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Obsessed: It’s 2024 and Conservatives Still Can’t Stop Worrying About Michelle Obama


The Conservative Political Action Conference, the largest right-wing convention in the country, kicked off this morning’s show with an all-star lineup. There were members of Congress like Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Florida) and Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Alabama), a Republican lieutenant governor from North Carolina, and a former director of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

And then there was a panel slugged “Catfight: Michelle vs Kamala.”

For 25 minutes, a panel of right-wing media figures including Breitbart’s Matt Boyle and Townhall’s Kurt Schlichter warned the audience that Democrats are hatching a nefarious scheme to oust a “senile” Joe Biden in favor of installing former First Lady Michelle Obama as the party’s presidential nominee at the convention this summer. “They could make the switch and they could position Michelle as the reluctant candidate who really didn’t want to do this but needs to do it to save her country,” predicted Monica Crowley, a former Fox News contributor who served as assistant secretary for public affairs at the Treasury Department during the Trump administration. “She only would have to run for 10 weeks to November 5.”

The evidence for this scheme, she claims, could be found in the fact that Michelle Obama’s father once served as a Democratic precinct captain in Chicago, which was why, she claimed, the Democrats had decided to hold its convention in that city. This is also a place where “the communists” could ignore their own convention rules and anoint Michelle as the presidential nominee.

The idea that Democrats would swap Biden for Michelle at the convention at the last minute is a conspiracy theory that has been bubbling up in the far corners of MAGA World for at least two years. But it’s been gathering steam this week in the wake of the Democratic freak-out over the Special Counsel’s report that noted problems with Biden’s memory and the public debate over whether he could be replaced at a contested convention in August. On Wednesday, failed GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy appeared on the Benny Johnson show and predicted that Michelle would be the nominee.


Radio talk show host Larry O’Connor elevated the debate by suggesting during the panel that the former first lady is, in fact, a man, to cheers from the crowd, a racist anti-trans trope that was in keeping with the morning’s theme. Sen. Tommy Tuberville had appeared earlier to rail against trans athletes in women’s sports, even claiming that he was supported by Caitlyn Jenner, with whom he claimed to speak regularly.

The four panelists were unanimous in their agreement that Vice President Kamala Harris was a terrible candidate. They seemed to believe that Obama, however, represented a real threat to Trump’s election. “Because she’s a woman of color, she’s considered iconic,” Crowley said. “We need to be prepared for the worst-case scenario because she poses the most threatening challenge to President Trump.” She suggested that the Obamas would work with the “Deep State” to “make some sort of move.”

“They want Obama 4.0 and 5.0,” she declared. “The only way they can guarantee that is by having Michelle in the White House.”

The Smirnov Affair: MAGA Republicans Are Useful Idiots for Russian Intelligence


In June 2020, a businessman and fixer named Alexander Smirnov, who was also an FBI informant, passed his handler at the bureau a potentially explosive tip: The owner of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, had told him that he had paid $5 million each to Joe Biden and his son Hunter so the elder Biden, then vice president, would stop an investigation into the firm. Last year, that allegation became a key component in the Republican effort to impeach the president. But according to federal prosecutors, it was all a lie. Nine days ago, Smirnov, an Israeli and American citizen who had worked with oligarchs over the years and had been a confidential FBI source for a decade, was indicted for making false statements to federal investigators.

Smirnov’s indictment is a big deal and blows up a huge chunk of the GOP’s impeachment drive. But, more important, his allegedly phony accusation did not occur in a vacuum. It is part of a larger story of the rotten relationship between Russian intelligence and the Trump cosmos.

A year before Smirnov dropped this (presumably counterfeit) dime on the Bidens, Rudy Giuliani—who at the time was Donald Trump’s personal lawyer—took a trip to Ukraine that he publicly said was for the purpose of digging up dirt on the Democratic presidential contender. Giuliani was particularly focused on the unfounded claim that Biden, as veep, had orchestrated the firing of a Ukrainian prosecutor to end a probe of Burisma. Giuliani’s agenda included pressing the Ukrainian government to launch investigations that could yield derogatory information about Biden. (These Giuliani machinations would lead to Trump’s first impeachment.) In the following months, Giuliani’s endeavor was aided by Russian operatives spreading disinformation about the Bidens. In fact, Trump’s own intelligence establishment and his Treasury Department would later publicly declare that Russian agents were mounting an operation to discredit Biden to help Trump win reelection. 

It appears likely that Smirnov’s supposedly false statements to the FBI were connected to this covert Kremlin campaign. According to the prosecutors in the Smirnov case, in 2023 he told the FBI he had been in touch with Russian officials. Later, during an interview with the FBI after he was arrested, Smirnov admitted that officials associated with Russian intelligence had been involved in “passing a story” about Hunter, according to court filings.

Add all this up and it looks as if Russia succeeded in inserting an explosive allegation—$10 million in secret payments to the Bidens!—into the MAGA bloodstream and boosted the GOP impeachment crusade against the president. In other words, the Republicans—and all their comrades at Fox and other right-wing media outlets that trumpeted Smirnov’s allegation against the Bidens—have been useful idiots for Moscow.

The Smirnov case has generated plenty of headlines and has caused the leading Republican impeachers—namely, Reps. James Comer and Jim Jordan—to look foolish. (Downplaying the revelations about Smirnov, they still insist they have a case.) But it’s important to view the Smirnov affair in this wider context: Republicans and the MAGA right have eagerly participated in Kremlin scheming to undermine Biden.

This Moscow plot has been a matter of public record for years. In February 2020, intelligence officials briefed House lawmakers that Moscow was interfering in the election to assist Trump’s reelection. (This briefing, of course, angered Trump, who had refused to acknowledge that a covert program authorized by Russian leader Vladimir Putin helped him win the White House four years earlier, and he replaced the acting director of national intelligence.) Months later, William Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, issued a statement declaring that Russia “is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden…Some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television.”

