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Updated: 6 hours 9 min ago

New study raises fear of 10-foot sea level rise if Trump’s climate policies are not quickly reversed

6 hours 15 min ago

A stunning new study on Antarctic sea ice collapse greatly raises the risk of a 10-foot sea level rise this century if President Donald Trump’s climate policies aren’t quickly reversed.

Warming ocean waters drove a 6-fold increase in annual ice mass loss from the Antarctic ice sheet between 1979 and 2017, according to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It’s been known for a while that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) was unstable and collapsing at an accelerating rate due to global warming. But the new study finds that parts of the vastly larger East Antarctic Ice Sheet (EAIS) are also disintegrating.

Map of Antarctica. CREDIT: NSIDC.

While the WAIS contains enough ice to raise sea levels some 20 feet, the EAIS contains enough ice to ultimately raise sea levels 170 feet. Although a complete melting of the Antarctic ice sheet will take many centuries, the new study suggests devastating sea level rise in this century

East Antarctica’s melting “increases the risk of multiple meter (more than 10 feet) sea level rise over the next century or so,” lead author Eric Rignot told the AP. Rignot is a senior project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

And even just half that level of sea rise means the destruction of every major coastal city in the nation and the world. With just 6 feet of sea level rise, for instance, the southern tip of Florida would be underwater.

AS POLAR ICE LOSS SPEEDS UP, TRUMP POLICIES MAKE THIS FUTURE FOR SOUTH FLORIDA AND “MIAMI ISLAND” ALL BUT UNSTOPPABLE. CREDIT: CLIMATE CENTRAL

This four-decade speed up in ice loss is being driven by global warming. As the study notes, “During the entire period, the mass loss concentrated in areas closest to warm, salty, subsurface, circumpolar deep water (CDW).”

So the greatest sea ice loss is precisely where the deep water surrounding Antarctica is warming up the most.

The amount of sea ice loss — and the rate of speed up — is staggering. “Between 1979 and 1990, Antarctica shed an average of 40 gigatons of ice mass annually. (A gigaton is 1 billion tons.),” the news release explains. But “from 2009 to 2017, about 252 gigatons per year were lost” — a six-fold increase.

The study warns that sea level rise (SLR) will continue to speed up as the ocean continues to warm. And as ThinkProgress reported last week, a different study concluded “ocean warming is accelerating.”

White House admits Trump climate policies will destroy all U.S. coastal property

The latest findings suggest that more and more of the EAIS could get exposed to warming ocean water — “and could contribute multimeter SLR with unabated climate warming.”

Tragically “unabated climate warming” is the primary policy of the Trump administration.

The Trump team has worked tirelessly to gut domestic US climate regulations while becoming the only major country to start the process of withdrawing from the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. So, as the study’s findings warn, the time to save our coastal cities is running out rapidly.

But averting that unimaginable catastrophe will require going far beyond reversing Trump’s policies. The world will also have to take global carbon dioxide emissions to near zero by early in the second half of the century.


Categories: SCCDP Allies

Attorney General nominee can’t explain the Trump administration’s family separation policy

6 hours 27 min ago

President Donald Trump’s U.S. Attorney General nominee, William Barr, was unable to describe his predecessor’s policy of separating immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border, despite the fact that this controversial approach to handling asylum-seekers has dominated the news in recent months.

At Barr’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) asked Barr if he agreed with the Department of Justice’s “zero-tolerance” policy that resulted in the separation of nearly 2,800 immigrant children from their parents.

Barr claimed that because he is not a current member of the department, he “doesn’t know all the details.”

“Well, I’m not sure I know all the details because one of the disadvantages I have is I’m not in the department and don’t really have the same backing I did in terms of information that I had last time,” Barr said. “But my understanding is that DHS makes the decision as to who they are going to apprehend and hold.”

That Barr was unaware of the details surrounding the administration’s zero tolerance at the border is perplexing, considering it monopolized national headlines for months over the summer. Moreover, the relevant details are not incredibly complex: President Donald Trump, emboldened by his then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, separated asylum-seeking families who crossed the border between ports of entry.

In his explanation, Barr butchered a key component of U.S. immigration law.

“Now, you can claim asylum, but that doesn’t mean you can waltz into the country freely,” Barr said.

Contrary to Barr’s claim, any immigrant can apply for asylum “whether or not at a designated port of arrival,” according to U.S. law. This is primarily the reason why the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy was so troubling. Some organizations like Amnesty International have gone as far as to describe zero tolerance as violation of international human rights.

Because the U.S. immigration courts are under the purview of the Department of Justice, it is imperative that any U.S. Attorney General is familiar with the intricacies of immigration law.

In his opening remarks Tuesday, Barr, echoing President Trump, stated that the only way to protect the country’s legal system and prevent individuals from “crashing in through the back doors” is by “secur[ing] our nation’s borders.”


Categories: SCCDP Allies

Trump’s attorney general pick reveals new details of meeting with him about Mueller investigation

6 hours 31 min ago

Attorney General nominee William Barr revealed new details Tuesday of a White House meeting with President Donald Trump in June 2017 about the prospect of joining the president’s legal team.

The comments came as the Senate Judiciary Committee questioned Barr about his nomination for attorney general. The committee’s chair, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), pressed Barr for details of his conversations with the White House about representing Trump in a personal capacity, in the ongoing probe into Russian election interference.

Barr said he was reluctant when David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, first approached him because his law firm had just taken on a big corporate client and because he wanted to be able to openly comment on the case — a freedom he would lose if he represented Trump.

“I didn’t want to stick my head into that meat grinder,” he recalled.

Barr said had a “very brief” meeting with Trump at the White House, on Friedman’s insistence, where the president asked his opinion of Special Counsel Robert Mueller III, who leads the Russia probe.

“I told him how well I know Bob Mueller and how the Barrs and Muellers were good friends and would be good friends when this was all over and so forth,” Barr told Graham. “And he was interested in that. Wanted to know, you know, what I thought about Mueller’s integrity and so forth and so on. I said Bob is a straight shooter and should be dealt with as such.”

Barr said he again declined a position on Trump’s defense team when the president asked what role he saw for himself. Barr also said he gave Trump his number when asked but didn’t hear from the president again until he was offered the attorney general position, prompting a joke from Graham, who was making his debut as committee chair.

“I tried that once,” Graham quipped, to laughter from both his Republican and Democratic colleagues. “You did better than me.”

The first morning of the two-day hearings focused on whether Barr would protect the special counsel’s independence if confirmed. Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned in November under withering criticism from Trump over his decision to recuse himself from overseeing the Russia probe — a decision both Graham and Barr defended Tuesday. And Barr sent a lengthy legal memo to the Justice Department in June that was critical of aspects of the investigation.

Under questioning from Graham and ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) on Tuesday, Barr praised Mueller, whom he called a “close” friend, vowed not to interfere with the ongoing investigation, and said he would make Mueller’s final report available to Congress and the public “consistent with regulations and the law.”

Barr also told Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) that he would not allow the president or his legal team to “spin” or correct Mueller’s report before releasing it to the public.


Categories: SCCDP Allies

The Trump administration’s racism was just blocked by its incompetence

6 hours 59 min ago

In what was almost certainly an effort to discourage participation from immigrant communities, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced last year that he would add a question to the 2020 Census questionnaire asking if each person in the United States is a citizen — a question that the Census has not asked since the Jim Crow era.

On Tuesday, a federal district court held that this citizenship question must be removed from the Census form. The case is New York v. United States Department of Commerce.

The Trump administration was discouraged from including this question by an array of census experts from both political parties — including top officials from the Reagan and Bush I administrations — who concluded that it “could seriously jeopardize the accuracy of the census,” because “people who are undocumented immigrants may either avoid the census altogether or deliberately misreport themselves as legal residents.”

The administration’s own Census Bureau warned that adding such a question “is very costly, harms the quality of the census count, and would use substantially less accurate citizenship status data than are available from administrative sources.”

Secretary Ross ignored this advice and included the question anyway. And as Judge Jesse Furman lays out in a 277-page opinion striking down the citizenship question, the Trump administration then went to embarrassing lengths to find someone — anyone — who would defend their attempt to rig the Census.

At one point, for example, a Trump administration official emailed the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank, asking if someone at AEI “can speak to the pros of adding such a question.” The same day, a senior AEI employee responded that “none of my colleagues at AEI would speak favorably about the proposal.”

Judge Furman’s opinion presents Ross and his team as grossly incompetent. They seemed oblivious to their legal obligations, often appeared unaware of what their own advisers were telling them, and even appear to have outright lied about why they included the citizenship question.

Furman’s decision will almost certainly be reviewed by the Supreme Court, where the plaintiffs in this lawsuit still face an uphill battle. Three of the Court’s Republicans already tried to shut down Furman’s inquiry into the Census.

But Furman’s opinion is detailed, cautiously reasoned, and full of details that expose the political appointees who supported the citizenship question as rank incompetents. There is no guarantee that Furman’s opinion will survive contact with the Supreme Court — but Furman did his utmost to preemptively shame any judge who may try to reverse him.

Arbitrary and capricious

When federal agencies set policy, they must comply with a federal statute known as the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) — a law prohibiting agencies from taking “arbitrary” or “capricious” action. The APA does not simply require agencies to follow the law, but requires them to conduct a rigorous process that considers sound evidence and that is transparent about the agencies’ objectives.

As the Supreme Court held in Allentown Mack Sales & Service, Inc. v. NLRB, “not only must an agency’s decreed result be within the scope of its lawful authority, but the process by which it reaches that result must be logical and rational.”

Furman’s opinion explains that the Trump administration outright violated two federal laws when it added the citizenship question, and that the process it used to approve this question was a procedural trainwreck.

A provision of the Census Act, for example, requires the Census to “‘acquire and use information’ derived from administrative records ‘instead of conducting direct inquiries’ to the ‘maximum extent possible.’” Thus, the Census may not seek information through a questionnaire if it could obtain that information through government records. Yet when Census officials told Ross that existing government records would do a better job of identifying who is a citizen than a citizenship question on the Census, they were ignored.

Similarly, another provision of federal law requires “that the Secretary report to the  relevant congressional committees, at least three years before the ‘census date’ for a given census, all ‘subjects proposed to be included, and the types of information to be compiled.’” Yet Ross did not give Congress the required three years notice that he intended to include a citizenship question.

Judge Furman’s opinion also reveals a slipshod process at the Department of Commerce, where senior officials often acted as if damaging evidence simply did not exist. To give one example:

Secretary Ross’s explanations for his decision [to add the citizenship question] were unsupported by, or even counter to, the evidence before the agency. For instance, he sought to justify his decision on the ground that “no one provided evidence that reinstating a citizenship question on the decennial census would materially decrease response rates.” But that assertion is simply untrue. The Administrative Record is rife with both quantitative and qualitative evidence, from the Census Bureau itself, demonstrating that the addition of a citizenship question to the census questionnaire would indeed materially reduce response rates among immigrant and Hispanic households.

Among other things, “the Census Bureau calculated in January 2018 that adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census was likely to lead to a 5.1% differential decrease in self-response rates among noncitizen households.”

On top of these errors, Judge Furman’s opinion also includes an entire section that — while shying away from using such charged language — walks right up to the edge of accusing Secretary Ross of lying.

Ross claimed that the real reason for adding the citizenship question is because the Justice Department requested it to help with Voting Rights Act enforcement. As Furman writes, however, “the evidence is clear that Secretary Ross’s rationale was pretextual — that is, that the real reason for his decision was something other than the sole reason he put forward in his Memorandum, namely enhancement of DOJ’s VRA enforcement efforts.” Among other things, according to Furman, the evidence shows that “Secretary Ross had made the decision to add the citizenship question well before DOJ requested its addition in December 2017.”

