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Yates: Obama Had Nothing to Do With Flynn Investigation

Mother Jones Magazine -

I don’t suppose anyone who’s still sane needs to hear this, but just for the record:

Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates told lawmakers Wednesday that neither President Barack Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden attempted to influence the FBI’s investigation of incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn during a January 2017 Oval Office meeting with top national security officials.

“During the meeting, the president, the vice president, the national security adviser did not attempt to any way to direct or influence any investigation,” Yates said during sworn testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

And for those of you who aren’t sane, the president of the United States is still on your side:

Sally Yates has zero credibility. She was a part of the greatest political crime of the Century, and ObamaBiden knew EVERYTHING! Sally Yates leaked the General Flynn conversation? Ask her under oath. Republicans should start playing the Democrats game!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 5, 2020

Roger that.

Good News: Donald Trump Doesn’t Get to Decide if He Gets Ice Cream

Mother Jones Magazine -

To everyone working tirelessly around the world to hold together splintering democracies, I have a question: Why do people keep asking Donald Trump if he’ll “accept” the outcome of the election? I’m 46 years old and can’t remember any time we’ve asked this of any candidate for any office. I’m not an elections expert or a constitutional scholar, and I know that Trump’s obstinance and possessiveness are dangerously real, but I’m 100 percent sure the election results aren’t up to him. They’re not his to “accept.” Just like with kids and ice cream.

If I ask my 8-year-old every day for months, “Will you get upset if I don’t buy you ice cream on November 3?” and, in the way of children, she answers, “I don’t know. Maybe I will,” I know I’ve already lost.

November 3 rolls around and my child asks for ice cream, and I say no. I would be surprised if she didn’t get upset. Wouldn’t you? I’ve basically reinforced for her that I’m expecting she’ll be upset. This was her cone, after all. Even though my daughter has more impulse control than Trump, she knows that I anticipate she’ll throw a fit and she’ll negotiate, insult, whine, scheme, and scream at me in public—and, if she feels I’ve withheld her cone unfairly, she may resort to violence (dear god, I hope that phase is over).

Even if she makes it exceptionally difficult, the good news for me and the bad news for my daughter is that she doesn’t get to decide if the ice cream is hers. I do.

Donald Trump does not get to decide the election or whether its results are acceptable. We do.

P.S. I know that parents and journalists and media workers of all kinds don’t have identical roles in a (democratic) society, but we’re all suffering a kicking-and-screaming child-adult in the White House, and we might witness worse in November. Remember to stay strong—parents, journalists, parents of journalists, everyone.

Venu Gupta is Mother Jones’ Midwest regional development director.

Beirut Blast a Deadly Blow to Lebanon’s Already Shattered Economy

Mint Press News -

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab today called for a day of national mourning after a massive explosion ripped through the capital Beirut yesterday, killing at least 100 people and injuring at least 4,000 others. The extent of the damage is immense; the city’s governor Marwan Abboud estimated that up to 300,000 have immediately been made homeless and that the blast has caused $5 billion worth of damage. Last night Diab addressed the nation: “What happened today will not pass without accountability,” he said, “those responsible for this catastrophe will pay the price.”

What the hell is this? Extensive explosions with an unmatched impact, you can see.
May Allah protect people of #Beirut pic.twitter.com/Hk0Axdifxo

— Shahbaz Ali (@Shahbaz35403) August 5, 2020

While some, including President Trump, have suggested foul play, the most likely explanation was a fire and explosion at the city’s port, where some 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate was being stored. A cheap fertilizer, when kept in large quantities, it can generate enough heat on its own to spark a fire or explode on its own accord. The intense heat of the Lebanese summer no doubt contributed to the danger. Diab claimed that the explosive material had been improperly stored at the port “for years.” Port officials have been put under house arrest pending an investigation.

The port of #Beirut before and after today’s catastrophic explosion. #Lebanon pic.twitter.com/La5G2zQ3c2

— Sarah Abdallah (@sahouraxo) August 5, 2020

Survivors immediately began sharing images of the destruction on social media. The blast destroyed the crowded city center, with buildings as far as two kilometers away from the epicenter collapsing. Hospitals were inundated, with arrivals being treated by overwhelmed staff in blood-covered hallways. Medical centers are appealing for blood donors to come forward to meet the unusual demand. Cars across the city were upended by the blast that was heard as far away as Cyprus. Aid teams from Russia, the E.U. and Turkey have announced they will travel to the Middle Eastern nation to help.

“It hit the economic center, all major hotels, every single building in the city. Nothing was left untouched. I went around Beirut today after the blast. The damage is shocking. Every single residential building, every shop, every hotel, every restaurant, almost nothing left untouched,” wrote Lebanese-American journalist Rania Khalek. Meanwhile, Ghada Alsharif of the Daily Star, the country’s largest English-language newspaper, shared images of her outlet’s offices. The windows were all completely smashed, the floors covered in glass and dirt, and the ceiling appeared to be buckling.

BREAKING: Massive explosion in Beirut. Footage from the daily star office now in Lebanon pic.twitter.com/2uBsKP5wCH

— Ghada Alsharif (@GhadaaSharif) August 4, 2020

The explosion may prove to be a fatal blow to the already floundering economy. The country is in the midst of a devastating economic meltdown as the Lebanese lira collapsed. While official rates peg the lira at 1,500 to the U.S. dollar, black market rates put the price at around 9,000 per dollar. The country had kept the currency stable with large reserves which they kept by offering extraordinarily high interest rates for wealthy savers. But after they realized there was nothing backing it up, the results were bank runs and galloping inflation.

Food prices, along with shortages and hunger, have increased over the past weeks, with bread both difficult to find and expensive to buy. The total destruction of the port’s silos, where tens of thousands of tons of wheat was stored, has left Lebanon with less than a month’s reserves of grain, according to Economic Minister Raoul Nehme. Worse still, the port was responsible for receiving and storing around 80 percent of Lebanon’s imports (including most of its food), with other port cities like Tyre and Tripoli unable to shoulder the increased load.

Added to the food crisis and fallout from the explosion is the increasing bite of U.S. sanctions, mostly targeted at Syria, but also hitting its Lebanese neighbor. Due in part to sanctions, Lebanon has been unable to buy electricity from its Eastern neighbor, leading to near-constant power outages this summer. Last year, the Trump administration also sanctioned a Lebanese bank for its supposed cooperation with Hezbollah, an act that further drained the economy. 

Beirut!!!!!! Yah Allah . Prayers for Beirut! pic.twitter.com/gfEvFakuiW

— Salman Iqbal ARY (@Salman_ARY) August 5, 2020

Beirut’s hospitals, already battling a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases, are also unable to cope with the sudden influx of patients. Two-thirds of confirmed coronavirus cases have occurred in the past month. With the country’s economy in freefall and hundreds of thousands of newly homeless people, it appears unlikely that the situation will improve in the short term.

“There are no words to describe the scope of destruction in Beirut. I’ve seen the damage from war in Syria and Iraq. But that happened gradually, one neighborhood or street at a time. This was an entire city destroyed in a few minutes. The suffering and misery is unfathomable,” Khalek added.

Feature photo | A drone picture shows the scene of an explosion at the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Aug. 5, 2020. Hussein Malla | AP

Alan MacLeod is a Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent. He has also contributed to Fairness and Accuracy in ReportingThe GuardianSalonThe GrayzoneJacobin MagazineCommon Dreams the American Herald Tribune and The Canary.

The post Beirut Blast a Deadly Blow to Lebanon’s Already Shattered Economy appeared first on MintPress News.

Clemency, Redemption, and Justice: A Personal Story

ACLU News -

In 1998, at the age of 21, I was sentenced to life without parole plus 320 years for drug-related offenses that were committed mostly in my teens. In 1998, 16 years into my sentence, I received clemency from President Obama after writing a letter to him asking for forgiveness, asking for mercy, asking for understanding that I wasn’t a bad kid, just a kid who made a bad decision. That I wasn’t that person who roamed those streets long ago or the same person who stood in front of the judge and received a life sentence, and as a result I shouldn’t die in prison.
 
President Obama agreed.
 
I was extremely fortunate. Those who sought a commutation of their sentence before Obama’s presidency, when George W. Bush was in office, had a 1 in 1,000 chance of success. While conducting research as I prepared my own clemency application, I learned that only one other person serving life without parole for a drug offense had ever been granted clemency. Because of this, I have always compared my clemency to hitting the lottery. But instead of winning millions of dollars, I won my freedom.
 
