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

3 hours 51 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.


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

5 hours 16 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."

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

8 hours 54 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

— Editing TheGrayLady (@nyt_diff) January 24, 2017

Will Rick Perry Privatize America's Nuclear Waste Storage?

9 hours 49 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

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

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

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.

White House Press Secretary Defends False Statements About Inauguration Crowds

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

— 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

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

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. 

Even Republicans Don't Trust Republicans On Obamacare Replacement

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.

Ethics Experts Just Filed a Lawsuit Accusing Trump of Violating the Constitution

January 23, 2017 - 10:18am

Donald Trump brought many conflicts of interest with him when he moved into the White House last week. Chief among them are the Trump Organization's dealings with foreign power and players, including leasing office space to one Chinese state-owned bank and borrowing money from another. According to ethics experts, these ties and others violate the Constitution's emoluments clause, which prohibits federal officials from receiving financial benefits from foreign governments. On Monday, a group of prominent ethics experts—including the former ethics attorneys for George W. Bush and Barack Obama—filed suit against Trump on constitutional grounds. 

The lawsuit, which you can read in full below, faces several tough challenges—notably, whether or not the plaintiffs have legal standing to make their case.

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Even Trump's Friends Think He's a Five-Year-Old

January 23, 2017 - 9:57am

Politico explains the infamous press event on Saturday, which was called for the sole purpose of berating the press for accurately reporting the size of President Trump's inauguration crowd:

Trump's inauguration was largely an as-expected affair, and he sounded many of the right notes, said political observers, historians and people close to him. But news coverage soon fixated on the protesters across the country Saturday that far outnumbered his supporters the day before. Trump was increasingly angered by it, sending his press secretary out to fuzz up the situation and to brag about Trump’s support, in the face of knowable facts that contradicted what he said about record crowd sizes.

....That Trump wanted Sean Spicer, the press secretary, to go out with props in the White House briefing room — two large pictures of the crowd — was trademark, people who know him say. Trump loves props.

One person who frequently talks to Trump said aides have to push back privately against his worst impulses in the White House, like the news conference idea, and have to control information that may infuriate him. He gets bored and likes to watch TV, this person said, so it is important to minimize that.

This person said that a number of people close to him don't like saying no — but that it has to be done.

How astonishing is this? This is coming from a putative friend and supporter, who's describing Trump exactly the way you'd describe a five-year-old. I hope you all liked the Downfall parody craze, because I have a feeling it's going to make a comeback.

Dennis Coffey Grooves on "Hot Coffee in the D"

January 23, 2017 - 5:00am

Dennis Coffey
Hot Coffey in the D

Courtesey of conqueroo

Guitarist Dennis Coffey was a member of Motown's elite team of session musicians, playing on hits like the Temptations' "Ball of Confusion (That's What the World Is Today)" and Edwin Starr's "War," as well as enjoying a top-ten smash under his own name with the high-energy 1971 instrumental "Scorpio." Recorded in 1968 at a Detroit club, the previously unreleased Hot Coffey in the D finds the virtuoso pumping out sultry soul-jazz as part of a smoldering trio that also features Lyman Woodard on funky Hammond B-3 organ and ace drummer Melvin Davis. Sometimes wild and freaky, sometimes smooth and soothing, this enticing set includes extended takes on "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" (seven minutes) and "The Look of Love" (12 minutes) that find soulful new wrinkles in these tasteful standards, along with the psychedelic original "Fuzz." Diverse and satisfying, Hot Coffey works fine as superior background music but also rewards close listening.

Oregon Just Showed States How to Fight Back Against the War on Women

January 23, 2017 - 5:00am

When Carina Guzman arrived in Troutdale, Oregon, almost nine years ago as an undocumented teenager from Colombia, she wasn't prepared to navigate the vast range of services available in the state. She knew that she wanted contraception, but her inexperience with Oregon's health care system and inability to obtain insurance due to her citizenship status left Guzman confused about her available options. "When it came to choosing to access reproductive health care services, I was pretty much on my own," she says.

Guzman eventually found out that she could purchase birth control, but without any insurance, a 12-month supply would set her back hundreds of dollars. A friend told her she could go to Planned Parenthood and—thanks to Oregon's involvement in the federal Title X family-planning program—get a year's worth of birth control free of charge.

