Mother Jones Magazine

Alabama Wants to Pervert the 14th Amendment to Gut Voting Rights. So Justice Jackson Took Them Back to History Class.

The Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority often rely on “originalism,” professing to apply the Constitution as they believe the founders intended—and did so last term to issue rulings eroding Americans’ rights to abortion and gun control. On Tuesday, during her second day of arguments as a Supreme Court justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson applied this same originalist approach in an area where her conservative colleagues avoid it. In a case out of Alabama that threatens to gut critical protections for voters of color, she delivered a history lesson on the original purpose of the 14th Amendment—laying out the background behind the clause to explain why it actually supports robust enforcement of voting rights.

In oral arguments in a case called Merrill v. Milligan, Alabama argued that the 14th Amendment, passed in 1868 to ensure citizenship and equality under the law for people freed from slavery, is in conflict with the Voting Rights Act, which requires drawing political maps with race in mind, in order to give minority groups often clustered in particular regions an equal shot at political participation.

Alabama’s contention is that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment is in tension with this element of the Voting Rights Act: The 14th Amendment mandates race blindness while the VRA requires taking race into account. As Justice Amy Coney Barrett said in summarizing Alabama’s arguments, the 14th Amendment is a rock, the VRA is a hard place, and Alabama is caught in between. This contention is a key one that Alabama is relying on to bring a case that could force the country to essentially abandon the VRA, one of its best tools to fight discrimination and facilitate political equality. 

Enter Justice Jackson. She countered Alabama’s arguments by explaining why the 14th Amendment and the VRA are not in conflict—thanks to originalism. “I don’t think that the historical record establishes that the Founders believed that race neutrality or race blindness was required,” she said. The 1866 Civil Rights Act said that Black citizens would have the same rights as white citizens. The 14th Amendment helped to make that a more permanent reality—but enshrining equality among races is not the same thing as mandating blindness to race. The amendment “was drafted to give a constitutional foundation for a piece of legislation that was designed to make people who had less rights and less opportunity equal to white citizens.” The Voting Rights Act, she continued, is doing exactly that. 

Alabama wants to pervert the 14th Amendment to gut voting rights. So Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson decided to give them a much-needed history lesson. (As it turns out, originalism isn't just for conservatives.)

— Mother Jones (@MotherJones) October 4, 2022


Justice Jackson’s progressive originalism mirrors the objections of Justice Thurgood Marshall more than four decades ago to the idea that the 14th Amendment, enacted to lift up Black people, was in fact a constitutional impediment to doing so. “Such a result,” Marshall wrote in the affirmative action case known as Bakke, “would pervert the intent of the Framers by substituting abstract equality for the genuine equality the Amendment was intended to achieve.”

This abstract equality is, of course, inequality. In this case, so-called race neutrality would disempower Black Alabamians in the political process to the advantage of white Alabamians. It has been a project of the political right for decades to use the 14th Amendment to uproot remedies for racial discrimination in the name of “equal” treatment for all. Tuesday’s case is the latest to ask the court to wield the 14th Amendment as a sword against such remedies, and now the court has a 6-3 conservative majority that is sympathetic to this argument. Justice Jackson, newly installed, is calling it out.

How Giorgia Meloni’s Win in Italy Helps Us Understand a US Senate Race

Editor’s note: This column by David Corn first appeared in his newsletter, Our Land. But we wanted to make sure as many readers as possible have a chance to see it. Our Land is written by David twice a week (most of the time) and provides behind-the-scenes stories about politics and media; his unvarnished take on the events of the day; film, book, television, podcast, and music recommendations; interactive audience features; and more. Subscribing costs just $5 a month—but you can sign up for a free 30-day trial of Our Land here. Please check it out. And please also check out David’s new New York Times bestseller: American Psychosis: A Historical Investigation of How the Republican Party Went Crazy.

When a coalition led by Mussolini fangirl Giorgia Meloni won the Italian election a few days ago and placed her on the path to becoming that nation’s first fascist-esque prime minister since Il Duce, I, like many other journalists, quickly engaged in tutorials on her rise to power. One especially frightening data point was a speech she had given outlining her conspiratorial view of the world. It’s worth quoting at length:

Why is the family an enemy? Why is the family so frightening? There is a single answer to all these questions. Because it defines us. Because it defines our identity. Because everything that defines us is now an enemy. For those who would like us to no longer have an identity and to simply be perfect consumer slaves. And so they attack national identity. They attack religious identity. They attack gender identity. They attack family identity. I can’t define myself as Italian, Christian, woman, mother. No, I must be citizen X, gender X, parent 1, parent 2. I must be a number. Because when I am only a number, when I no longer have an identity or roots, then I will be the perfect slave at the mercy of financial speculators. The perfect consumer. That’s the reason why, that’s why we inspire so much fear… We will defend God, country, and family. This thing that disgusts people so much. We will do it to defend our freedom. Because we will never be slaves and simple consumers at the mercy of financial speculators. That is our mission.

The new Prime Minister of Italy.


— Aaron Ginn (@aginnt) September 26, 2022

Meloni was saying that “financial speculators” were in league with woke activists to turn god-fearing Christian Italians into “consumer slaves.” Historian Michael Beschloss noted that “Mussolini enjoyed publicly referring to Jewish people as ‘financial speculators’ who needed to be controlled.” What makes this odious reference even more alarming is Meloni’s comment in another setting: “After our victory, you can raise your heads and finally verbalize what you always thought/believe in.” In her antisemitism-tainted speech, she was blending culture wars over identity with paranoia-driven, elites-bashing populism. This is nasty and dangerous stuff, especially given her party’s fascist roots and her explicit past enthusiasm for Mussolini.

As I read and pondered her mission statement, it rang a bell, and I recalled another politician who has been trying to conflate an economic populism of the right with culture battles over race and national identity: J.D. Vance, the author and venture capitalists who is the Republican Senate nominee in Ohio. He and Blake Masters, the GOP Senate candidate in Arizona, are both acolytes of tech billionaire Peter Thiel, an advocate of a bizarre blend of libertarian and nationalist notions. Thiel has committed tens of millions of dollars to supporting their campaigns. And this whole lot has been attempting to steer the Republican Party in an alt-rightish direction that in some instances seems friendly to authoritarianism. Seeking to understand this slice of the conservative movement, I’ve been scrutinizing Vance interviews, including a chat he had with conservative talk show host Bill Cunningham in the summer of 2021. Asked to explain Trump voters, Vance said:

What they were seeing happening was that on the one hand their communities were being decimated. They were closing manufacturing jobs. They were watching the rise of China, even as their own community declined. But on the flip side, this incredible political correctness was making it impossible to complain about it, right? If you complain about the southern border, you’re a racist. If you complain about our trade policies, you’re an idiot. If you complain about the fact that they’re teaching anti-American hate in our schools, then you’re a racist. And I think that people just got a little fed up that the country that their grandparents and parents had built was going to hell, and they weren’t allowed to say anything about it. And I think that’s really the underlying theme of [my] campaign. If we are to stop the economic plunder of this country on the one hand and if we’re going to stop the elites in this country telling you you’re not allowed to complain about it on the other.

This is rather deft demagoguery. Vance was contending that the elite plunderers were scheming with the woke crowd to shut up Middle America. With a veiled reference to critical race theory or perhaps the 1619 Project, he accused these connivers of using accusations of racism to stop folks—white folks—from complaining about the economic hardships they face. There was, in his view, no legitimate debate about race and America. Instead, unnamed fat cats assailed good ol’ patriotic Americans as racists in order to preserve their riches and to suppress these white Americans.

Cunningham cited Vance’s previous remark that CRT “is fundamentally an assault on the American founding and the people who founded the country and all the things that America has accomplished between the founding of the country and today. The left undermines America’s pride in their ancestry and history, their cross-generational story.” And Vance went on to insist that the left slyly deploys CRT and the issue of race to control decent Americans:

American patriotism is what gives us a pride of place in our own country. It’s what gives us this feeling that we belong to this country, that this country belongs to us, and that we have to build on it… And I think when the left attacks that and says, “Look this is an evil country, the founding generation were all white supremacists,” that racism is the foundational lie at the heart of America, what they’re doing is taking away that sense of pride of place that makes it possible for us to self-govern ourselves. Really what they’re doing, I think, is making us easier to control because the people who have no sense of where it came from have no sense of where it’s going. And that’s what the left is trying to do—turn us into a people that have no idea of what we’re here for or what we’re trying to accomplish.

The left, he claims, is trying to wipe out American patriotism and identity to oppress true-blue Americans. This is close to the conspiracy theory Meloni described: “financial speculators” and cultural leftists seeking to enslave Italians.

Vance spelled it out further, maintaining that the notion of white privilege “is a lie used to silence” his Americans:

Here’s what the elites do. When they say that those people are white privileged, they shut them up. Look, you’re unhappy about your job being shipped overseas? You’re worried that a lawless southern border is going to cause the same poison that killed your daughter to also affect your grandbaby? Don’t you dare complain about that stuff. You are white privileged. You suffer from white rage. You suffer from whatever ridiculous terminology you can apply. So I don’t think even they believe that. What they do is use it as a power play so they can get us to shut up. So they can get us to stop complaining about our own country. And they get to run things without any control, without any pushback form the real people.

This is a noxious formulation. Liberals and elites are cynically utilizing anti-racism to block real Americans from protesting the plunder of America by corrupt monied interests. What he would call political correctness is a cover for class warfare waged by the libs and the elites against the white middle class. Vance is melding the right’s crusade against wokeness with economic resentment, as he attacks nefarious enemies without identifying them. Who are the sinister players knowingly hurling false charges of American racism to prevent folks from questioning economic policies that have led to deindustrialization? Of course, Vance doesn’t say.

It’s intriguing to watch Vance, as a Republican, try to cash in politically on economic dislocation. The deindustrialization he bemoans traces back to the Reagan administration. And it is President Joe Biden and the Democrats who have attempted to assist the hollowed-out Midwest by passing a massive infrastructure bill and an economic package that will fund billions of dollars in energy projects throughout this region. Trump and the GOP did nothing like this when they had the chance. (How many infrastructure weeks were there?)

Vance, who has been endorsed by Donald Trump, is marrying legitimate and deep-rooted economic grievances with visceral cultural resentments, while much of his party tends to devote more energy to the latter than the former. There are many reasons why Americans ought to pay attention to the rise of fascism and right-wing extremism in Europe. One is to help us see what is happening within our own country. Now I’m not suggesting that Vance is a fascist like Meloni. But he certainly is playing with the same fire.

The Supreme Court’s Conservative Majority Wants to Gut the Voting Rights Act—Again

“Violations of the [Voting Rights Act] should not be made too easy to prove,” a young John Roberts wrote when he worked in the Reagan administration in 1982, “since they provide a basis for the most intrusive interference imaginable by federal courts into state and local processes.”

Forty years later, the court’s conservative majority seems set to complete Roberts’ crusade against the country’s most important civil rights law, severely weakening it from every angle.

In 2013, the Roberts Court ruled that states with a long history of discrimination no longer needed to have changes to their voting laws and electoral boundaries approved by the federal government, which opened the floodgates to a wave of new voter suppression efforts. Eight years later, the court made it far more difficult to strike down laws that disadvantage minority voters.

On Tuesday, the court heard a new challenge to the federal Voting Rights Act from Alabama—where civil rights protests in the 1960s inspired passage of the law—that could lead to a huge rollback in representation for communities of color.

Alabama has a Black population of 27 percent, but just one of the state’s seven congressional districts are reasonably likely to elect a candidate favored by Black voters. Civil rights groups sued during the most recent redistricting cycle and said the failure of the state to draw a second majority-Black district violated the VRA. A three-judge panel that included two appointees of Donald Trump agreed, writing that “Black voters have less opportunity than other Alabamians to elect candidates of their choice to Congress.”