Unfortunately, I am just one of the thousands upon thousands of people who after years or even decades in prison, have matured and changed their way of thinking. But because of mandatory minimums and truth in sentencing laws(another supposedly “tough on crime” sentencing scheme that is really just tough on people), and the inaccessibility or unreliability of parole, there are no judicial remedies to acknowledge the transformations of these individuals.
 
However, there is an extraordinary executive power that allows a show of mercy to be made: clemency.
 
Clemency has historically been relied upon in America as an olive branch extended to those unduly harmed by our system of mass punishment. It has been used as a tool to heal people, communities, and our very nation, and in doing so, has engendered reconciliation among its citizens. Clemency is a corrective measure that counteracts some of the effects of a flawed system. But the degree to which it can do so is mirrored by the degree to which it is used. Though it may often be overlooked today, clemency has been a key facet of our republic since its founding.
 
Alexander Hamilton, who played a pivotal role in ratifying the Constitution, saw the value of investing in the office of the presidency the ability to grant clemency to groups during periods of national crisis. Hamilton outlined this in the Federalist Papers: “In seasons of insurrection or rebellion, there are often critical moments, when a well-timed offer of pardon to the insurgents or rebels may restore the tranquility of the commonwealth; and which, if suffered to pass unimproved, it may never be possible afterwards to recall.”
 
Not long after this statement, President George Washington would use his pardon power after the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. The President pardoned two people who were considered leaders of the rebellion and had been sentenced to death. Washington’s legacy was later echoed in President Lincoln’s choice to issue 64 pardons for war-related offenses. They were part of his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, his blueprint for the reintegration of the South into Union.
 
In the century that followed, between 1918 and 1920, more than 2,000 people were convicted of sedition and other violations of the Espionage Act for speaking out against the American involvement in World War I. In 1921, President Warren Harding reacted by issuing blanket pardons to all those convicted under the Espionage Act. Still decades later, attempting to bring a close to the era of American conflict in Vietnam, President Jimmy Carter offered a blanket pardon to any American who had dodged the draft during the war.

These are all examples of how Presidents exercised their clemency power during and after periods of war to bring the nation together so that it might move forward in unity. That legacy must be resurrected again today to combat the legacy of another war: the war on drugs and related “tough on crime” policies that have actually been a war on Black and Brown communities.
 
These pervasive modern wars have left about 80 million people in this country with arrest records, 8 million with felony convictions, and more than 2 million people currently in our jails and prisons. With statistics like these, and decades of harsh crime policies in place, we can debate which policies should have been implemented and which shouldn’t have. But one thing is clear: America’s “tough on crime” movement was misguided, ill-advised, and has hurt the communities it intended to help.
 
From former President George Bush to current President Donald Trump, and from Govs. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania to Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma, elected officials have exercised their clemency power to give individuals back their freedom, many of whom have been in prison for years or decades under “tough on crime” laws enacted in the 1980s.
 
I was one of those fortunate souls, and my release granted me more than freedom. It was a chance at redemption.
 
Clemency is not and should not be viewed as a tool used by officials who are “soft on crime.” Instead, it is a tool whose use signals an official’s wisdom about our nation and the nature of our mass punishment system, whose roots lie in slavery but whose functions are present in the lives of too many people today. These punishments that may have appeared necessary and just at one time, but their lie has been exposed: Putting too many people in prison for too long does not keep people safe, and it certainly does harm to the loved ones of those who are incarcerated.
 
In a 2003 speech, former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy referred to pardon power as a necessity to ensure justice is administered and adjusted over time:
 
“A people confident in its laws and institutions should not be ashamed of mercy. The greatest of poets remind us that mercy is ‘mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes the throned monarch better than his crown.’ I hope more lawyers say to chief executives, ‘Mr. President,’ or ‘Your Excellency, the Governor, this young man has not served his full sentence, but he has served long enough. Give him what only you can give him. Give him another chance. Give him a priceless gift. Give him Liberty.’”
 
I know personally that when the gift of clemency is given to a person, it reverberates throughout our souls that we are not only a nation of opportunity, but also of second chances, of mercy and hope — even for those who may have done wrong — even for those in prison. For as Justice Kennedy said in his closing remarks on clemency, “[S]till, the prisoner is a person. Still he or she is part of the family of humankind.”

Apartheid or One State: Has Jordan Broken a Political Taboo?

Mint Press News -

What will it take for the idea of a two-state solution, which was hardly practical to begin with, to be completely abandoned?

Every realistic assessment of the situation on the ground indicates, with palpable clarity, that there can never be a viable Palestinian state in parts of the West Bank and Gaza.

Politically, the idea is also untenable. Those who are still marketing the ‘two-state solution’, less enthusiastically now as compared with the euphoria of twenty years ago, are paralyzed in the face of the Israeli-American onslaught on any attempt at making ‘Palestine’ a tangible reality.

The Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas is still busy compiling more symbolic recognition of a state that, at best, exists in the dusty files of the United Nations. Arabs and Europeans, too, still speak of a two-state, rhetoric that is never followed with practical steps that may enforce international law and hold Israel accountable to it.

The fate of Palestine seems to be entirely dependent on the aggressive and violent actions of Israel alone – not only through the policies of Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, but all previous Israeli governments.

This trajectory of aggression and violence is likely to continue for as long as Israel is held hostage to the ideology of Zionism which remains committed to territorial, colonial expansion and the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous population.

These two factors – colonialism and ethnic cleansing – can never coexist with the principles of justice and peace. For Zionism to remain relevant, Israel and Palestine must remain in the throes of a protracted, interminable war.

Therefore, it was encouraging to read comments made by Jordanian Prime Minister, Omar Razzaz, in an interview with the British Guardian newspaper on July 21.

“You close the door to the two-state solution, I could very well look at this positively, if we’re clearly opening the door to a one-state democratic solution,” Razzaz said.

Razzaz was referring specifically in the context of Netanyahu’s decision to annex nearly a third of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley. The senior Jordanian official referred to Israel’s annexation policies as the “ushering in (of) a new apartheid state.”

An apartheid state was, practically, ushered in a long time ago. Israel’s so-called Nation-State Law of 2018 merely confirmed an existing reality.

The Law left no doubt regarding Israel’s exclusionist ‘Jewish identity’, formulated at the expense of the Palestinian people, their historic rights in Palestine, and the internationally-enshrined Right of Return for Palestinian refugees.

On July 29, the Israeli Knesset (parliament) callously rejected a draft amendment to make the unmistakably racist Nation-State Law slightly less racist. The amendment had called for the inclusion of a clause that guarantees equality for all of Israel’s citizens, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity.

In its current form, Israel represents the very essence of apartheid.

Razzaz knows this, as do many politicians and leaders throughout the Middle East, in Europe, and across the world. Unlike his counterparts elsewhere, however, the Jordanian Prime Minister had the courage to imagine a future in Palestine and Israel that is not inundated by empty clichés of ‘solutions’ that were never fair, to begin with.

Razzaz’s positive and upbeat tone of words is notable.

“I challenge anybody from Israel to say yes, let’s end the two-state solution, it’s not viable,” he said. “But let’s work together on a one-state democratic solution. That, I think, we will look at very favorably. But closing one and wishful thinking about the other is just self-deception.”

Other Arab officials, prior to Razzaz, alluded to the one-state possibility, but largely in a negative context. Palestinian Authority officials, in particular, have waved this card before, often threatening Israel that, if illegal settlement expansion was not frozen, for example, Palestinians would have no alternative but to demand one state.

What Razzaz is saying is quite different, if not radical, as Jordan, which signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1994, has remained the most visible Arab advocate for the two-state solution for many years. Razzaz’s words bring that ‘self-deception’ to an end.

Of course, political necessity will compel Jordan, and others, to continue to pay lip service to a political ‘solution’ that will, unlikely, ever materialize. Israelis and Palestinians are now conjoined in such a way that physical separation between Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews is impossible. Additionally, speaking of a two-state solution while Israel is cementing a one apartheid state reality is a waste of precious time that should be used to foster equality, accountability, and just peace.

Ordinary Palestinians, too are beginning to realize the futility of the two-state paradigm. According to a February poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 61 percent of all Palestinians no longer believe that ‘a two-state solution’ is viable. The same poll suggests that 37 percent support the idea of a single state solution. Judging by previous poll numbers, it seems that, before long, the majority of Palestinians will embrace the latter as the most rational and achievable objective.

It will take time because the establishment of an independent Palestinian state has been the only rallying cry by the Palestinian leadership for nearly three decades.

