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How a Mysterious Russian Businessman Got His Picture Taken With Donald Trump

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On Monday, the Justice Department announced the indictment of two Republican operatives for allegedly funneling $25,000 from a Russian citizen to Donald Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee in 2016. In leveling those charges, the feds generated a mystery: Who was the Russian? The indictment charged Jesse Benton and Doug Wead, who have links to Trump and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), but it did not identify the person who originally provided the money, who it referred to simply as “Foreign National 1.” But publicly available evidence suggests that man is probably Roman Vasilenko, a retired Russian naval officer and now a St. Petersburg, Russia-based businessman who operates a multi-level marketing company.

According to the feds, Wead and Benton’s scheme began in September 2016, when Wead contacted a Ukrainian translator and offered to help Foreign National 1 meet Trump. In the indictment, Foreign National 1 is described as a “business associate of Wead living outside the United States.” Benton allegedly arranged for Wead, Foreign National 1, and the translator to attend a September 22 “roundtable” fundraiser with Trump at Philadelphia’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The indictment says that Foreign National 1 wired $100,000 to Benton’s company and that Benton later used $25,000 of that money to pay for the Russian’s ticket while keeping the remaining $75,000. The indictment does not accuse Foreign National 1 or the translator of any wrongdoing, and they have not been charged. The indictment adds that the Trump campaign and the RNC were unaware of the alleged scheme.

In one email to the event organizers, Benton emphasized that their Russian guest wanted to have his picture taken with the candidate. “The[] photo is important to him,” Benton wrote, according to the indictment. And he got his wish: Foreign National 1, the translator, and Wead all had official photos taken with Trump, and Wead took a photo of the Russian man posing with Trump on his personal camera, the indictment notes.

Those photos provide the apparent link between the indictment and Vasilenko, which was first reported by Forensic News, a nonprofit investigative journalism publication.

Vasilenko documented his foray into American politics on his social media accounts, which include details that seem to line up neatly with the government’s allegations. His company, Life Is Good, not to be confused with the American t-shirt company, created a video that shows Vasilenko and his entourage, all wearing shirts bearing the company’s logo, being squired around Washington by Wead in September 2016. This included a stop at Paul’s Senate office and at Wead’s house. The video also features footage of Wead and Vasilenko at an event where Trump can be seen addressing a small group of people behind them. 

And, it shows Vasilenko meeting Trump, with the flag of Pennsylvania in the background.

Vasilenko and Life Is Good did not respond to requests for comment. But according to the caption and narration of the video, he met with Trump on September 22—the same day as Trump’s fundraiser in Philadelphia—while on a multi-day trip to the United States. 

Vasilenko is a character—a former Russian naval officer who boldly claims his multi-level marketing firm will help customers learn how to prosper like he has. His social media is full of pictures of him looking successful in a Vladimir Putin sort of way. There are photos of Vasilenko looking thoughtful, standing on army tanks, signing paperwork, embracing a private jet, and performatively enjoying the outdoors. And there’s the shot of him posing with Trump, under the large caption (in Russian): “Two Presidents.”

Vasilenko also posted a photo of himself at a table meeting with then-candidate Trump. Both photos appear to be from the same event that is featured in the Life is Good video.

Wead’s attorney declined to confirm that Vasilenko was Wead’s guest at the event, but in wire service photos from Trump’s multi-stop campaign trip to Philadelphia that day, Trump was sporting the same red, white, and gray striped tie that he wore in the photo with Vasilenko.

The indictment alleges that Benton didn’t pay the RNC and the Trump campaign until well after the September 22 event but that when he eventually did, he used his personal credit card and explicitly told campaign officials the donation was from him. He then paid his credit card bill from the same account into which the Russian national had deposited $100,000, the DOJ claims. 

Donating money on someone else’s behalf is illegal—it’s called a straw-donor scheme—and constitutes an even more serious violation of the law if the true source of the funds is a foreign national.

This is the latest in a series of recent cases in which the Justice Department has charged US political operatives with arranging straw donations to funnel money to US political candidates. While some cases have involved contributions to Democratic politicians, a number of them have focused on Trump’s 2016 campaign. In 2016 and 2017, moreover, opportunistic DC lobbyists with real or purported links to Trump charged foreigners strikingly large fees for arranging access to, or merely a picture with, Trump. This is legal as long as the foreigners do not secretly donate to the lawmakers.

While the new indictment accuses Benton, a longtime political consultant who is married to Ron Paul’s granddaughter, of directing the contribution to the Trump campaign, it also alleges deep involvement from Wead.

Wead is frequently described as a “presidential historian” in his many television news appearances—including a number in which he mocked and downplayed the idea of Russian involvement in the 2016 Trump campaign. He also had a side gig. According to Vasilenko’s social media and company website, he and Wead have been business associates or collaborators for years, with Wead having traveled to Russia and appeared at events for Life Is Good. 

In an over-the-top endorsement video for Vasilenko’s business, Wead gushes, “What is success and how to do you get it? To me success has often been who you know, which brings to mind Life Is Good and Roman Vasilenko. He’s young and strong. He’s a leader. He’s filled with imagination and great ideas. He’s surpassed the competition, he’s surpassed time…I look back over my life and the things I regret [are] the things I didn’t do, the decisions I didn’t make. I’ve made this decision. I’m working with Roman Vasilenko. I am working with Life is Good.”

Wead has been a fixture in GOP circles for years. He served as a special assistant to the president in the George H.W. Bush White House. He advised Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign and, then, the 2016 presidential campaign of Rand Paul, Ron’s son. Along the way he has written a series of books, some about presidents and some with titles like “DREAM BIG: Ninety-nine Steps to Network Marketing Success.” Wead wrote several books featuring the Bush family. But in 2005 he released a series of recordings he had made of George W. Bush without Bush’s knowledge, causing a break with the family. Wead has lately allied himself with Trump World, publishing a 2017 “insider” account of the 2016 presidential campaign and a 2019 book about the inner-workings of the Trump White House. Both books were sympathetic portraits of Trump written with the full cooperation of the president, who sat for interviews and later tweeted his endorsements. 

In April, Wead visited Trump at Mar-a-Lago, where Trump called him “my favorite historian.” 

Wead appeared in a federal court in Washington, DC, on Monday, represented by Jay Sekulow, who also represented Trump during the Robert Mueller investigation. Sekulow said in a statement that Wead is “a respected author and supporter of charitable causes. He has pleaded not guilty and will continue to respond appropriately in court.”

Benton has also pleaded not guilty. He did not respond to a text message seeking comment for this story, and his attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

Benton already had a tangled history with campaign finance law. While working on Ron Paul ‘s presidential campaign, Benton and several other Paul aides connived to funnel $73,000 to a then-Iowa state senator who switched his endorsement from Michelle Bachmann to Paul. Benton was convicted in 2016 on four charges relating to the scandal. He was sentenced to six months home confinement and two years probation on September 20, 2016—two days before the Trump fundraiser at the center of Monday’s indictment, according to court records. 

Benton didn’t attend the fundraiser and doesn’t seem to appear in any of Vasilenko’s social media postings about the event. According to the indictment, Benton and Wead started working on their plan on September 12, eight days before Benton’s sentencing on the earlier charges. And the DOJ alleges that Foreign National 1—presumably Vasilenko—landed in the United States on September 20, just about the time Benton was sentenced in an Iowa courtroom.

A few weeks later, Benton was caught in a sting investigation by the Telegraph, a London newspaper that sent reporters posing as representatives of a wealthy Chinese person to meet with him. Benton allegedly told the undercover reporters he could arrange for their funds to be funneled through dark money groups and spent on pro-Trump political activities, according to the paper. (At the time, Benton denied he had done anything “unethical”.)

Benton, who was still on home confinement at the time of the incident with the Telegraph reporters, was admonished by his probation officer for traveling without permission to New York, where the sting occurred, according to court filings that referenced the newspaper’s investigation. In December 2020, Benton received a pardon from then-President Trump, clearing his record of the 2016 conviction.

Wead and Benton now face six charges, including conspiracy, operating a straw-donor scheme, and aiding a foreign national in making a political donation.


The “Most Important Question” on Earth: How Soon Will China Quit Coal?

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This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The pledge by China’s president, Xi Jinping, on Tuesday to cease building new coal-fired power projects outside the country will be welcome news to environmentalists around the world. It came on the anniversary of Xi’s unilateral pledge for China to reach carbon neutrality by 2060. Last year Xi also promised that Chinese emissions would peak by 2030.

“China will step up support for other developing countries in developing green and low-carbon energy, and will not build new coal-fired power projects abroad,” Xi said in a pre-recorded video address at the annual UN general assembly.

Xi is personally invested in the climate agenda. Since he came to power in 2012, Beijing has been taking more visible steps in tackling its own environmental problems such as pollution. It has been extending its influence abroad, too, by joining international initiatives such as the 2015 Paris climate agreement—a pledge that Donald Trump pulled the US out of four years ago but which Joe Biden has rejoined. And unlike in some countries, there is consensus among China’s political elite that the climate crisis is real.

Inside China there has been growing awareness among citizens about the impact of the climate crisis. This summer’s devastating floods in Henan province illustrated to many people the consequences of inaction on the climate emergency. Jia Xiaolong, the deputy head of the national climate centre, told China News Agency that the heavy rainfall in Henan occurred “against the backdrop of global warming”.

Guardian graphic. Source: Global Development Policy Center, Boston University. Data as of mid-2019, assumes all plants under construction and under planning come into operation, and no plant closure.

There’s little doubt about how significant China’s promise to stop funding overseas coal-fired power projects is. Until recently, China, Japan and South Korea accounted for more than 95 percent of all foreign financing for coal-fired power plants, according to Georgetown University. Japan and South Korea promised to cease such operations early this year.

But the slew of promises from the trio in recent months is “low-hanging fruit,” according to Geall. The falling price of renewables in recent months means the economic case for coal is worse than ever. Few countries want to be lumbered with new coal fleets. “China will, of course, need to go further in curbing its domestic coal production and consumption—which it has room to do under its 14th five-year plan and as part of the 2060 goal,” he said.

Thomas Hale, of the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government, agreed. He said coal remained very much alive within China, which is the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter. After Xi’s pledge, all eyes would focus on China’s domestic plans. “Ultimately, the single most important question for the future of life on planet Earth is how quickly China can shut its thousands of coal facilities,” he said.

But China’s historical reliance on coal is driven by the need to keep economic activity going. Ultimately, how China is to reduce its coal dependency will be determined by the transition of the economy itself. It is what Beijing has promised to do, but it is proving to be a difficult task. China’s provincial governments approved the construction of 24 new coal power projects in the first half of 2021, including three large-scale power plants, according to Greenpeace, although that represented a decline on numbers approved in 2020.

While international commentaries have been heavily focused on the economic ramification of the potential collapse of Evergrande, China’s second largest property developer, in recent weeks, Hale thinks this crisis may ultimately be of more significance to the climate.

“If that building crisis helps push the Chinese economy away from a debt-fueled growth model, it could be the biggest climate development of the year. If instead it shows just how deeply that model is entrenched in China’s political economy, then we will need to treat China’s climate ambitions with greater skepticism,” he said.

Democrats Are Living in Different Realities When It Comes to Passing Biden’s Agenda

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President Joe Biden has bet his legacy on a sweeping economic agenda that now awaits action in the House of Representatives. But on the eve of a key vote in Congress’s lower chamber, Democratic lawmakers from across the ideological spectrum remain as divided as ever on how to get that agenda over the finish line—or what it should look like when it gets there.