But in a 5-4 shadow docket opinion last February, the Supreme Court reinstated Alabama’s original redistricting plan for the midterms.

Now, in Merrill v. Mulligan, the justices appear poised to go further. The court has already refused to strike down partisan gerrymandering; it could soon super-charge racial gerrymandering.

Alabama argued before the Court Tuesday that any consideration of race when drawing new districts was itself discriminatory, which would turn the Voting Rights Act on its head. If the Court’s conservative majority adopts this “race-blind” reasoning, it would reverse the very purpose of the law—to eradicate decades of discrimination against Black Americans and other historically disenfranchised minority groups—and stunt representation for communities of color as the US heads toward a majority-minority future. 

“The benchmark you proposed has never been recognized by this court,” Justice Elena Kagan told Alabama Solicitor General Edmund LaCour. She said that the case made by civil rights groups was “kind of a slam dunk” under prior Supreme Court precedents. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, in her first week of oral arguments on the court, noted that it was profoundly ahistorical to read the Constitution and the country’s civil rights laws without taking race into account. “The entire point of the [14th] amendment was to secure rights for the freed former slaves,” she said.

Justice Jackson tells the Alabama solicitor general that the Framers of the 14th Amendment did NOT intend it to be “race neutral or race blind,” so taking race into account to protect minority voting rights is perfectly constitutional. Progressive originalism at work.

— Mark Joseph Stern (@mjs_DC) October 4, 2022

Justice Samuel Alito—one of the court’s most conservative members—called some of Alabama’s arguments “quite far-reaching” but tried to narrow the case to essentially help the state win. “Your least far-reaching argument,” Alito suggested, is that the VRA “requires the showing that there can be a reasonably configured majority-minority district. It’s not just any old majority-minority district, it has to be reasonably configured. And reasonably configured means something more than just compact, it means a district that is the type of district that would be drawn by an unbiased mapmaker.”

As UCLA law professor Rick Hasen tweeted, the goal of Alito and some of the other conservative justices, including Brett Kavanaugh, seems to be to reshape the VRA to make it harder for minority voters to win racial gerrymandering cases—without making it seem like they are rewriting law. 

The case has ramifications far beyond Alabama. As a result of the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, the 2021 redistricting cycle was the first in 50 years where states with a history of discrimination no longer needed to have federal  officials sign off on their redistricting maps. That led to a dramatic reversal in past advances for minority voters in states across the South, with Republican-controlled states either failing to draw new majority-minority districts to keep pace with demographic changes or even dismantling existing ones, which had long thought to be illegal under the VRA. As a consequence, the number of majority-Black congressional districts could fall from 22 today to as few as nine after the 2022 midterms.

During its last term, the Supreme Court said that issues like abortion should be decided by “the people’s elected representatives” in the states. But by systematically undercutting efforts to make American democracy fairer and more just, the Supreme Court has made the divide between the people and their elected representatives ever greater.  

Los Angeles Water District Is Forcing Its Celebrities to Conserve

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

Los Angeles is living through a historic drought, but that hasn’t stopped some of its most famous residents from keeping their mega mansion lawns and ornate gardens well watered. In response, local authorities have turned to a surprisingly simple trick for keeping the wealthiest in check.

That solution is a tiny metal disc known as a “flow restrictor.” The restrictor can be installed in minutes over the pipes of chronic wasters, dramatically slowing down a home’s water flow.

Restrictors have already been placed on homes owned by multiple celebrities—including comedian Kevin Hart, rapper The Game, and Kourtney Kardashian’s ex, Scott Disick, according to water district records reviewed by the Guardian. Other famous names could be next. Addresses linked to Kim Kardashian, Sylvester Stallone, and Madonna have all been included on lists of violators who were eligible for flow restrictors.

For water authorities, it’s an experiment in holding the super-rich accountable to the same standards as everyone else. “We have taken a very firm position on being equal. It doesn’t matter who you are, how much money you make, how well known you are: all of you are being treated the same,” said Mike McNutt, a spokesperson for the Las Virgenes water district, which serves areas like Calabasas and Hidden Hills that are popular with celebrities.

With a restrictor, “you have to be really water conscious” because “you can’t use two things at the same time.”

As California’s decades-long megadrought deepened this year, water authorities across the state have issued mandatory cutbacks, enforceable with fines. But the Las Virgenes water district had a particular challenge, McNutt said: Their customers are so rich that monetary penalties are unlikely to change their behavior, even as the district mandated a 50 percent reduction in outdoor watering.

So Cason Gilmer, 36, the district’s senior field customer service representative, headed to the water district’s workshop, and started tinkering around with a mechanical solution. The result was the small yet mighty flow restrictor, a disc made out of food-safe stainless steel with a tiny hole at the center. It has the power to limit water flow so sharply that it’s difficult to shower and wash dishes at the same time, while outdoor lawn watering becomes impossible.

Popping a flow restrictor into the water pipe outside a customer’s residence takes only about 10 minutes, and the district adds a seal and a sign warning of a $2,500 fine if the device is tampered with, McNutt said.

Gilmer says he initially tested the device on his own house and it worked just as he’d hoped. The sinks and toilets “worked fine,” the shower operated at about 60 percent of normal volume, but “you have to be really water conscious” because “you can’t use two things at the same time.”

For the most part, customers, even celebrities, have been reasonable, Gilmer said, and not thrown fits when presented with the risk of having their water flow slowed to a trickle.

The lawn around Kourtney Kardashian’s pool in Calabasas had gone brown by September, suggesting that the reality star’s household had made changes after making it onto the long list of customers eligible for a flow restrictor, CBS News Los Angeles reported. In contrast, the lawn outside Kim Kardashian’s mansion was still “a perfectly-manicured green,” the TV station reported.

Scott Disick, Kardashian’s ex, did not avoid a flow restrictor at his Hidden Hills mansion, according to public records. In late July, the water district installed a flow restrictor at his mansion for two weeks. Water district records note that someone at Disick’s house “refused” to sign the commitment form that allows customers to avoid a flow restrictor by pledging to reduce water use. Representatives for Disick, the Kardashians, Hart. and the Game did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A Hidden Hills mansion reportedly owned by Madonna, which is currently on the market for nearly $26 million, narrowly avoided a flow restrictor installation in July, after documenting to water district officials that a leak at the property had been repaired. Representatives for Madonna and the real estate agent did not respond to requests for comment.

A handful of celebrities, including environmentalist Erin Brockovich and former NBA star Dwyane Wade, have made public statements about what they’re doing to use less water after being featured in local news segments about boldface names violating drought restrictions.

Others have pushed back: A representative for Sylvester Stallone said in a statement that the film star is trying to keep more than 500 mature trees on his property alive, and that he has taken other measures to reduce water use, and is working with the water district to resolve the situation.

 A residence becomes eligible for a restrictor when it has exceeded its water limit by 150 percent at least four times since December 2021. But while more than 1,600 customers in the district have met this criteria, McNutt said, they have actually installed the device very sparingly—just six or seven dozen installations through early September.

The device is only in place for two weeks, and the water district is not allowed to cut off access to potable water for health reasons, McNutt said. So far, they said, the tactic has faced no legal challenges.

Before their water use is cut, customers have multiple opportunities to talk to water district officials and change their ways. Even signing a letter of intent to meet conservation goals is enough to avoid a flow restrictor, though the district will continue to check to see that customers comply, McNutt said.

McNutt and Gilmer believe that the flow restrictor is already having a massive deterrent effect. Driving around the district earlier in the summer, they used to see lots of green lawns, despite the outdoor watering limits. By August, lawns were looking browner. News crews who want to do a ride along with water district employees as they searched for drought flouters have ended up disappointed, with few if any rule-breakers to be seen, McNutt said. Some households have even taken to spray-painting their lawns green as a way to reduce water use, he and Gilmer said.

As far as they know, Las Virgenes is the only water district in California that uses flow restrictors, but their unique approach is drawing national interest. They’ve been fielding inquiries from Texas and Florida, as well as other California water districts. Gilmer said it’s similar to devices used to slow water flow in agriculture, but that there’s nothing exactly like it, and he’s exploring getting a patent.

McNutt said he wished more American celebrities would use their own skills to focus on the water crisis: “I am asking any celebrity, any of them, to step up and use their platforms to talk about water conservation, to talk about climate change.”

Ron DeSantis’ Relentless War on Trans Kids Hits a New Low

When Emile Fox learned that the Florida Board of Medicine, the rule-making body for doctors in his state, was considering banning transgender medical care for youth, he thought about his own transition. Fox, a 27-year-old barista in Orlando, says he had suffered serious mental health problems throughout his teen years and into young adulthood. But once he came out as trans in his mid-20s, he experienced what he calls “that click.” Soon, under the supervision of a physician, he began a course of testosterone; when he heard his voice drop, he remembers thinking, “I didn’t realize I was missing.”

He often wondered how much anguish he might have saved had if he had transitioned at a younger age. But the proposed medical board rule would wipe out that option for Florida’s trans youth—and any doctors who helped them would risk losing their licenses. So in August, Fox traveled to Fort Lauderdale to plead with the board to preserve gender-affirming care for Florida’s teens. “I don’t think it’s the state of being transgender that causes mental illness—I believe it’s the general lack of support, social acceptance, and medical treatment,” Fox told the board, his voice tight with nerves, in a crowded conference room evenly divided between supporters and opponents. “Transgender people thrive and live healthier lives when they receive gender-affirming care. I’m proof of this.”

That day, the Florida board voted to move forward with crafting state rules for the treatment of gender dysphoria in youth—which can include puberty blockers for pubescent children; hormone therapy for adolescents; and, infrequently, gender-confirming surgeries. (Such surgeries almost exclusively limited to “top surgeries,” like breast reduction, for older teens.) The text of Florida’s forthcoming rules has yet been made public, but LGBTQ advocates are bracing for the board to pass a proposal in the coming weeks. If they ban gender-affirming care for youth outright, as the state surgeon general has asked them to do, it would be the first trans health care ban in the country to come from a state medical board. “It’s shocking that a state board of medicine would propose banning care for youth that is medically necessary and age appropriate, and is supported by every major medical association in the United States,” says Sarah Warbelow, legal director for Human Rights Campaign

If they choose to ban care for kids outright, it would be the first trans health care ban in the country to come from a state medical board.

After years of bathroom bills and attempts to ban trans girls from school sports, a flurry of Republican legislation is now going after trans kids’ health care, with Republican lawmakers in four states passing bills banning gender-affirming medical care for minors over the last two years. Similar legislation have been introduced in some 20 other states and in Congress, where far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia is championing a bill that would make providing such care punishable by up to 25 years in prison. Judges have so far blocked the widest-reaching laws, in Alabama and Arkansas. But in late September, the Oklahoma legislature passed its own version of a blanket ban, preventing hospitals from accessing federal relief money unless they agree not to provide minors with gender-affirming medical treatments.

In Florida, lawmakers have rejected a gender-affirming care ban every year since 2020. That’s a problem for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who spent much of the last year making political hay off laws that target LGBTQ kids. In recent months, DeSantis—who is widely believed to be preparing a presidential run—has ramped up the anti-trans rhetoric in an apparent appeal to his party’s base, with its mix of traditional religious conservatives and culture warriors concerned about “woke ideology.” In fundraising messages this cycle, the governor has repeatedly blustered that kindergarteners were being “indoctrinated with transgenderism”; in public appearances, he has falsely claimed that surgeons were operating on young children. “When they say ‘gender-affirming care,’ what they mean a lot of the times is you’re castrating a young boy, you’re sterilizing a young girl, you’re doing mastectomies for these very young girls,” DeSantis lied to a right-wing podcast host in May. “I’m fighting to protect our children,” the governor promised in an email to supporters later that month. At an August press conference, he added an applause-drawing, headline-grabbing line: “I think these doctors need to get sued for what’s happening.”