Now in her early 20s, Guzman's circumstances have changed considerably. A few years ago she was able to secure documentation of her immigration status, she found a job after graduating from high school, and she now has health insurance through her employer. She points to Planned Parenthood and the contraceptive security it provided as one of the reasons for her success. Without the organization, she says, it "would have been five years of me not accessing anything."

But in the near future, with a wave of anti-abortion legislation emerging from conservative statehouses across the country, the fate of the Affordable Care Act in question, and Planned Parenthood's federal funding in jeopardy, women in many states may soon not have Guzman's options.

As Congress and several GOP-controlled states ramp up efforts to curb access to abortion and roll back reproductive health care, Oregon may be moving in the opposite direction. Last week, a coalition of activists and community advocates announced the launch of a new promotional campaign in support of the Reproductive Health Equity Act of 2017, a bill that would make the state the first in the nation to establish reproductive health equity by protecting no-cost birth control and extending full coverage of reproductive health services to immigrant women, transgender and gender-nonconforming people, and the uninsured. The legislation is the brainchild of the Pro-Choice Coalition of Oregon, a collective of local reproductive rights advocates, community organizations, and racial and gender justice groups. The measure was filed by two Democrats, state Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson and state Rep. Jeff Barker, ahead of the upcoming legislative session and will be officially introduced in the beginning of February when the Oregon Legislature reconvenes.  

Oregon is one of 28 states that currently mandate contraceptive coverage, meaning that coverage would still exist even if the Affordable Care Act were repealed. But some older insurance plans "grandfathered" in when the state first set up its health care exchange do not cover the full cost of contraception, forcing some women in the state to share the cost.

The Oregonian notes that the bill would "require health insurers to cover other reproductive health services, including well-woman care, prenatal care, breastfeeding support and testing for sexually transmitted infections," in addition to providing for post-partum care and covering screenings for cervical cancer, breast cancer, and gestational diabetes. The legislation would also add abortion to the list of reproductive health services that commercial insurance plans on the state's Affordable Care Act Exchange must cover with no additional cost—a change that would set Oregon apart from the 25 states that restrict plans on state exchanges from covering abortion. It does offer religious employers an exemption, allowing them to opt-out of providing insurance plans covering contraception and abortion.

Groups that face significant barriers to accessing affordable health care and are often prevented from accessing insurance that covers their needs, such as immigrant women and transgender and gender-nonconforming communities, also stand to gain if the legislation is passed. While Oregon has moved to eliminate barriers facing undocumented immigrants, some 48,000 women of reproductive age in Oregon are unable to access insurance because of their citizenship status, and insurance coverage often relies on one's gender-marker, limiting the ability of transgender men to access reproductive care. Advocates note that the bill contains provisions that will aid both groups, adding that the measure would be one of the first in the country to bar discrimination in reproductive health care coverage.

"The Reproductive Health Equity Act is legislation that would ensure that all Oregonians, regardless of income, citizenship status, gender identity, or the type of insurance that they have, have the freedom to decide if and when they have children," says Laurel Swerdlow, the advocacy director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon, one of the groups on the Pro-Choice Coalition's steering committee.

The Oregon Legislature has a democratic majority, possibly curbing strong conservative opposition to the measure. But previous efforts to pass proactive reproductive health care legislation in Oregon have run into difficulty. In 2015, the Comprehensive Women's Health Bill, a measure that would have required insurance companies to cover a range of reproductive health services at a low cost, was proposed. The bill had a strong start in the Legislature but was killed by Democrats out of fear that a provision covering abortions would be too controversial.

This time, advocates hope that the Reproductive Health Equity Act won't suffer the same fate—despite the bill containing a similar provision covering abortions—arguing that the national climate around reproductive rights, when coupled with the legislation's nondiscrimination protections, make a compelling case. "Oregonians and their legislators now understand in personal terms and in public health benefits that the full spectrum of reproductive health services needs to not only be safe and legal, but affordable and accessible," Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon Executive Director Mary Nolan said in a statement.

The Oregon measure was being worked on well before the election, but supporters of the legislation say Donald Trump's surprising victory has added new urgency to the need for the laws. Monnes Anderson says fears of an Affordable Care Act repeal are a motivating factor, telling the Oregonian, "We want to get ahead of what may happen at the federal level." 