That was related to Giuliani’s endeavor. The NCSC statement noted that a pro-Russia Ukrainian parliamentarian named Andriy Derkach, the son of a former KGB official, was “spreading claims about corruption…to undermine former Vice President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party.” In September 2020, Derkach was sanctioned by Trump’s Treasury Department, which called him “an active Russian agent for over a decade” and declared he was one of a group of “Russia-linked election interference actors.” Treasury said Derkach had maintained “close connections with the Russian Intelligence Services” and had “directly or indirectly engaged in, sponsored, concealed, or otherwise been complicit in foreign interference in an attempt to undermine the upcoming 2020 U.S. presidential election.” Trump’s own Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, remarked, “Derkach and other Russian agents employ manipulation and deceit to attempt to influence elections in the United States and elsewhere around the world.” 

And who was working with Derkach to spread the false story that Joe Biden had blocked an investigation of Burisma? Giuliani. At one point, Derkach staged press conferences in Kyiv and played secretly recorded tapes of Biden speaking by phone with former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Derkach insisted the recordings supported Giuliani’s allegations about Biden. Yet the tapes revealed no misconduct. This was a disinformation stunt. Ukrainians critical of Russia speculated that the tapes originated with Russian intelligence.

Giuliani never expressed shame for hooking up with a Russian agent. He publicly admitted he was in touch with Derkach and called him “very helpful.” He said that he and Derkach had spoken about Ukraine many times.

It was a bizarre situation. Giuliani, once known as “America’s Mayor,” was in cahoots with a Russian covert operation—and every Republican and Fox News host who amplified the Biden allegations he was peddling were Kremlin helpmates. When Giuliani helped make public the contents of a laptop that Hunter had left behind at a computer repair shop in Delaware, conservative media seized the occasion to boost the false charges about Joe and Hunter Biden being spread by this Russian operation. (The laptop contained explosive material about Hunter, but its contents did not, as the New York Post and other right-wing outlets falsely asserted, prove the conspiracy theory that Biden had intervened to protect Burisma.)

After the 2020 election, more information emerged about Moscow’s undercover attempt to smear Joe Biden. In the final days of the Trump administration, the Treasury Department sanctioned several Derkach associates in Ukraine for disseminating and promoting “fraudulent and unsubstantiated allegations involving a U.S. political candidate.” These Ukrainians, the Treasury said, “have made repeated public statements to advance disinformation narratives that U.S. government officials have engaged in corrupt dealings in Ukraine. These efforts are consistent with and in support of Derkach’s efforts, acting as an agent of the Russian intelligence services, to influence the 2020 U.S. Presidential election.”  A State Department statement echoed this declaration, reporting that Derkach and his pals had pushed “malicious narratives” to affect the 2020 contest. (This past November, Ukrainian authorities charged Derkach and two of the other US-sanctioned Ukrainians with treason, contending they had colluded with Russian intelligence to assist Giuliani’s disinformation scheme.)

The bottom line: According to Trump administration officials, the Biden-Burisma allegations were in part (if not wholly) the work of Russian operatives. Yet Trump, the MAGA right, and their media allies have been beating this drum for years, and once the GOP won back the House in 2022, it became impeachment fodder. Then Comer, Jordan, and the rest of their crew embraced Smirnov’s charges, even though they were not substantiated and even though they were in sync with a known Russian disinformation plot that targeted Biden to aid Trump. Moreover, it was highly suspicious that Smirnov shared his allegations with his FBI handler in June 2020—after not mentioning them for years—just when Giuliani and other Trumpers were striving to tar Joe Biden with this false tale. 

But none of that matters for the Party of Trump and its leader. They seem unconcerned about collaborating—colluding?—with a Kremlin operation. After all, it worked for Trump in 2016, and since then he and his cult have demonstrated no reluctance to be exploited by Russia or to exploit Russian disinformation, even as Putin wages a horrendous war in Ukraine and intensifies his repressive and murderous reign at home. The Smirnov case—of which there is much more to learn—shows not only that Trump and the GOP are Putin dupes; they are willing dupes.

Soccer Fans Fought Back Against Private Equity and Won


If you’ve watched any German men’s professional soccer matches recently—and I can certainly forgive you if you haven’t—you’ve seen something even more unusual than an end-of-the-season trophy presentation without Bayern Munich. For months, fans across the country have staged a series of increasingly elaborate protests against a plan by the country’s Deutsche Fußball Liga (DFL), to sell a stake in its media rights to a private equity firm. 

At Wolfsburg, fans forced repeated stoppage of play by throwing tennis balls onto the field. At Mönchengladbach they threw chocolate coins. A Hamburg fan attached a bicycle lock to a goalpost during a match, forcing a stadium employee to come out with a saw and remove it. And in Rostock last weekend, fans put smoke bombs onto two remote-control cars and sent them in circles around the pitch as an attendant frantically tried to retrieve them:

Fans explained the gesture with a banner: “We won’t be remote controlled.”

As I explained in a recent cover story for the magazine, soccer has become increasingly financialized over the last decade or so, with major investment firms taking over clubs, buying stakes in leagues, and even challenging the structure of the sport itself. It’s a drumbeat that’s felt both unstoppable and a little nauseating, in a way that mirrors the financialization of everything else—from media to grocery stores to housing.

But in Germany, it turned out, this wasn’t unstoppable. Last week, the US private-equity firm Blackstone dropped its bid for a share of the DFL’s media rights, leaving Luxembourg-based CVC Capital Partners as the lone remaining bidder. On Wednesday, the league announced it was pulling the plan. Similar proposals were rejected by the league twice before. The fans have won—at least for now.