So to carry out his agenda on transgender health care, the governor has needed to go around lawmakers and take a unique line of attack: Weaponizing state agencies, including the medical board, to do the dirty work for him.

The opening salvo in Florida’s bureaucratic war on trans health care came in April, the month after the Biden administration declared that it would defend young people’s access to such care as a matter of civil rights. DeSantis’ handpicked surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo—a critic of Covid vaccines, masks, and quarantines—issued a memo advising doctors to withhold medical treatments like hormones and puberty blockers from youth with gender dysphoria, claiming that there wasn’t enough “conclusive evidence.” Even non-medical measures, like changing names, hair, and pronouns should “not be a treatment option,” Ladapo wrote. “The surgeon general did a great job,” DeSantis later commented.

The guidance flew in the face of medical consensus, including the positions of the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychiatric Association, and Endocrine Society, which all say that young people with gender dysphoria fare better with treatment that affirms their identities. Ladapo’s one-pager wasn’t binding, but medical providers and LGBTQ advocates say it set off alarms. “Our friends on the ground in Florida said, ‘This is probably heralding something,’” recalls Carl Charles, a Lambda Legal attorney.

“It’s probably the most frightening time that I’ve seen in my career,” one psychologist says. “I had several patients even within that first week, especially my trans youth, who were reporting suicidal ideation.”

That instinct was right. The same day that Ladapo produced his memo, Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration, which oversees the state Medicaid program, opened an inquiry into whether Medicaid should cover gender-affirming care. A few weeks later, AHCA launched a new section of its website, branded “Let Kids be Kids”—and on it was a lengthy report concluding gender dysphoria treatments are “experimental” and did not meet “generally accepted medical standards.” To back up its findings, AHCA commissioned papers from such sources as Quentin Van Meter, a pediatric endocrinologist and the president of a fringe group of doctors who oppose conversion therapy bans and same-sex marriage. Another analysis came from Patrick Lappert, a plastic surgeon and Catholic deacon who delivers religious lectures against what he terms the “transgender treatment industry.” (A North Carolina court recently found that Lappert was “not qualified to render opinions about the diagnosis of gender dysphoria.”)

“These agencies are manipulating what are supposed to be the processes of government that are there to protect us,” says Nathan Bruemmer, an LGBTQ community liaison in Florida’s consumer services department. “If you look at the report, and what’s on AHCA website, and what’s mentioned in the public hearings, it’s the same bad research.”

Ten academic researchers whose work was also cited in the AHCA report told Vice News it misrepresented their data, which should not be construed to justify denying gender-affirming care to kids. “The report ignores solid scientific evidence and instead repeats discredited claims, cites to sources with no scientific merit, and engages in unfounded speculation based on stereotypes rather than science,” a group of Yale University doctors and psychiatrists concluded in an independent assessment.

AHCA forged ahead anyway, finalizing a regulation in August that banned Medicaid reimbursements for puberty blockers, hormones, and gender-affirming surgeries—no matter the age of the recipient. The rule cut off potential or current coverage for an estimated 9,000 low-income trans adults on Florida Medicaid, along with an unknown number of children, according to Charles, the Lambda Legal attorney, who’s now on a team representing four trans Medicaid recipients and their families in a lawsuit against the state. The ban caused his 12-year-old clients to lose access to puberty blockers, leading to “literally irreversible changes to their bodies,” Charles says. Gary Howell, a psychologist who works with trans youth and adults in Florida, says the decision harmed the mental health of his patients, some of whom had scheduled treatments canceled or began to consider leaving the state. “It’s probably the most frightening time that I’ve seen in my career,” Howell says. “I had several patients even within that first week, especially my trans youth, who were reporting suicidal ideation.”

In August, Jason Weida, a former Donald Trump appointee who now works in the AHCA office, appeared at an event hosted by the Alliance Defending Freedom, one of the nation’s most influential anti-LGBT legal groups, to gloat about the report. “It’s thorough, it’s documented, it’s the exact quality evidence so often lacking from the Biden [Health and Human Services department],” ADF’s state legislative director gushed at Weida. “It ought to be something that ought to serve as, perhaps, a model for other states.”

“Thanks to the leadership of Gov. DeSantis, we have been able to take a parents’ rights approach to legislation over the last couple of years,” Weida responded. “Just stay tuned for more to come out of Florida.” Within three weeks, he was promoted to AHCA chief of staff.

The day AHCA published its report, Surgeon General Ladapo picked up the baton again, asking the state medical board to prohibit doctors from giving minors puberty blockers, hormones, or surgeries as part of gender dysphoria treatment. The board agreed to consider making a rule—and put it on the agenda for their next meeting.

That’s how Fox came to stand before medical board members this August, describing to them how gender-affirming care had turned around his life. Around him, supporters of the surgeon general’s petition donned big, round stickers emblazoned with the logo of AHCA’s “Let Kids Be Kids” website. “Back in my day, men were men, women were women,” one declared at the microphone. Van Meter himself appeared and repeated the debunked myth that transgender identity is a contagion spread on the internet.

Medical boards are considered nonpartisan entities. But in Florida, two-thirds of the current board have donated at least $1,000 a piece to Republicans. Four have given DeSantis more than $15,000.

Yet there were others who pushed back. Kaleb Hobson-Garcia, a senior at a Florida State University, told the board how getting the support to transition in his teen years had allowed him to thrive. Michael Haller, chief of pediatric endocrinology at the University of Florida, explained that the state’s gender clinics already followed long-established treatment standards from the World Professional Association for Transgender Health. And state Rep. Anna Eskamani, whose district includes the Pulse nightclub, pointed to the national rise in anti-trans rhetoric. “I understand the objective nature of this board, which I appreciate, but the reality is we are not here in a vacuum,” Eskamani insisted. “This is coming from the governor.”

Medical boards are indeed considered nonpartisan entities, issuing licenses to doctors and disciplining those who violate state laws or professional standards. But their members—mostly doctors, plus a handful of consumer representatives—are almost always appointed by governors. Two-thirds of the current Florida board have donated at least $1,000 apiece to Republicans, according to a Mother Jones analysis of campaign finance data. Of the 15 board members, 4 have given DeSantis more than $15,000 each. Hector Vila and Zachariah Zachariah, the only doctors whose board membership predates DeSantis’ governorship, have each donated at least $20,000 to his reelection committee.

And in June, two months after the Ladapo memo declaring a war on trans kids, DeSantis added a handful of new members to the board—including Patrick Hunter, an Orlando pediatrician who has emerged over the a last year as a vocal critic of gender-affirming care for children. Last winter, Hunter penned a letter to the editor of the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics critiquing the practice of gender transitions for youth; in May, he was hired as an expert witness by Alabama officials being sued over that state’s gender-affirming care ban.

“For many of us that are aware of what’s happening, and monitoring and working and advocating to stop this speeding train from going down the track, of course we thought this was a predetermined process,” Bruemmer says. “But you got to just hope it’s not.” Howell, who shares an LGBTQ identity with his patients, says hope is his biggest struggle these days. “One of the challenges, as psychologists, is that we have to instill hope in the patients that we work with,” he says. “It’s hard when I don’t really have the same level of hope I would want to have, that things are going to get better. Because I’m seeing the reality unfold around us.”

Fox, who has insurance through his job at Starbucks, underwent top surgery in September. Now, he jokes, no matter what rules the medical board passes, “there’s nothing they can do about my chest. They’re gone.” On the day he sat down to speak with me over Zoom, he’d just taken off his bandages. He was marveling at the absence of discomfort, trying to put feelings into words. “People make their own family,” he explained, tentatively. “Whether that’s their spouse, their children, their group of friends, their coworkers, there’s that moment where you feel like you’re surrounded by your community and your family, and it clicks and you feel like you fit in. This is a similar feeling,” he said. “But it’s entirely with yourself.”

“My Only Regret Is That They Should Have Brought Rifles”

The Justice Department’s case against five members of the Oath Keepers militia group is so extensive that it is expected to take a month lay out. But it is also pretty simple: Members of the far-right militia came to Washington on January 6 with a plan to use violence to keep Donald Trump in power.

During the first day of the trial, we got a glimpse of how the DOJ intends to prove that: by citing the Oath Keepers’ own words—especially those of its founder, Stewart Rhodes. “My only regret is that they should have brought rifles,” Rhodes said in a previously unreported recording from January 10 played by prosecutors Monday. “We aren’t getting through this without a civil war,” Rhodes wrote in an Oath Keepers chat two days after the election.

On its face, the Oath Keepers trial is about charges against five defendants for conspiring to obstruct Congress, and other crimes. But it will also help determine what narrative of January 6 prevails. While prosecutors have charged more than 900 people with crimes related to the January 6 riot on the Capitol, the Oath Keepers trial is their first effort to prove that a plan to use violence helped cause that attack.

“These defendants concocted a plan for an armed rebellion to shatter a bedrock of American democracy,” Assistant US Attorney Jeffrey Nestler, the lead prosecutor in the case, said in his opening statement on Monday. “They banded together to do whatever was necessary—up to and including force—to stop the transfer of power from President Donald Trump to president-elect Joe Biden.”

The Oath Keepers’ defense is also fairly straightforward. They claim members of the group came to Washington to help protect speakers at events supporting Trump and with the hope that Trump would invoke the Insurrection Act, a law that allows presidents to use emergency measures to put down rebellions, defense lawyers said.

“There was no plan,” Philip Linder, one of the lawyers for Rhodes, said in his opening statement. “They were there to work security.”

“The Oath Keepers are basically a peacekeeping force,” he added.

Defense lawyers for Rhodes and the four other defendants—Kelly Meggs, Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins, and Thomas Caldwell—argued that prosecutors were cherry picking their clients’ most inflammatory texts and utterances. “They selectively edit social media statements that politically attuned and politically active people make,” said David Fisher, Caldwell’s lawyer.

The five defendants collectively are pushing the argument, also advanced by Trump and his backers, that the federal response to January 6 has been a massive overreaction, with nonviolent protestors persecuted. “What happened to these people is an absolute outrage,” Fisher said.

Fisher said Caldwell, who did not storm the Capitol, but who is charged with joining in the seditious conspiracy, was in Washington on January 6 for “a date with his wife.” Jonathan Crisp, a lawyer for Jessica Watkins, another defendant, said Watkins was a “protest junkie” who went to DC in hopes of acting as a medic. Crisp also said Watkins’ identity as a “transgender woman” helps to explain her actions. “A lot of things she did that day was to try to fit in, good and bad,” Crisp said.

Lawyers for several of the defendants, including Rhodes, Meggs, and Harrelson, have received financial support from a nonprofit set up by Sidney Powell, the prominent pro-Trump attorney who pushed false and outlandish conspiracy theories about voter fraud in the wake of the 2020 election prior to January 6, as Mother Jones has reported. Prosecutors have argued those payments could create conflicts of interest for defense lawyers. Either way, such payments might also create incentives for the lawyers to engage in broad defenses of the January 6 attacks.

But the government appeared set to pierce those claims using Rhodes’ own words.

In a late December 2020 message, Rhodes explicitly said that he did not plan to wait for Trump to call the group into action, stating: “He needs to know that if he fails to act, then we will.”

Nestler also played a recording of an online meeting from November 2020 in which Rhodes told members of his group that his claim that Quick Reaction Force set up in case Trump invoked the Insurrection Act was “our official position.” Rhodes continued: “The reason why we have to do it that way is because that gives you legal cover.”

