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Chart of the Day: Federal Debt at the Start of Trump Era

Mother Jones - 3 hours 41 min ago

The Congressional Budget Office has published its latest forecast of deficits and debt over the next decade. Here it is:

As the CBO notes, this steady rise in the debt is pretty much inevitable given an aging population and a Republican Congress unwilling to properly fund our spending commitments. Still, I'm not a huge debt alarmist, and this projection doesn't bother me a lot. It would be nice to see the national debt decline during economic expansions like our current one, though. After all, economic expansions don't last forever, even with the galaxy's best businessman in charge of the country.

Still, it's worth putting this up as a baseline. This is the debt projection at the end of the Obama era. In 2020, after four years1 of total Republican rule, we can compare and see just what the projected debt looks like in the hands of folks who claim to be devoted to balanced budgets and low deficits. My guess is that it will be somewhere north of 120 percent of GDP.

Of course, I might be wrong. Maybe the economy will grow at 4 or 5 percent per year under GOP stewardship and the resulting boom will cause tax revenue to skyrocket and the debt to come down. Anything is possible, I suppose. But I wouldn't bet on it.


Black women die from cervical cancer at twice the rate of white women, study says

VICE News - 4 hours 42 min ago

Black women die of cervical cancer at far higher rates than previously thought, according to a study published Monday in the journal Cancer. In fact, they die from it at more than twice the rate of white women.

Researchers found that, when controlling for women who’ve had hysterectomies — in other words, excluding from the study women whose risk of cervical cancer has effectively been eliminated — death rates from cervical cancer rise for both white and black women, but far more dramatically for black women. Rates of death measured between 2000 and 2012 jumped from 3.2 per 100,000 white women and 5.7 per 100,000 black women, to 4.7 and 10.1, respectively.

“The rate of death [of black women] is still twice that for white women,” the authors wrote. “This is a public health disparity that cannot be ignored.”

According to the paper, the inclusion of women who’ve had hysterectomies in the data affects the rate of death for black women more because they have a higher rate of hysterectomies.

Though cervical cancer death rates have been declining, each year more than 12,000 women are diagnosed with the disease in the U.S., and 4,000 die.

Here’s what you need to know about the Syria peace talks led by Russia, Turkey, and Iran

VICE News - 4 hours 43 min ago

Russia, Turkey, and Iran on Tuesday backed the participation of rebel groups at U.N.-led Syrian peace talks to be held in Geneva next month and will seek to maintain the fragile cease-fire in place throughout much of Syria. Rebel leaders, however, are not happy with the results of the tense negotiations, which they say feature Iran in an outsized role against a weakened Turkey.

Russian-led efforts to resolve the six-year civil war in Syria, which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced millions more, come on the heels of a ceasefire agreement brokered with Turkey’s help shortly after Bashar Assad’s decisive win in the key city of Aleppo, which all but assured the Syrian dictator’s presence in any Syrian solution.

In a joint statement following the two-day talks in Astana, the three countries acknowledged “an urgent necessity to step up efforts to jumpstart the negotiation process” with opposition rebels scheduled to take place under U.N. oversight in Geneva next month.

Where the peace talks stand

The result of two days of contentious negotiations in the remote Kazakhstan capital Astana have resulted in the promise by Russia, Iran, and Turkey to establish a trilateral commission to monitor and enforce the current cease-fire in Syria, which went into effect last month. The final document, however, was not signed by representatives of either the Syrian government or the rebel forces.

In a statement read out at the end of the two-day meeting, Kazakhstan’s foreign minister, Kairat Abdrakhmanov, said the three countries will use their “influence” to strengthen the truce — though he failed to give any details of just how this will work.

Bashar al-Ja’afari, Syria’s U.N. ambassador, who led the government delegation, said the talks had been a success and said the cease-fire had been consolidated for “a specific period of time,” though he didn’t elaborate on the truce’s terms.

The talks came about as the result of a cease-fire brokered by Turkey and Russia last month, with Iran — a key ally to Assad — brought on board as a third guarantor of the cease-fire. Iran’s inclusion angered rebel groups, and immediately after meetings finished, rebel representatives made clear they would not negotiate with Tehran, declaring it has “no say on Syria’s future.”

BREAKING: Rebels say in #Astana they will not negotiate with Iran, Tehran has no say on Syria's future. More soon on https://t.co/hGzrK2N8WC pic.twitter.com/L8iTGsSskQ

— Al Jazeera News (@AJENews) January 24, 2017

Why the Syrian rebels are balking

The rebels have accused Turkey of being weak during negotiations, adding that they would not endorse the statement read in Astana on Tuesday. One rebel leader, who declined to identify himself, told Reuters: “Iran is spearheading in a number of areas military offensives and leading to forcible displacements of thousands of Syrians and causing bloodletting. This communique legitimizes this role.”

The cease-fire does not include Islamic State or Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the group formerly known as the al-Nusra Front and previously linked to al Qaida. Tuesday’s joint statement called on rebel groups to distance themselves from JFS, a move that has gained fresh urgency after the group launched an attack on Tuesday against the Free Syrian Army in Idlib province. 

The talks were the first face-to-face meeting between representatives of Assad’s government and Syrian opposition forces since the civil war broke out in 2011. However, initial hope for a positive outcome was dashed when talks quickly descended into name-calling on Day One.

On Monday, as all sides sat at a large circular table in the Rixos Hotel in Astana, Mohammad al-Alloush, political leader of one of the rebel groups known as the Army of Islam, used the platform to call the government “a bloody despotic regime.” In response, the government’s al-Ja’afari accused rebels of making intentionally provocative statements and labelled them “armed terrorist groups.”

As the face-to-face talks broke down, diplomats found themselves shuttling back and forth between the two groups, in an effort to rescue some progress from the vaunted two-day meeting. U.N. envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, originally in Astana in the capacity of an observer, worked behind the scenes to create the semblance of a workable outcome.

The agreement in Astana may now pave the way for wider U.N.-led talks in Geneva scheduled to take place on Feb. 8, when the political future of Syria will be discussed.

Trump's Health Secretary Pick Tied to Fringe Medical Group That Defends Doctors Accused of Misconduct

Mother Jones - 5 hours 6 min ago

Last week, the Senate health committee grilled Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), President Donald Trump's nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), on his plan to dismantle Obamacare and his extensive trading in medical stocks. But when senators on the finance committee question him on Tuesday before voting on his nomination, they might want to ask about a line in his resume that suggests he poses a much broader threat to government regulation of health care. Price has long been a member of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a fringe medical group that is deeply opposed to any government role in regulating doctors.

AAPS got its start in the 1940s, with the help of members of the John Birch Society, the extreme right-wing group known for peddling outlandish conspiracy theories. It has fought the government over health care ever since. Its statement of principles declares it "evil" and "immoral" for doctors to participate in Medicaid and Medicare.

AAPS has been a vocal player in the anti-vaccine movement. Its medical journal has attacked immigrants as the source of disease outbreaks, including leprosy, and suggested that HIV doesn't cause AIDS but that abortion causes breast cancer. The scientific consensus rejects all of these claims. AAPS was the primary source of rumors during the presidential campaign that Hillary Clinton was suffering from a major illness. It has opposed electronic medical records, calling them a form of "data control" like that used by the Stasi, the former East German secret police. Researchers estimate that medical errors kill more than 250,000 Americans a year, making them the third leading cause of death, but AAPS dismisses such reports as a bogus pretext for more government regulation of health care. AAPS was a prominent opponent of the Affordable Care Act, and Price appeared regularly at its protests and events, speaking out against the health reform bill.

Price has been listed as a member of AAPS as far back as 2009, when the group touted him as a member in a press release. Multiple news accounts last month stated that Price was an active member of the group. However, AAPS general counsel Andrew Schlafly could not confirm whether Price is still a member of the group, and Price's congressional office did not respond to a request for comment.

