Mother Jones Magazine

If Herman Cain Asked You to Vote For Trump, Would You?

Last week, President Donald Trump went to Atlanta and with much fanfare announced that his re-election campaign was launching a coalition that would convince Black people that they should reelect him in 2020. He cited the unemployment rate and the First Step Act, legislation that aimed to reduce the sentences of certain incarcerated people (but it has been criticized because the Department of Justice is trying to put newly released people back behind bars). The Black Voices for Trump Coalition began with a rally in a hotel that featured speeches from Vice President Mike Pence and Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson before Trump’s hour-long speech—but not much else. No spokesperson appeared as the leader of this new movement. 

After some searching on Facebook, I sent an email to blackvoices@donaldjtrump.com asking who was involved in the coalition, and how they planned on reaching out to voters. But it went went unanswered. The Trump campaign advised the public on Twitter to text “WOKE” to 88022 to learn more, but after I did that, I was automatically added to a campaign list. Was I ever going to be able to know who the members of the coalition even were?

Late Tuesday night, Katrina Pierson, who is a Black former tea party leader and now senior adviser to Trump, tweeted out the official website, which answered my questions. “Black Voices for Trump will encourage the black community to re-elect President Donald J. Trump by sharing experiences and successes of everyday people as a result of the Trump administration,” the otherwise sparse website explains. Beneath this description is a list of the 35 people who will serve as magnets, bringing the African American community to the polls for Trump and erasing any memories they may have of his racism. Absent from the list, probably because the Hatch Act  forbids campaign involvement by those who work in government, are notable Trump political appointees Ben Carson and Lynne Patton. 

Instead, topping the list is Herman Cain, who is listed as a co-chair. Cain, like the president, was first a successful business man. He served as an executive of Godfather Pizza from 1986-1996. He first entered the national spotlight in 2011 with hopes of challenging President Barack Obama, and he announced he would run in the Republican primary. He unintentionally served as comic relief during the 2012 campaign with some notable gaffes. During an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, he referred to Uzebkistan as “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan.” But things took a darker turn when multiple women who had worked with him accused him of sexual harassment. He denied the claims but suspended his candidacy in December 2011 seven months after it began.

Cain as a presidential hopeful may have become a faded memory, but still exists in the form of this awkward smiling gif.

Giphy

 

But in April, Trump told reporters  that the former pizza executive was “the man” for the vacant seat on the Federal Reserve Board, the body that oversees the US Central Bank. Critics immediately asked if Cain, who is deeply conservative, could hold a job that has traditionally been non-partisan, not to mention the still-lingering sexual harassment scandals from his presidential campaign. If Cain were officially nominated, he’d have to pass a background check and sit through a potentially grueling Senate confirmation hearing. Three weeks after Trump floated his name, Cain withdrew, saying taking the job would require him to take a pay cut.

Among Cain’s fellow co-chairs are YouTube stars, Fox commentators, and ardent Trump fans Diamond and Silk. In July 2016, the pair posted a video criticizing Megyn Kelly for her questions challenging then-candidate Trump at the Republican primary debate, and the video went viral. They had begun supporting Trump in late 2015 after being lifelong Democrats and concluding that Hillary Clinton’s overtures to Black people were insincere. Their weekly show on Fox News’ streaming component is spent praising the president, calling Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) socialist, and criticizing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

In order to appeal to Black voters, there should be a religious element, and Pastor Darrell Scott checks that box. He founded the New Spirit Revival Center, which describes itself as a “Bible-based, Non-Denominational church with a Pentecostal/Charismatic persuasion” in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. He met the president in 2011, when Trump was first considering a presidential run. Scott is really excited about the coalition, even going on Twitter to sarcastically question the Black support of some Democratic candidates. (Scott had apparently forgotten that Beto O’Rourke dropped out of the presidential race on November 1.)

Wonder how the “Black Voices for Beto” is going. Or “Black Voices for Kamala, or Corey, or Elizabeth Warren, or Buttige, or Tulsi. Wonder how “Black Voices for Biden” is doing, too.

— Dr.Darrell Scott (@PastorDScott) November 11, 2019

The list has the usual suspects, the same prominent Black people who vocally support the Republican party, like Alveda King, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece, who was a early supporter of Herman Cain, and Stacey Dash, the actor most known for her role as Dionne in the 1996 movie Clueless and for her public support of Mitt Romney in 2012. But then I saw the names Keith and Kevin Hodges and wondered who they were. It turns out the twin brothers are comedians, podcasters, and YouTube stars. They don’t appear to have any political experience, and their social media presence is a confusing mix of comedy, conservative commentary, fitness, and food videos.  

The food videos about various fast food franchises are an improvement over their previous Instagram offerings, which were dominated by videos depicting them reading alleged emails asking for advice about what to do when you get an ugly woman pregnant (subscribe to their paid website to find out) or what to do if your boyfriend is incarcerated (dump him). Today, their more sedate account looks more like a mouthpiece for Fox News, with videos about how guns and Donald Trump are both great. Their YouTube channel, named TwinMuscle, consists of dozens of videos of the twins eating fast food like Chik-Fil-A and Taco Bell. I reached out to their agent to learn more about how they became involved with Black Voters for Trump, and what they hope to achieve. I have not yet received a response to my request for comment. 

In 2016, Donald Trump insisted he’d get 95 percent of the black vote in 2020. But even if he just wants more than the 8 percent he received last time, it’s unclear how this coalition of failed presidential candidates, C-list celebrities, and opportunistic pastors will help. 

A Complete Guide to the Impeachment Podcastpalooza

We’re only one day into public hearings and it feels like every media outlet—and possibly even a major player in the scandal!—is starting an impeachment podcast. This is the world we’re living in, people.

Whether the thought of listening to an impeachment podcast fills you with dismay or delight, we’ve pulled together a handy rundown of what’s out there so far. These podcasts run the gamut of formats, from daily to serial, scripted to call-in. (The only thing that’s missing is some impeachment fanfic, though perhaps someone will read this and immediately rectify that.) 

While Mother Jones is not coming out with a new, standalone impeachment podcast, readers can follow the Mother Jones impeachapalooza conversation on our blog and listen to individual impeachment episodes on the weekly Mother Jones Podcast. Like this one:

You can also hear all the different impeachment news and takes on the podcasts below:

“Impeachment Today”

Who makes it: BuzzFeed News and iHeartRadio 

Episode length: Between 10 and 20 minutes

The gist: An upbeat, highly produced podcast that treats the impeachment debacle like the political circus it is. Hosted by BuzzFeed News senior reporter and editor Hayes Brown, it features many interviews with BuzzFeed reporters. 

Who is it for: People who want an impeachment update every day, but also feel like laughing. Expect segments like the “Nixometer,” which ranks the daily news on a 10-point scale, with zero being “a normal day in a normal White House” and 10 being “President Richard Nixon resigning and flying away in Marine 1.”

When it comes out: Every day

“Impeachment: A Daily Podcast”

Who makes it: WNYC Studios  

Episode length: About 30 minutes

The gist: With excerpts from Brian Lehrer’s daily radio show, the Brian Lehrer Show, the pod features interviews with key lawyers and politicians, call-ins from guests, and appearances from the reporters behind WNYC’s podcast Trump, Inc

Who is it for: People who love public radio and want to hear Lehrer’s dulcet tones and informed takes on impeachment, not to mention those who want more of the great investigative reporting on Trump, Inc.

When it comes out: Every day

“The Daily DC: Impeachment Watch”

Who makes it: CNN

Episode length: About 15 to 20 minutes

The gist: A straightforward, end-of-day show to summarize the impeachment news of the day. It’s hosted by CNN’s political director David Chalian. A slew of CNN correspondents and contributors make frequent appearances. 

Who is it for: People who want a newsy, concise recap of impeachment news to close out the day.

When it comes out: Every day, in the evening

“Impeachment, Explained”

Who makes it: Vox

Episode length: About 50 minutes

The gist: An antidote to the frenetic pace of news in the Twitter era, this podcast embraces deep conversations and nerdy digressions. It’s hosted by Vox founder Ezra Klein and features interviews with policy experts, historians, and Vox reporters.

Who is it for: People who enjoy long, fact-filled discussions about the Federalist Papers on a lazy weekend morning.

When it comes out: Weekly on Saturdays

“Rubicon: The Impeachment of Donald Trump”

Who makes it: Crooked Media

Episode length: Between 25 and 40 minutes

The gist: Crooked Media’s editor-in-chief  Brian Beutler is obsessed with the impeachment proceedings. He gets on the microphone and gives his thoughts on what’s going on, interspersed with news clips and interviews with guests like former Justice Department official Matt Miller.

