the fire” at every opportunity.

But “the American people have a right to know if the president used his office to advance his self-interest,” and Trump, his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were getting in the way by ignoring subpoenas and threatening Congress. For an Army veteran, the idea that Trump could have played games with national security demanded answers. “That North Star of mine has always been those soldiers who are willing to risk it all,” he said. And if Trump provided adequate responses, he’d be the first to say so.

This is not, suffice it to say, the Rashida Tlaib line. But it’s not what the Max Rose line was in September, either. For a Congress member who prides himself on standing between two factions (“I will take on either my fellow Democrats or Republicans if they try to score cheap points,” he promised on Wednesday), it reflected where his idea of the most reasonable path now stood. Trump’s defiance of anything resembling oversight and accountability has made an impeachment inquiry a safe position for moderates.

As if to confirm this new reality, Rose’s announcement was met with minimal dissent. A sizable faction applauded his stance, while one attendee interjected in protest. “Did you support Christopher Steele, a British agent?” a man asked. He was shouted down.

All that out of the way, Rose returned to the matter at hand—the work of serving and surviving in one of the top-targeted districts in the country. He called for the Sackler family to be thrown in prison for fueling the opioid crisis, chided New York Mayor Bill de Blasio for rolling out a ferry plan that excluded Staten Island, delved into the minutiae of barges and pier construction, and respectfully disagreed with a man who said he’d prefer Medicare for All to his union’s own plan. The president’s name never came up again.

Afterward, I met Sharon Weerth and Bob Zuckerberg (“no relation to Mark”), two Democrats who had showed up to listen to their Congress member talk about commuter issues. They were relieved that Rose had finally come on board, but they acknowledged the political straits he was in.

“I’m glad he announced something, because up until now he was kind of on the fence,” Weerth said. “So now he came out and he said he was he was for impeachment—”

“An impeachment inquiry, that’s the difference,” Zuckerberg said.

“Right,” Weerth continued. “But still! Before he was like, ‘I’m not sure!’”

“He had to be very careful, and he still has to be very careful,” Zuckerberg said.

“Of course!”

But Rose, an ex-boxer, can still throw a punch when he wants. And right now, Trump makes a very easy target.

Today in the Fever Swamp: China!

This morning’s big impeachment-related news is that President Trump publicly called on China to investigate Hunter Biden over—

Well, it doesn’t matter what it’s over, does it? As usual, there’s no evidence that either of the Bidens did anything wrong except in the fever swamps of Sean Hannity and Foxland. But Trump marinates in that fever swamp these days, and the fever swamp says that Hunter Biden used his father’s pull to coerce a Chinese stake in an investment fund he owned. If you’re interested, you may read an appropriately breathless account of Biden perfidy by the author of Clinton Cash and other conspiratorial books here.

So why is Trump blathering about this today? It’s not because China is going to investigate it. And it’s not because anyone outside of the fever swamp believes it. He’s doing it for a couple of reasons. First, he’s showing solidarity with the swamp. Second, he’s sending a signal that conservative media should be all over this.

That’s it.

Service Sector Still Expanding, But Barely

A couple of days ago the ISM manufacturing index dropped below 50 for the second month in a row, suggesting a weakening economy. The non-manufacturing index hasn’t gotten that bad yet, but it’s lost about eight points over the past year and is now hovering just barely above 50:

A level above 48.6 means the services sector is still expanding, but only barely. If it falls below 48.6, that means it’s contracting. As with other signals, this suggests that the economy isn’t plummeting, but it’s definitely weakening.

House Democrats Are So Focused on Ukraine That They’re Overlooking Another Impeachable Offense

This is the way things work now: Donald Trump is credibly reported to have given aid and comfort to an enemy that attacked the United States—and this allegation, several days later, is not part of the news cycle or the scandal that is fueling the impeachment drive on Capitol Hill. The story of the most profound betrayal a president can commit has vanished from the national discourse. And that is partly because of the Democrats.

Last Friday night, the Washington Post published a stunning article reporting that during an Oval Office meeting in May 2017, Trump told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and then–Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak that Trump was unconcerned about Moscow’s attack on the 2016 presidential election. Trump noted the Russians that their assault on the United States was no big deal because the United States did the same in other countries, according to three former officials. It was at this meeting that Trump, as had been previously reported, revealed highly classified information to his Russian visitors and said that his firing of FBI chief James Comey the previous day had relieved “great pressure” on him. Yet Trump’s comments dismissing the importance of the Russian attack—which, according to the US intelligence community, was mounted in part to help Trump win the White House—now stands as the most significant moment of that gathering, where Trump and the two Russians were photographed smiling. 

The Post noted that after this discussion, White House officials took steps to keep Trump’s comments from becoming public, and limited distribution of a memo summarizing the conversation to only a few officials with the highest security clearances. The memo was kept from officials who normally would have access to this sort of report. (The newspaper also reported it was unclear whether the memo was hidden in the supersecret White House server, as were documents related to those Trump interactions with Ukraine that are now the subject of the impeachment inquiry.)

It has long been assumed that Trump’s meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak was in keeping with Trump’s stated desire to get past the 2016 election and Russia’s interference. But Trump telling the Russians he did not care about the attack goes much further. That would mark a dereliction of his primary duty as president: to protect the nation. The US intelligence community, the report of special counsel Robert Mueller, and two congressional investigations (led by Republicans) have each declared that Moscow covertly waged extensive information warfare against the United States to subvert American democracy. Yet here was Trump sending a message to the foreign adversary that staged this attack that he was indifferent about it—that Russia could get away with it and perhaps do so again. Certainly, Moscow could have read Trump’s I-don’t-care comment as an invitation for future underhanded intervention.  

Numerous national security officials in Trump’s own administration, including current FBI chief Chris Wray and former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, have said Russia poses a serious threat to the 2020 elections. On Wednesday, when asked if Moscow would target the coming US election, Russian leader Vladimir Putin joked, “I’ll tell you a secret: Yes, we’ll definitely do it.” And he added in a stage whisper, “Just don’t tell anyone.” But Trump, who has denied or discounted the Russian attack ever since the campaign, has never echoed concerns about a Russian assault in 2020, and he has not signaled that thwarting another Moscow attack (or an attack on US elections from any other source) is a priority for him. 

At that Oval Office meeting with the Russians, Trump was abandoning his primary responsibility as commander in chief. The shirking of a president’s most basic obligation—an easy-to-understand and easy-to-depict act of nonfeasance and malfeasance—could be expected to dominate the news for a few days and appear front and center in an impeachment inquiry. But it hasn’t. 

In moments like these, news coverage is often shaped and determined by the actions and reactions of political players. Scandalous revelations tend to be driven forward in the media by the responses they engender. If an influential actor screams about a matter, the issue will probably receive more coverage. In the case of Trump’s nothing-to-worry-about comment to the Russians, the Democrats did not make a fuss, and the story has fizzled. 

