Mother Jones Magazine

How the Media Boosts Ivanka Trump’s Stealth Damage-Control Campaign

Outside of a single, breezy tweet invoking Thomas Jefferson to defend her father last month, first daughter and White House adviser Ivanka Trump has been relatively quiet on the topic of impeachment. But she took a moment from her efforts to empower women last weekend to tepidly push back on the president’s demands to publicly identify the whistleblower at the center of his Ukraine scandal. She mostly parroted Republicans’ complaints about impeachment—but some media outlets trumpeted her bold “break” with her father instead.   It was the latest episode in one of the most enduring storylines of the Trump era: Things are going off the rails, but never fear—Ivanka is quietly working behind the scenes to be the least-awful member of the administration, details of which are conveniently leaked to the press:  

February 2017: The New York Times reports that Ivanka and sidekick Jared Kushner “helped kill” an executive order rolling back LGBTQ protections.

April 2017: Politico reports that Ivanka has “quietly reached out to” Planned Parent­hood as part of her “listening tour.”

April 2017: Eric Trump tells the Telegraph that a “heartbroken and outraged” Ivanka pushed her father to launch missile strikes on Syria after a chemical attack.

May 2017: Ivanka, who Axios states is “passionate” about climate change, is said to be working behind the scenes to influence her father’s decision to ditch the Paris climate deal.

June 2017: A US Weekly cover story trumpets that Ivanka “will always fight for what she believes in.”

June 2018: CNN asserts that Ivanka “agrees with her father’s sentiments that he hates the family separation issue and doesn’t want it to occur”—though she won’t say anything about it publicly.

September 2018: An unnamed source tells Vanity Fair that Ivanka told her dad to pull his nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

October 2018: The New York Times reports that only after “importuning” by Ivanka and Jared did the president speak out against anti-Semitism follow­ing a mass shooting at a synagogue.

April 2019: As Trump threatens to shut down the US-Mexico border, Jared pushes for immigration poli­cies in line with his and Ivanka’s “more moderate positions,” Politico reports.

July 2019: An anonymous source tells CBS News that the president “took heat” from Ivanka after he let his supporters chant “send her back” at a rally.

August 2019: As Trump dithers, Ivanka reportedly has been “quietly calling” lawmakers to gauge their support for new gun laws.

September 2019: Yahoo News reports “rumors” that Ivanka and Jared have suggested replacing Vice President Mike Pence with a woman on the 2020 ticket.

Oklahoma’s Mass Prison Release Is a Drop in the Bucket

Five and a half months ago, I wrote that “Oklahoma Is the ‘World’s Prison Capital.’ That Won’t Change Anytime Soon.”

Whoops.

At the start of this year, Oklahoma had the dubious distinction of having more people behind bars per capita than anywhere else in the United States, which itself locks up far more of its population than any other country. Then, last week, in what’s been trumpeted as the “largest single-day commutation” in the country’s history (not quite), Oklahoma released 462 prisoners who had been convicted of simple drug possession or low-level property crimes.

Jon Echols, a Republican leader in the state legislature who sponsored the bill that led to the commutations, crowed in a press release that “Oklahoma is no longer the nation’s top incarcerator.” According to Echols, the mass release meant the state prison system’s incarceration rate fell from 667.8 prisoners per 100,000 residents to 656.4—slipping behind Louisiana, which locks up 682.6 people per 100,000 residents. (These rates don’t account for jails, juvenile detention, or federal facilities.) In contrast, Norway has 75 prisoners per 100,000 people; Japan has 45. Whoo-hoo, Oklahoma: You’re now number two.

Not that there’s nothing to celebrate. The commutations are a solid example of the criminal justice reform movement taking root in red states as former lock-’em-up Republicans realize they can’t afford to keep incarcerating. But while each reduced sentence means a tremendous amount to everyone who went home last Monday—like Calista Ortiz, a mother of five sentenced to about seven years for drug possession—they affected about 2 percent of people inside Oklahoma’s bloated prison system, which held 25,770 people as of late October. And the state legislature had several chances this year to pass significantly more comprehensive reforms, but it punted on pretty much everything except for Echols’ bill.

As I reported in May:

The most ambitious bills would have shortened drug sentences, limited the use of cash bail, eased the reentry process for former prisoners, and reduced the use of lengthy terms for people repeatedly convicted of nonviolent crimes. Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, a nonprofit led by the former Republican speaker of the state House, estimated that the bills would have cut the state’s prison population by 17 percent within a decade.

Despite bipartisan support for the measures, prosecutors in the state were reluctant to get behind themLobbying by law enforcement officials and bail bond companies derailed the bail-reform bill, which would have allowed judges to release low-level criminal defendants from jail even if they could not afford bail.

Echols’ bill expanded on a pair of ballot measures that passed in 2016, in which Oklahomans voted to reclassified simple drug possession as a misdemeanor and to raise the threshold for felony theft to $1,000. The ballot measures only applied to future prosecutions, but HB 1269 made them retroactive, allowing people already serving time to have their sentences reduced. (Another provision of the bill let 65,000 state residents wipe former felony charges from their records.) 

However, not everyone serving time for such convictions was released last week. Rather than automatically freeing all prisoners who qualified, the bill routed their cases through the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board and Gov. Kevin Stitt. At a November 1 meeting, the board recommended sentence reductions for 527 of 814 imprisoned people with qualifying convictions. (The rest were not recommended because of behavior problems or protests from prosecutors.) Stitt approved the recommendations, prompting last Monday’s release (with the exception of 65 prisoners with immigration status issues or pending charges in other states).

Oklahoma’s much-hyped release perpetuates the myth that mass incarceration can be fixed simply by focusing on easing up on nonviolent drug offenders. Just 15 percent of the people locked up state prisons, which hold the vast majority of prisoners, are there for drug convictions; 55 percent have been convicted of violent crimes. Conventional wisdom holds that the idea of early release for people with violent felony convictions is a political third rail. (In 2015, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 46 federal drug offenders but declared he had no “tolerance” for violent criminals.) Yet Louisiana, which passed a raft of criminal justice reform bills in 2017, lowered its own astronomical incarceration rate by 7.6 percent in part by expanding probation eligibility and parole options for people convicted of certain violent crimes, and reclassifying some “violent” offenses as “nonviolent.” If Oklahoma truly wants to knock down its sky-high incarceration rate, it might want to look a little more like Louisiana.

As Trump Attacks, Death Threats Against the Whistleblower and His Lawyers Increase

In the past two weeks, as the House impeachment inquiry has proceeded, President Donald Trump has ramped up his public attacks on the US government whistleblower who triggered the scandal, and in this stretch the flow of threats, including death threats, directed at the whistleblower and his private attorneys has intensified. According to a source close to the legal team, “threats, including physical harm, and harassment have definitely increased.” The source adds, “Law enforcement is involved.”

Since September 20, Trump has tweeted almost 100 times about the whistleblower. And the pace has quickened in the past week, with Trump zeroing in on the whistleblower on 16 occasions. Trump has assailed the whistleblower as a traitor and deep state operative. In remarks made at the US mission to the United Nations on September 27, Trump compared the whistleblower to a “spy,” and added, “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? With spies and treason, right?” This was a clear reference to execution: This guy deserves to die. In recent tweets, Trump has approvingly quoted his defenders, who have accused the whistleblower of being corrupt and conspiring with Democrats to topple Trump, and Trump has blasted the whistleblower’s attorneys as “fake.” On Monday, Trump tweeted: “the Whistleblower, his lawyer and Corrupt politician Schiff should be investigated for fraud!” 

Trump’s remarks and tweets—and those of his amen choir—have arguably placed a target on the whistleblower. On Monday, Joe diGenova, a former US prosecutor who, with his wife, Victoria Toensing, has provided advice to Trump, unleashed a massive amount of vitriol on the whistleblower. During a radio interview, diGenova exclaimed, “He worked at the CIA, and he is part of a political assassination. It’s now underway, and all of the listeners should realize that that’s what this is about. This is a fraud on the Constitution and a fraud on the American people.” DiGenova referred to the whistleblower with a name that has been reported in an online conservative publication (and not confirmed) but then said, “Okay, we won’t identify him.” He added, “his name is as follows: John Wilkes Booth.”

Equating a US government whistleblower, who followed the rules and whose complaint was deemed legitimate by the inspector general of the intelligence community, to a presidential assassin was an extreme and cavalier move. The whistleblower’s legal team does worry that such rhetoric raises the danger level for the whistleblower and for them. When a former Obama administration official was mistakenly identified by MAGAites on Twitter as the whistleblower, he received numerous death threats. Yet diGenova’s inciting performance was not shocking, given that he has referred to the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry as “regicide.” (DiGenova is no neutral observer in all this. He and Toensing have been representing Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash, who is tied to the Ukraine scandal. They also are lawyers for John Solomon, the former Hill columnist who peddled unsubstantiated allegations regarding the activity in Ukraine of Joe Biden and his son Hunter. And Toensing has worked with Rudy Giuliani to dig up derogatory information on the Bidens in Ukraine.)

As more evidence of Trump’s effort to lean on Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to produce political dirt useful for Trump emerges, Trump and his defenders on Capitol Hill and the media have focused on the whistleblower. In doing so, they’re repurposing the strategy that served Trump well during the Russia scandal. The case was rather clear in that instance: Vladimir Putin mounted a secret operation in 2016 to help Trump win the presidency, and Trump aided the Russians by vigorously denying any such attack was underway. His campaign also repeatedly signaled to Moscow it did not mind the attack, as campaign aides met with Russian intermediaries and sought to develop secret contacts with the Kremlin while the assault was occurring. Yet as investigations of this scandal were launched and pursued, Trump and his allies focused on side-issues related to the investigations themselves. How was the FBI probe initiated? Why was one particular surveillance warrant obtained? They claimed the real story was a deep state plot against Trump waged by the CIA, the FBI, the media, the Democrats, and who-knows-who-else. They did all they could to divert attention from the Russian attack and Trump wrongdoing (such as Trump lying about his pursuit of a huge Russian business deal while he was campaigning), and they attempted to shift the focus to claims that the inquiries that sought to uncover the truth about Putin’s information warfare against the United States and Trump’s interactions with Russia were not on the level.

It all sort of worked. The Russia scandal never became a political threat to Trump, and Trump’s base—thanks to Fox News and other collaborators in the conservative media—now believes the actual scandal was not the Russian assault on US democracy but something they call Spygate. 

So it’s only natural that Trump and his crew are going back to that well. The whistleblower who anonymously filed a complaint, based mostly on secondhand information, alleging Trump had abused his office for political gain, did trigger the Ukraine scandal. But since his report became public in mid-September, House investigators have questioned a slew of firsthand witnesses who have provided compelling evidence to back up and expand the complaint. And the transcripts of many of these interviews have been made public in the past week. Consequently, the public record is now replete with direct testimony from named US officials, and this testimony collectively tells the tale of a president who set up a behind-the-scenes foreign policy operation, guided by Giuliani, to muscle (or extort) Zelensky. The whistleblower’s complaint is no longer needed. He can be dismissed from this episode: Thank you for your service. 

But, no…Trump and Republicans are demanding that he be named—last week, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), appearing at a rally with Trump, angrily called on the media to publish the whistleblower’s name—and that the whistleblower be summoned as a witness in the House impeachment hearings that are beginning this week. The point? To turn the whistleblower into a piñata, someone who can be grilled about his political views and connections. Did you ever work with Joe Biden? Well, maybe he did as part of his official duties. After all, Biden was vice president for eight years and routinely worked with many employees of the national security community, and his portfolio included Ukraine. But—aha!—then the whistleblower can be cast as a Democratic operative and the origins of the whole impeachment inquiry questioned. Once again, Trump and his minions are looking to raise suspicions about how an investigation began and to generate yet another conspiracy theory that promotes an alternative (and misleading) narrative that sidesteps the basic facts of a scandal. In some ways, it’s all they got. 

