Heather Cox Richardson

September 10, 2022 (Saturday)

Crazy rare find at Buddy’s wharf this week.

Lots going on in the world, but I’ve got family and friends in town, and am putting everything on hold until tomorrow.

[Photo by Buddy Poland.]

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ohh! it’s one of those new fast chargers…

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September 11, 2022 (Sunday)

I was playing around in yesterday’s post, because my “crazy rare find at Buddy’s wharf” was, of course, Buddy himself.

Took yesterday off and am going to take tonight, too. First time since September 15, 2019, I’ve taken more than a single day off, but our wedding seems like a worthy occasion, no?

[Photo by Leonie Glen.]

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September 12, 2022 (Monday)

Many thanks for all your good wishes on our marriage. Someone saw the picture and wrote, “Heather is betting on the future.”

I am indeed.

And there are reasons to be hopeful about that future.

When I last wrote about the news, on Friday, Ukraine was launching a counteroffensive against the Russian troops occupying their territory, but it was still too early to be sure of what was happening. Now it is clear: over the weekend, Ukrainian forces drove Russian troops back, retaking more than 1000 square miles of Ukrainian territory and handing Russia a humiliating operational defeat.

Ukraine had been indicating it would launch its offensive in the south, prompting Russia to move 15,000 to 25,000 troops to that front. Instead, it pushed forward farther north, moving with lightning speed as the Russian occupiers, already suffering from low morale, crumbled. Ukrainian plans reflected cooperation with U.S. intelligence, as well as support from weapons systems provided by allies, including HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems) from the U.S.

While this will not end the crisis, it has put Russia on the defensive and turned the war in Ukraine’s favor. Noting that Russian soldiers abandoned their equipment and fled, Europe specialist Anne Applebaum noted that “[t]he fundamental difference between Ukrainian soldiers, who are fighting for their country’s existence, and Russian soldiers, who are fighting for their salary, has finally begun to matter.”

This shift in the war continues the process of undermining the argument right-wing politicians have made for ending liberal democracy. They claim that it is inefficient, making democratically led countries unable to react as quickly to the modern world as countries with a strong leader, and that the secular values of democracy that emphasize equality weaken a country’s morals and ultimately weaken the country itself.

As recently as May 2021, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) shared a Russian propaganda video about its troops and suggested they were superior to the American military, which was trying to demonstrate that it includes all Americans equally. He tweeted: “Holy crap. Perhaps a woke, emasculated military is not the best idea….”

But Russia’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine, thwarted by Ukraine and its democratic allies, has undermined the myth of an invincible Russian army, while the invaders’ commission of war crimes has made it clear they have no moral ground to stand on. Meanwhile, internal arguments in Russia as the economy has tanked and the war gone badly have created a rash of “accidental” deaths of senior officials, suggesting that autocratic governments are anything but stable. Further, Applebaum suggests, since Putin tied his legitimacy to the success of the Ukraine invasion, its failure might turn out to be his own as well.

Former president Trump openly admired Russian president Vladimir Putin, and Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson followed suit, backing Putin’s characterization of his invasion of Ukraine. Carlson has also celebrated Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, who has called for the replacement of liberal democracy with “illiberal democracy,” or “Christian democracy,” claiming to defend patriarchal and Christian systems. That process has involved a takeover of the country’s media, crackdowns on opposition, rampant corruption, and restrictions on voting.

Carlson and right-wing leaders have praised the antiabortion and anti-immigration policies of Orbán’s political party. In September 2021, former vice president Mike Pence spoke in Budapest at a forum denouncing immigration and urging traditional social values, where he told the audience he hoped that the U.S. Supreme Court would outlaw abortion thanks to the three justices Trump put on the court. In 2022, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was held in Budapest, and months later, at CPAC’s convention in Texas, Orbán was a keynote speaker.

In July the European Parliament (EP), which passes European legislation, took a strong stand against Hungary’s anti-LGBTQ laws and Orbán’s attack on “democracy, the rule of law, and fundamental rights,” and withheld billions of dollars from the country. In response, Orbán’s Fidesz party passed a resolution to weaken the European Parliament, saying European democracy was at a “dead end.” It also called for members of the EP to be chosen not by the voters of their countries, but by the parliaments of those countries.

This week, members of the European Parliament will debate whether the values of the European Union are under systemic threat in Hungary. The EP is expected to declare that Hungary can no longer be considered a full democracy and consider suspending its rights within the European Union.

And there are other signs that right-wing extremism is facing resistance. Today, more than 150 prominent Michigan Republicans—including a former head of the Michigan Republican Party—backed Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer for reelection. The current Michigan Republican Party has backed far-right candidates for governor, secretary of state, and attorney general and has lined up behind Trump, who made attacking Whitmer a feature of his 2020 campaign. Those Republicans jumping behind the Democratic governor note that she has signed more than 900 bipartisan bills into law and has focused on issues that are good for everyone, regardless of party.

“During her time as governor, she has focused on growing our economy with major investments, strengthening our skilled workforce, investing in the education of our children, and making government work for us,” said former Republican representative Joe Schwarz. “I know she will continue to advocate on behalf of hardworking Michiganders and that’s why I’m proud to support her for re-election this fall.”

Others pointed to her protection of reproductive rights as key to their support. Whitmer is currently polling 13 points higher than her opponent, Tudor Dixon, who opposes abortion without exception.

In the last week, federal grand juries have issued subpoenas to about 40 people associated with Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election, including the money raised over the lie that the election was stolen. Legal affairs columnist for the Los Angeles Times Harry Litman noted that many of the recipients were junior staffers who can testify to Trump’s behavior around January 6 and who have no legal reason not to cooperate.

Last week, excerpts from a forthcoming book by former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey S. Berman revealed that Trump tried to use the Department of Justice against those he considered his enemies and to protect those he considered his friends. The Justice Department is supposed to enforce the law impartially, but “[t]hroughout my tenure as U.S. attorney,” Berman says in the book, “Trump’s Justice Department kept demanding that I use my office to aid them politically, and I kept declining—in ways just tactful enough to keep me from being fired.”

Today the Senate Judiciary Committee told Attorney General Merrick Garland it would investigate the allegations.

Finally, last night Trump arrived unexpectedly at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., and today photographers recorded him meeting with a group of men on the grounds of his Virginia golf course, although they did not appear to be playing or even to have clubs.

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September 13, 2022 (Tuesday)

In an event at the White House today, President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and the First Lady and Second Gentleman, along with lawmakers and those who worked for the causes the law embraces, celebrated the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, the new law that lowers prescription drug costs, invests in new technologies to combat climate change, and raises taxes on billion-dollar corporations both to fund the new investments and to reduce the federal deficit.

In contrast, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) today announced he will introduce a national abortion ban. This is a pretty transparent attempt by the Republicans to deal with the political toxicity of the Republican-dominated Supreme Court’s overturning Roe v. Wade, a toxicity unlikely to go away while news breaks, as it did today, that the state of Texas will not publish data on maternal death until after the midterm elections, suggesting the data will be bad indeed.

When the court ended the recognition of the constitutional right to reproductive rights in June, Republicans tried to manage the backlash by saying that the decision would simply return to the states the right to decide the status of abortion within their boundaries. The idea was actually that of enslavers in the 1830s: that true democracy operated at the state level because lawmakers there were closer to their constituents and would represent them better than those at the national level, thus enabling them to dismiss national pressure against enslavement as interference in state rights.

Graham himself echoed this line. As recently as August 7, 2022, according to White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, he said, “I’ve been consistent. I think states should decide the issue of marriage and states should decide the issue of abortion.”

Now, as those opposing the end of the national protection of abortion rights warned, Graham is calling for a national abortion ban. He tried to explain away the change by saying that after the Democrats had announced what they stood for—presumably, President Joe Biden’s recent warning that Trump and the MAGA Republicans endanger our rights and our democracy, while the Democrats have rebuilt the economy for everyone—he wanted to make sure the Republicans did, too.

But the Republicans can read the polls as well as anyone and are facing the reality that their base might well not turn out without Trump on the ballot, while opponents of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision overturning Roe v. Wade are showing up in big numbers to vote against Republicans. Graham’s offer to impose a national ban on abortion seeks to bring the Republican base to the polls. “If we take back the House and the Senate, I can assure you we’ll have a vote on our bill,” he said today. “If the Democrats are in charge, I don’t know if we’ll ever have a vote on our bill.”

