SCCDP Allies

Cohen connects the dots on what Trump knew about Russia, and when he knew it

Think Progress - Wed, 02/27/2019 - 1:51pm

President Donald Trump knew in July 2016 that Wikileaks was planning to publish emails stolen from the Hillary Clinton campaign, his former lawyer Michael Cohen told the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday.

If true, Cohen’s testimony would be the first public evidence Trump knew about alleged efforts by his former campaign aide, Roger Stone, to contact Wikileaks for information on the hacked emails.

It also adds to the mountain of evidence compiled in news reports, court filings, and sworn testimony that senior Trump campaign officials knew the Russian government hacked the Clinton campaign and sought to coordinate with Russians to use that information to benefit the campaign.

“In July 2016, days before the Democratic convention, I was in Mr. Trump’s office when his secretary announced that Roger Stone was on the phone,” Cohen testified Wednesday. “Mr. Trump put Mr. Stone on the speakerphone. Mr. Stone told Mr. Trump that he had just gotten off the phone with [Wikileaks founder] Julian Assange and that Mr. Assange told Mr. Stone that, within a couple of days, there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Mr. Trump responded by stating to the effect of ‘wouldn’t that be great.'”

On Wednesday, Stone denied Cohen’s claim about the conversation with Trump, telling The New York Times, “Mr. Cohen’s statement is untrue.”

Stone is also under indictment for allegedly lying to Congress. In that indictment, unsealed in January, prosecutors say Stone tried to make contact with Assange through two intermediaries. Stone denies those charges.

Cohen pleaded guilty last year to lying to Congress about a deal to build a Trump-branded real estate development in Moscow.

Get me Roger Stone

By the summer of 2016, Stone hadn’t been a paid Trump adviser for nearly a year. But he was still in regular contact with the campaign, according to federal prosecutors, and he was still acting as a Trump surrogate to the media.

Stone had been claiming to be in contact with Assange since that spring, according to two associates who spoke with The Washington Post. That May, Stone reportedly met a Russian national at a restaurant in Sunny Isles, Florida, who offered dirt on Clinton in exchange for $2 million.

Stone rejected that offer, according to the Post. But it was hardly the end of his hunt for Russian information on the Clinton campaign.

The phone conversation between Stone and Trump that Cohen described in his sworn testimony has not been previously reported. But it seems to echo information in Stone’s indictment, which says that he “informed senior Trump Campaign officials that he had information indicating Organization 1 [Wikileaks] had documents whose release would be damaging to the Clinton Campaign” sometime around June or July 2016.

Cohen said in his testimony that the call took place in July, before the convention, and after the Post first revealed on June 14, 2016 that state-sponsored Russian hackers stole opposition research from the Democratic National Committee.

The next day, Russia began publishing those materials online by posing as a lone Romanian hacker called Guccifer 2.0. Stone allegedly started exchanging direct messages with Guccifer 2.0 — in reality, Russian state intelligence agents — on Twitter that August.

Wikileaks began publishing the hacked emails on July 22, 2016, three days before the Democratic National Convention opened in Philadelphia. This plunged the convention into chaos: Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) was ousted as party chair and supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) feared that the party may have put its thumb on the scales of the presidential primary.

At a press conference in Florida on July 27, Trump went a step further, asking Russia to hack “missing” emails from Clinton.

“I will tell you this, Russia: If you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”

Later that day, Russian hackers made their first attempt on Clinton campaign email accounts, according to a federal indictment.

A campaign of contacts

Stone wasn’t the only Trump campaign official who allegedly got hints about the hacked emails before July 2016.

On April 26, 2016, former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos had breakfast in London with Joseph Mifsud, a professor with ties to the Kremlin. Mifsud told Papadopoulous about “thousands of emails” Russia had that would reveal dirt on Clinton, according to federal prosecutors. Papadopoulos had several communications with other Trump campaign officials after his meeting with Mifsud, but it’s not clear whether he told them about the Clinton-related emails.

Papadopoulos pleaded guilty in October 2017 to lying to federal investigators about his contacts with Mifsud, for which he served 12 days in prison.

A little over a month after the meeting in London, on June 3, 2016, the future president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., got an email offering documents that “would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.” The email came from Rob Goldstone, who had previously worked with Trump on business ventures in Russia.

“If it’s what you say I love it,” the younger Trump replied that same day, “especially later in the summer.”

On June 9, 2016, Goldstone made good on the offer: He brought Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and others to meet Trump Jr. at Trump Tower. Trump’s son in law, Jared Kushner, and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort — a longtime Stone associate — were also in that meeting.

Trump Jr. has downplayed the meeting, saying it was a bust: Veselnitskaya wanted to discuss U.S. policy toward Russia, he said, rather than offer any compromising information on Clinton as promised.

Trump Jr. has denied telling his father about the meeting. But in his testimony on Wednesday, Cohen recalled seeing Trump Jr. allegedly walk behind his father’s desk in early June 2016 to tell him, “The meeting is all set.”

“Ok good… let me know,” Trump replied, according to Cohen.

“Don Jr. would never set up any meeting of any significance alone,” Cohen testified, “and certainly not without checking with his father.”

By describing the president’s direct involvement in Russia’s meddling, Cohen’s testimony, if true, has established one of the clearest potential lines from the Kremlin to the Oval Office.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

House passes firearm background check bill, in first gun control victory in more than two decades

Think Progress - Wed, 02/27/2019 - 12:46pm

For the first time in more than two decades, the U.S. House on Wednesday passed new gun control legislation that, if signed into law, will require background checks on all commercial gun sales, including those sold online and at gun shows.

The bipartisan bill advanced by a vote of 240-190, with eight Republicans joining Democrats to vote in favor of the legislation. It is the first gun control measure to pass a vote in the House since the 1994 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act.

Prior to the final vote, Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) called for a “motion to recommit” to add a provision to the bill that would require Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be notified when an undocumented immigrant tries to buy a gun. That amendment was approved by voice vote.

A vote has been scheduled on a second bill which, if approved, would extend the waiting period for firearms dealers to receive a response from the background check system before they can sell a gun.

The bill approved on Wednesday had five Republican co-sponsors, including Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who in past years tried unsuccessfully to push the measure forward while his party controlled the House.

But things are different now. Democrats control the chamber, and months of activism following last year’s school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, has motivated lawmakers to act.

“To give them credit, the Democrats have long supported it. And, I think, just these series of massacres building up and the fact that the average American, even people who have guns, who support guns, they see this as being a reasonable measure,” King told NBC News. “All these scare tactics that are out there about a gun registry, the government’s going to take away your guns, it just isn’t true.”

He added that the Democratic majority in the House has “really given [the bill] momentum. Hate to admit that, but that’s the reality.” 

During floor debate on Wednesday, Republicans argued that the background check bill goes too far in penalizing “law-abiding citizens” for loaning their guns to friends.

“These are people who use guns to defend themselves,” said Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), who was injured himself in a mass shooting during a Congressional baseball game in 2017.

An amendment by Rep. Kendra Horn (D-OK), sought to address that issue by creating an exception for people who face risks of domestic violence, dating partner violence, sexual assault, stalking, and domestic abuse. It was adopted by a vote of 310-119.

“The underlying bill … already creates an exception to the background check requirement when there is a temporary weapon transfer if the transferee is at imminent risk of death or great bodily harm,” Horn said. “But our amendment is meant to make it crystal clear and explicit that this exception applies when the transferees are protecting themselves from an abuser.”

Other Republicans argued that the bill wouldn’t stop all mass shootings and wouldn’t stop criminals from obtaining weapons, since individuals who seek to commit crimes often obtain guns through unlawful means.

“Countless speakers from the other side of the aisle said this wouldn’t have stopped this crime, this wouldn’t have stopped this mass shooting, this wouldn’t have stopped that mass shooting,” said Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA), one of the bill’s co-sponsors. “Well, my friends, if that’s your standard, if you will only support a bill that will stop every mass shooting, that will stop every death by a firearm, that means you want to get rid of all guns and no one on this side of the aisle is saying that.”

The vote followed the first House hearing on gun control in eight years, which took place earlier this month, and which resulted in a tense standoff between Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and the father of a Parkland school shooting victim, Manuel Oliver.

Gaetz argued that violence by undocumented immigrants was a more pressing issue than gun control. Oliver interrupted the lawmaker, although it is unclear what he said. Gaetz then sought to have Oliver removed from the hearing room.

.@Repmattgaetz is interrupted by Manuel Oliver, father of Majory Stoneman Douglas shooting victim Joaquin "Guac" Oliver. Parliamentary inquiries follow on reprimanding members for being untruthful and audience member disruptions.

— CSPAN (@cspan) February 6, 2019

The bill that will be considered on Thursday would do away with the “Charleston loophole,” a reference to the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, in which white supremacist Dylann Roof shot and killed nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The loophole allows a gun to be sold if a background check isn’t finished within three days. In Roof’s case, if the FBI had cleared the background check, the sale would have been blocked due to his past history of drug possession.

According to FBI data, in 2017, more than 6,000 guns were sold to people with criminal histories or other factors that should have prevented them from buying a gun had the FBI completed the background checks before the three-day deadline. That number is a significant increase from 2016, which saw the sale of more than 4,100 guns to such people.

A recent investigation by ThinkProgress found that, in 2017, the FBI was unable to complete 310,232 gun background checks within the three-day deadline.

Though the odds seem stacked against them, gun control advocates are hopeful that the Senate will consider one or both of the bills. Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts told ThinkProgress that based on conversations her organization has had with Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), who co-sponsored a gun control proposal following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, it is possible that the Senate could get 60 votes on the background check measure. And although there is concern that President Donald Trump could veto the measures, Watts said it’s too soon to make such predictions.

“We haven’t even begun trying to convince [Trump] yet. And he hasn’t vetoed anything yet,” she said. “So we continue to have hope.”

Max Samis, press secretary for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, told ThinkProgress in an email that, “We have momentum and public support on our side, and we are committed to seeing these bills all the way through to becoming law.”

Until then, the vote alone feels like an “incredible victory,” Watts said. “That is really a testament to our hard work.”

Categories: SCCDP Allies

Reports of Klobuchar’s treatment of staff highlight poor workplace standards on Capitol Hill

Think Progress - Wed, 02/27/2019 - 12:20pm

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) has come under intense scrutiny this month, as several media outlets have reported on her reputation as a bad boss, highlighting instances of alleged abuse against staffers. The media coverage points to a broader problem, however, as labor experts say workplace standards on Capitol Hill need to be reformed.  

Klobuchar, a Democratic candidate in the 2020 presidential race, has reportedly thrown binders and telephones at staffers, engaged in office-wide shaming of employees, and called prospective employers to hurt staffers’ opportunities elsewhere. Sources told The New York Times that workers who took parental leave were then required to stay in the office three times as many weeks as they took leave or pay back the money they earned during their leave (though a spokesperson from Klobuchar’s office said that policy had never been enforced and would be officially changed in the staff handbook). Her office also has one of the highest rates of staff turnover in the Senate, according to the Huffington Post.

Klobuchar’s staff (present and former) have pushed back against some of the claims — notably on the office’s paid leave policies — and Klobuchar herself has said that she simply has high expectations for herself and her staff.

But a lot of Klobuchar’s behavior reportedly goes back a decade, and only received considerable media attention after she announced her presidential bid.

So the bigger question is this: Is the type of behavior that has recently been reported simply tolerated on Capitol Hill — and if so, why?

Experts on labor and staffing issues on Capitol Hill say that, on the Hill, the culture is centered on employer loyalty. There are few opportunities for accountability, regardless of whether the problem is centered on a member of Congress or a someone like a chief of staff, and workers are often left on their own in abusive work environments.

Meredith McGehee, executive director at Issue One, a cross-political reform group, said that there is very little guidance on the human resources on Capitol Hill.

“Standards and operations on the pure human resources side vary tremendously, and things that in corporate America would either be considered inappropriate or just standard operating procedure don’t exist on Capitol Hill for the most part,” she said. “One of the things that has happened over several years is that some of those offices — the Library of Congress, the police, Architect of the Capitol, and those who aren’t in the representatives’ offices — have gone through a series of changes to address HR issues. The only people who were left out of that were the members and the staff and the committee offices themselves.”