Who is it for: People who like a dose of personality with their news. Beutler is careful to lay out the chronology of events, but he also offer his personal opinions and fears. It is very much in line with Crooked Media’s other shows, though less conversational. 

When it comes out: Weekly on Fridays

“Article II: Inside Impeachment”

Who makes it: NBC News

Episode length: Between 10 and 25 minutes

The gist: NBC News national political correspondent Steve Kornacki talks to reporters and correspondents covering the impeachment story and it features regular interviews with NBC reporters.

Who is it for: People who want a show that’s a happy medium between straight news and something more conversational.

When it comes out: Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, with bonus episodes for breaking news

“Slow Burn”

Who makes it: Slate

Episode length: About 40 minutes

The gist: Over two seasons in 2017 and 2018, now-former Slate reporter Leon Neyfakh returned to Watergate and then the Clinton impeachment, breaking down the history and interviewing the key players of the time. This one is scripted, highly researched, and writerly. 

Who is it for: People who want to know more about the history of impeachment without ever hearing Donald Trump’s name. (Well, maybe you hear it a few times.) It’s a highly-acclaimed, non-news podcast that dives into history to deliver that impeachment fix. 

When it comes out: The two seasons about impeachment are all out and available. There is a third season on now, with a new host, reporter Joel Anderson, about the murders of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G.

Trump Ag Secretary to Struggling Farmers: Get a Job!

Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue maintains a, well, sunny view of the current farm economy. “I don’t think there could have been a better time to be in agriculture than today, I really mean that,” he recently mused on his podcast, The Sonnyside of the Street. In the latest episode, “Do Right and Feed Everyone,” Perdue chatted with veteran farm broadcaster Max Armstrong. “I’m bullish on agriculture—with the diversity, with the opportunity of e-commerce and direct sales,” Perdue gushed. “People are still fascinated with the way food is produced!” 

Armstrong mostly played along with Perdue’s schtick, but at the end of the interview, he pushed back: “What do you say to that younger operator who entered this industry maybe five, six, seven years ago, and doggone it, things have gotten a lot tougher?” Armstrong asked, adding: “This is long, dark tunnel for them.”

The question wasn’t frivolous. Away from Perdue’s recording studio, the farm economy is circling the drain. The trade war initiated by Perdue’s boss, President Donald Trump, shows no sign of abating. Prices for corn and soybeans—by far the two biggest US crops—hover near or below farmers’ production costs. Cotton farmers and winemakers are also being slammed by the trade war, and dairy farmers are in the grip of a long and brutal slump. Then there’s climate chaos: Record rains in the spring delayed planting through much of the Midwest, and early blizzards slammed the fall harvest. (Here’s a report from the ground I did for Bite podcast.) 

The Trump administration has responded to its trade mess by essentially parachuting cash into farm country, handing out $12 billion to farmers hurt by the trade war in 2018 and another $16 billion this year. In 2019, trade aid and other government programs will account for nearly 40 percent of farmer profits, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. As trade talks flounder, “a third round of payments for farmers increasingly is seen as inevitable, particularly if a trade deal with China is not reached soon,” the Washington Post reported Tuesday, citing anonymous sources within the agriculture department. 

Despite the influx of government cash, conditions are so bad that the farm economy is tanking anyway. Farm bankruptcies spiked 24 percent in September, compared to the same month a year before. With debt loads rising and commodity prices stuck in the mud, conventional agriculture banks are “placing stricter terms on farm loans and doling out less money,” the Wall Street Journal reported Monday. As a result, farmers are increasingly turning to “more lightly regulated entities” for financing to buy the season’s seeds and chemicals. These new-wave banks offer loans with “interest rates double those of traditional farm banks,” the Journal added—putting farmers at risk of catastrophic losses if the season goes badly. 

While data on farmer suicides are scant, there’s evidence of an uptick amid all the debt and bankruptcies. In a wrenching article published this week, the Washington Post’s Annie Gowen reported that “leaders and social workers in rural America say that, anecdotally, they’re seeing more” suicides, and calls to crisis hotlines are rising. Gowen goes on to tell the story of South Dakota’s Chris Dykshorn, who, as financial troubles mounted on the corn, soybean, and cattle farm he took over from his father, killed himself this summer at the age of 35.

Dykshorn is exactly the generation of farmer Armstrong asked Perdue about on the taxpayer-funded Sonnyside of the Street podcast: one who entered the business amid a “long, dark tunnel” of low prices. “What kind of words of encouragement do you offer?” Armstrong wondered.

“What we see happening is what farmers have done over the years—many of them have to have off-farm jobs in order to survive during this period of time,” Perdue advised. In other words: get a job. In early October, Perdue delivered a similar lecture to struggling dairy farmers at an industry expo: “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out…I don’t think in America we, for any small business, we have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability.”

Commodity farmers supported Trump overwhelmingly in 2016, and they’ve stuck with him, according to a recent poll. It remains to be seen whether the ongoing crisis, and Perdue’s public posturing, will change that. 

Trump’s Ambassadors Are Uniquely Unqualified. The Ukraine Scandal Proves It.

Gordon Sondland would not have been any reasonable person’s first choice for a senior State Department post. Or their 20th choice. Before he found himself at the center of the Ukraine scandal, Sondland was a hotel magnate with zero relevant expertise or diplomatic experience. President Donald Trump nominated him to be ambassador to the European Union largely because of his status as a GOP megadonor who contributed $1 million to Trump’s inauguration.

“Not only are these people more common, but they’re less qualified than their predecessors.”

Rewarding political supporters with ambassadorships they aren’t qualified for is a bipartisan tradition dating back centuries. But Trump has elevated the practice to new heights—a disturbing development at a time when experienced staffers are leaving the State Department in droves.

Most ambassadors are career foreign service officers, highly trained professionals who have worked their way up through the diplomatic ranks. But a significant minority are so-called “political ambassadors” who come from outside the diplomatic corps—generally a mishmash of campaign donors, ex-lawmakers, and retired military officers. Under President Obama, these political ambassadors made up 30 percent of total appointees, according to a paper by Ryan Scoville, an associate professor at Marquette University Law School. Under Trump, that figure has ballooned to more than 40 percent, the highest number in nearly eight decades.

Presidents tend to appoint political ambassadors early in their terms, so Trump’s percentage could fall over time. Still, his picks have been uniquely unqualified—even when compared to the political ambassadors chosen by other presidents. “Not only are these people more common, but they’re less qualified than their predecessors,” Scoville told me. Twenty-six percent of Ronald Reagan’s political ambassadors had at least some experience in the region where they were sent, according to Scoville’s research. For Trump’s nominees, that figure is just 5 percent. Nearly every other metric—knowledge of the country’s primary language, foreign policy experience, prior leadership positions—supports the same conclusion: Trump’s diplomatic nominees are less qualified than their predecessors by a significant margin.

With more of his donors receiving top diplomatic assignments, Trump has broken precedent in another significant way. Normally, geopolitically sensitive postings in places like the Middle East are reserved for experienced envoys. But last year, Trump picked John Rakolta, a Michigan businessman with no relevant experience, to lead the embassy in the United Arab Emirates, an important regional ally that for much of the past four years has been embroiled in the bloody conflict in Yemen. Rakolta had given $250,000 to Trump’s inaugural committee. 

That’s far from Trump’s only bizarre diplomatic nomination. His ambassador to Hungary, David Cornstein, is a jewelry magnate and member of Trump’s West Palm Beach golf club who is apparently fond of stripping down to his underwear to nap alongside President Viktor Orban during their flights together. Cornstein has uncritically supported Orban, even as the right-wing leader has grown increasingly hostile to civil liberties and evicted the American-supported Central European University from Hungary. Doug Manchester, who gave $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee, recently withdrew his bid to become ambassador to the Bahamas—two years after mistakenly asserting during his confirmation process that the island nation was part of the United States.

These oddball picks, coupled with a devastating hiring freeze during Trump’s first 16 months in office, have damaged morale and pushed veteran foreign service officers into an early exit from government employment. “We’ve had a wave of retirements of our senior people,” Eric Rubin, former ambassador to Bulgaria and president of the American Foreign Service Association, told me. The problem has been compounded by Trump allies’ efforts to undermine career diplomats like Marie Yovanovitch, who was abruptly recalled from her post as ambassador to Ukraine in May. She later told House investigators that “people with clearly questionable motives”—including Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani—smeared her reputation, paving the way for her ouster.

Trump’s critics have taken notice. Elizabeth Warren vowed in June that as president, she would not give diplomatic posts to wealthy donors and blasted Trump for letting the State Department wither through “a toxic combination of malice and neglect.”