As HHS secretary, Price would be in charge of multiple federal offices involved in improving health care safety, a job that includes oversight of the regulation of individual physicians. But AAPS has opposed a wide range of government measures to hold individual doctors accountable, and even some private ones. It has fought to limit malpractice lawsuits and battled proposals to require board-certified specialists to recertify every 10 years to ensure their scientific knowledge is current. It has worked to strip disciplinary power from state medical boards and even gotten involved in lawsuits to weaken federal protections for the peer-review process, in which doctors vet their colleagues.

"I think that Dr. Price has the potential to cripple the delivery system reform that is making patients safer and giving them better care every day," says Michael Millenson, a professor at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine who consults with the health care industry on reducing medical errors.

AAPS, though, is thrilled with his nomination. "The hope is that Tom Price will try to steer HHS in the right direction," says Schlafly, the son of the late anti-feminist icon Phyllis Schlafly. "We were glad he got picked. We support him. We like him. He's a good guy."

AAPS has long been a bad doctor's best friend. Over the years, it has waged concerted campaigns to protect doctors accused of misconduct.

In 2007, AAPS sued the Texas medical board when it tried to discipline some physicians for particularly egregious misconduct, including one doctor the board believed was injecting patients with jet fuel and formaldehyde as part of his "chemical sensitivity" treatments. (The doctor later explained that he was merely injecting patients with the "electromagnetic imprint" of carcinogens as part of his homeopathic treatments and was eventually allowed to keep his license, with some restrictions.) After six years of litigation, AAPS ultimately lost its lawsuit against the medical board. But in 2011, the group succeeded in persuading the Texas legislature to strip the board of much of its power.

AAPS has defended doctors criminally charged with drug trafficking for overprescribing pain medication, a key factor in the opioid epidemic. One of those doctors, William Hurwitz, was alleged to have prescribed one patient 1,600 pain pills in a day. One of his patients allegedly died of an overdose after he prescribed her massive doses of morphine. After Hurwitz was sentenced to prison for 25 years, AAPS filed a brief as part of his appeal. (He was eventually retried and sentenced to just under five years.) In 2009, Price headlined the AAPS annual meeting where the conference materials included a poem Hurwitz wrote from prison.

The group championed Parvaz Dara, a New Jersey oncologist whose medical license was revoked in 2011 after his unsanitary medical practice infected at least 29 cancer patients with hepatitis B. AAPS issued press releases decrying Dara's persecution, published his writing in its medical journal, and invited him to speak at its conferences. (The New Jersey medical board restored his license in 2014, with some restrictions.)

Schlafly says AAPS gets involved "when there's an unfair action against a doctor for exercising his independent judgment." He adds, "We're more about standing out against government, against big hospital systems, against big insurance companies. There's a libertarian streak in our organizations."

AAPS is so opposed to any questioning of doctors that it's fought peer review, the process used by doctors to evaluate each other's work. Peer review is sacrosanct in medicine, and it's enshrined in a federal law that protects doctors from lawsuits by other doctors to encourage them to participate in the process. AAPS has filed legal briefs in support of doctors who, after peer review, were denied hospital privileges because of their poor care and threat to patients; the group frequently argues in these cases in favor of making it easier for doctors to sue colleagues who blow the whistle on them.

Price has long supported the crusade against malpractice lawsuits. In Congress, he has advocated federal limits on malpractice suits, and his proposed Obamacare replacement legislation would restrict suits against doctors. But even without legislation, Price would have tremendous power as HHS secretary over how the government regulates doctors. For instance, he would oversee a national database aimed at preventing dangerous doctors from moving across state lines and continuing to practice. "Boy, our members dislike that National Practitioners Data Bank," says Schlafly, who wants to limit hospitals' ability to report disciplinary action to the database.

In 2011, Price introduced legislation to do just that. It didn't pass, but he'll have the ability to undermine the database at HHS. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently found that hospitals and medical boards routinely evade database reporting requirements, allowing many doctors accused of sexual assault to keep practicing. HHS could crack down on this problem, but Price seems more likely to weaken the reporting requirements than to enforce them.

AAPS' opposition to federal efforts to improve health care extends beyond regulation of doctors. It has opposed federal funding for comparative effectiveness research to figure out, for instance, whether spine surgery is better than physical therapy for most back pain. (It's not.) There's little private support for such research because it threatens the health care industry's bottom line, so it relies on federal funds. AAPS sees this sort of work as a gateway to government-rationed health care. That's because the research could be used to end Medicare payments for ineffective care, such as lucrative but unnecessary spine surgeries or useless but expensive drugs. The group believes doctors should have the ultimate authority over all treatment decisions. Price apparently does, too. One of the many bills he sponsored to overturn Obamacare included language that would have banned comparative effectiveness research from being used to deny coverage for a treatment or procedure in a government health care plan. The bill would also have restricted the publication of the results of such research—potentially leaving the public in the dark about medical choices.  

Patient safety advocates are particularly concerned that much of Price's work as health secretary to advance AAPS' agenda could occur out of the public view. "This is someone who belongs to a group that has singled out functions that protect the public that the public doesn't even know exists," says Millenson. "You're talking about someone with a detailed agenda, and detailed agenda to mess things up. If that doesn't worry you, I'd like to know why."

UK Supreme Court rules Parliament gets a vote on Brexit

VICE News - 7 hours 2 min ago

Britain’s highest court ruled Tuesday that the government cannot formally trigger Brexit proceedings by itself, and must gain the consent of parliament before it begins the process of removing the U.K. from the European Union.

As was widely anticipated, the Supreme Court rejected the government’s argument that Prime Minister Theresa May could use her executive powers to invoke Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon – which will formally start negotiations with the EU on extricating Britain from the bloc – and ruled that an Act of Parliament would be required instead. An Act of Parliament requires the approval of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

The decision, which sets clear limits on the government’s executive powers, was cheered by many as a victory for parliamentary sovereignty, and seen as a further obstacle for the government’s Brexit ambitions. But while it will compel the government to swiftly introduce emergency legislation to gain parliamentary approval for Brexit, it is unlikely to seriously derail its timetable for the process, much less the outcome itself.

A spokesman for May insisted the government’s plan to trigger Article 50 by the end of March would not be affected by the decision. Hours later, Brexit Secretary David Davis told parliament that the government would introduce legislation “within days” to trigger the process.

The 11-judge panel voted 8-3 in favor of the case brought by businesswoman Gina Miller and hairdresser Deir dos Santos in their legal challenge to the government’s plans. The case, lodged shortly after the June referendum, resulted in a High Court ruling in November that the government needed Parliament’s approval. The government then lodged a fast-track appeal for the Supreme Court to rule on the matter.

Miller, who has been the subject of death threats and harassment for bringing the case, welcomed the decision as having created “legal certainty, based on our democratic process, and provided the legal foundations for the Government to trigger Article 50 in line with our constitution.”

“This ruling today means the MPs we have elected will rightfully have the opportunity to bring their invaluable experience and expertise to bear in helping the Government select the best course in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations,” she said in a statement.

Britain’s attorney general, Jeremy Wright, told reporters after the decision that while the government was disappointed, it accepted the court’s ruling.

An anti-EU protestor outside the Supreme Court - photo by Tim Hume

A group of pro-EU protesters outside the Supreme Court in London celebrated the decision. “I believe in parliamentary sovereignty and I’m glad that the judges have vindicated the principle that Parliament make decisions of the magnitude that the country faces,” Richard Kirker told VICE News, adding that he still hoped Brexit could be stopped.

“The prime minister did not have a mandate to steamroll a Brexit through Parliament. The terms of our disengagement must be debated fully after proper scrutiny by parliamentarians, 70 percent of them who stood on a pro-EU platform.”

Edward Spinks, a London theater technician, said he was “not willing to accept Brexit yet” and hoped the ruling would clear the way for Britain to “reassess its position.”

“I think we may well be able to put Article 50 on hold, on chill, for some time until maybe it becomes less legally binding,” he said.

But such hopes are likely to be in vain. The president of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury, stressed that the verdict had nothing to do with whether the U.K. should leave the EU.

And although the majority of British MPs were in favor remaining in the EU, there is little apparent political will to attempt to stall the triggering of Article 50, a move which would defy the wishes of the 52 percent of voters who backed Brexit in the referendum.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that his party respected “the will of the British people and will not frustrate the process for invoking Article 50.” He said his party would use the parliamentary vote to attempt to influence the law, to prevent the government from “using Brexit to turn Britain into a bargain-basement tax haven.”

