Mother Jones Magazine

Trump’s Brutal Border Policy Is Even More Terrifying for LGBTQ Asylum Seekers

At the foot of a bridge in Matamoros, Mexico, roughly 1,000 migrants are sleeping in tents in a squalid, makeshift refugee camp. On Thursday, Mayela, the only trans women at the encampment, told me she feared for her life as she waited for her December court date across the Rio Grande in Brownsville, Texas. “I don’t want to become another statistic,” she said over WhatsApp. “Another one who showed up dead.”

When the Department of Homeland Security started forcing asylum seekers to wait out their cases in Mexico earlier this year, the department said it would exempt members of “vulnerable populations” on a case-by-case basis. In practice, getting out of the Migrant Protection Protocols, the policy’s official name, has proved almost impossible. Among the more than 50,000 people who have been forced back under MPP—or Remain in Mexico, as it’s often called—are pregnant women and members of the LGBTQ community. Reuters reported this summer that only about 1 percent of migrants subjected to the policy had been able to get out of it to fight their cases from within the United States.

“I don’t want to become another statistic. Another one who showed up dead.”

On Monday, Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro went to Matamoros to try to get eight LGBTQ asylum seekers, a deaf woman, and three of her relatives removed from MPP. In an interview with my colleague Fernanda Echavarri, Castro called what he saw at the encampment a “humanitarian disaster.” The State Department tells Americans not to travel to Tamaulipas, the state Matamoros is in, because of crime and kidnapping. At least 343 people returned to Mexico under MPP have been threatened or violently attacked, according to an October report from Human Rights First. 

Along with Mayela, I spoke last week with two other LGBTQ women stuck in Matamoros. A lesbian from Honduras, who asked to remain anonymous, sent a photo of a split lip that came from being hit in the face by an unknown assailant. Mari, a Cuban asylum seeker, said two men had threatened her and her partner, Dany, when they went to buy cigarettes. One of the men also grabbed her during the altercation, Mari said. They also faced discrimination from fellow asylum seekers. When the Cuban couple bathed in the Rio Grande, people moved away from them, and they kept their tent apart from the heterosexual migrants.

Mony Ruiz-Velasco, the executive director of PASO, a social-justice organization in Illinois, tried to remove the three women, along with three others, from MPP over Labor Day weekend. After Ruiz-Velasco explained to the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) port director why the group members were at risk, he agreed to take them into custody. “I’ve been doing immigration law for 20 years, and I’ve never been happy about someone being taken into custody,” Ruiz-Velasco says. But in this case, she was thrilled that they’d have a chance to get out of MPP. After she got back to Chicago, Ruiz-Velasco learned that all of them had been sent back to Mexico.

MPP gives individual CBP officials broad discretion over whether to allow people into the United States, but they’ve rarely exercised that authority. Asylum seekers can also get out of MPP if an asylum officer decides that they are “more likely that not” to be persecuted in Mexico, a much higher standard than the one used in regular asylum interviews, which only require that a person establish a “significant possibility” of persecution. And unlike those asylum interviews, migrants don’t have access to lawyers during the Remain in Mexico screenings or the right to appeal the decisions. The union that represents asylum officers has said its members are being forced to enact a policy that is “fundamentally contrary to the moral fabric of our Nation.”

Mayela told me that waiting in the United States—even if it meant being in a detention center—would be “a thousand times better” than the constant fear of being killed in Matamoros.

Mayela had similar experiences to the other LGBTQ women in Matamoros. In late September, a woman came to her tent and threatened to cut out her guts with a knife, according to a complaint Mayela submitted to the Mexican government. In the line for food at the camp, fellow migrants told her she had to wait in the men’s line and sometimes used slurs. Mayela told me that waiting in the United States—even if it meant being in a detention center—would be “a thousand times better” than the constant fear of being killed in Matamoros.

On Saturday, Jodi Goodwin, a Texas attorney leading much of the fight against MPP in Brownsville, accompanied Mayela across the bridge and into US custody. Goodwin learned the next day that the Department of Homeland Security was taking Mayela out of MPP. Mayela had passed her screening interview. It was the first and only time Goodwin has seen that happen in Brownsville. Instead of waiting in Matamoros, Mayela will be able to live with an aunt in Houston while she waits for her court dates.

On Monday, Julián Castro escorted Dany, Mari, and Melissa, along with the nine other asylum seekers, to the Customs and Border Protection officials stationed on the bridge. Like Mayela, they were taken into custody and interviewed about whether they were likely to be persecuted in Mexico. Hours later, all 12 were sent back to Mexico. The Texas Civil Rights Project, which has been working with the people Castro accompanied, said in a statement, “If these people—LGBTQ migrants who have been assaulted for who they are in the camps, disabled people, children—do not meet the criteria for ‘vulnerable populations,’ then the ‘vulnerable’ exemptions in ‘Remain in Mexico’ are lip service.”

“Now more than ever I’m convinced MPP is not about protecting us,” Dany told BuzzFeed News. “It’s about wearing you down so you don’t fight your asylum case in court.”

Here’s Another Impeachable Offense: Trump’s War on the Constitution

Resolved, the president of the United States ought to be impeached for “interfering or endeavouring to interfere with the conduct of investigations by the Department of Justice of the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation…and Congressional Committees.” That’s a line from the first article of impeachment against Richard Nixon approved on July 27, 1974 by the House Judiciary Committee on a 27-to-11 bipartisan vote. (You can listen to the roll call for the vote here.) And now Donald Trump is providing today’s House Democrats little choice but to consider a similar charge as their impeachment inquiry proceeds. 

As the New York Times reported on Tuesday morning, “The White House all but declared war on the House impeachment inquiry…intervening for the first time to block the testimony of a key witness as President Trump signaled his administration would try to starve investigators of more witnesses and documents.” That witness was Gordon Sondland, the United States ambassador to the European Union. He is a Trump crony—a fellow hotel magnate—who raised money for the GOP in 2016 and donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration. A novice in the field of diplomacy, Sondland was given the EU ambassadorship presumably due to his pro-Trump largesse. And he has become embroiled in the Trump-Ukraine scandal. Text messages turned over to House investigators include exchanges between Sondland and fellow American diplomats suggesting that Sondland knew Trump was proposing an inappropriate quid pro quo to Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky—and wasn’t comfortable with it. The House Democrats running the Ukraine investigation had requested that Sondland come in for a private interview. But shortly after midnight on Tuesday morning, hours before he was supposed to report to Capitol Hill, the State Department ordered Sondland not to talk to the congressional investigators. 

Then, late Tuesday afternoon, Trump intensified his assault on House investigators by a factor of gazillion. His White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, sent House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and several House Democratic chairs a blistering eight-page letter declaring that the Trump White House will not cooperate with the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry. “President Trump and his Administration reject your baseless, unconstitutional efforts to overturn the democratic process,” Cipollone proclaimed in the letter, which was full of partisan outrage and devoid of legal arguments. He added that Trump “cannot participate in your partisan and unconstitutional inquiry.” In other words, the White House will turn over nada to the Democrats—it will produce no documents, no witnesses. 

This was no shocker. The White House has routinely blocked House Democrats investigating a wide array of alleged Trump wrongdoing from gaining access to witnesses and documents. The White House has thwarted House Judiciary Committee efforts to probe the various alleged instances of Trump obstructing justice outlined in detail in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report by blocking witnesses, including former White House counsel Don McGahn, from being questioned by the committee. Attorney General Bill Barr refused to appear before the panel when told he would be questioned by a committee lawyer in addition to members. On orders from the White House, Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, declined to answer questions about some of his conversations with Trump when he came before for the committee. Other witnesses questioned as part of the House Democrats’ investigation of the Trump-Russia scandal and Trump’s possible obstructions of justice—such as former Trump senior aide Hope Hicks—also have followed White House instructions to keep mum about their interactions with Trump—without the White House formally invoking executive privilege. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has impeded the House Ways and Means Committee’s request for Trump’s tax returns, though the law clearly states that the IRS “shall” turn over such records if the committee asks for them. This has forced House Democrats to go to court. The Justice Department has also said nyet to a House request for investigative material related to Mueller’s probe, triggering another court case. 

There are other instances of Trump thumbing his nose at the House’s demands for information and witnesses, and now he is applying that tactic to his impeachment defense. In refusing to make any witnesses and documents available to House Democrats, the White House has been arguing, without any merit, that Congress essentially has no oversight responsibilities that are not part of a legislative process—that is, congressional investigators are prohibited from investigating possible wrongdoing for investigation’s sake. This is an absurd position and one not followed by Republicans when they have been in charge. (Benghazi, anyone?) And though legal experts generally agree that the House’s authority to demand possible evidence of wrongdoing deepens when impeachment is on the table, Trump and his lawyers are now stretching their absurd no-investigations-allowed argument to cover all requests linked to the impeachment inquiry. In his letter, Cipollone is contending that if a president considers an impeachment proceeding to be politically motivated, he does not have to cooperate. There is no such provision in the Constitution. 

Trump’s letter and his overall stonewalling is an assault on the Constitution. As any armchair constitutional law expert knows, Congress is a co-equal branch of the government and was empowered by the framers to be a check on presidential power. Trump, Barr, and the president’s legal team have contended that Trump cannot be indicted on federal charges while he is president. Mueller accepted that argument in his final report. But that report clearly said that this does not mean a president can get off scot-free. Mueller noted it was up to Congress to examine the allegations of obstruction he outlined. And he implied (strongly) that the possible punishment for a presidential violation of the law would be impeachment. 

That’s in keeping with the Constitution that awards Congress the right to indict the president, bring him to trial, and then boot him out of office, should he engage in serious wrongdoing. And if Congress has that task, it seems that it also has the right to investigate before doing so. And if it has that right, then it has the right to demand information necessary for such an investigation. 

Yet Trump declines to recognize this power. In fact, he has insisted that Article II of the Constitution “allows me to do whatever I want.” That’s obviously nonsense. The authors of the Constitution clearly worried that an authoritarian with alliances with foreign interests might one day inhabit the White House and—good for them!—presciently included provisions to be used in such a dire instance. But Trump is waging a war on the Constitution, and all those congressional Republicans who are riding along with him are collaborators. Yes, we are no longer supposed to play this game, but imagine what they would have shouted had President Barack Obama blocked Hillary Clinton from appearing before the Benghazi committee. Imagine if the Clinton White House had refused to hand over documents to the Republicans who controlled Congress and who investigated every -gate they could find. 

Today’s Republicans are neutering Congress and weakening its ability to restrain or punish a president who doesn’t play by the rules, who doesn’t respect the law, and who doesn’t give a damn about constitutional checks and balances. By accepting Trump’s defiance of congressional investigations, they are eviscerating their own powers and establishing a dangerous precedent. 

And with these moves, Trump is forcing the Democrats to widen their impeachment inquiry. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has wanted to keep the impeachment process narrowly focused on Trump’s alleged misconduct in the Ukrainian caper. Quid pro quo? Then the president must go. But several House committees have long been at work digging into other possible and impeachable wrongdoing: the alleged obstruction, Trump’s violation of the Emoluments Clause (which bans a president from accepting money from foreigners, unless Congress approves), his involvement in the hush-money payments to a porn star, his welcoming of foreign interference in US elections, and more. Some of these acts may eventually be funneled into articles of impeachment in addition to Ukraine-related charges. 

On top of all that now could be Trump’s attempts to cover up his various misdeeds. The House Democrats, after being denied Sondland’s testimony, announced they would subpoena Sondland and related documents. But what if the subpoena is defied, as the Trump administration has ignored other subpoenas in the assorted investigations? The House Dems will then take it to court, as they have other cases. And this issue, like the other cases, may end up with the Supreme Court. Then who knows? But in the meantime, House Democrats can look back 45 years to Nixon and Watergate. Nixon’s refusal to cooperate with congressional investigations was deemed an impeachable offense. Trump’s stonewalling can be regarded in the same manner. It violates the intent of the Constitution and prevents the House from fully examining and reviewing conduct that might be cause for impeachment. Shady dealings in Ukraine that entail Trump abusing the power of his office certainly warrant consideration for impeachment. But Trump’s undermining of the Constitution and the rule of law might even be more deserving of that document’s ultimate punishment.  

