Even as the fossil fuel industry struggles to stay competitive, Trump has made a deal allowing China to invest $80 billion in West Virginia's gas fields. Enthusiastically supported by the state's senators and coal-magnate governor, the deal smacks of government cronyism and will undoubtedly benefit the financial elite while further devastating the lives of West Virginia's working families.
The Trump administration wans to allow China to invest more than $80 billion in West Virginia's gas fields. Whether it grows West Virginia's economy or not, investors will expect returns. (Photo: Richard Hamilton Smith / Corbis Documentary)Support from readers provides Truthout with vital funds to keep investigating what mainstream media won't cover. Fund more stories like this by donating now!
One full year after getting elected, there is no denying that Trump is doing important things to support West Virginia's long-standing regime of fossil fuel feudalism -- by any economic manipulation necessary.
But even as Trump's administration scraps Obama-era regulations and shoves the costs of business onto West Virginia's families, coal and nuclear are still struggling to stay competitive with other sources of energy (such as unsubsidized renewables).
The administration's solution to that reality reeks of big government cronyism: Make the federal government pay higher rates to those sources so that those sources can continue to operate, even though they're uncompetitive.
But the big news recently is the administration's plan to bolster the natural gas industry through a deal with China. Instead of tough trade talks with China involving new hefty tariffs or value-added taxes, the Trump administration, with Gov. Jim Justice, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and Sen. Joe Manchin's cheerleading, wants to allow China to invest more than $80 billion in West Virginia's gas fields.
It's a huge number for a state with an annual GDP closer to $75 billion -- but it's important to remember that this is an investment, not a grant.
Yes, that's money coming into our economy. And that money may cause the economy to swell -- but there's little chance it will cause the economy to grow.
The fundamental issue here is that investors, foreign or domestic, expect returns. And they expect those returns whether West Virginia's economy grows or not.
It's all but guaranteed that more money will leave the state than will come in over the next 20 years. The question is, will we tax that wealth before it leaves the state? Will we tax it enough to pay for the clean up, when we reach the 21st year? Will we tax this investment enough to rebuild our roads and bridges? To bolster our public education? To rebuild when the next floods happen?
Is there any stipulation on this proposed deal that would require China Energy to hire locally? Is there any stipulation that they'll build their machinery locally? That they'll use local vendors?
Or will they do like they've done in regions of Africa and other resource-rich regions around the world, and bring in their own workers to work their equipment -- while dictating the terms of agreements to any local vendors they do business with?
Is there any stipulation that these firms keep our waterways clean, our roads safe and that they act as good members of the community?
Seems unlikely, since those stipulations don't seem to apply even to the fossil fuel firms that currently operate in West Virginia -- the ones based out of Oklahoma or North Dakota, or anywhere but West Virginia.
But it's tough to know. As far as I've been able to find, the text of this deal has not been made public.
Foreign investments have always been part of a "race to the bottom" strategy -- whether it's the US investing in South Asia and Mexico, Germany investing in South America, or China investing in Africa and West Virginia.
Like Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown, the financial elites who have benefited from the last 40 years of international trade (including the current president) want us to believe without question that this agreement will ultimately be different for West Virginia's working families.
But this agreement seems to follow a very basic economic model, one older than the United States itself.
1) We'll produce the natural gas for Chinese firms.
2) The Chinese firms will produce the valuable finished goods (probably plastics).
3) They'll sell those goods back to us at a massive mark-up.
And based on history, what will West Virginia have to show once the gas is harvested and the profits funneled out?
Toxic groundwater, more abandoned factories and a new generation of citizens to foot the bill for this deal's true costs to West Virginia's communities and to the environment.
Alex Azar's reforms would lock in out-of-reach drug prices. (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)
Alex Azar, Trump's nominee for health secretary, has called for more transparency in drug pricing in order to reign-in costs and empower consumers. However, diabetes activists say Azar presided over allegedly illegal drug-pricing schemes involving insurers and pharmaceutical middlemen while president of Eli Lilly and Co., and his ideas for reform would lock in drug prices already out of reach for vulnerable patients.
Alex Azar's reforms would lock in out-of-reach drug prices. (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)This story was published because of support from readers like you. If you care about maintaining a free and independent media, make a donation to Truthout!
Speaking before a health care symposium at the conservative Manhattan Institute last November, Alex Azar, then the president of the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Co., addressed the elephant in the room. He explained that pharmaceutical companies raise drug prices to accommodate large rebates paid to third-party middlemen and insurance companies, creating a system of kickbacks that pads profit margins while sending prescription drug prices through the roof.Advocates warn that Alex Azar engaged in the very reimbursement schemes he criticizes before leaving Eli Lilly earlier this year.
"That means that a significant number of people who already paid premiums for their health insurance then end up paying more than their insurer does for a medicine," Azar said, adding that some patients may go without medicine rather than pay high out-of-pocket costs to fill a prescription.
Within months of Azar's speech, Eli Lilly and other big drug companies were hit with a barrage of lawsuits and government investigations questioning the rising price of insulin and other diabetes medications and accusing major manufacturers of price fixing. As Truthout has reported, Eli Lilly raised the price of Humalog, a fast-acting form of insulin, by 345 percent during Azar's eight-year tenure at the company.
However, it was Azar's comments on rising drug prices and the plight of consumers that helped him become President Trump's latest nominee for health secretary. Azar served as deputy health secretary under the Bush administration, and the White House says his experience in both the public and private sectors makes him the perfect candidate for reining in drug prices at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Advocates say Azar's ideas for lowering drug costs could make an already confusing system even more opaque. They also warn that he engaged in the very reimbursement schemes he criticizes before leaving Eli Lilly earlier this year.
"When transparency is the solution, you don't put the problem in the hands of someone who has a lot to hide," said Charles Fournier, the vice president and legal director of the Type 1 Diabetes Defense Foundation (T1DF), in an email to Truthout.Drug manufacturers no longer compete for the lowest drug prices, but rather for the highest rebates.
Fournier and his organization have named Eli Lilly in two separate lawsuits alleging that drug manufacturers, third-party pharmacy benefit managers and some insurance companies have conspired to create a drug-pricing system for insulin and other products that is concealed from consumers and unlawfully hurts people with diabetes. They say the pricing schemes particularly impact those who are uninsured or have insurance plans with high deductibles and copays.
Here's how it works: Pharmacy benefit managers such as Express Scripts and OptumRx manage prescription drug benefits for insurance companies, putting them in a unique profit-making position. These firms make backroom agreements with manufacturers like Eli Lilly to place drugs in health insurance plans in exchange for large rebates on the listed price of a drug. This gives the drug companies access to millions of customers in exchange for reimbursement payments, or "kickbacks."
This "dual pricing" scheme creates two prices for drugs like insulin -- the original listed price of the drug, and the price that benefit managers and insurance companies pay after receiving hefty rebates. Drug manufacturers no longer compete for the lowest drug prices, but rather for the highest rebates. Over the years, insurance companies have demanded larger cuts of these rebates to reduce premiums or simply maximize profits, putting upward pressure on drug companies to annually raise the list price of big sellers like insulin in order to protect profits.Azar continued the reimbursement schemes at Eli Lilly in order to maintain the company's domination of diabetes drug markets.
This explains why the price of insulin and products like blood sugar test strips used on a daily basis by people living with diabetes keep going up, even though these products have been around for decades. People with good insurance coverage may be shielded from high costs, but because insurance companies often frame benefits around the list price of a drug rather than the actual price paid after rebates, people with high out-of-pocket costs may end up paying even more for medicine than insurance companies do.
Azar says he wants to bring more transparency to the system and has cultivated the public image of an advocate for sensible, market-based reforms that would empower consumers to make better decisions. He promotes an idea called "value pricing" that would make more patient data available to insurance companies to help determine the real "value" a drug provides, and then shape prices accordingly.Real reforms would include tough regulations requiring insurance companies to report the actual, after-rebate prices they pay for drugs to their customers and then base patient cost-sharing benefits on those prices rather than inflated market listings.
However, advocates say Azar continued these reimbursement schemes at Eli Lilly in order to maintain the company's domination of diabetes drug markets, all while costs to vulnerable patients soared out of reach. A 2016 survey by the diabetes advocates at T1 International found that the average patient in the US spends $571 a month to treat their diabetes.
Diabetes activists also argue that "value pricing" may stem future cost increases but will do nothing to bring down costs. Instead, "value pricing" will lock in current costs that are already out of reach for many patients. Fournier said real reforms would include tough regulations requiring insurance companies to report the actual, after-rebate prices they pay for drugs to their customers and then base patient cost-sharing benefits on those prices rather than inflated market listings.
"At this point in the US drug pricing crisis, general questions on 'high drug prices' will be met with vague replies on 'value-based pricing,'" said Julia Boss, the president of T1DF and a plaintiff in the group's lawsuits. "We urge lawmakers instead to ask specific questions about Mr. Azar's participation, at Lilly, in reimbursement contracts -- based on his 2016 statements that patients are paying more than their insurers do and suffer physical harm as a result."
Fournier said Azar has "personal knowledge" of the pricing schemes named in the group's lawsuit as collusive and anticompetitive, and industry executives who have condoned the practices "might even be alleged to have personal liability in a collusive scheme that directly and foreseeably resulted in physical harm and death."During his time at Eli Lilly, Azar oversaw a 100 percent increase in the price of its glucagon kits.
"If market actors collude to price average earners out of the housing market, people rent," Fournier said. "If market actors collude to price average earners out of insulin and emergency rescue glucagon, people die."
A former industry executive like Azar, who could be implicated by a past employer or third-party in "manslaughter," is "obviously" susceptible to pressure from the industry, Fournier said.
"Self-interest would, in itself, drive Mr. Azar to keep past actions secret and follow the regulatory direction most likely to justify, retroactively, the dysfunctions the head of HHS would be tasked to rectify," Fournier said.
Lawmakers routinely echo consumer rage over rising drug prices, although they have done little about the issue. The high cost of pharmaceuticals is expected to be a central theme of a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on Wednesday in which Azar will be questioned about his nomination. Sen. Bernie Sanders, Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth and other lawmakers who have raised alarms about skyrocketing drug prices sit on that committee.
T1DF points out that high prices on lifesaving glucagon kits, which are used in emergencies to rescue people with diabetes suffering from dangerously low blood sugar levels, have deterred ranking member Sen. Patty Murray's home state of Washington from putting the kits in ambulances across the state. This raises serious concerns for young children with Type 1 diabetes who attend schools that depend on EMS services to administer glucagon.
During his time at Eli Lilly, Azar oversaw a 100 percent increase in the price of its glucagon kits due to reimbursement schemes and other allegedly anticompetitive practices, according to T1DF.
A spokeswoman for Murray and the Senate Committee's Democratic members did not respond to a request for comment from Truthout by the time this article was published.
J20 Trial: Over Two Hundred Inauguration Protesters, Journalists and Observers Face Riot Charges From Mass Arrest
Please check back later for full transcript.
What happens to a member of Congress when someone dares to come forward to report wrongdoing? As Senator Al Franken returned to Congress in the face of allegations from four women that he had groped or inappropriately touched them, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she spoke to and believed one of the women who has accused Michigan Congressman John Conyers of sexual harassment, we speak with Alexis Ronickher, an attorney who has represented multiple congressional staffers pursuing harassment claims through Congress's Office of Compliance.
Please check back later for full transcript.
President Donald Trump gestures during a rally at the Phoenix Convention Center on August 22, 2017, in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo: Ralph Freso / Getty Images)You can fuel thoughtful, authority-challenging journalism: Click here to make a tax-deductible donation to Truthout.
Among the stranger features of the 2016 election campaign was the success of Donald Trump, a creature of globalization, as an America First savior of the white working class. A candidate who amassed billions of dollars by playing globalization for all it was worth -- he manufactured clothes and accessories bearing his name in low-wage economies and invested in corporations eager to outsource -- won over millions of voters by promising to keep jobs here in the US.
Admittedly, only a third of his voters earned less than $50,000 a year and cultural and racial resentment, not just economic grievances, drove many of them to Trump. Still, in an ever more economically unequal America, his populist economic message resonated. It helped him win the presidency by peeling off white working class votes in key regions, particularly the industrial Midwest. Now, he's stuck with his populist narrative, and here's the problem for him: it's not likely to work -- not given the economic realities of this planet, not for long anyway.Fading Economic Hegemony
In the Oval Office, as on the campaign trail, Trump's refrain remains that the economic woes of American workers, including stagnant wages and job insecurity, are the fault of predatory Asian and Mexican exporters, aided and abetted by inept past presidents who inked lousy trade deals. During campaign 2016, he promised to kick down doors abroad and force countries running surpluses, notably China, to buy more from the United States or face huge tariff hikes. He railed against companies that relocate production abroad, depriving Americans of jobs.
Trump's economic nationalism is, of course, a con job. He did, however, effectively employ the demagogue's artifice, which invariably lies in crafting simplistic answers to complicated questions and creating plausible scapegoats for complicated problems. In fact, workers in industries the United States dominated for decades are in distress because of irreversible historic changes and the absence, thanks to a staggeringly lopsided distribution of wealth and political power in America, of progressive policies that would better prepare them to cope with the changes that have occurred in the international economy.
But first, a little history.
For nearly three decades after World War II, the United States dominated the global marketplace in big-ticket industries like steel, automobiles, passenger aircraft, shipbuilding, and heavy machinery. That hegemony was bound to fade. As a start, America's postwar economic primacy owed much to the ravages of that global conflict. After all, the industrial bases of Japan and Germany lay in ruins. Wartime allies Britain and France faced long, arduous recoveries. But the economies of those industrialized, technologically advanced countries were bound to recover -- and by the mid-1970s they had. By then, America's near-monopoly was ending.
Between 1965 and 2010, the share of the national market held by America's steelmakers and carmakers plunged from nearly 90% to 45%. By the 1970s, they were already complaining about an influx of "cheap imports" and lobbying Washington to enact countermeasures. Now regarded as the ultimate free trader, President Ronald Reagan would indeed oblige them. In 1981, for instance, he limited Japanese automobile sales in the US, while hiking tariffstenfold on motorcycle imports to save Harley-Davidson. European and Japanese steel companies would soon face similar restrictions.
Seen in historical perspective, Washington's reaction to trade competition was hardly unique. Britain, too, had preached free trade during its economic heyday -- until, that is, its imperial predominance began to wane. In the nineteenth century, the zenith of British free trade cheerleading, the United States relied heavily on protectionism to ensure the growth of its nascent industrial base. As its economic power expanded, however, its own version of such cheerleading began. Now, China is fast becoming an economic superpower. Unsurprisingly, at conclaves like the Davos World Economic Forum at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, President Xi Jinping is predictably starting to sound more like Adam Smith than Karl Marx, just as Donald Trump's speeches during his November whirlwind trip through Asia are coming to resemble nineteenth-century American rationales for protectionism.
Since the 1970s, workers in places like Detroit, Bethlehem, and Peoria have faced another challenge: a range of new sources of competition, especially the "Asian tigers" like South Korea and Taiwan. Once considered inferior, their products have by now become a hallmark of quality, making South Korean or Japanese cars, cellphones, computers, and television sets ubiquitous in this country.
These historical trends suggest that President Trump's protectionism is already doomed. The point isn't that international trade always benefits American workers; it doesn't. Trade, national or global, redistributes wealth, especially because the largest and most successful companies have long ceased to think in terms of national markets. They set up shop wherever it's most profitable, using complex global supply chains. When it comes to Apple's iPhone, for instance, more than 200 suppliers worldwide provide parts for final assembly in China. Good infrastructure and a workforce with skills that match corporate requirements matter. Yet wage differentials aren't irrelevant either; that's partly why China, Mexico, and Vietnam have attracted massive amounts of job-creating investment -- and why India, too, has begun to do so.
