Mother Jones Magazine

Republicans Still Refuse to Support Serious Stimulus. Why?

Republicans plan to go ahead with a symbolic vote on their “skinny” stimulus plan:

Senate Republicans plan to force a vote Thursday on their substantially scaled-back stimulus plan, in a maneuver all but guaranteed to fail amid opposition by Democrats who call the measure inadequate. After months of struggling to overcome deep internal divisions over the scope of another relief measure, Republicans hope to present a near-united front in support of their latest plan. They can then try to blame the continuing impasse on Democrats, who are expected to oppose it en masse, denying it the 60 votes it would need to advance.

The Republican plan would amount to net new spending of $300 billion, about a tenth of the $3 trillion Democrats are asking for. And I confess I don’t get it. No one is trying to raise taxes on the rich. No one is proposing benefits for the “undeserving” poor. No one is trying to bail out a Democratic president. No one is pretending that the economy is anywhere near to bouncing back yet. No one wants to use the stimulus money to fund abortions or gun registration or gay marriages.

So what’s the problem? We know that the vast majority of Republicans don’t really care about the budget deficit, so it can’t be that. Relieving the financial stress on millions of voters would surely be good for Donald Trump, so partisan politics can’t be the answer. Everyone in Congress represents a state that desperately needs help, so it can’t be a geographic thing.

And yet Republicans refuse to support a serious stimulus/rescue plan. I really, truly don’t understand. Is it just habit? Automatic opposition to anything Democrats like? What on earth is the problem?

Fact of the Day: Social Progress in the Trump Era

Nick Kristof brings our attention to the latest release of the Social Progress Index, which measures just what you think it measures. The index includes things like health care, access to education, personal safety, sanitation, human rights, and so forth, and combines them all into a single number. This number doesn’t change a lot from year to year, and from 2011 to 2016 it went up by 0.34 in the United States. Since then, however, it’s fallen by an astonishing 1.06 in just four years. We now rank 28th in the world, just behind Greece.

Note that this isn’t an economic index. The US is still one of the richest countries in the world. We just aren’t using those riches to make much social progress.

The Climate Crisis Is Happening Right Now. Just Look at California’s Weekend.

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

Two weeks ago, after freak lightning strikes torched Northern California but before the inferno of Labor Day weekend had begun, a friend called to talk, like you do when the world is turning to crap and nothing is stable or makes sense. In the past six months she’d fled New York for rural West Marin (due to the pandemic), and West Marin for San Francisco (due to smoke). Now she was planning to leave San Francisco for Los Angeles, as the gross air had descended here. We joked, as I’d joked with every friend this summer, that we should all just drop out and start a commune on a lake in Maine. “Every commune needs lesbians!” she said. “I’ll be our lesbian! California is going to become unlivable!”

Two weeks ago, this was a funny conversation. By Sunday, it was not.

This was the weekend that climate change, in California, stopped being about the future. The weekend that the idea that COVID-19 was worse than climate change, or fascism was worse than climate change, disappeared. The experts, of course, had known this for some time. But by the point August turned into September, the drumbeat of California’s environmental anomalies had grown so horrid and relentless that not even the professionals could stay detached. Way back, a lifetime ago, on Sept. 3, Daniel Swain, UCLA’s extreme-weather climate scientist who’s made a name from himself by tweeting, in plain language, just what the hell is going on, wrote, “This *gesturing wildly and in every direction* is utterly exhausting.”

Still, through Friday the 4th and into Saturday the 5th, Swain tried his professional best to keep his readers up to date on the all-time record high temperatures in a staggering number of California cities and the unheard-of airlift rescue of 200 people from the Creek Fire surrounding Mammoth Lake. But by Saturday evening, his emotional and lexicographical reserves were growing thin. “Yeah, it is almost literally unbelievable, but I’ve been saying that a lot lately,” he wrote while commenting how the Creek Fire had exploded to more than 100,000 acres even before it reached the part of the Sierra where, due to climate change, bark beetles killed millions of trees.

For a moment early Sunday morning, he appeared to get his vocabulary and mojo back: “Active pyrocumulonimbus (“fire thunderstorm”) activity occurred through night—resembling volcanic eruption…”

But by 8 a.m. he’d exhausted his vocabulary and himself: “These are getting harder and harder to write.”

The stakes had shifted; the essential subject-object dynamic changed. The earth—at least the part of it that is California—was no longer a backdrop for our actions, the set of our play. It had become the diva, the star of our horrible drama, the villain demolishing cascades of plans for all of us little specks hubristic enough to believe we could still make them.

Midmorning Sunday, hoping to escape the heat and smoke, I walked across San Francisco’s Great Highway, on the far western edge of the city, to Ocean Beach. Last year, the city closed part of the Great Highway due to blowing sand (and it plans to move a whole stretch in the future due to sea level rise). This spring, the city closed the road again, so residents could exercise, socially distanced. Then on Sunday, Mayor London Breed shut down not just the Great Highway but the parking lots along Ocean Beach. Labor Day weekend is Burning Man weekend in the traditional Bay Area calendar. Given that Burning Man 2020 was canceled, 1,000 people gathered Saturday night on the beach instead.

The next day the mayor called the partiers “absolutely reckless and selfish,” and she closed the beach parking to make an example of them.

Marin, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Maine. Since March we’d been canceling plans and making backup plans, and then scrubbing those plans, too.

Back at my house, I sat in front of my fan and my HEPA filter. My mother called. She was going to see my sister in Marin that day, because Marin was going to be cooler than Napa, where she lived. But Mill Valley was 106. Napa was 110. And there is still our pandemic, so no socializing in the air conditioning inside.

I tried to call Gov. Gavin Newsom, who declared a state of emergency in Fresno, Madera, Mariposa, San Bernardino and San Diego counties that day. I called former Gov. Jerry Brown. I wanted a civic parental figure, a leader to help me, and the rest of California, think about the state’s past and its future, to analyze how we’d come to this point where we’d made so many plans we later had to call off. When Brown called me back, he was in a very practical mood. What he would say to Californians who are feeling grief this weekend over the condition of the planet and the state?

“OK, No. 1, I wouldn’t talk about the planet,” he said. “That’s a very abstract idea.”

He was all for the individual actions we all know we need to take—change the cars we drive, the foods we eat. But what he really felt we needed to do was harness our values, consolidate our pain into outward pressure and political power, not retreat into fantasy communes. World leaders have not done nearly enough to meet the climate crisis because we have not demanded enough of them. So, Brown said, we need to break down and reverse engineer the problem. Start the causal chain: “build the belief that builds the consensus that allows the leaders to make the decisions that we need to make.” This could be grounded in individuals, right here, this weekend. But the consensus and accountability needed to fan out across the globe. “When I say that leaders I mean the mayor, the city council, the governor, the legislator, the Congress, the president, President Xi, President Putin, Prime Minister Modi, the whole crowd. They’ve got to get on board. If any of the major players play hooky, then we all will suffer.”

Since 2006, when California passed its landmark greenhouse gas reduction legislation, the state has basked in a glowing reputation with regard to climate policy. In some ways we legitimately earned our gold star. But we’ve also used sleight of hand: shell games of carbon credits, a focus on inventing incredible new sustainable-energy tech while still pumping over 10 million barrels of oil a year out of the ground. With the wildfires, too, we put on a fantastic performance: uniformed firefighting armies, a huge air show. But in our overzealous suppression efforts we left our forests choked with fuel. Now we have megafires like the ones that shut down eight national forests (and camping in all national forests in California) this weekend. Fires so powerful they create their own weather. Not even our dazzling army can fight them.

So is Brown hopeful we’ll meet this moment?

The Jesuit-trained, student-of-Buddhism governor took a deep breath and let his spiritual side talk. “I focus on what I can do. Hope is an interesting virtue,” he said. “There’s three, right? There’s faith, there’s hope and there’s charity. And we all know what faith is: You either believe or you don’t believe.” Charity: “You’re generous, you help people, you love people OK, I know what that is. Hope. Hope is what? A state of mind? I’m not quite sure.”