However, even prior to the 1960s, the Palestinian national movement adopted a political strategy that was predicated on the establishment of one democratic state for Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Alas, political expediency impelled late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to shift tactics, settling for a Palestinian state that would, in theory, be incrementally established in disconnected parts of the occupied territories – Gaza, Jericho, Area A, B, and so on.

Even the latter idea, which was most unfair to Palestinians, was still rejected by Israel, and Netanyahu’s latest annexation scheme is proving to be the final nail of the two-state coffin.

Since the two-state solution is no longer workable, Palestine and Israel are now left with one of two options: a protracted, racist, and violent apartheid or coexistence in a modern, democratic, and secular state, for all of its people.

The democratic and sustainable choice should be obvious, even to politicians.

Feature photo | Jordanians yell slogans during a protest against Trump’s so-called Deal of the Century in the center of Amman, Jordan, Jan. 31, 2020. Raad Adayleh | AP

Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the Editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books. His latest is “These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons” (Clarity Press, Atlanta). Dr. Baroud is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA), Istanbul Zaim University (IZU). His website is www.ramzybaroud.net

The post Apartheid or One State: Has Jordan Broken a Political Taboo? appeared first on MintPress News.

Why Hong Kongers Fight

Dissent Magazine -

After weathering decades of disappointment, Hong Kongers understand that there is no tomorrow waiting. The future is not guaranteed, but must be won.

The End of Big Tech? Calls Grow to Break Up Facebook, Amazon for "Mob-Like" Behavior, Monopoly Power

Democracy Now! -

Calls are growing to break up the Big Tech giants, with a handful of companies controlling more and more of the technology industry, crowding out or acquiring would-be competitors and exercising vast power over the U.S. economy. Lawmakers grilled the CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook during a hearing last week on whether their companies are guilty of stifling competition, in a scene reminiscent of the 1994 hearing of tobacco executives who claimed cigarettes were not addictive. This came just days after Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos reportedly made $13 billion in a single day, even as the coronavirus pandemic has left millions of Americans struggling to make ends meet. We speak with Scott Galloway, professor of Marketing at NYU Stern, who says we may be seeing “the beginning of the end” of the tech monopolies.

Journalist Rami Khouri: Beirut Explosion Follows Years of Lebanese Gov't Incompetence & Corruption

Democracy Now! -

The explosion in the port of Beirut, which killed at least 100 people and injured about 4,000 others, is the latest blow to Lebanon, which already faces an economic, political and public health crisis amid the coronavirus pandemic. The blast is believed to have been triggered by 2,700 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate inexplicably left unattended in a warehouse for six years. Journalist Rami Khouri says it’s further proof of “the cumulative incompetence, corruption, lassitude, amateurism and uncaring attitude by successive Lebanese governments” that have failed the country. “It’s the ruling political elite that is responsible for this,” he says.

"Despair and Destruction": Doctor in Beirut Describes Harrowing Scenes After Massive Port Explosion

Democracy Now! -

As Beirut reels from a massive explosion that killed at least 100 people and injured thousands, we get an on-the-ground update from pediatrician and writer Dr. Seema Jilani, who treated her own daughter for injuries after the blast. “It was extremely packed because we’re just coming out of a four-day lockdown,” says Jilani. “Everybody was out.” Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab called the explosion a “national catastrophe.”

Headlines for August 5, 2020

Democracy Now! -

America’s Pandemic Response Is Creating Major Hurdles for Many Deaf People

Mother Jones Magazine -

After more than five months of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, White House briefings and press conferences still lack an American Sign Language interpreter. On Monday, a week after President Trump resumed his daily briefings, the National Association of the Deaf filed a lawsuit against the White House arguing that the continued refusal to include an interpreter violates the Americans With Disabilities Act. “All 50 states’ governors have provided in-frame American Sign Language (‘ASL’) interpretation during public briefings regarding the pandemic,” the lawsuit notes. “President Trump, however, does not. He now stands alone in holding televised briefings regarding the Covid-19 pandemic without ever having provided any ASL Interpretation.” The suit goes on to mention that other members of the White House coronavirus task force, including Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, also appear without interpreters.

For advocates in the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities, the White House press conferences have been a months-long reminder of unique challenges during the pandemic. Since the Americans With Disabilities Act was enacted 30 years ago, a number of measures have been taken to reduce discrimination against people with disabilities. In the years that followed, society-wide accommodations—like wheelchair ramps and closed captioning on television—were made to better integrate people with varying disabilities into the mainstream. But even with progress, the world isn’t particularly deaf-friendly, and COVID-19 has undercut many of the advances that have been made. 

“The greatest challenges come from the lack of communication access that have been exacerbated by the pandemic,” Howard A. Rosenblum, the CEO of NAD, the group suing Trump, told me in an email last month. And those challenges range from high-level government communications to mundane interactions.

That was the case for Ashley, who’d lost much of her hearing when she was 15 months old and recently went to the Houston-area branch of America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses. The employees may have spoken louder so that she could understand them through their masks, but since she reads speech instead of signs, she asked them to lower their masks so she could understand what they were saying. They refused. After all, it was mid-July when cases of the coronavirus were spiking in Houston—on July 14, there were 2,962 new cases in the city on a single day.

Unable to read their expressions or understand what they were saying, Ashley (who asked that her last name not be used) became so frustrated and upset that she left the store—and left the state. She scheduled an appointment in her home state of Louisiana, a five-hour drive away, because even though masks are still required there, a mandate exempts those “trying to communicate with a person who is hearing-impaired.” 

Like many others who are deaf or hard of hearing in the United States, Ashley relies heavily on speechreading to understand people. “My lifeline,” she calls it. Usually, Ashley would manage the demands of daily life, like trips to the grocery store or the optician, by letting “the person helping me know that I was hearing-impaired, I lipread so please be patient.” But that’s become complicated during the pandemic. As her experience at the Houston store illustrates, the new rules of engagement that create minor inconveniences for most people have become fundamental disruptions for many people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

“It’s already difficult being hearing-impaired in normal settings. It’s a thousand times worse now that everyone is wearing a mask.” 

“It’s already difficult being hearing-impaired in normal settings.” she says, “It’s a thousand times worse now that everyone is wearing a mask.” 

Ashley’s interaction was troubling, but not unique. “People with hearing loss constantly say that it’s exhausting to communicate in these kinds of settings,” says Dr. Debara Tucci, director of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders at NIH, describing how social distancing and mask wearing have affected many people. “I think that this is going to go on for a very long time.”

A lot of people who can’t hear spend much of their lives making adjustments and compromises to fit a world of those who can. For deaf people, that means deploying a number of tools and strategies to communicate, such as manual language, technology, sometimes medical interventions like cochlear implants, and visual cues. But for the 48 million deaf or hard-of-hearing men, women, and children in the US, the massive social adjustments to combat the coronavirus have created a unique set of challenges—and not just for those who mostly rely on speech reading. American Sign Language, for instance, relies heavily on inferences from facial expressions. With voices muffled behind masks, the effectiveness of cochlear implants—ear implants that deliver sound by stimulating the auditory nerve—are reduced.

In mid-March, like millions of others, Robert Weinstock, interim director of public and media relations in the Office of University Communication at Gallaudet University, began working from home. Gallaudet University is in Washington, DC, and was chartered by Congress in 1864 to serve deaf university students. Today, courses are taught using English and American Sign Language. Weinstock, who lives in the tight-knit suburban Maryland community of Takoma Park, says neighbors regularly meet at council meetings to discuss local and national politics. Resources for deaf people existed on a provisional basis. When Weinstock and his wife, who is also deaf, wanted to attend those gatherings, an interpreter had to be arranged. When those gatherings moved online during the pandemic, an interpreter was not initially included. “We’ve contacted our mayor, who has arranged interpreters for the webinars,” he says. “She’s been very helpful, but my point is that we were not considered in the beginning of the planning stage.” 

Like people who aren’t deaf, many deaf people have scrambled to shift as much conventional life online as possible. In March, Gallaudet sent students home and offered online classes and weekly seminars to keep students connected. In some ways the students were well-prepared. According to Weinstock, visual resources like videos and PowerPoint were already part of the Gallaudet curriculum, and all courses are typically taught in ASL, which can be used over Zoom. Since the shift to remote learning, 99 percent of Gallaudet students successfully finished the spring semester online, and ahead of the fall semester, students and faculty are taking online modules to learn techniques—like embedding ASL and closed captioning into video—for more seamless class instruction. Still, digital-only learning isn’t perfect, and the unexpected changes have created their own challenges.

“There are students all over the world,” he said. “Suppose class time is at 8 a.m. in DC. If they’re in California, that’s a 5 a.m. class. England that might be at noon, and that might affect somebody in India because they had to go home.”

