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How an allegedly violent white nationalist spent decades in the U.S. military undetected

February 23, 2019 - 11:36am

Christopher Hasson, a self-avowed white nationalist who once considered himself a skinhead, managed to fly under Pentagon officials’ radar for decades. He was background-checked multiple times as he rose up the ranks, eventually becoming a Coast Guard lieutenant.

But what prosecutors describe as his extremist leanings, his desire to establish a “white homeland,” and his idolization of mass murderers didn’t come to light until he was investigated for ordering synthetic opioids from Mexico.

On Wednesday, federal prosecutors filed court documents that laid bare his alleged plans to carry out a domestic terror attack — a dramatic twist in a case that seemingly began as a straightforward investigation into his reported Tramadol habit.

Prosecutors say that Hasson was stockpiling weapons as part of a plot to massacre well-known Democrats and journalists. In draft email to a neo-Nazi leader, Hasson allegedly wrote about the need for “focused violence” to establish a “white homeland,” and mentioned that he still had friends in skinhead groups.

“The defendant intends to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country,” prosecutors said, signalling that they intended to pursue additional charges.

The fact that Hasson spent some 30 years in the U.S. military has raised new questions about the thoroughness of the Department of Defense’s background checks and the efficacy of decades-long efforts to flush out white supremacy from its ranks.

National security experts told VICE News that the department has some safeguards in place to keep alleged extremists like Hasson out of the military. But, particularly for those without high-level security clearance, those protections generally rely on self-reporting or background checks.

In an August 2017 email, Hasson said he was a skinhead until he joined the Marine Corps in 1988, according to federal court documents.

The military disqualifies anyone with disclosed skinhead ties, Marine Corps Spokesman Maj. Brian Block told VICE News, and would have done so if Hasson had disclosed such ties.

Marine Corps spokesman Maj. Brian Block told VICE News that, had Hasson disclosed his alleged involvement in a skinhead group prior to joining the military, he would have been disqualified from the recruitment process.

Hasson’s military career

Hasson rose to the rank of corporal during his five years in Marines, then spent two years in the Army National Guard. He eventually got a job with the Coast Guard in 1996 as an electronics technician.

In 2012, he was promoted to Chief Warrant Officer, and promoted again in 2015 to lieutenant, a Coast Guard spokesperson confirmed to VICE News. The following year, he was transferred to Coast Guard headquarters in D.C., where he’s been working as an acquisitions officer for its National Security Cutter program, which is the largest class of Coast Guard commissioned vessels.

“The defendant intends to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country”

The Coast Guard started investigating Hasson last fall, after the agency’s “Insider Threat” program, which relies on employees to report suspicious activity among coworkers, flagged concerns about him. They didn’t say what the concerns were, but charging documents noted that he was stashing the synthetic opioid Tramadol at his desk at work.

Hasson’s access to Coast Guard Headquarters has been revoked, and he remains on active duty pending the outcome of the case, Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Barry Lane told VICE News.

The vetting process

Like all recruits seeking a job in the military Hasson would have undergone medical and psychological checks. He would have also been required to fill out out a lengthy questionnaire called an SF86, completed by all military personnel and prospective employees for national security positions.

The form asks applicants “Are you now or have you EVER been a member of an organization dedicated to terrorism, either with an awareness of the organization's dedication to that end, or with the specific intent to further such activities?”

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which issues the form, defines terrorism for this purpose as criminal acts that “involve violence or are dangerous to human life and appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.”

The form also asks whether an applicant had ever been a member of an organization that advocates for violence, or commits violence with the goal of discouraging others from exercising their constitutional rights.

Bradley Moss, a national security lawyer, said “Assuming he was never subject to a polygraph, it is entirely plausible he was able to conceal his skinhead background from the U.S. government.”

Department of Defense employees receive one of three security clearances: Confidential, which is the lowest; Secret; and Top Secret. In 2005, Hasson received a “Secret” level security clearance, but was not given access to any information that would have required a polygraph. Military personnel hires working on national security are required to fill out that same questionnaire, and Hasson would likely have been required to fill it out again for other jobs at the Department of Defense.

Moss said at least one of the questions on the new hire form may have applied to Hasson, but that since he was accepted into the defense department he presumably answered “no.”

We don’t know much about the nature of alleged Hasson’s skinhead background or the extent of his involvement. Those details are key to understanding whether his views and activities should have been flagged when he was recruited, says Mark Zaid, a national security law expert and founder of the James Madison Project, an advocacy group that promotes government transparency.

“There’s a distinction between if he holds white nationalist views but is really just some loner in his own mind and world, even if he has Hitler pictures all over his home, and some of the folks who were at Charlottesville and engaged in physical assault,” said Zaid.

To receive a “Secret” level clearance, Hasson also would have been subject to a background check. For that level of access, investigators might talk to a former employer or two, or a couple of references that he provided, said Moss. If he’d been up for a “Top Secret” clearance level, investigators would have gone deeper into his background, including interviewing his friends, neighbors, and former colleagues.

“Assuming he was never subject to a polygraph, it is entirely plausible he was able to conceal his skinhead background from the U.S. government.”

“Depending on who the government investigators interviewed as part of their vetting, it is entirely conceivable they never met anyone who disclosed Hasson’s white supremacist views,” Moss said. “The clearance vetting process is inherently premised on trust in disclosures by the person being vetted.”

A spokesperson for the Coast Guard also noted in a statement to VICE News that Coast Guard military personnel are “prohibited from advocating supremacist doctrine, ideology, or causes.”

Extremism in the Ranks

Moss said that commanding officers will generally keep an eye on new recruits and “address any possible issues that arise, including taking disciplinary action if disturbing radicalization is evident.”

“The problem, of course, is that it is not always apparent what is going on and the Department of Defense is very careful to avoid becoming the political morality police,” said Moss.

Researchers say that right-wing extremism in the military is a persistent problem, and a report by the Military Times in 2017 found that one in four troops had encountered white nationalism in the ranks. After a ProPublica report exposed three service members with ties to the violent neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen last year, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) wrote a letter to former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis asking for information about what the Pentagon is doing to screen recruits for extremist ties.

When Hasson joined the military in 1988 he served in a marine detachment aboard a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier called the USS Theodore Roosevelt. Two years earlier, and at the height of the “white power” movement – Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger ordered military personnel to cease participation in white supremacist organizations.

After three soldiers who were also neo-Nazi skinheads were accused of committing two racially-motivated murders in December 1995, the Pentagon launched a task force to investigate the issue. That task force found persisting “indications of extremist and racist attitudes among soldiers.” In response, the military broadened its policy on extremism to give more discretion to commanders to report service members’ beliefs or behavior.

And in 2000, the Department of the Army released guidance instructing military personnel how to comply with the policy. The guidelines ranged from what kind of tattoos they can have to how commanders should handle extremist activity in their ranks.

But Kathleen Belew, a history professor at the University of Chicago and author of “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America,” said military policy has consistently lagged behind the problem of extremism in the ranks.

Belew said that’s in part because defense officials have to toe a line between addressing the problem and avoiding tarnishing the reputation of military service members broadly. They also run the risk of limiting their freedom of expression.

But this lag, Belew said, has allowed people like Hasson to fall through the cracks and fomented a decades-long tradition of military personnel joining white power or far-right extremist movements. She added that they post a particular risk by increasing the violent potential of these groups.

“Active duty service members and veterans have worked to move things from military space to civilian spaces — uniform and language, all the way up to tactics and weapons — and train other white power activists in violent methods,” Belew said.

In this undated handout photo provided by U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland, the collection of weapons and ammunition federal agents say they found in Christopher Paul Hasson's Silver Spring apartment are shown in Maryland. (Photo by U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland via Getty Images)

Why protesters in Haiti are demanding the president step down

February 22, 2019 - 4:51pm

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Visitors driving under an unfinished bridge on a busy road here in Haiti’s capital might just think it's part of a construction project. But to millions of angry Haitians, the concrete slab has become a glaring symbol of the corruption that holds the impoverished Caribbean nation hostage and has sparked deadly street protests.

Funds to build the bridge came from a loan that Venezuela gave to Haiti for reconstruction projects following the devastating 2010 earthquake. Since then, politicians have racked up nearly $2 billion in debt to the so-called PetroCaribe scheme. Most of the projects the money was intended for — including housing and government buildings — remain either incomplete or nonexistent.

A late-2017 Senate report into how the PetroCaribe funds were used came to a definitive conclusion: "The PetroCaribe fund has been the object of embezzlement, embezzlement, embezzlement." The report also named President Jovenel Moïse himself, claiming that before he was president his private company received funds to build a road that never materialized.

Since the release of the report, Haitians have been demanding the answer to one simple question, first posed by activist/filmmaker Gilbert Mirambeau Jr. He tweeted a picture of himself blindfolded and holding a board that read in Creole: Where is the PetroCaribe money?

“As a humble citizen, I asked, where is my money actually, not yours, where is my money, because I am paying you to do this,“ Gilbert explained to VICE News as he stood near the bridge.