The morning after the Washington Post broke this news, I ran into a prominent House Democrat. Won’t this disclosure of serious presidential negligence become a key part of the impeachment process? I asked her. Aren’t the Democrats going to jump on this with good cause? 

No, she said, explaining that the House Democratic leadership believed it was best to keep the impeachment inquiry targeted on the Trump-Ukraine scandal and concentrate on Trump’s request to the Ukrainian president that he provide Trump dirt that could be used to discredit the Mueller probe and attack Joe Biden in seeming exchange for US missiles. This Democrat agreed with that approach: “We need to keep this narrow. It will be easier for the public to follow.” But how much easier is it to comprehend Trump’s supposed shakedown than his Oval Office treachery?

In the days that followed, the House Democrats indeed did little in response to the Post‘s story. As the Dems in charge of the Ukraine investigation were issuing subpoenas and arranging to take depositions related to that scandal, they did nothing about Trump’s sellout in the Oval Office. They did not demand the memos about that meeting that were restricted. They did not announce this would become an element of the impeachment probe. Another House Democrat says the party’s leadership “is laboring under the impression you can keep impeachment narrowly focused on Ukraine. They think people are sick and tired of Russia  and Putin. But this was aiding and abetting the enemy—and in the Oval Office.” (The Ukraine controversy is connected to the Trump-Russia scandal. Trump is in trouble with his phone call to Zelensky partly because he was leaning on the Ukrainian president for material that he believed would support an especially nutty conspiracy theory that insists the Russia scandal was nothing but a hoax created to undermine Trump.)

A House aide working on the Ukraine inquiry notes that the Democrats are overwhelmed with just the work of that probe. They are producing subpoenas and conducting interviews on a fast pace to prepare articles of impeachment by Thanksgiving. And this aide says there is “not enough bandwidth to jump into other stuff.” The aide adds, “Right now we are focused on concerns emanating from the president’s call on the Ukraine. We have rolled out a full agenda of investigative work. We are taking note of all these other issues that have emerged. But for now we are focused on this agenda.” 

Perhaps zeroing in on the Ukraine scandal and Trump’s moblike abuse of power is the practical decision for House Democrats and investigators. It’s new; it’s manageable. It’s not muddied up the way the Trump-Russia controversy has become (due to the years-long disinformation campaign mounted by Trump and his cultists). Yet this means Trump is being let off the hook for a monumental act of perfidy. Consider this: The president of the United States, according to this report, essentially countenanced an attack on the United States. What could warrant impeachment more? But this story comes and then it goes. Only in the era of Trump would a possible act of treason on the part of the president be considered a second-tier matter and become lost in the swirl of tweets and other outrageous misdeeds.

Elizabeth Warren Just Released a Wide-Ranging Plan to Give Power Back to Workers

Just two weeks after she joined the picket line outside a General Motors assembly plant in Detroit, Senator Elizabeth Warren on Thursday morning released a wide ranging labor plan, which promises to tackle an overarching problem: “American workers don’t have enough power.” The 14-page document, significantly longer than both Vice President Joe Biden’s and Senator Bernie Sanders’ plans, includes provisions to protect union workers, independent contractors, and employees that have historically been discriminated against, such as LGBTQ people, people of color, people with disabilities and pregnant people. 

On the first day of a Warren administration, the Massachusetts Democrat promises to sign an executive order mandating a $15-an-hour minimum wage for federal contractors. She intends to eventually extend that minimum wage to all workers—including tipped workers—through federal legislation. 

The plan also calls for the passage of legislation that allows public sector workers, graduate students, gig-economy workers, farm workers, domestic workers, home care workers, and some managers to unionize. Like her fellow presidential frontrunners Biden and Sanders, Warren recommends repealing right-to-work laws (which gut union funding) and prohibiting companies from permanently replacing workers on strike. But she takes it a step further with promises to strengthen enforcement authority of the National Labor Relations Board and appoint “a demonstrated advocate for workers to fill any Supreme Court vacancy.”

The workers of @UAW are fighting for fair wages and good benefits—and I have their backs. When unions win, all workers win. pic.twitter.com/xC2di0jzLH

— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) September 22, 2019

“We cannot have a truly democratic society with so little power in the hands of working people,” Warren writes in the plan. “We cannot have sustained and inclusive economic growth without a stronger labor movement. That’s why returning power to working people will be the overarching goal of my presidency.”

Los Angeles, a City Known for Its Freeways, Is About to Plant a Shit Ton of Trees

Los Angeles, the sprawling city of freeways, thinks its future depends on trees. And it may be right: Research shows trees improve air and water quality, store carbon, and can even reduce stress. All these benefits don’t seem to be lost on Mayor Eric Garcetti, who in late April announced his version of a Green New Deal for the city. Among other measures, he mandated that every new city-owned building be all-electric, established a goal to phase out styrofoam, called for a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, and, crucially, tasked the city with the goal of planting a whopping 90,000 trees by the end of 2021. “With flames on our hillsides and floods in our streets,” Garcetti said in a press release at the time, “cities cannot wait another moment to confront the climate crisis with everything we’ve got.”

The ambitious tree-planting project falls under the purview of Rachel Malarich, the city’s forest officer—a job that was just created in August to “oversee the growth of Los Angeles’ urban forest” as part of Garcetti’s Green New Deal. An arborist with more than a decade of experience in urban forestry, Malarich was appointed just days before the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report that emphasized the role of trees and forests in combatting climate change. The project will grow what’s already the largest urban forest in the country, making what happens in Los Angeles an important model for other cities looking to go green.

A real tree nerd myself, I called Malarich last month, when she was just a few weeks into the job, to chat about the unnoticed benefits of urban foliage, which species is her favorite, and the challenges of actually planting tens of thousands of trees in just a few years. Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

In my mind, your day-to-day looks something along the lines of Leslie Knope’s job from Parks and Rec. What kinds of things do you deal with now or do you expect to deal with?

I don’t think I’m down into a routine yet. In this initial time, I’m meeting key stakeholders, including heads of departments and council offices and kind of doing the rounds of doing introductions. I’m also doing some background research. But I don’t know yet, honestly [laughs]. I’m still finding out where to get paper and pens.

I was in Washington, DC, on a trip and walked through a city street and then walked through part of the National Mall that had tree cover. And it was so dramatically cooler.

I’m trying to wrap my head around this goal of 90,000 new trees by 2021. It would require planting, on average, almost 100 trees per day [beginning in April 2019]. How is that going to be possible? 

Well, now you’ve discovered the secret of what I’m doing with my time; I’m out there with a shovel—no I’m kidding [laughs]. The truth is, we don’t plant if at all possible between say, June and September. It’s too hot for people to plant, so that limits more the time in which we’re planting.