The dog that didn’t bark

It’s also worth noting what Furman did not hold in his opinion. Some of the plaintiffs in this case argued that the citizenship question was unconstitutional because the decision to add it was motivated by racist or other impermissible intentions. To this claim, Furman writes that “although the Court finds that Secretary Ross’s decision was pretextual, it is unable to find, on the record before it, that the decision was a pretext for impermissible discrimination.”

Furman adds that he is unable to find that Ross acted with invidious intent because an October order from the Supreme Court prevented plaintiffs from deposing Ross. Without that deposition, it is difficult to probe what was in Ross’ heart when he added the citizenship question.

Yet while this holding leaves the plaintiffs without one ground for their victory, Furman’s caution may serve them well in the long run. Republicans on the Supreme Court are extraordinarily hostile to claims that a public official acted with racist intent. Indeed, three members of the Court — Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch — all tried to halt this trial before Furman could reach a decision.

But the Supreme Court’s Republicans tend to be much more sympathetic to claims that a federal agency violated the Administrative Procedure Act. By shying away from the hot-button constitutional issue, in other words, Furman made it more likely that his decision will survive additional review.

Furman’s order will appeal first to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Given the national importance of the decennial census, however, it is all but certain that this case will ultimately be reviewed by the Supreme Court. The question is whether all five of the Supreme Court’s Republicans will be willing to look the other way at the haphazard process the Trump administration used to approve the citizenship question.


Categories: SCCDP Allies

It’s ‘outrageous’ EPA staff are prepping Wheeler for confirmation during shutdown, top Democrat says

7 hours 45 min ago

Senate Republicans are rushing to get acting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler confirmed as Scott Pruitt’s replacement, despite a partial government shutdown that has kept the EPA closed since December 29 and employees unpaid.

Wheeler’s confirmation hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, only one week after President Donald Trump nominated him to assume the top position at the EPA on a permanent basis. After the hearing, the Senate committee will then vote on Wheeler’s nomination. If his nomination is approved by the committee — which is a good bet, with the Republicans in the majority — the final step would be for the full Senate to vote on the nomination.

“It looks like they are trying to rush him through,” Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel for government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), told ThinkProgress. “Anytime you have a candidate who you are trying to rush through, it means that you don’t want people to look too closely at his record or his industry ties.”

From the perspective of implementing Trump’s anti-environment agenda, Wheeler has worked as efficiently as Pruitt to roll back environmental regulations. And Wheeler appears to be pushing Trump’s agenda more effectively because — so far, at least — he hasn’t gotten himself embroiled in a similar multitude of scandals that sidetracked Pruitt from his mission to effectively dismantle the EPA.

Along with concern over EPA employees being used to prep Wheeler for the hearing instead of focusing on public health matters, environmental groups fear the confirmation process is getting expedited to avoid disclosures about Wheeler’s meetings with industry officials during his time as acting EPA administrator.

In late December, a federal court ordered the EPA to release more than 20,000 emails and meeting calendars as part of a lawsuit brought by the Sierra Club seeking records relating to any communications Wheeler and other agency officials have had with companies regulated by the agency. Putting together a schedule for the release of those records has been delayed by the government shutdown.

The Trump administration was required to provide the court a schedule for releasing Wheeler’s emails and calendar last Wednesday, including an agreement to produce at least two groups of documents by some point in February and all documents within 10 months. Because of the shutdown, the court ordered the administration on January 2 to provide it with a schedule for releasing the emails and calendar items within three business days after the federal shutdown has ended.

Wheeler was originally nominated by Trump to be EPA’s deputy administrator in October 2017. He was finally confirmed by the Senate six months later, in a contentious vote, in April 2018. Early last July, Wheeler took over as acting EPA administrator upon Pruitt’s resignation.

Under the Federal Vacancies Act, employees that require Senate confirmation can perform their duties in an acting role for a total of 210 days. When Trump formally nominated Wheeler to become the permanent EPA administrator, he had worked as acting administrator for a total of 184 days.

But Trump’s nomination of Wheeler on January 9 reset the clock. Under the law, Wheeler now has 205 days — a new 180 days added to the 25 days remaining in the 210-day limit prior to the formal nomination — to serve as both the president’s nominee for permanent administrator and as acting administrator.

Given the nearly seven months that Wheeler can serve as acting administrator, “it’s particularly egregious that the committee is rushing this nomination process amid a government shutdown,” a spokesperson for the Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee said in an email to ThinkProgress.

Andrew Wheeler wins chance to serve as permanent EPA chief after strong anti-environment audition

The rushed confirmation also has implications for EPA staff and operations. Upon learning that Wheeler’s confirmation hearing would be held only one week after his nomination, top Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee wrote a letter to Wheeler asking why political appointees and career staff have been assisting him with his confirmation hearing preparations.

Despite the government shutdown, EPA employees who fall under the “excepted staff” category in the agency’s contingency plan have been helping Wheeler prepare for the hearing. During shutdown furloughs, “excepted” employees — what the government views as “essential” jobs — are required to work without pay.

“It is difficult to understand how preparing you for next week’s confirmation hearing credibly falls within any of the categories listed in EPA’s Contingency Plan, particularly the category of employee that is ‘necessary to protect life and property,’” the senators wrote.

If the EPA is diverting resources that are intended to “protect life and property” to prepare Wheeler for his confirmation hearing, “the already-dire consequences of the shutdown on public health and the environment could be even greater,” the senators argued.

In a statement emailed to ThinkProgress, Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said “it’s outrageous that, while the agency’s doors are shuttered, EPA seems to be directing the few employees who are working without being paid to prepare its acting administrator for a Senate confirmation hearing instead of monitoring Superfund sites, cleaning up environmental spills, evaluating chemical safety and protecting air and water.”

Using excepted staff to prep Wheeler “is an odd interpretation of what is ‘essential,’” Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a nonprofit group that assists environmental agency workers, said in an email to ThinkProgress. “The EPA has had to halt some monitoring of drinking water and Superfund sites. Those strike us as far more essential,” Ruch said.

Nonetheless, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) gave a legal seal of approval to the EPA to allow these excepted staff to help Wheeler prepare for the hearing during the shutdown.

OMB General Counsel Mark Paoletta told Matt Leopold, EPA’s general counsel, in a January 12 email, that preparing for the hearing was an “excepted activity” consistent with helping the president discharge his constitutional duties, and it contributed to helping the Senate discharge its own duties in considering nominees. The EPA provided a copy of the email to ThinkProgress.

“Acting Administrator Wheeler’s participation in the scheduled hearing is necessary for the Congress’s funded function to be effective,” Paoletta wrote. Wheeler’s “absence from his own confirmation hearing would significantly damage the Committee’s confirmation hearing,” he added.

On January 11 — two days after Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works, announced Wheeler’s confirmation hearing would be the following week — environmental leaders, including Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, sent a letter to Barrasso and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). The letter urged them to postpone the confirmation hearing until the government shutdown has ended and the agency’s scientists and public health experts have been allowed to return to work.

NEW:

We joined @NRDC, @EnvDefenseFund, @NWF, @LCV & more to demand that Andrew Wheeler's confirmation hearings be postponed.

It is profoundly unfair for Wheeler to audition for a promotion while EPA workers are denied their paychecks.https://t.co/DWQS1vd3KB

— Sierra Club (@SierraClub) January 14, 2019

“It is profoundly unfair for Mr. Wheeler to audition for a promotion to lead an agency while the entire agency workforce is locked out and denied their paychecks, making it difficult to pay their bills and mortgages and provide for their families,” the environmental leaders wrote in their letter.

Environmental groups also want more time to research Wheeler’s dealings with industry after he took over as acting EPA administrator six months ago upon Pruitt’s resignation.

According to environmental groups, the Trump administration may fear that a delay in Wheeler’s confirmation could lead to the disclosure of more information about the former coal industry lobbyist’s meeting with officials with polluting industries during his time as deputy administrator and acting administrator.

EPA chief fumbles when asked to list Trump clean air policies

Wheeler already oversees the agency at which he’s been nominated to serve, Carper emphasized. “Rushing this nomination while the agency is shut down is unnecessary,” the senator said in his statement to ThinkProgress.

In response to Trump’s formal nomination of him to be EPA administrator, Wheeler submitted his financial disclosure form last Friday to the U.S. Office of Government Ethics. The purpose of the financial disclosure system is to prevent conflicts of interest and to identify potential conflicts by providing for a systematic review of a nominee’s financial interests.

CREW’s Canter believes Senate Republicans should have given fellow senators and the public more than five days to review Wheeler’s disclosure report before his confirmation hearing. “Why are they trying to push this guy through without giving adequate time to vet his financial disclosure report and other issues relating to what he’s done in his deputy position and his acting position?” she said.

When Canter worked as a senior ethics official for the Obama administration, she and her colleagues tried to have all the paperwork ready for review at least seven to 10 days before a nominee was to appear for a confirmation hearing.

“By rushing these hearings,” she said, “it sends a message that there are problems and you don’t want people to look at them too closely.”


Categories: SCCDP Allies

Iowa governor to propose ending voting ban for people with felony convictions

8 hours 31 sec ago

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) is reportedly set to propose a constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights to people with felony convictions in the state, The Des Moines Register reported Tuesday morning.

Right now, Iowa is one of just two states that permanently bars returning citizens from voting, but Reynolds is set to give her Condition of the State speech Tuesday and will highlight, according to the Register, “the beauty of grace” and second chances.

“Talk with someone who, by their own actions, hit rock bottom but decided to turn their life around,” Reynolds said in prepared remarks shared with the Register ahead of Tuesday’s speech. “Watch their face light up when they tell you about the person who offered them a helping hand…. There are few things as powerful as the joy of someone who got a second chance and found their purpose.”

Currently, the only way returning citizens can have their rights restored in Iowa is to appeal the governor and have their rights individually restored. Since taking office in May of 2017, Reynolds has restored the voting rights of nearly 80 people with felony convictions in the state, but in her speech Tuesday, will address what she believes is a flawed system. “I don’t believe that voting rights should be forever stripped, and I don’t believe restoration should be in the hands of a single person,” she said in her prepared remarks.

Reynolds herself is a “recipient of second chances,” she recently told reporters, referencing her struggle with alcohol addiction and two arrests, in 1999 and 2000, for drunk driving.

“I believe that people make mistakes and there’s opportunities to change, and that needs to be recognized. So it’s something that I’m passionate about,” she said.

From 2005 to 2011, Iowa had automatic voting rights restoration for returning citizens, and during that time, 115,000 people were able to register. In 2011, however, former Gov. Terry Branstad (R) — who now serves as the U.S. ambassador to China — ended automatic restoration. According to Restore Votes Iowa, more than 50,000 people with felony convictions are still unable to vote. African Americans in the state are disproportionately affected.

In order to pass a constitutional amendment, lawmakers in Iowa need to approve legislation in two consecutive general assemblies. Voters would then need to approve the measure through a statewide vote.

Reynolds’ proposal Tuesday comes just one week after Amendment 4 was officially implemented in Florida, restoring voting rights to an estimated 1.4 million returning citizens in the state. Neil Volz, the political director for Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) — the group that led the Amendment 4 fight — said Tuesday morning that it was encouraging to see Iowa building on Florida’s momentum.

“One of the things that we loved about the process of Amendment 4 was allowing people to see that individuals from all walks of life and all political backgrounds support redemption and second chances,” Volz told ThinkProgress. “We were encouraged by the people who came before us, and the idea that we’re serving as an encouragement, it’s just wonderful.”

Iowa will also join Alabama, which restored voting rights to tens of thousands of returning citizens through the Definition of Moral Turpitude Act two years ago, and New Jersey, where the governor has introduced legislation that would allow people on probation or parole to vote, in expanding voting rights to people with criminal convictions.

Should the proposed amendment in Iowa pass, Kentucky would be the last state in the country to permanently bar people with felony convictions from voting.