Back in the real world, impeachment is no longer about the whistleblower. His motives, background, political views—none of that matters, given the thousands of pages of testimony and documents that have come out and that depict the actions of Trump, Giuliani, and the rest of the gang. This material, obviously, is not good for Trump and his side. So Trump and his handmaids need to change the channel—and there’s the whistleblower. That’s their target. And they don’t give a damn that when you make someone a target—when you accuse him of mounting a coup, when you call him a threat to democracy, when you compare him to a presidential assassin—that can send a very serious and dangerous message.

What Happens When the Republican Bubble Bursts?

For quite a long time the following thought has been rolling around in my head:

Every year America gets less white. The Republican Party is keenly aware of this, and keenly aware that their natural base of support is shrinking with every election cycle. But they have no solution to this problem. If they genuinely try to make their party friendlier to voters of color, they’ll lose support from their white base and start losing elections immediately. If they don’t make their party friendlier to voters of color, they’ll start losing elections in the near future thanks to sheer demographic pressure. They have a tiger by the ears, and they can neither hold on nor let go.

What hasn’t been rolling around in my head is the notion that this thought could be turned into a long cover story in the Atlantic. But Yoni Appelbaum is smarter than me:

The history of the United States is rich with examples of once-dominant groups adjusting to the rise of formerly marginalized populations—sometimes gracefully, more often bitterly, and occasionally violently….But sometimes, that process of realignment breaks down. Instead of reaching out and inviting new allies into its coalition, the political right hardens, turning against the democratic processes it fears will subsume it.

….Trump has led his party to this dead end, and it may well cost him his chance for reelection, presuming he is not removed through impeachment. But the president’s defeat would likely only deepen the despair that fueled his rise, confirming his supporters’ fear that the demographic tide has turned against them. That fear is the single greatest threat facing American democracy, the force that is already battering down precedents, leveling norms, and demolishing guardrails. When a group that has traditionally exercised power comes to believe that its eclipse is inevitable, and that the destruction of all it holds dear will follow, it will fight to preserve what it has—whatever the cost.

I think this is pretty much true, and that it explains the seeming terror that has taken hold of so many conservatives. It explains why Mitch McConnell doesn’t care much about legislation of any kind but grimly continues to confirm federal judges: it’s his only bulwark against a future in which Republicans lose power completely for a decade or two. It explains why a formerly mainstream party not only voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 primaries, but voted overwhelmingly for him even though they had a perfectly normal field of competitors to choose from. It explains a multi-decade effort at voter suppression that has consumed the party even though it’s unlikely to put off the inevitable by more than a year or three.

In 2012 I thought that the Republican Party had gone as far as it could to get votes from the white working class. There was just no more blood to be squeezed from that particular turnip. But I was wrong—barely. In 2016 they did what no one could have predicted by nominating a guy who was an all but open racist. And it worked, buying them just a few more votes than it lost them. Once again, they gained a few years.

But it can’t last forever. The Republican Party has already gone much further down the road of lashing itself to the cause of white racial resentment than I would have guessed possible. How much longer can it last? Like most bubbles, longer than you think. But someday the bubble will burst. The big question is, what will happen next?

Court to Government: Stop Searching Travelers’ Cell Phones at Whim

The government can no longer search international travelers’ cell phones and other personal devices at whim, a federal court ruled Tuesday.

The ruling followed a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a technology civil liberties group, on behalf 11 travelers (10 US citizens and one permanent resident) whose phones and laptops were searched as they were coming into the United States. The searches were conducted without warrants and without suspicion of the travelers.

Customs and Border Protection and US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement had previously been operating, in at least some cases, as though they did not have to obtain warrants or have reasonable cause for suspicion of travelers coming back into the country before searching their devices. Advocacy groups called that a violation of the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures.

“This ruling significantly advances Fourth Amendment protections for the millions of international travelers who enter the United States every year,” Esha Bhandari, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said in a press release.

The searches are a part of the Department of Homeland Security’s broader recent pattern of encroaching on civil liberties. The agency has also begun searching the social media profiles of travelers entering the United States.

The border has been a hotspot for civil liberties violations. Border Patrol officials have a lengthy and documented history of flagrantly violating constitutional rights and protections. They’ve wrongfully detained Americans at the border and pushed for increased surveillance of Americans travelers, all with near impunity. Tuesday’s ruling, in a federal court in Boston, means they’ll have to start operating within some constraints. 

Lunchtime Photo

This is a cawtaba rhododendron blooming along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

May 9, 2019 — Near Blowing Rock, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina

The Photos of Wildfires Raging Across Australia Are Devastating

Residents of Sydney, Australia, are bracing for the worst as catastrophic bushfires rage across the state of New South Wales. Though Australia’s summer fire season has just begun, 150,000 hectares of land have already burned in one fire alone, the Sydney Morning Herald reports. Since Friday, the fire has killed three people and destroyed 170 properties.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended the coal industry and shown indifference to climate change, even as extreme heat has intensified the fires blazing in his country. On Monday, he tweeted, “Everything that can be done is being done to prepare for today’s incredibly dangerous fire conditions in NSW & Qld.”

Meanwhile, these photos reveal the devastation on the ground:

A fire rages in Bobin, 200 miles north of Sydney, on November 9.

Peter Parks/AFP/Getty

A bushfire burns outside a property near Taree on November 12.

Peter Parks/AFP/Getty

Residents defend a property from a bushfire at Hillsville near Taree, about 200 miles north of Sydney, on November 12.

Peter Parks/AFP/Getty

Firefighters try to save houses from an encroaching bushfire in New South Whales on November 8.

Dean Sewell/The Sydney Morning Herald/Getty

A burnt-out vehicle sits by the roadside after fires swept through bushland and properties near Macksville in New South Whales on November 11.

Wolter Peeters/The Sydney Morning Herald/Getty

Fire and Rescue responds to a bushfire burning out of control in New South Whales on November 10.

Wolter Peeters/The Sydney Morning Herald/Getty

Images from the fire have also spread across social media (and, fortunately, most images seem to be real, unlike the viral photos that spread after the Amazon fires):

Australia is battling a record number of emergency-level bushfires, turning the sky over some cities red.

100 fires across Queensland + New South Wales
6,000+ people ordered to evacuate
Officials say they are in "uncharted territory" pic.twitter.com/ybB1JgCCTY

— AJ+ (@ajplus) November 8, 2019

Matt Hope was on a flight from Sydney to Brisbane and captured this image of the fires on the New South Wales Mid North Coast.

Picture credit: @MattHope4.

Keep up with the latest bushfire updates here: https://t.co/fh9PKGXeNA #QLDFires #NSWFires #9News pic.twitter.com/B2oGwfLRPI

— Nine News Australia (@9NewsAUS) November 8, 2019

Authorities declared a state of emergency across a broad swath of Australia’s east coast and asked residents to evacuate as bush fires continued to rage https://t.co/iplmg9t2u6 pic.twitter.com/6ZqMyJ2Tls

— Reuters (@Reuters) November 11, 2019

Stone Trial Reveals Trump Likely Lied to Mueller

President Donald Trump likely lied to special counsel Robert Mueller about conversations he had in 2016 regarding WikiLeaks’ plans to release information stolen from Democrats by Russian hackers. That’s the big takeaway from dramatic courtroom testimony that occurred Tuesday in the trial of Roger Stone.

The revelations came from Rick Gates, a former Trump campaign aid who took the stand as federal prosecutors wrapped up their case against Stone, the longtime Trump adviser who was charged with lying to Congress about his efforts to interact with WikiLeaks in 2016. In court, Gates described a July 31, 2016, phone call he witnessed while in car with Trump headed to LaGuardia Airport—nine days after WikiLeaks had dumped tens of thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee. Gates said he could not hear what Stone was saying, but saw Stone’s number on Trump’s caller ID and recognized Stone’s voice. After the call, Trump “indicated that more information would be coming” out, Gates testified.

Gates’ testimony contradicts Stone’s claim to the House Intelligence Committee that he did not communicate with anyone on the Trump campaign about information he claimed to have gathered regarding WikiLeaks’ plans to release hacked Democratic information. But more significantly, it calls into question Trump’s assertions to Mueller’s team. In written responses to the prosecutors last year, Trump stated, “I do not recall discussing WikiLeaks with [Stone], nor do I recall being aware of Mr. Stone having discussed WikiLeaks with individuals associated with my campaign.” Trump also told Mueller: “I do not recall being told during the campaign that Roger Stone or anyone associated with my campaign had discussions with any of the entities named in the question [including WikiLeaks] regarding the content or timing of release of hacked emails.”

Gates’ testimony suggests Trump was in direct communication with Stone about WikiLeaks. Gates’ statements to the court also indicate that Trump received updates on what Stone was telling other campaign officials about WikiLeaks. His testimony depicted Trump and his campaign as trying to use Stone as something of a go-between with WikiLeaks to obtain inside information they presumably could exploit. (Throughout the campaign, Trump and his aides repeatedly denied Russia was attacking the election, but Mueller’s final report did note the campaign attempted to take advantage of this attack.)  

Gates revealed on Tuesday that Stone began telling Trump campaign officials early in the campaign that WikiLeaks was preparing to release material damaging to Hillary Clinton. Gates said Stone told him in April that information would be coming out via WikiLeaks. That was long before the Democratic National Committee announced on June 14 that it had been hacked by Russia.

Gates testified that after the DNC announcement, Stone contacted him, saying the matter was urgent. Stone reported to Gates that “more information would be coming out of the DNC hack,” according to Gates, and Stone asked Gates to give him contact information for Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, and another campaign aide so he could brief them on the hack. (This was several days after Kushner, Donald Trump Jr., and Paul Manafort, then the campaign chair, had met with a Russian emissary whom they were told was bringing them dirt on Clinton as part of a Kremlin scheme to assist the Trump campaign. They later claimed the meeting had not yielded any ammo they could use against Clinton.)

Throughout June and into July, Stone continued to tell top Trump aides that WikiLeaks would be releasing material harmful for Clinton. Gates said that he and Manafort were skeptical. But on July 22, 2016, WikiLeaks put out the hacked DNC emails, disrupting the party’s convention and prompting the resignation of the DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.

Gates said the Trump campaign was thrilled with these developments. Gates said that Stone was quick to inform the campaign that he had been right and that Stone continued to predict that more releases were coming from WikiLeaks. Gates testified that Manafort asked him to follow up with Stone to find out when that new information would appear. “Manafort indicated that he was going to be updating additional people on the campaign, including the candidate,” Gates said, referring to Trump. If Manafort did talk to Trump about imminent WikiLeaks releases, that would be further indication that Trump misled Mueller.

In his written responses to Mueller, Trump claimed, somewhat implausibly, that he did not recall any such conversations with Stone, Manafort, or anyone else—rather than denying that such discussions had occurred. That could protect him from perjury charges after he leaves office. (It’s tough for prosecutors to prove that someone did, in fact, remember an event.) But Gates’ testimony was strong evidence that the president lied to Mueller to cover up a possible Trump campaign connection to WikiLeaks and to hide interactions that Trump might have feared could be seen as something akin to collusion.

