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Joe Biden Calls on the People Who Attacked Democracy to Help Him Protect It

In a speech to a socially distanced joint session of Congress, President Joe Biden, on the eve of his 100th day in office, called on legislators to “prove that democracy still works.” He flattered his audience, saying that “we” all dealt with “insurrection and autocracy,” an allusion to the storming of the very building in which he was delivering his speech. “We came together,” he continued. “We united.”

The “we” was more aspirational than descriptive, a very Jon Meacham sort of touch. Ted Cruz was in the room, after all, dozing. Cruz and many of his Republican colleagues helped foment the January 6 insurrection with their caterwauling about voter fraud and paid almost no consequences for having done so. They did not repent. They did not come together or unite with Democrats. Even now, Republicans on the state level are juicing the lies about the election for autocratic ends, pushing through state voting laws that curb the franchise

Pres. Biden in conclusion: ‘We have to prove democracy still works … the autocrats will not win the future … We have stared into an abyss of insurrection and autocracy, of pandemic and pain, and ‘We the People’ did not flinch.’ pic.twitter.com/lFKKxF0UnK

— NowThis (@nowthisnews) April 29, 2021

Biden’s “we” was a neat trick, if basically dishonest. He was turning the raid on the Capitol into a story about a domestic terror threat from without instead of an indictment of any of the actors within.

The Organizer of a Series of Trump Boat Rallies Shouted “White Power” While Celebrating at the First

Unless you’re from a certain slice of Florida—the Gulf Coast side near Tampa—you’ve probably never heard of Gasparilla, the city’s annual and well-attended pirate-themed bacchanal. Unless you’re both from Tampa and are fully into the weeds of post-Trump presidency MAGA minutiae, you also have probably have never heard of Trumparilla—a Gasparilla for people who have decided the 2020 election was a sham and that Donald J. Trump ought to still be president.

Though the actual Gasparilla was canceled this year because of the coronavirus, MAGA troll Dion Cini and Cliff Gephart held their pro-Trump flotilla earlier this month in Tampa, which dozens of boaters attended. The entrepreneurs have promised to take the event to a city near you, with follow-ups planned for San Diego, Cleveland, and Las Vegas, according to Trumparilla’s Facebook page.

The MAGA movement has long attracted notable racist supporters and people who readily spout racist things. Cini is one of them. A video shared with Mother Jones by @the_cancel_mob, an anonymous Twitter user who tracks the American right, shows Cini loudly shouting “White power!” during a landside evening gathering at the Tampa Trumparilla.

Cini’s invocation of white supremacy came as he was being recognized from the stage by Gephart for his efforts to organize the event. “I wanna thank Dion, he’s worked his ass off to make this happen. He has struggled with venue after venue,” Gephart said. In response, Cini raised his hands up and rotated to acknowledge applause while shouting “white power,” and flashing an okay hand symbol which, in certain contexts, is shorthand for white power. Prominent Trump ally Roger Stone stands within an arm’s length. 

When asked for comment, Cini responded to Mother Jones through email and Twitter direct messages. He wrote that his yelling white power was “a troll,” and claimed “several black people” were in attendance. “Of course [you] won’t show that,” he wrote. Cini also told Mother Jones that his wife is Jewish and sent a picture of himself with a Black person at an event. It’s unclear if the picture was taken at Trumparilla or elsewhere.

“White power or white lives matter is just my fishhook and there’s always a taker,” Cini wrote. “I do the White Lives Matter on multiple occasions, because as a Latino, I think that it’s only it’s fair that white people get their voices heard.” Cini, who clarified that he is actually of Italian descent, explained that he sometimes claims to be Latino, because of the Latin language’s Roman history.

In some ways, Cini is a fringe figure in MAGA world. He has a modest social media following of around 3,000 Twitter followers and has mostly shown up in local news stories for repeatedly brandishing Trump flags where they are unwelcome—like an ice rink in Central Park, Disney World, aboard a kayak on the Hudson River, and so forth. 

Despite such hijinks, Cini maintains ties to prominent people in Trump world, like Stone, who was the star of a VIP event at Trumparilla. Photos obtained by Bend the Arc: Jewish Action and Jews Against White Nationalism show Cini hanging out on vessels during 2020 Trump campaign boat parades with Trump sons Eric and Don Jr., as well as former deputy assistant to President Trump, Sebastian Gorka. According to those Jewish activist groups, Cini has also appeared in photographs with neo-Nazi event organizer Jovi Val and neo-Confederate Billy Sessions.

Cini says the picture showing him with Jovi was taken “before he decided to go extreme,” and that he didn’t know Sessions and “never saw him again.” When pressed on if he disagrees with Jovi Val or Sessions, Cini wrote, “Of course I’ve reamed Jovi’s ass many times. But again, he’s not a nazi, he an extreme troller.”

Cini didn’t explain why he thought Val was only trolling. Val has been disowned by the Proud Boys, the neo-fascist group, for organizing a rally supporting far-right individuals who attended 2017’s Unite The Right white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, according to New York magazine. One of those individuals included James Fields, the man who drove a car into a group of protestors, killing Heather Heyer.

Cini is just one of many Trump backers who have continued to construct events praising him since he lost the White House—a role that helps elucidate just who is taking leadership in sustaining the post-presidency MAGA movement.

The Politics of Health Care Are Messy. Biden’s Economic Agenda Reflects That.

Democrats won back the House of Representatives in 2018 with a promise to protect the Affordable Care Act. They retread the same strategy in 2020 as Democratic congressional candidates championed improvements to the landmark health care bill, promising coverage during a pandemic while the GOP denied its severity. Then-candidate Joe Biden promised to lower drug prices with a proposal that was heralded as one of the Democratic primary field’s most aggressive attempts to tackle Big Pharma profits.

Which makes the White House’s understated opening bid on health care a confusing outcome for a party that’s wagered its success on dismantling barriers to medical access. But it also reflects the messy politics of health care—and a party that still hasn’t reached a consensus on what the future of health insurance should look like.

President Biden’s American Families Plan, the second half of his economic agenda which he will unveil during a quasi-State of the Union speech before Congress on Wednesday night, promises to make permanent the temporary tweaks to boost Obamacare that passed as part of the COVID relief package earlier this year. That law set in place for two years policies that make it easier for more people to buy individual insurance coverage off Obamacare’s marketplaces—both by increasing the amount of government funds people receive to offset the cost of insurance and by expanding access for those subsidies so that more middle-class families qualify. (Previously, families earning 400 percent of the poverty level—or in other terms, more than $87,840 for a family of three—were entirely cut off from assistance.)

The changes to government subsidies in the COVID law lowers coverage costs by an average of $50 for nine million people and should help four million uninsured people access coverage, according to White House estimates, and those outcomes would carry over to its latest proposal. If Biden’s plan becomes law, anyone buying insurance off Obamacare’s marketplaces would have to spend no more than 8.5 percent of their income on health insurance (and people who earn less would pay a far lower rate than that).

Democrats on Capitol Hill spent the last week wondering if any health insurance changes would even make it in there at all. Early reports ahead of the plan’s unveiling suggested the White House would table any health care initiatives for a future policy push—a risky endeavor since, between this new Families Plan and his previously announced American Jobs Plan, Biden is already asking Congress to approve nearly $4 trillion in new spending. But while health insurance in some form made it into Biden’s family plan, the policy is far from what he promised on the campaign trail, which included a public option, reducing the Medicare eligibility age to 60, and lowering prescription drug costs by letting Medicare negotiate prices. The White House’s proposal notes that Biden still holds those grander health care ambitions—and his speech tonight will call for lowering drug prices, HuffPost reported—but they didn’t make the cut in the two economic proposals that will likely define the remainder of his first year as president and his party’s record heading into the 2022 midterms.

Democrats across the party spectrum have spent the past few weeks warning against this sort of tepid offering with a flood of strongly worded letters urging the president to put health care front and center. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), in an encore presentation of her stare downs with the Obama administration over the ACA, moved ahead with reintroducing House Democrats’ signature drug pricing bill and vowed health care “will be a top priority for House Democrats to be included in the American Families Plan.”

To gamble against Pelosi would be a sucker’s bet. When Democrats wrested control of the House back in 2018, more than half of their advertisements focused on protecting the ACA. The issue’s salience persisted during the 2020 presidential primary, though took a backseat to the pandemic and the collapsing economy during the general election. Even so, internal polling that Data for Progress, a liberal think tank, and OpenLabs, a progressive polling firm, conducted on behalf of Democratic lawmakers found that health care is one of the most important issues to all voters, second only to the economy—and one where they most trust Democrats to take action.

 To the extent there’s been intraparty sparring over health care, it’s been over which option would best serve the party’s interests heading into the 2022 midterm elections. Some, like Pelosi, argued for the ACA subsidies Biden proposed in his agenda. Others, like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), pushed dropping the Medicare eligibility age to 60 or 55. Support for one path over the other doesn’t follow the usual ideological contours, garnering support from moderate and progressive lawmakers alike, and is not mutually exclusive. Most Democrats support some version of lowering drug prices through Medicare negotiations, a proposal the House passed last year. That bill would likely save up to $500 billion in federal spending, which could be applied to the bottom line of other health care costs. 

“If the argument is we have enough money to do the ACA subsidies but not Medicare eligibility and benefits and Pharma drug pricing, that makes no sense,” says Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who co-authored a letter with Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine), a moderate colleague, to lower the Medicare eligibility age. She adds she’s “a little frustrated” more hasn’t been done on health care since Democrats took back Congress and the White House during a pandemic.

But the fuzziness of the White House’s health care agenda is perhaps best understood as an act of deference. While the Biden administration leaned on a top-down approach to push the COVID relief package through before the looming March deadline—when most of the emergency benefits were set to expire—the economic proposals will be shaped through a longer, more collaborative process with Congress.

Where Biden’s plan offers specifics is on topics where Democrats are in near-universal agreement. The proposed $225 billion for affordable child care, for example, largely mirrors a proposal by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) that Democrats have rallied around for several years. And while health care gets shorter shrift, the majority of Biden’s plan centers on matters like child care and paid leave—progressive wishlist items that had languished at the party’s margins for years before the pandemic ushered them into the mainstream.

How Roasting Pigs Year After Year Teaches Me to Love Filipino Food

Before the pandemic, for my birthday each year I’d roast a whole lechon in my Oakland yard and invite anyone I could to help eat it. It’s an odd tradition, but many Filipinos celebrate their birthdays by being the ones to treat their friends and family at the celebrant’s expense. For a social introvert like me, holding a pig roast turned out to be a smart move because I was able to gather all of my favorite people in the same place while being too busy roasting a pig to talk for too long. And if I got to share with them a little taste of home, even better.

I’d like to say I began roasting whole pigs out of a desire to share the food customs of my people. I’ve grown prouder of being Filipino as I’ve grown older, but it wasn’t always easy. Growing up in areas where Filipinos weren’t so common, I was bullied for many, many things, and the Filipino food my mom sometimes packed for school lunch was one of them. On those days I’d need to look for isolated corners of the schoolyard just so I could eat my chicken adobo and garlic rice without classmates pointing, staring, and running away because they didn’t know any better. I remember being so embarrassed one time by how the sinigang in my packed lunch smelled that I snuck out before eating to throw it away so no one would know it was mine.