For many who are deaf or hard of hearing, aspects of the pandemic that others take for granted have been challenging. As noted in the lawsuit against the White House, briefings from state and local officials on safety measures and virus prevalence may not have initially included ASL interpreters, but by April they were a feature of 47 governors’ emergency press conferences. By the time of the NAD lawsuit on Monday, it was all 50. When New York became the US epicenter of the coronavirus in March, Gov. Andrew Cuomo began giving daily briefings. Disability Rights New York, an advocacy group, filed a lawsuit citing a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act and charging that the governor’s emergency television press conferences violated the ADA because they lacked a live interpreter. By April, Cuomo was sharing the screen with Arkady Belozovsky, a sign language interpreter.

Closed captioning may be one solution, but it has its own liabilities. “First, we need information at the same time that others are provided that information,” Weinstock says. “Second, yes, many of the televisions have captioning available, but caption quality is highly variable.” 

“First, we need information at the same time that others are provided that information. Second, yes, many of the televisions have captioning available, but caption quality is highly variable.”

The danger of being out of the loop during COVID-19 can become even greater when illness strikes and someone needs a hospital or health care facility. It’s often nearly impossible for someone who is deaf—with or without an acute illness—to navigate the complicated demands of accessing care. According to Tucci of the NIH, “There are so many issues in hospitals that are so busy, and understaffed, and under-resourced.” In health care facilities slammed by the pandemic, she says it’s possible that the essential question of accessibility for deaf patients wouldn’t “rise to the top.” The National Association of the Deaf established guidelines for hospitals and deaf patients in early April, and what NAD describes is troubling. “Many hospitals will not allow in-person interpreters, family members, or visitors to come into the hospital. You may be alone for a long time when you are in the hospital,” the website states. Guidelines recommend that patients bring a card stating, “PLEASE RESPECT MY LEGAL RIGHT TO UNDERSTAND YOU AND PARTICIPATE IN MY CARE BY ALLOWING ME TO USE THE SMARTPHONE,” to avoid medical decisions being made without legitimate consent from patients.

Beyond health care, experts in the field are also concerned about how heightened tensions between law enforcement and communities of color enter the equation when everyone is wearing masks. Recent deaths of unarmed people of color at the hands of police have shown the challenges disproportionately faced by members of more vulnerable communities as they navigate interactions with the police. Those encounters are especially difficult when someone can’t hear—or possibly speak. According to Vox, a quarter of those shot by police have a disability. With law enforcement wearing masks too, being able to interpret information clearly—and quickly—can be life-or-death. “I’ve had a number of conversations with mostly Black, Indigenous, and POC men who say they intentionally will wear a very cutesy mask in order to diminish any kinds of concerns,” says Teresa Blankmeyer Burke, a philosophy professor at Gallaudet. “If you are a deaf person and a police officer is shouting behind your back, you’re not going to know.” Even if they’re standing in front of you, that still may be the case.

As deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals adjust to the social code of the pandemic, the spaces where they might feel most at home—like schools or social organizations for deaf people—have also disappeared. Burke points out that for many deaf people who practice ASL, the most candid communication comes with other deaf people. She compares it to someone interacting in their home language with another native speaker. “I always have a little bit of a sigh of relief and relaxation when in a signing environment,” Burke says. “A lot of guess work goes into speech reading, so we cannot access language without using a lot more of our working memory or cognitive load. It’s much more mentally fatiguing for us, but in a signing community and using sign language, it’s less fatiguing.” With social distancing, those spaces are unavailable.

As the pandemic wears on, innovations have appeared, including third-party apps that add live closed captioning—which Zoom doesn’t offer itself. Voice-to-text phone apps transcribe dialogue in real time, and they’re becoming widespread even though there are problems with voice recognition software. Increasingly, masks are appearing that display the mouth through a sheet of clear plastic, but the plastic panel “tends to block the flow of sound,” Tucci says. It can also trap air and become uncomfortably hot. In hospitals and other medical facilities, certain provisions of HIPAA—a law designed to protect patient privacy—have been suspended during the emergency, so translators can be included in telehealth sessions, paving the way for clearer communication between providers and patients. “I’m the patient and trying to interact with the doctor, and I have this physical connection with this space and person, but the interpreter is in a box and they can’t see much,” says Erin Wilkinson, a deaf linguistics professor at the University of New Mexico. “That is really complex.”

Increased communication through screens and restricted physical interaction may have the potential to spark enduring linguistic changes for ASL users. After all, the migration of chat from analog to digital isn’t restricted to the world of health care. When deaf people rely on signing as their principle mode of communication, Wilkinson says, they generally “sign with people they know well.” But today, when so much communication is virtual, more deaf people are signing with more strangers, and the popularity of social media that’s video-focused—TikTok and Instagram, for instance—are more adaptable to ASL than other apps. “How do they modify their ASL to communicate with these people they’ve never met before?” Wilkinson asks. “That’s a very big question to research, because so far deaf people haven’t really had big experiences in communicating with people in ASL that they’ve never met before.” She also wonders about physical interactions between mask-wearing ASL users. If requirements to cover faces last long enough, what workarounds will appear in the absence of facial expressions to help decipher meaning?

Burke, the Gallaudet professor, sees an opportunity. She says that after the pandemic, the way deaf people interact with everyone could stop being an afterthought. Rather than deaf accessibility to Zoom in the form of an app update, it could be in the default product. She points out that the neighborhood around Gallaudet is like the border between two countries, where “people will pick up parts of the other’s language.” In non-hearing circles, Burke says, people are more patient in their communications and have to focus on each other. “In spoken-language communities, there is almost an affront when you miss something said,” she points out.

Fortunately for Ashley, that wasn’t the case during her eye exam in Louisiana. For much of the appointment, one of the assisting specialists pulled his mask down to speak. The entire exam took several minutes. It’s possible Ashley could have gotten her eyes checked closer to home. The ADA attempts to ensure that access to services in her life is no different than for anyone else. The demands of a five-hour drive across state lines are grueling, but when she arrived she knew that her needs and those of other deaf people were taken into consideration. Still, it was only one interaction of many. “This is a very frustrating time for everyone,” she says. “I like my independence, but now I feel like I need someone with me all the time.” 

How Native Tribes Started Winning at the Supreme Court

Mother Jones Magazine -

On a September morning in 2001, Native American leaders from across the country convened in a ballroom at the Grand Hyatt in Washington, DC to talk strategy. The Supreme Court was escalating a destructive war on tribal sovereignty, weakening the power of Indigenous nations to protect their people and lands. As the meeting opened, Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii took the podium and stunned everyone with the news that two planes had just hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The meeting’s 300 attendees flocked to the lobby to watch live coverage of the attacks.

Less than one hour later, some esteemed tribal leaders called for the meeting to continue as planned. “What’s happened is awful,” lawyer Riyaz Kanji recalls them saying. “But we came here from all around the country to address some big issues. So let’s get to work.”

Their willingness to proceed testified to the urgency of their task. Though federal policies were slowly becoming more supportive of Native peoples, the Supreme Court had delivered two decades’ worth of judgments limiting their progress. In 2002, legal scholar David Getches “found that convicted criminals won 34 percent of the time while Indian tribes have won only 23 percent of the time.” He added, “Nobody does worse in this Supreme Court than Indian tribes.” After 2000 brought particularly brutal rulings over taxation and jurisdiction issues, tribal leaders and lawyers decided they needed a new approach. Thus, on September 11, 2001, they formed the Tribal Supreme Court Project—and their luck began to change.

The project was instrumental in securing last month’s victory in one of the most important tribal cases of the past century. In McGirt v. Oklahoma, the Supreme Court found that nearly half of Oklahoma still belongs to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and other tribes, at least for jurisdictional purposes. In a majority opinion that evoked strong emotions throughout Indian Country, Justice Neil Gorsuch—a Trump appointee—suggested that the court has a duty to hold the US government to its oft-broken promises to tribes, marking the fourth consecutive ruling in favor of Natives’ treaty rights. This may be the dawn of a new judicial era, catalyzed by the Tribal Supreme Court Project and by new justices whose opinions reflect an evolving understanding of Indian law and history. 

“We’ll be quoting passages in [Gorsuch’s McGirt] opinion for the rest of our lives.”

Federal courts play a much larger role in the lives of Native Americans than most people’s, says Elizabeth Kronk Warner, citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and dean of the law school at University of Utah. That’s because “Indian” is technically not a racial identity but rather a legal designation. “It’s by virtue of my political relationship with my tribe that I also have a special relationship with the federal government,” she says. For tribal members, “everyday issues” like hunting rights and land ownership “become questions of federal law,” specifically a long-neglected branch of it called “Indian law.”