But while Graham courted the Republicans’ extremist base, he also tried to make his proposal palatable for those who support reproductive rights by framing it as a moderate one that would simply bring the U.S. in line with European countries by banning abortion after 15 weeks, ignoring that European countries have much better access to contraception, early abortion, exceptions to the laws, and maternity care.

The proposal is neither moderate nor in line with European countries. But it is also a giant red flag for our democracy, showing that the argument that the federal government should turn issues back to the states was the lie opponents said it was. Graham is calling for the federal government to impose a law backed only by an extremist minority on the entire country. It is the same principle that so-called “originalists” pretended to reject in the Dobbs decision, now reimposed to reflect not the will of the majority, but the tyranny of the minority.

Some Republican Senators are distancing themselves from Graham’s proposal, but that distancing reflects the attempt to muddy the waters so voters can believe what they want. The proposal reflects both concern on the part of Republican leaders going into the midterms, and a determination to hide what they are really calling for. CNN Capitol Hill reporter Melanie Zanona reported this afternoon that at least 80 House Republicans are introducing their own bill, similar to Graham’s.

Over on his Truth Social network, where he has been amplifying extremist QAnon accounts, Trump has been making it harder to deny the party’s growing radicalism. Today, he “retruthed” an image of himself wearing a QAnon pin with Q slogans, apparently going all-in on the conspiracy theory base. Ben Collins of NBC News noted the importance of the words on the image—“The Storm is Coming”—which refer to the “big end date for QAnon, when Trump is supposed to round up all of his political enemies and hang them in public after a brief military tribunal.”

Trump’s legal troubles continue to mount. The new subpoenas from the Department of Justice appear to be focusing on the money Trump’s Save America PAC raised for an “Official Election Defense Fund” that didn’t exist. The money went to Trump’s associates. This scam is not unlike the one for which Trump associate Stephen K. Bannon is now indicted: he and others allegedly raised at least $15 million to build a wall on the U.S. southern border, only to pocket the money.

Trump pardoned him from federal charges, but Bannon is now facing state charges in New York. “The simple truth is that it is a crime to profit off the backs of donors by making false pretenses,” Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg told reporters.

Today the affidavit for the search warrant that FBI agents fulfilled at Mar-a-Lago on August 8 was released with fewer redactions. The new material reveals that after handing over documents produced for a subpoena, Trump’s lawyer told the Department of Justice that “he was advised” that all White House records were in the storage room at Mar-a-Lago and that “he was not advised” there were records anywhere else. Ryan Goodman of Just Security notes that this likely points to Trump as the person lying to him. The subpoena for security videos from the vicinity of the storage room at Mar-a-Lago reached back to January 10, 2022.

This afternoon, Missy Ryan of the Washington Post reported that a senior U.S. official has revealed that since 2014, Russia has spent at least $300 million in more than 24 countries to weaken democracies and strengthen global forces friendly to Putin’s interests. That would likely include funds spent attacking U.S. elections, most notably that of 2016, as detailed in the five-volume report of the Republican-dominated Senate Intelligence Committee on Russian Active Measures, Campaigns, and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election. The administration commissioned a review of Russian efforts this summer and discovered that Russia intended to continue pouring money into destabilizing other countries.

The administration will declassify some of the report to show the techniques Russia has been using. “By shining this light on Russian covert political financing and Russian attempts to undermine democratic processes, we’re putting these foreign parties and candidates on notice that if they accept Russian money secretly we can and we will expose it,” the official told reporters.

Meanwhile, Russian president Putin’s power at home is wobbling. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz tweeted today that he had a 90-minute phone call with Putin in which he demanded that Russia withdraw its troops from Ukraine and recognize Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Fifty Russian municipal deputies have publicly called for Putin to resign.

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September 14, 2022 (Wednesday)

It appears that John Durham’s investigation into why the FBI opened an investigation into the ties between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russian operatives is coming to an end.

Durham’s investigation was a prime example of Trump’s attempt to use the Department of Justice not to enforce the nation’s laws, but to hurt his enemies, a charge former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman has made in his new book. Trump, Berman said, wanted his friends protected and his enemies—including former secretaries of state John Kerry and Hillary Clinton—prosecuted.

In April 2019, the month after Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election finally saw daylight, Attorney General William Barr tapped United States Attorney for the District of Connecticut John Durham to investigate the circumstances under which the FBI began to look into Russian interference in the election in the first place.

The appointment was clearly an attempt to continue to distract people from the results of the Mueller report, which Barr had had an instrumental role in diminishing. Barr took office on February 14, 2019, just as Mueller was finishing his report. As Mueller’s superior, Barr got a copy of the report before anyone else, and he spun it to the media, claiming it exonerated the president and his team. In fact, Mueller established that Russia had illegally intervened in the election to benefit Trump and that the campaign “expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.” Mueller complained to Barr about the spin, but it was too late: the public had bought it.

Trump and his allies jumped on Durham’s investigation, promising it would prove that FBI agents were part of a “Deep State” and that Durham would uncover “the crime of the century.” In December 2020, after Trump had lost the election, Barr revealed that he had made Durham a special counsel the previous October so that Durham could continue his work into the next administration.

But the investigation itself fizzled. Durham pressed charges against only three people. One pleaded guilty to altering an email and was sentenced to probation and community service. A grand jury alleged two others lied to the FBI. One was acquitted of the charges last May. The other is supposed to go on trial next month but has asked a judge to throw out the case for lack of evidence. But Durham’s three-year investigation did provide talking points for those attacking the FBI’s Russia investigation, keeping alive Trump’s false claims that it was just a “witch hunt.”

Trump’s politicization of the Department of Justice was a profound attack on the principles of democracy. Using the law to attack enemies is a hallmark of authoritarians—just ask opposition leader Alexsei Navalny in Russia, who has been sentenced to incarceration on trumped-up charges to get him out of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s way—while it also encourages lawbreaking from those who don’t fear legal consequences.

We have seen that sense of being above the law today in stories about the willingness of Mississippi officials, including former governor Phil Bryant, to work with former NFL player Brett Favre to divert about $5 million in federal welfare funds from helping people in poverty to building a volleyball facility at the University of Southern Mississippi, where his daughter was a volleyball player.

We have seen it in the anger that Trump allies show when law enforcement treats them as it would anyone suspected of lawbreaking. MyPillow chief executive officer Mike Lindell explained by video that yesterday FBI agents took his phone and that “what we’ve done is weaponize the FBI…it’s disgusting….” Agents executed the search warrant as part of a federal investigation into the alleged breach of Colorado voting machines.

We have seen it in Jeffrey Clark’s response today to ethics charges brought against him by the D.C. Bar. Clark was employed by the Department of Justice in late 2020, when he worked to swing the department behind Trump’s lie that he had won the election, a shift that would have utterly destroyed the rule of law in the U.S. Now he claims the D.C. Bar cannot punish him because normal rules of behavior don’t apply. In a filing today, he told the bar: “[T]the President has an absolute right to seek legal and other forms of advice…and officers of the United States have an absolute duty and corresponding privilege to provide their opinions on a confidential basis.”

The turning of the courts into a tool for partisan advantage has been part of the Republican project since 1986, when Reagan’s attorney general Edwin Meese vowed to “institutionalize the Reagan revolution so it can’t be set aside no matter what happens in future presidential elections.” That partisan use of the courts inspired then–Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to help Trump replace about 30% of the federal bench and to swing the Supreme Court to the far right with three new justices.

An examination by Politico’s Josh Gerstein and Kyle Cheney shows that Trump’s judges were less experienced on the bench and had spent more time in politics than the judges appointed by other presidents, and that Trump expected them to side with him, calling them “my judges.” “If it’s my judges, you know how they’re gonna decide,” he told evangelical leaders in 2016. And some of them have, indeed, sided with the former president in surprising ways, most recently when Judge Aileen Cannon, confirmed after Trump lost the 2020 election, agreed with his request for a special master to review the government documents recovered by the government from Mar-a-Lago.

Trump’s judges have revealed a willingness to break precedent to achieve political ends, and nowhere is that clearer than in the willingness of the Supreme Court to replace long-settled law with their own preferences, most notably in their Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision protecting the right to abortion, but also in West Virginia v. EPA, limiting Congress’s ability to delegate regulatory authority to agencies, and so on.