Leaked Emails Show Stephen Miller’s Unfiltered Anti-Immigrant Views

In private emails in 2015 and 2016, President Donald Trump’s top immigration adviser touted a vilely racist novel that warns of a migrant invasion, promoted the ideas of white nationalist publications, and raged at retailers who stopped selling Confederate flags in the wake of the massacre of black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina.

On Tuesday, the Southern Poverty Law Center published excerpts of emails Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s assaults on immigrants, sent to the right-wing outlet Breitbart. Miller’s embrace of ideas and language used by the “white replacement” conspiracy theorists who populate alt-right forums has long been known. But the unusual thing about the emails, which were provided to the SPLC by a disaffected former Breitbart editor, Katie McHugh, is that they come from a time when Miller was willing to put his ideas in writing. These days, well aware that he’s a target for Trump’s critics, he’s careful to avoid a paper trail by sticking to phone calls.

In a normal administration, the views laid out in Miller’s emails would be disqualifying. In a Trump administration, it makes him essential. In fact, many of the opinions he laid out in the emails have become part of the policies Miller has helped enact in the White House, from cutting refugee admissions to record lows to separating families at the border.

The SPLC has laid out the full range of Miller’s views disclosed in his emails on its Hatewatch blog. But here are a few of the most incendiary elements:

Comparing the pope’s rhetoric to a racist fever dream

In September 2015, while working for then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Miller wrote to McHugh:

Also, you see the Pope saying west must, in effect, get rid of borders. Someone should point out the parallels to Camp of the Saints.

As I wrote last year, The Camp of the Saints is a 1973 French novel that’s become a favorite among white nationalist for obvious reasons:

The book’s plot centers on a horde of 800,000 Indians floating toward the French Riviera and led by a man called the Turd-eater who eats feces. [The author] implies that the solution to the invasion would be to massacre the Indians upon arrival, but empathy gets in the way, and the Indians conquer France.

Raging at Amazon for pulling Confederate flags 

After nine parishioners at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church were murdered in 2015, Amazon, eBay, and Walmart moved to stop selling Confederate flags. Miller responded by quoting History.com to McHugh under the subject line “defies modern comprehension”: 

“22.6 percent of Southern men who were between the ages of 20 and 24 in 1860 lost their lives because of the war.”

The fact that those men died in defense of slavery did not seem to matter to Miller. 

When it came to the more practical matter of directing Breitbart’s coverage, Miller recommended that McHugh go on Amazon to find “commie flags” that were still for sale. 

Celebrating a eugenicist president

Like his former boss, Sessions, Miller admires the 1924 immigration law that favored Northern Europeans and dramatically cut immigration until it was replaced in 1965. In the emails, Miller frequently praised Calvin Coolidge, the president who signed the law, who has become a hero to anti-immigration activists on the far right. He wrote during Immigrant Heritage Month in June 2015: 

This would seem a good opportunity to remind people about the heritage established by Calvin Coolidge, which covers four decades [after the 1924 law].

As the Atlantic has shown, Coolidge’s views about immigrants are best captured by an article he wrote for Good Housekeeping in 1921:

The Nordics propagate themselves successfully. With other races, the outcome shows deterioration on both sides. Quality of mind and body suggests that observance of ethnic law is as great a necessity to a nation as immigration law.

How America’s Election Machines are Vulnerable to Foreign Manipulation

Election security has garnered a lot of attention in the wake of Russian’s 2016 influence operation. In particular, concerns over the reliability and integrity of voting machines—long a subject of considerable attention in hacker and tech circles—has made its way into the mainstream, prompting many states and local jurisdictions to upgrade equipment.

There is “almost no federal regulation of the vendors” that facilitate voting.

But the vendors who make, sell, and service the equipment that make elections work—the voting machines, voter registration databases, ballot programming software, and electronic poll books—largely fly under the radar with little oversight, according to a new report from the Brennan Center, leaving United States elections unnecessarily vulnerable to foreign interference.

“There is almost no federal regulation of the vendors that design and maintain the systems that allow us to determine who can vote, how they vote, or how their votes are counted,” write coauthors Larry Norden, Christopher Deluzio, and Gowri Ramachandran in their new report, “A Framework for Election Vendor Oversight,” published Tuesday. The trio notes that even though such systems were designated as “critical infrastructure” by the federal government in the wake of 2016, the vendors who design and sell them face less regulation than those who produce colored pencils.

“There’s been little attention paid to vendor practices, and election system vendors are responsible for a big part of whether or not our elections are secure,” Norden told Mother Jones ahead of the report’s release. Private companies that work in other critical areas face a bevy of regulation and have to meet a variety of standards, he said, and election vendors should too.

Currently, only “voting systems” are tested and certified by the Election Assistance Commission, a federal agency created in the wake of the 2000 presidential race recount in Florida. The standards were adopted in 2005 and cover the hardware and software that prepare voting machines and ballots, test them, record and count votes, report results, and produce audit data. Although the vast majority of states require voting equipment to pass this certification, the process is voluntary. That level of independence has its roots in America’s constitutionally proscribed history of having states control their own elections.

But an even bigger issue for the report’s authors is that today’s voluntary standards fail to place key requirements on vendors, such as background checks for personnel, transparency in ownership, and approaches to supply chain security. “The threats posed by foreign influence over a US election vendor—including the heightened potential for foreign infiltration of the vendor’s supply chain or knowledge of client election officials’ capabilities and systems—should be obvious,” the authors wrote.

The authors suggest a few fundamental shifts, including greater funding and authority for the EAC to address such concerns. Despite the likelihood of increasingly sophisticated cyber attacks, the agency’s 2019 budget was just $9.2 million, down from $18 million in 2010. While the report says the EAC could require more of vendors on its own with current resources, the report calls for more funding to help the agency to expand its cybersecurity expertise, and for Congress to exercise greater oversight of its work, rather than, as Republicans have several times, try to kill it.  

Norden says local election officials would be able to make better decisions if vendors had to provide more information about their cybersecurity practices, ownership structure, or the way they work with subcontractors.

“Everybody would be better off if there were national standards.”

“I don’t mean to bash the vendors, I just think everybody would be better off if there were national standards and there was transparency about what they were doing,” Norden said, pointing to a situation in 2016 where VR Systems, a Florida-based provider of electronic registration books and other election services, was apparently hacked—an incident where the details and repercussions are still not publicly clear.

Norden says that other election security proposals—some of which include proposals reflected in the report—have stalled in Congress at the feet of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who says that states should have most of the control and responsibility over election security. 

“Unfortunately, what we’ve learned with Congress around these issues is that you need a crisis before they’re willing to act,” Norden said. He pointed to last week’s indictment of two former Twitter employees accused of spying for Saudi Arabia while on the job as a very real and recent example of how technology companies can be penetrated by foreign interests.

“I hope that we don’t have a situation like that where we find out that we have people working at one of the vendors that was also working for a foreign government,” he said. “It’s not an impossible thing to imagine. We have too many precedents to think that couldn’t happen given how important our election vendors are, and given how damaging their attack could be to our election security. So I hope we don’t have to get to that point.”

Warren Wants to Make It a Crime for Corporations to Lie to Regulators

In light of recent revelations that ExxonMobil determined as far back as 1982 that humankind had contributed to climate change and then withheld that knowledge from the public for almost four decades, Elizabeth Warren released a plan on Tuesday to make it a crime for corporations to knowingly spread misinformation. Warren’s “corporate perjury” law would subject corporate representatives who lie to federal regulators to fines and possible jail time.

The longstanding false narrative Exxon told, before finally acknowledging human-caused climate change in 2014, is exactly the type of misinformation regime the policy was created to combat. “That is corruption, plain and simple,” says Warren campaign spokesperson Saloni Sharma. “Elizabeth’s plan to end Washington corruption will prosecute companies for perjury when they knowingly engage in egregious and intentional efforts to mislead the public and prevent our government from understanding and acting on the facts.”

Perjury is an infamously difficult crime to prove, requiring the exhaustion of any possibility that a false statement was simply made in error. But under Warren’s proposal, if prosecutors successfully charge someone with lying to regulators on behalf of a corporation, the perpetrator could face up to $250,000 and time behind bars. 

Right now, Exxon is locked in a court battle in New York with the state attorney general, who alleges that Exxon executives committed fraud by providing incongruent narratives to shareholders and the public. To the former, it minimized the threat and relevance of climate change, while assuring the latter it was tackling the climate issue head on. In this case, Warren’s anti-perjury policy could have bolstered the state’s investigation against Exxon, considering the amount of time the company spent publicly denying its role in climate change. 

This proposal is part of a wider set of initiatives the campaign has set forth to prevent corporations from lying to the public. Last month, Warren called for barring federal entities from considering research that was not peer reviewed or was funded by an industry. In her proposal, Warren noted that industry groups habitually peddle misleading information to secure laws and regulations that benefit them. “I’ll crack down on corporations who manipulate agencies by submitting sham research — like the climate denial studies bought and paid for by oil and gas magnates like the Koch Brothers,” her proposal states.

Warren has long targeted corporate-backed research. In 2015, a Brookings Institution economist named Robert Litan resigned from his post after Warren revealed that he’d received $38,000 to promote research critical of Obama-era regulations to protect investors. 

Just How Bad Is LAX?

From the Wall Street Journal:

LAX, like some other airports, is a collection of terminals built around one double-deck roadway, with one level for departures and another for arrivals. Both are so clogged it can take an hour just to drop someone off after you enter the airport.

If you click the link, you get this story from 2016:

“Traffic is crazier than usual. It’s been a rough summer,” says Cheryl Berkman, chief executive of Music Express, a limousine service operating in several cities. At LAX, it’s taken some cars 45 minutes or more to loop 1.3 miles around the terminals.

“Some cars” have taken 45 minutes—from a story more than three years old—has magically morphed into “it can take an hour.” Journalism!

FWIW, I’ve picked up and dropped off at LAX lots of times. It’s a mess, and I don’t doubt that there are occasions when it takes 45 minutes to make the full loop. But in all the times I’ve done it, I don’t think it’s ever taken me more than 15 minutes or so. I get that hyperbole sells, but cherry picking the very worst examples and making them sound like they’re typical does no one a service.

The Democrats’ Impeachment Strategy Is Simple—and Risky

Less is more. 

That’s the mantra for the House Democrats, as they take their impeachment inquiry into a new phase: public hearings. For weeks, the House committees leading this effort—the intelligence, foreign affairs, and oversight committees—have narrowly focused on one matter: the Trump-Ukraine scandal and the tale of Donald Trump apparently abusing the office of the president to obtain political dirt that could influence the 2020 election. Sure, there are a lot of other issues that Democrats have previously raised as possible grounds for impeachment—Trump allegedly obstructing justice (per the Robert Mueller report), Trump regularly violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution, Trump separating children from their parents at the border, and more—but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team determined that their best bet was to zero in on one episode of wrongdoing and leave the rest alone. “It’s the KISS strategy,” one senior House Democratic staffer says. “Keep it simple, stupid.” And as one House Democrat puts it, the goal is a “medium-sized impeachment.” Nothing too elaborate, nothing too hard to follow. After the somewhat complicated Trump-Russia scandal fizzled politically, Pelosi and her crew want to base impeachment on a straightforward and comprehensible narrative. Avoid tangential plots and the need for timelines. flowcharts, and complex explanations. Don’t get hung up on the past and the 2016 election. Skip all the Russia stuff—and don’t mention Mueller ever again. Trump tried to extort a foreign government to screw with the upcoming election—and that’s impeachable enough. 

So far, this impeachment-lite strategy appears to be working in that public opinion polls show majority support for the Democrats’ impeachment project. But it does run a risk of providing Republicans in the Senate, who will have to render a judgment if the House Democrats successfully impeach Trump, what could be an easy way out.

