Judge: “You, sir, present an ongoing threat and a peril to this country”

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

May 25, 2023

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta today sentenced the leader of the right-wing Oath Keepers organization, Elmer Stewart Rhodes III, to 18 years in prison, followed by 3 years of supervised release. In November a jury found Rhodes guilty of seditious conspiracy, obstruction of an official proceeding, and tampering with documents and proceedings, for his role in organizing people to go to Washington in January 2021 and try to stop the counting of the electoral votes that would make Joe Biden president.

Rhodes told the court that his only crime was standing against those who are “destroying our country.” He says he believes he is a “political prisoner” and that he hopes Trump will win the presidency in 2024. “You are not a political prisoner, Mr. Rhodes,” Judge Mehta said. “You, sir, present an ongoing threat and a peril to this country and to the republic and to the very fabric of this democracy.”

And yet, former president Trump has said he would not only pardon the January 6 offenders, but would apologize to them for their treatment by the government. Today, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who yesterday announced he is running for president, said he, too, would consider pardoning them, promising to be “aggressive in issuing pardons.”

Rhodes struck at our elections. Today in the Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency decision, the Supreme Court struck at the government regulations that underpin modern America.

Michael and Chantell Sackett bought land near Priest Lake, Idaho, and backfilled the wetlands on the property to build a home. The EPA found they had violated the Clean Water Act, which prohibits putting pollutants into “the waters of the United States.” Officials told them to restore the site or face penalties of more than $40,000 a day. By a vote of 5–4, the Supreme Court found that “waters” refers only to “‘streams, oceans, rivers, and lakes’ and to adjacent wetlands that are ‘indistinguishable’ from those bodies of water due to a continuous surface connection.”

This decision will remove federal protection from half of the currently protected wetlands in the U.S, an area larger than California. Homeowners, farmers, and developers will have far greater latitude to intrude on wetlands than they did previously, and that intrusion has already wrought damage as wetlands act like a sponge to absorb huge amounts of water during hurricanes. From 1992 to 2010, Houston, for example, lost more than 70% of its wetlands to development, leaving it especially vulnerable to Hurricane Harvey, a category 4 hurricane that in 2017 left 107 people dead and caused $125 billion in damage.

The decision said that the EPA had overreached in its protection of wetlands as part of the Clean Water Act, and that Congress must “enact exceedingly clear language” on any rules that affect private property. This court seems eager to gut federal regulation, suggesting that Congress cannot delegate regulatory rulemaking to the executive branch. As investigative journalist Dave Troy put it, “If [the] EPA can’t enforce its rules, what federal agency can?”

Justice Elena Kagan warned that by destroying the authority of the EPA, both now and in the West Virginia v. EPA decision last June that restricted the agency’s ability to regulate emissions from power plants, the court had appointed itself “as the national decision maker on environmental policy.”

The Clean Water Act passed by an overwhelming bipartisan vote in 1972, during the administration of Republican president Richard M. Nixon. Nixon backed the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 after a massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, over ten days in January–February 1969 poured between 80,000 and 100,000 barrels of oil into the Pacific, fouling 35 miles of California beaches and killing seabirds, dolphins, sea lions, and elephant seals, and then, four months later, in June 1969, the chemical contaminants that had been dumped into Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught fire. In February 1970, Nixon told Congress “[W]e…have too casually and too long abused our natural environment. The time has come when we can wait no longer to repair the damage already done, and to establish new criteria to guide us in the future.”

Nixon called for a 37-point program with 23 legislative proposals and 14 new administrative measures to control water and air pollution, manage solid waste, protect parklands and public recreation, and organize for action. At Nixon’s urging, Congress created the EPA in 1970, and two years later, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, establishing protections for water quality and regulating pollutant discharges into waters of the United States.

House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) tweeted that “[t]oday’s Supreme Court ruling is a win for farmers, businesses, and Americans across the nation by rejecting, yet again, the Biden administration’s costly and burdensome regulatory overreach.” But it sure looks like the story is not about Biden, but rather is about an extremist SCOTUS overturning 50 years of law that gave us clean water because it is determined to slash federal authority to regulate business.