Categories: SCCDP Allies

‘This isn’t rehabilitation’: Alabama inmates speak out against state’s soaring prison homicide rate

10 hours 59 min ago

On November 19, 2018, James Lewis Kennedy was fatally stabbed at Elmore Correctional Facility in Alabama.

Kennedy had served 14 years of a life sentence with parole, following a 2004 conviction of burglary and attempted murder. His release was set for November 26, 2018, one week after he was killed, his sister Teresa told ThinkProgress.

“He wouldn’t have risked anything, he wanted to get out,” Teresa said of her brother, who was an auto-mechanic with five children. One of his sons would call him at prison several times a week and they’d talk for hours. Another is due to graduate from high school this year, a ceremony Kennedy was looking forward to.

A prisoner at a maximum security prison in Alabama. (Credit: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Kennedy’s case isn’t unique in Alabama, where the prison homicide rate is the highest in the nation at more than 34 per 100,000 prisoners. The level of violence has skyrocketed over the past 10 years, as prisons in the state come under fire for “horrendously inadequate” care that violate the U.S. constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Holman Penitentiary in Escambia County, Alabama is one of the state’s worst offenders. Over the course of nine days last month, from December 2 to December 11, there were at least four separate stabbing incidents at Holman alone.

In response to the slew of stabbings, the Free Alabama Movement (FAM), a campaign of incarcerated individuals organizing through non-violent direct action for the end of prison slavery, called for an emergency response task force to lead a fact-finding mission at Holman, seeking to bring clarity and public scrutiny to the situation.

While an investigation has not yet been initiated, other prisoner advocates have taken it upon themselves to raise awareness of the crisis. Following the murder of Vaquerro Kinjuan, a 29-year-old with a 22-year sentence for first degree robbery, who died in the first series of stabbings at Holman in December, Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery-based non-profit committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment, published a report showing that the homicide rate in Alabama prisons is more than 600 percent higher than the national average.

Prisoners like Derrick, who has served 20 years of a 22-year sentence at Holman and wishes to withhold his last name for safety reasons, claim that corrections officers knowingly “put certain people close to each other that have a history of violence toward one another, which leads to more blood spilled. If they wanted the violence to stop, they wouldn’t keep doing this.”

The reason, according to Derrick and prison justice groups, is that the state, pointing to overcrowding and minimal staffing, wants to justify building more maximum security prisons, a move that would only exacerbate the current crisis.

“If they wanted the violence to stop, they wouldn’t keep doing this.”

Homicides aren’t the only threat in Alabama penitentiaries. For decades, prisoners at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Alabama have been raped and forced to engage in oral sex by corrections officers. Incidents of officers watching women in the shower, groping them, organizing strip shows, and refusing to give women clean uniforms unless they partook in sexual acts were reported by the Department of Justice in 2014. Those who report the abuse are often locked in solitary confinement.

Such instances of exploitation and negligence were also raised by Teresa Kennedy after her brother’s death at Elmore.

“This is a prison, guards are watching cameras. Why didn’t they try to save my brother when they saw it on camera?” she asked. When she saw his body, she noticed that there were stabs on both sides. She concluded he wasn’t killed alone.  

Fostering and turning a blind eye to violence

Derrick said he wakes up every morning fearing for his life.

“This isn’t rehabilitation,” he told ThinkProgress.   

Following a stabbing, it’s standard procedure for corrections officers to lock prisoners inside of their open dorm hall at Holman, he said. The result is hundreds of prisoners contained in one place without any officers in sight.

“They basically let prisoners kill each other. There aren’t police around, period,” Derrick said. “This promotes more violence after the initial episode.”

An Alabama prisoner interviewed by The Intercept described a similar situation at Holman in March 2016. Following mass riots at the prison, officers locked the dorm’s front door and maced the prisoners, triggering yet another revolt. (Officials at Holman Penitentiary did not return ThinkProgress’ request for comment.)

Derrick said that the next procedural phase following a stabbing involves the Correctional Emergency Response Team (CERT), a squad of officers who respond to riotous incidents at correctional facilities. Subsequent to a stabbing on December 9 for example, the CERT swarmed the prison dorms and “started jumping on people who weren’t involved,” Derrick said. They “busted someone’s head until he needed stitches, and broke an elderly’s prisoner’s ribs.” The CERT also reportedly took prisoners’ property and money during their raid.

“They basically let prisoners kill each other.”

Toward the end of his phone interview with ThinkProgress, Derrick said that CERT had returned, and hung up abruptly.  

Swift Justice, a self-described slavery abolitionist who is currently incarcerated in Alabama, and who has managed to be in contact with prisoners throughout the state, verified Derrick’s claims. “This isn’t just going on at Holman. It’s at all facilities in Alabama,” he told ThinkProgress.  

Swift’s blog, “Unheard Voices O.T.C.J,” documents corruption inside the Alabama facilities, including a report of a corrections officer who was terminated for allegedly forcing two prisoners to assault one another.

In 2016, FAM claimed that the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) used a “swap out” transfer program tactic to manufacture violent conditions. Officers would send away older, more mature prisoners in return for younger prisoners who would be more likely to incite violence, they said.

FAM coined the ADOCs’ deliberate negligence and incitement as the “Holman Project.” In 2016, they alleged that prison Commissioner Jeff Dunn, former Assistant Commissioner Grant Culliver, former Commissioner Gwendolyn Mosley, Institutional Coordinator Cheryl Price, and former Warden Terry Raybon have “intentionally and deliberately” manufactured violent conditions inside Holman in order to secure funding for former Gov. Robert Bentley’s (R) $800 million “Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative” to build four new mega-prisons. Bentley was ultimately unsuccessful in his plan, as the House let the bill die on the floor over concerns of state debt. (The ADOC Public Information Office did not respond to ThinkProgress’ questions about  the Holman Project.)

Robert Widell, an associate professor of recent United States, African American, and civil rights history at the University of Rhode Island, and author of Birmingham and the Long Black Freedom Struggle, has also, through his own research, encountered charges by prisoners that officers and wardens have “kill lists” that identify prisoners to be targeted by correctional officers and wardens.

“Charges of fostering and/or turning a blind eye to violence in Alabama’s prisons are by no means new in the present moment,” Widell said via email. “Inhumane conditions that led to Alabama’s prison system being declared ‘cruel and unusual’ and therefore unconstitutional — including insufficient and rotting food and extreme heat/cold — should be considered violence.”

Gladiator days

The United States reports a national prison homicide rate of approximately 6 deaths per 100,000 in federal prisons and 5 deaths per 100,000 in state prisons, based on Department of Justice statistics from 2001 to 2014. While there are no national statistics on the problem of manufacturing violence at U.S. prisons, the practice has been reported previously.

Corcoran, a maximum-security prison built in California in 1988, ostensibly to address overcrowding and violence in the prison system, provides perhaps the most stark historical example of manipulative tactics utilized by prison guards.

Corcoran State Prison inmates spend time in the caged SHU prison yard in Corcoran, Ca., Oct. 01, 2013. (Credit: Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

“At Corcoran, guards staged fights between prisoners, calling it ‘gladiator days,’” said Dan Berger, an associate professor of comparative ethnic studies at University of Washington Bothell who teaches, researches, and writes about the history of racism, prisons, and social movements in the United States.

For example, as The Independent reported, in 1994, Tate, a 25-year-old black gang member from South Central Los Angeles was moved into a cell next to known adversaries, two Latino gang members. After a fight ensued, the officers opened fired to break it up, shooting Tate in the head and killing him.

Another prisoner at Corcoran, Dimas de Leon, who was a skilled boxer stated in a 1996 affidavit, “I was made aware by officers that there was money riding on me to win [fights].” He was “even thanked by officers for making them a bit richer,” he wrote.  

All the while, the California Department of Corrections referenced the high rates of violence at Corcoran in funding requests to build new prisons — a plan Alabama apparently shares.

Constructing more crisis

The rampant abuse at Alabama prisons is reflective of the state prison systems’ repressive origins. According to Widell, the system grew through convict leasing and resistance to emancipation subsequent to the Civil War. Throughout the 1860s, the Alabama legislature passed “Black Codes” — laws only applicable to black individuals — in order to increase their likelihood of criminal prosecution. Once imprisoned, black individuals were leased to steel and mining companies for cheap labor.

“The prison system in Alabama was designed to preserve and protect white supremacy. It may have served other functions at the same time — including actual public safety concerns — but the maintenance of white supremacy has been a constant,” Widell said.

As of 2015, the “Cotton State” ranked as the lowest spender in the country with respect to annual per prisoner costs ($14,780), more than 50 percent less than the nation’s average of $33,274. Costs are cut by failing to provide prisoners with adequate (if any) rehabilitation programs, by enforcing slave labor (prisoners are not paid for non-industrial labor, and up to $.75 cents per hour for industrial), and by understaffing facilities. As of fiscal year 2017, such figures allowed the state to maintain a net-profit of $1,736,361.75 from Alabama Corrections Industries (ACI), a division of Alabama Correctional Industries. In the end, however, the taxpayer pays: ADOC’s total annual expenditures in 2017 was $460 million.

In 2016, ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn cited the doubling of violence in Alabama prisons over the span of five years as a justification for Bentley’s mega-prison plan.

“Our inmates are becoming bolder because they understand that we’re challenged with respect to our security apparatus,” Dunn said during a legislative panel. “They understand that there are not as many boots on the ground.”

While Alabama’s prisons are indeed over capacity and grossly understaffed, many incarcerated individuals, activists, and academics claim that constructing additional prisons isn’t a solution to violent conditions, it’s an exacerbation. Often, when officials claim older prisons will be replaced with new ones — as is the case in Alabama — the older prisons never actually close.  

“It is not possible to build your way out of a crisis that is caused by the institution itself.”

“New prisons become full prisons, it’s as simple as that. It is not possible to build your way out of a crisis that is caused by the institution itself,” Berger said.

For years, Alabama State Sen. Cam Ward (R) has spearheaded prison reform efforts across the state, and sponsored Gov. Bentley’s failed $800 million mega-prison bill, followed by a less ambitious $350 million bill in 2017. The reformed bill aimed to outsource some costs to local communities that sought prisons and associated jobs, but was indefinitely postponed after the House killed the bill.

Ward justifies prison construction with humanitarian explanations: “People aren’t animals. They have a soul and they have worth,” he said in June 2018. (Neither Dunn nor Ward responded to ThinkProgress’ requests for comment.)

But Berger remains skeptical of any politician who offers more prisons as a solution. “If politicians decide to build new prisons it is because they have determined it to be politically expedient — to please prison guard unions and to placate conservative demands for vengeance against working class communities of color,” he said.

In 2013, Ward also advocated for and helped pass sentencing reform legislation for “non-violent” offenders to decrease the prison population, but the ADOC only expects the prison population to taper off around 20,000 from approximately 28,000 in prisons that have a maximum capacity of over 13,000. (It’s important to note that, in Alabama, drug-trafficking and, in some cases, burglary are considered “violent” offenses.)

Following Bentley’s failures to secure public funding, incumbent Gov. Kay Ivey (R) has been contemplating leasing with private prison companies. In 2017, GEO Group, the second largest private prison corporation, purchased its first functional facility in Alabama, and plans to sell one of its empty facilities to the state for about $5 million.

More recently, the ADOC has been planning to to pay a company to design three new prisons. But Alabama legislators temporarily halted the project last month, citing concerns over job loss associated with the closure of older correctional facilities. Gov. Ivey’s office told the Montgomery Advertiser that a plan addressing legislators’ concerns “would be released in the coming weeks.” The construction plan, spearheaded by Commissioner Dunn, is estimated to cost about $1 billion.