The relevant question isn't whether the global economy can be redesigned to protect American workers -- it can't -- but what their government will do to help them to gain the skills needed to compete effectively in a rapidly changing marketplace. Reforming public education might be a good place to start (but don't look to Donald Trump to do it). If American workers are to do better in the global marketplace, this country's public schools must ensure that their students graduate with the math, science, and other skills needed to get decent jobs. That, however, would mean attacking the inequality that's increasingly been built into the public education system (as into so much else in this society).Education: The Zip Code Premium
Horace Mann, the nineteenth-century American educator, referred to public schooling as "beyond all human devices... the great equalizer of the condition of men, the balance wheel of the social machinery." Since the early years of the republic, Americans have embraced the idea that schooling is critical in helping individuals realize their aspirations and in guaranteeing equality of opportunity. In principle, there has been a consensus that economic circumstances beyond the control of children shouldn't block their way into the future. In practice, it's been quite a different story, partially because of how public schools are funded.
Local property and business taxes are the largest source of support for them, so kids born into a community crammed with pricey homes and thriving businesses will attend well-funded public schools that attract good teachers with decent working conditions and salaries. Such students are more likely to have smaller classes, more guidance counselors, nurses, and psychologists, more computers per pupil, better textbooks and instructional equipment, richer curricula, and better libraries.
In addition to local taxes, which provide 45% of public school funds, state revenues provide another 46%, and federal assistance an additional 9%. Some state governments also offer extra money to poorer school districts, but not enough to begin to close the gap with more affluent ones. In any case, those funds have been falling since 2008. Additional federal support doesn't come close to leveling the playing field.
The United States is one of the few countries in the 35-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a grouping of wealthy nations, in which central government funding plays such a limited role in reducing disparities between schools. In those countries, national budgets provide, on average, more than 50% of school funding.
Public schools in affluent communities have another advantage. Thanks to their incomes, professional qualifications, social networks, and experience, the parents of students in such schools are far more capable of raising private money to supplement school budgets, which means extra educational equipment and instructional materials, and more staff. Most such private fundraising is done by parent-teacher associations (PTAs), which tend to be more active and more successful in affluent communities. (Indeed, poor districts may lack PTAs altogether.)
Consider a typical California example. In Hillsborough, where the median family income is $229,000, the school district raised an extra $1,500 per student; in Oakland, where median income was just under $58,000, it was only $100 per student. Similarly, in wealthy northwest Washington, D.C., four elementary schools raised $300,000 apiece in one year, sums unthinkable for schools in Washington's poorer communities like those east of the Anacostia River, where the median household income is $34,000. Such differences are the norm nationally.
It's true that PTA funding -- $245 million in 2010 (an increase of 300% since 1990) -- looks like a drop in the bucket compared to total government spending on kindergarten-through-12th-grade education ($603 billion in 2013). That, however, misses the point, since the private funding is so concentrated in wealthy neighborhoods.
Money can't fix everything, but it counts for a lot in an ever more unequal society. And there's overwhelming evidence that the educational success gap between the wealthiest 10% of Americans and the rest has been growing for decades -- unevenly since the 1940s, at an accelerated rate since the 1970s, and by 30%-40% percent between 1991 and 2010. If you want graphic proof of how the income-achievement divide matters, it's easy to find: students in schools with greater resources (including wealthy parents), for example, regularly do better in standardized tests and essentially any other metric of academic achievement.
And remember, student performance in high school increases the likelihood both of college attendance and success once there. All of this indicates the obvious: that one way to improve the economic prospects of American workers would be to ensure that the public school system provides all students with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in a global economy that privileges people who have solid technical know-how. Channeling more funds to schools in poorer communities would, however, require sacrifices from the segments of society that our "populist" president really represents. So perhaps you won't be surprised to discover that, though Education Secretary Betsy DeVos favors"school choice," neither she nor her boss seems to have the slightest interest in doing anything about the growing inequalities and inequities of public education, which Trump's cherished "base" of working and lower-income people need the most. In fact, cuts in hiseducation budget total about $10 billion and target a raft of programs that help poor and working-class families.Missing: Worker-Friendly Policies
Once employed, workers will face challenges throughout their lives that their parents, let alone grandparents, couldn't have imagined. No matter what Donald Trump does about trade pacts and tariffs, companies will continue to shift production overseas to stay ahead of their competitors, which means that well-paying manufacturing jobs in America will continue to disappear. They will also export some of what they make abroad back to the United States, increasing job insecurity and driving down wages. Trump's rants won't reverse this well-established trend.
Add in one more thing: automation, robotics, self-driving vehicles, artificial intelligence, and e-commerce will continue to reduce the role of human labor in the economy, even as they create new jobs with skill premiums. Those with high-end jobs (banking, the law, scientific research, and medicine, among others) will, of course, continue to earn significant incomes, but workers without a college education in the service sector, which already accounts for nearly 80% of the country's gross domestic product, will find it ever tougher to get higher-paying jobs with decent benefits. This, in turn, means that they will have an even harder time saving for retirement, paying for their childrens' educations, liquidating accumulated debts, or covering the cost of medical care.
So what to do?
A progressive tax code that actually favored those in Trump's base and others like them would be one way to start to rectify the situation, but that's a pipedream in this era. The two versions of the Trump-backed tax "reform" bill now in Congress tell us everything we need to know about who will gain and who will lose in his populist America. They couldn't be more wildly regressive.
Take corporate taxes. To skirt the present 35% tax on corporate income, American companies have stashed $2.6 trillion in overseas tax havens like Ireland, Luxembourg, Bermuda, and the Netherlands, among other places. If the tax bill passes, corporations will be able to bring that money home and pay only 12% in taxes on it, a bonanza for corporate America. It's been argued that such companies will then invest the repatriated funds here, creating new jobs, but the tax plan offers them absolutely no incentives to do so and imposes no penalties if they don't. Oh, and that proposed corporate tax cut will be permanent.
More generally, the truly wealthy have particular reason to celebrate. By 2024, the legislation eliminates the estate tax, which only they now pay. Though it provides less than one percent of federal revenues, scrapping it would shrink those revenues by $269 billion over a decade. That exceeds the annual budgets of the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention combined.
There's more: 47% of the gains from the proposed tax cuts will benefit the wealthiest 1% of taxpayers, while the prospective bill won't touch the biggest financial burden carried by young middle- and working-class Americans: college loans. Student debt, which has ballooned by $833 billion since 2007, now totals $1.45 trillion. (The average monthly payment: $351.)
Republican tax policies further skew wealth distribution toward the richest 0.1%. Big tax cuts that favor this exclusive group are also likely to reduce government revenue, increasing the odds of further spending cuts to programs that benefit workers.
Take job retraining. The United States currently devotes a pitiful 0.05% of its gross domestic product to worker retraining, ranking 21st out of 29 OECD countries for which data is available. And prospective budget cuts suggest that there will be no improvement on this front (where the president has already proposed a 40% cut in funds). The 21% cut planned for the Department of Labor will, for instance, slash several job training and employment assistance programs, affecting nearly three million people. And here's one for your no-good-deed-goes unpunished file: Trump plans to eliminate the Appalachian Regional Council (ARC), which since 1965 has provided job retraining to coalminers while reducing poverty and boosting high school graduation rates significantly. Ninety-five percent of the counties the ARC covers voted for Trump.
It's the same story when it comes to apprenticeships, widely and successfully subsidized in countries like Germany to create a skilled working class. By contrast, the United States now spends a paltry $95 million on such programs and while Trump has called for five million additional apprenticeships in the next five years, a tenfold increase, he's suggested no additional funding for such a program. Consider that the definition of not putting your money where your mouth is.
A partnership among community colleges and companies, supplemented by federal funds, could create nationwide apprenticeship programs that would benefit workers and companies. Furthermore, nearly 90% of those who complete apprenticeships not only land jobs but earn an average yearly salary of $50,000 -- nearly 12% above the national median wage. Two million American manufacturing jobs will remain unfilled during the next decade for want of adequately trained workers.
Modernizing the nation's decrepit infrastructure could create a range of new jobs (as it did in the New Deal era of the 1930s). But the federal government's supposed role in President Trump's much-vaunted infrastructure "plan" to revamp the country's disintegrating roads, rail lines, bridges, ports, dams, levees, and inland waterways is to "get out of the way"; it will, that is, be confining its contribution to the trillion-dollar plan to $137 billion (mainly in tax credits), though experts reckon that revamping the country's infrastructure would actually require a $4 trillion investment over a decade. Private investors will undoubtedly cherry-pick the most profitable projects and so will get a windfall from this tax subsidy. American workers, not so much. Sad!Fake Populism
Rising college costs, stagnant wages -- adjusted for inflation, hourly pay has increased a mere 0.2% annually over the past four decades -- and the weight of student debt will make it ever harder for Americans to upgrade their skills. But when it comes to the working class he claims to care deeply about, Donald Trump's deeds don't go beyond symbolism -- publicizing his love for Big Macs and Kentucky Fried Chicken, engaging in bellicose bombast, trash-talking trade agreements, threatening to raise tariffs, and blaming undocumented immigrants for everything from crime to unemployment. None of this will actually mitigate the challenges that confront workers, which will only grow in an America in which the top 0.1% have about as much wealth as the bottom 90%.
As is always true when it comes to rulers with an autocratic bent, the question is: When will Trump's base get wise to his populist charade? When will the promises he continues to make, from a new deal with China to a new wall with Mexico, begin to ring hollow? Or will they?
Donald Trump, Jr. (R) greets his father, then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, during the town hall debate at Washington University on October 9, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo: Rick Wilking-Pool / Getty Images)In these troubling and surreal times, honest journalism is more important than ever. Help us keep real news flowing: Make a donation to Truthout today.
The news is coming so fast and furious, from so many sources and in so many fragments, that it takes more than a scorecard to keep up with the Trump-Russia connection. It takes a timeline -- a "map," if you will, of where events and names and dates and deeds converge into a story that makes sense of the incredible scandal of the 2016 election and now of the Trump Administration.
For years Steve Harper produced timelines for the cases he argued or defended in court as a successful litigator. Retired now from practicing law, Harper has turned his experience, talent, and curiosity to monitoring for BillMoyers.com the bizarre and entangled ties between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump and the murky world of Russian oligarchs, state officials, hackers, spies, and Republican operatives. You can check out the over 700 entries right here.But for an overview -- and some specifics -- of recent developments, I called up Steve to give us a sense of the emerging story.
Bill Moyers: You're the consummate trial lawyer with a celebrated reputation for summing up the closing argument for the jury, but from our work together on the timeline I know you also have the instincts of a journalist. So write the lede to the story this far: What's the most important thing for us to know about the Trump/Russia connection as of today?
Steven Harper: Everything the Trump campaign told you about the connections between Trump and Russia was a lie.
Well, there are a number of different dimensions to the issue, but let's just take the easiest one. The other day The Washington Post published a very good article that said for all of Trump's denials during the campaign of any connections between him, his campaign and Russia, it turns out there were 31 interactions. And there were 19 meetings. Furthermore, what Trump and his people have been doing since then is everything they can to keep the public from being aware of the truth. And this feeds into the obstruction story.
Up to and including the firing of James Comey, Trump did everything he could to try to shut down, slow down or stop the investigation. First, he tried to shut down the investigation of Mike Flynn. Then it turned out that Mike Flynn is probably just a piece of a much larger problem, which is Russia. Trump admitted to the Russian ambassador and to the Russian foreign minister shortly after he fired Comey that now he's got some relief from the Russia problem -- in other words, Comey's gone! But what's happened since then is the continuing effort to interfere with the investigation, even in the form of tweets -- all of which sure look a lot to me like witness intimidation for some of the key players in the saga.
And then there's a third component, which is in a way the most insidious -- the willingness of the congressional GOP to be complicit in all of this. We're talking now about a prescription for disaster for democracy. It's all part of the same story. If you think about it, every single person who has said something about there being no connection between Trump and Russia during the campaign has been caught in a lie about it. Even with this fellow George Papadopoulos, the talking point immediately became, "Well, he didn't get in trouble for anything that he did, he got in trouble for lying to federal investigators." Sure, and what was he lying to federal investigators about? About whether or not there were any contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia. And that's the part that everybody glosses over in terms of the talking points on the Republican side.
George Papadopoulos was the youngest of Trump's foreign policy team and not a prominent public figure. Now Trump loyalists say he wasn't taken all that seriously by the campaign.
That's another remarkable thing, of course -- all the policy advisers all of a sudden are relegated to the status of low-level, unpaid volunteers, even though they sat in a meeting of foreign policy advisers with the presidential candidate himself early on. When they turn out to be suspects in this investigation, they all drop to the bottom of the heap, and it's as if Trump had never heard of any of them.
It's usual in a case like this to move the paramount figures to the expendable list, no?
Oh sure, absolutely, and I fully expect before this is over, you're going to get to a point where Donald Trump will say, "Oh, yeah, Donald Jr. -- you know he was only my son for a very limited period of time." It's absurd. And it started with Paul Manafort -- the same Manafort who actually delivered decisive delegates to Trump during a crucial period of the campaign. When the heat was turned on Manafort, they all said: "Oh, well, he played a limited role for a limited period of time." Yeah, he was only manager of the campaign, how about that?
Perhaps Trump, who aspired to be a great American president, will confess: "And I was just a real estate guy." [laughter] Robert Mueller is moving quickly with the investigation now. We have new news almost every day. What's the most recent development that strikes you as most important?
Three different strands have now begun to coalesce. There's a core strand running through it that I call the "follow the money" strand. Perhaps most of what happened throughout the campaign, if you view it from Vladimir Putin's side of the transaction, looks quite reasonable and makes a great deal of sense. Putin wants to eliminate sanctions on Russia, both because they affect him personally in a financial way and because they affect his country's economy in a big way. So you dangle in front of Trump the prospect of a Trump Tower in Moscow. We always knew that Trump wanted a Trump Tower in Moscow, because Trump told us he did. But what we didn't know was that during the campaign, the Trump organization was actively negotiating for such a development.
But two other strands have come together, and we need to understand them for all this to become a cogent narrative. The second strand involves political operatives. It turns out we're hearing about people like George Papadopoulos, who obviously was in communication with the Russians, and that strand is now probably taking Mueller -- certainly taking me -- further up the food chain. Papadopoulos implicated Sam Clovis, the former co-chairman of the campaign. And with people like Stephen Miller and Hope Hicks, you're getting right to the inner circle of the Trump campaign. All of a sudden last year, these low-level underlings, as they are now being described to us, were getting remarkable access, and they're getting responses from within the campaign. They're not sending emails off into cyberspace that no one ever answers; they're hearing back from some of these higher-ups.
And the third strand is what I would call the "digital strand." Cambridge Analytica, the Kushners, WikiLeaks -- they've started coming together in a very dramatic fashion over the past two or three weeks. Pundits say they keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. Well, didn't John McCain say, "This is a centipede. I guarantee you there will be more shoes to drop." It seems as though there is just no limit to the number of shoes that keep dropping in this thing. Everyone thought the big bombshell was the June 9 meeting and the Don Jr. emails that had set up that meeting in Trump Tower relating to dirt the Russians were promising on Hillary Clinton. And then we just get this even more stunning series of interactions and communications and exchanges that show the people that Kushner hired to run the digital campaign going to WikiLeaks, and reveal Don Jr. having direct Twitter communications with WikiLeaks about Clinton documents. It's just remarkable. If all of this had hit at the same time, it would have been blockbuster, but because of the dribbling out of it, no one focuses on the extent to which some of these three strands coalesce. And they sometimes coalesce around what I call very hot dates in the timeline.
Let's pause right there. There's a beginning to a story like this. So I hope you're reading a new book out this week by Luke Harding, once the Moscow correspondent for The Guardian of London. The title is Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money and how the Russians Helped Donald Trump Win. Have you been following coverage of the book?
Yes. I haven't read it yet, but I've read a couple of excerpts and summaries of certain portions of it.
Harding, who's a very experienced reporter, quotes the British ex-spy, Christopher Steele, who worked in Russia for years and compiled that notorious dossier on Trump that mysteriously appeared last year. He quotes Steele saying that "Russian intelligence has been secretly cultivating Trump for years." As you and I discussed in August, Trump appears to have attracted the attention of Soviet intelligence as far back as 1987, on his first visit to Moscow -- a visit arranged by the top level of the Soviet diplomatic service, with the assistance of the KGB.