Even today, as Filipino cuisine hits more levels of mainstream, there’s a mix of pride and saltiness in me that the food I was once teased for, that I was forced to hide in the shadows, was now becoming trendy. It’s hard to know how to feel when Rachael Ray decides to put her own strange twist on a Filipino classic, when at the end of the day it still helps bring awareness to Filipino food as a whole. In some ways roasting a pig resolves that tension, to be part of this arrival and bring it full center in my own world, on my own terms.

The truth is I actually began roasting pigs because someone said I couldn’t. It was a dream I’d casually talked about with friends, until someone I barely knew told me it was impossible, that it was too much work and so far from his norm that it wasn’t worth doing. Little did that long-forgotten person know that aside from pork, aside from karaoke and Catholicism, another Filipino pastime is a stubborn resolve to prove people wrong about them. I didn’t know the first thing about roasting a pig, and I was very young when I’d last experienced one in the Philippines, but our national hero, Jose Rizal, taught us Filipinos that we are capable of literally anything and everything. (Aside from being a revolutionary writer, he was a biologist, ophthalmologist, painter, and fencer, as well as a fluent speaker of 22 languages.) With a little hater juice to fuel us, not even the colonial Spanish could keep us down.

The truth is I actually began roasting pigs because someone said I couldn’t.

It turned out roasting a pig is quite a labor of love, and I couldn’t just roast it the way I’d wanted: on a spit over fire with an apple in its mouth while friends took turns spinning it. The best way to cook a pig evenly, I found out, is to spatchcock it like you would a chicken. (It also turns out butchers don’t have whole pigs on hand, and that first time I luckily snagged an order with the local butcher just in time for pig day.)

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For each roast, I’d build an aboveground roaster from cement blocks, following wonderful advice from some folks in Miami, and wire together large grill plates and iron to sandwich the pig for roasting. I’d later learn to weld so the plates are more structurally sound. The pig needs to be marinated—I chose a citrus and oregano mojo, also from the Miami folks—in an ice tub overnight. Years later I learned to inject it with the marinade using a giant syringe, plugging holes with garlic and salting every crevice for a better roast. Roasting the same way each year didn’t feel right, and besides, I had something to prove. That guy whose name I can’t remember—I had to prove him wrong, or something.

On the big day, the pig would roast for almost eight hours, and each hour I’d pour fresh coal in. Guests trickling in were recruited to the kitchen to chop fruit, or if they were lucky they’d be pulled into rolling mountains of lumpia for the deep fryer. As the eight-hour mark grew near, I’d ask for help flipping the pig, removing layers of brick, and cranking the heat, the secret to perfect crackling. With guests hungrier by the hour, the cooked pig then needed to rest (in plain view) for a torturous few minutes. After it rested, I’d stand at a station with a big cleaver, thick rubber gloves, and an apron, and hack gleefully away at pig meat while filling the plates of people lined up. Dogs milled about the table and under plates, looking to score. Laughter, singing, slurps, Beyoncé, and the haze of Oakland fall would fill that street well into the early evening.

As the roast wound down and only my closest friends remained, I’d sit somewhere in the yard with them, quietly content as they talked around me, eyes rested on the dull embers of the pit growing fainter with the night.

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Jayo Miko Macasaquit is Mother Jones’ human resources director. Share comments and Recharge story tips at recharge@motherjones.com.

Watch the New Season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” If Only For This One Flashback

June is screwed. 

If you’re reading this and you’ve watched even a fraction of an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, you know that this cannot possibly be counted as a spoiler. June is always screwed, in a variety of ways, to the point that it would feel almost comical if it weren’t so damn dark. She takes one step forward, she is dragged two thousand steps back, under His eye. 

A few episodes in, a handful of handmaids are offed in such a way that would make a piano falling out of the sky and killing them seem restrained and poetic.

The fourth season of the dystopian drama, which premieres Wednesday, begins where the third ends—June has been shot—but of course, she survives, because what is this show without its main object of torture? As if she weren’t enough of a target herself, a few episodes in, a handful of handmaids are offed in such a way that would make a piano falling out of the sky and killing them seem restrained and poetic. From what I’ve seen in the first eight episodes shared with reviewers, this season takes a turn around episode six, and the trauma shifts to be primarily psychological. Still, the relentlessness of the violence endured by the characters, both internally and externally, makes it hard to see much else. It’s overwhelming. 

The most visceral power of The Handmaid’s Tale remains in the flashbacks that illustrate the unsettlingly thin veil between what we have come to know as normal far-right posturing and totalitarianism. One flashback in particular has stuck with me for its quiet escalation of a very real barrier to abortion access at present. A few episodes into the new season, Janine—who should be protected at all costs, do I make myself clear, writers’ room?!—is seeking abortion care in the Before Times. She winds up at a crisis pregnancy center by accident, where she is asked why she wants an abortion, whether she is religious, if she has told the “father.” The “nurse,” who tells her that she wanted to help pregnant women because of the declining birth rate, paints a picture of abortion care as a dangerous procedure that can result in sterility and infection. A whiteboard with illustrations depicting the size of a fetus at different stages overwhelms the small room. Eventually, the nurse tells Janine that they don’t provide abortions at the crisis pregnancy center, quickly following up with a graphic description of an abortion procedure that Janine does not even need—she’s still in her first trimester—emphasizing the word “baby” as she proceeds. Janine leaves, clearly disturbed and upset.

Later, the flashback picks up again, though this time, Janine has found a physician. “Did you search abortion clinics online and wind up there?” the doctor asks gently after Janine nervously babbles all her reasons for wanting abortion care: she already has one kid, her job is barely enough to cover the both of them, she was considering going back to school. The doctor stops her, and asks if she wants to be pregnant and whether she’s comfortable with her decision. When Janine says no, she doesn’t want to be pregnant, and yes, she came to this conclusion on her own, the doctor tells her that she doesn’t need to know anything else. “They’re called crisis pregnancy centers and they lie to women to convince them to keep unwanted pregnancies,” she explains. “I’m sorry you had to go through that.” She hands over medication that she took from a locked cabinet to Janine, with instructions for taking the pills to induce an abortion at home and what to expect. “That’s it?” Janine says, surprised. “You already did the hard part,” the doctor replies. 

Janine’s crisis pregnancy center flashback, on the other hand, feels meaningful because it so acutely draws our attention to a specific, current duplicity that affects pregnant people every day. 

Though The Handmaid’s Tale was always the sort of TV show I had to watch in chunks, usually with a stiff drink, in its first season it was harder to look away. It premiered in the early days of the Trump administration, when our brains were still adjusting to the unnatural tenor of a president who tweeted his every unedited thought, guided by cultural conservatism and prejudice over policy. The eerie world-building of Gilead combined with the sickly familiarity of the flashbacks made for compelling television, and the shocks felt like they were there to jolt us awake and to warn against complacency. But as the violence has escalated and continued, it feels gratuitous, a repeated wallop over the head with a cast-iron skillet. It hurts, though at this point there doesn’t seem to be a lesson or any meaning at all in the pain. Janine’s crisis pregnancy center flashback, on the other hand, feels meaningful because it so acutely draws our attention to a specific, current duplicity that affects pregnant people every day. 

This is the second television storyline that includes crisis pregnancy centers in recent memory—hello, The Bold Type, which was preceded by that episode of The L Word back in 2007. That it’s also being covered now in The Handmaid’s Tale feels doubly significant, since the premise of the show hinges on reproductive autonomy. Going beyond the “choice” storyline into barriers to accessing abortion care is a big deal for TV. Even just a few years ago, as Hillary Kelly pointed out in an essay for Mother Jones in 2019, all too often abortion on television was written as if it’s something that can be sought out and accessed easily, which is, of course, true for pregnant people of only a certain class and geography. “Yet the real-life problems with American abortion are seldom found on television,” she writes. “Even on prestige TV, with all its money and daring, women don’t have any trouble getting to a provider or terminating a pregnancy beyond the first trimester.” To be clear, if it’s addressed at all it’s still overwhelmingly written as Kelly describes, but I’ll take these recent examples as a sign of a meaningful turn. 

If asked, I wouldn’t describe The Handmaid’s Tale nor this season in particular as bad. On the contrary—the acting is superb, the writing is nuanced, and the porousness between our world and Gilead is compelling, if also unnerving. But my world is already so saturated in violence and death, particularly after more than a year of a global pandemic, so I find myself unable to take on the horrors of an imagined timeline after a long day reading reports about our broken health care system, the continued murder of Black people by the police, and the ever-burbling determinedness of Marjorie Taylor Greene and her ilk to march us straight to Gilead. In any case, blessed day, and may the Lord keep the gateway to Gilead firmly closed.

The Original Sin of America’s Broken Immigration Courts

During the Trump administration, Alison Peck started to see more of her cases have an outcome she describes as “a door just slammed” in the clients’ faces. A law professor and co-director of the Immigration Law Clinic at West Virginia University College of Law, Peck grew concerned that paths to immigration relief previously available to them were no longer an option. The explanation for it was an increasingly common practice whereby the US Attorney General, who is a political appointee, would self-refer cases previously decided by an immigration judge and then use them as vehicles for broad policy changes. These precedent-setting determinations included restricting asylum for victims of domestic violence and gang violence, and limiting immigration judges’ power to manage their dockets by temporarily closing low-priority cases. Some of Peck’s clients were impacted by both decisions. “It was very distressing to see this happen and have to tell people midway through the game that the rules had been changed,” she says. Hence, the experience of the door slammed shut.  

Peck couldn’t wrap her mind around the fact that these high-stakes cases with potentially life-or-death consequences were not being decided by impartial jurists in an independent court, but within the Department of Justice, a law enforcement agency. “It didn’t make sense to me, and it didn’t fit with anything I knew about administrative law theory,” she says. So Peck decided to look for an explanation for how this anomalous system had been set up in the first place, and what rationale, if any, sustained it despite a general consensus that the existing structure is nothing if not broken.

Peck shares her findings in the upcoming book The Accidental History of the US Immigration Courts: War, Fear, and the Roots of Dysfunction, a revealing account of how wartime paranoia and xenophobia shaped a system that has been with us for over 80 years. “As long as the immigration courts remain under the authority of the Attorney General, the administration of immigration justice will remain a game of political football—with people’s lives on the line,” Peck writes. I called Peck to discuss what World War II and Nazi Germany have to do with modern-day US immigration courts, and how Congress can fix an “irrationally constructed” system.

You trace the origins of the architecture of immigration courts back to two pivotal moments. The first is 1940, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the immigration services from the Department of Labor into the Department of Justice. How did that come about?

Immigration services had long been treated as kind of a stepchild within the Department of Labor. With the New Deal and the labor strife throughout the 20s and into the 1930s, the Secretary of Labor had the obligation to deal fairly and impartially with union leaders, many of whom were immigrants, but then also had the responsibility of investigating and deporting immigrants who were in the country unlawfully. That tension started to become pretty extreme. Francis Perkins, the Secretary of Labor at the time, ended up being in the political crosshairs in part because of her handling of immigration cases. She was in favor of immigration being moved out of the Department of Labor, but she didn’t think it was very appropriate to have it in the Department of Justice because it shouldn’t be associated with crime and law enforcement.

