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Biden Explains How He Would Have Handled the Pandemic


While President Trump began his town hall on NBC by dodging basic questions about when he was tested for the coronavirus before the last debate and railing against wearing masks, Joe Biden opened his parallel town hall by blasting the president for his handling of the pandemic and outlining how he would have handled it. “He didn’t talk about what needed to be done because he kept worrying, in my view, about the stock market,” Biden said. “He worried if he talked about how bad this could be, unless we took these precautionary actions, then, in fact, the market would go down. And his barometer of success of the economy is the market.”

Biden said that if he’d been president this year, he would have followed the playbook that was originally laid out by the Obama administration in 2016 and quietly thrown out by the Trump administration prior to the pandemic. He added that his first move would have been to send American scientists to China to learn everything they could about the virus, and he would have put more of an emphasis on pushing people to wear masks in the early days. “He missed enormous opportunities and kept saying things that weren’t true,” Biden said of Trump.

If Biden’s elected, he’ll inherit a mess of a public health crisis. As scientists race toward developing a vaccine, there’s been skepticism about how safe it will be to take something that’s been rushed to develop under possible political influence. When asked if he would mandate a vaccine, Biden said that “it depends on the state, the nature of the vaccine when it comes out,” and emphasized that he’ll need to work closely with governors and mayors to enforce whatever decisions his administration comes to. 

Trump, meanwhile, has promised that a coronavirus vaccine would be available by the end of the year, despite scientific uncertainty. At the vice presidential debate last week, Kamala Harris said she would not take a vaccine if it were to come out by the end of the year. Asked the same question on Thursday, Biden said he would take a vaccine if it were to become available by the end of the year.

The Next Fight Over the Soul of the Democratic Party? Biden’s Chief of Staff.


If Joe Biden prevails against Donald Trump on November 3, his victory will set in motion a massive transition operation that Biden allies have been quietly building for months. Of the more than 4,000 positions a Biden administration would need to fill, the very first will likely be a chief of staff. And while Democrats are rising above their differences to push Biden over the finish line, liberal activists are already waging a behind-the-scenes fight over Biden’s contenders for that post. If he chooses who lefties fear, they vow it would be the starting gun on a public, intraparty battle over the would-be president’s appointees.

No member of the Biden campaign or transition has made any public statements about potential high-ranking picks, but two names circulating among the DC rumor mill have set off alarm bells among Beltway progressives: Bruce Reed, who served as Biden’s chief of staff from 2011 to 2013, and Steve Ricchetti, who succeeded him. Both have been senior advisers to the former vice president’s campaign.

Many of these warnings are coming from allies of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), whose mantra of “personnel is policy” informs their opposition to any appointees who give off corporate-friendly or revolving door vibes. “It would be a huge mistake for Biden to choose a longtime Pharma lobbyist or someone who led the Simpson-Bowles commission that called for Social Security cuts,” Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, an organization closely allied with Warren, said in a statement, referring to Ricchetti and Reed, respectively. “That would send an opposite message from the ambitious, forward-looking agenda he has campaigned on.” Adds another Warren ally, “Nothing will have more impact on whether the party stays united or immediately fractures after the election as the question of whether he’s going to choose Steve Ricchetti or Bruce Reed.”

There’s some evidence to suggest their concern is misplaced. Biden is running on the most progressive platform of any Democratic nominee in recent history, and it was crafted in consultation with not only aides like Reed and Ricchetti, but also a wide array of voices from the party’s left wing. But activists worry that campaign platforms might just be smokescreen that would disappear once he enters the White House. “If one of them [Reed or Ricchetti] is chosen and chosen quickly, I think it will be a really strong signal to activists about the broader tenor of the administration,” David Segal, the executive director of Demand Progress, said.

Progressives reject Reed on ideological grounds. Reed led President Bill Clinton’s Domestic Policy Council and was the architect of Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform bill that ultimately deepened the hardship of impoverished Americans. He also worked closely with then-Sen. Joe Biden to craft and pass the 1994 crime bill, which is blamed for ushering in the era of mass incarceration. Reed served as policy director and later CEO for the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist think tank that developed the ideological cornerstones of the business- and market-friendly “New Democrats.”

A year before he joined the White House as Biden’s chief of staff in 2011, he served as the staff director for the Simpson-Bowles Commission, a bipartisan team led by former Sens. Al Simpson (R-Wy.) and Erskine Bowles (D-N.C.). that studied how to balance the federal budget in the midst of the Great Recession. Its recommendations to curtail Social Security and Medicare benefits irked progressives—as did its overarching goal of reducing the deficit at a time when the stimulus spending Congress had passed was deemed insufficient to help struggling Americans.

Their complaints with Ricchetti, meanwhile, are of the revolving door variety. A fellow Clinton administration alum, Ricchetti co-founded a lobbying firm with his brother, Jeff, and represented clients such as AT&T and United Technologies. Much of the work was focused on health care: Ricchetti personally represented the American Hospital Association, a Pennsylvania subsidiary of Blue Cross Blue Shield, and drug manufacturers Eli Lilly, Novartis, and Sanofi-Aventis, according to his 2012 White House financial disclosure. His return to the White House to serve as a counselor to Biden in 2012 caused tension given President Barack Obama’s vow to ban lobbyists from serving in key White House posts until they were two years removed from their lobbying work.

Progressive activists have their backs up because chiefs of staff are key counselors, often the last stop for any major policy or political decision a president makes. During the early years of the Obama administration, President Barack Obama’s choice of then-Illinois congressman Rahm Emmanuel, a devotee of centrist Democratic thought, had been seen as a major barrier to pushing the Obama White House to the left as it navigated its response to the Great Recession. With Biden poised to take the helm of another economic crisis, progressives fear history will repeat itself.

“Either Steve Ricchetti or Bruce Reed as Chief of Staff would send a terrible signal,” says Jeff Hauser, the director of the Revolving Door Project. He is leading an effort to organize progressives around pressuring the Biden transition on its political appointments. 

Of the names circulating in the rumor mill, progressives would prefer Biden choose Ron Klain, another top campaign aide who served as his first White House chief of staff and whose resume they see as less tainted than either Reed’s or Ricchetti’s. A longtime Democratic operative who also served as chief of staff to former vice president Al Gore, Klain is praised for aptly managing the White House’s implementation of the 2009 stimulus bill under Biden and the Obama administration’s 2014 ebola response.

But apart from a handful of vocal activists, these conversations are not happening in public. Several progressive activists Mother Jones reached out to would not comment on the record about either Ricchetti or Reed as potential chief of staff picks. Doing so would not only rupture the veil of unity as Election Day approaches but could also jeopardize the delicate relationships outsider activists are trying to build with a would-be new Democratic administration. So far, the Biden transition has not taken kindly to public jockeying around administration posts.

A Biden-Harris administration will be tasked with developing its own ethics guidelines if the ticket wins on November 3. But the transition team has taken steps to avoid the sorts of conflicts of interest that alarm progressives. In late September, the transition released ethics rules that bar transition staffers from working on policy issues that might present a financial conflict of interest for them: This includes matters on which they have lobbied in the past year, or will resume lobbying on once the transition is complete. It does not impose a blanket ban on lobbyists, which isn’t necessarily something the left is seeking. So far, the transition has granted a handful of exceptions to “individuals with expertise in pandemic response who recently advocated on behalf of their public interest, nonprofit employers,” a transition official told the Wall Street Journal.

A Biden transition spokesperson did not offer comment on either Reed or Ricchetti, but said that the transition team “is not making any personnel decisions pre-election.”

But the window for registering discontent is rapidly closing. If past is prologue, the chief of staff decision could be made very quickly. Barack Obama announced he’d chosen Rahm Emmanuel as his chief of staff two days after Election Day; Donald Trump selected Reince Priebus for the role five days after defeating Hillary Clinton. And unlike most of Biden’s would-be high-ranking appointees, picks to this post do not require Senate confirmation.

People Keep Asking Who Trump Owes $400 Million To. That’s Not the Real Problem.