Judith Conti, government affairs director at National Employment Law Project, said it’s particularly difficult to seek accountability when dealing with anyone in any kind of political office because a reference is required and elected officials are difficult to remove from their position.

“My first job out of law school was for a lifetime-tenure federal judge who was extremely abusive to staff in incredibly well-known ways, and people put up with it because there wasn’t anything you could say to anybody that was going to get him removed from the job,” she said. “It’s not like when you’re working for a private corporation and then your boss sexually harasses you and, if you complain to HR and it’s founded, that person will be fired.”

“An elected official or a lifetime-tenured judge, these aren’t people who are getting fired through conventional means and they are people who, when they give you a good recommendation it’s very prestigious.” 

The complicated process of reporting violations

Brad Fitch, the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, which provides training for congressional staff and conducts research, said it’s interesting that Congress does not have an HR department and instead has various structures to deal with things like workplace abuse and sexual harassment.

Congress recently overhauled its policies on sexual harassment, reforming the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 to mandate climate surveys and annual public reports on data on awards and settlements. 

Still, the process right now is complicated. For certain violation claims, including bad behavior that is allegedly targeted by race, sex, or age, there’s a multi-step dispute resolution. This process will change on June 19 under the CAA Reform Act and more information on that process will be rolled out soon. Until then, the worker has to file a request for counseling with the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights (OCWR) within 180 days of the violation. After the counseling — which involves informing workers about their rights — if the worker wants to continue with the claim, they must request mediation within 15 days. If the other party doesn’t agree to mediation or if mediation doesn’t resolve the claim, they can move forward with an administrative hearing or file a lawsuit in federal district court. The worker must do this within 90 days after the mediation.

“It’s not just about changing the global culture on Capitol Hill. You have to change 535 cultures, and that’s hard.”

Under the new changes, mediation will be optional and and mandatory counseling will be eliminated. A worker can confidentially seek consultation and assistance from the office and a confidential adviser may help assist in drafting a claim.

Laura Cech, spokesperson for OCWR, said that depending on the situation, workers can seek resources with ethics committees, employee assistance programs, and legal assistance from the Office of Employee Advocacy. OCWR has provided a list of legal organizations and attorneys for employees and employers looking for legal representation.

Cech said that not all workplace disputes and situations allege a violation of the CAA and workers can try to resolve issues through an internal grievance process or talk with their employee assistance program. An example of something that would go through that process is bad behavior because of race, sex, or age.

And regardless, a broader culture change is just as key as the HR resources being in place.

“Whether the culture encourages that reporting is an entirely different question and frankly on some levels more important than the formal structure,” Fitch said. “… You have 535 small businesses on Capitol Hill and each one of these offices is a culture unto itself. It’s not House Republicans or Senate Republicans… It’s not just about changing the global culture on Capitol Hill. You have to change 535 cultures, and that’s hard.”

A culture of high turnover

The high turnover that results in a bad boss reputation isn’t good for the public interest either, McGehee said. When staff with expertise leave, one result is that members of Congress don’t ask good questions. McGehee cites last year’s Facebook hearings, where members of Congress often embarrassed themselves when they asked questions that showed they didn’t understand the most basic facts about how social media operates. 

“Whether the culture encourages that reporting is an entirely different question and frankly on some levels more important than the formal structure.”

“The members looked terrible in those hearings — and a member’s capacity to represent their constituents and really grasp and handle a policy on this wide range of issues, it is largely dependent on staff,” she said. “Two things happen when you don’t retain staff. First of all, you don’t have that expertise and gravitas, people who know what they’re doing. And the other part of that is when you have a lot of staff turnover, whether you’re in a personal office or in a committee, K Street-types can run circles around these folks.”

She added, “I’ve seen a number of occasions where, where you put this comma, how you describe this thing, can totally change the impact of the bill. And if you’re inexperienced, you don’t know that. You have no clue and it’s a real problem … if you don’t have deep knowledge of an issue it can be very difficult to understand the impact of what it is you’re trying to put together.”

McGehee said that since a chief of staff is usually hired not for their managerial skills, but for, say, their knowledge of the district, it is particularly important for them to have standards to follow. Fitch also agreed that there are huge barriers to getting staff to attend trainings on the proper management of offices.

“The challenge is both the structure and the culture does not lend itself to professional development on Capitol Hill,” he said. “An entry level employee at Burger King gets more training than a House chief of staff for their job, which is kind of sad but that’s true.”

In February, his organization hosted a training for about 50 managers on helping workers with managing expectations, being self-aware, and avoiding inappropriate behavior that offends people.

Part of the problem, Fitch said, is that staffers tend to ignore office processes until there is a huge problem that forces their attention to it.

“An entry level employee at Burger King gets more training than a House chief of staff for their job, which is kind of sad but that’s true.”

“These people didn’t come to Capitol Hill to be better managers. They came here to pass health care legislation or tax cuts and the end result drives everything,” he said. “I have to constantly remind my staff we are not the most important thing to Congress — until we are. Then you get that office that is running into problems because of sniping between the district office and D.C., or a chief of staff is killing morale, or a member is killing morale. It’s a challenge and usually when it gets to that kind of state is when we are pulled in.”

Fitch said he does believe that things on the Hill are improving. There have been recent changes following major harassment scandals in Congress, such as a mandated sexual harassment training. Fitch said House is also offering a new program that will help staffers learn about management and legislative research and communications.

What’s the solution?

For the sake of retention, as much as workers’ rights, Congress needs to create a healthy workplace environment beyond just the guarantee that bosses won’t shame you or throw things in the office, Fitch said. He added that retention could be improved by giving workers more incentives, such as tuition assistance or more frequent pay periods. (Currently, House staffers are only paid once a month.) A LegiStorm analysis found that the number of staffers in their 40s has declined from more than 14 percent of all staff in 2001, to just over 9 percent today.

Congressional staff are also not allowed to unionize, which would help introduce more protections for workers and possibly curb abusive behavior. McGehee said unionization in members’ offices is “considered kind of a radioactive topic” on the Hill on both sides of the aisle. 

Unionization can make a difference, however. Conti said that, currently, in any sector, unless the workforce is unionized and tries to enforce certain standards of conduct, it’s tough to hold people accountable for workplace abuse that isn’t targeting someone by gender or race or another protected class. A reputation for being an abusive boss, even in severe circumstances, isn’t usually enough to push someone out of office or prevent them from consideration for government office.

Conti said, “There’s nothing illegal in most circumstances. If you’re working in a unionized workforce, that’s one thing. But there’s nothing illegal in being, as people in my field colloquially refer to as, an equal opportunity offender. You’re awful to everybody so it’s not like you’re discriminating against anybody. It’s inhumane. It’s immoral. It’s unethical. But it’s not illegal.”

“We make harassment on the basis of protected classes illegal, but could we fashion some sort of right to be free from harassment on the job irrespective of a protected characteristic?”

There are often gender differences in who is targeted, however. A 2017 survey of 1,008 adults found that almost 60 percent of U.S. workers are affected by workplace bullying. Seventy percent of those bullies were men and 60 percent of their targets were women. Additionally, the survey found that women bullied other women more often than men.

Conti said a worker could use a civil tort called intentional infliction of emotional distress. A worker could also pursue a workers compensation claim if there are severe mental health consequences. But these are often hard cases to make. 

“That’s where if somebody treats an employee in such a way that it is just outside the bounds of reasonableness and the person suffers severe mental anguish as a result of it, then that is illegal, but it’s damn near impossible to prove,” Conti said.

She referred to a case in which someone knowingly falsely accused a worker of stealing things from their employer in order to get them fired — but the case still wasn’t severe enough to rise to the occasion of intentional infliction of emotional distress.

“It really has to be above and beyond, like shrieking and humiliating people and being mercurial and changing the rules all the time, so you really have to think through, is there some sort of harassment?” she said. “We make harassment on the basis of protected classes illegal, but could we fashion some sort of right to be free from harassment on the job irrespective of a protected characteristic?”

McGehee said that without ensuring accountability, implementing better office practices and standards, and addressing what she calls the “blood oath” of loyalty on the Hill, staffers are left to deal with toxic workplaces on their own.

“You’re pretty much in the world saying, ‘I guess my career on the Hill is gone. My career on K Street is not good, since they will probably say no one wants to talk to me.’ So you may as well leave Washington …There’s nobody to go to.”

Categories: SCCDP Allies

The Supreme Court looks likely to break the wall of separation between church and state

Think Progress - Wed, 02/27/2019 - 10:13am

It is likely, but not entirely certain, that there are five votes on the Supreme Court to overrule Lemon v. Kurtzman, a nearly half-century-old precedent preventing the government from advancing religion. It is also all but certain that the court will uphold the so-called “Peace Cross,” a 40-foot tall, cross-shaped monument in Maryland. One or two of the liberal justices may even join an opinion favoring the cross, which was erected to honor fallen soldiers from the First World War.

Yet, while several members of the court seemed eager to blow up much of the law preventing the government from advancing a particular faith in two consolidated cases argued on Wednesday — American Legion v. American Humanist Association and Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission v. American Humanist Associationit is far from clear what will emerge to replace the toppled precedents.

True to form, Neil Gorsuch staked out the most radical possible position, at one point suggesting that plaintiffs who challenge government endorsements of religion shouldn’t be allowed to sue in the first place. As a general rule, a plaintiff must show that they were somehow injured by the party they are suing in order to file a lawsuit, a requirement known as “standing.” Yet Gorsuch suggested that no plaintiff may have standing to challenge a religious display on government property because their only injury is that they take “offense” to the display — and “mere offense” isn’t enough.

Later in the argument, Gorsuch criticized the court’s holding in Lemon, a 1971 decision holding that laws must have a “secular legislative purpose,” a “primary effect” that “neither advances nor inhibits religion,” and that the law cannot “foster ‘an excessive government entanglement with religion.’” This test, according to Gorsuch, fostered a “welter of confusion” among the lower courts, and thus it’s time to thank Lemon “for its service” and send it “on its way.”

Significantly, both Brett Kavanaugh and the court’s median justice, Chief Justice John Roberts, also seemed to believe that Lemon causes more trouble than it’s worth. Different people will view different symbols in different ways, Roberts warned, and the Lemon test seems too vague to remove that subjective element from the law.

Yet, while the court seems likely to overrule at least some of its existing decisions interpreting the Constitution’s ban on an “establishment of religion,” it is far more uncertain what will rise up in its place. The litigants and several members of the court proposed new rules, but it is not at all clear which — if any — of these rules will garner a majority.

Michael Carvin, an archconservative lawyer and one of three attorneys arguing in favor of the Peace Cross, proposed a radical solution in his briefs — any law that advances religion should be upheld unless it coerces individuals into religious activity. Yet even Carvin seemed unwilling to embrace that test at oral argument.

For one thing, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted, the Constitution prohibits both establishments of religion and attacks on the “free exercise” of religion. Yet Carvin’s coercion-only test suggests that the Establishment Clause doesn’t actually prohibit anything that isn’t already banned by the Free Exercise Clause. As a general rule, the court reads the Constitution as if each word is significant, and the test proposed in Carvin’s brief is hard to square with that rule.

Instead, Carvin delivered a baffling presentation in which he tried to distinguish between “proselytizing,” which he said the government may not do, and “endorsement” of religion, which Carvin says the government may do. This distinction appeared to be a non-starter with the court. Roberts criticized it because it would reduce every case to a fact-based inquiry with few clear legal rules. Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that a ban on proselytizing is no different than “the endorsement test,” a legal standard that liberals tend to favor but that has little support among conservative judges. Gorsuch warned that it would take courts back to a “dog’s breakfast.”