But the reason it’s totally feasible and I feel real confident is, it isn’t just the city who’s planting. There are more than five nonprofits that plant trees in Los Angeles and do fundraising and community organizing around that. And they work very, very closely with the city and with each other to plant trees. There’s definitely a portion of this goal that’s going to be me doing some very strategic planning and grant writing and engaging our community groups and partners to help us reach this aspirational goal. But it’s doable. We have the partnerships and expertise in place to do it.

Are there areas or neighborhoods that you plan to focus on?

Obviously, higher-need neighborhoods. We have areas around the Port of LA that have low canopy cover. We have portions of the San Fernando Valley which are extremely hot and could use some additional shade. And portions of South and East LA that also have tremendous opportunity to get additional canopy and are under different environmental and social burdens. 

Are there some benefits of urban trees that you think most people don’t realize?

Trees help us capture stormwater. They slow down rain when it falls from the sky, which is a huge deal here in Los Angeles, with our storm events, to be able to capture some of that water. [Water] droplets collect on the leaves and then run down the branches and have time to soak into the ground rather than just hitting the pavement and rolling away.

Another one that I don’t think people always think about is the transpiration that trees provide. They provide cooling overnight by releasing moisture through the transpiration process. That is something else that continues to amaze me. I remember I was in Washington, DC, on a trip and walked through a city street and then walked through part of the National Mall that had tree cover. And it was so dramatically cooler. And it was nighttime, so it wasn’t that there was shade covering me. It’s again, those living things that are cooling the area.

They also bring communities together. The research shows us that they improve feelings of social cohesion in a neighborhood. And feelings of connectedness to our communities can also increase our resiliency in light of other disasters. I think that trees are a really important part of our communities, and they are hugely connected to public health.

Are there any challenges specific to Los Angeles that you’re dealing with?

I don’t know that this is necessarily unique to LA, but obviously, we have the issue of infrastructure conflicts. The trees that were planted 50 years ago that were too big, they weren’t the right tree for the right place, and they are now lifting the sidewalk. So at the same time, they are providing shade and benefits to those communities, while making them [Americans with Disabilities Act] inaccessible.

I think that trees are a really important part of our communities, and they are hugely connected to public health.

One thing that is kind of unique to the region is the invasive shot hole borer [a fungus-farming beetle] that appeared several years ago. Most pests attack one group of trees—like with Dutch Elm disease or the Emerald Ash borer. This invasive shot hole borer has lots of trees that it likes to eat. And it’s actually not the bug that’s killing the trees, but Fusarium, the fungi that they use to feed their offspring, that is, in fact, causing the tree to fail. That has been a huge issue for this area and one that has concerned a lot of arborists. And a lot of people don’t know about it. It can kill a tree within two years and there’s no cure at this point.

If you were to give one piece of advice to another person in your position, or a city hoping to hire someone in your position, what advice would you give them?

I don’t know if I have an answer for that. If I was a person of the public wondering why we need such a position, I don’t always think that arborists, our city foresters, get the respect they deserve having to deal with [pause]—in the forest, a tree can lose a limb, no problem, no one’s around to get hit. It’s the risk management side of urban forestry that makes the job challenging and really important. And people don’t always appreciate that.

Part of the reason that I’m having a hard time with this question is that the scope of LA’s urban forest is really unique in terms of the size—the city is huge. And it has a ton of different trees. And not a lot of climates can handle as much diversity as LA has. We can take species from all over the world and grow them here in a lot of cases, so it’s kind of hard to compare.

Is there a certain type of tree that you think that you think works particularly well in urban environments?

This is a question I’ve gotten actually from some staff in the past couple of days. The hard thing about trees [pause]—if I’m, let’s just say, working with street lights, I’m going and maybe replacing a bulb, right? When I’m looking at trees, it is a site-specific decision. So I’m standing in front of a property, I’m thinking, “Is there a tree on the property already that’s hanging over the sidewalk? Are there power lines? Is there grass or is it a dirt parkway? Is it concrete?” There are so many different factors that we consider and have to look at. “Is it going to do well in this area closer to the coast? Is it going to do well with the sandier alluvial soil in the Northeast Valley?” It not a simple decision.

When I’m looking at trees, it is a site-specific decision. So I’m standing in front of a property, I’m thinking, “Is there a tree on the property already that’s hanging over the sidewalk?”

In some areas, sure, there’s a tree that I think would be better at capturing particulate matter or providing a larger canopy, but it is not able to grow in as small a space as is available to me. So in some communities, what we have is four-by-six foot concrete cuts the trees can go in and that drops it down to maybe 10 species that I’m looking at planting. So for me, it’s the tree that’s going to be best for that location. Right tree, right place.

Do you have a personal favorite species of tree?

It really depends. Coast Live Oak is my current favorite. It’s one that’s native to California. If you drive up the coast, up the 101 freeway, is what you’re going to see in the pastures along the road. They support over 300 species of birds and insects. They’re just beautiful and they’re keystone components to our ecological systems.

A Coast Live Oak

Woodkern/Getty

ATM Fees Have Been Pretty Stable Over the Past Decade

Axios published a chart today showing the evolution of ATM fees since 1998 and it’s been making the rounds. What do I have to contribute to this? Just the usual: adjusting it for inflation since it’s a time series of money. Here’s the real average ATM fee over the past couple of decades:

In this case, adjusting for inflation genuinely shows you something that you can’t really see in the original chart: virtually all of the increase came in the period 1998-2010. Over the past decade, ATM fees have risen only 6 percent. That may or may not be of interest to you, but it’s certainly worth knowing if you’re planning to mouth off about greedy banks or somesuch.

Lawsuits Against Trump’s Destruction of National Monument Are Allowed to Continue, a Federal Judge Rules

In 2017, President Donald Trump signed a proclamation that would reduce the size of Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent. When environmental groups and five Native American tribes fought back in court, the Trump administration tried to dismiss the legal challenges they raised. But on Monday, a federal judge turned down Trump’s attempt to block the lawsuits, the Salt Lake Tribune reported, meaning that the battle to preserve the national monument will continue.

Bears Ears, a 3.5-million-acre stretch of canyons, buttes, and desert plateaus, is notable not only for its stunning geologic formations, but also for its Native American cultural, religious, and archaeological sites. Former president Barack Obama designated Bears Ears as a national monument in 2016, despite pushback from Republican lawmakers in Utah.

A year after Obama’s designation under the 1906 Antiquities Act, Trump made the unprecedented decision to cut the area of Bears Ears from 1.35 million acres to 201,876 acres, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. He also tried to cut the size of another Utah national monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante, in half. The question at the heart of the current legal fight is whether Trump has the authority under the Antiquities Act to overturn his predecessor’s designation. In the meantime, in case it is ruled that he does, energy companies are hungrily eyeing the area’s oil and natural gas deposits.