Recent actions on Capitol Hill support their concerns. During a vote earlier this month, Senate Republicans rejected an Affordable Care Act amendment that requires insurance companies to cover the full cost of contraceptives, a move that could leave millions of women without no-cost birth control if Republicans succeed in dismantling the ACA.

Proactive reproductive health legislation may become more common in liberal states eager to mitigate the effects of an ACA repeal. The New York state assembly recently passed two measures, the Reproductive Health Act and the Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act, that would protect abortion and contraceptive access if the ACA is dismantled. On Saturday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that health insurers in the state would be required to cover most forms of contraception and medically necessary abortions at no cost. A Democratic legislator in Illinois is considering introducing a bill that would expand abortion coverage for women on Medicaid and some forms of state insurance. In Virginia, Democrats have introduced several bills to counteract attacks on reproductive health; one of them—the Birth Control Access Act—would allow women to obtain an entire year of birth control at one time.

Oregon has had a long history of supporting reproductive rights with policy initiatives. In 1969, the state became one of the first to legalize abortion, and it does not have any laws restricting the procedure. Last year, Oregon became the first state to enact a law allowing women to get a birth control prescription without needing to visit a doctor. That law and the Affordable Care Act's birth control mandate have helped expand contraceptive use in the state, contributing to a 15 percent drop in abortions between 2011 and 2014. Last week, the Guttmacher Institute released a survey that found the national abortion rate has hit the lowest point since the the Supreme Court's ruling in Roe v. Wade, noting that increased contraceptive use has likely played a large role in the decline.

Advocates hope the insurance mandates will protect that progress, but they also argue that the state should go further when it comes to supporting the reproductive health of underserved communities, adding that during the Trump administration, the Reproductive Health Equity Act is a practical necessity and an important statement. "Oregon has often been at the forefront on health care policy, but there have also been individuals left behind," says Amy Casso, the gender justice program director of Oregon's Western States Center. "We are working to ensure that no one has to be denied necessary lifesaving care."

There's More Than One Way to Blow Up the Paris Climate Deal

January 23, 2017 - 5:00am

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee votes on Rex Tillerson's nomination for Secretary of State Monday. At his confirmation hearing earlier this month, Tillerson disappointed some senators with his unpreparedness or unwillingness to discuss a range of international issues. But Tillerson did have one line prepped and ready to go.

Whenever he was asked about the United States' role in global efforts to tackle climate change, the former ExxonMobil CEO said it was vital to remain involved in global warming negotiations. "I think it's important that the United States maintain its seat at the table on the conversations around how to address threats of climate change, which do require a global response," Tillerson said, repeating four different versions of that statement throughout the day. "No one country is going to solve this alone."

On its face, these words suggest good news. During the campaign, Donald Trump went so far as to promise he'd "cancel" the landmark Paris climate agreement, which the Obama administration negotiated with governments around the world. Since the election, Trump's intentions have been less clear. The agreement officially went into force in early November, days before the election. That makes it more difficult to back out of, though Trump could throw a wrench into the works by insisting on Senate ratification or by beginning the slow process of formal withdrawal. (Or he could take the more drastic step of withdrawing entirely from the UN's climate negotiations framework, which would take just a year).

Environmental groups and foreign leaders are holding out hope that Trump might backtrack on his campaign pledge. China's special representative for climate change, Xie Zhenhua, told China's state-owned newspaper that "the international community and US citizens will pressure the Trump administration to continue clean energy policies." Trump seemed to leave the door open for such a move when he told the New York Times late last year that he had an "open mind" on the issue.

Tillerson's latest commentary suggests the Trump administration might decide to remain involved in global climate diplomacy, even if abandons Obama's domestic emissions reduction policies.

But is staying superficially involved any less destructive than withdrawing the United States entirely? As Vox's Brad Plumer notes, "There's still a whole lot they could do to bog down global climate talks and hinder efforts to address climate change from within."

Indeed, the unique structure of the Paris deal makes it vulnerable swings in countries' internal politics. Some 190 nations put forward domestic goals on climate change for 2025 and 2030, while agreeing to some basic transparency and financial guidelines, as well as to a process to reevaluate individual pledges every few years. This means that the agreement covers nearly all global carbon pollution. The downside is these pledges are voluntary, and even if every country were to fulfill them, the result would not be sufficient to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit)—the threshold above which many scientists say catastrophic changes would be inevitable. In other words, containing global warming will depend on the big polluters going beyond what they committed to in 2015.