Brown paused again. “Hope derives from a belief that life has good things in store. I definitely think that’s possible. I also think the alternate is possible, too.”

At dusk, Sunday night, I sat on my back porch with my husband and drank a cocktail the color of the smoky orange sky. We’ve both been writing about fire and as a result, we both know too much. We know that even if California starts lighting prescribed fires at the rate we need to ignite them, our Septembers will be filled with smoke for the rest of our lives. But we need to make those plans anyway, and we need to keep them, too. The timing never feels right for the big, important parts of life. Your children are too young and then they’re too old.

The climate crisis was too distant… until Sunday in California. Then we woke up with its thick, hot smoke upon us and realized it was smothering our lives.

The Trump Files: When Donald Destroyed Historic Art to Build Trump Tower

This post was originally published as part of “The Trump Files”—a collection of telling episodes, strange but true stories, and curious scenes from the life of our current President—on July 13, 2016.

The construction of Trump Tower may have been Donald Trump’s greatest achievement, but it was a disaster for the city’s artistic legacy.

To build his skyscraper, Trump first had to knock down the Bonwit Teller building, a luxurious limestone building erected in 1929. The face of the building featured two huge Art Deco friezes that the Metropolitan Museum of Art wanted to preserve. The museum asked Trump to save the sculptures and donate them, and the mogul agreed—as long as the cost of doing so wasn’t too high.

But then, according to journalist Harry Hurt III in his book Lost Tycoon, Trump discovered that taking out the sculptures would delay demolition by two weeks. He wasn’t willing to wait. “On his orders, the demolition workers cut up the grillwork with acetylene torches,” Hurt wrote. “Then they jackhammered the friezes, dislodged them with crowbars, and pushed the remains inside the building, where they fell to the floor and shattered in a million pieces.”

The art world was shocked. “Architectural sculpture of this quality is rare and would have made definite sense in our collections,” Ashton Hawkins, the vice president and secretary of the Met’s board of trustees, told the New York Times. Robert Miller, a gallery owner who had agreed to assess the friezes, told the paper that “the reliefs are as important as the sculptures on the Rockefeller building. They’ll never be made again.”

The Times reported that Trump also lost a large bronze grillwork, measuring 25 feet in length, from the building that the museum had hoped to save.

Trump—posing as spokesman John Baron, one of the fake alter egos he used to speak to the press throughout his career—told the Times that he had the friezes appraised and found they were “without artistic merit” and weren’t worth the $32,000 he supposedly would have had to pay to remove them intact. “Can you imagine the museum accepting them if they were not of artistic merit?” Hawkins said in response.

“It’s odd that a person like Trump, who is spending $80 million or $100 million on this building, should squirm that it might cost as much as $32,000 to take down those panels,” Otto Teegen, who designed the bronze grillwork, told the Times. Yet he wasn’t willing to protect the art in this construction deal.

Nine Headlines

Here are nine headlines currently splashed across the news at the moment I’m writing this:

  • Trump acknowledges he intentionally downplayed coronavirus threat
  • N.I.H. Director Undercuts Trump’s Comments on a Vaccine by Election Day
  • As NFL reopens, Trump resumes attacks on players who demonstrate for racial justice
  • In crackdown on race-related content, Education Department targets internal book clubs, meetings
  • Patients may have seen ‘significant’ delays in medicine deliveries by USPS, Senate report finds
  • Whistleblower Says DHS Leadership Tried to Halt Reports on Russian Interference
  • Mike Pence slated to speak at fundraiser hosted by QAnon supporters
  • Emails show HHS official trying to muzzle Fauci
  • Senate paralyzed over coronavirus relief

November 3rd can’t come soon enough.

Saying the Quiet Part Loud (Again): Trump’s SCOTUS Shortlist Leaves No Question About What He Wants to Do With Roe

As the time before Election Day continues to dwindle, President Donald Trump is trying to shore up or win back supporters wherever he can. For the white suburban women who helped push him to victory in 2016, for instance, he’s peddling LAW AND ORDER! And for the supporters on the Christian right, he just released a Supreme Court nominee shortlist that is chock-full of far-right legal minds.

Crucially, the list almost explicitly declares that in a second Trump term, Roe v. Wade is dead. Maybe Trump is hoping these lady suburbanites don’t look at the list and the history of the 20 people on it too closely; just 13 percent of small city/suburban women support overturning Roe.

Lucky for us, we have shortlister Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) broadcasting the message, with zero ambiguity, just a half-hour after Trump’s announcement: 

It's time for Roe v. Wade to go.

— Tom Cotton (@TomCottonAR) September 9, 2020

To be clear: A Republican favoring anti-abortion judges is nothing new. It’s just not usually so…obvious, let alone explicit. Don’t forget Susan Collins still really believes Brett Kavanaugh considers Roe settled law. 

As for the potential future justices beyond Cotton, there are two other senators on the list, Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Josh Hawley (R-MO). Both have been equally outspoken about their abortion opposition. On the campaign trail in 2016, Cruz argued that Roe wasn’t settled law, and that abortion should be banned even in cases of rape and incest. Just last week, Cruz and Cotton signed onto a letter asking the FDA to take Mifeprex, commonly known as the abortion pill, off the market. Hawley meanwhile has declared that he would only support a Supreme Court nominee who explicitly acknowledges that Roe was “wrongly decided.” In a July interview with the Washington Post, he explained: “Roe is central to judicial philosophy. Roe is and was an unbridled act of judicial imperialism. It marks the point the modern Supreme Court said, ‘You know, we don’t have to follow the Constitution. We won’t even pretend to try.’”

The rest of Trump’s list is far less vocal about the issue, but that doesn’t mean they’re less extreme—multiple of Trump’s candidates have support from groups with anti-abortion views, like the Federalist Society and the Susan B. Anthony List. Here’s a limited sampling:

  • Sarah Pitlyk, a Trump-nominated federal judge in Missouri, has a long track record of opposing abortion, as well as surrogacy and fertility treatment. She’s also claimed that frozen embryos should be considered human beings and that destroying them is akin to killing children.
  • Gregory Katsas, now a federal appeals court judge in the District of Columbia, fought to limit abortion access as a high-ranking official in the Bush administration and has also stated “the right of abortion, which isn’t in the Constitution […] has all these made-up protections.”
  • Stuart Kyle Duncan, a judge on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, repeatedly upheld the admitting privileges law that was eventually overturned in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, and once again challenged and overturned more recently in Louisiana’s June Medical Services v. RussoAnd as the lead counsel in a major contraception case, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, he argued that some forms of contraception amount to abortion.
  • James Ho, one of Duncan’s colleagues on the 5th Circuit, has used his written opinions to lament “the moral tragedy of abortion” and defend fetal burial requirements. 
  • Daniel Cameron, the attorney general of Kentucky (who is deciding the future of the Breonna Taylor case), fought valiantly against the state’s governor to temporarily ban abortions during the coronavirus pandemic because they should not be considered “essential procedures.” The state legislature stepped in and passed a law granting Cameron the power to shut down the state’s abortion clinics himself.

Theresa Lau, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, said that her organization has vehemently opposed previous nominations for folks on Trump’s shortlist, include Pitlyk, Duncan, and Katsas. When I asked her thoughts on the nominees, she was unequivocal: “Everyone on that list is extremely troubling.”

Why Is the DOJ Intervening in E. Jean Carroll’s Suit Against Trump? A Former US Attorney Explains

Yesterday, in what the New York Times dubbed a “highly unusual legal move,” the Department of Justice moved to take over the defense of President Donald Trump in the defamation lawsuit filed against him by E. Jean Carroll, a writer and advice columnist, who alleges Trump raped her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room in the mid-1990s.

