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What the Latest FBI Data Do and Do Not Tell Us About Hate Crimes in the US

November 28, 2017 - 3:37pm
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This November, the FBI released its annual report of hate crimes for 2016, showing that in Trump's America, Muslims experience a greater risk of violence.

The FBI defines hate crimes as "a traditional offense like murder, arson or vandalism with an added element of bias." Overall, the FBI data show that the rates of reported hate crimes in the US have gone up slightly. But other evidence suggests that the actual number of hate crime incidents is likely even higher.

As a researcher who has studied the white nationalist movement for over a decade, I'm not surprised to see that hate crimes are up. But there's still far too much we don't know about hate crimes in the US -- and that affects how we study and enforce these crimes.

Increased Rates

So what do the new FBI crime stats tell us? Rates of reported hate crimes based on sexual orientation have remained fairly stable, while rates of race-based crimes have gone up slightly.

The most significant increases in reported hate crimes targeted individuals based on their religion. Religiously biased hate crimes increased by almost 20 percent since 2012.

Since 2013, there has been more than a 10 percent increase in anti-Jewish hate crimes, and the rates of reported hate crimes against Muslims has more than doubled.

Other studies point to an increasingly hostile climate for religious and racial minorities. The Anti-Defamation League's annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents found a significant spike in anti-Jewish incidents in 2016, a 34 percent increase since 2015. Almost a third of all incidents occurred in November and December. The audit found an 86 percent surge in anti-Jewish incidents in the first quarter of 2017.

Similarly, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and ProPublica documented 1,372 incidents of bias in the first three months after the presidential election.

What's Behind the Data

A variety of white supremacist groups saw a membership and readership surge during the 12 months preceding the election, with a significant number of white nationalists linking themselves to the Trump campaign on social media. It's not possible to link a rise in hate crimes directly to any particular candidate or policy issue, but the rise in white supremacist activity during the presidential campaign indicated that hate crimes would also likely go up after the election.

White supremacist activity online is often associated with offline violence. A Southern Poverty Law Center report traced 100 murders to one white nationalist website alone.

A report published in 2012 by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point found that, since 2001, the US has seen an average of 300 murders per year by members of the far right.

Holes in the Data

However, we also need to ask what these statistics fail to tell us.

The Department of Justice found that between 2004 and 2015, there were closer to 250,000 hate crime incidents per year, far more incidents annually than reported by the FBI data.

Unlike the FBI, the DOJ includes hate crimes that were not reported to police and defines hate crimes based on victim perception, not on what law enforcement agencies determine. According to the DOJ report, only 41 percent of hate crimes are reported. Of those reported, only 10 percent are then confirmed by law enforcement investigators as hate crimes.

What's more, this year's FBI report states that 15,254 law enforcement agencies out of an estimated 18,000 participated in the Hate Crime Statistics Program. Almost nine out of 10 of these agencies failed to report a single hate crime instance in their jurisdiction.

In fact, the percentage of agencies reporting no hate crimes has actually gone up slightly since 2012.

This tells us how much remains unknown about the actual extent of hate crimes in the US. The fact that only 12 percent of law enforcement agencies report any hate crimes shows a need for increased dedication to actually documenting these incidents. Fewer agencies reporting hate crimes may sound on the surface like a good thing -- but the evidence from the DOJ report suggests that these agencies are likely just failing to report the hate crimes that do occur.

The FBI needs to ask why the majority of law enforcement agencies are failing to report hate crime data. Is this an issue of lack of collection, lack of reporting, lack of interest or something else? Even many federal agencies, which are legally required to report hate crimes data to the FBI, fail to do so.

The Problem With Not Documenting Hate

Lack of reporting leads to incomplete data on the extent of the problem of hate crimes. Lack of reporting is also linked to lack of enforcement. The DOJ study found that violent hate crimes reported to police were "nearly three times less likely" to result in an arrest than violent nonhate crimes reported to police. This indicates a much larger problem with enforcement.

Given what I see as a the lack of federal attention to hate crimes, it is thus important that other entities work to document hate crimes, such as the SPLC/ProPublica project.

Although the FBI's data are likely inconclusive on the actual number of hate crimes, they do point to a troubling trend that hate crimes appear to be on the rise and remain vastly undocumented and unenforced.

Without accurate federal data on hate crimes, we cannot know if federal and local law enforcement agencies are addressing the needs of all of their constituents. This is crucial, particularly given that the DOJ study shows that law enforcement agencies often fail to adequately prosecute perpetrators of hate crimes.

Failure to record hate crimes leaves us guessing at the causes of the rise in anti-Muslim violence we've seen in the past year.

Categories: Newswire

When Buying Nothing Gives You More of Everything

November 28, 2017 - 2:53pm
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You are likely among the throngs of Americans who go gift-shopping in November and December. Maybe it's for supplies to make homemade candles, or maybe ingredients to bake several dozen cookies. A new television, a new robe, a used book. Face it: You'll want to buy something.

This year, Americans are predicted to spend up to $682 billion during the holidays, 4 percent more than last year. In fact, winter holidays are the second most profitable "spending event" of the year, according to the National Retail Association, just behind back-to-school shopping. This is good news for retailers, of course, but what does it say about consumers?

Most of us believe climate change is human-caused -- 68 percent -- and fewer of us see "being wealthy" as essential to the American Dream -- 40 percent. To me, that translates into "we see a connection between consumerism and environmental destruction" and "we don't need things to be happy." Yet many of us still charge toward retail stores at the hint of a discount.

Fortunately, better options are thriving on social media. Hyper-localized gift-economy groups are popping up all over Facebook, in closed communities where neighbors graciously give their stuff for free. Items range from furniture to food, from automobiles to appliances, and everything in between. I've seen people try to find new homes for their pets, and there was once, because of tragic circumstances, a woman offering enough pumped breast milk to fill a full-size freezer.

In my community, there are two main gift-economy groups you can join, both with more than 1,000 members and both managed by volunteers. One is the Buy Nothing Project, basically the mother of all local gifting networks. The movement started a few years ago on Bainbridge Island, just outside of Seattle, and has since grown to over 2,000 discrete Facebook groups worldwide with about 450,000 members, according to its website.

I joined the local Buy Nothing group about three years ago, at first a spectator more than a participant, but my relationship with these networks has deepened over the past year. I've procured a 12-inch lid for a hardworking sauté pan then gifted three crates of vintage vinyl to a mother recovering from surgery. I've picked up baby clothes and toddler playsets, clean and wonderfully absent of stains or fingerprints then given away Tory Burch heels worn only once for a wedding. I've seen people offer computers, car seats, and concert tickets. No item has sparked more joy for me, however, than a set of shiny, vintage Sesame Street ornaments I picked up a couple years ago.

There is a downside. One of the criticisms you'll hear about joining these sorts of groups is that, well, people are flakes, and your neighbors are people -- you do the math. A colleague, a member of the Bainbridge group, once told me: "I like the idea of it, but then you realize you put so many hours into getting somebody to finally pick that thing up. And for what? A spatula."

That's a common complaint, and it's my biggest one. However, one of the reasons for tolerating the occasional hassle is this, stated by Buy Nothing itself: "The Buy Nothing Project is about setting the scarcity model of our cash economy aside in favor of creatively and collaboratively sharing the abundance around us." That's why, even after fuming in frustration from last-minute cancellations and items that turned out to be slightly warped or faded, I've become more involved than ever before. It's taken me a while to notice, but I feel more connected to the people around me, to my community, and that's a special thing. I grew up in the suburbs and recently returned there to live with my mother and raise a family. I have often felt stifled by the place -- too judgmental, too isolated.

But these days what I see among my suburban neighbors is generosity and kindness. Sometimes these Buy Nothingers communicate poorly and sometimes they act self-entitled, but they're generally good people with big hearts.

In addition to the obvious economic savings, the occasional hassle of giving and getting free stuff actually has a more profound advantage: You feel the physical and mental burden of having to gift every item you no longer want in your home, and it's an embodied lesson in the cost of consumerism that's quite effective (much more than reading a book about consumer waste or, well, those statistics on holiday spending I tossed at you at the beginning of this piece). The posting, selecting, messaging, coordinating, all those things entail some kind of commitment.

Sure, it's an inconvenience and demands my time. The good news is that it slows me down and connects me to my neighbors. For that, I'm grateful.