Under Indian law, crimes committed by Indians on reservations must be tried in federal court if they are felonies or involve non-Indian victims. This was at issue in McGirt v. Oklahoma: A Seminole man named Jimcy McGirt was sentenced to life by the state of Oklahoma for committing sex crimes against a child in 1996. Yet the felony happened on lands that Congress designated as the Muscogee (Creek) reservation after having removed the Muscogee from their southeastern homelands during the “Trail of Tears” in the 1830s.

Later, after encouraging white settlers to purchase much of the land promised to the Muscogee and four other tribes, both Congress and the state of Oklahoma ceased to recognize the original reservation boundaries. Yet the Supreme Court held last month that Congress never officially disestablished any of the five reservations, meaning those lands—making up more than half the state—are still part of “Indian Country,” a patchwork of Native communities across the US where state laws rarely apply. Jimcy McGirt, and dozens of tribal citizens in similar situations, should have been tried in federal court. 

They may now be retried, thanks to the efforts of McGirt’s lawyer Ian Gershengorn, Riyaz Kanji (who argued on behalf of the Muscogee), and others connected to the Tribal Supreme Court Project, a nationwide brain trust of more than 300 attorneys and scholars who collaborate to boost tribes’ arguments before the Supreme Court. It was formed out of a sense that the highest court in the land, a sometime ally of tribes throughout history, was turning sour on tribal sovereignty. John Echo-Hawk, founder of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), was echoing a common sentiment when he declared in 2001, “There’s a crisis in Indian Country, and it’s called the US Supreme Court.” 

Since then, the Tribal Supreme Court Project has monitored 400 Indian law cases as they made their way through the courts, watching those likely to reach the Supreme Court and inviting their network to collaborate on petitions, arguments, and representation for the more than 150 that have. Spreadsheets are updated and shared by Joel West Williams, a Cherokee attorney who leads the initiative for NARF, which along with the National Congress of American Indians has anchored the Tribal Supreme Court Project from the start. In that time, says Williams, “the quality of tribal advocacy at the court has substantially improved,” not just with regard to representation but “the whole package of court presentation.”

Within two days of the Supreme Court agreeing to review the McGirt case, Williams was on a call with Kanji to plan a strategy around amicus briefs, the written arguments filed by outside parties interested in a case. Kanji knew from his time clerking for David Souter, in 1994, that Supreme Court justices have neither the obligation nor the time to read every brief that’s filed. He suggested the project focus on coordinating a limited lineup of briefs that clarify key issues, written by people of interest to the court (rather than piling on the briefs ad hoc over time). For McGirt, they recruited former US attorneys to file briefs challenging Oklahoma’s argument that redrawing the jurisdictional lines would create legal turmoil, and they found state elected officials to write about the high degree of existing cooperation between Oklahoma and tribes. 

Williams invited everyone on the project’s email list to a call, soliciting feedback from anyone interested—which, given McGirt’s potential implications for all tribes, was an extra large group. “The project has become a clearinghouse for information,” says Kanji, an immigrant from Uganda who has devoted hundreds of pro bono hours to the project. When the lead attorneys needed more evidence of the US “crushing tribal reservations,” they quickly accumulated examples from across the country. “It’s a very inclusive approach,” says Williams.

The Tribal Supreme Court Project was inspired by a similar initiative by the National Association of Attorneys General, which began coordinating efforts to defend states before the court in 1982, as Reagan’s “New Federalism” devolved regulatory powers to states and exposed them to more litigation. Yet despite the groundbreaking intertribal collaboration, the Indigenous project has only begun to win consistently in the past five years, since the arrival of Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Gorsuch. Before that, the court had already flip-flopped several times in its approach to tribal issues.

Indian law as we know it dates back to the 1820s, when then–Chief Justice John Marshall authored the first of three landmark Supreme Court decisions known as the “Marshall Trilogy.” These rulings, two of which involved the Cherokee Nation in the lead-up to the Trail of Tears, established the federal government’s primacy over states in dealing with Indigenous nations, who Marshall said had a sovereign right to manage their own affairs.

Their newly recognized sovereignty was soon crushed when President Andrew Jackson pushed forward with a program of forced removal, kicking off a century in which Indian policy shifted toward conquest, land grabs, and annihilation. The Supreme Court began following Congress’ and the executive’s lead, says Dylan Hedden-Nicely, a citizen of Cherokee Nation and law professor at the University of Idaho. The turning point was United States v. Kagama, which in 1886 held that the federal government could prosecute major crimes committed by one Indian against another, diminishing tribes’ sovereign right to govern their own citizens.

The Supreme Court’s last swing in favor of tribes came during the civil rights movement of the 1960s—the era of the American Indian Movement and the Alcatraz occupation (pictured above).
AP photo

“Indian tribes are the wards of the nation,” wrote Justice Samuel Miller in that majority opinion, which Hedden-Nicely says “acknowledged the sovereignty framework laid out by John Marshall, but at the same time essentially said, ‘It doesn’t apply anymore.'” 

From that point on, Hedden-Nicely argues, the court had two conflicting sets of precedents it could follow. In deciding a case, it would choose one or the other to justify its desired outcome—generally, the one least detrimental to non-Indians. “Rather than using baseline rules and applying them without bias, the court has been weighing tribes’ rights against how they would affect the lives of non-Native people,” he says. 

This created a “whipsaw effect”: As successive waves of federal officials tried to weaken tribes, then build them up, then “terminate” their special status, the court followed, hewing back and forth. The legal standing of tribes was always shifting, inhibiting their economic development.

Prior to this past decade, the court’s last swing in favor of tribes came during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when the American Indian Movement and Alcatraz occupation won federal self-determination policies that gave tribes increasing control over federal lands, funds, and programs. Justice Thurgood Marshall took special interest in Indian law and wrote opinions attempting to fortify it. In Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez, his majority opinion advanced the idea that tribes, who pre-date the US Constitution, were not bound by all its limitations on statutory power. In the landmark Oliphant case, he argued in his dissent that tribes should be able to prosecute non-Indians on their reservations as a matter of tribal sovereignty.

With the Indian Regulatory Gambling Act of 1988, money began rolling into tribes that could be spent on more and better lawyers. This was good timing. Under new Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the court was adopting a “colorblind justice” approach to questions of tribal rights, chipping away at Native sovereignty.

Which brings us to 2000, when the project arose after two devastating decisions. One barred tribes from taxing non-Indian businesses on their reservations; the other limited their jurisdiction over Indian lands held in federal trust. In both unanimous rulings, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Sandra Day O’Connor joined Rehnquist, Clarence Thomas, and Antonin Scalia. Positions on Indian law, still largely opaque even to Supreme Court justices, rarely follow neat ideological lines.

Tribal advocates are not surprised that Gorsuch, a conservative Trump appointee, has consistently favored tribes. Previously appointed by President George W. Bush to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming, Gorsuch adjudicated many tribal cases and developed an understanding of Indian law commended by Native leaders. Like fellow Westerner Sandra Day O’Connor, Gorsuch met and dialogued with tribal lawyers outside the courtroom. While his “textualist” approach might be reactionary on reproductive freedoms or gun laws, Indian law scholars say it provides a strong basis for upholding the rights and reservations promised to tribes in treaties. 

“We’ll be quoting passages in [Gorsuch’s McGirt] opinion for the rest of our lives,” Kanji says. In his ruling, Gorsuch argues that the court shouldn’t ratify “the rule of the strong” over “the rule of law”: Treaty promises can’t be nullified through conflicts or swindles but only by explicit acts of Congress. Similar principles were affirmed in last year’s decision interpreting the Yakama Nation Treaty of 1855 as exempting its reservation from a fuel tax, and another that supported the Crow Tribe’s right to hunt on federal lands.

In 2018, Washington v. United States upheld a lower court decision requiring the state of Washington to spend billions redesigning roadways to support salmon spawning, in order to preserve Indigenous fishing rights. Says Kanji, who helped argue that case, “The idea that tribes can use their treaty rights as a sword to protect the environment has gained greater currency,” especially since the tribes united at Standing Rock in 2016 launched litigation against the Dakota Access pipeline.