Corbyn has previously spoken of his fears that the government, which has all but confirmed that it seeks a so-called “hard Brexit,” will try to reshape Britain’s economy as a low-corporate tax environment in an attempt to compete with the EU after it leaves.

The court also ruled that there was no need for Parliament to wait for approval from devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland before invoking Article 50. A majority of voters in Northern Ireland and Scotland had voted in last year’s referendum to remain in the European Union, and the prospect of Scottish voters losing EU membership against their wishes has fueled renewed talk of independence north of the border.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said after the Supreme Court ruling that it was becoming “ever clearer” that Scotland needed to rethink its place within the United Kingdom.

“It is becoming clearer by the day that Scotland’s voice is simply not being heard or listened to within the U.K.,” she said in a statement. “The claims about Scotland being an equal partner are being exposed as nothing more than empty rhetoric.”

In a 2014 referendum, 55 percent of Scottish voters voted against Scotland’s independence from the U.K.

What Does It Take to Finally Call a Lie a Lie? We Have an Answer.

Mother Jones - 8 hours 44 min ago

The New York Times has called one of President Trump's lies a lie. The word isn't used in the text of the story, but it is used in the headline:

In this case, Trump said that 3-5 million illegal immigrants had voted for Hillary Clinton, and he would have won the popular vote if not for that. Why was that judged a lie? Presumably because Trump has said it before and it's been widely exposed as flatly untrue. Trump surely knows this, which means he's telling a knowing falsehood, aka a lie.

This is a reasonable metric. The problem with branding something a lie is that you have to be sure the speaker knew it was wrong. Otherwise it's just ignorance or a mistake. But in Trump's case, it's often clear that he knows he's lying. When he says the crowd at his inauguration was over a million, it's clear that he has no basis for this. He's just making up a number. When he says millions of illegal immigrants voted, he knows it's false because a legion of reporters have told him it's false. When he says the unemployment rate is 42 percent, it might be a mistake the first time. But the tenth time? It's a deliberate lie.

Beyond this, I'll repeat a 3-part test I offered a few years ago that I find useful for judging how deceptive a statement is:

  1. What was the speaker trying to imply? This is necessarily a judgment call, but it's what gets us away from a single-minded focus on "lying" and instead focuses our attention on how badly a speaker is trying to mislead us.
  2. What would it take to state things accurately? This is the most important part of the exercise. Without getting deep in the weeds (nobody expects politicians to speak in white paper-ese), what would it take to restate things reasonably accurately?
  3. How much would accuracy damage the speaker's point? Obviously, if accuracy dents the speaker's point only a bit, not much harm has been done. If it demolishes the speaker's point completely, it's as bad as an actual lie even if you can somehow spin it as technically true.

In this case, Trump was (a) stating that millions of illegal immigrants voted, (b) the only way to restate this accurately is to say that only a tiny handful of illegal immigrants voted, and (c) this completely demolishes Trump's point. It's obviously a 10 out of 10, and since Trump is aware of this, that makes it an egregious lie.

Click the link to find out why I think this test is useful. The nickel version is that it's a check on my emotional response. When I go through these three steps, sometimes I find things worse than I thought and other times I find them more benign. Give it a try.

UPDATE: Here's an interesting little nugget about the evolution of the Times headline:

Change in Title pic.twitter.com/YaEOoj7CXq

— Editing TheGrayLady (@nyt_diff) January 24, 2017

Dutch Prime Minister releases an open letter wooing right-wing voters

VICE News - 9 hours 3 min ago

On Monday morning, many Dutch citizens opened their newspapers to find a full page advertisement from their Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Against a black backdrop, half of his bespectacled face stares out from the page, flanked by a ‘letter to the Netherlands’ in white print.

The most striking part of the letter criticizes those who refuse to integrate and adopt Dutch values. “We feel uncomfortable when people abuse our freedom to spoil things, when they have come to our country for that very freedom,” Rutte wrote, just weeks before the country’s general election on March 15. “Behave normally, or go away.”

Although his message seemed to address immigrants, its real target is voters who have been leaving his Liberal Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) party in droves. In recent years, the right-wing Freedom Party (PVV) a one-man party headed by Geert Wilders has taken a commanding lead in Dutch politics.

Wilders is a former VVD politician with persuasive, divisive rhetoric and a striking blonde hairdo similar to that of U.S. President Donald Trump. His political platform consists of one A4 sheet of paper and focuses on de-islamizing the country, getting rid of immigrants and leaving the European Union (EU).

Wilders was quick to respond to the prime minister’s message on Monday. On Twitter he condemned Rutte as “the man of open borders, asylum tsunami, mass immigration, Islamisation, lies and deceit.” Later he posted a video online in which he said Rutte should be the one to go, as he had welcomed many migrants to the Netherlands. In the video, Wilders addresses Rutte: “Stop lying to your own country – there is nobody who still believes you.”

Rutte, first elected in 2010, is looking to win a third term as the country’s Prime Minister. As Wilders rises in the polls, the PM has shifted to the right and started to adopt similar rhetoric. Monday’s advertisement was just the latest incident.

Last summer, Rutte used an appearance on a popular television program to say that Turkish people who bothered a reporter during a demonstration in Rotterdam against the coup in Turkey should “fuck off’ back to Turkey. That began a campaign that has largely focused on immigration rather than traditional issues such as the economy.

Although his party leads in the polls, Wilders is unlikely to be the next Prime Minister. In order to rule, Dutch parties need to form a governing coalition, consisting of at least 70 seats, just under half of the 150 deputies. Wilders’ PVV is slated to win 33 seats. Rutte’s VVD is predicted to win 24.

Initially, Rutte did not rule out entering into a coalition with Wilders, but he has since changed his mind, hoping to further undercut PVV support. “The chance of the VVD working together with the PVV is zero,” he said on Jan. 15. Despite this, a majority of voters believe that Mr. Rutte will go back on his word after the elections if it makes political sense to do so.

Left wing parties are also already hatching plans for their own coalition, which would be led by Jesse Klaver, the 30-year-old leader of the Green Left (GroenLinks) party, currently slated to win 16 seats. Klaver also lashed out at Rutte, saying his message on what was normal in the Netherlands was “unbelievable.” On Facebook he wrote: “400.000 children in poverty is not normal. People who cannot afford the high costs for health care is not normal. Racism is not normal.”

What exactly was ‘normal’ was a question left hanging in the air. Even the prime minister felt the need to further clarify his views during a live chat on Facebook on Monday evening. One viewer asked whether he was normal if he stopped watching the series Lost two episodes before the show’s finale. That was not what he meant, Rutte explained. “Normal are the things which we are used to in this country – like shaking hands.”

He gave the example of the “bizarre verdict” against bus company Qbuzz, which was censured for turning down an immigrant who applied for a job as a bus driver because the man refused to shake hands with women.

“That’s precisely why I and many other people are rebelling. Because the norm here is that you shake hands with each other.”

“If you live in a country where you get so annoyed with how we deal each other, you have a choice. Get out! You don’t have to be here!” Rutte told daily paper Algemeen Dagblad. Only the looming elections will tell whether such tough talk from a man famous for his compromising stance will convince voters.

Fernande van Tets is a Dutch journalist living in Amsterdam.

Will Rick Perry Privatize America's Nuclear Waste Storage?

Mother Jones - 9 hours 39 min ago

In recent decades, the federal government has turned to private corporations to help handle everything from intelligence to prisons. Should nuclear waste be next?

That's a question currently being considered by the Department of Energy, as it looks for solutions to the longstanding problem of how to store radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. Now, with Rick Perry slated to head the department, the issue could become more complicated. That's because the former Texas governor has deep ties to a waste disposal company that could create a significant conflict of interest once he becomes energy secretary.