Categories: Newswire

J20 Trial: Over 200 Inauguration Protesters, Journalists and Observers Face Riot Charges From Mass Arrest

November 28, 2017 - 5:00am

The first trial of the nearly 200 people arrested during President Trump's inauguration is underway and involves six people, including one journalist, Alexei Wood, a freelance photojournalist and videographer based in San Antonio. The defendants were charged under the Federal Riot Statute and face multiple felony and misdemeanor charges, including inciting or urging to riot, conspiracy to riot and multiple counts of destruction of property. We get an update from Jude Ortiz, a member of the organizing crew of Defend J20 and the Mass Defense Committee Chair for the National Lawyers Guild, and speak with defendant Elizabeth Lagesse, who is also a plaintiff in the in the ACLU lawsuit which charges DC police mistreated detainees after their arrests at the inauguration.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I'm Amy Goodman with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to the first trial of the nearly 200 people arrested during President Trump's inauguration. The trial began November 15th in Washington, DC, and involves six people, including one journalist, Alexei Wood, a freelance photojournalist and videographer based in San Antonio.

The defendants were charged under the Federal Riot Statute and face multiple felony and misdemeanor charges, including inciting or urging to riot, conspiracy to riot and multiple counts of destruction of property. Evidence against the defendants has been scant from the moment of their arrest.

As demonstrators, journalists and observers gathered in Northwest DC after the January 20th inauguration, some separated from the group and broke windows of nearby businesses and damaged cars. Police officers then swept hundreds of people in the vicinity into a blockaded corner in a process known as "kettling," where they carried out mass arrests of everyone in the area.

AMY GOODMAN: Officials seized Trump protesters' cell phones, cracked their passwords, attempted to use the contents to convict them of conspiracy to riot. Court filings reveal that investigators have been able to crack into at least eight defendants' locked cell phones. Prosecutors want to use the internet history, communications, pictures they extracted from the phones, as evidence against the defendants in court.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit which charges DC police mistreated detainees, including using sexual abuse as a form of punishment. A complaint by four plaintiffs charges officers used excessive force, denied detainees food, water, and access to toilets. The DC Police Department has defended its officers' actions, saying all arrests on January 20th were proper.

Well, for more, we go to Washington, DC, where we're joined by two guests. Jude Ortiz is a member of the organizing crew of Defend J20 and the Mass Defense Committee Chair for the National Lawyers Guild. He's a lawyer. Elizabeth Lagesse is a defendant in the criminal case against participants in the inauguration day protests, a plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit against the city of Washington, DC, and the police department.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Jude, let's begin with you. The trial has been going on for a week now. Can you explain exactly what has been happening and what these first set of defendants are charged with? What they face?

JUDE ORTIZ: Yes, good morning. Just to clarify, I'm a legal worker, so a legal support activist, but not a lawyer. However, I have been in court since the beginning of the trial so far with the six defendants who are on trial. The state has opened its case, including witnesses from the police, and there's a helicopter pilot for the Department of Homeland Security and different managers or employees of businesses that were in the vicinity.

The testimony so far and the evidence provided has shown how the police decided from the outset -- and this was an audio recording from the police radio that indicated that as soon as the protest left Logan Circle in DC, that the police had already decided at that point to do the mass arrests. And that led up to the current situation where almost 194 defendants who are still facing trial.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, what about the prosecutors' conspiracy claims? Could you talk about how they are alleging that, and how the defense is countering that in the trial?

JUDE ORTIZ: The prosecutor initially -- this is actually the third superseding indictment -- sorry, second superseding indictment -- so the third indictment that the defendants are facing in this trial. So the prosecutor amended it twice after the initial indictment in order to have the current charges. And initially, that indictment, had put out the conspiracy charge as a felony, as well as engaging in a riot as a felony charge.

The judge has since ruled those are actually not even potential felony charges and instead are only misdemeanors. So that dropped the potential time that the defendants were facing from 75 years down to about 60 years, which is currently what most of the defendants are still facing. There's a trial block for December that is scheduled, where those defendants had charges dropped down from felonies to only three misdemeanors.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Elizabeth Lagesse into this conversation. You were a part of the protests. Explain why you went out to protest that day, where you came from, and what happened to you.

ELIZABETH LAGESSE: Yeah. Let me first say that just because of the way that our legal system works, the way our criminal system works, I can't actually talk about the events of the protest itself from the moment I arrived to the moment we were arrested, because of concerns for preserving my Fifth Amendment rights. It's possible that they could force me to testify under certain circumstances, so like most criminal defendants, that is what my lawyer has recommended. I will, however, speak to why I was there. And I was there to express my concern with the way that our political landscape was developing. And I think that a lot of people can sympathize with that motivation.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the ACLU lawsuit that you are a part of? Can you talk about what happened when you were jailed? For example, do you have your cellphone now?

ELIZABETH LAGESSE: I do not have my cell phone. The ACLU lawsuit is basically alleging that the police did not handle themselves very well on Inauguration Day, both in the choice to make those arrests and the way they made the arrests, and then in the way they treated prisoners after they had been arrested.

Basically, everyone was kettled, which is a fairly controversial technique in policing that just really indiscriminately sweeps people up in a way that troubles civil liberties activists and really anyone who is concerned about making the right choice from an arrest perspective. Because people are swept up as a group rather than individually.

And on top of that, they left us out on the street for many hours. It was a slow walk arrest. It was cold and rainy. People had no access to bathrooms, food, water, medical care. And then once they had us in custody, various people had really negative experiences with the way the police treated them.

And in the process of being arrested, they took everyone's phones. And to this day, as far as I know, none of the defendants have gotten their phones back, which has been a financial hardship and, as you can imagine, a privacy issue.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Jude Ortiz, I would like to ask about this phone issue, the seizure of the phones, the efforts the police made to break into the phones to somehow or other trace back communications of the different protesters, and I guess prove a conspiracy was afoot?

JUDE ORTIZ: Some of the phones that were seized in the kettle had encryption of various sorts. Some it might just be password protections. Some might be full encryption. A lot of phones today come out of the box with full encryption. And so to the best of our knowledge, the government has not been able to get past the encryption technology on phones, but some phones were unlocked.

I think it's important to note that many protesters who were arrested did not have phones at all, and that the government has also gone after electronic data in various other ways. Immediately after the mass arrest, the government sent some letters of request or requests to Apple iCloud for user data. And that was for some of the people who were arrested, and at least one person who was associated with one arrestee, but not even present and not part of the case at all.

AMY GOODMAN: And were people questioned about the social media that they use?

JUDE ORTIZ: I am not aware of any particular questions they were asked by officers, to protesters or arrestees directly. But the government has gone after a wide swath of electronic data in this case, including trying to get about 1.3 million IP addresses and identifying information from the web host of DisruptJ20.org, which was a website that existed prior to the inauguration, as well as trying to get information from Facebook accounts of several activists in the DC area, and that was through a search warrant.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the two freelance journalists who were also arrested, Jude? One of them Alexei Wood, on trial this week, and they are trying to use his video footage in the case against him and the others.

JUDE ORTIZ: Yeah. So it's Alexei Wood, and he was one of a handful of journalists who were arrested that day. A lot of the journalists who were arrested had charges dropped or were never filed. But Alexei and Aaron Cantú, who is another independent journalist, are still facing charges. They're facing the same charges as everyone else in the case, except for that December group that I mentioned earlier, and so that means they're facing 60 years. Alexei was out in DC on J20 as a freelance journalist who was live-streaming the events, and that livestream is available publicly and is being used as evidence, not only in this trial, but the prosecutor has indicated that that will be used as evidence in every trial that's set to happen all the way through 2018.

ELIZABETH LAGESSE: And it seems like it is really a problem of independent journalists, too, because people associated with major outlets were released or had their charges dropped. But independent journalists have had a harder time with that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Elizabeth, I wanted to ask you, in many of these mass protest situations, authorities may round up people initially but then either drop the charges or lower the charges by the time they come to trial. I am wondering your response to how it appears, at least, under President Trump, that the police in Washington are determined to continue to prosecute these allegations and get maximum convictions if possible?

ELIZABETH LAGESSE: Yeah. I think that is a fair characterization of the situation. And I don't pretend to be able to read their minds. I don't pretend to be able to tell you exactly what their plan is or why they're doing what they're doing. But it is certainly true that they have worked very hard to pressure people into accepting pleas. They have offered many people various pleas, as little as a single misdemeanor charge.

And it really makes it seem like their goal is to get convictions for rioting. And it seems like an unusual coincidence that that happens as someone is getting inaugurated who in some of their first public statements say things like, you know, "We're going to restore the rule of law," and so on and so forth. So I think there is likely a connection there, even if it is just as simple as people feeling more emboldened now that that kind of person is in office.

AMY GOODMAN: And Jude Ortiz, can you talk about the so-called independent investigation? The city itself, Washington, DC, hired an organization called the Police Foundation to launch an independent investigation into how the protest was policed. Who are they?

JUDE ORTIZ: The Police Foundation is a very biased organizations that has been contracted or otherwise brought into the Office of Police Complaints inquiry into police abuses and brutality, like on Inauguration Day, January 20th. Earlier this year, rather, there was an initial inquiry into allegations of police misconduct and abuse and brutality, and the initial findings indicated that there was the justification for a full investigation, and subsequently, $100,000 was earmarked for that investigation. That money became available on October 1st, and so then the investigation has begun.