In fact, Roosevelt had resisted members of Congress and the public for over a year. He had lawyers in the DOJ study the issue, and they sent him a report concluding that moving the immigration services into the DOJ would be inappropriate and could change the understanding of immigration for the country. His attorney general at the time, Robert H. Jackson—who later became a Supreme Court justice and also presided at the Nuremberg trials—advised him against it, calling for a sort of temporary wartime agency that dealt with the threat of sabotage, rather than setting up a system that invites an entry of politics into immigration cases. So it’s not as if Roosevelt and his advisers didn’t understand the risks of what they were doing. They did, and they resisted it for some time. But because of the fear and the nature of the threat and things that they just couldn’t have known at the time, they decided, for lack of any better option, that they would do this.

At the time, the Roosevelt administration justified the move as a necessary response to a national security threat. How exactly did the war in Europe ultimately influence his decision?

In 1939, much of Congress was still pretty isolationist, and there was a lot of skepticism about Roosevelt’s willingness to get involved in the war and make the United States a leading force. The occupation of Denmark by the Nazis in April 1940 was really a game changer. The isolationism of the United States up until that point was based on this notion that we’re an ocean apart and protected by geography—what happens in Europe can’t affect us directly. But Denmark had possession of Greenland, so the Nazis had a base in North America where they could refuel, restock, and plan attacks from there.

By that time, the State Department and the FBI were both actively tracking what they saw as the “Fifth Column” threat: this idea that foreign nationals might be plotting to take over from within the country without anyone ever knowing what happened. When the invasion of France and the Low Countries occurred in May [1940], many people assumed that this must have been because people in high level positions within these countries were simply raising the drawbridge and letting the Nazis through without resistance. [Roosevelt] was very influenced by the visit that the Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles had paid to the Axis powers. He came back very worried and told Roosevelt “I think we need to make this move.” After Roosevelt had said no for a year, he changed his mind and within three days, it was done. 

This decision looks very different in retrospect, doesn’t it? 

It’s understandable in historical context that Roosevelt felt that he needed to do something to protect against what could be a serious threat. But in hindsight, he realized the fears were misplaced. As it happened, the Nazis kept their plans very close to the vest and didn’t trust people outside their inner circle. This “Fifth Column” was actually just propaganda and the enemy stoking fear in order to create insecurity and undermine Allies’ morale.

“What happened was that people were understandably fearful at times of national security crisis and were easily swayed by fear and propaganda that was spread precisely to create that type of fear.”

Looking back now, 80 years later, it certainly has had the effect that Roosevelt and his advisors feared of making immigration be equated with crime and caught up with the political process. It really is sort of a function of historical accidents that we have the system where it is. It’s not the case that anyone ever said it would make good sense from an administrative law perspective to have immigration adjudication done in the Department of Justice under the control of the Attorney General. That was not a conversation that ever occurred. What happened was that people were understandably fearful at the time of national security crisis and were easily swayed by fear and propaganda that was spread precisely to create that type of fear.

You write that the scenario Roosevelt had feared sixty years earlier of a foreign attack from within the country came to be in the early 2000’s with 9/11, and that in turn overhauled immigration policy in the twenty-first century. What did that overhaul mean specifically for immigration courts? 

I looked to see whether there had ever been serious consideration of changing this system in the last 80 years, particularly after the realization that this so-called “Fifth Column” never really existed, and this was really just a response to Nazi propaganda that we are still stuck with. What I found was that in the 90s, there was some movement toward reform, but then 9/11 happened and changed the way Americans were thinking about foreign nationals, immigration, visas, and the relationship between the State Department and the FBI or other domestic law enforcement. For some time, it appeared that the immigration courts would be moved into [the recently created Department of] Homeland Security. Many people in Congress, especially Democrats, but some Republicans as well, were concerned about this. Maybe having it in a law enforcement agency wasn’t perfect, but having it in this national security agency, where it would once again be closely aligned with the prosecutors, would be even worse. With relatively little focus on the immigration courts at the time, the best that could be accomplished was to keep them in the Department of Justice instead of moving them into the Department of Homeland Security. It was an opportunity for reform that then got swept away by the events of 9/11.

After that, the issue sort of went underground again, until it started to appear on people’s radar screens during the Trump administration. Until then, the immigration courts were mostly allowed to function independently, and so people weren’t as up in arms about it. For the most part, Attorney Generals were pretty hands off and so people thought: Well, it’s a system that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it mostly works, so it’s not that important to make this institutional change. I think it’s an unfortunate combination of political forces that has led the immigration courts to sort of limp along in this way.

“The Trump administration exposed the vulnerability that was already there in the system.”

Immigration courts were dysfunctional in nature long before Trump took office, but under his administration that gained a new dimension. What did this unprecedented politicization of the courts look like?

The Trump administration exposed the vulnerability that was already in the system. What we saw was a much higher level of intervention, about four times higher than even the George W. Bush administration, which had been the most active prior. One of the ways that happened was through the frequency with which the Trump administration used the Attorney General’s self-referral power, which means the Attorney General can take a case away from an immigration judge at any time and decide it as he wishes. In the Trump administration, that power was used 17 times in four years. Previously, the highest number had been 10 times over eight years.

In one case, the Attorney General made a statement that victims of domestic violence and gang violence would generally not meet the asylum standard. Officers within the Department of Homeland Security were confused by the scope of the decisions that were unprecedented. That confusion is still ongoing, and it affects what happens every day in the immigration courts. Immigration judges are feeling that their independence has been highly compromised, and they are hamstrung by the decisions of the Attorney General to do things that they actually think are just. This system that everyone tolerated for a while, assuming and hoping there wouldn’t be abuses, has now shown to be very clearly subject to abuses.

There’s currently a backlog of more than 1.3 million cases. Yet, despite what seems to be a consensus that immigration courts are not working as they should, we still have the same system from 80 years ago. Are there any solid arguments to justify keeping the immigration courts under the DOJ?

There may be an assumption by people that it was set up this way for a reason, and that we might be losing something if we changed it. When we look at the history, it makes clear that it really was a historical accident that we ended up with this system. There never was a coherent rationale. It was something that was done as a matter of exigency, when there wasn’t a good solution. And so they took a bad solution instead and stuck with it. There’s not a whole lot of efficiency or institutional knowledge that’s being gained by having these immigration courts within the Department of Justice.

I think most people in the United States are not even aware that the immigrant courts are not part of our federal judiciary. They may be assuming that there’s a certain fairness built in that we expect from the federal courts when, in fact, it isn’t there. These are not courts; they are part of a law enforcement agency. The system is actually set up in such a way that it allows for political decision-making to become part of these court cases in a way that Americans don’t usually think of court cases being decided. That’s really inconsistent with American notions of justice, fairness, and due process. We think that those are decided by what we hope and aspire to be independent judges who are not part of the political branches and not subject to the whims of politics. From that fundamental misunderstanding, if we look deeper, we can see a desire for change. We have the choice to change that now.

Your book seems to suggest that the problem runs way deeper than what stopgap measures like hiring more immigration judges could accomplish. What do you think is an appropriate approach to creating independent immigration courts?

Adding more immigration judges or changing the way immigration judges are hired to have more diversity are not bad ideas in and of themselves, but they don’t get at the root of the problem. The root of the problem is that the immigration courts were never really intended to be impartial courts. Under our basic founding Constitutional principles of due process and separation of powers, we can and should protect the adjudication process and make it separate from the law enforcement process. The Biden administration could play a role by urging Congress to seriously consider and to pass legislation that would separate immigration courts into an Article I court system. Article I courts are a relatively independent system set up by Congress and, by definition, would create separation between the immigration courts and the executive branch. That would give us something that approaches the fairness that people deserve.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The IRS Used to Be a Guard Dog. Republicans Neutered It.

Taxpayers and politicians are forever complaining about rich people taking advantage of “loopholes” in the tax code, but the IRS, America’s most beloved government agency, doesn’t view things such as carried interest or the special tax treatment of offshore insurers—which hedge funders parlayed into an elaborate tax-avoidance scheme—as loopholes.

The law is the law, an agency spokesman told me recently, and subject to interpretation. If a family or company is audited and found in violation, it can settle up, protest to an IRS appeals board, or take the agency to tax court—a little-known venue where the white-shoe lawyers for America’s dynasties ply their trade. If the well-heeled taxpayer loses their case, they can appeal. If they win, they may well stand to save millions of dollars—or billions. And often they win.

That’s assuming they are audited in the first place. President Joe Biden is prepared to announce that his administration will seek $80 billion to beef up IRS audits of high earners—a necessary move given that the water carriers for the dynasties have done their utmost to make such audits exceedingly rare. The Republican Party has waged open warfare on the IRS since at least 1994, chipping away at its resources and enforcement abilities even as mainstream Republican lawmakers and candidates called for the agency’s abolition.

Administration officials estimate that a 10-year, $80 billion investment in IRS enforcement could yield $700 billion for the Treasury. And indeed, there’s a lot of catching up to do when it comes to the superrich. By the end of the Bush years, the IRS was auditing fewer than 1 in 10 taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes of $10 million–plus, and just 1 in 15 with incomes from $5 million to $10 million.

Even as the IRS received 9 percent more tax returns, its budget was slashed by $2.9 billion—costing the agency more than one-fifth of its workforce.

These high-end audit rates increased substantially under President Barack Obama, but congressional Republicans, embittered by the passage of the Affordable Care Act and the surcharges it imposed on the wealthiest 1 percent, hit back hard. After regaining the House in 2010, they systematically eviscerated the IRS budget and launched a series of dog-and-pony-show hearings based on claims that the agency was unfairly targeting conservative nonprofits, though it later turned out the IRS was also scrutinizing liberal ones.

During a contentious 2015 hearing highlighted in a must-read piece by ProPublica, Representative Mike Kelly, a Pennsylvania Republican, laid into John Koskinen, Obama’s feisty IRS commissioner. Koskinen, in a recent speech, had griped that his overworked employees would have to “do less with less,” and referred to the assault on his budget as “a tax cut for tax cheats.”

“What in the world were you thinking of?” Kelly demanded. Such talk could crush worker morale and encourage tax evasion, he said. Koskinen countered that the cuts had indeed crippled his agency’s ability to enforce the law, and now he was worried his congressional foes were about to make the situation worse. “I don’t want you saying later on, you know, you should have told us about this, that it is serious,” he told the senators. “It is serious.”

Koskinen’s warnings were ignored, and the cuts continued. From 2010 to 2018, even as the IRS received 9 percent more tax returns, its budget was slashed by $2.9 billion—a 20 percent reduction that cost the agency more than one-fifth of its workforce. Investigations of non-filers plummeted and the amount of outstanding tax debt the IRS formally wrote off (based on the 10-year statute of limitations for collections) more than doubled—from less than $15 billion in 2010 to more than $34 billion in 2019.

Nearly 880,000 high income non-filers still owed $46 billion, noted a 2020 Treasury report, and the IRS was in no condition to collect.

Most notably, the bloodbath resulted in an exodus of experienced auditors, people with the expertise required to decode the financial voodoo of the wealthiest taxpayers and their deliberately opaque partnerships. It can “take months to identify the person who represents the partnership,” IRS auditors told the Government Accountability Office in 2014.

Virtually no partnerships were audited in 2018. By then, with Donald Trump in the Oval Office, the kneecapped IRS was scrutinizing the individual returns of just 0.03 percent of those $10 million–plus taxpayers, down from a peak of 23 percent in 2010. Audits of the $5 million–to–$10 million filers fell from just under 15 percent to a scant 0.04 percent.  