“The Department’s intention is not to build new prisons to house more people,” Bob Horton, the ADOC Public Information Manager told ThinkProgress. Instead, he claimed new facilities were necessary to revitalize the prison’s infrastructure to provide a safer environment.  

But, like many prison justice advocates, Berger believes this is a devastating approach.

“You can’t solve violence in prison by building more prisons,” he said. “You solve violence by reducing the reliance on prison, by having fewer people in prison, and by creating structures to meaningfully participate in improving their lives — in and out of prison.”

CORRECTION: The original version of this story incorrectly reported James Kennedy’s release date. The correct date was November 26, 2018.


Categories: SCCDP Allies

6 big things William Barr should be questioned on

11 hours 5 sec ago

William Barr will likely be the next attorney general no matter what happens at his confirmation hearing Tuesday.

But his testimony before the Judiciary Committee is still an important spectacle. It is a valuable opportunity to establish the parameters of the Department of Justice’s operations for the next two or more years, as the country grapples with escalating political fractures, the possibility that foreign nationals have obtained unprecedented influence over the U.S. government, and a shaky but ongoing re-examination of the balance between public safety and private rights.

Democrats, at least, are likely to give much of their limited question time to Barr’s views of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s authority and independence. The remarks prepared for Barr at the opening of the hearing seek to reassure senators that he will give the special counsel Investigation a wide berth.

Barr plans to say that the memo he wrote arguing Mueller lacks the authority to question a sitting president about potential obstructions of justice “was narrow in scope, explaining my thinking on a specific obstruction-of-justice theory” and “did not address – or in any way question – the Special Counsel’s core investigation.” He also pledges in his prepared remarks to stay out of Mueller’s way while he works and then ensure public transparency whenever the investigation concludes.

Though senators will no doubt be eager to further interrogate Barr’s views on the special counsel’s authority and pin him to on-tape promises not to interfere even if the president were to ask him to do so, there are several other policy questions that should be prioritized for their importance to the nation’s future. Unlike many other Trump nominees, Barr has a lengthy public record. And since his public career traces back to more dignified and forthright eras of political rhetoric and communication, senators might stand a better chance of getting earnest answers here than they have in other theatrical confirmations.

Sentencing reform and federal prisons

Barr has publicly committed himself to stewarding the just-passed First Step Act through the various administrative processes still to be completed under that law. But he’s been critical of more ambitious prison and sentencing reform packages in the recent past. And many reform advocates were left disappointed by the limited ambitions of the FSA in its final form, with both supporters and detractors of the bill agreeing that lawmakers must continue working to rightsize the relationship between what courts intend when they impose sentences and what corrections institutions actually do to and with the people committed to their supervision.

So what does Barr believe? “Our system of justice is not broken,” he and other former law enforcement officials wrote in a 2015 letter opposing a sentencing reform proposal then under consideration. The letter specifically praises the 1990s decision to treat drug trafficking crimes as crimes of violence, with decades of additional prison time attached to drug charges where the convicted person had a gun when they were arrested — whether or not they’d ever used it to hurt anyone. The definition of “violent crime” is of central importance for any meaningful effort to fix mass incarceration, and sentencing enhancements of that sort radically reduce the reach of any reform bill aimed only at non-violent offenders. If Barr still believes in the outdated ’90s-era approach to criminal justice, the lawmakers who hope to revive the rehabilitative aims of the justice system will know they don’t have a reliable partner at DOJ.

Police accountability

Another piece of writing Barr contributed to suggests his mind is closed to most criticisms of police departments. A 2018 column by Barr and other former attorneys general praising Jeff Sessions’ tenure in the job describes “the spreading ‘Ferguson effect’” as a threat to public safety. Barr and his peers did not go nearly so far as Sessions did in vilifying police critics; Sessions, by the end, had taken to blaming murders on Black Lives Matter and the ACLU. But within criminal justice circles, a clear delineation has formed between those who see the public scrutiny of police officer conduct in the wake of high-profile killings as necessary, and those who use the phrase “Ferguson effect” as a derogatory apellation. The latter group tends to object to just about every proposal to combat police abuse — and to view the outcry over Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, as a bad-faith crusade against cops rather than the full-spectrum reassessment of a system that had monetized poverty and systematically deprived impoverished black communities of their dignity for years.

Sessions adopted an absolutist approach to beating back reforms. He made a show of abandoning and undermining court orders aimed at fixing police departments that had been shown to habitually ignore the Constitution and violate people’s bodies as well as their rights. He sabotaged the departmental office dedicated to promoting “community policing” ideals over the rough-and-tumble cowboy tactics of the “broken windows” generation. Will Barr proceed in the same cop-coddling vein? Or does he intend to chart a different version of the conservative course on these issues, one that could potentially offer at least a few opportunities for cooperation with the modern “smart on crime” movement?

Asylum vs “illegal entry”

Sessions’ eventual firing over Trump’s rage about his handling of the Russia investigation was soaked in irony, considering that the attorney general had been a doggedly effective administrative box-checker on the president’s central campaign issue. Sessions oversaw the DOJ’s end of a dramatic immigration crackdown, including by making dramatic and aggressive use of the attorney general’s statutory control over all immigration case law. He delivered the policies Trump wanted, from “zero tolerance” border prosecutions and family separation to a drastic re-imagining of how asylum law could be distorted to limit legal immigration.

Barr holds the same views Trump and Sessions share on restricting asylum. He helped craft a controversial policy by which President George H. W. Bush’s administration forced Haitian refugees detained at sea to return to the country where they were being targeted by political opponents. The Trump team has invoked that policy’s eventual victory in court as evidence that his asylum ban and his ban on incoming travel from several Muslim-majority countries is lawful. The latter ban was upheld by the Supreme Court.

Though he often blurs the distinction between legal and illegal paths into the United States, Trump’s promises to his political base require drastically constricting legal immigration as well as curbing illegal entry into the country. Barr’s work on the Haiti crisis suggests he’s got a flexible legal mind and is happy to employ it for the people who hire him. But senators have a lot of room to probe him for both personal and legal views on the goal Sessions, Trump allies Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, and prominent nativist GOP elected officials like Rep. Steve King (R-IA) have all pursued for years.

Presidential character & the national interest

One virtue of Barr’s age and tenure in Washington is that he’s been quite candid on the record about his views on presidential efficacy and institutional integrity.

He’s said the fact that the first Bush administration had “no real scandals to speak of that took significant people down” is a point of personal pride, and now he’s about to join a cabinet that’s racked up scandals and investigations at a startling clip. He’s criticized Ronald Reagan’s team for running a “capricious process” for hiring important positions that meant “people got jobs they had no business getting,” and has now agreed to serve a president who put a career events planner in charge of key public housing policy work and chose a lawyer famous for patent trolling work to serve as interim AG. In the same far-reaching interview, Barr also praised the Bush team’s deep deference to DOJ, attributing it to the legacy of the Watergate scandal. Trump’s interactions with the agency have so alarmed career public servants that many began putting the conversations in writing afterward for fear no one would believe them otherwise.

The fact that Barr has to promise not to interfere with Mueller in his written testimony speaks to how far astray Trump has already gone from the Bush-era integrity he praised in that exit interview. Creative questioning on how cabinet-level appointees can delivery a high level of integrity when the person at the top of the org chart so publicly struggles with balancing the national interest and the personal ego might generate valuable insights.

The integrity and legitimacy of the federal judiciary

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor may have Barr to thank for her present stature in the U.S. legal community. He could have stymied her career at a much earlier stage, but decided after meeting with her that she was the kind of liberal who “we could live with.”

While babysitting the judicial nominations system at the time, Barr found then-Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-MA) a particularly frustrating partner. Moynihan refused to cooperate with Bush’s preferred system, in which senators were expected to give the White House three names for any given opening on the bench in their states with the assurance that Bush would nominate someone from those lists. When Moynihan only gave the president two names for two judgeships, it fell to Barr to meet with the pair.

“I picked one that I thought, We could live with this one. It was Sonia Sotomayor,” Barr said in a 2001 interview conducted as part of efforts to create a working archive of the Bush presidency. “I said, ‘Okay, well, tell you what we’ll do. We’ll do Sonia Sotomayor, but not the other one.'”

Barr’s early brush with the high court’s first Latinx member — who was maligned by Republicans at confirmation for believing that empathy is a valuable judicial trait — isn’t just a coincidence. It’s a reminder that earlier in life, Barr was closely involved in one of the most important intersections of politics and the law — and one that’s begun to operate more like a bar fight than a conversation.

Trump has pushed six different men and women onto the bench who were rated “not qualified” by the American Bar Association, more such nominees in his first two years than his four predecessors combined. The ABA also withdrew its qualified rating for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh after he blew up during a hearing about accusations he’d committed sexual assault. Though the judiciary has always been at least a bit political — it is, after all, the longest-lasting mark that a president can make on the government — the ideological hijacking of the country’s future through judicial nominations has never been so flagrant. With Trump’s own power resting on incredibly thin margins of victory in a handful of states with outsized Electoral College influence, the administration’s approach to the federal bench threatens to create a lingering legitimacy crisis in the legal community writ large.

Barr’s record suggests that might bother him. But he’s also said the ABA’s ratings are politicized, too, and his expansive views on presidential power suggest it would take an extraordinary series of events for his deference to a president’s preferences to waver. Tuesday’s hearing might be the best chance Democrats have to seek a course correction on judicial nominations between now and — at earliest — January of 2021.

Employment discrimination, civil rights law, and affirmative action

The conservative movement has long been hostile to the idea of affirmative action policies to close opportunity gaps between white people and everyone else. Laws aimed at protecting minority groups — whether they stand apart from the mode because of their race, their gender, their sexuality, or any other component of identity — have always gotten similar hostility from the right.

Barr seems to share that antipathy, telling the Bush archivist interviewers that his office played a significant role in crafting the then-president’s official signing statement on the Civil Rights Act of 1991, a document the civil rights community criticized for undermining the job protections and equitable access policies of the legislation. What, then, are his present-day views on the value of a diverse staff at the Justice Department, or on the modern iteration of these policy fights in which conservatives defend the right to discriminate as a form of religious freedom? Does Barr’s institutionalist mindset mean he’s ready to bulwark the legal and policy compromises that help keep the union together against the destabilizing impulses of this unusual president, or do his own conservative personal views win out?


Categories: SCCDP Allies

The shutdown is pushing the Transportation Security Administration to the brink

Mon, 01/14/2019 - 3:54pm

The longest government shutdown in U.S. history is putting a severe strain on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), with impacts ranging from hour-plus lines at airport screening checkpoints to food banks being set up for federal employees to an increased number of agents missing work.

According to Michael Bilello, a TSA spokesperson, the percentage of the administration’s employees missing work with “unscheduled absences” has increased significantly in the last week, from 4.6 percent to 7.6 percent. TSA agents are considered essential federal employees, meaning they are required to work regardless of whether the government is open — and able to pay them — or not.

The staffing shortages have created sprawling security checkpoint lines at airports throughout the country. Lines at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport were more than an hour long on Monday, while Miami International Airport, Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport, and Washington Dulles International Airport were all forced to close checkpoints due to staff shortages, creating serious delays.

Atlanta Airport 10:15 a.m. : In this video we started at the back of the security point entrance, walked the line to baggage claim. @wsbtv pic.twitter.com/PBLd1XRhwQ

— Nicole Carr (@NicoleCarrWSB) January 14, 2019

TSA officials have promised belated compensation for those workers who do show up during the shutdown. On Friday, David Pekoske, the TSA administrator, tweeted that in addition to their back pay, all uniformed screening officers will receive a $500 bonus. Some TSA employees, however, feel that the continued shutdown may soon push them to breaking point.

“Everybody now is probably at the highest point of anxiety that they’ve been since this whole thing started. The reality is setting in that we’re not going to get paid,” TSA officer Mike Gayzagian told CBS News. “It’s profoundly unfair and almost disrespectful to put us in the middle of this debate over border security when we have absolutely nothing to do with it.”