His tweet went viral, and soon after, public anger spilled onto the streets, with tens of thousands protesting over eight consecutive days, at points becoming violent. Since the protests started last year, 7 people have died.

The president has only given one statement on the crisis since it began, refusing to meet the demands of the protesters who want him to step down. Meanwhile, the prime minister, though refusing to take questions, promised to cut some perks of government officials.

VICE News tracked the prime minister, Jean-Henry Céant, to his office. "We are talking about funds that have been stolen, but the theft has to be proven,” he said. He denied the president was using him as a shield but added, “I know one thing. The president has to work with me to find the PetroCaribe money.”

After a lull in street demonstrations over the past five days, the opposition parties are once again calling for people to resume their pressure on the government. In the meantime, life goes on next to the unfinished bridge. People wash in a pool of brown, dirty water, some have only one meal a day. And with half the population living on $2 a day, everyone keeps asking: Where is my money?

This segment originally aired February 20, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.

Planned Parenthood could lose millions thanks to the Trump administration’s changes to a family planning program

February 22, 2019 - 4:45pm

The Trump administration is trying to cut Planned Parenthood and other similar organizations off from tens of millions of dollars in federal funding.

Under a policy change announced Friday by the Department of Health and Human Services, organizations that offer abortion or refer patients for abortion can no longer receive funding from Title X, a $286 million federal program tasked with providing birth control and cancer and STD screenings to low-income people. Instead, providers have to keep up a “clear physical and financial separation” between services that involve abortions and those that don’t, such as offering abortion referrals in a completely separate facility.

It’s already illegal, in most cases, to use federal dollars to pay for abortions.

The new changes, although long anticipated, are all but certain to launch a federal lawsuit. In an interview with VICE News before the policy was made public, Leana Wen, the new head of Planned Parenthood, promised to fight the new rules, which are currently set to go into effect in 60 days after being published in the federal register.

“It is our obligation to the patients that we serve, that we will do everything in our power, as we always have, to fight this,” said Wen, who took over the massive organization last fall. Of the 3.8 million people who rely on Title X services for contraception, roughly 1.6 million, or 41 percent, are seen at Planned Parenthood clinics.

Critics of the new rules, like Wen, say they amount to a “domestic gag rule” that stops providers from being able to speak honestly with their patients.

“It’s unconscionable and ethical for politicians to censor what we can say to our patients based on whether they depend on federal assistance for their health care,” Wen said. “It compromises the oath that I took [as a physician] to serve my patients and to help them make the best decision for their own health.”

Planned Parenthood could lose as much as $60 million a year if the Title X rules go into effect, according to the Washington Post. If Planned Parenthood were no longer able to take in Title X patients, other providers that receive Title X funding would have to increase their client caseloads by an average of 70 percent, a Guttmacher Institute analysis found in 2017.

But those providers are also likely to take a hit. Late last year, Kristin Adams, who leads Indiana’s sole Title X grantee, the Indiana Family Health Council, told VICE News that eight of the 30 family planning clinics operated through her state’s grant would shutter if the proposed changes take effect.

In a statement, Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the influential anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony’s List, thanked President Donald Trump “for taking decisive action to disentangle taxpayers from the big abortion industry led by Planned Parenthood.”

There’s one exception when providers could help refer a patient who wants an abortion: A doctor can give a pregnant patient a list of healthcare providers, and a minority of the providers on that list can offer abortion. But the doctor cannot advise the patient about choosing a provider.

The exception, the Trump administration maintains, makes these regulations less strict than similar rules passed during the Reagan administration. When activists sued the Reagan administration over those rules, the Supreme Court ultimately decided the policy could go into effect; at that point, however, the changes had been so delayed that they never took effect before President Ronald Reagan left office.

When asked how Planned Parenthood will fight the new Title X rules, Wen declined to give specifics, since the rules weren’t yet out. But pursuing a lawsuit — which could block the rules from taking effect — wasn’t off the table.

“We are exploring every avenue,” Wen pledged.

Cover image: Planned Parenthood center in San Diego, in July 2018. | usage worldwide Photo by: (Frank Duenzl/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

OxyContin maker didn't want to tell doctors how addictive the drug was, report of secret testimony shows

February 22, 2019 - 3:12pm

Richard Sackler — the scion of the billionaire family behind embattled drugmaker Purdue Pharma — didn’t want his drug reps telling doctors that Purdue’s powerful prescription opioid, OxyContin, was just as strong and addictive as morphine, according to sealed testimony reviewed by ProPublica and STAT.

Sackler, who was once president of the company, spoke under oath in August 2015 about Purdue’s shady marketing practices surrounding OxyContin. But until Thursday, the 337-page deposition was secret.

Sackler said in his deposition that he didn’t want OxyContin “to be polluted by all of the bad associations that patients and healthcare givers had with morphine,” a drug used to treat cancer and end-of-life patients. So he didn’t see harm in a sales representative telling a doctor “there may be less euphoria” with OxyContin, which was untrue, especially if a patient were to abuse the drug.

Purdue’s then-head of sales and marketing, Michael Friedman, even told Sackler in 1997 that it would be “extremely dangerous at this early stage in the life of the product” to allow physicians to think the drug was as strong or stronger than morphine, since physicians already thought oxycodone, the active ingredient in their drug, was weaker.

“I do not plan to do anything about that,” Friedman wrote, according to ProPublica and STAT.

Sackler responded: “I agree with you. Is there a general agreement, or are there some holdouts?”

Purdue criticized the release of the sealed deposition in a statement and said Sackler’s remarks echoed the company’s efforts to “appropriately reflect OxyContin’s risks of abuse and addiction as the science of opioid pain therapy evolved over time.”

Sackler’s 2015 deposition stemmed from a Kentucky-based lawsuit, which Purdue paid $24 million to settle. His words offer a rare glimpse of a family member discussing, at length, just how aggressively Purdue marketed Oxycontin and concealed its potential for abuse from doctors since the drug’s introduction in 1996.

The company still faces a barrage of lawsuits from more than 1,500 cities and counties that want to hold it accountable for the role OxyContin may have played in getting people hooked on opioids. More than 70,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2017, although the majority of those overdoses were related to the illicit, synthetic opioid fentanyl.

Another lawsuit brought by Massachusetts’ attorney general specifically accused Sackler of leading doctors to believe that OxyContin was a weaker drug than morphine and therefore, safe to prescribe in frequent, high doses. The suit also alleges Sackler explicitly told Purdue staff not to tell physicians this wasn’t the truth.

Still, Sackler maintained those marketing efforts were fair — and paying off.

“You won’t believe how committed I am to make OxyContin a huge success. It is almost that I dedicated my life to it,” Sackler wrote in an email three years after the drug was first introduced, according to the deposition seen by ProPublica and STAT.

Less than a decade later, in 2007, the company and three of its top executives were criminally charged in a federal court with deceiving doctors about the drug, and the company agreed to pay $700 million in fines over allegations that it deceived the public.

Cover image: In this Aug. 17, 2018, file photo, family and friends who have lost loved ones to OxyContin and opioid overdoses leave pill bottles in protest outside the headquarters of Purdue Pharma, which is owned by the Sackler family, in Stamford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's apology tour got off to a really bad start

February 22, 2019 - 2:08pm

RICHMOND, Virginia — Gov. Ralph Northam had planned to kick off his statewide apology tour Wednesday, but he got uninvited to the first event.

The historically black Virginia Union University was supposed to be the first place for Northam to atone for the photo in his 1984 yearbook of a person in Klan garb and another in blackface, which sparked a backlash and calls for his resignation when it surfaced online about 3 weeks ago. Then he admitted he'd appeared in blackface for a dance contest around the same time, fueling the fire —though he's apparently staying put. (The governor admitted the dance-contest blackface, but he says he's not in the photo on the yearbook page.)

While some attendees of the VUU event, whose main purpose was to honor the Richmond 34 civil rights activists, were happy to let their ceremony serve as a place for the governor to begin learning and apologizing for his racist act, the student body felt blindsided.

Student Government Association President Jamon Phenix penned a letter addressed to Gov. Northam demanding he back out of the event, explaining that the students “feel as though your presence takes away from the historical significance of our commemoration.” Northam agreed not to attend.

Phenix did invite the governor to return to campus later this year for a roundtable discussion and interview. But when asked why he would delay the chance to reconcile, Phenix told VICE News that the governor’s mere presence at the event, without the opportunity for students to ask questions or have a discussion, didn’t add value. “There was no real reconciliation. If he was to attend, he would not be on the platform and he would not have said anything. Where’s the reconciliation inside of just a presence?”

Elizabeth Johnson Rice, one of the Richmond 34, disagreed. In 1960, she and her peers entered Thalhimers department store, sat down at a whites-only counter, and were arrested and charged with trespassing. As alarmed as she was that Northam had dressed in blackface, she believes firmly in second chances. “Northam may have trespassed against the black community,” she conceded. “But the word is forgiveness. And that's, that's what my heart said he deserves.”

VICE News met with current and former VUU students in Richmond to get more reaction. Though Governor Northam wasn't in the room, the question of whether he's worthy of reconciliation certainly was.