So you can see why the Trump administration, already filled with climate change deniers, presents a significant problem.

Even if Trump signals he won't actually "cancel" the agreement, there's a lot of damage he can do from the inside.

"You can't have a seat at the table if you put a hand grenade in the agreement," says Jake Schmidt of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Hopefully [Tillerson] realizes that."

Trump has more than one hand grenade at his disposal.

For starters, Trump and his administration have expressed no interest in delivering on Obama's promises to America's negotiating partners. They have promised to scrap Obama's signature domestic climate policy: the Environmental Protection Agency's cap on carbon pollution from power plants. The US could still conceivably lower its pollution footprint without those regulations, but it will be much harder, if not impossible, to deliver on Obama's pledge to cut emissions 26-28 percent by 2025.

"You can have a seat at table, but what would you bring to it?" says David Waskow, a climate official at the World Resources Institute. Major players in global climate talks need to "lean in," he added. "Part of leaning in is for the US to, under Paris, not walk away from a national climate plan."

That's not the only commitment on which the United States could come up short. The US has so far sent $1 billion of the $3 billion that Obama pledged the Green Climate Fund, which mobilizes international finance for climate action in poor, vulnerable nations. In the lead-up to Paris, experts described this type of aid as a carrot for persuading developing countries to slow the growth of their own carbon emissions in order to combat a crisis they had little role in creating. Congressional Republicans and Trump have pledged to cut global climate aid.

By not following through on two key pieces of the deal—the carbon cuts and the climate aid—Trump could undermine some of the US's long-term aims—namely, getting China to agree to a transparent independent body that reviews countries' progress.

"There are some things that are in the Paris agreement that are specifically aligned with the objectives of the United States," Waskow said. "For the US to walk away from that process and not fully engage and make sure that transparency works well would undercut our interests there."

All this will matter most in 2018, when the next major round of climate negotiations will take place. Negotiators expect to use these talks to hammer out how countries will report their progress transparently. It will also be the site of the first "stocktake"—the mechanism the Obama administration pushed for to encourage countries to periodically reassess and ramp up their ambitions for carbon cuts.

If the US were to show up empty-handed, other countries could backslide on their own commitments. And if Tillerson turns the State Department into a front for oil diplomacy, he could damage international efforts to switch from oil, gas, and coal to renewables.

In other words, a Trump administration could lower the bar of climate ambition while saving face internationally and remaining within the Paris agreement.

Still, some environmental advocates see this outcome as far better than the alternative. "Are we expecting that he is going to even be 50 percent of Obama's leadership on this issue? No way, we're not delusional," the NRDC's Schmidt said. "It's one thing for us to totally walk away, another thing for us to be only halfhearted. Maybe the best thing we can hope for in a Trump administration is to not destroy the progress of eight-plus years and leave us in a position to pick up the pieces when Trump is out of office."

Today in Trump

January 22, 2017 - 6:15pm

Here's Chuck Todd on Meet the Press this morning, asking White House "counselor" Kellyanne Conway why President Trump's press secretary started his first day in office by going out and lying repeatedly on national TV. Her answer: Sean Spicer was merely providing "alternative facts."

I don't want to pick on Todd, who pressed Conway hard on this, but it was almost painful watching him try so hard to avoid using the obvious word here. Over and over, he wanted to ask why Spicer had lied, which would be the usual way of phrasing his question. On a couple of occasions he even stuttered a bit while he searched for another word. He just wouldn't say it. So what's the best response to Conway's dogged unwillingness to answer questions in even a debatably truthful way? I think Jamelle Bouie has it right:

I increasingly believe that networks should refuse to have Conway on as long as she continues misleading the public.

— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) January 22, 2017

There's a limit to how much TV networks should tolerate staffers who have a consistent history of viewing airtime merely as a way of promoting lies. Kellyanne Conway blew past that limit before Trump even took office. It's hard to see what the value of having her on a news show is at this point.

In other developments, hold on to your jaw—or maybe your stomach—as you watch Trump blow a kiss to FBI Director James Comey and then give him a big hug:

Pres. Trump greets FBI Director James Comey during First Responders ceremony at the White House: "He's become more famous than me."