That replacement of settled law with what looks to be political preferences has tanked popular faith in the Supreme Court. On Monday, Justice Elena Kagan noted that, ​​“Judges create legitimacy problems for themselves…when they instead stray into places where it looks like they’re an extension of the political process or when they’re imposing their own personal preferences.” People should be able to expect that “changes in personnel don’t send the entire legal system up for grabs.”

President Joe Biden appears to be trying to restore the rule of law to the Department of Justice, going out of his way to note that he is not involved with Attorney General Merrick Garland’s decisions. Increasingly, it looks like Garland’s Justice Department is bearing down on those who considered themselves untouchable.

The trials and convictions of those who participated in the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol continue. Yesterday, three more rioters were found guilty of multiple charges. Twenty-five year old Patrick McCaughey III, of Ridgefield, Connecticut, who crushed Metropolitan Police Department officer Daniel Hodges in a doorway, faces decades in prison.

Also today, Pamela Brown, Evan Perez, Jeremy Herb, and Kristen Holmes reported at CNN that not all of Trump’s loyalists are still acting as if they are above the law. Trump’s White House chief of staff Mark Meadows has complied with a Department of Justice subpoena.

Perhaps most revealing of the restoration of the rule of law at the Justice Department is that former attorney general Barr has been on the television circuit defending the FBI and Biden’s Department of Justice from Trump’s fury over the FBI’s execution of a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago that yielded documents—or empty folders—bearing the highest classified markings.

That is, the same man who sponsored Durham’s political mission has recently begun to speak up for the rule of law.

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September 15, 2022 (Thursday)

This morning we awoke to news that rail carriers and union leaders had reached an agreement to avoid a national rail strike that would have badly tangled the supply chains that are just now starting to move efficiently again. That, in turn, would have affected everything from drinking water—the chlorine to purify urban systems is shipped by train—to consumer goods, costing up to $2 billion a day and likely sparking job losses and contributing to the inflation that has only recently begun to ease.

Like many of the victories President Joe Biden has celebrated during his term, this deal was complicated, requiring the administration to bring together a number of moving pieces. In the 1980s and the 1990s, the U.S. railroad industry consolidated into seven main carriers, which are now making record profits. In 2021, profits for the two largest railroad corporations in the U.S.—the Union Pacific and BNSF—jumped 12% to $21.8 billion and 11.6% to $22.5 billion, respectively.

But those profits have come from cost-cutting measures that included job losses from an industry that had remained stable for the previous 25 years. Between November 2018 and December 2020, the industry lost 40,000 jobs, most of them among the people who actually operated the trains, as the railroads adopted a new system called Precision Schedule Railroading (PSR). This system made the trains far more efficient by keeping workers on very tight schedules that leave little time for anything but work. Any disruption in those schedules—a family emergency, for example—brought disciplinary action and possible job loss. Although workers got an average of 3 weeks’ vacation and holidays, the rest of their time, including weekends, was tightly controlled, while smaller crews meant more dangerous working conditions.

Union leaders and railroad management have been negotiating for more than two and a half years for new contracts, and in July, Biden established a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) to try to resolve the differences before the September 16 deadline by which the railway workers could legally strike.

The PEB’s August report called for significant wage increases but kicked down the road the problems associated with PSR. The National Carriers Conference Committee, which represents the railroads, called the report “fair and appropriate”; not all of the 13 involved unions did.

Thanks to the 1926 Railway Labor Act, Congress can force railroad workers to stay on the job, and that is precisely what Republicans proposed in this crisis: forcing workers to accept the recommendations of the PEB. This had political fire just two months before the midterms, as Republicans were trying to force Biden and the Democrats either to abandon the workers they claim to champion or to accept responsibility for a devastating strike. The railroads, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and business groups all favored this approach.

The administration put its weight behind negotiations, including not only three cabinet secretaries—Labor Secretary Marty Walsh (who is himself a former union official), Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack—as well as Director of the National Economic Council Brian Deese, but also the president, who worked the phones and got mad that management would not loosen scheduling rules. The details of the deal are not yet published, but it appears to have accepted most of the PEB recommendations on pay, given workers a day of paid sick leave—union leaders wanted 15, up from none—and, apparently, removed the penalties for missing time for illness or medical emergencies, one of the workers’ key demands.

The deal is a big deal, but it has not yet been accepted by the union members, who will still be on tight schedules although they can now take unpaid time off for medical emergencies without losing their jobs. (My guess is that higher pay is intended to make this seem like a workable solution to the scheduling issue.) Initial responses to the agreement seemed mixed.

The deal does, though, highlight that Biden is using the power of the presidency to protect the American people while trying to be fair to labor and management, a system pioneered by Republican president Theodore Roosevelt and adopted afterward by Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Republican Dwight Eisenhower, among others. It’s a very different principle than the idea that workers should accept whatever conditions management imposes on them.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board yesterday wrote: “You’d think some $5 trillion in new spending by this Congress, much of which will fatten union bottom lines, would be enough to buy some labor peace. If not, Democrats on Capitol Hill have the power to impose another cooling off period so the two sides can negotiate without a strike. Let’s see if Democrats side with their Big Labor allies, or with the U.S. economy that needs the trains to run on time.”

“Thanks for your concern,” Biden tweeted today. “To answer your question: yes, the trains are running on time.”

Yesterday, ABC News senior national correspondent Terry Moran pointed out that Biden and his team have “masterfully” handled “the greatest international security crisis since 9/11,” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. They united NATO against Moscow and held the alliance together, wrecked the Russian economy, helped Europeans find energy from new sources, kept the U.S. and NATO out of the war, helped Ukraine with intelligence and weapons, all despite those at home working against him.

Long term, this will advance U.S. interests not only by strengthening alliances, but also by demonstrating that America can be a force for good and by showing Putin’s brand of authoritarianism “as a con, a cheap costume donned by the thieves and gangsters in the Kremlin.”

Today, the White House held a bipartisan summit against “hate-fueled violence in our country,” promising “that when Americans stand united to renew civic bonds and heal divides, we can help prevent acts of hate and violence.” At the “United We Stand” summit, Biden offered a “whole-of-society response to prevent, respond to, and recover from hate-fueled violence, and to foster national unity.” Attending the summit were survivors of gun violence, religious leaders, community organizers, law enforcement officers, philanthropists, journalists, and local politicians. Susan Bro, whose daughter Heather Heyer was killed by a white supremacist at the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, introduced the president.

“[T]here are core values that should bring us together as Americans,” Biden said, “And one of them is standing together against hate, racism, bigotry, and violence that have long haunted and plagued our nation.” “In the last few years, it’s been given much too much oxygen in our politics, in our media, and on the Internet; too much hate—all for power and profit.”

“[T]he vast majority of Americans are overwhelmingly united against such violence,” he said. “The vast majority of us believe in honesty, decency, and respect for others, patriotism, liberty, justice for all, hope, and possibilities.”

Biden announced new investments in community building and called for “a new era of national service” with a $15 hourly wage and for Congress to remove social media’s near immunity for hate speech. He called for individuals to step up as well, speaking out against hate and building bridges.

“We must choose to be a nation of hope, unity, and optimism or a nation of fear and division and hate,” he said.

And I am ending here, on that note, leaving for later the many other things that happened today, because this is the third anniversary of these Letters from an American, and it strikes me what a contrast these stories are to the news of Trump’s phone call asking Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky to smear Biden that launched this project. I like that the three-year marker reflects that change, and that it, in turn, reflects you all. These letters are really yours, driven by your questions, complaints, tips, ideas, decency, principles, and kindness. I thank you for all of it, and for your faith, both in me and in American democracy.

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September 16, 2022 (Friday)

The big story in the news over the past couple of days is that Florida governor Ron DeSantis chartered two planes to fly about 50 migrants, most of whom were from Venezuela, to Martha’s Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts.

The story is still developing. Although DeSantis is the governor of Florida, the migrants appear to have come from Texas, and it currently appears that they were lured onto the planes—paid for with taxpayer money—with the false promise of work and housing in New York City or Boston. In addition, there are allegations from a lawyer working with the migrants that officials from the Department of Homeland Security falsified information about the migrants to set them up for automatic deportation. As I write this, it is not clear what their actual status is: have they applied for asylum and been processed, or are they undocumented immigrants?

As Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo says, none of it adds up.