This segment originally aired February 21, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.

El Chapo's lawyers say they'll ask for a new trial due to juror misconduct. Here's what could happen next.

February 22, 2019 - 12:57pm

Listen to "Chapo: Kingpin on Trial" for free, exclusively on Spotify.

Almost immediately after a federal jury in Brooklyn convicted Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán on all 10 counts of his indictment, the Sinaloa cartel leader’s lawyers vowed to appeal the unanimous guilty verdict. Now they have formally told the judge they plan to seek a new trial, citing a report from VICE News about alleged juror misconduct as the basis for the request.

In a letter sent Friday to Judge Brian Cogan, El Chapo’s defense team asked for additional time to prepare as they make the case for a new trial. The letter characterizes the Feb. 20 VICE News article as stating “that multiple jurors engaged in misconduct by intentionally violating the Court’s direction” to avoid media coverage of the trial and not to communicate with one another about the trial prior to deliberations.

“Mr. Guzmán intends to file motion for a new trial based on the disclosures in the article and to request an evidentiary hearing to determine the extent of the misconduct,” defense attorney Eduardo Balarezo said in the letter.

Balarezo declined to comment further when reached by VICE News.

A spokesperson for the federal prosecutor’s office in Brooklyn declined to comment.

In the VICE News exclusive interview with one of El Chapo’s anonymous jurors, the person claimed that multiple jurors had defied Judge Cogan’s orders by following news about the case and discussing developments with one another prior to deliberations. The juror’s statements could not be independently verified.

Read: Inside El Chapo's jury: a juror speaks for the first time about convicting a kingpin.

El Chapo’s conviction still stands, and he remains jailed at a high-security federal prison while he awaits a June 25 sentencing hearing. He faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison with no chance for parole.

The defense typically has two weeks after a guilty verdict to request a new trial. The letter from Chapo’s lawyers seeks an additional 30 days to prepare. The letter says the defense “has sought the government’s consent” for the extension, but “the government has not responded as of the time of filing.”

Independent experts who spoke with VICE News said a new trial is unlikely but within the realm of possibility, if the defense can persuade the judge that the jurors were exposed to news coverage that influenced the verdict.

Cliff Gardner, a lecturer at the University of California Berkeley School of Law who specializes in post-conviction representation, said reading about the case in the press is “an enormously significant type of juror misconduct.”

“I don’t see how it’s fair at all to the defendant, even perhaps the world’s most unpopular defendant, not to at least get to the bottom of what happened.”

But, he added, “the bar is high” for Chapo to receive a new trial. The defense will have to prove that jurors were indeed reading about the case or breaking other rules. And that, he explained, could be difficult given the anonymity involved.

“The government is probably going to argue that it didn't occur,” Gardner said. “They'd have to have a hearing to see if in fact jurors did ignore the court’s admonitions.”

Suzanne Luban, an expert on post-conviction issues at Stanford Law School, said the court “will be obligated to hold a hearing where the jurors will be questioned one at a time with both lawyers present, in a closed proceeding.”

“If the judge believes that even one juror read a news article that contained prejudicial information, by a preponderance of the evidence (simply 51 percent), the judge will order a new trial,” Luban said.

The prospect of a new trial for El Chapo, however unlikely, is daunting. The trial itself lasted for nearly three months and was the culmination of decades of work by U.S. law enforcement and federal prosecutors. Federal authorities have not disclosed how much it cost, but with the intense security and the logistics of bringing witnesses from across the U.S. and Latin America, the budget was presumably astronomical — certainly in the millions.

Luban noted that a retrial for Chapo could be held outside of New York City.

“It will be very difficult to find an impartial jury to retry El Chapo,” Luban said. “If the conviction is overturned due to juror misconduct, which is likely, his attorneys will likely move for a change of venue.”

El Chapo faces indictments in six U.S. District Courts around the country, and potential locations would include El Paso, Chicago, and San Diego. Luban explained that it’s possible Judge Cogan could continue to preside over the case in another district, but the challenge will be finding 12 jurors who haven’t already heard too much about El Chapo.

“It is hard to imagine a city where there would be a sufficient pool of potential jurors who have not seen the New York Times headlines about the revelations at El Chapo‘s trial and the inflammatory facts that were excluded,” she said.

Read more: The 10 wildest moments and stories from Chapo's trial.

Duncan Levin, a former federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of New York, said that even if the jurors were to admit reading about the case in the media, it might not be enough for Chapo to get a new trial. The juror who spoke to VICE News was adamant that the case was decided on the evidence alone, which might factor into Judge Cogan’s decision about how to proceed.

“If all of the jurors said, ‘Yeah we saw this extrajudicial material, but it didn’t actually influence our verdict,’ that would probably weigh pretty heavily in not granting a new trial,” Levin said. “But if, on the other hand the jurors couldn’t really explain sufficiently whether it did influence the verdict, that might be used as the basis to order a new trial.”

“It will be very difficult to find an impartial jury to retry El Chapo.”

Levin added that the court should be obligated to investigate whether the jurors in El Chapo’s case were exposed to news reports or other information that wasn’t heard inside the courtroom.

“I don’t see how it’s fair at all to the defendant, even perhaps the world’s most unpopular defendant, not to at least get to the bottom of what happened,” he said.

After reading the guilty verdict against El Chapo last week, Judge Cogan thanked the jury for their work on the case. “The way you went about it was really quite remarkable, and, frankly, it made me proud to be an American."

Cogan told the jurors they could shed their anonymity and speak to the media, but he advised against it. “Once that door is open, it can't be closed again,” he warned.

Luban, the Stanford expert, said it’s unlikely — but not impossible — that the jurors would face legal repercussions if there’s proof they defied the judge’s orders during the trial.

“Technically, they could be held in contempt by the court,” Luban said. “But realistically, judges don’t punish jurors unless they accept a bribe or something really heinous.”

Suja Thomas, a University of Illinois College of Law professor with expertise in jury issues, said punishing jurors for reading news coverage and discussing the case “is probably less likely than a new trial” for El Chapo. Doing so, she explained, would make it even more difficult to find people willing to serve on federal juries.

“We want people to serve and we want people to do what they’re told, and for the most part that’s what happens,” Thomas said. “It’s hard to avoid media. Even if people are saying they did this, these are things that will have to be talked about — in this day and age, how do you live a normal life and not look at the media, especially in a trial this long?”

The internet and social media have already impacted dozens of trials around the country as jurors struggle to go offline while they serve on a case. The issue isn’t new — a 2010 report from Reuters found 90 cases where verdicts were challenged because of alleged Internet-related juror misconduct, including 28 instances where judges granted new trials or overturned verdicts. But El Chapo’s case would be the highest-profile example yet.

Considering the length of the trial and the frenzied coverage of it, El Chapo’s jurors faced a unique challenge when they were ordered to avoid media and discussions of the case.

There was also speculation that jurors could suffer PTSD due to exposure to graphic testimony, personal safety fears, and “juror stress” from the grueling trial.

“Just all of a sudden an individual is thrust into a very significant and important fact-finding role, so obviously their conduct can be affected by the circumstances of the case,” said Ken Magidson, a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas. “It’s something that doesn’t happen to you every day. ‘I’m asking you to sit in judgement of El Chapo, who could be or is alleged to be one of the most significant Mexican cartel leaders of all time.’”

Read: This is what it's like to almost get picked for El Chapo's jury.

Even so, Magidson said jurors were obligated to follow instructions and honor their oath to the court. Magidson called the possibility of a contempt of court charge against one or more of the El Chapo jurors “highly unlikely,” but he said they could also be questioned under oath about their actions, when they would be subject to perjury charges.

Juror advocates like Thomas warn that punishing the jurors for breaking the judge’s admonition, even when the stakes are as high as they are in El Chapo’s case, would set a dangerous precedent. Thomas, who wrote a book about the role of juries in the American justice system, said that unless Chapo’s lawyers can prove he didn’t receive a fair trial, the jury’s verdict ought to stand.

“Outside of extraordinary circumstances, it’s problematic to start questioning jurors and questioning the process,” Thomas said. “This is our democratic process. It’s one of the greatest institutions we have. When the jury actually does sit, it’s a good thing. We don’t want to have the judge or other players in the government question the institution too much.”

Cover: In this courtroom drawing, defendant Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, second from left, listens to the judge while staring at the jury as the verdict is read in his drug trafficking trail, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019 in New York. Seated at the defense table, from left are, an interpreter, Guzman, and defense attorneys William Purpura and Eduardo Balarezo. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

R. Kelly charged with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse

February 22, 2019 - 12:39pm

R. Kelly, the R&B superstar who had for decades been accused of sexual misconduct and abuse of young girls, was charged with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse on Friday, a Chicago prosecutor said at a press conference.

Nine of the counts stem from Kelly’s interactions with three victims who were under the age of 17, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said at the press conference. One victim’s age was not specified and related to an incident in which Kelly allegedly ejaculated on her. Each count carries a possible prison sentence of three to seven years.