Lunchtime Photo

This is the altar of the Basilica del Santo Cristo in Ubaté, just after mass has concluded. Churches in Colombia—the ones I visited, anyway—typically look like this, lighter-hued and more colorful than I’m used to from European churches and cathedrals. It’s a very striking look.

August 7, 2019 — Ubaté, Colombia

Women All Over the Country Are Suing Police for Failing to Test Their Rape Kits

Sometime after 2 a.m. in a dark exam room at the San Francisco General Hospital, a sexual assault nurse examiner turned on a handheld blacklight. Heather Marlowe looked down at her body. Her stomach and thighs were glowing. The nurse took swabs, and reassured her that when police analyzed her rape kit, they would have plenty of DNA to test. Marlowe felt dazed, in a state of shock. “You don’t really process that that was an indication that your life and body were used,” she says. “I just thought, OK, there’s ample saliva, there’s ample semen.”

That was May 2010. A year later, the San Francisco Police Department had yet to analyze the kit; according to court documents, when she pressed them, an officer told her the forensic lab had a “backlog” of more “important crimes.” A year after that, the department said her still-unprocessed rape kit had been put in storage and the case labeled “inactive.” It took until November 2012 for the crime lab to analyze the box of evidence collected by the nurse that night, and though the evidence did not get a hit in the statewide DNA database, the results were never uploaded to the FBI’s national database due to “irregularities.” Marlowe, who believes she was drugged before she was raped by a stranger she met at a city-wide festival, says that today, she has still not received any information about her toxicology or bloodwork. And in the years after her rape, as she continued to pursue her own case and began asking questions about other rape kits languishing in SFPD custody, she learned that she was not alone. In 2014, the department announced results of an audit conducted partially in response to Marlowe’s advocacy, which showed there were hundreds of unprocessed rape kits in its possession.

“There’s no closure, there’s no, ‘Your rape kit has been tested and put in CODIS,’ no nothing,” Marlowe says of her case, nine years on. “I was so desperate that I continued to work with the various city officials and advocates and whatnot who told me, ‘Oh no, just wait a little bit longer. They will get to you.’ I realized in retrospect that I think they were just blowing smoke.”

In 2016, Marlowe filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city, accusing the police department of mishandling sexual assault reports like hers by neglecting to process rape kits, allotting too few resources to sexual violence investigations, and failing to properly train and supervise personnel—all of which, the lawsuit argued, had a “discriminatory impact” on women. Her complaint alleged that the police department’s delay in testing her kit was part of a larger pattern of treating sexual assault with “deliberate indifference.” But her case was dismissed by a federal judge, and an appeal was denied by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. On Monday, the Supreme Court denied a petition to reconsider the ruling.

The decision is a blow to the growing number of survivors across the country who have sued local governments for neglecting or mishandling sexual assault reports. For example, last summer, in Austin, Texas, three women filed a class action lawsuit claiming city and county authorities “disbelieved, dismissed, and denigrated” female sexual assault survivors and failed to pursue investigations, in part by not testing DNA evidence. In Maryland last fall, two former University of Maryland-Baltimore County students alleged that the Baltimore police department “covers up reports and refuses to investigate those it cannot cover up.” And in Memphis, Tennessee, a class action battle has been ongoing since 2013, when three women who survived attacks by the same serial rapist filed a complaint focused on the city’s roughly 15,000 untested rape kits. Other cases have been filed in Connecticut, Illinois, and New York.

As awareness about untested rape kits has increased, questions about how to hold police departments accountable for failing sexual assault survivors have lingered. The wave of lawsuits filed in the last few years, mostly in federal court, are an attempt to force police departments to complete the investigative steps they should have been taking all along. They argue that local governments are violating the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause by under-policing sexual assault, a crime that disproportionately affects women. In doing so, they apply old ideas about the meaning of “equal protection”—stemming from Reconstruction-era concerns about unpunished white violence against black citizens—to modern-day concerns about how the criminal justice system handles sexual violence, according to Deborah Tuerkheimer, a law professor at Northwestern University. “The rape kit issue is really the most visible, most tangible, most easy-to-get-our-hands-around manifestation of a much deeper, more pervasive, more systemic issue,” Tuerkheimer says.

What we think of as the national “rape kit backlog” actually consists of two sets of kits. The first is in crime labs, which maintain an enormous queue of unprocessed DNA evidence—about 169,000 requests at last count, including an unknown number of rape kits. The second group consists of those the police never submitted for analysis. “These kits never even made it to the labs,” says Marlowe, who argues that “backlog” in this case is a euphemism for police neglect. “They’re being stockpiled and never even attempted to be tested.” Over the last decade, city-by-city investigations and audits have revealed warehouses, closets, and lockers full of such unprocessed kits, some of them literally growing mold, and many of them placed there after detectives decided a sexual assault report was not worth investigating, according to the Government Accountability Office. The true number of these unprocessed kits is unknown, but some sexual assault advocacy organizations, including the Joyful Heart Foundation and RAINN, estimate that it reaches into the hundreds of thousands.

Even with the Supreme Court’s denial on Monday, it’s still too soon to tell how successful the other lawsuits will be in court, Tuerkheimer warns. But it’s clear they face an uphill battle. For one thing, when domestic violence survivors tried to make a similar argument about Equal Protection in the 1970s and 80s, the courts required that they show evidence that police officers were intentionally discriminating against women, a high bar. Marlowe’s lawsuit clears that hurdle: According to her complaint, a San Francisco police officer told her that because she was “a woman” who “weighs less than men” and has “menstruations,” she “should not have been out partying with the rest of the city on the day she was drugged, kidnapped, and forcibly raped.” (John Coté, a spokesperson for the San Francisco city attorney’s office, maintains that city employees were “always respectful of her concerns and tried to help.”) But not all cases are as clear cut.

Then there’s a second problem. The Equal Protection clause requires that the government not deny people protection under its laws, but Marlowe’s case begs the question: protection equal to whom? It’s unclear which cases to compare Marlowe’s to. “Are women being discriminated against compared to domestic violence victims who are men?” Tuerkheimer asks. “Or should you be comparing domestic violence to other kinds of crimes?” This problem is part of the reason a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California rejected Marlowe’s lawsuit in 2017, writing that she did not “allege any facts to support a finding that persons who reported other types of crimes were treated more favorably.” Marlowe’s lawyer, Becky James, admits that “there really isn’t a comparable group. There are no other crimes where you have a rape kit. It kind of sets up an impossible burden.”

Then there are the technical difficulties, such as statutes of limitations, which limit the amount of time survivors have to bring legal claims. Marlowe didn’t find out that San Francisco had a stockpile of untested rape kits until 2014, and she sued the city for discrimination within the two-year window provided in this type of lawsuit. But the district court ruled that the statute of limitations clock had actually started running in 2012, around the time her rape kit was finally tested, and that Marlow had filed her legal claim too late. She isn’t the only one stuck in this catch-22: A case in Houston has run into similar problems.

Despite these difficulties, at least one of the rape kit lawsuits has been settled. According to the New York Times, last fall, the Village of Robbins, Illinois, paid an unknown settlement to the plaintiff of an equal protection lawsuit that claimed village police had a “decades-long policy of not investigating rapes against women and girls.” 

But if most of the Equal Protection suits end up failing in the courts, there are other ways to hold the cops accountable. In another Chicago suburb, county authorities stepped in and took over local sexual assault investigations after discovering untested rape kits in a 2007 raid of the police department. The federal government has a role to play, too. A Department of Justice investigation into police, prosecutors, and public university officials in Missoula, Montana, found evidence that all three were violating the Equal Protection Clause by failing to respond adequately to sexual assault, and they signed legal agreements to change their practices. But since President Donald Trump took office, the Justice Department has not continued to exert the same kind of pressure on local agencies to do better.

In the meantime, Marlowe is continuing her activism. In 2015, she and one of the survivors suing Memphis formed a nonprofit, People for the Enforcement of Rape Laws, to focus on pressuring police to change how they respond to sexual violence. Meanwhile, her case continues to reverberate in local San Francisco politics: Suzy Loftus, the former president of the San Francisco Police Commission who is currently running for San Francisco district attorney, was accused in Marlowe’s lawsuit of “creating and perpetuating” a policy in the police department of not “promptly and equitably” investigating rape cases. (On Friday, in a controversial move, San Francisco mayor London Breed appointed Loftus interim DA ahead of the election.) In a statement, Loftus campaign spokesperson Debbie Mesloh said that “after listening to the voices of sexual assault survivors,” Loftus helped clear San Francisco’s rape kit backlog and hold the police department accountable for future delays in testing. Marlowe’s lawsuit, she said, was “meritless.” If elected, Loftus has vowed to review previously declined sexual assault cases for potential prosecution, improve police training, and increase services for survivors.

Marlowe doesn’t trust her promises. “It’s all talk about survivors, survivors’ voices and survivors’ stories, victims’ rights,” she says, “until somebody sues.”

Senate Republicans say Russia Helped Trump—and is Still Messing in US Elections

The Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee has found that the Kremlin directed a social media campaign in advance of the 2016 elections that “overtly and almost invariably” aimed to help Donald Trump—and that it is still at it.

In a report released Tuesday, the committee endorsed an Intelligence Community assessment issued in the last days of the Obama administration that Russian interference was intended to benefit Trump, a conclusion the president has never accepted. 

Russian efforts to use social media to manipulate American politics likely haven’t stopped.

The conclusion marks a subtle shift by GOP senators on the committee. In 2017 and since, many have argued Russia aimed primarily to create division in the United States, not to help Trump. In November 2018, committee chair Richard Burr (R-N.C.) downplayed the evidence of assistance to Trump, complaining that people “have tried to reduce this entire conversation down to one premise: foreign actors conducted a surgically executed covert operation to help elect a United States president,” adding that “this story does not simplify that easily.” Tuesday’s report still says the IRA’s broader goal of interfering in the 2016 election was to “sow discord in American politics and society.” But the Senate report dispenses with the argument that effort did not also entail support for Trump, detailing the role of the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin backed troll farm, in a campaign designed to benefit his campaign.

Most IRA content did not overtly back one candidate or another, according to the report, but was instead used for “establishing the credibility of their online personas.” Operatives created content that painted the picture of a southern conservative or a liberal activist “until the opportune moment arrived,” the report says. The profiles then used their credibility with like-minded voters to deliver a message designed “to influence the targeted user.” For instance, IRA operatives created an “Army of Jesus” Facebook page, which eventually gained 216,000 followers. After pumping out apolitical religious content, the page on November 1, 2016, declared: “HILLARY APPROVES REMOVAL OF GOD FROM THE PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE.”

The report also notes that Russian efforts to use social media to manipulate American politics likely haven’t stopped. The committee cites a 2018 federal indictment charging a IRA employee of attempting to interfere with the 2018 midterm elections. Another section of the report warns that future Russian disinformation efforts may be focused on “gathering data points”—such as phone numbers, email addresses, or banking details—that could help target interference efforts aimed at the 2020 presidential election, according to research the committee cited by Graphika, a private firm.

The report urged President Trump to establish an interagency task force to “monitor and asses foreign country’s use of social media platforms for democratic interference.” Other recommendations include federally funded media literacy programs to “build long-term resilience to foreign manipulation,” and more disclosure from intelligence officials about potential political interference. It also recommends the administration “reinforce with the public the danger of attempted foreign interference in the 2020 election.” 

“Between now and the 2020 election, the Intelligence Community must find ways to keep the U.S. public informed not only of individual influence operations but the Community’s assessment of the goals and intent of Russia and other foreign adversaries,” the report concluded.