Two Key Figures in the Ukraine Scandal Just Hired Trump’s Former Attorney

President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer, John Dowd, has agreed to represent two businessmen who helped Rudy Giuliani seek dirt on Joe Biden from current and former Ukrainian officials. Dowd represented Trump in matters relating to special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe until March 2018. Dowd’s new clients, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, are key figures in the burgeoning Ukraine scandal and appear to have worked closely with Giuliani in his efforts to discredit the Mueller investigation.

Parnas, a Florida businessman and would-be movie producer with a string of debts, said in a text message Wednesday that he had retained Dowd. Dowd confirmed in an interview that he had agreed to work for both Parnas and Fruman, whose has business ties in the Ukrainian city of Odessa. Dowd declined to discuss the details of the arrangement. “I haven’t had a chance to meet with them,” he said.

The hiring highlights the tight links between the president’s current and former attorneys and others involved in the growing scandal that was triggered by the revelation that Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into digging up damaging information about Trump’s political opponents. Giuliani, who currently represents Trump, has said he was hired by Parnas and Fruman as their lawyer and worked with them to unearth information related to Biden and the Mueller probe. Giuliani tweeted in May that the men “are my clients.” 

Dowd also remains in contact with Trump, who he described on Wednesday as a friend. “We talk every once in a while,” Dowd said in a telephone interview. Giuliani told the Daily Beast in January that Trump at that time occasionally sought Dowd’s advice on legal matters. But Dowd said Wednesday that he no longer provides legal counsel to Trump. “He has his own lawyers to do that,” Dowd said.

Dowd had a controversial tenure as Trump’s lawyer. In September 2017, a New York Times reporter wrote up a conversation he overheard at a popular Washington restaurant between Dowd and another Trump attorney about Trump’s defense strategy. In November 2017, as former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn prepared to cut a deal to cooperate with Mueller, Dowd left Flynn’s attorney a voicemail, in which Dowd seemed to float the possibility of Trump pardoning Flynn. Dowd has denied that he was hinting at a pardon, and he accused Mueller’s staff of selectively editing a transcript of the call.

Parnas and Fruman, who live in South Florida, became big GOP donors in 2018, giving at least $576,500 in combined donations over several months. According to reporting by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and BuzzFeed News, they used the resulting access to powerful Republican figures to promote a plan to sell American liquified gas to Ukraine. In May 2018, the duo dined with the president at the Trump International Hotel.

According to the OCCRP/BuzzFeed report, Parnas and Fruman encouraged Giuliani’s effort to promote the conspiracy theory that Biden in 2016 forced the firing of a Ukrainian prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, in order to block an investigation of a natural gas company that had put Biden’s son, Hunter, on its board. There’s no evidence for that allegation; Shokin was ousted in part because of widespread international criticism over his failure to combat corruption. Parnas says he and Fruman first put Giuliani in touch with Shokin and that they also connected Giuliani late last year with Shokin’s successor, Yuriy Lutsenko, who leveled—and later retracted—accusations about the Bidens. 

On Monday, the House Intelligence Committee subpoenaed Giuliani. It also asked Parnas and Fruman to turn over documents and to agree to be questioned. That demand appears to have led to them hiring Dowd.

Dowd said Wednesday that Parnas and Fruman are his only clients involved in the Ukraine scandal. “That’s enough,” he said.

Giuliani declined Wednesday to answer questions about his relationship with Parnas and Fruman, including when they retained him and how long the engagement lasted. “Who cares[?]” he wrote in a text message. “As Nero is burning Rome you’re trying to figure out if the Fire Department is to blame. Respectfully you are chasing the irrelevant.” 

Asked if he was comparing Trump to Nero, Giuliani said he meant Biden.

A Federal Judge Just Blocked Georgia’s Insane 6-Week Abortion Ban

On Tuesday, a US District Court in Atlanta blocked Georgia’s controversial six-week abortion ban from going into effect.

“This is a victory for people in Georgia and a reminder that these attacks on abortion access are illegal,” Talcott Camp, deputy director of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project said in a statement. “Abortion is still legal in all 50 states. We won’t stop fighting until we defeat all efforts to block access.” 

The ban, signed into law by Georgia’s Republican governor Brian Kemp in May, would have blocked most abortions once a doctor was able to detect a fetal heartbeat, which occurs around six weeks of pregnancy and is often before someone is aware of a pregnancy. The ban was intended to go into effect in January, but in June, the Center for Reproductive Rights, along with lawyers for the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, sued to prevent this from happening. 

Georgia was one seven states—Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio—to enact similar abortion bans earlier this year, and all have been challenged in court. Following the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, many state legislatures rushed to pass anti-abortion bills in the hopes of getting a case to the Supreme Court that could overturn Roe v. Wade. According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, state legislatures have passed more than 300 bills restricting abortion access this year, nearly half of which they say, “would severely restrict access to abortion.” 

“The court recognized today that this law is blatantly unconstitutional and a clear attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade,” said Emily Nestler, Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “Instead of passing laws that restrict the rights of pregnant women, Georgia lawmakers should be implementing policies that help pregnant women. ”

District Court Judge Steve Jones, who presided over this case, found that the law violated the 1974 Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade that guaranteed the right to an abortion for women by banning abortion before viability. “Under no circumstances whatsoever,” Jones wrote in his decision, “may a state prohibit or ban abortions at any point prior to viability.”

The Atlanta Journal and Constitution  reported that the governor’s office will be reviewing the Jones decision. 

“Despite today’s outcome, we remain confident in our position,” Kemp spokeswoman Candice Broce told the AJC. “We will continue to fight for the unborn and work to ensure that all Georgians have the opportunity to live, grow and prosper.”

Anti-abortion groups also spoke out against the ruling. 

“This is yet another demonstration of judicial activism against an overwhelming majority of Georgians who support protecting innocent life,” Joshua Edmonds, the executive director of the anti-abortion Georgia Life Alliance, told the AJC. “We will continue to fight to prevent Planned Parenthood and the ACLU from turning back the clock on human rights in Georgia.”

 

Lunchtime Photo

Getting a late-night haircut in Bogotá.

August 6, 2019 — Bogotá, Colombia

That Viral Study About Red Meat Left Out The Most Important Part

Americans consume, on average, more than a half a pound of meat per day—more than our counterparts in any other country. Should we eat less? A panel of 14 researchers from seven countries—all of whom claim to receive no meat-industry funding—just produced a study finding no compelling reason to cut back.

There’s a catch, however: “Considerations of environmental impact or animal welfare did not bear” on their conclusions, the study states. The researchers looked purely at health considerations: whether eating red meat, and also processed meat (think preserved products like sausage, bacon, etc.) increases the risk of cancer, diabetes, or cardiovascular trouble. After crunching data from dozens of red-meat and processed-meat studies, they found “low- to very low-certainty evidence” that reductions in either might produce slight decreases in bad health outcomes. The evidence was so shaky, and the potential health improvements so minor, that the panel concluded that adults can “continue current consumption” of burgers and sausages without major health consequences. 