None of it, that is, except the politics. DeSantis apparently dispatched the migrants with a videographer to take images of them arriving, entirely unexpectedly, on the upscale island, presumably in an attempt to present the image that Democratic areas can’t handle immigrants (in fact, more than 12% of the island’s 17,000 full-time residents were born in foreign countries, and 22% of the residents are non-white). But the residents of the island greeted the migrants; found beds, food, and medical care; and worked with authorities to move them back to the mainland where there are support services and housing. In the meantime, there are questions about the legality of DeSantis chartering planes to move migrants from state to state.

There are two big stories behind DeSantis’s move.

First is that the Republicans are on the ropes over the Supreme Court’s June 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision and the capture of the party by its MAGA wing. That slide into radical extremism means the party is contracting, but it is not clear at all that base voters will show up in the midterms without former president Trump on the ballot.

Rallying voters with threats of “aliens” swamping traditional society is a common tactic of right-wing politicians; it was the central argument that brought Hungary’s Viktor Orbán into his current authoritarian position. Republican governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Doug Ducey of Arizona have been bussing migrants to Washington—about 10,000 of them—saying they would bring the immigrant issue to the doorsteps of Democrats. Now DeSantis is in on the trick.

Immigrants are nothing new to northern cities, of course. The U.S. is in a period of high immigration. Currently, 15% of the inhabitants of Washington, D.C., are foreign born, only slightly less than the 16.8% of the population of Texas that is foreign born. About 29% of the inhabitants of Boston come from outside U.S. borders, as do 36% of the inhabitants of New York City.

In the lead-up to the midterms, Republicans have tried to distract from their unpopular stands on abortion, contraception, marriage equality, and so on, by hammering on the idea that the Democrats have created “open borders”; that criminal immigrants are bringing in huge amounts of drugs, especially fentanyl; and that Biden is secretly flying undocumented immigrants into Republican states in the middle of the night. Beginning in July, they began to insist that the country is being “invaded.”

In fact, the border is not “open.” Fences, surveillance technology, and about 20,000 Border Patrol agents make the border more secure than it has ever been. That means apprehensions of undocumented migrants are up, with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) recording more than 3 million encounters at the border since January 2021. Those high numbers reflect people stopped from coming in and are artificially inflated because many who are stopped try again. CBP estimates that about 27% of those stopped at the border are repeat apprehensions.

Although much fentanyl is being stopped, some is indeed coming in, but through official ports of entry in large trucks or cars, not on individual migrants, who statistically are far less likely than native-born Americans to commit crimes. And the federal government is not secretly flying anyone anywhere (although, ironically, DeSantis is); U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sometimes moves migrants between detention centers, and CBP transfers unaccompanied children to the Department of Health and Human Services. These flights have been going on for years.

The second story is the history of American immigration, which is far more complicated and interesting than the current news stories suggest.

Mexican immigration is nothing new; our western agribusinesses were built on migrant labor of Mexicans, Japanese, and poor whites, among others, in the late 19th century. From the time the current border was set in 1848 until the 1930s, people moved back and forth across it without restrictions. But in 1965, Congress passed the Hart-Celler Act, putting a cap on Latin American immigration for the first time. The cap was low: just 20,000, although 50,000 workers were coming annually.

After 1965, workers continued to come as they always had, and to be employed, as always. But now their presence was illegal. In 1986, Congress tried to fix the problem by offering amnesty to 2.3 million Mexicans who were living in the U.S. and by cracking down on employers who hired undocumented workers. But rather than ending the problem of undocumented workers, the new law exacerbated it by beginning the process of militarizing the border. Until then, migrants into the United States had been offset by an equal number leaving at the end of the season. Once the border became heavily guarded, Mexican migrants refused to take the chance of leaving.

Then, in the 1990s, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) flooded Mexico with U.S. corn and drove Mexican farmers to find work in the American Southeast. This immigration boom had passed by 2007, when the number of undocumented Mexicans living in the United States began to decline as more Mexicans left the U.S. than came.

In 2013 a large majority of Americans, both Republicans and Democrats, backed a bill to fix the disconnect caused by the 1965 law. In 2013, with a bipartisan vote of 68–32, the Senate passed a bill giving a 13-year pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, who would have to meet security requirements. It required employers to verify that they were hiring legal workers. It created a visa system for unskilled workers, and it got rid of preference for family migration in favor of skill-based migration. And it strengthened border security. It would have passed the House, but House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) refused to bring it up for a vote, aware that the issue of immigration would rally Republican voters.

But most of the immigrants coming over the southern border now are not Mexican migrants.

Beginning around 2014, people began to flee “warlike levels of violence” in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, coming to the U.S. for asylum. This is legal, although most come illegally, taking their chances with smugglers who collect fees to protect migrants on the Mexican side of the border and to get them into the U.S.

The Obama administration tried to deter migrants by expanding the detention of families, and it made significant investments in Central America in an attempt to stabilize the region by expanding economic development and promoting security. The Trump administration emphasized deterrence. It cut off support to Central American countries, worked with authoritarians to try to stop regional gangs, drastically limited the number of refugees the U.S. would admit, and—infamously—deliberately separated children from their parents to deter would-be asylum seekers.

The number of migrants to the U.S. dropped throughout Trump’s years in office. The Trump administration gutted immigration staff and facilities and then cut off immigration during the pandemic under Title 42, a public health order.

The Biden administration coincided with the easing of the pandemic and catastrophic storms in Central America, leading migration to jump, but the administration continued to turn migrants back under Title 42 and resumed working with Central American countries to stem the violence that is sparking people to flee. (In nine months, the Trump administration expelled more than 400,000 people under Title 42; in Biden’s first 18 months, his administration expelled 1.7 million people.)

The Biden administration sought to end Title 42 last May, but a lawsuit by Republican states led a federal judge in Louisiana to keep the policy in place. People arriving at the U.S. border have the right to apply for asylum even under Title 42.

There are a lot of moving pieces in the immigration debate: migrants need safety, the U.S. needs workers, our immigrant-processing systems are understaffed, and our laws are outdated. They need real solutions, not political stunts.

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September 17, 2022 (Saturday)

In 1761, 55-year-old Benjamin Franklin attended the coronation of King George III and later wrote that he expected the young monarch’s reign would “be happy and truly glorious.” Then, in 1776, he helped to draft and then signed the Declaration of Independence. An 81-year-old man in 1787, he urged his colleagues at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia to rally behind the new plan of government they had written.

“I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them,” he said, “For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise.”

The framers of the new constitution hoped it would fix the problems of the first attempt to create a new nation. During the Revolutionary War, the Second Continental Congress had hammered out a plan for a confederation of states, but with fears of government tyranny still uppermost in lawmakers’ minds, they centered power in the states rather than in a national government.

The result—the Articles of Confederation—was a “firm league of friendship” among the 13 new states, overseen by a congress of men chosen by the state legislatures and in which each state had one vote. The new pact gave the federal government few duties and even fewer ways to meet them. Indicating their inclinations, in the first substantive paragraph the authors of the agreement said: “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every Power, Jurisdiction and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.”

Within a decade, the states were refusing to contribute money to the new government and were starting to contemplate their own trade agreements with other countries. An economic recession in 1786 threatened farmers in western Massachusetts with the loss of their farms when the state government in the eastern part of the state refused relief; in turn, when farmers led by Revolutionary War captain Daniel Shays marched on Boston, propertied men were so terrified their own property would be seized that they raised their own army for protection.

The new system clearly could not protect property of either the poor or the rich and thus faced the threat of landless mobs. The nation seemed on the verge of tearing itself apart, and the new Americans were all too aware that both England and Spain were standing by, waiting to make the most of the opportunities such chaos would create.

And so, in 1786, leaders called for a reworking of the new government centered not on the states, but on the people of the nation represented by a national government. The document began, “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union….”

The Constitution established a representative democracy, a republic, in which three branches of government would balance each other to prevent the rise of a tyrant. Congress would write all “necessary and proper” laws, levy taxes, borrow money, pay the nation’s debts, establish a postal service, establish courts, declare war, support an army and navy, organize and call forth “the militia to execute the Laws of the Union” and “provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.”

The president would execute the laws, but if Congress overstepped, the president could veto proposed legislation. In turn, Congress could override a presidential veto. Congress could declare war, but the president was the commander in chief of the army and had the power to make treaties with foreign powers. It was all quite an elegant system of paths and tripwires, really.