Trump was of course looking for business in Russia. If you go to Trump's own book, The Art of the Deal, he acknowledges "talking about building a large luxury hotel across the street from the Kremlin in partnership with the Soviet government." And he quotes a letter he got from the Soviet ambassador to Washington saying the Soviet state agency for international tourism is inquiring about his interest in that partnership. Now, one has to ask: There were lots of ambitious real estate moguls looking for deals with Russia in the mid-'80s; why did they select Donald Trump?
And that's the $64,000 question. It's very interesting and Harding notes this as well, and it also was an early entry on our timeline -- that in 1988, when Trump came back from the Soviet Union, he first made noises about wanting to run for president. Which brings us back to the second strand developing in this story, which is the personal contacts, the personal operatives, involved in a pretty straightforward if not classic Russian intelligence operation. Russian agents -- the recruiters -- look for soft spots in their target -- in this case, the US -- and those soft spots become points of penetration. The Russians must have been astonished at how they achieved penetration in Trump's circle -- astonished at the success that they were having across many different fronts simultaneously.
I remember from my own experience in Washington in the '60s that the Russians were always trying to find "soft targets" -- American citizens -- who were drawn to that sort of relationship.
And what could be a softer target for a guy like Putin than a guy who measures the world and everyone's self-worth in dollars?
Much of what Harding reports in his book is circumstantial, but it adds up to what is fairly damning evidence. You're the lawyer -- how much can circumstantial evidence be introduced in an argument in a trial?
Plenty. There are lots of people sitting in jail who were convicted on circumstantial evidence. In fact, how often is it that there is actually what you would call eyewitness or direct evidence of criminal behavior, except in a situation where you can get one of the co-conspirators to turn state's evidence and squeal on the others? People talk about circumstantial evidence as if there's something terrible about it. Circumstantial evidence is the way most people go about proving their cases, whether they're civil or criminal cases. And what separates circumstantial from direct evidence isn't even all that clear. Would you say that the email exchanges between Donald Trump Jr. and the lawyer who was supposed to come to Trump Tower with dirt on Hillary Clinton were circumstantial evidence or direct evidence? It's certainly direct evidence of Donald Trump Jr.'s intent when he says, "If you have what you say you have, in terms of dirt on Clinton, I love it."
Some people keep saying there's there's no collusion. Trump's favorite expression is "No collusion. No collusion. No collusion." All right, let's talk about something else. Let's talk about something the law recognizes as conspiracy or "aiding and abetting." Let's talk about a conspiracy to obstruct justice. In that respect, Trump's own tweets become evidence. So it's not as clear as I think some of the talking-head pundits would like to make it, that no collusion means the end of the inquiry. That's just wrong.
Suppose the circumstantial or direct evidence prove to be true; does it have to be out-and-out treason for Trump and his team's actions to be impeachable offenses?
No. In all likelihood, treason may be the toughest thing of all to prove, because treason, at least in a technical legal sense, requires that you're actually at war. And a decent defense could be for Trump that there's been no declaration of war, so whatever was going on you're never going to get it past the threshold of treason. There are still plenty of legal bases for concluding that Trump has some serious problems. One would be the election laws, including the financing of elections. It's pretty clear you can't accept help from a foreign government in order to win an election, and it seems pretty clear, at least to me, that if they weren't actually using the help -- and that's a big if; I think they were, based on some of the things that I've seen -- there's certainly ample evidence that they were willing to be participating in whatever help anybody would give them to help Trump win the election.
The second category -- apart from election laws and related finance laws -- would be aiding and abetting computer theft insofar as there were illegal hacks into the DNC computers, and WikiLeaks and/or the Trump campaign knew that that happened, knew the hacks were illegal and knew they were willing to do everything they could to take advantage of it in order to help Trump win the election. That's another fertile ground for illegality.
And the third category would of course be what I think will ultimately turn out to be the easiest to prove: the obstruction issues, relating to some of the behavior that we already know that George Papadopoulos, for one, engaged in when he lied to investigators about the nature of the connections between Trump and Russia.
On the money issue, The Atlantic magazine published a very strong piece last week by Bob Bauer, in which he argues that Donald Trump Jr.'s private Twitter correspondence with WikiLeaks provides evidence of criminal violations of federal campaign finance rules which prohibit foreign spending in American elections, as you pointed out. He reminds us that those rules disallow contributions, donations or "anything of value" provided by a foreign national to sway an election. Those rules also bar a campaign from offering substantial assistance to a foreign national engaged in spending on American races.
Here's a direct quote from Bauer's article: "Trump Jr.'s messages not only powerfully support the case that the Trump campaign violated these rules, but they also compound the campaign's vulnerability to aiding and abetting liability under the general criminal laws for assisting a foreign national in violating a spending ban. … The facts and circumstances here are without precedent in the history of campaign finance enforcement, and it's hard to imagine that any truly neutral analyst informed about the law would conclude otherwise."
So he concludes that Trump and his campaign face a "whopping legal problem."
I agree with him completely. And here we reach one of what I call "the hot dates" when all these strands coalesce. You have these September-October email exchanges between Don Jr. and WikiLeaks. But now listen to what else you have: On Oct. 12, [Trump's friend and former adviser] Roger Stone tells NBC that he has a backchannel communication with WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks' private message to Don Jr. suggests that Trump publicize the Clinton documents from WikiLeaks. Fifteen minutes later Trump Sr. tweets about those WikiLeaks documents. That's on one day. This is all on Oct. 12. And two days after that, Don Jr. tweets the very WikiLeaks link that WikiLeaks had already suggested that they publicize. That's one point where these strands coalesce. My point is that Bauer's case is even stronger than he may realize when you look at what you and I have called circumstantial evidence of what other things were happening, and how other layers of action were behaving at the same time.
As you know, American intelligence has identified WikiLeaks as a conduit for information that Russian operatives stole from Democrats during the 2016 presidential campaign, and now of course it seems there was a connection between WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign, as you've just outlined it. What do we know about why the Russian government would choose WikiLeaks to release information hacked from Hillary Clinton's computers?
I think it was an outlet that would ensure publicity, maximum publicity. It's a notorious organization. And I think if you want bad stuff to get out there and you want everybody to notice it, WikiLeaks would be the way to do it.
Donald Trump Jr. reportedly has released all of his correspondence with WikiLeaks. Does this indicate his lawyers don't think it is incriminating?
I think it is probably more likely the case that his lawyers assume that it's going to come out eventually anyway. So the best way to do it is to sort of dribble these things out, hope for an intervening scandal, like Al Franken groping somebody or Roy Moore upsetting the Alabama election, and then let the mind of the body politic move on to something different. The good news is that Robert Mueller is not going to be distracted by the intervening events, and he'll put all this together.
But how significant is it that when Donald Trump Jr. had all of this information from WikiLeaks, it's now being reported that he looked around the campaign to see if he could find someone who would act on WikiLeaks' information, and it doesn't seem that anyone responded? His appeals seem to have fallen on deaf ears.
What makes you think no one responded? The fact that there's no email trail doesn't necessarily mean that there wasn't a response. We know, for example, that what was happening throughout the campaign were interactions and conversations and discussions in which certainly one of the topics included granting Russia relief from sanctions. I don't conclude that because an email response to Donald Jr. has yet to make its way into the public domain, nothing happened.
So when Donald Trump on Oct. 10, tells the crowd at a campaign rally, "I love WikiLeaks," and accuses the press of not picking up on what WikiLeaks was publishing, he knew WikiLeaks had dirt on Clinton, where it came from, and he wanted to get it out.
You would think so. And I'm most happy, frankly, that Mueller has such an extraordinary team of talented lawyers working with him, because the case from the prosecutor's side is a dream in terms lending itself to a coherent, cogent narrative that strikes me as a really damning case.
Is Julian Assange of WikiLeaks in any danger of facing US prosecution?
Not as long as he stays in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Let's assume he will stay out of the country for a while. I suppose Trump could pardon him.
Is there any way that Assange could be viewed as an agent of a foreign power at this point, or is he just a rogue player?
My opinion is that during the election, he was an agent acting for the benefit for Trump. He claims that he wasn't dealing with Russian documents. I find that difficult to believe. And certainly, as you said, the US intelligence community is of the view that WikiLeaks was the vehicle through which Russia distributed and disseminated its hacked documents. And I think he's clearly acting on behalf of interests that are Russian interests.
What do you make of Assange and WikiLeaks urging Donald Trump Jr. to suggest to his father that if he loses the election, he should contest the election? What was that about?
Chaos. I think the goal was chaos. That's what takes me back to believing that at some level Russia was behind what WikiLeaks was proposing. Because for Putin there are two ways for him to improve Russia's standing. One is to figure out a way to bring his country up. One easy way would be to get some relief from the sanctions. But an equally powerful way to do it is to bring Western democracies, especially America, down. So what better way to foment chaos than a postelection trauma, if you will, in which Trump is contesting election results in various states and doing all of the things he certainly would have been capable of doing? And of course, WikiLeaks feeds right into Trump's soft spot by suggesting, in that same email that you just mentioned, that this could be good for him too, particularly if what he really wants to do is launch a new media network. So it all fits.
What do you make of the fact that Donald Trump Jr. did not report to the FBI that WikiLeaks was soliciting him last year? Does that put him legally at risk?
The mere failure to report doesn't, but it certainly adds to the question about what Trump Jr.'s true motives and the motives of the Trump campaign were in pursuing the information WikiLeaks was offering. Now, let me give you something else to think about, and see if your reaction causes you some of the heartburn it causes me.
In June of last year -- quite a month, no? -- there was another "hot date." Jared Kushner -- Trump's son-in-law and close adviser -- assumed control of the digital campaign and hired the firm Cambridge Analytica. We talked about Cambridge Analytica a moment ago. Well, Cambridge Analytica's vice president had been Steve Bannon. And about the same time that Kushner hired Cambridge Analytica, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica is reaching out to WikiLeaks with an offer to help disseminate hacked documents.
And then you get to July 22 and WikiLeaks is releasing hacked documents. In August, George Papadopoulos is continuing to push Russia on the campaign team, Roger Stone is continuing to talk about his communications with Assange and WikiLeaks (and it certainly looks as if Stone is predicting more WikiLeaks releases of documents) and the daughter of the part-owner of Cambridge Analytica, Rebekah Mercer -- who is also a Trump donor -- tells its CEO to reach out to WikiLeaks too. And then Donald Jr.'s email exchange with WikiLeaks comes in September. See what I mean? There's a ramping up of the process that culminates in those email exchanges that Don Jr. had with WikiLeaks and that becomes, I think, an important narrative to understanding the story.
I need some Tums. [laughter]
It's good and bad, I guess -- getting mired in all these details. The good news is we learn more facts. The bad news is we learn more facts -- and it may not be possible for Americans to put it all together and conclude that anything significant happened, when actually there's a grave threat to democracy.
Let me pause right there. As Josh Marshall points out at Talking Points Memo, the Justice Department is directly overseeing Mueller's investigation. It has absolute power over the inquiry. Meaning that Mueller is now investigating his overseers. Isn't that certain to have some impact on the process?
I don't think so. Let me tell you why. I think the only thing that will affect the process, and this is the thing frankly that I fear more than anything else, will be if Trump fires Mueller. We know Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself. If he should resign, that would be a great victory for Trump, who could then appoint someone else as an acting attorney general who could then fire Mueller. Otherwise, the ball bounces to Rod Rosenstein. Rosenstein's been on record a couple of times saying that he hasn't seen any basis for firing Mueller. And at this point, I have competing views of Rosenstein in general, but I think on this issue, he realizes that his personal interest and his professional interest and even the country's interest requires that if Trump were to issue an order to fire Mueller or even if he were to try to interfere with Mueller's investigation in some way, allowing him to do so will be a very bad thing for Rosenstein personally. I don't think he'll do it.
There's a precedent for this, of course. Nixon went ahead and fired the special prosecutor investigating Watergate.
Yes, but he had to go through [Attorney General] Richardson and [Deputy Attorney General] Ruckelshaus to do it. Trump would have to fire Rosenstein, then he'd have to fire an associate attorney general named Rachel Brand, who -- based on everything everything I've read about her -- would likely balk and not be inclined to follow an order unless she were satisfied that there was in fact good cause to do it.
What might provoke Trump to risk everything -- firestorm, constitutional crisis, even impeachment -- to fire Mueller?
I think he'll do it if he thinks that things are getting too close. I think he's already been close to doing it in the past. And I think at some point, and I think it's probably a question of when [not if], he will fire Mueller. I really fear that's what's going to happen. And of course the irony is that for the amount of time Mueller has spent on the job, he's achieved remarkable results. He's working very quickly, very efficiently. The median life of a special counsel is just under two years. The average is three years. The Iran-Contra investigation went for six and a half years. Whitewater went for more than eight years. The Valerie Plame NSA leak went for two years. We're what? Just five months in?
And Mueller's already obtained two indictments and one guilty plea.
The indictments are for Paul Manafort and Rick Gates. But the indictments are not related to the Trump/Russia connection, are they?
I think the answer to that is it remains to be seen. That's clearly the way the Trump people are going to continue to try to spin it. But step back for a minute and think about the fact that a campaign manager [Paul Manafort] for a presidential candidate [Donald Trump] has been indicted for money laundering, tax evasion and all sorts of other wrongdoing arising from his work for Ukraine, where Putin and Russia were fomenting trouble. And shortly after he became the manager of the campaign, as we've learned, he was also offering to provide special briefings to a Ukrainian oligarch with whom he'd had business dealings. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see at some point some of these things merge into one another.
You mentioned earlier that a new series of Trump advisers are under scrutiny. Hope Hicks is one of them. She's perhaps the closest staffer to Donald Trump. Not even 30 yet, keeps a low profile, been with him a long time, apparently spends more time with the president than anyone else on the White House team. We've learned Mueller wants to talk to her. What have you learned about her and what can she add to this?
She can add a lot, I suspect. And I suspect that Mueller thinks so too, because as you say, she's as close to the inner circle as you can get. She was also present at two really key points in this story -- and many others, I could add. One in connection with what ultimately led to the firing of James Comey in May of 2017 -- she was around for that. And as you may recall, we now have learned that it turns out that Trump had dictated to Stephen Miller, another close aide, what was apparently a four-page rant, or screed, of his real reasons for wanting to fire James Comey. So it's hard to imagine that Hope Hicks wasn't somehow involved in, or at least aware of, what was going on that weekend in Bedminster, New Jersey, when Trump was pouring his rage into that letter.
She was also aboard Air Force One -- and maybe the lesson is you just never want to be on Air Force One with Donald Trump -- when they were coming back from Europe, and Trump, as we learned much later, had a hand, a very heavy hand, in drafting a very misleading statement about what had transpired at that June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Don Jr., Manafort, Kushner and some Russians with ties to the Kremlin. Hope Hicks reportedly was advocating on behalf of transparency, but it appears that she lost out. And that's just what we know Ms. Hicks was involved in. Who knows what else she was involved in and participated in, but I suspect a lot.
I also think she's got a bit of problem because Carter Page revealed that she had been copied on those messages about what he had learned in Russia, or what he was planning to learn in Russia, when she had denied adamantly there had been no Trump campaign contacts with Russia. So she's got a bit of a consistency issue there, it would seem.
You mentioned Carter Page. He and George Papadopoulos traveled the world, apparently representing themselves as able to speak for the Trump campaign, even though the Trump campaign later said they weren't. You've tracked down many instances of Papadopoulos in particular speaking to foreign leaders on behalf of Trump. Why is that important?
Well, he's given extraordinary access to some very high-level people. He was giving speeches in which he was representing himself as being able to speak on behalf of Trump at least with respect to certain policies. And you know, it's hard for me to imagine that he gets that kind of access unless there's some credibility to what he's saying about what his actual role in the campaign is. And of course we all know from the infamous photo taken at the Trump International Hotel that Papadopoulos was one of a handful of people seated at the table with Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump as Sessions presided over a meeting about Trump's foreign policy and Trump told the group that he didn't "want to go to 'World War III' over Ukraine."