However, human health is about more than individual cases of heart disease or cancer. The US style of industrial meat production is a driver of climate change. And climate change brings all manner of health risks, from broadening the range of disease vectors like mosquitos to food shortages to increasing risk of deadly floods, fires, and heat waves. And there’s a pretty solid consensus that if we’re going to avoid the ravages associated with a 2°C rise in average temperatures over pre-industrial levels, then we’re going to have to cut way back on meat. I laid that case out here.  

The line separating public health and climate change is blurry.

Back in 2015, when crafting the US Dietary Guidelines, which inform decisions on everything from agricultural subsidies to school lunch, the departments of agriculture and health and human services initially suggested that cutting down on read meat would not only bring health benefits, it would also be a more environmentally sustainable diet. After a backlash from GOP congresspeople and the food industry, the Obama Administration backed away from the environmental angle. “Issues of the environment and sustainability are critically important and they are addressed in a number of initiatives within the Administration,” a joint USDA/HHS press release stated.

But as for the dietary guidelines, the administration opted to “remain within the scope of our mandate” to stick to health advice, because dietary guidelines aren’t the “appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability.”

In the new study, that global team of researchers took a similar stay-in-your-lane approach to dietary advice. But the line separating public health and climate change is blurry. This graphic from another US government agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drives that point home.

 

Trump’s Not Richard Nixon. He’s Andrew Johnson.

For more than a century the official narrative of the first presidential impeachment has been butchered and distorted, reduced to a historical curiosity, a showdown between two irresponsible factions in which voices of reason ultimately triumphed. You were likely taught (if you were taught at all) that the 1868 fight to remove Andrew Johnson from office centered on an obscure and dubious law, the Tenure of Office Act, and that “Radical” Republicans—their influence inflated in the aftermath of the Civil War—overstepped their bounds in a quest for even more power.

This viewpoint was memorialized most famously in John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer-winning 1957 book, Profiles in Courage, which canonized Edmund G. Ross, the Kansas Republican senator whose last-minute decision reversal led to Johnson’s acquittal. The verdict, as recounted by Kennedy, was a triumph of sobriety and institutional scruple, of country over party, of pragmatism over ideology. It’s all of the stories official Washington loves to tell about itself, wrapped in one: When both sides are to blame, real heroism can mean doing nothing at all.

At this point, it’s a cliché to compare President Donald Trump’s present predicament to Richard Nixon and Watergate—the pathetic desperation of the crime itself, the bungling attempt at a cover-up, the release of an incriminating transcript. Fair enough. But the best parallel to Trump isn’t Nixon; it’s Johnson, a belligerent and destructive faux-populist who escaped conviction by the thinnest of margins. Though popular critics like Kennedy have long framed the Johnson impeachment as a fight over something small—an act of legalistic nitpicking—the stakes could not have been bigger. It was about what kinds of transgressions and values were worth fighting over in a country that in many ways was still at war with itself. Sometimes the biggest crimes aren’t criminal at all.

Thankfully you don’t have to take JFK’s word for it these days. Brenda Wineapple’s The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation, published this spring, is a welcome rejoinder to the impeachment whitewashing. Wineapple places the trial of the 17th president in the context of the violence and political turmoil that built up to it. In her lively account of the road to impeachment, the process was rife with bumbling and paranoia (yes, on both sides), but nonetheless centered on a profound question: whether the nation would continue on its path toward a pluralistic democracy or revert to the white supremacist state that had existed before Fort Sumter.

Johnson was a sort of anti-Lincoln, a stumpy, vengeful, subliterate tailor who rose through the ranks of the Democratic Party in East Tennessee by railing against elites. In 1861, he was the only Southern senator to stay loyal to the Union, leaving him not only without a state but largely without a party. Lincoln appointed him military governor of Tennessee, and later, hoping to shore up his support ahead of his re-election campaign, added Johnson to his ticket. Johnson showed up drunk to his own swearing-in, then hid out at a friend’s house in Maryland, ashamed to show his face. A few weeks later, he was president.

Related

That Time Domestic Terrorists Took Back the South

At first, the so-called Radical Republicans—the vociferously anti-slavery lawmakers who had pushed Lincoln to pass the 13th Amendment and provided the strongest support for the prosecution of the war—were optimistic that Johnson would be an ally in their quest to reconstruct the South. Johnson had once told a group of freedmen that he would be their “Moses,” and he suggested in meetings early on that he would commit himself fully to enacting Lincoln’s agenda.

But alarm bells began to sound. Johnson was erratic. He was wavering. Frederick Douglass met with him at the White House and came away disturbed. In the meeting, the president had suggested deporting millions of freedmen and appeared to be unfamiliar with who Douglass actually was. Johnson started granting mass amnesties to Confederate soldiers and appointing Confederates to key governmental posts. In the summer of 1866, a wave of racial pogroms broke out in former cities of the Confederacy, targeting freedmen—34 killed in New Orleans; 46 killed in Memphis. Why hadn’t Johnson done anything to stop it? Why was he suddenly blocking every effort by Congress to bring white supremacist violence in the South under control? People who had once seemed enthusiastic at the project ahead were beginning to talk about the I-word.

Wineapple quotes Wendell Phillips, the Massachusetts anti-slavery activist, speaking after Johnson’s appointment of an ex-secessionist governor in Raleigh: “Better, far better, would it have been for Grant to have surrendered to Lee than for Johnson to have surrendered to North Carolina.”

There’s a lot about the Johnson impeachment that should feel familiar, because, as with Trump, undergirding the whole enterprise was an act of betrayal: The president’s loudest critics believed that he had sold out the country and its democratic institutions to a hostile power. In Johnson’s case, that power was the Confederacy. After five years of fighting, nearly a million deaths, and billions in unpaid debts, Johnson was restoring to power the enemy that had just been defeated. High-ranking Confederates were creeping back into positions of influence. Enemy agents—the Ku Klux Klan and its ilk, not FSB hackers—brazenly attacked the foundations of a free republic and terrorized freedmen while the president and his supporters downplayed their existence and enabled their work.

Then, as now, it was easy to fall down a rabbit hole. There was no Ritz-Carlton in Moscow, but members of Congress spent months searching for evidence that would implicate Johnson in the death of his predecessor. Rep. James Ashley (R-Ohio), a floor manager for the 13th Amendment, went searching for non-existent correspondence between Johnson and John Wilkes Booth. Rep. Benjamin Butler (R-Mass.), a crooked walrus of a man who would later serve as impeachment manager, wondered if the 18 pages missing from Booth’s diary might have implicated the president. The House investigated Johnson’s drinking. They asked if he was frequenting prostitutes. His behavior was just so inexplicable to them. There had to be some explanation.