A district court judge recently ordered the pipeline to shut down, just one example of how growing respect for tribal sovereignty is also yielding victories in the lower courts. “The Supreme Court definitely sets that tone,” says Kanji. “Its decisions are binding precedent.” But he also acknowledges that the lower courts are diverse: Some appeals judges have construed tribal rights even more narrowly than Rehnquist, while others steadily expand them. Kronk Warner and Hedden-Nicely agree that a positive trend is emerging. As social movements like Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter raise the profile of oppressed groups and their struggles, law schools are finally teaching Indian law, and the new generation of lawyers and judges has been primed to hear it. “It snowballs from there,” says Hedden-Nicely. Those who understand the basis of tribal sovereignty are usually more inclined to defend it. 

Today’s reckoning with American history might also play a role. Gorsuch opens his opinion by narrating a surprisingly emotive picture of tribes being marched halfway across the country, only for their new lands to be stripped—in previous eras such pathos may not have carried much weight. Kanji says his side strategically appealed to history. “The states or others will spin these stories about how tribal rights were abrogated over time,” he says. “Unless you’re offering a narrative that’s more historically faithful, your side of the story will be lost.”

While the Supreme Court is insulated from outside advocacy, grassroots movements can beget changes that eventually affect major rulings. Justices “reflect what the political system looked like when they were appointed, which is driven by what our culture is like,” says Hedden-Nicely. “But there’s always a lag,” since judicial turnover is slow; lawmakers and executives only gradually get chances to appoint and confirm new judges. Thus Kanji believes tribes must fight for their rights both in the courtroom and in the arena of public opinion. “Many tribal cases fall at the intersection of the courts and the political system,” he says. “You can’t litigate these cases in a vacuum, because there’s always the possibility that a judicial gain could be undone by a legislative correction.” 

The Tribal Supreme Court Project is already working on a Firth Circuit case concerning the Indian Child Welfare Act, which Hedden-Nicely calls “the single most important issue for Indian Country today.” Brackeen v. Bernhardt asks whether ICWA, through which Congress granted tribes priority in deciding foster care placements for Native children, violates an alleged Constitutional restriction on “racial preferences.” A judge ruled in 2018 that overturning the law would violate tribal sovereignty. Hedden-Nicely thinks the case isn’t really about children but is just one of many “unrelenting attacks on the idea that Indians have any special status under the law.”

He doesn’t expect the Supreme Court, which has already twice upheld ICWA, to hear the Brackeen case. And if it did, given recent trends, it’d be unlikely to decide against tribes.

“At a time where Congress is not being particularly helpful on Indian policy, and the executive is being actively antagonistic, it’s very comforting to have at least one branch of government acting in a way that’s consistent with their trust responsibility to Indian tribes,” says Hedden-Nicely. When the court sides with Congress and the president in ignoring tribal sovereignty, “bad things start to happen.”

Public Servants Are Risking Everything to Expose Government Corruption. Donald Trump Is Making Their Lives Hell.

Mother Jones Magazine -

Like many people, Minu Aghevli watched January’s impeachment proceedings in horror. It wasn’t just because she was outraged that Donald Trump had abused the power of his office. Nor was it because she thought Trump was the victim of a nasty partisan “witch hunt,” as he loves to put it. What shook her was how the intelligence community whistleblower—whose complaint kickstarted the whole impeachment process—was being treated.

In hundreds of statements about the whistleblower—from bullying tweets to negative comments made to reporters—Trump didn’t just publicly question the person’s motives and dispute their account; he threatened retaliation and called for the person’s identity to be revealed. Several Republican members of Congress also claimed to know the whistleblower’s identity and repeatedly tried to name them. When the House Intelligence Committee released its official impeachment inquiry report, it offered a particularly grim summary: “Most chillingly, the President issued a threat against the whistleblower and those who provided information to the whistleblower regarding the President’s misconduct, suggesting that they could face the death penalty for treason.”

Aghevli, herself a federal whistleblower, felt sick watching all this play out on such a public scale. “It made me cry,” she tells me with a quiver in her voice. “Because I felt like, ‘Oh God, I know exactly what that feels like.’”

Anti-whistleblower signs from Republicans during last year’s impeachment hearings.
 Andrew Harnik/AP

That feeling would only get worse for Aghevli—and for the thousands of public servants who report misconduct in the federal government each year. In the months since the Senate acquitted Trump of two impeachment charges, the president has declared an all-out assault on whistleblowing. Beginning in April, the president dismissed inspectors general—the very people whistleblowers can confidentially turn to in order to report corruption, waste, and abuse of power—in five different departments in the span of just six weeks, starting with Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general who alerted Congress to the whistleblower complaint about Trump’s Ukraine phone call.

In the midst of this IG firing spree, Aghevli sent me a panicked email late one night: “It’s hard to express how depressing and scary it is to be required to do your annual Whistleblower Protection and Accountability training while the president is firing the IG for taking a report from a whistleblower and the Secretary of the Navy is essentially threatening the sailors of a ship and publicly disparaging their captain who was fired for reporting a health crisis.”

“It’s literally the definition of gaslighting,” she added.

Aghevli spent nearly two decades as a Department of Veterans Affairs clinical psychologist at an opioid treatment program in Baltimore before she blew the whistle in 2014 on a program manipulating wait lists to reduce the number of patients being treated. She thought filing a whistleblower complaint would solve the problem, but it only made her life worse over the years. She received intimidating emails from superiors urging her to keep quiet. Coworkers treated her like a traitor. Her superiors barred her from seeing patients, some of whom she’d treated for 15 years. Eventually, in early 2019, she was reassigned to menial administrative work at a front desk. Then, on June 24 last year, the day before she was set to testify before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, the VA sent her a letter threatening to fire her.

While VA whistleblowers in particular have long faced a culture of retaliation and intimidation—it was an issue that notoriously plagued the Obama administration—it has dramatically worsened in the Trump era. Since Trump took office, the climate for whistleblowing at the VA and across the federal government has never been worse. Federal workers who want to report wrongdoing or corruption in their workplace don’t just risk becoming a professional pariah like Aghevli, but can be turned into pawns in a hyper-partisan political landscape. Retaliatory actions against whistleblowers are increasingly common and GOP lawmakers threaten to dox and punish these public servants for exposing corruption. And it’s all legal thanks to the weak federal whistleblowing laws that the Trump administration has skillfully exploited.

The danger extends far beyond the well-known names most people associate with whistleblowing, the civil servants who sounded the alarm on large matters of national security—the Ukraine whistleblower, National Security Agency executive Thomas Drake, who was prosecuted during the Obama administration, or Edward Snowden, who leaked thousands of pages of classified NSA documents. The reality is that most whistleblowing is far more quotidian, often pertaining to small-scale good governance that doesn’t make headlines. Between 2014 and 2018, more than 14,000 federal employees filed whistleblower disclosures or retaliation complaints, according to data compiled by the Government Accountability Office. And while advocates were outraged by the treatment of the intelligence officer in the Ukraine matter, they’re more concerned about the atmosphere of rank-and-file corruption that has flourished within the Trump administration and the less obvious attacks on the system, and how the current political atmosphere might impede the sort of whistleblowing that is required for competent government. The same month as the House impeachment proceedings concluded, a poll conducted by the Government Business Council, the research arm of Government Executive, revealed that one in three federal workers are now less likely to report wrongdoing in their workplace after attacks by the president and his allies on the Ukraine whistleblower.  

“Everybody’s scared to death of saying anything, which is bad during a pandemic.”

“On paper, the United States has some of the strongest whistleblower laws around,” says Mark Zaid, an attorney who represented the Ukraine whistleblower. “But they just don’t work, because the policies aren’t implemented properly.”

Consider the fate of the Merit Systems Protection Board, a small agency where federal workers who believe they have been unjustly disciplined or fired can appeal—at least in theory. In practice, it has lost all its ability to address federal whistleblower and retaliation complaints. It has lacked a quorum for the entirety of Trump’s tenure, and since February 2019, it hasn’t had a single member sitting on its board; meanwhile, it has a backlog of nearly 3,000 cases waiting in limbo. It’s a “disastrous situation” for whistleblowers who face retaliation, says Liz Hempowicz, the director of public policy at the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight.

This dismantling of whistleblower protections is culminating at a dire time, when the Trump administration scrambles to dig the country out of the biggest economic recession since the Great Depression, and as the $3 trillion allocated by Congress to help the country fight the coronavirus pandemic trickles out to local and state governments and countless private companies. But anyone who wants to blow the whistle on fraud, waste, or corruption has essentially no protections. Rick Bright, the former head of the US office tasked with developing a coronavirus vaccine, is one early casualty of the system’s failure. In a whistleblower complaint in May, he alleged that he was booted from his position after his warnings about the seriousness of the virus were ignored, as well as his concerns about the potential harm of hydroxychloroquine, Trump’s preferred drug to treat COVID-19. Bright was essentially demoted and his reputation was tarred by the president and his allies.