In recent weeks, Sondland has emerged as the poster child of the diplomatic spoils system because of his role in the impeachment inquiry. As ambassador to the EU—an entity that does not include Ukraine—he somehow became a key participant in what Bill Taylor, the top US envoy in Kyiv, called a “highly irregular” channel of outreach to the Ukrainian government. The goal of this shadow diplomacy, led by Giuliani, was to get Ukraine’s leader to issue a statement saying it was investigating Trump’s political enemies, including Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. In a September meeting with an adviser to the Ukrainian president, Sondland made clear that US military aid would be contingent on those probes. “I said that resumption of the US aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anticorruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” Sondland recently told lawmakers—a fact that he had omitted from the original version of his testimony.

Various national security officials have blasted Sondland’s meddling. “I stated to Ambassador Sondland that his statements were inappropriate, that the request to investigate Biden and his son had nothing to do with national security,” Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, who serves on the national security council, told House investigators. “I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and [acting White House chief of staff Mick] Mulvaney are cooking up,” then-national security adviser John Bolton said, according to one of his colleagues.

Sondland’s admissions have proved extremely damaging to Trump—something Trump seems to have recognized. As recently as last month, the president called him a “really good man and great American” in a tweet. But by Friday, Trump had firmly driven a bus over Sondland’s back. “I hardly know the gentleman,” Trump told reporters.

House Republicans have followed Trump’s lead, attempting to portray Sondland, Giuliani, and Mulvaney as the true masterminds of the Ukraine strategy. Despite the fact that Trump, both publicly and privately, endorsed the campaign to pressure Ukraine, his defenders claim that Sondland was acting without the president’s knowledge or approval.

Sondland has now become as useful to Trump as Michael Cohen, Jeff Sessions, or any of the other erstwhile allies who quickly turned into objects of his wrath. Sondland testified last month that he was “disappointed by the president’s direction that we involve Mr. Giuliani” in the national security process, saying that in his view, “the men and women of the State Department, not the president’s personal lawyer, should take responsibility for all aspects of US foreign policy toward Ukraine.”

Loyalty has long been the currency underpinning the donor-to-ambassador pipeline. But Sondland—out of fear for his own well-being or, perhaps, an inclination to finally tell the truth—showed there are limits to what a plum diplomatic posting can buy.

Prosecutors Just Rested Their Case Over Roger Stone’s Lies: “Truth Matters”

In his closing argument Wednesday, Roger Stone’s lawyer, Bruce Rogow, told the jury that there is really nothing to the government’s case against his client. “Much of this case, you have to ask, ‘So what?'” Rogow said.

Prosecutors offered an answer on Wednesday. Assistant US Attorney Michael Marando bluntly asked jurors to reject Rogow’s dismissal.

“So what? So what?” Marando asked, with what seemed like actual indignation. “If that’s the state of affairs that we’re in, I’m pretty shocked. Truth matters. Truth still matters, okay.”

Over the past week, Stone has been on trial for five counts of making false statements to the House Intelligence Committee regarding his communications about WikiLeaks, for obstruction of justice in impeding the panel’s probe and for witness tampering, which allegedly occurred when Stone pressured an associate, comedian Randy Credico, to not give testimony that would contradict Stone’s claims. Stone has pleaded not guilty. Jurors will start deliberating tomorrow. 

Though it is not a charge that Stone faces, his lawyers have argued repeatedly that the longtime Trump consigliere, who did not take the stand in his own defense, did not collude with Russia. Since Russian interference was the focus of the Intelligence Committee’s probe, Stone’s lawyers insist their client should not be convicted of lying about contacts with WikiLeaks (which was publishing Democratic emails hacked by Russia). As for witness tampering, Stone’s lawyers said that since Credico overhyped his ties to WikiLeaks in messages to Stone in 2016, it was he who played Stone; Stone was just an innocent bystander in their version.

Behind these arguments is a mostly implicit but potentially powerful claim: None of this matters. This is a case of Stone, the self-described dirty trickster and a notorious bullshitter, bullshitting, his lawyers suggested. Stone didn’t collude with Russia. So who cares if he fibbed to lawmakers? This argument taps into a common refrain from defenders of President Donald Trump that many of the convictions against the president’s associates have been for lying to the FBI or Congress, not for conspiring with Russia. Perjury is a minor crime, the argument goes, one that’s charged when prosecutors lack a more serious case. So what? 

“We live in a world nowadays with Twitter, tweets, social media, where you can find any political view you want,” Marando said in his closing statement. “You can find your own truth.”

While the prosecutor didn’t directly mention Trump, his description came as allies of the president continue to explicitly argue that truth is relative. “Everybody has their impression of what truth is,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) told reporters on Tuesday, amid testimony outlining Trump’s effort to force Ukraine’s president to announce investigations that would benefit Trump politically. 

But Marando argued Tuesday that no matter what happens elsewhere, “in American institutions of self governance, courts of law, committee hearings, where people have to testify under oath, truth still matters.”

“Mr. Stone lied to Congress,” Marando thundered at jurors. “He obstructed justice and he tampered with a witness, and that matters. And you don’t look at that and you don’t say: ‘So what?’ We ask you to find him guilty of the charged offenses.”

With that, the government’s case against Stone concluded.

Republicans Spent the First Day of Impeachment Hearings in an Alternate Reality

The House impeachment inquiry is focused on whether President Donald Trump abused his office to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to dig up political dirt for Trump’s personal benefit. But it also raises a much larger question: Does reality matter? That was clear at the first public impeachment hearing conducted by the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday. 

The main attraction was the testimony of Bill Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine, and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. In long opening statements, they each laid out a clear—and now familiar—narrative: Trump established what Taylor called an “irregular channel” to shape the US government’s Ukraine policy and set up an extortive quid pro quo. The deal was this: The White House meeting that the newly elected Zelensky sought with Trump would not happen and nearly $400 million in US security assistance to Ukraine would be withheld unless Zelensky publicly announced he was launching investigations to probe Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, and to examine supposed Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 campaign. 

Taylor and Kent came across as sober professionals. They each explained they were nonpartisan career public servants and spoke calmly in a just-the-facts manner. Taylor painstakingly walked the committee through the chronology of the Ukraine scandal. And he provided a new bombshell: One of his staffers had overheard Trump call Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union and a key player in the “irregular channel,” and say that his top concern regarding Ukraine was prompting a Biden investigation—that is, not US-Ukraine policy. This diplomatic duo offered a strong and compelling case by merely reporting what they had seen and heard.

Yet nothing they said altered the altered reality of the Republicans. In fact, the committee’s GOP members spent much of the day trying to sidestep the core facts of the controversy and replace them with conspiracy hogwash to divert attention from the incriminating evidence. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the senior Republican on the committee, set the table with an opening statement that was a stream-of-consciousness collection of FoxWorld buzzwords: Russia hoax, Steele dossier, Ukrainian meddling, the whistleblower. He claimed the impeachment process was itself a conspiracy mounted by the Democrats in a “cultlike” manner within a “star chamber” atmosphere. And going even further, Nunes denounced the FBI, “elements of the Justice Department,” and “now the State Department” for plotting against Trump. He was essentially accusing Taylor and Kent of joining the never-ending deep state scheme to destroy Trump. (At about the same moment, Trump sent out a fundraising email that claimed that Wednesday’s impeachment proceeding was a “Scam” and “a complete Fake Hearing (trial) to interview Never Trumpers.” Neither Taylor nor Kent are Never Trumpers, and Trump’s attempt to demonize independent witnesses in an investigation as partisan foes is the move of an authoritarian.

Then came the particulars. In their questioning of witnesses, Republicans tried to build an alternative reality. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) loudly exclaimed there could be no quid pro quo because eventually the Trump White House did release the security assistance for Ukraine. (The White House did this after it learned the whistleblower had complained that Trump had extorted Zelensky. And Jordan conveniently did not address the first pressure point: the White House meeting.) Jordan and Nunes also fulminated about Zelensky’s public insistence that he was not “blackmailed” by Trump. (Kent said it was a “fair assessment” to note that Zelensky, who still depends on the Trump administration for crucial assistance, is in no position to contradict Trump.) Several Republican members asserted that Trump was justified in urging Kiev to deal with corruption and referred to innuendos about the Bidens. (Kent said that Joe Biden had been acting in accordance with official US policy in his dealings with Ukraine and that there was no factual basis for the allegations of wrongdoing.)