Through the first eight months of 2019, Pelosi resisted the mounting calls within her own caucus for impeachment. Though there were solid arguments for initiating such a proceeding—including Trump’s refusal to comply with congressional investigations (which was one of the three articles of impeachment passed by the House Judiciary Committee in 1974 pertaining to Richard Nixon)—Pelosi and other top Democrats feared that the 41 House Democrats representing congressional districts where Trump won in 2016 could face the wrath of voters if they voted to impeach a president a majority of their constituents had chosen. And that could threaten Democratic control of the House. The Dems also had concluded that the Russia investigation was no longer of much interest to many voters and that Mueller’s report and his half-hearted testimony before Congress had not established a solid foundation for the argument that Trump should be removed from office. To some degree, this was a result of the Democrats’ own failure to convey the full and compelling narrative of that scandal. They held no series of hearings on the matter. They never figured out how to sidestep Trump’s trap, in which he defined the controversy as being only a matter of direct collusion. They blew an important opportunity. Even when it was reported that Trump, abandoning his constitutional duty to safeguard the nation, had told Moscow’s emissary during a May 2017 Oval Office meeting that he didn’t care about Russia’s attack on the 2016 campaign, there was no organized outrage from the Democrats’ leaders. They had decided voters didn’t care about that whole Russia thing, and impeachment was off the table.

“It’s the KISS strategy,” one senior House Democratic staffer says. “Keep it simple, stupid.”

The Ukraine revelations changed all that. When the news broke that Trump had pressured the Ukrainian president to mount investigations to produce dirt on Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, and to yield information that would buttress a crackpot conspiracy theory holding that Russia did not hack the 2016 election, the impeachment damn in the House broke, and Pelosi and her colleagues essentially said, Now we got him. Quid pro quo, extortion, bribery. All summed up in one line: “I would like you to do us a favor though.” Despite the obfuscation, diversion, and distraction hurled by Trump and his cultist defenders, this caper was indeed a simple story. The quasi-transcript released by the White House implicated Trump—and all the subsequent evidence and accounts backed up the main accusation that Trump had exploited his office to muscle a foreign leader for his own underhanded political advantage. At this point, Pelosi grabbed on to these disclosures and declared, This is something we can work with!

Within the House Democratic caucus there was—and there continues to be—a debate over whether the impeachment of Donald Trump also ought to include other matters. Should the Democrats showcase the Ukraine affair as an example of Trump’s perfidy and tie it to the other abuses his critics have identified long before anyone knew the name of Volodomyr Zelensky? Or should they not pile on side plots and additional charges of constitutional wrongdoing? This conversation is continuing among Democrats within the House. And it is partly colored by pragmatic concerns. Pelosi and other leading Dems are looking to pursue an expeditious impeachment. Get this thing done with ASAP so voters don’t come to see the Democrats as bent only on revenge and obstructionism—and so any Senate trial isn’t pushed too far into the coming election year. With the holidays approaching, the House doesn’t have many working days in order to wrap up an impeachment. A one-story-only impeachment has a better chance of being accomplished in this short timeframe. Explaining Trump’s violation of the emoluments clause, his various alleged acts of obstruction, and everything else—through further congressional investigation, reports, hearings, and the lawsuits necessary to force recalcitrant witnesses and the White House to comply with congressional subpoenas—would take time. Perhaps a lot of time. (There is so much to cover!) So if the best impeachment is a fast impeachment, then the Dems need a compact short story to present to the public, not a grand sweeping epic. Call it a modest impeachment. There is still a chance the more-than-Ukraine Democrats will somehow attach Trump’s other misdeeds to the impeachment train. But time and the desire for simplicity is against them. 

One curious aspect of the political dynamic underlying a no-frills impeachment is that this just-the-Ukraine-facts approach could also help Trump and the Republicans. Already Trump’s defenders have moved toward an is-this-all-you-got defense, with some Republicans conceding the Ukraine business doesn’t look good but insisting it’s not impeachable. Look for this to become a mainstay for Trump’s champions: the Democrats have been investigating Trump for almost a year, and all they turned up was one lousy phone call with perhaps one teeny-weeny quid pro quo. They will contend that such a misstep—if it even counts as a misstep—does not warrant overturning the popular will (that is, the Electoral College). And they will combine this with another obvious argument: certainly, this possible error ought not lead to the political death penalty in an election year when the American people themselves will soon be able to render their own verdict. Should Trump be impeached and a trial be held in the Senate, you can expect Republican senators to loftily proclaim that they will not substitute their own judgments for the wisdom of the voters. And the closer any trial comes to Election Day 2020, the louder this argument will be exclaimed. 

There are obvious counters to these obvious Republican defenses. (Why allow a president who has used his office to try to subvert an election to remain in office?) But a medium-sized impeachment—one that ducks the totality of Trump’s misconduct—could provide the Republicans greater opportunity to fast-track a trial, quickly dismiss the entire mess, and offer what Trump will embrace as a clean bill of health. Still, if that’s the scenario that plays out, Trump will be stained—and perhaps so will some Republican senators who stick with him (depending on how the case is presented). Yet at this stage, there is no telling what the ramifications will be for the 2020 election. You can now game out it assorted ways—it helps Trump, it hurts Trump, it makes no difference. This election is likely to be shaken, rocked, and rolled by a variety of factors that no one, no matter how strong a sense of imagination they possess, can predict at this point.

With time running out, Pelosi and the House Democrats are going into a historic political battle with the impeachment they have. It’s too late for them to rewind and rerun the past eight months to set up a more comprehensive case. They have decided that to go big—what’s bigger in American politics than a presidential impeachment?—they must go small. 

Is There Still Room for an Anti-Abortion Hardliner in the Democratic Party?

In the past four years, the governor of Louisiana has signed both a statewide expansion of Medicaid and one of the country’s most restrictive abortion bans. He’s a Democrat in one of the reddest corners of the Deep South. And when he goes up for reelection on Saturday, polls show, the same voters who backed Donald Trump by nearly 20 points in 2016 could very well send him to victory.

“If you try and filter this through a national or partisan filter, you’ll find that not a lot of things add up,” explains Stephen Handwerk, executive director of the Louisiana Democratic Party. 

In the era of impeachment, Medicare for All, and an insurgent left wing, is there still room for a staunch pro-lifer in the Democratic Party? To answer that question, there’s no better test case in the country than the political fate of John Bel Edwards.

Edwards, who has served as governor since 2016, faces Republican challenger Eddie Rispone in Saturday’s election, which is technically a runoff between the two candidates. Louisiana has a “jungle primary” system, where the top two finishers irrespective of political party advance to a runoff if no candidate gets a majority of the vote. Edwards comfortably led the field of candidates in the October 12 primary but barely failed to reach 50 percent, sending him into the November 16 runoff. Edwards and Rispone are neck and neck in the polls, with Edwards maintaining a small lead within the margin of error.

Edwards’ win in the 2015 governor’s race was seen as something of a fluke. He succeeded in tying his opponent, then-Sen. David Vitter, to the deeply unpopular outgoing Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, and focused the election on Vitter’s past involvement with a prostitute. As governor, Edwards has overseen a massive expansion of Medicaid, criminal justice reform efforts aimed at reducing Louisiana’s high incarceration rate, and one of the most restrictive bans on abortion in the country. Now Edwards, the lone Democratic governor in the Deep South, is going up against Rispone, a conservative businessman with Trump’s backing. 

“If you try and filter this through a national or partisan filter, you’ll find that not a lot of things add up.”

His stance on abortion would probably doom him in California or New York or Illinois, but Louisiana is not those places. Handwerk, who has worked in Louisiana politics for the past 30 years, believes that Edwards’ lack of conformity to the national Democratic platform won’t be an issue for Democrats in the state.“The vast majority of voters are considering this holistically,” he says. I don’t think it’s surprising to anyone in the state the vast diversity of opinion that we have on abortion and all things revolving around that.”

That doesn’t mean Handwerk or other party activists agree with Edwards’ position on abortion. Edwards’ record as an anti-abortion Democrat goes back to his time in the state legislature. In 2010, Edwards voted in favor of a law that barred insurance offered through an Obamacare exchange from covering elective abortions and stated that “human life begins at conception.” As governor, Edwards ramped up his anti-abortion policies, signing into law a so-called “fetal heartbeat” bill, which banned abortion when a heartbeat can be detected, generally around six weeks. Many people aren’t even aware of their pregnancy at that time. The law did not create exemptions for rape and incest, making it one of the harshest abortions bans in the country.

Sally O. Donlon, an assistant dean at the University Louisiana at Lafayette and a member of the Lafayette branch of the Louisiana Democratic Party, recalls the betrayal many of Edwards’ female supporters felt when he signed the heartbeat bill into law. “After his signing of the recent so-called heartbeat bill giving preferential treatment to a clump of cells over fully actualized women, we were very angry, and a lot of us came out and said that we would never support him,” she says.

However, she says, many of those women changed their tune when faced with the choice between Edwards and Rispone, a staunch conservative who has said he wants to freeze enrollment in the state’s Medicaid program, a move that could leave hundreds of thousands of low-income Louisianans uninsured. 

“In the end, all of the Democratic women I know are active in phone banking for [Edwards] and rallies and everything like that,” Donlon says, “because reproductive rights are not our only issue.”

Edwards’ opposition to abortion might not sink him, but it’s also not clear that it will actually help him on Saturday, even in the state with the highest share of people who support a total ban on abortion. “It’s an impediment to a strong relationship with Democratic activists,” says Robert Mann, a political historian at Louisiana State University. “What’s left of Democrats in Louisiana tend to be liberal Democrats. The moderate Democrats, a lot of them have been picked off or gravitated over to the other side, and so it does make Edwards’ position look a little more out of touch with rank-and-file Democrats.”

Edwards, a devout Roman Catholic, has never shied away from discussing how his faith has influenced his political beliefs. In a 2015 campaign video, he and his wife Donna discussed the moment their daughter was diagnosed with spina bifida, a birth defect that can cause fluid in the brain and various mobility issues. The doctors encouraged Donna to have an abortion about 20 weeks into her pregnancy, but the couple decided not to end the pregnancy, a decision Edwards says was influenced by his belief that “God has a purpose in everything.” Edwards later explained in an interview that he told this story to show voters that his position on abortion was “sincere” and not politically motivated.

If Edwards’ pro-life stance is hurting him among the national Democratic donor class, it doesn’t show in his fundraising numbers.

Although the two candidates have similar positions on abortion, access to health care is a major point of contention between them. On his first day in office, Edwards signed into law a massive expansion of the state’s Medicaid program. A survey conducted by Louisiana State University found that the uninsured rate among adults fell by half between 2015 and 2017, from 22.7 percent to 11.4 percent. Rispone has argued that Louisiana’s Medicaid program is rampant with wasteful spending. In the candidates’ most recent debate, Rispone declared that he would “freeze” enrollment into Medicaid in the state until he could eliminate what he considers useless spending—a move Edwards argues would eventually force 300,000 people from the state-based Medicaid program. 

If Edwards’ pro-life stance is hurting him among the national Democratic donor class, it doesn’t show in his fundraising numbers. He has raised more than $14 million, up from $10 million in his last gubernatorial campaign. That includes more than $2 million from out-of-state contributors, compared to roughly $600,000 in 2015. Edwards has narrowly out-raised Rispone, even though $11 million of the $13 million Rispone has raised has come from his personal wealth. 