A fair subset of superwealthy Americans doesn’t even bother filing. The Treasury Department’s Inspector General for Tax Administration reported in 2020 that nearly 880,000 “high income” non-filers from 2014 through 2016 still owed $46 billion, and the IRS was in no condition, resource-wise, to collect. The 300 biggest delinquents owed about $33 million per head, on average. Fifteen percent of their cases had been closed without examination by IRS staffers, and another one-third weren’t even in line to be “worked.”

The dynasties, in short, were safe. But now, with a new sheriff in town, it seems they’ll have to watch their backs.

The above was adapted from senior editor Michael Mechanic’s new book, Jackpot: How the Super-Rich Really Live—and How Their Wealth Harms Us All. (April 2021, Simon & Schuster, all rights reserved)

The Black Farmer Movement Battling History to Return to the Land

Agriculture was once a major source of wealth for Black American families. According to scholar Thomas Mitchell, by 1910, up to 80 percent of the Black middle and upper class owned farms. But over the course of a century, Black-owned farmland has diminished to the point of near extinction: Only 1.7 percent of farms were run by Black growers in 2017.

“We’re looking at about 98 percent of farmland ownership being in white hands today, and that’s more racially skewed than it’s ever been before,” Farming While Black author Leah Penniman told Bite podcast last year. “I think it says a lot about this nation, the fact that all the arable land is concentrated into the hands of one demographic group.”

The story of how that happened—from sharecropping, to anti-Black terrorism, to exclusionary USDA loans—is the focus of the latest episode of the Mother Jones Podcast. Tom Philpott, Mother Jones’ food and agriculture correspondent, joins Jamilah King on the show to talk about the racist history of Black farming and his recent cover story on a new movement to reclaim Black farmland.

jQuery(document).ready(function(){prx("https:\/\/play.prx.org\/e?uf=http%3A%2F%2Ffeeds.feedburner.com%2Fthemotherjonespodcast&ge=prx_317_899a366f-b6dc-43d1-9661-db6b391d91e2", "prx-0", "shortcode")});Listen to the latest episode of the Mother Jones Podcast: Subscribe using Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast app.

Tahz Walker is part of a resurgent movement of Black farmers who are returning to the land. His farm cooperative, Tierra Negra, sits on land that was once part of a huge and notorious plantation in North Carolina called Stagville. Today, descendants of people who were enslaved at Stagville own shares in Tierra Negra and harvest food from there.

Walker is the descendant of sharecroppers, but for most of his life his father never talked about it because this was a piece of his family history that was laced with trauma. “They just weren’t able to own any land,” says Walker on the podcast. “The trauma of it gets passed down.” 

Much of the farmland that was denied to Black farmers was transferred into white hands, and over the course of the 20th century, the price of farmland rose dramatically, leading to a loss of wealth that has been compounded by escalating real estate prices. Dania Francis, an economist at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a researcher with the Land Loss and Reparations Project, has calculated that the land that Black farmers lost between 1910 and 1970 is worth $300 billion today–and that’s a conservative estimate. 

The land that Black farmers lost between 1910 and 1970 is worth $300 billion today–and that’s a conservative estimate. 

The value of farmland far exceeds the cost of the land, explained Francis. “There’s also the value it creates in being, for example, collateral. And the ability then to use that to finance education, finance the investment in other businesses or other ventures,” she explains. Losing access to those opportunities, she says, is part of why Black households today “have a median wealth of about $17,000, compared to white households, which have a median wealth of somewhere near $171,000. So almost tenfold.”

The campaign to reclaim Black farmland has received some political backing. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Justice for Black Farmers Act in 2020, a bill that would attempt to reverse the discriminatory practices of the USDA by buying up farmland on the open market and giving it to Black farmers. The bill has received backing from high-profile on the left, including Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-GA), though it is unlikely to get the votes it would need to override the filibuster and pass.

But the bill attempts to address a core issue at the heart of the loss of Black farmland: the Black-white wealth gap. When Tom asked Francis about how to redress the lost land, she answered without pause: “A direct way to address a wealth gap is to provide Black families with wealth.”

Drought-Plagued California Orders Nestlé to Stop Hogging Water

This story was originally published by The Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

California water officials have moved to stop Nestlé from siphoning millions of gallons of water out of California’s San Bernardino forest, which it bottles and sells as Arrowhead brand water, as drought conditions worsen across the state.

The draft cease-and-desist order, which still requires approval from the California Water Resources Control Board, is the latest development in a protracted battle between the bottled water company and local environmentalists, who for years have accused Nestlé of draining water supplies at the expense of local communities and ecosystems.

Nestlé has maintained that its rights to California spring water dates back to 1865. But a 2017 investigation found that Nestlé was taking far more than its share. Last year the company drew out about 58 million gallons, far surpassing the 2.3 million gallons per year it could validly claim.

Its critics say Nestlé has sucked up, on average, 25 times as much water as it may have a right to.

Nestlé has sucked up, on average, 25 times as much water as it may have a right to, according to the Story of Stuff Project, an environmental group that has been fighting to stop the bottled water company’s pumping in California for years.

State officials sent the company a letter notifying it of the order on Friday.

“We have a limited amount of water, said Julé Rizzardo, the assistant deputy director of the Division of Water Rights. “And as we face our second dry year in a row, it’s important that we use our authority to protect the municipal water supply and the environment.”

Strawberry Creek, which Nestlé has been pumping from, is a tributary of the Santa Ana river, which provides drinking water for about about 750,000 residents. The region’s watersheds also provide a habitat for deer, fox and mountain lions, and threatened Alameda whipsnakes.

The draft order comes two months after Nestlé, which is based in Switzerland, sold its US- and Canada-based water brands to equity firms One Rock Capital Partners and Metropoulos for $4.3 billion.

Nestlé Waters North America, which has been rebranded as BlueTriton Brands, has 20 days to appeal the draft order and ask for a hearing. A spokesperson said the assessment that it only had the right to draw 7.26 acre-feet of water per year was erroneous.

The company’s fight water in California mirrors similar fights in Oregon, Pennsylvania, Maine and Michigan. Across the US, conservationists have accused Nestlé of leveraging vast lobbying funds to bend local and federal officials to its will.

“The forests that Nestlé is draining—they’re our forests, supported by every US taxpayer.”

“The forests that Nestlé is draining—they’re our forests, supported by every US taxpayer,” said Amanda Frye, an activist who provided state officials with documents and research going back at least a century to show Nestlé did not have the right to the water it was pumping.

Frye, who has been protesting Nestlé’s pumping from Strawberry Creek for years, said the draft order is significant.

“But we still have a long way to go in protecting the forest from over-pumping,” she said.

The pumping has desiccated Strawberry Creek, damaging a local ecosystem. “It’s such a lovely ecosystem, and it’s doubly under threat due to climate change,” Frye said. “I hope that if Nestlé stops pumping, the environment will be able to heal.”

Officials said the state’s water board cannot easily challenge Nestlé’s rights to creek water established before 1914. If the board approves the cease-and-desist order against BlueTriton, the company could face fines of up to $1,000 a day, or up to $10,000 a day if a drought is declared in the area.

Meanwhile, as much of the western US faces extreme drought conditions, long-standing fights in California between farmers, cities and environmental groups over the state’s scarce water supplies have heated up. Governor Gavin Newsom has already declared a regional drought emergency in two counties, after a dry winter left the state’s major reservoirs at half capacity or lower.

The climate crisis has brought on hotter, drier conditions – leaving the state more vulnerable water shortages and wildfires.

Prior to its sale this year, Nestlé Waters North America was the largest bottled water company in the US—its brands include Poland Spring and Zephyrhills. It paid the Forest Service a permit fee of $2,100 per year, but had been pumping water for free.

NRA Chief LaPierre Hunted Elephants in Botswana, Video Shows

In 2013, National Rifle Association head Wayne LaPierre and his wife traveled to Botswana’s Okavango Delta to hunt the now-endangered African bush elephant, which is the largest—and, after humans, perhaps most intelligent—land mammal in the world .

Video unearthed by The New Yorker and The Trace shows LaPierre shooting at an elephant three times, but failing to kill the animal. Later, his wife, Susan, kills an elephant with one shot, then, aided by a guide, cuts off the elephant’s tail and raises it in the air, proclaiming, “Victory!”

The couple were in Botswana to film “Under Wild Skies,” an NRA-sponsored TV show targeted toward hunters. The episode never aired, but footage of LaPierre’s adviser killing an elephant during a different expedition prompted outrage in 2013.

The video may upset you, but you can watch it—and read about all the gory details—here.

The Supreme Court Will Hear Its First Major Second Amendment Case in More Than a Decade

The Supreme Court on Monday said that it would review its first major Second Amendment case in more than a decade—and its decision could have major implications gun rights.

The case in question, NY State Rifle &. Pistol Assoc. v. Corlett, challenges a New York state law, which was upheld by the lower courts, that requires gun owners to obtain a license if they want to carry a gun outside their home. It’s the first time the Supreme Court will review a Second Amendment case that could affect gun safety laws across the country since it issued a pair of landmark decisions in 2008 and 2010—Heller v. District of Columbia and McDonald v. Chicago—which effectively affirmed that any individual has the right to own a gun in their home for personal protection. But those rulings left a lot on the table in terms of gun regulation outside of an individual’s home—namely who can carry a concealed firearm in public.

Since Heller and McDonald, states and cities have been able to pass laws to restrict the carry of firearms in public; without any Supreme Court ruling on the issue, those laws have been challenged by the gun lobby, including the National Rifle Association, which has ties to the NY State Rifle & Pistol Association. Most states, however, don’t have any concealed carry restrictions outside of an individual’s home, save for New York and seven others: California, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island. 

NY State Rifle &. Pistol Assoc. v. Corlett will be reviewed by the Supreme Court a year after it decided not to hear a similar case that challenged New York’s concealed carry law. At the time, the Court ruled that the case was moot because the city of New York amended its law banning the transport of firearms from the city to anywhere outside of it—like a shooting range or competition—out of fear that the Supreme Court might issue a ruling that would threaten gun control laws across the country. The difference this time is that NY State Rifle &. Pistol Assoc. v. Corlett challenges New York State’s law, not the previous New York City law.

In his concurrent opinion on declaring last year’s court case moot, Justice Brett Kavanaugh forewarned that the Supreme Court would be reconsidering gun laws in the near future. “The Court should address that issue soon,” he wrote, “perhaps in one of the several Second Amendment cases with petitions for certiorari now pending before the Court.” The court is schedule to hear this new case sometime during its 2021-2022 term, so a decision isn’t likely until the spring or summer of next year.

With NY State Rifle &. Pistol Assoc. v. Corlett now on the Supreme Court’s docket, gun safety groups are worried about what it could mean for the future of the nation’s gun control laws, especially considering the court’s conservative supermajority thanks to the appointment of Justice Amy Coney Barrett in October. At the time of her nomination, gun safety groups like Everytown for Gun Safety and Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence were raising the alarm on Coney’s history on gun laws. “Amy Coney Barrett’s alarming interpretation of the Second Amendment would make her an ideal Supreme Court Justice for the NRA, but a terrible one for the safety of the American people,” said Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, a subsidiary organization of Everytown.