That Germans managed to block the takeover does not exactly mean that everyone else will, or even can. Of all the big European leagues, Germany is the one you’d most expect to put up a fight, not just because it has a rich culture of supporter-driven political activism, but because of the way clubs are structured. A rule known as “50+1” mandates that a majority of shares for each team be owned by members of the club itself, which makes it impossible for just any old nation-state or billionaire to acquire them. So while oligarchs and petro-states bought up famous brands in England and in France, and hedge-funds and rich Americans scoured Italy for deals like Gilded-Age elites on a Grand Tour (did you know that Donald Trump’s lawyer in the first E. Jean Carroll defamation case is now on his fourth Italian club?), Germany maintained many of its old ways.

Per The Athletic’s Raphael Honigstein, the protestors had a range of complaints, ranging from the PE firms’ links to Saudi Arabia, to “fears the deal will lead to pressure on the clubs to maximise profits and further change kick-off times in pursuit of additional TV income.” But the railroading of the supporters was a recurring theme. Team representatives had essentially gone rogue to strike a deal that “lacked broad acceptance”; this was an assertion of who the league really belongs to—not just on paper, but on some deeper level.

Professional sports sort of seems like one of the more benign things private equity could speculate in. The workers—at least the ones you see—are doing more than okay. No one is going Toys-R-Us-mode on the Olympiastadion Berlin. Who really cares if Stephen Schwarzman skims a bit of money off of someone else’s television contract?

But lingering at the center of these fights over private-equity is a sense that giving an investment-shop a stake in your business transforms it into something altogether different than it was before. It might come with an infusion of money, but that money very rarely comes without strings and it is never, ever sentimental. Unlike a lot of American professional sports teams—which began as expensive franchises in billion-dollar entertainment cartels, and can be moved from city to city—European clubs had their start as community organizations. The commodification came much later, egged on by American companies and investors, and there’s a lot of resentment at the way things are playing out. The German uprising is not the first time that fans on the continent have rebelled against the influence of outside investors.

Maybe soccer will be the exception—a rare industry in which a bunch of people with no connections to the product swoop in and make everything better for the people who care about it most. But you can’t blame anyone for not taking that bet.

Just look at the other big private-equity company in the news for its soccer investments right now. The English Premier League club Everton has ended up in a huge financial mess after a tumultuous decade in which it was acquired by the business partner of the now-sanctioned Russian oligarch, Alisher Usmanov. Now there’s a new owner on the horizon—the US private equity firm 777 Partners, which according to the Washington Post, is buying up soccer teams with money it made “as one of the biggest buyers of structured settlement annuities.” Do you need to read that story to know that critics have called their business model “exploitative”? No, I don’t think so—but I would recommend it.

It’ll take a lot more than some tennis balls and chocolate to stop PE from getting its bag. But it’s good to remember it’s still possible.

“It Broke My Heart”: The Brutal Effect of Alabama’s Supreme Court Ruling on IVF Patients


In Alabama, the state Supreme Court ruled this week that frozen embryos can now be considered children under state law. The all-Republican court called on anti-abortion language in the Alabama Constitution, quoted Biblical scripture for backing, and invoked an 1872 state law that grants parents the right to sue over the death of a minor saying it “applies to all unborn children.” 

As we have previously reported, the enshrining of fetal personhood can have drastic consequences. And the effect in Alabama has been immediate. Since the decision, multiple in vitro fertilization, or IVF, clinics have suspended their services—leaving patients and providers in legal limbo, searching for answers about what to do with preexisting embryos and already planned retrievals.

IVF is used as a treatment for those struggling to get pregnant. About 2 percent of births in the United States are because of this technology. It is an expensive process—a single IVF cycle can cost upwards of $30,000—and often a complicated one. By 40, women have a less than 10 percent success rate. IVF is also uniquely a chance for queer couples to have both partners participate in the embryo creation process.

The court decision leaves the future of IVF and other fertility treatments in Alabama uncertain. Following the ruling, Democrat legislators in the state filed a bill that seeks to protect the process.  

To discuss the impact, I spoke with Katie, who asked to go by her first name, a former worker at the IVF clinic Alabama Fertility and someone who successfully had a daughter through the process. We talked about her experience with IVF, what this ruling means for patients, and her fear for the future. 

What was your initial reaction when you heard the news this week? 

It broke my heart. As of [Thursday], Alabama Fertility, which is the clinic that I used to work at, has paused all new IVF treatment cycles. My position was actually the IVF financial counselor. So I spoke to all of our IVF patients that came through the office. I’m the one who told them, “It’s gonna be $20,000 to get this baby that you so desperately want”—breaking the financial news that no one wants to hear. This is a hard road for people.

You mentioned the cost as such a big part of this. Under the ruling, people in Alabama may now have to leave the state to get IVF. How would the cost of having to travel impact the kinds of patients that you were talking to? 

It’s definitely going to make an impact. For now, if these patients are having to go out of state to do this, they’re tacking on travel cost, possibly hotels, flights, meals—it’s extra thousands of dollars for these patients who are already spending tens of thousands of dollars to have the baby that they want. 

Could you just tell me about your IVF journey? 

I was with my now ex-wife and at first we did “known donor“—like a lot of couples [we did that first] to help with the cost. Because, obviously, fertility is a very expensive journey to start. We did that for a little over a year. In January of 2018, we got our first positive pregnancy test. Sadly, that ended in a miscarriage about two weeks later.

After that, we were like: we’ll bite the bullet and do fertility treatments. My OBGYN performed intrauterine inseminations in his clinic and so we did two IUIs there and had a chemical pregnancy with one. We tried again and had another six or seven-week loss with that. My doctor told me after I had my second loss that it was just like being struck by lightning twice, it doesn’t really happen. Well, then it happened a third time and I’m like, there’s obviously something going on.

We ended up traveling two and a half hours to Alabama Fertility in Birmingham. We did one other IUI there and another loss. Then it was the summer of 2018 and I was just kind of done at that point.