Meanwhile Neal Katyal, a former acting solicitor general, and Principal Deputy Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall — the other two lawyers defending the cross — seemed to endorse two different articulations of a very similar test. The Peace Cross is permissible if it has “taken on a secular meaning,” according to Wall. Katyal likewise argued that the Peace Cross should be allowed to stand because, even though it is in the shape of a Christian symbol, this particular cross has a “second meaning” — honoring fallen World War One veterans.

As a practical matter, it’s unclear whether this rule would prohibit many government displays of religious symbols at all. The Peace Cross is, as Sotomayor noted, a giant, 40-foot Christian icon that “dwarfs” nearby buildings. Yet it also includes a plaque honoring fallen combatants. A Ten Commandments statute could be given a “second meaning” by adding a plaque stating that it exists to remind people of the importance of written laws. A giant crucifix could be erected in the middle of a town and then touted at a dedication ceremony as a memorial to victims of a deadly disease.

Indeed, at one point during Mr. Wall’s presentation, Justice Elena Kagan offered him a series of five different hypotheticals — ranging from a cross that has been viewed as a war memorial for nearly a century, to an identical monument that is “just a cross” — meaning that the government that erected it made no effort to present it as anything other than an endorsement of Christianity. Though Wall conceded that the most extreme hypothetical — the “just a cross” — would be problematic under the Constitution, he appeared to believe that even fairly minor efforts to give a religious icon a secular meaning would immunize that icon from legal attack.

And then there was Justice Stephen Breyer, the moderate liberal who, in his 2005 opinion in Van Orden v. Perry, suggested that religious monuments may stay if removing them is likely “to prove divisive.” Breyer suggested a kind of grandfather rule that would allow existing religious monuments to stay on government land, but prohibit new ones.

“History counts,” Breyer said at one point. Don’t “tear down historical monuments,” but proclaim from here on “no more.”

At a public event last September, Justice Kagan warned that her court’s legitimacy is in danger if it is perceived as too political. The solution, according to Kagan, is to take “big questions and make them small.”

At times, Kagan seemed to be feeling around for such a small solution. Memorials shaped like crosses, Kagan noted at one point, were the “preeminent symbol” used to honor World War One dead around the time when the Peace Cross was built. This particular monument is also engraved with words honoring the valor of fallen service members. There’s a particularly strong argument that this cross has a secular purpose aside from its religious iconography.

Perhaps it might be possible to assemble a majority that will uphold this cross based on the narrow facts on this particular case, and put larger doctrinal questions off until another day.

Kagan’s challenge, however, is that her most frequent partner in her efforts to make cases smaller — Chief Justice Roberts — did not seem open to such a solution. Indeed, Roberts repeatedly criticized legal tests that would reduce every case into a fact specific inquiry.

It seems likely, in other words, that a majority of the court is about to blow up a lot of existing law. And it also seems likely that they will come up with a test that is quite permissive of government-sponsored displays honoring religion. The specific contours of that test, however, remain to be seen.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

Republicans are mad that Cohen said Trump is racist. The president’s record speaks for itself.

Think Progress - Wed, 02/27/2019 - 10:05am

Republicans on the House Oversight Committee invited a black federal employee to appear in Michael Cohen’s hearing Wednesday, to make the point that President Donald Trump could not possibly be racist, as Cohen has alleged.

In his opening statements, Cohen said he heard Trump call black people stupid, and claimed the president once asked if any country run by a black person was not a “shithole.” Barack Obama was president at the time, according to Cohen.

Lynne Patton, a Trump appointee in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, stood behind Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), who spoke for her.

“She says as a daughter of a man born in Birmingham, Alabama that there is no way that she would work for an individual who was a racist,” Meadows said, referring to Patton.

Cohen pointed out that he was the son of a Holocaust survivor and probably shouldn’t have been working for the president, either.

“Ask Miss Patton how many people who are black executives at the Trump Organization […] The answer is zero,” Cohen added.

Cohen’s testimony is far from the first time Trump has been accused of racism. He first appeared in The New York Times in 1973, for instance, because the Justice Department sued him and his father for discriminating against black New Yorkers in his apartment buildings.

A 1991 book by the former president of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City also quoted Trump saying, “Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.”

Trump for years also pushed the false claim that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and thus ineligible to be president.

When Trump announced he himself would be running, he began his campaign with a litany of racist remarks; he said he wanted to ban all Muslims from entering the country, and he called Mexicans rapists and drug smugglers.

After taking office, he also said a Mexican-American judge was incapable of being impartial because of his race.

After he became president, Trump pushed to build a wall to keep immigrants out of the country, and tried to establish a ban on Muslim immigration. He sympathized with white supremacists, even after one killed a woman during a violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. He mockingly called a sitting member of Congress “Pocahontas” and asked a black reporter in the White House press corps whether she was friends with the Congressional Black Caucus and might introduce them.

In January 2018, Trump reportedly said all Haitian immigrants have AIDS, and said immigrants from Nigeria would never go back to their “huts.” The White House denied the president made those statements. The president also reportedly said immigrants from Africa were coming from “shithole countries” and that the United States should take more immigrants from Norway. The White House denied those comments as well, but several senators present at the time later confirmed the statements.

Trump, meanwhile, has claimed he is “the least racist person.”

Patton, in her appearance Wednesday, was not asked about or given a chance to address the president’s long history of problematic public statements and actions.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

McConnell’s anti-Green New Deal push hits stumbling block as Democrats mobilize

Think Progress - Wed, 02/27/2019 - 8:42am

Democrats in both the Senate and House are mobilizing against an effort by Republican leaders to undermine the Green New Deal, momentarily derailing attempts to create division and halt the resolution’s momentum.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) recently pledged to hold a vote on the Green New Deal resolution as soon as this week — rather than a display of support for climate action, the goal was to divide Democrats. In response, Senate Democrats are now rallying behind a unity resolution, separate from the Green New Deal, urging climate action.

Meanwhile, House Democrats are increasingly backing the Green New Deal resolution itself: nearly 40 percent of the caucus now supports the sweeping blueprint mandating rapid decarbonization of the U.S. economy over the next decade.

On Tuesday, all 47 Senate Democrats and independents announced that they will back a resolution calling for climate action separate from the Green New Deal proposal. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), ranking member on Environment and Public Works Committee, are leading the effort. Although the text of the rival resolution does not seem to be currently available, it reportedly will declare people-driven climate change to be an enduring phenomenon and call for immediate government action, albeit with no timetables or targets.

The move appears to be an attempt to avoid directly voting on the Green New Deal itself, as McConnell had hoped, and as the name suggests, underscores unity over division.

“It doesn’t matter if you are from a coastal state or from a landlocked state, if you care about public health or the environment, or if you care about our economy or national security,” Carper said in a Senate floor speech Tuesday. “The fact is, every person living in this country will eventually see or experience the effects of climate change, if they don’t already today.”

The unity resolution follows several weeks of intense back-and-forth after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) first introduced the Green New Deal resolution on February 7. The blueprint is co-sponsored by a number of Democratic 2020 hopefuls in the Senate, but has failed to gain significant traction with much of the chamber.

In an effort to deepen divides between Democrats on climate action, McConnell declared two weeks ago that the Senate would hold a vote on the resolution. This was originally expected as early as February 28.

Democrats widely panned that tactic as a show vote but initially offered no indicator of how they might proceed. But last Friday, a video live-streamed by the nonprofit youth-led Sunrise Movement went viral, showing Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) engaging in a terse exchange with young activists who back the Green New Deal. The heated conversation sparked furor online and widespread condemnation from climate activists of Feinstein, who dismissed the Green New Deal as largely untenable.

The exchange illustrated divides among Democrats, but it has also served as a turning point for the party. Following the uproar, a number of Democrats indicated their intent to vote “present” during any Green New Deal resolution vote in the Senate — seemingly a ceremonial action to preserve party unity. Feinstein herself said Tuesday that she planned to vote “present” on the resolution.

Feinstein’s Green New Deal response puts her out of step with the public and 2020 contenders

All of this culminated Tuesday afternoon, however, with McConnell abruptly declaring that the vote would take place at some point before the congressional August recess. A spokeswoman for Carper told ThinkProgress that it was unclear when or if that vote might happen.

Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Brian Schatz (D-HI), and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) have since called on McConnell to hold a full day of debate on climate change before any Green New Deal vote occurs.

“We believe it is imperative the American people hear where both sides stand on this critical issue,” the senators wrote in a letter to the majority leader on Tuesday.

It is also unclear when or if the Senate Democratic unity resolution will see a vote.

Differing views on climate action

While Senate Democrats work to unite in the Republican-controlled chamber, House Democrats are increasingly embracing the Green New Deal. As of Wednesday, the resolution has 89 co-sponsors in the House — 38 percent of the Democratic caucus.

Unified support, however, is still far from guaranteed in the lower chamber. While a number of Democrats on key House committees back the Green New Deal, House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth (D-KY) said Tuesday that the upcoming 2020 fiscal budget non-binding resolution won’t call for a Green New Deal. But Yarmuth noted the climate resolution is important to many Democrats and said that he is still meeting with committee leaders to discuss their priorities.

Some Republicans, meanwhile, are also shifting their approach to climate change. Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich called on the party this week to address global warming and said he will push “centrist” climate proposals appealing to conservatives. Republicans are also increasingly receptive of carbon pricing and other more limited approaches to climate action.

Activists have panned that approach as too narrow in scope — a critique that extends to members of both parties who have been slow to embrace dramatic climate action as captured by the Green New Deal. Following Friday’s confrontation with Feinstein, Sunrise Movement co-founder and Executive Director Varshini Prakash said in a statement that “fundamental change” is needed in the Democratic Party and that those who have not embraced the Green New Deal “are out of-touch with the center of energy in the party.”

But Sunrise didn’t reserve its fire only for Democrats. On Monday, 42 youth activists with the group were arrested while protesting outside McConnell’s office with a group of more than 250 people, including Kentucky high schoolers.

“If I could say anything to McConnell, I would ask him: ‘Does it not weigh on you at all that your own constituents are facing the life or death consequences of climate change all across the state, yet you continue to side with fossil fuel CEOs?'” Destine Rigsby, a 17-year-old from Louisville, said in a statement.

“You line your pockets while we die in floods and choke on the air we breathe, yet you don’t even have the decency to look us in the eyes.”

Categories: SCCDP Allies

This is the evidence Michael Cohen gave to the House Oversight Committee

Think Progress - Wed, 02/27/2019 - 8:33am

President Donald Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, is testifying today before the House Oversight Committee about the president’s business dealings, the Trump Tower Moscow project, and what the president knew about emails Russian hackers stole from the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee.

Last night, Cohen sent the committee a copy of his opening testimony and several documents he believed would corroborate it. They included, in Cohen’s own words:

• A copy of a check Mr. Trump wrote from his personal bankaccount – after he became president – to reimburse me for thehush money payments I made to cover up his affair with an adultfilm star and prevent damage to his campaign;

• Copies of financial statements for 2011 – 2013 that he gave tosuch institutions as Deutsche Bank;

• A copy of an article with Mr. Trump’s handwriting on it thatreported on the auction of a portrait of himself – he arranged forthe bidder ahead of time and then reimbursed the bidder from theaccount of his non-profit charitable foundation, with the picturenow hanging in one of his country clubs; and

• Copies of letters I wrote at Mr. Trump’s direction that threatenedhis high school, colleges, and the College Board not to release hisgrades or SAT scores.

Here’s a list of the exhibits Cohen provided, with links so you can see them for yourself:

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Categories: SCCDP Allies

Cohen’s opening statement savages Trump: ‘He is a racist. He is a con man. He is a cheat.’

Think Progress - Wed, 02/27/2019 - 3:29am

The opening statement that Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former personal attorney and self-styled “fixer,” plans to deliver at the top of his testimony before the House Oversight Committee was leaked late Tuesday night. In his planned remarks, Cohen enunciates a considerable amount of regret, enumerates several pieces of evidence, and spares his former employer no quarter.

“I am ashamed that I chose to take part in concealing Mr. Trump’s illicit acts rather than listening to my own conscience,” Cohen writes, “I am ashamed because I know what Mr. Trump is. He is a racist. He is a con man. He is a cheat.”