Perhaps the most memorable portion of the report is a section quoting a message written by an IRA employee obtained by the committee, where they describe the scene in his office on Election Day: “On November 9, 2016, a sleepless night was ahead of us. And when around 8 a.m. the most important result of our work arrived, we uncorked a tiny bottle of champagne.. took one gulp each and looked into each other’s eyes….We uttered almost in unison: ”We made America great.'”

Read the committee’s report:

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Report Volume2 (1) (PDF)

Report Volume2 (1) (Text)

I Went to Syria and Met the People Trump Just Gave Turkey Permission to Kill

This story is part of Shane Bauer’s investigation into what Americans—troops, militia volunteers, ISIS recruits, and others—are doing in Syria. Bauer, who lived in Syria in the late 2000s, traveled to the Kurdish and Syrian rebel-controlled parts of the country in 2018. The area he visited is where Kurdish fighters are now preparing to make their last stand after President Donald Trump announced that the United States would not stand in the way of a Turkish offensive against them.

At the headquarters of the Syrian Defense Forces in Hasaka, three white men in camouflage pull up in a pickup truck. The commander, a thirtysomething Frenchman with a closely shaved head, is driving. A somber, mustachioed Irishman is in the passenger seat. In the back, a skinny American who looks to be in his late 20s is sitting with an M16 nestled between his legs. He invites me to get in. “Where are you from?” I ask.

He asks that I call him Berxwedan, the Kurdish word for “resistance,” but to keep it simple, I’ll just call him Barry. Barry wears a black and red anarcho-syndicalist patch on the arm of his uniform. He and his comrades ask me not to take pictures, and they decline my request to visit their base in a town that was retaken from ISIS. Instead, we drive to a quiet kebab shop to talk.

Back in the United States, Barry was part of the antifa movement. He would brawl with fascists, sometimes carrying a concealed gun to protests “just in case.”

Barry has been a volunteer fighter with the Kurdish YPG forces for more than the six months he’d signed up for. It is, he thinks, “the best thing someone who considers themselves a militant leftist can do right now with their life.” This is his first time in the Middle East. Back in the United States, Barry was part of the antifa movement. He would brawl with fascists, sometimes carrying a concealed gun to protests “just in case.” It was in these circles that Barry first heard about Rojava, the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northeast Syria that has become a cause célèbre in anarchist circles. Its name means “the west,” referring to the western part of the stateless Kurdish homeland that straddles Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Those governments have repressed the Kurds’ long-standing desire for independence, with measures ranging from a ban on the Kurdish language to Saddam Hussein’s extermination of as many as 182,000 Kurds in the 1980s.

The ideological inspiration for the Rojava project is Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). When Barry first encountered Öcalan’s writings back home, certain ideas spoke to him. For Öcalan, capitalism was an “inherent component” of the nation-state. What was needed, he argued, was “democracy without the state.” “I saw it as an anarchist revolution,” Barry tells me.

Today, it is nearly impossible to drive down a street in the Kurdish parts of Syria without seeing Öcalan’s face smiling through a bushy mustache. He is stenciled on walls, plastered on billboards, and stuck on cellphone cases. The United States considers his group a terrorist organization, but his image is often patched on the uniforms of the militiamen who guard coalition bases and carry weapons provided by the Americans.

In 1980, Öcalan fled his home in Turkey for Syria. The Assad regime was repressing the rights of its Kurdish population, but it allowed Öcalan to form training camps on Syrian soil. From there, his guerrillas directed attacks against Syria’s enemy Turkey in pursuit of establishing an independent Kurdish communist state. In 1997, the United States labeled the PKK  a terrorist organization, and the following year Hafez al-Assad kicked out Öcalan. With help from the CIA, Turkish intelligence captured him in Kenya in 1999.

Öcalan was sentenced to death for treason and separatism. His punishment was later commuted to life in prison, and for years he was held in solitary confinement as the only inmate of an island prison guarded by more than 1,000 military personnel. He read voraciously and became inspired by writers like Michel Foucault and Immanuel Wallerstein. None influenced him more than Murray Bookchin, an obscure anarchist thinker from Vermont. Bookchin criticized the traditional left for being slavishly bound to Karl Marx’s century-old class-centered ideas. (He once denounced Burlington Mayor Bernie Sanders as a “centralist” who ran a “civic oligarchy.”) His two dozen books had little to do with ethnic nationalism, Syria, or Turkey. Mostly, they mused about theoretical and political frameworks for the anti-authoritarian left.

Öcalan was particularly taken by Bookchin’s 1982 book, The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy, which proposed the creation of an egalitarian “ecological society.” In 2004, Öcalan wrote to Bookchin, seeking to apply his ideas to the Middle East. What interested Öcalan most was Bookchin’s ideology of communalism, in which central governments would be replaced by loose federations of autonomous communities. Öcalan wrote a new manifesto, Democratic Confederalism, which blended Bookchin’s ideas with those of the growing Kurdish feminist movement. (Bookchin died in 2006.) He also ordered his guerrillas to stop attacking the Turkish government. Rather than agitating for a communist state, Öcalan was now calling for a bottom-up system in which “decision-making processes lie with the communities.”

While Öcalan sat behind bars, his followers in Syria continued to organize. In 2003, they founded the Democratic Union Party (PYD), whose ideology was identical to the PKK’s, though it was shaped by their grievances against the Assads. Kurds were about 10 percent of Syria’s population, but 300,000 didn’t have citizenship, the result of an “Arabization” movement that started in the 1950s. Hafez al-Assad had relocated Kurds from villages near the Turkish border, creating an “Arab belt” to stymie nationalistic affinities between Syrian and Turkish Kurds. Schools could not teach the Kurdish language, and Kurdish children were made to recite an anthem that stressed that Syria was an Arab republic. Kurdish-language publications were banned, as were costumes and celebrations of Kurdish holidays.

PYD members took part in a short-lived uprising in Qamishli in 2004. The Syrian government arrested 2,000 people; many were tortured. Others went into hiding, and the party fell into obscurity in Syria, as did Öcalan’s ideas. Then, after the anti-Assad revolt broke out in 2011, PYD members returned home and organized militias.

Probably the most dramatic effect of the Rojava revolution has been its impact on women. While Syrian law is based on Shariah, Rojava’s “social contract” separates religion and state. It has abolished forced marriage, polygamy, and child marriage.

It’s difficult to overstate how radically politics have been transformed in Rojava since its “self-administration” was formed in 2013. Rather than revolving around a single strongman or a central authority, the territory is organized into cantons, largely self-governing regions with their own decision-making councils and institutions. (Rojava’s three cantons are in the majority-­Kurdish areas bordering Turkey; the rest of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria is also divided into cantons.)

Each canton is split into neighborhood or village communes. Qamishli alone is made up of more than 150 communes. One that I visited encompassed 257 homes. Every two years, its residents elect a man and a woman who manage neighborhood concerns and meet with the co-chairs of other communes to address community issues. The commune sold gas for heating and cooking, managed health care, developed local economic projects, and helped reconcile neighborhood disputes. One commune I visited had recently helped reconcile a marital dispute and set up nighttime patrols to improve safety. Another was planning to install streetlights.

Probably the most dramatic effect of the Rojava revolution has been its impact on women. Every public institution, from communes to courts to canton ministries, is chaired by a man and a woman. The cantons require that at least 40 percent of all political positions are held by women. While Syrian law is based on Shariah, Rojava’s “social contract” separates religion and state. It has abolished forced marriage, polygamy, and child marriage. Educational programs for women encourage them to become more politically and socially engaged, and more women are working outside the home. Kurdish women also have their own military branch, the YPJ, where they fight on the front lines against ISIS.

For Barry, the idea of defending this radical experiment had a refreshing sense of urgency and moral clarity. The Occupy movement had petered out and the far-right-­wingers he and his antifa comrades had tussled with back home weren’t as stark of an enemy as ISIS. In 2017, Barry reached out to the YPG online and filled out an application for a stint as a volunteer fighter. “The US is the single biggest source country” for Western volunteers, his Irish companion tells me.

Barry and his comrades say 11 of the 40 or so foreigner shahids, or martyrs, have been Americans. (In comparison, as of early March 2019, four US soldiers had been killed in combat in Syria.) Not all the Americans who have joined the YPG are leftists. Some came because they wanted “to kill sand n‑‑‑‑‑s,” the Frenchman says. The Frenchman—I’ll call him Bastien—says the YPG has added questions to its vetting process to determine applicants’ political ideology. Some try to get around the restrictions. Bastien had one applicant who said that he was a centrist, but when he checked the applicant’s social media, he saw a bunch of racist and pro-Trump posts.

After Barry was accepted, he flew to Sulaimaniya, in Iraqi Kurdistan. On the way there, he was stopped and questioned for five hours by American officials at an airport outside the United States—he won’t say where. He says they looked up his criminal record, searched his old Facebook account, and let him go. “I think they were concerned I was joining Daesh,” he says, using an insulting term for ISIS. “They asked about how I felt about Islam, stuff like that.”

Barry probably doesn’t have much to worry about from the feds. A few American YPG fighters have been open about their stints in Syria, and so far, none has been prosecuted. Other American comrades were also approached by federal agents, Barry says. The agents didn’t warn them against fighting ISIS in Syria, but if they took up arms against Turkey, a NATO ally, they could be charged with terrorism.

There have been skirmishes between the Kurds and the government, but with ISIS mostly neutralized in Syria, Turkey is now the biggest threat to Rojava. The Turks consider the YPG a branch of their enemy, the PKK. In January 2018, the Turkish military and allied FSA brigades invaded Afrin—the only part of Rojava not under US protection—to take it from the YPG “terrorists.” The rest of Rojava would likely face a similar fate if the United States were to withdraw without any agreements to prevent a Turkish incursion.

After crossing secretly into Syria, Barry went through a month of military and ideological training with a group of foreign recruits. They read books on guerrilla tactics by Che Guevara, Mao Zedong, and Vietnamese General Võ Nguyên Giáp. One of the most popular books in his battalion was George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, which details Orwell’s experiences in a communist brigade fighting against Spanish fascists in the 1930s. They also read PKK texts.

When Barry finished training, he was sent to the front in Deir Ezzor. “It’s the last real pocket of Daesh left, so they are resisting hard,” he says. “This is the end for them.” Barry’s international battalion provides cover for SDF forces as they advance against ISIS.

Barry’s commanders call in aerial strikes from American jets, and many of his YPG comrades got their weapons from the Pentagon as part of a more than $2.2 billion effort to arm and train groups fighting ISIS. Yet Barry disdains the US military. “They have no allegiance to the Kurds,” he says. “They have allegiance to their own nation because it looks good to the people to fight Daesh and because they are afraid of what Daesh is gonna do to white people in America. The only reason they care about YPG at this point is because we’re the best vehicle to fight a common enemy. That’s all.”

Bastien says the destruction of ISIS’s capital city, Raqqa, by coalition jets in 2017 was worth it. “I don’t like easy historical comparisons, but you know what Germany looked like after the war? That kind of stuff, you have to do it. The bombing, yeah. It was a lot, but what can you do? It was Daesh. It’s easy afterward, when you are sitting in New York or something, to say yeah, they should have bombed a little bit less. Come, take a rifle, fight, take bullets, and then we gonna speak again.”

“Capitalism is a global economy now, so the workers are not the people in tenements in America as it used to be. They are in places such as Latin America, Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.”

It is undeniable that the Kurdish forces’ relationship with the United States has turned the Rojava project into something more than an attempt at direct democracy and Kurdish self-rule. Until 2015, the YPG was concerned mainly with keeping other militant groups out of Kurdish areas. After US special forces intervened to keep ISIS from taking the Kurdish city of Kobanî, the Pentagon began a formal alliance with the YPG, supplying them with weapons and planning joint operations involving coalition airstrikes. The problem was that by partnering with the YPG, the United States was strengthening the enemy of a NATO ally. “We literally played back to [the YPG] that you’ve got to change your brand,” Special Operations Command General Raymond “Tony” Thomas recounted at the Aspen Security Forum in 2017. “And with about a day’s notice they declared that they were the Syrian Democratic Forces. I thought it was a stroke of brains to put ‘democracy’ in there somewhere.” According to Thomas, the SDF included 50,000 fighters who “are working for us and doing our bidding.” That thousands of these proxies—and not Americans—had died in combat was the “unstated aspect of the magic” of the campaign against ISIS in Syria.