Carroll sued Trump for defamation in New York state court last November, months after New York Magazine first published a story containing her allegations. Her lawsuit claims that the president defamed her when, in the hours and days after the story was published that June, Trump denied it at least three times, saying that her story was fabricated, that he had never met Carroll (despite a 1987 photograph showing them together at a party), and that he would not have assaulted Carroll because she was “not [his] type.” “The rape of a woman is a violent crime; compounding that crime with acts of malicious libel is abhorrent,” her lawsuit states.

“The legal question is whether his remarks occurred within the scope of his employment as president of the United States. I think there will be some legal analysis, and perhaps disagreement, about that view.”

Earlier this summer, Trump tried and failed to have the lawsuit put on hold, arguing that under the Constitution, a sitting president was immune from civil lawsuits in state court. A judge rejected that theory last month; then yesterday, on the last day for Trump to appeal that ruling, the Department of Justice moved to get involved, theorizing that because Trump was acting as a government employee when he denied Carroll’s claims, the “United States” is the proper defendant. If a federal judge permits the move, it would allow government lawyers, paid with taxpayer money, to defend the president—and would likely result in Carroll’s case being dismissed.

I chatted with Barbara McQuade, a law professor at the University of Michigan and former US Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, to break down what the remarkable motion could mean for Carroll’s quest to hold Trump accountable. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Yesterday, the Department of Justice filed a motion to move the case to federal court and substitute the United States in as a defendant for Donald Trump in E. Jean Carroll’s lawsuit. What does that mean?

This is a fairly routine thing that the government does from time to time: Somebody who is a government employee gets sued and they take it to the boss and say, “Look, I got sued for this. What do we do?” The boss takes it, it works its way to DOJ, and DOJ says, “We got this. We’ll take care of it.”

The Department of Justice routinely will [send] a case from state to federal court, and substitute the United States for the individual defendant, if the tort allegedly occurred within the scope of the [person’s] employment. A typical case might be a mail carrier who’s involved in a car accident with a postal truck. It was within the scope of her duties, and so the United States will substitute itself for the defendant, and will defend that case [with] Department of Justice lawyers instead of private attorneys. Taxpayers will pay the legal defense bills. If the plaintiff should prevail and there is some sort of money judgment, it’s the taxpayers who would pay those damages.

“Whether you’re acting in your personal or official capacity, when it comes to the president, can be a little more gray. The presidency is kind of a 24/7 job.”

That is what DOJ has endeavored to do with Donald Trump. The question, the legal question, is whether his remarks occurred within the scope of his employment as president of the United States. I think there will be some legal analysis, and perhaps disagreement, about that view.

Is there a general understanding of what it means to be acting within the scope of one’s office?

During your job shift would be one thing. For a letter carrier, if they’re driving their mail truck after they’ve punched in for the morning, that’s a pretty easy case to say they’re within the scope of their duties. If the postal employee was driving his personal vehicle on the weekend and was involved in a car accident, I think we could quite clearly say he was not acting within the scope of his employment at the time. But whether you’re acting in your personal or official capacity, when it comes to the president, can be a little more gray. The presidency is kind of a 24/7 job. So it’s difficult to say you were off duty when this occurred.

So if you’re a politician, and you use an official press conference to say that a woman accusing you of rape is “not your type,” the DOJ is saying that that sort of blatant misogyny is within the scope of your office? Is that really the argument being made here?

I don’t think they look at the content of the statement. That issue will be litigated. The question is, when he uttered the words—regardless what those words are—did he do so in the scope of his employment?

I see three separate statements that Jean Carroll alleges were defamatory. Two of them occurred in response to questions by members of the press. I think one could argue that those are within the scope of his employment, because it is part of his duties to be a spokesperson for the White House. If he’s asked questions, question one is about China, question two is about the coronavirus, and question three is about these allegations, and he denies them, I think one could argue that occurred within the scope of his employment. But I think the one that will fail to survive scrutiny is [when] he issued a written statement denying the allegations and saying it was fabricated. I don’t think one could make a reasonable argument that that was issued in the scope of his official duties.

So the law looks not at what he said, at least at this point in the case, but at the context the statement was made in.

Right.

“Even if he ultimately loses this argument about scope of employment, by delaying, he has probably won what he really wants to win, which is keeping this languishing past the election.”

If this motion succeeds—if the federal judge decides, yes, this is within the scope of Trump’s employment and the United States is the proper defendant—you have said that the case will likely be dismissed. Can you explain why?

There’s a concept called sovereign immunity, which says the government cannot be sued unless Congress has created an exception to that [with] legislation. There are some circumstances where Congress says, “It is ok to sue the United States.” One of those things is for negligence—so in the case of the postal worker involved in an accident, that suit could proceed. But the United States has not consented to be sued for defamation. So if the DOJ is successful in substituting in the United States for Donald Trump, then its next step will very likely be a motion to dismiss for sovereign immunity. I think if they get that far, that argument is likely to win. That would result in dismissal of the entire case.

That’s the whole game, then.

Yep. It all comes down to scope of employment.

I’m definitely not an expert, but this argument seems…bonkers. How normal is this?

Very common in routine cases. Involving the president? I’ve never heard of one.

Carroll reacted to the filing yesterday by writing on Twitter that Trump has sicced the DOJ on her just at the moment he was required to produce documents, DNA, and discovery. What’s the significance of the timing here?

It’s odd that this case has been litigated, and lots of activity has occurred in the state court, and only now, 10 months later, has DOJ said, “Oh, wait, this case belongs in federal court and United States is the real party here.” It seems to me that they were playing a strategic game: “Let’s see if we can win in state court first, and drag this out for a while.”

The next step would be discovery, things like turning over DNA samples, sitting for a deposition, and turning over documents. No doubt those are things that President Trump would like to avoid leading up to an election. Even if he ultimately loses this argument about scope of employment, by delaying, he has probably won what he really wants to win, which is keeping this languishing past the election.

How much further past the election could this development push things?

First, this [federal] court has to make a decision, which may occur sometime in the next month or so. If [it denies the motion and] Trump’s lawyers appeal that decision, it could take a year to get that decision back. He could then appeal that to the Supreme Court, which could take another year. So now we’re in, you know, 2022 or somewhere like that, before the case actually gets remanded back to court. Then it’s back to square one. So I think he could delay it by a couple of years if he wants to.

“Very common in routine cases. Involving the president? I’ve never heard of one.”

What does this all mean for Carroll’s attempts to get a DNA sample from Trump?

It certainly delays things. Ultimately, she may get the sample that she demands, but I think not for a while.

There are lots of creative ways of using DNA in legal cases that have been invented in the last few years—I’m thinking about genetic genealogy, the technique used to identify the Golden State Killer through DNA from his distant relatives. Does anything preclude, say, Mary Trump [Trump’s niece who recently wrote a damning book about her uncle] from spitting in a tube and giving it to Roberta Kaplan, Carroll’s lawyer?

She could do it voluntarily. That’s a really interesting theory. I don’t think there’s anything that would preclude her because she has control of her own DNA, even if it might match. 

What would happen if Carroll was able to prove that there was a DNA match to Trump while the case was being stalled in this way?

Well, she wouldn’t be able to use it in court. She might be able to use it in the court of public opinion to entice Trump to settle the case. She would share that, as very powerful evidence that she’s likely to prevail at the end of the day. So it might be an incentive for him to resolve the case. In the meantime, it can’t be used.

Former Intelligence Official Says He Was Pressured to Alter Findings to Back Trump

In a wide-ranging whistleblower complaint unveiled Wednesday, a former top-ranking Homeland Security official alleges that members of the Trump administration repeatedly pressured him to manipulate intelligence assessments to match the president’s false public assertions. Brian Murphy—who previously served as acting head of DHS’s intelligence unit—says in the complaint that Chad Wolf, the acting head of DHS, ordered him to withhold intelligence assessments detailing Russian efforts to spread disinformation aimed at influencing the 2020 election “because it made the President look bad.” Murphy says Wolf claimed that directive reflected instructions to him from White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien.