“Right now I think it is completely unreasonable to expect any whistleblower to go to any inspector general office within the federal government,” Hempowicz says. “Because there’s no guarantee that the president won’t replace that inspector general with another political appointee whose loyalty is to the administration rather than to the administration of the law.”

Zaid echoes Hempowicz’s concerns: “I don’t think there’s any way that people cannot look at where we are in 2020, and not believe that people would be deterred from coming forward.”

 

 

 

In many ways, the VA under Trump is a perfect microcosm of how oversight in his administration works: Don’t just discourage people from speaking out; make it so their lives will be hell if they do.

It didn’t always seem like it’d be that way. In April 2017, Trump signed an executive order to establish an office to help protect whistleblowers at the Department of Veterans Affairs, which had been plagued by scandals and corruption for years. Months later, the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP) became permanent law after it passed through Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support—a moment that offered some hope early in Trump’s tenure that despite the conflicts of interest presented by the president, perhaps his administration could work across the aisle to pass laws to stamp out corruption and mismanagement.

Whistleblowing, after all, has a long history of bringing lawmakers together. Ever since the Revolutionary War, when 10 American naval officers reported on their commodore torturing captured British soldiers, Congress has recognized that protecting the rights of whistleblowers is the best defense against corruption. That episode led to the world’s first whistleblower protection law, which was passed on July 30, 1778—two years after the Declaration of Independence was signed. Since then, Republicans and Democrats have traditionally been united in the idea that protecting whistleblowers is “critical to keeping our democracy alive,” explains Allison Stanger, a professor at Middlebury College and author of the book Whistleblowers: Honesty in America from Washington to Trump. The Whistleblower Protection Act, which passed through Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support in 1989, set up modern whistleblowing laws, granting several federal offices with the authority to properly investigate any disclosures while protecting the employees who filed them. In 2012, Barack Obama signed the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act into law, which added more protections from retaliation for federal whistleblowers. It had passed Congress with unanimous consent.

“It’s really a democracy preserving system, consistent with the Constitution,” Stanger says of modern whistleblowing laws. “It’s specifically rooted in law, and it’s something that both Republicans and Democrats alike, until very recently, supported.”

That changed with Trump. While his allies like Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and his current chief of staff, former Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), have long records of supporting whistleblower laws and federal whistleblowers, they have been some of the people most vociferously attacking the Ukraine whistleblower. “If I had a degree of certainty who the whistleblower is, I promise you I would tell you,” Meadows told reporters in October amid the House’s impeachment inquiry hearings.

“This administration has brought the worst out in people at so many different levels,” Zaid says.

 

Trump’s most egregious Twitter attacks on whistleblowers :

 

“Like every American, I deserve to meet my accuser, especially when this accuser, the so-called “Whistleblower,” represented a perfect conversation with a foreign leader in a totally inaccurate and fraudulent way. Then Schiff made up what I actually said by lying to Congress……”

 

“Sounding more and more like the so-called Whistleblower isn’t a Whistleblower at all. In addition, all second hand information that proved to be so inaccurate that there may not have even been somebody else, a leaker or spy, feeding it to him or her? A partisan operative?”

 

The Whistleblower got it sooo wrong that HE must come forward. The Fake News Media knows who he is but, being an arm of the Democrat Party, don’t want to reveal him because there would be hell to pay. Reveal the Whistleblower and end the Impeachment Hoax!”

Jay DeNofrio, an Obama-era whistleblower at the VA, has been similarly disillusioned by how Trump and allies have worked to silence his peers. Like that of Aghevli, DeNofrio’s experience was maddening and isolating. In 2013, while working as an administrative officer at a VA hospital in Pennsylvania, he suspected that a doctor he had a close working relationship with was suffering from dementia. The last thing he wanted was to get anyone in trouble, but he noticed severe peculiarities—the doctor would forget recent conversations, or the names of employees he had worked with for years. There were complaints about the doctor forgetting to ask about patients’ medical histories, performing invasive exams without gloves, and giving out severely false medical advice, including a near-fatal episode in which he allegedly sent a patient with double pneumonia home with only the instruction that the patient’s spouse massage their ribs as a treatment. DeNofrio reported his concerns to the hospital’s director and chief of staff in a letter. Since another doctor at the hospital attached his name to the letter as well, DeNofrio expected that the hospital would act accordingly and take the doctor off duty to protect patients from more potentially fatal errors. Instead, the hospital ignored DeNofrio’s warnings for months. Finally, the hospital’s leadership gave in to his concerns and agreed to administer a cognitive test—which was later determined to be faulty. The doctor passed and the hospital’s administrators warned DeNofrio to “no longer report concerns related to impairment.”

DeNofrio continued to sound the alarm for two years, going up the chain until it came to the attention, in 2015, of the US Office of Special Counsel—the federal watchdog agency charged with protecting whistleblowers and investigating their claims. All the while, DeNofrio says the leadership of the Altoona VA kept trying to silence him. He claims they’ve retaliated against him through denied promotions, low job performance ratings, denied overtime pay, and threats of dismissal. “I didn’t fully think of it as whistleblowing,” DeNofrio says. “I was just trying to keep patients safe.”

DeNofrio was able to find solace by connecting with other VA whistleblowers, like Aghevli, through a group called the VA Truth Tellers that formed in 2015 as a way to help connect whistleblowers with resources, educate them on their rights, and advocate for stronger protections. Eventually, he became one of the group’s strongest advocates, helping guide other potential whistleblowers through the process. “I would tell them to do what’s right, “DeNofrio says. “That’s the hardest part; it’s trying to show people that you’re going to face retaliation, but I stress that the strongest right you have as a whistleblower is your First Amendment right.”

But as Trump and his allies took control of the VA—both in official leadership and in more behind-the-scenes maneuverings—DeNofrio discovered that the new law meant to protect VA whistleblowers had been manipulated into a tool for the agency’s leadership to single out and impose even more retaliations against whistleblowers. Peter O’Rourke, a Trump loyalist and veteran with experience in government consulting, was appointed the first director of the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP). This new office was supposed to offer whistleblowers a direct line to report mismanagement and wrongdoing to an independent office whose sole purpose was to investigate these claims, rather than reporting them directly to their supervisors. Trump said the office would be one of the “crown jewels” of his administration.

Instead, O’Rourke, the very person charged with safeguarding whistleblowers, used his position to retaliate against them, according a blistering report released late last year by the agency’s inspector general. “OAWP leaders made avoidable mistakes early in its development that created an office culture that was sometimes alienating to the very individuals it was meant to protect,” the report states.

Even though both Aghevli and DeNofrio became whistleblowers in the previous administration, they say that because they’d been so public about their experiences, they were targeted by the new office as problematic employees. In one instance, on the eve of the annual Whistleblower Summit on Capitol Hill in 2017, where DeNofrio was scheduled to speak, he says a group of whistleblower attorneys in DC called him with a warning: “They said Peter O’Rourke said that if you come to this summit, he’s going to go to the Republicans on the Hill and tell them to shut it down for the entire whistleblowers summit.”

“I don’t think there’s any way that people cannot look at where we are in 2020, and not believe that people would be deterred from coming forward.”

Not long after the OAWP formed, DeNofrio began hearing that many of the whistleblowers in the Truth Tellers group were increasingly being threatened and fired. “If someone had an issue, they would call one of us in this group and we would get them an attorney, or help them with an administrative investigation, or get them with a reporter, whatever they needed,” DeNofrio says. “Before Trump, you could do this and you weren’t going to get fired.”

The inspector general report confirmed what DeNofrio had heard from the Truth Tellers, and in turn eviscerated O’Rourke’s leadership. The IG found that the office was only willing to open cases if a whistleblower was willing to reveal their identity—effectively discouraging people who feared reprisal. Meanwhile, some individuals who attempted to raise concerns about management ended up becoming the target of a probe by the office. O’Rourke and other OAWP officials also “made comments and took actions that reflected a lack of respect for individuals they deemed ‘career’ whistleblowers,” like DeNofrio and Aghevli. One troubling instance in the report “involved the OAWP initiating an investigation that could itself be considered retaliatory”: At the behest of a senior official with social ties to O’Rourke, the office investigated a whistleblower who had filed a complaint against the senior leader. After a brief investigation, the OAWP substantiated the senior leader’s allegations without even interviewing the whistleblower.