Nuclear waste is currently held at power plants across the country—some of which are not longer operating. The federal government was supposed to start consolidating the waste from these plants nearly 20 years ago, but it hasn't been able to find a way to dispose of it. In 1987, the feds determined that a site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada would be the perfect dumpster for high-level nuclear waste (such as used reactor fuel), but opposition to the plan began almost immediately. Finally, in 2010, the Obama administration cut funding for Yucca Mountain in response to local opposition and the efforts of Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, who was the Senate majority leader at the time. With the new administration taking over and Reid retiring, it's unclear whether the project will be revived.

Because Yucca Mountain had been stalled for so long, the federal government began to explore the possibility of working with private companies for interim storage of the waste—a temporary solution that could last for decades. Testifying at a Senate hearing September 2016, Obama administration energy secretary Ernest Moniz explained this "novel approach" could help the government follow through on its obligation to collect the nuclear waste, and his department began to ask private companies for information about how it would work.

During his confirmation hearing on Thursday, Perry emphasized that obligation remains a pressing concern. "Hopefully this is the beginning of seeing real movement, real management of an issue that I think no longer can sit and be used as a political football, one that must be addressed," he said. "And I think we can find a solution both in the interim and in the long-term."

One company eager to get in on interim storage is Texas-based Waste Control Specialists, which last year applied for a license with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and will be submitting a preliminary proposal to the Department of Energy before the end of the month to store high-level nuclear waste for the federal government. In order to get a contract with the Department of Energy and store the waste, the company would need to obtain a license from the NRC. (The two agencies are independent from each other.) An NRC spokesperson said the license approval process would take a minimum of three years.

Watchdogs worry that the company's ties to Perry could create a conflict of interest. As Mother Jones previously reported, WCS lobbied the Texas legislature for six years to pass legislation that would allow private companies in the state to be responsible for the disposal of low-level nuclear waste. (Low-level waste consists of things like clothing, cleaning supplies, and other items exposed to radiation.) The legislation passed in 2003, and Perry signed it.

When the new system went into effect, WCS was the only company that applied for a state license to handle the waste. A panel of state engineers and geologists determined in 2007 that groundwater contamination at WCS' proposed disposal site in West Texas was "highly likely." WCS countered that such contamination wasn't possible. "The state of Texas required over 600 test wells at a variety of depths to address questions about any possibility of subsurface water before issuing the license," WCS spokesman Chuck McDonald said. "Those questions were answered emphatically."

Despite the reviewers' concerns, the three Perry-appointed members on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality signed off on the license. Three staffers at the agency resigned in protest over the decision. "We knew from the beginning that this permit was intended to be issued," Glenn Lewis, a member of the review panel, said in a 2011 interview with NPR.

Many opponents of the plan cried foul, pointing to the relationship between Perry and Harold Simmons, the company's owner at the time. Simmons, who has since died, was one of Perry's biggest contributors throughout his career, giving his campaigns more than $1.3 million. When the Texas governor ran for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, Simmons was one of his largest donors. (Simmons also helped fund the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against John Kerry in 2004.) Critics of Texas' deal with WCS, such as the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, have suggested that Simmons' relationship with Perry may have helped WCS get the permits.

"Lo and behold, the company that lobbied to get the legislation passed and gave lots of political contributions was the only applicant, so it was a real corporate sweetheart deal," Cyrus Reed, of the Texas Sierra Club, said.

McDonald denies that the company received any special treatment. According to McDonald, WCS invested more than $500 million to license and construct the facility in West Texas and won't be recoup that investment for decades. He calls the facility "the most environmentally studied and geologically surveyed site on the planet."

"WCS went through the most rigorous licensing requirements ever imposed on a disposal facility of any kind," McDonald said.

According to Reed, the staffers on the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality who resigned were concerned about more than just water contamination. "We had a couple people resign or retire from the commission and come to us and say, 'Look, we think there was political pressure to get this license done, and all the t's weren't crossed,'" he said, adding that Simmons' past contributions to Perry raised red flags. "Harold Simmons certainly was supportive of the governor who then signed into law…important bills for his industry," he said.

In an interview with Mother Jones, a Perry spokesman declined to answer questions about the WCS license process but said that Perry has no ties to the company beyond Simmons' campaign contributions.

Reed's group sued WCS over its disposal facility due to the environmental concerns, but the Texas Supreme Court ultimately decided the group didn't have standing in the case.

More recently, Perry has supported the idea of storing more dangerous nuclear waste in Texas. In 2014, he sent a letter to the Texas lieutenant governor and speaker of the house, in which he declared that "it's time for Texas to act" because states holding onto high-level radioactive waste have "been betrayed by their federal government." Attached to the letter was a report that Perry had commissioned from the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality calling on the federal government to authorize "centralized interim storage facilities" for high-level nuclear waste. It also outlined how the Department of Energy could work with private companies to make that a reality.

As for WCS, the company argues that disposing of Texas' low-level nuclear waste for more than four years has made it a strong candidate to handle the federal government's waste, especially since so few companies are in this line of work. There would likely be little competition for the potential contract. Companies generally notify the NRC well in advance if they intend to apply for a license, and only one other company has issued such a notice.

WCS also contends that Texas' experience with privatized waste disposal makes Perry uniquely qualified to lead the Department of Energy.

"Texas leadership from the governor on down has had experience addressing nuclear waste issues, and it's an experience that very few other states have had because no other state has successfully opened a low-level radioactive waste disposal facility," McDonald said. "I think the fact that Governor Perry has working knowledge of the issue…will serve him well as the Secretary of Energy."

Even if Yucca Mountain eventually does move forward, permanent disposal is at least 20 years away, and interim storage would still be necessary, argues WCS.

Meanwhile, a coalition of anti-nuclear energy groups has lined up against the creation of new interim storage sites and has written a letter to NRC opposing the company's application. Attorney Robert Eye, who represents some of the groups, worries that these sites will become permanent places to put the waste because there will be "very little pressure to move [it] to a permanent repository, even with the best intentions."

Reed, the Texas Sierra Club official, says his primary concern is that if something goes wrong and waste isn't properly stored, the government could ultimately end up dealing with an expensive cleanup.

"Private companies…can easily go belly-up depending on short-term economic realities," Reed said. "With radioactive waste you really want to make sure the person watching the waste is more permanent than companies are. The real concern is companies walk away from things, and then other people are left holding the bag."

Paul Ryan Better Watch His Back

Mother Jones - January 23, 2017 - 11:07pm

Julia Hahn is a 25-year-old Breitbart News reporter who has written several scorched-earth pieces about House Speaker Paul Ryan whenever he hasn't toed the Breitbart line to their liking. Naturally, that caught the approving eye of Steve Bannon, formerly the executive chair of Breitbart and now the Rasputin of the Trump administration. Robert Costa reports:

Hahn, 25, is expected to join the White House staff, serving as an aide to strategist Stephen K. Bannon....“She’ll be Bannon’s Bannon and make Bannon look moderate,” said William Kristol, the editor at large of the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine. “Her tendency is to fight and fight, often to the extreme.”

....Her hiring alarmed and angered several allies of Ryan....Privately, a number of House Republicans told The Washington Post that Hahn’s involvement signaled Bannon’s plans to possibly put her to use against them, writing searing commentaries about elected Republican leaders to ram through Trump’s legislative priorities and agitate the party’s base if necessary.

“This is obviously a provocative act and clearly an intentional act,” said Peter Wehner, a longtime Ryan friend and former official in three Republican administrations....Wehner said that too many Republicans on Capitol Hill are “engaging in a fiction, a game, where Bannon and Trump aren’t taken seriously even though Bannon and Trump are operating in a serious way and bringing on people who are going to work for their cause, not for conservatives.”

Back during the primaries, Fox News thought they could take on Trump. Eventually they learned they couldn't, and abjectly caved in to him.

Trump's Republican opponents all underestimated him too. They figured he was bound to implode on his own, and they'd just as soon let someone else spend the money to attack him. By the time they all understood what was going on, it was too late.

The #NeverTrumpers did no better. Their campaign was almost embarrassingly ineffective.

Democrats did a bit better, largely because they had lots of polls to back up their confidence in victory. In the end, though, they underestimated Trump too. They underestimated the willingness of outsiders like James Comey and Vladimir Putin to help him, and they underestimated Trump's appeal to Midwestern working-class whites. Now he's president.

