Mother Jones Magazine

Outing the Whistleblower Could Be Illegal. Expect Them to Get Away with It.

Over the past week, President Donald Trump and his allies have turned their attention to the whistleblower whose complaint sparked a formal impeachment investigation. While the president’s son on Wednesday tweeted a name he alleged was the person, his camp has been calling on the press to out the anonymous whistleblower, who they claim is a partisan Democrat. Experts on laws protecting whistleblowers say this harassment crosses the bounds of legality, but that it is unlikely the Justice Department will step in. 

An 1982 law designed to protect witnesses in organized crime trials could apply to Trump allies.

On Sunday, Trump told reporters that he wanted them to unmask the whistleblower. “The whistleblower gave a very inaccurate report about my phone call,” he said. “You know who it is. You just don’t want to report it. CNN knows who it is, but you don’t want to report it. And you know, you would be doing the public a service if you did.” His Republican allies in Congress have picked up this message. Standing next to Trump at a rally on Monday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) also called for the media to release the person’s name. On Capitol Hill, Republicans have begun pushing the name of a person that conservative publications have reported—without confirmation—is the whistleblower by saying the name in closed-door hearings and tweeting articles containing it. One Congress member, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), said the name out loud in a hearing unrelated to the impeachment inquiry. The campaign reached a new peak on Wednesday when Donald Trump Jr. tweeted a name he fingered as the whistleblower, insinuated the person is anti-Trump, and provided a link to an article purporting to detail the whistleblower’s biography.

While unmasking the whistleblower, which could put the person in harm’s way, may run afoul of federal law, available whistleblower protections are weak. Congress passed a law in 1912 law protecting federal employees’ right to share information with its members and committees, it is so short and sweet that it fails to provide any means of enforcing the right. 

The 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act covers most federal employees, but specifically excludes those who work “in a classified environment.” To fill the gap, Congress passed a whistleblower protection law for the intelligence community in 1998. As subsequently amended, the law could shield this whistleblower from official retaliation such as being fired or demoted if the person is in fact, as the New York Times has reported, a CIA officer. But whistleblower advocates have long warned that while the act suggests whistleblowers identities should be kept confidential, there’s no enforcement mechanism. In the current situation, they worry the law is plainly inadequate.

According to Tom Devine, legal director at the pro-whistleblower Government Accountability Project, the statutes that come closest to preventing the president or his allies from naming and harassing the whistleblower were originally designed to protect witnesses in organized crime trials. The Victim and Witness Protection Act of 1982 makes it a felony punishable by up to five years in prison to obstruct a proceeding of a federal agency or Congress, including any communication meant to impede the investigation. Outing the whistleblower or threatening them with exposure could not only hinder their participation, says Devine, but create a “chilling effect” for future witnesses that may be called or are considering coming forward. That same law, strengthened in 2002, makes it a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison to retaliate against someone for participating in a federal investigation. The comments from Trump and his allies toward the whistleblower are “obviously intended to harass the witness and scare others into silence,” says Devine, and a prosecutor could argue the law applied to any number of Trump allies seeking to interfere with an investigation on his behalf.

Enforcement of any of those laws would require the participation of the Justice Department, which dismissed the whistleblower’s claims of illegality and initially ruled that his complaint need not be shared with Congress. With Attorney General Bill Barr, the president’s close ally, running the department, Devine says it’s unlikely any charges will be brought. “It’s exposing a real catch-22 in our system of legal accountability,” he adds, “when the Attorney General is in bed with a lawless president.”

“It’s exposing a real catch-22…when the Attorney General is in bed with a lawless president.”

Republicans hope that they can out the whistleblower and paint him as a Democrat trying to undo the 2016 election and argue that by extension the entire inquiry is a partisan coup. “There have have been stories written about a certain individual, a male,” Trump said on Sunday. “If he’s the whistleblower, he has no credibility because he’s a Brennan guy, he’s a Susan Rice guy, he’s an Obama guy. And he hates Trump,” he said, listing a series of Obama national security appointees under whom thousands of people worked.

If this sounds familiar, it is. Trump and Republicans spent a lot of time trying to discredit the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and his campaign’s links to the effort by claiming the investigation was based on a biased report from British ex-spy Christopher Steele who was commissioned by Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Never mind that the so-called Steele Dossier was not actually the initial catalyst for the FBI’s decision to investigate and that it was originally commissioned by anti-Trump Republicans. Even as evidence of Russia’s interference grew, and detailed indictments piled up, Trump and his allies continued to point to the dossier’s roots rather than grapple with emerging facts to defend the president.

In the impeachment context, the whistleblower’s claims are likewise now a small piece of a much larger puzzle. The narrative outlined in the whistleblower’s report has been confirmed not only by the White House’s own accounts but by contemporaneous records and multiple other government officials who have shared more information on the key events than the whistleblower ever had access to. For this reason, the whistleblower’s lawyers have argued that their client’s identity is irrelevant, writing that calls to force him to publicly testify are “a spiteful campaign” and a “diversionary tactic” that would put their client and “their family at risk of harm.”

How Jack Abramoff’s Old Lobbying Firm Became Turkey’s Biggest Defender

The effects of Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria are still rippling through the Middle East, as the Kurds—who until recently were America’s staunchest allies in the fight against ISIS—face the prospect of ethnic cleansing. Meanwhile, Russia, Iran, and Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government all stand to benefit from President Donald Trump’s decision to green-light the Turkish offensive. But as with any international crisis, American lobbyists are ready to profit, too.

Chief among them is Greenberg Traurig, a white-shoe law firm with a scandalous history that has recently become Turkey’s top lobbyist and a key part of the country’s massive influence campaign in Washington. Greenberg has accepted more than $6.6 million since 2014 to lobby on behalf of Turkey’s government, even as the country’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has grown increasingly authoritarian—brutally suppressing dissent and imprisoning more journalists than any other country. 

Since Trump took office, Turkey has nearly doubled its spending on lobbying in DC, according to Al-Monitor, a news site that reports on the Middle East. No less than 21 different lobbyists were registered with the Justice Department on Turkey’s behalf in 2017, including several firms with close ties to the administration. Ballard Partners, which is run by a top Trump fundraiser, received more than $4 million from Turkey; Mercury Public Affairs, a landing ground for several ex-Trump campaign staffers, earned more than $1.6 million representing the Turkish government and outside advocacy groups such as the Turkey-US Business Council and American-Turkish Council. 

At Greenberg, a roster of ex-lawmakers-turned-lobbyists has helped promote Turkey’s interests on Capitol Hill. According to Vera Eccarius-Kelly, a Siena College political science professor who has written about Turkey and the Kurds, the firm’s role among the country’s army of lobbyists is to “improve Turkey’s image in the US,” which it has done by cultivating friendly members of Congress, especially the roughly 100 members of the bipartisan Turkey caucus. Four of the registered lobbyists working for Turkey on Greenberg’s payroll are ex-lawmakers who served on committees that oversee the Pentagon and State Department.

Greenberg’s contract with the Turks has been a crucial part of the firm’s renaissance in Washington after nearly a decade of recovering from the stain left by disgraced ex-employee Jack Abramoff, who went to prison in 2008 as a result of swindling millions of dollars from various Indian tribes, among other crimes. Founded by three attorneys in 1967, Greenberg expanded rapidly in the mid-1990s and gained notoriety for representing President George W. Bush during the 2000 Florida recount. By the time of Abramoff’s trial, Greenberg employed 1,500 attorneys in more than two dozen cities, according to the New York Times. The Justice Department never charged the firm itself in relation to Abramoff’s schemes, which made national news for months and ultimately brought down then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), But the company took a massive hit. In 2013, Greenberg collected just $3.9 million in revenue—a fraction of the $25.5 million it had earned in 2003, Politico reported.

Abramoff’s scandal may have tarred the firm’s reputation, but it didn’t deal a fatal blow. Various foreign clients, including the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq and Mexico’s agricultural ministry, signed on with Greenberg in the years following the trial. In 2014, the firm received more than $130,000 to lobby for Turkey as a subcontractor for the Gephardt Group, which was founded by former House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt (Mo.). That same year, 13 lobbyists from rival firm Dickstein Shapiro joined Greenberg’s growing Washington, DC, office, including former Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.) and ex-Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.).

By August 2014, Wynn and Hutchinson had registered to lobby for Turkey and, three years later, Greenberg inked a $1.7 million annual deal with Turkey to support “legislation and other US government action that promotes Turkey’s interests and provides a positive image of Turks, Turkey, and the United States-Turkey relationship.” Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Greenberg employee at the time, was not registered as one of the firm’s Turkey lobbyists. But he too helped further Erdoğan’s agenda, pushing Trump in 2017 to extradite a Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gülen, who lives in Pennsylvania and has been accused by Erdoğan of trying to overthrow him. After becoming Trump’s personal lawyer, Giuliani left Greenberg. He has denied ever lobbying for a foreign client, and Gülen, a permanent US resident, has not been extradited. (In 2015, Turkey hired a different firm, Amsterdam & Partners, to organize an influence campaign geared at undermining Gülen and the network of charter schools linked to him.)

In Trump, Erdoğan found a leader especially receptive to one-on-one lobbying. Both of Trump’s efforts to withdraw US forces from Syria—in December and then against last month—occurred after phone calls in which Erdoğan pushed him to do exactly that. Trump has occasionally threatened Turkey with punitive action, but has more often praised Erdoğan and echoed his talking points. Even after the much-maligned Syria invasion, Trump invited his Turkish counterpart to the White House for a meeting on November 13. 

Despite these victories, Turkey has found itself increasingly isolated from the United States in other ways. In May 2017, Erdoğan’s reputation took a massive hit stateside after his security forces brutalized a group of protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington. Twelve Turkish officials were charged with crimes related to the attack, which the State Department condemned as a threat to free expression. Earlier this year, after Erdoğan agreed to purchase a Russian air defense system, the Trump administration ousted Turkey from the American-led F-35 program, a rare rebuke of a NATO ally. Within Turkey, Erdoğan has repeatedly allied with ultranationalist parties, detained several Americans as hostages, and presided over a historic increase in anti-American sentiment. 

Even Washington lobbyists, who have seemingly have represented every warlord under the sun, “have gotten more cautious” around Turkey, Eccarius-Kelly told me. Gephardt, for example, stopped working with Turkey at the end of 2016. Ballard dropped the Turkish government as a client in November 2018 and ended its relationship with Turkey’s state-owned bank last month, after it was indicted over an alleged scheme to evade US sanctions on Iran. But in December 2018, Greenberg re-upped its contact with the Turks for $1.5 million through the end of 2019. Along with Wynn, Hutchinson, and two other registered foreign agents, Greenberg also enlisted ex-Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) to begin lobbying for Turkey last year. 