Further exacerbating fears about airport security, on Monday it was also reported that earlier in January, a passenger managed to accidentally bring a gun through airport security in Atlanta and onto a Tokyo-bound Delta flight.

TSA insisted that the security breach was due to “standard procedures” being ignored, and not due to staffing shortages. However, the mishap does shine an uncomfortable spotlight on the type of incident that could occur if TSA checkpoints remain understaffed, and agents remain unpaid and demoralized.

Evidence of the severe financial strain that the shutdown is placing on TSA employees is also mounting. Tampa International Airport, for instance, established a food bank to help TSA employees, as well as those at Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), keep food on the table. Other airports followed suit Monday.

Out near Phoenix Skyharbor Airport where @StMarysFoodBank is distributing a mobile pantry for furloughed TSA employees today as the longest government shutdown continues. pic.twitter.com/YXwLJYvQBn

— Casey Kuhn (@CaseyAtTheDesk) January 14, 2019

The Department of Homeland Security, which houses TSA, sent out a letter to all employees to show to any potential creditors, explaining that “because these employees will not receive pay during the lapse in appropriations, some… may have difficulty in timely meeting their financial obligations.”

Democratic lawmakers have been doing their best to draw attention to the plight of TSA agents. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) labeled the state of the airports a “travesty” while Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) tweeted that it was hard for her to look into the eyes of TSA workers who “deserved better.” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) also highlighted TSA employees struggles on Instagram, where she urged travelers to sympathize with their situation and “be kind” in spite of the waits.

As the government shutdown is about to enter its 25th day, a series of polls released over the weekend show that Americans primarily blame Trump and Republicans for the fiasco. Nonetheless, there appears to be no end in sight, with Trump continuing to insist that, actually, it’s all the Democrats fault and that he will not budge until he gets his big, beautiful wall.


Categories: SCCDP Allies

Ryan Zinke’s new boss isn’t worried about the ethics investigations following him

Mon, 01/14/2019 - 3:00pm

Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has quickly found new work as a senior vice president for the blockchain investment firm Artillery One. Zinke, who in the past has  touted his bachelor’s degree in geology, will be making his first appearance for the firm at a cryptocurrency conference in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

Described as “the world’s most exclusive investor conference on cryptocurrencies and blockchain investments,” the three-day event beginning on January 16 is held at Suvretta House; the event page says the five-star venue is “like a fairy-tale castle.”

Zinke’s last day as head of the Interior Department was just two weeks ago. He announced his resignation in December amid multiple ethics investigations as well as a Justice Department probe into whether Zinke lied to agency investigators. But as Artillery One’s chief executive Daniel Cannon told ThinkProgress, he does not expect these investigations to impact Zinke’s work for the blockchain investment firm.

“We are not concerned with these investigations as they do not involve A1 [Artillery One],” Cannon wrote via email. “We will let the DOJ do its job and act accordingly.”

Blockchain is a decentralized, public ledger that forms the technological backbone of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. The new role marks a clear shift away from Zinke’s political career towards a focus on technology and finance.

It is unclear what Zinke’s background in the military, government, or his Montana-based business ventures brings to the table, other than his high-level government connections. It is also unclear what he will be paid; Cannon told ThinkProgress Zinke’s salary details are “confidential.”

It is not uncommon for cabinet officials and others to shift from the government to high-paid corporate jobs, where they can help their new employers connect with their recent colleagues.

Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, told ThinkProgress Zinke’s new job choice is “preferable.” Given the fact that he isn’t going to work for an energy company or other natural resource company, industries overseen by the Interior Department, it helps avoid “raising alarm bells.”

“On the one hand, I think there are things that seem fine about this. We wouldn’t want people in government to be so limited in the kinds of work they can take that going into government becomes a punishment,” Krumholz said. “On the other hand, people in government have access to information and develop contacts and we wouldn’t want them to be able to kind of, turn on a dime and sell to the highest bidder, to be able to cash in on their government service in a way that provides a shortcut to their new employer.”

“He does bring not just celebrity, or notoriety depending on your view of him,” she added, “but also potentially brings contacts in the current administration and in government in Washington now, so that is something that ideally he would be transparent about.”

However, little is known about his new employer or Zinke’s role at the company.

Artillery One has virtually no online presence. A Facebook and Twitter account do exist for the company’s blockchain summit but the summit’s website appears to no longer work. Cannon directed ThinkProgress to its website, artilleryone.com, which links to a Dropbox file promotional video explaining the company’s goals.

Artillery One was incorporated on November 3, 2017 with 10 million shares at its disposal to authorize (although the value of each share is unclear) and, in October 2018, it registered a venture fund. Its listed address is a post office box in North Carolina.

Co-founded by Cannon (listed as the company’s sole officer in its 2017 annual report) and physician Bruce McClendon, M.D., it describes its mission as “advising & funding the next generation of disruptive technologies and connecting capital to these unique opportunities and special situations.”

As Cannon described to ThinkProgress, “Artillery One seeks cutting edge technologies that help mankind.”

The company also hosts “blockchain innovator summits”; the most recent invite-only conference was held at the end of September in California and cost $4,800 per ticket.

According to the press release, Zinke will be based out of Montana and California. He will “work closely” with Cannon to “pursue investing and development opportunities globally in energy, fintech and cybersecurity.”

Among the company’s investments, according to Cannon, is research at UCLA into battery storage that doesn’t use lithium. Artillery One is also “exploring” the use of graphene and “other non toxic forms of energy storage.” Additionally, Cannon said the company “seeks to help poor under developed nations provide alternative banking solutions and renewable energy.”

When asked for more details about Zinke’s role and what made him the right candidate for the job, Cannon said, “Secretary Zinke understands the need for alternative, renewable energy as climate change is a clear and present danger.”

“We agree that foreign wars over energy should be avoided and U.S. intervention over energy is against our principles,” Cannon added in answer to a question about how much Zinke’s role will focus on energy.

During his stint at the Interior Department, however, Zinke railed against what he called “radical environmentalists.” He also told the oil and gas industry that the government “should work for you,” dismissed climate change’s role in driving devastating wildfires in California, and considered a “secret science” policy widely viewed as a way to sideline science within the agency. Zinke has also previously said, “there’s no such thing as clean energy.”

The announcement regarding Zinke’s new role also stressed that “together with Mr. Cannon, they will continue to follow the vision of President Donald J. Trump in Making America Great Again, by bringing economic development, jobs and opportunities for people, at home and internationally.”

Pressed for clarification on this point, Cannon said, “I have no opinion on that. I stay out of politics. However, I love our country.”

This piece has been updated with comments from Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.


Categories: SCCDP Allies

Private citizens volunteer to clean up national parks as shutdown drags on

Mon, 01/14/2019 - 1:09pm

Local groups and concerned organizations are stepping up to help maintain national parks amid the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, one that has seen some of the country’s most beloved natural treasures imperiled by vandalism and neglect.

As a shutdown over funding for President Donald Trump’s sought-after wall on the southwestern border drags into its fourth week, religious groups, non-profits, and bands of concerned private citizens are among those seeking to offset the damage reported at national parks and monuments around the country. Together, they are pitching in to alleviate amid reports of mounting trash and unmonitored restrooms, among other problems.

Hundreds of people across the country have stepped up so far. ThinkProgress identified at least five efforts led by organizations including Friends of Joshua Tree, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association, and several local Libertarian Facebook pages that have organized their own outings to help the parks. These efforts alone have seen hundreds of volunteers helping out in public areas over the past three weeks. But there are likely dozens of other instances as well, with non-profits and local political groups among those who have pitched in.

Garnering the most headlines recently is Joshua Tree National Park. During the shutdown, visitors have damaged the park’s beloved Joshua trees. The trees, which have a lifespan of around 150 years, are pollinated by one single type of moth, and are slow to reproduce. Any damage to a tree can be devastating, leaving experts deeply concerned about the vandalism in the park during the shutdown.

But in addition to harming the park’s namesake species, visitors are leaving behind trash and unsupervised toilets that need cleaning.

“When the shutdown happened, [a friend at a local guide company] knew right away that the park was going to quickly need attention, basically focusing on the bathrooms and trash,” said John Lauretig, executive director of the non-profit group Friends of Joshua Tree, referencing the eponymous national park in southern California.

Lauretig told ThinkProgress that from the second day of the shutdown onwards, volunteers gathered every morning to go and check toilets, haul away trash, and generally ensure the area’s well-being. Those tasks were far from easy: in addition to collecting some 3,500 pounds of trash, toilets presented a particular hurdle. Joshua Tree has around 94 pit toilets, Lauretig said, some in remote areas.

But the volunteers came together nonetheless, in groups that ranged from a handful of people to 40, and, on one occasion, over 100. Donations also came pouring in, allowing for the purchase of an essential item: toilet paper.

“We were getting physical donations… people dropping off cleaning supplies,” Lauretig said, noting that the volunteers were “dubbed the ‘Toilet Paper Angels'” by some in the park.

For Lauretig and others concerned about Joshua Tree, the shutdown has been empowering in some ways. Visitors to the area have taken their vacation time to come and volunteer at the park, doing their part to maintain the sensitive and delicate place.

Proposed Interior FOIA rules would make it harder to assess shutdown’s impact on national parks

Joshua Tree’s case is extreme and has emerged as one of the leading cautionary tales of the shutdown’s impact on public spaces. But other areas are also suffering the ramifications of marginal staffing and minimal supervision.

Lacking much of its workforce thanks to the shutdown, the Interior Department has shuddered almost to a halt. During previous extended shutdowns, the government chose to close the parks. But the Trump administration has opted to keep around two-thirds of National Park Service (NPS) sites open, something outdoors advocates have speculated is, among other things, to avoid unhappiness over canceled vacation plans.

According to the department’s shutdown contingency plan, only 3,298 NPS employees have been deemed essential personnel out of 24,681 nationally. The number designated for different regions ranges, with as many as 694 employees still working in the Pacific West, but only 234 working in the Midwest.

That reality has left many parks in desperate need of help, but volunteers have risen to the occasion. Through Facebook events and other social media outreach, people have formed groups to go out and help with things like collecting trash.

At least one religious organization is also pitching in. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association, a community service group for young men, has launched a widely-covered ongoing effort to aid parks around the country. Over the past two weekends, members of the group and a number of other volunteers recruited through social media have gone out to help collect trash in the parks.

Salaam Bhatti, a spokesperson for the organization, told ThinkProgress that regional offices across the country have looked into the parks nearest to them and organized outings accordingly. In addition to Joshua Tree, volunteers have gone to Cuyahoga in Ohio, the Everglades in Florida, Olympic in Washington State, and both Independence Hall in Philadelphia and the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

“It’s an important thing for people to realize that this is not something innovative we’re doing, this is part of the teachings of Islam,” said Bhatti. He said that the organization is tentatively looking into future efforts to help the parks, but that members are also turning their attention towards addressing food scarcity, with around 800,000 federal workers impacted by the shutdown and many living paycheck to paycheck.

In some parks, efforts by good Samaritans are paying off. A volunteer group in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, united by a Libertarian Party Facebook outreach, told the Denver Post that their efforts to go and clean in the area were largely unnecessary, as the park was much cleaner than expected and largely undisturbed by visitors. They noted that the park’s good condition was likely due to clean-up efforts by other groups.

A government shutdown spells serious problems for national parks

Still, some organizations, including the non-profit National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), have expressed concerns that clean-up efforts could pose safety problems without professional staff on-hand.

Volunteer help isn’t the only thing keeping the parks going. Last week, the government indicated that it would use earmarked funds made through entrance and camping fees, among others, to keep high-traffic parks open and supervised, including Joshua Tree. For some, that move has been a relief.