Murphy also claims that acting Deputy DHS Secretary Ken Cuccinelli and former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen pushed him to tailor intelligence reports to support Trump’s political messaging. That included pressure in 2018 to help Nielsen play up the danger of suspected terrorists entering the United States from Mexico. It also allegedly included pressure this year from Wolf and Cuccinelli to doctor a report to match Trump’s public comments about Antifa and left-leaning groups, while downplaying the dangers posed by white supremacist groups.

Murphy was ousted from his position in July amid allegations that his office improperly compiled information on journalists and protesters. His whistleblower complaint was released by the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday.

Read Murphy’s whistleblower complaint here:


DV.load("https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/7204961-Muprhy-Complaint.js", { responsive: true, container: "#DV-viewer-7204961-Muprhy-Complaint" });

Muprhy Complaint (PDF)

Muprhy Complaint (Text)

Lunchtime Photo

This is . . . a geranium of some kind. I thought I knew what it was, but on a second look I really don’t. Maybe it’s just a plain old wild geranium?

May 7, 2019 — Along the Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia

A New Coalition of Poets, Novelists, and Playwrights Is Mobilizing Against Trump

To the long list of groups formally opposed to Donald Trump’s reelection, we can now add Writers Against Trump. The coalition formed a few weeks ago to mobilize the literary community in opposition to “the racist, destructive, incompetent, corrupt, and fascist regime of Donald Trump, and to give our language, thought, and time to his defeat in November.” The group joins the growing ranks of Against Trumpers, from Republican Voters Against Trump to the Democratic Coalition Against Trump, Christians Against Trump, Jews Against Trump, American Muslims Against Trump, Atheists Against Trump, Hairdressers Against Trump, and Cute Animals Against Trump, which tweets @damncutebunnies. The literary group is collecting video and written testimonies from authors “at all stages in their careers” to assess the stakes in the election and add their voices on Instagram, Facebook, and its website.

The coalition’s organizers include Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt, as well as Carolyn Forché and Natasha Trethewey. And one John Turturro has come out swinging in the group’s support with a video of his own.

Unsurprising for a group of literary giants, they get to the core of the candidate and the essence of the moment: “The brutal and criminal regime called an ‘administration’ may remain in power a while longer, spewing disinformation, exacerbating ill health, earth-hatred, obscene inequality, race- and woman-hatred, and encouraging violence, but as an unintended consequence, we are coming together to resist. We hope you’ll join us, and bring us your good ideas and your energy.”

Writers everywhere are welcome. More than 1,300 have joined so far. Auster’s, Hustvadt’s, Forché’s, and Turturro’s videos are here.

Woodward: Trump Knew All Along How Bad the Coronavirus Was

Another election, another Bob Woodward book. For this one, titled Rage, President Trump granted Woodward a stunning 18 separate interviews. I can only assume that Trump considered this a challenge of some kind and wanted to prove that he was the one person who could beat Woodward at his own game. If so, it didn’t work out so well:

President Donald Trump admitted he knew weeks before the first confirmed US coronavirus death that the virus was dangerous, airborne, highly contagious and “more deadly than even your strenuous flus”…In a series of interviews with Woodward, Trump revealed that he had a surprising level of detail about the threat of the virus earlier than previously known. “Pretty amazing,” Trump told Woodward, adding that the coronavirus was maybe five times “more deadly” than the flu.

Trump’s admissions are in stark contrast to his frequent public comments at the time insisting that the virus was “going to disappear” and “all work out fine.” The book, using Trump’s own words, depicts a President who has betrayed the public trust and the most fundamental responsibilities of his office. In “Rage,” Trump says the job of a president is “to keep our country safe.” But in early February, Trump told Woodward he knew how deadly the virus was, and in March, admitted he kept that knowledge hidden from the public. “I wanted to always play it down,” Trump told Woodward on March 19, even as he had declared a national emergency over the virus days earlier. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

…The book highlights how the President took all of the credit and none of the responsibility for his actions related to the pandemic, which has infected 6 million Americans and killed more than 185,000 in the US. “The virus has nothing to do with me,” Trump told Woodward in their final interview in July. “It’s not my fault. It’s — China let the damn virus out.”

This is where words fail you. Trump always knew. He knew just how bad the coronavirus was and deliberately played it down. Just as he once thought that big talk could save a casino from going bankrupt, he figured big talk could keep the virus at bay. It never seems to occur to him that most problems have actual underlying causes that need to be addressed. Just keep lying to people and everything will be OK.

It didn’t work with the casinos and it didn’t work with the coronavirus. The difference is that his lies about his casinos mostly just hurt himself. His lies about the coronavirus have killed tens of thousands of Americans.

Trump Admits That He Lied About the Coronavirus

As President Trump downplayed the threat of the coronavirus in public earlier this year and offered a string of false and misleading claims, privately, he was telling a very different story. The virus, he acknowledged in a February phone call with journalist Bob Woodward, was actually “more deadly than your strenuous flus” and was “deadly stuff.”

That didn’t stop Trump from suggesting on Twitter that COVID-19 was less dangerous than the flu:

So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 9, 2020

In another phone conversation, Trump admitted to deliberately misleading the public about the virus. “I wanted to always play it down,” Trump told Woodward on March 19. “I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.”

Those are the newest revelations from Woodward’s forthcoming book, Rage, which, according to reports, also alleges that former Defense Secretary James Mattis warned that it might be necessary for senior administration officials to take “collective action” against Trump. That nugget is likely to enrage Trump, particularly amid the backlash prompted by an Atlantic report that he called American soldiers killed in combat “losers.”

But while Trump might work to push back against the comments attributed to Mattis, he’ll have a more difficult time denying his own remarks about the pandemic. After all, during a March 31 press briefing, he all but admitted to lying about the threat of the coronavirus:

“I want to give people a feeling of hope. I could be very negative. I could say ‘wait a minute, those numbers are terrible. This is going to be horrible,'” he said. “Well, this is really easy to be negative about, but I want to give people hope, too. You know, I’m a cheerleader for the country.”

Acosta pressed him: “So you knew it was going to be this severe when you were saying this was under control?”

Basically, yes, Trump responded: “I thought it could be. I knew everything. I knew it could be horrible, and I knew it could be maybe good. Don’t forget, at that time, people didn’t know that much about it, even the experts. We were talking about it. We didn’t know where it was going. We saw China but that was it. Maybe it would have stopped at China.”

Plus, there are tapes!

This is President Trump on tape, on February 7, saying that the coronavirus is "more deadly than your – you know, your, even your strenuous flus." But he minimized the threat in public. On February 26, he told the public "I think that’s a problem that’s going to go away." pic.twitter.com/TOHTpqYtvZ

— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) September 9, 2020

Trump tells Woodward he played down the threat of the coronavirus.
"I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down because I don't want to create a panic."

He also tells Woodward that "plenty of young people" are vulnerable — different from his public message pic.twitter.com/fJZUZtJTIv

— Manu Raju (@mkraju) September 9, 2020

 

Fact of the Day: The Black-White Education Gap

This is Part 2 of America’s biggest disgraces. It shows the NAEP reading and math scores for students from 4th grade to 12th grade. In every grade, all the way up to high school graduation, Black students lag far behind their white counterparts:

The folks who run the NAEP are infamously shy about explaining their test scores in a way that makes sense to people. They are just numbers floating in air. However, it’s possible to apply some arithmetic to these scores and convert them into something a little more understandable.¹ In a nutshell, on average, Black students are roughly 2-3 years behind in 12th grade; 1-2 years behind in 8th grade, and about 1 year behind in 4th grade. Other research suggests that they’re already about half a year behind by first grade.

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of using “systemic racism” as something of a talisman that eliminates the need for further exploration, but if this isn’t a consequence of systemic racism then I don’t know what is. You’ll see these test results in blue states and red states; in poor areas and middle-class-areas; and in urban and rural areas. It’s far too widespread to be simply the product of individual bigotry here and there. It’s as systemic as systemic can be.