And I believe that's what started the process of making clear to everybody who was on Trump's foreign policy team that easing relations with Russia by easing sanctions, would be something that Trump would be open to. And I think a lot of what happens afterward you can fit into this broader framework of the question: What is Putin's angle in all this? Well, Putin's angle in all this is if he can get the Russian sanctions lifted, he's a winner. And if Trump will help him do that, great. And even if Trump can't help him, even if Trump doesn't win the election, it can't hurt that he's created some chaos in a Western democracy, which clearly is what he intended and what happened.
You mentioned Jeff Sessions. In his testimony to Congress last week, Sessions said it's hard for him to remember meeting with, and conversations about, the Russians because the Trump campaign was in constant chaos. The fact that the campaign was in chaos certainly seems accurate, but would his excuse play at all in a trial?
No. And remember what Steve Schmidt, who was involved in John McCain's campaign, said? He said he hopes that Jeff Sessions never gets a puppy because he's not going to remember to feed it, he's not going to remember to get it watered, he's not going to remember to let it out. That puppy's just going to be in terrible trouble.
But what's interesting about Sessions to me is this: What Sessions said in his recent statements was, I haven't remembered that Papadopoulos raised the issue of Trump meeting with Putin or members of the campaign meeting with representatives of Putin until I read about it in the news reports. But now that I've read about it, now I remember, and listen -- I pushed back really hard and I said that it would not be appropriate for anyone to be meeting with a representative of a foreign government. All of the sudden, it's like the light has gone on in Jeff Sessions' head. Now, you have a situation sometimes in trials where a witness in a previous setting had sworn that he couldn't remember something. And then six months or a year later, all of a sudden they have this epiphany and the memories came flooding out. And there's something counterintuitive about somebody who says they remember more now about a specific event than they did a year earlier when asked about that same specific event. That just doesn't play well with most juries.
And bear in mind, too, something else about Sessions that's worth remembering that I doubt would necessarily be obvious to non-lawyers. Going into those Senate hearings, going into each one of those hearings, Sessions had to know that he was going to be asked about all of this stuff. And he had to know that he needed to be as familiar as he could be with whatever he could learn so that what he gave was truthful, straightforward, candid and ultimately something that the public and Congress would believe. And yet despite that, at each subsequent appearance, somehow there's something new and the attorney general of the United States shrugs his shoulders and says, "Oh, I guess I did know that."
My problem is, I want Sessions to hang on. I don't want him not to be attorney general yet, because the minute that Sessions resigns or Trump fires him, then you have the door open to an acting attorney general, and I don't want to live to see Scott Pruitt [head of the Environmental Protection Agency] or [former New York mayor and Trump ally] Rudy Giuliani become acting attorney general, which is something that Trump could do without even Senate confirmation. It doesn't even have to be those two guys, because we know Trump has a plethora of cronies who will do whatever he says, because Trump says that's what he wants, and if Trump says he wants Mueller fired, that to me is the disaster scenario for the country.
So, to sum up for now: What's the most innocent explanation for everything we know? What if all of this was simply Trump's inexperienced people trying to establish diplomatic rapport with the Russians and hoping to reset America's connection with Moscow?
Well, the most innocent explanation would be a level of incompetence and ignorance and stupidity that I honestly don't think anyone could credibly believe, because the most innocent explanation is that Russia was launching a very sophisticated, multipronged intelligence operation and succeeded, but they succeeded because of the blind ambition and greed of the Trump organization coupled with a lack of judgment and intelligence and a fundamental failure to take into regard anything that would remotely look like patriotism when it came to the defense of democracy, subjugating all of that to the need to win. That's the most innocent explanation. And I just don't think all of them are that stupid.
So what's the most damning explanation for everything we know?
The most damning explanation is that the Russians launched a sophisticated intelligence operation. They found willing partners up and down the line throughout the Trump organization. And up and down throughout the Trump organization, as the details of that intelligence operation became known, the participants lied about it, lied about its existence, lied about their personal involvement in it and now they are all facing serious criminal jeopardy as a result.
One more: I assume most people believe Russia's interference in the election last year is a bad thing, a serious offense, but is it possible that by treating Vladimir Putin and his cronies as an existential threat, we're playing directly into Putin's hands and making him appear a more significant figure in the world than he really is?
Well, he's already achieved that, but the problem is, what's the alternative? Back in January, John McCain and Lindsey Graham were on national television acknowledging the seriousness of the Russian interference. McCain called it the cyber equivalent of "an act of war." And if you acknowledge and recognize the existential threat, do you sit back and let the let the next thing happen in 2018 that Vladimir Putin wants to do? Remember, we have elections coming up next year. The uniform view of US intelligence is unambiguous, and if you don't view it as an existential threat then you're willing, I think, to sacrifice democracy.
We keep hearing, "Yeah, but Trump was still legitimately elected, he won the election fair and square." Now we're realizing that that may not even be true. I don't personally believe that to be true anymore. I rankle every time somebody says he won fair and square, because that's become less obvious every day. So the last line of defense would be, "Well, even if he didn't win fair and square, he's our president, so we've got to sit back and let whatever Putin's going to do to us continue to happen because we don't want our response to raise his standing in the world." Well, I would submit it raises Putin's standing in the world even more to have an accomplice in the White House.
Thank you, Steve Harper.
Donald Trump has nominated yet another corporate swamp creature, this time to run the agency that oversees public health.
Alex Azar, a former executive and lobbyist for pharma giant Eli Lilly, is Trump's pick to be Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Former HHS Secretary Tom Price resigned in September amid charges that he had taken private planes costing more than $400,000 instead of using commercial air travel.
HHS contains 11 divisions, including the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (which also runs Obamacare and the Children's Health Insurance Program), the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control.
Azar's nomination follows a Trump administration pattern of filling government posts with private industry executives -- like Secretary of State/former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson and Treasury Secretary/former Goldman Sachs executive Steve Mnuchin. Azar did work at HHS in the Bush Jr. administration, before moving over to Lilly in 2007.
Trump announced Azar's nomination by tweeting that he would be a "star for better health care and lower drug prices." However, as president of Lilly USA, LLC, Azar oversaw dramatic increases in the prices of drugs.
For example, the price of Lilly's major insulin drug, Humalog, grew from an already-outrageous $123 per vial to $255.
Also during his tenure, in 2009, Lilly pled guilty to illegally marketing the anti-psychotic drug Zyprexa (Olanzapine) for off-label (not approved by the FDA) use to treat dementia. The company paid a $1.42 billion fine -- the largest criminal fine of any kind in a health care case and the largest criminal fine ever imposed on a corporation in a US court.
Lilly isn't the only company driving up prices of lifesaving drugs: In January, a class action lawsuit accused three drug companies, including Eli Lilly, of conspiring to drive up the prices of insulin drugs -- which led patients to ration insulin, use expired insulin, starve themselves or risk death to obtain insulin through treatment at emergency rooms, according to the suit.
Azar, who as HHS secretary would control the bureaucracy that administers the ACA, has said that Obamacare is "circling the drain," and opposes the ACA's expansion of the Medicaid health care program for the poor, which accounted for the largest number of people who gained health care coverage under Obamacare.
Azar also advocates turning Medicaid -- which, along with the Children's Health Insurance Program, currently services some 75 million people -- into a block grant program administered by the states. This would give individual states more leeway to decide who qualifies and what services to provide -- with serious implications for poor people, the elderly, and many pregnant women and children.
The right's war on the ACA is part of a long-standing battle that conservatives have waged against Medicaid and other entitlement programs on the grounds that the free market can provide health care more efficiently.
The increasing cost of health insurance and prescription drugs suggest otherwise. The US spends more on health care than any other country, but gets worse outcomes for life expectancy and deaths from preventable disease, and has fewer hospital beds and lower insurance coverage.
Azar exemplifies the "revolving door" pattern endemic to Washington politics, where government personnel move from agencies that regulate industry into top positions in the very industries they once regulated, and vice versa.
Azar's nomination is also an example of Trump failing to follow through on -- or outright contradicting -- many of the promises he made during the campaign. He famously promised to "drain the swamp" in Washington with a five-year ban on lobbying -- yet the executive order he signed restricts this ban to the staff in the legislative branch, enabling him to hire industry lobbyists like Azar as advisers or nominate them to executive branch positions.
Trump has also claimed that political donations from drug companies to politicians -- exactly what Azar was responsible for during his time at Lilly -- fuel rising drug costs. Before taking office, Trump said that drug companies are "getting away with murder" and hinted that he would change the way the government bids on drugs to bring prices down. He also criticized drug companies for manufacturing their products abroad and relocating headquarters to countries with more favorable tax policies.
But Trump's long-awaited executive order has been stalled since June -- and even if it sees the light of day, it will likely be friendly to the pharmaceutical industry.
According to media reports, the draft doesn't allow government negotiations over drug prices or allow the importation of pharmaceuticals from other countries -- two measures that supporters of health care reform have long supported as a minimal measure.
Instead, the draft of the order reportedly focuses on rolling back regulations and targets the 340B program, which requires drug manufacturers to provide drugs at reduced prices to hospitals and other healthcare providers that serve low-income patients.
It will be no surprise to learn that Azar opposes government negotiations over drug prices or drug imports. On the contrary, he has suggested that the US should pressure Europe over its "radical price controls" on the grounds that the US is shouldering the cost of innovation and lower prices in Europe therefore drive up drug prices in the US.
Azar isn't the only former Big Pharma insider-turned-Trump administration operator: Joe Grogan, the director of health programs at the White House's Office of Management and Budget who also leads the "Drug Pricing and Innovation Working Group," worked at in the FDA as a policy adviser during the Bush administration before leaving the government to work at Amgen and Gilead Sciences.
Meanwhile, Scott Gottlieb, the Food and Drug Administration commissioner who wants to reduce regulations that he says hinder investment, has financial ties to more than 20 biotech and pharma companies.
Supporters of Azar claim that his laid-back management style and understanding of the HHS bureaucracy make him a competent administrator with the expertise needed to repair relationships with legislators and put Trump's orders -- and whatever comes out of the multiple attempts to scrap the ACA -- into practice.
Senate Democrats have promised to ask tough questions about Azar's drug industry connections. "This confirmation process will be a referendum on the Trump administration's repeated efforts to sabotage our health care system and raise premiums on millions of Americans," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer stated.
But Schumer and the Democrats haven't done nearly enough to earn any credit for defending access to affordable health care for ordinary people.
The Democrats were mainly bystanders during the Republicans' attempt to drive through their plans "repeal and replace" Obamacare -- it took opposition from a handful of Republicans, under pressure from grassroots protest, to stop that attack. The Democrats seemed content to let the destruction of Medicaid and ACA go through so they could use the issue to win votes in future elections.
Though Bernie Sanders' proposal for a Medicaid for all system won the rhetorical support of some Democrats, the party leadership's focus is on bipartisan agreements to "stabilize" the health care market -- which is at the mercy of insurance companies that can decide whether or not to participate in the ACA.
Obamacare left the private insurance industry's stranglehold over health care access intact -- and now, with their attentions increasingly turned toward the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats can't be counted on to oppose an industry that gives so much in political contributions every year.
Rising drug prices need to be understood in this context: The problem isn't "innovation costs" or "lower prices in Europe," but the private, for-profit health care companies that profit off what should be a basic human right.
As Christopher Baum and Alan Maass wrote for SocialistWorker.org earlier this year:
All of the various problems of the US health care system -- from insurers pulling out of the ACA exchanges, to underinsurance and high out-of-pocket costs for policyholders, to millions of people still having no coverage at all -- could be solved at a single stroke with a national single-payer, "everybody in, nobody out" health care plan.
These problems melt away when health care is no longer something you must pay for, in whole or in part, but something that is guaranteed by the state as a basic human right.
President Donald Trump walks with House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving as he arrives at the US Capitol for a meeting with the House Republican conference November 16, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)Your support is crucial to keeping ethical journalism alive! Donate now to keep our writers on the streets, covering the most important issues and beats.
We speak with Henry Giroux, a world-renowned educator, author and public intellectual whose latest book is The Public in Peril: Trump and the Menace of American Authoritarianism. He joins us to discuss his latest article at Truthout "Disposability in the Age of Disasters: From Dreamers and Puerto Rico to Violence in Las Vegas." We assess how the Republican Party has been captured by the far right and will be a continuing problem for US democracy and society going forward unless a citizen's movement can be built to counter a right-wing kleptocratic takeover of the US, as growing plutocratic power and the drift towards authoritarianism threatens our economic viability and democratic future.
As Congress debates plans to give even more money to the country's richest people, it is worth briefly recounting where the economy is now, before we feel the effects of any tax plan. Basically, it is a pretty good story.
The overall unemployment rate for October was 4.1 percent. This is the lowest unemployment rate since 2000. And that was an extraordinarily good year for the labor market. We would have to go back to 1970 to find the last time the unemployment rate had been this low.
The unemployment rate for African Americans was 7.5 percent in October. The 7 percent level reached in September ties for the lowest figure on record. While these levels of unemployment are still unacceptably high, they are an enormous improvement from the near 17 percent rate hit at the low point of the downturn in 2010. The 4.8 percent rate reported for Latinos in October is also the lowest on record.
The good news on the unemployment rate must be qualified given the large number of people who have left the labor market. If we look at the employment rate (EPOP), the percent of people who are employed, it is still down for prime age workers (ages 25 to 54) by 1.5 percentage points from its pre-recession peak and by 3.1 percentage points from the high hit in 2000.
The decline took place for both men and women. This undermines the effort to blame the drop in EPOPs on problems specific to men that affect their ability and/or desire to work. Still EPOPS have been moving in the right direction as the labor market tightens. In the last two years the EPOP for prime age workers has risen by 1.5 percentage points, raising the possibility that we can at least get back to the pre-recession levels, if not the 2000 peak, assuming the recovery continues.
In addition to the gains in employment, we are also seeing wage growth that benefits those at the middle and bottom of the wage distribution. The median real weekly earnings of full time workers has risen by almost 5 percent over the last three years. This is after adjusting for the effects of inflation. The same is true for those further down the wage distribution at the cutoff for the bottom decile.
We get a similar story looking at the situation of the less-educated workers who have generally not fared way in the economy over the last four decades. The real median hourly pay for prime age men with a high school degree or less has risen by 3 percent over the last two years. For women with a high school degree or less the median hourly pay has risen 2 percent over the last two years.
While most workers had not been getting their share of the gains from growth since the downturn in 2001, one of the factors limiting wage growth in recent years has been weak productivity growth. We can and should have some redistribution from profits and high end earners to ordinary workers, however, in the long run, wage growth cannot exceed productivity growth.
The economy has done very poorly on this measure in recent years with productivity growth averaging less than 1 percent annually over the last five years. This compares to a nearly 3 percent growth rate in the years from 1995 to 2005 and the long Golden Age from 1947 to 1973.
But there may be some good news here as well. Productivity rose at a 3.1 percent annual rate in the third quarter and it is set to increase at more than a 2 percent rate for the fourth quarter based on the most recent projections.
Productivity numbers are highly erratic, so it is much too soon to break out the champagne, but there is a plausible story whereby tighter labor markets may be the driving force in more rapid productivity growth. When the labor market becomes tight, and makes labor more expensive, employers have more reason to seek productivity gains.
This means that the least productive jobs are likely to go unfilled (e.g. greeters at Walmart or the midnight shift at a convenience store). Also, businesses will look for ways to get things done with fewer workers. If a tight labor market is driving this quest for productivity growth, then we would have a formula for low unemployment and sustained rapid wage growth.
To say that things are going in the right direction now doesn't mean they are good. We have a long way to go to make up for the pain from the Great Recession. We will have to go considerably further if we want to reverse the upward redistribution of the prior three decades.