The White House’s economic proposals have been sorted into two bills: A $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill the Senate passed in August and a $3.5 trillion budget bill that includes massive investments in health care, the fight against climate change, and the social safety net. House Democrats agreed to hold a vote on the infrastructure bill by September 27 at the urging of their moderate colleagues to whom passing a bipartisan, job-creating bill would prove to voters that Democrats can reach across the aisle and get things done.

But progressive lawmakers balked at the idea of passing the bipartisan bill by itself. The party’s most ambitious line items are in the $3.5 trillion budget bill, and Congress’s left flank feared that moderates would withhold support for the legislation once the bipartisan bill was on the president’s desk. (By virtue of the congressional budgeting process, the budget bill can pass with only Democratic votes, but it needs the vote of every Democrat in the Senate to pass.)

So progressive lawmakers are refusing to vote for the bipartisan bill until the House and Senate reach an “ironclad” agreement on a budget bill. So far, that hasn’t happened: A handful of moderate House Democrats have joined Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Krysten Sinema in raising doubts over the size of the bill, as well as how it will be paid for. The disagreement means the budget bill will almost certainly not be ready for a vote by the infrastructure bill’s Monday deadline. And on the Sunday political shows, House Democrats representing both sides of the intra-party debate spoke of the consequences of not having an agreed-upon budget bill as if they were living in separate political realities.

To hear Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) tell it, there’s little chance the House will actually hold a vote on the bipartisan bill without an accompanying budget agreement. “The votes aren’t there,” Jayapal, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday morning. “The Speaker is an incredibly good vote counter,” Jayapal explained, and would not bring a doomed bill to a vote. But just moments later, Rep. Josh Gotteheimer (D-N.J.), one of Jayapal’s centrist House colleagues, joined the show and contradicted her. “We’re going to have the votes,” Gottheimer told CNN. “It will come up tomorrow, and we’re going to vote this week—early this week.”

Pelosi spoke for herself on ABC’s This Week and promised Democrats would pass the infrastructure bill “this week,” but demurred on the exact timeline. “We will bring the bill to the floor tomorrow for consideration,” she said, “but you know I’m never bringing a bill to the floor that doesn’t have the votes.” To choose an “arbitrary date” for passage would be foolish, she explained. “You have to go when you have the votes in a reasonable time.”

Pelosi downplayed tensions among her Democratic colleagues. “This isn’t about moderates versus progressives,” she said, noting that “95 percent” of congressional Democrats support both bills as written. She added that both bills together represent “President Biden’s agenda” and that “he will not confine his vision for the future” to just the bipartisan bill.

Pelosi’s stance allies her with progressives, who have also claimed the mantle of championing Biden’s agenda. “Ultimately, we’re delivering on the president’s agenda,” Jayapal said. “There’s a few people in the House and a couple in the Senate who aren’t quite there yet.” But Gottheimer countered that in not bringing the bipartisan bill to a vote Monday, Democrats are sitting on “historic, once-in-a-century” legislation. “I can’t explain to anybody why we have this separate bill sitting here,” he said, lamenting that bill would create much-needed jobs.

And what happens to the White House’s economic plan is just one of the tortured items on Congress’s agenda this week. The federal government will run out of money on September 30 if lawmakers don’t pass a resolution to keep funding it by that date. So, too, will the country’s surface transportation programs, if Congress doesn’t pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill that contains its replenishment. “September 30th is a date fraught with meaning,” Pelosi wrote to her Democratic colleagues on Saturday afternoon. “The next few days will be a time of intensity.”

DHS Secretary Says What We’ve All Been Thinking: The Immigration System Is “Completely Broken”

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Speaking with candor on Meet the Press on Sunday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas acknowledged that “we are working in a completely broken system.” No kidding.

After a week in which Border Patrol agents on horseback corralled Haitian migrants at the Texas border with whip-like cords and shipped thousands back to the island country—leading to the resignation of the US Special Envoy for Haiti—Mayorkas’ admission seems like a bit of an understatement. 

But Mayorkas doesn’t appear ready to fix that broken system. In the same interview, Mayorkas defended the decision to send 2,000 migrants back to Haiti, though many of them have not stepped foot in their home country for years. Mayorkas said the expulsion was necessary under Title 42, a public health policy invoked by President Trump as justification to turn asylum seekers away at the border.

“The Centers for Disease Control has a Title 42 authority that we exercise to protect the migrants themselves, to protect the local communities” Mayorkas said. “They are subject to removal, they are subject to Title 42 expulsion.”

There’s A Flurry of Studies Trashing the Democrats’ Tax Agenda. They Have Corporate and GOP Dark Money Ties.

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It’s no surprise Republicans hate the taxes President Joe Biden has proposed to pay for his sweeping economic agenda. According to House Republicans, the White House’s proposal to raise the corporate tax rate from 21 to 28 percent “cuts employment” and “slows economic growth,” thus “harming U.S. economic competitiveness and increasing the cost of investment in America.” To make their case, Republicans come bearing receipts: a 2021 study from the Tax Foundation, the self-described “leading independent tax policy nonprofit.”

But a look at some of the backers of this nonprofit suggests that “independent” has nothing to do with non-partisan. Major funders include the conservative Koch family foundation as well as the foundation of the late Richard Scaife, a billionaire known as the “funding father of the right” for his bankrolling of conservative causes. Several former Republican lawmakers serve on the Tax Foundation’s board, alongside executives from major US corporations, including PepsiCo and Microsoft. Both authors of the study, Garrett Watson and William McBride, have longstanding ties to right-wing think tanks and causes. McBride authored a report in favor of a GOP tax plan in 2015 that a fellow economist told the New York Times “would not pass muster as an undergraduate’s model at a top university.”

A flurry of studies and reports warning of economic doom for workers and small businesses have proliferated with the rising possibility that Democrats will succeed in bringing Biden’s tax proposals over the finish line. But as Democrats race to finish their work in drafting revenue-raising measures to fund their sweeping economic agenda, the GOP is turning to studies backed by corporate interests and conservative dark money groups. This study-to-GOP-talking-points pipeline points to the parallel universe in which the ultrarich and businesses attempt to protect their interests through funding various white papers and pseudo-scientific studies.

“Corporate interests will say or do anything to preserve the broken status quo, including lie to families that overdue investments in childcare, education, and climate change are somehow not in their interest,” says Kyle Herrig, the president of Accountable.US, a government watchdog group that researched these ties. “These studies are all about manufacturing excuses to do nothing and avoid paying their fair share.”

When the White House proposed its sweeping $4.1 trillion economic agenda earlier this year, it suggested raising the funds to pay for it primarily through tax increases on corporations and the ultrawealthy. In addition to raising the corporate tax rate, Biden floated proposals that would force multinational corporations to pay their fair share and roll back much of the Republican’s signature 2017 tax law that amounted to a massive corporate giveaway.

Democrats have remained undecided as to how they’ll pay for the $3.5 trillion budget bill that now houses much of that agenda—and, by virtue of the budgeting process, can pass with only Democratic votes. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Thursday told reporters that the White House and congressional leaders now agree on a menu of possible tax options. What they ultimately choose depends on what, exactly, Democrats decide will remain in their spending bill.

Republicans are nevertheless on defense. They have taken various talking points handed to them by conservative groups and are running with them. Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) has touted an analysis from the US Chamber of Commerce claiming the corporate tax increases would hurt small businesses. Though the group claims to represent Main Street, many of its board members represent multinational corporations. Liberal watchdog research group Public Citizen found in 2016 that 74 “extremely wealthy” organizations and individuals account for 74 percent of the Chamber’s funding. The author of the Chamber of Commerce’s report, Curtis Dubay, formerly worked at the Heritage Foundation and served on President Donald Trump’s Treasury transition team after supporting the former president’s tax policies during the campaign.

Nearly all Senate Republicans signed a letter citing research from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget that determined the actual cost of the $3.5 trillion budget will “will likely exceed $5 trillion.” Fox News commentator Maria Bartiromo also quoted the Committee as she criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for a “pie-in-the-sky tax-and-spending plan” in late July. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget describes itself as “an independent source of objective policy analysis,” but its top disclosed funders include the foundation of Peter G. Peterson, a Republican billionaire well known for his fiscal conservatism and critiques of entitlement spending. Its president, Maya MacGuineas, led a campaign called “Campaign to Fix the Debt” that was, in practice, an effort to recruit top CEOs to push for lower corporate tax rates.

Another blog post from Republican members of the House Ways and Means Committee cites a study from business consultancy EY to claim that Biden’s proposal to close the “stepped-up” basis loophole—which currently allows heirs to avoid paying certain income taxes on inherited assets—amounts to a “supercharged second death tax” that would kill jobs and slash workers’ paychecks. The study was paid for by the Family Business Estate Tax Coalition, which claims to represent “family-owned” businesses and farms but maintains members such as the US Chamber of Commerce and similarly corporate-backed trade organizations. (That provision was ultimately dropped from House Democrats’ taxation plan.)

Washington does have its share of truly independent, nonpartisan economic research organizations, such as the Center for Budget Policy and Priorities. And Democrats, too, have their own left-leaning think tanks that produce research framed around questions favorable to the party’s policy positions. Many of the experts who now advise Biden on the economy hail from those Democrat-aligned shops, such as the Center for American Progress, the Economic Policy Institute, and the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

The onslaught of GOP-aligned opposition research isn’t likely to influence the legislation before Congress as Democrats can pass their spending bill without Republican votes. But some business-friendly Democrats, too, have absorbed these talking points. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), for example, highlighted praise from MacGuineas, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget’s president, for his bill to “rein in the national debt.”

Here’s the Truth About Brett Kavanaugh’s Finances

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It’s become a predictable pattern: The Supreme Court issues a controversial ruling on a hot-button social issue, and then Justice Brett Kavanaugh trends on Twitter. Earlier this month, it happened again after the court refused to block the recent Texas law that all but bans abortion. Almost immediately, hashtags like #WhoOwnsKavanaugh and #BrettsDebts blossomed across social media. The tweets are driven by frustrated liberals who continue to believe that the Trump-appointed justice has been bought off by a secret, deep-pocketed benefactor who has allowed him to live well above his judicial salary.

The frenzy is not merely predicated on the antipathy liberals have for this particular conservative justice, but on to the fragile hope that it might lead to ousting him from his lifetime appointment. As the novelist Greg Olear, who has devoted thousands of words to Kavanaugh’s finances on his Substack, explained after the Texas abortion decision:

“[T]here is nothing we can do about Barrett, Alito, or Gorsuch, and not much we can do about Thomas…But Kavanaugh is different. There is a clear playbook to removing him from the bench. And this is what must be done. Not because we don’t like his politics, although we don’t; not because we think he’s an asshole, although he is; not because he had a hissy fit at his confirmation hearing, although he did. No, we must remove him because at least twice in his life, some unknown entity endowed him with major infusions of cash, and Kavanaugh lied, under oath, about the provenance of that cash.”

Jon Cooper, a former Democratic majority leader of the Suffolk County Legislature in Hauppauge, NY, and a bundler for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, went so far as to offer a reward this month for anyone who could identify Kavanaugh’s benefactor. “I’ll donate $5,000 to the charity of their choice of any investigative reporter who finds out who paid off Brett Kavanaugh’s $200,000 credit card debts and $92,000 country club fee,” he tweeted to his 833,000 followers a few days after the abortion decision. Former Will & Grace star Debra Messing retweeted him, exclaiming, “I will MATCH that. Let’s go! If there is corruption in our highest court, the People must know.” Crime novelist Don Winslow went even farther, offering to add $50,000 to Cooper’s bounty.

