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Your Friendly Neighborhood Bank: The Post Office

ACLU News -

One in four Americans are unbanked or underbanked. This is in part because because banks across the country are closing branches, or penalizing those who don’t have large savings. This means that 64 million Americans — disproportionately Black and Brown people — can’t easily access basic financial services and are forced to pay thousands a year in fees for alternatives.

But one solution to this disparity is within our reach, it’s actually just down the street from you: the post office.

The U.S. Postal Service has the infrastructure to provide basic financial services at all of its branches. With an office in every ZIP code nationwide and trust within the community, banking at the most accessible institution in America could create a public option needed to put millions of families in greater control of their finances.

Joining us on At Liberty this week to talk about why postal banking is key to closing the racial wealth gap is Rakim Brooks, a senior campaign strategist at the ACLU who is managing our new Systemic Equality campaign.


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In Wake of HRW Apartheid Report, Israeli Propagandists Launch Global PR Offensive

Mint Press News -

NEW YORK — A recently released bombshell Human Rights Watch (HRW) report has made waves around the world. For the first time, the New York-based non-governmental organization has categorized Israel as an apartheid state guilty of “crimes against humanity.”

The 213-page study goes into detail about a range of racist laws and policies carried out by successive administrations, concluding that there is an “overarching Israeli government policy to maintain the domination by Jewish Israelis over Palestinians and grave abuses committed against Palestinians living in the occupied territory, including East Jerusalem.”

The report accuses the state of Israel of widespread “institutional discrimination” and of “denying millions of Palestinians their fundamental rights…solely because they are Palestinian and not Jewish.” It further notes that, across Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, it has “sought to maximize the land available for Jewish communities and to concentrate most Palestinians in dense population centers.”

“Prominent voices have warned for years that apartheid lurks just around the corner if the trajectory of Israel’s rule over Palestinians does not change,” said the organization’s executive director, Kenneth Roth. “This detailed study shows that Israeli authorities have already turned that corner and today are committing the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.

Perhaps most importantly, Human Rights Watch is now openly calling for global action to end the repression. The report asks the International Criminal Court to investigate and prosecute those involved in Palestinian persecution. While not explicitly endorsing the Boycott, Divestment and Sactions (BDS) movement, Human Rights Watch directly advocates that “[s]tates should impose individual sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, against officials and individuals responsible for the continued commission of these serious crimes,” and for businesses to “cease business activities that directly contribute to the crimes of apartheid and persecution.”


A big splash

The report was widely covered across the world and has been heralded by Palestine solidarity activists, with experts seeing it as a potential turning point in the struggle for Palestinian sovereignty. “It was inevitable that Human Rights Watch would have to declare Israel an Apartheid state and, from what I hear, Amnesty International is going to be next to say it,” Asa Winstanley of the Electronic Intifada told MintPress. “It puts Israel’s backers in a difficult spot because Human Rights Watch is really part of the establishment so they cannot just dismiss it and it makes it impossible to ignore… It is harder for them to say Human Rights Watch is anti-Semitic, but they’re trying it anyway,” he added.

Trying indeed. Michigan Congresswoman Lisa McClain tweeted that “Human Rights Watch has shown again how they have an anti-Israel agenda,” suggesting they instead focus their attention on China or Iran’s repressive governments. “Hostility and hypocrisy are HRW’s hallmarks when it comes to Israel,” wrote the American Jewish Committee. The Jerusalem Post’s editorial board was equally condemnatory, denouncing what they saw as the “cynical appropriation of the suffering of the victims of the actual apartheid regime.” Other Israeli journalists described the report as “a disgrace to the memory of the millions who suffered under that policy [apartheid] in South Africa.” The news even made enough waves to force a response from the White House. Press Secretary Jen Psaki replied that “[a]s to the question of whether Israel’s actions constitute apartheid, that is not the view of this administration.”


Organized spontaneity

Yet much of the online anger at the report was actually manufactured by an Israeli government-sponsored app, Act.IL, which organized supporters of the Jewish state to act in sync to create an artificial groundswell of opposition to it. The app, which reportedly has a budget of over $1 million per year, instructed users to leave combative comments on Facebook, Twitter, and popular news outlets, and to like and promote others who did the same.

Human Rights Watch’s Facebook post announcing the report’s release has received over 1,400 comments, hundreds of them written in a similar, scathingly negative tone. One that the app directly told users to signal boost, for instance, described Palestinians as a people “indoctrinated with hate for Israel and Jews for over 100 years,” and claimed they were paid salaries to murder Israelis. It also presented the 1967 war and occupation as a humanitarian effort to bring electricity and other infrastructure to Arabs.

Today, @hrw issued a report concluding that Israel is committing the crime of Apartheid.

In response, Israel's propaganda app has "missions" targeting news sources with talking points and graphics, including one image attacking lead author @OmarSShakir.#Courage2FightApartheid pic.twitter.com/EpKU44KamY

— Behind Israel's Troll Army (@AntiBDSApp) April 27, 2021

Another “mission” Act.IL gave its users was to promote a Facebook comment attacking the report as “nothing more than hate speech” and calling its lead author a “rabid anti-Zionist and Israel hater.”

One of the many images provided to Act.IL users for their astroturfing campaign against HRW

Act.IL is one of the chief tools in Israel’s online public relations enterprise. The app debuted in 2017 and is part of what Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs Gilad Erdan called an “Iron Dome of Truth.” “Our cell phones are the number one weapon against us,” he explained, noting that public opinion in the U.S. was beginning to turn against them. While most of the app’s nearly 20,000 users are volunteers, a core of them are paid operatives, with many students receiving scholarships as a reward for their work.

The app has been designed to feel like a game, with points assigned for completing “missions” such as sharing pro-Israel videos, reporting anti-Israel content, signing petitions, or attending online seminars. Users can track their progress on leaderboards, earn badges and prizes, and chat with other members of the community. While it might feel like Animal Crossing or World of Warcraft for some, its creators see this very much as a new front in the war against Palestine. Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked categorizes BDS as “another branch of terrorism in the modern age,” and has been an important voice in taking the fight to a new front.

An Act.IL mission encouraging astroturfing of online discussions. Source |

There is also an online toolkit full of folders of responses to typical questions and issues that arise. Users can, for instance, go to the BDS folder to find stock replies to their arguments. Or they can go to a specific folder to find articles, images and videos they can use to demonize Hamas.

The missions are organized by outlet, so users can, for instance, target only Facebook, Telegram, or other platforms they are most familiar with. At the time of writing, there are 10 missions each to complete on Facebook and YouTube, 30 on Instagram, 25 on Twitter.

One current challenge is to upvote an answer to a question on Quora that asks about the validity and purpose of checkpoints in the West Bank. The answer claims they are purely about protection from terror attacks, and claims that Red Crescent ambulances are used to ferry bombs around the area. Other missions include pressuring an online store to remove a bag with a message stating “Make Israel Palestine Again.”

An Act.IL “mission” encouraging users to demand the removal of products with pro-Palestinian messaging

“It is quite astounding how openly they do it. But, of course, when you see a comment online, you wouldn’t necessarily think that it was coming from the Israeli government, but this is essentially what is happening,” Winstanley said. “Israel is not the only state to do this, but they do it fairly successfully.”

For all this, however, it is clear that Act.IL has a serious problem with user retention and lacks the volunteer numbers for it to be truly game changing.


Controlling the message

In a time of heightened awareness about foreign government interference online, it is particularly surprising that these operations can be openly carried out across virtually every major platform. Big tech companies like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook are constantly deleting tens of thousands of Russian, Chinese, Iranian and Cuban accounts belonging to what they claim are organized, state-sponsored disinformation campaigns.

In an effort to gauge the legality of its operations, MintPress reached out to Facebook, YouTube, Quora, and other big platforms used by Act.IL. We received no response from any of them. While this is particularly noteworthy — as these companies have teams of public relations representatives and are extremely forthright and timely with responses on other issues — it is perhaps not surprising. Facebook especially has long been working closely with the Israeli government in deciding which voices to censor. As far back as 2016, Ayelet Shaked boasted that Facebook removed 95% of the posts her office asked them to. Yet when Shaked herself called for a genocidal war against Palestine and its women, who give birth to “little snakes,” not only did the post remain online, it received thousands of likes and was widely circulated.

“The concern is that Facebook is adopting Israeli policy and terminology when it comes to defining what incitement is,” said Nadim Nashif, co-founder of 7amleh, the Arab Centre for the Advancement of Social Media. 7amleh was therefore dismayed when last year, Facebook appointed former Israeli Minister of Justice Emi Palmor to its Oversight Board, the council having the final say in the moderation of content on the platform used by 2.6 billion people worldwide. In her role as justice minister, Palmor was directly implicated in the persecution and subjugation of Palestinians.

Earlier this year, an Israeli Defense Forces soldier attempted to sue a Palestinian-American activist living in California over an allegedly slanderous Facebook post condemning her for participating in ethnic cleansing. Remarkably, the plaintiff attempted to convince a California judge to apply Israeli law to the incident, despite the fact that both she and the defendant are American citizens.

Inside the world of academia, professors critical of Israel have found themselves pushed out of the profession. In 2007, prominent critic of Israel Norman Finkelstein was denied tenure at DePaul University for political reasons. Seven years later, the University of Illinois “unhired” Steven Sailata for his comments denouncing Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 Israeli attack on Gaza. Emails showed that wealthy donors put significant pressure on the university to pull the plug on him. More recently, Cornel West was blocked from a tenured job at Harvard this year, despite having previously held tenure at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. “Being the faculty advisor for the Palestinian student group was the one that probably went outside of the line for many Harvard staff,” West told Krystal Ball and Kyle Kulinski. “It’s a joke. It’s ridiculous. It’s ludicrous. It’s preposterous that it wouldn’t have something to do with politics.”

Top media figures have also paid the price for their support of BDS. CNN fired commentator Marc Lamont Hill after he made a speech at the United Nations calling for a free Palestine. Meanwhile, journalist Abby Martin was blocked from speaking at a conference at Georgia Southern University last year after she refused to sign a contract promising to renounce BDS. Georgia is one of dozens of U.S. states to have anti-BDS legislation, essentially forcing any would-be recipient of public contracts or funds, including government employees, to sign a pledge not to boycott Israel. Martin is currently suing the state of Georgia.