Turkey’s Syria invasion has only escalated tensions in Washington. For months, Erdoğan had made no secret of his desire to oust Syrian Kurds from their perch near Turkey’s border, citing their links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a revolutionary group that has agitated against the Turkish government since 1984. The Turkish military operation quickly resulted in war crimes, according to the State Department’s envoy to the counter-ISIS campaign. It also created some awkward optics for Greenberg, whose other major foreign client has been the Kurdistan Regional Government, which oversees a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq that is dominated by ethnic Kurds. The KRG has maintained amicable ties with Turkey, but the invasion severely damaged Turkey’s standing among Iraqi Kurds, who were seen burning Turkish flags in the days following the October offensive. 

“If I were Turkey and I knew Greenberg was representing the Kurds,” said Craig Holman, a lobbying expert for the nonprofit advocacy group Public Citizen, “I’d be inclined to look for a different lobbying firm.” 

Greenberg did not respond to multiple requests for comment about its lobbying activities. Federal records, though, suggest the firm hasn’t done much work on behalf of the Kurds in recent months. Between November 2018 and April of this year—the last time the firm submitted its quarterly disclosure to the Justice Department—its lobbyists sent six emails on behalf of the Iraqi Kurdish government and reported zero in-person meetings or phone conversations. During that same period, Greenberg lobbyists met with at least 15 lawmakers to discuss US-Turkish relations and emailed the offices of several others. The KRG paid Greenberg just $30,000 during that time; Turkey paid the firm $809,500.

All of which underscores how valuable Turkey is as a client. “They’re reliable payers,” Eccarius-Kelly said, drawing a parallel to another controversial US ally with an extensive influence operation. “If you can’t have Saudi Arabia as your client, the next best bet is Turkey.”

Unplugging PG&E Is Easier Said Than Done

As California finally takes control of the fires that have been burning for weeks, PG&E is—and will continue to be—in the hot seat. It seems likely that transmission equipment from the utility, which supplies power for roughly 40 percent of Californians, sparked the recent Kincade fire, a blaze that pushed over 180,000 people from their homes in and near Sonoma County, destroyed 374 structures, and burned almost 78,000 acres. As many as 16 fires burned across the state over the past several weeks, and at the same time PG&E was intermittently cutting power to millions of people—a practice the company’s CEO predicts will continue for another decade. Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency and hasn’t been shy about calling out the company for it’s mismanagement and incompetence. 

This has put PG&E, which filed for bankruptcy in January over its role in other recent wildfires, in the crosshairs of just about everyone—customers and legislators, as well as the governor—and state officials are looking desperately for a savior to rescue the crumbling grid and the flailing utility.

“This is a case of first impression. The future is going to have to be invented here and invented pretty quickly.” 

But right now, it’s really difficult to foresee what the future holds for PG&E—and more broadly for energy across California. Newsom has hinted the government, if it’s not satisfied with the pace of bankruptcy proceedings, could step in and try to take control of PG&E, but he also recently called on Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway to make a bid for the company. (Berkshire Hathaway’s energy subsidiary is deeply invested in utility companies and renewables in California and several other states.) The governor has also been open to the idea of municipalities taking over their own power management, which some of the cities themselves have echoed. At the same time, in ongoing bankruptcy proceedings, PG&E’s shareholders are fighting its bondholders, who’ve formed an alliance with fire victims, for control.  

I recently called up John Geesman, an energy consultant and attorney who served as the executive director of the California Energy Commission, the state’s primary energy policy and planning agency, to try to figure out what is going on and who would even want to take on this mess. We talked about the different stakeholders involved, who might end up in charge of local power, and what the maneuverings will mean for the utility’s millions of customers. “This is a case of first impression,” he says. “The future is going to have to be invented here and invented pretty quickly.” 

When we spoke last week, Geesman’s home had been without power since the weekend before, so he was staying up in the Sierras where electricity, run by a public utility district, was still flowing. Regardless of who takes over PG&E, the transition will be “extremely challenging,” he says. “Customers are going to end up paying under any scenario.”

A new era of private ownership 

Many have been skeptical of Newsom’s call for Berkshire Hathaway to step in and take over PG&E, which would essentially replace one form of private ownership for another. “It feels a bit like longing for a savior when there isn’t an obvious solution or a cheap solution,” bankruptcy law expert Jared Ellias told the Sacramento Bee. “There isn’t a white knight.” But Geesman thinks it might be less about a white knight and more about upping the competition. “What the governor was emphasizing was the desire to get as many bidders as possible,” he says. Plus, Berkshire Hathaway does have energy expertise with a bent toward renewables, and Warren Buffet has managed to keep a good reputation, which is more than PG&E can say. (Well aware of their fall from grace, PG&E preemptively bought up domain names like pgecrooks.com and pgefailure.com when it filed for bankruptcy.) 

It might be less about a white knight and more about upping the competition.

While Buffet hasn’t yet indicated any interest in getting involved, PG&E’s bondholders have been looking to wrest control of the company since it went into bankruptcy. As Geesman notes, unlike the shareholders—who have a competing reorganization plan—or an outside group like Berkshire Hathaway, the bondholder group, made up of hedge funds, doesn’t have energy operation experience. (Fire victims are supporting the bondholder plan, which would pay out billions more in compensation.)

But it’s not even certain any of these groups will want to take over anymore. The bondholders’ proposal has a clause allowing them to back out if PG&E is found liable for major damages in a new wildfire. PG&E shares have tanked by roughly 70 percent in 2019, dipping below $4 per share last week, so it is understandable that entities might be scared off. (The shareholder’s bid has a similar clause, and the same logic applies.) In January, courts will begin determining wildfire damages and PG&E’s culpability for the Tubbs fire that ravaged parts of Northern California in 2017.

Still, Geesman doubts either the bondholders or shareholders will drop their bids. “The franchise as it exists today has enormous earning power and that’s what’s attracted the different wolf packs of speculative investors,” he says. “If PG&E has been vilified for the last several years for mismanagement, it’s pretty easy to hypothesize from your office on Wall Street that you could just hire better managers and potentially slice and dice that $20 billion revenue stream in such a way that it makes for a very good investment. Wolves have an innate ability to sense protein. There’s a lot of potential revenue protein in a utility franchise.” 

Whoever ends up in charge of PG&E, it’s important to remember that the utility giant didn’t hit rock bottom on its own—and, accordingly, a better future system will almost certainly need more than new ownership. People have long criticized PG&E’s uncomfortably close ties with former Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration and the revolving door between the California Public Utilities Commission and the utilities it regulates. PG&E has spent over $31 million on lobbying in California since 2001, over $8 million of which was spent in 2018. “The regulatory model holds a fair amount of blame” for the current situation, Geesman says. But, “I don’t think this is a problem where you can rationalize, ‘Well, I’ll just appoint better people.’ You really need to focus more on changing that system rather than the individuals responsible for administering it.”

“It’s pretty easy to hypothesize from your office on Wall Street that you could just hire better managers and potentially slice and dice that $20 billion revenue stream. Wolves have an innate ability to sense protein.”

Regulators have failed to hold PG&E accountable in many instances. For example, utilities can use funds from the PUC for certain needs like maintaining equipment, but once they have the money, “very rarely does the commission actually attach strings to that money,” Wall Street Journal energy reporter Rebecca Smith explained on KALW’s Your Call.” “I think this has allowed the company to do whatever it wanted.” Neglecting to adequately spend on maintenance and equipment over time is one of the biggest criticisms leveled against PG&E. It’s unclear if that kind of (or lack of) oversight would push another company to behave better. 

A public takeover

As frustration mounts, more and more people, including presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), seem to believe that the most effective way forward is via municipal control. “It is time to begin thinking about public ownership of major utilities,” Sanders said recently. “The people of California are suffering because of the greed and corruption of utility corporations and their executives.”

But “public ownership” could mean a lot of different things. San Francisco, for instance, offered to buy PG&E’s local power lines for $2.5 million in September. PG&E rejected its bid in October, but under the proposal, San Francisco would’ve controlled the electrical equipment within the city, allowing it freedom to pick a non-PG&E power supplier. And in San Jose, California’s third largest city, Mayor Sam Liccardo has proposed turning PG&E into a nonprofit customer-owned cooperative. Different than a government takeover, Liccardo likened the cooperative idea to a credit union. The idea has garnered support from more than two dozen mayors and county supervisors who collectively represent about 5 million residents. “A PG&E that needs to rely on junk bonds to finance its future is not a PG&E that California can rely upon, and we need to move forward with a different approach,” Liccardo told KQED

There has been success with municipal ownership elsewhere; public power utilities exist in cities and localities in every state besides Hawaii. Geesman argues that over the “last several years, probably extending back to the San Bruno experience nine years ago,” it’s been clear that “accountability is most likely to come at the local level, where maintenance issues and investment issues can be intensely scrutinized as opposed to this model that we’ve perpetuated at least a decade too long.” And as energy expert Steven Weissman recently explained to me, “If you’ve got San Francisco Public Utilities Commission as an elected board, and they screw up, then you answer to the voters…Because you’re a local official, and you live locally, you run into constituents in the street, and you go to meetings and you talk to people. The community-level values that are placed on something like safety and reliability can become much higher priorities.”

“Accountability is most likely to come at the local level, where maintenance issues and investment issues can be intensely scrutinized as opposed to this model that we’ve perpetuated at least a decade too long.”

At the same time, people in communities across the state have already been trying something slightly different: Community Choice Aggregation (CCA), a set-up where a city or county or a combination of the two take over energy purchasing, but the area utility, like PG&E, continues to handle customer service and maintenance. CCAs can then set different rates and offer more energy options, including 100-percent renewable energy (though at a higher cost). Individual residents and businesses in this scenario can opt out and stick with the investor-owned utility. This gives communities more control over prices and more access to alternative energy sources. Only nine states have passed legislation enabling such setups. Currently, there are 19 CCAs in California, and such programs already serve a little under half of PG&E’s customers. In the San Diego area, where CCAs have grown in popularity, San Diego Gas & Electric is exploring handing over power procurement to CCAs entirely, so that the investor-owned company would only be an energy transmission and distribution business (something the California Community Choice Association wants PG&E to do). Theoretically, if utility companies only have to focus on the wires, they’d do a better job of managing risk. 

All these options come with their own drawbacks and complications, though at this grand scale, it’s pretty much new ground. Any solution will be complex and difficult and likely require new legislation, and there is still the possibility of mismanagement. Many public entities, of course, lack experience in the energy business. “You’re not going to have a public takeover tomorrow,” Geesman says. “Those things take an extended amount of time.”