The idea that Brett Kavanaugh has taken bribes to sustain his country club lifestyle is one of the hardiest conspiracy theories on the political left. And like most conspiracy theories, this one suffers from some internal logic problems. Yet lots of otherwise smart people who see conspiracy theories as solely a scourge of the right seem to believe it, in part because, as with so many such myths, the Kavanaugh conspiracy theory originated with a few facts. I laid them out back in September 2018 during his confirmation hearings:

“Before President Donald Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, he had a lot of debt. In May 2017, he reported owing between $60,004 and $200,000 on three credit cards and a loan against his retirement account. By the time Trump nominated him to the high court in July 2018, those debts had vanished. Overall, his reported income and assets didn’t seem sufficient to pay off all that debt while maintaining his upper-class lifestyle: an expensive house in an exclusive suburban neighborhood, two kids in a $10,500-a-year private school, and a membership in a posh country club reported to charge $92,000 in initiation fees….No other recent Supreme Court nominee has come before the Senate with so many unanswered questions regarding finances.”

The vanishing debts, and their size, raised enough suspicion that Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) even asked Kavanaugh in written follow-up questions whether he might have a gambling problem. (He said no.) Further concerns involved the purchase of his tony Chevy Chase, Md., house in 2006 for $1.225 million. How did Kavanaugh come up with a $245,000 down payment at a time when his financial disclosure forms indicated that he had a mere $10,000 in the bank outside of his federal retirement account?

As it turned out, there were rather simple answers to most of those questions. Kavanaugh explained to the Senate Judiciary Committee that much of his credit card debt stemmed from either work on his fixer-upper mansion or buying Nats season and playoff tickets for himself and a handful of dudes who’d been going to the games together for years. They had paid him back in full, the White House said at the time. As for the rest, while he was maddeningly obtuse in admitting it, Kavanaugh seems to have gotten lots of money from his parents.

As I explained back in 2018, gifts from family don’t have to be reported on federal judicial disclosure forms, and Kavanaugh’s family had deep pockets. He’s the only child of a “swamp creature,” Ed Kavanaugh, a longtime lobbyist for the cosmetics industry who spent his career schmoozing with Beltway insiders to fend off health and safety regulations and dueling with activists who wanted to ban cosmetic testing on animals. When the elder Kavanaugh retired in 2005, his compensation package that year from the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association totaled $13 million, according to the nonprofit group’s IRS filing.

Kavanaugh’s parents ensured he had a privileged upbringing—high school at Georgetown Prep in suburban Washington and an Ivy League education that seems to have left him without a whiff of student loan debt. Their largesse seems to have followed him into adulthood. As Kavanaugh explained in his written answers to Whitehouse: “We have not received financial gifts other than from our family, which are excluded from disclosure in judicial financial disclosure reports.” Rather than reveal any useful details that might have put an end to all the armchair speculation, he deployed opaque lawyerly language and wrote, “[I]t bears repeating that financial disclosure reports are not meant to provide one’s overall net worth or overall financial situation. They are meant to identify conflicts of interest. Therefore, they are not good tools for assessing one’s net worth or financial situation.”

Those answers, however, have not satisfied many on the left, who seem convinced that there is something nefarious afoot. In the past three years, a persistent conspiracy theory—though not QAnon level—has bloomed between the lines of what Kavanaugh has left unsaid about how he bridges the gap between his income and his cushy lifestyle. The basic theory goes something like this: Kavanaugh’s debts and mortgage down payment were paid for by some shadowy rich benefactor, as yet unknown, but possibly the Mercers, or maybe Leonard Leo, the vice president of the Federalist Society. A more elaborate version suggests Kavanaugh’s debts were only paid off after the suspiciously timed retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose son worked at Deutsche Bank for a guy who approved loans to Donald Trump and then killed himself. (What that suicide has to do with Kavanaugh is never made clear.) An even weirder scenario includes a convoluted link to the late pedophile Jeffrey Epstein by way of Kavanaugh’s former boss, Clinton-era independent counsel Ken Starr; controversial Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz; and former Trump Labor Secretary Alex Acosta.

After the abortion decision this month, liberal media critic Eric Boehlert wrote a column on his Substack, PressRun, slugged, “We still don’t know who paid Kavanaugh’s $92,000 country club fee.” He blamed an “incurious press” for not digging further to find out the truth. “[S]ome deep-pocketed patron, or patrons, over the years have clearly covered Kavanaugh’s personal finances,” he wrote. “Someone erased all of the many financial pitfalls he faced, including tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt, while setting up him for a luxurious lifestyle well beyond what he could afford on the salary of a federal judge.”

As a member of the “incurious press” who actually did dig into Kavanaugh’s finances, I reached out to Boehlert. He told me he doesn’t think asking these questions is the same thing as going down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole. He thinks the media hold Republicans to a different standard and that Democrats also dropped the ball on investigating Kavanaugh’s money woes. “If Bill Clinton had joined a country club he clearly could not have afforded when he was governor of Arkansas,” Boehlert said, “that would probably have been a congressional hearing.”

There are good reasons why reporters didn’t delve more into Kavanaugh’s finances, not the least of which was that they were completely eclipsed by the charges leveled against him by Christine Blasey Ford, who alleged that Kavanaugh tried to rape her at a party when they were in high school. But the other reason is that there is no mystery there. Kavanaugh has, however obliquely, answered the questions to which liberals have demanded answers. Just because he hasn’t publicly disclosed—and isn’t required to produce—tax returns or other documentation revealing all the secrets of his wealth doesn’t mean that Kavanaugh has taken bribes. It also doesn’t square with what we know about him or about the way the federal judiciary works.

Here’s why: Say what you like about his jurisprudence and some of the odious people he’s worked for (i.e. Ken Starr), Kavanaugh has devoted almost his entire adult life to the judiciary. It’s hard to think of anyone who has been more single-mindedly determined to become a judge than Brett Kavanaugh. Perhaps it runs in the family: his mom was a longtime judge in the Montgomery County, Maryland, courts. Maybe he’s just fundamentally judgmental, a quality that might have appealed to Starr, with whom he authored the salacious report to Congress detailing Monica Lewinsky’s sexual encounters with President Bill Clinton. But the one thing that doesn’t seem to have driven his life choices is money. He’s a guy who wanted to be a judge, not a hedge fund manager.

Kavanaugh was a box checker extraordinaire from early on. After attending Yale College, his grandfather’s alma mater, he went to Yale law school. There, he joined the Federalist Society in its infancy in 1988. He clerked for (almost) all the right people, including Anthony Kennedy, the Reagan-appointed justice he later ended up replacing. He worked as a White House counsel and staff secretary to President George W. Bush and cozied up to the conservative power brokers who later ended up stocking virtually all of President Donald Trump’s judicial nominations. With his Yale pedigree and prestigious clerkships, Kavanaugh never seemed to escape his image as an overprivileged frat boy whose success stemmed more from political hackery than from a brilliant legal mind.

In 2003, when President George W. Bush tapped him for a seat on the very powerful US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, Democrats were outraged. Not only had he helped Starr, the Whitewater independent counsel, try to bring down President Bill Clinton, but he’d also served on Bush’s legal team to challenge the outcome of the 2000 election at the Supreme Court. He also lacked significant legal experience outside of politics, having never tried a case, done any criminal practice at all, or served as a lower court judge. Kavanaugh was possibly the least experienced judicial nominee in 30 years. His nomination stalled.

But Bush nominated him again in 2003, 2004, 2005, and again in 2006, leading Sen. Dick Durbin to dub him the “Forrest Gump of Republican Politics.” On the last go-around, the American Bar Association downgraded their assessment of him to merely “qualified” for the job after interviewing a bunch of his former co-workers and judges he’d appeared before who took the opportunity to anonymously bash him as a condescending jerk who didn’t know his way around a courtroom. One judge he’d appeared before called him “sanctimonious” and said he demonstrated “experience on the level of an associate.” A lawyer said he’d “dissembled” in court, and another interviewee confirmed suspicions that he was a die-hard ideologue, noting that Kavanaugh was “immovable and very stubborn and frustrating to deal with on some issues.”

That confirmation meat-grinder might have been enough to persuade even the most hardened egomaniac to retreat to private practice, but Kavanaugh persisted. Eventually, on the fourth try, he finally landed on the DC Circuit. That same perseverance in the face of public shaming was on full display during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing, a debacle that also would have sent a lot of nominees fleeing to a quiet post in the ivory tower. Given all this, perhaps work as a judge was, in fact, his passion. As a Supreme Court justice, his salary is $268,300 a year, which in the elite rungs of the legal profession ain’t much. First-year associates in big law firms can command nearly such sums—the perennial argument for a huge increase in judicial salaries.

Kavanaugh, however, did not have to sacrifice his elite lifestyle—the country club, the Nats’ playoff tickets, the kids’ private schools, and whatnot—for this dream job, thanks to his family money. That’s why it’s improbable that he’s been bought off by the Koch Brothers: He doesn’t need the Koch brothers.

But there’s another major hole in the Kavanaugh conspiracy theory. None of its adherents seem to be able to explain why it would make any sense to bribe him. 

Kavanaugh spent ten years as an appellate court judge before ascending to the Supreme Court. Bribing a federal circuit judge isn’t a very reliable way of getting the outcome you want in court. Appellate judges are randomly assigned to cases. They work in three-judge panels, and there’s always the possibility of an en banc rehearing or a Supreme Court ruling that can overturn them. Why would anyone illegally funnel money to an individual federal appellate judge? To do what? Reverse an EPA regulation? That’s probably why only two federal judges in the past 100 years have been impeached for bribery, and they were district court judges, where an individual judge has a lot more influence over a single case, criminal convictions, and potentially millions in verdicts.

A far more effective, and legal, strategy for swaying the courts in your favor would be to simply promote hundreds of predictably conservative judicial nominees at all levels who will vote exactly as you want in every single case, without needing cash under the table. And that’s exactly what corporate America has done over the past 40 years, funneling millions upon millions of dollars into groups like the Federalist Society and the Judicial Crisis Network to push reliable anti-regulatory, anti-abortion, pro-gun conservatives exactly like Kavanaugh on to the federal bench. Indeed, Donald Trump literally had 21 potential conservative candidates on his Supreme Court shortlist in 2016 that initially didn’t even include Kavanaugh. 

Fueled by $22 million in anonymous donations, the Judicial Crisis Network pledged to spend as much as $10 million backing Kavanaugh’s confirmation. That sort of spending is another factor that helps keep the conspiracy theory alive. “There is an understandable concern about the influence of dark money on the federal judiciary,” says Jon Cooper, the Democratic activist who offered up the $5,000 to spur a Kavanaugh investigation. 

He’s right, of course, but there’s a big difference between anonymous political donations and actual bribes, like, say, a secret benefactor paying off credit cards. Dark money in judicial nominations has paid for ads and advocacy—not to help Brett Kavanaugh buy a house he couldn’t afford, in 2006, 12 years before he was nominated to the Supreme Court. For that Kavanaugh conspiracy to hold up, someone would have had to have been playing a very long game with utterly unpredictable odds. In the end, there’s really only one answer to the questions about Kavanaugh’s finances that makes any sense: his longtime sugar daddy was his own daddy. Obviously, no one except the Kavanaugh family knows for sure. But Occam’s Razor tells us that the simplest answer is usually the right one.