I fear that Paul Ryan is doing the same thing. He's hoping to chivvy Trump along for a while and get his pet bills passed: tax cuts, Obamacare repeal, corporate-friendly deregulation, block grants for Medicaid and other social welfare programs, etc. As Grover Norquist once said, all Ryan needs is a president with a few working fingers to sign the bills he sends him. If the price of this is ditching TPP and pretending to build a wall, no big deal.

Maybe it'll work. Maybe Ryan will get what he wants and then Trump will implode this time. But Ryan better be sure that he isn't the sucker in this relationship. Trump has a long memory for people like Ryan who failed to support him enthusiastically, as well as an army of supporters who will turn on Ryan instantly if Trump tells them to. If Ryan is sitting back and allowing Trump to amass power in the belief that he can cut Trump down to size later, he better think again. Too many people have made this mistake already.

Chart of the Day: The Skyrocketing Federal Workforce

Mother Jones - January 23, 2017 - 7:16pm

A bunch of little things happened this afternoon. They're not really big enough for a full post each, so here's a brief roundup. First up, President Trump signed an order freezing the federal workforce. This is part of the standard conservative playbook, and I doubt it means much in the long run. However, press secretary Sean Spicer—who moments earlier had said he would never lie to us—explained that Trump's order "counters the dramatic expansion of the federal workforce in recent years." Just for the record, here's that dramatic expansion:

If you look closely, you can see the dramatic expansion at the far right of the beige line. Do you see it? No? Look harder. Use your browser to zoom in. See? There it is! The federal workforce increased from 2.09 million in 2014 to 2.12 million in 2015. And it probably went up to 2.14 million or so in 2016. That's less than it was at the end of the Reagan administration.

In other news, the Weekly Standard has this:

Republican leadership is rethinking its relationship with Democratic minority leader Chuck Schumer after Schumer betrayed a promise to allow a vote last Friday on President Donald Trump's pick for CIA director....Schumer agreed to a Friday Senate vote for the confirmation of Kansas representative Mike Pompeo in exchange for a Republican concession to delay Pompeo's hearing by one day, TWS reported Monday. The deal went awry when Oregon senator Ron Wyden and other Democrats objected to the Friday vote, pushing it to Monday, sources said.

Anybody who's been alive and sentient for the past eight years will just giggle at the supposed Republican outrage over a one-day delay. Democrats counted themselves lucky if they managed to get only a one-month delay for most of President Obama's appointees. Delays of a year were hardly uncommon, and some delays were explicitly forever.

But beyond partisan point scoring, there's an actual serious point to make about this. Although Republicans have said they don't plan to eliminate the filibuster, there's always been an unspoken caveat: if Democrats behave. But it's been obvious all along that it won't be long before they decide that Democrats have done something so outrageous that they're left with no choice but to blow things up. The Pompeo thing is the first shot in this war, and it's an indication of just how delicate Republicans will pretend to be over every tiny slight.

And speaking of Pompeo, check this out:

.@RonWyden spoke at length, said Pompeo dodged every key question his office submitted in writing, including classified questions.

— Corey Pein (@coreypein) January 23, 2017

.@RonWyden says Pompeo wants “the most sweeping new surveillance program I have ever heard of”—phone, email, social media in one database.

— Corey Pein (@coreypein) January 23, 2017

This sounds an awful lot like "Total Information Awareness," the Bush-era program that was canceled by Congress in 2003. Even two years after 9/11, it was too much for us to swallow. But I guess Pompeo wants to bring it back. After all, with a guy like Trump in the White House there's no real possibility that it will be misused. Right?

Finally, on a different subject entirely, do you remember that Aetna announced plans last year to pull back from the Obamacare exchanges? This was supposedly a purely business decision: they were losing too much money and couldn't sustain further losses. But then the Huffington Post unearthed a letter from Aetna's CEO to the Department of Justice that sounded an awful lot like a shakedown: if DOJ rejected Aetna's proposed merger with Humana, he said, "we will immediately take action to reduce our 2017 exchange footprint....instead of expanding to 20 states next year, we would reduce our presence to no more than 10 states."

Well, Aetna was losing money in a lot of places, but it also pulled back from 17 counties in Florida, Georgia, and Missouri, where it was profitable. Why? Because the Department of Justice specifically named those counties as places that would be harmed by a merger. Given all of this, a federal judge ruled today that Aetna's pullback wasn't entirely a business decision after all. Here's BuzzFeed:

Aetna was willing to offer to expand its participation in the exchanges if DOJ did not block the merger, or conversely, was willing to threaten to limit its participation in the exchanges if DOJ did,” Judge [John] Bates said Monday.

....Monday’s ruling cited internal documents showing Aetna was planning to withdraw from many health insurance exchanges for business reasons. But it said that on the day the Justice Department sued to block the merger, “Aetna employees were instructed to gather information regarding the 17 complaint counties.”...The emails specifically show Aetna executives confirming that Humana was present in those 17 counties, which, an executive said, “makes it easy we need to withdraw from those.”

....When Aetna said it was leaving the Florida counties, its own Florida exchange head said in an email, “I just can’t make sense out of the Florida decision....Never thought we would pull the plug all together. Based on the latest run rate data ... we are making money from the on-exchange business.” An Aetna executive responded by saying they should discuss it on the phone. The executive later testified in the trial, “these requests for phone calls were an attempt to avoid leaving a paper trail.”

Luckily, I'm sure Aetna has nothing to worry about. President Trump will negotiate a great deal with Aetna for whatever tremendously great health care plan he comes up with, and DOJ will then withdraw its complaint. Bygones, you know.

Donald Trump's Press Secretary Sends Even Crazier Tweets Than Donald Trump

Mother Jones - January 23, 2017 - 5:12pm

Over the weekend, the American people were introduced to President Donald Trump's new press secretary Sean Spicer, who dedicated his first press conference on Saturday to angrily accuse members of the media of purposely misleading the public about the size of Friday's inauguration crowd.

According to Spicer, Trump drew the "largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period," a patently false claim Kellyanne Conway later defended as "alternative facts." Both statements added a fresh new layer of humiliation to Trump's first few days in office.

While the country has been well-acquainted with Conway's expert spin skills by now, most Americans are still wondering who just delivered one of the strangest White House pressers in recent memory. For the uninitiated, here's what a brief look at Spicer's social media utterances reveal:

He has engaged in a years-long war with Dippin' Dots:

Dippin dots is NOT the ice cream of the future

— Sean Spicer (@seanspicer) April 8, 2010

I think I have said this before but Dippin Dots are notthe ice cream of the future

— Sean Spicer (@seanspicer) September 22, 2011

If Dippin Dots was truly the ice cream of the future they would not have run out of vanilla cc @Nationals

— Sean Spicer (@seanspicer) September 7, 2015

Like his boss, he makes a habit of airing consumer grievances on Twitter:

come on @target -- just realized the two gallons of milk you sold me expire tomorrow

— Sean Spicer (@seanspicer) March 17, 2014

Just bought @powerball ticket -- wow even the price of these has gone up under Obama -- now $2

— Sean Spicer (@seanspicer) June 14, 2012

microwave #bacon should not be called bacon, diminishes the brand

— Sean Spicer (@seanspicer) March 23, 2015

He hates Daft Punk:

Daft Funk -- this is your 10 seconds in the spotlight - u r blowing it #GRAMMYs #Grammys2014

— Sean Spicer (@seanspicer) January 27, 2014

Also making the rounds since Saturday's press conference is a Washington Post piece from August that revealed the gross fact that Spicer regularly chews and swallows 35 pieces of Orbit cinnamon-flavored gum—all before noon.

It's a lot to take in. But take comfort in knowing we all still have four long years to get acquainted.

Trump’s executive orders have had more bark than bite so far

VICE News - January 23, 2017 - 4:15pm

President Donald Trump began his presidency with a series of executive orders and memoranda taking aim at Obamacare, trade deals, federal workers, and abortion. And on Monday, the White House indicated that many more executive orders were coming this week and beyond.