Last month, in the first installment of its series on Trump’s taxes, the New York Times noted—as Mother Jones had previously reported—that Donald Trump has more than $400 million in debt coming due over the next four years. Seizing on this data point, commentators and politicos have demanded he reveal his creditors. Kamala Harris raised the issue during last week’s vice presidential debate, saying, “it’d be really good to know who the President of the United States, the commander-in-chief owes money to because the American people have a right to know what is influencing the President’s decisions.” At last night’s NBC town hall, Savannah Guthrie also pressed Trump on his debts. “Who do you owe $421 million to?” she asked. Trump, for his part, obfuscated.

But the controversy over Trump’s creditors misses the point. It is known—mostly—who has him on the hook. The real issue is this: How does Trump—whose businesses were faltering before the coronavirus pandemic and have been battered since then—plan to handle these soon-to-be-due debts?

This is what we know about Trump’s liabilities based on the personal financial disclosure forms he’s filed annually since 2015 and other public records: he has at least fourteen loans through seven lenders. According to Trump’s disclosures (where assets and debts are reported in ranges), these loans could total more than $650 million. There is, of course, a big caveat here: We are assuming that Trump has been truthful in these filings. It’s illegal to lie on them, but they are not audited. 

The amount of money Trump owes and to whom is important because, as Mother Jones has been reporting since before Trump took office, these debts pose an unprecedented conflict of interest. They are a point of leverage over a serving president, and intelligence experts say Trump’s debts are not only an ethical problem but a national security one. 

Last night, when Guthrie questioned Trump about the New York Times‘ recent revelations about his taxes and and finances, she asked him whether he owed money to any foreign banks. “Not that I know of,” Trump replied. It was a surprising—and glaringly false—claim. His biggest (and over the past decade primary) lender is German financial giant Deutsche Bank, which has lent him at least $320 million. And all of this debt is coming due in the early years of a theoretical second Trump term. 

In June, Mother Jones reported on these and other loans that Trump will need to pay off or refinance in the next four years. Based on Trump’s disclosures, we estimated the outstanding amount at $479 million. The Times, using Trump’s tax returns, pegged the figured at $421 million. These are Trump’s maturing debts: 

  • Deutsche Bank ($125 million): In 2012, Trump took out two loans from the German bank worth a combined $125 million to purchase the aging and recently bankrupted Doral golf course near Miami. They come due in 2023. Both are floating-rate loans, meaning the interest-rate fluctuates based on the market. Commercial finance experts told Mother Jones this also means they are likely interest-only loans. He likely owes the full amount (or close) on them.
  • Deutsche Bank ($170 million): In 2014, Trump borrowed $170 million from Deutsche to develop his luxury DC hotel. The loan is due in 2024.
  • Deutsche Bank ($25 to $50 million): Trump has a loan tied to his Chicago hotel and tower that he has slowly been paying off since 2014. The remainder is due in 2014.
  • Ladder Capital ($100 million): In 2012, Trump refinanced a previous mortgage on his beloved Trump Tower and took out a new $100 million interest-only loan with Ladder Capital, a Wall Street firm that specializes in securitizing debt.
  • Ladder Capital ($13 million): Trump owes Ladder another $13 million on his Trump Plaza building.

So we know who Trump owes and about how much he’s responsible for (again, see the caveat above). The big unknown is how Trump plans to handle these debts. It’s an issue because as wealthy as Trump may be—he does own some valuable assets—he doesn’t necessarily have much cash. The Times story, based on an analysis of his tax returns, portrayed a man who gets cash windfalls—from his father’s estate, from his work on the Apprentice, and from various endorsement and licensing deals—and then immediately blows it and needs to go searching for money. A number of Trump’s properties are far from profitable and some, like his Scottish resorts, are hemorrhaging cash.

Paying the loans off, in other words, doesn’t seem like an option. His last financial disclosure shows that at the end of 2019 Trump had anywhere between $46.7 million and $156.6 million available in checking or money-market accounts. He does of course have assets he could sell. Indeed, prior to the pandemic, the Trump Organization was floating the sale of its DC hotel, and, more recently, Trump’s company has talked of selling a Westchester estate that Trump unsuccessfully tried to turn into a golf course. 

If Trump can’t pay off the debts, he needs to refinance them. But banks were not keen on dealing with Trump before he became president. Who on Earth would lend Trump money now? As we reported this summer:

Nancy Wallace, a real estate finance professor at University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, says the scrutiny that Deutsche Bank has faced may scare off other banks. “I think any bank I can think of in the United States would have exactly the same response: He is toxic. Exposing yourself to that kind of oversight under the current regulatory reality, for lenders who are large enough to provide capital to him, is just a nonstarter.”

Deutsche Bank has reportedly already told Trump it will not do business with him while he is in politics. And he has not been a good partner to work with.

 Although Trump and the Frankfurt-based bank pulled off several profitable deals, eventually Deutsche’s commercial lending division learned the hard way one reason why other banks considered him persona non grata: If pushed by his creditors on payments, Trump shoves back. In 2008, after he defaulted on a loan for his Chicago hotel and condo development, he filed a multibillion-­dollar suit accusing Deutsche Bank and others of contributing to the recent financial meltdown, which he blamed for his inability to repay the loan.

Non-bank lenders like Ladder Capital, which typically charge higher interest and aren’t as flexible about repayment, could be an option for Trump. But these type of firms tend to operate purely on numbers. Because they securitize loans, they’re not terribly interested in who you are or your history. They simply want to ensure that these loans will produce a profit for investors. On at least some of Trump properties—his golf courses in particular—the numbers don’t work, experts say.

Kevin Riordan, a longtime real estate finance executive and director of Rutgers University’s Center for Real Estate, says that Ladder prospered in its previous dealings with Trump—but he notes that the economics have changed. Ladder and its competitors in the commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS) industry can only lend if there’s a market for real estate bonds, which could dry up during a financial crisis. “This is a whole different ballgame today,” he says. He adds that in recent years the CMBS industry largely ceased financing golf courses—because they are seasonal businesses, they are not considered a safe bet.

“The world has changed a lot since 2012, and I think the Trump Organization is ill-suited for this new world,” [Nancy] Wallace says. “That’s not to say there’s not some private equity firm out there that would be very tempted if he was willing to pay a very high coupon.”

And that’s exactly what Trump may be left with—turning to the private equity world or to more “opportunistic lenders,” as one former Trump banker put it. When it comes down to it, there are no shortage of financial players—conservative billionaires, foreign banks, sovereign wealth funds—who would be willing, perhaps even eager to help Trump out of a refinancing jam. Of course, that raises the troubling question at the heart of the issue: what might Trump’s financial savior want in return?

Republicans Are Trying to Rebrand the GOP—and Trump Is Not Happy


On Saturday morning, Donald Trump launched a Twitter attack on Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) after the Senator’s telephone town hall comments criticizing the president were reported in the media. Sasse excoriated Trump over his handling of the coronavirus, his foreign policy, and his sexist remarks. “I’m now looking at the possibility of a Republican blood bath in the Senate, and that’s why I’ve never been on the Trump train,” he said. In response on Twitter, the president called Sasse the “least effective” Republican senator painting him as a “stupid and obnoxious” RINO.

The president is known to get riled up about even the smallest of criticisms, so his comments lashing out at Sasse are to be expected. And Sasse’s attempt to cast himself as a moderate, anti-Trump Republican is part of a broader rebranding effort ahead of what many in the GOP assume will be a bloodbath in the general election. But will they be able to distance themselves from Trumpism after spending four years watching as Trump damaged democratic institutions and eroded the public’s faith in government?

It’s hard to see Sasse’s comments as anything but a political tactic, as opposed to genuine concern for the hell the Trump presidency has unleashed. In 2016, Sasse emerged as a vocal Trump critic—he once compared the president to David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. But when he was facing a primary challenger, he toned down the anti-Trump talk and earned himself an endorsement from the president last year.


Sasse isn’t alone. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sought to distance himself from the president, couching his criticism is pandemic safety. Earlier this month at an event he mentioned that hadn’t been to the White House since August 6 because their public health protocols were too lax. “My impression was their approach to how to handle this is different from mine and what I insisted that we do in the Senate, ” McConnell said, “which is to wear a mask and practice social distancing.” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who is rumored to be considering a run for president in 2024, has always been a vocal critic of Trump. On Friday, he took it a step further by writing in Ronald Reagan for president on his ballot. 