The Police Foundation is the body that is doing that investigation. It's supposedly an unbiased, nonpartisan organization. But its website indicates that it is very much a kind of thin blue line -- very pro-police organization. And a lot of the statements and other characterizations it has on its website indicate its extreme bias in favor of the police. That bias obviously calls into question any kind of impartiality or any type of, quote unquote, "fair investigation" into the actions of police that day.

When you have that in conjunction with evidence that has been presented so far at trial that shows the kind of wanton use of pepper spray and projectile weapons, the police commander saying over the radio as soon as the protest began leaving Logan Circle that the intention was to arrest everyone -- with those things kind of in combination, it is very unlikely that there will be actually fair and impartial inquiry, and any kind of legitimate findings of actual police abuses and misconduct that day.

AMY GOODMAN: So this is the first trial, right? We have 30 seconds, Jude. You call this case the canary in the coal mine. What do you mean?

JUDE ORTIZ: By that, I meant that the implications for this case and how this trial goes are something that will have echoes all across the country. If the prosecution is successful in calling political organizing and association and resistance to the overt rise of white supremacy and neofascism under Trump, then that is something that other prosecutors and other police across the country can try to replicate this prosecutor's attempt to call political organizing conspiracy, and threaten people with decades in prison. If people want to find out more, they can go to defendj20resistance.org, and we also have a fundraiser to raise legal support money for the defendants, and that's at defendj20resistance.org slash donate.

AMY GOODMAN: Jude, thank you so much for being with us. Jude Ortiz of Defend J20 and National Lawyers Guild. Elizabeth Lagesse, a J20 defendant and plaintiff in the  ACLU lawsuit. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, floating Guantánamos? Stay with us.

Categories: Newswire

Activists Implicate Trump's Health Nominee Alex Azar in Insulin Price-Gouging Scheme

November 28, 2017 - 5:00am

Alex Azar's reforms would lock in out-of-reach drug prices. (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Alex Azar, Trump's nominee for health secretary, has called for more transparency in drug pricing in order to reign-in costs and empower consumers. However, diabetes activists say Azar presided over allegedly illegal drug-pricing schemes involving insurers and pharmaceutical middlemen while president of Eli Lilly and Co., and his ideas for reform would lock in drug prices already out of reach for vulnerable patients.

Alex Azar's reforms would lock in out-of-reach drug prices. (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

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Speaking before a health care symposium at the conservative Manhattan Institute last November, Alex Azar, then the president of the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Co., addressed the elephant in the room. He explained that pharmaceutical companies raise drug prices to accommodate large rebates paid to third-party middlemen and insurance companies, creating a system of kickbacks that pads profit margins while sending prescription drug prices through the roof.

Advocates warn that Alex Azar engaged in the very reimbursement schemes he criticizes before leaving Eli Lilly earlier this year.

"That means that a significant number of people who already paid premiums for their health insurance then end up paying more than their insurer does for a medicine," Azar said, adding that some patients may go without medicine rather than pay high out-of-pocket costs to fill a prescription.

Within months of Azar's speech, Eli Lilly and other big drug companies were hit with a barrage of lawsuits and government investigations questioning the rising price of insulin and other diabetes medications and accusing major manufacturers of price fixing. As Truthout has reported, Eli Lilly raised the price of Humalog, a fast-acting form of insulin, by 345 percent during Azar's eight-year tenure at the company.

However, it was Azar's comments on rising drug prices and the plight of consumers that helped him become President Trump's latest nominee for health secretary. Azar served as deputy health secretary under the Bush administration, and the White House says his experience in both the public and private sectors makes him the perfect candidate for reining in drug prices at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Advocates say Azar's ideas for lowering drug costs could make an already confusing system even more opaque. They also warn that he engaged in the very reimbursement schemes he criticizes before leaving Eli Lilly earlier this year.

"When transparency is the solution, you don't put the problem in the hands of someone who has a lot to hide," said Charles Fournier, the vice president and legal director of the Type 1 Diabetes Defense Foundation (T1DF), in an email to Truthout.

Drug manufacturers no longer compete for the lowest drug prices, but rather for the highest rebates.

Fournier and his organization have named Eli Lilly in two separate lawsuits alleging that drug manufacturers, third-party pharmacy benefit managers and some insurance companies have conspired to create a drug-pricing system for insulin and other products that is concealed from consumers and unlawfully hurts people with diabetes. They say the pricing schemes particularly impact those who are uninsured or have insurance plans with high deductibles and copays.

Here's how it works: Pharmacy benefit managers such as Express Scripts and OptumRx manage prescription drug benefits for insurance companies, putting them in a unique profit-making position. These firms make backroom agreements with manufacturers like Eli Lilly to place drugs in health insurance plans in exchange for large rebates on the listed price of a drug. This gives the drug companies access to millions of customers in exchange for reimbursement payments, or "kickbacks."

This "dual pricing" scheme creates two prices for drugs like insulin -- the original listed price of the drug, and the price that benefit managers and insurance companies pay after receiving hefty rebates. Drug manufacturers no longer compete for the lowest drug prices, but rather for the highest rebates. Over the years, insurance companies have demanded larger cuts of these rebates to reduce premiums or simply maximize profits, putting upward pressure on drug companies to annually raise the list price of big sellers like insulin in order to protect profits.

Azar continued the reimbursement schemes at Eli Lilly in order to maintain the company's domination of diabetes drug markets.

This explains why the price of insulin and products like blood sugar test strips used on a daily basis by people living with diabetes keep going up, even though these products have been around for decades. People with good insurance coverage may be shielded from high costs, but because insurance companies often frame benefits around the list price of a drug rather than the actual price paid after rebates, people with high out-of-pocket costs may end up paying even more for medicine than insurance companies do.

If this all sounds confusing, it's because it is confusing, and lawsuits filed by T1DF and other groups allege that the industry players have colluded to leave consumers and investors in the dark.

Azar says he wants to bring more transparency to the system and has cultivated the public image of an advocate for sensible, market-based reforms that would empower consumers to make better decisions. He promotes an idea called "value pricing" that would make more patient data available to insurance companies to help determine the real "value" a drug provides, and then shape prices accordingly.

Real reforms would include tough regulations requiring insurance companies to report the actual, after-rebate prices they pay for drugs to their customers and then base patient cost-sharing benefits on those prices rather than inflated market listings.

However, advocates say Azar continued these reimbursement schemes at Eli Lilly in order to maintain the company's domination of diabetes drug markets, all while costs to vulnerable patients soared out of reach. A 2016 survey by the diabetes advocates at T1 International found that the average patient in the US spends $571 a month to treat their diabetes.

Diabetes activists also argue that "value pricing" may stem future cost increases but will do nothing to bring down costs. Instead, "value pricing" will lock in current costs that are already too high for many patients. Fournier said real reforms would include tough regulations requiring insurance companies to report the actual, after-rebate prices they pay for drugs to their customers and then base patient cost-sharing benefits on those prices rather than inflated market listings.

"At this point in the US drug pricing crisis, general questions on 'high drug prices' will be met with vague replies on 'value-based pricing,'" said Julia Boss, the president of T1DF and a plaintiff in the group's lawsuits. "We urge lawmakers instead to ask specific questions about Mr. Azar's participation, at Lilly, in reimbursement contracts -- based on his 2016 statements that patients are paying more than their insurers do and suffer physical harm as a result."

Fournier said Azar has "personal knowledge" of the pricing schemes named in the group's lawsuit as collusive and anticompetitive, and industry executives who have condoned the practices "might even be alleged to have personal liability in a collusive scheme that directly and foreseeably resulted in physical harm and death."

During his time at Eli Lilly, Azar oversaw a 100 percent increase in the price of its glucagon kits.

"If market actors collude to price average earners out of the housing market, people rent," Fournier said. "If market actors collude to price average earners out of insulin and emergency rescue glucagon, people die."

A former industry executive like Azar, who could be implicated by a past employer or third-party in "manslaughter," is "obviously" susceptible to pressure from the industry, Fournier said.

"Self-interest would, in itself, drive Mr. Azar to keep past actions secret and follow the regulatory direction most likely to justify, retroactively, the dysfunctions the head of HHS would be tasked to rectify," Fournier said.

Lawmakers routinely echo consumer rage over rising drug prices, although they have done little about the issue. The high cost of pharmaceuticals is expected to be a central theme of a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on Wednesday in which Azar will be questioned about his nomination. Sen. Bernie Sanders, Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin and other lawmakers who have raised alarms about skyrocketing drug prices sit on that committee.

T1DF points out that high prices on lifesaving glucagon kits, which are used in emergencies to rescue people with diabetes suffering from dangerously low blood sugar levels, have deterred ranking member Sen. Patty Murray's home state of Washington from putting the kits in ambulances across the state. This raises serious concerns for young children with Type 1 diabetes who attend schools that depend on EMS services to administer glucagon.