And it’s inexcusable. It’s not the case that if Black students graduated with the same scores as white students this would eliminate all racism. However, it is the case that we will never make serious progress toward eliminating racism until Black students are educated on a par with white students. No matter how broadminded they are, employers simply won’t hire kids with a 10th grade reading level when they could hire kids with a 12th grade reading level instead.

We’ve spent a lot of time and money on this problem over the past 50 years with little to show for it. At this point, nearly everyone is tired of trying. But both states and the federal government have shown an occasional appetite in the past for funding large numbers of experiments and tracking them closely, and that’s what’s needed here. It’s not especially sexy, so think of it as a sort of Manhattan Project aimed at the Black-white gap: hundreds of experiments funded with tens of billions of dollars and lasting a decade or more. Will that come up with answers? Nobody can say for sure, but it would be shame upon shame to give up before we’ve done this.

¹For the math nerds out there, standard deviations are reported for all these tests and it turns out that Black students score consistently about 0.8 standard deviations below white students. With a little bit of handwaving, this ends up equating to about a 13 percent lag, which is roughly 2.5 years for an 18-year-old; nearly 2 years for a 14-year-old; and 1 year for a ten-year-old. In any case, please take these as rough approximations, though they match up fairly well with other research findings.

Donald Trump Is Considering Pouring $100 Million Into His Campaign. Does He Even Have the Cash?

Responding to a report that his campaign was a facing a possible cash crunch in the final weeks before the election, Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday morning that, if his reelection operation comes up short, he’d put his own money into the race. According to Bloomberg, Trump is considering ponying up as much as $100 million. But does he even have that kind of money to spend?

….Like I did in the 2016 Primaries, if more money is needed, which I doubt it will be, I will put it up!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 8, 2020

 

In 2016, Trump pledged to spend $100 million on his campaign, but that never actually happened. He loaned his campaign roughly $47 million (and eventually forgave these debts). After making his wealth and ability to self fund his presidential run a central theme of his campaign—and claiming he alone among his Republican rivals would not be beholden to the megadonors who had Washington politicians in their pockets—Trump gladly accepted help from big contributors in the general election.

So far in 2020 Trump hasn’t spent any of his own money on the race, but according to the New York Times, Trump’s campaign may be running low on cash. Trump and the Republican National Committee have raised $1.1 billion for his reelection, but by the end of July they had spent more than $800 million (including on such pricey expenditures as an $11 million Super Bowl ad buy). Trump has yet to report his August fundraising numbers, but Democratic nominee Joe Biden had a monster haul last month—he raised more than $360 million, which is more than, say, John McCain spent on his entire 2008 campaign. Unless Trump’s campaign matches that figure, Trump may find himself coming up short in the final stretch unless he digs into his own pockets.

But even wealthy businessmen sometimes don’t have lots of cash on hand, and Trump may not be in a position to personally muster enough money to cover the gap he’s facing against Biden. The last, best picture we have of Trump’s assets comes from his most recent personal financial disclosure. It shows that at the end of 2019 Trump had anywhere between $46.7 million and $156.6 million available in checking or money-market accounts. Assuming Trump’s cash reserves are near the top of that range, a $100 million loan would consume most of his available cash. Even a loan of $50 million might be a heavy lift. Trump does have a stock portfolio and plenty of properties he could sell, but most of those would be hard to convert to cash in a short period of time.

If Trump has access to $100m in cash, then I have a gold plated rainbow unicorn. https://t.co/pazmtS2UmO

— Martyn McLaughlin (@MartynMcL) September 8, 2020

Also, a lot has happened since Trump filed that financial disclosure. In particular, a pandemic that battered the international travel and hotel business, which makes up about two-thirds of Trump’s annual business revenues. At one point last spring, nearly every Trump property was closed. At least one—his Vancouver hotel—seems to have been permanently shuttered. 

Given the impact on his business, which was already struggling in some areas before the pandemic, Trump might have more pressing needs for his cash. For example, his Scottish golf resorts have been losing money for years, and that was before the COVID-19 essentially cancelled the 2020 summer golf season for international travelers. On top of that, Trump’s company has about $479 million in loans coming due in the next four years that Trump will either have to pay off or refinance.

Ultimately, Trump may have to make a difficult choice between rescuing his political operation and his business empire.

Nobody Would Have Guessed That Newark Would Be a Model for Fighting COVID-19. But It Is.

For 12 years, Berlyne Vilcant has worked for the city of Newark, New Jersey, as a disease investigator, which means that when there’s a cluster of cases of a particular disease—salmonella at a restaurant, say, or norovirus in a hotel—it’s her job to figure out how it started, who caught it, and how to stop it from spreading further. A lifelong Newark resident, she grew up in a family of Haitian immigrants, and even as a child knew that she wanted to work in healthcare. As a teenager, inspired by the character of a restaurant health inspector in the 2003 movie Deliver Us from Eva, she decided to go into public health.

In January, Vilcant was busy with run-of-the-mill outbreaks: hand, foot, and mouth disease at a daycare, Legionella at a senior center, isolated cases of giardia. When she told her friends that she was worried about a new virus tearing through China, they reassured her. Don’t worry, they said, it won’t come here. But as Vilcant read more reports, she remembers thinking, “Oh my gosh, if it arrives in the United States, I know I will not have a life.” On Saturday, March 14, her supervisor at the health department called to tell her that someone in Newark had tested positive for the virus. “My heart fell to the floor,” she recalls. “From that moment on, I knew that this was something that was going to be serious, and we needed to treat it as if it was going to be here for a very, very long time.”

Over the next two months, Vilcant watched her worst nightmare come true, as the virus took hold of her city. On the peak day of April 6, there were 162 positive test results. Local hospital intensive care units approached capacity. Vilcant and her colleague were the only two disease investigators employed by the city, and there was no way that the two of them could call every person who tested positive for the coronavirus. The health department had to bring in seven restaurant inspectors to help. Vilcant’s premonition about work taking over her life proved correct: As the city’s lead disease investigator, she worked 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week. She rarely saw her two school-aged children.

During those frightening days, it sometimes seemed to Vilcant as if the long hours weren’t even making a difference. All around her, people were sick and dying. Sometimes, when a member of her team called someone to tell them that they had tested positive for the virus, the reaction was hostile. How dare she imply that their family had let the virus in? Even those who wanted to cooperate sometimes couldn’t. In Newark, where 28 percent of residents live below the poverty line, staying home for two weeks was out of the question for many. As the pandemic wore on, it became clear that Black and hispanic people were especially likely to suffer severe cases and die from the virus—these two groups make up 86 percent of the city’s population. 

In the battle against the coronavirus, Newark faced long odds. Yet about two months into the pandemic, something astonishing happened: Cases in the city began to decline. Plus, the trend continued. By early May, there were 50–60 cases most days, by June, the numbers fell to the 20s. This was remarkable, especially given the city’s proximity to New York City, where the virus was still raging.

Perry Halkitis, dean of the School of Public Health at nearby Rutgers University, attributes the city’s early success to a combination of factors: Newark Mayor Ras Baraka showed strong leadership, briefing the city every day in candid town halls on Facebook Live. The university’s public health school provided expertise and a willing group of students ready to volunteer and work alongside Berlyne and her colleagues. But probably the most important factor, says Halkitis, who helped coordinate Newark’s pandemic response, was the city’s investment in a particular strategy.

“We were all coming together. What was really good for Newark was that all hands were on deck.”

During an outbreak, infectious disease circles have a mantra: Test, trace, isolate. That is, diagnose cases, track down the people who each patient may have exposed, and quarantine people who may be sick until they have a negative test. The strategy, which has been honed by public health workers around the world over several decades, has successfully controlled outbreaks of tuberculosis, SARS, and MERS, and Ebola. As the last six months of the pandemic have shown, implementing that mantra is easier said than done. Most parts of the United States are still struggling with the testing step, much less tracing and isolating. But almost as soon as COVID-19 arrived in Newark, leaders—including the mayor, health department officials, and experts from the Rutgers—mobilized to build a test-trace-isolate infrastructure for the city. “We were all coming together,” said Halkitis. “What was really good for Newark was that all hands were on deck.”