“The park is the economic engine that keeps the desert rolling,” said Lauretig. “[When] the park closes, [it’s] not good for the economy.”

But not everyone is sure it’s worth the risk. While a spokesperson for the Trust for Public Land (TPL) praised the “inspiring commitment” of volunteers, the organization has repeated its calls for the parks to be closed.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) has also said she believes keeping the parks open with the reserved fees is likely in violation of federal law. McCollum will be chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee and she signaled to the Washington Post that she would be scrutinizing the decision, as did House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ).

In a joint letter to Trump and congressional leadership sent last week, 11 CEOs of environmental organizations, including NPCA and TPL, also implored lawmakers to intervene and to close the parks during the shutdown.

“We are grateful for the state, local and private entities who have stepped in to look out for the parks in their backyard: these efforts speak to the importance of these spaces in our country,” the letter reads. “But our national parks deserve better than an improvised patchwork of emergency care and those resources could be used to augment federal funding, not replace it.”


Categories: SCCDP Allies

After repeatedly supporting white nationalism, Steve King finally faces formal censure in Congress

Mon, 01/14/2019 - 12:28pm

Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush (Il) said Monday he would introduce legislation to officially censure Rep. Steve King (R-IA) for the latter’s continued and unabashed support of white nationalism.

King’s track record of white supremacist support includes retweeting a British neo-Nazi, referring to immigrants as “dirt” and, in a recent interview with The New York Times, asking why terms like “white nationalist” and “white supremacist” were considered offensive.

His most recent statements have since re-ignited debate over whether King should be formally reprimanded by House Republicans. Rush, a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus, has called on House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to remove King from serving on any committee until he apologizes.

“Steve King’s pattern of despicable comments harken back to the dark days of American history where his rabid, racist remarks would have been acceptable to a significant portion of our nation,” Rep. Rush said in a statement. “This must come to a screeching halt right now.  The U.S. Congress cannot be a platform for Steve King and those of his ilk.”

“[King] has become too comfortable with proudly insulting, disrespecting, and denigrating people of color,” Rush continued. “As with any animal that is rabid, Steve King should be set aside and isolated.”

After years of ignoring King’s virulent rhetoric, the intense public scrutiny the Iowa congressman is now facing has forced Republicans to address the issue head on.

On Sunday, McCarthy said King’s language has “no place in America and not the party of Lincoln,” promising to have a “serious conversation” about King’s role within the GOP. That same day, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said King’s comments were “hurtful” and “wrong,” though he declined to say whether or not he would support any attempt to censure him.

In his statement Monday, Rush also made sure to comment on the Republican Party’s feckless approach to King’s past racism. “In the interest of political expediency, [Republicans] sought his endorsement, ignored his racist remarks, and continued to elevate him to positions of influence,” he said. “Only now that his behavior is well known to those outside the beltway and tainted him politically, do they vigorously denounce him.”

It remains to be seen whether King will indeed face a formal censure. Since 1832, there have only been 23 censures in the House of Representatives, most modern examples of which were due to corruption. The last time a member of Congress was formally censured was in 2010, when Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) was reprimanded for “impermissible use of rent-controlled facility for campaign headquarters” and “inaccurate financial reports and federal tax returns.”


Categories: SCCDP Allies

Trump’s shutdown is adding 20,000 cases per week to the record-high immigration court backlog

Mon, 01/14/2019 - 12:25pm

Immigration court backlogs are growing by roughly 20,000 cases for each week the government remains shut, bloating the already record-high level of stalled hearings created by other policy choices that predate President Donald Trump’s staredown over border wall funding.

Some 42,726 immigration court hearings have been cancelled since Trump withdrew his support for a government funding bill in late December, according to the Transaction Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).

The people whose cases get bumped because of the shutdown have in many cases already waited two, three, or four years for the now-cancelled hearings, the group’s Monday report on the shutdown’s impacts said. There are already more than 800,000 cases waiting in the clogged pipeline of the Justice Department’s in-house immigration judiciary — making it likely that cases cancelled by the shutdown will go to the back of an extraordinarily long line.

That may be good or bad news for the migrants involved in the cases, with some seeing it as a further reprieve that could mean their cases don’t get processed until after the next presidential election. But since immigration authorities are often aggressive about pushing to incarcerate people until their hearings or pressuring them to “self-deport” even before their cases get heard, the fresh delays will likely make some of the tens of thousands affected even more vulnerable.

Hounded by Trump administration, Virginia mother of 3 takes sanctuary in a church

As with other government functions, the shutdown’s impact on the immigration court system has accelerated substantially as Trump has dragged the standoff out. Roughly 5,600 cases were dumped to the back of the line in the first four days after government funding ran out. By the end of the following week, the total had tripled. Last week — the third of Trump’s shutdown — the total nearly tripled again.

TRAC forecasts that the rate of case cancellations has now stabilized. If the shutdown continues through the end of this month, some 108,112 total immigration cases will have been knocked off the schedule in just five calendar weeks.

The Trump administration may not have realized this would happen when the president moved to shutter the federal government. The Washington Post reported 10 days ago that the White House had been caught off guard by the broad deleterious impacts a shutdown has on almost every category of public service.

Despite the administration’s avowed commitment to streamlining the legal immigration system, including multiple maneuvers designed to strip decisionmaking authority from the Justice Department-run courts and speed up deportations, Trump has managed to reverse progress on the immigration court backlog.

The backlog grew by one third over Trump’s first 16 months in office, to a then-record 714,000 cases with no scheduled court date. It had grown each of the three fiscal years before his swearing in, too, but at a much slower rate.

Trump on track to double immigration court backlog in his first term

Counterintuitively, the Trump slow-down in immigration court processing is not being driven by a surge in new case filings. New cases are actually coming in at a slower rate than before, TRAC reported in the summer. But each case is taking longer to process than ever before — thanks, again, to a decision of Trump’s own making.

The administration chose to strip immigration judges of their most potent schedule management tool, an authority called “administrative closure” that judges used to apply when they knew a case before them could not be resolved until some other relevant federal agency had weighed in on one or another aspect of it. It also scrambled judges around the map, making a big fuss about delivering a surge of judges to courts close to the border without, apparently, realizing that each reassignment of a judge would leave their existing docket in a backlog-swelling limbo.

Since it broke the all-time record level in May, the backlog has shattered that record repeatedly. The 809,041 cases backlogged as of November, TRAC’s last report before the shutdown began, mark a 50 percent spike above the backlog levels Trump inherited.


Categories: SCCDP Allies

In avoidable error, CBS takes heat for the lack of black voices on its campaign team

Mon, 01/14/2019 - 11:53am

Executives at CBS News hoping to commemorate the newly minted “boots on the ground” team of reporters and producers handpicked to cover the 2020 presidential campaign, instead drew withering attacks over the weekend because none among the announced eight-member team journalists or quartet of producers were black Americans.

A broad array of media observers — including a prominent member of the U.S. House of Representatives — rightfully complained that CBS’s failure to include any African Americans among its core campaign staff didn’t bode well for comprehensive coverage of the racial issues that are almost certain to arise during the 2020 campaign. In particular, it seems likely that there could be a number of black candidates that figure prominently among the large and diverse group seeking the Democratic nomination.

Last week, one white journalist covering Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) — who is expected to join the Democratic presidential primary fray — suffered a humbling moment when her lack of facility with black Greek letter organizations created a firestorm on Twitter, after she referred to the celebrated “skee-wee” call of Harris’ Alpha Kappa Alpha, Inc. sisters as a “screech.” As The Root’s Michael Harriott opined, the incident was a prime example of why “we need more black journalists.”

Beyond that, such an oversight is all the more glaring because President Donald Trump built his successful 2016 presidential run by appealing to voters with racist themes — a tactic he is widely expected to return to in his reelection bid. What’s more, issues related to suppression of black voters figured prominently in the 2016 campaign and may well reappear in the next presidential voting cycle.

Christopher Isham, CBS News’ Washington bureau chief, said in an news release announcing the appointments that the journalists formed the network’s “boots on the ground for the 2019-2020 election cycle.” The so-called “political embed unit” is a prestigious role among political journalists because they travel with the various candidates, develop deep sources among staffers, and are likely to rise in stature and visibility as various candidates run the cross-country maze of primary and general election campaigns.

While CBS officials said other journalists would be announced later as on-air correspondents for the campaigns, it acknowledged no African-American reporters were among this first set of staffers. Among the eight reporters and four producers, four are persons of color: Musadiq Bidar, a native of Afghanistan, Alex Tin, Jack Turman and Stephanie Ramirez.

CBS’s failure to include any black journalists among this elite corps drew attacks after associate producer Ben Mitchell tweeted his pride over the network’s announcement.

It's Official: The @CBSNews 2020 Election Team has assembled! https://t.co/0GBCw4mj7s pic.twitter.com/E0rUDAkzf7

— Ben Mitchell (@bfmitchell) January 11, 2019

Expressing dismay that CBS News didn’t staff its campaign team with an awareness that race would be a big-issue feature of the upcoming political season, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), denounced CBS News in a weekend tweestorm, calling the staffing “Unacceptable in 2019.”

This WH admin has made having a functional understanding of race in America one of the most important core competencies for a political journalist to have, yet @CBSNews hasn’t assigned a *single* black journalist to cover the 2020 election.

Unacceptable in 2019. Try again. https://t.co/h7tmiBr9Fi

— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) January 13, 2019

Due to Ocasio-Cortez’s huge Twitter base — she has more than 2.3 million followers — and the knee-jerk opposition she engenders among right-wingers, the freshman congresswoman’s comments drew immediate responses, which in turn brought greater attention to the CBS decision.

People are dragging CBS for not having enough black people, but has anyone considered the obvious explanation that many black people have no interest in journalism? Cultures are different and value different things. Doesn’t make CBS the KKK.

— Jesse Kelly (@JesseKellyDC) January 13, 2019

Naturally, there was quite a bit of disdain over CBS’s decision from black journalists who have long complained about being shut out of prominent roles in the industry.

This is a disgrace. And you’re proud?

— roxane gay (@rgay) January 13, 2019

To be sure, the campaign for the White House 2020 is just getting started and there’s ample room for the news outlets to gear up properly. And as CBS News noted in an earlier news release, its Washington news desk operations are headed by Lorna Jones, who is African-American. Nevertheless, in terms of getting off to a grand start of a campaign season that will require the perspectives of black journalists to make it fully scrutable, CBS failed to impress or persuade a large bloc of its viewers that it has the chops to recognize — let alone cover — an important part of this national story.


Categories: SCCDP Allies

Pompeo calls for the end of Saudi-Qatar rift, ignores U.S. role in the crisis

Mon, 01/14/2019 - 11:50am

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo officially signaled a serious shift on a key piece of U.S. Middle East policy on Sunday, saying the Gulf Crisis has “dragged on too long” and that the United States is hoping for a solution.

Pompeo made the claim while in Qatar, as part of his of trip to several countries in the Middle East that meant to reassure allies in the region that the United States remains committed to the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic States (ISIS) in Syria. He also said that “great things” were happening between Qatar and the United States, which might confuse anyone who has been paying attention to just how not-great U.S.-Qatari relations have been since President Donald Trump took office.

A quick recap: The Gulf Crisis kicked off in June 2017, after Saudi Arabia, emboldened by President Trump’s Riyadh visit in May, started a border blockade against neighboring Qatar. Saudi Arabia claimed the reason for this was Qatar’s close relationship with Iran, which, to anyone who knows anything about the Gulf, is almost laughable, as the only real shared interest between Iran and Qatar is the massive natural gas field they share.

A map of Persian Gulf countries, showing Qatar's reliance on Saudi Arabia land border and sea routes connecting it to Gulf Arab states. CREDIT: Wikipedia/Public Domain.

Saudi Arabia — along with President Donald Trump — also accuses Qatar of supporting terrorism, a charge Qatar denies.