The New York Times broke the story overnight.

Cohen returns to Congress, where he’d previously given testimony about Trump’s financial dealings, seeking to repair the damage he blames himself for enabling. By the looks of his opening statement, he’s also very much aware of the need to make a game effort in repairing his own tattered reputation.

Watergate experts: Michael Cohen hearing ‘immediately reminiscent’ of John Dean testimony

“Before going further, I want to apologize to each of you and to Congress as
a whole,” Cohen says, “The last time I appeared before Congress, I came to protect Mr. Trump. Today, I’m here to tell the truth about Mr. Trump.” Coming off as credible will be a high hurdle for Cohen to surmount, and Republicans have vowed to make every effort to undermine his credibility.

In his opening statement, Cohen alleges that Trump “knew that Roger Stone was talking
with Julian Assange about a WikiLeaks drop of Democratic National Committee emails.” He also lays out some of the documented evidence that he believes will shine a light on the president’s character, including a “copy of a check Mr. Trump wrote from his personal bank account… to reimburse me for the hush money payments I made to cover up his affair with an adult film star and prevent damage to his campaign.” Cohen also plans to furnish Congress with various financial statements and documents which speak to both Trump’s innate corruption and narcissism.

Additionally, Cohen will seek to explain to the members of the committee exactly how Trump advised him to deceive Congress, and others. “Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress,” says Cohen, “That’s not how he operates.”

Per Cohen:

In conversations we had during the campaign, at the same time I was actively negotiating in Russia for him, he would look me in the eye and tell me there’s no business in Russia and then go out and lie to the American people by saying the same thing. In his way, he was telling me to lie.

There were at least a half-dozen times between the Iowa Caucus in January 2016 and the end of June when he would ask me “How’s it going in Russia?” – referring to the Moscow Tower project.

You need to know that Mr. Trump’s personal lawyers reviewed and edited my statement to Congress about the timing of the Moscow Tower negotiations before I gave it.

To be clear: Mr. Trump knew of and directed the Trump Moscow
negotiations throughout the campaign and lied about it. He lied about it
because he never expected to win the election. He also lied about it
because he stood to make hundreds of millions of dollars on the Moscow real estate project.

If Trump felt as if it would not ultimately matter whether or not he lied about participating in this deal, Cohen explains there’s a perfectly good reason: “He never expected to win the primary. He never expected to win the general election.”

“The campaign – for him – was always a marketing opportunity.” One that went, Cohen implies, spectacularly wrong.

I knew early on in my work for Mr. Trump that he would direct me to lie to further his business interests. I am ashamed to say, that when it was for a real estate mogul in the private sector, I considered it trivial. As the President, I consider it significant and dangerous.

You can read the Cohen’s full opening statement here.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

13 House Republicans vote to block Trump’s border wall emergency declaration

Think Progress - Tue, 02/26/2019 - 3:35pm

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives voted 245 to 182 to rescind President Donald Trump’s emergency declaration, his determination that because Congress did not give him the billions of taxpayer dollars he wanted for a border wall, it created a national emergency that should entitle him to build it anyway. Thirteen Republicans joined with the Democratic majority to reject the president’s power grab.

Trump announced the so-called emergency earlier this month, after his partial government shutdown failed to convince Congress to give him the more than $5 billion in appropriations he sought to build a wall along the nation’s southern border. Though he had repeatedly promised that the project would be entirely funded by Mexico, he declared that because a wall was urgently needed to prevent the flow of drugs and criminals into the United States, he will use emergency powers to move other money toward the effort.  “I can do the wall over a longer period of time. I didn’t need to do this. But I want to do it much faster,” he admitted at the time.

Moments after declaring national emergency, Trump admits there’s no emergency

Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) even co-sponsored the resolution. He noted the hypocrisy of some in his caucus who vocally complained about Trump’s Democratic predecessor but now are okay with “executive overreach.”

The same congressional Republicans who joined me in blasting Pres. Obama’s executive overreach now cry out for a king to usurp legislative powers. If your faithfulness to the Constitution depends on which party controls the White House, then you are not faithful to it.

— Justin Amash (@justinamash) February 23, 2019

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) said he would support the resolution because he wants to “be consistent in preserving the constitutional structure of our Republic.”

In order to be consistent in preserving the constitutional structure of our Republic, I will be voting for the resolution to prevent the President from using a national emergency declaration to re-appropriate money for the wall.

— Thomas Massie (@RepThomasMassie) February 26, 2019

Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN) tweeted on Sunday that even though he strongly supports Trump’s proposed wall, he had serious concerns about “the precedent and implications.”

I support the President 100% on the need for stronger border security and a wall. But, I can’t deny my reservations about the precedent and implications the President’s large-scale Emergency Declaration, and its abuse by potential future Democrat administrations.

— Jim Banks (@RepJimBanks) February 24, 2019

Banks, however, opposed the resolution as a “political pot shot” because it didn’t also “rein in” other “national emergency authorities.”

Dems resolution only terminates border security national emergency but does nothing to rein in national emergency authorities. This is a political pot shot pure & simple. Many of us would support efforts to reform executive national emergency authority but this DOES NOT do that.

— Jim Banks (@Jim_Banks) February 26, 2019

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) warned that this could set a precedent that would allow a liberal president to act to address climate change.

How would Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders use this precedent for a national disaster declaration to force the Green New Deal on the American people?

— CathyMcMorrisRodgers (@cathymcmorris) February 14, 2019

A group of 23 former Republican lawmakers released a letter on Monday urging their former colleagues to back the resolution. They warned Congressional Republicans that if they allow a power grab like this now, a future president will “impose policies to which you are unalterably opposed.”

The resolution now moves to the Senate, where it will require only a simple majority to pass. Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Thom Tillis of North Carolina have already signaled that they will join the Democratic minority in backing the resolution. Trump has voted to veto the legislation if it reaches his desk, though. With at least 289 House votes needed to override a veto (out of the 433 members currently serving) and 67 Senators, this effort is unlikely to actually become law, but does serve as a rare bipartisan rebuke to Trump’s actions.


Categories: SCCDP Allies

Watergate experts: Michael Cohen hearing ‘immediately reminiscent’ of John Dean testimony

Think Progress - Tue, 02/26/2019 - 3:29pm

As Michael Cohen testifies before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday about his years as President Donald Trump’s attorney and fixer, many will have another presidential lawyer in mind.

John Dean’s testimony to the Senate Watergate Committee in June 1973 marked a turning point in the investigation. The next year, President Richard Nixon resigned.

“I hope that Michael Cohen will reveal to us the truth about the ongoing criminal enterprise which is the Trump Organization and the Trump presidency,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), an Oversight Committee member, said Tuesday in an interview with ThinkProgress. “We want him to tell us about how they conducted these campaign finance operations, these hush money payments to women, the deceptive and false disclosures that have been made to the government, and the character of the whole business operation.”

Ahead of Cohen’s testimony, Republicans have been quick to paint him as a liar, Raskin said. But, he said, “Their problem is not that he is lying, but that he has stopped lying.”

For Ken Hughes, a Watergate expert with the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, Cohen’s testimony is “immediately reminiscent” of Dean’s, including the attempts to discredit the witness ahead of the hearing.

“The Nixon administration tried to frame Dean as the source of the Watergate cover up, [while he was] more of a point man operating under Nixon’s most powerful aides, and they were guided by Nixon himself,” Hughes told ThinkProgress.

Similarly, in the months leading up to Cohen’s highly anticipated testimony, Trump and his allies have claimed that Cohen acted alone in making hush money payments to women with whom Trump allegedly had affairs. (Last November, The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump played a central role in the payoffs.)

“Nixon was so detail-oriented… He wouldn’t let anything happen that was important to him [without it being] under his control,” Hughes said. “Trump is not detailed-oriented, but he is domineering, and with his personal lawyer, he could get his way.”

In his testimony, Cohen is expected to speak publicly for the first time about Trump’s involvement in the hush-money payments during the 2016 presidential election. Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations related to the payments last August, claiming he acted “in coordination with and at the direction of” Trump.

Cohen’s testimony could shed greater light on what Trump knew about the payments and when he knew it (another phrase reminiscent of Watergate). It could also reveal more about the inner workings of American Media Inc., which owns The National Enquirer. Its chair, David Pecker, allegedly worked with Cohen on the hush-money scheme.

Cohen also pleaded guilty in November to lying to Congress about a deal to build a Trump-branded development in Moscow. Cohen told the Senate Intelligence Committee in August that the deal folded before the Iowa caucuses in early 2016 and that he did not discuss it with Trump. But in court, he admitted those negotiations extended through at least June of that year, and that he kept Trump in the loop.

Democrats on the committee are likely to press Cohen on whether Trump orchestrated those lies, as BuzzFeed News reported earlier this year. The special counsel’s office investigating Russian interference in the election issued a rare statement after that story ran, saying parts of it were “not accurate,” but it did not go into detail. BuzzFeed’s reporting has not been confirmed by other news outlets.

Hughes cautioned that Cohen’s testimony may not have the same impact on the public as Dean’s did because of how the media have evolved since 1973. At the time, it was rare to see government hearings on television, but the Watergate hearings were widely viewed. Today, there are whole networks dedicated to them, and the novelty has worn off.

“Now we can all watch so much … that I don’t think Cohen’s testimony could have the same impact that Dean’s did because it won’t be all people can look at on network TV for several hours a day,” Hughes said.

Cohen is, however, expected to bring documents to the hearing. And depending on what they documents reveal, Hughes said Cohen’s testimony could be a watershed moment of Dean-esque proportions.

Hughes noted that Dean’s testimony didn’t immediately change everything.

“Even though Dean’s testimony was enormously credible, for a lot of people the president was not proven guilty until his own tapes proved him guilty,” he said. “[But] Cohen could have tapes. Cohen could have documents in which Trump incriminates himself, so that would have an enormous impact.”

Robert Dallek, another presidential historian, also took note of the Dean parallels.

“The closest that people have come to this is John Dean,” Dallek told ThinkProgress. “It was pretty sensational.”

But Dallek urged caution, saying that he doesn’t believe Cohen’s testimony will change many minds.

“I think what it’s going to do is deepen the animus towards Trump and confirm the feelings that so many people already have that he is unqualified to be president, and has a criminal past,” he said. “This is, I think, exciting but there’s been so much [reporting] about Trump’s skullduggery and his administrative corruption.”

But Dallek did note another parallel to the Nixon era: Trump will be in Vietnam for a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Wednesday. In 1974, as the Watergate scandal came to a head, President Nixon took a 10-day foreign trip in an effort to distract from domestic issues.

“We’re in the midst of something,” Dallek said Tuesday. “But it’s not the final act of the play.”

Categories: SCCDP Allies

GOP congressman appears to threaten Michael Cohen before his congressional testimony

Think Progress - Tue, 02/26/2019 - 2:39pm

It took Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) fewer than 40 words on Twitter on Tuesday afternoon to hint at witness tampering — a possible felony.

The Florida Republican and staunch ally of President Donald Trump took an unprompted shot at Michael Cohen, the president’s former attorney and fixer. “Do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends?” he wrote. “Maybe tonight would be a good time for that chat.”

Cohen is cooperating with the ongoing investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into the scope of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, and Cohen is expected to tell Congress this week that Trump engaged in criminal behavior related to the 2016 presidential campaign.

Hey @MichaelCohen212 – Do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends? Maybe tonight would be a good time for that chat. I wonder if she’ll remain faithful when you’re in prison. She’s about to learn a lot…

— Matt Gaetz (@mattgaetz) February 26, 2019

Cohen is currently amid a series of hearings on Capitol Hill. On Tuesday, he provided closed-door testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee; he will do the same with the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday. On Wednesday, Cohen will appear publicly in front of the House Oversight Committee — where Democrats and Republicans will have an opportunity to question him about his knowledge of and involvement in any transgressions committed by Trump, his campaign, and his business empire.

Republicans have already begun attacking Cohen’s credibility, and Gaetz appears to be threatening to make Cohen’s personal life a central focus.