Against the backdrop of the national shortage of coronavirus tests, Newark public health officials strategized about how best to use the small number of tests they had. Other cities’ testing sites were concentrated in affluent neighborhoods, but Dr. Mark Wade, the head of the city’s Department of Health and Community Wellness, made a deliberate decision to make it as easy as possible for people without access to health care to get tested. In the late spring, when it became clear that the coronavirus was especially severe in Black and Brown communities, the health department opened more testing sites in minority neighborhoods and made a special effort to reach senior citizens who lived there. Elsewhere in the United States, cities built drive-through testing centers—but in Newark, where many people don’t have cars, the sites took walk-up patients, as well. The city also spent $2 million to set up a facility to test 2,200 homeless people at an airport hotel and to find temporary housing for those who were infected. 

Hoping to ensure that they made the most out of each precious test, Newark officials focused their efforts on contact tracing. Because the cash-strapped city didn’t have money to immediately hire a tracing corps, the health department recruited volunteers. By late April, the program was up and running, but city leaders wanted to improve the data collection and put more muscle into the tracing effort. They looked to nearby Massachusetts, whose innovative tracing program—the first and most ambitious in the country—was showing signs of success. The force behind Massachusetts’ program was a global public health organization called Partners in Health, and its tracing method combined carefully trained tracers and a sophisticated data management system. With the help of an infusion of cash from the state, Newark hired Partners in Health and teamed up with the Rutgers School of Public Health to supercharge its tracing system. In short order, the city hired 400 contact tracers, many of them nursing and public health students from Rutgers.

Many of the lessons that the PIH team learned in Massachusetts proved useful in Newark. For example, they worked with cellphone carriers to make contact tracers’ number appear as “COVID-19 info” rather than “unlisted,” in order to improve the chances that people would answer the call. But there were other, more fundamental challenges that they hadn’t faced in Massachusetts. Setting up testing sites for the most vulnerable people in the city—especially those in the Black and Brown communities—only solved part of the problem.

A more serious one was that many residents were uncomfortable giving out personal information to contact tracers. Some had experienced discrimination at doctors’ offices, so they were naturally wary of sharing medical information with strangers. In Newark, the contact tracers ran the risk of coming off as dispassionate data collectors—workers who were only interested in numbers, not individuals. For that reason, the workers were trained to explain clearly that the information they were gathering would be kept private. They were also trained to listen carefully and to respond with empathy. “It’s not just about data collection,” said Katie Bollbach, the Partners in Health liaison who led the group’s team in Newark. “It’s about ensuring people feel supported and cared for.”

Bollbach, who had worked on Partners in Health’s Ebola response in Rwanda and Sierra Leone before the pandemic, told me that her transition to the United States was jarring, but not in the way you might expect. She was immediately struck by how limited the access to healthcare many Americans had. In Sierra Leone, one of the poorest countries in the world, most villages had free community clinics, along with workers who traveled door-to-door to check on residents during infectious disease outbreaks. In America, that kind of outpouring of health support was unimaginable. “The emphasis on community-based care as the cornerstone of good public health in Sierra Leone is just really stark as compared to our system here in the United States,” she told me. “Here, we’re focused on health as a commodity, rather than as a human right.”

“The emphasis on community-based care as the cornerstone of good public health in Sierra Leone is just really stark as compared to our system here in the United States.”

What Partners in Health learned over many years spent working on outbreaks in Africa was that testing and tracing are useless without the final step of isolating. Bollbach’s team in Sierra Leone found that most people in villages couldn’t afford food and other necessities during the 21-day quarantine period necessary to stop the spread of Ebola. So officials handed out cleaning supplies—gloves, soap, chlorine—as well as groceries, water, and other supplies to families in isolation. At first it was Partners in Health that provided the supplies, then the government took over. In addition to the material supplies, Partners in Health worked with the health department to send workers to check on people in quarantine: How were they doing? Did anyone else in the house have symptoms? These simple gestures increased the level of trust in the health department. They also increased the likelihood that people would finish the quarantine. Regular check-ins, the team found, made people cooped up in their homes feel less alone.

Bollbach and her team brought those lessons to Newark and created support systems for people who had to quarantine at home. One of them was Wendy Pillajo, who lives with her parents, father-in-law, husband, and three-year-old daughter in an apartment in Newark. Pillajo, a medical assistant at an urgent care clinic, told me about her family’s battle with coronavirus. In May, a few days after her mother attended a family get-together, everyone in her household except her came down with COVID-19. The family’s symptoms ranged from mild (her daughter had a fever for a day) to severe—her parents had debilitating chest congestion, muscle aches, and stomach problems. Remarkably, Pillajo, who was tested several times, never had a positive result. A few months later, Pillajo’s mother tested positive again, and again the whole family quarantined for two weeks.

During each quarantine period, workers from the health department called Pillajo’s family every day to check in. They would ask how each member of the family was feeling, and whether anyone needed anything. After Pillajo’s parents’ tests came back positive, they told the rest of the family how to get to a free walk-up testing site. When Pillajo said she might have trouble getting groceries delivered, the city sent hot meals: Chicken, mashed potatoes, cornbread, rice. Pillajo told me she appreciated the groceries, but even more, she was grateful to have someone to ask questions. She was so worried about her father that she couldn’t concentrate on anything else. Through the daily check-ins, “we understood what was going on, and we saw they were getting better,” she said. “That really helped, to know they care about us.”

By August, Newark’s hard work had paid off. There were just a handful of new cases each day, a precipitous decline from more than a hundred a day at the peak in April. As Halkitis walked around the city, he noticed that the culture of public health had taken hold.  Citizens wore masks. They kept their distance from one another. They obeyed the 9:30 p.m. curfew. “People are taking this very seriously,” he said.

If the intensive test-trace-isolate strategy has worked so well in Newark and Massachusetts, then why hasn’t it caught on in the rest of the country? Halkitis believes that one reason has to do with leadership. From the very beginning, the Trump administration has provided little in the way of comprehensive and trustworthy pandemic response guidance, and many cities and states were far from coordinated in their actions. In Newark, from the very beginning of the pandemic, Mayor Baraka had the support of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy—their plans for controlling the pandemic aligned.

Other cities have not had the benefit of such a unified vision. In New York City, Mayor Bill De Blasio clashed with Governor Andrew Cuomo during the early days of the pandemic—the governor scoffed at the mayor’s suggestion in March that he might need to close the schools. While the leaders bickered, the virus spread unchecked, and by the end of March, New York City became ground zero for the pandemic. In Atlanta, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms butted heads with Republican Governor Brian Kemp—he undermined her every step of the way, from loosening the rules for the initial shutdown to suing her over the mask ordinance she enacted. (He later withdrew the lawsuit challenging the mask ordinance.) Today, in a CDC ranking of coronavirus cases by state, Georgia ranks fourth in the nation. State and local leaders have been on their own, forced to navigate their coronavirus plans with hardly any guidance at all from the federal government. As President Donald Trump told governors in April, “You’re going to call your own shots.”

Another problem with test-trace-isolate, says Halkitis, is that doesn’t work right away. There is a tendency, he said, “for a large portion of the American public to want the easy answers.” Indeed, this fantasy is evident in Trump’s insistence on promoting supposed silver-bullet cures like hydroxychloroquine. Again, that kind of thinking extends beyond the current administration. (How many times have you fantasized about what you’ll do when the vaccine arrives?) But in the actual work of infectious disease control, says Halkitis,  “This disease requires hard work, and it means that you have to give up some things.” 