And there really was some weird shit going on. Take the case of John Surratt. Although most of the Lincoln conspirators were quickly captured, convicted, and executed by military tribunals, Surratt somehow escaped to Canada and then to Rome—where he changed his name to “John Watson” and joined the Papal Guard.

The Johnson impeachment was fundamentally about values and power, and about what kind of country would emerge out of its greatest conflict. Plenty of people understood that bloodshed was the price of inaction, that there was nothing courageous about meek deference to power.

You may be thinking, “Wait, is there another Papal Guard?” No, there is not. John Surratt was a Zouave. He wore a fez with a pom-pom on the end and big poofy pants and carried a musket, and when an American traveling abroad ran into him, Surratt fled to Egypt. He evaded capture for a year, long enough, somehow, for the statute of limitations to expire on kidnapping the president—the conspirators’ original plan, before they switched to murder. By then the military tribunals had been disbanded. He got a friendly jury in Confederate-curious Maryland and, by 1868, was a free man.

Strange, yes. Infuriating, very. But hardly, as Rep. George Boutwell (R-Mass.) suggested, evidence of a sinister plot. After all, the Lincoln conspirators would have assassinated Johnson too, if the man tasked with doing it hadn’t got drunk and lost his knife. There’s an Andrew Johnson in every group.

All of this chimes with our current conspiratorial moment . Unable to square what is happening with their understanding of how things are supposed to work, people start looking for totalizing explanations. They come to believe that the absence of smoke means someone must be covering up a fire, and that is never a good path to go down. That’s how otherwise well-balanced people wind up getting political news from Tom Arnold.

But there was only one true Johnson scandal, just as there is only one true Trump scandal, and though the particulars are very different—the former’s class resentment was the inverse of the latter’s class entitlement—they share a common element: an open hostility to democratic ideals. That was Andrew Johnson’s high crime, and there was nothing conspiratorial or nitpicky about it. He was doing it in plain sight. The rest was noise.

Mother Jones illustration; Library of Congress, Washington Post/Getty

Johnson did not react well to all this chatter about his loyalties. In 1866, he decided to go on the offensive, embarking on a national tour to shore up his support. It was called the “Swing Around the Circle,” and it was insane. The closest I can come to describing is, maybe, what if George Wallace spoke at Altamont? It’s tough to find a true analogue. Presidents just don’t really talk like Johnson did on that tour, no matter what lurks in their hearts. Even Nixon didn’t talk like that, and Nixon hired a Jew-counter.

There are echoes of the Johnsonian aesthetic, though, in Trump. Suggesting that a political opponent should go back to her country has a Johnson-like ring to it. Smiling as a crowd chants “send her back” is a bit more like it. Casual cracks about political violence and treason, menacing libels of vulnerable classes, endless chatter about “lies” and “enemies,” a persecution complex big enough you could send the 13th Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry Regiment through it—that was the essence of the Swing Around the Circle.

Here, via Wineapple, is Andrew Johnson in St. Louis:

“I have been traduced and abused,” he shot back, his voice tremulous with self-pity. “I have been traduced, I have been slandered, I have been called Judas Iscariot,” he shouted. And just because he exercised his veto power over the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill or Civil Rights, his enemies said he ought to be impeached. The sympathetic members of the crowd cried out, “Never.”

“Yes, yes!” he answered, and then speaking of himself in the third person, cried, “They are ready to impeach him.”

“Let them try it,” his supporters answered back.

But he was incoherent. “There was a Judas once,” Johnson babbled, “one of the twelve apostles. Oh, yes! And these apostles had a Christ, and he could not have had a Judas unless he had twelve apostles.

“If I have played the Judas, who has been my Christ that I have played Judas with?”

It was bewildering. Again, he yelled, “Why don’t you hang Thad Stevens and Wendell Phillips?”

And they never show the crowd!

Johnson’s message, though, was disturbingly lucid: He was the only man standing between you and the mob, and you all know who the mob is. Phillips and Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (R-Penn.) should be hanged because they were ready to turn to the country over to the Black man while putting the white man in chains. He was saying, with his words and actions, that the tragedy of New Orleans and Memphis was that freedmen had tried to exercise power in the first place. These were the stakes.

Still, there was no rush to impeachment. It would take two more years of false starts before enough Republicans came around to the idea. For one thing, because it was untested at the presidential level and used sparingly anywhere else, no one really agreed on what constituted an impeachable offense. The Constitution said “high crimes” and “misdemeanors.” Okay—what are those? The handful of previous cases didn’t offer much help. One federal judge had been convicted of joining the Confederacy; another had been acquitted for, in Wineapple’s phrasing, “using rude language.”

Congress is an institution that craves structure. These are the people who invented the subcommittee. Stevens, a brilliant parliamentarian and Congress’ most ardent advocate for racial equality, cut through all of the agonizing with a simple answer: An impeachable offense is whatever the hell a majority of the House and two thirds of the Senate wants it to be.

“I do not hold that it is necessary to prove a crime as an indictable offense, or any act malum in se,” he said. In fact, Democrats who lamented that impeachment was being used as a political process were correct. It was! “I agree with the distinguished gentlemen from Pennsylvania, on the other side of the House, who holds this to be a purely political proceeding. It is intended as a remedy for malfeasance in office and to prevent continuance thereof.” But Stevens’ colleagues wanted a smoking gun, a clear legal infraction to hang their case on.

Things continued to get worse as Congress twiddled its thumbs. What eventually pushed Congress over the line was Johnson’s violation of a weird law called the Tenure of Office Act, which had been passed over presidential veto in early 1867 and prohibited the president from firing cabinet members without permission from the Senate. The law is a little arcane and was later found unconstitutional, but it responded to a real crisis.

Johnson’s secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, was appointed to the job by Lincoln. He was responsible for hundreds of thousands of soldiers throughout the occupied South and was the last line of defense for millions of freedmen trying to exercise their rights in the face of rising white supremacist terror—which, if Johnson had his way, the federal government would just ignore. Johnson wanted to get Stanton out of the way. This wasn’t really about checks and balances; it was a break-the-glass moment for Reconstruction.

The president abided by the law at first, and then changed his mind and fired Stanton four months later. His replacement was Lorenzo Thomas, a drunk desk jockey (Johnson had a type) whose main qualification seemed to be his lack of any. After he accepted the job, as Wineapple tells it, Thomas very meekly approached Stanton to tell him that he was in charge, then attended a masquerade ball, then got hammered, and was found the next morning wandering the streets of Washington telling pedestrians that he intended to raise an army to drive Stanton from his office.

Stanton moved his belongings into the War Department, barricaded the doors, and refused to leave the building. This wasn’t normal. Johnson had already said his critics should be hanged. He had stated he would not sic the Army on Congress—which is the kind of thing you only really say if you’ve thought about it. Now some neighborhood drunk was going to take over the War Department. The House finally had its actionable offense. In 1868, three years after Johnson took office, the chamber voted to impeach.