While Edwards may not be struggling financially, Mann worries that his message may be falling flat with black voters, who comprise 57 percent of registered Democrats in Louisiana. Based on historical voting patterns, Mann estimates that, in order to win, Edwards will need roughly 95 percent of black voters who show up to support him, in addition to 30 percent of white voters. Given the overwhelming support of Louisiana African Americans for Democrats, the key for Edwards is really turnout. (In 2015, Edwards benefited from higher turnout in majority-black precincts and lower turnout in whiter ones than in previous elections.) In the October 12th primary, black voter turnout hovered around 38 percent, nearly 12 points below white turnout. 

Edwards’ moderate and conservative positions on some issues are unlikely to excite many of the state’s black voters, and his rhetoric might not help either. Edwards praised Trump—who is extremely unpopular among African Americans—in the wake of massive flood damage in 2016, and he has prominently featured law enforcement officials in his campaign ads. “[Edwards is] a pro-life, pro-gun, pro-law enforcement, too-conservative Democrat who gets along well with Donald Trump,” says Mann.

Saturday will serve as a test of Edwards’ strategy: Can a Democrat appear tough on crime and still turn out enough black voters, and win over female supporters after signing one of the strictest abortion bans in country? In a party that is increasingly moving to the left, Edwards surely doesn’t fit the national mold. But for Southern Democrats, says Mann, it’s still par for the course. “There’s no such thing as a perfect candidate,” he says.Every election is a choice between two imperfect people. It’s always a lesser of two evils.”

The 2020 Election, Not the Supreme Court, Could Decide Dreamers’ Fate

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Tuesday in the case that will decide whether the Trump administration violated the law when it stripped undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children of their protections against deportation. But the justices’ decision could wind up having little impact on the roughly 700,000 immigrants, known as Dreamers, whose lives President Donald Trump has tried to upend. 

Instead, the winner of the next presidential election may be the one who decides whether Dreamers—along with another about 300,000 people with temporary legal status—face possible deportation. For roughly 1 million undocumented immigrants, what happens in 2020 could wind up being more important than what happened in 2016. 

It is not disputed that the Trump administration has the authority to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—the Obama-era policy that protects Dreamers—since it’s an executive action, not a law passed by Congress. The legal argument against Trump’s 2017 move to end DACA is that the decision violated the law because it was made in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner. Lower courts and the progressive Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals have agreed with that position, forcing the Trump administration to keep DACA on life support. More than 660,000 people are still protected by DACA as a result.

The Supreme Court isn’t expected to issue a decision in the case until 2020, meaning that DACA recipients who renew their two-year work permits before a ruling is issued could retain their DACA status well into 2022. A Democratic president could reinstate the program long before then, even if the court rules that Trump’s DACA decision was legal.

Immigrants with temporary protected status—a protection granted to people in the United States whose countries are affected by war or natural disasters—face a similar predicament. The Trump administration has tried to end those protections for six countries, but it’s been blocked in court, leaving roughly 300,000 immigrants—the majority of whom have been in the United States for roughly two decades—with work permits until at least January 2020. A new administration could quickly reverse Trump’s TPS decisions before those people have been deported. It’s entirely possible that DACA recipients and TPS holders, two of the administration’s biggest and most obvious targets, could escape a Trump presidency without losing protections against deportation. (The attempts to end those protections, however, have caused psychological distress and turmoil as immigrants wonder whether they’ll be able to stay in the United States.)

But there is one big caveat in the DACA case. As Vox points out, Trump’s Justice Department is arguing that the whole policy is illegal. Most of the debate around DACA so far, including in the lower courts, has been over whether the administration made an arbitrary and capricious decision, and the Supreme Court could well rule on that narrow question, but it doesn’t have to. The five conservative justices could instead find that the Obama administration didn’t have the authority to protect hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants through executive action. A Democratic president would then be blocked from reviving DACA. 

Such a sweeping decision would highlight what may be the most profound legacy of the 2016 election on a wide array of issues, including immigration: not the administration’s executive actions, but its appointment of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

The Trump Administration Is Giving Family Planning Funds to a Network of Anti-Abortion Clinics

When I walked into the Obria clinic in Whittier, California, one evening in July, a woman in a modest floral-­print dress organizing bundles of diapers in a back room greeted me hopefully. She thought I’d come for a class. Instead, I asked if I had come to the right place for birth control. Furrowing her brow, she walked around a couch and through a cozy waiting room full of baby toys to the front desk. “What sort of services were you looking for?” she inquired. I asked if they dispensed the morning-after pill, the emergency contraception often called “Plan B.” She told me curtly, “We don’t provide that or refer for any birth control here.”

I wasn’t surprised. For most of its existence, this clinic has been known as the Whittier Pregnancy Care Clinic, a religious ministry that offers free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds in the hopes of dissuading women facing an unplanned pregnancy from having an abortion. The clinic provides lots of things: free diapers and baby supplies, and post-abortion Bible-based counseling. What the clinic has never provided is birth control.

When the Whittier clinic was strictly saving babies for the Lord, its refusal to dispense even a single condom was a private religious matter in the eyes of its funders. But today, the clinic is part of Obria, a Southern California–based chain of Christian pregnancy centers that in March won a $5.1 million Title X grant to provide contraception and family planning services to low-income women over three years. Created in 1970, Title X is the only federal program solely devoted to providing family planning services across the country. Congress created the program to fulfill President Richard Nixon’s promise that “no American woman should be denied access to family planning assistance because of her economic condition.” It serves 4 million low-income people nationwide annually on a budget of about $286 million and is estimated to prevent more than 800,000 unintended pregnancies every year.

Historically, federal regulations required that any organization receiving Title X funding “provide a broad range of acceptable and effective medically approved family planning methods.” But as I discovered during my visit to Whittier and other Obria clinics last summer, the organization’s clinics refuse to provide contraception. Nor do they refer patients to other providers for birth control.

Obria’s founder is opposed to all FDA-­approved forms of birth control and has privately reassured anti-abortion donors that Obria will never dispense contraception, even as she has aggressively sought federal funding that requires exactly those services. “We’re an abstinence-only organ­ization. It always works,” Kathleen Eaton Bravo told the Catholic World Report in 2011. “And for those single women who have had sex before marriage, we encourage them to embrace a second virginity.”

“We’re an abstinence-only organ­ization. It always works. And for those single women who have had sex before marriage, we encourage them to embrace a second virginity.”

Mara Gandal-Powers, director of birth control access at the nonprofit National Women’s Law Center, does not think Bravo’s stance “is in line with the intent of the Title X family planning program, but obviously they see it differently.”

Should the Trump administration survive another four years, Obria may represent the future of the Title X program. In 2019, the Department of Health and Human Services instituted a gag rule that banned clinics getting Title X money from providing patients with referrals for abortions. (Federal law prohibits the program from funding abortions.) Seven state governments and Planned Parenthood, which served 40 percent of Title X patients, decided to drop out of the program rather than comply.

But even before Planned Parenthood was squeezed out, the White House had been pushing to redirect Title X and other federal funds to anti-abortion organizations like the Whittier clinic, which juggles its mandates of health care and family planning with pushing abstinence-only sex education, dissuading women from having abortions, and intro­ducing them “to the love of Christ,” as its website says. In July, HHS awarded Obria nearly $500,000 from its teen pregnancy prevention program to provide “sexual risk avoidance” classes.

The Obria grant suggests that the Trump administration’s assault on Title X is not just about reducing abortion access. It’s part of the broader, if largely futile, culture war still waged by evangelical and other Christian conservatives heaven-bent on making America chaste again. Abstinence-­only acti­vists now control key posts at HHS and are driving policies that force their views about contraception onto the vast majority of Americans, who don’t agree with them. While Americans’ opinions on abortion are mixed, only 4 percent think contraception is immoral, and 99 percent of women who have had sex have used it. Which raises a big question: Now that Obria has won millions in taxpayer dollars to provide anti-abortion family planning services, will anyone use what they are offering?

A screenshot of the Obria website

Obria is the brainchild of Kathleen Eaton Bravo, a devout Catholic who set out to build a pro-life alternative to Planned Parenthood. “I wanted to create a comprehensive medical clinic model that could compete nose-to-nose with the large abortion providers,” she wrote on the Obria Group website. Bravo may seek to emulate Planned Parenthood’s organizational model, but she holds a dim view of it otherwise. In a 2015 interview with Catholic World Report, she claimed Planned Parenthood promoted a “‘hook-up,’ contraceptive mentality among our young people. They teach children as young as 12 that they can have sex without consequences.” She went on: “Today, Planned Parenthood promotes oral sex, anal sex, and S&M sex.”

Bravo did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. But she has said elsewhere that her involvement with the anti-­abortion movement began after having an abortion in California in 1980 amid the collapse of a first marriage. Afterward, she remarried, moved to Oklahoma, rediscovered her Catholic faith, and started volunteering at a pregnancy center that tried to convince women to carry unplanned pregnancies to term. Bravo has described driving to Kansas to pray in front of the clinic of Dr. George Tiller, who would be murdered in 2009 by an anti-abortion extremist.

In Bravo’s public statements, there are echoes of the “great replacement” theory of abortion that’s become popular among white supremacists. Abortion, she told Catholic World Report, “threatens our culture’s survival. Take the example of Europe. When its nations accepted contraception and abortion, they stopped replacing their population. Christianity began to die out. And, with Europeans having no children, immigrant Muslims came in to replace them, and now the culture of Europe is changing. The US faces a similar future.”

The Obria grant suggests that the Trump administration’s assault on Title X is not just about reducing abortion access. It’s part of the broader…culture war still waged by evangelical and other Christian conservatives heaven-bent on making America chaste again.

After moving back to Southern California in the mid-1980s, Bravo took over a crisis pregnancy center in Mission Viejo called Birthright, whose name she later changed to Birth Choice. Crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) have been an integral part of the anti-­abortion movement for more than 50 years. The founder of the first known American CPC, Robert Pearson, pioneered the deceptive practices that would come to characterize their services to this day. He published a training manual that coached activists to set up CPCs to look like abortion clinics and use misleading ads to trick pregnant women into thinking they could get an abortion there. CPCs have a long, well-documented record of using high-pressure tactics on unsuspecting women and peddling misinformation like the myths that abortion causes breast cancer, infertility, and suicide.

Over the past three decades, pro-choice organizations, Democratic members of Congress, and state attorneys general have tried to expose and rein in some of the CPCs’ worst abuses. In 2015, California enacted the Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency (FACT) Act, which required unlicensed CPCs to prominently disclose that they don’t provide medical care (including abortions), and licensed ones to inform clients that the state offers free or low-cost family planning and abortion services. The CPC industry sued, and the Supreme Court struck down the law in 2018.

Obria’s clinics don’t appear to have ever been sanctioned by any government agencies for deceptive practices, but its Whittier clinic was one of many Los Angeles CPCs that a local public radio station found openly flouting the fact Act before the act was overturned. And Obria’s RealOptions, a Northern California CPC chain that’s a recipient of its Title X grant, was caught using mobile surveillance technology to target ads at women inside family planning clinics.

In 2015, the company hired a Massachusetts-based ad firm to set up virtual “fences” around family planning clinics to target “abortion-minded women,” according to the Massachusetts attorney general. When women entered the clinics, their smartphones would trip the fence, triggering a barrage of online RealOptions ads that said things like “Pregnant? It’s your choice. You have time…Be informed.” The ads, which steered women to the pregnancy center’s site, would continue to appear on their devices for a month after their clinic visit. The Massachusetts attorney general secured a settlement with the ad firm to end the practice in 2017 after alleging that it violated consumer protection laws.