McCarthy is trying to manage his conference while members of the far-right Freedom Caucus strike at our economy. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre reiterated today that defaulting on the national debt is not an option. “The President has said that, the Speaker has said that, and we want the American people to understand that as well…. What is up for debate, though, is the budget,” she said. “And that’s what these discussions are about: two very different fiscal visions for our country and our economy.”

Biden’s proposed budget invests in ordinary Americans and over 10 years is projected to reduce the deficit by nearly $3 trillion by “asking the wealthy and corporations to pay their fair share and by slashing wasteful spending on special interests.” In contrast, “House Republicans…want to slash programs millions of hardworking Americans count on, while also protecting tax breaks skewed to the wealthy and corporations that will add $3.5 trillion to the debt. That’s where these negotiations began,” she said.

Finally, there is news today about the man that Rhodes is going to prison for, concerning his strike at our national security. Devlin Barrett, Josh Dawsey, Spencer S. Hsu, and Perry Stein of the Washington Post reported that on June 2, 2022, the day one of Trump’s lawyers contacted the Justice Department to say that officials were welcome to come to Mar-a-Lago to retrieve the classified documents the department had subpoenaed, two of Trump’s employees moved boxes of papers. The next day, when FBI agents arrived, Trump’s lawyers gave them 38 documents, said they had conducted a “diligent search,” and claimed that all the relevant documents had been turned over. Yet, when FBI agents conducted a search two months later, they found more than 100 additional classified documents.

The timing of the moved boxes suggests that Trump was deliberately hiding certain documents. The Washington Post article also says that more than one witness has told prosecutors that Trump sometimes kept classified documents out in the open and showed them to people.

Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung said in a statement: “This is nothing more than a targeted, politically motivated witch hunt against President Trump that is concocted to meddle in an election and prevent the American people from returning him to the White House.”

President Biden calls white supremacy “the most dangerous terrorist threat to our homeland.”

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

May 16, 2023

On Saturday, May 13th, President Joe Biden spoke to the graduating class at Howard University, a historically Black university in Washington, D.C. In his speech about “excellence, leadership, and truth and service,” Biden singled out white supremacy “as the most dangerous terrorist threat to our homeland.”

Biden called for Americans to reject political extremism and violence, and to protect fundamental rights and freedoms for women to choose and for transgender children to be free. He called for affordable healthcare and housing and the right to raise your family and retire with dignity. He urged the graduates to “stand with leaders of your generation who give voice to the people, demanding action on gun violence,” and to stand “against books being banned and Black history being erased…. To stand up for the best in us.”

While Biden based his remarks on former president Trump’s declaration after the August 2017 Unite the Right Rally that “there are very fine people on both sides,” there were plenty of examples from just this week that he could have used.

Last night, Hunter Walker of Talking Points Memo broke the story that the digital director for right-wing representative Paul Gosar (R-AZ) appears to be Wade Searle, a devoted follower of white supremacist leader Nick Fuentes. Fuentes has openly embraced Nazism and Russian president Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism, and he is one of those to whom the alt-right Groypers look up.

Although Fuentes calls the Groypers “Christian conservatives,” historian of the far right in the U.S. Nicole Hemmer told Walker: “The Groypers are essentially the equivalent of neo-Nazis…. They are attached to violent events like Jan. 6. Nick Fuentes, as sort of the organizer of the Groypers, expresses Holocaust denialism, white supremacy, white nationalism, pretty strong anti-women bigotry, he calls for a kind of return to Twelfth Century Catholicism. They’re an extremist group that is OK with violence.”

Walker has also identified an intern in Gosar’s office as another Fuentes follower.

A February study by the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts independent research on religion, culture, and public policy, found that the so-called Christian nationalism at the heart of those like Fuentes is closely linked with a willingness to commit violence to make the U.S. a white Christian nation. The PRRI poll showed that nearly 20% of those who sympathize with Christian nationalism agreed they were “willing to fight” to take the nation back to what they incorrectly believe it always was.