MintPress News · MintCast Interviews Abby Martin About Her Anti-BDS Lawsuit & The Israel Lobby

Perhaps the greatest PR victory for the Israel lobby in recent years was its defamation campaign against British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. The lifelong pacifist, anti-racist campaigner was transformed into a raging anti-Semite in the minds of many, thanks to a massive propaganda onslaught. In the three months before the 2019 election, there were 1,450 articles in national British newspapers linking Corbyn with anti-Semitism, chiefly because of his support for Palestinian liberation. Much of this was orchestrated by Israel and its lobby, which worked closely with journalists and politicians keen to see the socialist politician’s demise. The media blitz succeeded. When media researchers asked the public what percentage of Labour members faced official complaints over anti-Semitism, the average guess was 34%. The actual answer was less than 0.1%; and more than half of those complaints were made by one person. Corbyn lost the election and the U.K. chose Boris Johnson.

Winstanley, whose documentary “How they brought down Corbyn” premiered last week, told MintPress:

The most effective propaganda strategy against [Corbyn] was the fabrication that he was an anti-Semite on the basis of his past criticisms of Israel and his Palestinian solidarity. In my view, the maliciously fabricated anti-Semitism crisis against the Labour Party was the main factor in his [being deposed] as Labour Party leader. Without this factor, he would have made it to Number 10 Downing Street and become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.”


Apartheid states

While Human Rights Watch’s report is new, the charge of apartheid is not. In 2017, a United Nations report “clearly and frankly concludes” that Israel is “a racist state that has established an apartheid system that persecutes the Palestinian people.” Earlier this year, Israeli human rights organization B’TSelem also used the word “apartheid,” claiming that Israel had established “a regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.”

In the wake of World War Two and the Holocaust, Israel was created by the United Nations in 1947, cutting a section of territory from the British mandate of Palestine to form a new state. While it was immediately recognized by the international powers, Arabs who lived in the region were dead against it, leading to a war in 1948. David Ben Gurion and the founding fathers of Israel immediately began a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the local population, razing their villages and forcing them to flee. Today there are more than 5 million Palestinians registered as refugees.

While many defenders of Israel today balk at the comparison to apartheid South Africa, the two countries were close friends for much of the late 20th century, seeing themselves as similar settler colonial projects surrounded by hostile nations. Furthermore, leaders of the African liberation movement saw themselves as part of the same struggle as those in Palestine. “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians,” Nelson Mandela said in 1997. “I have witnessed the systemic humiliation of Palestinian men, women and children by members of the Israeli security forces,” said Archbishop Desmond Tutu in a statement endorsing BDS. “Their humiliation is familiar to all black South Africans who were corralled and harassed and insulted and assaulted by the security forces of the apartheid government,” he added.


A turning tide

The Human Rights Watch report is the latest reference point showing Western public sympathies swaying towards Palestine. During the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination race, a number of top-tier candidates very publicly shunned the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, refusing to attend the AIPAC conference. Last week, the Pilsbury family called for a global boycott of the food company that bears its name. “As long as General Mills [which owns the Pilsbury brand] continues to profit from the dispossession and suffering of the Palestinian people, we will not buy any Pillsbury products,” they stated, denouncing the building of a factory on illegal settlement land.

Advocates for Palestine hailed Human Rights Watch’s study. Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies wrote:

There can be little doubt that much of HRW’s decision to issue this report now was based on the recognition that not only is it no longer political suicide to call Israeli apartheid what it is, but that we are now at a tipping point whereby failing to call out apartheid risks losing credibility for a human rights organization. It’s a huge victory for our movement.”

The battle, however, is far from won, and it is clear that the Israel lobby will continue to fight to hold back the tide until it is insurmountable.

Feature photo | Graphic by Antonio Cabrera

Alan MacLeod is Senior 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, as well as a number of academic articles. He has also contributed to FAIR.orgThe GuardianSalonThe GrayzoneJacobin Magazine, and Common Dreams.

The post In Wake of HRW Apartheid Report, Israeli Propagandists Launch Global PR Offensive appeared first on MintPress News.

From Our Archives, the US Chamber of Commerce Is Not Your Friend

Mother Jones Magazine -

Each Friday, we bring you an article from our archive to propel you into the weekend.

Well, looks like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went ahead and did my job of pulling something from the Mother Jones archive to dig into. After a new jobs report indicated somewhat weak growth, the US Chamber of Commerce pulled out its austerity klaxon and called for the end of unemployment benefits. The argument is that the $300 a week is making people lazy. They won’t go back to work. AOC tweeted that the real problem is that many businesses still do not “actually pay a living wage.” And then she included our old article on the US Chamber of Commerce.

If you’re interested in learning more about their secretive/bizarre lobbying operation, check out this archived piece from @MotherJones

“the Chamber had been routinely inflating its membership numbers by 900 percent”https://t.co/wk3c1cQrKG

— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) May 7, 2021

So, yes, you should go read our story from 2010 on the group. It outlines how the group parades as the arbiter of Main Street while cashing out for the most elite of businesses. As the Chamber moves to stop UI, it is relevant.

Ahmad Abuznaid on Israel/Palestine Apartheid, James Love on Bill Gates & Vaccine Politics

Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting -


New York Times (4/27/21)


This week on CounterSpin: “Rights Group Hits Israel With Explosive Charge: Apartheid.” You don’t need to be a linguist to think there’s something leading about the New York Times choice of headline for a report from a human rights organization detailing how Israel’s daily, grinding suppression of Palestinian people’s rights actually constitutes a crime. But where elite media present a frozen he said/she said, never-the-twain-shall-meet debate, more and more people see a different way forward. We get an update from Ahmad Abuznaid, executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights.

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Bill Gates (cc photo: ILRI)


Also on the show: Corporate media will have you believing there’s just no reasonable answer to your simple questions about how we can have a world where people are dying from a pandemic, at the same time as vaccines exist. How we navigate that has to do with media’s elevation of “experts” like Bill Gates, who—divorce distractions aside—raise serious questions about why we allow billionaires to set policy on something as important as public health. We talk about that with James Love, who thinks a lot about this as director of Knowledge Ecology International.

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How Liz Cheney and Her Dad Paved the Way for the Big Lie

Mother Jones Magazine -

In recent days, Liz Cheney has become the hot celeb of the American media-political world. The conservative Republican representative from Wyoming is on the verge of being excommunicated from the House GOP leadership ranks because she has dared to speak an inconvenient truth: Donald Trump lost the 2020 election and his incitement of the seditious attack on the US Capitol “is a line that cannot be crossed.” Those recent remarks—coupled with her vote to convict Trump during Impeachment II—have provoked outrage from the Trump cultists within her party who are now demanding she be stripped of her post as the conference chair, the No. 3 spot in the Republican House caucus. And the betting odds are not in favor of the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney. 

Cheney is undergoing a GOP version of a Soviet show trial. She has not demonstrated full and complete obedience to the party leader, so she must be destroyed. This is Orwellian. As the author of 1984 wrote, “In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it.” And in that dystopian novel, poor Winston Smith is tortured at the Ministry of Love until he shouts two plus two equals five. Only then is he allowed to rejoin society. Cheney challenges Trump’s Big Lie—I won!—and refuses to whitewash the January 6 attack and Trump’s responsibility for it. Consequently, GOP Big Brother must squash her, and it looks as if her fellow House Republicans will vote to remove her from the conference chair. If they could defenestrate her, they probably would. 

But for accepting reality and stating the obvious—Biden won, and it’s bad for a president to encourage a violent assault on Congress—Cheney (outside of Republican congressional circles) has won hoorays. Writing on CNN’s website, GOP consultant Scott Jennings observed that Cheney is “now positioned as a principled martyr.” In a recent Washington Post column, she wrapped herself in such noble garb, slamming Trump for “seeking to unravel critical elements of our constitutional structure that make democracy work—confidence in the result of elections and the rule of law. No other American president has ever done this.” And she noted, “The Republican Party is at a turning point, and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution.” Cheney also sharply pointed out that her boss, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the House Republican leader, said in January that Trump “bears responsibility” for the attack on Congress “by mob rioters”—but has shifted his position since then. 

Cheney does these days look like a courageous truth-teller, defying the cultism and alternative-fact addiction that has taken over her Grand Old Party. But, in a way, she is the victim of her own success–that is, the success of her family. In particular, the success her father had in lying to the American public.

In the 21st century, American presidents have at least twice tried to shape the world with a lie of enormous impact. Trump attempted to demolish the nation’s constitutional order and retain power with his false claim that the 2020 election was rigged and Joe Biden did not truly receive more votes. As Cheney points out, this lie delegitimizes the essence of the American political system. And two decades ago, another Big Lie was concocted and pushed by a Republican president that resulted in profound (and lethal) consequences. Her dad was its main architect.

That was the untrue allegation that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass of destruction and was prepared to use them against the United States. The Bush-Cheney administration used these charges to garner public support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Dick Cheney was the chief pitchman for this flimflam. In an August 2002 speech, he proclaimed, “There is no doubt [Saddam] is amassing [WMDs] to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.” Soon after that, he publicly asserted that Saddam was trying to obtain aluminum tubes that could only be used for enriching uranium for weapons. And he also publicly cited a report that one of the 9/11 ringleaders had met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague.

None of this was true. And Dick Cheney’s lies were not the result of intelligence failures. US intelligence over the previous year had assessed that Saddam did not have a worrisome WMD program. Government scientists had concluded that the aluminum tubes in question were not usable for weapon-grade enrichment. And the CIA had discredited that Prague report. Yet none of this inhibited Cheney and President George W. Bush. They spent months dishing out an assortment of false statements—including the untrue claim that Saddam was in league with al-Qaeda—to grease the way to war. They succeeded. Bush won the support of Congress and the American public for his massive blunder in Iraq.

The invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam’s dictatorship but it yielded a geo-strategic and deadly mess in the region. About 200,000 Iraqi civilians died in the ensuing years due to the war. More than 4,000 American soldiers lost their lives in the war. 

One lesson of the Iraq war is that a big lie can work. Liz Cheney, who was deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs during this stretch, supported the war—and has defended it ever since. (She co-wrote a 2015 book with her dad on US foreign policy.) She even insisted that one of the main lies of the Bush-Cheney fraudulent case for war—that there had been a significant connection between al-Qaeda and Iraq—was true. (She also hawkishly defended a sordid chapter of that sordid war: torture, saying it was “libelous” to call waterboarding “torture.”)