Legal scholars noted that the content of Gaetz’s tweet could constitute federal witness tampering, a felony punishable with fines and possible jail time.

According to Title 18, U.S. Code Section 1512, “Whoever knowingly uses intimidation, threatens, or corruptly persuades another person, or attempts to do so, or engages in misleading conduct toward another person, with intent to cause or induce any person to withhold testimony, or withhold a record, document, or other object, from an official proceeding…shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.”

Reached by a Daily Beast reporter shortly after he posted the tweet, Gaetz dismissed the idea that he engaged in any kind of witness tampering at all.

“It is challenging the veracity and character of a witness. We do it everyday. We typically do it during people’s testimony,” he told The Daily Beast. “This is what it looks like to compete in the marketplace of ideas.”

His House colleagues — and Michael Cohen’s legal team — may see it differently. Gaetz’s tweet drew swift rebukes from across the political spectrum, with many calling on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to move to expel Gaetz from the House.

Republicans last month stripped Rep. Steve King (R-IA) of his committee positions after he defended white supremacy.

As of publication, neither Michael Cohen nor his attorneys have responded to Gaetz’s comments.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

Here’s what the Democrats’ new Medicare for All bill would do

Think Progress - Tue, 02/26/2019 - 1:49pm

On Wednesday, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) will introduce the Medicare for All Act of 2019, and already more than 100 House Democrats have said they support the bill.

ThinkProgress reviewed a section-by-section summary of the bill and participated in two press calls with the congresswoman and her staff. Jayapal’s plan is likely the most ambitious yet among the crowded list of Democratic universal-coverage proposals.

The plan would fundamentally reshape the health care system by moving millions of Americans who get insurance through employers into a single-payer plan within two years. The bill builds upon the original single-payer plans in the House, sponsored by former Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), and Senate, sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

“It is time to put health over profit and we have a plan — we have a real plan and that plan is the Medicare for All Act of 2019,” Jayapal said at a press conference on Tuesday. “This Medicare for All bill really makes it clear what we mean when we say ‘Medicare for All.’ … We believe that the market is broken and that is the core idea here we are trying to fix.”

Jayapal staff called the bill the “gold standard Medicare for All proposal,” describing it as a single-payer plan that covers everyone and offers comprehensive benefits, including long-term care services, which have been left out of past proposals.

There would be no premiums, deductibles, co-pays, or other out-of-pocket costs — a provision that goes further than Sanders’ plan, which allows the government to charge for some prescription drugs but caps it at $200 per year.

Like Conyers’ bill, Jayapal’s would eliminate virtually all private insurance, solely permitting coverage that complements, but does not duplicate benefits offered in the Medicare for All program. The Veterans Affairs’ health system and the Indian Health Services (IHS) also remain untouched.

But the Jayapal bill goes further, for example, by covering abortion services and by repealing the Hyde Amendment, which bans any federal insurance program from covering abortion.

Medicare for All is the rallying cry for progressives, and has even garnered mainstream support, including from 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. This means the Jayapal proposal could easily be the health policy Democrats consider when they take back the White House.

This isn’t to say the bill is ready for legislative prime time. It hasn’t been analyzed by the Congressional Budget Office, nor is staff expecting this to happen any time soon. Furthermore, staff members haven’t decided how the bill would actually pass — whether through reconciliation or through a 60-vote majority in the Senate. The bill also doesn’t include how the plan is going to be financed. Staff did emphasize that it’s impossible to imagine a system more expensive than the current one, but added that they are contemplating progressive tax proposals, like increasing marginal tax rates. This is why Jayapal called for House hearings, and even secured hearings in the Rules and Budget committees in March, for further input.

What sets Jayapal’s Medicare for All bill apart?

The Jayapal bill implements a national health insurance program over a two-year period; alternatively, the Conyers and Sanders bills provide one and four years, respectively. Administrative changes are primarily done within the first year, and by the end of the second year and into the third, all U.S. residents — a criteria set by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary — will be covered by the Medicare for All program.

The bill also creates a Medicare Transition buy-in plan during the two-year period, which will be offered on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplaces. The plan’s benefits will be the same benefits available under the Medicare for All program.

Staff said there’s growing evidence to suggest a faster transition period is necessary, specifically citing a recent study from the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The thinking is that as the federal government radically reforms the system, insurance companies may exit existing marketplaces, leaving patients without plans or increasing premiums. This means a Medicare for All program would need to be implemented as quickly as possible. Advocates with the Center for Popular Democracy told ThinkProgress in January they were pushing for a faster transition period because they wanted the president who signs the Medicare for All bill into law to be the one who oversees implementation.

Additionally, the bill uses existing policy ideas to tackle prescription drug costs and health care spending. Specifically, the proposal adapts ideas from a bill introduced by Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) that allows Medicare to directly negotiate drug prices but sidesteps pharmaceutical companies by issuing competitive licenses when they refuse to offer a reasonable price.

The bill also creates a global budget program to pay “institutional providers” and contain costs. This means providers like hospitals, community health centers, and nursing homes will be paid a lump sum global operating budget on a quarterly basis to provide covered benefits. Jayapal’s staff cited Maryland as an example of how this could work; early results from a federal analysis of Maryland’s global budget program for hospitals show it reduced total expenditures and total hospital expenditures “without shifting costs to other parts of the health care system outside of global budgets.” Providers who work in non-institutional settings — which staff suspects to be “a narrow group of people” — will be paid on a fee-for-service basis. The HHS secretary will set a national fee schedule within a year of enactment.

Staff also emphasized that the bill strives to do better on long-term care, as many disability advocates were critical of past Medicare for All proposals. The bill covers long-term care without cost-sharing and diverges from Medicaid by prioritizing home and community based services over institutional care.

Jayapal is really excited about the long-term care provisions, as her staff worked closely with disability rights organizations and individual advocates.

“Long term care in this country is a deeply forgotten, left behind issue and it has such urgency,” she said. “The people who have disabilities, need care, seniors, and when you think about the workforce that is essentially paying the cost of this right now — the unpaid workforce is largely female of caregivers and often a lot of people of color.”

The bill also addresses the increasing costs of prescription drugs, requiring the HHS secretary to establish a prescription drug formulary that promotes the use of generic medications and “to promulgate rules on using off-formulary medications and [allow] clinicians and patients to petition to add or remove medications from the formulary,” according the bill summary. Staff said the bill will require a public consultation process with representatives, including people with disabilities, when the secretary promulgates rules to ensure medications for specific populations are covered.

The HHS secretary has some discretion, per the summary, but staff emphasized that the bill’s intent is clear. An administration with a different ideology couldn’t take away benefits, but states could add benefits or cover U.S. residents not already covered in the Medicare for All program.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

Prosecutors say they are still getting help from cooperative Russian spy Maria Butina

Think Progress - Tue, 02/26/2019 - 1:26pm

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Russian gun-rights activist and spy Maria Butina is still cooperating with federal prosecutors, the government said in court Tuesday.

Judge Tanya S. Chutkan put off setting a date for Butina’s sentencing after Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Kravis told the court that her cooperation was ongoing.

Butina pleaded guilty last December to one count of conspiracy to act as an unregistered foreign agent. In court filings, prosecutors said Butina worked with another person (believed to be sanctioned Russian politician Aleksandr Torshin) to infiltrate conservative political circles, including the National Rifle Association and President Donald Trump’s campaign.

“From our perspective, we’re pretty much ready to go with cooperation,” Butina’s lawyer Robert Driscoll told the court after Kravis spoke. But he also said Butina and her lawyers “understand where the prosecution is coming from” and acknowledged that the government may need his client’s cooperate in the future.

That set off a sidebar between the two parties at the judge’s bench. Static played over loudspeakers in the courtroom as reporters craned to see Kravis and Driscoll speaking with Chutkan. Afterward, the judge announced that she was delaying setting a date for sentencing.

The news comes after Driscoll told Russia’s state-run TASS news agency last week that he expected the judge sentence Butina within the next two to six weeks.

“We think she is done with cooperation now, but we need to make sure the government agrees with that,” Driscoll told TASS at the time.

Although Chutkan granted the government’s request to delay setting a sentencing date, she said that she understands the defense’s concerns about how long Butina has been held.

“Ms. Butina has been detained for a substantial portion of whatever sentence she is likely to serve,” Chutkan conceded.

Butina sat quietly throughout the hearing Tuesday. Dressed in teal prison clothes with her hair pulled back in a neat braid, she nodded when the judge asked her direct questions and listened to the proceedings intently. But she exited the courtroom with her eyes cast down. Her hands appeared to be cuffed in front of her throughout the hearing.

Butina’s boyfriend, Republican fundraiser Paul Erickson, allegedly helped her try to force connections with the Trump campaign, the NRA, and other influential Republican institutions. In May 2016, Erickson pitched his services as a Russia back channel to Trump campaign aide Rick Dearborn, in an email with the subject line “Kremlin Connection.”

“Putin is deadly serious about building a good relationship with Mr. Trump,” Erickson wrote in the email, which was first reported by The New York Times in December 2017.

Erickson hasn’t been charged in relation to Butina’s case, but he faces legal troubles of his own. Federal prosecutors charged him with wire fraud earlier this month in a case related to a health-care business he was promoting to investors in South Dakota. Erickson has pleaded not guilty to those charges, and his lawyers have said he is innocent.

Butina is expected back in court for another status hearing on March 28, though Kravis said in the government may instead ask for sentencing in early April.

Butina has already surrendered her passport to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to expedite her deportation after sentencing, Driscoll told Russian news agency TASS last week.

“Our hope would be that she’ll receive a sentence that will be equivalent to the time already served and that she will be released and deported soon after that,” he said.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

Republican endorses conspiracy theorist to take his place in North Carolina congressional redo

Think Progress - Tue, 02/26/2019 - 12:54pm

Republican Mark Harris won’t seek the same congressional seat he vied for last year when North Carolina holds a new election later this year, he announced on Tuesday.

Last week, Harris ended his bid to be certified the winner in North Carolina’s fraught 9th congressional district election after acknowledging he was the beneficiary of a large-scale election fraud scheme perpetrated by at least one person working for his campaign.

The North Carolina Board of Elections acted quickly, announcing the state must administer a new election to choose the district’s congressperson. Thanks to a new law rushed through the state legislature at the end of 2018, that process will begin with a new set of primaries for each party.

North Carolina Board of Elections calls for a new election in tainted congressional race

On Tuesday, Harris — who cited health issues in his decision to end the hearings by the Board of Elections — announced that he would not seek the GOP nomination this go around.

“After consulting with my physicians, there are several things that my health situation requires as a result of the extremely serious condition that I faced in mid-January,” said Harris in a statement on Tuesday. “Given my health situation, the need to regain full strength, and the timing of this surgery the last week of March, I have decided not to file in the new election for Congressional District 9.”

Harris’s abrupt conclusion of the Board of Elections hearing last week was curiously timed, coming just as the state was beginning to piece together evidence that Harris was in fact aware of an effort to interfere with absentee ballots in Bladen County. Local officials have suggested Harris might still be a focus of a potential criminal investigation after evidence was uncovered suggesting Harris knowingly sought the services of McCrae Dowless, a GOP strategist with a history of interfering in local elections by manipulating, withholding, or outright stealing absentee ballots.

Republican Mark Harris’ story on North Carolina absentee ballot scandal falls apart

In addition to his narrow edge in the general election, Harris won the original GOP primary last spring by an even tighter margin, again owed entirely to his performance in absentee votes. Former Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-NC) was unseated in the primary.

Harris also used his statement on Tuesday to throw his support to local Republican county commissioner Stony Rushing, a far right conspiracy theorist and avid gun supporter who was among the more vocal defenders of Harris throughout his legal battle.

In January, Rushing took to Facebook to claim that the elections board hotline received virtually no complaints from voters to report anomalies with their absentee ballots, insinuating that the state Democratic Party concocted allegations of fraud to steal the election. His false Facebook post was then cited by the executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, who admitted to disseminating inaccurate information. Rushing repeatedly shared misleading or outright false social media posts related to the district race throughout the fraud investigation.