During his time at Eli Lilly, Azar oversaw a 100 percent increase in the price of its glucagon kits due to reimbursement schemes and other allegedly anticompetitive practices, according to T1DF.

Democrats are expected to ask Azar about high drug prices and his background in the industry in light of statements made by Trump, who has publicly slammed drug companies for raising prescription costs but has taken little action on the issue, according to a Senate Democratic aide to the committee. Democrats are also concerned about the Trump administration's attacks on reproductive rights and efforts to undermine the Affordable Care Act at HHS.

Categories: Newswire

As Accusations Stack Up, a Look at the Onerous Process of Reporting Sexual Abuse on Capitol Hill

November 28, 2017 - 5:00am

What happens to a member of Congress when someone dares to come forward to report wrongdoing? As Senator Al Franken returned to Congress in the face of allegations from four women that he had groped or inappropriately touched them, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she spoke to and believed one of the women who has accused Michigan Congressman John Conyers of sexual harassment, we speak with Alexis Ronickher, an attorney who has represented multiple congressional staffers pursuing harassment claims through Congress's Office of Compliance.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I'm Amy Goodman.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I'm Juan González. Welcome to all of our listeners and viewers around the country and around the world. We begin today's show looking at sexual harassment in Washington and what happens to a member of Congress when someone dares to come forward to report wrongdoing.

On Monday, Senator Al Franken returned to Congress in the face of allegations from four women now that he had groped or inappropriately touched them. A contrite Franken vowed "This will not happen again."

SENATOR AL FRANKEN: I just want to say a few words before I get back to work. I know that I have let a lot of people down. The people of Minnesota, my colleagues, my staff, my supporters, and everyone who has counted on me to be a champion for women. To all of you, I just want to again say I am sorry. I know there are no magic words that I can say to regain your trust, and I know that's going to take time.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Meanwhile, on Monday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she spoke to and believed one of the women who has accused Michigan Congressman John Conyers of sexual harassment. Conyers reportedly settled a harassment complaint in 2015, paying out $27,000 to a woman who alleged she was fired from his Washington staff because she rejected his sexual advances. Conyers has since stepped down as the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.

Pelosi issued a statement saying, "This afternoon, I spoke with Melanie Sloan who worked for Congressman Conyers on the Judiciary Committee in the mid-1990s. Ms. Sloan told me that she had publicly discussed distressing experiences while on his staff. I find the behavior Ms. Sloan described unacceptable and disappointing, and I believe what Ms. Sloan has told me."

AMY GOODMAN: Pelosi went on to criticize the process for reporting sexual harassment in Congress, saying, quote, "I have not had the opportunity to speak with the other women, one of whom cannot speak publicly because of the secretive settlement process in place.
That ridiculous system must be ended, and victims who want to come forward to the Ethics Committee must be able to do so." This came one day after Congressmember Pelosi called Congressman Conyers an icon who deserves due process during an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press."

REP. NANCY PELOSI: We are strengthened by due process. Just because someone is accused -- and was it one accusation? Is it two? I think there has to be -- John Conyers is an icon in our country. He has done a great deal to protect women -- The Violence Against Women Act, which the right wing is now quoting me as praising him for his work on that -- and he did great work on that.

AMY GOODMAN: So Congresswoman Pelosi has called for due process for her colleague, Congressman Conyers, and also called the process for reporting sexual harassment in Congress a "ridiculous system" that must be ended. That system gives sexual harassment victims in Congress 180 days to bring a claim to the Congressional Office of Compliance, which handles workplace complaints. Victims are then subject to up to 30 days of mandatory counseling. They then have a cooling-off period to decide whether to bring claims to mediation. If they don't want mediation, they are out of options.

For more, we go to Washington, DC where we're joined by Alexis Ronickher, an attorney with the firm Katz, Marshall & Banks, who has represented multiple congressional staffers pursuing harassment claims through Congress's Office of Compliance. Welcome to Democracy Now! Let's start by you laying out, Alexis, the process, which is being disputed now -- legislation is being written to change it -- the process a person has to go through who works on the Hill to bring a charge of sexual harassment or sexual assault against a congressmember.

ALEXIS RONICKHER: Absolutely. A staff member who finds themselves in a situation where they're facing sexual harassment, even sexual assault, the process for pursuing a claim would be within 180 days, as you said, they would need to go to the Office of Compliance, which is a small agency that is part of the legislative branch, and file what is called for request for counseling. Counseling is somewhat of a misnomer. It is more of an intake process. That counseling period is 30 days, and by statute, it is strictly confidential.

Then, the staff member, should they choose to proceed and want to continue with their claim, they file a request for mediation. The mediation period is 30 days and it is mandatory. That means that a staff member, even if they know that they want to go to court, has to participate in this mandatory mediation, in which they have to in good faith -- they have to sign an agreement that says in good faith they're going to attempt to resolve this dispute with the employing office. If that mediation…

AMY GOODMAN: Wait, are they mediating with the congressman at that point?

ALEXIS RONICKHER: The civil action is not against the congressperson. It is against the office. There's actually no way to bring a claim directly against the congressmember who is harassing the staffer. So they are actually mediating against, or with, the office. Now whether the office chooses to bring the harasser, whether it be a congressperson or a chief of staff, that is actually up to the office, not up to the person who is bringing the claim.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Last week, Democratic Congresswoman Diana DeGette of Colorado told MSNBC she is among many women who've been sexually harassed while serving in Congress. This is what she said.

REP. DIANA DEGETTE: A lot of my colleagues and others have said this is going on, but they seem somehow still reluctant to say who did it. Some years ago, I was in an elevator and then-Congressman Bob Filner tried to pin me to the door of the elevator and kissed me, and I pushed him away. And of course, some years later, he left Congress. He became the mayor of San Diego, and then he had to leave that position for harassing younger women.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: An aide to Representative DeGette told The Denver Post she did not file a complaint or take official action in the incident she described. Do you have any sense of how often people do not actually file complaints even though they were subjected to harassment?

ALEXIS RONICKHER: There's no numbers on Congress, per se, except that there was a survey that was conducted I believe by Roll Call in which one of six women said that they had been sexually harassed. What we saw by the numbers publicized by the Office of Compliance in 2016, only eight Senate and House staffers came forward with any request for counseling about anything. We don't know how many of those are harassment. But just the dichotomy in those two sets of numbers show that most are not coming forward.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: How different is the process that Congress uses compared to private industry or even other local, state and city governments?

ALEXIS RONICKHER: The most significant difference between the process that Congress has created for itself and private and federal is the confidentiality requirement through the counseling and mediation period, which isolates the victims of sexual harassment. And also this mandatory mediation, which forces a victims or person who has been sexually harassed to sit down at the table and attempt to resolve a dispute even if they would like to move forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, let's be clear. At the moment of mediation, both sides can have a lawyer? Who pays for these lawyers?

ALEXIS RONICKHER: So yes, both sides can have a lawyer. The office's attorney is paid for as part of the administrative costs of the House or the Senate. They have their own in-house employment lawyers. For the victim, they have to procure their own attorney and figure out a way to pay for it.

AMY GOODMAN: So the congressman has a taxpayer-funded lawyer and the plaintiff has to get her own lawyer.

ALEXIS RONICKHER: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain what this nondisclosure agreement is in this period at the beginning, and how many days does it go on for? Can the person tell contemporaneously, when it happens, people? Can they tell their therapist, et cetera?

ALEXIS RONICKHER: Yes, let's break this down. There's a nondisclosure agreement that is subject -- that is agreed to as part of the settlement process. But the actual whole process of counseling and mediation has to be strictly confidential by statute. That being said, a person who has been sexually harassed can always -- there's nothing preventing them from being public about what has happened to them.

What they can't speak about is pursuing legal action while they're going through this counseling and mediation stage. I do think that's important, because that is very isolating for the person, but it also prevents them from telling other people that they are moving forward, encouraging other people to move forward with them, and it prevents multiple people coming forward, and also the person just being able to verify that not only am I saying that this happened, but I am taking action.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We have seen these reports of the $17 million figure of settlements on Capitol Hill, but that doesn't just deal with sexual harassment complaints, right? It could also be other types of complaints, and doesn't necessarily deal with members of Congress per se. It could also mean Capitol Hill staffers. Could you talk about that as well?

ALEXIS RONICKHER: Sure. The vast majority of those, just based on the numbers put out by the Office of Compliance, are a request for counseling involving Capitol Police. The employees for the office of the Architect of the Capitol. Very few of those are congressional staffers from the House and the Senate. And at this point, the Office of Compliance has not broken down whether they are for discrimination, whether they are for harassment, or whether they are for workplace issues such as OSHA, which is occupational safety, or disability accommodations.