Over the past several decades, the issuing of executive orders has become the standard opening act of a presidency; by bypassing the typically slow-moving checks and balances of congressional approval, an incoming chief executive can affect policy and appear decisive with the stroke of a pen.

On Monday, for instance, Trump signed an executive order reinstating a policy prohibiting any U.S. nongovernmental organization (NGO) that performs or provides information about abortions abroad from receiving federal funding (a stance known as the Mexico City Policy). He signed another that freezes hiring among the federal workforce excluding the military, a move meant to spur gradual but meaningful change in the makeup of the federal bureaucracy. That action echoed the hiring freeze Ronald Reagan instituted on his inauguration day in 1981.

Executive orders, however, can also amount to nothing more than symbolic pageantry.

“A president can just call people and tell them to do something and it often means the same thing as an executive order,” explained Eric Posner, constitutional law professor of the University of Chicago. Since the goal of some executive orders is good publicity, they “can be complete fluff,” he added.

Such fluff includes the creation of presidential commissions and forums that produce little-read reports, and orders that seek to accomplish things beyond the power of the president to actually accomplish. President Barack Obama issued an executive order during his first days as president that sought to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay within a year. Eight years later, the infamous prison is still open in part because Obama did not have the power to close it without the approval of Congress.

These kinds of limitations will also apply to Trump’s recent slate of orders. His first, issued on Inauguration Day, focused on Obamacare but repeatedly included the caveat “to the maximum extent permitted by law.” The order may have been an important signal of the administration’s determination to repeal the law, but the immediate policy impact is minimal; a change of regulations must go through an internal review process, and a change of the law requires new legislation from Congress.

On Monday Trump signed a formal withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an order that was unnecessary since the United States had never formally joined the TPP anyway. That order was more symbol than policy tool; White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer announced Monday that it represented “a new era of trade policy” that went beyond the TPP.

Executive orders give Trump, like previous presidents, extraordinary abilities related to war and immigration. Franklin Roosevelt used an executive order to intern Japanese-Americans during World War II, and Abraham Lincoln relied on similar powers to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. More recently, Obama took executive actions to allow some undocumented immigrants to stay in the country while prioritizing the deportation of others.

Political opponents do have recourse against executive orders in the courts. Conservatives challenged Obama’s immigration orders, and last summer the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that Obama had exceeded his executive authority.

Democrats have already shown a willingness to challenge Trump in court on conflict of interest questions and will likely relish any opportunity to challenge his substantive executive orders. Thus far, however, Trump’s orders have been more symbolic than transformative.

White House Press Secretary Defends False Statements About Inauguration Crowds

Mother Jones - January 23, 2017 - 3:45pm

After making several false statements over the weekend about the size of the crowd at President Donald Trump's inauguration, White House press secretary Sean Spicer promised to the media on Monday that he would never intentionally lie to them. Then he made more questionable claims.

"I believe that we have to be honest with the American people," Spicer told ABC News' Jonathan Karl, adding, "Sometimes we can disagree with the facts. There are certain things that we may not fully understand when we come out, but our intention is never to lie to you." But the promise came as part of a combative exchange, during which Spicer introduced dubious claims about Trump's speech to the CIA on Saturday. And in response to questions about his own integrity, Spicer repeatedly blamed the press for being overly negative toward Trump.

Spicer brought up a mistake Time reporter Zeke Miller made on Friday, when he inaccurately reported that a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. had been removed from the Oval Office. Spicer complained that Miller, who shortly after the mistaken report tweeted "my apologies" and "apologies to my colleagues," had not sufficiently apologized.

"Where was the apology to the president?" Spicer asked. "Where was the apology to millions of people who read that thought how racially insensitive that was?" Earlier, however, Spicer appeared to accept Miller's multiple apologies:

Apology accepted https://t.co/dYqwRv1p0f

— Sean Spicer (@PressSec) January 21, 2017

Next, Spicer repeated his claim that there was intense excitement among CIA employees during Trump's highly political speech at CIA headquarters. Spicer claimed that the crowd of CIA officers had loudly cheered Trump, contradicting CBS News' report that the cheering came largely from an entourage of about 40 people that Trump's team brought to the address, not from CIA personnel. Spicer said Trump had only arrived at CIA with a very small group of people—he guessed 10 people—and that the cheers had come from CIA employees.

Spicer headed into Monday's press briefing with his integrity in question, thanks to several demonstrably false statements he made to the press on Saturday evening (which were not the first time Spicer was caught in a lie.) Chief among them, Spicer wrongly asserted that the crowd at Trump's inauguration was "the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration—period—both in person and around the globe."

Toward the end of Monday's lengthy press conference, Spicer conceded that the crowd in Washington was not the biggest ever and argued that he had never made such a claim. Instead, he said that by "both in person and around the globe," he meant "total largest audience." That's not how his words were broadly interpreted at the time, and it's not what Trump claimed in his speech at the CIA, where he stated, "It looked like a million, million and a half people." (Experts in crowd estimation put the crowd size at a fraction of those numbers.)

Spicer also conceded that he had been wrong when he claimed Saturday that ridership on Washington's Metro system was higher than for President Barack Obama's second inauguration four years ago. "At the time, the information I was provided by the inaugural committee came from an outside agency that we reported on," he said. "And I think, knowing what we know now, we can tell that [Metro's] numbers are different."

When asked about crowd size and his decision to deliver Saturday's incorrect statement about it, Spicer repeatedly he returned to the idea that the administration is under attack by the media. "It's about this constant, you know, 'He's not going to run,'" Spicer said. "Then if he runs, 'He's going to drop out.' There is this constant theme to undercut the enormous support that he has. I think it's unbelievably frustrating when you're continually told it's not big enough, it's not good enough, you can't win."

Giant Study Shows That—Surprise!—Vaping Entices Non-Smokers

Mother Jones - January 23, 2017 - 3:13pm

E-cigarettes, long touted as a tool to discourage smoking, are actually doing the opposite, according to a landmark study published Monday in Pediatrics. In this first-of-its kind national analysis, researchers found that the devices attract kids who otherwise would not have been likely to pick up smoking.

"E-cigarettes are encouraging—not discouraging—youth to smoke and to consume nicotine, and are expanding the tobacco market," said Stanton Glantz, a co-author and director of the University of California-San Francisco Center for Tobacco Control Research.

Last year, the Food and Drug Administration announced sweeping regulation of e-cigarettes, which included restricting purchase by those under 18.

The researchers analyzed data from the Center for Disease Control's National Youth Tobacco Survey between 2004 and 2014, completed by more than 140,000 middle and high schoolers. They found that while cigarette smoking rates declined, the introduction of e-cigarettes had no effect on the decline. Meanwhile, the total use of tobacco products (cigarettes combined with e-cigarettes) has increased. That's concerning, the researchers say, since several longitudinal studies have found that kids who use e-cigarettes are three times more likely to smoke cigarettes a year later.

Teens who had used tobacco products in the past 30 days, according to the CDC's National Youth Tobacco Survey Pediatrics

Past research has found that certain characteristics measured in the CDC survey—like living with a smoker, wearing clothing with a tobacco company logo, or saying they would accept cigarettes from a friend—are predictors of a teen's likelihood of picking up smoking.

But the Pediatrics study found that e-cigarette smokers displayed fewer of these characteristics, leading the researchers to conclude that e-cigarettes are attracting a new population rather than just being used by existing smokers.

Gregory Conley, the president of the American Vaping Association, says that the study's findings "strain credulity," as youth smoking is rapidly declining, teens typically use vapor products occasionally rather than habitually, and "only a fraction of recent users report using the products with nicotine." 

Lauren Dutra, a study co-author and researcher at RTI International, counters that smoking rates were already falling before the advent of e-cigarettes, and that nicotine levels in e-cigarettes are not yet regulated by the FDA.

"I don't want to say if e-cigarettes didn't exist, these kids never would have been exposed to nicotine," says Dutra. But "perhaps these kids wouldn't have picked up a cigarette or wouldn't have used nicotine at all had it not been for the existence of e-cigarettes on the market."