Democrat Dan McCready, who ran in the general election last year, said he plans to run for the Democratic nomination again.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

The worst-case scenario for global warming just got 14°F worse

Think Progress - Tue, 02/26/2019 - 12:53pm

A new study and a new book both argue that the worst-case scenario for global warming would literally render the planet uninhabitable.

The book is entitled “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming” and is written by New York Magazine editor David Wallace-Wells; it is an expansion of his controversial viral article published in July 2017 with the same title. As of Feb. 26, it is number 11 on the Amazon best-seller list — a rarity for any climate book, but perhaps another sign of the growing interest in strong climate action.

The book, published just last week, makes the case that without dramatic climate action, we are headed for catastrophic warming of 7°F (4°C) above pre-industrial temperatures by 2100 — a world of ever-worsening megadroughts and endless food shortages.

But, as Wallace-Wells warns, even the unlikely worst-case warming scenario of 14.4°F (8°C) is possible if we keep on a path of high carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions — and if the climate response is at the high end of the estimated range. Warming of this magnitude would essentially render the world uninhabitable, where little arable land survives and the oceans eventually rise more than 200 feet.

Meanwhile, a new study published Monday in Nature Geoscience led by NASA senior scientist Tapio Schneider looks at one way that worst-case scenario could get much worse.

The study looks at what happens if we triple atmospheric CO2 concentrations to 1200 parts per million (ppm) from their current level of 410 ppm. This is unlikely, but still possible given current rates of emissions, especially if we trigger key amplifying feedbacks — such as the release of vast quantities of CO2 from the melting Arctic permafrost.

The most dangerous climate feedback loop is speeding up

In such a world, warming might be expected to be 11°F (6°C) or even 14.4°F (8°C). But the new study finds that at 1200 ppm, stratocumulus clouds (which are similar to fog) that help cool the planet “become unstable and disappear, triggering a spike in global warming” that would add a further stunning 14.4°F (8°C) of global warming.

The study explains that stratocumulus clouds “cover about 20 percent of subtropical oceans” especially the eastern portion off the coasts of California or Peru. These clouds “cool and shade the earth as they reflect the sunlight that hits them back into space.”

Losing them would likely bring total warming beyond 25°F (14°C), a truly uninhabitable earth.

This scenario may seem impossible, but it’s worth noting that in the early Eocene, 52-56 million years ago, the Earth’s temperature was in that range — both the Arctic and Antarctic were ice-free — and CO2 levels in the air were only in the range of 1000 to 1400 ppm.

Indeed, the study itself points out this so-called previous “Hothouse Earth” millions of years ago may have been driven in part by a loss of stratocumulus clouds — and that it could happen again “in the future if CO2 levels continue to rise.”

The study’s findings are just one look at this dangerous feedback loop, and some scientists argue more work needs to be done to examine the likelihood of this scenario. This is because climate models are complex, particularly when it comes to clouds.

Commenting on the study, leading climate expert Michael Mann told ThinkProgress in an email that, “The findings are plausible. Tapio Schneider is not a scientist to be dismissed lightly.” But he noted that, “Even if the findings are correct (and that would require replication by several independent research teams), this threshold is only hit at 1200 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere.”

Finally, Mann warned (original emphasis), “We can’t afford to get ANYWHERE NEAR 1200 ppm CO2.”

And reaching carbon dioxide levels well below that would still trigger catastrophic consequences. He explained that just 7°F (4°C) of warming “would constitute the end of civilization as we know it.”

We aren’t doomed by climate change. Right now we are choosing to be doomed.

It can be difficult, however, to fully grasp the scale of warming when dealing with what feels like abstract numbers. Indeed, one of Wallace-Wells’ points is that “because the numbers are so small, we tend to trivialize the differences between one degree [Celsius] of warming and two, two degrees and four.”

So Wallace-Wells tries to make what seems trivial and abstract as concrete and visceral as possible with chapter titles such as: “Heat Death,” “Hunger,” “Drowning,” “Wildfire,” “Unbreathable Air,” “Plagues of Warming,” “Economic Collapse,” and “Climate Conflict.”

And halfway through the book he says, in all caps, “If you have made it this far, you are a brave reader.” He admits that any of those chapters contains, “enough horror to induce a panic attack in even the most optimistic of those considering it.”

But, he adds, the science makes clear that “You are not merely considering it; you are about to embark on living it. In many places, we already are.”

In recent years, the science has underscored two key facts that further support this point. First, the climate impacts that come from just one more degree Celsius of warming — for a total of 3.6°F (2°C) warming — will be catastrophic.

Trump ‘poses the single greatest threat’ to our climate, bombshell UN report makes clear

Second, the climate system has many feedback loops that threaten to accelerate warming if we trigger them.

One major 2018 study by 16 top climate scientists, for instance, concluded that if we warm the planet 2°C that may be enough to trigger feedbacks that push the planet toward the irreversible “Hothouse Earth.” That would mean catastrophic warming of 9°F (5°C) or more, with widespread dust bowls and rapid sea level rise.

However you describe it, the science makes it increasingly clear that no rational species would allow us to get anywhere near that level of warming. And that’s precisely what makes strong action in the next decade, as envisioned in proposals such as the Green New Deal, a moral imperative.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

Missouri Supreme Court opens the door to LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections

Think Progress - Tue, 02/26/2019 - 12:31pm

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a gay employee’s case alleging sex discrimination in the workplace could proceed, reversing a lower court ruling and establishing a new precedent that could help protect embattled non-heterosexual workers in the future.

The court also ruled on a separate but similar case involving a transgender student who claimed his school discriminated against him by blocking him from bathrooms and other facilities, saying the student deserved a fair hearing.

At stake in the first case is the extent to which gay, lesbian, and bi people in Missouri are protected on the basis of their sex. State law does not extend employment nondiscrimination protections on the basis of “sexual orientation,” meaning it’s fully legal to fire someone based on their sexuality. But in this case, while the plaintiff acknowledged that he is gay, he claimed that he faced discrimination because of sex stereotyping, not because of his sexual orientation.

Harold Lampley, an employee in the state’s Department of Social Services Child Support Enforcement Division, filed a complaint arguing that he was harassed at work for his non-stereotypical behaviors, noting that employees with stereotypical behaviors were not similarly treated. He claimed to have experienced regular verbal abuse and forced closed-door meetings about his performance. After he complained, he also alleged that he experienced retaliation in the form of poor performance evaluations not consistent with his work.

Lampley’s friend and coworker Rene Frost likewise claimed that she suffered discrimination merely for her affiliation with Lampley. The employer allegedly violated her privacy by publicly announcing her performance review. After she complained, she said she faced retaliation, such as having her desk moved away from Lampley’s and other coworkers with whom she collaborated. Frost claimed she was also banned from eating lunch with Lampley and allegedly faced similar verbal abuse and harassment.

The Missouri Commission on Human Rights concluded this discrimination wasn’t actionable because Lampley’s sexual orientation isn’t protected, and a lower court agreed. It relied on a similar ruling against a recycling company employee named James Pittman, who claimed he had been called a “cocksucker,” asked if he had AIDS, and harassed for having a same-sex partner. The Western District Missouri Court of Appeals ruled in 2015 that Pittman could find no relief under state law, and a circuit court concluded the same must be true for Lampley and Frost.

LGBTQ people are still fighting for protection ‘on the basis of sex’

But in Tuesday’s ruling, the Missouri Supreme Court concluded that being gay does not preclude an employee from protection on the basis of “sex,” which includes sex stereotyping. “[A]n employee who suffers an adverse employment decision based on sex-based stereotypical attitudes of how a member of the employee’s sex should act can support an inference of unlawful sex discrimination,” the majority wrote.

“Sexual orientation is incidental and irrelevant to sex stereotyping. Sex discrimination is discrimination, it is prohibited by the Act, and an employee may demonstrate this discrimination through evidence of sexual stereotyping,” they explained. The Commission was wrong not to give them an opportunity to demonstrate their sex-stereotyping claim, and the Court ordered it to issue Lampley and Frost right-to-sue letters.

The second case on which the Court ruled this week similarly focused on the debate over protections on the basis of sex.

Student “R.M.A.” filed a complaint against Blue Springs School District for denying him access to the boys’ restrooms and locker rooms. The school initially countered both that “gender identity” was not protected under the state’s “sex” protections and also that it should not be considered a “public accommodation” and thus the nondiscrimination law should not apply to it at all. Without specifying which reasoning informed its opinion, a lower court dismissed R.M.A.’s complaint outright.

In a 5-2 ruling this week, the state Supreme Court reached a different conclusion. Rather than considering sex stereotyping, the majority recognized that once a transgender individual has legal changed their sex, as R.M.A. has, they are protected on the basis of that sex. In a footnote, the majority called out the dissenting justices for relying on a distinction between “legal sex” and “biological sex” that is not actually found anywhere in the law. R.M.A. is a boy, and if he’s not being allowed to use boys’ facilities, then he deserves his day in court.

This pair of rulings opens the door to far greater protection for LGBTQ people under Missouri state law — but with some limitations.

The first ruling, for example, accepts the premise that sexual orientation is not itself connected to sex stereotyping, even though expectations about the gender of a person’s romantic partners are obvious stereotypes themselves. This means that while Lampley and other gay, lesbian, and bi workers will now have an opportunity to pursue discrimination claims moving forward, it will require them to prove that they were targeted because of sex stereotypes not directly connected to their sexual orientation.

Likewise, the ruling in favor of R.M.A. seems to rely on transgender people legally changing their sex designation before they are eligible for protection. State law requires transgender people provide proof of surgery to update their birth certificates, although some judges have granted the new gender markers without that requirement. This means that there may still be inconsistent financial and medical obstacles to qualifying for legal protection.

Neither ruling weighs the merits of the discrimination claims, so it also remains to be seen whether Lampley or R.M.A. will prevail once their complaints are given due consideration.

This post has been updated to integrate details regarding the Court’s decision on R.M.A. v. Blue Springs R-IV School District.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

Martina Navratilova’s transphobic op-ed is already being used by anti-trans lawmakers

Think Progress - Tue, 02/26/2019 - 11:51am

Over the past 40 years, tennis legend Martina Navratilova has become as well-known for her off-the-court advocacy as she has for her collection of trophies as a title-winning tennis player. She came out as gay in 1981, and has lent her voice to a number of progressive causes since then, chief among them gay rights and women’s rights.

But over the past couple of weeks, her legacy of equality and inclusion has taken a big hit. Earlier this month, Navratilova wrote an op-ed for the Sunday Times with a self-explanatory title, “The rules on trans athletes reward cheats and punish the innocent.”

In the days since, as Navratilova has doubled down on her comments, she has been praised by anti-trans organizations and condemned by activists with whom she normally aligns, including Athlete Ally — a nonprofit aimed at ending homophobia and discrimination in sports. Navratilova was an Athlete Ally Ambassador and a member of the group’s Advisory Board, but after her op-ed was published, they’ve since parted ways.

But the true impact of Navratilova’s words were felt in South Dakota, where state representatives have been trying to pass House Bill 1225, which, if enacted, would force high school students to compete in sports based on the sex on their birth certificate, not their gender identity. On Monday night, the bill failed to win the majority of votes required to proceed in a 34-34 deadlock. But for the LGBTQ community, it was too close for comfort, and the fact that Navratilova’s own words were weaponized in the effort to take sports away from transgender children did not escape attention.

In fact, as the bill’s backers traded in horror stories masquerading as arguments, darkly warning that being transgender was tantamount to having a mental illness and insinuating that the lion’s share of such children come to regret their decision and detransition, Rep. Lee Qualm (R) passed around a Wall Street Journal opinion piece based on Navratilova’s comments to everyone in the chamber, and read an excerpt from it out loud.

“World-class tennis legend Martina Navratilova, a long-time champion of gay rights, who came out in 1981 as gay, made these statements,” Qualm said. “‘Allowing transgender women in women’s sports is cheating. To put the argument at its most basic, a man can decide to be female, take hormones if required by whatever sporting organization is concerned, win everything in sight, perhaps win a small fortune, and then reverse his decision and go back to making babies if he so desires.”