So right now, we have no way of knowing what portion of those complaints or requests for counseling, and what portion of that settlement, is for harassment. But in my experience, the number that was put forward with the case involving representative Conyers, which was a little under $28,000, is much more indicative of the settlement range than, you know, $17 million.

AMY GOODMAN: Alexis, can you actually talk about the case of Conyers? A lot is being made of the fact he paid it out of his office budget. $27,000. As opposed to, what? I mean, both are taxpayer-funded. Both his office budget and this office that the vast majority of people don't know about, where the $17 million came out of. Right? But also, if you can talk overall about this case? Your response to the wrongful dismissal complaint in 2015 with a former employee who alleged she was fired when she did not accept Congressman Conyers' sexual advances.

ALEXIS RONICKHER: Absolutely. This case is very concerning. I can tell you as an employment lawyer who represents people both in the private sector and congressional staffers, that being able to come forward with 14 affidavits from witnesses that corroborate what you say and witnesses who work there is relatively rare. People are not usually willing to risk their jobs and careers to do this.

So the fact that this complainant was able to do that and then the result of that was a settlement of three months severance, is a travesty, really, and it shows the environment that women who are coming forward with sexual harassment claims on the Hill endure, which is, it is your career on the line and no one believes you. And if you decide to go public, it is going to affect your career more than the person who harassed you. And so, that's just very troubling.

But to speak about what the dichotomy of whether it comes from the member's allowance or the fund that was set up by Congress, I think that too much is being made about taxpayer dollars being used for this. Quite frankly, taxpayer dollars are used for sexual harassment claims that are settled on the executive branch side, at the Department of Interior, or Homeland Security. That is how employees who have been discriminated against in the federal workforce -- that is how their settlements are paid.

I think what is critical in this circumstance is that the settlements require strict confidentiality, that the statute outlines a way that they are supposed to be paid, which is through the special fund, but members have gone around that because to access that fund, you have to go through several steps which would disseminate the information that they have been accused of sexual harassment. So members have now gone around that and have used their member allowance, which after carefully reviewing the statute, I believe is contrary to the statute.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And also this issue of when these settlements are done in secret, that other women on the Hill have no knowledge of the history of some of these legislators that they are working around or for.

ALEXIS RONICKHER: Absolutely. And like we said, there's a strict confidentiality of the process, so they can't even know that women have pursued claims, let alone that there has been a settlement. And, I think that that's important. People come -- young women, and also men -- some men are sexually harassed as well -- they come to the Hill. They are often very young. They are bright-eyed. They want to be making a change and affecting policy, and then they find themselves in an environment where they're being abused and harassed, and there's no place to turn to.

And had there been any public light as to prior instances of sexual harassment, they would be able to know not to go to those positions.

AMY GOODMAN: A bipartisan resolution introduced Friday in the House would require all members, congressional staff, interns and fellows to receive anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training. The Washington Post reports, quote, "Each member and employee would receive training within the first 90 days of each session of Congress, or within 90 days of becoming a member or an employee. Each member office would be required to display a poster created by the Office of Compliance that outlines employees' legal rights and protections and how they can report allegations of workplace violations." So, Alexis Ronickher, do you think this is what needs to happen? There's also legislation that is changing the law, as it's in place. It went into place in 1995? If you can talk about that and what you feel needs to be changed?

ALEXIS RONICKHER: Absolutely. This member training and poster Band-Aid is not going to change things. If you look -- for the last 20 years, private employers have used training and notifying employees how to report, and it has not reduced sexual harassment. It is certainly not going to do that on the Hill. Is it a good step? It is certainly good to notify people of how to move forward. Yes, that is a good step. But that is the very smallest of steps.

So what really needs to happen is the legislation that Representative Speier and Representative Comstock and Senator Gillibrand have introduced, the ME TOOCongress bill that will revise the process. It gets rid of the requirements of someone having to go through the counseling and the mandatory mediation. It gets rid of the required confidentiality. It makes any settlement -- that the harassed person doesn't have to sign a confidentiality agreement if they don't want to. It really takes care of a lot of the systemic hurdles of the law.

It is not going to change the overwhelming environmental problems that create such a hospitable environment for sexual harassment, but it certainly at least gets rid of some of the legal hurdles to remedying those when it happens.

AMY GOODMAN: And it names the congressmember?

ALEXIS RONICKHER: Pardon? Say that again?

AMY GOODMAN: It allows for the naming of congress members?

ALEXIS RONICKHER: Yes, my understanding of the legislation is it would allow the person who is sexually harassed to be public about it, even if they settle their matter.

AMY GOODMAN: And if you want to just find out what congressmembers have had to pay out money or have been charged, can you find that out, as a member of the public?

ALEXIS RONICKHER: I believe that it starts at the beginning of this year. This is a point that lawmakers are still debating. And I have to say, I am concerned about -- I've represented prior staffers, and part of the reason they resolved their claims was because they didn't want to be in the public eye. These offices are very small. It is a concern for these individuals that once information comes out, that they will quickly be identified. So going forward, if someone knows that, I think that absolutely is the right way to go. But I do have concerns about retroactively having that happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you can talk about -- you can name the person who has been -- where this agreement has been made, the congressmember, without naming ever the person who made the claim.

ALEXIS RONICKHER: Yes. That's absolutely true.

AMY GOODMAN: Alexis Ronickher, we want to thank you for being with us. Lawyer with Katz, Marshall & Banks, who has represented a number of congressional staffers pursuing harassment claims through Congress's Office of Compliance. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, hundreds of people are facing up to 75 years in jail for protesting on J20, January 20th, Trump's inauguration day. We will talk to one of the defendants and with a lawyer. Stay with us.

Categories: Newswire

Donald Trump's Fake Populism: Putting Your Mouth Where Your Money Isn't

November 28, 2017 - 5:00am

President Trump gestures during a rally at the Phoenix Convention Center on August 22, 2017, in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo: Ralph Freso / Getty Images)

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Among the stranger features of the 2016 election campaign was the success of Donald Trump, a creature of globalization, as an America First savior of the white working class. A candidate who amassed billions of dollars by playing globalization for all it was worth -- he manufactured clothes and accessories bearing his name in low-wage economies and invested in corporations eager to outsource -- won over millions of voters by promising to keep jobs here in the US.

Admittedly, only a third of his voters earned less than $50,000 a year and cultural and racial resentment, not just economic grievances, drove many of them to Trump. Still, in an ever more economically unequal America, his populist economic message resonated. It helped him win the presidency by peeling off white working class votes in key regions, particularly the industrial Midwest. Now, he's stuck with his populist narrative, and here's the problem for him: it's not likely to work -- not given the economic realities of this planet, not for long anyway.

Fading Economic Hegemony

In the Oval Office, as on the campaign trail, Trump's refrain remains that the economic woes of American workers, including stagnant wages and job insecurity, are the fault of predatory Asian and Mexican exporters, aided and abetted by inept past presidents who inked lousy trade deals. During campaign 2016, he promised to kick down doors abroad and force countries running surpluses, notably China, to buy more from the United States or face huge tariff hikes. He railed against companies that relocate production abroad, depriving Americans of jobs.

Trump's economic nationalism is, of course, a con job. He did, however, effectively employ the demagogue's artifice, which invariably lies in crafting simplistic answers to complicated questions and creating plausible scapegoats for complicated problems. In fact, workers in industries the United States dominated for decades are in distress because of irreversible historic changes and the absence, thanks to a staggeringly lopsided distribution of wealth and political power in America, of progressive policies that would better prepare them to cope with the changes that have occurred in the international economy.

But first, a little history.

For nearly three decades after World War II, the United States dominated the global marketplace in big-ticket industries like steel, automobiles, passenger aircraft, shipbuilding, and heavy machinery. That hegemony was bound to fade. As a start, America's postwar economic primacy owed much to the ravages of that global conflict. After all, the industrial bases of Japan and Germany lay in ruins. Wartime allies Britain and France faced long, arduous recoveries. But the economies of those industrialized, technologically advanced countries were bound to recover -- and by the mid-1970s they had. By then, America's near-monopoly was ending.

Between 1965 and 2010, the share of the national market held by America's steelmakers and carmakers plunged from nearly 90% to 45%. By the 1970s, they were already complaining about an influx of "cheap imports" and lobbying Washington to enact countermeasures. Now regarded as the ultimate free trader, President Ronald Reagan would indeed oblige them. In 1981, for instance, he limited Japanese automobile sales in the US, while hiking tariffstenfold on motorcycle imports to save Harley-Davidson. European and Japanese steel companies would soon face similar restrictions.