5 Sketchy Facts About Trump's Pick for USDA Chief

Mother Jones - January 23, 2017 - 2:36pm

Amid the pomp and tumult of inauguration week, you may have missed that President (whoa) Donald Trump at last made his final Cabinet pick, naming former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue US Department of Agriculture secretary. At a televised candlelight dinner on the eve of the inauguration, Trump mused on his long and zigzagging USDA search that started and ended with Perdue, who emerged as a front-runner right after the election and then faded as the president-elect auditioned a succession of candidates for the post (transcript by Politico):

He came into my office two months ago. Since then, I saw 10 people that everybody liked, politically correct, and I kept thinking back to Sonny Perdue, a great, great farmer. He loves to farm; he knows everything about farming, knows everything about agriculture. He’s been successful in farming. He knows the good stuff from the bad stuff.

But people came into my office, and they said, 'I am really wanting the job.' I said, 'Let me ask you a question: Do you have any experience with farms or agriculture?' 'No sir, I don't.' I said, 'Have you ever seen a farm?' The one gentleman, who is a great guy, we'll find something else. But I can't make him the secretary of agriculture.

The "politically correct" bit is, no doubt, a reference to the fact that Trump's 22-member cabinet and top staff is largely, like Perdue, white and male: It contains just four women, one African American, and not a single Latino. Indeed, Trump will be the first president since Ronald Reagan to enter office without having appointed a Latino to a cabinet-level post. (Reagan appointed a Latino to his Cabinet in his second term.)

During the USDA search, there were intermittent reports that Trump was, as Politico put it at one point, "scrambling to appoint a Hispanic official to serve in his Cabinet amid criticism that his incoming administration lacks diversity at the highest levels." He publicly mulled several candidates who would have added diversity (examples: Abel Maldonado, son of farm workers and, like Perdue, a farmer himself; J.C. Watts; Heidi Heitkamp).

In the end, Trump chose a white, southern male for the job. And not just any white southerner. Here are a few things to know about Perdue:

1. He was a big fan of the Confederacy. As I reported a few weeks ago, Perdue displayed a disturbing nostalgia for the Confederacy while governor (2003-2011)—not a great look for the incoming head of a federal department that, in 1999, settled a landmark lawsuit charging systemic USDA discrimination against black farmers between 1983 and 1997, agreeing to pay out $1.25 billion to harmed farmers.

2. He enacted severe voter ID laws. Voter fraud is vanishingly rare, and laws requiring photo identification at polling places target black voters with "almost surgical precision," a federal court ruled last year. In 2005, Perdue signed into law one of the nation's first "strict" ID laws—the very first of many in former Confederate states—requiring people to either present a current photo identification card or be denied the vote. Perdue vigorously defended it through several legal challenges. It remains in place.

3. He championed immigration crackdowns. In 2006, then-Gov. Perdue mashed up the voter-fraud myth with another racially tinged fantasy, this one fervently held by Perdue's new boss, Trump: that undocumented immigrants burden taxpayers by siphoning welfare benefits. "It is simply unacceptable for people to sneak into this country illegally on Thursday, obtain a government-issued ID on Friday, head for the welfare office on Monday and cast a vote on Tuesday," he declared. He backed up his harsh words with a crackdown on undocumented workers. Coupled with the George W. Bush administration's simultaneous get-tough efforts, the Georgia law worked perhaps too well. Here's an Associated Press piece from September 2006:

STILLMORE, Ga. –  Trailer parks lie abandoned. The poultry plant is scrambling to replace more than half its workforce. Business has dried up at stores where Mexican laborers once lined up to buy food, beer and cigarettes just weeks ago.

This Georgia community of about 1,000 people has become little more than a ghost town since Sept. 1, when federal agents began rounding up illegal immigrants.

The sweep has had the unintended effect of underscoring just how vital the illegal immigrants were to the local economy.

Perdue doubled down in 2009, signing another tough immigration bill. By 2010, when preparing to leave office, he had changed his tune a bit—perhaps chastened by how much Georgia's ag industry relies on migrant labor. He declined to express an opinion about the renewed immigration crackdown being promoted by his successor, but he did tell the Associated Press that "the Republican Party needs to be very, very careful that it maintains the golden rule in its rhetoric regarding immigration policy." He added that the GOP need to make sure that "people of color and people who are not US-born'' are made to feel welcome, adding, "And I think that's the challenge of the Republican Party.''

4. He's tightly intertwined with the industry he will now regulate. Before entering politics, Perdue sold fertilizer. As governor of Georgia, he led the nation's number-one chicken-producing state, and over his career in politics he netted $328,328 in donations from agribusiness interests, including $21,000 from Gold Kist, a large, Georgia-based chicken-processing company that was later taken over by chicken giant Pilgrim's Pride. He now runs a company that trades agricultural commodities globally.

5. He enjoyed the spoils of cronyism. Back in 2005, Georgia state Rep. Larry O'Neal—Perdue's lawyer—managed to pass what the Atlanta Journal-Constitution called a "seemingly mundane tax bill" that was "designed to allow Georgians to delay paying state taxes on land they sell in Georgia if they buy similar property in another state." The bill included a "a last-minute change, which would make the tax break retroactive to land sales made in 2004." Voila. "And just like that, Gov. Sonny Perdue saved an estimated $100,000 in state taxes," the AJC reported, adding this:

Without the backdated tax break, the governor would have had to pay taxes on money he made in 2004 by selling property he owned in Georgia. Later that year, he used $2 million in proceeds from the sale of that Georgia land to buy 19.51 acres near Florida's Walt Disney World."

Then there was the time in 2010, at the tail end of his second term as governor, when Sonny Perdue named his cousin, David Perdue, Jr., to the board of the Georgia Ports Authority. According to the AJC, it was a plum post for David, then chief executive of Dollar General discount stores:

The board sets policy and oversees management of the quasi-state agency that rakes in some $67 billion in revenue statewide. And it’s viewed as a prestigious panel, where powerful Georgia business and political leaders rub shoulders. The chairman while [David] Perdue served on the board was Alec Poitevint, former head of the state Republican Party who went on to manage the 2012 GOP national convention.

Meanwhile, that same year, Sonny Perdue "while he was still governor, met with ports officials to discuss opportunities for his private grain and trucking businesses at the port once he left office," the AJC reports, citing emails it obtained through the state's Open Records Act. Then, in 2011, after Sonny Perdue left office, he and David Perdue launched Perdue Partners—"a global trading company that facilitates US commerce focusing on the export of US goods and services through trading, partnerships, consulting services, and strategic acquisitions." The paper adds:

Records obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution through an open records request paint an even more complicated portrait, showing that a trucking company purchased by both Perdues hauled cargo at the port while David was on the board making important decisions about the port’s operation.

With with his stint on the port authority board on his resume, David Perdue leapt into Georgia politics—in 2014, he was elected to the US Senate. 

Top Trump advisor sent to meet Justin Trudeau

VICE News - January 23, 2017 - 12:44pm

One of President Donald Trump’s top advisors met with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and federal cabinet members in Calgary on Monday, and sent a message of reassurance over the future of NAFTA.

Stephen Schwarzman, who leads Trump’s strategic and policy forum, told reporters that Canada shouldn’t worry about Trump’s protectionist rhetoric when it comes to Canada-U.S. relations.

“There may be some modifications but basically, things should go well for Canada in terms of any discussions with the United States,” he said. “Trade between the U.S. and Canada is really very much in balance and is a model for the way that trade relations should be.”

Trudeau and his cabinet are in Calgary for a retreat dominated by talks of how trade relations will look once NAFTA is renegotiated. Any clarity on what that might mean is still months away.

It was originally reported by Reuters and CBC News Monday morning that Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner would also make an appearance in Calgary. However a Trudeau spokesperson later said in a statement that “no other officials from the U.S. administration, beyond Mr. Schwarzman, will be present here at the retreat.”

Huh; top Trump aide Kushner is now not coming to Canada, says government official. Planned trip fell through for logistical reasons #cdnpoli

— David Ljunggren (@reutersLjungg) January 23, 2017

Schwarzman’s visit comes amid other reports that Canadian officials fear a visit to Canada by Trump himself would spark mass protests.

Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer has said that the president and Trudeau had spoken on the phone on Saturday and that the two leaders planned to meet in person within the next month.

Trudeau’s office has already reportedly held a dozen of meetings on everything from trade to national security with key Trump operatives, including White House chief of staff Steve Bannon. NAFTA has been of particular concern, since Trump has promised to renegotiate the 23-year-old trade pact between his country, Canada, and Mexico.

Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., David MacNaughton, told reporters on Sunday evening the worry is that Canada will become “collateral damage” as it seeks to redraft trade deals. On Monday, Trump signed an executive order confirming his intention to pull the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive 12-country deal that includes Canada.  

In his view, the new U.S. government isn’t particularly concerned with Canada-US relations.

“They’re principally focused on the countries that have large trade deficits with them,” MacNaughton said Sunday of the way Trump officials are approaching NAFTA renegotiations. “I don’t think Canada’s the focus at all.”

“That’s what we’ve got to worry about is that we’re collateral damage,” he said. “And so part of this is just making sure that they understand how important Canada is to their economy.”

A statement on the White House website says that unless Canada and Mexico negotiates the trade deal in a way that “gives American workers a fair deal, then the president will give notice of the United States’ intent to withdraw from NAFTA.” However, it could be months before negotiations even begin, as hearings to confirm Trump’s trade representative pick haven’t even been set.

Last week, Canada’s trade minister Francois-Philippe Champagne told reporters he was optimistic the TPP could survive without the U.S.

Dubai’s firefighters now have jetpacks

VICE News - January 23, 2017 - 11:37am

Dubai — home to indoor waterparks, the world’s tallest skyscraper, and the largest indoor mall — just added a new tool to its fire department: jetpacks.

Announced on the Dubai Civil Defence Facebook page, the “Dolphin” jetpacks will be used to help with ship fires and other disasters near bodies of water.



Even Republicans Don't Trust Republicans On Obamacare Replacement

Mother Jones - January 23, 2017 - 10:51am

I missed this when it came out a few days ago, but here's the latest Fox poll on what people want done with Obamacare:

Very few people want Obamacare repealed without something to replace it, and even fewer want it repealed without knowing exactly what kind of replacement Republicans have in mind. There's not a big partisan split on this, either. Among Republicans, 73 percent want Obamacare replaced with something new and 68 percent want to know what the replacement is before anything is repealed.

Here's another interesting tidbit:

Even among Republicans, hardly anyone really cares about the wall. This suggests that it will be pretty easy for the wall to get forgotten in the shuffle as Republicans in Congress go about the stuff they really care about: cutting taxes on the rich and cutting benefits for everyone else.

People arrested during Inauguration Day protests could go to prison for 10 years over felony rioting charges

VICE News - January 23, 2017 - 10:36am

More than 200 people arrested in connection with an outburst of violence during protests against Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration Friday are now facing rioting charges, which carry a maximum punishment of up to 10 years in jail or a fine of up to $250,000, federal prosecutors said Saturday. Some of the protesters facing such charges filed a class action lawsuit, however, alleging that they were unfairly arrested in what their lawyers described as mass, indiscriminate arrests by D.C. police.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Approximately 230 people were arrested in Washington, D.C., on Friday following protests that took place before, during, and after Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States. The bulk of those arrested will be charged with felony rioting, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
  • One group of 10 protesters already appeared in court, on Saturday, with their lawyer entering not guilty pleas. They were all released on the condition they did not get rearrested in the District of Columbia. Most of those arrested will be released without bail to return to court next month.
  • Some protesters have filed a lawsuit claiming the D.C. police “indiscriminately and repeatedly” used excessive force, deployed flash-bang grenades and used chemical irritants against people who were not involved in the riots at all.

Limo ablaze here in DC. pic.twitter.com/FOiew1Zgzb

— James Cook (@BBCJamesCook) January 20, 2017

  • Though largely peaceful, some anti-Trump protests on Friday veered into violence with rioters setting fire to a limousine and others flinging rocks at police and local business. 
  • One group of protestors, dressed in black and wearing masks, armed themselves with crowbars and rocks, and smashed the windows of businesses in downtown Washington, including Starbucks, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and McDonald’s.
  • Another protester was caught on camera punching white supremacist Richard Spencer in the face. The video of the incident was quickly transformed into an internet meme. 

The internet is turning neo-Nazi Richard Spencer into the thing he fears most — a meme https://t.co/TLaDnxFqO9 pic.twitter.com/pVsTqPW5xx

— The Verge (@verge) January 23, 2017

  • The bulk of the incidents took place before Trump’s inauguration, at 10:30 a.m. local time, when a crowd of around 500 people on 13th Street destroyed property, according to Interim Police Chief Peter Newsham. “The charge is rioting,” Newsham said. “Our intention going into this event was to make zero arrests, and unfortunately they forced our hand.” 

Limo on fire on K Street #Inauguration @vicenews pic.twitter.com/rZt6HHAHa3

— Tess Owen (@misstessowen) January 20, 2017

  • Riot police fought back using pepper spray, chemical irritants, and flash-bang grenades to disperse the crowds. In total, six police officers received minor injuries during the riots, with three of them hit in the head with flying objects.
  • Larry King didn’t escape the wrath of rioters, tweeting that the windows of his SUV were smashed while he was in the studio.

Protestors in DC smashed the windows of my hired SUV & many other cars. I was working in-studio & am ok, but my driver is a bit rattled.

— Larry King (@kingsthings) January 20, 2017

The Women’s March turnout is at 3.2 million and counting

VICE News - January 23, 2017 - 10:32am

3.2 million.

That’s the estimated number of people who participated in women’s marches in more than 300 cities and towns across the United States on Saturday, according to FiveThirtyEight, which compiled data from crowd scientists, city officials, local law enforcement, and public transportation systems.

That figure is expected to go up, as it does not yet include data from around 200 towns and cities believed to have hosted marches across the country .

Women, gender nonconformists and men took to streets across the country, one day after Donald Trump was inaugurated the 45th president of the United States, in support of women’s rights, LGBT rights, immigrant rights, civil rights, and many other things they feel are threatened by the incoming administration.

Washington, D.C., reportedly had the highest turnout, with 485,000 protesters, a number so large it overwhelmed the official march route, packed the National Mall and other avenues as the mass slowly moved from the U.S. Capitol to the White House. D.C. was followed by Los Angeles, with 450,000, and then New York, with 400,000 protesters.

Crowd scientists contacted by the New York Times estimated that more than 470,000 people were at the women’s march on or in the vicinity of the National Mall at approximately 2 p.m. Saturday. Organizers in Washington estimated that half a million had turned out, more than double the 200,000 they had anticipated, according the Associated Press.

With attendance estimates still trickling in, it isn’t yet clear whether the women’s march attendance can compete with other huge events in U.S. history. In 1982, for example, a protest against nuclear weapons drew 1 million to New York’s Central Park. In 1993, between 800,000 and 1 million people marched on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall in support of LGBT rights.

Aerial photos showed the nation’s capitals flooded by a sea of individuals topped with pink “pussy power” hats — which became the protest’s symbolic accessory through a grassroots movement of knitters, inspired by a comment Trump made in the leaked “Access Hollywood” tape in which he brags about grabbing women “by the pussy.”

The majority of marches across the United States took place in states that Democratic contender Hillary Clinton won. The organizers did not explicitly say that the marches were intended as a statement of opposition to Trump, despite the fact that they were planned for the day after inauguration and even though protesters on the day touted a strong anti-Trump message.

“If the marches were a reminder of the depth of opposition to Trump,” FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver wrote, “they also reflected Democrats’ need to expand the breadth of their coalition if they are to make a comeback in 2018 and 2020.”

However, some of the companion women’s marches took place in “red states” that Trump won. Thousands rallied at the state courthouse in Indianapolis, in downtown St. Louis, and in Topeka, Kansas.

Women’s marches were also held in cities across the world, including London, Nairobi, Sydney, Mexico City, Athens, Moscow, Tokyo, and Antarctica, to name just a few.



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