A New Report Commissioned by US Soccer Details Years of “Systemic Abuse” of Women Players

For years the National Women’s Soccer League ignored allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct against coaches and maintained a culture of “systemic abuse of players,” according to a new report released Monday by former acting attorney general Sally Yates and the law firm King and Spalding, on behalf of the United States Soccer Federation.

Yates was hired by US Soccer last year, following a series of articles by The Athletic’s Meg Linehan and the Washington Post’s Molly Hensley-Clancy into abusive coaches in the NWSL, and a player-organized boycott that brought the league to a standstill. Per the investigation:

In well over 200 interviews, we heard report after report of relentless, degrading tirades; manipulation that was about power, not improving performance; and retaliation against those who attempted to come forward. Even more disturbing were the stories of sexual misconduct. Players described a pattern of sexually charged comments, unwanted sexual advances and sexual touching, and coercive sexual intercourse. 

Teams, the League, and the Federation not only repeatedly failed to respond appropriately when confronted with player reports and evidence of abuse, they also failed to institute basic measures to prevent and address it, even as some leaders privately acknowledged the need for workplace protections. As a result, abusive coaches moved from team to team, laundered by press releases thanking them for their service, and positive references from teams that minimized or even concealed misconduct. Those at the NWSL and USSF in a position to correct the record stayed silent. And no one at the teams, the League, or the Federation demanded better of coaches.

The report is focused not just on the incidents of abuse, but on the broader culture—the way allegations were routinely swept aside by front offices so that coaches could always find a second-chance somewhere else. 

One particularly chilling example is the story of Christy Holly, who left his post as head coach of New Jersey’s Sky Blue Football Club in 2016, following numerous complaints about an abusive culture. But the club never announced the move as such; instead, it simply said they had “mutually agreed” that he would leave. He went on to work for US Soccer, where he worked as an assistant coach for the women’s youth national teams, before being hired as head coach of the NWSL team Racing Louisville. Erin Simon, who played for Holly at Sky Blue, told Yates’ investigators that after he left the team, he would send her dick pics and other harassing texts, and try to manipulate her into thinking she “owed” him for her career. In 2020, Simon joined Louisville in an expansion draft. She told Holly that she expected his behavior to stop. Instead, he allegedly groped her while watching game film:

During the filmed game, Simon made several errant passes. Simon recalled vividly, Holly told her that he was going to touch her “for every pass you fucked up,” and he did. Simon tried to laugh it off, and said she would “not fuck up any more passes.” Then, she recalled, Holly started touching her, repeatedly pushing his hands under her pants to touch her genitals and under her bra to touch her breasts. She remembers she tightly crossed her legs and pushed his hand away. Simon said she tried hard “to keep the peace and the balance and to keep [Holly] from getting mad.”  

Holly, according to investigators, “admitted to texting Simon, including sending and soliciting sexual photos,” but “denied that any sexual conduct continued at Racing Louisville.” He has a non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreement with Racing Louisville, “which refused to answer any questions regarding Holly’s tenure and termination.”

US Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone, a former NWSL coach and player with the US national team who took her current position in 2020, released a statement saying that she was “heartbroken by the contents of the report,” and promising immediate and longer-term policy changes in response.

Cone, who spoke with investigators, is also one of the many sources for the report. In 2013, while she was coaching the Portland Thorns, a male executive at the club asked her, “What’s on your bucket list besides sleeping with me?” She reported the comment to the club’s owner when she left the organization. According to the report, the club said that the “concerns were addressed” with the executive. They declined to make him available for an interview with the investigators.

Corporate Donors Gave $44 Million to Election Deniers’ Campaigns

A new report suggests that despite the statements of outrage and promises to reevaluate PAC donations, corporate donors have continued to support members of Congress who objected to certifying the 2020 election. 

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, an liberal-leaning watchdog group, said on Friday that a new analysis shows that the 147 members of what it dubs the Sedition Caucus—lawmakers who voted against certifying Donald Trump’s 2020 election loss following the January 6 insurrection—have since raked in at least $44 million in corporate PAC donations to their campaigns. CREW says the donations came from 1,283 different corporate and industry trade group PACs.

Immediately after January 6, some of the biggest companies and trade associations involved with lobbying in Washington said they would stop donations to election objectors, or even stop making donations altogether. Despite these pledges, CREW found that of the $44 million donated from corporate PACs to election deniers, at least $12 million came from sources that had pledged to suspend donations to members who sought to overturn the election.

CREW found that the five biggest sources of donations to the Sedition Caucus were PACs associated with Koch Industries ($625,000), American Crystal Sugar ($530,000), Home Depot ($350,000), Boeing ($488,000), and UPS ($479,500). Boeing, Home Depot, and Koch had all paused donations or promised to reevaluate their donations after January 6.

This is not entirely surprising. Despite the companies’ pledges in the wake of January 6 to stop donating—or, as a Koch Industries spokesperson put it at the time, reevaluate donations based on the “the civility of candidates”—contributions never really seemed to be paused. Within the first six months after the insurrection, members of the Sedition Caucus had already raised $3.8 million from corporate PACs. 

Shrugging at “Coco Chow”

Maybe it makes sense that “DEATH WISH” was the part that garnered headlines. After all, a record of inciting real-life violence renders such a message concerning.

But even as someone who’s on the payroll to keep abreast of the relentless garbage, I didn’t catch the Coco Chow bit until well after a solid day later. It came as the second beat of Donald Trump’s message lashing out at Mitch McConnell, when the former president and forever frontrunner of the GOP called the Senate minority leader’s partner, Elaine Chao, a “China-loving wife, Coco Chow.” Neither Chao nor McConnell have responded to the overtly racist slur directed at the Taiwanese-born former transportation secretary. I found it while mindlessly stumbling across what Rick Scott thought about the whole thing. (Not much, by the way.) Most write-ups obscured it to the final lines of the news cycle. 

Coco Chow is tired and unimaginative, something you expected from the outcast uncle at Thanksgiving. But the collective shrug has grated at me. Sure, we all wagged fingers at “Chinese virus and Kung Fu Flu,” racist rhetoric that deeply inflamed anti-Asian violence during the height of the pandemic. But a meh response to garbage like Coco Chow—duly relegated to the second beat of an unhinged post published on a floundering social media platform—is another entry into the generally underwhelming attention paid to Trump’s more casual bouts of racism: his utterances of “China,” a pronunciation so exaggerated and bizarre, yet always seemed to go under the radar; asking the “pretty Korean lady” where she’s from; his public mockery of Asian accents

How do you even write about Trump’s racism at this point? Does doing so benefit him? I’m not sure. But McConnell and the rest of the GOP seem intent, in fact perfectly well-suited, on extending the very American tradition of ignoring anti-Asian racism. 

A Top DC Think Tank Took Millions From Foreign Governments. Now Lawmakers Want Answers.

Senators in both parties are taking aim at the Brookings Institution, demanding details on funding agreements that, according to the lawmakers, could have allowed foreign governments to secretly influence policy prescriptions produced by the renowned establishment think tank.

The scrutiny follows the June resignation from Brookings of retired four-star general John Allen after news emerged that the Justice Department was investigating whether Allen violated foreign lobbying laws by advocating for Qatar while seeking payments from the Gulf state. The alleged lobbying occurred in 2017, while Allen, the former commander of US forces in Afghanistan, was a fellow at Brookings. Brookings listed Qatar as one of its top donors that year, with contributions of “$2,000,000 and above.” Brookings officials have said they did not know of Allen’s actions. Allen, who has not been charged with any crimes, denies that he acted as a Qatari agent. But the scandal has drawn attention to the think tank’s decades of ties to Qatar, as well as its funding from other countries.

“Brookings Institution needs to fully disclose all of its funding agreements.”

In a letter Monday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren said she has “significant concerns about agreements that Brookings has in place with foreign governments” and questioned if those deals undermine the organization’s independence. She asked Brookings to give her details of those agreements.

 “Foreign governments, billionaire corporations, and the super wealthy should not be able to hide behind think tanks to secretly peddle influence and shape policy, and the Brookings Institution needs to fully disclose all of its funding agreements or it risks undermining its reputation,” the Massachusetts Democrat said in a statement to Mother Jones.

Think tanks have long offered foreign states a sort of backdoor means to advocate for their interests in Washington. Critics contend that by funding think tank programs, governments can effectively hire these organizations as lobbyists. The lawmakers’ scrutiny of Brookings is part of an intermittent effort by Congress to crack down on this practice.

Brookings has responded to criticism by noting it has internal policies aimed at ensuring that donors do not compromise the independence of its scholars. “Brookings will respond to Senator Warren’s inquiry to assure her of our full commitment to upholding the independence and integrity of our work,” a spokesperson for the organization said Monday. “As a leading global think tank, we remain interested and available to work with Members and Senators on important public policy questions in this regard.”

Warren and other senators have previously raised concerns about a 2007 agreement through which Qatar pledged $5 million to help Brookings set up an outpost in Doha. Politico reported in June on a memorandum of understanding between Brookings and Qatar that gave the Qataris substantial influence over that center. The agreement required the head of the center to “engage in regular consultation” with Qatar’s foreign ministry and gave the ministry power to approve the center’s budget and programing.

Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, last week introduced legislation that would require nonprofits working to influence US policy or public opinion to publicly report all funds received from foreign governments or organizations. It would also require them to make public “all written contracts, agreements, or memoranda of understanding…with any foreign principal.” The bill text cites Brookings’ 2007 agreement with Qatar to explain why such disclosures are needed. “Congress currently is unable to determine what other agreements that the Brookings Institution or other influential think tanks have with foreign governmental entities, a void which has already been exploited by at least Qatar,” the bill says.

Grassley, along with GOP senators Ted Cruz (Texas), Tom Cotton (Ark.), and John Cornyn (Texas), argued in an August 16 letter to the Justice Department that Brookings had violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, by failing to register as a lobbyist for Qatar following the 2007 agreement. Qatar exercised control over the center, which worked to influence US policy, the senators argued. “The Brookings Institution appears to be a foreign agent for the State of Qatar for purposes of FARA and should register as such with DOJ,” the letter said.

Brookings has said that it ended its connection to its Doha Center last year. A Grassley spokesperson, in an email, said Brookings should still register retroactively.

Warren wrote Brookings about Allen and Qatar in July, asking if the think tank had memorandums of understanding with countries other than Qatar. In an August 22 response, Amy Liu, Brookings’ interim president, said that Brookings does in fact have “funding agreements” with other foreign states. Liu said those agreements “require donors, including foreign governments, to acknowledge the Institution’s research independence.” But she did not say what the agreements require from Brookings, further delineate their terms, or name the countries involved.

Brookings’ 2021 annual report says it received money from Australia, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway, Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, Finland, and France, as well as from the US government, in the preceding year.

USDA Conservation Grants Prop up Agribusiness as Usual

Every year, the US Department of Agriculture spends billions of dollars propping up large-scale farming of commodities like corn and soybeans. These crops in turn suffuse the food system, fattening animals on America’s factory-scale meat farms and providing the bulk of sweeteners and fats in processed foods.

This style of agriculture doesn’t just underwrite a healthruining cuisine. It also contributes to environmental mayhem: soil erosion and water pollution on an epic scale and a gusher of greenhouse gas emissions from the concentrated manure of all of those confined cows, pigs, and chicken, and from the fertilizer used to grow all that corn. But the USDA doesn’t just pay farmers to churn out as much corn and soybeans as they can. It also operates “conservation” initiatives intended to mitigate the environmental harms of this commodity machine.

The department’s conservation spending adds up to a fraction of its outlay for programs that encourage maximum production, consequences be damned. The Environmental Working Group calculates that between 1995 and 2020, the USDA doled out a total of nearly $348 billion on commodity and crop-insurance subsidies vs. $52 billion on conservation. So for every dollar the department offers farmers in conservation funds, it dangles about $6.70 to entice them to farm all-out.