Plus, PG&E has yet to signal any desire to turn over control. But if PG&E is found liable for major fire damage yet again, and the shareholders and bondholders use their “out” clauses to withdraw their bids, “then I think the bankruptcy process probably proceeds quite a bit more rapidly into a liquidation,” Geesman says, which paves the way for quicker municipal takeover. If bankruptcy proceedings don’t produce something Sacramento finds acceptable, that’s when Newsom says he might submit the government’s own proposal to the courts.

A grim reality for customers 

Unfortunately, in the end, Californians are likely to suffer no matter what happens. “Customers are going to end up paying under any scenario. You’ve got the existing equity value of PG&E down below the $4 billion level. There’s only so much blood in the stone that can be squeezed out going forward,” Geesman says. “The biggest problem that I would envision is a very difficult transition period. What happens while we’re getting from here to there? Who operates the system, and who bears the cost of that? And the customers are the only people with the resources to pick up the bill at the end of the day, and as a consequence, that’s where your financial liability is likely to end up.” 

“You’ve got the existing equity value of PG&E down below the $4 billion level. There’s only so much blood in the stone that can be squeezed out going forward.”

What’s more, the current grid is outdated and in disrepair, and even San Jose’s Mayor Liccardo admits it’d be costly to revamp: “We’re not delusional about the challenges here,” he told the New York Times.

Inevitably, some residents will suffer more than others, causing major equity issues in the short and long term. The state is already seeing it in the aftermath of PG&E’s deliberate power outages, which are disproportionately affecting low-income and other vulnerable communities. “We’ve had some horrible economic despair triggered in these blackouts,” Geesman notes. “I think there’s going to have to be accounting for it.” In just one example, at least 20 low-income seniors who use walkers or wheelchairs were trapped in their apartment complex in Marin County last week when the elevators stopped working during a two-day blackout. During the first round of power outages, PG&E reports showed that at least 8,500 customer with special energy needs due to medical conditions were affected.

That said, the current fiasco also affords an opportunity for real change. Utilities have historically teamed up to block alternative energy systems like microgrids—local community-operated energy grids that can operate and be controlled autonomously. When all the utilities band together, the barriers to reform can be “insurmountable,” Geesman says. But when alliances are destabilized by a weak link, say, “a bankrupt convicted felon who has killed dozens of people over the last several years and is not somebody anyone affords a great deal of credibility to those are pretty good conditions under which to work change.” 

Ukrainegate Is a Hoax Because Some Guy Did Some Stuff

Out in the real world, the news is all about Bill Barr, Gordon Sondland, Alexander Vindman, William Taylor, and the entire cast of characters revolving around President Trump’s shakedown of Ukraine. Meanwhile, over at Breitbart, here’s the headline:

The story tells us that:

  • A guy they think might be the whistleblower
  • Was detailed to the NSC during the Obama era
  • And was occasionally copied on emails that also went to Victoria Nuland
  • Who had “received updates” about the Steele dossier.

Seriously. That’s it. This is the view of the world that right wingers are being fed right now.

Someone Please Investigate Why the Ukraine President Loves Jay Leno

Hey, here’s something weird: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky supposedly considers former Tonight Show host Jay Leno a “hero.” This is according to the testimony of the ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland. Before we get into the whole thing, let’s point out that: 1) Zelensky was a comedian before he ran for president, 2) No one for whom Jay Leno is a hero has any business being a country’s president, let alone a comedian.

All right, here’s the supposed story, per the Washington Post. In an attempt to curry favor with Zelensky after his election, Sondland invited along his “personal friend” Leno to perform at a celebration in Brussels. The paper reported that Leno’s “US-focused patter fell flat on the ears of European officials.” Here’s how Sondland put it:

If you had JAY LENO on your impeachment bingo card, congrats, you're rich pic.twitter.com/fTeRBoLHr0

— Mike DeBonis (@mikedebonis) November 5, 2019

Mother Jones reached out to Jay Leno’s publicist for comment.

Mike Pence’s Office Pushed to Reroute Foreign Aid to Favored Christian Groups

This story originally appeared on ProPublica.

Last November, a top Trump appointee at the U.S. Agency for International Development wrote a candid email to colleagues about pressure from the White House to reroute Middle East aid to religious minorities, particularly Christian groups.

“Sometimes this decision will be made for us by the White House (see… Iraq! And, increasingly, Syria),” said Hallam Ferguson, a senior official in USAID’s Middle East bureau, in an email seen by ProPublica. “We need to stay ahead of this curve everywhere lest our interventions be dictated to us.”

The email underscored what had become a stark reality under the Trump White House. Decisions about U.S. aid are often no longer being governed by career professionals applying a rigorous review of applicants and their capabilities. Over the last two years, political pressure, particularly from the office of Vice President Mike Pence, had seeped into aid deliberations and convinced key decision-makers that unless they fell in line, their jobs could be at stake.

Five months before Ferguson sent the email, his former boss had been ousted following a mandate from Pence’s chief of staff. Pence had grown displeased with USAID’s work in Iraq after Christian groups were turned down for aid.

ProPublica viewed internal emails and conducted interviews with nearly 40 current and former U.S. officials and aid professionals that shed new light on the success of Pence and his allies in influencing the government’s long-standing process for awarding foreign aid. Most people spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The Trump administration’s efforts to influence USAID funding sparked concern from career officials, who worried the agency risked violating constitutional prohibitions on favoring one religion over another. They also were concerned that being perceived as favoring Christians could worsen Iraq’s sectarian divides.

“There are very deliberate procurement guidelines that have developed over a number of years to guard precisely against this kind of behavior,” said Steven Feldstein, a former State Department and USAID official during the Obama administration. When politics intrude on the grant-making process, “you’re diluting the very nature of what development programs ought to accomplish.”

USAID regulations state that awards “must be free from political interference or even the appearance of such interference and must be made on the basis of merit, not on the basis of the religious affiliation of a recipient organization, or lack thereof.”

The Trump administration’s efforts to steer funding to these minorities in Iraq stand in stark contrast to its overall approach to foreign aid.

Last month, USAID announced two grants to Iraqi organizations that career officials had previously rejected. Political appointees significantly impacted the latest awards, according to interviews with officials and other people aware of the process. Typically, such appointees have little to no involvement in USAID grants, to avoid perceptions of undue political influence on procurement.

One of the groups selected for the newest awards has no full-time paid staff, no experience with government grants and a financial tie that would typically raise questions in an intense competition for limited funds. The second organization received its first USAID direct grant after extensive public comments by its leader and allies highlighting what they described as a lack of U.S. assistance to Christians. The two groups — a charity that primarily serves Christian Iraqis and a Catholic university — were not originally listed as front-runners, according to a document seen by ProPublica.

The Wall Street Journal and BuzzFeed have previously reported Pence’s interest in increasing foreign aid to Christians and his displeasure with USAID’s activities in Iraq.

Pence’s spokeswoman, Katie Waldman, did not respond to questions. A USAID spokeswoman did not respond to specific questions, including about Ferguson’s email, but said the latest grants were appropriate.

“The Trump Administration has made responding to the genocide committed by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) against religious and ethnic minorities a top priority,” said the spokeswoman, Pooja Jhunjhunwala. “Assistance to religious and ethnic communities targeted by ISIS is not a departure from the norm, but rather a continuation of USAID’s rich history of promoting inclusive development and defending human dignity and religious freedom in our partner countries.”

Approximately 97% of Iraq’s population is Muslim, according to the most recent U.S. figures available. Religious minorities — including Christians, Yazidis and others — make up around 2% to 3% of Iraq’s total population.

The Trump administration’s efforts to steer funding to these minorities in Iraq stand in stark contrast to its overall approach to foreign aid. It has repeatedly proposed cutting U.S. diplomatic and foreign assistance budgets by billions of dollars. In August, as the White House was considering cuts to an array of foreign aid programs, it shielded funding for religious minorities abroad, according to news accounts.

As Trump mounts a 2020 reelection effort, he is taking steps to solidify his conservative Christian base, including his decision last week to install his spiritual adviser, Florida televangelist Paula White, in a White House position. Increasing aid to Christians abroad is a core value for his supporters.

In a speech last month at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, a major gathering of the religious right, Trump touted his administration’s work on behalf of religious minorities in Iraq and Syria.

“Other presidents would not be doing that,” he said. “They’d be spending a lot more money, but they’d be spending it on things that would not make you very happy.”

Late in the Obama administration, USAID’s activities in Iraq focused on an effort by the United Nations to restore basic services as soon as cities had been liberated from Islamic State rule.

By the end of 2016, the United States had contributed over $115 million to the effort through USAID, and other countries had contributed hundreds of millions of dollars more. U.S. officials credit the U.N.’s work with enabling millions of Iraqis to return to their homes soon after the fighting was done instead of languishing in refugee camps.

“Here’s another example of when the U.N. and the United States work together, really good things can happen,” said John Allen, the former special presidential envoy to the global coalition formed to defeat ISIS, at an event at the Brookings Institution in September.

Robust U.S. support for the U.N.’s work initially carried over into the Trump administration. In July 2017, the administration announced that USAID would provide an additional $150 million to the U.N. Development Program’s Iraq stabilization fund, bringing the total U.S. contribution to more than $265 million since 2015.

But by then, U.S. officials in Iraq were sensing dissatisfaction among some Iraqi Christians and American religious groups with the U.S. strategy and the U.N.’s work. Trying to head off problems, U.S. officials urged the U.N. in the summer of 2017 to pay special attention to the Nineveh Plains, an ethnically and religiously diverse region of northern Iraq where many of the country’s Christians live.

U.N. officials were reluctant, arguing their assistance could go further in dense urban areas like Mosul, as opposed to the Nineveh Plains, a stretch of farmland dotted by small towns and villages.

“They were going for the biggest bang for the buck,” one former U.S. foreign service officer said.

Dylan Lowthian, a UNDP spokesman, said the agency worked closely with local Christian leaders in 2017 to encourage more people to return to the Nineveh Plains.

“UNDP is one of the largest supporters of minority communities in Iraq in terms of volume of projects, impact, and funding,” Lowthian said.

But the pressure from Washington built. Influential religious groups like the Knights of Columbus and current and former Republican members of Congress advocated throughout 2017 for direct U.S. aid to religious minorities, including Christians and Yazidis. They said that the groups merited special attention because they had been targeted for genocide by Islamic State and that local churches had proven track records of delivering aid quickly and reliably. Furthermore, Christians — who fled the country in droves after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq — were at risk of disappearing from Iraq altogether if they didn’t receive help, they argued.