When we started our journey we both thought that we were never gonna do IVF—we just didn’t have the funds. My mom came to us, I was still about 24, and she said her insurance has fertility coverage. So we ended up going through one IVF cycle in October of 2018 at Alabama Fertility and I had 16 eggs retrieved. By the time that we got to day six, I had three embryos remaining. And at that time, after just having so many losses, we decided to do genetic testing on the embryos. After the longest two-week wait of my life, we got our results back and we had two genetically normal embryos that we were able to use. In December of 2018, we transferred one embryo and that actually decided to stick around and so now I have a four-and-a-half-year-old.

This process of IVF gave you your daughter. Had this been decided by the court whenever you were trying to go about this process, God knows what would have happened.

It fucking sucks, honestly. It is mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting when you have one miscarriage—but multiple miscarriages on top of that. It’s hard to imagine what could have happened if this would have been passed four or five years ago when we did IVF. 

You were using IVF in a same-sex relationship as well. How could this ruling uniquely impact people in queer couples like you? 

Queer couples already have to make the decision of whose eggs they’re going to use, which can be a hard decision for them to make at all. We knew from the get go: We are doing this one time. This is the only shot we have. We’re going to use mine. But for the couples who both want to carry their own children, they are asking, “Do we spend all of this money to go through this and end up having 40 embryos stored? We’re not going to have 40 kids.” But if this ruling stands and doesn’t get overturned, that’s a reality for a lot of people. Because 20 eggs being retrieved is a normal cycle for some people. I’ve seen as many as 45 eggs be retrieved. 

This is all happening within the context of Alabama’s abortion ban. How do you feel about abortion and restrictions in the state? 

I am definitely pro-choice. Everyone’s situation is different. 

How do you feel about lawmakers and judges across Alabama lumping together IVF restrictions and restrictions on abortion? 

They’re completely different. Most of the embryos that are discarded at a fertility clinic would not make a baby, they are embryos that don’t meet the criteria to be frozen. Are there embryos that may be genetically perfectly normal that patients are discarding because they’re done with their family? Yes. I get it, those embryos could possibly turn into a baby. And there are options to donate to people who want to do embryo adoption or to donate to science for research. That is the parent’s choice to make—who helped create those embryos—not the government who’s just sitting behind a desk. 

I’m wondering how you would explain this all to your daughter?  

I will tell her that it’s her body and her choice to do whatever she wants with that. But there are men in this world that want to take that away from her. She needs to stand up to them and let them know that it’s not their choice of what she does with her body and her embryos and her future babies.   

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.      

The GOP Border Bill Would Deport Families of Child Migrants


As the battle over the border rages in Congress, many Republicans are pushing to advance a bill that would revive one of the Trump era’s harshest policies: deporting family members in the US who step forward to take in unaccompanied migrant children.

It’s one of the many hardline provisions in HR 2, a sweeping border security plan that GOP leaders say is necessary to clamp down on the number of migrants arriving in the country. That bill, which passed in the House last year, is waiting in the wings as lawmakers fight over the possibility of new immigration crackdowns. The GOP legislation contains a laundry list of rules that would expand deportations, make it harder to claim asylum, and whittle down the government’s power to grant humanitarian parole. But immigration advocates are also sounding the alarm over a lesser-known provision, which instructs the Department of Health and Human Services—an agency tasked with placing migrant kids with trusted sponsors in the US—to hand over those sponsors’ names to immigration enforcement officials.

According to lawyers and activists who previously saw this collaboration take place under President Donald Trump, the past iteration of the program left devastating impacts on family members who were arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement after trying to reunite with their children. The risk of deportation, they say, terrified potential sponsors and discouraged them from coming forward, prolonging the time that kids needed to stay in detention centers.

The policy was “using children as bait in order to go after undocumented families,” says Azadeh Erfani, a senior policy analyst with the legal nonprofit National Immigrant Justice Center. It’d be “a huge setback” if Congress now codified into law “a provision that would treat children with such cruelty.”

When Border Patrol encounters an unaccompanied child or teen, the agency is supposed to move them into the custody of HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, which was specifically tapped to care for minors arriving in the country alone. The office places the child in a temporary shelter before releasing them to a trusted adult in the US, usually a family member, with whom they can wait out their immigration cases in a safe environment. Most people who come forward to sponsor a child—a dad, a grandma, a family friend—are undocumented. But HHS, which is not a law enforcement agency, regularly places kids with sponsors who lack legal immigration status. “Their job is not immigration enforcement,” says Jennifer Podkul, vice president of policy and advocacy with the nonprofit Kids In Need of Defense. “Their job is child protection.”

Those lines were blurred in 2018, when, under Trump’s infamous “zero tolerance” strategy, the Department of Homeland Security inked a new information-sharing agreement with HHS. Suddenly, HHS was required to give immigration authorities the names, addresses, and fingerprints of anyone who came forward to take in an unaccompanied child. Within a year, said then-ICE Acting Director Matthew Albence in a congressional hearing, immigration enforcement agents had used this intel to round up over 300 potential sponsors. Most of them had no criminal records and were arrested solely because they were suspected of being in the country illegally.

Two months after Biden took office, his administration rolled back the policy. The setup had “undermined the interests of children” and “had a chilling effect on potential sponsors,” DHS and HHS announced in March 2021 in a joint statement.

Now, many say that the Republicans’ border bill could bring back the program—and exacerbate its harms. “HR 2 goes one step farther,” says Melissa Adamson, an immigration attorney with the National Center for Youth Law. Unlike the Trump-era agreement, HR 2 explicitly tells HHS to report a sponsor’s immigration status to Homeland Security. If they’re undocumented, the authorities would have 30 days to begin the process of deporting them.

If HR 2 were implemented, “family members would not come forward” and “children’s length of time in detention would likely skyrocket,” Adamson says. “It would be a wholly preventable crisis.”