Maria Cramer of the New York Times noted yesterday that while no one actually knows much about Daniel Penny, a white man who was recently charged with choking Jordan Neely, a homeless Black man, to death on a subway in New York, right-wing politicians and supporters have rallied around Penny. They seem to see him as a symbol of a powerful man who took matters into his own hands to restore order—although the events that led to the choking are still unclear—much as they lionized Kyle Rittenhouse after he killed two people and wounded another at a Black Lives Matter rally in 2020. Florida governor Ron DeSantis tweeted: “We must defeat the Soros-Funded DAs, stop the Left’s pro-criminal agenda, and take back the streets for law abiding citizens.”

Historian Thomas Zimmer explained the danger: “All strands of the Right—leading Republicans, the media machine, the reactionary intellectual sphere, the conservative base, the donor class—are openly and aggressively embracing rightwing vigilante violence,” he wrote. “This sends a clear message: It encourages white militants to use whatever force they please to “fight back” against anything and anyone associated with ‘the Left’ by protecting and glorifying those who have engaged in vigilante violence—call it the Kyle Rittenhouse dogma.”

In Washington this weekend, about 150 masked members of the white supremacist group Patriot Front marched toward the U.S. Capitol, chanting, “life, liberty, victory.”

Professor of journalism at New York University Jay Rosen noted on MSNBC on May 11, the day after CNN gave Trump the space to hold what amounted to a political rally, that journalists could better cover this moment in our history by focusing not on the horse race strategy, but on the consequences for the country if Trump wins again. How will American life change? Who will benefit? Who will suffer? He says the question should be “not the odds, but the stakes” as a principle for better campaign coverage.

A lawsuit filed today in New York by Noelle Dunphy, a woman who says Trump ally Rudy Giuliani hired her in January 2019 to manage his media presence, documents the sordid world she observed in her two years working for Giuliani. He promised her a salary of $1 million a year but said he couldn’t pay her until his divorce was final and, ultimately, paid her only small amounts of cash. In her account, he seemed to become obsessed with her, forcing her into sex and trying to dominate her. She is suing Giuliani, his companies, and 10 unidentified individuals over “unlawful abuses of power, wide-ranging sexual assault and harassment, wage theft, and other misconduct” and is asking for $10 million in compensation and damages.

The story of her time with Giuliani, whom she describes as a chronically alcoholic sexual abuser prone to racist and sexist outbursts, is bad enough—and she claims to have recordings—but her other allegations are politically incendiary. She claims to have heard Giuliani say that he was selling presidential pardons for $2 million a pop, splitting the proceeds with Trump, and that Giuliani told her on February 7, 2019, “about a plan that had been prepared for if Trump lost the 2020 election.” Specifically, Giuliani told Ms. Dunphy that Trump’s team would claim that there was ‘voter fraud’ and that Trump had actually won the election…. That same day, Giuliani had Ms. Dunphy sit in on a speakerphone conversation about a potential business opportunity involving a $72 billion dollar gas deal in China.”

Also of note is her claim that, since part of her job was managing emails, Giuliani gave her access to his email account. The system stored at least 23,000 emails on her own personal computer, including “privileged, confidential, and highly sensitive” emails from, to, or concerning Trump, his children Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump, and Eric Trump; Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner; Trump’s lawyers and advisors; media figures including Rupert Murdoch, Sean Hannity, and Tucker Carlson; and so on.

There are a number of stories in the news today that wrap up long-standing issues. John Durham, the special counsel picked by Trump loyalist attorney general William Barr to undermine the FBI investigation into whether Russia interfered in the 2016 election, released a report today finding fault with the categorization of the FBI’s initial investigation into the Russia attempt to swing the 2016 election to Trump.

Representative George Santos (R-NY) has pleaded guilty to charges of theft in Brazil, but insists he is not guilty of the federal charges against him for financial crimes. He says he will not resign from Congress.

As predicted by everyone who correctly attributed the high cost of eggs late last year to the deadly avian flu and price gouging, there are now so many eggs on the market that the wholesale price is $0.94 a dozen, down from $5.46 a dozen six months ago.

The number of migrants at the southern border has dropped 50% since the end of the pandemic restriction known as Title 42 on May 11.