It’s hard to feel too sorry for Kavanaugh’s plight as a gristmill for conspiracy theorists. Sexual assault allegations aside, he is also the man who spent three years and $2 million in taxpayer dollars torturing the family of Clinton White House Counsel Vince Foster. While working in the independent counsel’s office, he re-opened an investigation into Foster’s 1993 suicide at the urging of right-wing conspiracy theorists, who wrongly believed the Clintons had murdered Foster to coverup the Whitewater scandal.

The justice also could have put all of this conspiratorial chatter about his finances to rest three years ago by simply admitting what he intimated in his Senate responses about his family money. I recently asked the Supreme Court press office if he’d like to do so for this story. No one responded. He seems committed to maintaining the image he tried to portray in his confirmation hearing, that he’s just a regular “I-like-beer” kind of guy who succeeded through plain hard work, and not the wealthy Yale legacy whose father golfed with Tip O’Neill, the legendary Speaker of the House.

Meanwhile, the current Twitter bounty for a successful investigation into Kavanaugh’s finances continues to grow. Cooper says he’s up to $85,000 from luminaries offering to chip in, and he’s been urged to start a Go Fund Me he estimates could rake in $250,000. He doesn’t want to create a fund, but he does hope his original offer will kickstart an investigation by journalists into Kavanaugh’s debts. I told to him that such an investigation would likely turn up exactly what I discovered three years ago. But like so many liberals I’ve explained this to, Cooper wasn’t convinced. He’s suspicious as to why Kavanaugh hasn’t just come out and admitted that his parents helped him financially. “Speaking on behalf of all liberals,” he said with a laugh, “it would be such a simple way for him to set aside the conspiracy theory. Lots of people have benefited from having well-to-do parents. I just don’t see the rationale for him not doing it unless he has something to hide. This is always going to taint his reputation until it’s clearly settled.”

My Wife Was Dying of Brain Cancer. My Boss at Amazon Told Me to Perform or Quit.

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Amazon has long been accused of treating its workers as expendable. The stories of contract drivers forced to pee in bottles and warehouse employees whose labor is tracked down to the second have become infamous. But the misery doesn’t stop there.

Amazon’s white-collar workers—the ones who write the code and manage relationships with major companies—must endure a corporate culture that is notoriously ruthless compared with those at other major tech companies. This is what it looked like when one of those workers found himself under a boss who embodied Amazon’s obsession with performance and quantifiable results. He asked to be anonymous because he fears retaliation against his current employer.  

In response to a request to comment, an Amazon spokesperson said,While Mother Jones has not provided enough information for us to verify or investigate these claims, the situation described does not reflect our guidance to managers or our performance management policies in respect to employees experiencing personal hardship.” He added, “We work hard to ensure that all employees have what they need to be successful in their roles, including resources for employees who need additional support to navigate challenging personal circumstances or to meet performance expectations.”

I met my wife in 1999 on Yahoo Personals. She was a standup comedian for years. We met, got pregnant, married, and moved all in a year. She was a very cool woman. Being a mom was what she wanted to do. She was just great at it. My daughters are amazing, and I attribute a lot of it to her. They’re 16 and 20.

I started my career doing consulting. Then I went into product management. We moved to California, then we moved to Tennessee. My brother called in 2015 and said, I’ve been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I can remember the date and the time because it was just so surreal. He survived 18 months and died in September of 2016. He had actually worked for Amazon running seven or eight of the warehouses before he got sick. Typical of Amazon, they worked him a lot.

In February 2017, my wife and my daughters decided to take a walk in the park while I was in California. My wife had a grand mal seizure while she was backing out of the driveway. She ended up backing into a school bus. Luckily, my daughters and the kids on the bus were all okay. I got a call from my wife’s friend saying they’re doing a PET scan at the hospital. My wife was diagnosed with brain cancer.

I did a bunch of research on glioblastoma. To some extent, I knew it was a death sentence. But we did our best not to think about it like that. My employer at the time was really great about it. They were really very helpful in trying to make sure that I was okay.

Then one of my friends reached out in July 2018 and said, we have an opening at Amazon that I think you’d be really interested in. It was a pretty short application process. What they offered me was almost $300,000 per year. That was a shitload of money in Tennessee. You can’t really say no, right?

I told them, I can’t move to Seattle. I explained how bad brain cancer was. There were no surprises for anybody, including my boss. I said, if this is an issue, I can’t come work for you. I needed steady health insurance. My wife’s surgery to remove a tumor was $300,000. If I hadn’t had insurance, I’m not sure what I would have done.

The first three months were really about becoming an Amazonian. They indoctrinate you into their way of thinking. There’s nothing in their leadership principles that talks about caring for other people. You hear all these horror stories about Amazon, but you’re not sure you can believe them. As you live that nightmare, you go, shit, it is like that.

Still, the challenges came a little bit out of nowhere. My boss was saying, we’re seeing some things that we’re concerned with. I said, look, I’m having some issues. Every few months my wife would have an MRI. I would be so tense going to the next MRI because tumors were a fairly frequent occurrence. We were just trying to keep my wife alive.

As we got into the end of 2019, I go to my HR department. With my brother’s death—I had explained to Amazon that my brother had died—I never really took the time to grieve. I pushed down the grief. Then my wife got sicker and sicker. I just got more and more depressed. You see no end in sight.

I had a long talk with HR. The response from them was, okay, you have two options here: You go on family leave, or you can perform. Those are your two options. I was thinking, if I take family leave, I get no income. I remember talking to my wife about it and saying, I can’t believe these are my options. So, I ended up trying my best to power through with the added pressure of knowing my boss wasn’t happy with me, even though I’m not sure what I did. I feel like I was doing the things I needed to do.

It went from mild concern from my boss to heavy concern after my conversation with HR. In December, when we’re in a meeting in Vegas, he comes up to me and says, your performance is not what I expect it to be. You and I need to have a conversation. It was really weird timing with me going to HR in November and then him coming back in December and saying, we don’t think you’re working as effectively as you need to.

I remember sitting there thinking, what the hell did I do wrong? Could I have done things better? Definitely. Could I have gone out and been more proficient in some of the things I did? Sure. As you look at your wife’s mortality, that has an impact I didn’t fully register at the time. But I felt like I never got any support from him. I felt like they were looking for the path of least resistance, which was to push me out.

In February 2020, my boss put me on what’s called a Pivot. The Pivots are typically made so that you’ll fail. As an example, I was going to be judged by a metric I had no control over. They give you an option: Do the Pivot or take $30,000 in severance. A week before the Pivot was supposed to end, I finally said, I can’t do this anymore. I was at my wits’ end. I felt like I was going to lose it at any point. Not that I was going to kill myself, but that I was going to be put in a rubber room. I was able to take family leave because I finally realized I was just clinically depressed. I spent from about February until about June working with a therapist trying to work through my issues. I finally got right in my head.

Then I sent this really long note to Amazon saying the person who I was is not the person who I am. Their response was: We started the Pivot process. We don’t have a choice. We have to do this. They cut one of the goals in half, but it was still a huge amount. My boss basically read the letter I sent and had no compassion. It’s just metrics. I’m a cog in the machine. My wife was not getting better. She was going into radiation.

I felt like it didn’t matter what I said or what I did. He was going to get me out. I can’t tell if it was because of taking family leave. He basically had decided that he was going to let me go, regardless. Towards the end of the Pivot, I said, screw it, I’m gonna get a lawyer. The lawyer said that she had gone through a lot of instances like this at Amazon. Getting a lawyer delayed the inevitable by maybe a couple of weeks.

At the end of the Pivot, my boss said I failed. I had the ability to go to a board to explain why I shouldn’t be on Pivot, but the chances of that working were minimal. The lawyer said, let me write a letter. Amazon ended up responding with a 30-page document that I had to address. My boss knew that my wife was in terrible shape. He just didn’t care. He was just one of those people that was kind of a robot. Whatever was happening outside of work didn’t matter. There were a lot of people I worked with that ended up leaving because of him. Amazon truly is an organization that has very little human emotion to it.

That was the middle of July. By the middle of August, they fired me. I refused to sign a severance letter. I said to my lawyer, I’m not signing that unless they give me what I think is fair, which is a year’s worth of salary. The other thing was my next set of 40 shares of stock options were coming in December. I lost about $100,000 because of when they fired me.

In September, my wife went into hospice. She decided to stop all treatments. I was completely heartbroken. I blame Amazon to an extent for what happened to me, but I also blame my boss for the fact that he was so inhumane about this. I think it was probably 60 or 70 percent my boss, and 30 or 40 percent coming from Amazon’s culture.

I tried to explain to my boss, the person I love the most is dying. How would you be able to cope as an employee? He didn’t care at all. I get the sense that Bezos doesn’t really care about your personal life. It’s like, that’s your thing. You gotta care about the work and the work only. That customer obsession is great in theory, but the human impact is devastating for someone like me. I had to go on COBRA. I had no income. I couldn’t work because I didn’t know what was going on with my wife.

My wife died two months later. What if she had survived five months? What would I have done? They gave me three months of COBRA. I had savings so we probably could have lasted a period of time. At some point money would have become an issue, but I would have begged forever to have my wife last longer.

My wife went comatose the last week of her life. It’s part of what happens as people die from glioblastoma. They kind of lose consciousness, but they’re still here with you. I didn’t sleep for eight days. I was watching her die every day. It was awful. If I could come back to my boss, I would like him to understand what it looked like. But I’d never want him to go through it because it was so painful. And still is.

This story is part of our Bad Bosses project, a reported collection of accounts from workers about their terrible bosses and the system that creates them. You can read more about the entire project and find every story here. Annotations—highlighted throughout—can be clicked for further context and comment from other parties. Got your own bad boss story? Send us an email.

Gen. Milley Defends China Calls, Says He Was “Not Qualified” to Determine Trump’s Mental Health

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Gen. Mark Milley, speaking before Congress in a Tuesday hearing about Afghanistan, shed light on his much-reported calls with his Chinese counterpart before and after the 2020 election. 

Milley, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Trump officials, including White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, were aware of the calls, which Republicans have seized on as a reason to dismiss Milley. 

“These military-to-military communications at the highest level are critical to the security of the United States in order to deconflict military actions, manage crises, and prevent war between great powers that are armed with the world’s most deadliest weapons,” Milley said. 

The calls, which were first reported in Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s book Peril, provoked Republican ire that Milley had improperly circumvented the chain of command. But Milley emphasized that he is “specifically directed to communicate with the Chinese by Department of Defense guidance” and his calls were conducted “with the knowledge and coordination of civilian oversight.”

As the Post reported earlier this month:

The first call was prompted by Milley’s review of intelligence suggesting the Chinese believed the United States was preparing to attack. That belief, the authors write, was based on tensions over military exercises in the South China Sea, and deepened by Trump’s belligerent rhetoric toward China.

“I know, I am certain, that President Trump did not intend to attack the Chinese, and it is my directed responsibility, and it was my directed responsibility by the secretary to convey that intent to the Chinese,” Milley told Congress on Tuesday.

Milley was also pressed on a reported call he had with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in January about Trump’s state of mind and the possibility of him launching a nuclear strike. At the time, Pelosi told Democratic lawmakers that her call was aimed at “preventing an unhinged president from using the nuclear codes.”