Republican politicians’ sudden desire to distance themselves from the president comes as Trump’s poll numbers continue to trail far behind former Vice President Joe Biden. With the election just weeks away, the president still hasn’t been able to articulate any policy goals for a second term. Instead, he has chosen to repeatedly lie about the course of the pandemic, attack his political opponents, and engage in racism on the campaign trail. The result is that more and more Republicans are planning for a post-Trump future.

It’s obvious that Republicans and conservatives are preparing to insist that they were on the right side of history. It’s what they always do. We already saw a glimpse of this time-honored tactic with the passing of Jown Lewis, Georgia congressman and longtime civil rights icon. McConnell and other Republicans who fought hard against Lewis’ life project of ensuring voting rights for all were suddenly praising Lewis’ work in their statements after his death, as I wrote in July

I realized I was watching the time-honored practice of whitewashing of history. Over and over again, people who are attacked while fighting for the rights of the marginalized are embraced by the group that did the attacking. The duplicity was inevitable, but also useful: We witnessed the rewriting of history that has taken place with other great Civil Rights leaders by those who have done everything they can to oppose what they fought for in real time, unlike what happened with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., which took place over years.   

Their effort to distance themselves from Trump is not unlike what happened in the post civil rights era. Though Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement was largely unpopular during the 1960s, today many politicians claim to have supported the movement in its heyday and frequently cite MLK when talking about racial justice. If Republicans are successful in rewriting history once again, in 20 years, don’t be surprised if they claim to be the ones who actually stood up to Trump.

Scott Atlas Downplays Coronavirus and Rails Against Masks


Seven months into the pandemic, the White House is still hampering efforts to get the spread of the virus under control and provide aid to the people facing economic disaster caused by the necessary public health restrictions. On Friday, the New York Times reported yet another complication in the ongoing stimulus talks between Congress and the Trump administration: White House officials don’t want to expand coronavirus testing.

Negotiations over another aid package have stalled for months, with Donald Trump calling for an end until after the election and then quickly reversing course and calling on Congress to sign a bill immediately. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats have been trying to include a nationwide testing strategy in the package. For months, public health experts have been saying that the best way to control the spread of COVID-19 is by implementing social distancing measures, wearing masks, and large scale testing and isolating of the sick. But the Republicans think testing should be left up to the states. And Dr. Scott Atlas, who is not an infectious disease expert but was picked to advise the president on the coronavirus after appearing on Fox News, insists on ignoring science.

“The overwhelming majority of people who get this infection are not at high risk,” Dr. Atlas told the New York Times. “And when you start seeking out and testing asymptomatic people, you are destroying the workforce.” He also said a federal test-and-isolate program would infringe on civil liberties, and he falsely claimed that “herd immunity” can be achieved once 20 to 40 percent of Americans are infected. On Saturday morning, he continued to spew debunked science, claiming that masks aren’t effective.

At the end of the tweet, Atlas links to a piece by the libertarian think tank American Institution for Economic Research, which earlier this month drew the attention of the White House when it released a roadmap for ending the pandemic. Called the Great Barrington Plan, the document purports to lay out a plan for a return to normal life but was widely criticized as bogus, as my colleague Kiera Butler reported earlier this month:

The vast majority of infectious disease physicians, virologists, and epidemiologists don’t support it—and in fact, most of the scientific community believes that this approach will actively hurt vulnerable people rather than protecting them. “The authors are well known people in public health, but they don’t represent anything like a consensus view about how to approach COVID,” Yale University epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves told me. “The rest of the people in their field are looking at them aghast.” Indeed, the public health community has swarmed to point out the many problems with the Great Barrington plan, and many have also called out Jacobin for promoting it.  

Gonsalves, who wrote a critique of the document in The Nation, noted that the document starts with a flawed premise—that we’d only need to isolate a select few elderly and at-risk members of society. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 40 percent of Americans have a condition that puts them at risk for severe COVID-19. 

Despite the approximately 219,000 deaths and the 8 million people plunged into poverty since July, when the last relief bill expired, the White House and other Republicans seem hellbent on ignoring the science and denying the help that Americans desperately need—all but ensuring that the crisis will continue unabated. 

Carroll Fife Is in the House. Now She Wants to Burn It Down.


As a girl, Carroll Fife never quite knew what her grandfather James did for a living, but she knew he was a somebody.

James was a factory worker, like most everybody else in Muskegon Heights, Michigan, but it was the way people gravitated toward him that suggested he was also something more. Once, when Fife was working at Sears as a teen, she saw him walk into the store. She saw how her colleagues, who didn’t know he was her grandfather, clamored around him: “Hey Mr. Fife… Do you need anything?… Wanna use my employee discount?” Same thing happened at the grocery store.

What Fife knew with certainty about her grandfather was that he believed in people having homes. He’d built houses for all of his children, and Fife remembers tagging along with him and her father as they put in insulation and subfloor and drywall. “This is what I wanna do,” Fife thought. “I want to build.

“I guess ultimately I’ve done that,” the diminutive 44-year-old with shoulder-length locs and a penetrating stare tells me as we sit in a West Oakland park in August. “Just without a hammer and nails.”

In the fall of 2019, not far from where we meet, Fife organized the takeover of a vacant house for a group of homeless and housing-insecure mothers and their children. As one of the key architects of the movement that came to be known as Moms 4 Housing, Fife could clearly and emphatically explain the economic forces that were upending Black communities across the country; more importantly, she could put a human face and story to every number. “That’s what’s criminal about this housing crisis. There are actually places where people can live,” Fife told Democracy Now! as the occupation entered its eighth week in January. “This is starting a movement where people who are also experiencing housing insecurity… are waking up… and saying, ‘We deserve housing for all.’” In the middle of that live on-camera interview, Fife got word that sheriff’s deputies were executing a predawn raid on the house, forcibly evicting the moms.

Six months later, in July, Fife launched a campaign to represent West Oakland on the Oakland City Council. She’s again following in the footsteps of her grandfather, who she later learned was one of Muskegon Heights’ first Black city councilors. Yet her run is also quite radical. As a perpetual thorn in the side of moderate progressives on the council, Fife is very clear about one thing: She does not believe that institutions can be changed from the inside. “It’s like those people who go and say, ‘I’m going to go become a cop, and I’m going to change the culture,’” she scoffs. “Shut the fuck up. No, you’re not.”

On its face, Fife’s pitch to her would-be constituents seems contradictory. She does not believe in the system—but that is why, she argues, she is most equipped to transform it. It’s a pursuit in the radical tradition of the Black Panther Party, whose cultural and political legacy still shapes much of Oakland’s politics more than 50 years after its founding. Specifically, it’s the idea of self-determination—that Black people must rely on themselves and one another to build structures that truly serve them—that permeates much of Fife’s adult life and work.

Dig a bit deeper, though, and you’ll see Fife’s decision to run for office is simply the latest iteration of a dilemma that’s been at the heart of Black leadership since Reconstruction: Can a democratic system built specifically to exclude Black power be adapted to work in favor of it? 

Fife, at least, is going to try. With local economies gutted and as many as 40 million people facing eviction, more Americans—in particular more Black Americans—will be living with the type of desperation that drove the moms in West Oakland. So Fife’s mission will be urgent, and it will be blunt: Extract the system’s resources and redistribute them. She wants to take $150 million from the police budget and spend it on community programs, violence prevention, and land trusts that could provide affordable housing.

“I want to create,” she tells me, “a real transparent process where I try to engage democracy.”

Fife grew up the middle of three children and attended an all-white Christian school. Her white friends always said that she was different, but could never articulate why.

“I’m so glad my dad let you come over,” she remembers a classmate saying. “He really hates niggers.” The racism, Fife recalls, “was never congruent.” When George H.W. Bush’s infamous Willie Horton ad aired in 1988, a white classmate asked Fife, “Are you related to him?”