— ABC News (@ABC) January 22, 2017

Jeet Heer has the proper take on this:

Trump, unlike many others, isn't in denial about what happened.

— Jeet Heer (@HeerJeet) January 22, 2017

Trump won because of Comey. Period. Without Comey's letter of October 28, Trump would have lost by 8 million popular votes and a few dozen electoral votes. And Comey knew exactly what he was doing. Published reports suggest that literally every single person he talked to advised him that writing his letter would be an unprecedented violation of rules against letting ongoing investigations interfere with elections.

Finally, in other news from Kellyanne Conway, we learned officially what's been obvious for a long time: Donald Trump is never going to release his tax returns.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You mentioned a couple hundred thousand people who sent in petitions on health care, talking about health care, you also have more than 200,000 who petitioned the White House calling on President Trump to release his full tax returns with all information needed to verify emolument's clause compliance. Whenever 100,000 petition, that triggers a White House response. So, what is the White House response?

CONWAY: The White House response is that he's not going to release his tax returns. We litigated this all through the election. People didn't care. They voted for him.

The "audit" was just a ruse all along. I don't think that will surprise anyone with a room-temperature IQ, and I guess Trump decided to stop playing the game.

1,458 days to go. I can hardly wait for the Spicer/Conway description of Trump's tax cuts and Trump's replacement for Obamacare.

On TV, Trump's Inauguration Was the Worst in 40 Years

January 22, 2017 - 12:07pm

I guess we've moved on from crowd size at Trump's inauguration to TV audience size. Interestingly, Trump has apparently decided not to lie about this, but only to mislead. Just for the record, then, here's the share of the population that has tuned in to watch first-term inaugurations over the past 40 years:

Ratings here. January population here.

Peter's Choice

January 22, 2017 - 5:00am

This past October, I taught a weeklong seminar on the history of conservatism to honors students from around the state of Oklahoma. In five long days, my nine very engaged students and I got to know each other fairly well. Six were African American women. Then there was a middle-aged white single mother, a white kid who looked like any other corn-fed Oklahoma boy and identified himself as "queer," and the one straight white male. I'll call him Peter.

Peter is 21 and comes from a town of about 3,000 souls. It's 85 percent white, according to the 2010 census, and 1.2 percent African American—which would make for about 34 black folks. "Most people live around the poverty line," Peter told the class, and hunting is as much a sport as a way to put food on the table.

Peter was one of the brightest students in the class, and certainly the sweetest. He liked to wear overalls to school—and on the last day, in a gentle tweak of the instructor, a red "Make America Great Again" baseball cap. A devout evangelical, he'd preferred former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee at the start of the primary season, but was now behind Donald Trump.

One day the students spent three hours drafting essays about the themes we'd talked about in class. I invited them to continue writing that night so the next morning we could discuss one of their pieces in detail. I picked Peter's because it was extraordinary. In only eight hours he'd churned out eight pages, eloquent and sharp.

When I asked him if I could discuss his essay in this article, he replied, "That sounds fine with me. If any of my work can be used to help the country with its political turmoil, I say go for it!" Then he sent me a new version with typos corrected and a postelection postscript: "My wishful hope is that my compatriots will have their tempers settled by Trump's election, and that maybe both sides can learn from the Obama and Trump administrations in order to understand how both sides feel. Then maybe we can start electing more moderate people, like John Kasich and Jim Webb, who can find reasonable commonality on both sides and make government work." Did I mention he was sweet?

When he read the piece aloud in class that afternoon in October, the class was riveted. Several of the black women said it was the first time they'd heard a Trump supporter clearly set forth what he believed and why. (Though, defying stereotypes, one of these women—an aspiring cop—was also planning to vote for Trump.)

Peter's essay took off from the main class reading, Corey Robin's The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. Its central argument is that conservative movements across history are united in their devotion to the maintenance of received social hierarchy. Peter, whose essay was titled "Plight of the Redneck," had a hard time seeing how that applied to the people he knew.

"We all live out in the wilderness, either in the middle of a forest or on a farm," he wrote. "Some people cannot leave their homes during times of unfortunate weather. Many still dry clothes by hanging them on wires with clothespins outside. These people are nowhere near the top, or even the middle, of any hierarchy. These people are scraping the bottom of the barrel, and they, seemingly, have nothing to benefit from maintaining the system of order that keeps them at the bottom." His county ended up going about 70 percent for Trump.