Prosecutors are now attempting to obtain an arrest warrant for Kelly, sources told the Sun-Times. Kelly’s attorney, Michael Greenberg, has repeatedly maintained his client's innocence and told the Sun-Times he wasn't aware that his client had been charged.

Kelly will stand trial on March 8.

The singer married the singer Aaliyah in 1994 — when he was 26 and she was just 15 — and has long been accused of targeting underage girls for sexual relationships. A six-part documentary series about his years of alleged misconduct finally seemed to unravel his career.

Shortly after the docu-series aired on Lifetime, Foxx urged victims of Kelly to come forward.

“Please come forward,” she said in a press conference. “There is nothing that can be done to investigate these allegations without the cooperation of both victims and witnesses.”

The day before Kelly was charged, two more women answered Foxx’s call: Rochelle Washington and Latresa Scaff said that in the mid-90s, R. Kelly offered them marijuana and invited them to a hotel suite, where he allegedly sexually assaulted Scaff.

A week earlier, celebrity lawyer Michael Avenatti said that he handed over a tape to the Cook County State Attorney's Office that allegedly showed Kelly having sex with a 14-year-old girl.

"My client knows the identity of the girl and R. Kelly. He identified the two of them on the videotape. He worked for and has known R. Kelly for decades, and he met the girl on a number of occasions," Avenatti told CNN.

Kelly was previously indicted on child pornography charges over an infamous tape that allegedly showed the musician urinating on an underage girl. But he was acquitted in 2008. Kelly also allegedly held women against their will in his properties, controlling every aspect of their lives, according to a bombshell BuzzFeed News report from 2018.

Avenatti responded to Friday’s charges by saying that Kelly’s “day of reckoning” had arrived.

Cover image: R. Kelly performs at Little Caesars Arena on Feb. 21, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Scott Legato/Getty Images)

After Jussie Smollett, politicians may stop tweeting for free woke points

February 22, 2019 - 12:11pm

When Jussie Smollett said last month that he’d been the victim of a racist and homophobic hate crime, a lot of politicians immediately tweeted out their support of the actor. But now that Smollett has been arrested for allegedly faking the attack, they're starting to pull back the support, and they could be much more reluctant to step forward on social justice cases in the future.

Particularly for Democrats, the story of the "Empire" actor being attacked by two white men who put a noose around his neck, called him racist and homophobic slurs, and hailed “MAGA country” was a perfect encapsulation of the Trump-influenced hatred they stand against, and an opportunity to reiterate their own values.

Over the past few years, politicians, both liberal and conservative, have used public outrage tweets as a low-effort way to play to their base.

But that strategy may no longer be considered safe.

Thursday morning, Smollett turned himself in to Chicago police, who say he orchestrated the whole thing and filed a false police report. In Illinois, this is a felony punishable by up to three years in prison. Smollett’s lawyers maintain his innocence.

President Donald Trump, who initially showed sympathy for Smollett, saying that the alleged attack was “horrible” and “doesn’t get worse,” has now gone on the offensive, tweeting that Smollett had insulted “tens of millions of people” with “racist and dangerous comments.”

But pivoting hasn’t been so easy for Democrats who had tweeted support for Smollett, and many have begun to walk back their statements. Right-wing commentators have had a field day bashing initial supporters such as Democratic presidential hopeful Kamala Harris, who tweeted that the alleged attack was a “modern-day lynching,” and Nancy Pelosi, who called it an “affront to our humanity” (Pelosi has since deleted her tweet).

Despite clear evidence that hate crimes are on the rise, conservative commentators often insist that reports of hate crimes are either exaggerated or false. For them, this incident has been a lucky break.

Smollett has not been found guilty of anything, and it is entirely possible that he'll be exonerated. But the doubt surrounding this case doesn’t only affect Democrats — it will likely have serious implications for politics in general.

In recent years, victims of hate crimes could often count on politicians to publicly support them. For the politicians, it may have been a selfish PR move, but it did have the positive effect of helping to put those issues into the national conversation. The Smollett case could have a chilling effect on the conversation.

This segment originally aired February 21, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.

Here's what you need to know about North Carolina's GOP ballot fraud scandal

February 22, 2019 - 12:04pm

Republicans like to obsess about “voter fraud” even when there's little or no evidence, but a GOP House candidate in North Carolina is now finally conceding his own election must be redone, after evidence showed his campaign financed illegal votes.

After several days of testimony, North Carolina’s Board of Elections unanimously ruled Thursday that the only undecided House contest from the fall midterms, Ninth District candidate Mark Harris, must be redone, and Harris tearfully agreed in a dramatic hearing. That’s because a political operative working for Harris harvested absentee ballots to vote in the Republican’s favor.

“It’s become clear to me that the public’s confidence in the Ninth District’s general election has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted,” Harris said at the Thursday hearing, which shocked the audience into gasps.

Harris’s Democratic opponent, Dan McCready, lost the vote by just 905 votes, far less than the 1,200 absentee ballots that were requested by the operative McCrae Dowless on Harris’s behalf. That’s more than enough to have illegally tipped the election into the GOP candidate’s favor.

It’s a dramatic finish to the scandal that serves as perhaps the most startling example of modern-day election fraud. For now, it means North Carolina’s Ninth District is without representation — and it will be months until the vacancy is filled.

Here’s what you need to know about what happened in North Carolina, what happens next, and what this means for the GOP candidate who once ostensibly won the election.

What happened?

The scandal centers on McCrae Dowless, a veteran political operative with a felony record of fraud, hired by Harris for campaign work. Dowless allegedly requested absentee ballots for Bladen County residents, and he and his team would then harvest the ballots from those homes, mark all the candidates who Dowless wanted to win, then mail the ballots themselves, according to people who have worked with him. Dowless has refused to testify before the North Carolina Board of Elections, which consists of three Democrats and two Republicans.

Harris's stepdaughter also testified that workers sometimes signed as witnesses for ballots even though they were not witnesses, dated forms inaccurately, filled in parts of ballots, and even forged signatures. In Bladen County, Harris won by an unusually high margin of 19 points on absentee ballots.

Harris has denied knowledge of Dowless’ methods, but Harris’s own son, a U.S. assistant attorney in Raleigh, warned his father about Dowless’ reputation for political misdealings.

“The key thing that I am fairly certain they do that is illegal is that they collected the completed absentee ballots and mail them all at once,” John Harris wrote in an April 2017 email, a document he shared with investigators.

John Harris’ cooperation with investigators was another indictment against his father, who failed to provide the email record to them. Investigators have accused the senior Harris of withholding records that they subpoenaed.

“I love my dad, and I love my mom,” John Harris said, according to reporters at the hearing. “I certainly have no vendetta against them, no family scores to settle. I think they made mistakes in this process, and they certainly did things differently than I would have done them.”

Harris wept as his son spoke. The GOP candidate then said that a new election was necessary.

What happens next?

It could be several months before North Carolina’s Ninth District has an elected representative in the House. The election has not been scheduled, and even the candidates are undecided. The election do-over will require another set of primaries. It’s unclear if Harris will run again, though it seems unlikely. That’s all to say: It’s not entirely clear what happens now.

The scandal’s been particularly humiliating for the GOP party at large, considering their repeated claims of voter fraud. Republicans often accuse Democrats of fraud in elections, though there’s no evidence that voter fraud exists on a large scale. President Donald Trump has long accused his vanquished opponent, Hillary Clinton, of using voter fraud to win the popular vote, a claim that is expressly false. And Trump established a voter fraud commission in May 2017, only to have it dissolve after about six months with nothing to show. Former members of the commission said there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud.

Trump has remained silent about the scandal in North Carolina.

Democrats, meanwhile, have celebrated the decision.

“Today was a great step forward for democracy in North Carolina,” McCready said, following the board’s ruling. “From the moment the first vote was stolen in North Carolina, from the moment the first voice was silenced by election fraud, the people have deserved justice,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called out Trump’s silence on North Carolina’s likely incident of election fraud.

Cover: Mark Harris, Republican candidate in North Carolina's 9th Congressional race, fights back tears at the conclusion of his son John Harris's testimony during the third day of a public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District voting irregularities investigation Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019, at the North Carolina State Bar in Raleigh. (Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP, Pool)

The war to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment just took a hit. But the battle isn't over.

February 22, 2019 - 11:36am

Only one more state needs to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment before federal lawmakers can even think about adding it to the U.S. Constitution. Virginia legislators just came close — and failed.

Virginia had sought to become the 38th and final state needed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, which aims to guarantee that constitutional rights apply equally to everybody, regardless of sex. Advocates and opponents are split over what impact, exactly, the ERA would have, but laws governing pay equity, abortion access, and gender-based violence hang in the balance.

With only two days left in their legislative session, House Republicans blocked a procedural bill on Thursday that would’ve allowed the full chamber to vote on the ERA.

Virginia’s vote was hardly the first time ERA advocates have lost a battle, and they’re sure it’s not the end of the war. Now, activists across the country are trying to harness the national spotlight on women’s rights and convince their own lawmakers to ratify the ERA. Organizers in Arizona say they already have the votes to become the 38th state to ratify, but Republican leaders are blocking the legislation from getting to the floor. Efforts to ratify the ERA are also underway in North Carolina, Florida, and Missouri.