There was another odious lie that Liz Cheney also defended—or played footsie with: the racist conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya. Asked about birtherism in 2009, she replied, “I think the Democrats have got more crazies than the Republicans do. But setting that aside, one of the reasons you see people so concerned about this, I think this issue is, people are uncomfortable with having for the first time ever, I think, a president who seems so reluctant to defend the nation overseas.” Without endorsing the conspiratorial and disproven details of this nutty notion, Cheney was providing moral support to its adherents. (Trump’s championship of this lie helped turn him into a right-wing hero and set up the foundation for his 2016 presidential bid.) 

It is a good thing that a hardcore conservative like Liz Cheney has joined the opposition to the Trumpian authoritarianism that has fully infected one of the nation’s two major political parties. Most of the GOP base is beyond persuasion. A recent poll showed that 70 percent of Republicans believe Biden did not win the election legitimately. The denialists lost in the swamps of Foxlandia won’t be swayed by a Liz Cheney op-ed. But for conservative Americans who give a damn about Trump’s war on reality and the Constitution—unfortunately, a minority—Cheney’s current stance could boost their spirits and spine. And the fight to protect American democracy needs as many enlistees as can be mustered, on the left, in the middle, and on the right. 

Still, Liz Cheney deserves hardly a cheer, for it ought to be remembered that Trump is pushing his Big Lie in the wake of other big lies—and that Cheney, her father, and so many other Republicans not so long ago did much to blaze the path for the dangerous political villainy she now decries.

Richard Wright's Novel About Racist Police Violence Was Rejected in 1941; It Has Just Been Published

Democracy Now! -

Nearly 80 years ago, Richard Wright became one of the most famous Black writers in the United States with the publication of “Native Son,” a novel whose searing critique of systemic racism made it a best-seller and inspired a generation of Black writers. In 1941, Wright wrote a new novel titled “The Man Who Lived Underground,” but publishers refused to release it, in part because the book was filled with graphic descriptions of police brutality by white officers against a Black man. His manuscript was largely forgotten until his daughter Julia Wright unearthed it at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University. “The Man Who Lived Underground” was not published in the 1940s because white publishers did not want to highlight “white supremacist police violence upon a Black man because it was too close to home,” says Julia Wright. “It’s a bit like lifting the stone and not wanting the worms, the racist worms underneath, to be seen.”

"They Were Tortured": 4 Families Torn Apart by Trump Are Reunited. 1,000+ Still Separated, Missing.

Democracy Now! -

This week, four parents from Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico were reunited with their children in the United States after being separated under former President Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. They were the first families to be reunited on U.S. soil since the Biden administration began its reunification process. “Although we love to see the reunifications and they’re very moving, we have to keep in mind what led to that and that it should never have happened in the first place,” says Carol Anne Donohoe, managing attorney for the Family Reunification Project at Al Otro Lado. We also speak with Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, who leads the ACLU’s lawsuit over family separations. He notes more than 1,000 children are still separated from their parents, and adds, “We have not even found the parents of 455 children.”

Elise Stefanik Was Always Playing the Long Game

Mother Jones Magazine -

On Wednesday, as GOP rivals in Congress vied to strip her of her leadership role for her criticism of ex-president Donald Trump, Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, the chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, gave her party an ultimatum. “The Republican Party is at a turning point,” she wrote in the Washington Post, “and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution.” 

The decision had already been made. CNN’s Manu Raju reported that Cheney’s colleagues were poised to anoint a successor—Elise Stefanik, a 36-year-old fourth-term congresswoman from Upstate New York, who has been endorsed for the job by Trump himself. In a thorough write up of the power struggle, the New York Times describes Stefanik’s career as a political “metamorphosis”:

While she began as one of the more moderate members of the Republican Conference—her voting record is far less conservative than Ms. Cheney’s, according to the conservative Heritage Foundation—Ms. Stefanik became one of Mr. Trump’s most strident loyalists. That role has buoyed her rapid ascension and brought in millions of dollars in campaign donations.

Stefanik’s political rise is a familiar Washington tale. After graduating from Harvard, she joined George W. Bush’s White House, worked in Republican policy circles for a few years, and served as a staffer for Paul Ryan during his vice presidential campaign. Then, in November 2012, she decided to suddenly leave all that behind to take a job in sales at her parents’ successful plywood company. She moved back to New York—not to the Albany area where she grew up and the business was headquartered, but to her family’s vacation home in Willsboro, a few hours north.

When, a few months later, Stefanik announced that she was running for Congress, these steps made a lot more sense. She described herself in one newspaper op-ed as “a small businesswoman who works in North Country sales, marketing and management” for a family business. Another local newspaper described her as “a businesswoman from Willsboro.” Campaign ads made it seem as if Willsboro was her actual hometown. (Residents of Willsboro told North Country Public Radio they’d never even heard of her.)

This kind of choreographed homecoming is a rite of passage for Washington political professionals. Jonah from Veep did it. (“Vote for Jonah Ryan–the outsider!“) Paul Ryan did it. Actually, so did Liz Cheney. But Stefanik told Politico that she hadn’t moved Upstate with the intention of running for office at all. She had just been that affected by the perspective she’d gained outside the “Beltway Bubble.”

That outsider’s perspective was a core part of her pitch. “I don’t look like a typical candidate,” Stefanik said at one point during the race. “But what I’ve realized is people have been really looking for someone who isn’t necessarily the status quo in Washington.” She was promising “new ideas.”

Stefanik was different from her Republican colleagues in a notable way—when she took office in January of 2015, she joined a Republican caucus that consisted almost entirely of older men, something she’s challenged party leaders in the intervening years to change. But in another sense, she was the purest form of Washington Republican—a creature of think tanks and campaigns and 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. When she started an online magazine for conservative women in 2009 called “American Maggie” (named for Margaret Thatcher), as North Country Public Radio reported, she got Mary Matalin, Ed Gillespie, and Dana Perino to be on the advisory board. She was a liaison for lobbyists during the 2012 Republican National Convention. She’d hosted a fundraiser for Tim Pawlenty at a $1.3 million investment property she owned near the Capitol. She won her primary with more than $1 million in outside spending from Karl Rove’s super PAC and the hedge-fund billionaire Paul Singer. You can be an outsider plywood saleswoman bucking the status quo with fresh ideas or you can be the person who literally introduced Joel Kaplan, the Facebook lobbyist, to Facebook (they were working together at the time, in the White House), but these really are two different categories of people.

Stefanik’s first term in Washington was a famously tumultuous one for her party, and Stefanik, like Ryan, did her best to leave all of her options option—when reporters tried to ask her about Trump in 2016, she literally ran away.

But when Trump did win (and by a huge margin in her district), that caution went away. Stefanik distinguished herself as Trump’s most ardent defender on the House Judiciary Committee in the run-up to Trump’s first impeachment trial, and raised big bucks off her newfound celebrity. Rather than run from Trump (and reporters) again in 2020, she ran as a proud Trump ally; after a mob sacked the Capitol in January, she voted with most of her caucus to overturn the presidential election results in Pennsylvania. In an interview Wednesday with a David Lynch character vaguely resembling Steve Bannon (or maybe that was Steve Bannon?), she said she supported the ongoing election “audit” in Arizona, where a company calling itself the “Cyber Ninjas” was inspecting ballots at an old basketball arena to determine whether they were bamboo forgeries from Asia.

Appearing on Steve Bannon's podcast, @EliseStefanik flaunts her Big Lie bona fides. pic.twitter.com/g5CqoR1bk8

— The Republican Accountability Project (@AccountableGOP) May 6, 2021

This kind of behavior is often presented as, in the words of the Times, a metamorphosis, but that’s not really what it is. The circumstances changed for Stefanik, but not the instincts; the kind of person who spends several months moonlighting as a small businesswoman from a politically neglected rural area in order to move up the ladder in the city where she spent her entire professional career is very much the kind of person who, when it becomes politically convenient, also decides to become a devoted super-fan of a loathsome grifter she once kept at arm’s length.

Liz Cheney is the story of how Bush administration loyalists—promoters, in their own time, of another Big Lie, the invasion of Iraq—fell out of favor with the Republican Party. But Elise Stefanik is the story of how most of them actually didn’t, and it’s the far more prevalent one. For every ex-hardliner with a CNN gig, or every legacy admission on the outs, there are many, many more rank-and-file officials, staffers, fundraisers, and consultants with none of the same family entanglements who haven’t thought twice about falling right in line. There’s no civil war in Trump’s GOP, not really. Just a whole lot of careerists angling their sails once more to ride the shifting winds.

Headlines for May 7, 2021

Democracy Now! -

I Hate Seeing Myself on Zoom. Turns Out, I’m Not Alone.

Mother Jones Magazine -

For the first time in my life, I understand why so many people who make their living in front of the camera—reality show personalities, news anchors, movie stars—get plastic surgery. I empathize with them. I get it. I, too, have had the experience of spending an inordinate amount of time looking at myself—not with millions of others on Bravo, but with a select group of colleagues on Zoom.

When I first installed Zoom, I didn’t think too much about the personal implications. As with much of the rest of the world, the pandemic forced my work life online, so I got the tool that allowed me to have meetings and see co-workers while we stayed physically apart. But I could never have imagined how hours and hours of looking at myself would affect me psychologically. I’m someone whose makeup routine takes five minutes max, who doesn’t wear high heels as a matter of principle, and who avoids taking selfies or looking at photos of myself. For most of my life, this hasn’t been a problem.

But slowly, during my Zoom-focused, quarantined life I’ve felt my occasionally ambivalent but generally self-confident sense of my appearance erode. Day in and day out I was forced to stare at the puffy bags under my eyes, the unfortunate spattering of adult acne on my chin, the way my face looks when I laugh too hard (which I usually do). It became impossible not to critically dissect my appearance, to silence my hectoring inner Anna Wintour. After one particularly Zoom-heavy day, I googled eye-lift procedures and how much they cost. (Around $3,000 with a recovery time of two weeks.) 

After one particularly Zoom-heavy day, I googled eye-lift procedures and how much they cost. (Around $3,000 with a recovery time of two weeks.) 