For many immigration advocates, this potential crisis is reminiscent of what they saw the first time around. They recall how relatives were often scared that engaging with HHS would result in ICE, which is part of DHS, showing up at their doorstep, leaving kids without other options. At that point, “you’re looking at a situation where there just may not be someone to sponsor the child,” says Mary Miller Flowers, the policy and legislative affairs director for the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights. “You may take that child’s whole network away from them.”

As a result, once the Trump policy took effect, kids had to wait for much longer stretches of time as case managers scrambled to track down a more distant relative or family friend. “It became more difficult to identify sponsors willing to accept children,” explained the HHS Office of Inspector General. In the months after the agencies’ cooperation started, the average time children spent in HHS custody ballooned—from 58 days to about three months. 

But each day, unaccompanied kids continued to arrive at the border. This created a huge backlog in HHS shelters, which were quickly running out of bed space. Newer arrivals couldn’t move out of Border Patrol detention centers—austere facilities meant for the short-term holding of adults. Federal law generally requires that minors without a parent or guardian be transferred out of those centers within 72 hours, but many were staying for weeks. Unlike HHS shelters, which are designed to house children, Border Patrol jails often lacked basic supplies like toothbrushes or soap and were so freezing that people called them “iceboxes.” These facilities are “dramatically ill-equipped to care for human beings, let alone children, in a long-term way,” says Erfani. Even after Biden ended the Trump-era policy, she notes, an 8-year-old girl died in Border Patrol custody last summer after agents ignored her parents’ pleas for medical care. 

The Trump administration argued that it was looking out for the safety of child migrants. It said that Homeland Security officials needed to vet sponsors to make sure kids weren’t being released to harmful settings. “No one who values child welfare and safety,” then-White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told the Washington Post in 2019, “would argue smuggled, exploited and unaccompanied children at the southern border should be handed over to illegal alien ‘sponsors’ without reliable identity confirmation and background checks.” 

But many advocates say that ICE’s renewed involvement would have nothing to do with child welfare. “It’s purely punitive,” says Melanie Nezer, vice president of advocacy with the Women’s Refugee Commission. HHS’s refugee office was specifically asked to care for unaccompanied kids, she pointed out, so that their wellbeing would be overseen by an agency without a law enforcement mandate. In recent months, HHS has come under fire for not properly vetting sponsors and often releasing children to exploitative labor settings. But adding immigration authorities to the mix, Nezer argues, would only make things worse. A desperate parent might try to find someone—anyone—who has legal status to sponsor a child, even if that’s a distant relative or a stranger.

As lawmakers strain to compromise on new immigration limits, HR 2 is in the spotlight again. Earlier this month, after a botched attempt to reach an agreement on border security in the Senate, House GOP leaders Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), Steve Scalise (R-La.), and Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) issued a statement once again pressing the Senate to vote on HR 2. That’s unlikely to happen anytime soon in the Democratic-controlled upper chamber. But things could change if Republicans win control of the Senate in November.

Republicans “are socializing these ideas through HR 2,” says Flowers of the Young Center. Just putting it on the table “makes it look like these kinds of extremist things” are “somehow part of our mainstream conversation about how to manage immigration in this country.”

Being Denied a Press Pass at CPAC Was the Best Way to Cover the Conference


I’ve attended the Conservative Political Action Conference almost yearly since 2009, always as a credentialed reporter. While there, I’ve seen the early attacks on President Barack Obama, the improbable popularity of libertarian Texas Rep. Ron Paul. I witnessed the rise of the Tea Party, listened to dozens of failed political candidates like former GOP vice presidential candidate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and was in the house for Donald Trump’s first appearance in 2011. In February 2020, I even got exposed early to Covid, just before the world shut down. But this year, CPAC head Matt Schlapp decided that the organization would no longer give press passes to “left-wing media.”

“So CPAC has a new rule,” he told former Trump adviser Steve Bannon on a segment for the right-wing cable outlet Real America’s Voice. “If you’re a propagandist, you can buy a ticket, like everyone else. But you’re not in the media, and we’re not going to credential you by saying you’re in the media.” Bannon congratulated Schlapp for the epic troll. “People’s heads are blowing up,” Bannon said gleefully.

Of course, the liberal media is still covering CPAC. It’s the oldest and largest conservative gathering in the country, launched in 1974 by veterans of Barry Goldwater’s failed 1964 campaign for president. Today, it’s held in a convention center just outside of Washington, DC, where it runs from Wednesday until Saturday when Trump is expected to appear. The fact that the whole thing was live-streamed makes it easier for those who did not want to shell out the admission fee.

I took Schlapp at his word and simply bought a ticket. I wasn’t thrilled to be contributing $295 to a conservative organization currently spending a lot of its money defending Schlapp from a lawsuit by a male Senate campaign worker who alleges that Schlapp groped him in the car while he was working for Herschel Walker in Georgia. And yet, the general admission pass did not turn out to be the liberal own that Steve Bannon and the CPAC boss seemed to think it would be.

For instance, without my official press badge, people have been nice! No one has hissed “fake news” at me in the bathroom line. Rather than turn their backs and march away upon my approach, conference attendees have chatted me up unprompted. Admittedly, it felt a bit uncomfortable, and I usually disclosed that I was a reporter. But sometimes, they’d already let fly the unfiltered crazy stuff they would never have said on the record.

Exiled from the press pen, I was just part of the audience, a space previously off-limits to reporters. To say the least, it was enlightening. On Friday, for instance, I listened to a main-stage speech from Chris Miller, a Republican running for governor of West Virginia. Because of its tax-exempt status, CPAC bans speakers from openly campaigning there, so he was listed on the program simply as “businessman.”