“Laws change as quickly as legislators change their mind, and Supreme Court decisions can always be reversed. But when you have women’s rights equal to men enshrined in the United States Constitution, that is when we are truly equal under the eyes of the law,” Virginia state Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, a Democrat and the sponsor of the bill to ratify the ERA, told VICE News after the vote. The amendment would force judges to apply the strictest level of scrutiny to lawsuits involving sex discrimination — the same scrutiny that claims of racial discrimination now receive.

“It holds promise for the law to reach into a lot of places where women are — maybe not by the letter of the law but in effect — being discriminated against,” said Kelsy Kretschmer, an Oregon State University assistant professor of sociology who’s written about the ERA.

Even if a 38th state succeeds in ratifying the ERA, though, the United States would find itself in what one legal scholar called “uncharted political territory.” Ratifying a constitutional amendment was never meant to take this long, and states have now missed the deadline Congress set. Twice.

“We still don’t have equality”

After passing the ERA in 1972, arguably at the height of the women’s rights movement, Congress initially gave states until 1979 to ratify the language. But lawmakers eventually extended the deadline until 1982.

By then, a well-organized conservative groundswell effectively had halted the ERA’s momentum. Anti-ERA activists argued that the amendment would force women into combat positions in the military, legalize same-sex marriage, and stop requiring men to support their wives and children. By 1982, three more states still needed to ratify the amendment.

That didn’t change for more than three decades.

Then, in 2017, the Nevada state legislature voted to ratify the ERA, even though the deadline had passed. A year later, Illinois also ratified the amendment. The ERA was suddenly just one state short of the 38-state, or supermajority, threshold needed to trigger a Constitutional change.

“I do think that the push in those states was out of anxiety about what was happening to women, even before #MeToo broke the surface,” Kretschmer said. The 2016 presidential election — and the victory of a man whose attitudes toward women demonstrated what Kretschmer called “really high levels of hostility” — particularly galvanized women.

Women’s rights, obviously, now look very different than they did in 1972. But proponents of the ERA contend that the Constitution still needs to ban sex discrimination and help shape legislation and Supreme Court decisions.

"It holds promise for the law to reach into a lot of places where women are — maybe not by the letter of the law but in effect — being discriminated against."

“This is something we need to get done because we still don’t have equality,” Bettina Hager, chief operations officer of the Equal Rights Amendment Coalition, a partnership of organizations working to enact the ERA. She wasn’t even born when Congress passed the ERA, but the 2016 election cemented the amendment’s importance for her. “It’s asking the question: Are women equal in the society, and do we need to do something? Which, obviously we do, because we saw what happened.”

Virginia’s vote took place alongside several political crises for the state, including one involving sexual assault. But the procedural bill only failed by a single vote, and Delegate Carroll Foy plans to make sure that voters — who go back to the polls for state elections this year — know it.

“I put my hair in a bun, I tie my shoelaces, and I go out and get to work because I can guarantee this is gonna be the number one issue for a lot of Virginians,” she said. Eighty-one percent of Virginia voters do support ratification, according to a nonpartisan Christopher Newport University poll.

“When they didn’t ratify it last year, everyone was disappointed,” Cynthia McNiel, an ERA advocate in Missouri, said of Virginia. “But we know this campaign was exponentially better than the campaign they ran last year. We do see the hope, we do see the light at the end of the tunnel, and we do believe it’s going to pass eventually.”

The pressure is now on in Arizona. The state’s legislative session ends in mid-April, and like in Virginia, its ERA ratification bills are stuck in purgatory: Republican leaders have declined to give the legislation a committee hearing in the Senate or assign it to a committee in the House, according to Dianne Post, an ERA advocate in Arizona.

“Uncharted political territory”

If the ERA does pass one day, the last three states to ratify still missed the 1982 deadline set by Congress. And the U.S. Constitution offers few answers about how officials should handle that. “We are sort of in uncharted political territory there,” said Robinson Woodward-Burns, an assistant professor of political science at Howard University who has also written about the ERA.

Because the ratification deadline wasn’t included in the text of the ERA itself, some legal scholars have argued that states never agreed to a time limit. That might mean the ERA could seamlessly enter the Constitution. Congress could also extend the deadline, and some lawmakers have already proposed legislation to do just that.

But that idea likely won’t gather much traction in a Republican-controlled Senate. Kretschmer, the sociology professor who’s written about the ERA, suspects that a national fight over the amendment could energize conservatives around two already white-hot topics: abortion and gender segregation in public spaces, like bathrooms and locker rooms.

Advocates for the Equal Rights Amendment stage a "die in" outside Virginia House Speaker Kirk Cox's office at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. Thursday Feb. 14, 2019. Two of the women were taken away by Capitol Police. (AP Photo/Alan Suderman)

During the last few minutes of the debate over Virginia’s resolution, Republican House Majority Leader C. Todd Gilbert warned lawmakers that activists could use the ERA to sue and undermine restrictions on abortion. He pointed to the example of Alaska, where the state supreme court ruled to block an anti-abortion law on Friday and cited a clause of the state constitution that declares everyone’s rights, regardless of gender, are equally protected.

“The proponents are trying to pretend that they only need one more state in order to push ERA into the Constitution. I think that is a cheat on 47 states that have not debated ERA in 50 years,” said Anne Schlafly Cori, whose mother, Phyllis Schlafly, was the chief architect behind the successful anti-ERA movement in the ’70s. Schlafly Cori is now the chairman of the Eagle Forum, a conservative group that opposes the ERA.

If all 38 states ratify the ERA, its opponents are all but certain to sue — just as its supporters would likely sue if Congress refused to extend the deadline and halted the ERA. And of course, neither Congress nor the states have the power to change each other’s decisions.

“That would leave the amendment essentially in a legal limbo that was not foreseen by framers of the Constitution,” Woodward-Burns said.

Cover image: Jessica Lenahan, center, a domestic violence survivor, and Carol Jenkins, right, of the Equal Rights Amendment Task Force, attend a news conference at the House Triangle on the need to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment on June 6, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Patriots owner Robert Kraft charged with soliciting prostitution in Florida

February 22, 2019 - 11:25am

Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, has been charged with two counts of soliciting prostitution out of a Florida spa, according to Jupiter, Florida police.

Kraft allegedly paid workers with the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter for sexual services, according to Treasure Coast Newspapers, which cited surveillance video reviewed by the police department. The 77-year-old resident of Palm Beach hasn’t been arrested yet, according to the newspaper. There will be a warrant issued for his arrest, according to ESPN.

Orchids of Asia Day Spa, among 10 others in Florida, was recently shuttered after an investigation revealed women were being held there as sex slaves, according to the newspaper. Many of the women were from China and weren’t allowed to leave the spa, which about 20 men visited each day in November, the paper reported.

Cover: New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft yells to fans during their victory parade through downtown Boston, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, to celebrate their win over the Los Angeles Rams in Sunday's NFL Super Bowl 53 football game in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

R Kelly's lawyer is comparing him to Beethoven and Elon Musk, as more accusers come forward

February 22, 2019 - 10:13am

R Kelly is right up there in the ranks of creative geniuses like Beethoven, Freud, and Elon Musk, so he needs to be able to work during the night like they did, according to his lawyer.

The embattled R&B musician — accused of running a sex cult and assaulting several underage girls, with two new women coming forward Thursday — can no longer enter his Chicago recording studio between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m., per a judge’s order, because the studio isn’t zoned for residential purposes. He can still enter the first floor of the studio for up to 12 hours a day.

“Thru the years, history has admired creativity,” Steve Greenberg, a lawyer for R. Kelly, said in a statement to the media on Wednesday about the Feb. 8 order. “Beethoven worked and wrote during the night. So did Freud, Tolstoy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edison, Elon Musk and Churchill, amongst thousands of others.”

The studio being closed for a portion of the day is problematic, Greenberg said, because R. Kelly is currently working on an album. So, the artist will soon be moving studios.

He once had a contractual obligation to release at least two more albums under RCA Records, owned by Sony, but he was dropped from his contract in January after outrage surrounding the Lifetime documentary series Surviving R. Kelly, which outlined decades of alleged sexual and physical abuse and mentioned the Chicago studio as a place where some alleged abuse occurred.

Meanwhile, two new accusers, Rochelle Washington and Latresa Scaff, came forward with allegations of underage sex or inappropriate behavior by Kelly in a news conference Thursday in New York City. The women alleged that after a Baltimore concert in the mid-1990s, when they were teenagers, they were offered marijuana and alcohol and Kelly invited them to a hotel suite. Washington left the room after being propositioned, according to NPR, but Scaff stayed and Kelly had “sexual intercourse with me even though I did not have the capacity to consent.”

Greenberg wrote on Twitter Friday morning that the women were talking about someone else.

“R Kelly has been repeatedly harassed while just trying to do his job in his studio, during the limited hours he is allowed to be there,” Greenberg said in the statement on Wednesday.