Shortly after finishing high school, Fife had a child and moved to California—joining a friend on a three-day Amtrak ride, on something of a whim, heading toward Los Angeles. But Fife didn’t take to the city very well. She recalls meeting people who told her they worked in the “industry”—and she would naively ask, “Oh, plastics? Automotive?”

“It was so superficial,” she says now. “I was just searching for something bigger and deeper.”

She soon found it, settling in with a group of young Black organizers in Pasadena, just north of downtown. They lived cooperatively and congregated at a bookstore called Art & Soul, where they held study groups and read works by Afrocentric heavyweights. Importantly, the works were not concerned with integration, white racism or white people much at all; they focused on Black history before the transatlantic slave trade, and often argued in favor of Black racial superiority.

Clara Mokri

A few years later, in 1999, Fife and a few friends headed for Oakland, where she created a small school, Shule Vista Academy, that ran for four years. But the steadiest job she had was the one she did for free: community organizing. She showed up at City Hall so often that residents thought she worked there. She met her partner, had two more kids, earned a degree in psychology, and worked as a paralegal before joining the staff of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), a community-based activist organization.

Since then, she has become something of an unassuming powerhouse. On that sunny Wednesday morning in mid-August, she walks toward me in DeFremery Park, an oversized black bag slung over her shoulder. Somewhere deep inside that bag is a device connected to a livestream feed of the California Assembly session, where lawmakers are debating a bill that could impact her work with ACCE. She takes off her mask and greets me with a warm smile. When I ask her about the hearing, she offers a dismissive wave of her hand. She wants to get down to business.

Nobody actually calls this park, a rolling green expanse nestled in the middle of the neighborhood, by it real name. It’s known to locals as “Lil Bobby Hutton Park,” after a 17-year-old who was among the first young people to join the Black Panther Party and became the first member to be killed in a confrontation with police in 1968. The space is just one of many holdovers from the Panther era in a city full of them.

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland in 1966. While Elaine Brown, who served as chair of the Black Panthers, lost her races for City Council in 1973 and 1975, and Seale lost his race for mayor in 1973, several longtime local officials owe their careers to the Panthers. Ron Dellums, a former mayor and longtime congressman, would likely not have won his elections without the Panthers. Rep. Barbara Lee, who represents Oakland in DC, volunteered with the group while attending Mills College on the city’s east side; she noted in a livestreamed conversation with me over the summer how instrumental that early activism was in shaping her political trajectory. Even Sen. Kamala Harris, the moderate Democrat who is vying to be VP and is arguably the antithesis of a Panther radical, was raised in Oakland by parents whose college study group alums went on to found Kwanzaa and Black Studies, and were reportedly instrumental in the formation of the Panthers.

“Our basic objective becomes this: politics is organizing and unifying the people around their basic desires and needs. … [T]hey want a change, and they want their basic desires and needs answered,” Seale told a reporter during his mayoral campaign. “I’m saying politics is organizing people around this, and teaching them through organization to control those institutions that control their very lives. If the police department, or any other agency of government that has been institutionalized, is not responsive to the needs of the people, then the people are going to have to learn how to control them.”

“That’s what we’re doing,” he concluded.

Seale’s remarks offer a direct line to Fife’s work today. Fife in fact serves as the secretary for the chair of the Black Panther Party Cubs, a grassroots activist group led by Fred Hampton, Jr., the son and namesake of the Chicago activist who was killed in a police raid in 1969. The new group is a far cry from being as culturally and politically influential as its predecessor; it’s a small, mostly political education–centered group. Its similarities, though, are crucial, according to Fife. “Self-determination programs are part of who we are, and what our purpose is, to make sure that our community has what it needs to thrive,” she tells me about the group. “Because if you don’t have basic necessities, say safety and survival necessities, then you can’t push for any type of revolutionary activity.”

Fife’s particular belief in radical transformation is likely to best land with younger progressives, but she argues it is also geared toward addressing older Black residents and those who came before her. “My case is that the conditions that [they] experienced years ago, that has led to the disinvestment in your West Oakland community, shouldn’t exist 50 years later,” she says. “We’re building a movement to ensure that we end those conditions now. ”

In her work at ACCE, Fife quickly identified housing as a central issue for Oakland’s Black community, which had shrunk 23 percent in the previous decade as housing prices in the city had skyrocketed. Like her grandfather, Fife has long considered housing a fundamental human right, but recognizes, as Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote in the New Yorker, “[t]here is an inherent conflict between the human right to housing and making housing available based on what the market will provide and at the highest price it can command.” 

“The mismatch between housing need and costs has been a constant feature of the U.S. economy, with shortages driven by the basic reality that there is little to no money to be made in housing for working-class or poor people. The dynamic is especially acute for African-Americans,” Taylor wrote in the New Yorker in May. “The real-estate market has been lauded as a race-neutral space, guided only by supply and demand, but more than a century of racial discrimination and residential segregation, rooted in the government-inspired perceptions that African-Americans pose an existential threat to property values, belies that myth.”

Before the pandemic, there were an average of four vacant homes for every unhoused person in Oakland. Since the 2008 financial crisis, many homes have been scooped up at dirt cheap prices from families facing foreclosure by speculators that then flipped them for a sizable profit. An ad aimed at the tech workers fueling the Bay Area’s gentrification crisis dubbed West Oakland “the new edge of Silicon Valley.” 

Fife launched the Black Housing Union at ACCE, where she heard firsthand stories from people who had jobs, cars, and families, but were living on the street because they couldn’t afford rent. Still, it hit home when last year one of her own staffers, a single mom named Dominique Walker, told her that she and her children had been evicted.

Carroll Fife addresses the media on April 23, 2018, in Oakland, California.

Eric Kayne/AP

“I was homeless with my children,” says Walker. “Another ACCE staffer was homeless, and there were moms coming to [Fife] from outside the community who were having trouble finding housing.” Walker notes that all of these women were fully employed, often with multiple jobs. 

That’s when Fife, Walker, and a few other mothers turned to the empty house at 2928 Magnolia Street. Built in 1908, it cycled through generations of Oaklanders until 2019, when a subsidiary of the corporate real estate speculator Wedgewood snapped it up for half a million dollars. Zillow lists the house as being worth nearly $800,000, though it doesn’t look like it. The paint on the sky blue concrete stairs is chipped, its eggshell facade is graying, and weeds are poking up through broken concrete in the driveway.

It had mostly been vacant until last November, when it became “Moms’ House.” The occupation wasn’t a fly-by-night operation. Squatting is a time-tested organizing tactic, but what separated what Fife and Walker were doing was zeroing in specifically on homes that were owned by corporate speculators. In doing so, the group was taking direct action—and drawing a direct line between skyrocketing rents in the area and absentee corporate overlords who were steadily whitewashing the neighborhood. The tactic also reframed the common misconception of gentrification as an individually driven phenomenon. Yes, wealthy and whiter residents were moving in. But the welcome mats had been laid out years, if not decades before by lax government regulation that allowed companies like Wedgewood to swoop in in the first place.

As Walker told Mother Jones at the time, the occupation “was an answer to a desperate need. It should be illegal to have vacant houses and have people sleeping on the streets.” Over the next two months, while Wedgewood worked to evict them, at least three moms and four children lived in the house at all times. Fife visited every day, raised money, coordinated media coverage, and organized volunteers to protect and support the moms.

Then, that January morning, deputies in riot gear toting AR-15s broke down the front door with a battering ram and sent a robot into the residence to search for weapons while an armored vehicle sat out front. Two of the moms were arrested, but the district attorney declined to press charges. The publicity from the action helped some of the families find housing elsewhere in the city, though they, with help from Mayor Libby Schaaf and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, were able to push Wedgewood to sell the property to a community land trust that would rent it back to them. The trust is now in the process of renovating the house so the moms can eventually live in it.

Moms 4 Housing inspired copycats first in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, and later in San Francisco and Minneapolis. All the while, Fife kept working: She gave media tours of the homeless encampments dotting Oakland, spoke about housing as a human right before packed auditoriums at the University of California, Berkeley, and presented the moms’ story to the National Homelessness Law Center. Then the coronavirus hit. In April, Fife and a coalition of local Black-led groups released a proposal called the Black New Deal, which demanded immediate action to manage the spread of COVID-19 as it disproportionately sickened and killed Black people. 