Like virtually every other speaker at the event, Miller devoted several of his allotted five minutes to railing against transgender healthcare. “Woke doctors are literally making boys into girls,” he declared. “They’re practicing mutilation, not medicine. They should be in prison.” At that point, a burly man in a giant black cowboy hat sitting next to me leaned over conspiratorially and proclaimed, “I think we should hang them all! I really do.” And he laughed like we were in on the same joke. I confess that I was too cowardly to tell him I was with the left-wing fake news.


Later, during a speech by South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, I was sitting next to a woman in full-on MAGA gear. When Noem declared, “There are some people who love America, and there are some people who hate America,” my neighbor gave me a small heart attack. “Get the FUCK OUT!she yelled furiously, ready to rumble. “Get the FUCK OUT!” Meanwhile, the old man in the camo Trump hat next to her had somehow fallen asleep.

In the hotel lobby outside the CPAC main stage, the right-wing cable network Real America’s Voice had set up a studio. Bannon spent most of the conference holding court there and interviewing various MAGA celebs like Kash Patel, who President Donald Trump had once put in charge of counterterrorism at the National Security Administration, or Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL), the rare Black conservative in the mix. The studio often drew a crowd that rivaled that of some of the speakers on the main stage. It certainly rivaled the convention in volume.

While I was taking in the spectacle, a middle-aged man in a gray suit came up to me and pointed to a nearby 7-foot-high poster of Tucker Carlson’s face. “Do you know why that’s here?” he asked. I explained that it was an ad for Tucker: The Biography, a book written by Chadwick Moore, a gay journalist and former liberal. “Oh, I see,” he replied. The man clearly wanted to keep talking, asking me what I was here for, which was unusual since in the past my press badge said it all.

My inquisitor had come to CPAC to see what people were saying about school choice and was disappointed to discover that the answer to that question was nothing. Education policy, he lamented, was nowhere to be found at this event. Indeed, what passed for policy discussions at CPAC this year was largely limited to mass deportations and attacks on trans athletes. The sober panels about the national debt, balancing the budget, or Social Security reform that once commanded top billing were a relic of another era before CPAC became an extension of Trump Inc., devoted to all the MAGA grievances like racial equity, the evils of windmills, or bans on gas stoves. When I finally was able to explain that I was a reporter who’d been denied a press pass, the man launched into an earnest yet incomprehensible spiel about how the government is censoring people. Politely, I fled into the crowd watching Bannon. 

After two days of passing as a CPAC attendee, I marveled at how weird it was to be on the other side like this. Over the past 15 years, I have attended dozens of right-wing conferences and events, even in the Trump White House, and always as a credentialed reporter. This time, instead of being treated like the enemy, I was briefly embraced as part of the tribe, and it became clear how seductive this could be for some people. I saw up close how people felt liberated to be their worst deplorable selves in what they believed was a safe space, surrounded by supportive, like-minded enablers.

Even so, I missed the media gaggle. In 2019, CPAC claimed in tax filings that it had credentialed more than 2,000 journalists, making it as much of a reporter reunion as a political event. When I interviewed Schlapp about the conference two years ago, he bragged about letting all the journalists in, because it showed that CPAC was “the center of political gravity.” He made noises about how messy democracy can be and the importance of expanding the audience for his show. All of that seems to have changed. Yet, I wasn’t surprised when my application to cover CPAC was denied. MAGA world has not been friendly to the mainstream media, despite all its professed concern for free speech. In the past few years, I’ve been kicked out of MAGA events or denied press credentials—most recently to every Trump event in Iowa during the caucuses in January. CPAC had often seemed like the last holdout. 

Keeping liberal reporters out of the press pen will probably not win Schlapp better news coverage. It certainly won’t keep those reporters from asking hard questions about his management of the American Conservative Union, the nonprofit behind the conference, or the other men who have now raised additional sexual assault allegations against him. In fact, the experience of covering CPAC outside the pen has been so enlightening that even if he decides next year to give me official credentials, I might just buy a ticket and sit with the rabble.

Correction February 23: An earlier version of this story misstated the state represented by South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem.

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How US Air Pollution, Ironically, Has Kept Climate Hazards in Check


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

The past half-century has seen remarkable improvements in air quality in many parts of the world, thanks largely to legislation like the Clean Air Act. Efforts like these took aim at pollutants like the group of chemicals known as aerosols, which include sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and other compounds that are harmful to human health.

Like greenhouse gases, aerosols are produced by cars, factories, and power plants—but unlike greenhouse gases, they make the earth cooler rather than warmer. This is because aerosols reflect the sun’s rays, rather than trapping its heat like carbon. Some studies estimate that, without aerosol pollution, the world might have already warmed by another half a degree Celsius

This creates a tricky paradox, which renowned climate scientist James Hansen has called a “Faustian bargain.” If you remove aerosols from the air, you reduce the health impacts of pollution, saving thousands of people from lung and heart disease, but you might also make global warming worse. This powerful relationship has been on display over the past few years in the maritime shipping industry: As freight ships have stopped using dirty bunker fuel since 2020, they’ve also stopped emitting trails of sulfur dioxide, which has caused world temperatures to jump by an additional .05 degrees C.

Now, new research shows that the interaction between aerosols and greenhouse gases also has implications for flooding, which is one of the costliest climate disasters. A peer-reviewed paper published this week in Nature Communications finds that the presence of toxic aerosols in the atmosphere over the United States helped suppress the impacts of climate change on rainfall for decades, postponing a surge in rainfall and flood risk driven by climate change. The passage of clean air laws, which removed these aerosols from the atmosphere, ironically unleashed a trend of worsening floods.

The paper’s results help solve what had been something of a mystery in climate science: Even though warmer air holds more moisture, rainfall in the United States hasn’t been increasing in the way scientists expected as temperatures rise.

“This paper highlights that the counteraction between aerosols and greenhouse gases has likely masked a lot of climate hazards over the last few decades,” said Geeta Persad, an assistant professor of Earth sciences at the University of Texas at Austin and an expert on aerosols. (Persad wasn’t involved in the study.)