Still, those conservation dollars are an important countervailing force, right?

In fact, the USDA could spend its conservation resources in much more beneficial ways, a new EWG report suggests. The report focuses on the agency’s two largest conservation programs, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). Both give farmers money in exchange for implementing environmentally friendly practices. EWG combed through USDA data in search of funding for activities the agency deemed “climate-smart”—i.e., those that help farmers cut greenhouse-gas emissions or store carbon in the soil. The Natural Resources Conservation Service, a USDA agency, maintains just such a list.

From 2017 to 2020, the EWG report reveals, just $844 million of the more than $3.6 billion of EQIP payments went toward “climate-smart” practices. Of the Top 10 practices funded by EQIP grants, only one, cover crops, lands on the NRCS’s “climate-smart” list. Farmers plant cover crops—which drew $340 million in EQIP funding over the period, more than any other practice—after harvesting cash crops like corn and soybeans. The cover crops buffer the land from heavy winter and spring storms, helping to prevent erosion.

But cover crops are a “bit iffy when it comes to the climate benefits,” says Anne Schechinger, EWG’s midwest director, who oversaw the report. That’s because they only reliably sequester carbon in soil when they meet two strict conditions: They must be used every year on fields that are never plowed. Back in 2013, I wrote about an Ohio farm that fit thar bill and demonstrated an impressive record of building carbon in soil. But then, as now, David Brandt’s operation is a unicorn. 

EWG conducts annual aerial remote-sensing surveys to gauge off-season cover crop adoption in the corn- and soybean-dominated Midwest. Despite the $340 million EQIP provided between 2017 and 2020, “we always find that less than 5 percent of cropland has cover crops,” she says. Worse, the relatively tiny bits of land under winter cover shift from year to year, she says, suggesting little consistency in planting patterns—and little climate-stabilizing bang for the taxpayer buck. 

Integrating trees with crops—a system known as agroforestry, which I wrote about here—is a much more robust way to hold soil in place while also sequestering carbon, Schechinger says. But EQIP only doled out $68 million to “tree & shrub establishment” projects over the aforementioned period.

The great bulk of the EQIP money, meanwhile, goes to projects with zero climate impact, like installing sprinkler systems ($217 million) and irrigation pipelines ($163 million). EQIP also throws money at practices that contribute to climate change. Over the 2017-2020 period, the program delivered more than $174 million to farmers building “waste storage facilities” for livestock manure—a mundane way to describe cesspits that gather the waste of large confined hog and cattle facilities. As manure breaks down in these “lagoons,” it emits huge amounts of methane and nitrous oxide—greenhouse gases with many times the heat-trapping power of carbon. 

The other USDA program, the CSP, has an even less distinguished environmental record. “Only a miniscule fraction,” of the payments went to climate-smart practices and enhancements: “$11.4 million, or just 0.3 percent of the $3.7 billion spent,” the report states—and that may be an undercount, because despite multiple Freedom of Information Act requests, the USDA “refused to give EWG data for EQIP and CSP practices for which there were five or fewer contracts funded in a county in a particular year.”

The authors added: “This data gap makes it impossible to form a complete picture of spending, but what’s missing only underscores the dearth of funding for and low adoption rates of the USDA’s climate-smart practices and enhancements.” 

The Inflation Reduction Act, the climate legislation signed into law in August, will pump an additional $11.7 billion into EQIP and CSP between 2023 and 2026, significantly boosting their budgets. The IRA stipulates that the money flow to projects that the USDA “determines directly improve soil carbon, reduce nitrogen losses, or reduce, capture, avoid, or sequester carbon dioxide, methane, or nitrous oxide emissions, associated with agricultural production.” 

EWG says it will be watching to make sure the agency complies. Per Schechinger, “It’s on USDA to make sure that these funds are being spent as Congress intended—and not on business as usual.” 

5 Ways the Trumps Allegedly Tried to Conceal Financial Fraud

New York Attorney General Letitia James recently filed a $250 million civil fraud lawsuit against Donald Trump and his adult children, alleging the family had deliberately misled banks, insurance companies, and tax authorities about the value of Trump’s various properties. The heart of that allegation isn’t new—James has been fighting with the Trumps for nearly two years over access to company employees and records. But the case has now revealed an enormous amount about the inner-workings of the Trump Organization. That includes what James says the Trumps did to hide their alleged deceptions.

As part of her suit, James is attempting to prove that the Trumps did in fact try to conceal their efforts to use misleading numbers. The Trumps have argued that they did nothing wrong and have accused James of leading a political witch hunt against them. Here are a few of James’ most eyebrow-raising allegations: 

1. Ghosted Deutsche Bank on answers about bad numbers

The Trumps’ biggest lender for years has been German banking giant Deutsche Bank, which worked with the family starting in the early 2000s. But by 2011, the bank’s commercial real estate division had grown leery of lending to them. According to James, the Trumps then convinced the bank’s separate private wealth division, which caters to high-net worth individuals, to lend money for a slew of Trump projects, such as the Doral golf course in Florida and the Old Post Office hotel in Washington, DC. To do so, the family allegedly made false claims about how much Trump was really worth. After media reports began questioning some of the basis of Trump’s wealth and his assertions about his net worth, Deutsche Bank sent the Trumps a letter on October 29, 2020, asking about the reported discrepancies. 

According to James, the Trumps simply didn’t answer for more than a month. Finally, in early December, Alan Garten, the Trump Organization’s chief lawyer, sent a note back to Deutsche.



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Deutsche immediately responded with another, more detailed request for info—and a warning that Trump could be in default of his loans if he had misrepresented his finances. On December 16, Garten replied that he would try to get an answer for them. Deutsche never heard back, according to James.



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2. Allowing insurers to review Trump’s finances only in person

James says Trump didn’t just use fraudulent statements of financial condition to get loans he didn’t deserve, she charges that he was also dishonest with insurance companies, convincing them to give him more coverage for less. When insurers came asking to see proof of his worth, James says the Trumps often made things difficult, requiring some insurers to only look at financial statements in a person, in a room.



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3. Sending their accountants bad info

James’ suit hinges on the statements of financial condition the Trumps provided to banks and insurers, statements that were supposed to be accurate pictures of Trump’s net worth and the value of his various properties. James outlines a whole series of allegedly fraudulent tricks the Trumps used, like using the wrong valuation method, or pretending rent-controlled apartments weren’t rent controlled. James says they also simply pushed numbers around to obscure the truth from the accountants who had to compile the statements. 



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4. Not creating a paper trail

James alleges that the Trumps improperly valued some land north of New York City, known as the Seven Springs Estate, that Trump had bought to try to develop into a golf course. The course never happened, but James says the Trumps played with the value of the property, sometimes inflating it to make it look more valuable and other times trying to make it look less valuable for tax purposes. Throughout, James says that at Trump’s direction, there was an effort to minimize the paper trail.



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According to James, Sherri Dillon, an attorney who has worked for Trump for years, gave specific instructions to people working on the Seven Springs project to avoid sending emails and to try to keep conversations about the project limited to phone calls. Dillon is not named as a defendant in James’ suit and did not respond to a request for comment. 

5. Not turning over documents to James

James’ relationship with the Trumps started amicably enough at the beginning of her investigation back in late 2019. At that time, the Trumps voluntarily turned over documents she requested, and a number of Trump employees sat for interviews. However, in the months running up to the 2020 election, the company suddenly took a much more defensive posture and began refusing to hand over documents or make employees available. When James began subpoenaing documents and interviews, the Trumps continued to drag their feet—to the point that a New York Superior Court judge eventually held Trump in contempt and fined him $110,000 for not turning over documents that James had a right to see. 

As part of Trump’s effort to get out of that contempt charge, Trump attorney Alina Habba sent the judge a letter in which she said she had personally searched Mar-a-Lago for relevant documents.

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But as a result of the FBI’s raid on Mar-a-Lago this summer in a separate investigation related to classified documents, James seems to have grown skeptical about the thoroughness of Habba’s search. James’ lawsuit suggests that, even after the contempt ruling, there are indications that Trump held back documents at Mar-a-Lago—not just classified ones, but financial ones.




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CPAC Hastily Deletes a Pro-Russia Tweet

It’s mostly surprising that it took this long. CPAC has deleted a tweet that called on Democrats to “end the gift-giving to Ukraine.” The tweet featured a Russian flag and referred to “Ukraine-occupied territories.” Most Americans, not to mention much of the rest of the world, call these regions, which Vladimir Putin illegally annexed, Ukraine.

The tweet came after Putin signed “accession treaties” with four Ukrainian regions on Friday to try to make them part of Russia. One day later, Russian soldiers found themselves retreating from Lyman, a strategically important city Putin claims to have annexed. To try to win the war, Putin is now conscripting soldiers—many of whom have either resisted the draft or fled the country.

CPAC head Matt Schlapp told the Washington Post that the original message did not go through the normal approval process because he was in Australia. “Due to my travel into a distant time zone it was never approved per usual,” he texted.

But the far right has had a complicated relationship with Russia’s aggression. Tucker Carlson from Fox News has repeatedly downplayed Putin’s actions. So much so that, as my colleague, David Corn reported, “[A]s Russian military forces bombed Ukrainian cities as part of Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of his neighbor, the Kremlin sent out talking points to state-friendly media outlets with a request: Use more Tucker Carlson.”

The conservative organization tried to clean up the mess on Twitter with apparent outrage at the Russian incursion. It said “Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine must be repelled” and called Putin a “madman.” But the group maintained that “American taxpayers should not be shouldering the vast majority of the cost.”

— CPAC (@CPAC) October 1, 2022

Schlapp and other CPAC members were out of the country to host CPAC Australia this weekend. The event offered right-wing Aussies the chance to hear from luminaries including Matt Whitaker, the former acting Attorney General who once worked for a company that hawked a toilet specially designed for “well-endowed men,” the cringe British rapper Zuby, the Brexiteer Nigel Farage, and compatriots including a libertarian filmmaker who goes by Topher. 

It wasn’t the CPAC A-list. That would have included Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian autocrat and Putin sympathizer who spoke at CPAC Texas this summer. When it comes to selling out Ukraine, CPAC still prefers an intermediary.

Brazilians Go the Polls and Democracy Hangs in the Balance

During a vacation earlier this year, a stranger, who later said he was a real estate agent, approached me on a beach in an upscale section of Rio de Janeiro. “What did you think of Joe Biden?” he asked in polished English. I demurred. My interlocutor then went on to tell me that the people of Brazil would never allow Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former president better known as Lula, to return to office. He appeared to be drawing a distinction between the inhabitants of Brazil and the “people of Brazil”; the “people” were whiter, property owners, and, like their current president Jair Bolsonaro, deeply nostalgic for the days of right-wing military dictators.

On Sunday, Brazilians all over the world are voting in the first round of a presidential election that pits Lula against Bolsonaro. Lula is the favorite, a status he’s maintained throughout the race. It’s possible that he will win outright in the first round. If not he will almost certainly face Bolsonaro in an October 30 runoff. But like his ally Donald Trump, Bolsonaro has falsely claimed that the country’s electronic voting machines are plagued by fraud and has suggested he won’t accept defeat.

Polls signal a commanding lead for former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Sunday’s election in Brazil, which may signal the return of the world’s fourth-largest democracy to a leftist government after four years of far-right politics led by incumbent Jair Bolsonaro.

— The Associated Press (@AP) September 30, 2022

Lula represents the citizens of Brazil who have long been excluded from power. He is the seventh child of illiterate farmers from the country’s more impoverished northeast. As a child, he and his family migrated south, where he worked as a street vendor and shoe shiner, according to an official biography summarized by CNN. He then became a metalworker and a union leader.