To pull all this off, the Republicans had to engage in heavy-duty denial. They claimed the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky—in which Trump responded to the Ukrainian’s request for Javelin anti-tank missiles with a request for these political investigations—was fine. It was, Nunes said, a “pleasant exchange between two leaders.” Steve Castor, the top GOP lawyer on the committee, tried to downplay the significance of the “irregular channel,” observing that it might “be irregular but it’s not outlandish.” Many people in the committee room snickered at that. The Republicans ignored the bombshell that Taylor delivered about a staffer overhearing Trump say he only really cared about ginning up a Biden probe. They ignored the testimony about Ukrainian officials fretting over how to respond to Trump’s muscling. They ignored the testimony that Zelensky was about to cave and announce the investigations that Trump demanded just before the security assistance was delivered. Both Kent and Taylor said they believed Trump was pursuing his own political interests—not US foreign policy interests—in this episode. The Republicans ignored that, too.

At this opening day, the Democrats’ stuck to their script, presenting fact-based witnesses who ably and dispassionately told their stories, presenting an account that the public can evaluate. The Democrats aim to tell a simple tale of obvious Trump wrongdoing. Republicans cannot abide by that. After all, the known facts are not on Trump’s side. So their big play is to deride the whole damn thing and say to the Democrats, you’re the ones abusing your power. Toward the end of the hearing, Jordan called special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation a fraud—yep, just a plot against Trump waged by you-know-who—and he complained the Ukraine investigation was nothing but a continuation of that effort. And Nunes described the notion that Trump pressured Zelensky for political investigations as “one of the mother of all conspiracy theories.” He was flipping reality, using false conspiracy theories to claim that the reality is actually a conspiracy theory. The Republican performance was hardly surprising. In some ways, they were less obstructive and more subdued than Democrats on the committee had expected. They griped about Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the committee chair, turning down their request to call the whistleblower as a witness, but there were no stunts. The hearing, though, was yet another demonstration of their blind loyalty to Trump and their now all-too-familiar embrace of a dangerous and demagogic tactic: smothering rationality with paranoia. 

Lunchtime Photo

I blew it last week on the whole donkey-horse thing, so let’s try again. This is a donkey, right?

August 7, 2019 — Ubaté, Colombia

No, George Kent Says, Joe Biden’s Actions in Ukraine Are Not the Same as Trump’s

During questioning by Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) at Wednesday’s impeachment hearing, George Kent, the top State Department official in charge of Ukraine relations, dismantled a popular right-wing argument: No, President Donald Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine to investigate the Bidens are not in fact the same as the former vice president’s efforts to remove corrupt then–Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin.

Himes asked Kent whether he thought Trump’s efforts to persuade Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the Bidens in a July phone call sounded like “the president participating in or requesting a thoughtful and well-calibrated anti-corruption program.” Kent replied, “I do not.”

Himes then asked Kent, “Is what the president did in his phone call and what Joe Biden did in terms of Mr. Shokin, are those exactly the same things?”

“I do not think they are the same things,” Kent replied. “What former Vice President Biden requested of former President of Ukraine Poroshenko was the removal of a corrupt prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, who had undermined a program of assistance that we had spent, again, US taxpayer money to try to build an independent investigator unit to go after corrupt prosecutors.”

Kent says he does not think what Biden did in trying to get Ukraine to fire prosecutor Shokin is the same as what Trump did. Kent says Shokin was a "corrupt prosecutor general…who had undermined" a US anti-corruption initiative involving US taxpayer money.

— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) November 13, 2019

Watch the exchange below:

Kent explains a key point: Despite what Republicans would have you believe, Biden's policy in Ukraine was all about *rooting out corruption,* not encouraging it. pic.twitter.com/qEiZZdLlq6

— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) November 13, 2019

There’s No Harm In a Slow Pace for Impeachment Hearings

Ed Kilgore suggests that if impeachment hearings drag on, delaying a Senate trial until January, it could be a problem for senators who are running for president and would rather be in Iowa that month:

An impeachment trial doesn’t allow for time off to do campaign events: The Senate rules require that once the trial begins, it must stay in session six days a week (Burr suggested a daily schedule running from 12:30 to 6:30). Perhaps some senators think they could make more hay at an impeachment trial than they could hitting the potluck circuit in Iowa or working street corners in New Hampshire.

….Unfortunately, the current Senate rules compel virtual silence from senators during the trial itself, though they are free to run their mouths before it begins and after it ends. During the trial, unless precedents are ignored, all senators get to do is to send written questions to be posed by the House managers or the president’s attorneys, and then stand up and vote “guilty” or “not guilty” when the deal goes down. Not much room for showboating there.

I say: stop worrying. Let the House hearings and the Senate trial proceed on whatever pace they should. Presidential wannabes can still talk about other stuff, even if they can’t talk about the impeachment itself, and they all have plenty of surrogates who can chatter about the impeachment trial for them.

In any case, I’ve been convinced for a while that retail politics is dead in presidential races, and Donald Trump put a final nail in that coffin in 2016. Elizabeth Warren can hold a few big rallies during days off from the trial, and can also appear on TV to her heart’s content. That matters more than yet another visit to the selfie line in Calhoun County.

There’s no reason to rush things. Let the facts come out. Let Republicans continue to embarrass themselves. Allow topics other than Ukraine to get some air time. The primary goal at this point is to persuade the public, and that always takes time. So go ahead and take some time.

The Republican Impeachment Lawyer Is Bombing His Television Debut

Steve Castor, the staff lawyer Republicans picked to question witnesses in the impeachment inquiry, is emerging as one of the star players in the impeachment saga—and for all the wrong reasons. 

Republicans are eager to create made-for-TV moments aimed at painting the probe’s witnesses—many of whom offered highly damaging allegations against President Donald Trump—as part of a political plot to take down the president. They’d also like to convince the public that Trump’s efforts to coerce Ukraine into interfering in the 2020 election were perfectly just.

So far, Castor has not carried out these missions successfully. He appeared to bungle his questioning repeatedly: He falsely suggested that the Justice Department’s probe into the 2016 election included Ukraine, had to learn about routine State Department protocol on the spot, and received deadpanned looks from the witnesses, both of whom are seasoned, well-respected diplomats.

Take a look at the bipartisan reception to his debut:

How long until Trump and Republicans accuse Castor of being a Deep State plant?

— Jon Favreau (@jonfavs) November 13, 2019

Legitimately surprising to me that the GOP counsel appears to be asking a bunch of freeform basic factual questions to which he doesn’t know the answer. #ImpeachmentHearings

— Rachel Maddow MSNBC (@maddow) November 13, 2019

Whatever the GOP counsel is doing, it's not working. I don't undertand where he's going.

— Ari Fleischer (@AriFleischer) November 13, 2019

Hope SNL can get Will Arnett to play Steve Castor

— Michelle Goldberg (@michelleinbklyn) November 13, 2019

Is Steve Castor really the best lawyer the GOP could get??

— Asha Rangappa (@AshaRangappa_) November 13, 2019

Did Castor also say the quiet part out loud? It sure seems like it!

Wait, did Castor just argue with Taylor that Volker and Rudy were talking to Zelensky at Trump's request?

— Tom Nichols (@RadioFreeTom) November 13, 2019

George Kent and Bill Taylor, the first two witnesses to appear before the public hearings, appeared consistently confused by Castor’s line of questioning. Which puts me, a very confused viewer, in good company. 

Diplomat Who Allegedly Overheard Trump-Sondland Call Will Testify

Earlier today, Bill Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, dropped a bombshell during the first day of the House’s impeachment hearings. Taylor testified that one of his staffers overheard a phone call between President Donald Trump and US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, in which Trump asked Sondland about the politically motivated investigations Trump wanted Ukraine to pursue. NBC News reports that the staffer in question is David Holmes, who is the counselor for political affairs at the US Embassy in Ukraine. Holmes was just added to the House’s calendar to testify in a closed session on Friday. 

Per Taylor’s earlier testimony, Holmes accompanied Sondland to a restaurant on July 26 after Sondland met with an aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. At the restaurant, Sondland called Trump to tell him about the meeting, and Holmes overheard the president asking Sondland about “the investigations” into Trump’s political enemies. After the call, Holmes asked Sondland what the president thinks of Ukraine, to which Sondland “responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which [Trump personal attorney Rudy] Giuliani was pressing for,” according to Taylor. 

Trump, “Too Busy” to Watch the Impeachment Hearing, Is Tweeting Up a Storm

President Donald Trump told reporters Wednesday that he was “too busy” to watch the impeachment hearing threatening his presidency. His Twitter account suggests otherwise.

“I did not watch it,” Trump said during a press appearance with the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyig Erdoğan. “I’m too busy to watch it. It’s a witch hunt. It’s a hoax.”  Yet Trump still had time to retweet 16 different anti-impeachment messages following his early-morning Twitter meltdown.