Bashar Warda, a powerful archbishop based in Erbil, Iraq, was a key figure in this effort. “The Christians of Iraq desperately need American government humanitarian aid now, and we need it to be delivered in a manner to ensure it actually reaches us and does not get absorbed and redirected in the existing aid structures,” he said in a 2017 interview with Crux, a Catholic- focused publication. “While the U.S. has donated generously to the overall humanitarian aid effort in Iraq, almost none of this aid reached the Christians.”

Warda met with Pence in late 2017 and stood beside Trump in the Oval Office in 2018 as he signed a bill authorizing the State Department and USAID to provide relief to victims of Islamic State, particularly religious minorities. Warda had advocated for the bill’s passage.

Important dialogue with Bashar Warda, the Archbishop of Erbil, about @POTUS' commitment to directly assist persecuted Christians & religious minorities in Iraq. I’m heading to the Middle East this month to discuss U.S. plans to accelerate funding those impacted in the region. pic.twitter.com/eQIdNytPlZ

— Vice President Mike Pence (@VP) December 4, 2017

Wardaʼs and othersʼ argument on the flow of aid resonated with the Trump administrationʼs distrust of multilateral organizations, especially the U.N., and a desire to help Christians worldwide.

Many career officials at the State Department and USAID supported the broader scope of the U.N.ʼs work. They acknowledged it wasnʼt perfect — it could be slow, and the U.N. was not adept at communicating with local communities — but said the rebuilding had benefited wide swaths of territory that included both Muslims and minority groups.

Privately, some officials felt that Wardaʼs and his alliesʼ lobbying efforts in Washington were downplaying how the U.N. projects benefited their communities. And serving Iraqʼs Sunni Muslims, they said, was essential to ensuring that Islamic State, which drew its ranks from Sunnis, did not make a resurgence.

“We were focused on the overriding policy priority of making sure that areas where young men with guns and other weapons were wandering around got the vast majority of the funding,” one current U.S. official said in an interview.

Over time, Trump appointees have grown exasperated at pushback that mentioned the establishment clause.

As of July, USAID and the State Department had announced nearly $373 million in funding for “persecuted ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq” since 2017. Jhunjhunwala, the USAID spokeswoman, said the U.S. government had provided over $1.5 billion in assistance to Iraq in 2017 and 2018, “the vast majority in areas inhabited by Sunni and Shia Muslims.” The Obama administration did not publicize its spending on Iraqi religious groups in the same way, making an exact comparison difficult.

Stephen Rasche, who works closely with Warda and serves as his spokesman, told ProPublica that U.N. reports detailing its rebuilding work in 2016 and 2017 “were highly misleading and could not be substantiated as they applied to assistance in the Christian towns.”

“In all our interactions with State/AID they were relying almost exclusively on the U.N. reports rather than making their own, first-hand inspections,” he said in an emailed statement. “Our position was that we were there on the ground and could not find evidence of the work that the U.N. said was being done.”

Lowthian said that all UNDP projects are tracked by a “rigorous and robust” monitoring effort, and that project details are shared regularly with partner countries.

Career officials also expressed concerns at the time that targeting federal funds toward particular minority groups on the basis of religion could be unconstitutional. USAID rules bar providing funding for explicitly religious activities such as worship or proselytizing. But faith-based groups can still receive U.S. funding, as long as they are inclusive and do not use the funds for religious programming.

USAID regulations mirror the U.S. Constitutionʼs establishment clause, which broadly prohibits government actions that favor one religion over another. Over time, Trump appointees have grown exasperated at pushback that mentioned the clause, one official said.

“They find it very constraining,” this person said. “They get frustrated that we canʼt just do direct support.” Still, several officials said, career attorneys at USAID painstakingly review its programming in Iraq to ensure it is legal.

And USAID and State Department officials questioned whether Christian groups were significantly needier than the broader Iraqi population victimized by Islamic State, including Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

“There was a pushback, a feeling like we shouldnʼt be doing this, first of all because of our own policies and regulations, and secondly because theyʼre not worse off than the others,” a former USAID official said.

Initially, Penceʼs office and political appointees at USAID were focused on helping Christians, with little attention to Yazidis, a small, ancient sect that was targeted in an especially cruel manner by Islamic State militants, said a current official and a former foreign service officer. Over time, career officials “helped educate” political appointees on the extent of the Yazidisʼ suffering, in hopes of getting their support for directing some aid at non-Christian groups, the former foreign service officer said.

“There was a very ideological focus on Christians, and most of the questions were about Christians,” this person said. “We were trying to get them to focus on others in the minority communities that might need assistance.”

Some also felt that if the U.S. were perceived as openly favoring particular groups, it could lead to further tensions in a country with deep and complicated sectarian divisions. Even some Christian Iraqis, several current or former U.S. officials said, did not want to be singled out by USAID for help, because they feared that preferential treatment would only add to instability.

But Trump appointees at USAID in favor of sending more aid to Christians — including Middle East bureau official Hallam Ferguson and Bill Steiger, the agencyʼs chief of staff — discounted career officersʼ concerns, arguing that they had heard differently from the Christian groups focused on Iraq with whom they were in touch, one former USAID official said. Trump appointees “seemed convinced that an imbalance did exist” in how Christians were being treated, a U.S. official said.

Steiger, who served at the Department of Health and Human Services during the George W. Bush administration, has been a key conduit through which Penceʼs office has exerted pressure on USAID, several officials said.

Trump appointees in Washington pressed officials to frequently visit the areas where Christians lived, seemingly unaware of the weeks of preparation and security logistics needed to make even one such visit happen, one current U.S. official and the former foreign service officer said.

By September 2017, Steiger was holding meetings with USAID officials to discuss how to help religious minorities in Iraq. And by early October, USAIDʼs leadership had decided to try to satisfy Penceʼs preferences through new grants focusing on northern Iraq.

While the grant process was being worked out at USAID, Pence blindsided officials in October 2017 when he declared to an influential Christian group in Washington that Trump had ordered diplomats to no longer fund “ineffective” U.N. programs. USAID would now directly help persecuted communities, he said.

“It sent us scrambling the next day,” one U.S. official working on Iraq at the time said. “That seemed to me, in retrospect, a turning point in saying, ‘Weʼve got a real interest in doing more to help minorities, especially Christians,ʼ to, ‘OK, now weʼre really going to shift some funds.ʼ”

The $150 million that USAID had pledged to the U.N. effort in Iraq in July 2017 had been divided into two tranches of $75 million each. After Pence’s comments, USAID renegotiated its agreement with the U.N. so that the majority of the first payment, $55 million, would still go to the U.N. but would be earmarked for religious and ethnic minorities in Nineveh Province.

For new grants, which were separate from the U.N. funding, USAID hosted 33 organizations at a two-day March 2018 Baghdad workshop. They included large, established faith-based groups like Samaritan’s Purse and Catholic Relief Services, as well as smaller, little-known Iraqi organizations, according to a list of attendees obtained by ProPublica through a public records request.

The attendees included two Pence aides: Sarah Makin-Acciani and Steve Pinkos. Before joining Pence’s team, Makin-Acciani worked for Republican lawmakers, as a lobbyist for the U.S. Consumer Coalition and for the Trump campaign. Pinkos had worked for a lobbying firm, as an aide to Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy and in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Neither of them appear to have expertise in development or foreign aid issues. Neither Makin-Acciani nor Pinkos responded to messages requesting comment.

The head of USAID expressed discomfort about potential interference by Pence into the grant process, one former US official said.

Their presence at the Baghdad meeting, which was first reported by The Wall Street Journal, unsettled participants, according to four people who attended the event or were briefed on it. White House officials rarely, if ever, are so deeply involved in agency grant-making.

People “assumed they were there for a political reason or to put pressure on the process,” said one participant.

After introductory remarks by then-U.S. ambassador to Iraq Doug Silliman, attendees split into smaller groups to discuss possible collaborations. Makin- Acciani and Pinkos mostly observed and asked questions, several people who attended the meeting said. But at one point, the pair objected to a programming idea, saying it would take too long and not be valuable, two people who witnessed the interaction said.

“They were looking for quick fixes,” said one of the people.

Back in Washington, Mark Green, the head of USAID, expressed discomfort to a colleague about potential interference by Pence into the grant process, one former U.S. official said.

Ultimately, later that spring, career officials made the final grant decisions and gave millions of dollars in funding to large, established organizations: Catholic Relief Services, Heartland Alliance and others. Awards were structured as umbrella grants that included sub-awards to small Iraqi organizations. USAID rejected some bids by smaller, untested groups with no prior experience with the agency.

“We still try to stick to our principles, that you gotta have a good proposal and you gotta have your qualifications there and so on, and they didnʼt meet the standards,” a former USAID official said.

One rejected application was a bid by the Catholic University in Erbil and the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, a coalition of three major Christian denominations in Iraq. Warda, head of the Chaldean Catholic archdiocese in Erbil, also heads the board of trustees at the university. (Chaldean Catholics, an Eastern Rite of the Roman Catholic Church, make up about two-thirds of Iraqʼs Christians.)

Rasche, who is a vice chancellor at the Catholic University in Erbil, was formerly president of Nineveh Reconstruction Committee-USA, a now-defunct nonprofit formed to further NRCʼs aims by winning U.S. government grants. Rasche said he and Warda were in Washington when their proposal was rejected and promptly told their “friends and partners” of their denial.

Before USAID had itself announced the awards, Fox News published a detailed account criticizing USAID’s activities in Iraq. “We are worse off now than we were two years ago,” Warda said to Fox.

Two days later, former Reagan administration national security adviser Robert McFarlane and New Jersey Republican Rep. Chris Smith co-authored an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal criticizing USAID’s decision to reject the two Christian organizations. They said it showed career USAID officials were ignoring Pence’s preferences. The title of the op-ed: “Iraqi Christians Are Still Waiting, Mr. Pence.”

Smith’s spokesman and McFarlane did not respond to interview requests.

On June 8, 2018, a day after the op-ed was published, Pence’s spokeswoman issued a terse statement, saying he “will not tolerate bureaucratic delays in implementing the Administration’s vision.” Pence also directed Green to travel to Iraq and report back on how to resolve delays.

That same day, Penceʼs then-chief of staff, Nick Ayers, called Steiger to demand somebody at the agency be punished for the failure to provide aid to Christian groups quickly enough, according to several people familiar with the conversation. Ayers did not respond to requests for comment.