Kelly was only entirely closed off from the second floor of his studio, since it was being used as a bedroom and posed fire hazards, according to CNN. And the use of the building was limited to 12 hours a day because it’s zoned for commercial rather than residential use. Still, Kelly “will continue to work on the album,” Greenberg said in his statement. Kelly has also denied all accusations against him.

Additionally, earlier this month, new footage — obtained by celebrity lawyer Michael Avenatti and reviewed by CNN — emerged that appeared to show Kelly having sex with an underage girl. An anonymous senior law enforcement official based in Illinois told the New Yorker that Kelly could face indictment over the video. Kelly denied appearing in that video.

“There are three countries in the world where people are presumed guilty: China, North Korea, and Myanmar,” Greenberg said in a statement after the videos were reported. “Unfortunately, that is the standard of justice that is now being applied to R Kelly.”

The video Avenatti obtained has been turned over to the Cook County State Attorney’s office, which asked survivors to come forward and speak to investigators after the documentary series renewed the claims against Kelly.

Cover: R Kelly attends the Z-100 New York Jingle Ball on December 13, 2013 in Madison Square Garden in New York City. Credit: RTNJon Palmer/MediaPunch Inc. /IPX

How the far right is weaponizing Nazi history in Germany

February 22, 2019 - 7:33am

A year earlier, the provocation might have stoked lasting outrage.

On Jan. 23, lawmakers from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) walked out of an official Holocaust commemoration event in Munich, in protest of a speech critical of the party from an 86-year-old survivor.

But this time, the backlash was muted.

“There was no massive outcry,” said Josef Janning, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The stunt was hardly new for the AfD, which in recent years has sought to downplay the crimes of the Nazi era and challenge the central role of the Holocaust in German cultural memory. Senior figures in the party have demanded an end to the “guilt cult” around Nazi-era crimes, dismissed the Third Reich as “just bird shit” in the scope of German history, derided a Holocaust memorial as a “monument of shame”, and insisted that Germans have the right to feel proud of their ancestors who fought in the Second World War.

“The attempt to relativize Nazi crimes is not only abusive to any Shoah survivor but also dangerous for the whole society.”

Led by two of the party’s most powerful figures — Alexander Gauland, the 77-year-old co-leader and co-founder, and his close ally, the influential far-right agitator Bjoern Hoecke — the AfD has launched a concerted attack on Germany’s relationship with its Nazi past. They say their aim is to restore national pride and liberate Germans from the sense of collective responsibility for the crimes of their ancestors, which they claim has “crippled” the country.

Their strategy of inflammatory statements appears to be having its intended effect. And the feeble reaction to the Munich stunt was proof, experts said.

“That’s a sign to the party that they can get away with these statements, and continue to escalate on this issue,” Janning told VICE News.

The AfD is playing a dangerous game, experts and fellow politicians warned, calculated to erode the established red lines of Germany’s postwar order, in which an active reckoning with the Holocaust is fundamental to the country’s identity as a tolerant, liberal democracy.

Political scientists say the AfD’s strategy could help fuel a new wave of German nationalism, and their concerns are shared by the country’s domestic intelligence agency, which last month placed the hard-line faction behind the revisionist push under surveillance, as a threat to the liberal democratic order.

“The attempt to relativize Nazi crimes is not only abusive to any Shoah survivor but also dangerous for the whole society,” Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told VICE News. “The call for a turn in the culture of commemoration is jeopardizing Germany’s coming to terms with history, and the lessons learned from it.”

The AfD’s campaign against the politics of remembrance Members of the AfD walk out of a memorial event in Munich in January during a speech by Charlotte Knobloch, former President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, and Holocaust survivor. ( Photo by: Peter Kneffel/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

Hoecke, a hardline ideologue who is head of the ultranationalist AfD faction known as “The Wing,” was the first to publicly push revisionist views. In a January 2017 speech to the party’s youth wing, Young Alternative, the 46-year-old sensationally called for “a 180-degree turnaround” in Germany’s “stupid” politics of remembrance.

The comments led to him being accused by political opponents of being a Nazi, or at least sounding like one, and even condemned by his own party leader at the time, Frauke Petry. Her executive filed a motion for him to be expelled from the party for displaying an “affinity to National Socialism.”

But the motion eventually failed. Petry — now viewed as a moderate by the standards of the AfD — announced she was stepping down from the leadership months later. She was succeeded by Hoecke’s ally Gauland and Jörg Meuthen, a 57-year-old economist and professor, who both expressed their support for Hoecke, and the party’s internal arbitration panel ruled last May that Hoecke had done nothing wrong.

Experts say the party’s growing embrace of revisionist positions since Hoecke’s initial provocation underlines the extent to which the hard-liners from Hoecke’s faction, supported by Gauland, have prevailed in the party’s internal power struggles, shaping the AfD in their image, and pushing the group even further to the fringe.

“The power struggle is over, and Hoecke won,” German political scientist Hans-Joachim Funke told VICE News. “With every party convention, each year the party has been more and more radicalized. Without Hoecke and The Wing, there would be no party like the AfD.”

Ugly rhetoric, ugly impact

The revisionist campaign is a dangerous development in a country contending with surging far-right activity since Chancellor Angela Merkel opened its borders to 1 million refugees in 2015, manifesting in rising extremist violence and regular nationalist demonstrations. In the 2017 national elections, the AfD, which had never had a seat in the Bundestag, won nearly 13 percent of the national vote, and has polled higher since.

While the AfD’s revisionism stops short of Holocaust denial, which is a crime in Germany, its rhetoric has been blamed for fueling ugly scenes at former concentration camp sites.

“Arbeit macht frei" stands above a gate to the former Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. January 27, 2019. (Photo by: Bernd Thissen/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

On Feb. 4, a Berlin-based far-right activist, Nikolai Nerling, got into a confrontation at the Dachau concentration camp memorial site, and was ejected. From outside the grounds, he issued a rallying call on social media for others to visit concentration camp sites and declare that they didn’t feel guilty about what had happened there.

While Nerling is unaffiliated with the AfD, the Association for International Youth Exchange and Memorial Work in Dachau, whose members witnessed the episode, partly blamed the party’s rhetoric for his actions.

“This act shows how secure the extreme right-wing perpetrators feel, and how far the boundaries of what can be said and what can be done have already been shifted,” the group said in a statement. Charlotte Knobloch, the Jewish community leader whose speech provoked the AfD’s walkout in Munich, agreed that the party held some responsibility, labeling the AfD “spiritual arsonists.”

The AfD did not respond to multiple requests for comment from VICE News.

The party’s own supporters have also been linked to revisionist provocations at a former concentration camp site. In July 2018, an AfD-organized group tour to the site of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg was reportedly cut short when members made comments questioning the existence of Nazi gas chambers.

“Our constitution is a direct reaction to the horrors of the Nazi regime.”

The party’s revisionism, besides being dangerous, may also be unconstitutional, crossing the red lines of Germany’s liberal democratic order.

“Our constitution is a direct reaction to the horrors of the Nazi regime,” Konstantin von Notz, vice chairman of the Greens parliamentary group, told VICE News. An active reckoning with Germany’s responsibility for the Holocaust, he said, “must always be a factor in how we build our society.”

Last month, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, which has the power to conduct surveillance on groups it deems as extremist threats to the democratic order, announced it was stepping up its surveillance of two elements of the AfD — Hoecke’s “Wing” and the party’s youth affiliate, Young Alternative.

Agency head Thomas Haldenwang said Hoecke’s faction was “a threat to the liberal democratic principles of Germany’s constitution,” citing its repeated downplaying of Nazi crimes, along with its efforts to disparage and disenfranchise minorities.

“If you do this once, you provoke a strong reaction. But if you do it a second, third, fourth, or tenth time — that response can gradually weaken. That’s what they’re hoping for.”

His office said it was also designating the AfD as a whole as a “review case” — which means it will be investigated to determine whether it poses a threat to the liberal democratic order that should be placed under surveillance.

The decision drew a predictably dismissive response from Hoecke. “I'm already sorry for the officials who have to kill their time looking for things that do not exist," he said.

With his hard-line faction now dominant within the party, it remains to be seen whether it will take the intelligence agency’s interest as a sign to moderate its rhetoric, or continue toward its vision of remaking German politics.

To Janning, at the European Council on Foreign Relations, the party’s hard-liners appear determined to wear down the public’s response to its provocations, until their revisionist rhetoric can fly without any significant pushback.

“In a society like ours, the public’s attention span is short,” he said. “If you do this once, you provoke a strong reaction. But if you do it a second, third, fourth, or tenth time — that response can gradually weaken. That’s what they’re hoping for.”

Cover: The leader of Thuringia's AfD, Bjoern Hoecke, speaking through a megaphone at an AfD rally, which took place with the motto "For our country and our children". Photo by: Christian Charisius/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

President Maduro just closed the border with Brazil — to stop aid from reaching starving Venezuelans

February 22, 2019 - 6:13am

Surrounded by members of the military, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced on TV Thursday that he was closing the border with Brazil to stop shipments of aid from entering the country.