When the plan was shared with the Oakland City Council, Fife says that no one, including West Oakland’s Lynette Gibson McElhaney and the two other Black councilmembers, responded. Instead, the council created an Equity Caucus, leaving Fife and her peers feeling they’d been left out of the process entirely. (McElhaney disputes this version of events, telling me that the email got “buried” in the midst of the pandemic. She adds, “Our vision was to strengthen the network of responsive community groups, not to discredit their work, but to enhance their work.”)

Fife had initially laughed when people encouraged her to run for McElhaney’s seat. Yet the apparent snub from the council was the tipping point. “I’m doing it because this is some trash how our Black elected officials in particular, who are the status quo gatekeepers of white power, are engaging us,” she tells me. “They all ignored us.”

Fife considers herself an introvert, but in mid-July there she was, standing in the bed of a black pickup with a microphone in hand, making her case to West Oakland residents. Most of the city was still shut down, so instead of a conventional rally, her supporters organized a car caravan they called the People’s Procession, another nod to the spirit of the Panthers.

But in that legacy, Fife also recognizes the limits of Black political representation. If she’s elected, she won’t expect rapid institutional change. She believes she can break the mold in another way, to “enact policy that changes budgets so we can reroute funds to put them into places where they should be.” 

When I ask what this might look like, Fife surprises me with a reference to an episode of Futurama in which a robot has a spiritual awakening and talks to God. “God was like, ‘When you do something right, people won’t know that you’ve done anything at all,’” Fife recounts, smiling. “I love that because it’s lifting up people’s voices and energies and power.”

It’s just one council race in one city, yet her run is indicative of our moment of upheaval and reckoning. Can people like Carroll Fife, who do not trust a system to fix its own problems, find a place within it?

A Long List of Shady Financial Mysteries Trump Still Refuses to Explain


It seems that Donald Trump’s closing message for his reelection campaign during a time of pandemic and economic crisis is this: Hunter Biden. In recent days, he has jumped on a misleading New York Post story about the business dealings of Joe Biden’s son—an allegation promoted by Rudy Giuliani and linked to a Russian disinformation operation—and slammed the Bidens as a “corrupt family,” claiming “Joe Biden personifies the selfish and corrupt globalists.” At campaign rallies, he has led largely mask-free crowds in chants of “lock him up,” referring to Biden. And Trump has called on Biden to release “all” records related to his  family’s business dealings, including any activity involving Russia and China.

Stone, meet glass house. For years, Trump and his family—including his three adult children, Donald Jr., Eric, and Ivanka—have been implicated in questionable endeavors that raise concerns regarding corruption and possible criminal conduct. Some of the sleazy antics are well known, such as Trump University (which prompted lawsuits alleging fraud that Trump settled for $25 million) and the Trump family foundation (which was shut down by New York State authorities after Trump was caught making illegal use of its charitable funds). But there are many significant mysteries about the Trump family’s financial shenanigans, and Trump has refused to provide answers. He has famously and steadfastly resisted releasing his tax returns, trampling on a long-established norm for presidents and presidential candidates. Moreover, Trump has not explained many of his clan’s business actions that seem sketchy, shady, or worse. After almost four years of his presidency and two presidential campaigns, huge question marks remain. So if Trump is going to insist that Joe Biden release information about his son’s business activity, then it’s only fair that Trump do the same about his and his family’s own wheeling-and-dealing. As a public service, here’s a list—only a partial list—of questionable activities that Trump and his business-partner kids have not addressed.

Taxes. The New York Times has produced several bombshell reports on Trump and his taxes. One noted that Trump and his family cooked up fraudulent plots and suspicious methods to avoid paying over $400 million in taxes during the 1990s. The more recent deep-dive showed that Trump paid no personal income taxes for many years and only $750 in income taxes in 2016 and 2017. These investigations prompted numerous questions about Trump’s scheming and about his business failures. He made puzzling consulting payments to Ivanka that created an iffy tax deduction. (He did the same with other consulting fees, but the recipients are unknown. Did this involve Donald Jr. or Eric?) Trump claimed a personal property as an investment property to snatch a $21 million deduction. He filed for a $72.9 million refund that might not have been warranted. A subsequent story reported that his tax records show that he engineered a puzzling transfer of $20 million in 2016 that might have been used to keep his presidential campaign that year afloat in its final weeks. (He has hundreds of LLCs through which he does his deals that have not disclosed any records.) There are so many questions about Trump’s taxes and personal finances. He has done nothing to answer them.

Foreign money and deals. Much is unknown about the Trump family’s business overseas—past and present. While serving in the White House, Ivanka obtained fast-track approval of trademarks in China for fashion gear, beauty services, and voting machines. (Yes, voting machines.) She also received quick okays for trademarks in Japan. What’s this all about? Trump has never fully explained his secret effort in 2015 and 2016, while he was running for president, to score a deal to develop a tower in Moscow that could earn him hundreds of millions of dollars. As part of this venture, his then-lawyer Michael Cohen requested assistance from Vladimir Putin’s office. Trump’s business connections with Russia alone could generate a lengthy list of queries. In 2008, Donald Jr. described Russia as a key source of revenue for the Trump Organization. That same year, his father sold a run-down Palm Beach mansion to a Russian oligarch for $95 million, $50 million more than Trump had paid for it four years earlier. Trump, according to Cohen, “was convinced the real buyer…was Vladimir Putin.”

More foreign money and deals. During the 2016 campaign, Trump registered eight companies in Saudi Arabia apparently for a hotel project there. Who were his Saudi partners? He has never said. According to the New York Times, the tax records the paper unearthed reveal that Trump, in the first two years of his presidency, received millions of dollars from projects in foreign countries, including $1 million from Turkey, $3 million from the Philippines, and $2.3 million from India. Has Trump been involved with those projects as president? Let’s see all the emails. He and his family have never explained a rotten deal to develop a hotel in Azerbaijan that was connected to allegedly corrupt oligarchs and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Last year, Donald Jr. visited Indonesia to work with a Indonesian billionaire on a hotel project for the family business—and declared there was no connection between this deal and his dad’s foreign policy actions. (At one point, the project had Chinese financing.) Let’s see all the emails about this, too. By the way, remember the time in 2017 when a Chinese-American businesswoman who was selling access to powerful people—and who had ties to the Chinese ruling elite and to an organization considered a front group for Chinese military intelligence—purchased a $15.8 million penthouse in a building owned by Trump? The White House wouldn’t answer questions about that. 

The Scottish and Irish golf courses. Trump has many foreign entanglements with opaque finances. This includes his golf courses in Scotland and Ireland. He has dumped a lot of cash into the Scottish courses, which, according to U.K. records, have lost a ton of money. Some Scottish lawmakers have called for an investigation of these businesses based on an anti-money-­laundering law usually used against oligarchs and organized crime figures. One question: where did the cash come from? Here’s a clue. According to journalist James Dodson, in 2014, he asked Eric Trump how the family business financed its golf courses, and Eric replied, “We have all the funding we need out of Russia.” So how about Trump make public all the records for the golf courses? Including information about the US Air Force using one of the Scottish courses, Trump Turnberry, for frequent overnight stays and the allegation that Trump pushed the US ambassador to Britain to lobby the British government so the Turnberry course could host the prestigious British Open tournament. (The lobbying failed.)

Loans. Big loans.  As Mother Jones reported months ago, Trump has over $400 million in loans due in the next four years. In recent weeks—after the New York Times’ investigation of Trump’s taxes highlighted this situation—commentators, politicians, and folks on Twitter have demanded that Trump reveal to whom he owes all this money. But much of that is public information. His biggest creditor is Deutsche Bank, a controversial institution that has been involved with money laundering and that has long financed Trump’s projects. Another major creditor for Trump is Ladder Capital, a financial firm (with a lower profile than Deutsche Bank) that specializes in bundling commercial debt into mortgage-backed securities. How Trump will pay back these institutions is an important topic. He may own property that is highly valued, but he doesn’t appear to have the cash to cover these debts. That could put him in a compromising position. (How do you send a collection agency after the US president to get him to pay hundreds of millions?) Given the standard Trump wishes to apply to the Bidens, he ought to release all records related to his Deutsche Bank loans and his other debts. In fact, congressional investigators have sought out such information, and Trump has gone to court to block them. 