Greenʼs reaction was to remove Maria Longi, a career civil servant and a top official in USAIDʼs Middle East bureau. Though still on USAIDʼs payroll, she now teaches national security strategy at the National War College.

Longi’s dismissal and Pence’s displeasure with USAID had been reported by BuzzFeed and The Wall Street Journal, though the extent of Pence’s role in her reassignment had not been. Longi declined to answer questions.

The move reverberated among career officials, who traded text messages and emails expressing shock. USAID insiders coined a term for what had happened to her: Longi had been “Penced.”

Concern spread even among Trump appointees that their jobs might be threatened. “What it did instill in the Middle East bureau was fear among the political appointees that they could be thrown out at any time,” a former USAID official said.

Last month, USAID announced $4 million in new grants to six Iraqi organizations as part of an effort in Iraq and other countries to work with small, local groups that have done little prior work with the agency. Two of the winning groups were the Shlama Foundation, a small charity, and the Catholic University in Erbil.

Two USAID political appointees were involved in awarding those grants: Ferguson, the second-highest-ranking official in USAIDʼs Middle East bureau, and Samah Norquist, the agencyʼs adviser on religious pluralism in the Middle East and wife of conservative tax activist Grover Norquist.

Ferguson and Samah Norquist were included in the selection process for the newest grants, and one official said Ferguson oversaw the final determinations.

A former USAID official said Norquist was “really involved in the details” of the grants but seemed to have little awareness of standard USAID practice when meeting with grantees.

“She was swimming in the dark, and it was really quite clear that she didnʼt know the first thing about grant-making,” such as what information was proper to share and how to ensure an open award process rather than one targeting specific groups, the former official said.

Norquist expressed support for Trump’s 2020 reelection at a State Department forum in July, a statement that experts said likely violated a law forbidding government officials from engaging in political activities on the job. The incident sparked complaints to an independent agency, which determined in October that Norquist’s comments did not violate the law.

A third political appointee at USAID, Max Primorac, the agency’s envoy in Erbil for minority assistance programs, tweeted praise for the Shlama Foundation months before USAID announced the final grant winners. The group replied with thanks, tagging Pence’s Twitter account. Shortly after the award announcement, Primorac met with a Shlama Foundation board member during a visit to Michigan.

I've been following @ShlamaF for some time and as a former #NGO guy myself am very impressed by their high quality work in #NinevehPlain. https://t.co/pAUaPAATvN

— Max Primorac (@USAID_SRMAP) June 5, 2019

Primorac is known among U.S. officials for his close working relationship with Pence’s office. Prior to joining USAID, Primorac served with Rasche at NRC-USA, as secretary and treasurer of the nonprofit. The two submitted an unsolicited $22.5 million bid to rehabilitate Christian towns to USAID in 2017, which was not awarded.

Asked if any Shlama Foundation officials were in touch with Primorac, Norquist or Ferguson prior to its award being announced, board member Ranna Abro declined to answer specifically.

“USAID was familiar with our organization as it is well-known by the local community in the Nineveh Plains,” she said. “We have met USAID several times along with all other organizations serving the same area.”

Rasche said Norquist ran a workshop in Erbil for organizations interested in applying for the new grants, which staff members of the Catholic University in Erbil attended. Rasche also spoke with Ferguson two to three times about the grant dates and funding cycles, he said.

Five current or former U.S. officials said involvement in grant decisions by political appointees — particularly by someone as senior as Ferguson — is highly unusual. USAID grants are typically decided by a review committee and a contracting officer, all of whom are career officials.

“USAID procurement rules with technical review panels are strict, as they should be, to avoid any political interference on the use of U.S. taxpayer dollars,” said Paige Alexander, a former senior USAID official who served during the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations.

Jhunjhunwala, the USAID spokeswoman, said the award process is rigorous “and follows all federal regulations.” Ferguson, Norquist and Primorac were not on the committees that made the recommendations, she said.

The new grants have “empowered local organizations to solve problems not adequately addressed by other USAID investments and that directly respond to the grassroots needs of conflict-affected communities,” she said.

Like the Catholic University in Erbil, the Shlama Foundation had previously applied and been rejected for the 2018 grants. Shlama had complained about the rejection via Twitter, and Abro confirmed the tweet referred to the same grant for which the Catholic University in Erbil was also rejected.

For the newest awards, a document seen by ProPublica shows that neither the Shlama Foundation nor the university were originally included in a list of leading applicants that circulated within USAID.

The Shlama Foundation will receive $1 million over two years for a project focusing on solar energy, a pittance in the overall U.S. foreign assistance budget. But the money is three times what the nonprofit has taken in from charitable donations since 2014, according to its website. It has never before received government grants, Abro said.

Clarionʼs documentary depicts Islam overall as a religion that seeks to subjugate minorities.

“The Shlama Foundation, USAID and our vendor partners are certainly experienced and capable of implementing this solar program for a greener future,” Abro said.

Aside from its small size and lack of federal grant experience, Shlama was an unconventional choice for another reason. Last year it received $10,000 in donations from the Clarion Project, a nonprofit organization which researchers at Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative said “advances anti-Muslim content through its web-based and video production platforms.”

A Shlama Foundation board member also appeared in Clarionʼs 2017 documentary “Faithkeepers,” about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. The film focuses on atrocities committed by Islamic State, but also depicts Islam overall as a religion that seeks to subjugate minorities. Zach Sicherman, an associate producer for the film, declined to respond to questions.

Clarion also did not respond to questions. It describes itself as a “non-profit organization that educates the public about the dangers of radical Islam and other extremist ideologies.”

Abro said that Shlama did not solicit the Clarion donation, and that it appeared in the documentary because “we value transparency and are open to participate in interviews from all sides.” The film’s website includes a donation page that benefits Shlama.

Foreign aid experts said USAID typically examines an organizationʼs major donors to protect the agency from perceptions that it is benefiting biased groups, but they disagreed over whether the link to Clarion should have disqualified Shlama for U.S. funding.

The Catholic University in Erbilʼs new grant from USAID is its first direct agency award. The award, $700,000 over one year, will support courses for “widows, victims of abuse, and former captives of ISIS,” according to a USAID press release.

The newest grant “has come very late in the day, and our award is comparatively quite small,” Rasche said. He attributed the award not to Wardaʼs public statements but rather to the passage of the 2018 bill.

USAIDʼs inspector general is investigating some of the agencyʼs activities in Iraq, the watchdog said, though it is unclear what sparked the probe.

USAID is now expanding its emphasis on religious minorities far beyond Iraq. In December, a month after his email about White House pressure, Ferguson told USAID mission directors in the Middle East that agency leadership had identified up to $50 million it planned to use in 2019 for “urgent religious freedom and religious persecution challenges,” according to a second email seen by ProPublica. He asked mission directors to submit programming ideas.

In a follow-up email in June, also seen by ProPublica, Ferguson wrote that in addition to Iraq, religious and ethnic minority programming was planned for Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia.

Kirsten Berg, Thalia Beaty and Lylla Younes contributed to this report.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.

WHY IS FACEBOOK YELLING AT ME?

The world’s biggest social media company just couldn’t help itself: Facebook is now FACEBOOK. Officially. THE ALL-CAPS RESET was announced this week in a widely mocked blog post by its chief marketing officer. The rationale: Apparently the company felt the need to distinguish its subsidiary services and products, like WhatsApp and Instagram (owned by the newly styled FACEBOOK), from its main app, Facebook (retaining capitalization).

This fooling-no-one caps-lock maneuver was chosen “for clarity,” marketing chief Antonio Lucio insists, as if THIS IS CLEARER than this. Because having more users than the world’s largest religion has followers, and the three largest countries have people (combined), isn’t conquering enough, controlling enough, self-aggrandizing enough. Facebook had to find another way to go big. Smashing style guides everywhere could be its not-so-subtle attempt to dissuade politicians and the public from dismantling the company, a mounting movement fueled by a distrust of corporate consolidation. That might be the real reason Facebook went FACEBOOK: Too big to fail is now, we’re asked to believe, TOO BIG TO DISMANTLE.

That might be the real reason Facebook went FACEBOOK: Too big to fail is now, we’re asked to believe, TOO BIG TO DISMANTLE.

This style switch is the latest attempt to make the company seem distributive and invulnerable to antitrust intervention. No monopoly here, nope. Nothing to break up. We have FACEBOOK and this other appendage, Facebook. See? So many moving and unrelated parts. The world is LOLing at Facebook’s FACEBOOK. Laughter may be cathartic, but a better option is legislative action: The call to break up Facebook is growing louder, and coincidentally the company’s all-caps switch was announced just weeks after the wandering, barely coherent testimony by Mark Zuckerberg in his attempt to be held accountable in a congressional hearing for his company’s harm to elections and democracy. When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez grilled Zuckerberg about Facebook’s breezy indifference to disinformation in political ads, his response was so far from an articulation of a policy that you have to wonder if he even knows his company’s policy—or if his company has one at all. You also have to wonder if Facebook’s corporate copy editors (hey, colleagues) actually equate all-caps with all confidence and a hierarchy of products, or if they don’t see a distinction (or haven’t convinced their marketers there is one).

I don’t mean to single out Facebook’s marketers or copy editors, at least no more than any corporation whose style guide allows ALL-CAPS FOR NON-ACRONYM BRANDS. I’m going after their reasons for doing so. “Clarity,” the stated reason, is a familiar refrain from certain marketers who peddle its opposite: obfuscation. If anything is clear, it’s that Facebook’s ALL-CAPS is not about clarification; it’s an exercise in domination, desperation, overcompensation, and misdirection. These are the imperatives of a Trump era that values SHOUTING as virtue—the stylistic mask for vulnerability. All-caps does not make a brand bigger; it makes it smaller.

Those of us working in media who are fortunate enough to have a shred of independence should AVOID SHOUTING AT READERS. Many good style guides use all-caps only for acronyms and defy the wishes of brands that would have us become their megaphones. It’s Fox (not FOX), Politico (not POLITICO), Wired (not WIRED), and Vice (not VICE); none are acronyms. The corollary is also true: Just because a brand lowercases each letter, like adidas, doesn’t mean we have to oblige, and there’s good reason not to (like consistency and clarity).