Concerning race, Peter wrote, "In Oklahoma, besides Native Americans, there have traditionally been very few minorities. Few blacks have ever lived near the town that I am from...Even in my generation, despite there being a little more diversity, there was no racism, nor was there a reason for racism to exist." His town's 34 or so black people might beg to differ, of course; white people's blindness to racism in their midst is an American tradition. As one of the African American students in the class—I'll call her Karen—put it, whites in her town see "racism as nonexistent unless they witness it firsthand. And then it almost has to be over the top—undeniable acts of violence like hate crimes or cross burnings on front lawns—before they would acknowledge it as such." But it's relevant to the story I'm telling that I'm certain Peter isn't individually, deliberately racist, and that Karen agrees.

Still, Peter's thinking might help us frame a central debate on the left about what to make of Trump's victory. Is it, in the main, a recrudescence of bigotry on American soil—a reactionary scream against a nation less white by the year? Or is it more properly understood as an economically grounded response to the privations that neoliberalism has wracked upon the heartland?

Peter knows where he stands. He remembers multiple factories and small businesses "shutting down or laying off. Next thing you know, half of downtown" in the bigger city eight miles away "became vacant storefronts." Given that experience, he has concluded, "for those people who have no political voice and come from states that do not matter, the best thing they can do is try to send in a wrecking ball to disrupt the system."

When Peter finished with that last line, there was a slight gasp from someone in the class—then silence, then applause. They felt like they got it.

I was also riveted by Peter's account, convinced it might be useful as a counterbalance to glib liberal dismissals of the role of economic decline in building Trumpland. Then I did some research.

According to the 2010 census, the median household income in Peter's county is a little more than $45,000. By comparison, Detroit's is about $27,000 and Chicago's (with a higher cost of living) is just under $49,000. The poverty rate is 17.5 percent in the county and 7.6 percent in Peter's little town, compared with Chicago's 22.7 percent. The unemployment rate has hovered around 4 percent.

The town isn't rich, to be sure. But it's also not on the "bottom." Oklahoma on the whole has been rather dynamic economically: Real GDP growth was 2.8 percent in 2014—down from 4.3 percent in 2013, but well above the 2.2 percent nationally. The same was true of other Trump bastions like Texas (5.2 percent growth) and West Virginia (5.1 percent).

Peter, though, perceives the region's economic history as a simple tale of desolation and disappointment. "Everyone around was poor, including the churches," he wrote, "and charities were nowhere near (this wasn't a city, after all), so more people had to use some sort of government assistance. Taxes went up [as] the help became more widespread."

He was just calling it like he saw it. But it's striking how much a bright, inquisitive, public-spirited guy can take for granted that just is not so. Oklahoma's top marginal income tax rate was cut by a quarter point to 5 percent in 2016, the same year lawmakers hurt the working poor by slashing the earned-income tax credit. On the "tax burden" index used by the website WalletHub, Oklahoma's is the 45th lowest, with rock-bottom property taxes and a mere 4.5 percent sales tax. (On Election Day, Oklahomans voted down a 1-point sales tax increase meant to raise teacher pay, which is 49th in the nation.).

As for government assistance, Oklahoma spends less than 10 percent of its welfare budget on cash assistance. The most a single-parent family of three can get is $292 a month—that's 18 percent of the federal poverty line. Only 2,469 of the more than 370,000 Oklahomans aged 18 to 64 who live in poverty get this aid. And the state's Medicaid eligibility is one of the stingiest in the nation, covering only adults with dependent children and incomes below 42 percent of the poverty level—around $8,500 for a family of three.

But while Peter's analysis is at odds with much of the data, his overall story does fit a national pattern. Trump voters report experiencing greater-than-average levels of economic anxiety, even though they tend have better-than-average incomes. And they are inclined to blame economic instability on the federal government—even, sometimes, when it flows from private corporations. Peter wrote about the sense of salvation his neighbors felt when a Walmart came to town: "Now there were enough jobs, even part-time jobs...But Walmart constantly got attacked by unions nationally and with federal regulations; someone lost their job, or their job became part-time."