The Chicago loan. For years, reporters who cover Trump’s finances have wondered about one item on the financial disclosure form he has to file each year: a $50 million debt he owes to a company he controls called Chicago Acquisition Unit, which is somehow tied to the hotel and tower Trump owns in the Windy City. Tax and financial experts say the loan, which Trump has never fully explained, could be a controversial tax avoidance scheme known as debt parking. Yet a Mother Jones investigation last year uncovered information that raised the possibility this debt was created as a ploy to evade income taxes—an act that could be tax fraud. It’s quite complicated. But perhaps if Trump released documents regarding this loan, a long-running Trump financial mystery could be resolved. 

The Trump Hotel in Washington and emoluments. The Constitution prohibits US officials from receiving any “emolument”—that is, a gain or profit—from a foreign state. Yet overseas governments and officials have poured money directly into Trump’s own pocket by renting rooms and paying for services at his hotels, particularly the one in Washington, DC. For instance, after Trump was elected, lobbyists for Saudi Arabia booked over 500 rooms at Trump’s Washington hotel. Several foreign embassies have moved galas and events to the hotel. Who profits from all this? Trump does. (Ivanka, another government official, also benefits, as a co-owner of the hotel.) And in 2018, Trump’s flagship hotel in New York City, saw an increase in revenue—after two years of decline—in part because Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman booked a bunch of rooms there. Trump’s hotels and properties have become a way for overseas entities to hand money straight to Trump. Various GOP outfits also spend money at Trump’s hotels and clubs. As do domestic lobbyists and other favor-seekers. They hang out at Trump’s hotels. They dine and stay there. They hold events in conference rooms. It’s a way of channeling bucks to Trump to get his attention or grease the wheels.  So who’s dropping cash on Trump and his family? The public doesn’t know the full roster. Let’s see the hotel records. (Last week, the Washington Post reported that the State Department has hundreds of pages of records showing US government spending at Trump’s properties but the agency will only release two of those pages before the election.)

Mar-a-Lago. Which brings us to Trump’s private club in Palm Beach. He collects a bundle of money from membership initiation fees—$6 million in 2016—and the club has drawn new members since he began his campaign for president. According to a recent New York Times story on Trump’s “swamp,” Trump keeps an eye on who ponies up to join and who holds events at the club. Here’s another avenue to literally buy influence with and access to Trump; the price of joining Mar-a-Lago doubled to $200,000 after Trump was elected. (And Mar-a-Lago appears to have been a free-for-all at times for influence-peddling, with even a former massage parlor owner selling Chinese executives access to Trump’s club.) The Times article noted that Brian Ballard, a Trump-connected lobbyist in Washington, was pressured to join the club—a characterization Ballard disputed. The Christian Broadcasting Network paid Mar-a-Lago about $170,000 for events it held there in 2018 and 2019. The club (along with his hotels) gives Trump the ability to shake-down lobbyists, organizations, businesses, and overseas governments who want to be on his good side. Who and what special interests are supplying him cash via Mar-a-Lago? There is no public list of members. That ought to be revealed as well. 

Jared Kushner. Trump’s son-in-law and top White Houser adviser has been a walking conflict-of interest since he crossed the threshold at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He did not fully reveal his holdings and potential conflicts when he entered government service. His security clearance was denied because officials were concerned about his business interests and his vulnerability to foreign influence. (Trump ordered Kushner be granted a clearance.) As Kushner has served as a government officially advising his father-in-law, his family worked with a Chinese company tied to the Chinese government and then with the Qatari government to off-load a highly indebted New York City property it owned. (A Qatari company eventually rescued the Kushners.) He holds a large interest in Cadre, a real estate firm that has looked to exploit Trump tax policies and to profit off the pandemic. He oversaw a shadow coronavirus task force that recruited friends and personal contacts to forge deals and that raised numerous questions. There’s a lot to ask Kushner about. Probably far more than Hunter Biden. 

And there’s far more than this modest summary suggests when it comes to unanswered questions about Trump and his financial dealings. Investigators in New York City and State are examining Trump and the Trump Organization on various fronts. Did they commit fraud involving the hush money paid to Stormy Daniels, the porn star who says she had an affair with Trump? Did they engage in fraud when assessing the value of property for bank loans and tax payments? Would Trump care to release all documents and records about these matters?

Trump entered the presidency with more serious and troubling questions about his finances than any president in decades—perhaps any US chief executive ever. Now as he asks to be reelected, the number of concerns has only multiplied. He and his family have not been transparent. They have not adhered to longstanding norms and rules. Time and again, they have behaved as if they have things to hide. Big things. Trump demanding the Bidens release more financial information is like a skunk demanding a sparrow take a bath. It is a deflection. But this sleight-of-hand is another mark of how Trump has succeeded wildly. He has managed to face American voters twice without being forced to reveal the truth of his financial skullduggery or to address the huge conflicts that enshroud and animate his murky and swampy world. In this way, Trump has scored big.

Trump’s Wild Lies Down the Election Homestretch Are Not Crazy


If you’ve had any conversations about politics lately, you’ve probably heard the sentiment or even expressed it yourself: “I’m exhausted.” It has become a common response to the relentless chaos, falsehoods, and demagoguery coming from the president. Score one for Donald Trump whenever someone wilts under the barrage.

What can seem like dizzying insanity is by design. If you aren’t among the minority of Americans subscribing to the Trump cult, then he wants you to give up. When people are constantly pummeled with confusion, conflict, and outrage, some will stop paying attention and check out. There’s work to do, bills to pay, kids to Zoom-school, a raging pandemic to worry about. It can feel like it’s not worth the effort needed to sort out what’s true or false. Meanwhile, repeated lies gain traction. With the vague sense that everything is an unpleasant mess, then maybe some people won’t even bother to vote, especially with Republicans working overtime to make that fundamental right more difficult.

Trump may well be a dangerous psychopath, but he isn’t crazy. He doesn’t spread lunatic conspiracy theories because he believes them. Not for a moment does he actually think that Joe Biden secretly arranged the murder of Navy SEALs in a scheme to stage the takedown of Osama bin Laden. When Trump shared those claims recently on Twitter, his motivation was, as always, to provoke, entertain, confuse, “trigger the libs,” and change the subject from his own failures. Never mind that a pro-Trump Navy SEAL who was on the bin Laden mission openly called BS on Trump’s trolling. By the time NBC anchor Savannah Guthrie asked the president during last Thursday night’s town hall why he would spread such bizarre and baseless material, he wouldn’t give an inch.

“That was a retweet,” he said, apparently hiding behind the idea that retweets aren’t endorsements, even to 87 million followers. “That was an opinion of somebody, and that was a retweet. I’ll put it out there. People can decide for themselves.” (He said “retweet” in the exchange 4 times in 14 seconds—a tactic we’ll get to below.) Trump also emphasized to Guthrie that he knew “nothing” about QAnon, the dangerous pro-Trump conspiracy movement that claims Democrats are a satanic cabal of child molesters, only to praise it in the same breath for being “very much against pedophilia.”

These moments were not simply “bonkers” or reason for a CNN anchor to ask, “What the actual F?” The incoherence and provocation were the point. Trump knows that flooding the internet and airwaves with misinformation and outrage-bait helps to distract from the authentically hideous stories: His catastrophic dereliction of duty in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. His attempts to poison the voting process at the heart of American democracy. The revelations that he cheated the system and paid essentially nothing in federal income taxes. His long-running, increasingly dangerous courtship with violent far-right hate groups. And don’t look now, but his poll numbers are pretty grim too.