If Facebook wants the news media to cap FACEBOOK, the company has to pass a simple acronym test: Are you an acronym? (I’ve asked Facebook’s marketing team whether FACEBOOK is, to their minds, an acronym, and if so, what for. I’ll update this post if I hear back.) Any guesses? I have a few:

Forever Aspiring to Condition Everyone’s Behavior and Obliterate Other Kompanies

First and Always a Company Endeavoring to Build Obedience Over Knowledge

False Ads and Cryptocurrency Exchanges Become Oppressive and Overwhelm Kingdoms

Fake Ads, Corruption, and Empire-Building Obstruct Our Knowledge

Flashing All-Caps to Entice, Beckon, and Own Our Kids

Forcefully Asking/Coercing Everyone to Behold and Oblige One Korporation

Got more? Send them to styleguide@motherjones.com, and if they’re good, we’ll update this post to include them. (Let us know if you want your name credited.)

MOTHER JONES’ copy department

Pam Bondi Dives Into the Swamp

Pam Bondi, a former Florida attorney general and more recently a lobbyist at a firm with extensive ties to President Donald Trump, will join the White House communications staff temporarily to help with messaging during the ongoing impeachment inquiry, according to reports Wednesday.

Talk about a revolving door.

In September 2013, the Donald J. Trump Foundation gave $25,000 to Bondi’s campaign for reelection as attorney general. A month later, Bondi announced that Florida would not join other states suing Trump for fraud over Trump University’s marketing of its seminars on real estate and management, even though many of Trump’s alleged victims lived in Florida. A Florida state prosecutor later said there was no evidence that the donation was illegal, but the incident has left Bondi dogged by allegations that she took a bribe from Trump.

But when Bondi left office, she didn’t exactly steer clear of ethical concerns. She joined Ballard Partners, a lobbying firm that touts its ties to Trump. Brian Ballard, the firm’s founder and a former lobbyist for Trump in Florida, launched the firm in 2017, capitalizing on Trump’s election. Starting last January, Bondi helped Ballard lobby the White House for clients including General Motors, Major League Baseball, and the Government of Qatar.

Bondi will work directly for Trump. That is a resume straight out of what Trump and his allies used to call the swamp.

Another Big Winner in Tuesday’s Elections: America’s Frustrated Teachers

On Tuesday night, Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear, while declaring victory over the Trumpish “bully” incumbent Matt Bevin, made sure to praise one group of voters Bevin had bad-mouthed during his first term: teachers. 

“To our educators, your courage to stand up and fight against all the bullying and name-calling helped galvanize our entire state,” Beshear, the son of the state’s last Democratic governor, said in his acceptance speech. (Bevin has refused to concede and on Wednesday requested a re-canvassing of the vote totals, which have Beshear winning by just over 5,000 votes.) 

Teachers were everywhere on Tuesday night, scoring victories across the US map. In San Francisco, a city where teachers can barely afford to live and work on their meager salary, voters not only approved a $600 million affordable housing bond but also a measure known as Proposition E that would loosen zoning rules to develop affordable and educator housing on publicly owned property. Proposition A would let the city get millions in loans toward developing extremely low-, low-, and middle-income housing. In San Francisco, union officials say, between 300 and 700 teachers a year leave the district each year. In theory, at least, the measures could help with retention.

And in Denver, where teachers went on strike earlier this year, teachers-union–backed candidates won two seats and led a third as of Wednesday, bolstering union hopes for flipping a board that, for the past decade, has mostly been led by education reform–backed members. A shift in the board could augur a move away from controversial practices like closing under-performing schools. 

The wins in San Francisco and Denver were the latest in a string of victories for teachers, who in recent years have taken to the streets to call for better working conditions and more resources. Just last week, after an 11-day strike, Chicago teachers came to an agreement with that city’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, and the district. The city agreed to dedicate $35 million toward reducing class sizes; hire hundreds of new social workers, case managers, and other support staffers throughout the district; and raise teacher pay by 16 percent over five years.

In recent years there have also been teacher work stoppages in Los Angeles and Oakland. In 2018, Kentucky educators shut schools down and demonstrated at the state capitol after Bevin bad-mouthed teachers and signed a bill that would reform state pensions—a law that was challenged and overturned in state court by Beshear and teachers unions. 

Throughout the race, Beshear framed himself as the teachers’ candidate, promising raises and making education a top budget priority. He has endorsed teachers’ causes, like reducing class sizes and boosting the number of support staffers and mental health services. Bevin, on the other hand, rarely misses a chance to dump on teachers. He knocked them for using the protest as an excuse to take off work. He compared them and other state workers to drowning victims who are fighting their own rescuers. He said they and other state workers had a “thug mentality.” As a political matter, this was always a bit of a gambit—in Kentucky, schools represent a major employer in most of the state’s 120 counties. It appears to have backfired.

Stone Trial Opens With Information Indicating Donald Trump May Have Lied to Robert Mueller

Roger Stone is on trial, and the proceedings are bad news for President Donald Trump, with federal prosecutors citing evidence that suggests Trump might have lied to Special Counsel Robert Mueller. And that sort of lying can be a crime.

The trial kicked off on Wednesday at a federal courthouse in Washington, DC, with a bit of a circus atmosphere. The neo-fascist Proud Boys were there, as well as other luminaries of the alt-right, to support Stone, the dirty trickster and conspiracy theorist who has been a Trump adviser since the 1980s. Facing seven felony counts, Stone is charged with lying repeatedly to the House Intelligence Committee, obstructing justice, and witness tampering. But this case goes beyond Stone’s alleged lies: prosecutors have revealed new information about how Trump tried to benefit from the Russian operation during the 2016 campaign that hacked the Democratic National Committee’s servers. And they are producing material undercutting Trump’s claim to Mueller that he has no recollection of talking to Stone during the campaign about WikiLeaks. This information also presents a new wrinkle in the Trump-Russia scandal: Trump might have thought in 2016 that his campaign, in effect, was colluding with WikiLeaks. That’s because the campaign was communicating with Stone about WikiLeaks’ plans and intentions and campaign officials (and perhaps Trump) believed Stone was in contact with WikiLeaks. 

“The evidence in this case will show that Roger Stone lied to the House Intelligence Committee because the truth looked bad,” lead prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky said in his opening statement on Wednesday. “The truth looked bad for the Trump campaign and the truth looked bad for Donald Trump.”

One of the key points Mueller investigated was whether the Trump campaign had interacted with WikiLeaks or Russian intermediaries in 2016 when Moscow was using WikiLeaks for its operation to subvert the US presidential campaign (which was mounted in part to help Trump win). Trump refused to be questioned in person by Mueller and his investigators. Instead, he agreed to answer written questions on a limited number of subjects. Several of the queries Mueller submitted to Trump focused on whether he was ever told Stone had been in touch with WikiLeaks and whether he or anyone associated with his campaign had spoken to Stone about WikiLeaks. In his written response, Trump replied, “I do not recall being told during the campaign that Roger Stone or anyone associated with my campaign had discussions with any of the entities named in the question regarding the content or timing of release of hacked emails.” He also noted, “I do not recall discussing WikiLeaks with [Stone], nor do I recall being aware of Mr. Stone having discussed WikiLeaks with individuals associated with my campaign.” And Trump, who has boasted of possessing a prodigious memory, claimed to have “no recollection of the specifics of any conversations I had with Mr. Stone between June 1, 2016” and Election Day. The impression Trump provided: as far as he knew, he and his campaign had had nothing to do with Stone and WikiLeaks.

Mueller’s report characterized Trump’s responses as “inadequate.” Zelinsky’s opening statement suggests Stone’s trial could show Trump’s statements were false. 

On June 14, 2016, the Washington Post reported that the DNC had been hacked by Russia. On that same day, Zelinsky said, Stone, an unofficial campaign adviser, spoke by phone with Trump. Zelinsky also cited another suspicious call. This occurred on July 31, 2016—not too long after WikiLeaks had at the start of the Democrats’ convention released thousands of DNC emails and documents stolen by the Russians. Stone phoned Trump and the two men spoke for about 10 minutes. Prosecutors don’t know what the men discussed, according to Zelinsky, but about an hour later, Stone emailed Jerome Corsi, a right-wing conspiracy theorist who was helping Stone’s efforts to attack Hillary Clinton. Stone instructed Corsi to travel to London and “get to” Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who was holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy to avoid arrest by British authorities. 

Corsi has since claimed that he did not speak to Assange or anyone connected to WikiLeaks. Yet on August 2, Corsi emailed Stone, “Word is friend in embassy plans 2 more dumps. One shortly after I’m back. 2nd in Oct. Impact planned to be very damaging.” The next day, Stone emailed his former lobbying partner Paul Manafort, who at this point was the Trump campaign’s chairman. Stone, according to Zelinsky, told Manafort he had an idea “to save Trump’s ass,” and he asked Manafort to call him.

Stone later emailed Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon, who joined the Trump campaign after Manafort’s mid-August ouster, and asserted that time was running out for Trump to salvage his candidacy. Stone said in this message, sent on August 18, that he knew how to win the election “but it ain’t pretty.” Bannon wrote back, in part: Let’s talk ASAP.” Zelinsky told the court that Bannon will testify that he and Stone “had been talking all summer long” about WikiLeaks and that Stone had told Bannon what he had been claiming publicly: that he had inside information on WikiLeaks. (Stone now insists he had been lying and possessed no inside connection to WikiLeaks.) In October 2016, when Assange gave a bizarre press conference widely seen as a dud because he did not disclose new material on Hillary Clinton, Bannon immediately emailed Stone to ask, “What was that?” Stone assured Bannon that Assange still planned to release additional emails. And days later, WikiLeaks began releasing messages the Russians had swiped from Clinton campaign chief John Podesta. Trump touted those releases extensively in the final weeks of campaign, declaring, “I love WikiLeaks.”

The story that Zelinsky began telling at the start of the trial raised the possibility (or probability) that Trump and his campaign did interact with Stone regarding the WikiLeaks releases of stolen Democratic documents—and that they considered Stone a backchannel to Assange and his organization. (It remains an open question whether Stone had indeed obtained inside information on WikiLeak’s plans. Stone’s lawyers argued Wednesday that he only was sharing information that was already public.) Yet Trump told Mueller he had no memory of him or anyone else connected to his campaign communicating with Stone about WikiLeaks. That seems hard to believe. Lying to Mueller could be a crime—similar to the crime that Stone has been charged with. And though Mueller noted in his final report that a sitting president cannot be prosecuted on a federal charge, he did indicate that a president could be prosecuted once he or she leaves office. 

The Stone trial is expected to last several days, and it may well continue to produce information that, as Zelinsky said, looks “bad for Donald Trump.” 

Lunchtime Photo

As you can see, this donkey did not want to cross the road. And as you might expect, it didn’t. Eventually, though, its owner led it a few hundred yards away and then, for some reason, the donkey was happy to cross the very same road. Mysterious are the ways of donkeys.

UPDATE: This is apparently not a donkey after all. Probably a horse? Opinions differ.