Joia Mukherjee, chief medical officer of Partners in Health, echoed those sentiments. “What’s a shame is that we as the United States have been totally unambitious” in contact tracing. But she sees Newark as a bright spot: “Newark is a very hard place to work,” she told me. “There’s a lot of poverty. But the Department of Public Health there has the same view that we do at Partners in Health, which is: Protect the vulnerable.”

Vilcant feels a surge of satisfaction when she sees the chart showing the decline in coronavirus cases in her beloved city. By the beginning of September, there were only a handful of cases every day. At these moments, she feels that the hard conversations, the logistical morasses, the 70-hour work weeks—it was all worth it. But the pandemic isn’t over yet, and she knows it would be a mistake to let down her guard. “My investigators and my contact traces are having that mindset to push forward and continue to do the work that they’ve been doing,” she said. After so many months, this is hard. It’s a marathon. Sometimes, Vilcant’s kids tell her that they hate her job because it takes her away from them. “I have to tell them, ‘This is not going to be forever. In the long run, you will understand why mommy had to take a lot of time off from family to devote my time to make sure that this process is done.’”

A Doctor Went to His Own Employer for a COVID-19 Antibody Test. It Cost $10,984.

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

When Dr. Zachary Sussman went to Physicians Premier ER in Austin for a COVID-19 antibody test, he assumed he would get a freebie because he was a doctor for the chain. Instead, the free-standing emergency room charged his insurance company an astonishing $10,984 for the visit—and got paid every penny, with no pushback.

The bill left him so dismayed he quit his job. And now, after ProPublica’s questions, the parent company of his insurer said the case is being investigated and could lead to repayment or a referral to law enforcement.

The case is the latest to show how providers have sometimes charged exorbitant prices for visits for simple and inexpensive COVID-19 tests. ProPublica recently reported how a $175 COVID-19 test resulted in charges of $2,479 at a different free-standing ER in Texas. In that situation, the health plan said the payment for the visit would be reduced and the facility said the family would not receive a bill. In Sussman’s case, the insurer paid it all. But those dollars come from people who pay insurance premiums, and health experts say high prices are a major reason why Americans pay so much for health care.

Sussman, a 44-year-old pathologist, was working under contract as a part-time medical director at four of Physicians Premier’s other locations. He said he made $4,000 a month to oversee the antibody tests, which can detect signs of a previous COVID-19 infection. It was a temporary position holding him over between hospital gigs in Austin and New Mexico, where he now lives and works.

In May, before visiting his family in Scottsdale, Arizona, Sussman wanted the test because he had recently had a headache, which can be a symptom of COVID-19. He decided to go to one of his own company’s locations because he was curious to see how the process played out from a patient’s point of view. He knew the materials for each antibody test only amounted to about $8, and it gets read on the spot—similar to an at-home pregnancy test.

He could even do the reading himself. So he assumed Physicians Premier would comp him and administer it on the house. But the staff went ahead and took down his insurance details, while promising him he would not be responsible for any portion of the bill. He had a short-term plan through Golden Rule Insurance Company, which is owned by UnitedHealthcare, the largest insurer in the country. (The insurance was not provided through his work.)

During the brief visit, Sussman said he chatted with the emergency room doctor, whom he didn’t know. He said there was no physical examination. “Never laid a hand on me,” he said. His vitals were checked and his blood was drawn. He tested negative. He said the whole encounter took about 30 minutes.

About a month later, Golden Rule sent Sussman his explanation of benefits for the physician portion of the bill. The charges came to $2,100. Sussman was surprised by the expense but he said he was familiar with the Physicians Premier high-dollar business model, in which the convenience of a free-standing ER with no wait comes at a cost.

“It may as well say Gucci on the outside,” he said of the facility. Physicians Premier says on its website that it bills private insurance plans, but that it is out-of-network with them, meaning it does not have agreed-upon prices. That often leads to higher charges, which then get negotiated down by the insurers, or result in medical bills getting passed on to patients.

Sussman felt more puzzled to see the insurance document say, “Payable at: 100%.” So apparently Golden Rule hadn’t fought for a better deal and had paid more than two grand for a quick, walk-in visit for a test. He was happy not to get hit with a bill, but it also didn’t feel right.

He said he let the issue slide until a few weeks later when a second explanation of benefits arrived from Golden Rule, for the Physicians Premier facility charges. This time, an entity listed as USA Emergency sought $8,884.16. Again, the insurer said, “Payable at: 100%.”

USA Emergency Centers says on its website that it licenses the Physicians Premier ER name for some of its locations.

Now Sussman said he felt spooked. He knew Physicians Premier provided top-notch care and testing on the medical side of things. But somehow his employer had charged his health plan $10,984.16 for a quick visit for a COVID-19 test. And even more troubling to Sussman: Golden Rule paid the whole thing.

Sussman was so shaken he resigned. “I have decided I can no longer ethically provide Medical directorship services to the company,” he wrote in his July 13 resignation email. “If not outright fraudulent, these charges are at least exorbitant and seek to take advantage of payers in the midst of the COVID19 pandemic.”

Sussman agreed to waive his patient privacy so officials from the company could speak to ProPublica. USA Emergency Centers declined interview requests and provided a statement, saying “the allegations are false,” though it did not say which ones.

The statement also said the company “takes all complaints seriously and will continue to work directly with patients to resolve issues pertaining to their emergency room care or bill. …The allegations received pertain to a former contracted employee, and we cannot provide details or further comment at this time.”

Physicians Premier advertises itself as a COVID-19 testing facility on its website, with “results in an hour.” According to the claims submitted by Physicians Premier to Golden Rule, obtained by Sussman, the physician fee and facility fees were coded as emergency room visits of moderate complexity. That would mean his visit included an expanded, problem-focused history and examination. But Sussman said the staff only took down a cursory medical history that took a few minutes related to his possible exposure to COVID-19. And he said no one examined him.

The claims also included codes for a nasal swab coronavirus test. But that test was not performed, Sussman said. The physician’s orders documented in the facility’s medical record also do not mention the nasal swab test. Those charges came to $4,989.

The claims show two charges totaling $1,600 for the antibody test Sussman received. In a spreadsheet available on its website on Friday, Physicians Premier lists a price of $75 for the antibody test.

For comparison, Medicare lists its payment at $42.13 for COVID-19 antibody tests. That’s because Medicare, the government’s insurance plan for the disabled and people over 65, sets prices.

Complicating matters, Texas is the nation’s epicenter for free-standing emergency rooms that are not connected to hospitals. Vivian Ho, an economist at Rice University who studies the facilities, said their business model is based on “trying to mislead the consumer.” They set up in locations where a high proportion of people have health insurance, but they don’t have contracted rates with the insurers, Ho said. They are designed to look like lower-priced urgent care centers or walk-in clinics, Ho said, but charge much higher emergency room rates. (The centers have defended their practices, saying that they clearly identify as emergency rooms and are equipped to handle serious emergencies, and that patients value the convenience.)

The day after he resigned, Sussman texted an acquaintance who works as a doctor at Physicians Premier. The acquaintance said the facility typically only collects a small percentage of what gets billed. “I just don’t want to be part of the game,” Sussman texted to him.

Shelley Safian, a Florida health care coding expert who has written four books on medical coding, reviewed Sussman’s medical records and claims at ProPublica’s request. The records do not document a case of a complex patient that would justify the bills used to code the patient visit, she said. For example, the chief complaint is listed as: “A generic problem (COVID TESTING).” Under “final acuity,” the medical record says, “less urgent.” Under the medical history it says, “NO SYMPTOMS.”

Safian described the charges as “obscene” and said she was shocked the insurer paid them in full. “This is the exact opposite of an employee discount,” she said. “Obviously nobody is minding the store.”

Congress opened the door to profiteering during the pandemic when it passed the CARES Act. The legislation, signed into law in March, says health insurers must pay for out-of-network testing at the cash price a facility posts on its website, or less. But there may be other charges associated with the tests, and insurers generally have tried to avoid making patients pay any portion of costs related to COVID-19 testing or treatment.