O’Rourke was forced out in December 2018, but his ouster didn’t change much. Tamara Bonzanto, who took over the OAWP in January 2019, promised during multiple Senate confirmation hearings to turn around the problems that plagued the department, but a POGO investigation released this March found many of the same issues still festering in the VA. “Employees of the accountability office say it is beyond dysfunctional and that people are ‘terrified’ now that efforts to reach out to Congress and communicate with higher-ups in the department have failed to keep the office’s leaders in check,” the report says.

Brandon Coleman, a high-profile former VA whistleblower who was tapped by O’Rourke to work in the OAWP—initially seen by many as another promising sign that the Trump administration would be friendly toward whistleblowers—has gone on the record about how bad the OAWP became. He filed a complaint last summer, which was also sent to members of Congress, that described the work environment as “toxic” and called the office a “dumpster fire.” Coleman said he and other colleagues in the OAWP had been shut out of important meetings and worried they’d be demoted for speaking out. Last spring, the OAWP even shut down Coleman’s whistleblowing mentorship program, which he had established as a way to help victims of retaliation in the VA. “How can you treat your employees the exact way we’re trying to protect employees from being treated?” Coleman told USA Today.

DeNofrio still works at the VA, though he was recently demoted to a teleworking position. He believes the only reason he hasn’t been fired in the past three years is because of how public he’s been about his whistleblowing—though the OAWP has tried. According to internal OAWP communications that DeNofrio obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and subsequently shared with Mother Jones, investigators in the office interviewed his coworkers and encouraged them to immediately document and report “any instances of poor behavior” by DeNofrio, stating that just because he was a protected whistleblower doesn’t mean he gets to “walk on water.”

Despite the current circumstances, he’s still managed to maintain a loose network of VA whistleblowers who are able to give advice, offer connections to legal support, and provide other resources to potential whistleblowers, albeit much more discreetly than when he was with the Truth Tellers, which essentially disbanded after the failures of the OAWP became apparent. But everything that happened with the Ukraine whistleblower, he says, has spooked some of the people he’s connected with recently.

“Everybody’s scared to death of saying anything,” he says, “which is bad during a pandemic.”

 

 

 

Still, people are saying something: As of July 28, the Office of the Special Council recorded that 73 whistleblower disclosures related to the pandemic have been filed. There’s also been “92 complaints of prohibited personnel practices related to COVID-19,” a spokesperson for the agency tells me in an email. But the risk remains immense. At least 15 of those whistleblowers have filed complaints alleging that they’ve been retaliated against for raising concerns.

“We’re entering a highly unstable period in our history with the public health crisis and economic crisis on top of that,” says John Kostyack, who heads the National Whistleblower Center, a nonprofit organization that connects whistleblowers with legal assistance and advocates for stronger whistleblower protection laws. “We think that the need for whistleblowers is going to grow and the obvious benefit that they deliver will become even more obvious.”

COVID-19 continues to paralyze the country in ways we could never have imagined, and the federal and state response to mitigate the effects of the pandemic has opened up mountains of opportunities for malpractice and corruption. It’s already clear how critical the ability for whistleblowers to act without fear of reprisal is in this moment. Back in February, one senior official with the Department of Health and Human Services raised alarm that the workers receiving the first Americans evacuated from Wuhan, China, did so without proper training or protective gear. And in early April, Christi Grimm, then the acting top watchdog for HSS, signed off on a report that said that the nation’s hospitals were struggling to combat COVID-19. Days later she was criticized by the president, and on May 1, she was ousted when Trump nominated a permanent inspector general to replace Grimm, who had held the position on an acting basis since January. Then, later this spring, Trump also fired Glenn Fine, who had been the Defense Department’s acting IG since early 2016 and was briefly appointed to lead a watchdog panel overseeing the White House’s coronavirus economic relief. Fine hadn’t even been given the chance to begin an investigation.

One of the biggest challenges to pandemic oversight, according to Stephen Kohn, a whistleblower lawyer who also works with the National Whistleblower Center, is finding ways to both encourage whistleblowers to come forward and protect them when they do—and not just ones working for the federal government.

Flaws in whistleblowing laws make it harder for nonfederal workers to flag corruption or negligence, which Kohn says is particularly crucial as certain front-line sectors are being rushed back to work despite hazardous conditions. One particular area of concern is in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)—the federal agency where these workers can alert the government about fraud and corruption in private corporate action. Kohn explains that OSHA’s whistleblowing laws essentially stymie any worker who files a complaint alleging that their employer broke the law because it creates a “legal mechanism” in which Trump runs the show with no judicial appeal. In other words, any worker who files an OSHA whistleblower retaliation complaint cannot take that complaint to court; it’s up to government officials in the Department of Labor, which houses OSHA, to determine if the complaint has merit. Kohn says it’s an outdated law that he fears Trump administration officials will exploit to reinforce the president’s desire to reopen the country and send people back to work, even if it’s not safe to do so. “If Trump decides that it’s time to return people to work, he can literally give every single business in this damn country a pass, and that puts workers in the same position that these national security whistleblowers found themselves in,” Kohn says.

“[Whistleblowing is] a democracy preserving system…and it’s something that both Republicans and Democrats alike, until very recently, supported.”

That puts essential workers, such as health care professionals, at particular risk for reporting wrongdoing. There’s already been a number of health care first responders who have come forward to expose a wide variety of issues in hospitals struggling to fight COVID-19: an appalling lack of N95 masks and personal protective equipment; nurses in New York City hired from out of state and placed in units where they have no experience; and too many cases of workers fired for speaking out against dangerous conditions that unnecessarily put themselves at risk.

The medical field is far from the only industry flooding OSHA with whistleblower complaints; at a House hearing in May, it was revealed that OSHA has already received nearly 5,000 complaints related to COVID-19, and it’s taken enforcement action in only one of those cases.

“We want to believe that the world is basically fair,” Aghevli says. “So the deeper we sink into this climate of intimidation and unethical behavior, the harder it will be for people to keep a clear head and change course.”

There’s no better example of Aghevli’s theory than the plight of Rick Bright, the vaccine expert and HHS whistleblower. In late June, Bright filed an update to his original whistleblower complaint, alleging that since he was ousted from his role in overseeing the federal development of a COVID-19 vaccine in April, HHS Secretary Alex Azar has been “on the war path” to punish him. The complaint alleges that Bright was reassigned to the National Institutes of Health, where he was supposed to be working on coronavirus testing, but his role had been essentially confined to “making contracts with diagnostics companies.” Azar also allegedly told HHS employees to “refrain from doing anything that would help Dr. Bright be successful in his new role,” according to the complaint.

It’s all because Bright dared to cross Trump in his attempt to push hydroxychloroquine as a potential treatment for the coronavirus. Since news of Bright’s whistleblower complaint broke, Trump has used the same playbook that he did for the Ukraine whistleblower: Disparage and discredit. In comments to reporters and on Twitter, both Trump and Azar painted Bright as a “disgruntled employee,” who was unfit for his job and just collecting a paycheck. “I don’t know the so-called Whistleblower Rick Bright, never met him or even heard of him,” Trump tweeted, “but to me he is a disgruntled employee, not liked or respected by people I spoke to and who, with his attitude, should no longer be working for our government!”

“When you see that kind of conversion from the idea that whistleblowers are something that helps keep us on the rails to the rhetoric that they’re an enemy of the people, you’re saying that it’s all political,” Stanger says. “And that’s how democracies die.”

Image credit: Mother Jones illustration; Drew Angerer/Getty

The Trump Files: Donald’s Words to a Grieving Mother

Mother Jones Magazine -

This post was originally published as part of “The Trump Files”—a collection of telling episodes, strange but true stories, and curious scenes from the life of our current President—on October 25, 2016. 

Even the death of a child couldn’t keep Donald Trump from talking about hitting on the boy’s mother.

In January 2009, Kelly Preston and John Travolta’s son Jett passed away at the age of 16 after suffering a seizure while on a family vacation. Four days later, Trump wrote a blog post dedicated to Preston on the website of the now-defunct Trump University, which has been sued by the state of New York and former students over claims of fraud.

The mogul expressed his condolences to Preston for her loss, but not before he mentioned the time he tried to sleep with her. According to Trump, the attempt failed.

“A long time ago, before I was married, I met Kelly Preston at a club and worked like hell to try and pick her up,” he wrote on the Trump University website. “She was beautiful, personable, and definitely had allure. At the time I had no idea she was married to John Travolta.”

He continued, “In any event, my track record on this subject has always been outstanding, but Kelly wouldn’t give me the time of day. She was very nice, very elegant, but I didn’t have a chance with her, and that was that.”

Trump ended his blog post by saying his thoughts were with Preston and her family.

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