But is important that people recognize that the economy is going in the right direction for now. This is the economy that Janet Yellen and Barack Obama's policies gave us. We will have to see what the impact of the new regime's policy will be.
These were a few of the media descriptions of the Republicans' slash-and-burn tax cut plan passed by the House of Representatives on November 16. And the alarmism wasn't confined to left publications, either -- it was the business mouthpiece Forbes that worried about the end of sanity.
The House bill will have to be reconciled with whatever version the Senate passes, and there are indications of enough opposition from Republican senators to put the Senate legislation in danger of collapsing, like the Trumpcare proposal earlier this year.
But if anything remotely close to the plan passed by the House or the one being cooked up by the Senate do end up being signed into law, you can be sure about a couple things.
First, the Republican tax rip-off will aid and abet a massive and flagrant shift of wealth to the already rich and superrich at the expense of working-class and poor people.
Second, the inevitable deficit that results will be used as a justification to further starve already chronically malnourished government programs that working and poor people desperately need.
After failing so far to get a single major legislative accomplishment, the Trump administration is pressing hard for the tax plan to make it onto the president's desk -- and the bulk of the Republicans in Congress, despite their largely mutual fear and loathing of Trump, are on board.
Readers of SocialistWorker.org will likely be familiar with many of the low -- and even lower -- points of the House bill. In short, it's a massive giveaway to corporations and the rich and an unmitigated disaster for working and poor people.
According to an analysis by the Tax Policy Institute, those making less than $55,000 a year would see almost no change in their taxes, while those in the top 1 percent would receive nearly 50 percent of the total benefits.
Among other things, there are cuts to the estate tax starting in 2018 -- and its total repeal by 2024. That alone amounts to a $265 billion tax break for the top 0.2 percent -- a handful of the wealthiest families in this country, like the Walton family, the Koch brothers...and, oh yes, Trump and his Village of the Damned brood.
In early November, Trump told reporters, "My accountant called me and said 'You're going to get killed in this bill.'" Either his accountant is an idiot or Trump is a liar.
In fact, under the House plan, the Trump family personally stands to save more than $1 billion in taxes -- mainly through the repeal of the estate and alternative minimum taxes.
The plan also includes the largest one-time cut in taxes for large corporations ever -- with the top tax rate dropping from 35 percent to 20 percent.
And that doesn't include all of the other boons to business -- like the plan to give companies that currently shelter their profits in low-tax havens abroad a special 12 percent rate to bring those funds back to the US Apple alone has an estimated $252 billion socked away offshore and stands to make a mint if the proposal passes.
Some of the provisions are such a naked giveaway to the wealthy that they seem like they could only have been dreamt up by a cartoon super-villain -- like the provision in the Senate bill that would give those who lease or own private jets a tax break on the cost of their maintenance. Time to take the family jet in for an oil change!
"No good can come of this plan unless you are wealthy or a corporation," declared the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.
A lot of bad will almost certainly result for those who aren't, however.
Americans who are poor and even those considered middle class will see the miniscule tax cuts they might receive -- on average, just $50 or less for those making less than $55,000 a year, according to the Tax Policy Center -- evaporate in 10 years' time.
Under the House plan, by 2023, only 40 percent of Americans would be getting a tax cut at all. And the Senate proposal would actually raise taxes on families earning $10,000 to 75,000 a year over the course of the next decade, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation.
Older Americans will be particularly hard hit by provisions in the House bill that cut into the ability to write off medical expenses, as well as caps on mortgage interest deductions, property tax write-offs and cuts in personal exemptions.
In fact, the House bill is a masterpiece of nickel-and-diming ordinary Americans while throwing fistfuls of cash to the rich -- like the provision to tax graduate students' tuition wavers as income, potentially increasing their taxes by an average 400 percent.
The House bill would also eliminate the $250 tax deduction that teachers are eligible to take for money spent on classroom supplies. And, predictably, if the legislation becomes law, union members will no longer be able to deduct union dues.
Blue states like New York and California will also be hit disproportionately hard since the House plan eliminates deductions for sales, income and property taxes at the state and local levels -- potentially making it more difficult for some of the most populous states in the country to raise money for education, health care and infrastructure, among other things.
As John Wasik concluded at Forbes: "Welcome to middle-class tax reform. You pay more, corporations and the super-affluent pay much, much less. It's a hurricane coming to every town, only it will somehow spare the mansions."
The rationale for cutting taxes on the kind of people who own private jets while raising them on everyone else isn't new.
It's the latest version of the age-old lie: that tax cuts for the wealthy will stimulate the economy by prompting a wave of investment and growth. The old trickle-down mythology has been disproven for decades.
So why do it? It's not popular among ordinary Americans -- according to a Quinnipiac poll, people disapprove of the current Republican tax plan by a two-to-one margin.
The answer -- or at least one part of it -- is that Republicans, faced with an exceptionally unpopular chief executive and a long-and-getting-longer list of legislative failures, are feeling the need to deliver to their base.
No, not the base that the media inaccurately describes as concentrated among white workers in Rust Belt states.
The Republicans' real base: the millionaires and billionaires who fund them.
You don't have to take Socialist Worker's word that this tax plan is about the GOP delivering to its wealthy backers -- Republicans themselves have announced it to the world.
As White House chief economic adviser and former Goldman Sachs bankster Gary Cohn recently bragged to CNBC's John Harwood, "The most excited group out there are big CEOs, about our tax plan."
As Sen. Bernie Sanders recently told CNN's Jake Tapper: "What this is about is fulfilling Republican promises made to wealthy campaign contributors. There is a reason why the billionaire class provides hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions to Republicans. And now is payback time."
Sanders' point was confirmed recently when Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham admitted to an NBC News reporter that if the Republicans don't deliver on a tax cut for Corporate America, the "financial contributions will stop."
But there's more at stake here than simply scratching the backs of GOP donors. The Republican tax cut drive is part of a decades-long "starvation diet" for social services and other government programs -- a deliberate strategy to advance an ongoing neoliberal agenda of privatization and tax cuts.
Calling it a "supply-side cult fantasy," Charles Pierce wrote in The Washington Post that, "in keeping with the lifelong goals of Speaker Paul Ryan, the zombie-eyed granny starver from the state of Wisconsin, the House budget was straightforward pilfering of the national wealth by the wealthy from the poor and the middle class and a mechanism to starve what's left of the social safety net."
Cutting taxes today will allow policymakers to claim tomorrow that there's just not enough government revenue to go around -- and the first things on the chopping block, as always, will be the programs that poor and working-class people depend on the most. The tax cuts, if passed, will almost certainly be used down the road to justify cuts in the big entitlement programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- if not their outright privatization.
The Trump administration, despite its perpetual missteps and ineptitude, does present the 1 Percent with their best opportunity to further restructure the US economy even more along neoliberal lines. This would increase inequality in a country in which three billionaires -- Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Jeff Bezos -- now own more wealth than the entire bottom half of the American population combined, according to a November analysis from the Institute for Policy Studies.
In the US, notes Paul Buchheit, the average 1 Percent household made nearly $2.6 million in the 12 months up to mid-2017, largely from gains in the stock market.
In fact, says Buchheit, since the depths of the recession of 2007-08, the US stock market has tripled in value -- but about 90 percent of the $18 trillion dollars in increased value has gone to the richest 10 percent of Americans.
But despite this, the rich are demanding ever more.
While he was rightly taking Republicans and their 1 Percent backers to task, what Bernie Sanders didn't say is that the billionaire class also funds the party whose presidential nomination he sought last year: the Democratic Party.
The enormous transfer of wealth from ordinary people to the rich in the US isn't a new phenomenon. Nor is the drive to cut and privatize government programs and services, slash workers' wages or bust what remains of US unions. All of this has been taking place for decades, including when the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama occupied the White House.
In a 2012 series of articles on inequality, Reuters noted the trend of the Clinton and Obama administrations in directing:
trillions of tax dollars to private-sector contractors by outsourcing government operations and through record spending on war, national security, science and technology.
President Bill Clinton launched his "reinventing government" initiative in the 1990s. The federal money flowing to business rose 7 percent during his second term and 72 percent under Bush, who outsourced a record amount of national-security and defense work after the 2001 attacks by al Qaeda and through two wars. The upward trend continued under President Barack Obama until leveling off in 2010.
The fact that the Democratic Party doesn't represent the interests of ordinary working-class and poor people -- remember Hillary Clinton's repeated bragging about the billionaires who supported her campaign, for example -- leaves people with little real choice at election time and little room to express their political discontent the rest of the time.
Often enough, especially when the Republicans are in office, working people cast their ballots against the GOP class warriors for the 1 Percent, which means voting for the Democratic "opposition."
But the Democrats resist at all costs any real mobilization of class anger -- because a party beholden to corporate interests doesn't want to risk the eruption of the kind of widespread protests and organizing that might also hold it accountable.
As Sharon Smith writes in the International Socialist Review:
[I]t is important to acknowledge that the "out of touch" Democratic Party establishment has played a key role in the entire neoliberal project and does not offer a viable alternative to the class and social status quo. Meanwhile, the working class is desperately seeking a voice in electoral politics.
All of this has helped lead to a polarized and volatile political climate -- one in which millions can march against Trump and his agenda after his inauguration and thousands can mobilize to stop Obamacare from being repealed, yet the tax-slashing Republicans and their corporate backers remain in a position to try to push through a tax plan opposed by the vast majority of people.
The Republicans' openly stated plan to rob the rest of us could become another lightning rod for protest and grassroots organizing, like the demonstrations of opposition to Trumpcare.
Already, graduate employees on several campuses are mobilizing to oppose the House's plan to tax their tuition waivers, and some of the liberal organizations that helped publicize the health care protests are calling for local actions to challenge Republican lawmakers.
But the opposition that develops around non-economic issues also has a class dimension -- because the neoliberal agenda that has driven inequality to historic heights is closely intertwined with a conservative social agenda.
Thus, millions of women today have been moved to say #MeToo -- speaking out against rampant sexual assault and harassment they've faced in their workplaces and personal lives -- and the upsurge has targeted a host of powerful men, including media mogul Harvey Weinstein and right-wing bigot Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, in particular for the ways someone like Weinstein could use his privileged position to abuse women.
As Republicans gear up to inflict another round of economic misery on ordinary people, our best hope to push them back is to seize on all these struggles -- and build on every opportunity to create an independent opposition that is ready to fight.
Donald Trump speaks alongside Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during a cabinet meeting in the cabinet room of the White House in Washington, DC, on October 16, 2017. (Photo: SAUL LOEB / AFP / Getty Images)
A number of stories bubbled up over the long holiday weekend, the juiciest being the news that Michael Flynn's lawyers have informed the president's lawyers that they can no longer participate in joint communications, which is taken to mean that Flynn is likely now cooperating with the special counsel in the Russia investigation. This is big news, if true. It could even be a watershed moment if, as suspected, Flynn will be required to offer up a bigger Trump-operation fish than himself. The names "Kushner" and "Trump Jr." are the only ones that come to mind. Stay tuned for more excited speculation through the end of the year.
But the other big story that had social media humming over the four days was this alarming New York Times piece about the apparent dismantling of the Department of State under Rex Tillerson. This has been a recurring theme in the political press for a while, but it seems to have reached critical mass as more and more career diplomats are leaving or being squeezed out while the leadership is largely absent.
First there's the 30 percent proposed cut in the State Department budget which has even some Republican fiscal hawks nervous. Top diplomats, many of whom were initially favorable toward Tillerson on the belief that his business expertise would bring experienced management skills, are in shock at the lack of professionalism and respect for expertise. Both Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, along with Democratic members of the House Foreign Relations Committee recently sent letters to Tillerson about "the exodus of more than 100 senior Foreign Service officers from the State Department since January," and what they described as "the intentional hollowing-out of our senior diplomatic ranks."
The State Department has traditionally had many holdovers from one administration to the other, as knowledge of foreign policy and experience with other nations has generally been valued highly in these positions. Of course there are also political appointees and a normal degree of turnover when the presidency changes parties. This time is different. Only 10 of the top 44 political positions have been filled, and for most of the rest no one has even been nominated.
The numbers of Latinos, African Americans and women leaving the department are alarming and there are many important posts in hotspots around the world, including South Korea and the Middle East, that remain unfilled. Even worse, the next generation of possible foreign service employees doesn't want any part of this. According to the Foreign Service Association, "the number of people taking its entrance exam is on track to drop by 50 percent this year."
Meanwhile, Tillerson is making life hell for those who remain. He forced out a number of career professionals for answering questions from UN ambassador Nikki Haley, whom he considers a rival. And President Trump has demanded that Tillerson attend to the important business of releasing every last one of Hillary Clinton's emails, so he ordered the department to respond to more than 2,000 Freedom of Information Act requests, many of which came from right-wing operatives as Judicial Watch. The Times reports that this has required "midlevel employees and diplomats -- including some just returning from high-level or difficult overseas assignments -- to spend months performing mind-numbing clerical functions beside unpaid interns."
Finally, all of this is being done in anticipation of what Tillerson promises to be a total reorganization of the department, for which he has hired outside contractors. Considering that Tillerson is largely inaccessible to the current staff and is now planning a major restructuring with no input from anyone with expertise or experience, this should be quite something. Most people in the know are expecting a train-wreck of predictably Trumpian proportions.
If that isn't enough, now we have the soap opera spectacle of Tillerson allegedly "snubbing" Ivanka Trump by not allowing anyone of stature from the State Department to accompany her to India. Vanity Fair reported that an unnamed source said, "Rex doesn't like the fact that he's supposed to be our nation's top diplomat, and Jared and now Ivanka have stepped all over Rex Tillerson for a long time."
So, all the hand wringing over the weekend was understandable. This does seem to be a very reckless course and nobody really understands what's going through Tillerson's mind. But this is actually nothing new. Hostility toward the State Department has been a feature of right-wing politics since 1950 when Joseph McCarthy launched his career by pulling a piece of paper from his pocket, during an appearance in Wheeling, West Virginia, that he claimed had the names of 205 Communists who had infiltrated the department. The entire concept of US "soft power" has been seen ever since as a suspicious form of left-wing appeasement that needed to be reined in if not totally eradicated.
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich always had a particularly hostile attitude toward the State Department. As recently as 2003, he even took on Secretary Colin Powell, at a time when the Bush administration was riding high with 80 percent approval ratings. He claimed it was a bloated, old-fashioned bureaucracy unsuited to the challenges of the modern world, which Gingrich believed were all about clandestine warfare and high-tech battlefield communications. He gave a speech in which he took on the mantle of the neoconservative "Pax Americana" that was in vogue at the time, with all the requisite flowery paeans to American values. It was obvious he was pressing for a big pivot from the soft power of diplomacy to the hard power of "spreading democracy" down the barrel of a gun. It was widely assumed that Gingrich was working on behalf of Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon at the time.
That's what these right-wing critiques of the State Department always come down to. They think "soft power" is weak. They believe in hard power, military power. In that regard Donald Trump is a true blue Republican, deep in his bones. It's unclear whether Rex Tillerson believes that too or is just another unfit Trump appointee blundering recklessly into disaster. It doesn't really matter what the motives are. The administration is turning the US into a superpower without competence or moral authority. That makes us a danger to everyone, including ourselves.The current political climate is hostile to real accountability. Help us keep lawmakers and corporations in check -- support the independent journalism at Truthout today!
(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout)
Domestic workers in the US have been sexually assaulted and raped since the days of slavery -- a horrific trend that continues today with the largely immigrant work force. While some states have passed legislation to protect these workers, only a federal domestic workers' bill of rights can help ensure domestic workers are uniformly protected throughout the country, advocates say.
(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout)
Content warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual harassment and assault.
Isabel, 59 and an immigrant from Guatemala, was vacuuming her employer's bedroom when he attempted to rape her.
"I was able to leave, and I never went back to that job," Isabel, who prefers not to share her last name, told Truthout. "But I didn't tell anyone."
The incident took place 19 years ago, when she was a housekeeper in Chicago.
