Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American
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.”