Though she only ruled in one Second Amendment-related case while she served on the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, she was the lone dissenting opinion in a three-judge panel. And her opinion drew scrutiny, as I explained during her confirmation hearings:

In her dissent, she did not mince words in her disagreement with her colleagues, writing that the court’s ruling “treats the Second Amendment as a ‘second-class right.’” She disagreed with the statistical evidence cited by her colleagues that shows that felons, even those convicted of non-violent offenses, are more likely to commit gun-related crimes. “History is consistent with common sense: it demonstrates that legislatures have the power to prohibit dangerous people from possessing guns,” she wrote. “But that power extends only to people who are dangerous. Founding-era legislatures did not strip felons of the right to bear arms simply because of their status as felons.”

With the Supreme Court set to review NY State Rifle &. Pistol Assoc. v. Corlett, gun safety groups are, once again, sounding the alarm that gun control laws are under threat. “Today’s announcement is a warning sign that our nation’s highest court is poised to brush aside the will of the people and instead side with gun lobby groups seeking to eliminate even the most modest firearm laws,” Hannah Shearer, Gifford’s litigation director, said in a statement on Monday. “Such an extreme decision would be out of step with Second Amendment precedent, historical evidence, and the views of the overwhelming majority of Americans.” 

Can Restaurants Recover and Drive Food Justice After the Pandemic? Join Us for a Live Conversation.

Restaurants are still reeling from the pandemic, but opportunities are growing to transform the industry and explore new models for survival. Tune in Thursday for a conversation with chef and restaurateur Tunde Wey, One Fair Wage president Saru Jayaraman, chef and owner of Reem’s California Reem Assil, and Mother Jones senior editor Maddie Oatman as they unpack how the pandemic has laid bare fundamental inequalities but also primed restaurants to remake the industry.

Register for free, and mark your calendar for Thursday, April 29, at 3 p.m. ET / noon PT. Start with Maddie’s latest story, “Can Co-ops Save Restaurants?” And share your Recharge tips and stories at recharge@motherjones.com.

Fully Vaccinated People Can Stop Wearing Masks Outdoors, Unless in Crowded Spaces

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday released new guidelines on outdoor mask-wearing, greenlighting fully vaccinated people to engage in outdoor activities, including running, hiking, and walking—without a mask—if they are alone or with members of their household. Attending small outdoor gatherings and dining outdoors without a mask are also considered safe, federal officials said. 

But in situations where crowds are likely and social distancing presents a challenge, masking, even if fully vaccinated, is still recommended.

“Today is another day we can take another step to the normalcy of before,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a White House news conference.

“The examples today show that when you are fully vaccinated, you can return to many activities safely,” Walensky added. “And most of them, outdoors and unmasked, can begin to get back to normal. The more people who are vaccinated, the more steps we can take toward spending time with people we love, doing the things we love to enjoy.”

The updated guidance comes as nearly half of the country reports being vaccinated with at least the first dose. But public health experts remain cautious, with vaccination rates slowing recently following months of rapid growth, while some areas of the country continue to see alarming surges of the virus and its new variants.  

It’s been long established that outdoor contact poses significantly less risk in the spread of COVID-19 than indoors. But in recent weeks, questions over the necessity of outdoor mask-wearing have sparked some debate, with those on the right expressing special hostility towards the measure. On Monday, before the CDC’s announcement, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson went so far as to instruct viewers to contact child protective services if they see a kid wearing a mask outdoors. He also compared the practice of children wearing masks outside to child abuse.

“What you’re looking at is abuse,” Carlson said, “it’s child abuse and you are morally obligated to attempt to prevent it. If it’s your own child being abused, then act accordingly.” (Just to be clear: unnecessarily calling child protective services, in situations where the child is not in direct danger, can have long-lasting, traumatizing effects on both children and families.)

But Tucker and similarly-minded conservatives who are now professing outrage over outdoor masks appear to deliberately misinterpret the CDC’s previous guidelines, which never mandated strict outdoor mask-wearing. Instead, the CDC has always acknowledged that the outdoors provides greater ventilation—a key component to reducing COVID transmission—and wearing a mask while you are outside by yourself or with others in your household may not be necessary.

Lewandowski-Linked Lobby Shop Is the Latest Trump-Aligned Firm to Fall

Turnberry Solutions, a lobbying firm notable for aggressively advertising ties to former President Donald Trump, is no more. The firm, named for a Trump-owned golf resort in Scotland, becomes the latest shop linked to the former president to trim its sails or close its doors in the wake of Democrats’ takeover of the White House and Congress.

Corey Lewandowski, who was closely associated with the firm and served as a strategic adviser, is departing, and the remaining organization will work under a new name, Jason Osborne, a 2016 Trump campaign veteran who co-founded the company in 2017, told Mother Jones Monday.

“After the results of the election, with a new Congress coming in, Corey and I made the decision that he was going to focus more on political work, and I am continuing to focus on lobbying, which is what I’ve done for 25 years,” Osborne said.

Osborne said he expects to retain most of Turnberry’s lobbying clients at his renamed firm, Connect Strategy. He said he plans to switch the lobbying registrations for those clients this week. One prominent client, T-Mobile, which hired Turnberry in 2018 with help from Lewandowski while seeking Trump administration approval for a proposed takeover of Sprint, will not be represented by Connect Strategy, however, Osborne said. 

Lewandowski did not respond to a request for comment.

Osborne and Mike Rubino, both veterans of Trump’s 2016 campaign, launched Turnberry in 2017, out of a Capitol Hill townhouse where Lewandowski lived. For almost two years, Lewandowski disputed any links to the firm, but in February 2019, he joined it as a strategic adviser. Former Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), who stepped down as Trump’s first interior secretary amid investigations into matters including a Montana land deal between a foundation he created and energy services company Halliburton, joined the firm at the same time as Lewandowski.

In 2021, the firm has filed forms announcing the termination of its representation of four of its 16 lobbying clients.

Still, Osborne said that he had avoided relying solely on perceived access to Trump for business and prepared for the prospect of a Joe Biden presidency. He said he not only lobbies but also conducts international business development and other consulting work for clients.

“The name Turnberry no longer fit what I was doing,” he said. “I wanted to rebrand.”

He’s not alone. Avenue Strategies, a lobbying firm launched by former Trump campaign adviser Barry Bennett where both Lewandowski and Osborne previously worked, shut down in February. (Bennett attributed the closure to COVID-19 and violent protests last summer, not just Trump’s loss.) The money-in-politics tracking site OpenSecrets reported last week that three firms with Trump ties all faced plummeting lobbying revenue in 2021: Miller Strategies, run by a top Trump fundraiser, Jeff Miller; Cove Strategies, run by Trump ally and American Conservative Union boss Matt Schlapp; and Sweeney & Associates, a lobbying firm run by former Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.), a Trump booster who supported the former president’s effort to challenge his 2020 election loss. Representatives from these firms did not respond to inquiries.

Bigger Trump-linked firms have hired Democrats in a bid to adjust to Washington’s current reality. Mercury, a traditionally Republican-oriented firm, bolstered its Democratic presence well before Trump’s defeat. In January 2020, Mercury announced that former Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), had joined the firm as its co-chair. Ballard Partners, led by Brian Ballard, a major fundraiser and former Florida lobbyist for Trump, recently added several former Democratic aides.

Ballard Partners, which launched a DC office in late 2016 and capitalized on its founder’s history with Trump to quickly become one of Washington’s top lobbying firms, is prepared for its growth spurt to end, Brian Ballard told the Hill recently. “We had a wonderful run,” he said. “We’re going to be here to stay, but it’s not going to be the same.”

In Sworn Testimony in Inauguration Scandal Case, Donald Trump Jr. Made Apparently False Statements

On February 11, Donald Trump Jr. sat in front of his computer for a video deposition. He swore to tell the truth. But documents and a video obtained by Mother Jones—and recent legal filings—indicate that his testimony on key points was not accurate. 

The matter at hand was a lawsuit filed in 2020 against Donald Trump’s inauguration committee and the Trump Organization by Karl Racine, the attorney general of Washington, DC. The suit claims that the inauguration committee misused charitable funds to enrich the Trump family. As the attorney general put it, the lawsuit “alleges that the Inaugural Committee, a nonprofit corporation, coordinated with the Trump family to grossly overpay for event space in the Trump International Hotel. Although the Inaugural Committee was aware that it was paying far above market rates, it never considered less expensive alternatives, and even paid for space on days when it did not hold events. The Committee also improperly used non-profit funds to throw a private party [at the Trump Hotel] for the Trump family costing several hundred thousand dollars.” In short, the attorney general has accused the Trump clan and its company of major grifting, and he is looking to recover the amounts paid to the Trump Hotel so he can direct those funds to real charitable purposes.  

As part of the case, Racine has taken depositions from Tom Barrack, the investor and Donald Trump pal who chaired the inauguration committee; Rick Gates, the committee’s former deputy chair, who subsequently pleaded guilty to two charges stemming from special counsel Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation; and two of Trump’s adult children: Donald Jr. and Ivanka. Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a top producer for the inauguration committee, was deposed as a lead witness cooperating with the investigation. Racine has also collected internal emails and material from the committee, its officials, and others who worked on the inauguration.

During his deposition, Trump Jr. frequently replied, “I don’t recall,” and he downplayed his involvement in preparation for his father’s inauguration in January 2017. In several exchanges, he made statements that are contradicted by documents or the recollections of others and that appear to be false. 

One of the clearest instances of Trump Jr. not testifying accurately came when he was asked about Winston Wolkoff. As the lawsuit notes, during the organization of the inauguration, Winston Wolkoff, then a close friend of Melania Trump, had raised concerns with the president-elect, Ivanka Trump, and Gates about the prices the Trump Hotel was charging the inauguration committee for events to be held there. This included a written warning to Ivanka Trump and Gates that Trump’s hotel was trying to charge the committee twice the market rate for event space. (Gates ignored the warning, the lawsuit notes, and the committee struck a contract with the Trump Hotel for $1.03 million, an amount the lawsuit says was far above the hotel’s own pricing guidelines.) 

During his deposition, Trump Jr. was asked about Winston Wolkoff: “Do you know her?” He replied, “I know of her. I think I’ve met her, but I don’t know her. If she was in this room I’m not sure I would recognize her.” He added, “I had no involvement with her.”

Let’s go to a videotape obtained by Mother Jones:

This footage is from a tony candlelight dinner held at Union Station in Washington, DC, the night before Trump’s inauguration. This soiree was one of the official inauguration events. (A million-dollar contribution to the inauguration committee earned a Trump donor a ticket.) Here Trump Jr. can be seen profusely praising Barrack and Winston Wolkoff for the “incredible” work they did. It seems he did know her.

And documents obtained by Mother Jones shows there’s evidence that Trump Jr.’s claim of having “no involvement” with Winston Wolkoff was false. On January 17, 2017, an assistant for Ivanka Trump texted Winston Wolkoff and said that Trump Jr. wanted to speak to her, providing Winston Wolkoff with his cell number.

That same day, Trump Jr. emailed Winston Wolkoff and asked if they could talk. He said he had a contact who “seems to have some very big talent lined up, if we wanted it” for the inauguration events. Winston Wolkoff responded in an email, saying that the inauguration committee was “locked and loaded” for all its events. And Trump Jr. replied, “Thank you Stephanie, I wanted to see if you were still possibly looking for talent. Some friends of mine that are quite big in the industry have been asking around and would be able to put together a pretty impressive roster.”