After the end of the country’s military dictatorship, which lasted from 1965 to 1984, Lula mounted three unsuccessful runs for president before finally winning in 2002. He went on to take a more pragmatic approach than fellow Latin American leftists like Hugo Chávez. Through a combination of smart policymaking and good timing, the country’s economy thrived. Twenty million people left poverty and three times more Afro-Brazilians began attending university, the Los Angeles Times noted. By the end of his presidency, the Economist had Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue rocketing skyward under the headline “Brazil takes off.” Barack Obama dubbed Lula “the most popular politician on Earth”

In 2016, five years after leaving office, Lula was charged as part of a corruption scandal that he argued was politically motivated. In 2018, he was ordered to begin serving a 12-year sentence. The following year, the country’s Supreme Court ordered that he be released after it was revealed that Sergio Moro, the conservative judge in his case, had collaborated with prosecutors. (Moro had become Bols0naro’s minister of justice before resigning and mounting a failed presidential bid against his old boss.)

“They did not imprison a man. They tried to kill an idea,” Lula declared after his release. “Brazil did not improve, Brazil got worse. The people are going hungry. The people are unemployed. The people do not have formal jobs. People are working for Uber—they’re riding bikes to deliver pizzas.” After the Court annulled his convictions last year, he became eligible to run for president again.

“They did not imprison a man. They tried to kill an idea. Brazil did not improve, Brazil got worse.”

Before his presidency, Bolsonaro, a retired military officer, served in the lower house of Brazil’s Congress. In 2016, he voted to impeach Lula’s successor Dilma Rousseff. He devoted his vote to “the memory of Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, the terror of Dilma Rousseff.” Rousseff had been imprisoned and tortured during the military dictatorship; Ustra was a convicted torturer who led an infamous Army intelligence unit during the period.

As president, Bolsnaro sped up deforestation in the Amazon, was widely criticized for his handling of the pandemic, and made clear that his fascistic tendencies remain unreconstructed. In doing so, he attracted the support of far-right leaders across the world.

More recently, Bolsonaro has tried to convince his supporters that the election could be rigged against him and has used the military to support his claim that the voting process is susceptible to fraud. His rhetoric is particularly dangerous in light of Brazil’s recent history. A recent New York Times headline put it: “The Question Menacing Brazil’s Elections: Coup or No Coup?” As my colleague Isabela Dias reported on Friday, there has already been violence:

The upcoming presidential elections in my home country are the most fraught and hate-filled in recent memory. In July, one of the president’s followers fatally shot a local Worker’s Party treasurer at his Lula-themed birthday party. Even before the official kick-off of the campaign in August, pro-Lula protesters were bombarded with feces and urine. On September 7, the day Brazil commemorated 200 years of independence, in the midst of a political discussion, a Bolsonaro supporter killed a Lula supporter, stabbing him 70 times and attacking him with an axe. This month, a researcher with Datafolha, one of the main polling institutes in Brazil, was assaulted. In a Rio de Janeiro bar, a 19-year-old woman was struck in the head after a Bolsonaro fan threatened to hit her sister when she criticized the president. Almost 70 percent of Brazilians surveyed in a September poll said they fear being victims of politically motivated violence. 

“One thing is certain about this election: President Bolsonaro will only accept one result: victory,” Camilo Caldas, a constitutional law professor at St. Jude University in Sao Paulo, told Reuters. “Any other result will be contested.” We’ll soon see how far Bolsonaro and those who consider themselves to be the real “people of Brazil” are willing to go.

Trump Says McConnell Has “DEATH WISH” In Menacing Post

This weekend, former president Donald Trump did his best to remind us why he is banned from major social media platforms. In a post on Truth Social targeting Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Trump declared, “He has a DEATH WISH.” He then pivoted to a racist attack on McConnell’s wife, Trump’s former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who was born in Taiwan. 

On Meet The Press, Chuck Todd called Trump’s tweet a “death threat,” adding that he didn’t know what else to call it. 

WATCH: Fmr. President Trump implies a “death threat” to Sen. Mitch McConnell and posts a racist attack on his wife, fmr. Transportation Sec. Elaine Chao.@SusanPage: “In this climate where many members of Congress are getting death threats … it’s especially not humorous.”

— Meet the Press (@MeetThePress) October 2, 2022

The same day as Trump’s post appeared, the New York Times published a major story on the disturbing surge of threats and in-person confrontations that members of Congress have faced in the wake of January 6. “I wouldn’t be surprised if a senator or House member were killed,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told the Times. “What started with abusive phone calls is now translating into active threats of violence and real violence.”

In Collins’ case, a yet-to-be-identified assailant smashed a window at her home. Across the country, a man showed up outside Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s (R-Wash.) Seattle home carrying a loaded pistol. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has sometimes taken to changing where she sleeps as a result of seemingly never-ending threats. 

Members of both parties have been threatened, but there’s an obvious asymmetry in who promotes such behavior. The Times reports the number of documented threats against members of Congress increased more than tenfold in the five years after Trump was elected. There were 9,625 such threats last year, according to the Capitol Police. The Capitol Police, however, have only arrested “several dozen” people over the past three years. “The goal is to de-escalate this behavior,” a spokesman told the paper. “Most of the time getting mental health treatment may be more successful than jail in order to keep everyone safe.”

The seeming lack of action has led many members of Congress, particularly representatives of color, to start paying for their own protection. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), a Black representative who has faced many death threats, has spent nearly $400,000 on security—more than anyone else in the House. That was surpassed by the almost $900,000 Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.)—one of three Black Senators—has spent on his security. (Sen. Ted Cruz, the little loved Texas Republican, came in second.) Ocasio-Cortez told the Times it took two-and-a-half years to finally get additional security. “You are now extra tasked with providing and coming up with your own financial resources for your own safety,” she said.

This summer, the top law enforcement official in the House announced that members would each get an additional $10,000 to secure their homes. But that money is not much help once they step outside.

After mentioning McConnell’s supposed “DEATH WISH,” Trump ended his post with the racism that sustains him. “Must immediately seek help,” Trump wrote about the majority leader, “and advise [sic] from his China loving, Coco Chow!”

On Sunday, CNN’s Dana Bash asked Rick Scott, the Florida Senator who is in charge of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, about the violence and racism of Trump’s post. “As you know, the president likes to give people nicknames,” Scott replied. “You can ask him how he came up with the nickname. I’m sure he has a nickname for me.” 

"Are you okay with this?"@DanaBashCNN asks Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) about former President Trump's racist insult directed at Elaine Chao, Mitch McConnell's wife.

— CNN (@CNN) October 2, 2022

Then he pivoted to inflation before returning to alluding to a former president he didn’t name. His anodyne conclusion? “I don’t condone violence,” Scott said, “and I hope no one else condones violence.”

Lawns Are Water Hogs, But Think Before You Rip Yours Out

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

Lawns began as a flex by the uber-wealthy in 17th-century England. (Look how many resources I can waste to replicate nature, when actual nature is right next to my palatial home!) Today, turfgrass has spread like a green plague across the United States, replacing native species and wasting an extraordinary amount of a precious resource—up to 75 percent of an American household’s water is sprayed willy-nilly on the yard. 

Lawns are especially problematic in the increasingly hot and dry southwestern US, which is in the grip of its worst megadrought in 1,200 years. So recently officials have been paying homeowners to rip the things out—“cash for grass,” as it’s known. In 2014, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California allocated $350 million to get customers to remove 165 million square feet of turf. Las Vegas has taken the turf war one step further, mandating that grass be removed and replaced with less-thirsty desert landscaping by 2027. 

Good riddance to lawns, but urban planners may need to navigate a potential catch. Turfgrass does one good thing: It’s a kind of air conditioning. As plants photosynthesize, they spit out water vapor (along with oxygen), cooling the surrounding air. This is known as evapotranspiration. Because of this “sweating,” rural areas can be up to 20 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than adjacent cities, where a built environment that’s largely asphalt and concrete instead soaks up the sun’s energy. Accordingly, scientists are encouraging city planners to deploy more green spaces to attenuate this urban heat island effect

Lawns are “overvalued and overutilized relative to…spaces that can perform far more effectively from a cooling and water use standpoint.”

Ripping out lawns could actually create a little bit more heat, suggests a new small-scale study in the journal Hydrology. On a hot summer day on the Arizona State University campus, scientists monitored three sites with different kinds of landscaping. On one end of the spectrum was a lush “mesic” version with lots of turfgrass, trees, and other water-intensive plant species. On the other was a “xeric” (from the Greek for “dry”) version with desert species, which provide nice flowers for native pollinators and branches for birds. These desert plants need less water and can also be hydrated with targeted drip irrigation, instead of sprayed with a lawn sprinkler. Splitting the difference was an “oasis” plot, which mixed species with high and low water needs.

The researchers found the lush mesic plot to be the coolest, thanks to the evapotranspiration of all of its water-demanding plants. The air temperature of the more sparse xeric plot was on average 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the other two—but it also required less water because its native species are adapted to the parched desert climate. Overall, the oasis ended up being a literal middle ground, providing cooler temperatures than the xeric while using less water than the grass-heavy mesic. On these plots of land at ASU, at least, the ideal landscape might be a little bit of grass mixed with native vegetation: It doesn’t provide the major water savings and biodiversity boost of a natural xeric landscape, but at least temperatures don’t climb as high. This is not to say that desert landscaping doesn’t also reduce the heat island effect—it definitely does, especially if the plants provide shade.

There’s a caveat, of course: This study was short-term and happened on a single campus—the amount of cooling your city actually gets from lawns may vary. “That’s one of the tricky things about studying heat,” says University of Arizona urban planner Ladd Keith, who wasn’t involved in the research. “Every different kind of climate and region might have a little bit of a different context, where different lessons need to be learned.”

But overall, says University of California-Berkeley innovation designer Ian McRae, who studies climate resilience in the built environment, lawns are an inefficient way to cool a green space, compared to building out a diverse grouping of native plants that are more aesthetically pleasing, water-efficient, and conducive to biodiversity. “We love our lawns for varying reasons,” McRae says, “but they are overvalued and overutilized relative to the variety of planting palettes available to us to create spaces we want to be in, spaces that can perform far more effectively from a cooling and water use standpoint.” (He wasn’t involved in the new research.)

Much of the cooling attributed to lawns actually comes from the soil itself, McRae says: Since grass is such a short plant, the sun directly strikes the soil underneath it, evaporating the water that’s soaked into the ground. 

One particularly powerful solution may be “rurbanization,” or bringing food production into cities.

As the world warms and urban populations grow, more and more city dwellers will be exposed to extreme heat. “That sounds like bad news, but it also means that there’s an opportunity,” says Christa Brelsford, an environmental scientist who has studied cash-for-grass programs at Oak Ridge National Laboratory but wasn’t involved in the new study. “This paper shows that by different choices of landscaping, there are small-scale choices that people make about landscaping in urban forums that can have significant impacts on the experience of heat for people.”

Still, scientists have a few concerns about how this might play out in the real world. For one thing, as the urban heat island effect intensifies, it may become harder for certain plant species to survive in cities. You’d hate to spend time and money on tree-planting campaigns if all your trees will die in a decade. So in addition to further researching how different kinds of vegetation can help cool cities, researchers have to figure out which species can withstand the heat.

For another, when a particularly bad heat wave settles in, even the plants that can survive the heat stop releasing water vapor, a defense mechanism to keep from desiccating. “You lose this evapotranspirational benefit when it’s really hot,” says Ariane Middel, an urban climatologist at Arizona State University and a coauthor of the new paper. Yet that’s when people need cooling the most. 

The trick will be greening up cities in a way that provides the most cooling with the least water. “There is no one-size-fits-all kind of strategy,” says the Desert Research Institute’s Rubab Saher, who led the new study. “I wish there were. It’d make our lives so much easier. But it depends, even from one neighborhood to another neighborhood.” 