And finally, Representative James Comer (R-KY), chair of the House Oversight Committee, yesterday told Fox News Channel personality Maria Bartiromo that the committee has lost track of a top witness to alleged wrongdoing by the Biden family. “Well, unfortunately, we can’t track down the informant,” Comer said. “We’re hopeful that the informant is still there. The whistleblower knows the informant. The whistleblower is very credible.”

GOP embraces replacing democracy with white Christian nationalism

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

April 17, 2023

House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) was in New York City today, trying to calm jitters among investors by explaining to members of the New York Stock Exchange that the Republicans will not allow the government to default on its debts even as he insisted that the Republican Party must use the debt ceiling to enact legislative policies it can’t win through normal political negotiations.

The debt ceiling is an artificial limit to how much the Treasury can borrow to pay existing obligations to which Congress has already committed. It has nothing to do with future spending, which is hammered out in budget negotiations. 

But McCarthy has not offered a budget proposal because the Republican conference cannot agree on one. Yesterday, for example, McCarthy floated the idea of cuts to food assistance for millions of low-income Americans, which Senate Republicans want no part of. Unlike House members, many of whom represent such gerrymandered districts they feel insulated from any backlash to extreme proposals, Senators run at-large. For them, cutting food support while backing tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations would be politically dangerous.

Instead, McCarthy is trying to use the threat of national default to extract the cuts extremist members of his conference want. The Biden administration has made it clear that it will not negotiate over paying the nation’s bills, especially since about a quarter of the debt was accumulated under former president Trump, $2 trillion of it thanks to tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations. In those years, Congress raised the debt ceiling three times. Biden presented his own long, detailed budget, full of his own priorities, as a start to negotiations in March, and he says he is eager to sit down and hammer out the budget once McCarthy produces his own plan. McCarthy is trying to deflect from his inability to do that but is confusing the issue, suggesting that he has the right to negotiate instead over whether or not to pay our bills. 

Since defaulting, or even approaching default, would devastate both the U.S. and the global economy, not even all Republicans back McCarthy’s threats. When Sara Eisen of CNBC asked McCarthy if he had the support of his party for what he is proposing, McCarthy answered, “I think I have the support of America,” and that he would “get the party behind it.” 

Meanwhile, when asked about a potential default, Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, told Tony Romm of the Washington Post, “It will be financial chaos…. Our fiscal problems will be meaningfully worse.… Our geopolitical standing in the world will be undermined.”

Today, McCarthy offered to kick the can down the road by a year, raising the debt ceiling so long as the Democrats agree to cuts that he described only vaguely. Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) rejected this idea out of hand, saying: “If Speaker McCarthy continues in this direction, we are headed to default.” Schumer reiterated that the Democrats will be happy to negotiate with McCarthy over the budget when he can produce a detailed plan that can get the 218 votes it needs to pass the House. He noted that McCarthy’s vague proposals are “a recycled pile of the same things he’s been saying for months, none of which has moved the ball forward an inch.” 

In part, McCarthy’s problem is that many of the members of his conference are in the majority for the first time. They are discovering that it is much easier to say no when opponents are in charge than it is to hammer coalitions together to advance realistic legislation. In the New York Times today, editorial board member Michelle Cottle called many of the current House Republicans “chaos monkeys” but noted that it is McCarthy’s fault that he gave them so much power by promising things he can’t deliver—like refusing to hike the debt ceiling without cuts—and by putting them at the head of important committees.

Ohio representative Jim Jordan, for example, sits at the head of the Judiciary Committee, as well as the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, and his investigations so far have not produced the results he promised the Republican base. As Jesse Watters of the Fox News Channel put it last month: “Make me feel better, guys. Tell me this is going somewhere. Can I throw someone in prison? Can someone go to jail? Can someone get fined?”

Instead, Democrats on the committees have met Jordan’s wild rapid-fire accusations with facts that show the difference between unchallenged myth-making on right-wing media and actual governance. Today, at Jordan’s insistence, the Judiciary Committee held a hearing in New York City, a venue Jordan suggested was chosen to highlight how the policies of Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg had exacerbated violent crime, although in reality, Jordan’s attacks on Bragg for investigating former president Trump started even before Trump’s indictment in that jurisdiction.  