In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein story that broke in October, with more and more famous entertainers revealing their experiences of harassment and assault in professional settings, many perceive this moment to be a turning point for women's ability to speak out about sexual assault.
Yet many women in the United States are presently enduring harassment and assault that they dare not publicly share for fear of losing their job, or experiencing other forms of retaliation, including deportation. These women include the approximately 2 million domestic workers -- nannies, housekeepers and caregivers -- in the United States, who work and sometimes live inside of the homes of their perpetrators.The highest rates of sexual assault are to be found in low-wage sectors, such as farm work, and the restaurant and retail industries.
The vast majority of domestic workers are women, and many, like Isabel, are immigrants and women of color. The sector is known for low wages and wage theft. Immigrant women hired as domestic workers are sometimes threatened with rape if they displease their employer.
"I almost always felt unsafe, or at least concerned about my safety, in a lot of jobs," Isabel said. "I'd be entering strangers' homes. I would often carry my money on my body so if I needed to leave quickly, I could."
"These workers are isolated," Almas Sayeed, supervising attorney at the Home Care Worker Team for the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) told Truthout. "It's one of the reasons that they are vulnerable, just like the women in Hollywood we are hearing about. They are alone with their perpetrators, and they're trying to keep their job. It makes it very difficult to get them to talk about these issues."
Sayeed recently filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of a New Mexico-based home care worker in her early 50s, "Linda," whose 67-year-old male client has been inappropriately touching her breasts and lower back, and refuses to stop. The complaint alleges that when Linda tried to tell her employer -- a private agency that contracts out domestic worker services -- her manager at the agency began sexually harassing her as well.
Unlike Angelina Jolie, Selma Blair, Rachel McAdams and the other actors who have come forwarded recently, Linda is choosing not to speak with the press, for fear of losing her job.
Linda's experience reminds us that women across a wide range of ages and professions are harassed and assaulted. While many women actors are speaking out about abuse that took place in their early 20s or before, domestic workers like Isabel and Linda are oftentimes middle-aged women who are continuing to experience sexual harassment and assault on the job.
Moreover, many domestic workers are mothers and grandmothers who are providing for their families. Quitting isn't always a feasible option and losing their job could be economically disastrous.
Indeed, the sectors with the highest rates of sexual assault include low-wage sectors, such as farm work, and the restaurant and retail industries.
The history of domestic workers being sexually harassed and abused by their employers dates back to the days of slavery. In addition to having no legal freedom or power over their own lives, enslaved people who labored in US homes were subject to rape and sexual assault.
One enslaved woman wrote, "If God has bestowed beauty upon a slave woman, it will prove her greatest curse. That which commands admiration in the white women only hastens the degradation of the female slave."
Slaves who labored inside of homes were extremely isolated. Many enslaved women -- whether they were working inside of homes or not -- were raped and forced to bear children by their male masters."The men that we work for? They are still in plantation mode. They still think we are their property."—June Barrett, domestic worker and organizer.
These indignities reappear in modern domestic workers' lives.
Today, worker centers like Arise Chicago and the Miami Worker Center, which are nonprofit organizations that advocate for low-wage or immigrant workers, are helping to grow workers' power and ability for self-determination. In line with this mission, these centers are providing opportunities for domestic workers to share their stories -- as well as report the abuse when it happens.
Like Isabel, June Barrett has chosen to speak publicly about the sexual harassment she faced as a home care worker. Barrett, 53, is a Jamaican-born domestic worker and organizer in Miami. She has worked as a domestic worker since the age of 16 and has experienced sexual assault on the job.
"For a long time, I had to stay silent," Barrett told Truthout. "I had to put up with unwanted kissing, groping of my breasts, because I needed work, I needed to pay rent."
Barrett says she now feels comfortable speaking out because of her activism with the Miami Worker Center. Barrett told her story of sexual harassment at the first Florida Domestic Workers Assembly, a July 2016 conference that included domestic workers, city commissioners and legislators.
"The men that we work for? They are still in plantation mode. They still think we are their property, they think it is okay to say sexually suggestive things to us," Barrett said.Advocating for Protections
In some states, new laws are helping codify protections for domestic workers who experience harassment or other abuses, including wage theft and retaliation.
Several of the eight state domestic workers' bills of rights that have been enacted include protection from sexual harassment. New York's Domestic Workers Bill of Rights was enacted in 2010. The first in the country, it protects individual domestic workers hired by families.
The Illinois Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights, enacted in 2016, includes domestic workers within Illinois's Human Rights Law, which protects against sexual harassment.
And Oregon's Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, enacted in 2015, includes protection from harassment as well.
Critically, many of these domestic workers' bills of rights apply to employers who only employ one worker, in addition to those who employ multiple people. Typically, anti-discrimination legislation only covers employers who hire a larger number of employees. Federal anti-discrimination law only applies to employers who have 15 or more employees. But many domestic workers employ themselves or work for smaller companies, and they need codified protection from harassment as well.
This gap in protections points to the historic exclusion of domestic work from federal employment protections. Major labor legislation of the New Deal era, including the Fair Labor Standards Act, which set a minimum wage, and the National Labor Relations Act, which protected collective bargaining activity, did not protect domestic workers.
Moreover, when it comes to sexual harassment and assault, domestic workers face unique circumstances that render longstanding laws inadequate to address their needs.
"Domestic workers are often alone in private residences, so they don't usually have available witnesses or other evidence that a worker in a more traditional workplace may have, and yet, under the law, they are often held to the same standard," Rocio Avila, NDWA state policy director, told Truthout.
Many domestic workers' bills of rights do require that workers file a complaint with the relevant state agency within one year of the harassment taking place.
Ensuring more domestic workers know about emerging legal protections and the potential for relief can help domestic workers stand up for themselves, Avila said. That is where advocacy groups like Arise Chicago and the Miami Workers Center play a critical role. These groups, affiliates of the NDWA, conduct "know-your-rights" trainings and organize domestic workers throughout their communities. Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA), an NDWA affiliate in Oakland, runs a sexual assault hotline for domestic workers to report abuse.
In addition, state agencies that investigate employment discrimination and harassment claims should be equipped to effectively and expediently investigate claims from domestic workers, Avila said.A federal domestic workers' bill of rights would help ensure that all domestic workers throughout the country are protected.
"Enforcement agencies should assess the threat of retaliation domestic workers may face for speaking out, and prioritize their investigations based on that," Avila said. "These agencies should recognize how vulnerable domestic workers can be and process their claims expediently in partnership with workers' rights organizations."
Organizing efforts, coupled with state and local policy, are beginning to help domestic workers speak out and remove themselves from abusive situations. At the same time, domestic worker advocates are also being elected to policymaking positions -- further strengthening the domestic workers' movement's ability to advocate for workers. Lydia Edwards, formerly an attorney who represented domestic workers with the Brazilian Worker Center in Massachusetts, was recently elected to the Boston City Council.
While this is all important evidence of progress, it is piecemeal. A federal domestic workers' bill of rights would help ensure that all domestic workers throughout the country are protected, Sayeed said.
"Before the 2016 election, we were on [the] precipice of moving legislation forward at federal level," Sayeed said. "My hope is that eventually all domestic workers will be protected against harassment and retaliation by a federal law."In these troubling and surreal times, honest journalism is more important than ever. Help us keep real news flowing: Make a donation to Truthout today.
"Of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses men most." —Thucydides
You've heard the platitude that hindsight is 20/20. It's true enough and, though I've been a regular skeptic about what policymakers used to call the Global War on Terror, it's always easier to poke holes in the past than to say what you would have done. My conservative father was the first to ask me what exactly I would have suggested on September 12, 2001, and he's pressed me to write this article for years. The supposed rub is this: under the pressure of that attack and the burden of presidential responsibility, even "liberals" -- like me, I guess -- would have made much the same decisions as George W. Bush and company.
Many readers may cringe at the thought, but former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has to be taken seriously when she suggests that anyone in the White House on 9/11 would inevitably have seen the world through the lens of the Bush administration. I've long argued that just about every Bush-era policy that followed 9/11 was an unqualified disaster. Nevertheless, it remains important to ponder the weight piled upon a president in the wake of unprecedented terror attacks. What would you have done? What follows is my best crack at that thorny question, 16 years after the fact, and with the accumulated experiences of combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.Taking It Personally
9/11 was an intimate affront to me. It hit home hard. I watched those towers in my hometown burn on televisions I could glimpse from my plebe (freshman) boxing class at West Point. My father worked across Church Street from Manhattan's World Trade Center. Only hours later did I learn that he'd safely escaped on the last ferryboat to Staten Island. Two uncles -- both New York City firemen -- hopelessly dug for comrades in the rubble for weeks. Stephen, the elder of the two, identified the body of his best friend, Captain Marty Egan, just days after the attacks.
In blue-collar Staten Island neighborhoods like mine, everyone seemed to work for the city: cops, firemen, corrections officers, garbage men, transit workers. I knew several of each. My mother spent months attending wakes and funerals. Suddenly, tons of streets on the Island were being renamed for dead police and firefighters, some of whom I knew personally. Me, I continued to plod along through the typically trying life of a new cadet at West Point.
It's embarrassing now to look back at my own immaturity. I listened in as senior cadets broke the news of war to girlfriends and fiancées, enviously hanging on every word. If only I, too, could live out the war drama I'd always longed for. Less than two years later, I found myself drunk with another uncle -- and firefighter -- in a New York pub on St. Patrick's Day. This was back when an Army T-shirt or a fireman's uniform meant a night of free drinks in that post-9/11 city. I watched the television screen covetously as President Bush delivered a final, 48-hour ultimatum to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. I inhaled, wished for a long war, and gazed at the young, attractive lead singer of the band performing in that pub. She was wearing a patron's tied-up New York Fire Department uniform blouse with a matching cap cocked to the side. It was meant to be sexy and oh-so-paramilitary. It might seem unbelievable now, but that was still my -- and largely our -- world on March 17, 2003.
By the time I got my "chance" to join America's war on terror, in October 2006, Baghdad was collapsing into chaos as civil war raged and US deaths were topping 100 per month. This second lieutenant still hoped for glory, even as the war's purpose was already slipping ever further away. I never found it (glory, that is). Not in Iraq or, years later, in Afghanistan. Sixteen years and two months on from 9/11, I'm a changed man, inhabiting a forever altered reality. Two wars, two marriages, and so many experiences later, the tragedy and the mistakes seem so obvious. Perhaps we should have known all along. But most didn't.How to Lose a War (Hint: Fight It!)
From the beginning, the rhetoric, at least, was over the top. Three days after those towers tumbled, President George W. Bush framed the incredible scope of what he'd instantly taken to calling a "war." As he told the crowd at a Washington national prayer service, "Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil." From the first, it seemed evident to the president: America's target wasn't anything as modest as the al-Qaeda terrorist network, but rather evil itself. Looking back, this was undoubtedly the original sin. Call something -- in this case, the response to the acts of a small jihadist group -- a "war" and sooner or later everyone begins acting like warriors.
Within 24 hours of the attacks, the potential target list was already expanding beyond Osama bin Laden and his modest set of followers. On September 12th, President Bush commanded his national counterterror coordinator, Richard Clarke, to "see if Saddam did this... look into Iraq, Saddam." That night, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the president and the entire cabinet, "You know, we've got to do Iraq... There just aren't enough targets in Afghanistan... We need to bomb something else to prove that we're, you know, big and strong..."
Nonetheless, Afghanistan -- and its Taliban rulers -- became the first military target. Bombs were dropped and commandos infiltrated. CIA spooks distributed briefcases of cash to allied warlords and eventually city after city fell. Sure, Osama bin Laden escaped and many of the Taliban's foot soldiers simply faded away, but it was still one hell of a lightning campaign. Expected to be brief, it was given the bold name Operation Enduring Freedom and, to listen to the rhetoric of the day, it revolutionized warfare. Only it didn't, of course. Instead, the focus was soon lost, other priorities (Iraq!) sucked the resources away, venal warlords reigned, an insurgency developed, and... and 16 years later, American troop levels are once again increasing there.
Over the days, the months, and then the years that followed, the boundaries of the Global War on Terror both hardened and expanded. In his January 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush ominously included Iraq, along with Iran and North Korea (though he left out "liberated" Afghanistan), in what he called "an axis of evil." Who cared, by then, that none of those countries had had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks? In a flash the president conflated all three in the public mind, ultimately constructing a self-fulfilling prophesy. Saddam would be toppled and Iraq occupied 15 months later and, had it not been for the ensuing chaos, Iran and North Korea might have been next. Unsurprisingly, both countries intensified their bellicosity and grew all the more interested in nuclear weapons programs.
So much followed the 9/11 attacks that it's no small thing to sum up: the Patriot Act, warrantless domestic wiretapping, Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, a Taliban resurgence, an Iraqi civil war, drones as global assassins, the Arab Spring, the overthrow of Libyan autocrat Muammar Gaddafi and the collapse of his country, the Syrian bloodbath, the worst refugee crisis since World War II, and that's just to begin a list.
In short, US policies have left the Middle East in chaos: perhaps a million dead, Iran empowered, and radical Islamists resurgent. Meanwhile, this country has become a garrison state, forever at war, its military budget doubled, its populace seemingly indifferent, and its warrior caste shattered -- physically and mentally. Sixteen years have passed and Washington is no closer to its goal (whatever that was). Retired general David Petraeus, our nation's prodigal "hero," has now ominously labeled the Afghan War (and by implication the rest of the war on terror) a "generational struggle."
Few, to be honest, even remember the purpose of it all. Keep in mind that Army recruits today were perhaps two years old on 9/11. And so it goes.Lost Opportunities
It didn't have to be this way. Nothing about it was predetermined. Much of the necessary information -- certainly the warning signs of what was going to happen that September 11th -- were already there. If, that is, one cared to look. History is contingent, human beings have agency, and events result from innumerable individual decisions. The CIA, the FBI, and even the Bush administration knew (or should have known, anyway) that an attack of some sort was coming.
As the 9/11 commission report painfully detailed, none of those agencies collaborated in a meaningful way when it came to preventing that day's attacks. Still, there were warnings ignored and voices in the dark. When Richard Clarke, counterterror czar and a Clinton administration holdover, requested through official channels to deliver an emergency briefing for Bush's key foreign policy officials, it took four months just to arrange an audience with their deputies. Four more months elapsed before President Bush received a briefing titled, "Bin Laden determined to strike the US." Unimpressed, Bush quickly responded to the briefer: "All right... you've covered your ass now."
Barely more than a month later, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were burning.
Whatever else it did, 9/11 presented the United States with an opportunity, a Robert Frost-like fork in a divergent path. And we Americans promptly took the road most traveled: militarism, war, vengeance -- the easy wrong path. A broad war, waged against a noun, "terror," a "global" conflict that, from its first moments, looked suspiciously binary: Western versus Islamic (despite Bush's pleas to the contrary). In the process, al-Qaeda's (and then ISIS's) narratives were bolstered.
There was -- there always is -- another path. Imagine if President Bush and his foreign policy team had paused, taken a breath, and demonstrated some humility and restraint before plunging the country into what would indeed become a war or set of wars. There were certainly questions begging to be asked and answered that never received a proper hearing. Why did al-Qaeda attack us? Was there any merit in their grievances? How did bin Laden want us to respond and how could we have avoided just such a path? Finally, which were the best tools and tactics to respond with? Let's consider these questions and imagine an alternative response.Why They (Really) Hated Us
Americans and their government were inclined to accept the most simplistic explanation for the terror attacks of 9/11. As George W. Bush would assure us all, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda just "hate us for our freedoms." The end.
Something about the guilelessness of that explanation, which was the commonplace one of that moment, never quite seemed right. Human motivations and actions are almost always more complex, more multifaceted, less simpleminded than that. While Bush boiled it all down to "Islamic" fundamentalism, even a cursory look at bin Laden's written declaration of "war" -- or as he called it, jihad -- demonstrates that his actual focus was far more secular and less explicitly religious than was suggested at the time. Couched between Koranic verses, bin Laden listed three all-too-worldly grievances with America:
* The US military had occupied bases in the vicinity of Saudi Arabia's holy sites of Mecca and Medina. (Well... that had indeed been the case, at least since 1990, if not earlier.)