It’s worth looking again at the big picture here, one Mother Jones began documenting shortly after the 2016 election: Trump is using the autocrat’s playbook. Vladimir Putin’s, to be specific. As contributor Denise Clifton wrote more than three years ago, Trump’s deluge of demagoguery and lies “echoes a contemporary form of Russian propaganda known as the ‘Firehose of Falsehood.’” With Election Day nearing, the comparison has never been more apt. In 2016, the nonpartisan think tank RAND published a study of the tactics and techniques used in Kremlin-controlled media. The end goal of what the researchers called “a shameless willingness to disseminate partial truths or outright fictions” was to entertain, confuse, and overwhelm the public. (The entertainment component can serve as inspiration for loyal followers—for example, a string of broadcast traveling stage performances showcasing a greatest-hits of grievance and outrageousness.)

Look back at just about any point in Trump’s presidency and it’s evident how he has fulfilled four defining features of the Kremlin playbook, as identified in the RAND study:

  • “High numbers of channels and messages”: Trump by no means controls the American media, but he has access to an unprecedented version of state-controlled television in Fox News, along with enormous unfettered reach through Facebook and Twitter (which further feeds all manner of news outlets).
  • Rapid, continuous and repetitive”: There are countless instances of Trump repeating a lie or line of attack multiple times during interviews, press conferences, and campaign rallies.
  • “Lacks commitment to consistency”: In one recent example, Trump pushed for more coronavirus aid from Congress before railing against it and then calling for it again, in a span of less than 24 hours. In another, he turned his back on aid for wildfire-stricken California only to quickly reverse his position.
  • “Lacks commitment to objective reality.” This one is pretty self-explanatory, but just in case… here are 20,000 examples.

In a related book-length report published in 2018, RAND dug into a phenomenon of partisan politics that went back decades but was accelerating dangerously under Trump. As Clifton wrote, “This unprecedented behavior from a US president is akin to dumping gasoline on a long-smoldering trend RAND researchers call ‘Truth Decay’: a deepening disagreement over basic facts that is increasingly undercutting the fundamentals of our democracy, from elections to policymaking.” Whether it was Kellyanne Conway’s infamous coinage of the term “alternative facts” or the Trump team’s brewing storm of mendacity around the Mueller investigation, “misinformation coming from the highest levels of the US government fuels blind partisanship,” Clifton noted. “And it could potentially leave the public confused and mistrustful during crucial times, from national votes to a national security crisis.”

We are now deep into both.  Consider the national security side: Many of our former allies no longer trust us, top US generals regard Trump as a threat to the constitution, and the toll from the pandemic continues to exceed the total number of Americans killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks—every week.

There is another way to measure how the four-year assault of Trumpism has warped the national consciousness. Early on, political commentators would respond to shocking statements or actions from the Trump White House by saying, “This is not normal,” and urging the public, “Don’t normalize this.” Hardly anyone says such things anymore.

There are far too many transgressions to track, which is also the point. Most people still remember the ominous moment recently when Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power after the November election. But what about just before that, when he launched the conspiracy theory that Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dying wish was a hoax? Or just before that, when he argued that the toll from COVID-19 would be “very low” if you simply didn’t count all the dead Americans in states that elected Democrats? Or before that, when he defended a 17-year-old self-styled vigilante charged with homicide for gunning down three protesters in Wisconsin? Endless horrors await those willing to loop back through the plodding eternity that is Trump-induced time dilation, though it’s easy enough just to swirl in the here and now: fresh hype over a Russian disinformation op against Joe Biden. The Racist in Chief further whipping up hatred against women of color serving in Congress. The peddler of bleach and miracle cures savaging the most trusted public health official in the nation.

All the calculated madness and its consequences have left many people “fully exhausted and fully on notice,” as New Yorker writer Susan Glasser put it recently. “I have depleted my reserves of shock and awe. I fear there is no more outrage left to summon. But I have not changed my view in one vital respect: We have to keep writing it down. Every last word of it.”

That is indeed our moral obligation and mission as journalists, and it’s been a daunting one from the start. The good news is, despite the compounding damage from Trumpism to our norms, civility, institutions, and the rule of law, America remains a vibrant if wounded democracy, with the majority of the country sticking on Team Reality. More and more political commentators seem to have overcome their 2016 electoral PTSD and are willing to suggest that Donald Trump not only is a fraying Potemkin president but also a phony “strongman.” A clear majority of the country appears to be backing the other guy, the one who says it’s time to reject hateful division, come together and once again rely on decency and factual truth.

Here is one surefire fact amid the maelstrom of lies and misinformation: America’s 45th president won’t be turning down the firehose of falsehood one bit after the votes come in. The question is whether he will continue wielding it from inside the Oval Office, a gilded Mar-a-Lago banquet room, or perhaps on his way to face a court of law.

“It’s Going to Be Hell”: How Pennsylvania Is on Track for Election Chaos


With a record of nearly 30 million Americans already having cast votes as of Monday morning, the 2020 election is well underway—and problems are already popping up in key swing states.

Perhaps nowhere worries experts more than Pennsylvania. As a perennial presidential battleground, its 20 electoral college votes—decided by just 44,292 votes in 2016—always attract the spotlight. But this year, the state is grappling with a number of unprecedented conditions and challenges that could complicate the smooth administration of November’s election, including a recent overhaul of state election law predating the pandemic, continuing fights over changes to voting prompted by the coronavirus, and a growing sense that President Donald Trump’s campaign and supporters will ignore democratic norms to ensure victory in a state that he must win. It’s a brew that in a close election could send the state in the direction of high stakes, drawn out, and hard fought post-election challenges that could determine the fate of the nation.

“If the election comes down to electoral college votes in Pennsylvania, I think it’s going to be hell,” says Rick Hasen, a UC Irvine law professor and expert on election administration and voting rights.* “That’s one of the worst possible outcomes.”

For Hasen, the state’s inexperience with mail ballots is a key concern. In 2019, Pennsylvania’s Republican controlled legislature passed a bill with largely bipartisan support that allowed voters, as part of a growing national trend, to cast ballots by mail under any circumstance. This fall’s general election would have been the first conducted under the new rules, but no one expected a pandemic would push an unforeseeable number of the state’s 8.8 million voters to opt for mail balloting. The flood could swamp little-tested mailing, handling, and processing procedures. Already, issues are flaring up: On October 14, election officials in Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, announced that nearly 29,000 ballots went to voters with the wrong contests, a mistake noticed by attentive voters. Officials intervened to prevent another 19,000 faulty ballots from being sent, and have pledged to re-issue correct ballots.

Adding to Hasen’s worries is a state law that bans substantial processing of mail ballots until Election Day. The provision is almost certain to result in a delay between the release of results collected at in-person polling places and those that came by mail ballots, hindering the quick designation of a clear winner. Trump supporters have outlined plans to exploit the delay. Last week, the Associated Press reported that Trump allies think “their best bet” at holding the White House is to “hope results look close on election night, before some of the mail-in ballots are counted, allowing Trump to declare victory and have the results thrown to the courts.”

Pennsylvania’s Democratic secretary of state, Kathy Boockvar, told reporters at a press conference last week that she thought there was “still…hope for a legislative deal that would allow counties to do more pre-processing of mail ballots, but that absent one, local officials are prepared to do their best to get a quick count. By Monday, the legislature’s Republicans, who had put forth a package that would have allowed just three days of pre-processing while banning all drop boxes, said any chance of a legislative deal was dead.

During the press event, Boockvar rebuffed the broader idea that Pennsylvania is the year’s most worrisome swing state, citing longstanding work by her staff and others to safeguard voting. She added that her office is also working to “expand preparedness for on-the-ground issues,” such as voter intimidation.

“We look at election security across the board in every realm,” she said, “and I’m so proud of the partners that we work with at the federal, state, and local level to make sure that every voter in Pennsylvania can have tremendous confidence that their vote will be counted securely and safely, and counted accurately.”

It’s Boockvar’s job to make sure that happens, and as part of the effort, her office has been involved in several federal and lawsuits pushing for interpretations of election rules that would make voting easier. While Pennsylvania Republicans have failed to convince judges overseeing the election to limit drop boxes or make it easier to discard ballots over disputed signatures, they did win a portion of a state supreme court case upholding a requirement that ballots must be returned inside two envelopes. Last month, Lisa Deeley, Philadelphia’s top election official and a Democrat, wrote the legislature’s Republican leaders asking them to end the rule, saying it could lead to up to 100,000 rejected ballots while providing no substantial privacy benefit. Deeley’s letter warned the rule puts the state on course to be “the subject of significant post-election legal controversy, the likes of which we have not seen since Florida 2000.”