In addition to retweeting tweets from Reps. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) mocking House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, Trump also posted a video smearing Democratic presidential candidates as radical socialists.

pic.twitter.com/FJ8gMdh5bX

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 13, 2019

 

If It’s Not Viral, It Didn’t Happen

The public phase of the Trump impeachment hearings began this morning. Here’s one of the headlines in the Washington Post:

I don’t blame Alemany for writing this or the Post for running it. It’s almost certainly true, after all. But just think about how depressing this is. The president of the United States extorted a foreign country to dig up dirt for the president’s personal gain. His personal lawyer spent months on this task. The ambassador to this country was fired for refusing to help out. Diplomats were subverted to make clear what the president’s demands were. The evidence for all this is voluminous and clear.

And yet, nothing will happen unless Democrats get themselves a “viral moment.” Maybe this will do it?

NEW: Taylor discloses that his staff overheard phone call in which Trump asked Sondland about investigations into the Bidens in July

Taylor’s staff member says Sondland told them that “Trump cares more about the investigations into the Bidens” than anything else re: Ukraine pic.twitter.com/yEaEOzIAMn

— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) November 13, 2019


Ha ha. Of course not. This is merely more evidence of Trump’s guilt, and we already have plenty of that. Apparently the key defense of Trump at this point is not that he’s innocent, but that extorting foreign countries for personal gain is really not that big a deal for a president of the United States.

Not. That. Big. A. Deal.

Jesus.

Bombshell Testimony: Trump Asked Sondland About Ukrainian “Investigations”

During his opening testimony on the first day of the House impeachment hearings, Bill Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, dropped a bombshell: A member of his staff had overheard a phone call between President Trump and US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland in which the president asked Sondland about “the investigations” and Sondland replied “that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward.” After the call concluded, according to Taylor, the staffer “asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine.” Taylor testified that Sondland “responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which [Trump personal attorney Rudy] Giuliani was pressing for.”  

According to Taylor, this incident took place on July 26—the day after the infamous phone call in which Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to pursue investigations related to Trump’s political enemies, including Joe Biden and his son. Taylor noted that he understood “investigations” to be a short-hand term used by Sondland for the politically motivated probes Trump wanted the Ukrainians to pursue.

Taylor added that he only learned of the July 26 phone call between Trump and Sondland after he gave his initial deposition on October 22 and that he has since reported it to the State Department’s legal adviser and the House Intelligence Committee. 

During his opening testimony today, Bill Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, dropped a bombshell: A member of his staff overheard a phone call in which President Trump asked US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland about investigations into the Bidens. https://t.co/uMU7oHJaIW pic.twitter.com/ovzf7ho7ic

— Mother Jones (@MotherJones) November 13, 2019

Here’s Taylor’s full description of that July 26 restaurant phone call: 

On September 25 at the UN General Assembly session in New York City, President Trump met President Zelenskyy face-to-face. He also released the transcript of the July 25 call. (The United States gave the Ukrainians virtually no notice of the release, and they were livid.) Although this was the first time I had seen the details of President Trump’s July 25 call with President Zelenskyy, in which he mentioned Vice President Biden, I had come to understand well before then that “investigations” was a term that Ambassadors Volker and Sondland used to mean matters related to the 2016 elections, and to investigations of Burisma and the Bidens.

Last Friday, a member of my staff told me of events that occurred on July 26. While Ambassador Volker and I visited the front, this member of my staff accompanied Ambassador Sondland. Ambassador Sondland met with Mr. Yermak.

Following that meeting, in the presence of my staff at a restaurant, Ambassador Sondland called President Trump and told him of his meetings in Kyiv. The member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone, asking Ambassador Sondland about “the investigations.” Ambassador Sondland told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward.

Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for. At the time I gave my deposition on October 22, I was not aware of this information. I am including it here for completeness. As the Committee knows, I reported this information through counsel to the State Department’s Legal Adviser, as well as to counsel for both the Majority and the Minority on the Committee. It is my understanding that the Committee is following up on this matter.

Here’s the full transcript of Taylor’s opening statement:

In Opening Statement, George Kent Says Giuliani Sabotaged US-Ukraine Policy

George Kent, the top State Department official in charge of Ukraine relations, said in his testimony at Wednesday morning’s impeachment hearing that Rudy Giuliani hijacked US foreign policy toward Ukraine in an effort to generate politically motivated investigations that would benefit his client, President Donald Trump. And he said that Giuliani and his associates spread false information peddled by corrupt Ukrainian officials with an ax to grind.

“Over the course of 2018-2019, I became increasingly aware of an effort by Rudy Giuliani and others, including his associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, to run a campaign to smear Ambassador Yovanovitch and other officials at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv,” he said. Kent said that former Ukrainian prosecutors Victor Shokin and Yuriy Lutsenko “were now peddling false information in order to exact revenge against those who had exposed their misconduct, including U.S. diplomats, Ukrainian anti-corruption officials, and reform-minded civil society groups in Ukraine.”

Kent suggested that Giuliani led the effort to pressure Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden. “In mid-August, it became clear to me that Giuliani’s efforts to gin up politically motivated investigations were now infecting US engagement with Ukraine, leveraging President Zelensky’s desire for a White House meeting,” he said.

Kent said that he voiced concerns about Hunter Biden’s position on the board of Burisma, the Ukrainian natural gas company whose co-founder had come under investigation for corruption. But he stressed that he “did not witness any efforts by any US official to shield Burisma from scrutiny.”

Kent: @RudyGiuliani mounted "efforts to gin up politically-motivated investigations" that "were infecting US engagement with Ukraine, leveraging President Zelensky's desire for a White House meeting." That's extortion. #impeachment

— David Corn (@DavidCornDC) November 13, 2019

Earlier in his statement, Kent described his background as a career foreign service officer representing the third generation in a family of career public servants.

Watch Kent’s testimony here:

Here is a transcript of Kent’s testimony:

Saudi Aramco Has a New Perspective on Peak Oil

Here’s an interesting tidbit from Axios:

The release of the Saudi Aramco IPO prospectus is putting a fresh spotlight on a big question: the date when global oil demand will peak. The document released over the weekend includes estimates that demand will grow until around 2035 before leveling off, but that the inflection point could occur by the late 2020s.

Many years ago I wrote at length about the prospect of peak oil: that is, the year that we’d be pumping the stuff out of the ground as fast as we could, leading to shortages as demand kept growing. That turned out to be a groundless concern thanks to the sudden growth of the fracking industry, which has increased the global supply of oil by upwards of 10 percent or so.

Now, apparently, the concern is just the opposite: not supply constraints but demand constraints, thanks to the growth of solar and wind and other technologies that are reducing the need for oil. This is now being taken seriously enough that it’s affecting the outlook for major oil companies.

That sounds like bad news for Exxon but good news for all the rest of us. I sure hope there’s a real basis for this concern.

The Impeachment Hearing Is About to Start. Trump Is Already Short-Circuiting.

As the first day of televised impeachment hearings prepare to go live, let’s pause to take the temperature inside the White House, where President Donald Trump appears to be short-circuiting: 

“Millions of Americans will see what a partisan sham this whole thing is.” Rush Limbaugh @foxandfriends Also, why is corrupt politician Schiff allowed to hand over cross examination to a high priced outside lawyer. Did that lawyer ever work for me, which would be a conflict?

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 13, 2019

The Democrats have stacked the deck against President Trump and the Republicans. They have leaked out everything. @SteveDoocy @foxandfriends

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 13, 2019

…the most powerful tool the legislative branch has, Impeachment, & they’ve turned it into a political cudgel, which is not at all what the Founders intended. When you hear Schiff use all these words like quid pro quo, it is because they can’t specify that Donald Trump broke..

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 13, 2019

….any laws or did anything wrong, and they have to move away from quid pro quo because there was no quid, and there was no quo. Ukraine got it’s money (3 weeks early), and there was no investigation.” @CharlesHurt @foxandfriends

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 13, 2019

After kicking off the morning with those nods to Fox News, Trump then opted to keep things short, sticking closely to his catchphrase defenses against the biggest threat to his presidency.

READ THE TRANSCRIPT!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 13, 2019

NEVER TRUMPERS!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 13, 2019

To translate: the “READ THE TRANSCRIPT” demand, as we previously explained, has served as Trump’s go-to rejoinder to the investigation; “NEVER TRUMPERS” is his attempt to falsely paint the witnesses in the impeachment inquiry as politically biased.

READ THE TRANSCRIPT!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 13, 2019

All that followed a late night of retweeting and quoting in advance of what’s all but certain to be a historic day, as House Democrats attempt to convince the country that Trump abused his power to coerce foreign intervention in the 2020 election. The president appears to have left his morning wide open for the opening remarks, so prepare yourself for some more meltdowns.