Qualm continued reading, “It’s insane and it’s cheating. I am happy to address a transgender woman in whatever form she prefers, but I would not be happy to compete against her. It would not be fair.’”

In Navratilova, Qualm found a convenient ally in his effort to foment the anti-trans fear-mongering he needed to support his bill, using her legacy as a champion for gay rights as cover for his own transphobic ends — in this case, picking and choosing which children would be allowed to participate in youth sports.

It was as clear a case of natural consequences as you’ll ever encounter. Nevertheless, on social media, Navratilova expressed shock that her words had been used in this manner, insisting that she’d been taken “out of context.”

How the hell does one jump from a top level athletic competition to basic human rights? I don’t know. And anyone reading the article couldn’t possible come to that conclusion. Talk about taking things out of context…

— Martina Navratilova (@Martina) February 25, 2019

Unfortunately, while Navratilova might have intended her comments to only narrowly pertain to instances when transgender women are competing in elite athletic competitions, she used the exact language and reasoning that is deployed on a daily basis to perpetuate discrimination against the trans community.

In its statement cutting ties with Navratilova, Athlete Ally very deftly outlined the way her  comments were dangerously uninformed:

Within her op-ed in the Sunday Times, Navratilova referred to trans women as men who “decide to be female,” and that to allow them to compete with women is “cheating and unfair.” First of all, trans women are women, period. They did not decide their gender identity any more than someone decides to be gay, or to have blue eyes. There is no evidence at all that the average trans woman is any bigger, stronger, or faster than the average cisgender woman, but there is evidence that often when athletes lower testosterone through hormone replacement therapy, performance goes down.

Trans women athletes aren’t looking to take over women’s sport. They are women, and want to compete in the sport they love, just as any other athlete would. In fact, they’re largely underrepresented. Trans athletes have been allowed to openly compete in the Olympics since 2003, and yet no transgender athlete has ever gone to the Olympics. Professional trans women athletes are extremely rare.

The good news is, the bill in South Dakota didn’t pass.

Since 2014, the South Dakota High School Activities Association has had a policy saying that, “All students should have the opportunity to participate in SDHSAA activities in a manner that is consistent with their gender identity, irrespective of the gender listed on a student’s records.” There haven’t been any problems with that particular policy, and for now, at least, it remains the law of the land.

Libby Skarin, the policy director at ACLU South Dakota, told ThinkProgress that she was incredibly relieved by the outcome.

“It was literally as close as it could possibly be,” Skarin said. “I really thought we would be fighting it on the Senate side.”

However, she knows the fight is far from over. Skarin has worked in South Dakota for five years, and almost every year at least one bill attacking transgender rights has been proposed. HB 1225 was the fourth anti-trans bill to be proposed this session.

Op-eds from respected voices like Navratilova’s aren’t making her job any easier.

“It is so upsetting and so disheartening, because I think sometimes people who have these large platforms don’t realize how impactful their words are,” Skarin said. “Already we’re seeing her words be used to keep trans kids from playing high school sports. It is just so disheartening. It’s hard to express how heartbreaking it is.”

Categories: SCCDP Allies

Woman in ICE custody gives birth to stillborn infant

Think Progress - Tue, 02/26/2019 - 9:37am

A 24-year-old Honduran woman in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) delivered a stillborn child at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Texas on Friday.

According to a joint statement Monday from ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the woman was apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol near Hildago, Texas on February 18. At the time, she told agents she was six months pregnant. While in Border Patrol custody, she passed two medical screenings and was cleared for release on February 21.

The next day, however, while being processed for release, the woman “began complaining of abdominal discomfort” and went into premature labor at 27 weeks pregnant. ICE Health Service Corps transported both mother and child to a nearby hospital where the infant was pronounced dead. The woman remains in ICE custody, awaiting medical release.

Just a few years ago, it was ICE protocol not to detain pregnant immigrants unless “extraordinary circumstances” existed. A 2016 policy was implemented based upon general consensus that incarceration places mental and medical health stresses on a pregnant individual, and detention centers are often ill-equipped to properly serve their needs.

In 2017, however, acting ICE Director Thomas Homan reversed this policy to comply with President Trump’s executive order to implement a stricter enforcement of immigration law and end the policy of “catch-and-release,” which allowed immigrants to live in the United States while they await their appearance in immigration court. Pregnant individuals are now released by ICE only on a case-by-case basis. According to an ICE fact sheet, the agency does not detain pregnant immigrants in their third trimester, which begins at 28 weeks. The Honduran woman who experienced a stillbirth at Port Isabel was in her 27th week of her pregnancy.

When reached by ThinkProgress for comment on what the “extraordinary circumstance” was that allowed a woman so near her third trimester to be detained, ICE provided the same joint statement released Monday.

The 2017 policy reversal notably removed essential reporting requirements for detention oversight, making it difficult to accurately track how pregnant immigrants are treated in detention.

“This would have included information on when a pregnant woman came into custody, what type of medical treatment was she being given to a woman and also what sub-offices were in charge of keeping tabs on this,” Victoria López, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project, told ThinkProgress. “Those reporting requirements were eliminated and were really important for public accountability.”

“Detention is not a suitable place for a woman to receive medical care,” she added. “In the context of what we continue to learn about ICE and their failures to track and be held responsible for their medical neglect, this case just continues to beg the question of why ICE continues to operate in this fashion.”

In 2011, ICE created detention standards that outlined how women and pregnant individuals are to be treated while in custody. According to the manual, which has been updated over time, “A pregnant detainee in custody shall have access to pregnancy services including routine or specialized prenatal care, pregnancy testing, comprehensive counseling and assistance, postpartum follow up, lactation services and abortion services.”

CBP, which usually is the first agency to come into contact and house immigrants at the border, does not have the same standard.

Despite the clear guidelines of medical care for pregnant immigrants held in ICE detention facilities, multiple women have come forward with reports of miscarriages while in custody.

Responding to DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s claim that pregnant individuals in ICE custody are provided with prenatal care, separate housing, specialists, counseling, and offsite appointments if necessary, Rubia Mabel Morales Alfaro, a 28-year-old who was in ICE custody from around Dec. 23, 2017 to March 15, 2018, told BuzzFeed News: “It’s a lie. They didn’t give me anything. If they had had that, I would not have lost my son. I don’t understand why they won’t take care of pregnant women.”

In a complaint filed by the ACLU and other immigrant advocacy groups shortly after the Trump administration reversed course on their policy of not detaining pregnant immigrants, 10 immigrant women — some of whom experienced miscarriages — described their harrowing experiences of being pregnant while in ICE custody. Their testimony shows a troubling pattern of ICE officials repeatedly denying release or proper medical care to pregnant individuals.

Sara, a 24-year-old woman from Honduras, fled to the United States with her 8-year-old daughter after being raped. When she arrived on August 17, 2017, she informed CBP officers that she was around seven weeks pregnant. Her pregnancy was confirmed at a medical screening at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. Despite informing ICE of her pregnancy herself, she was released only after her attorney also notified the agency.

“In places like Dilley we are seeing one new pregnant woman a day,” Katie Shepherd, who does legal advocacy for asylum-seeking women at the American Immigration Council, one of the agencies that filed the complaint with the ACLU, told ThinkProgress. “Dilley is the largest concentration of detained pregnant women in the country because it is a family detention facility. Most of these women are not in their third trimester, although it does happen sometimes.”

Emma, a woman from El Salvador, became pregnant after being raped and tortured in Mexico en route to the United States. She arrived in the country with her 5-year-old daughter and told CBP officers she was 7 weeks pregnant and bleeding. Emma was taken to the hospital by car, but was returned to a CBP processing center.

“I wanted to explain to the immigration officer who processed me about my rape and show him that my fingernails were missing [as part of the torture inflicted on her] but he said, ‘No, don’t tell me anything. You all say the same thing’,” Emma told attorneys. “I was taken back to the border, where we slept in the cold on very thin mattresses. Most people were given only aluminum blankets but I was given a real one. I still could not sleep, however, because there were so many children crying. I could not eat because the smell of food makes me want to vomit.”

Over just the last two years, 22 immigrants have died in ICE detention centers alone. This does not include the highly publicized deaths of Jakelin Caal Maquin and Felipe Gomez Alonzo, two young indigenous children from Guatemala who died in CBP custody last December, or the death of Claudia Patricia Gomez Gonzalez, the 20-year-old Guatemalan young woman who was shot in the head by a Border Patrol agent last spring.

In their statement this week, ICE and CBP were careful to clarify that “a stillbirth is not considered an in-custody death.”

Categories: SCCDP Allies

Trump can tweet whatever he wants. Spike Lee — and black art — already won.

Think Progress - Mon, 02/25/2019 - 3:25pm

Spike Lee had been an Academy Award winner for all of 10 hours before President Donald Trump tried to steal his shine.

“Be nice if Spike Lee could read his notes, or better yet not have to use notes at all, when doing his racist hit on your President,” Trump tweeted Monday morning, apparently under the misinformed impression Lee had breathed his name during his acceptance speech Sunday night.

But whether he realizes it or not, the president’s pre-dawn cheap-shot is in keeping with a long tradition: White people have imposed weird parochial demands and fumble-fingered misinterpretations on Spike Lee for as long as he’s been making movies.

When “Do the Right Thing” came out in 1989, many white viewers and critics accused Lee of trying to stir up black anger. And this wasn’t just a hobbyhorse for white conservatives, far removed from the racial tensions Lee so effortlessly captured in that masterpiece. David Denby’s alarm-ringing review in The New Yorker was an especially notorious entry in a wave of panicked responses from major writers, convinced that Lee — in his treatment of the film’s climactic scene in which a white cop’s murder of a black man touches off a riot — wanted to foment similar violence. The Independent’s Keith Botsford warned readers that Lee had put “his hatred on celluloid,” grandiosely insinuating that Lee’s movie was nothing but an incitement to anti-whiteness. Lee was famously interrogated by three American reporters at a Cannes Film Festival press conference, all livid that “Do the Right Thing” made no mention of black drug use.

These days, we’ve become trained to expect many of our cultural conversations to cycle from hype to backlash and back again at a breakneck pace, so it’s hard to appreciate the way that the panicky, bad-faith reactions that greeted “Do the Right Thing” actually lingered long after the movie left theaters.

Among the white literati, the smears and willful misreadings of Lee’s masterpiece were revived again and again in their coverage of his subsequent work. The Boston Herald’s Don Feder paused in a 1992 writeup of Lee’s Malcolm X biopic to accuse him of “sentimentaliz[ing] race riots” three years earlier. For most of a decade, Lee was tarred as being bent on inspiring black-on-white crime, if not an outright race war. And as far as today’s digital-age right-wing outlets are concerned, he still is.

By the time Lee took aim at the issues conservative commentators have most fixated upon as evidence of some kind of inherent rot within African-American culture – black fatherhood in 1998’s “He Got Game,” or black street violence in 2015’s “Chi-Raq” – those observers had become so entrenched against the director that they barely seemed to notice.

The disingenuous focus on Lee’s perceived political deficiencies has also undercut a critical appreciation of his contributions to filmmaking. From his use of hyperclose shots of speaking mouths and crowds of listening faces, to that gliding dolly shot he always finds a striking way to deploy, Lee has created a signature style that’s retained its radical chic decades after he first unleashed these inventions. Lee’s mise en scène deserves to be considered alongside universally acknowledged titans – including both the international arthouse greats like Bergmann and Kurosawa, and Lee’s poppier American forebears like Douglas Sirk and Orson Welles.

But even white critics with a keen understanding of Lee’s artistic merit and filmic innovations, the reactionary environment that came to surround his early work prevented them from grasping the importance of having a black craftsman, helming black stories. In a 1995 interview in The Guardian, Lee was pressed with the suggestion that he’d become so “cocooned” that he rarely made it “outside of that black consciousness.” Might he be missing something essential by insisting that his characters, stories, and settings emphasized blackness?