One particularly powerful solution may be “rurbanization,” or bringing food production into cities. While grass just sits there guzzling water, urban farms could become ultra-efficient by growing food with recycled wastewater, simultaneously feeding residents, cooling neighborhoods, and attracting pollinators—which helps boost diversity, as a xeric landscape might. Bonus: Growing crops under solar panels on rooftops could cool buildings and generate free electricity. 

Urban planners might even be able to reduce heat and increase shade in places that can’t support many plants. Scientists are experimenting with reflective roofs and pavements, which bounce the sun’s energy back into space, reducing surface temperatures. And if a neighborhood can’t spare the water to grow thirsty trees, perhaps building a “shade arcade” that spans overhead could provide some relief. This covering could even be made out of the same material as reflective roofs, further boosting its cooling capacity.

“You can have really lovely shade structures that don’t have to be a tree,” says Stephanie Pincetl, director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities at UCLA, who has studied turf replacement programs but wasn’t involved in the new paper. “We’re so stuck. We have no conceptual architectural imagination.” 

What we need, then, is fewer boring lawns and more creativity.

Mother Jones Congratulates Judge James Ho on His Decision to Boycott Yale

Have you been following what’s going on at Yale? I haven’t, because I’m 35 years old and didn’t go there. But James Ho, a Trump-appointed judge who sits on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, has, and he’s pissed. So pissed, in fact, that he has announced in a speech on Thursday that he will no longer hire any clerks from Yale Law School, and is encouraging other judges to do the same.

According to National Review, which broke the story, Ho was upset about a string of recent events at the university where students disrupted conservative speakers, and another incident last year in which the administration censured a member of the campus chapter of the Federalist Society for inviting classmates to a party at his “trap house.”

“Yale not only tolerates the cancellation of views, it actively practices it,” Ho said in his address. Per NR, his remarks continued:

“We’re not just citizens. We’re also customers. Customers can boycott entities that practice cancel culture. . . . I wonder how a law school would feel, if my fellow federal judges and I stopped being its customers. Instead of millions of customers, there are only 179 authorized federal circuit judgeships, and 677 authorized federal district judgeships.”

Ho is mad at the ways in which some students at a private college campus are using their speech to criticize other people’s speech, and so his response is to actually ban anyone from that law school from working in his specific fiefdom of the federal government. It’s a pretty nice illustration of the gulf between what “cancel culture” looks like on television and what it means in practice in 2022.

But I don’t come to criticize Judge Ho, I come to praise him. The highest levels of the federal judiciary have for too long been dominated by graduates of the same handful of select law schools, and it’d be a mistake to say we’re better for it. The illusion of meritocracy they sell has, if anything, helped to sustain the conservative legal movement’s own illusion of balls-and-strikes impartiality and the “originalism” that purportedly guides it—the Supreme Court’s majority bloc has cultivated an aura of exclusivity and scholarly diligence even as it increasingly resembles nothing more than an appendage of the Republican Party.

Yale in particular has been a feeder program and networking pen for the men (mostly) who have done the most to weaponize the legal system for conservative ends. I’m referring to people like Samuel Alito, whose belligerent opinion in Dobbs ended the federal right to abortion by leaning on literally medieval texts, and his colleagues Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh. Josh Hawley, who led the congressional opposition to certifying the 2020 election results, would not be a senator from Missouri today had he not been a Yale Law School graduate and Supreme Court clerk years ago. I don’t know that Ho is doing this for the soundest reasons, but it’s about time someone recognized Connecticut’s preeminent pedigree-mill for what it is and tried to shut the whole thing down. We could at least try unplugging it and then plugging it back in.

Two Texas Men Are Accused of Killing a Migrant. Their Governor Blames Joe Biden.

Earlier this week, two West Texas men—one of whom was a former warden of a migrant detention center—were arrested and charged with manslaughter in the death of a Mexican national who had recently crossed over the border. An affidavit filed by a Texas Ranger alleged that Michael Sheppard, the now-former warden, and his brother Mark, came across a group of 13 Mexican migrants drinking from a reservoir on Tuesday, while driving their truck through a sparsely inhabited area south of the town of Sierra Blanca. When the Sheppards saw the group, the affidavit alleged, “The driver leaned on the hood of the vehicle and fired two shots from a firearm at the group,” and then “re-entered the vehicle and fled the scene.” 

Two people were shot—one man died at the scene, and a woman was transported to a hospital in El Paso with a stomach wound. According to the affidavit, members of the group told federal agents who responded to the shooting that “they overheard one of the males shout something in Spanish to the effect of, ‘Come out you sons of bitches, little asses!’ then revved the engine of the truck.” That was when the shooting started.

The two brothers told investigators that they had been in the area, and they had fired shots, but maintained that they’d shot at animals—the story changed from grouse, to ducks, to javelinas—and that they didn’t believe it was at the same location as the shooting. Curiously, they neglected to check to see whether they had actually shot anything, and instead quit their hunting expedition to attend a county water board meeting.

But according to Marfa Public Radio, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has found his own culprit for the shooting of two migrants: President Joe Biden. Per MPR:

In a statement, a spokesperson for Gov. Greg Abbott’s office called the shooting a “terrible tragedy” and said “violence of any kind will not be tolerated in Texas,” but also tied the shooting to the president’s border policies.

“The Texas Department of Public Safety immediately deployed troopers to lead the manhunt and assist the FBI, Homeland Security Investigations, and local law enforcement in bringing these criminals to justice,” Abbott spokesperson Renae Eze said. 

Eze also described the shooting as “just another example of how President Biden’s open border policies continue endangering lives.” 

“It’s time for President Biden to do his job and stop this humanitarian crisis by securing our southern border,” she said.

Blaming the president of the United States because two brothers allegedly opened fire on migrants in the Chihuahuan Desert is a grim and cynical choice from a Republican governor with presidential aspirations. It is also, in a sense, blaming the victims of the shooting for getting shot; what Abbott is really saying is that this never would have happened if they simply hadn’t been there. But what “humanitarian crisis” are we talking about in this specific case—the ongoing Second Amendment? In reality, migrants face the opposite problem from the one Abbott suggests; decades of increasingly militant closed-border policies, from troop deployments to wall construction, have forced people to take ever more dangerous and riskier routes into the United States at a well-documented human cost.

But this is a landscape with a deep history, and there are echoes of the near and distant past in all of this. About an hour down the road from Sierra Blanca there’s a historical marker for Porvenir, the Texas village where Texas Rangers executed 15 men and boys in 1918 amid a panic over border-crossing “bandits.” Head west and in an hour you’ll reach El Paso, where a man who believed Republican rhetoric of a Mexican invasion massacred 23 people at a Walmart in 2019. 

After that last shooting, Abbott said that “mistakes were made” in the language he’d used in a fundraising letter, in which he called on Texans to “DEFEND” the border against Democrats’ efforts to “transform Texas—and our entire country—through illegal immigration.” He seemed chastened, for a moment. But that moment has clearly passed.

These Scientists Tried a Coral-Breeding Moonshot—and It Worked

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

Wearing a navy-blue polo neck emblazoned with the Florida Aquarium logo, Keri O’Neil hugs a white cooler at Miami International Airport. “Coral babieeeeees,” she says, before letting out a short laugh. Relief. The container holds 10 plastic bottles teeming with thousands of tiny peach-colored specks. Shaped like cornflakes and no more than a millimeter in length, they are the larvae of elkhorn coral, an endangered species that is as characteristic to the reefs of the Florida Keys and the Caribbean as polar bears are to the Arctic or giant sequoias to Sierra Nevada.

With the larvae kept at 27 C inside their insulated cooler nestled in the trunk of her car, O’Neil drives back to the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, where she works as senior coral scientist at the aquarium’s Center for Conservation. Once there, the larvae begin their metamorphosis from free-swimming specks into settled polyps, the beginnings of those branching, antler-like shapes that define this species. O’Neil and her colleagues provide everything the coral needs for a strong start in life: warm water with a gentle flow, symbiotic algae that find a home inside the coral’s cells, a soft glow of sunlight, and some ceramic squares “seasoned with algae” that act as landing pads for the larvae.

“We almost ended up with a six-foot-by-four-foot solid piece of elkhorn coral made up of 400 different individuals!” 

The transformation of larvae into polyps was the final step in a coral breeding project that began on the shores of Curaçao, an island off the coast of Venezuela, in the summer of 2018 and involved a cadre of conservationists and scientists who each specialize in one specific stage of coral development. From collection of eggs during mass spawning events to the cryopreservation of sperm, and from fertilization to larval growth, every step had to go swimmingly for the project to have any chance of success.

“It’s like the most stressful relay on Earth,” says Kristen Marhaver, a coral scientist at the Caribbean Research and Management of Biodiversity Foundation in Curaçao, who helped start this relay race by collecting eggs during a nighttime dive at a reef that’s a 45-minute drive from her laboratory. As O’Neil was picking up her coral “babies” in Miami, a second team of scientists at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida, received its own. The pressure on both labs was immense. To fail now would be to drop the baton just before the final straight.

But, if anything, their efforts were too successful; hundreds of larvae settled as translucent and fragile blobs of tissue (each a single polyp) and then started to divide, branching into the clear waters of their shallow, open-top tanks. Elkhorn coral grows an average of five to 10 centimeters per year, a bamboo-like pace for corals in general. To stop them becoming entangled, O’Neil had to cut, separate, and move her colonies to different paddle pool–sized tanks over the course of the next year. “We almost ended up with a six-foot-by-four-foot solid piece of elkhorn coral made up of 400 different individuals,” she says. “They were just outgrowing the tanks.”

A juvenile elkhorn coral colony, about six months old, gets its start in a lab at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa. The eggs came from coral in Curaçao and the sperm from coral elsewhere in the Caribbean—populations that, under normal circumstances, would not have mixed in the wild.

Kristen Marhaver

The rows of coral in O’Neil’s tanks are a window into a former world. The reefs of the Florida Keys were once dominated by elkhorn coral. Visiting these islands that curl southward from Florida like the tip of a bird of prey’s beak, biologist, conservationist, and writer—most notably of Silent Spring, but also of several books on the ocean—Rachel Carson peered into the shallows using a “water glass,” an instrument akin to a glass-bottom bucket. Through this simple portal, she saw great stands of “trees of stone,” a forest of coral. Today, after decades of disease, coastal development, and bleaching, over 95 percent of the state’s elkhorn coral have been lost.

This population isn’t just depleted in number, like a forest that’s been felled, but is also impoverished from within. Some reefs in the Keys descend from a single individual that has reproduced via fragmentation—bits break off the parent coral and start a new colony. This mode of reproduction allows corals to spread, but without the genetic mixing that comes with sex, these clones are more susceptible to disturbances such as disease.

The coral larvae raised by O’Neil at the Florida Aquarium are different; they are the product of sperm and egg, a shuffling of genes, and the growth of genetically unique clumps of coral. Reintroducing them could provide a boost to the coral’s genetic diversity—a quick stir to the gene pool—and could save a denuded ecosystem. Their reintroduction could also spell its doom.

Hidden inside the genetic code of the Florida Aquarium’s coral is a map of an atypical origin: the eggs collected from Curaçao were fertilized using sperm from the Caribbean, including Florida. Although the same species (Acropora palmata), these coral populations would never breed in the wild. The distance between the two is hundreds of kilometers and contains the island blockade of the Greater Antilles—an impossible journey for any sperm. The coral housed in the Florida Aquarium are the products of human hands, the latest addition to a recent—and often controversial—trend in conservation known as “assisted gene flow,” shuttling existing genetic diversity to new places.