Milley had a slightly different recollection. “I explained to her that the president is the sole nuclear launch authority, and he doesn’t launch them alone, and that I am not qualified to determine the mental health of the president of the United States,” he said. “There are processes, protocols, and procedures in place, and I repeatedly assured her that there is no chance of an illegal, unauthorized, or accidental launch.”

The hearing also affirmed contemporaneous reporting that Joe Biden had overruled advice from his generals when ordering a withdrawal from Afghanistan and, before leaving office, Trump too had ordered an unconditional withdrawal. 

Trump pursued a peace deal with the Taliban and spent the last few months of his presidency pushing to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, even tweeting that he’d like all troops there home before Christmas.

But in the aftermath of Biden’s decision to withdraw troops—and the subsequent return of the Taliban to power—Trump has tried to revise history, saying he would have pursued a “conditions-based withdrawal,” even though Milley testified that Trump wanted troops home before the end of his term. 


To Get the Infrastructure Deal Done, Dems Need to Trust Each Other. There’s Just One Problem.

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“We’re doing a lot of therapy,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said to me as he entered the House chamber on Tuesday afternoon. He was referring to the state of mind of his House Democratic colleagues as they hurtle toward a series of agonizing deadlines. Some are unavoidable: Funding for the federal government is set to expire on September 30 and the country is weeks away from breaching its debt ceiling. But the injury that inspired McGovern’s statement was self-inflicted: The divisions complicating the vote on a bipartisan infrastructure bill House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has tentatively scheduled for Thursday.

Pelosi told her Democratic colleagues on Monday night that she would hold a vote on the $1.2 trillion bill, which primarily funds upgrades to highways, bridges, and public transportation. Doing so backs away from a months-long promise to hold that vote alongside another: A $3.5 trillion budget bill that contains sweeping investments in child care, health care, and the fight against climate change. This pair of bills encompass President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda—on which the president has bet his legacy and most of his party has bet its midterms success.

But the budget bill remains stymied in the Senate, where Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have rejected its scope and price tag. They’ve been joined by a handful of centrist House Democrats who have suggested they, too, aren’t keen on moving it forward. In defiance of Thursday’s potential vote, progressive House lawmakers have assembled enough support to kill the bill until the Senate agrees to a budget deal. And they’re doing it because they have zero trust that the handful of Democratic holdouts will follow through on any verbal agreements unless they are written into a bill that both chambers can agree upon. “There’s so much distrust of Manchin and Sinema, I don’t know if we could even do it with a blood oath from them,” an aide to a progressive House member mused. 

To understand how the Democrats in Congress arrived at this point, let’s rewind to August when Senate Democrats agreed to spend $3.5 trillion on the budget package, after a small group of bipartisan senators settled on a framework for the infrastructure proposal. Manchin, at the time, suggested he’d support his colleagues’ compromise. But as the House’s self-imposed September deadline for a vote on both bills neared, he declared he “won’t support spending another $3.5 trillion” in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. Sinema also has said she can’t support a bill that large and has privately told colleagues she takes issue with the tax increases that would accompany it, the New York Times reported. Both senators have accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in political donations from corporate interests that stand to lose the most from the Democrats’ legislation.

Manchin and Sinema have had multiple meetings at the White House this week, but no progress has been made. Manchin left the White House on Tuesday describing an “ongoing process.” What infuriates Democratic lawmakers who support both bills is the fact that, apart from some hand waving at proposed tax hikes, the holdouts haven’t been explicit about the changes they want. But Democrats also have all kinds of reasons for not trusting the two Senate Democrats.

Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) describes their obstruction as “inherently suspect.” He added, “I am under no illusion that Sinema and Manchin, and unfortunately, a few of my colleagues on the conservative side of the Democratic caucus, do not share my urgency to improve the lives of the American people.” Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), another progressive who refuses to vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill, asked,  “Do I put trust into people that have shown themselves to not care about the needs of people that are in my community? No.”

Some progressives don’t trust them because of their corporate ties. “How much trust do I have in the Senator from PhRMA and the Senator from Exxon Mobil? Zero,” a senior aide to a progressive Senator told me. Others are more concerned about how the particulars of Senate procedure will give the Senate the final say on the $3.5 trillion budget bill—and Manchin and Sinema the power to throw in last-minute changes their House Democratic colleagues are powerless to oppose. Once the bill goes to the Senate floor, “almost anything could happen,” Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), who is also promising to withhold his vote on the infrastructure bill, explains. “It’s not about, ‘I don’t trust this or that person.’ It’s that we have to see the actual results” of the Senate negotiations—and that means legislative text, not promises that could be broken on the Senate floor. 

The stakes are particularly high for progressive Democratic lawmakers, whose top priorities have been incorporated into the trillions of spending in the “Build Back Better Act,” named for the slogan Biden used to describe his agenda during his campaign and after he became president. For weeks, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has been clear that dozens of her fellow progressives will tank the bipartisan deal without a vote on the budget bill. On Tuesday afternoon, progressives vowed to uphold that threat, despite Pelosi’s change of course. During the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ weekly meeting on Tuesday afternoon, roughly two dozen lawmakers promised to oppose the bipartisan bill until the reconciliation bill was ready—“landslide passionate support” for staying the course, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) texted me.

Upon the news that Pelosi would hold a vote on Monday, some left-wing lawmakers and allied groups decried Pelosi’s reversal as a “betrayal.” But as the days have worn on, some progressive lawmakers see things differently. “I certainly don’t feel any distrust toward the Speaker,” Levin says, suggesting Pelosi “appreciates our clarity and team-playing spirit” in protecting Democrats’ priorities. Jones added that Pelosi “has been extraordinary in her leadership” and an “essential part” of passing both bills. Their appreciation may be because Pelosi is showing signs she won’t hold the vote after all. So far, House Democratic leaders haven’t kicked off the formal process of asking lawmakers for their votes. On Wednesday morning, the Speaker said she needed to see the Senate’s legislative language for the budget bill before she holds the vote on the infrastructure package. She added that she has the unilateral authority to delay the vote.

Alignment with Pelosi is new territory for House progressives, who spent much of the last several years characterized as the Speaker’s intra-party antagonizers. “We’re not giving her headaches,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.), a former chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, explains. “We’re helping her with her agenda.”

Images from left: Bill Clark/AP, Jose Luis Magana/AP; Getty

They Went to Bible College to Deepen Their Faith. Then They Were Assaulted—and Blamed for It.

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Megan Wohlers thought she had done all she needed to do. And even if she had missed something, she thought, she was on a Christian campus, full of other believers—someone would certainly intervene.

It was the fall of 2016 when the sophomore at Moody Bible Institute, one of the country’s most prestigious evangelical colleges, started the process of getting help. She was afraid for her own safety, and the safety of those closest to her. Her ex-boyfriend seemed undeterred by her pleas for him to move on. So, she tried to be systematic: She spoke with the public safety department at the school, and she wrote a letter to her ex, demanding that he leave her, her family, and her friends alone. She gave copies of the letter to a professor, the Title IX office, and Dean of Students Timothy Arens, as well as her parents, for documentation’s sake. The dean also promised to speak separately with the boy and tell him to back off. Surely, it would be enough.

It wasn’t.

Now, five years later, Wohlers, the once-starry-eyed teenager who’d dreamed of going to Moody since she was 10, whose father was an alumnus, whose ambition was to go to Central Africa to spread the gospel, is one of 11 women who have decided to make public their experiences with sexual abuse at the college. “The school encourages transparency and vulnerability with each other,” Wohlers tells me, “but the truth of the matter is people don’t open up to other people about what’s going on in their lives, and then when you do open up to administration, you get shamed and blamed.” 

It is time, they’ve decided, for others to witness what they see as a systemic failure to address sexual misconduct at the school that describes itself as “the world’s most influential Bible college,” the place “where God transforms the world through you.” It is time to expose the people who were tasked with protecting them—under the laws of the country, under the laws of God—who at best looked the other way, at worst blamed them for the violence perpetrated against them.

And finally, it is time, they argue, to move beyond the purity culture that has defined and infected Moody—and imperiled women on campus—for far too long. “All the responsibilities are on the girls to be pure,” says Anna Schutte, who graduated from Moody in 2020. “You know, if a guy has a porn addiction and a sex addiction, you should pray for him. But if a girl gets assaulted, it’s her fault.”

Wohlers knew she wanted to attend Moody Bible Institute since she was a little girl.

Courtesy of Megan Wohlers

A lot of people like Wohlers—young, ambitious, and evangelical—set their hearts on Moody Bible Institute at an early age. It is essentially the “Harvard of Christian schools,” says Moody graduate Anna Heyward. “If you want to be a godly person and go into ministry, you go to Moody.”

The school was founded on the Near North Side of Chicago in 1886 by D.L. Moody, a passionate evangelist who sought to educate young people in the ways of God. Over the following century, it grew in prominence as a leader among Bible schools; Moody runs a vast “network of Christian radio stations, affiliates, Internet stations, podcasts, and related programming,” according to its website, as well as a publishing house. Though the student body is small—the school’s total enrollment last year was 2,870—it’s a central training ground for future generations of evangelicals and church leaders. Jerry B. Jenkins, a co-author of the bestselling apocalyptic Left Behind series, is an alum, as are a host of influential Christian authors, pastors, and activists.

Women may have enrolled alongside men at Moody from the start, but for all intents and purposes, men—students and faculty alike—have traditionally been regarded as spiritual authorities, both inside the school and in ministry more broadly. As Moody himself said upon the institution’s founding, “I believe we have got to have gap-men to stand between the laity and the ministers; men who are trained to do city mission work. Take men that have the gifts and train them for the work of reaching the people.”

The reasons for this are both formal and informal, though all are colored by the evangelical belief in complementarianism—that men and women are different according to God’s perfect design, meaning the genders have separate strengths and weaknesses that together reflect the image of God. Many of the dozen former students I spoke with criticized the school’s teachings regarding gender. The school’s Student Life Guide puts it this way: “Moody Bible Institute believes that humanity came from the hand of God with only two sexual distinctions—male and female—both in the image of God, and emerging from one flesh with the unique physical capacity to reunite as one flesh in complementarity within a marriage.” Men are considered to have been gifted with leadership, making them the godly heads of household and the authority on scriptural teachings. Women, however, are a moral authority of hearth and home, and are often confined to ministering to other women and children rather than a broader congregation. This translates pretty clearly to the faculty: 64 percent is male. A quick spin through the faculty page shows that most women teach in communications, counseling, or music—with the exception of a single female pastoral studies professor. (Women were not even allowed to study in the pastoral studies program until 2017. )

“I saw people that elevated issues of patriarchy to on par with what’s the core of the gospel,” says Clive Craigen, a former professor who led the urban ministries program at Moody and ultimately left over a difference in values. “I’m like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, I’m willing to die for the gospel, but I am not willing to die for this.’”

A natural, or unnatural as it were, extension of this is an all-consuming purity culture. Stringent adherence to abstinence before marriage places a unique burden on women to stay “pure” for their future husbands, while also working to make sure their attractiveness and sexuality do not become “stumbling blocks” for other men—think modest dressing, demure personalities, controlled bodies. In fact, in the SLG, as it is referred to by students, there is a disproportionate focus on women’s clothing—dresses and skirts must reach the knee, no leggings or yoga pants allowed, and neither is clothing that is “strapless, sideless, backless, or which reveals the chest or midriff.” Shoshana Zygelman, a 2020 Moody graduate, recalls being asked by a student who worked at the campus gym to wear shorts over her leggings when she was working out. “Students are encouraged to respectfully and courageously initiate conversations with one another” about their attire and whether it reflects godliness, the SLG explains.