How One Homeless Man Became His Own Shelter’s Executive Director

Welcome to Recharge, a weekly newsletter full of stories that will energize your inner hellraiser. See more editions and sign up here.

“Your story is not over,” Reggie Cox tells homeless people as he provides a hot meal. The new executive director of the Washington, DC, homeless center Charlie’s Place should know: Six years ago, he had come to this outreach arm of an Episcopal church, homeless himself, looking for a meal.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to think about how you felt at that time,” Cox told the Washington Post. “After a while, I said, ‘I’m sleeping at the ATM machine.’ I thought, ‘This is how low I’ve come.’ I thought of all the other homeless people I would see, passing by them and having conversations with them, and now I knew exactly how they felt.”

Back then, Cox hid his homelessness from his friends and family. At Charlie’s Place, he shared his story. He began volunteering, then became a floor coordinator and a program manager. Cox had lost his job in media monitoring, lost his apartment, and had nowhere to go.

To fellow guests at Charlie’s Place, Cox was compassionate and a calming spirit who understood homelessness, said the Rev. Richard Mosson Weinberg. When searching for a new leader, “it quickly became obvious that we need not look any further than Reggie.”

Here are more Recharge stories to get you through the week:

Saving voters. Georgia is culling hundreds of thousands of people from its voter rolls for infrequent voting. Reporters found 294 people who had indeed voted recently and should not have been placed on the list to lose one of the most important rights of citizenship. Last Thursday, Georgia said those 294 voters will not have their voter registrations canceled. Ohio, another state with a use-it-or-lose-it voter registration, had been set to mistakenly purge nearly 50,000 Ohioans from rolls before its mistakes had been caught. (APM Reports)

“A clear conscience.” To Melpomeni Dina and her two sisters, it was the right thing to do: Secretly shelter a Jewish family of seven in their one-bedroom home during Nazi occupation of northern Greece in World War II. The orphaned sisters split their rationed food with the family, clothed them, and helped them escape into the mountains when Nazis began searching. Last month, Dina, 92, traveled to Jerusalem to meet two surviving members of the Mordechai family—and 40 of their descendants. This burgeoning family, Dina was told, was largely because of her actions. The risk to defy Nazis and shelter the family was enormous, Dina’s daughter, Margarita, acknowledged. She said her mother gained something invaluable: “a clear conscience.” (New York Times)

A snap decision. Georgia nurse Lori Wood had a new patient, a homeless office clerk who needed a heart transplant. But Jonathan Pinkard couldn’t get a transplant unless he had a place to go and a person to take care of him after surgery. After two days, Wood decided to “adopt” Pinkard, a move that floored him. Wood had never done anything like this in her 35-year career. “For me, there was no choice,” she said. “I’m a nurse; I had an extra room. It was not something I struggled with. He had to come home with me.” Post-op, Wood has helped Pinkard with the 34 pills he must take each day, and Pinkard is expected to resume his job soon. (Washington Post)

A telenovela’s power. Uganda is recutting and dubbing a popular Venezuelan soap opera to help promote birth control in its own nation. The country is ecstatic about soap operas and also has one of the world’s highest birth rates, said Gosia Lukomska, director of integrated media at Peripheral Vision International. Lukomska has hopes beyond Uganda for the soap opera, Love & Wealth. “We believe this show will be well received by and relevant to a wide audience on the continent,” she said. (Guardian)

Recharge salutes: More than 650 volunteers in Norman, Oklahoma, who formed a human chain to move books from an old library to its new one across a park; and 7-year-old Kiyoko Merolli, who with her friends demonstrated their First Amendment rights for her birthday party outside the White House on Saturday, hoisting signs like “Batman 2020,” “Homework kills trees,” and “Time’s up for the bad guys.” (Thanks to Tracy Jan for this suggestion).

I’ll leave you with this glimpse of the northern lights in Alaska, via the Interior Department’s Twitter feed. Please send links or tips for possible Recharge items to recharge@motherjones.com. Have a great week, and thanks for reading.

You don’t need to understand the #science behind the Northern Lights to appreciate their ethereal beauty, but just in case: F = qE + qv × B#AuroraBorealis #Alaska @BLMAlaska pic.twitter.com/I0hPre3DUB

— US Department of the Interior (@Interior) November 8, 2019

Inside the White Supremacist Group Hiding in Plain Sight

This story was originally published by ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.

In the hours after the slaughter in El Paso, Texas, on Aug. 3, a final toll emerged: 22 dead, most of them Latinos, some Mexican nationals. A portrait of the gunman accused of killing them soon took shape: a 21-year-old from a suburb of Dallas who had been radicalized as a white supremacist online and who saw immigrants as a threat to the future of white America.

While much of the country reacted with a weary sense of sorrow and outrage, word of the mass killing was processed differently by members of Patriot Front, one of the more prominent white supremacist groups in the U.S.

In secret chat forums, some Patriot Front members embraced the spirit of the anti-immigrant manifesto left behind by the accused gunman. Others floated false conspiracy theories: the CIA was behind the murders; the accused killer was actually Jewish. Still other members cautioned that the group had its own “loose cannons” to worry about. It would be a bad look if the next mass murderer was one of their own.

But there was little, if any, regret over the loss of life.

“It shouldn’t be hard to believe that the group facing the harshest oppression from our ruling elite are producing shooters,” one Patriot Front member wrote. “White men are being slowly destroyed in a way calculated to produce resentment and a sense of helplessness. Of course, some of them decide to lash out.”

Several Patriot Front members alerted others to the need to be careful, for the killings in El Paso would likely make the group a target of the FBI.

“Watch your backs out there,” one wrote.

Patriot Front was formed in the aftermath of the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. While many on America’s far-right cheered the rally, its violence struck others as a public-relations debacle for the white nationalist brand that was sure to attract greater oversight by law enforcement.

Patriot Front aspired to help chart a new way forward: spread propaganda espousing its version of a nascent American fascism; quietly recruit new members worried about a nation overrun by immigrants and a world controlled by Jews; avoid talking about guns or violence online, but engage in a mix of vandalism and intimidation to foster anxiety; wear masks in public and communicate secretly.

“The organization is not about its members,” the group’s leader, Thomas Rousseau, once wrote to its members in the secret chats. “It is about its goals. Each person behind the mask is just another awoken member of the nation, who could be anyone who’s had enough.”

ProPublica spent several months examining the makeup and operations of Patriot Front, which records suggest numbers about 300 members.

While the group is careful not to talk about guns online, two members in the last year have been arrested with arsenals of illegally owned high-powered rifles and other weapons. While many of the group’s propaganda “actions” are legal exercises of free speech, its members have been arrested in Boston and Denver in recent months for acts of vandalism. In Boston, three members engaged in a nighttime propaganda effort last winter were arrested on suspicion of weapons possession and assaulting a police officer. What the group touts as political protests have felt to those targeted like acts of menace, as was the case in San Antonio, Texas, last year when Patriot Front members filmed themselves trashing an encampment of immigration activists.

One person whose establishment was targeted by Patriot Front in recent months spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing the group’s return.

“Ordinarily would you call the police if somebody put a big sticker on your door? No,” the person said. “However, once you find out what this is all about, and who is involved, and what they are promoting? Then, yeah, now we are in hate speech space.”

To the Southern Poverty Law Center, Patriot Front is a white hate group and a genuine criminal threat. To some of the more avowedly violent neo-Nazi groups in the U.S., Patriot Front is a laughable collection of clowns and cowards, content to chat online and put up stickers while a race war awaits.

But for law enforcement, gauging how serious a threat Patriot Front might pose is difficult. Patriot Front shares qualities both with groups engaged in real domestic terrorism and with fringe political groups.

Asked about the group, the FBI issued a statement that reflected these complexities and the limitations they place on police agencies.

“When it comes to domestic terrorism, our investigations focus solely on the criminal activity of individuals—regardless of group membership—that appears to be intended to intimidate or coerce the civilian population or influence the policy of the government by intimidation or coercion. We would encourage you to keep in mind that membership in groups which espouse domestic extremist ideology is not illegal in and of itself—no matter how offensive their views might be to the majority of society.”

Rousseau, a Boy Scout and high school journalist before he founded Patriot Front, has much the same profile as the accused gunman in El Paso, Patrick Crusius: both grew up in middle-class suburbs of Dallas-Crusius in Allen, Rousseau 35 miles away in Grapevine; both were seen as unremarkable teenagers before being inculcated in their racist ideology online; both talk of a desire to reclaim America for “true” or “pure” patriots; both regard immigrants as a poisonous and present danger.