Seen in historical perspective, Washington's reaction to trade competition was hardly unique. Britain, too, had preached free trade during its economic heyday -- until, that is, its imperial predominance began to wane. In the nineteenth century, the zenith of British free trade cheerleading, the United States relied heavily on protectionism to ensure the growth of its nascent industrial base. As its economic power expanded, however, its own version of such cheerleading began. Now, China is fast becoming an economic superpower. Unsurprisingly, at conclaves like the Davos World Economic Forum at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, President Xi Jinping is predictably starting to sound more like Adam Smith than Karl Marx, just as Donald Trump's speeches during his November whirlwind trip through Asia are coming to resemble nineteenth-century American rationales for protectionism.

Since the 1970s, workers in places like Detroit, Bethlehem, and Peoria have faced another challenge: a range of new sources of competition, especially the "Asian tigers" like South Korea and Taiwan. Once considered inferior, their products have by now become a hallmark of quality, making South Korean or Japanese cars, cellphones, computers, and television sets ubiquitous in this country. 

Now, China, which took the top spot in world trade from the US in 2013, is poised to do what Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan already did here (cars included). And India waits in the wings.

These historical trends suggest that President Trump's protectionism is already doomed. The point isn't that international trade always benefits American workers; it doesn't. Trade, national or global, redistributes wealth, especially because the largest and most successful companies have long ceased to think in terms of national markets. They set up shop wherever it's most profitable, using complex global supply chains. When it comes to Apple's iPhone, for instance, more than 200 suppliers worldwide provide parts for final assembly in China. Good infrastructure and a workforce with skills that match corporate requirements matter. Yet wage differentials aren't irrelevant either; that's partly why China, Mexico, and Vietnam have attracted massive amounts of job-creating investment -- and why India, too, has begun to do so.

The relevant question isn't whether the global economy can be redesigned to protect American workers -- it can't -- but what their government will do to help them to gain the skills needed to compete effectively in a rapidly changing marketplace. Reforming public education might be a good place to start (but don't look to Donald Trump to do it). If American workers are to do better in the global marketplace, this country's public schools must ensure that their students graduate with the math, science, and other skills needed to get decent jobs. That, however, would mean attacking the inequality that's increasingly been built into the public education system (as into so much else in this society).

Education: The Zip Code Premium 

Horace Mann, the nineteenth-century American educator, referred to public schooling as "beyond all human devices... the great equalizer of the condition of men, the balance wheel of the social machinery." Since the early years of the republic, Americans have embraced the idea that schooling is critical in helping individuals realize their aspirations and in guaranteeing equality of opportunity. In principle, there has been a consensus that economic circumstances beyond the control of children shouldn't block their way into the future. In practice, it's been quite a different story, partially because of how public schools are funded.

Local property and business taxes are the largest source of support for them, so kids born into a community crammed with pricey homes and thriving businesses will attend well-funded public schools that attract good teachers with decent working conditions and salaries. Such students are more likely to have smaller classes, more guidance counselors, nurses, and psychologists, more computers per pupil, better textbooks and instructional equipment, richer curricula, and better libraries.

In addition to local taxes, which provide 45% of public school funds, state revenues provide another 46%, and federal assistance an additional 9%. Some state governments also offer extra money to poorer school districts, but not enough to begin to close the gap with more affluent ones. In any case, those funds have been falling since 2008. Additional federal support doesn't come close to leveling the playing field.

The United States is one of the few countries in the 35-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a grouping of wealthy nations, in which central government funding plays such a limited role in reducing disparities between schools. In those countries, national budgets provide, on average, more than 50% of school funding.

Public schools in affluent communities have another advantage. Thanks to their incomes, professional qualifications, social networks, and experience, the parents of students in such schools are far more capable of raising private money to supplement school budgets, which means extra educational equipment and instructional materials, and more staff. Most such private fundraising is done by parent-teacher associations (PTAs), which tend to be more active and more successful in affluent communities. (Indeed, poor districts may lack PTAs altogether.)

Consider a typical California example. In Hillsborough, where the median family income is $229,000, the school district raised an extra $1,500 per student; in Oakland, where median income was just under $58,000, it was only $100 per student. Similarly, in wealthy northwest Washington, D.C., four elementary schools raised $300,000 apiece in one year, sums unthinkable for schools in Washington's poorer communities like those east of the Anacostia River, where the median household income is $34,000.  Such differences are the norm nationally.

It's true that PTA funding -- $245 million in 2010 (an increase of 300% since 1990) -- looks like a drop in the bucket compared to total government spending on kindergarten-through-12th-grade education ($603 billion in 2013). That, however, misses the point, since the private funding is so concentrated in wealthy neighborhoods.

Money can't fix everything, but it counts for a lot in an ever more unequal society. And there's overwhelming evidence that the educational success gap between the wealthiest 10% of Americans and the rest has been growing for decades -- unevenly since the 1940s, at an accelerated rate since the 1970s, and by 30%-40% percent between 1991 and 2010. If you want graphic proof of how the income-achievement divide matters, it's easy to find: students in schools with greater resources (including wealthy parents), for example, regularly do better in standardized tests and essentially any other metric of academic achievement.

And remember, student performance in high school increases the likelihood both of college attendance and success once there. All of this indicates the obvious: that one way to improve the economic prospects of American workers would be to ensure that the public school system provides all students with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in a global economy that privileges people who have solid technical know-how. Channeling more funds to schools in poorer communities would, however, require sacrifices from the segments of society that our "populist" president really represents. So perhaps you won't be surprised to discover that, though Education Secretary Betsy DeVos favors"school choice," neither she nor her boss seems to have the slightest interest in doing anything about the growing inequalities and inequities of public education, which Trump's cherished "base" of working and lower-income people need the most. In fact, cuts in hiseducation budget total about $10 billion and target a raft of programs that help poor and working-class families.

Missing: Worker-Friendly Policies

Once employed, workers will face challenges throughout their lives that their parents, let alone grandparents, couldn't have imagined. No matter what Donald Trump does about trade pacts and tariffs, companies will continue to shift production overseas to stay ahead of their competitors, which means that well-paying manufacturing jobs in America will continue to disappear. They will also export some of what they make abroad back to the United States, increasing job insecurity and driving down wages. Trump's rants won't reverse this well-established trend.

Add in one more thing: automation, robotics, self-driving vehicles, artificial intelligence, and e-commerce will continue to reduce the role of human labor in the economy, even as they create new jobs with skill premiums. Those with high-end jobs (banking, the law, scientific research, and medicine, among others) will, of course, continue to earn significant incomes, but workers without a college education in the service sector, which already accounts for nearly 80% of the country's gross domestic product, will find it ever tougher to get higher-paying jobs with decent benefits. This, in turn, means that they will have an even harder time saving for retirement, paying for their childrens' educations, liquidating accumulated debts, or covering the cost of medical care.

So what to do? 

A progressive tax code that actually favored those in Trump's base and others like them would be one way to start to rectify the situation, but that's a pipedream in this era. The two versions of the Trump-backed tax "reform" bill now in Congress tell us everything we need to know about who will gain and who will lose in his populist America. They couldn't be more wildly regressive. 

Take corporate taxes. To skirt the present 35% tax on corporate income, American companies have stashed $2.6 trillion in overseas tax havens like Ireland, Luxembourg, Bermuda, and the Netherlands, among other places. If the tax bill passes, corporations will be able to bring that money home and pay only 12% in taxes on it, a bonanza for corporate America. It's been argued that such companies will then invest the repatriated funds here, creating new jobs, but the tax plan offers them absolutely no incentives to do so and imposes no penalties if they don't. Oh, and that proposed corporate tax cut will be permanent

More generally, the truly wealthy have particular reason to celebrate. By 2024, the legislation eliminates the estate tax, which only they now pay. Though it provides less than one percent of federal revenues, scrapping it would shrink those revenues by $269 billion over a decade. That exceeds the annual budgets of the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention combined. 

There's more: 47% of the gains from the proposed tax cuts will benefit the wealthiest 1% of taxpayers, while the prospective bill won't touch the biggest financial burden carried by young middle- and working-class Americans: college loans. Student debt, which has ballooned by $833 billion since 2007, now totals $1.45 trillion. (The average monthly payment: $351.)

Republican tax policies further skew wealth distribution toward the richest 0.1%. Big tax cuts that favor this exclusive group are also likely to reduce government revenue, increasing the odds of further spending cuts to programs that benefit workers.

Take job retraining. The United States currently devotes a pitiful 0.05% of its gross domestic product to worker retraining, ranking 21st out of 29 OECD countries for which data is available. And prospective budget cuts suggest that there will be no improvement on this front (where the president has already proposed a 40% cut in funds). The 21% cut planned for the Department of Labor will, for instance, slash several job training and employment assistance programs, affecting nearly three million people. And here's one for your no-good-deed-goes unpunished file: Trump plans to eliminate the Appalachian Regional Council (ARC), which since 1965 has provided job retraining to coalminers while reducing poverty and boosting high school graduation rates significantly. Ninety-five percent of the counties the ARC covers voted for Trump.