The charges for Sussman’s COVID-19 test visit are “ridiculous,” said Niall Brennan, president and CEO of the Health Care Cost Institute, a nonprofit organization that studies health care prices. Brennan wondered whether the CARES Act has made insurers feel legally obligated to cover COVID-19 costs. He called it “well intentioned” public policy that allows for “unscrupulous behavior” by some providers. “Insurance companies and patients are reliant on the good will and honesty of providers,” Brennan said. “But this whole pandemic, combined with the CARES Act provision, seems designed for unscrupulous medical providers to exploit.”

It’s illegal for medical providers to charge for services they did not provide. But ProPublica has previously reported how little insurers, including UnitedHealthcare, do to prevent fraud in their commercial health plans, even though experts estimate it consumes about 10% of all health care costs. For-profit insurance companies don’t want to spend the time and money it takes to hold fraudulent medical providers accountable, former fraud investigators have told ProPublica. Also, the insurance companies want to keep providers in their networks, so they easily cave.

In mid-July, Sussman used the messenger system on Golden Rule’s website to report his concerns about the case. Short-term health plans are typically less expensive because they offer less comprehensive coverage. Sussman said he appreciated that his plan covered the charges, and felt compelled to tell the company what had happened.

That led to a phone conversation with a fraud investigator. They went line by line through the charges and Sussman told him many of the services had not been provided. “His attitude was kind of passive,” Sussman said of the fraud investigator. “There was no indignation. He took in stride, like, ‘Yep, that’s what happens.’” The investigator said he would escalate the case and see if the facility had submitted any other suspect claims. But Sussman never heard back.

Maria Gordon-Shydlo, a spokeswoman for UnitedHealthcare, which owns Golden Rule, would not provide anyone to be interviewed. She said in an emailed statement that the company’s first priority during the pandemic “has been to ensure our members get the care they need and are not billed for COVID testing and treatment. Unfortunately, there are some providers who are trying to take advantage of this and are inappropriately or even fraudulently billing.”

“Golden Rule has put processes in place to address excessive COVID-related billing,” the statement said. “We are currently investigating this matter and, if appropriate, will seek to recoup any overpayment and potentially refer this case to law enforcement.”

Golden Rule’s 100% payment of the charges may simply come down to “incompetence,” said Dr. Eric Bricker, a Texas internist who spent years running a company that advised employers who self-fund their insurance. Insurance companies auto-adjudicate millions of claims on software that may be decades old, said Bricker, who produces videos to help consumers and employers understand health care. If bills are under a certain threshold, like $15,000, they may sail through and get paid without a second look, he said.

UnitedHealth Group reported net earnings of $6.6 billion in the second quarter of 2020. Bricker said the company may be paying bills without questioning them because it doesn’t “want to create any noise” by saying no at a time its own earnings are so high, Bricker said.

Texas has a consumer protection law that’s designed to prevent businesses from exploiting the public during a disaster. The attorney general’s office has received and processed 52 complaints about health care businesses and billing or price gouging related to the pandemic, a spokeswoman from the office said in an email. The agency does not comment on the existence of any investigations, but has not filed any cases related to overpriced COVID-19 tests.

Sussman said he got one voicemail from a billing person at Physicians Premier, saying she wanted to explain the charges, but he did not call back. He said he spoke out about it to ProPublica because he opposes Medicare-for-all health care reform proposals. Bad actors in the profession could cause doctors to lose their privilege to bill and be reimbursed independently, he said. Most physicians are fair with their billing, or even conservative, he said. “If instances like these go unchecked it will provide more ammo for advocates of a single-payer system.”

The Trump Files: Donald Attacks a Reporter Who Questioned His Claim to Own the Empire State Building

This post was originally published as part of “The Trump Files“—a collection of telling episodes, strange but true stories, and curious scenes from the life of our current president—on October 17, 2016.

If there’s one thing Donald Trump really doesn’t like, it’s being called out. British journalist Selina Scott found that out the hard way when she challenged his false claim that he wholly owned the Empire State Building.

In 1995, Scott interviewed Trump for a British television documentary. Scott and her producer, Ted Brocklebank, used the song “It Ain’t Necessarily So” in the background of the film to highlight how Trump’s claims “‘didn’t stand up,'” Brocklebank told journalist Michael D’Antonio in his book The Truth About Trump.  

One of those claims occurred during a helicopter ride over Manhattan. Scott wrote in the Daily Mail early this year that Trump boasted that he was the sole owner of the Empire State Building, a declaration that Scott immediately challenged. He later said he owned 80 percent of the building, then admitted to owning just 50 percent of it. Scott reported Trump’s false claims in her film.

Trump wasn’t happy, and he took his revenge on Scott, sending her letters calling her “‘very sleazy,’ ‘unattractive,’ ‘obnoxious,’ and ‘boring,'” D’Antonio writes.

The mogul continued:

Selina, you have little talent and, from what I have seen, even fewer viewers. You are no longer ‘hot’; perhaps that is the curse of dishonesty. You would, obviously, go to any lengths to try to restore your faded image, but guess what—the public is aware and apparently much brighter than you. They aren’t tuning in! I hope you are able to solve your problems before it is too late.

Scott also wrote in the Daily Mail that Trump’s insults continued for years. In just one example, Scott said he sent her a clip of a story about his net worth with the message, “‘Selina you are a major loser.'”

In 2009, the 14-year feud with Scott took another turn. When Trump wanted to build his Scottish golf course in Aberdeen, members of the local council who were deciding whether to allow Trump to build on protected land received a copy of the mogul’s 1995 interview with Scott, according to the Guardian. When Trump found out that the council had seen the video, he lashed out at Scott, who said she wasn’t involved in the film’s distribution to the council. He called her a “third-class journalist” and said her interview with him was “‘a boring story then and she has since faded into obscurity where she belongs.'”

Scott didn’t hesitate in fighting back. In a prescient comment in light of recent revelations, Scott told the BBC last year, “I knew he was an unreconstructed misogynist.”

The Suburban White Vote Is Still Up For Grabs

Here’s an odd thing: the presidential campaign appears to be hanging at least partly on who can most effectively lose the white suburban vote. On one side this is deliberate and on the other it’s not, but either way it’s all out there and it’s all getting media coverage.

On one side we have President Trump tweeting a video of a black man shoving a white woman; defending Kyle Rittenhouse, the white man who allegedly killed two black protesters in Portland; banning the use of diversity training at federal agencies; and tweeting that the Department of Education is “looking at” the use of the Pulitzer-winning 1619 Project in public schools. These actions and others are almost laughably racist, obviously designed to appeal to Trump’s core base of supporters. But because they’re so obvious, they’re also likely to turn off moderate white suburbanites who aren’t willing to swallow such overt and toxic racism.

The other side is completely different. It’s not organized. It’s not connected to either Joe Biden or BLM. It’s not aimed at winning any campaign at all. Nonetheless, it has one thing in common with Trump’s deliberate atrocities: it’s covered by the press and, fair or not, many readers and viewers see it as a product of “the left” without any nuance. It includes things like serious defenses of looting during BLM protests; recommendations that schools shouldn’t be named after Benjamin Franklin; the firing of serious researchers for merely noting the existence of studies that suggest nonviolent protests are more effective than violent ones; and professors removed from their classes for repeating Chinese syllables that sound vaguely like the N-word. These are the kinds of incidents that might make moderate white suburbanites wonder if things haven’t gotten a little out of hand.

Most likely both sides are cancelling each other out and Trump will continue to lag behind his 2016 performance in suburban areas without much change. Still, I get emails from friends in swing states like Virginia and North Carolina who worry about their neighbors being turned off by some of the more extreme abuses of wokeness. The folks behind this stuff might want to think twice about their motivations and the rest of us might want to think twice about whether it’s wise to stay silent about it. Nobody needs a Sister Souljah moment or anything ridiculous like that, but neither should we stay silent and let the media frame this for us. I think we all know how that would go.

Pages