Stevens, Boutwell, and their allies were up against more than just an unhinged president with a drinking problem. They also had to deal with nervousness and dissent within their own ranks. Although Republicans were mostly united in their antipathy to Johnson, they broke down into disparate factions on impeachment. There were the die-hards, of course, and the outright opponents, but the rest were subject to the whims of the moment—people who believed that, yes, the president was bad, but they should convict him at the ballot box, or who gave lip service to the cause but whose true passion was fiscal responsibility. (This last one was a real concern: Because Johnson had no vice president, his removal would have placed Senate president pro-tem Ben Wade in the Oval Office—a nightmare scenario for hard-money bankers.)

In other words, they had to confront the Washington process scold. Today, the most ardent supporters of impeachment on the left are plenty familiar with the type—these are the people obsessed with the means of governance rather than its ends. In the minds of process scolds, the only thing worse than the problems is the act of doing something about those problems. They are duly concerned about possible threats to pluralism, but tut-tut about the discourse when a Muslim congresswoman says she wants to “impeach the motherfucker” who called for Muslims to be banned from entering the United States. Their response to investigations always involves more investigations. These are the people who invented the subcommittee.

For impeachers of any era, the process scolds represent their the most vexing opponent, because on a fundamental level they disagree about what impeachment should be for. Is this about a specific violation of the law? Does it require a narrow, targeted investigation? Or is it about everything?

These two articles of impeachment were the subtext of everything else. The president was a white nationalist who was nullifying a war.

The impulse to make impeachment about something narrow and specific is what led Congress to devote the first eight articles of the Johnson impeachment to the Tenure of Office Act. But there was more to it than that. The ninth article focused on charges that Johnson had circumvented the chain of command to give direct orders to a general. (Not a small deal in 1868.) The next two articles are the ones that no one talks about—in its coverage of the Clinton impeachment, CNN dismissed Article 10 as a “historical curiosity”— but they got to the heart of the matter, because Stevens wrote them himself.

They’re sort of omnibus provisions. Article 10 indicts Johnson for his behavior on the Swing Around the Circle Tour—not just for his death threats against members of Congress and other critics, not just for a long, rambling aside about being Jesus (?), but also for his role in enabling white supremacist violence. It quotes extensively from his speeches. In St. Louis, for instance, he’d said that the people massacred in New Orleans were the real traitors, that the white people who did it were merely protecting themselves from the coming race war, and that the “Radical Congress” would “disenfranchise white men.” Article 11 focused on his denigration of Congress, and his overall pattern of obstruction. This was included not because it was merely rude. These articles were the subtext of everything else; Johnson’s antipathy toward Reconstruction was the reason there was a Tenure of Office Act. The president was a white nationalist who was nullifying a war.

You already know how it ends, of course. The trial lasted more than two months. There were tactical errors by the impeachment managers, and a whole lot of what people these days would call “gaslighting.” At one point, one of Johnson’s personal attorneys poo-poohed the notion that a new masked group was terrorizing the South; within three years, Johnson’s attorney general would be working for the Klan as a lawyer. Opponents of Reconstruction had to lie about what was happening because they, too, knew that this wasn’t just about cabinet appointments. After a characteristically strange trial presided over by a chief justice with presidential ambitions of his own, Johnson was acquitted by one vote—our friend Edmund Ross, of Kansas.

Decades after Profiles was published, Ross continues to haunt Washington as a sort of patron saint of forbearance whose name is invoked whenever a constitutional crisis is in the offing. As the Watergate scandal accelerated in 1973, Kansas Sen. Bob Dole told reporters he had started reading up on Ross. “I wouldn’t mind losing my seat if the man is innocent and I voted to clear him,” he said of Nixon.

In 1999, in the midst of the Clinton impeachment, the New York Times heralded Ross as the name that comes up “whenever people talk about courage, honor and duty.” Ross was “a man who lived to see himself vindicated by history,” and “chose personal ruin rather than betray his principles,” the author wrote, while casting Johnson as a victim of partisan overreach. The impeachers “wanted to punish the defeated Confederate states rather than continue Abraham Lincoln’s policy of reconciliation, as Johnson did.”

Johnson—and Ross—benefited from a myth that took hold over the century that followed their impeachment drama. Successive generations of historians flipped the script on Reconstruction, framing white Southerners as victims of a tyrannical Northern regime. Reconstruction governments were painted as hopelessly corrupt, and Radical Republicans—such as Stevens—were on a power trip. The Lost Causers had joined up with the process scolds.

By the time Clinton went on trial in the Senate, a more reasoned consensus had emerged among historians, but the political press continued to portray Johnson as a victim. It got to be too much for Columbia University professor Eric Foner, the nation’s foremost Reconstruction scholar, who lashed out at the coverage at a 1999 panel.

“It’s unbelievable how ignorant of American history they are,” he said.

“They got in their mind the idea that well, Clinton’s a good guy who a bunch of fanatics in Congress were trying to get rid of, so that’s what happened to Andrew Johnson, and a good analogy. It was appalling.”

At least a part of the JFK myth is true: After casting his vote against conviction, Ross was vilified by members of his party, and he did lose his seat in the Senate. But it wasn’t a terribly long exodus—he was later appointed governor of New Mexico, and eventually many of his one-time critics were ready to move on. James G. Blaine, a Maine Republican who voted to impeach, later argued that conviction “would have resulted in greater injury to free institutions than Andrew Johnson in his utmost endeavor was able to inflict.” Ross’ rehabilitation coincided with a shift in his own party. White Republicans steadily lost enthusiasm for Reconstruction in the decade after the impeachment, and Jim Crow took hold across the South.

But JFK—or Ted Sorensen—left out some important details about the courageous Ross. For one thing, his vote wasn’t as critical as it’s been portrayed; Johnson’s defenders had more potential no votes in their pocket that they didn’t end up using. More importantly: He was probably bribed to vote that way! Or at least, the people doing the bribing seemed to think as much. There was a lot of shadowy stuff going on in the run-up to the vote, and Ross himself owed his job to some fairly brazen horse-trading back in Kansas. When the president’s acquittal was complete, Ross quickly returned to Johnson with a laundry list of favors, including patronage jobs for his personal associates as Indian agents, and ratification of a treaty giving away Osage lands to a railroad company. That’s a far different story about institutions and ideals. Sabotaging efforts at protecting the civil rights of Black Americans in order to profit off American Indians really does take some of the shine off the halo.

It is all the more striking because the people Kennedy takes to task in these chapters are, in many cases, his most distinguished Massachusetts predecessors. Butler is referred to, on multiple occasions, as “the butcher of New Orleans,” because a resident of the city was executed for treason on his watch in 1862; the actual massacre of Black residents of New Orleans that precipitated the impeachment is never mentioned. Kennedy takes aim at Sen. Charles Sumner (who at the time of the Johnson impeachment still bore the scars of a savage beating at the hands of a South Carolinian); and Wendell Phillips, of the National Antislavery Society; and George Boutwell, an abolitionist who served as impeachment manager and whose seat in Congress Kennedy would one day hold.