It's the same story when it comes to apprenticeships, widely and successfully subsidized in countries like Germany to create a skilled working class. By contrast, the United States now spends a paltry $95 million on such programs and while Trump has called for five million additional apprenticeships in the next five years, a tenfold increase, he's suggested no additional funding for such a program. Consider that the definition of not putting your money where your mouth is. 

A partnership among community colleges and companies, supplemented by federal funds, could create nationwide apprenticeship programs that would benefit workers and companies. Furthermore, nearly 90% of those who complete apprenticeships not only land jobs but earn an average yearly salary of $50,000 -- nearly 12% above the national median wage. Two million American manufacturing jobs will remain unfilled during the next decade for want of adequately trained workers. 

Modernizing the nation's decrepit infrastructure could create a range of new jobs (as it did in the New Deal era of the 1930s). But the federal government's supposed role in President Trump's much-vaunted infrastructure "plan" to revamp the country's disintegrating roads, rail lines, bridges, ports, dams, levees, and inland waterways is to "get out of the way"; it will, that is, be confining its contribution to the trillion-dollar plan to $137 billion (mainly in tax credits), though experts reckon that revamping the country's infrastructure would actually require a $4 trillion investment over a decade. Private investors will undoubtedly cherry-pick the most profitable projects and so will get a windfall from this tax subsidy. American workers, not so much. Sad! 

Fake Populism

Rising college costs, stagnant wages -- adjusted for inflation, hourly pay has increased a mere 0.2% annually over the past four decades -- and the weight of student debt will make it ever harder for Americans to upgrade their skills. But when it comes to the working class he claims to care deeply about, Donald Trump's deeds don't go beyond symbolism -- publicizing his love for Big Macs and Kentucky Fried Chicken, engaging in bellicose bombast, trash-talking trade agreements, threatening to raise tariffs, and blaming undocumented immigrants for everything from crime to unemployment. None of this will actually mitigate the challenges that confront workers, which will only grow in an America in which the top 0.1% have about as much wealth as the bottom 90%.

As is always true when it comes to rulers with an autocratic bent, the question is: When will Trump's base get wise to his populist charade? When will the promises he continues to make, from a new deal with China to a new wall with Mexico, begin to ring hollow? Or will they?

Categories: Newswire

Trump Is... Forever?

November 28, 2017 - 5:00am
Categories: Newswire

The Trump-Russia Story Is Coming Together. Here's How to Make Sense of It

November 28, 2017 - 5:00am

Donald Trump, Jr. greets his father, then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, during the town hall debate at Washington University on October 9, 2016, in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo: Rick Wilking-Pool / Getty Images)

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The news is coming so fast and furious, from so many sources and in so many fragments, that it takes more than a scorecard to keep up with the Trump-Russia connection. It takes a timeline -- a "map," if you will, of where events and names and dates and deeds converge into a story that makes sense of the incredible scandal of the 2016 election and now of the Trump Administration. 

For years Steve Harper produced timelines for the cases he argued or defended in court as a successful litigator. Retired now from practicing law, Harper has turned his experience, talent, and curiosity to monitoring for BillMoyers.com the bizarre and entangled ties between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump and the murky world of Russian oligarchs, state officials, hackers, spies, and Republican operatives. You can check out the over 700 entries right here. But for an overview -- and some specifics -- of recent developments, I called up Steve to give us a sense of the emerging story.                                                                   

 To see more stories like this, visit Moyers & Company at Truthout.                            

Bill Moyers: You're the consummate trial lawyer with a celebrated reputation for summing up the closing argument for the jury, but from our work together on the timeline I know you also have the instincts of a journalist. So write the lede to the story this far: What's the most important thing for us to know about the Trump/Russia connection as of today?

Steven Harper: Everything the Trump campaign told you about the connections between Trump and Russia was a lie. 

Go on.

Well, there are a number of different dimensions to the issue, but let's just take the easiest one. The other day The Washington Post published a very good article that said for all of Trump's denials during the campaign of any connections between him, his campaign and Russia, it turns out there were 31 interactions. And there were 19 meetings. Furthermore, what Trump and his people have been doing since then is everything they can to keep the public from being aware of the truth. And this feeds into the obstruction story. 

How so?

Up to and including the firing of James Comey, Trump did everything he could to try to shut down, slow down or stop the investigation. First, he tried to shut down the investigation of Mike Flynn. Then it turned out that Mike Flynn is probably just a piece of a much larger problem, which is Russia. Trump admitted to the Russian ambassador and to the Russian foreign minister shortly after he fired Comey that now he's got some relief from the Russia problem -- in other words, Comey's gone! But what's happened since then is the continuing effort to interfere with the investigation, even in the form of tweets -- all of which sure look a lot to me like witness intimidation for some of the key players in the saga. 

And then there's a third component, which is in a way the most insidious -- the willingness of the congressional GOP to be complicit in all of this. We're talking now about a prescription for disaster for democracy. It's all part of the same story. If you think about it, every single person who has said something about there being no connection between Trump and Russia during the campaign has been caught in a lie about it. Even with this fellow George Papadopoulos, the talking point immediately became, "Well, he didn't get in trouble for anything that he did, he got in trouble for lying to federal investigators." Sure, and what was he lying to federal investigators about? About whether or not there were any contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia. And that's the part that everybody glosses over in terms of the talking points on the Republican side. 

George Papadopoulos was the youngest of Trump's foreign policy team and not a prominent public figure. Now Trump loyalists say he wasn't taken all that seriously by the campaign.

That's another remarkable thing, of course -- all the policy advisers all of a sudden are relegated to the status of low-level, unpaid volunteers, even though they sat in a meeting of foreign policy advisers with the presidential candidate himself early on. When they turn out to be suspects in this investigation, they all drop to the bottom of the heap, and it's as if Trump had never heard of any of them. 

It's usual in a case like this to move the paramount figures to the expendable list, no?

Oh sure, absolutely, and I fully expect before this is over, you're going to get to a point where Donald Trump will say, "Oh, yeah, Donald Jr. -- you know he was only my son for a very limited period of time." It's absurd. And it started with Paul Manafort -- the same Manafort who actually delivered decisive delegates to Trump during a crucial period of the campaign. When the heat was turned on Manafort, they all said: "Oh, well, he played a limited role for a limited period of time." Yeah, he was only manager of the campaign, how about that?

Perhaps Trump, who aspired to be a great American president, will confess: "And I was just a real estate guy." [laughter] Robert Mueller is moving quickly with the investigation now. We have new news almost every day. What's the most recent development that strikes you as most important?

Three different strands have now begun to coalesce. There's a core strand running through it that I call the "follow the money" strand. Perhaps most of what happened throughout the campaign, if you view it from Vladimir Putin's side of the transaction, looks quite reasonable and makes a great deal of sense. Putin wants to eliminate sanctions on Russia, both because they affect him personally in a financial way and because they affect his country's economy in a big way. So you dangle in front of Trump the prospect of a Trump Tower in Moscow. We always knew that Trump wanted a Trump Tower in Moscow, because Trump told us he did. But what we didn't know was that during the campaign, the Trump organization was actively negotiating for such a development. 

But two other strands have come together, and we need to understand them for all this to become a cogent narrative. The second strand involves political operatives. It turns out we're hearing about people like George Papadopoulos, who obviously was in communication with the Russians, and that strand is now probably taking Mueller -- certainly taking me -- further up the food chain. Papadopoulos implicated Sam Clovis, the former co-chairman of the campaign. And with people like Stephen Miller and Hope Hicks, you're getting right to the inner circle of the Trump campaign. All of a sudden last year, these low-level underlings, as they are now being described to us, were getting remarkable access, and they're getting responses from within the campaign. They're not sending emails off into cyberspace that no one ever answers; they're hearing back from some of these higher-ups. 

And the third strand is what I would call the "digital strand." Cambridge Analytica, the Kushners, WikiLeaks -- they've started coming together in a very dramatic fashion over the past two or three weeks. Pundits say they keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. Well, didn't John McCain say, "This is a centipede. I guarantee you there will be more shoes to drop." It seems as though there is just no limit to the number of shoes that keep dropping in this thing. Everyone thought the big bombshell was the June 9 meeting and the Don Jr. emails that had set up that meeting in Trump Tower relating to dirt the Russians were promising on Hillary Clinton. And then we just get this even more stunning series of interactions and communications and exchanges that show the people that Kushner hired to run the digital campaign going to WikiLeaks, and reveal Don Jr. having direct Twitter communications with WikiLeaks about Clinton documents. It's just remarkable. If all of this had hit at the same time, it would have been blockbuster, but because of the dribbling out of it, no one focuses on the extent to which some of these three strands coalesce. And they sometimes coalesce around what I call very hot dates in the timeline. 