It's worth noting that if the largest retail corporation in the world has been conspicuously harmed by unions and regulations of late, it doesn't show in its profits, which were $121 billion in 2016. And of course, Walmart historically has had a far greater role in shuttering small-town Main Streets than in revitalizing them. But Peter's neighbors see no reason to resent it for that. He writes, "The majority of the people do not blame the company for their loss because they realize that businesses [are about] making money, and that if they had a business of their own, they would do the same thing."

It's not fair to beat up on a sweet 21-year-old for getting facts wrong—especially if, as is likely, these were the only facts he was told. Indeed, teaching the class, I was amazed how even the most liberal students took for granted certain dubious narratives in which they (and much of the rest of the country) were marinated all year long, like the notion that Hillary Clinton was extravagantly corrupt.

Feelings can't be fact-checked, and in the end, feelings were what Peter's eloquent essay came down to­—what it feels like to belong, and what it feels like to be culturally dispossessed. "After continually losing on the economic side," he wrote, "one of the few things that you can retain is your identity. What it means, to you, to be an American, your somewhat self-sufficient and isolated way of life, and your Christian faith and values. Your identity and heritage is the very last thing you can cling to...Abortion laws and gay marriage are the two most recent upsets. The vast majority of the state of Oklahoma has opposed both of the issues, and social values cannot be forced by the government."

On these facts he is correct: In a 2015 poll, 68 percent of Oklahomans called themselves "pro-life," and only 30 percent supported marriage equality. Until 2016 there were only a handful of abortion providers in the entire state, and the first new clinic to open in 40 years guards its entrance with a metal detector.

Peter thinks he's not a reactionary. Since that sounds like an insult, I'd like to think so, too. But in writing this piece, I did notice a line in his essay that I had glided over during my first two readings, maybe because I liked him too much to want to be scared by him. "One need only look to the Civil War and the lasting legacies of Reconstruction through to today's current racism and race issues to see what happens when the federal government forces its morals on dissenting parts of the country."

The last time I read that, I shuddered. So I emailed Peter. "I say the intrusions were worth it to end slavery and turn blacks into full citizens," I wrote. "A lot of liberals, even those most disposed to having an open mind to understanding the grievances of people like you and yours, will have a hard time with [your words]."

Peter's answer was striking. He first objected (politely!) to what he saw as the damning implication behind my observation. Slavery and Reconstruction? "I was using it as an example of government intrusion and how violent and negative the results can be when the government tries to tell people how to think. I take it you saw it in terms of race in politics. The way we look at the same thing shows how big the difference is between our two groups."

To him, focusing on race was "an attention-grabbing tool that politicians use to their advantage," one that "really just annoys and angers conservatives more than anything, because it is usually a straw man attack." He compared it to what "has happened with this election: everyone who votes for Trump must be racist and sexist, and there's no possible way that anyone could oppose Hillary unless it's because they're sexist. Accusing racism or sexism eliminates the possibility of an honest discussion about politics."

He asked me to imagine "being one of those rednecks under the poverty line, living in a camper trailer on your grandpa's land, eating about one full meal a day, yet being accused by Black Lives Matter that you are benefiting from white privilege and your life is somehow much better than theirs."

And that's when I wanted to meet him halfway: Maybe we could talk about the people in Chicago working for poverty wages and being told by Trump supporters that they were lazy. Or the guy with the tamale cart in front of my grocery store—always in front of my grocery store, morning, noon, and night—who with so much as a traffic violation might find himself among the millions whom Trump intends to immediately deport.

I wanted to meet him halfway, until he started talking about history.

"The reason I used the Civil War and Reconstruction is because it isn't a secret that Reconstruction failed," Peter wrote. "It failed and left the South in an extreme poverty that it still hasn't recovered from." And besides, "slavery was expensive and the Industrial Revolution was about to happen. Maybe if there had been no war, slavery would have faded peacefully."

As a historian, I found this remarkable, since it was precisely what all American schoolchildren learned about slavery and Reconstruction for much of the 20th century. Or rather, they did until the civil rights era, when serious scholarship dismantled this narrative, piece by piece. But not, apparently, in Peter's world. "Until urban liberals move to the rural South and live there for probably a decade or more," he concluded, "there's no way to fully appreciate the view."

This was where he left me plumb at a loss. Liberals must listen to and understand Trump supporters. But what you end up understanding from even the sweetest among them still might chill you to the bone.

Read Peter's full essay at