“If aerosol emissions drop drastically over the next few decades and greenhouse gases don’t, a lot of those unanticipated climate hazards could be revealed,” added Persad.

The paper uses data from thousands of rain gauges to tease out how aerosols and greenhouse gases have influenced rainfall averages and the frequency of extreme rain events. The use of rain gauges allowed researchers to trace how the two types of human-caused pollution balance each other out in different regions of the country.

Greenhouse gases have been stacking up in the atmosphere for more than a century, and they have a pretty simple impact on rainfall. The more carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere, the hotter it gets; the hotter it gets, the more moisture the atmosphere can hold. Aerosols are more complicated: They react differently with different types of clouds, and as a result their impact on rainfall varies from region to region and from season to season. In most of the US, they made things drier.

The passage of the landmark Clean Air Act in 1970 caused a rapid decline in aerosol pollution as factories installed “scrubber” devices to clean up their smokestacks and automakers updated their cars to comply with emission limits. The disappearance of these aerosols left greenhouse gases to dominate in the atmosphere, which started to ratchet up rainfall totals. If those aerosols hadn’t been there, the paper argues, rainfall and flooding might have started worsening in the United States several decades earlier.

Separating out the effect of these aerosols also allows the researchers to make predictions about how flood risk will change over the next decade. It’s not good news: Now that there’s nothing to offset the heat-trapping effect of carbon dioxide and methane, much of the country is about to get a lot wetter and see a lot more monster storms.

“This somewhat rapid intensification of rainfall extremes is the new normal, at least for the next five years,” said Mark Risser, a research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and one of the paper’s lead authors.

The effect is most pronounced in the southeastern United States, where a slew of hurricanes and rainstorms have caused billions of dollars of flood damage in recent years. The authors find that aerosol pollution tamped down summer and fall precipitation until the late 20th century, when the effect of greenhouse gases started to dominate in the region. That led to both an increase in annual rainfall totals and an increase in the frequency of big rainstorms. (Previous research has shown that aerosols can also suppress the emergence of tropical storms by disrupting cloud formation.)

The paper’s findings could have big implications for the next few decades of environmental regulation. President Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency is racing to finalize strict regulations on industrial pollution that could slash emissions of key aerosol pollutants such as sulfur dioxide. If these regulations take effect, they would apply to numerous facilities in the Southeast, including the petrochemical facilities in the Louisiana region known as “Cancer Alley.”

These regulations would protect residents who live near industrial facilities from asthma, heart disease, and cancer, but a further decline in aerosols could also make hurricane season worse by allowing big storms to hold moisture—meaning more events like Hurricane Harvey, which struck in 2017 and stunned climate scientists by dropping more than 50 inches of rain over Houston, Texas.

Persad, the aerosols expert, says the paper offers a grim warning about future climate risk. If air pollution declines in the United States over the next few decades, many more Americans in regions such as the Southeast could see stronger storms and more severe flooding.

“We’re looking at a situation where over the next 30 years, you could either keep masking, or you could reveal 50 percent more warming,” she said. “Up until now, there has not been very much recognition of how much the evolution of this aerosol signal, over the lifetime of a mortgage of a house that somebody buys today, is going to affect the climate hazards they’re exposed to.”

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Secretly Intercepted Phone Calls Show How Russia’s Propaganda Fueled Violence


On February 16, Russian authorities announced that Aleksei Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s most formidable political opponent, had suffered “sudden death syndrome” while on a walk at an Arctic penal colony where he was serving a 30-year sentence. In the wake of the Russian opposition leader’s death, this week’s episode of Reveal—produced in collaboration with the Associated Press—revisits the story of three AP reporters who captured some of the defining images of Russia’s war in Ukraine exactly two years ago today, when Putin ordered the invasion of Mariupol.

Also on the episode, AP reporter Erika Kinetz shares secretly recorded audio of Russian soldiers calling home. In the intercepted conversations, the men describe “cleansing operations” and their orders to take no prisoners. Their intimate calls give insight into how Russian propaganda and fearmongering turned men with normal, domestic lives into soldiers strategizing about killing civilians.

Finally, Reveal host Michael Montgomery speaks with Oleksandra Matviichuk, a Ukrainian human rights lawyer and winner of a 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, about whether war crimes in Ukraine will be prosecuted. Matviichuk, who has been gathering evidence of human rights abuses since Russia’s initial invasion of the country, argues war crimes should be handled by the Ukrainian courts, and that the international community has an important role to play in bringing justice for Ukrainians.

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Video Shows Nonbinary Teen Nex Benedict Reflecting on Fight Before Their Death


The death of Nex Benedict, a nonbinary teenager in Oklahoma, after a fight in school bathroom earlier this month has led to an outpouring of grief and anger among the LGBTQ community—and fresh attention to the climate of hostility faced by trans students in the state and beyond.

Much remains unclear about the specifics of what happened to Nex, who was reported dead on February 8. On Friday, the Owasso Police Department posted body cam footage of Nex speaking to an officer in a hospital after the fight.

In the video, Nex—dressed in a black t-shirt and cargo pants, their dark hair cut short—tells the officer “I got jumped” and that they didn’t know the three freshman girls who hurt them until that week. “They just decided to up and start messing with you?” the officer asks.

“Yeah, because of the way that we dress,” Nex replied. 

According to Nex, the girls had made fun of the way Nex and their friends were laughing. In response, Nex threw water on the girls from a plastic water bottle, Nex told the officer. Then, they say, the girls “came at me.” Nex continues: “They grabbed onto my hair, I grabbed onto them. I threw one them into a paper towel dispenser. Then they got my legs out from under me, got me on the ground, and started beating the shit out of me. And then my friends tried to jump in and help, and I’m not sure, I blacked out.”