A judicial branch would settle disputes between inhabitants of the different states and guarantee every defendant a right to a jury trial.

In this system, the new national government was uppermost. The Constitution provided that “[t]he Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States,” and promised that “the United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion….”

Finally, it declared: “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.”

“I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such,” Franklin said after a weary four months spent hashing it out, “because I think a general Government necessary for us,” and, he said, it “astonishes me…to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our…States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats.” “On the whole,” he said to his colleagues, “I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility—and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.”

On September 17, 1787, they did.

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September 18, 2022 (Sunday)

Today’s photo is a meditation on love and faith found early one morning in “a collection of stuff in the yard of a man who lives on the outermost inhabited island on the coast of Maine,” as my photographer friend Peter Ralston put it.

I’ll see you tomorrow.

[Photo, “The Source,” by Peter Ralston]

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September 19, 2022 (Monday)

On Saturday, the anniversary of the day in 1787 on which the Framers signed the U.S. Constitution, Attorney General Merrick Garland administered the oath of allegiance to 200 immigrants in the Great Hall at Ellis Island. From 1892 to 1954, nearly 12 million immigrants stopped on the island as part of their journey to the United States, and from 1900 to 1924, the Great Hall was filled with as many as 5000 new arrivals a day, sitting on benches under the high ceiling that had been tiled in the spectacular patterns of Spanish-born architect Rafael Guastavino—who came to the U.S. in 1881—where they awaited health inspections and registration.

“It is my great honor to welcome you as the newest citizens of the United States of America,” Garland said. “Congratulations!.. Just now, each of you took an oath of allegiance to the United States. In so doing, you took your place alongside generations who came before you, many through this very building, seeking protection, freedom, and opportunity. This country—your country—wholeheartedly welcomes you.”

As an introduction to the message he wanted to deliver, both to the new citizens and to old ones, Garland spoke of his own history as the grandson and son-in-law of those fleeing religious persecution, who came to the U.S. for the protection of our laws.

“The protection of law—the Rule of Law—is the foundation of our system of government,” the attorney general said.

“The Rule of Law means that the same laws apply to all of us, regardless of whether we are this country’s newest citizens or whether our [families] have been here for generations.

“The Rule of Law means that the law treats each of us alike: there is not one rule for friends, another for foes; one rule for the powerful, another for the powerless; a rule for the rich, another for the poor; or different rules, depending upon one’s race or ethnicity or country of origin.

“The Rule of Law means that we are all protected in the exercise of our civil rights; in our freedom to worship and think as we please; and in the peaceful expression of our opinions, our beliefs, and our ideas.

“Of course, we still have work to do to make a more perfect union. Although the Rule of Law has always been our guiding light, we have not always been faithful to it.

“The Rule of Law is not assured. It is fragile. It demands constant effort and vigilance.

“The responsibility to ensure the Rule of Law is and has been the duty of every generation in our country’s history. It is now your duty as well. And it is one that is especially urgent today at a time of intense polarization in America.”

Garland went on to ask the people in the room to share a promise “that each of us will protect each other and our democracy,” that “we will uphold the Rule of Law and seek to make real the promise of equal justice under law,” and that “we will do what is right, even if that means doing what is difficult.”

It is hard to imagine that his words were not intended to convey that he intends to follow the legal trails left behind by the former administration wherever they lead.

Certainly, the former president, who is under scrutiny for stealing national secrets, scheming to overturn the results of the 2020 election, and inciting mob violence against the U.S. government, appears to be concerned.

Over the weekend, in a rally on Saturday in Ohio, Trump made it clear that he is no longer playing with a violent, extremist base, but rather cultivating it. In the days before the event, he “retruthed” posts from the conspiracy theory QAnon, whose followers believe that he is leading a secret war against pedophiles and cannibals and that he will soon be placed back into power, arrest his Democratic enemies, try them, and execute some of them. That moment of his return is called “the Storm,” and one of his “retruths” assured his audience that “The Storm is Coming.” The rally played the QAnon theme song—or something so like it as to be indistinguishable from it—and featured other QAnon-adjacent politicians.

Trump seems to know he is down to his last line of supporters, and he is rallying them to be ready to commit violence on his behalf, much as he did in the weeks before January 6, 2021. But the rally appeared to have attracted only a few thousand people, a far cry from the crowds he commanded when he was in office. His power resides now primarily in his ability to deliver or withhold his supporters, whom the party desperately needs. In exchange for delivering his supporters, Greg Sargent of the Washington Post points out, Trump seems to be demanding that a Republican Congress put an end to his legal troubles.

Those legal troubles are mounting.

On September 5, 2022, Judge Aileen Cannon granted Trump’s request for a special master to review the materials FBI agents seized in their search of Mar-a-Lago on August 8. Those materials included more than 100 that bore classified markings, some at the highest levels. Cannon ordered the Department of Justice to stop its criminal investigation of Trump until the special master reviews the material. The DOJ asked Cannon to reconsider, because its ongoing review of the national security damage is tied to the criminal investigation. She refused and, at Trump’s team’s suggestion, appointed Judge Raymond Dearie special master.

Legal scholars say Cannon’s rulings are deeply problematic, but they looked as if they would buy Trump time until after the midterms, when Republicans might have control of one or both houses of Congress to help him out. While they are appealing the ruling, the DOJ is also responding to it.

A filing tonight shows that Dearie has ordered all inspection and labeling done by October 7, rather than the November 30 date the Trump team expected. It also shows that Dearie has asked Trump to specify which documents he claims to have declassified before claiming them as his property. Trump’s lawyers say they don’t want to tell the judge anything specific about what Trump might or might not have declassified, suggesting they want to reserve that for a possible criminal case.

Former U.S. attorney and legal commenter Joyce White Vance noted that he is “presumably avoiding the need to acknowledge he lied until after the midterm elections.”

As Trump faces legal trouble, Florida governor Ron DeSantis appears to be trying to gather Trump’s voters to himself with his stunt of sending migrants to Martha’s Vineyard off Massachusetts with a camera crew that gave video footage to the Fox News Channel but without telling Massachusetts authorities the migrants were coming. It was performative cruelty designed to show “liberals” rejecting immigrants in their backyards, and the fact that the people of Martha’s Vineyard welcomed them and got them back to the mainland and to shelter did not change that narrative in right-wing media: officials have been swamped with angry phone calls about their “hypocrisy,” and today a small plane towed a banner over the island reading, “Vineyard Hypocrites.”

But Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo noted all along that DeSantis’s story didn’t add up. He is a Florida governor, but he moved people from Texas, and the story is hardly one that looks like a government operation. It appears that a tall, blonde woman going by “Perla” worked with two men and two other women to find migrants to move, promising them work and housing in Massachusetts and putting them up in a hotel until they got 48 people to go.

Judd Legum of Popular Information added the piece that the migrants were not undocumented, as DeSantis repeatedly claimed, but in fact are here legally after applying for asylum. Someone gave them brochures promising 8 months’ cash assistance, food, housing, clothing, job training, and so on, benefits available only to a specific and small category of refugees, which they are not.

If they were misled about either their destination or their opportunities, those lying to them might run up against legal charges. For their part, DeSantis and Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nuñez say it is “categorically false” that they were misled.

Tonight, the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office in Texas announced it has opened up a criminal investigation.

There is one man tonight who is not worried about further legal troubles, though. The administration today secured the release of Mark Frerichs, kidnapped in Afghanistan in January 2020 and held for 31 months, by exchanging him for Bashir Noorzai, who was sentenced to life in prison for drug trafficking in 2009.

[Guastavino ceiling at Ellis Island:]

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September 20, 2022 (Tuesday)

There is big news today out of Russia, where the legislative body abruptly passed harsh penalties on those who don’t report to military duty, who surrender, or who refuse to fight against Ukraine. Meanwhile, Russian-installed officials in the parts of Ukraine occupied by Russia announced referenda for later this week on joining those territories to Russia.

Once those territories vote to join Russia—as authorities will undoubtedly declare, no matter what any actual vote might look like—Russia says it will see any attack on that region by Ukraine as an attack on Russia itself.

This looks quite as if Putin is worried the recent Ukrainian advance is going to force the Russians out of the Ukrainian territory they invaded in 2014, and is setting up a scenario to be able to hold that territory, at least.

Today, Putin was scheduled to make a major speech, but after several hours of delay, media figures announced the speech would take place tomorrow.