Barry realized quickly after arriving in Syria that his “decision to come out was kind of romanticized.” Rojava was not the anarchist revolution he’d imagined. He was disappointed that it still had political parties and elections—the trappings of a state. Still, he views the Rojava revolution and the YPG’s tactical alliance with the United States as part of a larger anti-capitalist struggle. The old Marxist paradigm for dismantling capitalism held that the working class should rise against the ruling class, he explains. “But capitalism is a global economy now, so the workers are not the people in tenements in America as it used to be. They are in places such as Latin America, Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. So to effectively fight capitalism, I felt that I needed to go to a place where the workers are throwing off capitalism.”

When I press Barry on different aspects of the revolution, he confesses he knows little about it. “We are stuck on the front line,” he says. “We don’t have time to have extended political conversations.” There are many foreigners who have fought in Syria who could say the same. Some see the country as the embryo of a global anti-capitalist revolution. Others see it as a drawing board for their vision of an Islamist state. Some didn’t speak the language or know much about the country before they came here. They are soldiers, projecting fantasies onto Syria to find meaning in their war.

Even With Help From the Air Force, Trump’s Turnberry Resort Remains a Money Pit

President Donald Trump’s flagship Scottish golf course has posted another year of losses, according to new filings made by the Trump Organization in the United Kingdom. Turnberry, located near Glasgow on the Firth of Clyde, has consistently bled money since Trump purchased the club for $60 million in 2014. Last year, per the filing, the course lost $13.1 million.

The bad news follows a recent decision by local planning authorities to deny a proposed expansion of the resort that would have allowed the Trump Organization to build luxury housing on a swath of  scenic property on the Scottish coastline. The development was believed to be the long-term plan for the resort’s financial viability, and the move to block it calls into question whether Turnberry will ever climb out of the red.

Trump’s other Scottish golf course, Trump International Golf Links in Aberdeenshire, last week reported $1.3 million in losses. That property has also yet to turn a profit since Trump opened it in 2012, though planning authorities did greenlight a plan by Trump to build homes and villas along that golf course. (That plan, however, specified it might take more than 10 years to actually start work on the project.) 

The losses at Turnberry come as House Democrats investigate recent revelations that US Air Force flight crews stayed at President Trump’s luxury resort when they made refueling and rest stops at a nearby airport. The Pentagon reported that it spent at least $184,000 at Turnberry over the past two years.

The good news for the resort is that its revenues did increase last year, bringing in about $23.4 million in business, up from $18 million in 2017. But costs also rose, pushing the resort into the red. The club’s 2018 losses were almost three times higher than those in 2017, when the resort lost nearly $4.5 million. Since Trump purchased Turnberry, the club has lost about $58 million.

In Turnberry’s 2018 financial filing, Eric Trump, ostensibly head of the Trump Organization’s golf operations, tried to put a rosy spin on the latest numbers. He said in 2018 the club earned its highest revenues in its century-plus history. A letter from an auditor included in the filing concluded Turnberry “is dependent on continuing finance being made available by its ultimate owner to enable it to continue operating and to meet its liabilities as they fall due.” In other words, for Turnberry to keep its lights on, Donald Trump will have to continue loaning the resort money. To date, he has loaned more than $146 million to the club. The auditor noted that the Trump Organization has “confirmed that it will ensure all necessary financial support is provided to the group for the foreseeable future.”

Perhaps the biggest blow to the resort’s financial future is the denial of a request to rezone a large tract of farmland along the scenic Firth of Clyde coastline, directly adjoining the resort, to build as many as 87 new houses and a number of luxury villas. At many Trump-branded properties around the world, the development and sale of real estate has been far more profitable than the the resorts themselves.

The Trump Organization did not respond to a request for comment on the latest filing or its path to profitability at Turnberry.

Trump Lawyers Argue That Unanimous Watergate Was Wrongly Decided

Back in 1974 Congress subpoenaed various documents from President Nixon, including, most famously, the tapes of his Oval Office conversations. Nixon refused to hand them over, but the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that he had to comply. A couple of weeks later Nixon resigned.

For a while, that was that: the court had spoken, and presidents had to comply with congressional subpoenas for use in a criminal trial. A generalized interest in confidentiality was not enough to override a legitimate judicial need.

This was a landmark case, but the Trump administration says it’s hokum:

DEVELOPING Trump Justice Dept. asks U.S. judge to reject House Judiciary Committee request for Mueller grand jury materials, argues courts in 1974 wrongly gave Congress the Watergate grand jury ‘roadmap’ that led to President Nixon’s impeachment.

— Spencer Hsu (@hsu_spencer) October 8, 2019

“Wow, O.K.,” responded U.S. Chief District Judge Beryl A. Howell of Washington, D.C., sounding unpersuaded. “As I said, the department is taking an extraordinary position in this case.”

— Spencer Hsu (@hsu_spencer) October 8, 2019

Apparently the Trump argument is that the grand jury materials would be really helpful to the Democrats pressing for impeachment, so they should be held back. Judge Howell seems unpersuaded, but I’m sure the Trumpies don’t care. She’s just an Obama flunky anyway and obviously prejudiced against them. They’ll just appeal, and then appeal again. The point here is mainly to take up lots of time, not to actually win the case.

Pelosi Says Impeachment Should Stay Focused on Ukraine. Some Liberals Say That’s a Big Mistake.

In her second press conference after announcing impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a warning: Keep the scope narrow. Objections to the president’s policies on issues like guns, climate change, and immigration “have no place in this discussion,” she said. “Save that for the election. This is about the facts relating to the Constitution.”

“If we don’t impeach him on all of his high crimes, what we do is we set a precedent for whoever comes next.”

That warning has been Pelosi’s constant refrain ever since a whistleblower complaint revealed Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukrainian leaders to launch an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. The scandal helped unify the once-divided Democratic caucus, with all but a dozen House Dems quickly embracing the impeachment inquiry. “To uphold and defend our Constitution, Congress must determine whether the president was indeed willing to use his power and withhold security assistance funds to persuade a foreign country to assist him in an upcoming election,” wrote seven Democrats who represent swing districts, six of whom had previously been reluctant to take steps toward impeachment.

In the days that followed, Pelosi made clear that the inquiry should indeed focus narrowly on those particular allegations—allegations that be easily explained to the public. She’s directed the House committees overseeing the process to solely investigate matters under their jurisdiction that relate to Ukraine. The Sunday after her announcement, she huddled with House Democratic leadership to map out a messaging strategy that emphasized making a case around the president abusing his office when he pressured Zelensky to look into the Bidens—and nothing else.

Narrowness, however, isn’t exactly what the Democrats’ progressive base has in mind. Liberal activists, after all, have been pushing for impeachment since long before the Ukraine scandal burst into public view. After the release of the Mueller Report earlier this year, Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee announced an impeachment inquiry related to Trump’s Russia scandal. At the time, Pelosi and most Democrats had yet to publicly back the inquiry, but many progressives were already calling for it to be expanded. In a July 30 letter sent to Judiciary leadership, 13 national progressive groups—including Democracy for America and Indivisible—encouraged the committee to broaden its probe to include a host of other actions they viewed as impeachable offenses. These included Trump pressuring the Justice Department and FBI to investigate his political adversaries, such as Hillary Clinton and James Comey; welcoming foreign assistance during the 2016 election; separating children from their families at the border; using the presidency to enrich himself; and abusing his office to promote racial hostility.

Moderate Democrats, meanwhile, countered that their party’s liberal faction has been too partisan, too vocal, and too disorganized in its approach to oversight. They argued that the slow drip of Trump corruption revelations hadn’t created a credible case that Democrats should put aside the kitchen-table issues they ran on in 2018 and instead focus on impeachment. 

On September 10, with the Ukraine scandal still widely unknown, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which includes 95 of the House’s most liberal members, formally endorsed the Judiciary Committee’s ongoing impeachment investigation. A week later, Trump’s acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, refused to give Congress the Ukraine whistleblower complaint, turning the nascent controversy into a full-blown constitutional crisis. And one week after that, Pelosi threw her support behind an impeachment inquiry.

After the whistleblower’s allegations unified House Democrats around an impeachment inquiry, progressive lawmakers seemed to get in line with Pelosi’s call for a narrow focus on Ukraine. “The issue with Ukraine is the one that gets us to 218 [Democrats], right?” Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), a longtime impeachment supporter, told me right before Congress broke for October recess. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.)—a CPC co-chair and Judiciary Committee member who has long called for impeachment—told me Democrats would have to be “very strategic and careful” to not “put out a wide list of things” that might diminish the investigation’s credibility with voters.

“I was pretty skeptical that Pelosi was going to lead on this,” Ezra Levin—whose group, Indivisible, has long been on the bleeding edge of the impeachment push, told me at that time. “But she’s done just about everything we would have hoped for.”

Some progressive activists, however, aren’t giving up on a broader impeachment inquiry. They’d like to see the House vote swiftly on articles of impeachment—sometime before Thanksgiving—and they want those articles of impeachment to reflect all of the president’s alleged crimes, including what came before Ukraine.

“The movement is at a critical stage,” said Anthony Torres, the political director of grassroots group By the People. “If we don’t impeach him on all of his high crimes, what we do is we set a precedent for whoever comes next in the presidency to continue those same abuses of power.”

Last week, the Progressive Change Institute, which has worked close with By the People on impeachment efforts, conducted a survey that concluded that other polling had undercounted support for impeachment. Among the 49 percent of respondents who said they supported an impeachment inquiry, 71 percent of them said that Congress should vote on articles of impeachment that include “all alleged high crimes and misdemeanors, not just the most recent high-profile one.”

Meagan Hatcher-Mays, Indivisible’s director of democracy policy, said she’s hopeful that the articles of impeachment under consideration will include foreign interference, obstruction of Congress, obstruction of justice, and violations of the emoluments clause, which bars the president from using his office for personal enrichment. “We’d be satisfied with the greatest hits,” she says.

In the end, the course of the investigation might help moderates and progressives meet in the middle. Politico counted at least six executive agencies and offices that have now been caught up in the growing scandal. Trump, meanwhile, continues to invite his own scope creep: Last week, the president told reporters on the White House lawn that China should investigate the Biden family, as well. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, House Democrats’ campaign arm, has seized onto those developments. On Monday, it put out two statements calling attention to Trump’s comments about China. A strategist who works closely with House Democrats said that while the plan remains primarily focused on Ukraine, it will be broadened as necessary as the president continues using his office to coerce foreign governments.

Legal considerations may also encourage Democratic leaders to expand their investigation, since a formal impeachment proceeding is widely believed to give lawmakers greater power to demand documents and testimony that the administration has sought to withhold. On Tuesday, during a federal court hearing on Democrats’ lawsuit to obtain the grand jury materials from Mueller’s Russia investigation, House counsel Doug Letter argued that the impeachment inquiry is not, in fact, strictly limited to Ukraine. He explained that six House committees will share the results of various investigations—which could include allegations related to the Mueller report, or even the president’s taxes—and that the Judiciary Committee will report recommended articles of impeachment to the full House. As for the emphasis on Ukraine, Letter said, “right now the media is focused on that.”

After Attacks on Warren, Women Point Out That Pregnancy Discrimination Is All Too Real

If you’ve paid any attention to Elizabeth Warren this campaign season, you’ve probably heard her say that when she was a 22-year-old special education teacher in 1971, she lost her job because she was “visibly pregnant.”

In recent days, journalists—on both the left and right—have attempted to cast doubt on that story. The evidence they’ve assembled isn’t particularly compelling, and Warren has responded by saying that her statements are completely true. In a pair of tweets Tuesday, she asked readers to share their own stories of pregnancy discrimination.