Why not merely select the “hide self” function on Zoom, you might reasonably ask. Because now that I have the option to stare at myself in action, I need to know what everyone else sees my face do. During the pre-pandemic days of uncomplicated indoor dining, when I found myself eating at a restaurant with a mirror on the wall opposite my seat, I couldn’t help checking myself out. It’s too tempting to try to plumb the depths of that impossible question: What do other people see when they see me? And how can I fix it so that what they see looks like I want it to?

Turns out, I’m not alone. 

Plastic surgeons are reporting that interest in plastic surgery has markedly increased during the pandemic, especially for the whole menu of facial procedures, from rhinoplasty to face lifts, cheek implants, ear surgery, eye lifts, forehead lifts, neck lifts, botox, and fillers. They’ve even given the phenomenon a name: the “Zoom Boom.”

The market research firm Equation Research surveyed more than 1,000 women across the United States and found that interest in plastic surgery has gone up by 11 percent among women over the last year, though we don’t know the age breakdown. (The absence of men in the survey is glaring—certainly they’re not exempt.) Although almost all cosmetic procedures decreased overall during the pandemic due to office closures, facial procedures decreased by the smallest percentage.

A survey conducted by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) of their nearly 8,000 members revealed that nose reshaping (352,555 procedures), eyelid surgery (352,112 procedures), and face lifts (234,374 procedures) were the top three cosmetic surgical procedures in 2020. When accounting for the fact that most plastic surgeon were closed for an average of eight weeks in the year, the demand for each of these procedures actually rose by 12 percent, 7 percent, and 4 percent respectively. Demand for the most popular body-focused procedures, by contrast, dropped. Breast augmentation surgeries were down by 18 percent, liposuction was down by 5 percent, tummy tucks were down by 2 percent, and breast lifts were down by 6 percent. During these days spent sitting and staring at the screen, why bother fixing anything from the neck down? (Though demand for butt implants has notably soared!)

I decided to talk to some experts about this—just as a reporter of course. So I tracked down Dr. Lynn Jeffers, a plastic surgeon and chief medical officer at the St. John’s Pleasant Valley Hospital in Camarillo, California, to ask what this Zoom Boom is all about. (Jeffers has also been working overtime running the vaccine rollout at her hospital.) She thinks there are three main factors. People had more disposable income during the pandemic because they were saving money on things like travel and dining out. Also, working from home made recovering from surgery easier and more discreet. And the only factor I could personally relate to: “We were suddenly all on Zoom, and our faces were so big in front of us, and most of us didn’t have great lighting or great webcams and so forth,” says Jeffers. “A number of people attributed the increased interest in facial procedures, as well as Botox and fillers, because that’s what everybody was seeing.”

“We were suddenly all on Zoom, and our faces were so big in front of us, and most of us didn’t have great lighting or great webcams.”

While Zoom fatigue has been a struggle for many of us, the effects have been especially distressing for the roughly 2 to 3 percent of Americans who struggle with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). “Skin, nose, lots of different facial features tend to be the focus of concern in BDD,” says Dr. Hilary Weingarden, a practicing psychologist and clinical researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital who specializes in OCD and related disorders, such as BDD. She explained to me that any concerns I might have about my facial appearance can take on a heightened, or even distorted, presence in my self-perception when I see myself on Zoom for long periods of time. 

“When you sit on Zoom, you’re staring at them all day long, and so we can tend to over-focus on that body part of concern,” she says. “When we look at ourselves in that way, we can start to actually distort our perception. And it starts to look more blown out of proportion.”

Weingarden points out that when people focus on small flaws about themselves, they are seeing a very different picture from what other people see, which is more holistic. Also, Zoom is a particularly strange and unforgiving vehicle in that it literally lines our faces up next to other faces, which creates a situation that’s ripe for unflattering comparisons—a dangerous rabbit hole, as anyone with a propensity for late-night Instagram scrolling will tell you.

Of course, there are lots of reasons to want to tweak or alter appearance, but my own obsessive dissection of my face just made me feel bad. Self-conscious about laughing or smiling. Deflated by a bad hair day. But more than anything, I’ve felt disappointed in myself that I can be troubled by an issue that is so damn superficial when, yes, I have much to be grateful for. I don’t value other people based on their appearance. Why can’t I extend that same courtesy to myself? 

But I think it goes deeper than that. OCD disorders like body dysmorphia have strong ties to anxiety and depression. The obsessive checking and rituals around perceived issues are a channel for anxieties around much bigger things: like the fear of social exclusion, or illness, or dying, or other catastrophic, irreparable calamities—that the pandemic brought to all of our lives to a certain extent. It should be noted that BDD is a severe disorder with high rates of co-morbid depression, high rates of suicidal thoughts and suicidal attempts, and, in severe cases, a paralyzing fear of leaving the house. I do not have OCD or BDD, but I think the ties to anxiety are interesting.

“Most of us have aspects of our physical appearance that we don’t like, that we worry about. And that’s normal to being human,” says Weingarden. “So that experience of worrying about physical appearance, and even engaging in some of these ritual behaviors—we all do some of that to some extent. It can vary anywhere from very mild to full-blown BDD, and everything in between.”

If someone had offered to install a mirror in my computer so that I can stare at myself all day, I never would have agreed to it. Yet somehow that’s what I got. That’s what we’ve all got. Among the innumerable aspects of the pandemic that have been unnatural, add functioning under the constant surveillance of a virtual mirror.

Flow theory posits that people achieve peak performance when they are engrossed in an activity to the point that they lose their sense of self. It’s like being in the zone, or in a groove. For me the best feeling is when my self-awareness fades into the background and I am fully immersed in editing, or reading a good book, or listening to a friend’s story. 

When I confided to a friend about my Zoom Appearance Crisis (ZAC!), she pointed out that Narcissus stared at himself all day every day and it didn’t work out so well for him. Sitting at the edge of a lake and engrossed in his own reflection, he ultimately lost all interest in his worldly surroundings and turned into a flower. Clearly, this is not an ideal picture of engagement with the world—much less baseline productivity.

But maybe we got the message from the myth all wrong. Maybe Narcissus didn’t expire because he loved looking at himself. Maybe he just couldn’t look away.

Trump Spawned a New Group of Mega-Donors Who Now Hold Sway Over the GOP’s Future

Mother Jones Magazine -

This story was originally published by ProPublica. ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

Wesley Barnett was just as surprised as anyone to learn from news reports that the Jan. 6 Trump rally that turned into a violent assault on the U.S. Capitol was funded by Julia Jenkins Fancelli, an heiress to the fortune of the popular Publix supermarket chain. But Barnett had extra cause for being startled: Fancelli is his aunt.

Barnett said he was at a loss to explain how his aunt — who isn’t on social media, lives part time in Italy and keeps a low profile in their central Florida town — got mixed up with the likes of Alex Jones and Ali Alexander, the right-wing provocateurs who were VIPs at the Jan. 6 rally in front of the White House.

Over the last five years, it has become clear that former President Donald Trump has activated a new set of mega-donors who were not previously big spenders in national politics. Some of the donors appear to share the more extreme views of many Trump supporters, based on social media posts promoting falsehoods about election fraud or masks and vaccines. Whether they will deepen their involvement or step back, and whether their giving will extend to candidates beyond Trump, will have an outsized role in steering the future of the Republican Party and even American democracy.

ProPublica identified 29 people and couples who increased their political contributions at least tenfold since 2015, based on an analysis of Federal Election Commission records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. The donors in the table below gave at least $1 million to Trump and the GOP after previously having spent less than $1 million total. Most of the donations went to super PACs supporting Trump or to the Trump Victory joint fundraising vehicle that spread the money among his campaign and party committees.

MAGA Money

These donors each contributed more than $1 million to Trump and other Republicans since 2015, at least a tenfold increase from their prior political giving. The names of both people in a couple are shown if they each donated in their own names; the description applies to the first person named unless otherwise stated.

In the current system of porous campaign finance rules and lax enforcement, a handful of ultra-rich people can have dramatic influence on national campaigns. Many of Trump’s biggest backers, such as the late casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, or the Illinois packaging tycoons Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, aren’t shown in ProPublica’s analysis because they gave millions to Republicans even before Trump. But several of the biggest new donors — banking scion Timothy Mellon and his wife, Patricia; Marvel Entertainment chairman Ike Perlmutter and his wife, Laura; and Dallas pipeline billionaire Kelcy Warren and his wife, Amy — now rank among such better-known, longer-running donors as Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman, professional wrestling founders Linda and Vince McMahon, and casino mogul Steve Wynn.

For some new donors, the sudden increase in their political contributions may have as much to do with newly acquired wealth as with the ascent of Trump and his grip on the Republican Party. But others inherited fortunes or made them long ago, yet never made a splash in campaign finance records until now. Several of the donors have not spoken publicly about their support for Trump or have not been extensively covered before. ProPublica requested interviews with everyone named in this article and included comments from those who responded.

“Things are diametrically different from when Trump was in office,” Marlyne Sexton, who has given more than $2 million since 2015 after giving less than $115,000 before, said in a phone interview. Sexton, whose husband runs an Indianapolis-based property management company, attended a dinner with Trump in 2019, Politico reported.

“People are afraid to walk down the street, it’s a joke,” Sexton continued. Asked why people were afraid, she said, “You can answer that for yourself, and if you can’t then we probably don’t agree. I can’t help you understand that.”

Big Lie Believers: Julia Fancelli and Gregory Fancelli

In addition to pledging $300,000 to fund the Jan. 6 rally in Washington, Julia Fancelli actually had a hotel suite reserved, according to organizers who spoke on the condition of anonymity. But in the end she did not attend, according to Caroline Wren, a Trump fundraiser involved in the planning.

Fancelli did not respond to requests for an interview, including one placed through the office of her family’s foundation. Her estate manager, Schuyler Long, who also donated to Trump, declined to comment. In a statement to The Wall Street Journal, which first reported her involvement in the Jan. 6 rally, Fancelli said: “I am a proud conservative and have real concerns associated with election integrity, yet I would never support any violence, particularly the tragic and horrific events that unfolded.”

Publix distanced itself from Fancelli, whose father, George Jenkins, founded the chain. The company said she isn’t involved in operations and doesn’t “represent the company in any way.” Fancelli’s holdings in the privately held company aren’t known and she is not listed in financial disclosures as an owner of 5% or more of the company’s stock.