The news out of Russia made the Moscow Stock Exchange drop almost 7%.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that if Russia does, in fact, “stage these sham ‘referenda’, the United States and the international community will never recognize Russia’s claims to any purportedly-annexed parts of Ukraine. We continue to stand with the people of Ukraine.”

As Russia staggers, countries that were formerly in its orbit are realigning with the movement toward liberal democracy. Today the president of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, wrote an op-ed declaring, “There is simply no viable alternative to globalization, interdependence and the international rules-based order.” So, he said, “we are doubling down on the liberal, international, open policies that have driven such a dramatic increase in standards of living around the world.” He promised to decentralize and distribute power throughout Kazakhstan, strengthen parliament and local authorities, encourage political parties, and limit presidential terms, all to “move toward a new…model of a presidential republic with a stronger parliament and a more accountable government.”

Meanwhile, at the United States Agency for International Development today, Blinken said that the U.S. and partners “came together in support of the benefits that flow from democratic governance. If we continue to invest in and improve upon our democracies, they will not only persevere, they will prevail.”

Protests have broken out in Russia’s ally Iran as well. Women infuriated by the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, 22, arrested by Iran’s morality police for allegedly breaking the law regulating the headscarf covering her head and loose clothing disguising her body, are burning their headscarves and shouting “death to the dictator,” meaning Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is old and ill. They are supported by men, who are helping to fight off the police trying to stop the protests.

Here in the U.S., federal agencies are sending teams with hundreds of employees to Puerto Rico to help respond to the devastation left by Hurricane Fiona, which left the island without power and with severe flooding when it hit recently. When Hurricane Maria hit in 2017, more than 3000 residents died. Since then the Federal Emergency Management Agency has built warehouses and moved in generators and other commodities.

Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) announced yesterday that the Senate will vote later this week on the DISCLOSE Act, sponsored by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), which requires super PACs and other groups that do not have to disclose their donors—so-called dark money groups—to identify those who give $10,000 or more during an election season. It would also prohibit foreign entities from contributing at all. In a blow against those who have helped to pack our courts, it would require anyone spending money to advance the candidacies of judicial nominees to disclose their donors, too.

Thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, such advocacy groups can take unlimited money from individuals, corporations, or other entities so long as they don’t directly coordinate with a candidate, and they do not have to identify who the donors are. “Their ruling has paved the way for billions in unlimited campaign contributions by Super PACs and other dark money groups over the last decade,” Schumer said. “Ordinary citizens, meanwhile, have had their voices drowned out by elites who have millions to spare for political donations.”

Pointing to the recent $1.6 billion donation to a new right-wing political advocacy trust, President Joe Biden noted that the public found out about that donation only because someone tipped off a reporter.

Republicans are expected to oppose the bill.

Today, three of the migrants Florida governor Ron DeSantis flew from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard filed a class action lawsuit against DeSantis, secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation Jared W. Purdue, the state of Florida, the Florida Department of Transportation, and others, for planning and executing “a premeditated, fraudulent, and illegal scheme” to exploit vulnerable migrants—in this country legally—“for the sole purpose of advancing their own personal, financial and political interests.”

The suit alleges that the defendants trolled the streets outside a migrant shelter in Texas offering humanitarian assistance, “then made false promises and false representations that if Plaintiffs and class members were willing to board airplanes to other states, they would receive employment, housing, educational opportunities, and other like assistance upon their arrival.” Once they agreed, the defendants put them up in hotels away from the migrant center where someone might tell them they were being abused.

The defendants allegedly paid $615,000 to charter two private planes ($12,300 per passenger) and told the plaintiffs they were being sent to Washington, D.C., or to Boston. While on the plane, the defendants gave the migrants “a shiny, red folder that included other official-looking materials, including a brochure entitled ‘Massachusetts Refugee Benefits’” full of false information.

The migrants were dropped on Martha’s Vineyard in the evening without food, water, or shelter, and with no one aware they were coming. Then the defendants disappeared and refused to answer calls from the plaintiffs to learn what was going on. This, the plaintiffs say, was “cruelty akin to what they fled in their home country.” They allege the defendants violated their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights as well as the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The next day, DeSantis claimed responsibility. Since then he has claimed on Fox News Channel personality Sean Hannity’s show that the migrants traveled voluntarily and that they signed consent forms, although he could explain how he had authority to move migrants from Texas when he is the governor of Florida only by saying that migrants come to Florida, but “the problem is we’re not seeing mass movements of them…. It’s just coming in onesie-twosies.” So he had those likely to come to Florida rounded up in Texas.

Today he called the lawsuit “political theater.”

As they indicated last night they would, Trump’s lawyers today refused to produce any evidence that Trump had actually declassified any of the national security material FBI agents seized at Mar-a-Lago on August 8. They also told Special Master Judge Raymond Dearie that they wanted to examine the records the agents took before they decided to assert that Trump had declassified them, although they do not have the relevant security clearances. Dearie seemed disinclined to acquiesce to their request.

And tonight, the Department of Justice cited Trump’s lawyers’ refusal to assert that he declassified any of the material in its comprehensive request for a stay of Judge Aileen Cannon’s order stopping “the government from using its own records with classification markings—including markings reserved for records of the highest sensitivity—in an ongoing criminal investigation into whether those very records were mishandled or compromised.”

Earlier this month, New York Attorney General Letitia James rejected an offer from the Trump Organization to settle a civil case concerning whether Trump lied about the value of his properties to manipulate tax laws or bank loans. Tomorrow at 10:30 a.m. (Eastern), she will make a major announcement.

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September 21, 2022 (Wednesday)

Russian president Vladimir Putin announced today that he is mobilizing the Russian population to fight Ukraine. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu put that number at 300,000 soldiers. At the same time, the legislature abruptly changed the laws to inflict harsh penalties on those who don’t report to military duty, who surrender, or who refuse to fight. Reports suggest that 20–40% of the soldiers from some units have quit.

The cost of airline tickets out of Russia immediately skyrocketed.

Having called for the territories Russia claims to hold referenda on annexation to Russia, and clearly expecting that those votes will call for annexation, Putin also said that “Russia will use all the instruments at its disposal to counter a threat against its territorial integrity—this is not a bluff.” He is arguing that he will consider any Ukrainian attempt to retake its own territory as an attack on Russia and has told his people that the West is responsible for the Ukrainian resistance to Russian conquest. He is threatening to use nuclear weapons to conquer Ukraine, in what seems an admission that Russia is on the ropes.

Putin began his attack on Ukraine in late February with the expectation it would be short and decisive. More than six months later, the Russian economy is in tatters, the armies are collapsing, and the future of Putin’s administration is uncertain.

President Joe Biden responded in a speech before the United Nations General Assembly in New York. He reminded his audience that the Ukraine crisis was “a brutal, needless war—a war chosen by one man…. This world should see these outrageous acts for what they are. Putin claims he had to act because Russia was threatened. But no one threatened Russia, and no one other than Russia sought conflict.”

Biden urged the world to stand firm against Russia’s aggression and reiterated that “the United States is opening an era of relentless diplomacy to address the challenges that matter most to people’s lives—all people’s lives: tackling the climate crisis… strengthening global health security; feeding the world.”

It is no secret, Biden said, “that in the contest between democracy and autocracy, the United States—and I, as President—champion a vision for our world that is grounded in the values of democracy.”

Midday, today, New York attorney general Letitia James announced that her office has filed a $250 million civil lawsuit against Donald Trump, the Trump Organization, Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump, Eric Trump, and two executives from the company—Allan Weisselberg and Jeff McConney—accusing them of years of fraudulent financial practices, lying to banks about the value of their assets by billions of dollars while undervaluing those same properties for tax purposes.

The investigation began more than three years ago when Trump’s fixer, Michael Cohen, testified under oath that Trump lied about the value of his properties to get better loan terms and lower taxes. The instances James identified today were eye-popping. Mar-a-Lago is worth around $75 million; Trump valued it at $739 million based on its potential for development even though Trump himself had signed deeds sharply restricting that development. Rental units worth $750,000 were valued at nearly $50 million.

“The pattern of fraud that was used by Mr. Trump and the Trump organization for their own financial benefit was astounding,” James said.

Forced to testify in the investigation last month, Trump refused to answer questions, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination more than 440 times. In a civil trial, jurors can draw negative inferences from a witness taking the Fifth. Last month, James rejected an offer from the Trump Organization to settle the case.