Moreover, Trump Jr. shared private moments with Winston Wolkoff during the inauguration stretch, according to Winston Wolkoff’s book Melania and Me, which chronicles her stint working for the inauguration and later for Melania on her White House staff. Two days after Trump was sworn in as president, Winston Wolkoff writes, she toured the White House with Melania (as the new first lady complained about the condition and decor of the executive mansion), and then she joined the Trumps for a celebratory dinner in the Old Family Dining Room. Around the table sat Trump, Melania, and Trump Jr. and Eric and their wives. The new president greeted Winston Wolkoff warmly and said, “Isn’t this great. Look at this!” After the dinner, she flew home to New York City with the Trump family, minus Donald, Ivanka, and Jared Kushner. 

Yet Trump Jr. testified he might not recognize her. 

Winston Wolkoff declined to comment on Trump Jr.’s testimony or the investigation. In a statement, she said, “I did not think it was right for the Trump Family or the Trump Family’s businesses to be financially profiting from the presidential Inauguration. It was a gross mismanagement of funds and an abuse of authority, and I made it very clear to people in the Trump Family and the inauguration committee how I felt.” 

Mother Jones sent Trump Jr. and lawyers for the Trump Organization a list of questions regarding his testimony. No one responded. Mother Jones also called Trump Organization general counsel Alan Garten seeking comment, and he did not reply. 

During the deposition, Trump Jr. was asked, “Did you attend an event at Union Station [during the inauguration]?” This was a reference to that fancy candlelight dinner. He replied, “I don’t know.” The video shows Trump Jr. was at this celebration, which was also attended by his father, his adult siblings, Melania, and many Trump world luminaries. In the video, Trump Jr. ebulliently proclaims that this dinner “will go down in history.” A guest list for the event prepared by the inauguration committee and obtained by Mother Jones notes that Trump Jr. had a table of his own at the function and that one of his table-mates was Wayne LaPierre, the head of the NRA. 

Trump Jr. also had trouble during the deposition remembering whether on the night of the inauguration he attended that exclusive bash at the Trump Hotel that the DC attorney general says was improperly paid for by the Trump inauguration committee and describes as a “private party for the Trump children” and guests of the hotel. According to Racine, Gates, with Ivanka Trump’s knowledge, “allowed the [inauguration committee’s] nonprofit funds to pay for a private after-hours party for the Trump family at their Hotel, even after [the committee’s] staff initially canceled this event over concerns of improper use of funds. Gates allowed the event to move forward after Trump Hotel staff complained that canceling it would hurt the Hotel’s bottom line.”

Trump Jr. in his deposition told Racine’s attorneys, “I probably ended up there after, you know, a couple of those other types of balls, yes. I just don’t remember specifically. It’s a bit of a whirlwind.” The master schedule for Inauguration Day prepared by the inauguration committee for the first family shows that Trump Jr. was to be ferried to this soiree after the inauguration balls.  

Regarding this particular party, Trump Jr. was asked, “There has been testimony in the record [of this case] that this event was for friends and family of the Trump children. Meaning you, Eric, Ivanka, and Tiffany. Does that sound familiar?” He replied, “No, it doesn’t.” But then he hedged a bit: “I can only say, again, we’re probably some of the only family to ever be involved in any significant fashion in a campaign of that sort. So again the relationships that we had with donors were probably rather unique. So if there was an element of exclusivity associated, okay, it’s an event for the [Trump] kids and their friends who helped the political process, I guess that’s possible. But I don’t actually recall it, you know, being dubbed that specifically.” That is, Trump was stating that this event at the hotel he-co-owned with his father, Ivanka, and Eric—financed by the nonprofit funds of the inauguration committee but not open to the public and not attended by the new president—was not really a party for him and his siblings.

But an email Gates sent to Ivanka Trump on January 11, 2017, that was obtained by Mother Jones shows that the party was indeed organized for Trump Jr., Eric, and Ivanka. “There will be an after party at the OPO [the Old Post Office, a.k.a the Trump Hotel] following the inaugural balls on Friday,” Gates wrote. “DJT is not expected to attend but was more for you, Don and Eric.”

In recently submitted legal filings in the case, Racine provides more evidence this was indeed a private affair for the Trump children and hotel guests. “Attendance was by invitation only, and guests were limited to friends and family of the President-elect and guests of the Hotel,” he maintains in one filing. And he adds, “Incredibly, the final decision to proceed with the event was not even made by the [inauguration committee], but by Donald Trump, Jr.”

A separate filing explains what happened: As of the morning of January 20, David Anderson, the director of catering at the Trump Hotel, believed this event had been canceled. But sometime that day, Tommy Hicks Jr., a close friend of Trump Jr., called Anderson and said he was with Trump Jr. and told Anderson that the event was on and that the hotel’s staff should prepare for it. Anderson subsequently received approval from his boss to proceed with the function. Anderson testified to Racine’s investigators that it was “a party for [Trump Jr.] and his selected guests.”

The inauguration committee paid the Trump Hotel $288,367 for this event, according to Racine. And the AG notes in a filing that Trump, Trump Jr., Ivanka, and Eric each profit from Trump Hotel revenues.

In his sworn testimony, Trump Jr. sidestepped the issue of whether this event was held for him and his siblings. And when he was asked if he had been “involved” in any inauguration events “like dinners, lunches, concerts,” he answered, “Not to my recollection. No.” Yet Racine’s filing places Trump Jr. in a key role related to the party that is at the center of the case against Trump’s inauguration committee and the Trump Organization.  

During the planning for the inauguration, there was ongoing discussion of two other events directly connected to Donald Trump Jr. One was a ball or party to be held on the night of January 21, 2017, that was linked to a multi-day hunting trip with Trump Jr. and Eric Trump. Promotional material for this event—dubbed “Opening Day”—noted that it would be a celebration of “the great American tradition of outdoor sporting, shooting, fishing and conservation” and that for $1 million one could buy a package that included 85 VIP tickets, 200 general admission tickets, a private reception and photo op with Donald Trump, and four slots on the hunting trip. This offer made it seem the organizers of this event were peddling access to the new president and his two adult sons. Other packages ranged between $25,000 and $500,000. The promotional document claimed all net proceeds would go to conservation charities—without specifying which charities. The other inauguration-related event tied to Trump Jr. was a possible concert at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC. These two events ended up not occurring.

The investigators for the DC attorney general questioned Trump Jr. about both. His answers were arguably evasive.

Asked if he created a nonprofit called the Opening Day Foundation that was associated with the event of the same name, Trump said, “I don’t believe I did. I think, I believe others did.” And when asked whether he had been “listed as a director or an officer or CEO” of this foundation, he replied, “I don’t recall.” Did he know who the directors of that foundations were? “I don’t recall,” he replied.

Such a foundation had been established seemingly in conjunction with this proposed event. Paperwork for the Opening Day Foundation was filed on December 14, 2016, and Trump Jr. was listed as one of the four directors of the company. The other three were his brother Eric, Hicks Jr., and Gentry Beach, another close friend of Trump Jr. The registration noted Beach, a hedge fund manager, had registered the foundation at his office address. Trump Jr., though, claimed in his deposition that he couldn’t remember or was ignorant of all this. (If Beach had registered this foundation and named Trump Jr. as a director without Trump Jr.’s knowledge or permission, it did not end their close relationship. In 2017, Trump Jr. invested in a start-up being run by Beach, who was at the time also seeking support from Trump administration officials for his other business ventures.)

Racine’s lawyers posed Trump Jr. several questions about Beach and Hicks Jr., and they asked, “Did they attend other events during inauguration week [besides the inauguration ceremony] with you?” Trump Jr. answered, “I don’t know if they attended with me. I’m sure they attended other events.” In the video above, Beach is on Trump Jr.’s right, and Hicks Jr. is on Trump Jr.’s left.  

Trump Jr. minimized his role in the partying-and-hunting event, telling the AG’s lawyers, “It just wasn’t a focus of mine.” But a schedule of proposed events prepared in mid-November 2016 by the inauguration committee listed a “Sportsman Ball” for the night of January 21 and noted it was a project of “Don Jr.” A similar schedule composed 10 days later also referred to a “Sportsman” event at the Trump Hotel with a private reception and stated it was an event for “Don Jr.” And a memo Winston Wolkoff sent Gates on December 10 reported, “Don Jr is hosting a Sportsman Ball on Saturday the 21st of January.” It noted, “Andrea Boccelli [sic] is a possibility.”

In mid-December 2016, TMZ broke the news that the Trump family would host a fundraiser celebrating hunters the day after the inauguration and that high-spending attendees could purchase a spot on a hunting outing with the two Trump brothers. In response to media interest in this event, famed television producer Mark Burnett, who was advising the inauguration committee, texted Winston Wolkoff: “Hunting trip with Don Jr…?? It’s nonsense. Right??” She replied, “We have NOTHING to do with this. This is GENTRY and Tommy Hicks and Don JR. I KNOW NOTHING ABOUT THIS….We have NOTHING TO DO WITH THIS AT ALL!!” Burnett told her, “Well I don’t want us…lumped in.”

During the deposition, Racine’s lawyers also queried Trump Jr. about that inauguration concert: “Were you also involved in trying to set up a separate concert?” He answered, “I don’t remember.”

Winston Wolkoff, though, remembers. In her book, she recounts that Gates hired Walter Kinzie, a friend of Trump Jr., to produce a concert at the time of the inauguration. According to Winston Wolkoff, Gates told her that the inauguration committee was handling this show, and one of Winston Wolkoff’s associates sensed something was “dodgy” about this project. In a text exchange with Winston Wolkoff, Burnett, referring to Kinzie’s hiring, observed, “Curiouser and Curiouser???? Who the F#*k is hiring these guys. How about central command????” Winston Wolkoff replied, “That is our biggest problem. Rick [Gates] is organizing these things with D. JR. and we know nothing about it.” Burnett responded, “We gotta stop this. Need central control.” A proposed schedule for inauguration events dated December 18, 2016—obtained by Mother Jones—included a “Donald Jr. Concert” on January 20 at the Verizon Center, hosted by Trump Jr. and organized by the inauguration committee.

Though neither the hunting-themed soiree nor the concert happened, Racine’s investigators were probably interested in whether nonprofit funds were properly (or not) used in the pursuit of these events. Trump Jr.’s testimony conveyed the impression that he had little to do with them. 

During the deposition, Trump Jr. also indicated he had not worked with the finance committee of the inauguration effort—the fundraising arm for the project. He said he did “work trying to help out” with fundraising for the inauguration committee. But when asked if he worked “with someone who was on the financial committee,” he replied, “Not that I recall.” Sara Armstrong, who was CEO of the inauguration committee, had a different recollection. In her own deposition, she said that Trump Jr. was “loosely connected with our finance committee.” She noted that he attended “at least one” meeting of the finance committee. She added, “I don’t remember if he stayed for the duration, or if he was at all of them.”