This was 1971, years before Congress outlawed pregnancy discrimination—but we know it still happens in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. We can fight back by telling our stories. I tell mine on the campaign trail, and I hope to hear yours.

— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) October 8, 2019

Warren’s tweets came a day after the conservative Washington Free Beacon published school board meeting minutes from Riverdale, New Jersey, where Warren was employed as an elementary school speech pathologist during the 1970-71 school year. The minutes state that board members unanimously voted to extend Warren’s teaching contract during an April meeting and that she resigned two months later in June.

Conservative publications from Fox News to the Washington Examiner to the New York Post picked up the story. So, too, did supporters of Bernie Sanders, Warren’s chief rival for progressive support in the Democratic primary.

All of you ex Berners who switched to Warren, the establishment is playing you. They want progressives to lose. Accept this fact: Elizabeth Warren has a real problem with the truth about her bio. Some of it vile stuff. Don't make this mistake. Go with the progressive who will win

— citizen uprising (@cit_uprising) October 7, 2019

Making the procedural critique that Elizabeth Warren is a plagiarist and pathological liar won't work. Her appeal is libidinal. She is the Democrat's Trump. They're equally shameless but he's funnier & will brutalise her dumbass on campaign trail.
Only way to beat him is Bernie!

— Aimee Terese (@aimeeterese) October 8, 2019

Just got my new DNA test results back.

Turns out I’m 50% capitalist and 50% liar.

— Elizabeth Warren (fake) (@EWarenn) October 7, 2019

CBS News, however, found evidence supporting Warren’s claims. Two retired Riverdale teachers said, according to the network, that “the workplace culture at the time may have left Warren with no option but to move on when her pregnancy became apparent.”

“The rule was at five months you had to leave when you were pregnant. Now, if you didn’t tell anybody you were pregnant, and they didn’t know, you could fudge it and try to stay on a little bit longer,” one of those retired teachers said. “But they kind of wanted you out if you were pregnant.”

The article notes that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which would protect a non-tenured teacher like Warren, was not passed until 1978, seven years after Warren’s teaching job ended.

Women (and historians) on Twitter pointed out that workplace discrimination is rarely explicitly documented in school board minutes, and that pregnancy discrimination was extremely common in the 1970s.

If you have trouble believing that Elizabeth Warren experienced pregnancy discrimination because no one wrote down "Fired because pregnant," you are going to be floored when you learn about the experiences of…. any other human woman you know.

— Alyssa Leader (@alittleleader) October 8, 2019

1. I may know a bit about the history of teaching. It was EXTREMELY COMMON to push pregnant teachers out of their jobs, right through the 1970s. These rules were often unspoken and enforced without a paper trail. Economists call it a "pregnancy bar."

— Dana Goldstein (@DanaGoldstein) October 8, 2019

if you don't understand what this furor over the Elizabeth Warren pregnancy firing story is about, ask pretty much any woman in your life over 35.

— Anne Helen Petersen (@annehelen) October 8, 2019

9 years ago, my pregnant friend got a job offer.

When accepting, she gave a heads-up about planning for coverage during maternity leave.

The response? "We're sorry you won't be able to take the position, we've offered it to another candidate."

Message heard, loud and clear.

— Megan Tompkins-Stange (@tompkinsstange) October 8, 2019

The notion that Elizabeth Warren should "prove" that she lost her teaching job ~1970 when she got pregnant is intellectually feeble in the extreme. It was the norm, not the exception. Take a quick walk down memory lane, courtesy of local newspapers in the early 70s. (see thread)

— Joshua Zeitz (@JoshuaMZeitz) October 8, 2019

Read the Opening Remarks in the Supreme Court LGBTQ Case That Left the Justices Speechless

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in three cases that involve LGBTQ people who were allegedly fired for their gender identity or sexual orientation. Pamela Karlan, the co-director for Stanford University’s Supreme Court Litigation Clinic and the counsel representing two gay men, left the court speechless with her opening argument.

“The attempt to carve out discrimination against men for being gay from Title VII cannot be administered with either consistency or integrity,” Karlan said. “In the words of the en banc Second Circuit, it forces judges to…resort to lexical bean counting where they count up the frequency of epithets, such as “fag,” “gay,” “queer,” “real man,” and “fem,” to determine whether or not discrimination is based on sex or sexual orientation.”

You can read the entire thing here: 


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Altitude Express Inc v Zarda (PDF)

Altitude Express Inc v Zarda (Text)

Trump Invents New Reason for Stonewalling Congress: They Aren’t Fair

You may recall that Gordon Sondland is a key figure in the Ukrainegate scandal. Sondland is our ambassador to the EU, but he’s not a career diplomat. He was rewarded with the job because he’s a big Trump donor and loyalist.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s traditional for high-profile US ambassadors to be political donors. And in this case it’s good for Trump: Sondland is surely likely to put a favorable spin on things when he testifies about Ukraine in front of three House committee. In fact, his lawyer said he was eager to testify voluntarily, and he had flown back from Brussels to appear this morning.

But at the last minute his appearance was squashed by the State Department. Why? Executive privilege? Lack of time to properly prepare? Concern over the possible release of classified material? Nope:

I would love to send Ambassador Sondland, a really good man and great American, to testify, but unfortunately he would be testifying before a totally compromised kangaroo court, where Republican’s rights have been taken away, and true facts are not allowed out for the public….

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 8, 2019

That’s right: Trump has ordered Sondland not to appear before the House because he thinks the House investigation is totally unfair. That’s a new one! And one of Trump’s most loyal spear carriers in the House completely agrees:

“The way [Schiff] treated Volker last week, that treatment is the reason why the State Department and the White House said we’re not going to subject Ambassador Sondland to the same treatment,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the ranking member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, told reporters.

“Ambassador Volker was not giving them the answers that they were leading Ambassador Volker to conclude,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), another of the president’s allies on Capitol Hill. “This president did not hold aid to try to influence a foreign country to do anything.”

Actually, Volker gave them a whole lot of the answers they were looking for. Details here. Nonetheless, Sen. Lindsey Graham was also on the president’s side:

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), one of the president’s closest allies, said on Twitter it was “time for the Senate to inquire about corruption and other improprieties involving Ukraine.” He said that he would offer Mr. Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, “the opportunity to come before the Senate Judiciary Committee to inform the committee of his concerns.”

Translation: Forget about Trump’s actual corruption, we should be more concerned with hearing about made-up conspiracy theories regarding Ukraine and Democrats. And who better to provide that kind of thing than Rudy Giuliani?

For the record, our ambassador to Ukraine thought it was clear that we were holding up military aid to Ukraine until they agreed to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden. This was also the understanding of Sen. Ron Johnson after he talked to Sondland. And it was certainly mighty suspicious that Trump held up the Ukraine aid and then instructed his aides to lie to Congress about why he was doing it. Still, Trump has totally denied that he did anything wrong, so that should be that. Right? Why bother investigating any further, especially in front of a committee run by Democrats who are clearly total hacks and completely unfair?

It’s too bad Democrats were unaware of this defense back in the day. It sure would have cut short a lot of unpleasantness. The next stop, I suppose, is a subpoena, which the White House will ignore and which Democrats will take to court. That should burn off several months of time and prevent any impeachment vote this year. Or so they hope.

Impeachment Liveblog: Trump Administration Blocks Sondland Deposition

Welcome back to impeachment watch. Gordon Sondland, the US Ambassador to the European Union, is no longer appearing in his deposition before Congress today after a last-minute directive by President Donald Trump’s State Department. “He would be testifying before a totally compromised kangaroo court,” Trump said in a tweet revealing he personally endorsed the move. Sondland emerged as a key witness in the Ukraine scandal last week after text messages revealed his role in advancing Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine into announcing an investigation into Joe Biden. The former special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, provided the damning texts to Congress during his closed-door testimony last week.

Follow along below.

10:10 a.m. EST: Trump, after blocking testimony from a witness who used a personal device to carry out incriminating text conversations, plays the hits.

I think that Crooked Hillary Clinton should enter the race to try and steal it away from Uber Left Elizabeth Warren. Only one condition. The Crooked one must explain all of her high crimes and misdemeanors including how & why she deleted 33,000 Emails AFTER getting “C” Subpoena!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 8, 2019

9:50 a.m. EST: Here’s a bit more background on Sondland from Mother Jones’ Russ Choma. Sondland’s main qualification for serving as Trump’s ambassador to the EU seems to be his career as a hotel magnate and GOP megadonor who contributed $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee:

According to, Sondland has given at least $446,000 to federal candidates in the last few decades. Almost all the recipients were Republicans, but of the more moderate type—Jeb Bush’s Right to Rise PAC, for instance.

As the 2016 election ramped up and Jeb Bush was eclipsed by Trump, Sondland quickly aligned himself with nominee. The relationship hit a hiccup, however, when Trump denigrated Gold Star mothers at the Republican convention in 2016, Sondland and his business partner very publicly insisted that their names be taken off the invitations as hosts of a Trump fundraiser.

Sondland is not listed as a donor to Trump’s campaign—though he did donate the maximum amount to the Republican National Committee before Trump was nominated. Nonetheless, the hotelier and Trump must have patched things up, because Sondland appears on a list of the 2016 Trump campaign’s bundlers—a fundraiser who taps a network of other deep-pocketed donors to support a candidate. And, perhaps most importantly, OpenSecrets reported, Sondland wound up donating $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee.

9:35 a.m. EST: House Intelligence chairman Rep. Adam Schiff slams Sondland’s failure to appear before lawmakers. Schiff says that Sondland has relevant text messages on a personal device that the State Department is withholding. Other Democrats, including 2020 presidential candidates, are also weighing in:

Someone should tell Donald Trump that you can definitely be impeached for obstruction of justice.

— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) October 8, 2019

FYI the State Department doesn’t keep these people under lock and key. Gordon Sondland is an adult – he can obey the law and testify if he wants. We shouldn’t let him or anyone else get away with blaming their violation of the law on Pompeo.

— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) October 8, 2019

If @realDonaldTrump & @SecPompeo are innocent, they wouldn't be suppressing the testimony of Amb Sondland. Instead, they are hiding information from the American people.

Congress will keep investigating. We also have enough evidence right now to draft Articles of Impeachment.

— Ted Lieu (@tedlieu) October 8, 2019

9:25 a.m. EST: Trump makes it clear that the decision to block Sondland’s testimony came directly from the top.

….to see. Importantly, Ambassador Sondland’s tweet, which few report, stated, “I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The President has been crystal clear: no quid pro quo’s of any kind.” That says it ALL!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 8, 2019

8:20 a.m. EST: The State Department is now blocking Sondland’s deposition. “He is a sitting Ambassador and employee of State and is required to follow their direction,” Sondland’s lawyer said. Here’s the full statement:

Statement from Sondland’s attorney:

— Shimon Prokupecz (@ShimonPro) October 8, 2019

8:00 a.m. EST The Washington Post has a new poll showing that a majority of Americans now support the impeachment inquiry, with almost half saying Trump should be removed from office. 

Council on Foreign Relations Under Fire for Accepting Billionaire’s Gift

The Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank known as a bastion of the bipartisan US foreign policy establishment, is under fire from its own members and dozens of international affairs experts over its acceptance of a $12 million gift to fund an internship program from Leonard Blavatnik, a Ukrainian-born billionaire with longstanding ties to oligarchs close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The dispute makes the think tank the latest institution to face criticism for taking money from Blavatnik, a British and American citizen whose fortune stems from privatization of Russian aluminum and other natural resources in the 1990s—now notorious as a corrupt giveaway.

“It is our considered view that Blavatnik uses his ‘philanthropy’—funds obtained by and with the consent of the Kremlin, at the expense of the state budget and the Russian people—at leading western academic and cultural institutions to advance his access to political circles,” 55 international relations scholars and Russia experts wrote in a September 18 letter to the organization’s board and CFR’s president, Richard Haass. “Such ‘philanthropic’ capital enables the infiltration of the US and UK political and economic establishments at the highest levels. It is also a means by which Blavatnik exports Russian kleptocratic practices to the West.”