The suit seeks to recover the profits from the scheme, to ban the Trumps from engaging in real estate transactions for five years, and to prohibit Trump or his children from running any business licensed in New York state. James also filed a criminal referral to federal prosecutors and a tax fraud referral to the IRS.

If the suit succeeds, it will devastate the Trump Organization.

Then tonight, in a major victory for the Department of Justice, a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta ruled that Judge Aileen Cannon’s lower court “abused its discretion” when it temporarily banned the Justice Department from using the roughly 100 documents with classification markings in its criminal investigation of the former president.

The decision was unanimous. Two of the three judges on the panel were appointed by Trump.

At issue are the documents Trump stole from the U.S. government when he left the White House. All of those documents belong to the U.S. government—that is, the American people—but some of them are classified, some at the highest level of classification.

Today’s struggle is not over the 184 classified documents in the first 15 boxes of material Trump returned to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in January 2022, or the 38 additional classified documents recovered after a subpoena. It’s about the 100 or more documents with classified markings FBI agents recovered from Mar-a-Lago on August 8.

Trump wanted a special master to determine if any of the documents recovered on August 8 actually belonged to him or were protected by attorney-client privilege, and a court to rule that until the special master had reviewed the documents, the Department of Justice could not use them in a criminal investigation of the former president.

On Labor Day, Judge Cannon agreed with Trump, so the Justice Department asked for the part of her decision that involved the classified documents to be stopped, since it could not untangle the criminal investigation from the investigation into the damage the national security had suffered from this breach. She refused, but today’s decision gave the DOJ what it wanted.

“For our part, we cannot discern why Plaintiff would have an individual interest in or need for any of the one-hundred documents with classification markings,” it said. “Classified documents…are ‘owned by, produced by or for, or…under the control of the United States Government’… and “they include information the ‘unauthorized disclosure [of which] could reasonably be expected to cause identifiable or describable damage to the national security.’” It continued: Trump “has not even attempted to show that he has a need to know the information contained in the classified documents.”

It noted that while Trump “suggests that he may have declassified these documents when he was President,” “the record contains no evidence that any of these records were declassified,” and that yesterday, Trump’s lawyers “resisted providing any evidence that he had declassified any of these documents.” The U.S., the court said, “would suffer irreparable injury” if the bar on using the documents for a criminal investigation stays in place, because that investigation is “inextricably intertwined” with the ongoing national security review. The government needs to figure out who saw the documents, whether they were compromised, and what else might be missing.

This afternoon, before the ruling, in an interview on the Fox News Channel, Trump said: “I declassified the documents when they left the White House…. There doesn’t have to be a process as I understand it. You’re the president of the United States, you can declassify…even by thinking about it.” (In fact, there is a process for declassification.) He also suggested that the archivists at NARA are “a radical left group of people” who were hiding documents, and that maybe the FBI was looking “for the Hillary Clinton emails” when they searched Mar-a-Lago.

Also today, CNN reported that Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who was active in the effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election, will speak to the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol.

To prevent any future attempt to overturn an election, the House today passed a fix to the Electoral Count Act, making it clear the vice president cannot refuse to count certified electors and making it harder for congress members to object to those certified ballots. The vote was 229 to 203. Only nine Republicans, most of whom are retiring or who lost their primaries, joined the Democrats to pass the measure.

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Delicious. This gives me hope that perhaps he was as poor a judge of corruption in judges as value of real estate.

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Yesterday was a DAY!

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September 22, 2022 (Thursday)

Big stories in different parts of the world today.

The Russian mobilization—the first since World War II—appears to be aiming at 1 million new soldiers, rather than the 300,000 suggested yesterday. Officials are scouring villages to conscript men, especially ethnic minorities, to fill the quotas the government has established. Stories are circulating of men given only an hour to appear at recruitment centers, students being given draft notices while they were sitting in class, and workers taken off the job.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government has officially condemned Russia’s attacks on the civilian population of Ukraine: the forced deportations, disappearances, detainments, torture, and other abuses. The State Department said that “President Putin must be held accountable for these atrocities.” Indeed, even North Korea has distanced itself from Russia, saying in an official statement that it has never supplied Russia with weapons and has no plans to do so.

The U.S. today also imposed sanctions on Iran’s morality police and other government leaders after the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for wearing her head covering too loosely. Her death has prompted protests in Tehran and other areas, with Iranians seeing her death as a sign of the extremism of the country’s religious leaders.

And yet, not everyone is on board with distancing themselves from authoritarian governments. Today, Jared Kushner received the Hungarian Order of Merit at the Hungarian consulate in New York.

Here at home, President Biden has rushed help to Puerto Rico. The island is reeling from Hurricane Fiona, which knocked out a power grid not fully recovered from Hurricane Maria almost exactly five years ago. On Sunday he issued an emergency declaration, freeing up federal money to help the region, and yesterday he issued a major disaster declaration, which allows the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) to pay for debris removal, water restoration, temporary housing and home repairs, and crisis counselors; to provide low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses; and so on.

When he ran for president, Biden promised he would provide aid to Puerto Rico, which was still rebuilding after Hurricane Maria killed 3000 people and left hundreds of thousands of people without power for months. Today, at FEMA’s Region 2 headquarters at One World Trade Center in New York City, Biden indicated he sees his response to Hurricane Fiona as a test of the federal government. He recalled President Ronald Reagan’s famous line: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.” “But we really are,” Biden said, “[a]nd…I hope you’re satisfied with the response so far. We’ll be with the…folks of Puerto Rico now and until this is done and we recover.”

While Biden is trying to demonstrate that the government works, the former president is finding that out.

Yesterday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta overturned the decision of Judge Aileen Cannon saying that the Department of Justice could not use the materials seized in the August 8 search of Mar-a-Lago until a special master had reviewed them. The 11th Circuit agreed with the Department of Justice that the 100 or so classified documents should be exempt from that decision. It ruled that the Department of Justice and the FBI can proceed with both the national security investigation of the documents with classified markings that Trump stole from the national government and the criminal investigation of that theft, including those documents.

Legal commenter Teri Kanefield noted that Trump was likely most concerned about the documents with classification markings because while all the material belonged to the United States—that is, to us—it is the classified material that threatens our national security and thus puts him in the greatest legal jeopardy. That, she suggests, is why he is making such a fuss about whether he declassified the material.

But the court has removed those documents from the special master’s review. “So now,” Kanefield notes, “[Trump] can pay for a special master to look through everything else while the DOJ continues a criminal investigation of the doc[ument]s that matter.”

Today that special master, U.S. District Judge Raymond Dearie—who was Trump’s pick for the job, by the way—ordered Trump’s lawyers to back up Trump’s wild claims in court. The former president has alleged that the FBI planted documents at Mar-a-Lago, that some of the recovered documents were actually his, and that he had, in fact, secretly declassified some of the materials with classified markings. Dearie gave his lawyers until September 30 to tell him which documents, if any, on the Justice Department’s inventory of the material they recovered from Mar-a-Lago on August 8 have been described incorrectly.

“This submission shall be Plaintiff’s final opportunity to raise any factual dispute as to the completeness and accuracy of the Detailed Property Inventory,” Dearie wrote.

This morning, former Trump attorney Sidney Powell was supposed to testify before a grand jury in Fulton County, Georgia, about her involvement in a breach of election systems in Coffee County. The data firm whose operatives gained access to the system says it was hired by Powell. She did not appear for today’s scheduled interview.

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September 23, 2022 (Friday)

Today, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Representative Elise Stefanik (R-NY), who took over as the chair of the House Republican Conference after the party rejected Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) for her refusal to back the January 6 insurrection, released the House Republicans’ plan for the country.

Covering just a single page, it presents vague aspirations—many of which Biden has already put in place—but focuses on the radical extremes of the MAGA party while trying to make those extremes sound mild.

The so-called “Commitment to America” calls for a strong economy, a safe nation, a free future, and an accountable government. So far, so good.

But the first topic—making the economy strong—is a paraphrase of what the Biden administration has been doing. The Republicans call for fighting inflation and lowering the cost of living, making America energy independent, bringing down gas prices, strengthening the supply chain, and ending the country’s dependence on China.