He also threatened to close the border with Columbia, after shutting Venezuela’s maritime borders earlier this week.

U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó, meanwhile, has been organizing the aid to help desperate Venezuelans suffering under a collapsing economy.

Maduro used the address to lash out at the U.S., accusing Washington of “provocation.” Defending his decision, he said the aid sent to Venezuela was designed to create instability and instigate a military intervention in the Latin American country.

“[The U.S.] aimed to generate a huge national mess, but they didn't succeed. The country wants peace,” Maduro said. “I don't want to take any decision of this type but I am evaluating it, a total closure of the border with Colombia.”

Within minutes of the announcement, dozens of cars streamed across the border to the Brazilian city of Pacaraima to stock up on supplies, local media reported.

Earlier this week Venezuela closed its maritime border with the Dutch Caribbean islands of Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire, after authorities there said they would help store aid.

READ: Maduro says Trump is a white supremacist and the White House is run by the Ku Klux Klan

The military has also issued a decree banning any vessel from leaving Venezuelan ports until Sunday, to avoid actions by "criminal" groups.

View of boxes with US humanitarian aid goods in Cucuta, Colombia, on the border with Tachira, Venezuela, on February 8, 2019. (RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)

The Columbian border is set to become the focal point of the fight between Maduro and Guaidó on Friday when two competing concerts will take place on either side of the Tienditas Bridge.

On the Columbian side at Cúcuta, British entrepreneur Richard Branson has organized a “Live Aid”-style concert that is seeking to raise $100 million to buy food and medicine for Venezuelans. Up to 250,000 people are expected to attend.

In response, Maduro announced his own event on the Venezuelan side of the crossing, called the “Hands Off Venezuela” concert.

Maduro continues to insist there is no humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, but has also announced that 300 tonnes of aid would be arriving from Russia, one of Maduro’s main backers, along with China.

Workers set up a stage for a concert organized by British billionaire Richard Branson to raise money for the Venezuelan relief effort in Cucuta, Colombia, on February 21, 2019 at the Tienditas International Bridge. (RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)

The standoff over aid could come to a head on Saturday. Guaidó claims 600,000 people have signed up to help carry supplies across the border at Cúcuta and has organized a fleet of buses and cars. The convoy has already prompted armed scuffles.

Maduro’s government says it will be delivering over 20,000 boxes of aid to the area on the same day.

Cover Image: Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's president, pauses while speaking during a televised press conference in Caracas, Venezuela, on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019. (Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

India is threatening Pakistan’s water supply over a suicide attack in Kashmir

February 22, 2019 - 5:30am

An Indian government minister threatened Thursday to cut off Pakistan’s water supply, further escalating tensions between the nuclear-armed rivals following last week’s deadly attack in Kashmir.

Nitin Gadkari, India’s transport minister, tweeted: “Our Govt. has decided to stop our share of water which used to flow to Pakistan. We will divert water from Eastern rivers and supply it to our people in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab.”

Officials said Gadkari’s comments referred to decisions that had already been taken by the government to divert the rivers for major dam and irrigation projects. But the politicization of those plans marks a new escalation in the standoff.

Threats have been flying back and forth between the neighbors since the Feb. 14 attack in Pulwama, Kashmir — a region claimed by both India and Pakistan.

A suicide bomber drove a car bomb into a convoy, killing 42 paramilitary troops, the worst such attack in the history of the Muslim-majority region.

The bombing was claimed by the Pakistan-based group Jaish-e-Mohammed. India has accused Pakistan of having a hand in the attack, while Islamabad denies any involvement. On Thursday, Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan authorized the military to retaliate if India took action, insisting his country was “not involved in any way, means or form.”

Since the bombing, which has stirred up nationalistic tensions to fever pitch, India has been looking for a way to retaliate without creating a dangerous military confrontation.

The threat to divert water is a non-military option that could have a dramatic impact on the lives of millions who rely on river water in arid Pakistan. It also echoes an earlier threat by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi following a militant attack on an army base in Kashmir in 2016.

READ: The Indian general election is going to be a huge problem for Facebook

After that incident, India sped up its development of plans to dam the rivers, whose use is regulated under a decades-old agreement.

But Pakistan’s Minister of Water Resources Khawaja Shumail said Friday that his government had “neither concern nor objection” if India diverted the water, as it was entitled to do so under the agreement.

Anger in India over Pulwama has led to attacks on Kashmiris living in other parts of the country, prompting hundreds to return to the state, according to reports.

In one standoff in the northern city of Dehradun, 20 female students from Kashmir were forced to lock themselves in their hostel after an angry mob formed outside demanding they be evicted. In the wake of the incidents, India's Supreme Court ordered the government Friday to take action to protect Kashmiris.

India has also moved to impose trade restrictions on Pakistan and isolate its neighbour on the international stage. Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, claiming Pakistan had “a direct hand” in the attack, has vowed to achieve “the complete isolation of Pakistan from the international community.”

Cover Image: Dadar Trade Union Association & Shop owners hold placards as they take part in a protest rally against to condemn Terror Attack of Pulwama, on February 20, 2019 in Mumbai, India. (Bhushan Koyande/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

China’s new top app rewards users for consuming Communist Party propaganda

February 22, 2019 - 5:30am

China’s new hit app isn’t a messaging platform or a social network — it’s a Communist Party propaganda tool that monitors Chinese citizens.

Smartphone users are rushing to download the software, which collects data on how often users answer questions about the state and how often they watch videos about President Xi Jinping. The most enthusiastic users are rewarded with benefits.

Called “Xuexi Qiangguo”, which translates as ‘Study to make China strong’, the app has been downloaded more than 44 million times since launching last month. It is currently the number one free app on Apple’s App Store, knocking off WeChat and Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.

The app features include a Snapchat-like messaging service, but it primarily acts as a way for people to keep up to date with news from the Communist Party and in particular the ideology of Xi.

Beijing has made a concerted effort in recent years to retain control over the media landscape, with the influence of TV, radio and print media waning in the face of the digital revolution.

It tightly controls internet access in China using what is known as the Great Firewall, a world-class online censorship infrastructure. It also controls what people can and cannot say on social media by filtering out specific words and topics, especially negative comments about the government.

The app rewards users with study points for reading the news feed, browsing history lessons, answering quizzes about China’s policy and watching videos. For example, reading one article or watching a single video will earn you 0.1 points while a full 30 minutes of either reading articles or viewing video content earns you a full 1.0 points.

Unlike traditional media channels, where engagement metrics are estimated, the app will allow Beijing to measure precisely how engaged people are with the party message.

READ: Booing the national anthem in Hong Kong could soon land you in jail

To encourage party members to use the app during their spare time, it doles out double points during certain periods, such as 8:30 pm to 10 pm during the week, and 9:30 am to 10:30 am, and 3:30 pm to 4:30 pm at the weekend.

The app was reportedly developed in association with online giant Alibaba, once again highlighting the close relationship between private companies in China and the government.

Alibaba has not commented on the app’s development, but the reports will give credence to the view held by many in the West, that Beijing exerts huge control over Chinese companies — a concern that has led the U.S. to try and force allies to eliminate Huawei products from their next generation mobile networks.

Cover Image: This photo illustration taken on February 20, 2019 shows a phone app called 'Xuexi Qiangguo' or 'Study to make China strong' with an image of China's President Xi Jinping in Beijing. (GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)

Trump's labor secretary broke the law by offering secret plea deal to accused pedophile, judge rules

February 21, 2019 - 6:01pm

Federal prosecutors, including a current member of President Donald Trump's Cabinet, broke the law when they offered wealthy financier and accused pedophile Jeffrey Epstein a plea bargain in 2008 that allowed him to get off easy, a judge ruled. Epstein served only 13 months after being accused of sexually abusing dozens of young girls.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra said Thursday that prosecutors — including Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, who was a U.S. attorney in Miami at the time of the plea deal — ignored evidence that Epstein had been operating a sex trafficking ring of underage girls, according to the Miami Herald. Epstein was allowed to negotiate a non-prosecution agreement, or a deal that granted him immunity from federal charges, by pleading guilty to two state charges.

His accomplices were also granted immunity, despite allegations that Epstein had directed others to engage in abuse.

The judge's decision comes just a few weeks after the Justice Department opened up a probe into the decade-old plea bargain.

Between 1999 and 2007, Epstein abused more than 30 young girls overseas and in his U.S. mansions, Judge Marra wrote in his ruling. In violation of federal law, Epstein also “traveled in interstate and international commerce to sexually abuse Jane Doe 1, Jane Doe 2, and others,” according to the documents.

The FBI eventually determined Jane Does 1 and 2 were victims of sexual abuse in 2007 and promised one of the girls that the Justice Department would pursue its “best efforts” to protect her rights. U.S. attorneys, including Acosta, never explained their reasoning for a non-prosecution agreement (NPA) to Jane Doe 1 or told the victims the agreement had been signed. The deal was sealed to the public before the girls could argue against it.

Epstein’s lawyers were aware the Justice Department was “deliberately keeping the NPA secret from the victims and, indeed, had sought assurances to that effect,” according to the ruling.