Trump Jr. has a spotty record when it comes to telling the truth about scandals. When the news emerged in July 2017 that a year earlier he, Kushner, and Paul Manafort had secretly met in Trump Tower with a Russian emissary who they were told would supply them dirt on Hillary Clinton as part of a covert Kremlin effort to help the Trump campaign, Trump Jr. issued a statement that claimed they had gathered to discuss “a program about the adoption of Russian children.” The statement did not acknowledge that the intent of the meeting was to obtain derogatory material on Trump’s campaign rival from a Russian operative. An earlier draft of Trump Jr.’s statement did mention that the “individual” he met “might have information helpful to the campaign.” But that line was deleted at his father’s instruction, according to the final report of Mueller. (The report noted, “When the press asked questions about the President’s involvement in Trump Jr.’s statement, the President’s personal lawyer repeatedly denied the President had played any role.”)

Trump Jr.’s testimony in Congress during the Trump-Russia investigation in September 2017 also raised questions about his trustworthiness. He told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he was not “aware” of any overseas governments other than Russia offering or providing assistance to the Trump camp in 2016. Yet eight months later, the New York Times revealed that during the 2016 campaign Trump Jr. had a meeting with George Nader, an emissary for the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; Joel Zamel, an Israeli expert in social media manipulation; and Erik Prince, the infamous private security contractor and Trump backer. (Nader is now serving a 10-year sentence on child sex trafficking and pornography charges.) “The meeting,” the newspaper reported, “was convened primarily to offer help to the Trump team.” After the Times story appeared, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) declared, he was “deeply concerned that…Donald Trump Jr. provided false testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee.”

Racine’s office declined to comment on Trump Jr.’s testimony.

Current Vaccination Levels “Not Enough to Keep Infections From Surging”

Even though roughly half of the United States population has received at least one COVID shot, coronavirus cases have surged in states such as Michigan, prompting concerns among some public health officials that parts of the nation may be reopening too quickly.

Dr. Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRP) at the University of Minnesota, used to advocate strongly for the return of in-person learning. But with new outbreaks largely fueled by the B.1.1.7 variant first detected in the United Kingdom, which seems to affect children at a higher rate than other strains do, Osterholm has changed his tune. I caught up with Osterholm to ask about transmission among kids and the path to herd immunity for the rest of us.

How does our current vaccination rate bode for school reopenings this fall?

I think it’s going to be a mixed situation. And what I mean by that is that we’re going to see, hopefully, vaccines available down to as young as age 12, maybe 10. So when we look at transmission, it’s one of those things where how much vaccine is there is going to make a determination of how big the problems are going to be.

Do you think vaccines for children will have to be fully FDA approved, or will they be able to get emergency use authorization?

I think they will get emergency use authorization. Part of the challenge we have right now is the issue of just how much infection is in the community. Because that’s going to drive how well the studies are going to be able to determine how well the vaccine works, and the safety issues. None of us wants to have people get infected, but frankly, that’s how we get vaccines approved: with efficacy and safety data. And so, if we see substantial transmission in kids, then we’re going to have a much faster timeline to understanding what these vaccines could do and can’t do.

Once this is in schools, the challenge is in the community and the schools. Right now, trying to get kids back in with quarantine, we’re seeing many in-person learning experiences abbreviated quickly, because all you need is just to have a few of these [infected] kids in the school and you have large numbers of people quarantined at home. From an intervention standpoint, there just hasn’t been any data yet to support that cloth face coverings on young kids do anything to prevent transmission. That’s never been studied or addressed.

Why would that be different for children than adults?

Even in the rest of the population, we don’t really have any good studies showing face cloth coverings work. [Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] actually has an ongoing evaluation of studies looking at cloth face coverings, and they basically say there’s no discernible data yet to show that they reduce transmission.

With N-95 respirators, you get less than 1 percent leakage in or out. If you look at surgical masks, it’s anywhere from 30 to 50 percent leakage in and out. You get to cloth face coverings, it’s in the 60 to 70 percent range. You know, they’re like seatbelts. They can surely reduce your likelihood of having a bad outcome, but it’s all about dose and time. For example, the recent CDC study looking at double masking was criticized for several reasons, but one of them was that they didn’t do anything about dose and time. It’s like an instantaneous hit and that’s it.

Environments such as school kids today, where we’re now using three feet [social distancing]—which we also challenge—means you double the number of people in the schoolroom. What does your HVAC system do to handle that? And cloth face coverings would have no biological reason to filter out or stop the small aerosol particles. So that’s one of the other things that has been kind of accepted as a fait accompli, and it’s not true.

The other thing is, hygiene theater has to stop. That has been such a big challenge. The CDC, finally, after a year, came out and said that this week. I’ve watched millions and millions of dollars be spent on these deep sanitizings that had nothing to do with reducing COVID-19 transmission. I’ve been saying this since last spring.

How can we overcome the partisan divide on willingness to get vaccinated?

First of all, you have to understand who it is you’re concerned about with vaccine hesitancy or reluctance. I’m part of a group that’s led by Dr. Stephen Thomas, one of the most prominent Black public health professors in the country. He works in Maryland, and he started a program there called the Black Barbers and Beauty Shop program. It’s basically taking barbers and beauticians and really educating them on a number of aspects of health, hypertension, diabetes, etc. And they have served as a major source of information on COVID-19 in their communities. And they are highly trusted; they’re very, very good. And when you actually have a peer like that, or someone that people look up to, explaining to them about this, the number of people willing to take the vaccines goes up dramatically. I think that is an example of the kind of programs we need. That’s not going to work if I’m a pregnant health care worker who is fearful of getting the vaccine. That’s a whole separate issue, and a critical one. And so you need to have the data and the programs to address that group, too.

One of the challenges we have is the billboard that just says “get vaccinated” really has little to no impact. Almost all the time, it’s really about answering specific questions and messages. That’s one where you can surely help them turn around. But I don’t have an answer on this partisan political issue.

The average number of vaccines administered per day is starting to fall. How big of a risk does vaccine hesitancy pose in terms of generating new vaccine-resistant variants?

We have to be very careful. Michigan’s immunization levels are among some of the higher in the country. The Southern Sun Belt states, which have been through this twice now—big waves, one last July, once in January—still have many, many people that are highly vulnerable. The vaccination rate in those states is significantly lower than what we’re seeing in many other states.

Well, if Michigan can have the problem it has, there are a number of states that can have the same problem. People often say, “Well, the vaccine is going to knock it down.” Surely it has an impact, but the amount of vaccination we have right now, as demonstrated in Michigan, is not enough to keep infections from surging. And I think that’s a big challenge for people. They don’t still believe that. And so we can’t get enough people vaccinated quickly enough right now, from my perspective, to try to deal with what is still the potential for other Michigans to occur in the country. It’s a huge issue. We think about this all the time here at CIDRAP.

What sort of public health surveillance systems do we have to detect breakthrough infections in people who have already been vaccinated?

A lot of our surveillance right now is held together by baling wire and twine. I mean, the number of locations still using fax machines to support case reporting! It is really a serious challenge, and if there’s no other lesson from the pandemic, it’s the fact that how critical real-time information is from a public health perspective, and how it has to be made a priority to get systems in place to do that.

Second, you have to have the systems in place to work with private sector and public sector organizations, such that right now we’re seeing a problem where somebody goes and gets tested, they’re positive. Turns out, they’re a breakthrough case but the lab testing them didn’t know that. By the time the health department gets the information and identifies this person as a breakthrough, they contact the lab and the sample has already been thrown away. It’s as simple as that, yet as complicated as that. How do you get that sample for sequencing? Who does the sequencing? When? We’re seeing in many locations two to four weeks before you get sequencing data back. If you’re trying to look at breakthroughs, and you’re trying to understand, is it due to the virus? Or is it just due to the natural experience you’re going to have with a vaccine that is 90, 95 percent effective for most people? What’s happening? We don’t have a good system in place for that.

I know that the administration knows that, but now’s the time where we’ve got to really work with state and local health departments. We’ve got to work with our laboratories, whether they be private or public. And we’ve got to have a much better system in place to identify and capture these samples before they’re lost. And then we got to have quick turnaround on them getting sequenced.

It’s not sequence capacity. We have sequence capacity in this country! It’s the system to get it done. Imagine if every time you tried to use your bank card, you had to run a mile around the bank before you could use it. It’d be a big challenge to get your money out.

What 26,000 Snakes Can Teach Us About Climate Change

This story was originally published by Atlas Obscura and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

DEEP IN THE DIMLY LIT recesses of Oregon State University’s Weniger Hall, more than 26,000 garter snakes lie in wait. Coiled and crammed into jar after jar of yellowing alcohol, this assemblage of pickled snakes is more than an ophidiophobe’s nightmare. Part of the university’s reptile and amphibian collection, this is the world’s largest assemblage of garter snakes. For several species, more specimens are housed here than in every museum in the world combined. This is no dusty collection of curiosities, however. For some researchers, the quest to better understand how animals will respond to our planet’s changing climate starts with the jars in Weniger Hall.

Garter snakes, a group of 30-plus species belonging to the genus Thamnophis, are found from Central America to the edge of the Canadian Arctic. Their widespread success, and a few quirks of their lifecycle, make them ideal subjects to study how environmental changes affect the animals. According to Oregon State’s Herpetological Collection curator Stevan Arnold, who brought back most of the specimens during decades of field research, garter snakes are abundant and prolific—a female red-sided garter, for example, can produce up to 70 snakelets in a single litter. As cold-blooded reptiles, unable to regulate their internal body temperature, the snakes are at the mercy of their environment, and, says Arnold, they “evolve rapidly in response to climate change.”

Oregon State University’s Herpetological Collection holds more than 57,000 specimens.

Stevan Arnold

For example, Arnold has compared the number of scales present on adult specimens in the collection across decades. In drier environments, when dehydration can stress the snakes, specimens often have fewer but larger scales, which retain moisture better than smaller scales.

Many of the snakes making up Oregon State’s collection came from northern California’s Eagle Lake, just east of the state’s famous Lassen Volcanic National Park. In addition to abundant garter snake populations, the state-protected lake and its shores are home to bald eagles, ospreys, and the trout they hunt. What makes Eagle Lake’s garter snakes unique is the amount of diversity between each population. Snakes found in alpine meadows grow more slowly and mature later, but live twice as long as the garter snakes along the lake’s edge, for example—it was this link to environmental conditions, still not fully understood, that first drew Arnold to Eagle Lake half a century ago.

The Eagle Lake snakes are a lure for other researchers as well. Iowa State University evolutionary biologist Anne Bronikowski recently studied the impact of drought on snakes at the site. Garter snakes, who hunt small fish and amphibians, are particularly reliant on water. In order to understand how climate variation affected these snakes, Bronikowski measured changes in the snakes’ immune systems over seven summers, from 2012 to 2018. The period included more than three years of severe drought, during which Eagle Lake’s water levels plummeted. Bronikowski’s team found that several of the resident garter snake populations around the lake experienced severe decline. Individual snakes studied in the project also showed diminished immune responses. “At some point, when an animal is either so stressed out, so dehydrated, or so overheated, we would expect the immune system to crash,” Bronikowski says. Over the course of the project, she and her co-authors of a recent Ecology and Evolution paper found “compelling evidence” linking climate change to lowered immune system health.

Smoke from a wildfire darkens the horizon at California’s Eagle Lake, a haven for multiple garter snake species.

Mike Lee/Alamy

Back at Oregon State, Arnold’s colleague Robert Mason has also noticed the impact of climate change on garter snakes. In his lab, Mason has identified and sequenced the first known reptile sex pheromone, a chemical produced by the female garter snake to let males know she is ready to mate—it’s so powerful that Mason has seen male garter snakes try to mate with pheromone-infused paper towels. Unlike Arnold, Mason’s fieldwork takes him north. For his area of study, snake reproduction, “nothing comes even remotely close to what goes on up there in Manitoba,” Mason says.