Forbes has estimated the entire Jenkins family’s wealth at $8.8 billion, ranking 39th in the country. Fancelli served as president of the family’s foundation as of 2019, according to the organization’s most recent tax filing. In addition to nonpolitical charities, the foundation also made a $30,000 grant to the Leadership Institute, which trains conservative activists.

Fancelli grew up with the rest of the Jenkins clan in Lakeland, Florida, and met her husband Mauro, a fruit and vegetable wholesaler, on a study abroad year in Florence, the local newspaper reported in 2018. Though the Jenkins family is prominent in Lakeland, Fancelli is not civically engaged and lives for much of the year in Italy.

I am a proud conservative and have real concerns associated with election integrity, yet I would never support any violence, particularly the tragic and horrific events that unfolded.

In past elections, she generally gave a few thousand dollars at a time to the Republican National Committee and GOP congressional candidates, amounting to less than $200,000 total, according to FEC records. Her contributions took off starting in 2016. Since then she’s given more than $2 million. Besides backing Trump, she was the largest donor to a super PAC supporting Michigan Republican Eric Esshaki, who lost to Rep. Haley Stevens.

Fancelli’s donations to Trump drew some notice. But until the Jan. 6 rally, the most news she made was for being a theft victim: In December 2020, a murder suspect stole three pieces of a silver tea set through the window of Fancelli’s modest house.

Fancelli’s son, Gregory, accompanied her to a Trump campaign luncheon in Palm Beach in 2019 and donated in his own name. “My mother and I are big supporters of the president,” he told a local reporter in October.

Unlike his mom, Gregory Fancelli is active in the Lakeland community. He works on restoring local houses and mosaics, as well as a planetarium designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the last with the help of a grant from the National Park Service in August 2020. He has donated money to a school board candidate through shell companiesnamed after fictional characters such as Tony Stark (better known as Iron Man) and a Ghostbuster, Peter Venkman.

He also occasionally posts online about politics, and in the months after Trump lost the election, his views appeared to harden. On Christmas Day in 2020, Fancelli said on Facebook that COVID-19 was a “fake pandemic” and argued with Facebook friends who referenced case numbers and people they personally knew who died of the coronavirus. “It doesn’t have the magnitude of a pandemic, unless you combine all the illnesses and flues and give it one name,” Fancelli wrote. “Definitely a very powerful scare tactic by the Chinese and the UN.”

In other posts, Fancelli appeared to embrace Trump’s rhetoric calling President Joe Biden soft on China and falsely claiming that the election was stolen. In March, Fancelli posted a video mocking Biden for tripping on the stairs to board Air Force One, mashing up the footage with video of Trump hitting a golf ball. To a friend who commented “Fore more years!” Fancelli replied, “Fore more years of chinese puppetry!”

Another friend commented, “80 million people voted for this?” Fancelli replied, “Some people voted for him, the rest is fraud.”

Gregory Fancelli declined to be interviewed.

Online Conspiracy Theorists: Leila Centner, Michael and Caryn Borland

David and Leila Centner have never spoken publicly about their support for Trump and hadn’t made a political donation (except two that were refunded in 2018) until they gave a combined $1 million to support Trump’s 2020 campaign. Come Jan. 6, the Miami couple were VIP guests at the rally on the Ellipse, according to organizers. The couple declined to comment through a spokesperson.

David Centner started and sold several successful web businesses, then made a fortune on a company that processed highway tolls. In 2019, taking advantage of a provision in Trump’s tax bill, the Centners reportedly invested $40 million in a fund to build affordable housing for teachers. The tax incentive, known as Opportunity Zones, was intended to entice investors into developing poorer neighborhoods. But many wealthy and well-connected people have foundwaysto use it to subsidize their preexisting projects.

After not being able to find a school that felt right for their daughter, the Centners started their own, the brightly colored Centner Academy in Miami’s Design District.

Some school parents objected when Leila Centner used the building to host a campaign event for a conservative mayoral candidate. According to emails quoted in the Miami New Times, Centner responded to their concerns by saying, “Please do not tell me what types of events I can host in my own building after hours.”

In January, the school hosted an event with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the prominent antivaccine activist. David Centner introduced him as his “hero” and “personal inspiration,” according to a video of Kennedy’s talk.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Leila Centner (@leilacentner)

In April, Centner instructed school employees not to get the COVID-19 vaccine. In a message to faculty and staff, she falsely claimed the vaccines don’t prevent death or transmission of the disease, despite trials and research showing they do. She also cited a baseless conspiracy theory that merely being around other vaccinated people can cause reproductive problems in women.

“We cannot allow recently vaccinated people to be near our students until more information is known,” Centner said in the message to staff. She told employees who wished to get the vaccine that they should wait until the end of the school year and that they might not be allowed to return to their jobs.

Centner’s Facebook and Instagram posts are filled with misinformation urging people not to wear masks or get a COVID-19 vaccine. She falsely claimed that the media has covered up vaccine side effects ranging from rashes to death. She also has posted attacks on the nation’s top infectious disease adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, as well as drug companies and other doctors. She has cited debunked studies claiming masks harm children and compared face coverings to the yellow stars that the Nazis ordered Jews to wear. Years ago, she posted a video — now covered by a fact-checking warning — about testing bottled water for pH levels and fluoride.

Centner is slated to speak next month at a “mask-free, freedom-fighting” conference featuring Trump adviser Roger Stone, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell.

We cannot allow recently vaccinated people to be near our students until more information is known.

Centner is not the only major new Trump donor who has promoted conspiracy theories. Michael and Caryn Borland of Newport Beach, California, have given a total of about $1.6 million since 2015. In the past they’d given less than $13,000. With their new high-roller status, they were guests at the 2020 GOP convention. Then-Vice President Mike Pence canceled a planned fundraiser at the Borlands’ Montana home after the Associated Press reported that the would-be hosts shared QAnon memes on Facebook and Twitter. The posts are no longer available.

“This is not a forum for politics,” Caryn Borland, a singer-songwriter of Christian music, later posted on her Facebook page. “Whether they be my opinions or anyone else’s. If you express any political opinions on this page they will be taken down immediately.” The couple didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The Borlands met while working in a grocery store and started a modest life together, according to David Wood, a film producer who worked with them on an ill-fated project. Then they inherited a fortune on Caryn’s side, Wood said. Her father was an executive of a California-based industrial materials company in the 1980s, according to corporate records, and court filings indicate that she has a multimillion-dollar trust in her maiden name. The trust’s holdings include land assessed at $1.6 million in Arizona, according to tax records.

“They were not even middle class, then they inherited a massive fortune,” said Wood, who received a $10 million check from the trust for the film project in 2019. Amid a lawsuit, he agreed to return $4 million, according to court papers. “I don’t think they were completely prepared for it,” Wood said. “I don’t know if anyone would be.”

Business Benefits: Kelcy Warren, Roger Norman, Palmer Luckey

Some of the biggest new donors are less outspoken about their ideologies but gained tangible benefits from Trump’s presidency.

Dallas billionaire Kelcy Warren welcomed the impact he anticipated Trump would have on his company, Energy Transfer Partners, which operates the Dakota Access Pipeline. Two days after the 2016 election, he told investors, “Having a government that actually backs up what they say, that we’re going to support infrastructure, we’re going to support job creation, we’re going to support growth in America, and then actually does it? My God, this is going to be refreshing.”

On Trump’s fourth full day in office, he signed an executive order to help clear the way for the Dakota Access Pipeline, a thousand-mile link to North Dakota’s oil fields. Energy Transfer’s stock price soared, and Warren’s wealth climbed from $2.8 billion to $4.5 billion, according to Forbes. The magazine said the percentage gain was bigger than that of any other American that year.

The Dakota Access Pipeline became a high-profile controversy in 2016 when environmentalists and Native Americans rallied to the support of the local Standing Rock Sioux, who raised concerns that the pipeline would endanger their drinking water. With Trump’s support, the pipeline was completed in April 2017 and started shipping oil the next month. But legal challenges continued, and a federal court in Washington eventually held that the Trump administration cut corners on the required environmental reviews.

Having a government that actually backs up what they say, that we’re going to support infrastructure, we’re going to support job creation, we’re going to support growth in America, and then actually does it? My God, this is going to be refreshing.

Warren’s company is now trying to convince a judge not to shut down the pipeline, arguing in an April court filing that the company stands to lose as much as $4.28 million a day. Some Democrats are calling on Biden to close the pipeline, but the current White House hasn’t taken a position.

Warren and his wife are prominent philanthropists in Dallas (they developed a downtown park and named it after their son). But they were not major political donors until Trump came along, having spent less than $600,000 in total. Since 2015, however, they’ve given more than $17 million. Warren declined to comment through a company spokesperson.

Another first-time mega-donor who benefited from Trump’s actions was Roger Norman, a reclusive real estate investor in Reno, Nevada. In his first-ever interview, with a Reno TV news station in 2018, Norman recounted making and losing fortunes several times over, despite never learning to read or write.

Norman’s crown jewel is the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center, 104,000 acres of desert that he and his partners bought for $20 million in 1998. Today it’s worth billions after becoming a hub for companies including Tesla, Google and Switch.

The site benefited from the Opportunity Zone program in Trump’s tax bill, thanks to some influential friends. As The Washington Post reported in 2018, Treasury officials originally decided the area was too prosperous to qualify for the benefit. But Norman’s business partner recruited Nevada Republicans, including the governor and a senator, to lobby for the designation.

Norman then gave more than $2 million to support Trump’s reelection, compared to the less than $100,000 in total political contributions he’d made in the past. “You’re a little late to that story, I’m not donating anything now,” Norman said in a brief phone conversation, declining to discuss the matter further.

Another new mega-donor turned a professional setback arising from his support for Trump into a new opportunity. Palmer Luckey built a prototype for a virtual reality headset as a teenager and sold his company, Oculus VR, to Facebook for $2 billion in 2014. Forbes estimated the 21-year-old’s cut at more than $500 million.

Luckey has credited Trump’s book “The Art of the Deal” with inspiring him at age 13, according to The Wall Street Journal, and he sent Trump a letter in 2011 encouraging him to run for president. During the 2016 campaign, Luckey donated $10,000 to Nimble America, a pro-Trump group associated with misogynistic and white-supremacist online posts. Luckey has given conflicting accounts of whether he wrote some of the messages under a pseudonym. After an internal uproar at Facebook, the company placed Luckey on leave and fired him in 2017, the Journal reported.