Elkhorn coral spawn only once a year, triggered by the full moon, but estimating the exact time and date of the spawn is tricky. Scientists in Curaçao dove for more than 40 nights before the elkhorn coral they were monitoring finally released their eggs.

Smithsonian National Zoo

No hands have offered more assistance to these coral than those of Mary Hagedorn, senior research scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, who is based at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Hagedorn flew to the Caribbean to guide this project from start to finish. It is her research that made this work possible. Since 2004, she has developed cryopreservation techniques that can freeze coral sperm and—just as importantly—keep them fertile upon thawing.

Although cryopreservation has been used for IVF in humans and other mammals for decades, it’s only in the last few years that other coral conservationists have adopted Hagedorn’s techniques for coral sperm. At a time when these methodologies are most needed, Hagedorn’s work has matured into a solid science, says Tom Moore, a coral restoration manager at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at the time of this project and now in the private sector. “I think we’re going to start seeing a lot more of this done in the course of the next few years.”

Without the option to freeze sperm, coral conservationists have been forced to work within the few hours these sex cells remain viable. In Florida, Moore says, scientists from the Lower Keys would drive north to meet colleagues from the Upper Keys and swap sperm samples on the side of the road, fertilizing eggs there and then before the sperm stopped swimming. With the option to freeze sperm using liquid nitrogen, however, samples can be transported long distances—from Florida to Curaçao, for example. Then, when eggs are collected from the reef, the sperm can be thawed and used in concentrations that make fertilization most likely. Hagedorn’s work opens up new possibilities that, just a few years ago, were largely ignored.

Kendall Fitzgerald, left, and Claire Lager, of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, use cryopreservation techniques to conserve coral as part of a global biorepository.

Smithsonian National Zoo

Self-funded for many years, Hagedorn’s research was nearly stopped altogether in December 2011. Her savings had run out and funders didn’t seem to see the potential of her work. “I was a month away from closing my lab,” she says. Then she received an unexpected call from the Roddenberry Foundation, a philanthropic organization set up in memory of Gene Roddenberry, the writer of Star Trek. Since Hagedorn’s work fit the criteria for bold and unique science, the foundation wanted to fund her research for five years. Since then, her work has grown to include frozen larvae, frozen coral symbiotic algae, and frozen coral fragments, and it has been adopted by labs around the world. To help her cryopreservation methods spread, Hagedorn runs workshops and shares her techniques freely; the instructions to build her equipment can be downloaded and then manufactured with a 3D printer.

As with IVF in humans, coral fertilization is not a perfect science. In a study published in 2017, Hagedorn and her colleagues showed that fertilization rates from frozen coral sperm are significantly lower than from fresh sperm, roughly 50 percent versus over 90 percent. And these figures were based on coral that lived as neighbors on the same reef. The researchers wanted to increase genetic diversity in the future (through assisted gene flow), but it was still unknown whether populations that had been isolated for thousands of years could produce viable offspring, especially after their sperm had been frozen. The idea to breed elkhorn coral from the Florida Keys with those from Curaçao was the most extreme test yet of Hagedorn’s methods. It was a moonshot for coral conservation, says O’Neil. “We wanted to do something that had never been done before.”

Mary Hagedorn, senior research scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, has pioneered coral cryopreservation techniques since 2004. [credit]Smithsonian National Zoo[/credit]

Marhaver thought that they had a five to 10 percent chance of success. To have hundreds of healthy coral now sitting in tanks barely crossed her mind. Conservationists are more attuned to the vibrations of endangerment, extinction, and loss. To have a moonshot succeed is unfamiliar territory. With the impossible now possible, the next hurdle is moving from the lab to the ocean, a leap that not everyone is comfortable with.

As in medical practice, the first rule of restoring ailing ecosystems is primum non nocere, “first, do no harm.” And what concerns Lisa Gregg, program and policy coordinator at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the organization that decides the fate of the Florida-Curaçao coral, is that they aren’t suited to the local conditions of the Florida Keys, a place that Carson referred to as having an atmosphere that is “strongly and peculiarly [its] own.”

These islands are formed from sedimentation, while those of Curaçao and the eastern Caribbean are founded on volcanic activity. Plus, the Florida Keys also have their own unique combination of problems, from infectious disease to coastal development, and from hurricanes to coral bleaching. “We have a lot of problems here,” says O’Neil. “And it is quite likely that the corals that are still alive in Florida after everything that’s happened to them are probably the ones that are best suited to living in Florida and providing offspring that may be capable of surviving in Florida.”

Hagedorn is tired of waiting. She believes the captive coral should be carefully re-introduced into the wild given its critical status. “There’s so little coral in Florida now, it’s just a joke.

If Curaçao genes were introduced, they might lead to lower rates of reproduction, shorter life spans, or lowered resistance to local diseases. Imperceptible at first, such “outbreeding depression” can slowly weaken a population, generation by generation. To introduce genes that haven’t experienced the same history could be a ratchet toward extinction.

The risk of such outbreeding depression is very low, however—a doomsday forecast for Florida’s reefs, many conservationists think. “I’m not so concerned that there’s a huge risk of the Curaçao [genes] causing a major detriment to the native Florida population,” says Iliana Baums, head of marine conservation and restoration at the University of Oldenburg, Germany, who has studied elkhorn coral since 1998. “But that’s based on my knowledge of the literature for other species and modeling and so on. I don’t have any direct evidence for that.” Direct evidence would require reintroduction, a catch-22 of conservation; the very thing that is controversial and potentially dangerous is also the route to understanding.

Gregg was clear with O’Neil, Marhaver, Hagedorn, and their colleagues from the beginning of this project. “They knew right off the bat … that they were not going to be able to out-plant [the coral]. It was never in question.” The FWC has a “nearest neighbor” policy when it comes to conserving Florida’s coral reefs, she says. “With Acropora palmata, I believe the nearest neighbor would be Cuba or Belize. But other acceptable areas to bring corals in from would be Mexico or the Bahamas. If you’ve got corals coming from Curaçao, that’s leaps and bounds away from Florida.”After nearly 20 years of research and the near closure of her lab, Hagedorn is tired of waiting. She is sympathetic to the FWC’s approach, but also believes that this large population of captive coral should be introduced—in “a restricted and monitored fashion”—given the critical status of A. palmata. “There’s so little coral in Florida now, it’s just a joke,” she says.In addition to tracking their precipitous decline, scientists have tried to find evidence that new, sexually produced elkhorn coral are settling in the area, but they regularly come back empty-handed. Since this species releases sperm and eggs en masse once a year, the lack of natural recruitment is a worrying sign that such mass spawning events are failing. Warmer waters, pollution, a thick covering of algae, and the rarity of mature coral all add up to prevent new baby coral from settling.Whatever the case, successful sexual reproduction—the fertilization of egg and sperm to create a swimming larva—is so low that it no longer supports this population. “Every year, we seem to lose more [coral] without making more, because sexual reproduction isn’t working,” says Baums. “None of us could’ve imagined that these coral populations would die out this fast. I don’t think any one of us could have really wrapped our heads around that, even 10 years ago … I think we’re at the stage that we need to try something new.”Even with this precipitous decline, there is still time to try a less extreme version of assisted gene flow, O’Neil says. Now that the Florida-Curaçao experiment has been a success, her team can consider crossing coral from Mexico, the Bahamas, or Cuba—just a relative stone’s throw away—with Florida stock. These populations are able to mix naturally: although sperm can’t survive the journey, the planktonic larvae can travel the current from the Bahamas to Florida so are considered part of the same subpopulation. Gregg says that she would support any elkhorn restoration project that conforms to the FWC “nearest neighbor” policy. Until then, such assisted gene flow will remain limited to laboratories and aquariums.In December 2021, O’Neil said goodbye to the coral she had raised from peach-colored larvae to hand-sized elkhorn recruits. With the project’s end, they were being transported from the Florida Aquarium to the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, where they joined the rest of the coral grown as part of this study. Some are being exposed to warmer temperatures to see if they are better able to survive in the warmer waters predicted for the future. Others will be transported to museums and aquariums around the United States. The rest sit patiently and continue to divide, to grow, polyp by polyp. They may never be introduced into the wild, but their mere existence opens a wide-angle vista for coral conservation. If such disparate populations can be crossed and grown by the hundred, almost anything is possible. The next coral babies that O’Neil collects from the airport will have simply traveled a shorter distance in their cooler.

Survivors Are Preserving the Dark History of Native Boarding Schools

Six-year-old Phyllis Webstand wore an orange shirt to her first day of school. It was shiny, she remembers, and laced up the front—more importantly, it was a gift from her granny.

At the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School in Williams Lake, British Columbia, it was taken from her, as were all the personal belongings she had known and loved. None were ever returned. That year, 1973, Webstand became one of hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children in Canada and the US to suffer at state-run and religious boarding schools designed to assimilate by force. In the words of Richard Henry Pratt, the first superintendent of the infamous Carlisle Indian School, the schools were meant to “save the Indian and kill the man,” often by coercive conversion to Christianity and the forbidding of Native language. Physical and sexual abuse were common.

In the United States, such schools operated for 150 years, the last closing in 1969. They have had a lasting impact on Native communities, from cultural and linguistic loss to intergenerational trauma. Children of people who attended the “residential schools” are more likely to have poor health outcomes, experience depression, and encounter abuse. Their story isn’t widely taught in schools. With “critical race theory” serving as grounds to ban works from Maus to a picture book by Ruby Bridges, the fight to change that may be a long one.

Friday marks the second US observance of the Day of Remembrance for Indian Boarding Schools, or “Orange Shirt Day,” which Webstand and fellow survivor Chief Fred Robbins started a decade ago, on the land now known as Canada. “The color orange has always reminded me of that,” Webstand told other Canadians in 2013, on the country’s inaugural Orange Shirt Day. “How my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing. All of us little children were crying, and no one cared.” The observance became a federal statutory holiday in Canada last year. It lacks official status in the US, but a resolution calling for federal recognition of Orange Shirt Day, sponsored by Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), recently passed the Senate.

The United States has dragged behind Canada in recognizing boarding schools’ role in Native genocide. In 2007, the Canadian government established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address residential schools’ legacy. That commission assembled a historical record of the schools and their impact, concluding in 2015 with 94 calls to action to facilitate “reconciliation” between Indigenous peoples and others on the land. But even that commission was the product of a settlement between Canada’s government and approximately 86,000 Indigenous people sent to residential schools between 1879 and 1997.

The United States has had no similar process, and it’s fallen to Indigenous women in office to act. Interior Department Secretary Deb Haaland, of the Laguna Pueblo, is the first Indigenous woman to run the agency that once oversaw residential schools. In May, her department released the first report in a multi-part investigation of their abusive practices; though not yet complete, it’s already the most comprehensive effort of its kind. Over 408 of these schools existed in the US, including in what are now the states of Alaska and Hawaii. Children as young as four were ordered to execute military drills and carry out manual labor, had their hair forcibly cut, and were made to use English names. Rules were often enforced through physical punishment, including solitary confinement, whipping, and starvation. To date, the investigation has found marked and unmarked graves on the grounds of 53 schools—the likely burial places of children who perished from disease or mistreatment. In Canada, investigators discovered the bodies of thousands of Indigenous children on the former sites of residential schools. The Interior Department appears likely to find the same.

In June, Kansas House Rep. Sharice Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, introduced legislation to create a “truth and healing commission” on the residential schools, which would complement the Interior Department’s work and serve to advance the nation’s understanding of the lasting damage inflicted by Native boarding schools. Native people, of course, have preserved the memory of those atrocities. But much of the story has been buried, sometimes by survivors reluctant to reopen their wounds, and often by whitewashing campaigns like the “critical race theory” panic—which the US could begin to undo by acknowledging and documenting the record of genocide.