August 5, 2019 — Chocantá, Colombia

Judge Blocks Trump Administration’s “Conscience Rule” to Deny Health Care on Religious Grounds

The Trump administration’s “conscience rule,” which would have allowed health care providers to refuse to offer services such as abortions, contraceptive care, and vaccinations that they disagree with on religious or moral grounds, was declared unconstitutional by a federal judge on Wednesday. 

The rule, which was set to go into effect later this month, was voided by US District Court Judge Paul Engelmayer in Manhattan. In a 147-page opinion, Engelmayer stated that the administration did not have the authority to enact major portions of the rule change and that several parts of the Department of Health and Human Services’ argument in favor of the change were factually inaccurate. 

Had the rule, also known as the refusal-of-care rule, gone into effect, it would have enabled providers, pharmacists, and potentially employers to deny health care services, information, or referrals to patients on moral or religious grounds, even in emergencies. Hospitals that forced their employees to provide care over their personal objections would have been subject to penalties such as losing federal funding. The rule would also have allowed providers to decline to refer a patient to another provider in order to receive care based on personal objections to the service. 

The lawsuit that resulted in Wednesday’s ruling was brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James, nearly two dozen other states and cities, and two reproductive rights groups. “Once again, the courts have blocked the Trump administration from implementing a discriminatory rule that would only hurt Americans,” James said in a statement following the ruling. “The refusal of care rule was an unlawful attempt to allow health care providers to openly discriminate.”

Critics of the the rule argued that it would disproportionately affect the LGBTQ population by giving further protection to providers to deny care to patients based on their identities. 

“Today, the Trump administration was blocked from providing legal cover for discrimination,” Alexis McGill, acting president and CEO of Planned Parenthood, said in a statement. “As the federal district court made clear, the administration acted outside its authority and made false claims to try to justify this rule. This rule put patients’ needs last and threatened their ability to access potentially lifesaving health care.” 

Read Bill Taylor’s Testimony to House Impeachment Investigators

House impeachment investigators on Wednesday released the transcript of their interview with Bill Taylor, the top US diplomat to Ukraine.

If you need a refresher, Taylor told lawmakers in his closed-door session last month that Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, had informed him that both military assistance to Ukraine and a White House visit for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would be withheld until Ukraine announced it was launching an investigation into a company connected to Joe Biden’s son. Text message exchanges provided to lawmakers also revealed that Taylor had described it as “crazy” to withhold the aid.

The release on Wednesday came shortly after House intelligence committee chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) announced that public hearings would start next week. Taylor, Marie Yovanovitch—the former US ambassador to Ukraine—and George Kent, a top State Department official, are scheduled to kick things off.

We’ll be digging through the most revealing parts of Taylor’s testimony. Until then, you can read the full transcript below:

Juul’s Hometown Really Does Not Want You to Juul

A proposition to overturn San Francisco’s upcoming ban on e-cigarettes was soundly defeated at the polls on Tuesday—80 percent of voters rejected it. The measure was initially backed by Juul, and though the company withdrew its support in the fall, the vote marked a major blow for the company in its own backyard.  

The ballot proposition centered on a measure, passed by the city in June, that banned e-cigarettes, pending FDA approval of the product. Shortly afterward Juul, the nearly $40-million vaping company headquartered here, began pushing Proposition C, which would’ve overturned the ban but was advertised as a set of regulations to enforce the vaping age of 21. As I reported, this kind of thing is a common tactic, taken straight from big tobacco:

Juul began collecting signatures for what appeared to be an initiative that calls for stricter enforcement of Tobacco 21 laws on vapor products. Deep within that ballot initiative is a clause that “rolls back the City’s ban on the sale of flavored e-cigarettes,” wrote Stanton A. Glantz, director for the Center for Tobacco Research Control and Education, on his blog, “and guarantees that Juul will remain welcome in the City,” The new regulation would “preempt and overrule” existing regulation, eliminating the progress already made on other bans.

Efforts designed to look like proposed self-regulation from big tobacco often have hidden rollbacks, according to [Dr. Pamela] Ling. In 1994, the tobacco industry, facing a slew of local laws regulating indoor smoking, went to the California legislature with a proposition that presented as cleaning up the air but actually swung against local ordinances that worked to curb their millions in lost sales by bringing jurisdiction to the state level. After the 1998 massive Master Settlement Agreement—a mea culpa in which the tobacco industry agreed to pay billions annually and end youth-targeted marketing after nearly every state’s attorney general sued to pay for the medical costs of smoking—the tobacco industry was required to create anti-smoking programs for teens. Tobacco companies used their punishment not to discourage smoking but to “portray smoking as an adult choice,” according to a research paper authored by Ling.

Juul ended up putting $11 million into the campaign for Prop C, according to the San Francisco Examiner. But it dropped its support in late September under a new CEO—and a little more than a week after the FDA announced it was investigating Juul’s claims that its product is healthier than traditional cigarettes. (Michael Bloomberg spent heavily to defeat the measure.) The move was part of a larger reassessment within Juul, as journalists and activists have increasingly criticized the company. In mid-October, the company also announced it would stop selling any “non-tobacco, non-menthol-based flavors in the US.” (At the national level, in early September, the Trump administration announced an upcoming ban on flavored e-cigarettes. The policy has not been released yet, but Axios reported earlier this week the administration will likely still allow tobacco and menthol flavors.) 

The e-cigarette company has lobbied hard to help craft its own regulation and shape the narrative of e-cigarettes as a cessation or switching product, painting traditional cigarettes as the real enemy. As I wrote:

Juul proclaims itself a “satisfying alternative to the world’s deadliest consumer product—cigarettes” to explain its push to raise the age limit, and it touts research that positions flavored tobacco as helpful for those who wish to switch from cigarettes to vaping, rather than addictive themselves. But “safer doesn’t mean safe,” says Kathleen Hoke, a law professor at the University of Maryland who studies tobacco regulation.

But, in its own hometown, an e-cigarette ban will begin on January 1, 2020.

Public Impeachment Hearings to Start Next Week

The House impeachment inquiry is about to enter a whole new realm.

House intelligence chairman Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) announced on Wednesday that the investigation is set to hold its first open hearings next week, with three key witnesses—Bill Taylor, the top US diplomat to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, the former US ambassador to Ukraine, and George Kent, a top State Department official—scheduled to appear before lawmakers. All three have already provided damning testimony during closed-door sessions on the efforts by the White House to conduct a backdoor policy in Ukraine. Taylor notably confirmed the “crazy” quid quo pro in the president’s ever-imploding Ukraine scandal.

Next week, the House Intelligence Committee will hold its first open hearings as part of the impeachment inquiry.

On Wednesday, November 13, 2019, we will hear from William Taylor and George Kent.

On Friday, November 15, 2019, we will hear from Marie Yovanovitch.

More to come.

— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) November 6, 2019

Those closed-door sessions have been central to Republicans’ persistent complaints that the investigation was supposedly being carried out in secret and away from the American people, despite dozens of Republican lawmakers having access to the closed-door meetings. With the investigation now ready for prime time, Republicans are likely to readjust their clamor for more transparency. The Justice Department might consider it to be the perfect time to deflect some of the attention and release its long-awaited inspector general report on the early days of the Russia investigation.

The Right to Vote Won Big on Tuesday

Tuesday night was a big night for Democrats, but it may prove to be an even bigger night for voting rights. Voters in three states chose candidates and policies that could result in expanded access to the ballot, an undoing of Republican gerrymandering efforts, and a fairer voting system.

Democrat Andy Beshear, who was elected governor of Kentucky, pledged during the campaign to issue an executive order restoring voting rights to 140,000 people convicted of nonviolent felonies in the state. Kentucky is one of only three states where people with past felony convictions cannot vote unless the governor restores their rights. As a result, 300,000 Kentucky residents—nine percent of the electorate—have been disenfranchised, including more than one in four African-Americans, the highest black felon disenfranchisement rate in the country. Beshear’s executive order could affect Mitch McConnell’s reelection bid in 2020 if newly enfranchised voters, who are disproportionately black and expected to skew Democratic, oppose the Senate majority leader.

Beshear’s election could also change representation in the state if he vetoes new redistricting maps passed by the Republican-led legislature in 2021. But elections in 2020 will determine whether the GOP has enough votes to override his veto.

In Virginia, Democrats won the state legislature, giving them one-party control of the state for the first time in a quarter of a century. Democrats could now pass major voting reforms like early voting, automatic and Election Day registration, and the automatic restoration of voting rights for ex-offenders, along with repealing the state’s restrictive voter ID law. All of these bills have already been introduced by Democrats in the legislature but blocked by Republicans.

Virginia Democrats will also control the drawing of the state’s redistricting maps in 2021. It remains to be seen whether they will support efforts to create a bipartisan redistricting commission to redraw legislative and US House maps, which passed the legislature this year but must be approved by the legislature again in 2020 and then by the voters in a ballot referendum. There’s also a chance Democrats could dismay voting rights advocates by drawing their own gerrymandered maps to replace the maps drawn by Republicans in 2011.

In New York City, voters approved ranked-choice voting for citywide primary and special elections, a system that allows voters to rank their preferences for candidates, without the fear that choosing lesser-known candidates will led to them becoming spoilers. Under ranked-choice voting, if no candidate has a majority, the last-place finisher is eliminated, and his or her votes are redistributed to the second-choice candidates of his or her supporters, and the process continues until there’s a winner. New York is now the largest jurisdiction in the country to adopt the innovative reform

The victories for voting rights in 2019 build off the momentum from 2018, when voters in eight states approved ballot initiatives to make it easier to vote and draw fairer redistricting maps.

The Secret Behind Trader Joe’s

I’ve always been a little curious about how and why Trader Joe’s has acquired such a cultlike status, and over at Vox this morning Rebecca Jennings tells all:

Trader Joe’s does not participate in traditional advertising, never has sales, and is known for frustrating product shortages…. The majority of its products are private label, a.k.a. “generic”…. While most grocery stores carry about 50,000 units of product in store at once, Trader Joe’s typically only has around 4,000…. “People don’t think of [Trader Joe’s products] as generic,” Mark Gardiner, author of the book Build a Brand Like Trader Joe’s told Eater. “[They think] ‘it’s Trader Joe’s — that’s the brand,’ and it’s a special brand that you can only get here. The truth is that almost all of this is stuff that you can probably get at another store within a few miles of that Trader Joe’s in a different package with a different name.”

Basically, they sell a limited selection of generic stuff but they put fun labels on it. Huh.