Surveillance camera footage released by the police shows Nex walking through the school hallways sometime after the fight, escorted by an adult. Sue Benedict, Nex’ guardian and grandmother, was soon summoned to the school and advised to take Nex to the hospital, where she called the police.

During the ensuing hospital interview, the police officer tells Nex and Benedict that the school was supposed to have contacted the police immediately after the fight. But he also advised that it might not be in their their best interests to pursue criminal charges, since Nex could be seen as having started the physical fight. Benedict agrees to talk it over with Nex. The officer leaves after about 20 minutes; Nex went home that night. 

The next day, at 1 p.m., Benedict called 911 for an ambulance, reporting that Nex’s breathing was shallow and that their “eyes are kind of rolling back,” according to a call recording released by the police department, which has been posting updates on social media. Nex died at the hospital shortly afterward.

Benedict told the Independent earlier this week that Nex had been bullied for being transgender since the start of the 2023 school year. She remembered telling Nex to “‘be strong and look the other way, because these people don’t know who you are.'”

The tragedy is drawing attention to anti-trans politics of Oklahoma officials, including Oklahoma state superintendent for education Ryan Walters, who told the New York Times that he did not believe that nonbinary or transgender people exist. “There’s not multiple genders. There’s two. That’s how God created us,” he said. Walters has pushed these beliefs onto Oklahoma schools; the state would not allow students to use preferred names or pronouns different from their birth sex, he told the Times.

Last month, Walters appointed Chaya Raichik, the internet personality behind the virulently anti-trans Libs of TikTok account, to a library media advisory committee. Raichik, who often uses her account to target teachers who support LGBTQ students, had previously targeted an Owasso teacher, who ultimately resigned—a development that upset Nex, Benedict told the Independent.

National LGBTQ civil rights leaders have called for federal investigations into Nex’s death and the Owesso school district by the Departments of Justice and Education. “We believe that Nex’s death is the natural consequence of a growing wave of hatred against LGBTQ+ people,” Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights campaign, wrote in letters to the federal department leaders. “This hatred is being fueled by an unprecedented, coordinated attempt to eliminate the rights and visibility of our communities across the country.”

The setting of the fight—in a girl’s bathroom—has deep resonance for trans students, who have been banned from using school facilities that correspond with their gender identity in 10 states over the last three years. (In two states, Utah and Florida, these laws come with criminal penalties and extend to all trans people and government-owned buildings, according to the Movement Advancement Project.) Oklahoma’s Republican governor, Kevin Stitt, signed his state’s bathroom bill in 2022—not long after he banned transgender girls from playing on female sports teams and prohibited transgender people from changing their birth certificates. The House author of the Oklahoma bathroom bill, Republican state Rep. Danny Williams, claimed at the time of its passage, in May 2022, that the bill’s goal was to protect children. “It’s about safety,” he said. 

As word of Nex’s death continued to spread last week, calls to the Rainbow Youth Project, an Indiana-based group that runs a crisis hotline for LGBTQ youth, had increased by 500 percent over its weekly average as of Friday, Time reported. In response to Nex’s death, a gender nonconforming recent high school graduate told a Rolling Stone reporter: “That could have been me.”

Trump adds to winning streak in South Carolina, puts major dent in Haley's comeback aspirations

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Trump Claims His Mug Shot Wins Him Black Voters


Donald Trump decisively won South Carolina’s GOP primary election against challenger Nikki Haley on Saturday, with the former president earning about 60 percent of Republican votes to Haley’s 40 percent. 

“This was a little sooner than we anticipated,” Trump said at the outset of his victory speech Saturday night, speaking from Columbia, South Carolina. “An even bigger win than we anticipated.” Haley, for her part, vowed to stay in the race, at least for now. “I’m a woman of my word,” she said, “I’m not giving up this fight when a majority of Americans disapprove of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden.”

Even in the state where she once served as governor, few people expected Haley to win. (Most networks called the race for Trump shortly after the polls closed.) But nevertheless, the race had a few surprising—and deeply troubling—moments. We’ve rounded up a few here, including the latest racist comments from the candidate expected to be the GOP’s 2024 nominee:

Trump says “the Black people are so much on my side now”

Speaking at an event hosted on Friday by the Black Conservative Federation in South Carolina, Trump made reference to his multiple indictments”: “I think that’s why the Black people are so much on my side now. Because they see what’s happening to me happens to them. Does that make sense?” “The mugshot, we’ve all seen the mugshot. And you know who embraced it more than anyone else? The Black population. It’s incredible.” At another point in the speech, Trump also said the lights were so bright that he could only see Black attendees in the crowd.

Trump on languages spoken by immigrants: “a very horrible thing”

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Sen. Lindsey Graham gets booed at Trump’s victory speech

In welcoming Graham to the podium, Trump introduced the Republican South Carolina senator as someone who “happens to be a little bit further left than some of the people on this stage.” When met with boos from the crowd, Trump, appearing genuinely surprised by the reaction, said, “No no, remember—I love him. He’s a good man.” (Graham sure has come a long way from once declaring that the GOP would be “destroyed” if it chose Trump.)

A strong majority of South Carolina GOP voters think Biden didn’t win in 2020

In exit surveys conducted by NBC, 62 percent of GOP primary voters in South Carolina told pollsters—incorrectly—that they don’t think Joe Biden legitimately won the presidential election in 2020. “Haley managed to win 81 percent of voters who believe President Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 election,” according to NBC, “but they only made up a third of the electorate.”

On Tuesday, Trump and Haley will face off in another GOP primary, in Michigan.

Republicans strain to find Mayorkas' impeachment-level 'high crimes'

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'No Labels' official floats Nikki Haley for third-party presidential ticket

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Biden approval rating for third year 'second worst' among post-WWII presidents

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Not 'the end of our story': Haley campaigns in Michigan, vows to stay in race

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Biden summons congressional leaders to the White House

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