Luckey deepened his political activism, expanding his giving and hosting a fundraiser for Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. He started a new company, Anduril, that would cater directly to the Trump administration by making security technology for the southern border. The company raised $200 million from investors and won government contracts totaling almost $100 million.

Luckey didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Luckey’s sister, Ginger Luckey, is engaged to Matt Gaetz, the embattled Florida congressman and Trump ally. Their mother, Julie Luckey, who home-schooled Palmer, was slated to be a VIP guest for the Jan. 6 rally. It’s not clear if she attended. She didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Government Posts: Ike Perlmutter, Duke Buchan, Lynda Blanchard

Duke Buchan, a wealthy but little-known Wall Street investor, wasn’t shy about coveting an ambassadorship after he and his wife gave the Trump Victory fund almost $450,000 each, the maximum amount allowable by federal campaign finance laws in 2016. One of the last vestiges of the spoils system, cushy diplomatic posts routinely go to campaign patrons. Buchan and his wife, joint donor Hannah Flournoy Buchan, declined to comment.

Buchan told friends that he viewed Trump as a disrupter and cheered the candidate’s attacks on political correctness, looking forward to saying “Merry Christmas” again, The New York Times reported in 2017. Buchan was rewarded with an appointment as ambassador to Spain, where he had studied abroad decades earlier. He reportedly complained that European Union regulations scuttled his plans to bring his polo ponies along. While in office, Buchan took part in the Trump administration’s controversial efforts to oust Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro.

While ambassadorships are common rewards for big donors, Lynda Blanchard was unusually blunt about it. According to a person familiar with her appointment who asked not to be named in connection with the discussions, Blanchard explicitly reminded transition officials how much she donated. She and her husband gave more than $2 million to Republicans between 2015 and 2018, when Trump nominated her as ambassador to Slovenia, Melania Trump’s native country. Blanchard didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Blanchard, who founded a real estate investment firm, is now staking millions on her own candidacy for U.S. Senate in Alabama. She held a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago in March with a surprise appearance from Trump, but then he endorsed her rival: Rep. Mo Brooks, one of the leaders of the congressional effort to overturn the 2020 election results.

One new Trump-era mega-donor was rewarded with a less-conventional role in his administration. Ike Perlmutter, the Marvel Entertainment chairman who was one of Trump’s largest overall backers and belongs to his Mar-a-Lago club, became an unofficial yet influential adviser on veterans issues. As ProPublica first reported in 2018, Trump gave Perlmutter and two associates sweeping influence over the Department of Veterans Affairs. They had a hand in policy and personnel decisions, even reviewing budgets and contracts.

Perlmutter, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has said he had no formal authority and sought no personal gain.

A liberal veterans group, VoteVets, sued the VA over Perlmutter’s role, alleging that it violated a Watergate-era sunshine law. In March, an appeals court said the case could proceed.

Personal Ties: Anthony Lomangino, Steve Witkoff, Vernon Hill

Though Perlmutter, 78, was drawn in by his personal relationship with Trump, he has become a bigger force in Florida Republican politics. Before backing Trump, he and his wife gave $2 million to a super PAC supporting then-presidential candidate Marco Rubio, and more recently he’s become a major benefactor of Gov. Ron DeSantis, widely considered a leading contender for the party’s 2024 presidential nomination if Trump doesn’t run.

For other new mega-donors who got involved because of their personal ties to Trump, it’s less clear if their support will extend to other candidates.

Fellow Mar-a-Lago member Anthony Lomangino and his wife have given more than $3 million, plus $150,000 to help aides cover legal fees arising from the Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. They had previously given less than $40,000 total. Lomangino, whose wealth derives from selling a recycling-collection company to industry giant Waste Management, declined to comment.

Vernon Hill, Trump’s sometime banker and golf buddy, gave more than $2 million, 10 times more than he’d ever given before. In 2020 he praised the federal government’s small business relief program, which his bank, like many others, helped administer. Hill didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Steven Witkoff, a New York real estate friend, gave more than $2 million and served as an informal adviser on tax cuts, opioids and reopening businesses during the pandemic. He has also since become a DeSantis backer. Witkoff didn’t respond to requests for comment.

John McCall, the business partner of Trump’s friend and purported hairspray supplier Farouk Shami, gave $1.7 million to Trump and the GOP since 2015, versus less than $20,000 previously. McCall didn’t respond to requests for comment.

How Bitcoin Mining Keeps Old Fossil-Fuel Plants Alive

Mother Jones Magazine -

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

One decade and $1 trillion after the debut of Bitcoin, the environmental footprint of “mining” the cryptocurrency is still hotly contested. What’s certain, however, is that the amount of electricity the process requires is growing at a breakneck speed. Each time transactions are added to Bitcoin’s digital ledger, they have to be verified by its network, which requires “miners” to devote huge quantities of computational power to solving cryptographic problems. As more miners join the network—lured by the skyrocketing value of the bitcoin they receive in exchange for their work—the puzzles get harder, requiring ever greater amounts of processing power, and thus electricity, to solve.

Bitcoin mining is now estimated to gobble up more electricity than many entire countries. Since 2019, when the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Alternative Finance placed the cryptocurrency’s power needs ahead of Switzerland’s, its consumption has more than doubled, surpassing that of Sweden. The energy used by the Bitcoin network in a single year could power all the tea kettles in the United Kingdom for over three decades.

Adding so much demand to the world’s electricity grids is risky, especially at a time when the window to meaningfully cut greenhouse gas emissions is rapidly closing. Proponents of Bitcoin would have you believe that many or even most mining operations are in far-flung locations using renewable energy that otherwise would have gone to waste. Bitcoin miners have an incentive to keep electricity costs low, they reason, so they’re likely to seek the cheapest electricity possible.

Jack Dorsey and Elon Musk, whose respective companies Square and Tesla have invested heavily in Bitcoin, claim the cryptocurrency will actually hurry the green energy transition by steering investment into renewables. A paper prepared by Square predicts that electricity producers and Bitcoin miners will soon become one and the same.

 As of last March, Bitcoin mining was reportedly sucking up enough of the plant’s energy to power 9,000 homes.

On the sleepy shores of Seneca Lake in Dresden, New York, that prediction is already being realized. Greenidge Generation, a former coal power plant that converted to natural gas and began a Bitcoin mining operation, is positioning itself as part of the clean energy future. The company’s promotional materials describe a “clean” and “environmentally-sound” plant with a “unique commitment to environmental stewardship.

There’s just one problem: If it weren’t for Bitcoin, there would almost certainly be no reason to run the power plant in Dresden at all. Without the revenue from mining, Greenidge would have no reason to spew hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide from the plant’s stacks, discharge hundreds of billions of gallons of hot water into a nearby trout stream, or pipe in and burn billions of cubic feet of fracked natural gas.

In fact, the plant was shut down in 2011 because there wasn’t enough regional energy demand to justify the operating costs. Its owners filed for bankruptcy and told the state that the plant’s closure was permanent. After belching noxious fumes and dumping toxic coal ash into a nearby landfill for seven decades, the plant was poised to be remediated and reused.

And that’s sort of what happened, in 2014, when Atlas Holdings, a private investment firm based in tony Greenwich, Connecticut, purchased Greenidge. After several years of lobbying New York state officials—and some well-timed donations to Gov. Andrew Cuomo—the company won a $2 million regional economic development grant to convert the plant to run on natural gas.

When Greenidge applied for permits to restart operations, it claimed it would be generating power to meet existing electricity demand. In 2016, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, or DEC, concurred and cited the fact that the “plant itself will not create a new demand for energy” as part of the agency’s justification for letting the plant skip the normal requirement to produce an environmental impact statement.

But when Greenidge reopened in 2017, there wasn’t any more demand than there had been when it shut down. By 2019, the plant was no longer producing power for the public at all. In an attempt to claw back the tens of millions that Atlas invested to convert the plant to natural gas, Greenidge turned to mining Bitcoin.

By March 2020, the plant was reportedly using over 14 megawatts of power, enough for roughly 9,000 homes, to mine around $50,000 worth of Bitcoin per day. As of this writing, that same amount of Bitcoin is worth about $300,000. The plant is now one of the largest cryptocurrency mines in the country, and it’s angling to get even bigger.

As Greenidge increased its mining capacity last year, there was a corresponding jump in its contributions to global warming. The plant’s greenhouse gas emissions increased nearly tenfold from 2019 to 2020, according to DEC records obtained by the Committee to Preserve the Finger Lakes, one of several local environmental groups that have risen up in opposition to the plant.

The equivalent of over 220,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide were emitted over the course of last year, a volume comparable to putting nearly 50,000 new cars on the road. That’s just a fraction of the 580,000 metric tons the plant is currently permitted to emit annually, and the nearly 1 million metric tons it could release every year if operating at full capacity. And since the plant’s growing appetite is driven entirely by cryptocurrency, these emissions can’t be written off as the price of providing heat and power to homes or businesses.

Greenidge isn’t even close to done expanding. In late March, the company revealed plans to merge with Support.com, a publicly traded tech company. In its announcement, Greenidge said it wants to more than double its mining capacity on Seneca Lake by July—and to double it again by the end of 2022, at which point it will total 85 megawatts. The company is not a power plant with a side hustle, but rather a “bitcoin mining company with a wholly-owned power plant.”

“We’re just the first, but they’re going to be coming after all these old power plants.”

Greenidge also said that the company plans to replicate its vertically integrated model—cryptocurrency mining at the source of energy production—at other power plants, with a goal of at least 500 megawatts of combined mining capacity by 2025. To accomplish that, the company would have to acquire and open at least four other power plants of similar capacity. They probably won’t have trouble finding them: National environmental nonprofits Earthjustice and the Sierra Club have already warned that nearly 30 power plants in upstate New York could be used for similar purposes. Atlas Holdings itself partially owns five power plants in New Hampshire that have more than 1,000 megawatts of combined capacity. Like Greenidge before its pivot to Bitcoin, they’re only used at times of peak demand.

Others are already following in Greenidge’s footsteps. In April, a cryptocurrency mining company called Digihost moved to acquire a 55-megawatt natural gas-fired plant in Niagara County, New York. It could theoretically happen at any aging fossil fuel plant around the country: A source of dirty energy that has outlived its profitability could find a second life as a Bitcoin mining operation. Contra Dorsey and Musk, there’s no incentive for Bitcoin miners to purchase or invest in renewable energy if it’s less expensive to produce their own by burning fossil fuels at dirt cheap plants that nobody else wants. 