In the days after the rampage in El Paso, Rousseau told his members in the secret chats that such acts of wholesale violence were not for him. While fascist causes like Patriot Front’s could survive the blowback from such killings, he said, real success for the group would come from spreading its ideology and increasing its numbers. Of the alleged El Paso shooter, Rousseau wrote in a chat, “He’d have made more progress toward his goals by swallowing the first round in his magazine instead.”

In the months of chats obtained by ProPublica, Rousseau is by turns amateur philosopher and historian, as well as the group’s sole spokesman and its online policeman. He warns members that they will be kicked out if they don’t stay busy—pasting up flyers and conducting banner drops, joining street actions and posting regularly in the chat forums. He has put together a security guide to help Patriot Front members stay anonymous. He waxes admiringly about certain far-right groups in Europe, and he sees them as a model for how to become more serious political players in the years ahead. He has the secret chats routinely deleted, and he tells members to avoid ever writing or saying anything that might later be of interest to a prosecutor.

“It should be known,” he wrote to members recently, “that political dissidents are subject to unjust scrutiny.”

Pete Simi, a professor at Chapman University in California and an expert on white supremacists in the U.S., said Rousseau’s stewardship of Patriot Front is deeply familiar.

“It is very common for the leadership of these groups to disqualify violence, while doing things that are encouraging violence,” Simi said. “It is part of their strategy to avoid liability, while simultaneously promoting hate. When they say they are not violent, this is a lie. They are promoting violence by their goals.”

“Thomas’ Biggest Fear Is Someone Doing Something Crazy”

To gain an understanding of Patriot Front—its origins and ambitions, both the careful talk and the criminal behavior of its members—ProPublica examined hundreds of online postings, interviewed a person who infiltrated the group, obtained police records, reviewed its leader’s public statements online and in a variety of far-right podcasts, collected video material recorded both by the group and members of the public, and traveled to the homes of its founder and two of the members who had recently been arrested.

The person who infiltrated Patriot Front in recent years—posting in the group’s chats and accompanying it in its propaganda actions—sketched out a portrait of its members, which appear to be exclusively male:

They come from seven or eight regional “networks,” and the vast majority of them are recruited online; the typical member is around 25 years old and can be from blue-collar backgrounds or be working as “white-collar tech geeks”; many of them are gamers; few have wives or girlfriends; they can look like “the nerdy boys that sit next to you in high school,” but they clearly sympathize with “right-wing terrorism.”

The person who infiltrated Patriot Front said he applied for membership on the group’s website—the one with the mission statement written by Rousseau. American democracy was dead. The government had been taken over by Jews and other “elites.” Land claimed by descendants of the country’s original white settlers had been surrendered to immigrants of color. The dream was of a white ethnostate, in which all that was good and true and pioneering about the America of long ago could be restored.

The person who gained entrance to the group said Rousseau was one of three Patriot Front members who interviewed him on the telephone when he applied. He was asked to explain his political evolution, to say which political figures he hated and admired most, to state the circumstances in which the use of violence would be OK and to articulate the greatest threat to America. He was told Mussolini’s “The Doctrine of Fascism” would be required reading.

The chats reviewed by ProPublica show Rousseau spends lots of time online pressing members to take part in targeting streets, parks and colleges with the group’s propaganda. He and others delight in seeing their actions reflected in the SPLC’s nationwide map recording acts of hate and in the media. Last spring, the group tried to stage protests in front of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s offices in multiple cities, including New York.

“One minute of action is better than 10,000 books on ideology,” Rousseau told his members.

Rousseau, still a teen when he founded Patriot Front, makes clear in the secret chats reviewed by ProPublica that he is in charge, though he’s happy to go without a formal title.

“The title commander gives me bad flashbacks,” he wrote in a chat once. “If I absolutely had to have a title, it would probably be general director. But my name works just fine for now.”

The chats show some members regard Rousseau as a disciplined and effective spokesman for the group, and they appear to heed his repeated scoldings about preserving their anonymity.

“The enemy cannot attack you if they do not know who you are,” Rousseau wrote.

Using the pseudonym Samuel, a member from New York expanded on the idea in response.

“I would say the biggest accomplishment of masking up is obfuscating our total numbers,” he wrote. “We can make them feel as if there are thousands of us when it’s only a few hundred, and we could be anyone and no one. Next time they are at the CVS and see a white kid with a neat haircut, it could be us. Fear of the unknown is the greatest fear of all.”

Rousseau, when he isn’t criticizing members who violate the ban on talking about guns or violence, can often be found policing the group’s ideological thinking. Nazism, however popular among members, can’t now be the goal, Rousseau said.

“This is not Germany, this is not the 1930s,” he chastised. “Get a grip on the fact that we’re activists, not re-enactors trying to scratch some self-indulgent itch for a political fantasy.”

Rousseau conducts his online leadership from the home he shares with his divorced father in Grapevine, a largely white, solidly middle-class city between Dallas and Fort Worth. ProPublica went to see Rousseau there this summer, and we found the shades drawn in every window and a rusting boat filled with fallen leaves on the property.

Rousseau came to the door, but he closed it quickly and would not talk. The following day, the red sports car in the driveway had been reparked, making it hard to see the lone license plate on its rear end.

Interviews with people in and around Grapevine—those who went to school with Rousseau, those who participated in the Boy Scouts with him, a man who dated his mother—produced a unanimous sense of surprise that he’d started an organization committed to an all-white America.

He’d mixed easily with the diverse array of students at his high school, and while he was against gay marriage, he was regarded more as a nice, conservative boy than a threat. He wore his hair long, in braids or a bun, and was obsessed with working out and the state of his physique.

At the student newspaper, he wasn’t regarded as an impressive writer, but he won a national award for editorial cartooning. Classmates saw him as a lazy student and a bit of a loner, but he had a knack for argument and a stubborn streak about never being wrong. The school had its share of racial incidents, but he was never involved and wasn’t seen as condoning them.

When Donald Trump was elected president, some senior boys at the school made a show of chanting, “Build a wall.” Rousseau, for his part, was certainly an ardent Trump supporter—he wore a Make America Great Again hat and carried a Trump lunchbox. But his enthusiasm wasn’t seen as menacing.

“He seemed Republican, but he didn’t seem crazy, said one fellow student.

To someone who was with him in Boy Scouts, Rousseau seemed serious about the organization, and he was elected patrol leader. At the same time, Rousseau could be difficult with adults, developing what the person called an “authoritarian defiance.”

“I’m saddened,” the person said of Rousseau’s embrace of white supremacy.

Simi, the professor at Chapman University, said enough research exists on modern-day white supremacists to develop a profile: young men, isolated and angry in some way despite their relatively privileged upbringing in middle class or affluent circumstances, and vulnerable to invitations to join up with others with similar grievances.

In years past, Simi said, groups like Patriot Front used to recruit potential new members by waiting outside schools for the last children to leave, the loners wandering off long after the final bell. Now such groups don’t have to work so hard to find targets. They have the internet, Simi said.

“It is a central aspect of these groups to take the frustration and anger and combine it with the special feeling and insights of being part of a group,” he said.

Rousseau, then just 18, was in Charlottesville in 2017, marching in the “Unite the Right” rally as a member of Vanguard America. The Anti-Defamation League calls Vanguard America a neo-Nazi group formed in 2016 that, like Patriot Front after it, was chiefly engaged in spreading propaganda. James Fields, the white supremacist convicted of murdering a young protester at the Charlottesville event, was photographed there carrying a Vanguard America shield, though he was not a member of the group.

Vanguard America splintered after the debacle in Virginia. Some wanted to abandon efforts to disguise their Nazi leanings and simply be brazen in their public look and violent aims. Rousseau took a different tack, and he started Patriot Front as an ostensibly more strategic, savvy, careful alternative. It would embrace more homegrown symbols—the flag, the bald eagle and patriotic language. Such shifts might attract a wider membership.

“I did go to Charlottesville. Some bad activism there,” Rousseau wrote in one of the secret chats. “I’ve done my part to learn from my mistakes.”

While Rousseau publicly and in the chats reviewed by ProPublica disavows violence, some Patriot Front members have shown support for a white supremacist group that embraces it: the Rise Above Movement. Eight RAM members have been arrested on charges related to violence in Charlottesville and in California.

“Gotta love RAM,” a Tennessee member said in the chats. “I hope they see us as 100 percent allies.”

In the chat logs, a Patriot Front member from Texas provides a list of addresses for 11 people in prison or under house arrest, referring to them as “POWs.” The list includes four members of RAM, numerous men arrested for violence in Charlottesville including Fields, and an imprisoned white supremacist in California. The Texan urged Patriot Front members to write to the prisoners and provided links to send some prisoners money directly. He also listed a donation link for a fund tied to Augustus Sol Invictus, a lawyer known for defending white supremacists.