“It’s totally climate change. The snakes come out earlier because it’s warming up.”

In one area of the Canadian province of Manitoba, rain and the unrelenting freeze-thaw cycle have carved exposed limestone into deep caverns and sinkholes. In these underground chambers, local garter snakes wait out the Canadian winter. When spring comes, the snakes emerge to breed, congregating by the tens of thousands in what Mason describes as “a sea of living spaghetti.” For four decades, he has arrived each spring to observe this phenomenon, which is also evolving. “In the early ‘80s, we would go up there the first week of May and be there when the first snakes were coming out,” he says. “Now, I have to go up around April 20, a good ten days earlier.” He says there is only one explanation: “It’s totally climate change. The snakes come out earlier because it’s warming up.”

Garter snakes, a group of 30-plus species belonging to the genus Thamnophis, are harmless to humans.

Kelly James/Oregon State University

As snakes in the field adapt to changing conditions, the jarred specimens at Oregon State help researchers put what they’re seeing from year to year in a broader context. According to Greg Pauly, curator of herpetology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Arnold’s collection has generated a long-term ecological dataset that acts like a time machine. “It gives us a snapshot of what was happening in the past,” Pauly says. “Increasingly, ecologists are recognizing museum collections as incredible opportunities to look at how species are responding to major changes like urbanization or a changing climate.”

The snakes of Oregon State will soon be relocating to the university’s biology hub, Cordley Hall, where they will be housed with a similarly impressive arthropod collection. There, the 26,000 garter snakes in jars, along with live snakes in Mason’s lab, will continue to help researchers understand the reptilian response to climate change. What they learn may provide clues to how our own species may adapt to a changing planet. Says Mason, based on what he has learned from decades of studying the animals: “We actually share more in common with reptiles than we have that’s dissimilar.”

Can Co-ops Save Restaurants?

The lockdowns last March nearly spelled doom for Joe Squared, a pizzeria and music venue in Baltimore’s arts district. The popular eatery already had some outstanding debts from a recent expansion; all of a sudden it had to curtail its hours and shut its dining room. General Manager Okan Arabacioğlu recalls frantically trying to make the numbers work with owner Joe Edwardsen, but they decided they couldn’t sacrifice the quality of the coal-fired pizza or the living wage they paid employees. “So at that point,” Arabacioğlu says, “we were like, let’s wrap it up.” Joe’s closed its doors for the next nine months.

“We need a new idea, something that changes the rules a little bit.”

The two men continued to brainstorm about what to do next. Edwardsen was considering getting out of the restaurant industry to spend more time with his family. Joe’s had previously been located across from Red Emma’s, a worker-owned bookstore and cafe, which got them thinking: What if Edwardsen passed on the restaurant to his workers? Restructuring would take the load off a sole proprietor, and each worker-owner would be more invested in the business’s well-being. A 2016 meta-analysis of more than 100 studies across several countries linked employee ownership to better productivity, organizational stability, and business survival. In times of crisis, co-ops have been shown to be more resilient than traditional enterprises and less likely to lay off workers.

In November, Edwardsen doled out an equal slice of ownership to 14 original employees. Each worker in the cooperative now has one vote on a governing board and will enjoy an equal share of two-thirds of the pizzeria’s future profits (the other third will be reinvested in the restaurant). And aside from their work in the kitchen or at the takeout window, employees now shoulder some of the administrative duties, learning the skills to run a business.

Most Americans have never eaten at a cooperatively run restaurant, much less shared in the ownership of one. Co-ops are more popular in countries like Italy or Spain, says Alison Lingane, co-founder of Project Equity, a consulting firm that helps companies transition to employee ownership. Lingane never heard a peep about cooperatives while studying at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, which isn’t surprising: Few B-schools include the model in their curriculum. Lingane suspects there’s a cultural component to America’s allergy to co-ops. “We have this hero love of the solo entrepreneur,” she says.

But the economic tumult of the last 12-plus years has people searching for alternatives. Before the Great Recession, there were only about 350 worker co-ops in the country; that number climbed to 465 by 2019, about a tenth of which are restaurants, cafes, or bakeries. The pandemic could be a catalyst. During the past year, Lingane says, Project Equity has seen “a lot more” calls from business owners inquiring about employee ownership models. There’s a feeling that “capitalism has failed our generation over and over again,” Arabacioğlu, who’s 37, says. “We need a new idea, something that changes the rules a little bit.”

Enjoying a share of revenue entices many workers to this plan. Business ownership is among the most productive assets for building wealth, and co-ops give a wider range of people access to that engine: The majority of co-op owners are women, and nearly 38 percent are Latino. Sarah Vegas, a worker-owner at Niles Pie in the San Francisco Bay Area, made $8,000 extra one year due to the bakery’s success. “That’s life-changing money,” she says. “It’s the difference between having a car that breaks down all the time and a good car.”

The majority of co-op owners are women, and nearly 38 percent are Latino.

Because restaurants operate on very slim margins, profit-sharing won’t always lead to a sizable increase in income. And cooperative decision-making can be messy and inefficient. A co-op “is not a silver bullet that solves the problem of the industry,” says Melissa Hoover, executive director of the think tank Democracy at Work Institute—especially the restaurant industry, which continues to consolidate at a terrifying clip.

But the chance to share in the decision-making process can mean a lot. During the Bay Area’s initial shelter-in-place restrictions, Berkeley’s Cheese Board Collective voted to dip into its reserves to continue to pay about 70 owner-members rather than lay some of them off. When Baltimore started allowing restaurants to serve at 25 percent capacity, the owners of Joe Squared, many of whom live with elderly or immunocompromised family members, voted to continue operating strictly as a takeout and delivery restaurant until everyone got vaccinated. “In co-op situations it’s more about the community and the business surviving,” Arabacioğlu says, “rather than just making profits off people.”

Hoover sees potential for how the cooperative mentality might fuel larger transformations in the food world. A spark of this can be seen in San Francisco, where Reem Assil, a Palestinian- and Syrian-American chef, developed a paid apprenticeship to support her employees as they help her convert her eponymous Arab bakeries into a cooperative. During the pandemic, Reem’s began relying on a collectively owned bike courier company for deliveries. Assil envisions an ecosystem of interconnected co-ops supporting each other. “We need to build resilience at the local level,” she says. “Worker ownership is community ownership.”

Here Are the Winners and Losers of the 2020 Census

The US Census Bureau, beleaguered by a pandemic and a now-defeated president who was intent on making America’s 2020 headcount even more partisan than usual, released its congressional reapportionment data this afternoon, showing political gains for the South and raising questions about the accuracy of the results.

Based on the population data tallied by census officials, Texas will gain two seats in the House of Representatives, and Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina, and Oregon will each gain one. California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia each will lose one seat.

The margins for some of the reapportionments were razor thin. Minnesota, for instance, was expected to lose a seat, but New York lost one after falling short by just 89 people. Texas, Florida, and Arizona all gained one less seat than predicted, raising concern that former President Donald Trump’s attempt to include a citizenship question on the census survey may have led to an undercount of Latinos. (Plus, Texas didn’t spend any money on census outreach.) The shift from in-person to digital outreach raised further obstacles for communities in areas that lack good wifi access, from unincorporated rural parts of South Texas to tribal reservations.

The fact that three Sun Belt states all gained 1 fewer seat than expected while Rust Belt states retained those 3 seats is a worrisome sign that there may have been a significant undercount of Latino communities in the census, though we’ll have to wait August to know more details https://t.co/X7FohHqwfI

— Stephen Wolf (@PoliticsWolf) April 26, 2021

“The census numbers as a whole have been shaped by a lot of negative and positive forces,” notes Thomas Wolf, Senior Counsel and Spitzer Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. “We had wildfires, COVID, displacement, hurricanes, and massive political interference from the Trump administration on one side of the ledger.”

“But on the other side of the ledger,” he adds, “the Supreme Court blocked the citizenship question. Advocates were able to stop the Trump administration from rushing all of the counting process and the data process for apportionment. And nonprofits and philanthropies invested tens of millions of dollars into getting out the count as well.”

It’s also notable that the count of where people lived on April 1, 2020, doesn’t reflect most COVID deaths, or the fact that a lot of people moved during the pandemic. Overall, the Census Bureau calculated a 2020 population of 331,449,281, up 7.4 percent from 2010. If accurate, this would represent the slowest rate of growth since the 1930s.

It will be difficult to say exactly how reapportionment may shift the nation’s political balance until August, when the Census Bureau is expected to release granular data and redistricting will begin. We also won’t know whether the count was equitable along racial and ethnic lines until the bureau completes its Post-Enumeration Survey next year, Wolf says.

Had these new 2020 reapportionment numbers been used for the Electoral College last year, Joe Biden’s victory would have been reduced slightly from 306-232 to 303-235, a net shift of three electoral votes to Trump.

A decade ago, reapportionment reduced Obama’s 2008 win by 6 EVs https://t.co/bZQiY3h0U7

— Stephen Wolf (@PoliticsWolf) April 26, 2021

“This question of how good the count was depends really heavily on what you want to use the count for, and getting those benchmarks and metrics that will help us really assess the count,” Wolf notes. “It’s only once we get all of those pieces of the puzzle together when we’ll really be able to say how good the 2020 census was. And so that story is really the story of the next year.”

Vaccine Materials and Supplies Are Finally Heading to Hard-Hit India

The devastation couldn’t be more severe. Yesterday, India recorded its highest single-day death toll from COVID for the ninth consecutive day, and the highest new number of cases anywhere in the world. But the United States announced it’s immediately shipping supplies and tapping “every resource at our disposal” for aid, including rapid testing kits, oxygen, protective gear, and vaccine material.

The pledge is reactive, not proactive, but it’s a big step. On the moral and medical questions, there’s an excellent interview, published yesterday, by New Yorker writer Daniel A. Gross with philosopher Peter Singer, whose pioneering texts on effective altruism—how to do the most good—contain a prescription for pandemic relief. “Where does responsibility lie for making the distribution more equitable?” Singer’s answer persuasively compares pandemic aid to climate action: “Governments should be getting together so that the burden is distributed equitably among affluent nations, just as we get together in the Paris agreement.”

It’s not a controversial idea, but he welcomes controversy on other fronts. Last week he co-launched the peer-reviewed Journal of Controversial Ideas, “a response,” Singer says, “to a worrying trend of restricting freedom of thought and discussion, including in academic life.” The journal focuses on lightning-rod ideas without fear of intimidation by “petitions or letters signed against them,” a fear that backfoots many early-career academics and media workers, he says, who wouldn’t chance their comfort or employment to discuss and defend essential questions. Which is how Singer got his own start, planting a flag for concepts, including animal rights, that land crosswise for many carnivores and traditionalists who steer clear of his philosophy. The journal is “particularly aimed at protecting junior academics who don’t have tenure.”

The full Q&A is worth a read. Whether the journal itself meets a high bar, decide for yourself. But if unflinching academic analysis makes you queasy, brace for impact. For the faint of philosophical heart, turn instead to the 10th-anniversary edition of his book The Life You Can Save: How to Do Your Part to End World Poverty.

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