“It’s a gold rush,” observed Vinny Aliperti, the owner of a winery 10 miles up the road from Greenidge. “We’re just the first, but they’re going to be coming after all these old power plants.”

Although emissions from Bitcoin mining have global consequences, many of the locals opposing Greenidge are equally concerned about its effects on water quality and wildlife. They’ve enumerated their issues with Greenidge in a recent lawsuit against the Town of Torrey (within which the village of Dresden is located), the Torrey Planning Board, and Greenidge itself. This lawsuit is only the latest legal action organizations like the Committee to Preserve the Finger Lakes have taken to try to halt the plant’s operation and proposed expansion.

In late March, Phil and Linda Bracht, two of the 30 petitioners on the lawsuit against Torrey, the county planning board, and Greenidge, took me and another petitioner, Carolyn McAllister, out in their boat to get a look at the plant from the water. All three live on Seneca Lake, just a mile from Greenidge.

The first part of the facility to catch the eye is its giant intake pipe, which is 7 feet in diameter and extends further than the length of two football fields from the shore over the water, like an elevated train to nowhere, before dropping below the lake surface. This is where Greenidge can draw up to 139 million gallons of fresh water per day to cool the plant.

Like all thermoelectric power plants, Greenidge uses steam to spin the turbines that produce electricity, but the steam has to be condensed back to water by exchanging heat with the fresh water before it can be reused. Once-through cooling systems like this—where water is used once and then expelled at a higher temperature—require vast amounts of water, with consequences for both wildlife and water quality.

Intake pipes like this one will suck in water, plants, and animals indiscriminately, resulting in fish, larvae, and other wildlife becoming either “impinged”—caught or mangled by the screens at the pipe’s entrance—or sucked into the cooling system entirely in a process called “entrainment.” A 2011 Sierra Club report put the matter less technically, describing once-through cooling systems as “giant fish blenders.”

Environmentalists fear the New York plant’s discharges will harm local fisheries. 

Greenidge’s former owners once commissioned an engineering study that estimated that the plant impinged or entrained nearly 10,000 fish and crayfish annually in 2006-2007, while an additional 592,000 eggs, larvae, and juvenile fish were entrained every year. The federal Clean Water Act requires facilities that withdraw more than 2 million gallons a day for cooling purposes to, at minimum, cover intake pipes with protective screens to reduce these harms, but New York’s DEC gave Greenidge five years to comply, meaning its pipe won’t have screens until late 2022.

After the water is circulated through the plant, it’s expelled through a 7-by-10-foot concrete tunnel into a canal that flows into Keuka Lake Outlet, a trout stream that empties into Seneca Lake and has been designated by the DEC as a fishery requiring special protection. According to a statement to the court from Lori Fischline, another petitioner against Greenidge who often kayaks up the Outlet, the area has been overtaken by “sludge, algae, insects, dead fish, and foul smells.”

Greenidge is permitted to discharge up to 134 million gallons of water daily at temperatures that range from 108 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer to 86 degrees F in the winter. Given that the lake’s normal surface temperatures range from just 32 to 70 degrees F, depending on the season, the potential for ecological havoc is high.

Seneca Lake is known as the lake trout capital of the world—it’s the site of the annual National Lake Trout Derby—but water temperatures greater than 68 degrees F can impede the fishes’ development and increase mortality. In recent years, fishers have reported fewer and smaller catches on the lake. John Halfman, a professor of geoscience and environmental studies at Hobart and William Smith College on the northern end of Seneca Lake, says the size of the biggest fish caught in the derby has been steadily decreasing, while the time it takes to make a catch is increasing. Michael Black, a petitioner and fisherman going on his 50th summer living on the lake, said he used to catch between 60 and 100 lake trout each year from his dock south of Greenidge. In the last three years combined he’s caught just four. While there are multiple reasons fish might be suffering, Black worries that hot water discharges are exacerbating the threats they face.

Tiffany Garcia, a freshwater ecologist at Oregon State University, wrote a letter to the Town of Torrey raising similar concerns about the effects of hot water discharges on the larger lake ecosystem. “You don’t want to increase temperatures artificially in water bodies that are already going to be suffering from or experiencing increased water temperatures from climate shifts,” she told Grist by phone. She compared the lake’s resiliency to a rubber band and said there’s no telling when additional natural and unnatural stressors will cause that resiliency to snap.

Residents fear that warmer waters will also increase the likelihood and severity of harmful algal blooms, or HABs, near Greenidge. While the presence of blue-green algae or cyanobacteria is normal in lakes, a small number of these organisms produce potent toxins that can be dangerous or even fatal for people and other animals. Under the right conditions—which include lots of sun, still water, and, crucially, heat—these algae can explode in vast, dangerous blooms that are becoming increasingly common in the U.S.

Gregory Boyer, the director of the Great Lakes Research Consortium at the State University of New York, studied the effect of artificially increasing water temperature by just 2 degrees on Lake Champlain. That small change resulted in a surge of bacteria growth, with toxic species of bacteria increasing to a greater degree than nontoxic species.

In earlier lawsuits challenging permits the DEC issued to Greenidge, Boyer submitted affidavits on behalf of local environmental groups saying that the large discharges of heated water from Greenidge could increase HABs in the area and should be studied further. Gary McIntee, who lives just south of Greenidge, told me that the water flowing down the Outlet is often flush with nutrient-rich runoff from farms as well as discharge from a wastewater treatment plant upstream, creating an ideal mix for HABs.

Many people who live near Seneca Lake, including petitioners like Black and McIntee, use water drawn directly from the lake in their homes: to shower, to wash clothes and dishes, to water their gardens or—in the case of the region’s dozens of wineries—even their vineyards. HABs would render their only source of running water unusable. As the DEC points out, not even boiling, chemical disinfectants, or water filters will protect people from HABs and their associated toxins.

HABs can also overwhelm industrial water filtration systems, temporarily rendering public water undrinkable. And as winemaker Vinny Aliperti pointed out, algal blooms keep the tourists away. More than anything, many locals object to being subject to these ecological risks for a power plant that’s not actually providing them needed electricity in return.

Greenidge Generation vigorously denies that its plant is having an adverse impact on the environment. It also claims it’s once again producing power for the grid. “Greenidge is a unique success story,” Mike McKeon, a lobbyist and crisis communicator retained by Greenidge, told Grist in a statement. “Today, Greenidge is a clean, reliable source of power for thousands of homes and businesses in upstate New York and is home to a new data processing center mining bitcoin that is already paying enormous dividends to our community at large.”

In response to concerns about impingement and entrainment in the cooling system, Greenidge has said that the risk is mitigated by variable speed drives recently installed on the facility’s water pumps, which lower the speed of water intake—making it easier for fish to swim away and escape. Those drives, however, can be turned off whenever the plant needs maximum water flow. Greenidge also affirmed that it is on schedule to install protective screens by 2022. As for the effect of hot water discharges on fisheries, the company counters that the designated Keuka Lake Outlet trout area is upstream from Greenidge and won’t be affected. However, although there are specific fishing regulations upstream from the Greenidge discharge canal, the lower part of the Outlet is also a designated trout stream; this explanation also does not account for the trout that live in Seneca Lake itself.

The company’s response to residents’ concerns about HABs is to say there were no HABs within 4 miles of the plant last year, so it couldn’t possibly cause them. However, as Boyer told me, the number of HABs was down across the region in 2020, likely because of high winds over the summer. He explained HABs only explode when all necessary conditions are met, so this one data point doesn’t prove Greenidge won’t help cause them in the future.

Finally, Greenidge reiterated that its activities are all within the limits set by its permits from the DEC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, which determine how much water the plant can withdraw and discharge and at what temperatures, as well as the plant’s air emissions limits. The DEC verified that Greenidge is in compliance with its permits and insisted that it “strictly oversees” the plant’s activities. Greenidge often boasts that these permits are “uniquely strong.”

How Greenidge received those “uniquely strong” permits is a point of longstanding interest to Peter Mantius, a journalist who resides in Watkins Glen, a town at the southern tip of Seneca Lake. Mantius has been covering Atlas Holdings and Greenidge since at least 2017, carefully documenting their sustained lobbying of state officials, as well as contributions to Andrew Cuomo’s reelection campaigns totaling at least $120,000.

Atlas’ lobbying began in 2013, before the firm even bought the plant. Through the law firm Hiscock Barclay, Atlas enlisted a lawyer who had previously been the general counsel at the DEC. That lawyer wrote his former employer on his new client’s behalf, requesting that Greenidge not be treated as a “new” facility under the Clean Air Act, which would avoid the stricter environmental review to which new or significantly altered air pollution sources are otherwise subject.

That same year, the firm and its principals began donating to Governor Cuomo’s reelection campaign, beginning with a $25,000 donation from the company in March. In December, Timothy Fazio and Andrew Bursky, Atlas’ managing partners, each contributed an additional $25,000 on the very same day. Fazio donated another $20,000 in January 2014, shortly before his firm bought the plant. (When asked for comment on these donations, Cuomo’s senior advisor Rich Azzopardi told Grist that “no contribution of any size has any impact or plays a role in any official action, period.”)

In March 2014, the plant hired McKeon, a lobbyist at Mercury Public Affairs and the founder and former executive director of Republicans for Cuomo, which organized bipartisan support for the now-governor during his first run for the office. The plant initially paid a monthly retainer of $20,000 to secure his services. As Mantius has reported, McKeon’s primary activities were lobbying the executive chamber and, for a time, the New York State Legislature. Over the next few years, Greenidge paid Mercury at least $500,000.

In March 2015, Atlas representatives met with top state officials, including Joe Martens and Basil Seggos, the former and current commissioner of the DEC, as well as Thomas O’Mara, a member of the State Senate who also happened to be a partner at the law firm retained by Greenidge Generation. Although details of their conversation are not public, McKeon and O’Mara both told Mantius that they discussed the “new source review” process under the Clean Air Act. (O’Mara also claimed that he was unaware of his conflict of interest going into the meeting.)