On campus, there’s a tradition that’s often referred to as “ring by spring.” When female students get engaged, they take part in a ritual in which they ride up and down the elevators in the dorms, announcing their engagements at each floor. “Getting married, being in a relationship, that was seen as the ultimate goal,” recalls Zygelman. Wohlers tells me that she has heard the school referred to as “Moody Bridal Institute.” And where better to find one’s lifelong match than at a campus full of people who share the same spiritual identity?

These beliefs and dynamics, former students say, contribute to a culture in which men are given control over women, making them feel entitled to women’s bodies. And since purity culture assumes an end goal of marriage between two virgins, it makes sex into something mysterious and forbidden—yet also prized.

This, for me, is familiar terrain. I grew up in an evangelical setting, and in college I joined a campus ministry that pulled me deeper into a religion that always seemed to demand more personal sacrifice, usually because of my gender. In my research for this story, Moody struck me as a campus-wide version of that ministry. As Zygelman was telling me about the ways her clothing was policed, I flashed back to a game night at a male friend’s apartment, when his roommate came up behind me and yanked my drooping shirt back over my shoulder, admonishing me for not protecting the men in the room. I stared up at him. “Do not ever touch me without my permission again,” I said evenly. The night ended shortly thereafter. When I was ultimately assaulted in that same apartment, by a different boy, purity culture blurred my vision for years after I stopped adhering to its tenets. I could not name what had happened because I couldn’t let go of my supposed role as gatekeeper, the one who was supposed to stop it at any cost. All the women I spoke to who were survivors of sexual violence at Moody say they experienced a similar difficulty in finding the language to express what had happened, because it was impossible to see beyond the constraints imposed by Moody’s specific interpretation of Christianity. This also extends to the women I spoke with who experienced other forms of sexual misconduct; it can be hard to recognize harassment when it is at the hands of a brother or a sister in Christ.

When asked about the allegations in this story, Moody sent the following statement: “Moody Bible Institute remains committed to doing everything we can to ensure a safe and nurturing environment for all members of our community, and we are grateful to those who made their voices heard during this process.”

A current professor at Moody, who spoke to Mother Jones on the condition of anonymity, says he worries that this trust in shared spirituality translates into a false sense of security. “A parent might think, ‘I’d be afraid of sending my 18-year-old daughter to that big state school, but this community, it’s going to be safe,’” the professor says. “And so, I think that, in a certain sense, we have our guard down, and we think it’s not going to happen…but there are wolves who see our community like a bunch of dumb sheep.”

Wohlers remembers her first semester at Moody as close to perfect. She made friends easily, she excelled academically, and her spiritual growth and ministry opportunities were built into the curriculum. When winter break rolled around, she wished away the days until she could be back at Moody. Toward the end of her second semester, Wohlers felt a new closeness to God and an assurance that she was on the correct path. That was when she hit another Moody milestone: She began a relationship with a male student. “[The timing] just seemed like a total God thing, [but] I guess it’s like, we talk about the wolf in sheep’s clothing,” she says, inadvertently echoing the Moody professor. “When you’re at a Christian school and especially when you’ve met the person that you’ve kind of always pictured in your head, you let your guard down.”

The relationship quickly became abusive—he began monitoring her texts, emails, and social media messages. He would bite her, insisting it was affectionate, but his teeth left angry grooves in her skin, even when he didn’t draw blood. “Right away, he started pushing all my boundaries,” she says. About two weeks in, she tried to break up with him the first time, but it began a cycle in which she would attempt to get out, and he would convince her to stay, with each phase further eroding her sense of self. “I didn’t know which way was up—kind of like if you go out swimming in the ocean and you get pulled under.”

During her relationship and the subsequent fallout, Wohlers sought protection and guidance. Everyone she talked to, she says, “completely failed” her.

Courtesy of Megan Wohlers

Shortly after Wohlers attempted to end the relationship, he physically assaulted her for the first time. They had gone for a walk through the thick Chicago evening and settled in a patch of grass in Millennium Park, where there was little streetlight and hardly any foot traffic. It had been a romantic evening, and they began to kiss, but when his hands slipped under her shirt, she said no—she kept saying no, and he ignored her. He only stopped when she cried, sure that it was her fault, that she had tempted him. In response, he mocked her. The next day, a friend went with her to break it off, but the couple continued to talk long after her friend had left to go to class, and the conversation ended when she heard herself agreeing to stay with him.

As summer break approached, he began to talk more and more about marriage, pushing her to elope with him instead of going home to her family before the fall semester. On the one hand, that felt perfectly normal for Moody students; she knew classmates who had dated for a scant two to six months before they were married. On the other, she was uneasy about the relationship’s volatility, and unsure this was the man God intended for her.

They stayed together but she went home. One day, while he was visiting her family, he heard her little sister mistakenly refer to him using another ex-boyfriend’s name; in a conversation with Wohlers afterward, he threatened the sister’s life. Later that summer, when she went to visit him, he assaulted her once more. When she returned home, fearing there was no way out, Wohlers attempted suicide and was hospitalized for 24 hours. He called her father, which led to a heated confrontation. At that point, she ended the relationship for good. (Wohlers’ ex-boyfriend declined to comment to Mother Jones.)

Still, as she worked to process all that had happened over that summer, she became fearful that the situation could escalate when she got back to school—her ex had continuously tried to contact her, and his threats against her family had shaken her. After seeking advice from a professor she trusted, she decided to ask for support from Moody’s Title IX office, which was run at that time by Associate Dean of Students Rachel Puente and Director of Accreditation and Assessment Camille Ward. From her grandparents’ house in Florida, she called the Department of Public Safety, and an officer kindly walked her through the steps for filing a Title IX report once she returned to campus.

But when August rolled around, she opted not to file formally, hoping she could take other measures to ensure her safety and put the saga behind her; she thought the letter she wrote her ex, asking him to leave her alone, would do the trick —plus “Dean,” the paternalistic shorthand that students used for Dean of Students Timothy Arens, had promised to talk to him. Wohlers recalls Arens telling female students that if there was a boy who wouldn’t leave them alone, to “drop him like a hot rock.” Come talk to Dean, he assured them, he’d take care of it. She also remembers Arens telling them that if they found themselves missing their fathers, they could have a “daddy-daughter” coffee date with him. Wohlers doesn’t remember much about her meeting with Arens, but she does recall feeling brushed aside and hurt when he didn’t follow up with her. She doubts he ever spoke with her ex. (Arens did not respond to requests for comment from Mother Jones.)

Over that semester, her former boyfriend’s aggressive behavior escalated. He transferred into two of her classes, and he followed her around campus. If she spoke to a boy, he would introduce himself as her ex-boyfriend and say Wohlers was free to date whomever, he was cool with it, he was trying to get over her. As the months wore on, she tried to ignore him, but it wasn’t long before she got an email from him saying someone neither of them knew had nude photos of her. She interpreted this as blackmail. It was December when she went to the Title IX office, this time to formally file a report. She felt she had no choice.

She was surprised at how smoothly the process went at first—the woman who helped her seemed nonjudgmental, directing her to classify her case as “stalking” and assuring Wohlers that the case would be resolved quickly. Filled with relief that she wasn’t interrogated or belittled, she left with a packet of information on legal and counseling options. She felt a cautious skip of hope in her chest as she crossed campus.

But soon, everything became a battle. Two male public safety officers were assigned to investigate her case, along with one woman, Assistant Dean Gayla Gates, whose presence Wohlers approved of—wanted, even. But her ex objected to Gates’ involvement for reasons unknown to Wohlers, and Gates was removed. Wohlers went ahead anyway and spent two and a half hours recounting the abuse to the two officers. “I hadn’t gone into that much detail with anybody since the breakup,” she recalls. “It was really hard to talk about details, especially to men.”

Not long afterward, her abuser was kicked out of student housing, and Moody public safety officers informed him that he had violated the school’s Title IX policies regarding dating violence, sexual harassment, and sexual assault. That’s when the situation abruptly changed. A Title IX administrator—Wohlers can’t remember who exactly, though the document is addressed to Ward—presented her with an eight-page letter written by her ex that accused her of a stunning range of misconduct, including graphic descriptions of alleged sexual misbehavior that made her appear as the instigator and claims that twisted her mental health history to make her seem hysterical and unreliable. In it, her ex says Wohlers was the one to bring up marriage and that she suggested a “shotgun wedding” after they performed oral sex on each other when she went to visit him, just before she attempted suicide. “I do not know what Megan told the investigators,” he wrote, “but I know that she consented to everything we did, and that we discussed consent and boundaries frequently.” The power of the letter, she says, was the way her ex distorted fragments of the truth into something ugly and unrecognizable. 

“How do you move past trauma?” Wohlers asked a professor. He told her she needed to take responsibility for the part she played in her own assaults.

Courtesy of Megan Wohlers

Wohlers herself then became the subject of a new investigation as an appeals committee was formed to look into the claims outlined in the ex’s letter. Her blood simmered, thinking of perfect strangers sorting through claims of her apparently depraved sexual behavior, debating her sanity. She was beginning to buckle under the weight of the trauma when Ward, in the Title IX office, told her she could file a campus restraining order against her ex, but she’d need to drop the charges against him before he’d drop his own allegations.

She wrestled with the decision. A campus restraining order would mean he could still approach her in Chicago—Moody’s campus is only a 25-acre enclave in a sprawling metropolis—but she was exhausted. The entire semester was consumed by the Title IX process, and another one, in addition to her studies, seemed unimaginable. She agreed. Still, she was shocked when she saw that the agreement included a nondisclosure clause forbidding her from discussing the details of the case.

That marked the end of the formal investigation, but it was not the end of her ordeal. Afterward, she struggled to keep her grades up, fighting anxiety and depression and lingering shame. Worse still, she was assaulted twice more by two different boys while she was a student at Moody. She mechanically continued to go to her classes, but she could not bear to be looked at; she took to wearing black, baggy clothes and sunglasses.

She was desperate for some comfort or guidance from an authority figure. She confided in a professor she didn’t know well but with whom she had always felt a sort of kinship. “Oh,” she asked, “were you playing with fire?” The hope she had felt crumbled. She cautiously approached another professor: “How do you move past trauma?” she asked. He wanted to know what had happened, and she told him. He told her that she needed to take responsibility for the part she played in her own assaults.

“Every single authority figure I ever talked to completely failed me,” Wohlers says. “My department head, professors, I trusted the Title IX department, they all completely failed me. So I just kind of gave up.”

While to some degree all college campuses share blame in failing to create a safe environment for female students, schools that adhere to a religious standard have a very specific set of circumstances that complicate what should be straightforward: that sexual assault is a crime that requires consequences for the perpetrators and protection for the survivors. In July, for instance, 12 women from Liberty University, another prestigious evangelical institution, filed a lawsuit that echoes many of the claims Mother Jones has investigated at Moody, including a moral code that complicates sexual violence reporting.