Later in the chats, a member from New York shared a link to a white supremacist online fundraiser, saying proceeds would be given to a legal fund for RAM. He then chimed in that nearly $2,000 had been donated. “When they crack down we double down and become stronger,” he said. “Hail Victory!”

Observers of white hate groups credit Rousseau as a talented in-fighter, and they portray his breakaway from Vanguard America as a shrewd coup.

According to the person who infiltrated Patriot Front, Rousseau worries greatly about his members making the worst strategic mistake: carrying out an act of terrible violence. It would end his group, he has said.

“Thomas’ biggest fear is someone doing something crazy,” said the person who infiltrated Patriot Front.

“We Are Regular People”

Jakub Zak was in bed in the Chicago suburb of Vernon Hills when police, accompanied by his father, shook him awake. The police had been told that Zak, 19, was a member of Patriot Front, and that he might have a stash of illegal guns.

“He appeared nervous and tried to cover a few items on his bed as he put on his blue jeans,” police records say.

The police, though, had a clear view of what couldn’t be hidden: a gun safe meant for rifles, as well as magazines of ammunition on the bedroom floor.

Zak asked his father to make the police leave. His father would not.

“I advised Jakub that we would like for him to be cooperative, and explained to him cooperation goes a long way,” one detective wrote in a formal report, dated April 2018. “I explained to him the decision is for him to make, and he should think what is best for him.”

Zak spoke with his father and then offered the code for the safe. If there were guns in the house, the police wrote, Zak’s father wanted them out.

The police found a loaded 9 mm pistol and then, in a second safe, four more guns, including three high-powered semiautomatic rifles. The police records show Zak’s only concern was whether he could get his case for carrying the guns back after their confiscation.

It is unclear when or how Zak joined Patriot Front. The initial tip sent to law enforcement identified him as a member, one who often posted in the secret chats under the pseudonym “Hussar.” Postings under that name—portions of which were first published by Unicorn Riot, a media organization—suggest Zak was a frequent participant in the group’s propaganda efforts in the streets.

Online, Zak posted a mix of Patriot Front slogans and images—“America: Revolution is tradition”; “Deport them all.” But there was also much more explicitly violent material: a young black man lying prone on the street and about to be stomped; a Glock pistol.

Zak, who had no prior criminal record, ultimately pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor gun possession charge and was sentenced to probation. Whether local police referred his case, and his affiliation with Patriot Front, to any other law enforcement agency is unclear.

But the basic facts of Zak’s case amount to one of the hard-to-identify, hard-to-quantify, hard-to-assess threats in the U.S. today: an enthusiastically racist young man exposed to a steady diet of like-minded white supremacists, who doesn’t find it terribly hard to get his hands on dangerous weapons. Crusius, the accused El Paso killer, had no prior record; he lived with his grandparents; his mother is reported to have anonymously called law enforcement, worried once her son had bought a gun, even if it was legal; the parents of a classmate of Crusius’ told a local news organization in Dallas that their son had been encouraged by Crusius to join him in a white supremacist group.

In a brief interview at their home in Vernon Hills, Zak’s parents would not let him be interviewed.

“There is nothing to talk about,” his mother said, claiming he was not a member of any white hate group. “He is going through rough times, and he is in a better place now. I don’t want to start anything. He is getting his life together and planning [for] the future.”

“We are regular people,” his father added.

Concerns about how effectively federal authorities have been in thwarting the threat of white supremacists extends back years, covering both Democratic and Republican administrations. In recent months, though, there has been a series of arrests suggesting that federal and local authorities are being more aggressive.

In a recent report, the Department of Homeland Security took care to restate the balance law enforcement has to strike.

“The Department must take care, while addressing the scourge of violence, to avoid stigmatizing populations, infringing on constitutional rights, or attempting to police what Americans should think,” the report said.

Last February, a Patriot Front member, Joffre Cross, was arrested on gun charges in Houston. At a probable cause hearing, authorities said they got on to Cross through phone records belonging to a white supremacist in Texas who was convicted on assault charges this year.

Cross, 33, fits what experts see as another familiar profile for potentially violent white supremacists: a former Army soldier whose association with white supremacists dates back to his active-duty days. Disaffected former soldiers are a prime recruiting target for white hate groups, prized for their gun and bomb training and their possible access to weapons. Cross, while on active duty, was convicted on drug charges and imprisoned for five years. As part of the investigation, the authorities developed information that he was eager to secure weapons for white supremacist groups.

Cross, who has pleaded not guilty, was charged with felony weapons possession after police found guns and body armor in his home.

“If you don’t know me,” Cross once posted on Instagram, “consider this your trigger warning.” Cross and his attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

Cross is a regular participant on the Russian social media platform VK, whose terms of service about extremist content are not strictly enforced. His posts are rife with Nazi videos, Holocaust denial material and white supremacists beating protesters.

One post reads: “Help more bees; plant more trees; save the seas; shoot refugees.”

In the Patriot Front chats, Cross continued to post even after his arrest.

“We have to build a foundation that can weather any storm, anything they throw at us,” he wrote last April. “We just have to keep pushing.”

“In the Aggregate They Are Disturbing”

It was the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend 2019 when 20 or so masked members of Patriot Front made their way onto a corner of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. They set off flares and smoke devices, delivered a short speech using a megaphone and fled. The police report said it lasted all of three minutes.

Blakely Lord, a high school English teacher, managed to capture the incident on video. In brief, she called the episode “profoundly disturbing.”

“I chose to film because you feel helpless,” Lord said. “I’m a dumpy middle-aged English teacher. I’m not going to get out my sword and face them down.”

She added, “I do think it’s a narrative people need to be thinking about: these little incidents may seem unimportant, but in the aggregate they are disturbing.”

Such disturbances—masked flash mobs, defacing property, distributing propaganda—are the day-to-day work of Patriot Front. Screaming outside an anarchist book fair in Texas. Plastering stickers across multiple store fronts on a busy block in Denver. Parading with flares at night in a public park in Boston. Posting an “America First” sticker at a gay pride center in Vermont. All in the last year.

Members give one another tips about where to place posters and stickers legally, and they urge one another to wear gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints. But in practice, Patriot Front members frequently target storefronts or places of worship, which is vandalism. Additionally, many colleges and universities, another favorite target for postering, prohibit flyers from nonstudent groups. White supremacists see campuses as a strategic location for flyering: a place to recruit potential members while attracting press coverage to amplify their propaganda.

In Columbus, Georgia, three months ago, two Patriot Front members posted flyers on and around a local synagogue, Temple Israel. “Reclaim America,” read one. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of victory,” read another. And the address of Patriot Front’s website was printed at the bottom of the flyers. The temple’s leadership became aware of Patriot Front’s history and said it was clear the synagogue and its members were targeted because of their faith.

“To me, the sinister aspect is this particular group disguises themselves as patriots, Tiffany Broda, the temple’s president, told the Ledger-Enquirer last July. “Yet they are a hate group, a nationally recognized hate group. And though we don’t want to give them publicity, we think that it’s important to bring this out of the shadows.”

“Jews have been a part of Columbus almost since the founding of our city, which is almost 200 years ago,” Rabbi Beth Schwartz added. “We will remain vigilant as a congregation, vigilant as a Jewish community. We don’t hide our heads in fear.”

Patriot Front members make clear in their chats that such actions—almost always recorded by one of the masked members—have multiple aims: to frighten, to provide material for their own propaganda efforts on social media, and to recruit. The drive to recruit might help explain why college campuses are Patriot Front’s most common targets.

Late last month, Patriot Front launched what it claimed were coordinated actions to distribute flyers and stickers and posters at more than 100 campuses across the country. The group posted on Twitter what it said was evidence of success at 90 schools.

Michael Loadenthal, a visiting professor of sociology at Miami University in Ohio, said Patriot Front had recently been targeting the school.

“Fascists having a public presence is organizing; this is recruitment,” Loadenthal said, adding that the simple idea that “white supremacists are individually radicalized people in their basement at home is wrong.”

“They are a network,” he said. “No particular node is dangerous until they are.”

Simi, the professor in California, said Patriot Front had hit the campus of Chapman University three times in a single month recently. The school, he said, had set up a permanent conference dealing with the nation’s southern border, and Patriot Front had singled out posted materials related to the conference to be defaced or covered up.

“People on the campus get intimidated,” Simi said.

He said the school had to add security cameras and police protection.

“This is part of their strategy,” Simi said of Patriot Front. “These are things they want to happen.”

Thalia Beaty and Lucas Waldron contributed to this report.

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