This is quite literally the platform of the Democrats, but while the Republicans offer no actual proposals to contribute to these goals, Biden has taken concrete steps to address inflation by taking on the shipping monopolies that hiked transportation costs, for example, while Democrats in Congress have passed legislation capping the cost of certain prescription medications. Biden has released reserves to help combat high gas prices, which have now fallen close to their cost last March—a barrel of oil is now under $80—while expanding our nation’s pool of truck drivers and just last week averting a train strike that would have endangered supply chains. The incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act are designed specifically to make America energy independent while addressing climate change, and Biden’s extraordinary efforts to support economic development in the Indo-Pacific region, along with the CHIPS and Science Act, were explicitly designed to reduce U.S. dependence on China.

It feels rather as if the Republicans recognize that Biden’s policies are popular, and are hoping that voters haven’t noticed that he is actually putting them in place.

Then the document gets to the heart of its argument, recycling MAGA talking points in language that makes it very attractive. Who doesn’t want national safety, for example?

But national safety is described here as securing the border and combatting illegal immigration (something already in place), adding 200,000 police officers through recruiting bonuses, cracking down on prosecutors and district attorneys who refuse to prosecute crimes (this is likely directed at those who say they will not prosecute women for obtaining abortions), criminalizing all fentanyl, and supporting our troops and exercising peace through strength (which likely means reversing Biden’s emphasis on multilateral diplomacy to return to using the U.S. military as a global enforcer)— all MAGA demands.

“A Future That’s Built on Freedom” is a similar sleight of hand, meaning something far from the freedom of the recent past. Here it means giving parents control over their childrens’ education (more book banning and laws that prohibit teaching subjects that make students “uncomfortable”), “defend[ing] fairness by ensuring that only women can compete in women’s sports” (there’s the anti-trans statement), achieving “longer, healthier lives for Americans” by what appears to be getting rid of the Affordable Care Act, and what appears to be a defense of the use of ivermectin and other quack cures popular on the right (“lower prices through transparency, choice, and competition,” “invest in lifesaving cures,” and “improve access to telemedicine”). It also demands confronting “Big Tech” to make it fair, which is likely a reference to the right wing’s conviction that social media discriminates against it by banning hate speech.

The section about accountable government calls for preserving constitutional freedoms, which they interpret as an apparent national ban on abortion—a constitutional right until this past June—saying they will “protect the lives of unborn children and their mothers.” They defend “religious freedom,” which the right wing, including the Supreme Court, has interpreted as freedom for Christian schools to receive public tax money and for Christian coaches to pray with students. The document also calls for safeguarding the Second Amendment, which the right wing has increasingly interpreted since the 1970s to mean that the government cannot regulate gun ownership.

This section of the document calls for rigorous oversight of the government “to rein in government abuse of power and corruption,” providing “real transparency,” and requiring the White House “to answer for its incompetence at home and abroad.” It also says Republicans will “save and strengthen Social Security and Medicare.”

While the part of this section that calls for stopping government abuse and incompetence seems rich coming from the MAGA Republicans, the statement that they intend to protect Social Security and Medicare strikes me as I felt when hearing Trump tell voters in 2020 that he would protect Obamacare at the very time his lawyers were in court trying to overturn the law. Now, in this moment, leading Republicans have vowed to get rid of Social Security and Medicare, which is an interesting way to “save and strengthen” them.

Similarly, the section promising to “restore the people’s voice” calls for voting restrictions.

In short, the document feels like the doublespeak from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. To defend the indefensible, Orwell wrote in an essay titled “Politics and the English Language,” “political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness…. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA), who focused on the power of language to alter reality and who helped to write the 1994 Contract with America that enabled the Republicans to take control of the House for the first time since 1954, worked on this document. The Contract with America, which party leaders called a contract as a promise that it would be binding, led the Republicans to shut down the government for 28 days between November 1995 and January 1996 to get their way before they entirely abandoned the “contract.”

To sell today’s document to voters, Republicans used a slick video, but Jennifer Bendery of HuffPost noted that the film uses stock videos from Russia and Ukraine in its “Commitment to America.” When Bendery reached out to McCarthy for comment, his spokesperson Mark Bednar responded: “Interesting how you guys aren’t remotely interested in the issues facing the American people in the video.”

But will it work? The document tries to win Trump voters without actually mentioning Trump, who now alienates all but his fervent supporters. But he continues to dominate the Republican Party and to grab the headlines. Tonight, 60 Minutes teased a story that will broadcast on Sunday and is already raising eyebrows. In it, Denver Riggleman, former senior tech advisor for the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, said that the White House switchboard connected a call to a rioter’s phone while the Capitol was under siege on January 6, 2021.

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September 24, 2022 (Saturday)

In Arizona, Pima County Superior Court Judge Kellie Johnson has restored a law put into effect by Arizona’s Territorial legislature in 1864 and then reworked in 1901 that has been widely interpreted as a ban on all abortions except to save a woman’s life. Oddly, I know quite a bit about the 1864 Arizona Territorial legislature, and its story matters as we think about the attempt to impose its will in modern America.

In fact, the Civil War era law seems not particularly concerned with women handling their own reproductive care—it actually seems to ignore that practice entirely. The laws for this territory, chaotic and still at war in 1864, appear to reflect the need to rein in a lawless population of men.

The criminal code talks about “miscarriage” in the context of other male misbehavior. It focuses at great length on dueling, for example— making illegal not only the act of dueling (punishable by three years in jail) but also having anything to do with a duel. And then, in the section that became the law now resurrected in Arizona, the law takes on the issue of poisoning.

In that context, the context of punishing those who secretly administer poison to kill someone, it says that anyone who uses poison or instruments “with the intention to procure the miscarriage of any woman then being with child” would face two to five years in jail, “Provided, that no physician shall be affected by the last clause of this section, who in the discharge of his professional duties deems it necessary to produce the miscarriage of any woman in order to save her life.”

The next section warns against cutting out tongues or eyes, slitting noses or lips, or “rendering…useless” someone’s arm or leg.

The law that is currently interpreted to outlaw abortion care seemed designed to keep men in the chaos of the Civil War from inflicting damage on others—including pregnant women—rather than to police women’s reproductive care, which women largely handled on their own or through the help of doctors who used drugs and instruments to remove what they called dangerous blockages of women’s natural cycles in the four to five months before fetal movement became obvious.

Written to police the behavior of men, the code tells a larger story about power and control.

The Arizona Territorial legislature in 1864 had 18 men in the lower House of Representatives and 9 men in the upper house, the Council, for a total of 27 men. They met on September 26, 1864, in Prescott. The session ended about six weeks later, on November 10.

The very first thing the legislators did was to authorize the governor to appoint a commissioner to prepare a code of laws for the territory. But William T. Howell, a judge who had arrived in the territory the previous December, had already written one, which the legislature promptly accepted as a blueprint.

Although they did discuss his laws, the members later thanked Judge Howell for “preparing his excellent and able Code of Laws” and, as a mark of their appreciation, provided that the laws would officially be called "The Howell Code.” (They also paid him a handsome $2500, which was equivalent to at least 5 years’ salary for a workingman in that era.) Judge Howell wrote the territory’s criminal code essentially single-handedly.

The second thing the legislature did was to give a member of the House of Representatives a divorce from his wife.

Then they established a county road near Prescott.

Then they gave a local army surgeon a divorce from his wife.

In a total of 40 laws, the legislature incorporated a number of road companies, railway companies, ferry companies, and mining companies. They appropriated money for schools and incorporated the Arizona Historical Society.

These 27 men constructed a body of laws to bring order to the territory and to jump-start development. But their vision for the territory was a very particular one.

The legislature provided that “No black or mulatto, or Indian, Mongolian, or Asiatic, shall be permitted to [testify in court] against any white person,” thus making it impossible for them to protect their property, their families, or themselves from their white neighbors. It declared that “all marriages between a white person and a [Black person], shall…be absolutely void.”

And it defined the age of consent for sexual intercourse to be just ten years old (even if a younger child had “consented”).

So, in 1864, a legislature of 27 white men created a body of laws that discriminated against Black people and people of color and considered girls as young as 10 able to consent to sex, and they adopted a body of criminal laws written by one single man.

And in 2022, one of those laws is back in force in Arizona.

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As bad as white supremacists seem today, they were just as horrible 150 years ago

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Tom Delonge Reaction GIF

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September 25, 2022 (Sunday)

End of summer.

No matter how much I love what I do, I never doubt that he has the better office.

I’ll see you tomorrow.

[Photo by Buddy Poland.]

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