The heart of the problem is that religious tenets at places like Moody and Liberty are inextricably woven into campus and academic culture, creating a fundamental conflict with Title IX’s aim to eliminate discrimination on the basis of sex. “In evangelicalism, there’s a sort of fantasy, that we would like to be just really peculiar in our ability to forgive and restore and to not look like other communities, where the forgiveness of Jesus and his demeanor and restoration would be exemplified,” the current Moody professor told me. “My sense is that we often offer that to sexual abusers. We want to be excessively, strangely forgiving…and of course the sexual abusers, these guys are predators—they know how to talk the talk.”

“My best #MBIAdvice is to not go to MBI.’”
“I had no clue when I was there that anybody at Moody had ever gone through this before.”

Students outside the Moody Bible InstituteJeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group/Getty

Title IX, of course, is supposed to provide some measure of accountability. But its enforcement can be inconsistent, particularly at religious institutions, which are provided a carveout that allows them to claim that the law is in conflict with their beliefs. “They can’t say, ‘We’re religious, and therefore we don’t have to comply with all of it,’” explains Shiwali Patel, director of justice for student survivors and senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center. “They have to indicate which parts…actually conflict with their religious tenants.” In practice, this has largely allowed certain religious institutions to simply dismiss or ignore Title IX violations. The lawsuit against Liberty University, for instance, alleges broad mishandling of Title IX complaints, including cases in which women were punished when they reported their assaults because they themselves had violated rules prohibiting premarital sex.

The law became even weaker under former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who expanded the applicability of religious exemptions to include nearly any school that decided to claim them. What’s more, DeVos made it possible for schools to invoke the carveout’s protection at any time, even after a complaint was filed. “Under the [revised] Title IX rule, the [Department of Education] made it very clear that schools don’t have to request an exemption in advance,” Patel says. “There were reports of schools being worried that they were being shamed [when it was] disclosed that they were receiving an exemption—basically stating that they wanted to be able to discriminate against certain types of people and why—and they didn’t want that to be publicly available.”

Moody didn’t become a Title IX school until 2012, when it began accepting federal funds. Among its first Title IX complaints was a case in 2016, when a female student, Coria Thornton, tried to join the pastoral studies program. She vividly recalls going to the curriculum desk, filling out the required form, and being told that was not a choice she was allowed to make. She also remembers how a group of male students simply laughed at her when she told them she wanted to be a pastor.

Then–communications professor Janay Garrick helped Thornton file a Title IX complaint, arguing that denying women the opportunity to focus on pastoral studies was discriminatory. The two women recall the Title IX administrators, namely Ward, rejecting Thornton’s complaint on a minute technicality. (Ward did not respond to requests for comment from Mother Jones.) After Garrick threatened to escalate the issue to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, Moody eventually chose to open the program to women.

While the matter was technically closed without any formal Title IX adjudication, the culture that created the conflict in the first place did not change, leaving Thornton and Garrick to deal with the social and professional fallout. Thornton recalls hostility and isolation while she worked toward her degree. “There was definitely a lot of gossip and things,” she remembers. “It was a really tense environment.” Garrick, who is an ordained minister and says she was clear during the hiring process about her egalitarian views, was shunned by her colleagues and administrators for helping Thornton. “I didn’t imagine the extent of what [the cultural differences] would be like,” Garrick says. By her second year as a professor at Moody, she says Dean Arens was not speaking to her. “Tim Arens is at the center of brushing all these sexual assault charges under the rug,” Garrick says. “It’s his rug.”

In 2018, Garrick filed her own lawsuit, claiming discrimination under Title IX and alleging retaliation for her advocacy for female students who wished to pursue ordination. Her complaint noted that the school had not explicitly claimed exemption status by the time the lawsuit was filed, but in 2019 a court cited the exemption carveout multiple times in a memorandum opinion. The case is ongoing.

Even as Garrick’s lawsuit has moved forward, what was happening at Moody largely escaped the notice of the general public. But then, starting last year, much more started to come to light—and it became impossible to ignore.

Wohlers managed to graduate from Moody in 2019. It was only a year later that she learned that hers was not an isolated experience. “I had no clue when I was there that anybody at Moody had ever gone through this before. And now the girls I’m talking to, I’m like, ‘Man, you were there when I was there going through this—had I known, we would have…’” she tells me, trailing off.

It started with a Facebook post. In June 2020, her alma mater had shared an image of a slender blond woman in a cap and gown, overlaid with big white letters asking alumni to “Give us your best #MBIAdvice.” Instead, Anna Heyward, a 2017 graduate, used it as a warning: “My best #MBIAdvice is to not go to MBI,” she wrote when she shared the image. “95 percent of their faculty, staff, and students are misogynistic, racist, homophobic, and trump [sic] worshippers.”

When Wohlers came across the post, she immediately saw her own experience reflected back at her. Heyward wrote that, when she reported her sexual assault to the school, administrators mishandled it and “manipulated me into not telling anyone in order to graduate.” A list of similar allegations from other students followed beneath Heyward’s post. “People, I think, really realized that it wasn’t just them,” Heyward tells me. “Because it’s such a taboo subject to talk about at Moody.”

Anna Heyward has organized a group of survivors who are pushing for change on Moody’s campus.

Courtesy of Anna Heyward

Wohlers reached out to Heyward and shared what had happened to her. As Heyward heard more stories like Wohlers’ and like her own, she began to realize that she was bearing witness to an epidemic of abuse running largely unchecked throughout the campus. Over the next couple months, she collected 11 stories from fellow survivors—some named, some anonymous—and compiled them in a Google Doc. These women, the MBI Survivors, then used their individual stories to call out institutional failings at Moody in an accompanying Change.org petition, which had collected more than 3,000 signatures by the time this story was published. “Harm that includes instances of stalking, discrimination, sexual assault, and rape…were made worse when members of our community in positions of authority, specifically Dean Arens, seem to have an inability or unwillingness to act to address them,” the petition says. “While we have no desire to malign individuals out of spite, we feel it must be addressed that a few individuals who have been tasked with protection of Moody students have failed.” The petition also asks that Puente, the associate dean of students, be removed from her position as Title IX coordinator. (Puente did not respond to requests for comment from Mother Jones.)

In the Google Doc and in conversations over the past few months, Heyward has expanded on what happened to her at Moody. By her 21st birthday, she was in a relationship with another student who she says turned abusive. That night, he insisted they have a drink to celebrate, despite her hesitation to violate Moody’s rules prohibiting alcohol; he waved her off when she said she was getting too inebriated and put another glass of wine to her mouth to force her to drink, all in the name of properly commemorating the occasion. Later that night, he raped her. After it happened, she could only feel shame—when she tried to confront him, he told her that she tempted him and he was just doing what she wanted.

The abuse continued, not always under the influence of alcohol. She internalized it as her fault. Heyward felt that all her work to stay holy and abstinent had been for nothing, and it was easier to just let him do what he wanted; she was tired of fighting. There was also no one she could talk to. She felt she had sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and that was that. Then, one night he hit her. She eventually reached a breaking point and ended the relationship. (Heyward’s ex-boyfriend declined to comment to Mother Jones.)

Shortly after she broke it off, she was called into the office of the urban ministry outreach, where she and her ex served. Two faculty members, including Craigen, the former professor, told her they “knew everything.” Heyward let the whole story spill out of her. The faculty members encouraged her to go to “Dean” and the Title IX office.

She was stunned by his responses. “But you drank the alcohol, right?” he asked. “What did you do to deserve to be hit?” Arens put her on probation for the remainder of her time at Moody as punishment for her sins, and he also forbade her from dating because, he said, she “had a problem with tempting male students.” By the time the meeting was over, she was drained; she numbly entered the Title IX office and told Puente she couldn’t go back through the story again; could she please just get the details from Dean Arens? Puente said she was sorry for what Heyward had been through, but if she filed a Title IX report, it would ruin her ex’s life. She left without filing one.

After Heyward reported her assault, Dean Arens asked, “But you drank the alcohol, right?”

Courtesy of Anna Heyward

“It’s very troubling that the school would punish her if she came forward with a report of sexual assault, because that’s going to have a chilling effect if survivors know that they could be punished for other conduct that occurred leading up to the assault,” Patel says. “The school should instead be creating conditions that make students feel safe and comfortable with reporting.”

Heyward saw her ex once more, about a month after the breakup, at a small end-of-year banquet celebrating the urban ministry. Heyward was asked to give a speech, and after she had agreed, she was informed that the ex would be there despite her requests for protection from him. It would be a shame, Puente suggested, for all his hard work to go uncelebrated. That night, Heyward delivered her speech. Afterward, the emotion she’d been working so hard to hold back began to burst forth. She fled to the bathroom and sobbed. “It was honestly one of the worst days of my life,” Heyward says.

As time passed, Heyward realized that she needed to do whatever she could to ensure no one else went through a similar experience.

When most people think of Title IX, it comes down to sexual assault. But the environment at Moody, and the insidious way it devalues women, enabled a whole range of abuse and other potential Title IX violations. And in these cases, Moody proved wholly inept in supporting vulnerable students. If, after all, the powers that be refuse even to acknowledge that anything sexual, let alone unwanted, could be happening on campus, how could they possibly provide a remedy when it does?

Christine Bowers, another member of the MBI Survivors group and a 2020 graduate, alleges Moody’s office of residential life failed to intervene in the abuse and harassment she experienced at the hands of a roommate. The conflict started as many roommate conflicts have—over the way beds are arranged. The roommate wished to position the beds on top of one another and for Bowers to take the top bunk, even though Bowers has physical disabilities and needed her bed to be low to the ground. Yet when Bowers returned from winter break, her bed had been raised so she could not get in. She went to her resident adviser to seek counsel and was told, “Just pray for her. She has a lot going on.”

From there, it escalated. “She started nitpicking my body, nitpicking the way I dress,” Bowers says. Or if Bowers was in the room while her roommate changed, she would remove her clothes slowly, accusing Bowers of enjoying it while she mimicked a striptease. When Bowers herself changed in the room, her roommate would act repulsed and insist she do so elsewhere. If she were within arm’s reach of Bowers, she would spank her. On a campus where homosexuality was considered grounds for punishment, if not expulsion, Bowers feared somehow these interactions would suggest she was queer; she also now believes this made people in power more reluctant to intervene.

Then, one day, toward the end of the spring semester, Bowers came into her room to find her roommate with a friend, laughing, watching a video. The roommate waved her over, and Bowers saw that the video was of her, asleep, while her roommate humped the air around her and mimed spanking her. It had been posted to Snapchat. “I brush it off and go, ‘Haha, so funny,’” Bowers says. “But inside I’m dying.” (Bowers’ former roommate did not respond to a request for comment from Mother Jones.)

“On one hand, I really love Moody, I really truly do—I don’t think you can get a better Bible education anywhere. But I was left with some really heavy scars.”

Courtesy of Christine Bowers

It took the summer for Bowers to process all that had happened as more than just a bad roommate situation and to see it clearly as sexual harassment. When she returned to campus in the fall, she wrote in the MBI Survivors’ Google Doc, her “depression also flared up” and she “was barely functioning and going to class.” She sought out Puente, whom she knew from her work as president of the student disability ministry group. “I had heard stories from other girls on my floor about Rachel Puente and Dean Arens and the Title IX process, but I never really gave it credence because I’m like you…guys are being overdramatic, you’re just more liberal-leaning, you probably just don’t like the ruling or whatever,” she says.