Despite these efforts, Greenidge was ultimately subject to stricter treatment as a “new source” under the Clean Air Act, but only after the EPA took the DEC to task for trying to reissue the plant’s air permits after nearly five years of inactivity. “In issuing the proposed permit, NYSDEC did not adequately explain why Greenidge’s reactivation would not constitute a major modification,” the EPA wrote. “NYSDEC relied on Greenidge’s conclusion that the reactivation is not a major modification.”

“They’re using power plants out in the middle of nowhere, where no one’s going to fight it, to line their pockets.”

However, Greenidge’s lobbying paid off in other ways. To start, they secured a $2 million grant to help convert the plant to natural gas through an “upstate revitalization” program meant to stimulate the region’s economy and create jobs. More significantly, when the DEC renewed the plant’s water withdrawal and discharge permits in 2016, the agency waived the normal requirement that the company complete a comprehensive environmental impact statement. The agency essentially reasoned that, since the plant was already built and was resuming operations using a cleaner fuel than coal, it could “not have an adverse environmental impact.”

Environmentalists have repeatedly challenged this decision in court. They argue that, since the plant was shut down, presumably for good, the question shouldn’t be: Is the current Greenidge plant less harmful than the dirty coal plant that was there before? Instead, the question should be: Is the plant more harmful than no plant at all? After all, the most likely counterfactual is not that Greenidge would have continued burning coal—it’s that it would have stopped burning fossil fuels altogether.

Furthermore, Greenidge’s opponents believe the plant should have been required to upgrade the facilities to the environmental standards required of new construction, which are higher than those for old plants. For example, since 2011 the DEC has recommended new and repowered plants use so-called closed-cycle cooling, in which cooling water is recirculated through the plant instead of discarded, significantly reducing wildlife mortality from impingement and entrainment, as well as the volume of hot water discharges. Greenidge, on the other hand, was allowed to continue using its antiquated once-through cooling system, in part because it was deemed too costly to upgrade given the facility’s historic annual revenue. 

Of course, that was before the plant started mining hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of Bitcoin every day.

Some locals told me they wouldn’t have a problem—or as big a problem—with the plant’s environmental impact if it were supplying much-needed energy to the grid. But it isn’t. The region didn’t suffer for lack of power while Greenidge was closed, and there still isn’t enough demand to make the plant profitable without Bitcoin.

“The only good thing about mining Bitcoin is somebody makes money,” John Halfman told me on a video call. “You’re not feeding electricity to homes; you’re not feeding electricity to industry. You’re not doing anything else good with electrons other than min[ing] money. So somebody is greedy. They’re using power plants out in the middle of nowhere, where no one’s going to fight it, to line their pockets.”

Halfman also said that Greenidge’s operations pose a serious threat to the state’s goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent by 2050. Opposition to the plant is coalescing around exactly that fact, and it’s picked up momentum since the company declared its intention to expand. In early April, Earthjustice and the Sierra Club wrote to the DEC to sound the alarm regarding Greenidge’s emissions. There are subtle signs that the DEC is feeling the heat; after the agency received the environmental organizations’ letter, it described its oversight of Greenidge as “aggressive” and said it would carefully review the “precedential” nature of the facility.

Meanwhile, Greenidge’s expansion is barreling ahead. At the end of April, the Town of Torrey gave the company a green light to build four new buildings to house additional Bitcoin-mining hardware. Once those go up, local activists fear it will be that much harder to reverse the plant’s activities.

Before leaving town, I spent some time on the Keuka Outlet Trail. It follows the stream that connects Keuka Lake to Seneca Lake, running over an old railway, and ends near the Greenidge property line, which is posted liberally with no-trespassing signs.

The stream used to power an industrial thoroughfare. In 1820 there were seven gristmills, 14 sawmills, an oil mill, four carding machines for processing wool and other fibers, as well as multiple distilleries. A nonprofit has since transformed the area into a nature retreat with a wide gravel path for walking, running, and biking, well-situated benches for moments of quiet repose, and water access for fishing or boating. The waterfalls once harnessed for their power generation now flow uninterrupted, and the ruins of the area’s industrial past are being reclaimed by new growth.

This could have been the fate of an old coal-fired power plant on Seneca Lake, which in its later years produced energy people rarely needed and was too costly to run at a profit. Nearby residents might have breathed easier, and there would have been one less threat to Seneca Lake and the animals and people who depend on it.

Then a private equity firm found a way to give the plant a second life.

The Wave of GOP Anti-Protest Bills Will Criminalize Protesters—and Sabotage Police Reform, Too

Mother Jones Magazine -

In the wake of the widespread George Floyd protests last year, Republican lawmakers across the country flooded the zone with so-called anti-riot bills. Last month, Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law the draconian “Combating Public Disorder” measure that expands the definition of riot to mean a “violent public disturbance involving 3 or more people,” increases the penalty for participating in a riot, and gives police the discretion to decide what a riot is—and isn’t.

“The criminal aspects of this bill are already illegal,” Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said. “[It] protects no one, makes no one safer, and does nothing to make people’s lives better. It’s simply to appease the Governor’s delusion of widespread lawlessness.”

Despite being criticized for extremism, dozens of Republican-dominated states like Ohio and Arizona have similar measures succeeding in state legislatures and on their ways to become laws. “I think you’re going to see other states sort of picking up the ideas as well, so yeah, this is a real victory for him,” Florida State University Professor Carol Weissert told an NBC affiliate.

According to the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law, there are 69 anti-protest bills pending across the nation. These proposals vary, but many of them expand the definition of rioting in such a way that it can potentially entrap peaceful protesters, while increasing penalties for unlawful assemblies, and offering civil protection for people who injure protesters like, say, individuals who ram their cars into demonstrators on the street.

This wave of extreme anti-protest bills signals a new era in the post-Trump Republican Party. The GOP has not only criminalized protests, they have also made it harder to vote and restricted abortion rights, all the while riling up and pandering to their largely white and fearful base. The party offers little in terms of substantive policy, instead choosing to focus on suppressing civil rights and engaging in dumb but still-dangerous culture wars. Not long ago, these types of bills may have been considered too extreme to become law, but now the flood gates have opened, and the anti-protest bills are rocketing through state legislatures, undermining both constitutional rights and efforts for police reform. 

After Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis last year, protests in every state erupted in response to the viral video of his death. The unrest sparked a national reckoning on race, policing, and justice, with a commitment from liberal politicians to reform police. But while advocates and activists pushed for change, conservative politicians have attempted to double down on the very conditions that triggered the demonstrations in the first place. By criminalizing an increasing number of what should be constitutionally protected activities, these bills only sanction more police interactions with the public. 

One of the major obstacles to police reform has been entrenched approaches by law enforcement officials. Many departments or agencies are reluctant to change and are backed by powerful unions, who see reform efforts as a direct attack on the people they represent. But these bills offer seemingly unlimited opportunities to come into contact with police officers because of our obsession with criminalizing actions, like walking in public, which in most other circumstances would be just a part of daily life. If one of the goals of police reform is to end police brutality, that won’t happen as long as Republicans continue to introduce bills that add to the long list of criminalized activities—including exercising the right to protest.

In Florida the broad definition of what counts as a riot is what has advocates worried. For instance, the new Florida law makes it a crime to use what they refer to as “mob intimidation,” which they define as when three or more people “gather to threaten to force another person from taking a viewpoint against their will.” Hypothetically speaking, if three people are wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts and are trying to engage a passerby, what happens if that person decides they’re all secretly Antifa? Is that mob intimidation? Who decides how to interpret that?

“The bill was purposely designed to embolden the disparate police treatment we have seen over and over again directed towards Black and brown people who are exercising their constitutional right to protest.”


“[The legislation] is racist, unconstitutional, and anti-democratic, plain and simple,” Micah Kubic, the executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said in a statement after it became law. “The bill was purposely designed to embolden the disparate police treatment we have seen over and over again directed towards Black and brown people who are exercising their constitutional right to protest.”

The dynamic implicit in the dozens and dozens of laws currently in state legislatures is that of a political party deeply invested in paring down civil rights. In Iowa, both chambers of the state legislature introduced similar anti-protest bills that would increase the penalties for a “riot” from an aggravated misdemeanor, to a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. The bills also enhances the punishment for “unlawful assembly” by those who block streets or sidewalks during protests, and provides immunity for drivers who happen to injure protesters who are unlawfully assembled.  

In South Carolina, a bill introduced in December 2020 criminalizes blocking a street or sidewalk during a protest, a crime punishable by three years behind bars. The legislation also changes the state’s rioting laws to require anyone convicted of rioting—including “by being personally present [at], or by instigating, promoting, or aiding” a riot—to pay restitution “for any property damage or loss incurred as a result.” Lastly, the bill provides civil immunity for a person who uses deadly force or points a firearm when “confronted by a mob,” a callback to the Missouri couple that pointed guns at protesters last year and were subsequently charged with unlawful use of a weapon and tampering with evidence.

And in Wisconsin, lawmakers introduced a bill that expands the definition of a riot. Under the proposed legislation, an “unlawful assembly” during which at least one person commits an act of violence or threatens to constitutes a riot. In practice, according to the ICNL, a large street protest can become a riot if just a single person commits violence or threatens it.

After hundreds of Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol building on January 6 during the routine count of electoral college votes, assaulting police officers and chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” the Republican party went on the defensive.  They conflated the insurrection, which left six dead, including a police officer, and scores more injured, with the George Floyd protests during the summer of 2020. “The left in America has incited far more political violence than the right,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) falsely implied in the aftermath of the insurrection. “For months, our cities burned, police stations burned, our businesses shattered.”

But as much as the GOP wants to draw parallels between the two events in order to deflect from their own culpability in the attack, there is no better indication of just how deeply corrupt they are than their behavior during the aftermath. The GOP has largely resisted an investigation into the January 6 attack, voted to acquit former president Donald Trump, and created dozens of bills intended to suppress any future racial justice protesters. 

When Gov. DeSantis signed the new anti-protest bill into law shortly after Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder, the Trump protegé expressed disappointment at the police officer’s guilty verdict. In so doing, he signaled that the bill just might be less about so-called rioting and more about interfering with police reform attempts. “I can tell you that case was bungled by the attorney general there in Minnesota,” he said. The message he appeared to be sending was clear: Floridians could be assured that no such unsavory verdicts would occur in the Sunshine State. Why? Because this new law was, according to the governor, the “strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country.” As far as he was concerned, that’s the only reform that was necessary. 


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