This was not the first time Saudi has shut down its border, but with the support of the Trump Administration and the backing of other Arab states, this time, it was serious, and actually prompted Qatar to strengthen its relationship with Iran out of necessity (notably, the need to use Iranian airspace to fly in food and medical supplies it could no longer bring over the land border with Saudi Arabia or by sea from the United Arab Emirates).

The timing of Pompeo’s comments are interesting, given that retired General Anthony Zinni, the Persian Gulf envoy and the man tasked with solving this crisis, stepped down last week.

“When Gen. Zinni resigned, he probably had a conversation with the Secretary of State. Now, I don’t know that, but he probably had a frank conversation about the intransigence of the Saudis and the Emiratis,” said former Ambassador Richard LeBaron, currently a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Pompeo, LeBaron told ThinkProgress, probably sees the Gulf Crisis as a distraction from dealing with Iran and “a problem he just doesn’t need.”

LeBaron described the crisis as essentially a feud between the royal families in Qatar and Saudi Arabia — one in which the United States has no stake.

To hear Pompeo lament how long this has been dragging on requires one to forget the role the United States played in starting and sustaining the crisis: pressuring Qatar on its support for the Muslim Brotherhood (a political Muslim organization), accusing Qatar of terrorism, siding with Saudi Arabia, and, of course, escalating the rift.

Shortly after Saudi Arabia started the blockade, then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged Saudi Arabia to give Qatar an offramp — a way to ease tensions and go back to business as usual. But Saudi Arabia really hadn’t thought this through, as its response was to give Qatar a list of 13 demands to meet on a short timeline. Those demands were designed not to be met, and included things like shutting down Al Jazeera, Qatar’s international news network.

At the time, President Trump was said to have been involved in a diplomatic push to end the blockade, but White House sources told The Washington Post that he was still very much in Saudi’s corner. Two years later, he remains there, despite the country’s record of killing civilians in the war in Yemen and its assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khahsoggi.

It has been reported that the United States had been pressuring Saudi Arabia to end the blockade, but it’s unclear what form that pressure is taking, because there’s no talk of sanctions against the Gulf Arab Kingdom, nor is the United States going to stop selling Saudi Arabia weapons or barring it from purchasing businesses in the United States.

Trump, indeed, sounded positively excited by blockade when it first came into effect, and even seemed to take some credit for it:

During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 6, 2017

So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding…

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 6, 2017

…extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 6, 2017

“I doubt he had a very sophisticated understanding of what was happening at the time,” said LeBaron of the president’s view.

The rift has also eroded the Gulf Cooperation Council (or the GCC — an intergovernmental organization of Gulf Arab countries excluding Iraq), rendering it almost entirely useless as a security organization — let alone the “Arab NATO” the Pentagon would hope it could be.

Here’s what Secretary Pompeo said about that at a press conference in Doha on Sunday:

“As for the GCC, in my statement I made clear: We’re all more powerful when we’re working together, when disputes are limited. And when we have common challenges in region and around the world, disputes between countries that have a shared objective are never helpful.”

According to Reuters, Secretary Pompeo later said he had discussed the issue with officials in Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE, all countries siding with Saudi Arabia in the rift and that, “It’s … not at all clear that the rift is any closer to being resolved today than it was yesterday and I regret that.”

Pompeo’s trip to the region is “largely about the optics” of the United States remaining committed in the region after President Trump’s announcement of the (still impending) troop withdrawal from Syria, said Dalia Dassa Kaye, director of the RAND Corporation’s Center for Middle East Policy.

“The continued focus in countering Iran is still the linchpin of the administration Middle East policy,” she told ThinkProgress. In other words, it’s “business as usual for the Trump administration…the optics and the body language really suggest doubling down.”

Kaye explained that while the administration would want to see the issue resolved, it can continue with bilateral relationships if need be. Like LeBaron, she believes that Zinni’s departure had something to do with the timing of Pompeo’s statement.

It’s not unusual for President Trump and his administration to try and rewrite history in the strangest of ways (See: The president’s comments on the history of the Soviet Union and Afghanistan). But so far, the re-writes are taking place without anything to back them up.

For instance, the United States still does not have an ambassador in place in Qatar. CNN reported that the nomination of Molly Phee, an experienced career diplomat, has been pulled for the post in favor of one-term Rep. Scott Taylor (R-VA), who, while lacking a background in diplomacy, has, well… visited Qatar at least once:

Had a great meeting with the Emir of #qatar discussing our countries’ #military cooperation, economic opportunity, and the GCC crisis. pic.twitter.com/1JzolOb8uy

— Scott Taylor (@Scotttaylorva) January 1, 2018

Taylor, it should be noted, had faced questions on a scheme that saw his staffers forging signatures in 2016 for an independent candidate in an attempt to slip his opposition’s votes. He also did not pay local local taxes because he was too “busy” to do so.


Categories: SCCDP Allies

Trump finds the one way to make his border wall even more unpopular

Mon, 01/14/2019 - 11:20am

As the partial government shutdown drags on and the American public grows increasingly weary, President Donald Trump seems to have found the one way to make funding for his border wall even more unpopular.

Trump is reportedly considering declaring a national emergency in order to build his wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. In the process, he would take money from the victims of major disasters in Texas, California, and Puerto Rico — ongoing relief efforts that have broad bipartisan support.

“President Trump is threatening to grant himself extraordinary powers to steal billions of dollars from disaster-impacted communities,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) told House Democrats on Friday.

Members of Trump’s own party voiced their opposition as well. “I will oppose any reprogramming of Harvey disaster funds,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), said in Texas on Friday. Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-FL), who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, told E&E News Monday he did not think Puerto Rico’s money could be re-purposed, while “acknowledging that it also would spark angst among members if the administration attempted to do that.”

Trump’s idea of stealing recovery funds from Puerto Rico is especially heartless considering the fact that the president completely botched the island’s recovery from Hurricane Maria in the first place.

As this jaw-dropping chart from Reuters shows, while it took about a week to restore 80 percent of the power after hurricanes Wilma and Irma, the Trump administration required 150 days to reach that point after Maria hit Puerto Rico.

Power recovery effort in Puerto Rico after Maria compared to other efforts. CREDIT: Reuters.

That means some five months after the disaster, over half a million U.S. citizens were still without power. It’s no wonder then that the death toll ended up being so high — nearly 3,000 people, according to the official estimate.

Puerto Rico is a poor, minority territory that Trump has repeatedly blamed for his own failures. In one tweet from September 2017, he cited its debt, aging infrastructure, and outdated grid as an explanation for why the power restoration was taking so long.

…It's old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape, was devastated. Much of the Island was destroyed, with billions of dollars….

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 26, 2017

Trump’s entire approach to Puerto Rico vindicates an analysis in The Atlantic from last October, “The Cruelty Is the Point,” in which Adam Serwer argues that “Trump’s only true skill is the con” and “his only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty.”

Serwer concludes, “It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear.”

The wind, rain, and flood damage from hurricanes Maria and Harvey were uniquely devastating, meaning full recovery will take many years. Funds are especially needed now before another hurricane season starts in a few months.

Tragically, building a massive barrier in the Rio Grande floodplain — a centerpiece of Trump’s border wall plan — would only worsen the future flooding.

Major deluges would turn any serious barriers into dams that would channel and deflect huge amounts of Rio Grande flood waters to population centers and other vulnerable areas. That’s why, as ThinkProgress reported last week, such projects were banned under a 1970 treaty with Mexico.

A 1970 U.S.-Mexico treaty shows why Trump’s border wall is absurd

A recent Politico poll found that the wall’s popularity (44 percent) is roughly the same as Trump’s (43 percent). But only 22 percent of respondents said a “temporary government shutdown” is justified for the president to achieve his policy goals, while 65 percent said it is not.

So it’s no surprise the president’s popularity has declined steadily since the shutdown, according to polling aggregator FiveThirtyEight, and as of Monday, is barely above 40 percent.

If Trump actually tries to take money from disaster victims to pay for his wall, we may find out just how many people belong to this group of his most ardent supporters.


Categories: SCCDP Allies

How illegal drugs actually get into the United States

Mon, 01/14/2019 - 10:23am

Bloodthirsty smugglers are using Lamborghini/tank hybrids to ferry drugs and misery into the United States. The brave men and women of U.S. law enforcement are totally outgunned. Only a wall will stop the smugglers and the destruction they bring.

This was the vision President Trump presented last week when he attempted to argue, yet again, that a wall was the only effective way to keep drugs from crossing into the country and that the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border constituted a national security crisis.

“They have unbelievable vehicles,” Trump said. “They have the best vehicles you can buy. They have stronger, bigger and faster vehicles than our police have and than ICE has, and the Border Patrol have.”

Trump made similar claims in his primetime address to the nation last Monday, where he talked about how “our southern border is a pipeline for vast quantities of illegal drugs, including meth, heroin, cocaine and fentanyl.”

Trump, talking about people migrating illegally to the U.S.: "They have the best vehicles. They have bigger, stronger, and faster vehicles than our police have." pic.twitter.com/dg5AHoLTbO

— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) January 9, 2019

Trump’s imagined “crisis” led to the longest government shutdown in U.S. history last month, after Republicans, pushing Trump’s request for $5 billion in border wall funding, were unable to persuade Democrats to acquiesce to their demands.

Already, some 632,932 furloughed employees or those working without pay have received empty pay-stubs; a total of 800,000 workers and federal contractors have been affected by the shutdown since it began on December 21. While many employees will receive back-pay when the government eventually re-opens, most contractors — such as janitors, security personnel, paralegals, and software developers — will never see a dime.

Meanwhile, experts say Trump’s manufactured “crisis” is not a crisis at all — many argue instead that the very threats the president claims to care about would not be affected by his proposed wall, which could cost anywhere between $21 million and $70 million, depending on materials.

Trump’s speeches advocating the wall have repeatedly implied that drugs are coming directly over the border, smuggled in by illegal immigrants. But this idea doesn’t stand up to reality, simply because it’s a logistically infeasible way of bringing drugs into the United States.

Cocaine seizures on U.S. borders, for instance, regularly measure in tons, making it impractical to have individual migrants ferry it across. Instead, dealers prefer to smuggle drugs into the country via legal ports of entry, which allow them to bring in high-value substances that are more easily hidden.

“The majority of the illegal drugs that enter the United States through the U.S.-Mexico border cross through formal Points of Entry,” said Joel Martinez, a Mexico research associate for the Center for American Progress (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent newsroom housed within CAP). “The drugs that cross in between are very minimal and non-expensive products like marijuana. All the cocaine, fentanyl and methamphetamine — they cross through formal ports because they’re easier to hide […in] freight comp and assorted vehicles.”

Trying to move large amounts of drugs through the desert is incredibly risky, experts say, so cartels and smugglers have turned to other additional methods of moving large quantities such as using tunnel systems.

“[To effectively smuggle drugs across a the border as Trump suggests,] you would need to line up a huge number of humans and march them across the desert where their heat signature can be picked up,” Sanho Tree, the Director of the Institute for Policy Studies’ Drug Policy Project, told ThinkProgress. “If you had a tunnel why would you risk this inefficient line of smuggling?”

Even when border agents do discover smugglers’ pipelines, it does little to prevent them from coming up with new solutions for moving their product — none of which include packing it through the desert.

“Cut out land crossings and you have aerial — we’re seeing an increase in the use of drones, ultra lights and small planes which can be very difficult to police,” Nate Jones, an Assistant Professor of Security Studies at Sam Houston State University, told ThinkProgress. “Under the ground you have tunnels, and then you have people who specialize in certain areas in jumping over the fences.”

“There are people who have been making their living smuggling in an area,” Jones continued. “It doesn’t matter what cartel keeps control of the area, they’re just so adaptive they figure things out — they always find a way.”