She recalls the initial interaction with Puente as somewhat brusque—Puente said she was sorry for what she’d experienced, gave her a form to fill out, and sent her on her way. When Bowers returned with the form, Puente frowned and asked if Bowers had a copy of the video. Bowers shook her head; of course, she didn’t. Puente took the report, told Bowers there wasn’t much she could do, and sent her on her way. Later, Puente informed Bowers that she had spoken to the two girls who had taken the video, and they had insisted that Bowers “just happened to be in the background during some fun,” she recounts in the Google Doc. And with that, the investigation into Bowers’ complaint was over.

“On one hand, I really love Moody, I really truly do—I don’t think you can get a better Bible education anywhere,” Bowers tells me. “But I was left with some really heavy scars. They healed wounds, and stitched me up, and at the same time, they were cutting new ones.”

For some students, like Audrey Chiles, these complicated, even predatory relationships extended to faculty members. When Chiles, who is not part of the MBI Survivors group and is sharing her story publicly here for the first time under the protection of a pseudonym, got an email in the fall of 2010 from a former professor asking to meet, her first thought was that something had gone wrong. Had she failed the required class? That didn’t seem possible—Introduction to Ministry hadn’t even been demanding.

Donald Martindell was a busy man, he told her, and his course load and administrative responsibilities as both a professor and an athletic director afforded him an assistant. His current assistant was graduating, and would she be interested in the job? On-campus jobs like this were rare because they were popular for their convenience and perks, like opportunities to stay on campus during the summer at a reduced housing rate. There was no need to send a cover letter or resume, he assured her; he had seen all he needed to see in her class participation, casually referring to a specific instance Chiles didn’t recall, which she found odd. But the opportunity was particularly appealing, especially since she was a transfer student who had been struggling with feeling isolated. She accepted on the spot.

The first few months were fairly standard. She came into work three or four days a week, a few hours at a time, and soon her new boss became a regular presence in her tiny, dim office. Then he began to close the heavy wooden door during his visits, despite the mundanity of the conversation. From there, he began to find excuses for physical touch—to pick a stray hair off her sweater or gently pull at a sleeve and inquire whether her shirt was new. “It’s an oddly invasive thing to do,” she recalls. “But it wasn’t like he lingered or necessarily tried to touch explicitly inappropriate parts of my body. It just kept me off balance a little bit.”

As Chiles spent more time working with Martindell, her discomfort increased. She was 20; he appeared to be somewhere in his 50s. With each passing day, he seemed to grow fonder of her—he began to refer to her by her first initial rather than her name, telling her that her makeup made her eyes look pretty. “You’re my rock,” he told her. “I don’t know what I would do without you.” He began reading through her Twitter feed to bring up her tweets in conversation, usually settling into the chair on the other side of her desk after he closed the door. She smiled tightly through these interactions, planting her feet firmly against the plastic mat under her chair to eliminate any chance of rolling closer to him.

As the spring semester ended, she began to prepare for a summer study-abroad trip to Europe. She recalls him growing melancholy at the prospect of her departure. “Before I left to go, he called me into his office, and again, of course, closed the door, and gave me a father-to-daughter sort of speech, except I was not his daughter,” she remembers. Solemnly, he told her, “If you are ever in any trouble, if you get stuck, if you get caught in a situation, if anything happens to you, you need to get a hold of me, and I’ll do whatever the hell I need to do to make sure you’re okay.”

She went; she was okay, and in fact, she had the time of her life—she spent her 21st birthday at the Globe Theatre in London watching a play about Anne Boleyn. “I did not need a lick of alcohol to feel like I had a very satisfactory 21st birthday,” she says.

And yet, even though alcohol is banned on campus, there was a case of beer waiting for her in her office when she returned. It was underneath her desk, and she found a carton of cigarettes in her desk drawer. The note said, “Welcome to adulthood.” Chiles was enraged; she angrily went into Martindell’s office, asking him what he was thinking—didn’t he know this could get her expelled or kicked out of her theater group? He quickly told her it was just a joke. Still, the gifts continued. After she was in a school theater production, he came by her dorm room around 10 p.m. to give her flowers and a card. At the office, he gave her a baseball card of a player who shared her last name. There was a coffee mug that said something along the lines of “We’re friends and all but you know too much.” The mug, he told her, was something he’d picked up in a tourist shop on vacation; what he really wanted to get her was a sign that said, “I love you a latte,” but he couldn’t because his wife was with him. He began to mention his home life more—his in-laws were coming to town, or he wished she would come to dinner with his daughters because her presence would make it bearable. And, oh yes, his wife was going to be out of town for a week. She tried to ignore it all and do her job.

In the late spring of 2012, Martindell told her he needed to speak with her off campus, suggesting a Starbucks. Chiles warily met him there, and he told her that he was stepping down from his position as athletic director because he was overburdened. “I’m just so grateful you’re going to be here, because I couldn’t do this without you,” he told her. “You know how much I love that position. You’re my rock.”

He told her, “I agape you.”

That startled Chiles. He was using the Greco-Christian word that means love, but it’s a very specific kind of love—it’s pure, unconditional, the kind of love that exists between Christ and the Church. It is not romantic, but it is powerful love in its highest form.

Meanwhile, the gifts kept coming, becoming so extravagant she had to turn them down. He wanted to buy her a laptop; he presented her with a check for $100. (Martindell did not respond to requests for comment from Mother Jones.)

Finally, at the behest of her friends and family, she went to Moody’s human resources department. Her meeting with the HR representative was very professional and matter of fact. Chiles laid out all that had happened, and the representative told her that she would likely need to resign. A couple days later, Chiles checked her inbox and found an email from a generic Moody HR address, telling her that she was to complete her hours for that day, go back to her dorm, and send an email to Martindell resigning. She was not to speak to anyone about what had happened, and they would not help her find other work, though they did send a list of open positions on campus that she could apply for.

“It was horrible. I had to work through the entire day and look at him and talk to him and talk to other co-workers knowing that I had to go back to my dorm that night and send an email that was a resignation with no explanation,” she says. “Human Resources never presented Title IX as an option for me.”

After the MBI Survivors’ Change.org petition went live in October 2020, school officials sprang into action and announced plans to seek an independent investigation into their Title IX processes. Arens and Puente would step down for the duration of the investigation, though soon after the announcement, Arens made the decision to take an early retirement.

The school hired Grand River Solutions, a California firm that provides investigative services to schools that are facing serious criticism regarding Title IX processes. From the start, Grand River Solutions was cautious in its messaging about the scope of its work, taking care to emphasize that its function was simply to recommend improvements to the process—any real action would have to be taken by the school.

In mid-April, Moody announced that the investigation had been completed and issued an apology “to those members of our Moody community who experienced a lack of empathy and follow-through” regarding their Title IX reports and “those whose reports were not processed as rapidly and efficiently as they could have been.” The administration said the school had developed almost a dozen commitments based on the report that would be “fully operational” by the fall semester. (When asked about the allegations in this article, a Moody spokesperson also listed steps the institution is taking to improve Title IX processes, including expanding the relevant office, following the 2020 audit of its Title IX compliance by Grand River Solutions.)

Heyward says she was pleasantly surprised that the report was made public and pleased that investigators were clear that Moody is in need of reform. Indeed, the report identifies a “lack of trust and confidence” in the institution’s processes for handling Title IX cases and suggests that the school “address its overall organizational structure” to better process reports and respond to allegations appropriately. 

But Heyward and others say they can’t help but worry all this won’t mean much in practice. For one, the report was not made public until after the Board of Trustees met and approved the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, possibly allowing the school to use financial limitations to avoid real reform. And while many survivors felt their interviews with the investigators were reasonable and unbiased, they know the investigators are being paid by the institution they are investigating. “There’s money involved,” Heyward says. “I don’t trust anything Moody does.”

Heyward also says the group is hurt that school leadership hasn’t reached out to them directly since the report was made public; in fact, the MBI Survivors received an email from Dwight Perry, senior vice president, provost, and dean of education, explaining that the administration would no longer respond to emails from the Google account they’d set up. “This doesn’t mean anything if we don’t see policy change,” Heyward says.

There is a much bigger reason, though, to be skeptical: The investigation didn’t take on any of the underlying cultural and religious issues that enabled the abuse in the first place. Grand River Solutions does not carry any religious affiliation—a feature touted by both the firm and by Moody—though that may have been a weakness rather than a strength. In a Twitter thread, Moody alumna Emily Joy Allison—who is a co-founder of #ChurchToo, a campaign that has exposed sexual abuse within religious institutions—says that true reform cannot happen on campus without a serious reevaluation of some of the school’s beliefs with regards to gender.

Overall, the report defers to the stringent evangelical culture at Moody, saying that the solution can be found in upholding the principles that the school holds dear. While it does attempt to reconcile those values with some forms of accountability, it also seeks to “reflect and embrace Moody’s values.” For example, the report recommends that “Moody continue to utilize the guidance and procedures set forth in the SLG and Employee Information Guide to address consensual sexual contact that is inconsistent with Moody’s evangelical Christian values,” avoiding altogether the weighty stigmas that create a barrier to reporting. 

In turn, in Moody’s 11 commitments, which broadly outline a new dedication to the Title IX process, there is clear intent to adhere to its biblical values. The pledge, for instance, says the school will “enhance education to clearly distinguish between consensual sexual conduct prohibited by Moody’s student life policies and non-consensual sexual conduct.” But how can it do that, survivors wonder, without tackling purity culture—which does not even engage with consent, because it refuses to acknowledge sex to begin with? “The problem that I saw was that there wasn’t this healthy, open dialogue about human sexuality,” Garrick, the former communications professor, says. “Instead of talking about it, all these external rules were put in place.”

In the end, this makes it difficult for the survivors, who see purity culture and complementarianism as inextricable components of their assaults, to imagine that the school could become safer without reckoning with its ideas about gender and power.

Craigen, the former professor who led the urban ministries program, also acknowledges how deeply these ideas have ruined even the best intentions. In our conversation, he is adamant that the Moody administration isn’t malicious—but he does realize the campus culture has deep and glaring flaws that include sexism. “Only men are seen up front,” Craigen says. “I think patriarchy—even soft, nice patriarchy, if I can use that phrase—probably worked against some stuff being addressed. I think it made us feel like, ‘Well, we care about these things, we would never do that, our men would never do that.’” Of course, Craigen acknowledges, they would, and they have.

There are more Moody survivors than anyone can definitively say. Some declined to speak to Mother Jones for this story; some, for their own reasons, have been unable to come forward at all. There are surely many names that we cannot know. But now, many of them at least see they aren’t alone. The MBI Survivors share trauma, to be sure, though they also share much more from months of Zoom meetings to discuss holding their alma mater accountable; email chains about strategy; and a social media group for general support.

For her part, Wohlers has found healing within the community of survivors. Still, she feels she lost a piece of herself at Moody that she can’t get back. The first time we spoke, she told me she isn’t looking to “watch Moody burn.” “I just wish that the school was better equipped to deal with stuff like this, because I think they’ve swept a lot of stuff under the rug. And it’s not just like, a Moody problem. It’s a Christian culture problem.”

Wohlers remains steadfast in her faith in God—it is the people and the institutions that she no longer trusts. By sharing her story, and by moving to Thailand later this year to work with victims of sex trafficking, she hopes to become the person she had needed for support while she was at Moody. “I’ve kind of told God, ‘Okay, if you’re going to let me go through this, you better use it,’” she says. “I hope someday they learn to be better about it as a whole, because we deserve better. And that’s not how Jesus would have acted.”

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