New Report Catalogues “Unprecedented” Government Monitoring of Citizens Online

The “unregulated spaces of social media platforms” are increasingly serving as “instruments for political distortion,” according to a new analysis from the democracy watchdog Freedom House, leading the group to conclude for the ninth consecutive year that global internet and digital media freedom has declined.

The Washington, DC-based free expression and research nonprofit has been studying internet freedom since 2009. This year’s report surveyed 65 countries covering the vast majority of the world’s internet users, seeking to measure factors including legal safeguards for free expression, the protection of internet users’ rights to privacy, and the ability to transmit news and political information. 

Internet-based disinformation efforts “have reached a new zenith and sophistication.”

Mike Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, told reporters that this year’s report found two key themes: government and populist movements using social media platforms to “manipulate elections on a grand scale, alongside government use of “technology to monitor their own citizens on an unprecedented scale.”

While internet-based disinformation efforts are nothing new, Abramowitz said, they “have reached a new zenith and sophistication,” occurring not only in dictatorships but “increasingly in democracies” as well. “Perhaps most alarming is how populist leaders and far-right groups have grown adept not only at creating viral disinformation, but also at building and coordinating networks that disseminate it,” he said. “In many cases, unscrupulous candidates and their supporters are manufacturing their own echo chambers from scratch.”

Repressive governments in China, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia “are also stepping up efforts to influence elections outside their own borders,” he said.

Equally troubling is governments’ increasing use of the internet and digital media to monitor their own citizens. “Three billion people are living under social media monitoring by their governments,” Abramowitz said, which employ artificial intelligence and other means to gather personal data and identify perceived threats and “silence opposition.” This is particularly disturbing, he added, given its tendency to lead to real-world consequences: In 47 of the 65 countries assessed, people had been arrested for non-violent online expression—a record number.

It might be easy to dismiss these problems as belonging to foreign governments, but Abramowitz pointed out that the social media platforms that undergird the growing disinformation and surveillance dystopia are largely American companies, arguing that “the US bears a special responsibility for addressing these threats to internet freedom.” Such action, he said, “is the only way to stop the internet from becoming a trojan horse for tyranny and oppression.”

Adrian Shahbaz, who co-authored the report with Allie Funk, said the biggest declines in internet freedom were in Sudan and Kazakhstan, followed by Brazil, Bangladesh, and Zimbabwe. China, well known for its oppressive approach to the internet, still ranks as the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom, based partly on crackdowns launched ahead of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and in response to anti-government protests in Hong Kong.

He noted that the US has its own issues, with law enforcement agencies’ increasing use of social media monitoring and warrantless searches of travelers’ devices, and widespread disinformation efforts around the 2018 midterm elections, “with both domestic and foreign actors manipulating content for political purposes,” with similar activity gearing up for 2020.

The report analyzes tactics deployed in countries during recent elections, finding  three broad categories of interference: informational, technical, and legal.

Freedom House

Shabaz called on the US congress and tech companies increase transparency around paid content, audit standards, and regulation of social media surveillance tools, and pointed to new laws in Washington, Illinois, and California, arguing that states could help drive policy in the face of Republican resistance to new federal laws designed to protect elections.

“I do think that it might be a slow and difficult process but,” Shabaz added, “states can be a leader in demonstrating that reforms to the law are actually possible and can play a positive role in securing elections.”

Read the full report below:

 


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The School Day Is Two Hours Shorter Than the Work Day. Kamala Harris Wants to Change That.

The mismatch between the school day and work day presents a real burden to working Americans with families. And Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) has a new bill that seeks to correct it.

The majority of schools days end around 3 p.m., two hours before the end of 70 percent of parents’ workdays. And most schools don’t have a way to make up the difference. Fewer than half of all elementary schools—and fewer than a third of low-income schools—offer after-school care. Beyond that misalignment, schools shut down, on average, for 29 days during the school year, the majority of which are reserved for professional development, parent-teacher conferences, and myriad vacations and minor holidays the federal government doesn’t recognize. That’s a full two weeks’ worth of days more than what the average American has in holidays, vacation, and paid leave combined. And then, of course, there’s summer vacation, a two- to three-month break that leaves working parents scrambling for day-long care.

I wrote about this phenomenon for the Atlantic last year, pointing to a series of disquieting statistics that Harris also raises in her bill, which the California senator is releasing on Wednesday. The school day and calendar is a bad deal for children: In the absence of a better alternative, 3 percent of elementary-school students and 19 percent of middle-school students look after themselves on from 3 to 6 p.m. on school nights. But it’s an equally bad deal for working parents—and the economy as a whole. A family paying out of pocket to cover child care for those two hours between the end of the school and workday costs an average of $6,600 dollars per year, or nearly 10 percent of an average family’s income. Almost 40 percent of all workers lack access to any paid vacation time, which means parents will often have to scale back their workday to accommodate child care duties. 

That burden typically falls to women, a million of whom work less than full-time in order to keep up with caregiving responsibilities for elementary school-aged children. This hardship is particularly pronounced for low-income mothers and mothers of color, who are the most likely to have unpredictable or inflexible work schedules. Experts estimate the United States loses $55 billion in productivity each year thanks to the public school calendar. “Seventy-five percent of mothers of school-age children are working, and we need to come to terms with this reality,” says Catherine Brown, a researcher at the liberal Center for American Progress whose findings informed much of Harris’ bill. “How could we reimagine school so it’s better for kids and better for families?”

Harris frames her proposal through that lens, with a promise that “aligning school and work schedules is an economic growth and child development strategy.” Her plan: A pilot program that gives money to 500 schools that serve a high proportion of low-income families to develop a school schedule that better matches the work schedule. Each recipient school would receive up to $5 million dollars over five years to keep their doors open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with no closures except for weekends, federal holidays, and emergencies. Professional development, parent-teacher conferences, and the like would have to happen, at minimum, alongside a full day of enrichment activities. At the end of the five years, the Education Department would publish a report documenting the best practices, as well as changes in parental employment, student performance, and teacher retention rates to be used to inform a future broader program.

“My mother raised my sister and me while working demanding, long hours,” Harris says. “So, I know firsthand that, for many working parents, juggling between school schedules and work schedule is a common cause of stress and financial hardship. But, this does not have to be the case.”

Schools are encouraged to use the funding to collaborate with community partners to develop “high-quality, culturally relevant, linguistically accessible, developmentally appropriate academic, athletic, or enrichment opportunities for students.” The directive is purposefully vague: Schools are to spend the first year surveying parents, teachers, and community members to determine what sort of extended school day would work best for their particular school population. “What’s exciting about this is that it’s an innovation bill,” Brown explains of Harris’ design. “We don’t have the solutions yet, but they’re going to come from local communities that know what works best for their parents and students.”

The bill would also require the school to find a private or non-federal public funding source, such as state grants or philanthropy organizations, to match 10 percent of the federal grant money, a stipulation intended to help the programs remain sustainable after the initial grant money has run out. The matches can be money or an in-kind contribution in the form of volunteer staff time, meeting spaces, or equipment.

Those in-kind contributions of staff time might be critical to her plans’ success. Harris’ plan takes pains to ensure school staff wouldn’t be overburdened by her vision, a key concession in an environment in which teachers have taken to the picket lines to protest long hours and low pay. Teachers and administrators would not increase the amount of time they work unless they volunteer additional hours and are compensated fairly for them. “This could be a real win for teachers,” Brown explains, noting that an extended schedule would give schools the chance to get creative about who has responsibility for students throughout the day. “It shifts the mindset from one teacher being responsible for a group of kids all day to the school and community collectively watching students.”

Harris’ plan offers specificity around a concern that her fellow 2020 Democratic contenders have gestured at, but without Harris’ level of specificity. A number of other candidates have advocated for a “community school” model that would provide extended learning time and after-school programs in addition to other social services, such as health and dental care. Bernie Sanders’ K-12 education plan calls for $5 billion in annual funding to support these types of schools, Elizabeth Warren’s plan promises to transition 25,000 schools onto that model by 2030, and former Housing and Urban Development secretary and 2020 hopeful Julián Castro has an eight-year plan to extend community schools into high-need communities. 

Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), and former 2020 hopeful Kristen Gillibrand (N.Y.) are joining Harris as cosponsors on the bill. Of her fellow Senate Democrats who are also seeking the presidency—Sens. Michael Bennet (Colo.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Sanders, and Warren—only Bennet has signed on. 

“Like the Moon Landing”: 8 Candidates Confront the Next President’s Most Urgent Task

What’s your plan? How much will it cost? Where will the money go? Which regions require the most aid? These are questions that politicians across the political spectrum will need to answer when it comes to climate change, one of the most defining issues not only for the 2020 election but for the future of the planet.

That’s why the Weather Channel, Mother Jones, and Climate Desk have teamed up: to have thoughtful conversations with 2020 hopefuls from both parties, to see up close places across the country that have been affected by extreme weather, and to discuss policy proposals and personal insights about the climate crisis. The result is a one-hour special, “2020: Race to Save the Planet,” which airs on Thursday, November 7 at 8 pm ET.  The Weather Channel’s hurricane expert and broadcast meteorologist Dr. Rick Knabb will host the segment, which will feature five Democrats and three Republicans. 

Times have dramatically changed since the last presidential election, when climate change took a back seat to issues like the economy and immigration. But rising awareness of the dangers of climate change combined with heightened concern about the rollbacks of environmental protections under President Donald Trump has turned addressing a warming planet into a top issue for voters in 2020

“This special is really not intended to be partisan at all.”

“It was so frustrating to cover the 2016 cycle and just wait around hoping candidates would talk about climate change in the debates—and that discussion barely happened,” says Mother Jones environment reporter Rebecca Leber. “Now, we’re in a completely different cycle where everyone has a plan, or multiple plans, to tackle this.”

In this week’s episode of the Mother Jones Podcast, host Jamilah King sits down with Dr. Knabb and Leber to discuss some of the differences among the plans from Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Mark Sanford, and others: How do they intend to support frontline communities and invest in infrastructure? How much will their plans will cost? And how has their own awakening to the importance of the issue taken place?

“This special is really not intended to be partisan at all,” says Dr. Knabb. “It’s really intended to allow candidates from both sides to get their side of the issue out there.”  

The candidates acknowledge we’re in a crucial moment—as South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg said, “like the moon landing, or the Manhattan Project…this is certainly as urgent, as pressing, as any of those things we’ve taken on before”—but they all have different approaches. Understanding these differences will be crucial to voters who want to go to the polls and make an informed choice. Tune into the podcast for highlights straight from the special, join the discussion on social media with #RaceToSaveThePlanet, and ask Dr. Knabb a question after the podcast on a streaming show on Pattrn.

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