* US-imposed sanctions on Iraq had caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children. (This was, in fact, a reality that even Secretary of State Madeleine Albright awkwardly acknowledged.)
* America's leaders had long favored Israeli interests to the detriment of Palestinian wellbeing or national aspirations. (A bit simplistic, but true enough. One could, in fact, stock several bookshelves with respected works substantiating bin Laden's claim on this point.)
To state the obvious, none of this faintly justified the mass murder of civilians in New York and Washington. Nonetheless, at that moment, an honest analysis of an adversary's motives would have been prudent. It might have warned us of the political landscape that bin Laden was beckoning us -- in his own bloody, apocalyptic fashion -- to enter. In addition, as journalist Stephen Glain astutely observed, "By obscuring the real motives behind the attacks, Bush relieved the US government of any responsibility for them." This was a fatal error. While the overwhelming majority of Arabs and Muslims worldwide did not approve of bin Laden's methods or his theology, much of his critique of Washington's Middle Eastern policies was widely shared in the region.Avoiding the al-Qaeda Script
Al-Qaeda's leadership knew this perfectly well and they dangled it (and their suicidal acts) as a kind of bait, yearning for the sort of conventional US military response that they knew would further inflame the Greater Middle East. Even in 1996, when journalist Abdul Bari Atwan interviewed bin Laden, the Saudi militant had expressed the desire to "bring the Americans into a fight on Muslim soil." Only then, bin Laden surmised, could al-Qaeda buttress its argument, win converts from the apathetic Muslim masses, and -- hopefully -- bankrupt the United States in the bargain.
Suppose, for a moment, that President Bush had taken the high road, a path of restraint focused on twin tracks. First, he might have addressed broadly-shared Arab grievances, pledging a more balanced approach to the question of Israel and Palestine in his still-fresh administration, tailoring Iraq's sanctions to target Saddam and his cronies rather than innocent citizens, and vowing to review the necessity of military bases so close to Mecca and Medina (or even the necessity of so many of the American bases that littered the region). He could have followed that with lethal, precise, targeted action by America's intelligence, law enforcement, and Special Operations forces to hunt down and kill or capture the men actually responsible for 9/11, al-Qaeda's leadership.
This manhunt needed to be ferocious yet measured in order to avoid the very quagmires that, 16 years later, we all know so well. Allies and adversaries would have had to be consulted and cautioned. Remember that, although al-Qaeda was disciplined and effective, on September 12, 2001, it remained diminutive in size and utterly marginal in its regional support. Dismantling its networks and bringing the true criminals of that day to justice never required remaking distant societies or occupying fragile nation-states with conventional military forces.
And keep in mind that such thinking about the situation isn't purely retrospective. Take the Nation magazine's Jonathan Schell. That October, after the invasion of Afghanistan had begun, appearing on the "Charlie Rose" show he called for "police work" and "commando raids," but not war. He then prophetically observed:
"I think the question doesn't revolve so much around the justification for war but about its wisdom, and I know that's the question for me. I know that, from my point of view, terrorism is chiefly a political issue and secondarily a police issue and then, only in a very minor way, can it be addressed by military means and I think that, on the contrary, the war we're fighting now will tend to worsen our problems. The question I ask myself is, at the end of the day, do you have more terrorists or do you have fewer and I think... today, right now, it looks like there are going to be more."
Of course, at the time, just about no one in this country was listening to such voices.
A prudent president might also have learned from his father. Just as George H.W. Bush had meticulously constructed a broad international coalition, including all-important Arab states, to dislodge Saddam Hussein's military from Kuwait in the Persian Gulf War, George W. Bush could have harnessed widespread international sympathy after the 9/11 attacks to blaze a judicious path. A new, broad, UN-backed coalition, which ought to have included several Muslim-majority nations, could have shared intelligence, rooted out jihadis (who represented a serious threat to most secular Arab regimes), and ultimately discredited al-Qaeda, dismantling its networks and bringing bin Laden himself to justice.The Right Tools
Global sympathy -- Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first world leader to call George Bush after the attacks -- is as rare as it is fleeting. So that moment represented a singular and singularly squandered opportunity. The United States could have led a massive international effort, emphasizing law enforcement, not warfare, and including increased humanitarian aid, UN-sponsored peacekeeping operations, and a commitment to live America's purported values by scrupulously avoiding crimes like torture and civilian casualties. Of course, it wouldn't have been perfect -- complex operations seldom are -- but sober strategy demanded a rigorous effort.
One more imperative for the new campaign against al-Qaeda would have been garnering broad support and a legal sanction from Congress and the American people. Two weeks after 9/11, President Bush vapidly suggested instead that this country's citizens should respond by getting in airplanes again and "enjoy[ing] America's great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida." Instead, he might have steeled the population for a tough fight and inspired a new era of public service. Think: John F. Kennedy. Think: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Bush might have requested from Congress a narrow, targeted authorization for the use of military force rather than the rushed, expansive, open-ended sanction he actually demanded and received and that is still being used two administrations later to justify any acts against any group or country across the Greater Middle East and Africa.
He could have followed this with the presentation of a new National Service Act, rallying the young and incentivizing military or Peace Corps enlistment, infrastructure improvement, inner-city teaching, and various other kinds of public service. Imagine a new "Greatest Generation," pulling together in a time of crisis. This, in retrospect, was a real opportunity. What a pity that it never came to pass.
It's hard to know, of course, how such an alternate path might have played out, but honestly it would have been difficult to do worse. The US remains stuck, spinning its wheels in regional conflicts and feeling no safer. The number of worldwide terrorist incidents has exploded since 2001. New Islamist groups were formed in response to US actions and counteractions and they continue to spread without an end in sight.
I don't know if there will be a next time, a chance to do it right. But should new threats emerge, more devastating attacks be endured, there simply has to be a better way, though the odds that President Donald Trump and his generals will find it are, honestly, next to nil.
Complex ideological threats sometimes demand counterintuitive responses. In such moments, hard as it may be to imagine, rational calculations should rise above the kneejerk emotional responses. True leaders step up and weather criticism in times of crisis. So next time, Americans would do well to set aside comforting illusions and take the world as it is, not as we imagine or wish it to be. The future may depend on it.
That future may well include new "terror" attacks on (or at least in) America's cities. Expect this president to use those inevitable tragedies to stifle domestic dissent, escalate the ongoing wars, and -- just maybe -- fan the flames of nativism and white nationalism for petty political gain. The question is which institutions, which groups, will be prepared to fight back? I fear there'll be few left willing to defy the tide of war. A generation born after 9/11 will vote in the next presidential election. They've never known peace. Will they even bother to demand it?
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense or the US government.
We look at the showdown at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau after Director Richard Cordray stepped down Friday and appointed as his successor, Leandra English, the Bureau's deputy director and his former chief of staff. Almost immediately, President Trump responded with his own announcement that he planned to go ahead with his own appointment of Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, who has voted in favor of killing the bureau. Now English is suing. We speak with Lisa Donner, Executive Director of Americans for Financial Reform, which fought for the creation of the agency.
Please check back later for full transcript.
At least 305 people were killed in an attack on a crowded Sufi mosque in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula on Friday that officials are blaming a militant group linked to ISIS. Egyptian president Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has vowed revenge and launched multiple airstrikes he says were targeting militants fleeing the attack. For more we speak with Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous in Cairo, who says Egypt faces its "worst wave of repression" in modern history as "Sisi has used the war on terror to crack down on political freedoms."
Please check back later for full transcript.
I'm in Lower Brule, South Dakota, where elected tribal officials, spiritual leaders, Native grassroots organizations, youth groups, and traditional women's societies have gathered with non-Native farmers, ranchers and others affected by the Keystone XL pipeline. That project to carry tar sands from shale fields in Canada to the Gulf of Mexico threatens our water, our livelihoods and our sacred sites.
We were together Monday when we heard the news Nebraska's Public Services Commission gave approval to an alternative route for the pipeline.
Yes, we were sad, and angry. But within minutes, we went from being sad to being strategic. That decision opens a new terrain to continue the fight to prevent the building of KXL, and it can be stopped if we build on the strong relationships between Native leadership and non-Native farmers and ranchers. We can leverage the power of organized prayer in a values-led campaign that puts Mother Earth above profit-hungry fossil fuel corporations.What We Learned in Standing Rock
Many of us are veterans of Standing Rock. We learned so much during those long, cold months at the Oceti Sakowin camp, in our struggle to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline.
We won at Standing Rock, even though the oil is now flowing. Because over 400 tribes came together to stand with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe for their sovereign, moral and inherent right to protect the Missouri River and Mother Earth.
Native peoples have a unique role to play in building a movement that defends the planet, and in creating a future where we all can live in healthy communities.Joining Our Struggle
What began as a struggle to protect the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's water supply and sacred sites grew into an international movement to protect the water for the 17 million people who live, work and play along the shores of the Missouri. Along the way, we were joined by by thousands more from all around the world.
As we believe, we're all related, and that all we do in life, and nature has an impact on every one of us.
So the mood at our gathering today is that in the present, we can act on the wisdom and knowledge of our ancestors, and protect future generations from destruction if we work strategically. We must lead with love for humanity, for community and for Mother Earth.
We must plan and organize, not just politically, but also with the prayers that will give us the strength and courage to do what we need to do to stop this pipeline. Tribal leadership and Native communities are the keys to winning this struggle.TransCanada Knows
The truth is that TransCanada, the pipeline's builders, aren't happy. Nebraska allowed their project to proceed, but they didn't get what they wanted. A new route means TransCanada has to decide if the costs of proceeding are worth it.
TransCanada's investors must face questions of the viability of building a pipeline that has been fought for years as oil prices have dropped. Quarterly earnings come out December 9, and their shareholders meet on December 15. According to the New York Times, they still haven't decided whether they will proceed with building the pipeline.
The price of oil is still low. And the movement we started at Standing Rock succeeded in the divestment of $5 billion from the Dakota Access Pipeline. City governments, union pensions and individuals were convinced by the power of the Oceti Sakowin Camp that it was immoral to have their money fund that pipeline. We can do the same with Keystone XL, and TransCanada's investors know it.What We See
So what we see here in Lower Brule is that all up and down the new proposed route, there are possibilities to challenge the building of Keystone XL.
Sadly, we're also gathered near where 210,000 gallons are leaking from the Keystone 1 pipeline. TransCanada has proven that they're not prepared to deal with this kind of calamity, nor can they protect the precious aquifer and wells that are critical for ranching, irrigating crops and drinking water.
The movement to stop Keystone XL has momentum, because it is grounded in the Indigenous practices of living in harmony with nature. Ourstrategy and tactics are rooted in the inherent responsibility of indigenous communities to do whatever is necessary to protect the land, water and air from destruction.Our Power Has Grown
Response to this week's KXL permit decision comes out of years of united resistance between Native and non-Native landowners. Our power has grown since Standing Rock. People now understand that if we build unity, if we build a movement with compassion for Mother Earth and concern for Humankind, we can win the hearts and minds of a broad cross section of people in this country.
And if we beat Keystone XL, we can disrupt the pro-fossil fuel campaign coming from the White House. We will signal an unmistakable challenge to all those running for office in states where American Indians are concentrated that the Native vote is the swing vote, which will be mobilized all the way from prayer camps to the voting booth.
There's a very keen awareness that this fight is important not only for those who live along the pipeline, but also for how our country can become less dependent on fossil fuels, and we can move towards the protection of our planet.A Family Reunion
So here in Lower Brule, we're holding a family reunion: veterans of the first successful KXL fight, the Standing Rock family, with newcomers, Natives with non-Natives. Strategizing, sharing stories and renewing our shared commitment to protecting the sacred from desecration by fossil fuels has made us even stronger.
But the coming battles are going to be new, not like the ones in the past, and will demand all our strength. The traditional indigenous practice is that you must respond to adversity with courage, humility, compassion and love of community as we always have.
The NO KXL movement is being built from a spiritual starting point that's rooted in the traditional Lakota, Dakota culture and origin stories, in the grassroots and in sovereign treaty rights that have been so often ignored.Wherever You Are
Together with our allies like 350.org, Greenpeace, and Rainforest Action Network, we "Promise to Protect the Sacred.""Promise to Protect the Sacred." So if the need arises, if we have exhausted all local avenues, when we need assistance, people from all over the world will be called to come to Nebraska and South Dakota to physically stop the building of this pipeline.
Wherever you are, please take a moment to remember think about how you can be a part of this historic movement to stop Keystone XL.
Native peoples have a legal, moral, spiritual and inherent right to be caretakers of the planet. The sacred teachings of our cultures reflect the resilience that has brought us this far, by prioritizing kinship, reciprocity and community building. It's about preserving relationships and living in balance, with all things -- natural, human and animal.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is taking new steps in its plans for monitoring the social media accounts of applicants and holders of US visas. At a tech industry conference, ICE officials explained to software providers what they are seeking: algorithms that would assess potential threats posed by visa holders in the US and conduct ongoing social media surveillance.
An activist holds a sign during a protest on the Capitol in Washington, DC, January 29, 2017. (Photo: Ep_jhu)
The Department of Immigration & Customs Enforcement is taking new steps in its plans for monitoring the social media accounts of applicants and holders of US visas. At a tech industry conference earlier this month in Arlington, Virginia, ICE officials explained to software providers what they are seeking: algorithms that would assess potential threats posed by visa holders in the United States and conduct ongoing social media surveillance of those deemed high risk.
The comments provide the first clear blueprint for ICE's proposed augmentation of its visa-vetting program. The initial announcement of the plans this summer, viewed as part of President Donald Trump's calls for the "extreme vetting" of visitors from Muslim countries, stoked a public outcry from immigrants and civil liberties advocates. They argued that such a plan would discriminate against Muslim visitors and potentially place a huge number of individuals under watch.
ICE officials subsequently changed the program's name to "Visa Lifecycle Vetting." But, according to the ICE presentation, the goal of the initiative -- enhanced monitoring of visa holders using social media -- remains the same.
Speaking to a room of information-technology contractors, hosted by the Government Technology & Services Coalition, Louis Rodi, deputy assistant director of ICE Homeland Security Investigations' National Security Program, said the agency needs a tool equipped with "risk-based matrices" to predict dangers posed by visa holders, with the social media of those considered a threat under continuous surveillance throughout their stay in the US.
"We have millions and millions and millions of people coming every year, and subsequently departing, so we have to be smart about it," said Rodi to a room of representatives from companies like Microsoft, Accenture, Deloitte and Motorola Solutions. "And I'm sure there are tools out there that can help."
For this targeted group of visa holders, ICE's online monitoring of public social media posts would be large-scale and non-stop. "Everything we're dealing with is in bulk, so we need batch-vetting capabilities for any of the processes that we have," said Rodi. Alysa Erichs, ICE Homeland Security Investigations' acting deputy association director for information management, told attendees that ICE hopes to get automated notifications about any visa holders' social media activity that could "ping us as a potential alert."
ICE spokeswoman Carissa Cutrell stressed to ProPublica that the Department of Homeland Security has not actually begun building any such program. "The request for information on this initiative was simply that -- an opportunity to gather information from industry professionals and other government agencies on current technological capabilities to determine the best way forward," Cutrell wrote in an email. The program would require clearance from numerous DHS units, including the Privacy Office and the Principal Legal Advisor, before it could be implemented, according to a federal official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In his speech, Rodi referred to meetings ICE has had with companies but did not mention any frontrunners. The major tech companies present at the conference, including Microsoft, Accenture and Deloitte, either declined to comment or didn't respond to ProPublica's request to comment about their level of interest in providing technology for the vetting program. Microsoft has opposed Trump's immigration policies, and several Microsoft researchers have publicly called for ICE to stop spying on visitors' social media.