“We regard this as another step in the longstanding effort of Mr. Blavatnik—who…has close ties to the Kremlin and its kleptocratic network—to launder his image in the West,” the letter says. 

Five of the letter’s signatories are among the nearly 5,000 members of the think tank, a membership-based publisher of Foreign Affairs magazine and think tank. The lead authors of the letter are Ilya Zaslavskiy, a researcher at the Free Russia Foundation, who heads an initiative focused on documenting Kremlin corruption, and Sarah Chayes, author of a book on international corruption. Other signatories include Michael Carpenter, a former deputy assistant for defense with responsibility for Russia and Ukraine, David Kramer, former assistant secretary of state for democracy, Daria Kaleniuk, a prominent anti-corruption activist in Ukraine, and Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion and Russian opposition activist.

In a response to that letter, Haass, who served as the State Department’s director of policy planning under President George W. Bush, wrote that Blavatnik, like other CFR donors “has no say” in picking interns or directing research. “The Blavatnik Family Foundation has also made transformational gifts to Harvard, Yale, and Tel Aviv Universities, and established the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University,” Haass added. “We are proud to find ourselves in such distinguished company.”

In another letter addressing that argument, Zaslavskiy, Chayes and Peter Reddaway, a political science professor at George Washington University, wrote: “The fact that Harvard or Yale’s due diligence failed…does not excuse this more serious lapse.”

This exchange highlights the difficulty posed by Blavatnik, who Forbes ranked in March as the 59th richest person in the world and who claims to have dispensed more than $700 million to more than 250 nonprofit institutions over the last decade. The origin of Blavatnik’s wealth and his continued ties to sanctioned oligarchs open him to criticism. But his status as a prominent American and British citizen, his transition into the ranks of rich respectability, along with his deployment of public relations firms, have helped him avoid the label of “oligarch” and the clear Kremlin ties typical for those operating primarily in Russia.

Blavatnik, who came to the United States in the late 1970s and now lives mostly in London, is a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Business School. He is best known these day as the owner of the Warner Music Group. He regularly attends the Grammy Awards.

But his fortune stems from the privatization of industries in the former Soviet Union, in particular aluminum and oil. He was among the victors in Russia’s so-called  “aluminum wars,” the sometimes murderous competition for control of Russian aluminum assets in the early 1990s. (Blavatnik has not been personally accused of violence). In 1996, Blavatnik partnered with Viktor Vekselberg, an oligarch tied to Putin, in SUAL Partners, which owns about one quarter of Rusal, the aluminum conglomerate long controlled by Oleg Deripaska. Both Vekselberg and Derispaska have been sanctioned by the Treasury Department for using their assets to advance Russian foreign policy interests, including interference in the 2016 election.

Blavatnik, long a prolific donor to both Democrats and Republicans, veered sharply toward the GOP in 2016 and 2017, giving $3.5 million to a super PAC tied to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, among others. Through his holding company, Access Industries, Blavanik, also gave $1 million to President Donald Trump’s Inaugural Committee. These gifts drew suspicion that Blavatnik was helping to advance Russian efforts to win influence with the Trump and the GOP, allegations Blavatnik denies. ABC News reported last year that former special counsel Robert Mueller had investigated Blavatnik’s inaugural contributions, along with donations by Vekselberg’s cousin, Andrew Intrater, the head of an American venture capital fund that long counted Vekselberg as its chief investor.

Blavatnik’s support for the McConnell-linked PAC drew notice this year when Rusal announced plans to invest $200 million in an aluminum plant in Kentucky. The announcement came after McConnell helped to block a bill that would have faulted the Trump administration for lifting US sanctions on Rusal.

More recently, Blavatnik has given lavishly to Democrats. He and his wife gave a combined $250,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in June, following donations of around $234,000 to the DCCC in 2018. The DCCC did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Backing incumbents and the parties in control of both chambers of Congress, Blavatnik seems to be supporting the status quo in Washington. 

Blavatnik has consistently denied any political affiliation with Russia. In a statement, an Access Industries spokesman said: “Mr. Blavatnik has been an American citizen since 1984 and has, for more than a decade, donated to both Democratic and Republican parties, as well as to individual candidates who promote a pro-business, pro-Israel agenda. His donations are a matter of public record and comply with all legal requirements. He has no dealings with the Russian government or its leaders.”

Controversy over Blavatnik’s gift to CFR follows similar reactions to his gifts to other organizations. Oxford University, and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum have defended decisions to name facilities after Blavatnik. Harvard Medical School houses 11 basic and social science departments in the Blavatnik Institute, the result of a $200 million dollar gift last year. The school has shrugged off a smattering of criticism for this, including one alumnus who called the school accepting the money “appalling” due to Blavatnik’s history of deals with “individuals with checkered pasts, deep Kremlin ties and a reputation for corruption.”

The only organization that seems to have returned Blavatnik’s money is the right-leaning Hudson Institute. Last year, Charles Davidson, stepped down as head of the Kleptocracy Initiative, a Hudson effort to study how corruption and illicit financial flows threaten US democracy, saying he made that decision after learning that the think tank had accepted $50,000 from Blavatnik. “Blavatnik is precisely what the Kleptocracy Initiative is fighting against—the influence of Putin’s oligarchs on America’s political system and society—and the importation of corrupt Russian business practices and values,” Davidson told the New York Post. After that article, the organization returned the donation to Blavatnik, according to a person close to Hudson. A Hudson spokeswoman declined to say when the gift was returned or to comment on it.

Blavatnik’s businesses have been faulted for questionable practices. His firms have been accused of abusing the federal bankruptcy process, and was fined by the Federal Trade Commission in 2016 for violating anti-trust laws by repeatedly failing to report stock purchases within a required timeframe. But that record is not abnormal among corporate chiefs. And he has never been charged with a crime.

Criminal sanctions are “a floor, not a ceiling,” Zaslavskiy, Chayes and Reddaway, asserted in their September 30 letter to Haass. “CFR should uphold higher standards.”

There is little evidence that Blavatnik, through his donations, is purposefully advancing Russian interests. He is seemingly engaged instead in bid to use a large amount of questionably obtained money to buy influence and prestige. Leading US institutions have little problem benefiting from that. That’s a pretty American issue.

Read the September 18 letter to the Council on Foreign Relations regarding Blavatnik:

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<a href=””>Blavatnik CFR Letter 9 18 19 (PDF)</a></p><br />
<p><a href=””>Blavatnik CFR Letter 9 18 19 (Text)</a><br /><br />


Read Haass’ September 26 response:

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<a href=””>Blavatnik Haass Response (PDF)</a></p><br />
<p><a href=””>Blavatnik Haass Response (Text)</a><br /><br />

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<a href=””>Blavatnik Haass Response (PDF)</a></p><br />
<p><a href=””>Blavatnik Haass Response (Text)</a><br /><br />


Read critics’ September 30 response to Haass:

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<a href=””>Blavatnik CFR Letter Reply to Haass 30 Sep (PDF)</a></p><br />
<p><a href=””>Blavatnik CFR Letter Reply to Haass 30 Sep (Text)</a></div><br />

The Supreme Court Might Condone LGBTQ Workplace Discrimination. Will Your State Protect You?

On May 4, 2016, Mark Horton signed the paperwork to make it official: He would soon be the vice president of sales and marketing at Midwest Geriatric Management. He resigned from his job at a competing health care company and went about collecting documents needed for his onboarding. All was going smoothly until Horton hit a bureaucratic snag getting copies of his college transcripts and diplomas.

Two weeks after he accepted the offer, Horton emailed his new boss, a woman named Faye Bienstock, to update her on those educational records. He promised they were coming, and mentioned that “my partner has been on me about [my MBA] since he completed his PHD a while back.” 

Five days later, Bienstock, according to court documents, emailed Horton withdrawing the job offer. She explained in the email that the change was because of the diploma delay. But Horton has another theory about why the offer was rescinded: MGM didn’t want a gay person in the company.

Horton is a resident of Madison County, Illinois, where state law prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. But the MGM office is just across the Mississippi River in St. Louis, Missouri, where no such protections exist. 

Horton still sued MGM, arguing that, under federal law, it’s illegal for employers to discriminate against gay employees. A lower court dismissed the case, and it is now pending before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. If it succeeds, Horton’s suit could overturn the circuit court’s precedent excluding gay people from federal employment protections. Whether it will largely depends on three other, similar cases, currently being considered by the Supreme Court.

All three of the cases, which are being argued in front of the Supreme Court on Tuesday, involve LGBTQ people who say they were fired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Aimee Stephens, a transgender woman from Michigan, was fired from her job at a funeral home in 2013 after she informed her boss that she was transitioning and intended to begin dressing according to the company’s dress code for women. The Sixth Circuit Court ruled in Stephens’ favor, but the funeral home’s appeal brought the suit to the high court. The other two cases involve gay men who, like Horton, were dismissed after coming out at work.

Lawyers from the ACLU and other advocacy groups representing the plaintiffs are arguing that gay and transgender people are protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which says employers aren’t allowed to discriminate on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, or religion. Sexuality and gender identity discrimination, the lawyers say, is a form of sex discrimination. Tuesday’s oral arguments mark the first time the Court has considered this question.

If the court agrees that sexual orientation and gender identity fall under Title VII, all workers, both public and private, would be protected from anti-LGBTQ workplace discrimination. A ruling in the opposite direction wouldn’t overturn state employment protection laws, since those by and large don’t mention Title VII explicitly. But it could open the door even more to state-level attacks on LGBTQ people in the workplace. 

“The Trump administration has indicated that it plans to really roll back protections, especially for trans people,” said Gabriel Arkles, who is on the ACLU team representing Stephens. “And so if the Supreme Court rules the wrong way here, then it would really green light that.” Arkles also worries that employers will be emboldened to fire queer people. “Even in states where a law says that it’s illegal, employers might be confused and we just might see a lot of people losing their jobs in the immediate aftermath of a bad decision.”

Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have laws barring discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity; two others, Michigan and Pennsylvania, don’t specifically enumerate sexual orientation and gender identity under employment non-discrimination laws but have civil rights enforcement agencies that investigate discrimination against LGBTQ employees. Governors in 11 states have issued executive orders to include at least sexual orientation in employment non-discrimination policies for public employees (or, in the case of Kentucky, only employees of the state executive branch). Some of these orders lack teeth: The governor of North Carolina signed an employment non-discrimination executive order in 2017 but, as critics pointed out, the bill did little to counteract the harm created by the state’s 2016 “bathroom bill.” According to the Movement Advancement Project, a nonprofit think tank that studies local, state and federal LGBTQ policies across the country, only 48 percent of LGBTQ Americans live in states that have employment non-discrimination laws that explicitly apply to them.

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And then there are the local ordinances. More than 300 city and county governments have passed laws that ban LGBTQ discrimination in employment, housing, and more. But experts warn they’re difficult to track and it’s almost impossible to know which ones are actually enforced.

Though the Supreme Court’s ruling, which is not expected until 2020, might not directly affect most state laws, it does make a difference for legal precedent. The Seventh Circuit Court (which covers Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin) is the only circuit that has ruled that federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Four other circuits agree with the inclusion of gender identity, but not sexual orientation. The Tenth Circuit (which covers Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming) has ruled that federal law does not include sexual orientation or gender identity. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of including sexual orientation and gender identity in Title VII, all but two circuits will have precedents overturned. 

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If the court decides those two categories aren’t protected under Title VII, federal enforcement directives would also be nullified. For example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued multiple decisions that interpret Title VII to include sexual orientation and gender identity under the definition of sex. The EEOC already receives more than 1,000 “LGBT-based sex discrimination charges” each year. Still, almost 70 percent of the cases closed last year were dismissed for “no reasonable cause.” Depending on the Supreme Court’s decision, the EEOC may not investigate such claims in the future.