Lee’s response then is resonant even now: “I think that black life is universal automatically. So when I do a film about a black family, I don’t think I’m in a cocoon,” Lee said. “I’m not doing a film that I think only black people can understand, because I think if a film works on a universal level, then it works.”

“What is amazing to me,” Lee continued, “is that no one’s ever, ever, ever asked Akira Kurosawa: ‘Mr. Kurosawa, why are all your films about Japanese culture?’ No one ever asked Federico Fellini: ‘Mr. Fellini, why are all your films about Italian culture?’ No one ever asked Ingmar Bergman: ‘Why are all your films about Swedish culture?’ But the minute black artists try to express themselves about our culture, then it’s like, ‘You’re not universal. When are you going to do a film that encompasses all of humanity?’ That’s crazy. Insane.”

Lee was similarly clear-eyed about the film industry’s own poo-pooing of black stories. In 1995 — the year before Cuba Gooding Jr. took home a golden statuette for a movie with the same magical-black-friend-teaches-white-guy-to-grow formula that just propelled “Green Book” to the 2019 Best Picture award – Lee told interviewer Finn Halligan that “Hollywood dealers still see me as a black director” who would never show them the money.

If Hollywood accountants are worth their degrees, then Sunday night’s Oscars should forever bury the hoary notion that black scripts can’t make green. “Black Panther” followed up its $1.3 billion global gross by winning three of the seven little gold statues it was nominated for, including a long-overdue Academy Award for veteran costume designer Ruth Carter. Yes, the ability to make money is still probably the most powerful force shaping the attitudes of film industry gatekeepers. Artistic merit takes longer to break through on its own.

Nevertheless, Lee’s win seems to acknowledge that his artistry did break through, conceding at last: You had it right the whole time, Spike, and your detractors got it wrong. Perhaps there was no other way for the Academy to make this concession than to attach their overdue recognition to a movie that’s more a Spike Lee melange than a Spike Lee masterpiece — and one that flatters the white desire to be told that American racism is a simple story of hood-wearing bad guys. It nevertheless felt like an apology for overlooking the crown jewels of Lee’s filmography: “Do the Right Thing,” “Malcolm X,” “25th Hour,” and his Hurricane Katrina documentary “When the Levees Broke.”

It’s not wrong to feel this way. The Academy is famous for being late in praising those filmmakers whose radical ideas have shaped the art form. Pop-pulp auteurs like Robert Altman and Sidney Lumet had to wait for the movie industry elites to catch on to the fact that cultural rules of the 1950s had gone to rot before the Academy tossed them honorary trophies for their service. Agnes Vardá spent six decades making shattering documentaries about life on the margins of global capitalism before she got an Oscars invite in 2018. It’s always easier to celebrate someone after their ideas have lasted long enough in the firmament to at last be considered safe enough for public consumption. In this, Lee has many peers.

Nevertheless, if it’s frustrating to have waited for Lee’s past efforts to win acknowledgement, there is a certain amount of delight to be taken in Lee standing at center stage at a moment when black artistic power seems to be reaching a critical mass across Hollywood.

The aforementioned box-office triumph of “Black Panther,” Ryan Coogler’s Marvel-springboarded Afro-futurist wonderland has shattered the conventional wisdom of Tinseltown bean-counters. Barry Jenkins’ restrained sensuality and monolith-defying treatment of black experiences have earned him award tours for back-to-back masterpieces – and even if voters fell short in getting “If Beale Street Could Talk” what it deserved this season, it proved the 2017 accolades for “Moonlight” weren’t a fluke. And bubbling under that Academy Award pantheon are new radicals, like “Sorry to Bother You” director Boots Riley and multi-platform multi-hyphenate Jordan Peele. Along with established talents like Steve McQueen and Ava Duvernay, there’s a whole new generation of black artists now thriving in the space Lee helped create for them.

Lee’s accomplishment, then, is not just being the filmmaker who built his own tools to dismantle his master’s house. He’s made the world itself larger and more accommodating of black stories. Thanks to Lee, there’s no longer a question as to whether black movies can get made in the first place. And with more such movies getting made, Lee’s successors are tenaciously eroding the false understanding of black lives and culture as monolithic – one key component of the lazy thinking that led Denby and the rest to think they could predict how black folk writ large would respond to “Do the Right Thing.”

There should be no doubt that Spike Lee’s long overdue award mattered – just allow the director’s own ebullient reaction to be your guide. In that moment, Lee had the energy of the young director he once was, giddy with the joy of making movies, for a moment not thinking about all the things he had to fight through to make it in the business.

Suspicious minds and bad-faith actors have long tried to tear Lee down — to deny him his place in the pantheon. Trump’s slapdash attempt to do the same the morning after the Oscars was nothing Lee hadn’t heard a thousand times before. If anything, it was a pale echo of what Lee had already overcome.

Spike Lee has won. And the future – represented by Jenkins, Coogler, Duvernay, McQueen, Riley, and other budding black auteurs – sure looks awful pretty.

Categories: SCCDP Allies

EPA official agreed to help former colleague’s husband find ‘senior’ position at the agency

Think Progress - Mon, 02/25/2019 - 2:37pm

Newly-released emails between top officials at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and chemical lobbyists show that the industry has kept a close relationship to the agency both before and after the departure of former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, under whose tenure the agency relaxed chemical regulations.

According to conversations over the past two years, EPA officials have been actively meeting with members of the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and maintaining warm connections with the industry trade association. And on at least one occasion, that coziness has extended to an ACC senior director reaching out to an EPA official to ask for help with finding their husband a “senior level position” with the agency.

Emails obtained by the Sierra Club through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and shared with ThinkProgress show Komal K. Jain, a senior director with ACC, wrote to Nancy Beck at the EPA on August 4, 2017. Prior to joining the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention in May 2017, Beck worked as a senior director at the ACC.

In the email — entitled “hiring?” — Jain asked her former colleague about potentially looking into an EPA position for her husband.

“I’d love to catch up whenever you can clear your calendar for lunch or a cocktail,” Jain wrote, noting that she heard Beck “may be hiring for several positions.”

“I’m not inquiring for myself, but for my husband Craig who has been in the environmental arena for a long time. In fact, he is a former EPA employee; he was with the Energy Star program for several years.”

“He recently left Toshiba where he ran its environmental affairs program for the Americas for 10+ years. He’s looking for senior level position in a policy/management role (not a scientist). Anything come to mind? I can shoot his CV over if there is a possibility.”

In response, Beck asked if he might be interested in a “political position” and invited Jain to send her husband’s resume. She did so on August 7 in an email that has been largely redacted.

No further communication is immediately available in the exchange. An EPA spokesperson told ThinkProgress that Jain’s husband was never considered for a position within the agency. Jain similarly responded to a request for comment and said that the emails were sent on “a pure personal matter” and that her husband did not speak or meet with Beck, nor did he interview with the agency.

Screenshot of emails between Komal Jain and Nancy Beck. Screenshot of emails between Komal Jain and Nancy Beck.

Andrew Rosenberg, a director at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy, told ThinkProgress that the email exchange between Beck and Jain made him “queasy.”

While Rosenberg said he was unsure if such an exchange constituted an ethics violation, he noted that it underscores the close relationship industry has enjoyed with the EPA under President Donald Trump.

“[It’s] something I’ve been concerned about with this administration overall,” Rosenberg said. He also referenced the role Beck has played since joining the administration, including pushing back on controversial efforts to restrict the use of scientific data in policymaking. In emails made public last summer, Beck opposed such efforts because she worried they would open the chemical industry up to scrutiny.

In an email to ThinkProgress, Jeff Ruch, executive director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), said he thought it was unlikely that Beck’s exchange with Jain posed an ethical concern.

“Political jobs are not merit-based,” he said. He did caveat, however, that Beck’s prior employment with the ACC could still pose a problem if the official pledged to recuse herself.

And in a June 9, 2017 statement shortly after joining the EPA, Beck did recuse herself from “participating personally and substantially in any particular matter” involving ACC for a year. That time has since passed, but her email exchange with Jain occurred only two months after that recusal.

More broadly, the exchange, along with other emails released to the Sierra Club, offers a window into the relationship between the EPA and the ACC. They show a steady stream of communications between top-level EPA officials and ACC in 2017 and 2018.

The New York Times reported in June 2018 that heavy lobbying by ACC has come in step with decisions by the Trump administration to scale back how the EPA decides health and safety risks associated with dangerous chemicals.

ACC’s clients include ExxonMobil Chemical and Chevron Phillips Chemical, in addition to Monsanto, and DuPont — which has been infamously involved in litigation over toxic man-made chemicals linked to cancer. At the EPA, Beck has worked to loosen regulations on such chemicals.

Meanwhile, the EPA has stalled a health review of hexavalent chromium, a toxic metal — another move that follows ACC’s efforts to influence the agency. ACC represents companies that either produce or utilize hexavalent chromium.

Beck’s relationship with staffers at her former place of employment also speaks to a larger trend within the Trump administration — that of a revolving door between industry and government officials responsible for regulating those industries.

In addition to Beck, former EPA public affairs official Liz Bowman — who departed the agency in May 2018 at the height of controversy surrounding Pruitt — previously served as a spokesperson for ACC before joining the EPA. She now works for Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA).

The ACC’s relationship with the EPA also extends to Bill Wehrum, assistant administrator for the EPA’s air and radiation office, who has come under increased scrutiny in recent days for his industry ties.

As ThinkProgress reported last May, for instance, Wehrum, a former attorney and lobbyist, had lobbied the EPA to loosen air pollution rules prior to joining the EPA. Since joining the EPA, Wehrum has remained close to former clients. He has also engaged with the ACC, according to emails reviewed by ThinkProgress.

Internal emails show top EPA official lobbied to loosen air pollution rules before joining agency

On Aug. 23, 2018, Wehrum met with five representatives from ACC for a little over an hour. They were joined by several representatives from Exponent, a controversial engineering and consulting firm that has historically been accused of bending science to meet the needs of clients, including supporting the tobacco industry’s downplaying of lung cancer risks.

Also present at the meeting were representatives from the company Balchem, which supplies the sterilizer industry, and the company Sterigenics, which markets itself as a “leading global provider of comprehensive sterilization solutions.” Earlier this month, lawmakers called for Sterigenics to be investigated over cases of cancer associated with leaking ethylene oxide, a cancer-causing gas, at a plant owned by the company.

The meeting also included EPA staffers Clint Woods, Alex Dominguez, Justin Schwab, and Richard Yamada; however it is unclear what was discussed.

Meanwhile, Wehrum has recently come under fire from Democrats and watchdog groups alike for his close relationships with other industries such as the utilities sector.

In a Feb. 21 letter, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) joined House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Senate Environment and Public Works ranking member Tom Carper (D-DE) in calling for an ethics investigation into Wehrum’s actions at the EPA.

First widely-reported by the Washington Post, the letter specifically takes aim at Wehrum’s involvement with regulatory action directly impacting a former client.

Under Pruitt, the EPA moved to roll back key mandates under the Clean Air Act. DTE Energy, a utility company and client of Wehrum’s former law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth (formerly known as Hunton & Williams), was in litigation in 2017 after the Obama-era EPA accused the company of failing to account for pollution from the expansion of a Michigan coal plant.

But in Dec. 2017, Pruitt signed a memo pledging not to second-guess company pollution projections. That decision came just in time, with DTE’s case set to appear before the Supreme Court. After the memo, the court declined to hear the case. Wehrum has acknowledged he reviewed the memo.

“We believe an OIG [Office of the Inspector General] investigation is warranted in this case,” wrote Carper, Whitehouse, and Pallone. “No other federal agency or component of the EPA will be able to fully ascertain whether, and if so, the degree to which, ethics violations have occurred.”

It is possible, the politicians argue, that Wehrum may have violated federal ethics rules, something that could complicate his tenure at the EPA. It is unclear if OIG has responded to the request.

This article has been updated to include Komal Jain’s comments.

Categories: SCCDP Allies