ICE is already monitoring some social media at eight Homeland Security Investigation posts internationally, Rodi said, and the plan is to expand to more sites. In response to a question posed by ProPublica from the audience, he stated that the department was open to other social media monitoring techniques, such as link analysis (which helps authorities map out applicants' online connections), so long as they solely rely on public posts.
The ICE officials emphasized the Trump administration's strict stance. "This administration is big on immigration enforcement, so we're not going to look the other way like we have in the past when we have overstays," said Rodi. "Maybe it's an administrative violation -- it's still a crime. These people need to pay. They can't get away with it."
Some analysts argue that gathering social media data is necessary. ICE already has a tool that searches for connections to terrorists, according to Claude Arnold, a former ICE Homeland Security Investigations special agent, now with the security firm Frontier Solutions. But, he said, potential terrorist threats often come from countries, such as Iraq or Syria, that provide little intelligence to US authorities. As a result, in Arnold's view, social media information is all the more important.
Privacy advocates take a darker view. "ICE is building a dangerously broad tool that could be used to justify excluding, or deporting, almost anyone," said Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of Georgetown Law's Center on Privacy & Technology. "They are talking about this as a targeted tool, but the numbers tell a different story."
Bedoya noted that the program outline originally anticipated that the monitoring would identify 10,000 high-risk visa holders a year. That suggests the pool of people under social media surveillance would be many orders of magnitude larger. (ICE officials did not address this point at the conference.)
Last week, a coalition of academics and technologists warned in a public letter that ICE's interest in using big data algorithms to assess risk is misguided, given how rare it is for foreign visitors to be involved in terrorist attacks in the US That means there's little historical data to mine in hopes of using it to design a new algorithm. The letter cited a Cato Institute analysis that found that the likelihood of an American dying in a terrorist attack on US soil in any given year was 1 in 3.6 million in the period between 1975 and 2015.
Cathy O'Neil, one of the signatories to that letter and author of "Weapons of Math Destruction," told this reporter in August that any algorithm a company proposes would come built-in with some very human calculations. "At the end of the day, someone has to choose a ratio," she said. "How many innocent false positives are you going to keep out of the country for each false negative?"
Thus far, social media monitoring of visa applicants has not identified any potential threats that wouldn't have turned up in existing government databases, Rodi acknowledged. "We haven't found anything that would preclude someone from getting a visa through social media alone," he said. "But, you never know, the day may come when social media will actually find someone that wasn't in the government systems we check."
That argument doesn't placate those who believe ICE's vetting is already exhaustive. Social media surveillance would be difficult to carry out without collecting collateral data on thousands of American citizens in the process, said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, senior counsel to the Brennan Center's Liberty and National Security Program.
"Generally, with surveillance technologies, they are adopted for national security purposes overseas, but are then brought stateside pretty quickly," she said, citing practices first honed overseas, such as intercepting cellphone calls. "So once there's some kind of dragnet surveillance tool or information collection tool in place for one purpose, slippage can happen, and it will expand and expand."
Janine Jackson interviewed William Hartung about nuclear overkill for the November 17, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: We have this idea that things should make sense. But we have homeless people and empty buildings, we have unemployed people and work that needs doing -- and we have enough nuclear weapons to destroy the planet, and are building more. The thing is, these things do make sense -- just not in a way we would hope for, or the way we are often told. When it comes to nuclear weapons, our next guest explains, all the talk you hear about strategic considerations driving proliferation -- how do we look tough with North Korea, and so on -- is in a sense a distraction from what's really going on. If you really want to know why the US keeps churning out nuclear warheads, follow the money.
William Hartung has been doing just that for years now. He's director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, author most recently of Profits of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military/Industrial Complex, and a contributor to the book Sleepwalking to Armageddon: The Threat of Nuclear Annihilation, which is just out now from New Press. He joins us now by phone from here in town. Welcome back to CounterSpin, William Hartung.
William Hartung: Thanks so much for having me.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on the authority and process for the use of nuclear weapons. One senator said constituents are asking him at townhalls if Trump can just order a nuclear attack without any controls, and, obviously, that's because they're worried that he might. As you write, "A tough guy attitude on nuclear weapons, when combined with an apparent ignorance about their world-ending potential, adds up to a toxic brew." No argument there. Let's start by just talking about the current state of the arsenal that we're being told needs to be "modernized" and expanded. We have, what, some 4,000 nuclear weapons?
Yes, in the active stockpile. So any of those could be deployed at any time. There's a little under 2,000 ready to go now, in ballistic missiles and in submarines, on bombers. And that's far more than would be needed to destroy North Korea -- that would be a handful of weapons -- pretty much disable and destroy any country in the world. And if there were a large exchange, probably end the prospects of life on the planet over the medium term. So there's massive nuclear overkill and, you know, some experts -- those who believe in nuclear deterrence, as opposed to getting rid of nuclear weapons -- say about 300 would be enough to dissuade any country from attacking the United States with nuclear weapons. So you've got huge excess. Some of it is leftover ideology from the Cold War but, as I said, most of it is power and profits.
Let's get into that, because, despite the arsenal you've just described, we are looking at a "modernization plan" to the tune of some $1.7 trillion. I'll ask it simply: Why is that the case?
Well, I think the nuclear enterprise is on autopilot. They always build a new generation, and the companies always need a new contract. The Pentagon cooked this up under Obama, so it's not, unlike many other things, a Trump invention. But General Dynamics wants to make new nuclear submarines; companies like Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin want to make new nuclear bombers; the ballistic missile force, which is based in Wyoming, North Dakota, some in Nebraska, etc.; the senators from those states are very keen on a new generation of ballistic missiles, because they're afraid they might get dropped from the arsenal if they're not brand new and shiny. So there's a lot of pork barrel politics involved, and also just kind of, bureaucracies want to be fed, and they want to be fed dollars, both in the Pentagon and the services, and of course the companies.
I think it was from you that I learned about the strategy, if you will, of breaking up the production process of a particular weapon, so that you'll have many states and their representatives invested in it.
Exactly. And the nuclear complex is very much that way. You've got weapons labs in California and New Mexico; you've got a uranium facility in Tennessee; you've got submarines based in Washington state and Georgia; you've got those ballistic missiles in the northern Midwest, as I mentioned; Connecticut's building nuclear-capable submarines; and on and on. So if you put together the senators and representatives from those states as kind of a solid bloc -- I'll support your nuke if you support mine -- you've already got a huge group in Congress pushing for this stuff.
And when Chuck Hagel, for example, was being confirmed as secretary of Defense, he had signed on as an advisor to a project by the group Global Zero that said we could get by with as few as 900 nuclear weapons, not the 4,000, and also perhaps we didn't need ballistic missiles. And he was pilloried by members from states that have the missiles, or the command and control for the missiles, and so forth, to the point where he basically backed off and said, well, that was just one idea, you know, that was a study, it doesn't mean it's something we're going to do. So Congress is a big part of the problem.
I'd like to do a little bit of history, as you do in this piece for TomDispatch, because it seems as though we used to see this in a more clear-eyed way. I mean, Eisenhower pretty much called it, right, with the military/industrial complex?
Yes. And he was most concerned about things like the push for a new nuclear bomber by the contractors and the Air Force. Some generals who -- you know, he was the commander in chief, after all -- were talking out of school about needing this, even if he thought we didn't. He basically called the push for the bomber, and the false claims about a missile gap that were used to fuel a missile buildup, political demagoguery, and he said that, basically, there was undue influence on senators like John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, by the industry to get them to adopt these positions.
So he was right on target way back then. And I think he would be horrified to see the shape of the nuclear/industrial complex now, the size of the companies like Lockheed Martin, which gets $30 to $40 billion a year, in a good year -- for them, not a good year for the taxpayers. So there were no companies of that size in Eisenhower's day, and they have that much more influence, because of their spread across the country, their campaign contributions, their lobbyists and so forth.
Well, I was just going to go there, because the mechanics, the techniques, you say, haven't really changed fundamentally, and that is: campaign contributions and lobbying. And it's not partisan, it's bipartisan.
Exactly. So, for example, the entire weapons industry has, in any given year, 700 to a thousand registered lobbyists, almost two for every member of Congress in some years, and that's not counting board members and people who consult and other people who try to influence the process, but aren't technically lobbyists. They give tens of millions of dollars in contributions. They also fund think tanks, like the Center for Security Policy, the Lexington Institute, the Democratic-leaning Center for New American Security. In many cases, those think tanks advocate positions that the logical conclusion is, we need more Pentagon spending. So they're almost like, in some cases, mouthpieces for the industry, but very useful, because the industry doesn't have to lobby for it themselves; it's being done under the alleged aura of objectivity, which of course doesn't exist when you're on the payroll of the arms industry.
And media, of course, play a role here, in a general failure to indicate which think tanks are tied to where, so that they do abet this process of presenting them as independent entities that just happen to have a point of view that dovetails with that of weapons makers.
Yeah. We need truth in labeling, basically.
Yes, exactly. And another thing that media can play a role in is credulous, shall we say, reporting of another angle of approach, which is that weapons are about jobs.
Yes. Well, the thing is, Pentagon spending is the least effective way to create jobs. Economists at the University of Massachusetts have done very good work on this, and they've figured out infrastructure spending is about one-and-a-half times as many jobs as Pentagon spending, and education spending more than twice as many. So it's really about serving particular areas and members. You know, if you have a fighter plane built in St. Louis, the Missouri delegation is going to push for that, and if you have a nuclear-capable submarine in Connecticut, that delegation is going to push for it, and those, as you said, are both Democrats and Republicans. So it's not that we couldn't create jobs differently; it's that there's a political logjam in Washington against investing in other things.
Let me just ask you, finally, you remind us that grassroots activism in Europe and in the US, the freeze movement, that was what played a role in helping turn around Ronald Reagan's view on nuclear weapons. Is that what we need now?
Absolutely. And I think, globally, there's been some hope. The UN has passed a treaty to abolish nuclear weapons, which many people thought would not be possible, and the majority of the world's countries are behind that. Of course, the big players are not, but I think this puts them on the moral defensive and political defensive, such that if we can build the movement here, we might make some progress.
And, of course, all bets are off about what Donald Trump himself might do, but I think there's already building support in Congress for a new policy, including not letting the president be the sole person to decide if we launch a nuclear war.
We've been speaking with William Hartung. His article, "Massive Overkill Brought to You by the Nuclear Industrial Complex," can be found on TomDispatch.com, and the new book Sleepwalking to Armageddon: The Threat of Nuclear Annihilation is out from New Press. William Hartung, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
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Ahead of the Thanksgiving feast, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) hit midtown Manhattan on Monday to face down the suits with chants of "Exploitation has got to go!" CIW was there to demand humane working conditions on their farms.
Peppered with brass-band musicians and street puppets, the protesters rallied at the New York, N.Y. offices of the fast food giant Wendy's.
CIW members hoisted tomato and bucket-shaped picket signs with slogans like "freedom from sexual violence" and "Justicia" to face off against Wendy's cheery, red pigtails. They demanded fair wages and freedom from violence and exploitation.
This week's march, part of the coalition's multi-city tour to promote its Fair Food labor protection program, put women workers at the frontlines, protesting the epidemic of sexual assault in agricultural labor, which affects as many as eight in ten women.
Decades before labor-relations courts and bureaucracy-laden contract negotiations, workplace disputes with powerful corporations were resolved with fists and clubs. And in Trump's America, CIW workers are turning Florida's vast tomato fields into the latest frontline in the struggle for the rights and dignity of immigrant communities.
"As farmworker women, this experience poses an incredibly hard choice; we don't have another job, we have to suffer this abuse, because we have a family to maintain," said organizer Lupe Gonzalo, speaking on the violence that stalks women working the fields, at an October gathering at a Minnesota theater. "Our silence is something we must grow accustomed to every day."
Voices like Gonzalo's rarely take the public spotlight in conversations on sexual violence and discrimination, but her words resonate deeply on the edges of the economy. As a minority in a male-dominated workforce, working in brutal, isolated conditions, women are exposed daily to sexual violence, be it coworkers' harassment or rape by supervisors.
Although agribusiness corporations have historically failed to address sexual abuse in their supply chains, CIW members say they've virtually eliminated sexual harassment from the fields they've organized via targeted enforcement, broad-based monitoring and worker education efforts. Additionally, strong community support and the group's pioneering Fair Food Program (FFP) has helped break the culture of silence in the fields by making women's rights everybody's business -- from coworkers and neighbors all the way up to multinational restaurant chains.
Wendy's is now the lone holdout among the large restaurant chains that CIW has pushed over the years to sign onto its FFP code of conduct. Since the 1990s, the group has marched on college campuses, rallied at corporate offices and lobbied on Capitol Hill to promote an innovative form of collective worker protection that has evolved into FFP's worker-led social responsibility system.
Though not a formal union contract, the program's model, which now protects some 35,000 workers, essentially provides a bill of rights for thousands of laborers in Florida's heavily consolidated agribusiness sector to promote structural change at all levels of the industry. The binding agreement mandates that all companies in the supply chain -- including growers and retailers -- provide an additional penny-per-pound premium that is passed through to pickers. This adds a considerable amount to workers' annual wages. Meanwhile, the agreement ensures enforceable standards for fair working conditions, job security through direct, long-term employment and due process for abuse complaints.
The coalition's worker-driven social responsibility model sets a "zero tolerance" rule for violations to prevent wage theft, trafficking and workplace sexual violence.
"If there is a farm that is participating that is refusing to correct the situation in a timely fashion and bring swift consequences for abusers, then the market consequences kick in, because the corporations can no longer buy from those farms," Oscar Otzoy, a CIW organizer, told In These Times.
He says the underlying power of the process is its transformational effect on the worker community by helping train and empower workers as their own advocates for rights and safety at work.
"One of the essential elements of the coalition is that it is led by farmworkers themselves, and so we are from that community," Otzoy says. "We share the same values and the same experiences and the same realities, so there is trust with workers that their complaints will be brought to a solution."
Often that solution is not just punishment, but also ensuring that the victim will receive needed rehabilitation services.
The CIW's campaign has targeted a host of large chain restaurants, supermarkets and institutional purchasers, like university food vendors. But unlike Whole Foods and Taco Bell, Wendy's continues to insist that its own corporate code of conduct can effectively be applied instead of the FFP.
In a statement sent to In These Times, Wendy's said that it is "promoting human rights and safe working conditions" through its own social responsibility program, with "assurances and requirements related to human rights and labor practices." The company dismissed CIW's campaign as part of a "commercial dispute," since Wendy's refuses to "pay fees to their organization" to support FFP.
Wary of self-regulating corporate standards, the CIW counters that the company is actually "deriving a very real cost advantage over its competitors, while continuing to provide an alternative market for less reputable growers."
But while CIW's model has garnered high-profile accolades, including honors from the Obama White House, it has also gotten the attention of anti-labor activists. The right-wing "watchdog" Center for Union Facts (CUF) issued a complaint in early November to federal tax authorities challenging CIW's tax-exempt status as an educational charity, insisting that CIW is in fact a union front group -- and should be regulated as such.
Painting the CIW's protests as mob-like tactics promoting "harassment" of companies, the CUF argues, "CIW is essentially a group operating for the private financial benefit of a small class of people (certain agricultural workers)."
CIW defines its "small class" as the whole farmworker proletariat, and their model developed in response to the structural barriers to unionization in the highly stratified agricultural workforce where workers are unstable, often undocumented and intensely poor.
They operate like a union in terms of engaging in negotiations with bosses, but have more tactical agility in that they do not rely on institutionalized majoritarian reputation but grassroots mobilization.
As for the complaint about its tax status, Otzoy said those who complain "are just trying to roll back the human rights advances that we've been able to achieve."
The FFP has spread widely, and CIW is working to bring their model to strawberry, pepper and dairy farms elsewhere in the United States. "It's the workers who are still speaking on behalf of themselves and moving forward the movement," Otzoy says.
So when CIW worker-activists amplify women's voices from Florida's tomato harvests into the Manhattan's streets, they put muscle behind Gonzalo's declaration as she spoke to communities across country: "We had to draw on enormous strength and courage in order to break our silence -- but also, we did not do it alone."