Bravo’s vision for an anti-abortion rival to Planned Parenthood is deeply rooted in the crisis pregnancy center world. Bravo has said she wants to transform CPCs from “Pampers and a prayer” ministries into a network of “life-affirming” clinics that provide many of the services Planned Parenthood does—STI testing, ultrasounds, and cervical cancer screenings, but without the birth control, abortion, or abortion referrals. “I would close my doors before I do that,” she told the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal in 2015.

By the middle of 2006, Bravo had expanded Birth Choice to include four CPCs. She got the centers licensed and accredited as community clinics and installed ultrasound machines to increase their “conversion rate” by convincing abortion-­minded women to stay pregnant. Grants from the evangelical Christian advocacy group Focus on the Family and the Catholic Knights of Columbus paid for the machines. In 2014, she rebranded the nonprofit chain as Obria (a vaguely medicalized name made up by a marketing firm, ostensibly based on the Spanish word obra, meaning “work”) and announced an aggressive expansion plan. Bravo became the CEO of a new nonprofit umbrella organization called the Obria Group and essentially turned the operation into a franchise.

The Obria Group doesn’t provide any medical services or even start new clinics. Rather, it’s a marketing arm that recruits existing CPCs to join the Obria network. Affiliated clinics pay a licensing fee to use the Obria name, but they remain separate legal entities with their own nonprofit status. (Bravo’s Birth Choice clinics are now a separate nonprofit called Obria Medical Clinics of Southern California, and she is no longer employed there or on its board.)

Bravo is politically well connected. On the Obria website, she brags that she “has built a network of high-powered supporters over the decades to include former U.S. presidents, Washington lawmakers, senators, prominent mega-churches, spiritual leaders and thousands of behind-the-scene players who move mountains to get things done.” Catholic World Report ran a prominent photo of her with President George W. Bush in 2010, when a Catholic business group presented them each with a Cardinal John J. O’Connor pro-life award. Obria’s advisory board was a who’s who of the pro-life movement, including Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family; Kristan Hawkins, a former official in Bush’s Department of Health and Human Services who worked on Trump’s pro-life advisory council during the 2016 campaign; and David Daleiden, CEO of the Center for Medical Progress, who was criminally charged in San Francisco for making undercover videos purporting to show Planned Parenthood selling tissue from aborted fetuses.

The Catholic Church and wealthy Catholic donors have provided much of Obria’s funding, including a $2.5 million grant from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops for Obria’s expansion plans. But Bravo has also secured public funding. In 2005, Birth Choice nabbed a $148,800 congressional earmark to fund three pregnancy centers. Between 2009 and 2016, the Orange County Board of Supervisors gave the Obria Medical Clinics of Southern California more than $700,000 for abstinence-only sex-ed programming, money that had previously gone to Planned Parenthood. Obria has even scored help from Google, which in 2015 gave Obria $120,000 worth of free ads through its nonprofit grant program.

This funding supports limited clinical offerings such as pregnancy testing, ultrasounds, and some STI testing and cervical cancer screening. A few clinics offer “abortion pill reversal,” the practice of giving women large doses of progesterone to try to halt a medically induced abortion in progress. (The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says the treatment is not supported by science.)

Obria’s medical director, Peter Anzaldo, is an Orange County OB-GYN and cosmetic surgeon who offers “mommy makeovers” in his private practice, using lasers to “rejuvenate” aging vaginas—a controversial procedure the FDA has warned against as unapproved and potentially unsafe. While he provides many forms of contraception, including sterilization, at his office, Obria’s contraception offerings consist of educational lectures about its various dangers, with a focus on abstinence until marriage. Despite providing STI testing and treatment, Obria won’t dispense condoms, even now that it’s received Title X money that’s supposed to go toward combating STIs.

However, Obria will help women learn the Catholic Church-approved “natural family planning,” a more complicated version of the rhythm method. Natural family planning requires women to regularly monitor their vaginal mucus and chart their temperature to avoid sex during ovulation. Obria claims on its website that the natural family planning success rate ranges from 75 to nearly 90 percent. The CDC cites a study showing that 24 percent of women became unintentionally pregnant within a year of using natural family planning, making this method one of the least effective forms of birth control.

For years, in speeches and fundraising pitches, Bravo has tried to sell Obria as a health care operation, not just a ministry, and its clinics seem to take great pains to downplay any outward evidence of its religious mission. The California clinics resemble doctors’ offices, and that’s by design. Obria’s affiliate application asks CPCs whether their staff is “taught not to force religious beliefs or practices on patients,” and it checks to make sure they don’t have any crosses or bloody fetus photos displayed in their facilities. In a nod to the bad actors of the crisis pregnancy world, it also asks whether the applicant has ever been accused of false advertising. But Obria’s implicit religious mission still seems to seep into its medical practice.

In 2018, after taking a home pregnancy test, a 27-year-old woman who asked to be identified as Huong visited the Obria affiliate in San Jose, California, which is part of the RealOptions CPC network. She’d recently been diagnosed with endometriosis with a procedure she hadn’t known would temporarily increase her fertility. She was shocked to learn she was pregnant. “It was a very difficult time in my life,” Huong recalled. “I was confused, scared. I just felt like I was 14 again.” She was in an on-and-off relationship and strapped for cash. She looked online and found Obria.

Most crisis pregnancy centers appear to be conventional medical offices and are usually located near abortion facilities.

Mother Jones illustration; Google

At first, Huong thought Obria was an ordinary medical clinic. But when she told a clinic worker she was considering an abortion, the woman “visibly looked appalled,” Huong said. “She said, ‘I see here that you’re 27. Why don’t you just get married?’” When Huong said she didn’t believe in marriage, she recalled that the woman asked, “Why don’t you just give it up for adoption?”

“I just felt like the scum of the earth,” Huong said. “I walked into this clinic thinking they were going to help me, and they were telling me to keep the baby and that I’m a piece of trash for even considering abortion.”

During an ultrasound, the nurse told Huong that she had friends with endometriosis who had become infertile­—and that this might be her last chance to conceive, an assessment she later learned was false. The nurse also said that if Huong’s boyfriend was unsure about having a baby, the clinic would do the ultrasound again for free so he could see the fetus—a practice that CPCs sometimes use to convince women to continue an unplanned pregnancy. Huong ended up having an abortion at Planned Parenthood. She said her experience at Obria was far more traumatic than the abortion itself. “I remember feeling the worst I’ve ever felt in my life,” she said. “It just messed me up.”

The Obria medical clinic in Long Beach sits in a busy, low-rent strip mall, nestled between a Hong Kong Express and a Rent-a-Center. The clinic’s tiny waiting room has space for three or four people, but that wasn’t a problem when I visited one morning in July. No one was waiting when I asked the woman at the front desk for the morning-­after pill. “No, we don’t do the morning-­after pill or any sort of birth control,” she said. When I asked if she knew where I might find it, she said no. The morning-after pill is available at most pharmacies without a prescription. And like most crisis pregnancy centers, this one has set up shop near an abortion clinic—two of them, in fact. It’s a three-minute walk from one of the state’s oldest abortion and family planning clinics and a six-minute walk from a Planned Parenthood.

I waited outside the clinic for an hour or so, hoping to find some patients to interview. But none came in. Out of curiosity, I crossed the Metro tracks to FPA Women’s Health, which offers a full range of contraception. It isn’t a Title X clinic, but it takes Medi-Cal, the state insurance for low-income Californians that Obria also accepts. I counted 16 people in its expansive waiting room. A woman in line was complaining because appointments were running behind schedule. I also paid a visit to the Planned Parenthood nearby. Its waiting room was full.

I wasn’t just catching Obria on an off day. As a licensed community clinic, Obria is required to provide the state with annual data about services and clients. In 2018, its Long Beach clinic reported seeing 628 patients, fewer than two per day. The clinic didn’t report conducting a single Pap smear or HIV test, and brought in just a little more than $10,000 in net revenue from patients. By contrast, in 2018, Planned Parenthood’s Long Beach clinic reported seeing more than 9,400 patients. It performed 562 Pap smears. At both clinics, most patients whose income was recorded were on Medi-­Cal, and almost half were poor, paying out of pocket for services on a sliding scale. The state insurance plan accounted for a big chunk of Planned Parenthood’s more than $3 million in net revenue from patients. (As a private practice, FPA Women’s Health isn’t required to report its client data to the state.) In fact, Planned Parenthood’s Long Beach clinic saw twice as many patients than all of Obria’s licensed California clinics combined, which reported serving fewer than 4,500 patients in 2018. Not one of those clinics reported conducting a single Pap smear or HIV test.

Women with choices perhaps aren’t all that interested in what Obria is selling. That’s no surprise; according to the federal Office of Population Affairs, just 1 in 200 patients in the Title X program use natural family planning as their primary form of contraception. “Even if Obria was offering the full range of contraceptive services, which from what I’m able to tell they are not, they don’t have experience doing family planning and serving these populations,” said Gandal-Powers of the National Women’s Law Center. “There’s something to be said for serving the people who the grants are supposed to help.”

“There’s something to be said for serving the people who the grants are supposed to help.”

Even if the Trump administration showered Obria with more federal funds, it’s not clear that many more women would use its clinics. In 2013, Texas kicked Planned Parenthood out of its state family planning program, and in 2016, to fill the void, the state funneled millions of dollars to an anti-­abortion organization called the Heidi Group. The Heidi Group had promised it would serve 70,000 patients a year through a network of CPCs and other providers. But in 2017, the organization served just over 3,300 people, according to the Texas Observer. The Heidi Group’s performance was so bad that in 2018 the state pulled the plug on its contract and began investigating its spending. The group then partnered with Obria to apply unsuccessfully for a Title X grant in Texas. This month, a state inspector general found that the Heidi Group should reimburse the state $1.5 million in misspent contract funds it received for inflated payments and prohibited expenses for things like food, clothing and gift cards.

Despite the lack of demand for her organization’s services, Kathleen Bravo has repeatedly claimed that the network is making massive expansion plans. In 2014, she announced a new infusion of funds from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and said that Obria would grow to 200 clinics by 2020. Obria did not respond to a request for a full list of its locations, but at a September 2019 anti-abortion conference, Bravo put the number of Obria clinics at just 48. Using California state data, Obria’s website, and documents the group provided to HHS as part of Obria’s three Title X grant applications, Mother Jones could identify even fewer—only 18 brick-and-mortar clinics, plus four mobile clinics.

In 2017, Obria hired Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director turned pro-life activist, to manage its expansion. Distressed by what she saw on the inside, she ended up quitting Obria after about a year. She has since become one of the network’s most outspoken anti-­abortion critics in part because she believes Obria is misleading the anti-choice movement about its operations, including how many clinics it actually has. For instance, she said, Obria would tell donors it had five or six clinics in Oregon, when in fact it had one brick-and-mortar clinic in the state, plus a mobile van that would park in a different location every day.

Bravo had convinced the US Conference of Catholic Bishops that “they were going to be saving all these babies from abortion, and here they were four years later and none of that [expansion] happened,” Johnson said. “In fact, the clinics in California were bleeding money.” One of the reasons is that Obria was thousands of dollars behind in its Medi-­Cal billing. “They didn’t know what they were doing,” she said. “They didn’t know how to bill.”

State data and IRS forms support her account. One of Obria’s California clinics closed in 2017 after serving only 45 patients that year. Obria’s tax forms show that its Southern California nonprofit was running a deficit and that grants and donations had fallen sharply, from $2.8 million in 2016 to $1.7 million in 2017. While the Southern California clinics were losing money, contributions to the Obria Group jumped from almost zero in 2014 and 2015 to more than $800,000 in the fiscal year ending in Septem­ber 2017. The Obria Group doesn’t provide any health care services or run any clinics, but it does pay Bravo $192,000 a year in salary and benefits, almost a quarter of the $800,000 it raised in 2017.