“Particularly problematic was the government’s decision to conceal the existence of the NPA and mislead the victims to believe that federal prosecution was still a possibility. When the government gives information to victims, it cannot be misleading,” Marra wrote.

The ruling didn’t issue any sort of punishment. Rather, the government and the victims will have 15 days to come up with a resolution.

Cover: United States Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta speaks during an event supporting veterans and military families in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. (Photo by: Andrew Harrer / Pool via CNP)

Roger Stone gets full gag order after posting image of judge with gun crosshairs by her head

February 21, 2019 - 3:56pm

The federal judge overseeing Roger Stone’s case has barred him from publicly talking about the case, after he posted an image on Instagram earlier this week that appeared to show gun crosshairs by her head.

That means the former Trump campaign adviser cannot post on social media, talk to news publications, or release statements if it has anything to do with his ongoing prosecution in the Mueller probe. Previously, Stone had been under a partial gag order that only somewhat limited his speech.

"Defendant may not speak publicly about the investigation or the case or anyone participating in the investigation or case, period. You apparently need clear boundaries, so here they are,” Judge Amy Berman Jackson said Thursday, according to reporters at the D.C. courthouse.

"This is not baseball. There will not be a third chance."

Stone apologized profusely for the Instagram post, which he has since deleted.

"I have acute financial stress,” Stone, 66, reportedly said. “My consulting business has dried up. I have exhausted my savings. I have been treated for the emotional stress. This is just a stupid lapse of judgement."

"Thank you, but the apology rings quite hollow," Jackson responded.

If Stone violates the new gag order, he would have his bond revoked and be detained ahead of his trial. Stone had previously vehemently opposed a gag order because he makes money through media appearances. Stone, indicted by Mueller’s team a few weeks ago, has pleaded not guilty to the seven criminal counts against him, including witness tampering, obstruction, and making false statements to Congress.

Cover: Former Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone leaves federal court in Washington, Friday, Feb. 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Legal experts aren’t convinced the Covington Catholic teen has a case against the Washington Post

February 21, 2019 - 2:06pm

The MAGA hat–wearing high school student who faced off with a Native American elder at the Lincoln Memorial last month wants the Washington Post to pay for coverage his attorneys called a “modern-day form of McCarthyism.”

Specifically, attorneys representing Covington Catholic junior Nicholas Sandmann want $250 million in punitive damages from the Post — the exact price founder Jeff Bezos, the richest person in the world, paid to acquire the company in 2013. In the lawsuit, filed by the Sandmann family in a Kentucky court Tuesday, attorneys argue the Post defamed their client by using a short video that didn’t show the full nature of the interaction as well as interviews that described Sandmann as aggressive and threatening.

Proving that, however, won’t be so easy, media law experts told VICE News.

Sandmann’s standoff with Native activist Nathan Phillips on Jan. 18 went viral after the account @2020fight tweeted a short video that appeared to show Sandmann smirking in Phillips’ face as Phillips, surrounded by other Covington students, banged a drum in what he said was a plea for peace amid an escalating situation. The Post mentioned “videos that went viral on social media” in its reporting and interviewed people at the event. The lawsuit also notes that a Post reporter retweeted @2020fight’s clip.

Sandmann later said he was just smiling and trying to defuse the situation, and his attorneys argue a longer version of the video showed the full version of events — including a third party, the Black Hebrew Israelites, berating the students. (The Post didn’t mention the full video in its first article but did in subsequent pieces.) The three groups met on the National Mall as the Covington kids were finishing up their field trip to attend the anti-abortion March for Life event. Phillips was attending the Indigenous Peoples March at the same time. The Black Hebrew Israelites appeared to be shouting at both groups in the full video.

The lawsuit argues that the newspaper “did not conduct a proper investigation” before publishing its article and missed “a plethora of relevant video” online that showed the entirety of the incident. The suit also references quotes included in the first article from the Diocese of Covington, which initially condemned the encounter. The lawsuit also points to quotes from Phillips and Chase Iron Eyes, an attorney who was at the march and called the encounter “an aggressive display of physicality.”

To successfully win the millions they’re seeking from the Post, Sandmann’s attorneys will have to prove a lofty standard: actual malice. Established in the landmark 1964 Supreme Court case, New York Times v. Sullivan, the “actual malice” standard dictates that a public figure must show “clear and convincing evidence” that a reporter published a story they knew was false or “recklessly” ignored the truth.

If Sandmann were only seeking compensation for damages done — not punitive damages — his attorneys would have to prove a lower standard: negligence, or that a reporter acted carelessly, rather than with actual malice. But the lawsuit filed Wednesday seeks $50 million for damages done — and $200 million more in punitive damages.

Proving "actual malice"

To prove the higher standard, Sandmann’s attorneys have their work cut out for them, according to media law experts. To start, the opinions of the some of the Post’s sources, like Phillips, likely wouldn’t constitute defamation.

“Some of the statements challenged in the lawsuit seem like opinions or subjective assessments of a complicated situation,” Len Niehoff, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School who teaches courses in First Amendment and media law, wrote in an emailed statement. “As a general rule, evaluative statements like that can’t serve as the basis for a defamation claim.”

The Post might not have been aware the full video existed when it published its first article, on Jan. 19. The newspaper published another story, on Jan. 22, that referenced the longer video posted by the Black Hebrew Israelites, the taunts against the students, and Sandmann’s assertion that he had done nothing wrong.

Proving that a publication intentionally violated generally accepted reporting standards — instead of just missing a piece of the puzzle during a breaking news story — would be difficult.

“It would require deliberately ignoring countervailing evidence, publishing a story before you had a clear idea of what the facts were, going beyond what you could verify, and speculating,” Jane Kirtley, director for the Silha Center of the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota, said in an interview with VICE News. “Journalists aren’t expected to be clairvoyant when they write the initial story.”

A spokeswoman for the Washington Post told VICE News via email that “we are reviewing a copy of the lawsuit and we plan to mount a vigorous defense.”

The language of the lawsuit also sounds politically motivated to some experts. For example, the lawsuit makes a plea to “teach the Post a lesson it will never forget.”

“The whole complaint, I think, is very, very questionably written because it really reads like a political screed,” said George Freeman, executive director of the Media Law Resource Center and former assistant general counsel to the New York Times. “The bulk of the complaint is really about Trump and the media in general.”

The lawsuit does mention Trump. “The Post ignored basic journalist standards because it wanted to advance its well-known and easily documented, biased agenda against President Donald J. Trump,” Sandmann’s attorneys argue. Trump also tweeted in support of the lawsuit Wednesday.

“I do not file politically motivated lawsuits. Period. The Post’s documented bias against President Trump is relevant to the case because it demonstrates its bias against Nicholas,” Lin Wood, Sandmann’s attorney, told VICE News via email. “The Post and other members of the media made Nicholas’ souvenir MAGA cap an issue. As his lawyers, we are compelled to address that issue.”

Wood added in the email he’s “confident that we can prove actual malice.”

There’s also a chance the Post could settle out of court, although that’s not likely. In 2017, for example, Rolling Stone agreed to pay $1.65 million to the University of Virginia’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity to settle a defamation lawsuit over a story that alleged a gang rape occurred at the fraternity house. That year, Disney — the owner of ABC — also reached a $177 million legal settlement with a beef producer that sued the network over its coverage of meat it called “pink slime.”

Cover image: A police car sits at the entrance to Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Ky., Saturday, Jan 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)

Denmark's teens have a drinking problem. VR could be the cure.

February 21, 2019 - 1:18pm

Denmark’s teens have a drinking problem, and rather than change the country’s famously liberal booze policies, the government is turning to YouTube videos and virtual reality games to teach kids to drink responsibly.

Starting at age 16, Danes can buy beer and wine around the clock from any convenience store. According to Peter Dalum, project manager for the Danish Cancer Society’s alcohol campaigns, they’re even allowed to drink in schools. This combination of access and a heavy-drinking social culture made Denmark teens the booziest in Europe, in a recent World Health Organization survey.

Case in point: the infamous “puttefest.” Every year in late summer, thousands of high school students gather in a field outside Copenhagen to celebrate the new school year. For lack of a more polite expression, they get shitfaced. The Red Cross sets up a tent where they perform first aid for the hopelessly inebriated, the police simply watch events unfold, and many of the kids told VICE News that their parents helped them buy drinks and dropped them off.

In the last few years, other countries in Europe have cracked down on such teen booze binges. For instance, Iceland, where until recently teens were getting even more lit than the Danes, imposed curfews and got young people involved in extracurricular activities. And drinking rates fell dramatically.

But Denmark’s authorities have taken a different approach, emphasizing reason over rules. One idea that’s currently in development is a new VR game sponsored by public health foundation Trygfonden. It simulates a teen party and lets players choose what to drink, how much, and with whom: Researchers working on the project say the choose-your-own-adventure game will inform teens about consequences, so they’ll make better choices.

VICE News Tonight went to Denmark to ask how this soft-touch approach could get Europe’s top-drinking teens to change their ways.

This segment originally aired February 11, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.