Kennedy and Sorensen show their hand later in the book when they savage Adelbert Ames, another Massachusetts Republican, who moved to Mississippi in the 1870s to serve as governor during Reconstruction.

No state suffered more from carpetbag rule than Mississippi. He was chosen Governor by a majority composed of freed slaves and Radical Republicans, sustained and nourished by Federal bayonets. One Cardoza, under indictment for larceny in New York, was placed at the head of public schools and two former slaves held the offices of Lieutenant Governor and Secretary of State. Vast areas of northern Mississippi lay in ruins. Taxes increased to a level fourteen times as high as normal in order to support the extravagances of the reconstruction government and heavy state and national war debts.

Reconstruction, in their words, was “a black nightmare the South could never forget.”

You can tell a lot about people by the lines they choose to draw. The implicit argument for Ross was that the creation of a white supremacist state through terrorism was not such a line, but that using a constitutional mechanism to remove the president who was creating such a state was. Blaine said it pretty much directly. This is the eternal lie of comity and decorum, the cowardice of compromise, though the stakes have almost never been as high as they were then, not even now.

The Johnson impeachment got bogged down in a morass of legal procedure and political calculations. It was suffused with paranoia and sometimes slapstick, but it was fundamentally about values and power, and about what kind of country would emerge out of its greatest conflict. Plenty of people—“people of their time,” as the apologia goes—understood that bloodshed was the price of inaction, that there was nothing courageous about meek deference to power.

The real tragedy of the trial wasn’t poor, pathetic Edmund Ross losing his seat. When the vote fails, Wineapple takes us to places that Kennedy never ventured in his book—churches in Charleston and Memphis where African Americans mourned what they knew they’d lost, steeling themselves for the fight to come. They knew what the impeachment was really about, and they knew who had won. As Foner put it at that panel, “Andrew Johnson was impeached over violating a fairly minor act of Congress, whereas his real crime was trying to deprive 4 million American citizens of all their rights.”

Wineapple is too serious and disciplined a historian to say exactly what we should think about all this. The pieces are there, though, and it’s not my book, so here goes: At least they impeached the motherfucker.

It Just Keeps Getting Worse

I’ll be damned if I know what to write about anymore. Donald Trump is just raving these days, both online and off, and a few minutes ago he practically melted down in public while the president of Finland stoically stared into his hands. Meanwhile, his secretary of state is flatly stonewalling Congress and—unless I’ve missed someone—not a single elected Republican is willing to even mildly criticize Trump, let alone support an impeachment inquiry.

Do the details even matter anymore? I suppose they do—or, more accurately, they might eventually. Maybe there’s some limit that even Fox News can’t quite spin away. Maybe.

In the meantime, just remember this: Joe Biden went to Ukraine in 2015 to demand that they crack down harder on corruption. That included investigations of Burisma, the energy company where his son sat on the board. In the real world, this is uncontroversial. Everybody agrees this is what happened. But in Foxland, Biden went to Ukraine to make sure they stopped investigating Burisma. It’s a jaw-dropping fantasy, but thanks to the conservative media machine it’s now gospel for a huge chunk of the country.

And why shouldn’t it be? As a friend asked me—sincerely, I think—if all this stuff he hears on Fox is wrong, then why are they saying it? All I could do was shrug. Because they lie, I told him, and that ended the conversation. He quite reasonably took this as evidence that I was a hopeless partisan hack. But what else is there to say? It just goes to show the power of straight-up lying, repeated 24/7. How do you fight it?

Pelosi and Schiff, Simply Appearing on TV, Spark Another Meltdown. That’s a Win for Pro-Impeachers.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced late Tuesday that Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, would be making a special appearance at her weekly press briefing, setting off a wave of intrigue among avid impeachment-watchers.   “Please be an impeachment inquiry into Pence, Barr, and Pompeo, or any combination of the above,” Louise Mensch, the former British MP prone to conspiracy theories, prayed. “Gonna be a busy, busy, busy, busy day,” a CNN reporter predicted. “Checks watch. Sets alarm.”   Alas, the press conference Wednesday morning turned out to be rather underwhelming. “Does anybody in this room care about the cost of prescription drugs?” Pelosi asked reporters, knowing full well that the answer was in fact, nah.   But President Donald Trump appears to have witnessed something entirely different. Rather than find relief in the nothing-burger briefing, the exceedingly thin-skinned president logged onto Twitter to fire off a series of furious tweets.

Nancy Pelosi just said that she is interested in lowering prescription drug prices & working on the desperately needed USMCA. She is incapable of working on either. It is just camouflage for trying to win an election through impeachment. The Do Nothing Democrats are stuck in mud!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 2, 2019

Adam Schiff should only be so lucky to have the brains, honor and strength of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. For a lowlife like Schiff, who completely fabricated my words and read them to Congress as though they were said by me, to demean a First in Class at West Point, is SAD!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 2, 2019

Trump then ranted before reporters in the Oval Office, spewing a stream of false attacks against his political enemies. 

President Trump: “He couldn’t carry his blank strap.”

Full video: https://t.co/uXIHVr4ACI pic.twitter.com/6xXNUugV3o

— CSPAN (@cspan) October 2, 2019

A Finnish reporter tried to give Trump a softball to change the subject, asking what he can learn from a happy country like Finland. Trump replies, "Well, if you got rid of Pelosi and you got rid of 'Shifty Schiff' — Finland is a happy country and he is a happy leader."

— David Nakamura (@DavidNakamura) October 2, 2019

A Finnish reporter tried to give Trump a softball to change the subject, asking what he can learn from a happy country like Finland. Trump replies, “Well, if you got rid of Pelosi and you got rid of ‘Shifty Schiff’ — Finland is a happy country and he is a happy leader.”

— David Nakamura (@DavidNakamura) October 2, 2019

.@realDonaldTrump responds to reporters question about Ukraine during a meeting in the Oval Office. pic.twitter.com/NcVKjcFkmZ

— Doug Mills (@dougmillsnyt) October 2, 2019

Failing to achieve catharsis with the Oval Office tantrum, Trump continued to lash out at a joint press conference. It was spectacular:

TRUMP: “There are those who think I am a very stable genius, ok?” pic.twitter.com/oUw8lTvYqx

— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) October 2, 2019

NEW: A Finnish reporter asks the president of Finland, “What kind of favors has Mr. Trump asked from you?”

Trump responds, “Or the other way around, you mean…” pic.twitter.com/I8bD7gCG3Q

— Yahoo News (@YahooNews) October 2, 2019

The reaction could be considered a small, but meaningful victory for Democrats. By simply goading the president into a predictable meltdown over nothing, the case for his unfitness for office grew even stronger. 

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