When she worked at Obria, Johnson said she had argued against applying for Title X funding because she believed it would require the organization to provide referrals for contraception, which would conflict with its values and upset its anti-abortion benefactors. Officials at HHS “made it very clear to me that yes, Title X requires a contraceptive referral,” she said. “There is absolutely no way to get around that.” But Obria went after the federal funding anyway.

“If we get funded through Title X, we can advance our technology, we can advance our reach, we can serve more patients, we can expand our services,” Bravo said in a Facebook video posted by Students for Life. Yet Obria’s grant proposal indicates that if it received all the money it was asking for—about $6 million over three years—the Obria affiliate clinics in California would still serve only 5,500 patients, about 1,000 more than in 2018. The Title X grant “was absolutely a cash grab for them,” Johnson said, “because they are sinking.”

Anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson joined Obria in 2017, but she quit after about a year. She has since become one of the network’s most outspoken anti-abortion critics.

Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto/Getty

Over the past few years, the Trump administration has waged war on Title X as part of its larger mission to defund Planned Parenthood. In 2017, HHS forced all organizations receiving multiyear Title X grants to reapply for the funds on short notice. In February 2018, under the leadership of Valerie Huber, an abstinence-only sex-ed activist who was then the acting assistant secretary for population affairs, HHS rewrote the grants’ rules. The new funding announcement contained no mention of contraception and gave preference to poorly funded faith-based organiza­tions that focused on natural family planning and abstinence.

Historically, an independent review committee evaluated Title X grant applications, and regional HHS career administrators would make the final awards. The process, created in the 1980s to keep politics out of grant-making, has been undone by the Trump administration. In 2018, it announced that the deputy assistant secretary for population affairs, a political appointee, would make final Title X decisions. Since May 2018, that role has been filled by Diane Foley, a pediatrician who through 2016 ran a Colorado Christian anti-abortion group with ties to Focus on the Family and who has promoted abstinence-only sex-ed programs. (She has said that teaching kids to use condoms by, say, putting them on bananas could be “sexually harassing.”)

Even with the playing field tilted in Obria’s favor, Politico reported that HHS rejected the group’s 2018 funding application because it refused to offer contraception. So Obria tried a different tack: It re­applied, this time focusing solely on California and promising to provide a broad range of birth control through a partnership with two federally qualified health centers that already offer contraception and sterilization services. Those two subcontractors would serve more than 40 percent of the 12,000 clients Obria promised to handle through the Title X grant. The application angered many in the anti-abortion movement. Other anti-choice organizations that had initially sought Title X funds from the Trump administration eventually withdrew from the process after HHS told them they’d have to provide contraception or refer clients to partner groups that did. These organizations didn’t see how Obria could do this without violating their anti-abortion values.

If Obria “did find a way to avoid providing or referring for contraception, it would be impressive, and we would applaud them,” Christine Accurso, executive director of a consortium of anti-abortion health care centers, told the National Catholic Register not long after HHS announced Obria’s Title X award. “However, we have confirmed multiple times from HHS leadership that a sub-grantee is required to refer for contraceptives if they do not provide them.”

Bravo had privately reassured donors in January 2019 that Obria would never dispense contraception or refer for it. “Obria’s clinic model is committed to never provide hormonal contraception nor abortions! Obria promotes abstinence-based sexual risk avoidance education—the most effective public health model for promoting healthy behaviors,” Bravo wrote in an email obtained by the Campaign for Accountability, a liberal watchdog group that has sued HHS to get public records about the Obria grant.

In March, HHS awarded $1.7 million for Obria’s California proposal, with the potential for a total of more than $5 million over the next three years. “Title X was created to help low-income women control their reproductive futures by providing them access to birth control,” said Alice Huling, counsel for the Campaign for Accountability. “Yet HHS gave these funds to a group that is fundamentally opposed to birth control. It just doesn’t make sense.”

“Title X was created to help low-income women control their reproductive futures by providing them access to birth control. Yet HHS gave these funds to a group that is fundamentally opposed to birth control. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Many things about the Obria grant make no sense, including where the money is going. In the October 2019 directory of Title X service sites published by HHS, Obria is listed as a grantee, with seven California services sites plus a mobile van. There is no mention of the federally qualified health centers that were supposed to provide the forms of contraception required under the grant. HHS declined to provide any information about the services Obria offered and wouldn’t say whether the group is required to provide birth control referrals at its clinics. Obria did not respond to multiple requests for a full list of where its Title X family planning services will be provided, or by whom.

Obria’s California proposal did indicate that a community health organization called Culture of Life Family Services would provide Title X services at two sites to at least 750 patients a year. The organization’s medical director is George Delgado, a family medicine doctor known for pioneering the bogus “abortion pill reversal.” Culture of Life doesn’t provide contraception and it also won’t make referrals for it. Johnson, the former Obria expansion director, said Obria included Culture of Life in its grant application without Delgado’s permission. She said Delgado only learned about it after Obria submitted the application, and that he had to inform HHS that his pro-life clinic could not participate in Title X. Neither Obria nor Delgado responded to questions about the grant. Obria’s grant application doesn’t contain a letter of commitment from Culture of Life, as it does for its other partners, and Obria’s PR firm told the Guardian in July 2019 that Delgado’s clinic was not on its final list of subgrantees.

At least one other clinic that was part of Obria’s California grant application doesn’t appear in the October 2019 Title X provider directory. Horizon Pregnancy Clinic, a CPC in Huntington Beach, was supposed to handle 500 of the 12,000 clients Obria promised to serve annually. Debra Tous, Horizon’s executive director, said in an email in August that she did not know the details of Obria’s Title X grant, which started on April 1. “We are still in beginning stages of discussing what is involved,” she said before referring further questions to Obria.

The address listed on Obria’s website for its Anaheim location is not a clinic but the St. Boniface Catholic Church. When I pulled up there one day in July, I couldn’t find any sign of an Obria outpost until a man watering the garden pointed me around back to a nearly empty parking lot, where I found an RV—Obria’s mobile clinic, parked within view of Anaheim High School, a prime target for its services, once students return in the fall.

After a long walk across the lot, I found Keith Cotton, the church and community outreach manager for Obria’s Southern California operation, and nurse Judy Parker sitting at a small card table under the RV’s awning. They were excited to see me. In its application for Title X funding, Obria said this mobile clinic would serve 500 low-income patients a year. Cotton and Parker clearly hadn’t had many, if any, patients that day.

Cotton, who I later learned got his start in activism working at evangelical minister Rick Warren’s Saddleback megachurch in Orange County, asked cheerily if I’d like an STI test. STIs are on the rise in Cali­fornia and elsewhere, and Obria is supposed to be combating them with its Title X grant. I chickened out at the prospect of having blood drawn. Instead, I asked if they could check me for a yeast infection. It’s the sort of ordinary, uncontroversial women’s health problem that should be treatable in a bona fide medical practice or at any Planned Parenthood, and fell under the heading of the well-woman care that Obria had promised in its federal grant application. Plus, I had some symptoms, so it was an honest request.

Cotton said Obria could help, but I would have to go to its free-standing clinic in nearby Orange. He and Parker walked me through the costs, explained the sliding-scale fee, and made me an appointment, which involved answering awkward personal questions about my health history and symptoms. Cotton and Parker were nice, but I couldn’t imagine a teenager having a conversation about STIs in the middle of this parking lot. Before I left, the pair kindly offered me recommendations for lunch, but not a single condom—among the best defenses against STIs, and a hallmark of legitimate public health prevention programs.

That afternoon, I dropped in at the Orange clinic. The only person in the waiting room was a Latina woman too old to need family planning services. I paid my $69 fee and filled out forms that asked surprisingly invasive questions I’d never seen on an OB-GYN or Planned Parenthood intake form, including “Who usually initiates your sexual activities?” Others, more standard, were about my abortion history, including how I would deal with a positive pregnancy test. And then there was this one: “If considering abortion, would you like Chlamydia/Gonorrhea testing today?” which seemed like a weird non sequitur. The form also asked patients to specify their religion. I signed a “Limitation of Services” that read: “Obria medical clinics does [sic] not perform or refer for abortions.” It didn’t mention contraception.

While I was filling out the paperwork, a smiling young Latino couple walked out of the exam area. They seemed excited to be having a baby. After a short wait, a nurse took my vitals and directed me into an exam room. Inside, the young woman’s sonogram still appeared on an ultrasound screen. On the wall, a scary chart claimed to show how “sexual exposure” goes up exponentially with every additional partner. If you’ve had 10 sexual partners, it indicated, you’ve really had sex with more than 1,000 people! I discovered later that the chart is a staple of Christian abstinence-until-marriage sex-ed programs like the one Obria runs.

Eventually I had to put my feet in the stirrups for an exam by Carol Gardner, a longtime Obria doctor and vocal anti-­abortion advocate. There was no lab on-site, so Gardner gave me a prescription for an anti-­fungal pill and said the clinic would call in a few days with my results. (A few days later, I found out I tested negative.) The staff and volunteers treated me kindly and with respect. Based on my one visit, I had to conclude that Obria’s Orange clinic was not fake, as the group’s critics have frequently alleged.

But good intentions are really beside the point. No one is suggesting that Obria shouldn’t be able to offer these kinds of limited health services to women who want them. The issue is whether it’s legal for Obria to take federal money for family planning and STI prevention but refuse to provide contraception and condoms or referrals for them. I couldn’t find a single public policy, academic, or legal expert who could answer that question, and HHS declined to comment. There’s also a much broader public policy question in play: Are Obria’s scant offerings, however thoughtfully they’re delivered, really the best use of limited taxpayer dollars dedicated to essential family planning services?

The 2019 grant to Obria provided funding that previously went to California’s primary Title X recipient, Essential Access Health. In 2018, Essential Access Health received about $23 million in Title X funds, which it distributed to more than 200 family planning clinics across the state, including city and county health departments and Planned Parenthood. In 2019, that budget was cut to $21 million; the other $1.7 million went to Obria. “We are very concerned that this will lead to low-income women facing more delays in access to the care they want and need to effectively reduce their risk of experiencing an unintended pregnancy,” said Essential Access Health CEO Julie Rabinovitz. “The changes this administration has made to the Title X program have been implemented to advance a political agenda, not public health.”

The entire annual Title X budget is a measly $286 million. To fill the unmet need of family planning services among low-income women, the Title X budget would need to more than double, to about $700 million a year, according to a 2016 study in the American Journal of Public Health. Reducing access to programs that provide more effective forms of contraception like IUDs or birth control pills all but guarantees more unplanned pregnancies and abortions.

Bravo insists that Obria clinics should get some of that federal funding because women want life-affirming choices for family planning. And some low-income women probably do want to learn natural family planning or find abstinence coaching, or what Bravo describes as “a second virginity.” But the Trump administration’s efforts to shift funding to Obria and groups like it aren’t just about religious freedom or broadening women’s choices under Title X. The conservative Christians in Trump’s administration would like to push low-income women to use places like Obria for family planning or reproductive health care. And ultimately, that’s no choice at all.

Lunchtime Photo

Today was the day of the great Mercury transit of the sun. Obviously NASA is the place to go for pictures of this event, which is, to be honest, not super exciting. However, I was curious whether my little camera could capture the transit.

I wasn’t hopeful, and when I woke up in the morning there was a solid marine layer filling the sky. So much for catching even the middle of the transit. But by 9:30 the clouds had burned off and I puttered into my backyard to point my camera at the sun and see what I could get.