For people like Mark Horton—the Illinois man who lost his job offer—the consequences of the Supreme Court’s decision are a lot less abstract. Just days after his lawyer, Gregory Nevins, argued his case, the high court announced that it was taking up the three landmark LGBTQ employment discrimination cases. The circuit court decided to hold off ruling on his case until the Supreme Court hands down its decisions.

“If his employer had been in Illinois, he would probably already have a resolution to this discrimination claim,” Nevins said. “But because it’s in Missouri, it’s been a few years now and nothing.”

It’s No Coincidence That the Top Presidential Candidates Are All So Old

Over the past few months Bernie Sanders has often remarked that he’s in great shape. “I am blessed to have been in good health my entire life,” he told the Washington Post earlier this year. “I honestly can’t remember the last time I missed work because of illness.” I bought it: The guy seemed reasonably fit and sharp. Then, last week, he suffered a heart attack.

Given his age, it’s not all that surprising—about a fifth of men in their 60s and 70s have heart disease; by age 80, nearly a third do. On inauguration day, he will be 79, which makes him 40 years older than the oldest of millennials, his most devoted demo. That also makes him the oldest serious contender, but many of his opponents aren’t spring chickens, either: Joe Biden will be 78, Donald Trump 74, and Elizabeth Warren 71.

“Hold on, let me get out of my wheelchair. No, I’m just kidding. Are you young and pretty? Will you go out with me? No, I’m just kidding.”

This grayest-ever crop of frontrunner candidates has made some people wonder whether there should be a legal age limit on running for president. Indeed, other fields turn aging employees out to pasture—commercial airline pilots, employees of the United Nations, and judges in many states aren’t allowed to practice into their 70s. So isn’t it conceivable that the presidency of the United States—by many measures literally the hardest job in the world—shouldn’t go to someone prone to senior moments? And if we have a lower age limit, why not an upper one?

Consider that Jimmy Carter, the oldest living president at 95, said recently, “If I were just 80 years old, if I was 15 years younger, I don’t believe I could undertake the duties that I experienced when I was president.”

I recently called up some other accomplished older people to see what they thought about an aging president. Their responses were not exactly encouraging.  

A 96-year-old museum docent barked, “I have absolutely no interest in talking to you about that,” and hung up.

The oldest mayor in the United States—who is 80 and runs the city of Stafford, Texas—told me in an email that he would be “happy to visit by phone” but then never got around to calling me back.

An 87-year-old retired CEO said, “Hold on, let me get out of my wheelchair. No, I’m just kidding. Are you young and pretty? Will you go out with me? No, I’m just kidding.”

After that initial round of interviews, you can guess I wasn’t exactly bullish about the idea of a president pushing 80. So I decided to check in with the experts: scientists who study how the aging process affects our bodies and minds. They painted a very different picture.

Nir Barzilai, an endocrinologist with Albert Einstein College of Medicine, studies the genes of a group of long-lived Ashkenazi Jews. Barzilai—who is prone to comments like “Age means nothing to me!” and “I know someone who just went to Machu Picchu for her 100th birthday!”—has been able to show that about 60 percent of the 100-year-old women he’s studied have certain unusual mutations in their growth genes. “We have discovered longevity genes,” he said. Unfortunately, he then added: “Do the candidates have them? I have no idea.”

Short of sharing a full genetic sequencing, Barzilai says that family history is a pretty good predictive factor. That bodes well for Trump, Warren, and Biden, whose parents all lived well into their 80s. But then what to make of Sanders, who has already outlived both of his parents by several decades (and is expected to make a full recovery from his heart attack)? Barzilai acknowledges it’s not just about genes; social and environmental circumstances also help determine how long and how well a person lives.

“We have discovered longevity genes. Do the candidates have them? I have no idea.”

Indeed, I found out that more powerful predictors of both longevity and cognitive stability even than genetics are three external factors: education, race, and wealth. Countless studies have found a correlation between income level and lifespan; a 2016 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, for example, found that on average, the richest 1 percent of American men live 14.6 years longer than the poorest 1 percent; for women the difference is 10.1 years. That’s not surprising: Being wealthy means you have access to good health care and good control over your diet and exercise.

Relatedly, level of education matters, too—and even more so along racial lines. In 2012, University of Illinois at Chicago gerontologist and public health researcher Stuart Jay Olshansky sorted deaths in the United States by age, race, and number of years of schooling. He found that on average, black men who hadn’t finished high school lived 14.2 years less than white men who had completed 16 or more years of education; for women that figure was 10.3 years. (It’s important to note that these racial differences probably have to do with lack of opportunity for African Americans, not any biological difference.)

Education also seems to have a strong protective effect against dementia: A 2018 University of Southern California study found that most people who have graduated from college can expect to prevent cognitive decline into their 80s, while people with a high school education often begin to experience it in their 70s. It’s not that education actually prevents the changes in the brain associated with dementia, explained Joe Verghese, another Albert Einstein gerontologist. Rather, education seems to help people compensate for those changes. “The theory is that people who are highly educated and intellectually engaged will be able to stave off the effects of this disease,” he said.

When you consider these external factors, good genes don’t seem as important. All of the presidential candidates are wealthy; all are exceptionally well educated. Take Sanders: It’s valid to speculate that perhaps one reason he has lived so much longer than his parents is that he has a college degree and robust finances, while his parents were poor immigrants who worked all their lives. 

Indeed, University of Illinois’ Olshansky used actuarial tables to calculate the lifespan and “healthspan” of each candidate—basically, the risk that they’ll die or become cognitively or physically disabled while in office. Taking into account wealth and education level he found that all the contenders stand at least a 76.8 percent chance of surviving their first term, most of them higher. (For most, the odds of living through a second term are also high, though for Sanders and Biden, they drop to 66 percent and 70 percent respectively.)

So it’s likely that by dint of privilege and circumstance, even the oldest contenders stand a pretty good chance of surviving the presidency. Fair enough. But that still left me wondering about their mental health and general with-it-ness. Would they, too, last?

“At 30 you might be mortified that you have spaghetti sauce on your shirt and you have to go a meeting. At 70, you might say, ‘Please excuse this, as you can see I was excited about the spaghetti I was eating!’”

The geriatric psychologists I talked to all assured me that contrary to popular belief, elderly people are no more prone to depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders than their younger counterparts. Ellen Langer, a Harvard University psychologist who specializes in geriatric patients, railed against the stereotype of the socially weird old person. It’s not that their age-addled brains make them behave strangely; rather they’ve mastered the fine art of not caring. “At 30 you might be mortified that you have spaghetti sauce on your shirt and you have to go a meeting,” says Langer. “At 70, you might say, ‘Please excuse this, as you can see I was excited about the spaghetti I was eating!’”

In short, says Langer, life experience leads to perspective. And if you have those qualities, so what if you still think people listen to records? What are millennial staffers for, if not to show the president how to, say, use an iPad for briefing updates? (Speaking of millennials, maybe it’s time we rethink the requirement that a president must be at least 35, which hasn’t changed since Continental Congress delegate Tench Coxe wrote that the president “cannot be an idiot, probably not a knave or a tyrant, for those whom nature makes so, discover it before the age of thirty-five, until which period he cannot be elected.” Today, you could probably figure all that out from a 25-year-old candidate’s Twitter feed. And we know people can act tyrannical across ages.)

In any case, the gerontologists told me that age wouldn’t play a major role in their decision on election day. And their research suggests that setting a legal age limit for president probably doesn’t make sense—though that may end up being irrelevant: The way things are looking now, Americans won’t have much of a choice but to vote for someone who was born before there were zip codes or magic markers or antihistamines. That’s too bad, since there are signs that Americans are clamoring for younger, more diverse political leadership—see, for example, the upwelling of enthusiasm for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her Squad-mates. And last year, when I was talking to voters about the 44-year-old African American Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, I heard over and over from people who were thrilled to see a candidate that finally looked like them.

In this country, the same set of extreme social privileges that propel someone to the position of frontrunner presidential candidate also protect against the typical ravages of old age. And that single fact, for better or worse, is a stronger predictor of candidates’ health than any senior-moment gaffe they might have over the coming months. “It’s entirely possible,” Olshansky told me, “that some of these folks running for president are super-agers.” We should all be so lucky.

Image credit, from left:  Bill Clark/Getty; Mario Tama/Getty; Chip Somodevilla/Getty; Joe Raedle/Getty  

In Which I Try to Make Sense of Donald Trump’s Middle East Policy

I’m sort of catching up on things, so tell me if I have this straight:

  • Trump talked to Turkey’s president last night and agreed to let him invade northern Syria if Turkey was willing to take a few thousand ISIS prisoners off our hands.
  • After the phone call, Trump decided to go a step further and withdraw all American forces from northern Syria, thus giving Turkey a completely free hand.
  • None of Trump’s aides or military advisors knew he was planning to do this.
  • Eventually someone explained to Trump that Turkey didn’t actually care about ISIS. They just wanted to wipe out the Kurds in northern Syria, who have fought along our side in the war against ISIS for many years. Turkey considers them terrorists.
  • Informed of this, Trump tweeted that, hey, we paid the Kurds plenty for their help, so everything is even. Besides, he implied, maybe Turkey has a point about the Kurds.
  • Even Republicans couldn’t stomach this, so Trump hastily tweeted that if anything bad happened, we could always “go back & BLAST!”
  • Republicans still couldn’t stomach this sellout, so then Trump tweeted that if Turkey does anything “off limits”—whatever that is—“I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey.”

And . . . I guess that’s where we stand. This is one of the things I hate most about Trump. I happen to favor troop withdrawals from the Middle East, which makes the situation with the Kurds a genuinely tough one in my mind. Somehow, though, even when Trump does something I generally favor, he does it so stupidly and ham-handedly that it’s almost as if he’s trying to prove the hawks were right all along.

This was never going to be an easy situation to wind down, but there were certainly ways to do it without destroying America’s reputation as a reliable ally. As of today, however, it looks like that ship has sailed.

Health Update

My M-protein number came back this afternoon, and it’s dropping quite nicely:

This is not quite a personal low, but at the rate it’s declining I might get there next month. Maybe. In any case, the Darzalex + Dex + Pomalyst triplet is working very well, and my doctor seems to be very keen on the idea of triplets.

The downside, of course, is that between the Dex and the Pom I’m pretty fatigued nearly all the time, my breathing is a little bit shallow, my taste buds are shot, and I occasionally have stomach problems. On the bright side, I’m alive and kicking and I may very well see Donald Trump impeached. What more could I ask for?

Julián Castro Just Saw Donald Trump’s Border Crisis Firsthand: “His Agenda Is Killing People”

Democratic presidential hopeful Julián Castro visited a makeshift camp on Monday in the Mexican city of Matamoros, where asylum-seekers are being “forced to live in squalor” because of a Trump administration policy that has stranded some 50,000 people just south of the US-Mexico border. He was there to escort a group of vulnerable migrants as they petitioned for asylum at the port of entry, something that has become increasingly more difficult in recent months.  

The Migrant Protection Protocols policy, also known as “Remain in Mexico,” forces migrants who ask for asylum at the border back to Mexico—often for months—to wait on their day in immigration court. The policy started out in the San Diego area at the beginning of the year and has since expanded along the border to South Texas, forcing tens of thousands of migrants to wait in dangerous Mexican border towns—including Matamoros, which sits across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, and has been given a level 4 “do not travel” warning by the US State Department.

In a tweet sent Monday morning, Castro didn’t mince words about Trump: “Make no mistake: his agenda is killing people—and it’s on purpose.”

What I saw in across the border in Matamoros, Mexico is a national embarrassment—one entirely of Trump’s creation.

Make no mistake: his agenda is killing people—and it's on purpose.

— Julián Castro (@JulianCastro) October 7, 2019

It was the first time Castro visited one of these camps in Mexico, and he urged others to do the same “because it truly drives home how much we’re failing these people and unnecessarily harming their lives.” 

I spoke to the former secretary of housing and urban development on the phone as he was driving back to San Antonio. Our conversation has been edited for content and clarity. 