In addition to aerial and underground methods, there are also several water routes that smugglers can take to cross the border. In a previous paper for Small Wars Journal, Jones highlighted how smugglers were using pangas, open-hull, long-range boats which are difficult to detect and which excel at delivering contraband to California’s vast coastline.

Then there’s the problem of fentanyl, a super-strength synthetic opioid which is helping drive America’s overdose crisis and was responsible for 20,000 deaths in 2016. Fentanyl’s potency — there have been multiple stories about first responders nearly overdosing after being inadvertently exposed to it — means that its much easier to smuggle. It’s also smuggled into the United States via multiple routes — not just the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Fentanyl is transported into the United States in parcel packages from China or from China through Canada,” the DEA’s 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment reads, acknowledging that it also comes through ports of entry at the southern border.

The report notes that while the quantity of fentanyl seized on the border is higher, packages from China have higher purity. To further emphasize this, the Department of Justice in 2017 announced its first-ever indictments against Chinese nationals for the manufacture of fentanyl.

According to Tree, the popularity of fentanyl gives smugglers an easy and deadlier option to turn to even if the wall manages to stop more mainstream drugs like heroin. “If you clamp down, people find work-arounds to synthesize analog opioids. The iron rule of prohibition is you end up with a more potent substance,” Tree said. “Even if the wall stops 30 to 40 percent of heroin from Mexico dealers will respond by using more fentanyl, which will cause overdoses to skyrocket.”

The Trump administration’s wall proposal, then, not only ignores the intricacies of the drug trade but takes away focus from providing actual solutions on the border, such as Martinez’s suggestion to deviate daily cross traffic so that vetted travelers are able to pass more easily, which in turn allows law enforcement to “reduce the haystack when looking for the needle.” Trump’s continued insistence on the wall has less to do with actual security and more playing politics.

“He is buying into the threat and every politician does this,” Jones said.

He added, “It’s good politics, the idea that this big enemy is coming to harm us. This justifies the massive expense of money.”


Categories: SCCDP Allies

Federal judge blocks Trump’s rollback of birth control mandate in 13 states and D.C.

Sun, 01/13/2019 - 5:39pm

A federal judge on Sunday blocked the Trump administration’s roll back of Obamacare’s birth control mandate, protecting contraceptive coverage for residents living in 13 states and Washington, D.C.

The administration’s policy, which allows more employers to avoid providing their employees birth control coverage, was supposed to take effect on Monday.

But a California district judge sided with Democratic attorneys general who sued the administration, temporarily barring enforcement of the regulations in their states: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Washington state, as well as Washington, D.C.

Gilliam limited the scope of his ruling to the plaintiffs and rejected a request to block the rules nationwide.

A similar lawsuit is playing out in a Pennsylvania federal courthouse — meaning, there’s a chance for another court to issue a nationwide injunction. District Judge Haywood Gilliam was the first jurist to reach a decision. 

“Today is a good day. Because of this injunction, women in 13 states can still access birth control under the ACA. Birth control is critical healthcare that helps millions lead the lives they want. We should be finding ways to increase access, not limit it,” tweeted Planned Parenthood President Dr. Leana Wen.

Obamacare’s birth control mandate requires employers to offer birth control coverage at no additional cost to their employees, and has significantly reduced people’s out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs. One study estimates that women saved $1.4 billion on the birth control pill alone in 2013.

The Trump administration, in the name of religious liberty, issued regulations last fall that permitted virtually all employers to object to the mandate for religious grounds or “moral” reasons.

While the Obamacare mandate is very popular with the public — 77 percent of women and 64 percent of men support no-cost coverage —  it’s been the subject of many lawsuits brought by the religious right. The Trump administration’s rules are an attempt to ensure religious groups don’t have to sue to refuse employees coverage.

This is the second time Gilliam has blocked this particular Trump administration policy. After the administration in October 2017 issued interim final regulations — meaning, new regulations without notice and comment — Gilliam and a Pennsylvania district judge blocked them two months later. The administration tried again in November 2018, issuing rules very similar ones it proposed a year earlier.

The administration says the regulations will affect 70,500 women’s access to cost-free contraception, but some organizations have disputed this estimate, saying a far greater number of women will be impacted.

The administration’s rollback of the birth control mandate isn’t the only avenue it’s using to attack reproductive health care.

Officials proposed regulations last year to prohibit health care providers that offer abortion services — like Planned Parenthood — from participating in the Title X family planning program, and to bar clinics from saying abortion during pregnancy counseling.

A final version of the so-called Title X “gag rule” is expected to be released any day now — likely after the partial government shutdown ends, sources tell ThinkProgress.

Trump administration’s war against Planned Parenthood is targeting all family planning clinics

The Trump administration says patients whose employers won’t offer them birth control coverage because of a religious or moral exemption can go to Title X clinics to get contraception.

But officials also proposed eliminating the requirement that Title X providers offer the full range of family planning methods, and want to direct money to religiously-affiliated organizations that promote abstinence as a method of family planning.


Categories: SCCDP Allies

Senate Democrats to push vote blocking sanctions relief for Russian oligarch’s companies

Sun, 01/13/2019 - 11:43am

Senate Democrats plan to push a vote this week on the Trump administration’s efforts to ease sanctions against a Russian oligarch’s companies.

Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said on Saturday that sanctions on Oleg Deripaska’s businesses should remain in place. He announced that he will force a vote disapproving the Trump administration’s decision through a 2017 sanctions law, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which requires a simple majority vote. Senate Democrats would need the support of a few Republicans to pass the bill and send it on to the House.

The sanctions were first imposed in April 2018, in response to Russian interference in the 2016 election. But after several delays, the Treasury Department announced last month that while it would maintain sanctions on Deripaska himself — who has close ties to the Kremlin — it would lift the sanctions on his core businesses (Rusal, EN+, and EuroSibEnergo). As part of the promised sanctions relief, Deripaska would reduce his stake in the companies.

“These entities are undergoing significant restructuring and governance changes that sever Deripaska’s control and significantly diminish his ownership,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement on Thursday, shortly before briefing House members on the sanctions relief.

“Treasury will be vigilant in ensuring that EN+ and Rusal meet these commitments. If these companies fail to comply with the terms, they will face very real and swift consequences, including the reimposition of sanctions.”

House Democrats blasted Mnuchin’s briefing, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) calling it a “waste of time.”

In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), the vice chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, accused the Trump administration of being slow to implement the sanctions, which came about due to concern in both parties.

“The sanctions that were passed by Congress, they passed at such an overwhelming amount that Putin didn’t even have — Trump did not even have the power to veto it,” Warner said.

“I think many of us would argue that while those sanctions have been put in place, the Trump administration has been very slow at implementing those sanctions. And then when the sanctions really start to bite … the Treasury Department dreams up this series of actions where you take a company that was completely founded by Oleg Deripaska — where he placed all the management team in place — and they have a scheme to try to take his ownership level down from 70 percent to roughly 40, 45 [percent].”

“Jake, I’ve been in business longer than politics. If I’ve still got my whole management team in there and I’m still the largest shareholder at 40 or 45 percent, I’m going to still control that company. That is why I — and I know a number of members — I think Democrats and Republicans, will vote to override this week the removal of these sanctions.”

The sanctions’ effects have spread beyond Russia. Earlier this month, the European Union sent a letter addressed to Schumer and Pelosi, urging Congress to support the Treasury Department’s move and expressing concern about the effects of the sanctions on European companies.

Schumer said the sanctions should remain in place while Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election continues.

Deripaska previously worked with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who gave him political briefings during the 2016 presidential campaign.


Categories: SCCDP Allies

Steve Scalise: How can you ask us to discipline Steve King when Democrats are so rude?

Sun, 01/13/2019 - 11:05am

Is there a moral difference between calling the president a rude name and saying there’s nothing wrong with white supremacy? According to Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA), the sins are about the same.

Appearing on ABC’s This Week, Scalise dismissed calls for a formal sanction of Rep. Steve King (R-IA) over recent comments in which he asserted there is nothing offensive in the terms “white supremacist” and “white nationalist.”

Scalise drew a parallel between the abhorrent remarks made by King — which even drew calls for censure from a few members of his own Republican party —  and language and actions he says Democrats would be advised to refrain from.

“We’ve got to raise the bar on civility,” Scalise said. “We need to call it out on the Republican side and the Democrat side. I’ve been willing to call it out on both. It’s time those Democrat leaders you just mentioned call it out when it happens on their side as well.”

Scalise, the House Minority whip, claimed that Democratic leaders “haven’t pushed back” on unspecified instances in which members of their caucus “have said not only highly offensive things,” but also “align themselves with anti-Semites,” and have advocated the use of physical violence.

Before his “both-sides” rhetoric, Scalise boasted that he and other leaders have already issued press statements condemning King’s remarks. But when ABC’s George Stephanopoulous pushed him for a yes or no on a formal sanction from caucus leaders, Scalise demanded patience.

“This just popped up on Friday,” he said — apparently forgetting that Steve King has been making similarly offensive comments for years.

Scalise makes an awkward avatar for the party’s scrambling defensiveness over its most second-most-famous elected bigot. He himself accepted an invitation to address David Duke’s “European-American Unity and Rights Organization” in 2002, early in his state-level politics career in Louisiana.

He supposedly also described himself to one politics reporter there as “David Duke without the baggage.” Scalise paid no real political price for his direct brush with perhaps the most famous face of U.S. neo-Nazism since George Lincoln Rockwell.

Scalise’s run-in with Duke helps illustrate how the formal leadership of the GOP have been backed into a sticky corner by the most recent — and most overt — example of King cozying up to proud racists.

Duke helped pioneer the white supremacist movement’s public re-branding around the idea of “European” heritage. Groups like the one Scalise visited and spoke to 17 years ago were emblematic of that public relations tactic.

King has been publicly proclaiming the superiority of European culture and civilization for years, although his rambling historical lectures on the topic have generally garnered less attention than his blithely offensive commentaries on immigrants and the Obama White House.

In 2009, King voted against formally acknowledging that the building he works in was built by enslave people, calling it “yet another effort to place guilt on future Americans for the sins of some of their ancestors.”

And during the 2016 election campaign, he became enraged over a TV panelist’s suggestion that “old white people” were the problem with the Republican Party, demanding to know, “Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”

Between those ignominious bookends, King more than once laid his cards on the table in floor speeches and media soundbites about the idea that a civilization built by people with pale skin was under dire threat by people who look different.

And as ethno-nationalists have seized power in some european countries over the past few years, Steve King has made it a point to visit with them, boost their policy ideas and rhetorical flourishes, and generally suggest it’s high time the U.S. emulated those proto-fascist policies.

The only real difference this time out is that King lost track of the valuable lesson Duke spent decades instilling to the racist fringe of the conservative movement: He said “white” instead of “European.” He said the quiet part loud.

Scalise can be forgiven for believing he can morph a story about King’s embrace of the idea that white people are superior into a broader, both-sides tongue-click about civility.

The three main cable news networks have spent five times as much airtime on first-term congresswoman Rashida Tlaib calling President Donald Trump a “motherfucker” at an event with supporters as they have on King’s defense of the term “white supremacy.”

A Media Matters review of the first 24 hours of Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN coverage after each of the two stories broke found Tlaib’s applause line got a combined two-and-a-half hours of discussion, while King’s comments merited less than 30 minutes.

Like other conservative figures, Scalise also likely understands that no matter which station he’s appearing on, the audience he’s playing to is Fox’s hard-right tribe. The same report found Fox all but iced out the King story in the first 24 hours, giving it just 42 seconds of air — a few days after spending 52 minutes on the Tlaib story.

Still, Scalise suggested that King should just read an op-ed from Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC). That will surely change the worldview of a man who believes things like “Western Civilization is the target of George Soros and the Left.


Categories: SCCDP Allies

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