For you camera nerds out there, my settings were f/11, ISO 100, shutter speed 1/32000, and a 10x neutral density filter. And that was barely enough.

But enough it was. To my surprise, I got some perfectly decent pictures. Here’s my earliest one, with Mercury nearing the end of its transit. You can see it a lot better if you right-click and then select “View Image.”

November 11, 2019 — Irvine, California

Here it is a few minutes later:

Now it’s getting very close to the edge of the sun:

And finally it’s officially egressing the sun, just a barely visible dot at the very edge of the corona:

And that’s it. The next transit of Mercury is in 2032. Mark your calendars.

Here’s How Corporate America Took Over America

Have American businesses become more concentrated over the past 30 years? Anecdotally, it seems like the answer is yes. The Big 8 accounting firms are now the Big 4. There are only four cell phone companies, soon to be three. Four airlines control 80 percent of the American market. The car industry consolidated into the Big Three decades ago. Four companies control two-thirds of the cloud computing market.

But in spite of this anecdotal feeling, it’s an undecided question among economists about whether American businesses are really a lot more concentrated than they used to be. Anyone can pick a few examples of industries that have consolidated, but what happens when you look rigorously at the business community overall?

We’re not going to solve this question today, though in general I’ve been more persuaded by the researchers who say that consolidation has, in fact, happened, and the result has been increasingly monopolistic behavior among US corporations.

One of those researchers is French transplant Thomas Philippon, who is introduced to us today in the New York Times by David Leonhardt. Philippon’s research has convinced him that we have indeed gone through an era of considerable consolidation, and it’s mainly due to weak enforcement of antitrust laws. In Europe, which has much stronger antitrust enforcement that we do, Philippon reports that the top firms have increased their market share far less than American firms. As a result, prices charged to consumers have also increased far less than in America. Here is Philippon’s conclusion about how this has affected American workers:

The consolidation of corporate America has become severe enough to have macroeconomic effects. Profits have surged, and wages have stagnated. Investment in new factories and products has also stagnated, because many companies don’t need to innovate to keep profits high. Philippon estimates that the new era of oligopoly costs the typical American household more than $5,000 a year.

I find that $5,000 number quite easy to believe. In fact, it seems a little low to me. But how did it happen? Even with weak antitrust enforcement (thanks Robert Bork!), how do companies get away with raising prices and cutting pay? They still have some competition, after all. The answer to that, I think, is the long Republican war against unions:

The destruction of the American working class is a two-part story. First, it was necessary to get rid of unions. As long as they were around, they’d demand a fair share of profits for workers no matter what the competition landscape looked like. That war lasted from about 1947 to 1981. When Ronald Reagan broke the air-traffic controllers union it was the final straw. Unions had already been decimated both by Republican laws and by Republican-led-efforts to train companies in how to resist unionization. Democrats never had the will to fight back hard enough, and after Reagan they never had the power. Republicans won their war against unions decisively.

It was only then, with unions effectively out of the way, that corporations could start consolidating and taking an ever bigger share of profits for top executives and shareholders, leaving workers with stagnating wages and grinding working conditions. No union, for example, would accept the practice of “clopening,” where an employee is required to close up a store at night and then turn right around and open in the morning. Nor would they accept the ever-more-common practice of expecting workers to be on call at all times, never knowing for sure what their work schedule will be. As much as low pay, these are the kinds of things that make work such a burden for the working class these days.

So this is the story. Spend three or four decades wiping out the power of labor unions, and then you can spend the next three or four decades turning the United States into a plutocracy with no one to effectively fight you about it.

And you have to give Republicans credit: Not only did they cobble together this plan and execute it brilliantly, they’ve managed even so to convince much of the working class that only Republicans truly understand their economic woes. They’re the very party that created those woes by killing off unions and then letting corporate America loose to do whatever it wanted, but hardly anyone sees it that way. Donald Trump yells “China” or “Mexico” and the working class howls its approval. I guess it must be China and Mexico that caused all these problems after all.

Trump Says Whistleblower Should Be Investigated. Here’s Why That’s Terrifying.

This morning, Donald Trump took to Twitter to demand that the whistleblower in the Ukraine scandal—along with the whistleblower’s attorney and House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.)—be “investigared [sic] for fraud!” There is, of course, no known evidence that any of those individuals has committed fraud. Rather, the misspelled tweet is a horrifying escalation of the president’s campaign to intimidate and retaliate against the whistleblower.

The lawyer for the Whistleblower takes away all credibility from this big Impeachment Scam! It should be ended and the Whistleblower, his lawyer and Corrupt politician Schiff should be investigared for fraud!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 11, 2019

It’s tempting to dismiss Trump’s Twitter bluster as yet another empty threat with few consequences. It’s also wrong. Time and again, the president has shown a willingness to push the Justice Department and the FBI—and even foreign governments—to investigate and prosecute those he sees as political enemies.

This is, after all, what the Ukraine scandal is all about. Trump and his cronies repeatedly demanded, in public and in private, that Ukraine investigate Democrats. And it nearly worked. According to the New York Times, the Ukrainian president was just days away from announcing the probes Trump wanted when the White House conspiracy began to unravel. In October, the president publicly asked China to investigate the Bidens; later, a top US trade official refused to answer questions from CNN about whether the administration raised the issue during subsequent negotiations with that country.

There’s ample evidence that Trump sees the DOJ as his personal law firm and the attorney general as his private attorney. Don McGahn, Trump’s first White House counsel, testified that in 2017, Trump said words to the effect of, “You’re telling me that Bobby and Jack didn’t talk about investigations? Or Obama didn’t tell Eric Holder who to investigate?” (Bobby Kennedy was JFK’s attorney general; Holder was Obama’s.) Indeed, one of the most chilling parts of the rough transcript of Trump’s call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky is Trump’s request that Zelensky discuss the Biden allegations not just with Rudy Giuliani, but also with Attorney General Bill Barr—an indication, perhaps, that Trump hoped to use the US justice system to prosecute the Democratic frontrunner.

In addition, Trump has spent much of the past several years publicly calling for the prosecution of Hillary Clinton. According to the Mueller Report, Trump in 2017 conveyed those desires directly to his then-attorney general, Jeff Sessions, mentioning Clinton’s emails as one of the topics he thought the DOJ should be investigating:

On October 16, 2017, the President met privately with Sessions and said that the Department of Justice was not investigating individuals and events that the President thought the Department should be investigating. According to contemporaneous notes taken by [White House aid Rob] Porter, who was at the meeting, the President mentioned Clinton’s emails and said, “Don’t have to tell us, just take [a] look.” Sessions did not offer any assurances or promises to the President that the Department of Justice would comply with that request. Two days later, on October 18, 2017, the President tweeted, “Wow, FBI confirms report that James Comey drafted letter exonerating Crooked Hillary Clinton long before investigation was complete. Many people not interviewed, including Clinton herself. Comey stated under oath that he didn’t do this-obviously a fix? Where is Justice Dept?” On October 29, 2017, the President tweeted that there was “ANGER & UNITY” over a “lack of investigation” of Clinton and “the Comey fix,” and concluded: “DO SOMETHING!”

Mueller notes that Sessions didn’t promise Trump that the DOJ “would comply with that request.” But a month after this meeting, Sessions directed John Huber, the US attorney in Utah, to review the department’s handling of various allegations about Clinton and determine whether an investigation should be opened, and whether a special counsel should be appointed. Huber’s probe reportedly includes the same Clinton email controversy that Trump had wanted investigated. Several weeks later, Trump again spoke with Sessions and, according to notes taken by an aid, said in an apparent reference to Clinton, “[Lawyer Alan] Dershowitz says POTUS can get involved. Can order AG to investigate. I don’t want to get involved. I’m not going to get involved. I’m not going to do anything or direct you to do anything. I just want to be treated fairly.” All of which sounds a bit like Trump’s insistence to Gordon Sondland that there was “no quid pro quo” regarding Ukraine.

Naturally, it does not stop there. Trump has also demanded that law enforcement officials involved in the Russia probe be investigated, even threatening former FBI Director James Comey with jail time. That probe, too, is moving forward; it recently grew into a criminal investigation, though it’s unclear who federal prosecutors targeting. According to the Times, it is being “closely overseen” by Barr.

Voters Want Presidential Action on Climate—With or Without Congressional Support

Last month, in a joint interview with Mother Jones and The Weather Channel, Elizabeth Warren promised that if elected, she’d use the power of the president to address climate change. “I will use all the executive power tools available to me to fight back against the climate crisis,” she said. Listing a few examples, she proposed using executive action to ban drilling and mining offshore and on federal lands and to do away with the practice of fracking. 

But would Americans support these dramatic moves?

A new national poll provided exclusively to Mother Jones suggests they would. The left-leaning think tank Data for Progress and YouGov asked more than 1,000 voters whether they supported nine ways the next presidential candidate could address climate change. Here are the results:

Data for Progress

Clearly, the two most popular ideas were “Public info on corporate pollution” and “Energy efficiency standards for buildings and appliances.” If a president wanted to accomplish these goals, says Harvard Law School’s Environmental and Energy Law Program executive director Joe Goffman, he or she wouldn’t necessarily need the approval of Congress—there’s plenty of precedent for executive action. For example: Elizabeth Warren has proposed legislation forcing companies to disclose the environmental harm they cause as well as their risk of being affected by climate change through her Climate Risk Disclosure Act. But Goffman noted that a president could do the same thing through the Securities and Exchange Commission, whose members are appointed by the president, but is otherwise independent.

Those two most popular policies are also the only ideas that attracted support from a majority of respondents who identified as Republican—they were largely against everything else suggested in the survey. I suspect that Republican respondents didn’t come out strongly against those ideas because neither corporate pollution disclosure nor energy efficiency improvement have been high-profile targets of President Donald Trump, who has a polarizing effect on whatever policy he decides to embrace. To wit: Note that some of the biggest partisan splits were on “US rejoin Paris Agreement,” and “reverse Trump vehicle fuel efficiency:” 

The upshot of all this: While many Democratic candidates have focused on the bundle of progressive climate legislation known as the Green New Deal, most of the ideas in the poll wouldn’t require Congressional support—and most voters would likely approve if a president used executive power to make these bold changes. 

“It’s clear that the public supports greater federal action on climate change,” Leah Stokes, a political scientist at UC Santa Barbara who reviewed the polling. 

In May, I surveyed legal experts about what a president could do on climate change if he or she was really going bold, but only using existing law. Under the surprisingly durable elastic statutes of the Clean Air and Water Acts, my experts said, a president could get the United States a lot closer to 100 percent clean electricity, transportation, and efficient, cleaner buildings.

There is one possible exception: banning fracking on public lands. While Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris have all expressed interest in using executive power to accomplish this goal, many experts, including Goffman, just don’t think can be done without Congress. What a president could potentially do, they note, is review how the Department of Interior leases land for fossil fuel development—for instance, President Obama issued a moratorium on coal from public lands.

“One of the most important things a future President can do is stop all new oil and gas development on public lands,” says Stokes. “Just about 50 percent of American support this, and one in five isn’t yet sure what to think.” Stokes thinks it “bodes well” for a president’s mandate to tackle fossil fuel production on public lands. Overall, Stokes says she believes the level of public support for the ideas in the poll indicates that the American public supports dramatic action to prevent the worst effects of climate change—and she hopes the next president takes notice. 

Indeed, Goffman explains, it’s not just the “level of effort or goals or size of emissions reductions that defines ambition,” for presidential candidates, but “how committed the president is to exhausting the tools at his or her disposal.” 

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