The same state supreme court ruling will allow local officials to count ballots that arrive up to three days after the election, in some cases even if they lack a postmark. While that will benefit voters who mail ballots close to the election or whose ballots encounter postal delays, it will push back finalization of results, and potentially create time-consuming debates over late-arriving, unpostmarked ballots. The state’s Republican legislative leadership asked the US Supreme Court to reverse that aspect of the ruling, and on Monday the court split 4-4 on the question, a tie that leaves the state supreme court’s greater allowance for late-arriving ballots in place.

Mike Straub, communications director for the Republican House majority, insisted that even though the body has failed to pass a bill expanding ballot pre-processing, GOP lawmakers “share concerns over the election, and ensuring accurate and secure results in a timely manner.” He assailed the state’s supreme court ruling as an “openly partisan decision” that “will potentially put Pennsylvania in the middle of a disastrous national crisis as the world awaits the Commonwealth to tally election results days or weeks after Election Day.”

While observers expect misinformation about voting and results to run rampant in any time between polls closing and results being certified, Pennsylvania has already become an epicenter of White House-fueled disinformation on mail ballots and election integrity. In September, the Justice Department issued an unusual press release on an investigation into how one Republican-controlled Pennsylvania county threw away nine mail ballots. The release disclosed that some of the ballots contained votes for Trump, prompting a flood of messaging attacking the absentee ballot process from the president, his attorney general, and campaign allies. (A county official later said the incident had been an inadvertent mistake by a temp worker.) The drumbeat continued during the September 29 presidential debate, when Trump alleged that “bad things happen in Philadelphia,” falsely claiming that Republican poll watchers had been barred from a satellite early voting office.

Chris Deluzio, a voting rights expert at the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Cyber Law, Policy, and Security, said conditions in the state, combined with Trump’s attacks on the integrity of voting by mail, suggest that the pitched battles the state has already seen could stretch beyond the election.

“When I think about the rhetoric coming out of the White House, and the things Donald Trump is saying about delayed results, I think it sets up Pennsylvania to be an obvious place for campaigns and candidates to fight,” he said.

Deluzio says an additional wrinkle facing the state is that people who go to polling places in most of the state’s 67 counties will use equipment acquired since the last major election. “Many voters have not used these new machines,” he said, which could potentially cause lines on Election Day. Meanwhile, Trump has called upon his supporters “to go into the polls and watch very carefully” for signs of fraud. Deluzio worries such instructions could lead to indiscriminate challenges from GOP poll watchers that could “gum up the works” by contesting legitimate in-person voters’ ability to participate, slowing voting in Democrat-heavy urban centers like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. He’s also concerned armed supporters of the president could show up outside polls and intimidate voters. “The risks are real,” he warned. “It merits folks paying extra special attention to what’s happening here.”

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, told Mother Jones that his office is active across several areas to address voter concerns.

“When every eligible ballot is counted, the voice of Pennsylvania voters will drown out the threats, attacks, lawsuits, and disinformation directed at the Commonwealth,” Shapiro said in a statement. “My office and the PA Dept. of State are working hard to bring an end to the distracting litigation, educate voters on how to properly cast their ballot, and stop the misinformation that improperly undermines faith in our election.” He added that his office is “working closely with law enforcement colleagues at the local, state and federal levels to prevent fraud, intimidation, and interference so everyone can have confidence in Pennsylvania’s voting process.”

A proposal from Republicans in the legislature would have stood up a GOP-controlled commission with investigatory powers to review the 2020 election and file legal claims, potentially even while voting was still taking place. The broad language in the resolution creating the commission had an eerie echo to the explosive reporting from The Atlantic‘s Barton Gellman, who spoke with senior Pennsylvania Republicans who said they were weighing ways to “bypass” election results and have the legislature select Trump-friendly electors if they could point to problems with the election. A scenario like that, Hasen said, “would inspire national rioting.”

While the commission seemed ready-made to help provide Pennsylvania Republicans with claims of election malfeasance, after stiff opposition from Democrats and even some fellow Republican members of the legislature, the proposal was withdrawn from the legislative calendar earlier this month—suggesting that as messy as things get, there could be a limit to how far Pennsylvania Republicans can or will go to protect the reign of an unpopular present.

Correction: This article originally misstated Rick Hasen’s professional affiliation.

The Trump Administration Allowed Aviation Companies to Take Bailout Funds and Lay Off Workers, Says House Report


This story was published in partnership with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.

In the spring, Congress created a program to save aviation worker jobs. Then the Trump administration undermined that program by granting hundreds of millions of dollars in relief to aviation companies for jobs they’d already largely eliminated, according to a House report released Friday.

As a result, thousands of workers at airline caterers and other contractors are out of work while their employers received public funds that were supposed to be passed to workers. What’s more, at least two companies that received hundreds of millions in taxpayer funds restored full pay to management, the report found.

The report follows a monthslong investigation that the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis launched in July, citing ProPublica reporting on the program.

The $32 billion Payroll Support Program, part of the sweeping CARES Act to rescue the economy from the ravages of the coronavirus crisis, was designed so that money would pass through companies to workers in the hard-hit aviation industry. The federal government gave grants and some loans to airlines and their contractors, who were then meant to keep workers on their payrolls. The amount each company received would be based on six months worth of payroll from last year. In exchange, the companies had to agree not to conduct any layoffs until October, about six months after the CARES Act was passed.

But ProPublica found that the companies laid off workers throughout the spring and then took the money intended to preserve the jobs they had already cut. The Treasury Department, charged with implementing the law, offered no incentive for the companies to rehire their workers.

The select subcommittee’s report reached a similar conclusion.

“Treasury’s implementation of the Payroll Support Program undermined the program’s job preservation purpose,” the subcommittee wrote. “Treasury permitted aviation contractors to lay off tens of thousands of workers through the worst months of the pandemic and still receive full payroll support calculated based on pre-pandemic workforce numbers—the same amount they would have received if they had not laid off a single worker.”

In response to the report, a Treasury spokesperson wrote that “the Payroll Support Program has supported hundreds of thousands of aviation industry jobs, kept workers employed and connected to their healthcare, and played a critical role in preserving the U.S. airline industry. Implementation focused first on the largest employers to help stabilize an industry in crisis and support as many jobs as possible for as long as possible.”

Congressional investigators obtained tens of thousands of pages of documents and interviewed Treasury Department and company officials.

In the case of one contractor, Swissport U.S.A., the subcommittee uncovered correspondence in which a company executive instructed managers to “urgently” verify the employment status of a group of workers prior to finalizing the company’s Payroll Support agreement, and to let them go if they weren’t needed.

“CARES is now imminent, and we need to ensure that we don’t incur unnecessary costs once the ink is on the paper,” the executive wrote, referring to the workers, weeks before the company received $170 million from the program.

Swissport did not respond to a request for comment.

The subcommittee also took to task two airline catering companies that ProPublica wrote about in July, Gate Gourmet and Flying Food Group, for taking advantage of the program.

The report found that the companies drastically reduced their payroll ahead of applying for the relief funds, and continued to do so while their applications were pending. But once the agreements were finalized, neither restored employment to pre-pandemic levels. In fact, the subcommittee found that Flying Food Group, which received $85 million through the program, had not rehired a single worker out of the thousands it laid off or furloughed since the pandemic hit.

Meanwhile, both companies have since restored cuts that had been made to management pay. Both expect the money they received from the Payroll Support Program to subsidize their payroll expenses well into next year, according to the report.

Neither company responded to requests for comment.

Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., who chairs the select subcommittee, has called for aviation companies to halt any additional layoffs until they have spent the remainder of the funds they received.

However, since the Sept. 30 deadline for halting layoffs under the CARES Act expired, Flying Food and Gate Gourmet have already initiated hundreds of additional layoffs at airports across the country, according to official layoff notices issued by the companies in recent weeks.


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