Why did you travel to Matamoros?

I went to Matamoros today to spotlight the suffering of people there who are living in squalor, drinking dirty water, not eating enough food, and being subjected to crime, all because of this administration’s backwards policy to keep them out of the US while they seek asylum. Today I took 12 people [to the port of entry]—eight of them were from the LBTQ community, and one family with a person who is disabled—to appeal their placement in the [Migrant Protection Protocols] program. I did this because under the terms of the MPP program, people who have a mental health or physical disability are not supposed to be forced to remain in Mexico. Members of the LGBTQ community who have been persecuted, who have been threatened and suffered beatings, often have PTSD, and that should qualify as a mental health issue. The person who is deaf obviously shouldn’t have been placed in the MPP program in the first place. 

What did you say when you walked up to the port of entry?

I presented myself to the border agents there, asked for a supervisor, and said we were presenting these people who should not have been in the Remain in Mexico program to begin with. At that point they were taken in, and they were given an opportunity to make their case. Most of the LGBTQ migrants were from Cuba, and the rest from Central America.

Did you get any pushback from the agents at the port of entry?

No, they were professionals. 

What was the most upsetting thing you saw today?

“There are many children who are sick, who are not getting any kind of education, and who are desperate.”

The saddest thing that I saw today was a mother with her young child on her lap and the child looked thin, probably from lack of eating much. He seemed weak and very fatigued, probably because of the heat, or perhaps because they don’t have clean drinking water. There are many children who are sick, who are not getting any kind of education, and who are desperate. 

You’ve been speaking against the MPP/Remain in Mexico policy for most of the year, and you and I spoke about this back in May, but was there anything that surprised you today seeing it firsthand—especially having crossed into Matamoros?

The scale of the squalor. They’re up to more than 1,000 people there in tents right on the other side of the border. Plus, Matamoros is the newest site; you have more than 3,000 people in Nuevo Laredo and many more in Tijuana. The scale of the desperation is growing quickly as the policy expands. This is a humanitarian disaster that should be ended immediately. 

Are you concerned with what the asylum-seeking process in the United States has turned into under this administration?

“We should stop playing games with people at the border.”

Absolutely! It’s become a sham! First of all, we don’t have an immigration court system that is properly equipped to deal with the asylum claims, and it should be independent from the Department of Justice. We also should recognize people who are victims of domestic violence and gang violence in asylum claims. We should stop playing games with people at the border. 

What was the outcome for the 12 people you took to the port of entry?

We’re waiting to get the news, they are going to go through an interview their appeal of getting put through the MPP process, and we should find out at some point today what happened to them. We’re going to follow up with the Texas Civil Rights Project; they have attorneys who are in contact with each of them. 

Now, this was just a handful of people on one day, at one port of entry. We know that tens of thousands are being forced to wait in dangerous Mexican border towns for many months. Knowing the scale of this, what are you feeling right now as you drive away from the border?

“Desperate people are knocking on our door, and instead of allowing them safety as their asylum claim is determined, we push them to unsafe places along the border.”

This is a betrayal of our values and who we should be as a country, because desperate people are knocking on our door, and instead of allowing them safety as their asylum claim is determined, we push them to unsafe places along the border and have made their lives much worse. Like a lot of people, I’m frustrated by this administration’s cruelty, and I feel more determined than ever to end this policy. There’s also, of course, a sadness, especially for the children who are going through all of this. 

You’ve said that if elected president, you would quickly sign an executive order to end this policy. What else needs to happen, both short-term and long-term, to properly address asylum claims at the border?

We need an independent immigration judiciary with enough judges and support staff to hear all of these claims in a timely manner.  We also need to put more resources into getting people connected with family members who are already in the United States so they can find a loving home instead of placing them in the detention facilities. It would be more cost-effective than building more detention facilities. In addition to that, Mexico has a role, as well, in doing what it can to ensure that people have basic living conditions and that they’re safe.  

Is there an image from your trip this morning that you’d like people to know about?

Yeah, we went and laid flowers along the banks of the [Rio Grande] river where there were crosses to commemorate the death of a number of migrants, including Oscar and his daughter Valeria. And in that same river just feet away from those crosses little children were playing and bathing themselves. The river is heavily polluted, and that’s the water that people are bathing in. 

Oscar and Valeria Martinez died on these shores—desperately crossing the river as a last resort for asylum.

They aren’t the first to be killed by Trump’s immigration agenda, and they won’t be the last if we don’t act soon.#LetThemIn

— Julián Castro (@JulianCastro) October 7, 2019

Note: About two hours after I spoke with Castro, he learned that the 12 asylum-seekers he helped that morning had been sent back to Mexico. They presented their cases for why they feared returning to Mexico, and why they should be exempt from the Migrant Protection Protocols, but US Customs and Border Protection officials denied their claims. 

UPDATE: hours after we were told LGBT and disabled asylum seekers would have their cases heard, they have been returned to Mexico.

By law, these migrants are supposed to be exempt from the Remain in Mexico policy—but @CBP had decided to ignore their due process. Outrageous.

— Julián Castro (@JulianCastro) October 7, 2019


“The Americans Are Traitors”: Trump Faces a Major Backlash Over Syria Announcement

Donald Trump upended American military policy in the Middle East Sunday night, announcing through a White House statement that he would permit a “long-planned” Turkish invasion of northern Syria, a region controlled mainly by Kurds who fought alongside the United States against the Islamic State. The Kurds are considered terrorists by Turkey, and the directive all but hands the region over to Turkey and its increasingly authoritarian leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In return for the US allowing the offensive to go forward, Turkey will assume responsibility for detained ISIS fighters that have remained in the region.

Trump’s desire to reduce American involvement in Syria has repeatedly rattled his advisers at the Pentagon and in the intelligence community, who have long recommended that he keep a residual troop presence to ward off a resurgent ISIS. Former Trump Defense Secretary James Mattis and Brett McGurk, envoy to the counter-ISIS campaign, both resigned over Trump’s surprise decision to announce the withdrawal of roughly 2,000 American troops from Syria in December, which Trump agreed to after a phone call with Erdogan. Before making the abrupt decision to reverse American support for the Kurds over the weekend, Trump spoke again with Erdogan, providing another example of the US president trusting foreign despots over his own advisers.

“Donald Trump is not a Commander-in-Chief,” McGurk wrote on Twitter early Monday. “He makes impulsive decisions with no knowledge or deliberation. He sends military personnel into harm’s way with no backing. He blusters and then leaves our allies exposed when adversaries call his bluff or he confronts a hard phone call.” 

Thanks to this latest phone call, the Kurds “could be- and many expect will be- wiped out in a campaign of ethnic violence/displacement,” Richard Engel, chief foreign correspondent for NBC News, wrote Monday morning. Even if that prediction ends up looking hyperbolic, the Pentagon’s ability to recruit trustworthy allies has already taken a hit. 

A spokesperson for the Syrian Defense Forces, the Kurdish-led group allied with US troops in Syria, tweeted that “people here are owed an explanation regarding,” among other things, the “failure of US to fulfill their commitments.” Other Syrian Kurds, speaking anonymously to Engel, had much harsher words for Trump. “The Americans are traitors,” one Kurdish official told NBC. “They have abandoned us to a Turkish massacre. We can no longer fight against isis and have to defend ourselves. This could allow isis to return to the region.”

Syria Kurdish official told us, reacting to Trump’s overnight decision. 
“The Americans are traitors. They have abandoned us to a Turkish massacre.
We can no longer fight against isis and have to defend ourselves. This could allow isis to return to the region.”

— Richard Engel (@RichardEngel) October 7, 2019

In a series of tweets on Monday, Trump defended his decision as a way to pull out of “these ridiculous Endless Wars” and prevent American prisons from having to take responsibility for securing thousands of ISIS fighters. “The Kurds fought with us, but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so,” Trump said. At a United Nations press conference last year, he described the group in far different terms to a Kurdish journalist (who Trump dubbed “Mr. Kurd”). “Kurds are great people, great fighters, I like them a lot,” Trump said. “They fought with us, they died with us.” 

The Kurdish people have long occupied a sort of pariah status in the Middle East, where they have labored since World War I to form their own independent state and have frequently clashed with the governments of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Their willingness to fight alongside American-backed troops made them useful allies in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the counter-ISIS campaign in Syria. But having ignored Iraqi Kurds’ calls for independence in 2017, the United States now appears to be abandoning its frequent allies again, this time in Syria. 

Last year, Turkish soldiers invaded Afrin, a majority-Kurdish city in northern Syria, as a bulwark against the growing influence of the Kurdistan Workers Party, which along with other Kurdish groups, has “increasingly agitated against” Erdogan’s government, “conducting numerous attacks against Turkish authorities,” according to the Council on Foreign Relations. (Kurds compose roughly one-fifth of Turkey’s population.)

Erdogan, who overcame a failed coup attempt in 2016 and a brutal political setback for his party in June, has become less restrained in cracking down on dissent within his own country and outside its borders. As part of his strategy to shore up his grip on power, Erdogan has also cultivated close ties with Trump, who has been “consistently cozy” in phone conversations with him and other authoritarian rulers like Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian president Vladimir Putin, the Washington Post reported

Trump has often made rash commitments to foreign counterparts on these calls without looping in his national security team. In December, he announced the surprise withdrawal of US troops from Syria at Erdogan’s urging and “over [the] strong objections from virtually everyone involved in the fight against the Islamic State group,” the Associated Press reported. This more recent decision to abandon the Kurds followed a nearly identical sequence of events. The New York Times noted that Trump spoke to Erodgan on Sunday and agreed to a decision that went “against the recommendations of top officials in the Pentagon and the State Department.” (Defense Secretary Mark Esper deleted a tweet on Monday that said “DOD does not endorse a Turkish operation in Northern Syria”—the opposite of Trump’s position.)

Dana Shell Smith, the recently retired US ambassador to Qatar, said Monday that “there were no good choices” for the United States in northern Syria, given the clash between Turkey—a NATO ally—and the Kurds, an expedient ally against ISIS. But Trump’s chaotic style of policymaking has only made things worse. “I don’t blame Trump for the fundamental contradiction in the policy adopted before his time,” she wrote on Twitter. “I do blame him for abandoning all foreign policy deliberation and process so that choices are consistently bad.” Perhaps fittingly, the decision came days after reports emerged that Trump plans to significantly reduce the size of the White House National Security Council, which advises the president on foreign policy matters. Even Turkey was apparently surprised by Trump’s quick shift. 

Foreign policy has often been the only realm where Senate Republicans have bucked Trump, and Monday’s news proved to be no different. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said the Trump administration had made “a grave mistake” that could spiral into a “more dangerous regional war.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) pledged to introduce a sanctions package with Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) if Turkey invades Syria and said in a series of tweets that “this decision makes it difficult for the U.S. to recruit allis against radical Islam.” Even Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) released a statement questioning the wisdom of Trump’s decision. Less hawkish figures on the right welcomed Trump’s decision. Dan Caldwell, senior adviser to conservative advocacy group Concerned Veterans for America, said in a statement that his group applauds “President Trump for this action and urge[s] him to follow through on his promise to completely withdraw American forces from Syria.”

Amid the backlash on Monday, Trump vowed on Twitter to punish Turkey if it does anything “off limits.” It’s difficult to read much sincerity into this threat, given that Turkey has been clamoring for months to attack the Kurds. When John Bolton, Trump’s then-national security adviser, called on Turkey in January to commit to leaving Kurdish forces alone in northern Syria as a condition of a US withdrawal, Erdogan called it a “serious mistake” and canceled a meeting with Bolton. Turkey would offer “no concessions,” Erdogan said, in its fight against what it deems to be terrorist Kurdish groups in Syria. As recently as last month, the Kurds agreed to destroy their own fortifications along the border with Turkey at America’s urging, ostensibly as part of a plan to create a buffer between their Syrian territory and southern Turkey. Evidently they believed they still had Trump’s protection from Erdogan. All it took was another phone call to change that.