Jordan set out to argue that Bragg was neglecting violent crime in New York City only to have Democrats point out that New York City is “not only safer than most large cities in America, it is safer than most cities of any size, and on a per capita basis, New York City is safer than most of the states of the members sitting…on the majority side,” as Jim Kessler, the co-founder and senior vice president for policy for Third Way, explained. Indeed, in 2020, Ohio’s murder rate was higher than the rate in New York City. Representative David Cicilline (D-RI) asked Jordan if the hearing could be moved to Ohio.

If one part of McCarthy’s problem is his extremist colleagues, another is that his argument is out of date. In what Catie Edmondson and Jim Tankersley of the New York Times called “a speech that was sprinkled with misleading statements and erroneous assertions,” McCarthy told the Wall Street executives, “We’re seeing in real time the effects of reckless government spending: record inflation and the hardship it causes….”

In reality, the inflation that plagued the U.S. as it reopened from the worst days of the Covid-19 pandemic has slowed dramatically, making it clear that the policies of the Biden administration are working. As Jennifer Rubin noted yesterday in the Washington Post, the annual inflation rate for producers is 2.7%—the lowest rate in more than two years—while consumer price increases are at their lowest point since May 2021: 5%. Gasoline prices have dropped 17.4% since the high prices that followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The overall declines mark nine months of slowing inflation. 

At the same time, labor force participation is at record high levels and unemployment is at a 50-year low of 3.5%. Black unemployment, which stands at 5%, has never been lower.  Real incomes—that is, incomes after inflation is factored in—have risen 7% for those making $35,000 a year or less and 1.3% across the whole economy. Meanwhile, the deficit has dropped more than $1.7 trillion in two years.  

The successes of Biden’s policies would seem worth considering in negotiations, but as Sarah Longwell noted in Bulwark+ today, the Republican Party has abandoned normal democratic politics. She notes that it is a mistake to look at the Trump years as a wild period from which the party will return to normality. Instead, she notes, “You have to think of Trump’s election as year zero” because “Republican voters say they don’t want any part of a Republican party that looks anything like it did before 2016.”

Trump’s administration was a culmination of forty years of Republican attempts to get rid of taxes and regulations by insisting that anyone calling for business regulation and a basic social safety net was a socialist who wanted to redistribute tax dollars from hardworking white men to minorities and women. But the racism, sexism, and religion in that formula used to be the quieter undertones of the call for small government. Now, though, the party is openly embracing the replacement of democracy with a strong government that would make white Christian nationalism the law of the land.  

In illustration of that position, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who has used the government to impose a Christian agenda on his state, today continued his crusade against the Walt Disney Company. A year ago, angry that then–chief executive officer Bob Chapek opposed his measure limiting discussion of gender identity in public school classrooms, DeSantis tried to take control of the company’s special self-governing district through a new board. Shortly before the takeover, Disney CEO Bob Iger outfoxed DeSantis by legally changing the terms of the agreement under which it has operated for decades, limiting the power of the board in perpetuity.

After Trump officials mocked him for being beaten by Mickey Mouse, DeSantis today suggested he is determined to use the power of the government to force Disney, a private company, to bend to his authority. He threatened to build a rival amusement park or a state prison on land next to Disney’s Florida park. 

Disney promptly responded by advertising a “first-ever Disneyland After Dark” LGBTQIA+ themed event night at its California Disneyland resort, and former Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele tweeted: “When families stop visiting & Disney’s $75.2B economic impact & $5.8B tax revenues drop; its 75K employees face layoffs & 463K jobs are also imperiled what would your analytics say caused that to happen? WTF, Dumbo.”

Kenneth Branagh Brings ‘Artemis Fowl’ From The Page To The Screen

“Artemis Fowl,” the popular children’s fantasy book series by author Eoin Colfer, premieres Friday on Disney +.

Source: Kenneth Branagh Brings ‘Artemis Fowl’ From The Page To The Screen

Listen to the WBUR interview

“They liked his naughty side. They liked his adversarial side. They liked him taking on the fairies. They liked his cleverness. They liked his arrogance. Eoin Colfer, the author of the books, described the idea as putting an 11-year-old [James] Bond villain into an action movie and the first one he described as ‘‘Die Hard’ with fairies.’ ”

Kenneth Branaugh