Let's pause right there. There's a beginning to a story like this. So I hope you're reading a new book out this week by Luke Harding, once the Moscow correspondent for The Guardian of London. The title is Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money and how the Russians Helped Donald Trump Win. Have you been following coverage of the book?

Yes. I haven't read it yet, but I've read a couple of excerpts and summaries of certain portions of it. 

Harding, who's a very experienced reporter, quotes the British ex-spy, Christopher Steele, who worked in Russia for years and compiled that notorious dossier on Trump that mysteriously appeared last year. He quotes Steele saying that "Russian intelligence has been secretly cultivating Trump for years." As you and I discussed in August, Trump appears to have attracted the attention of Soviet intelligence as far back as 1987, on his first visit to Moscow -- a visit arranged by the top level of the Soviet diplomatic service, with the assistance of the KGB. 

Trump was of course looking for business in Russia. If you go to Trump's own book, The Art of the Deal, he acknowledges "talking about building a large luxury hotel across the street from the Kremlin in partnership with the Soviet government." And he quotes a letter he got from the Soviet ambassador to Washington saying the Soviet state agency for international tourism is inquiring about his interest in that partnership. Now, one has to ask: There were lots of ambitious real estate moguls looking for deals with Russia in the mid-'80s; why did they select Donald Trump?

And that's the $64,000 question. It's very interesting and Harding notes this as well, and it also was an early entry on our timeline -- that in 1988, when Trump came back from the Soviet Union, he first made noises about wanting to run for president. Which brings us back to the second strand developing in this story, which is the personal contacts, the personal operatives, involved in a pretty straightforward if not classic Russian intelligence operation. Russian agents -- the recruiters -- look for soft spots in their target -- in this case, the US -- and those soft spots become points of penetration. The Russians must have been astonished at how they achieved penetration in Trump's circle -- astonished at the success that they were having across many different fronts simultaneously. 

I remember from my own experience in Washington in the '60s that the Russians were always trying to find "soft targets" -- American citizens -- who were drawn to that sort of relationship.

And what could be a softer target for a guy like Putin than a guy who measures the world and everyone's self-worth in dollars?

Much of what Harding reports in his book is circumstantial, but it adds up to what is fairly damning evidence. You're the lawyer -- how much can circumstantial evidence be introduced in an argument in a trial?

Plenty. There are lots of people sitting in jail who were convicted on circumstantial evidence. In fact, how often is it that there is actually what you would call eyewitness or direct evidence of criminal behavior, except in a situation where you can get one of the co-conspirators to turn state's evidence and squeal on the others? People talk about circumstantial evidence as if there's something terrible about it. Circumstantial evidence is the way most people go about proving their cases, whether they're civil or criminal cases. And what separates circumstantial from direct evidence isn't even all that clear. Would you say that the email exchanges between Donald Trump Jr. and the lawyer who was supposed to come to Trump Tower with dirt on Hillary Clinton were circumstantial evidence or direct evidence? It's certainly direct evidence of Donald Trump Jr.'s intent when he says, "If you have what you say you have, in terms of dirt on Clinton, I love it." 

Some people keep saying there's there's no collusion. Trump's favorite expression is "No collusion. No collusion. No collusion." All right, let's talk about something else. Let's talk about something the law recognizes as conspiracy or "aiding and abetting." Let's talk about a conspiracy to obstruct justice. In that respect, Trump's own tweets become evidence. So it's not as clear as I think some of the talking-head pundits would like to make it, that no collusion means the end of the inquiry. That's just wrong. 

Suppose the circumstantial or direct evidence prove to be true; does it have to be out-and-out treason for Trump and his team's actions to be impeachable offenses?

No. In all likelihood, treason may be the toughest thing of all to prove, because treason, at least in a technical legal sense, requires that you're actually at war. And a decent defense could be for Trump that there's been no declaration of war, so whatever was going on you're never going to get it past the threshold of treason. There are still plenty of legal bases for concluding that Trump has some serious problems. One would be the election laws, including the financing of elections. It's pretty clear you can't accept help from a foreign government in order to win an election, and it seems pretty clear, at least to me, that if they weren't actually using the help -- and that's a big if; I think they were, based on some of the things that I've seen -- there's certainly ample evidence that they were willing to be participating in whatever help anybody would give them to help Trump win the election. 

The second category -- apart from election laws and related finance laws -- would be aiding and abetting computer theft insofar as there were illegal hacks into the DNC computers, and WikiLeaks and/or the Trump campaign knew that that happened, knew the hacks were illegal and knew they were willing to do everything they could to take advantage of it in order to help Trump win the election. That's another fertile ground for illegality. 

And the third category would of course be what I think will ultimately turn out to be the easiest to prove: the obstruction issues, relating to some of the behavior that we already know that George Papadopoulos, for one, engaged in when he lied to investigators about the nature of the connections between Trump and Russia. 

On the money issue, The Atlantic magazine published a very strong piece last week by Bob Bauer, in which he argues that Donald Trump Jr.'s private Twitter correspondence with WikiLeaks provides evidence of criminal violations of federal campaign finance rules which prohibit foreign spending in American elections, as you pointed out. He reminds us that those rules disallow contributions, donations or "anything of value" provided by a foreign national to sway an election. Those rules also bar a campaign from offering substantial assistance to a foreign national engaged in spending on American races. 

Here's a direct quote from Bauer's article: "Trump Jr.'s messages not only powerfully support the case that the Trump campaign violated these rules, but they also compound the campaign's vulnerability to aiding and abetting liability under the general criminal laws for assisting a foreign national in violating a spending ban. … The facts and circumstances here are without precedent in the history of campaign finance enforcement, and it's hard to imagine that any truly neutral analyst informed about the law would conclude otherwise." 

So he concludes that Trump and his campaign face a "whopping legal problem."

I agree with him completely. And here we reach one of what I call "the hot dates" when all these strands coalesce. You have these September-October email exchanges between Don Jr. and WikiLeaks. But now listen to what else you have: On Oct. 12, [Trump's friend and former adviser] Roger Stone tells NBC that he has a backchannel communication with WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks' private message to Don Jr. suggests that Trump publicize the Clinton documents from WikiLeaks. Fifteen minutes later Trump Sr. tweets about those WikiLeaks documents. That's on one day. This is all on Oct. 12. And two days after that, Don Jr. tweets the very WikiLeaks link that WikiLeaks had already suggested that they publicize. That's one point where these strands coalesce. My point is that Bauer's case is even stronger than he may realize when you look at what you and I have called circumstantial evidence of what other things were happening, and how other layers of action were behaving at the same time. 

As you know, American intelligence has identified WikiLeaks as a conduit for information that Russian operatives stole from Democrats during the 2016 presidential campaign, and now of course it seems there was a connection between WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign, as you've just outlined it. What do we know about why the Russian government would choose WikiLeaks to release information hacked from Hillary Clinton's computers?

I think it was an outlet that would ensure publicity, maximum publicity. It's a notorious organization. And I think if you want bad stuff to get out there and you want everybody to notice it, WikiLeaks would be the way to do it.

Donald Trump Jr. reportedly has released all of his correspondence with WikiLeaks. Does this indicate his lawyers don't think it is incriminating?

I think it is probably more likely the case that his lawyers assume that it's going to come out eventually anyway. So the best way to do it is to sort of dribble these things out, hope for an intervening scandal, like Al Franken groping somebody or Roy Moore upsetting the Alabama election, and then let the mind of the body politic move on to something different. The good news is that Robert Mueller is not going to be distracted by the intervening events, and he'll put all this together. 

But how significant is it that when Donald Trump Jr. had all of this information from WikiLeaks, it's now being reported that he looked around the campaign to see if he could find someone who would act on WikiLeaks' information, and it doesn't seem that anyone responded? His appeals seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

What makes you think no one responded? The fact that there's no email trail doesn't necessarily mean that there wasn't a response. We know, for example, that what was happening throughout the campaign were interactions and conversations and discussions in which certainly one of the topics included granting Russia relief from sanctions. I don't conclude that because an email response to Donald Jr. has yet to make its way into the public domain, nothing happened. 

So when Donald Trump on Oct. 10, tells the crowd at a campaign rally, "I love WikiLeaks," and accuses the press of not picking up on what WikiLeaks was publishing, he knew WikiLeaks had dirt on Clinton, where it came from, and he wanted to get it out.

You would think so. And I'm most happy, frankly, that Mueller has such an extraordinary team of talented lawyers working with him, because the case from the prosecutor's side is a dream in terms lending itself to a coherent, cogent narrative that strikes me as a really damning case.

Is Julian Assange of WikiLeaks in any danger of facing US prosecution?

Not as long as he stays in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Let's assume he will stay out of the country for a while. I suppose Trump could pardon him. 

Is there any way that Assange could be viewed as an agent of a foreign power at this point, or is he just a rogue player?

My opinion is that during the election, he was an agent acting for the benefit for Trump. He claims that he wasn't dealing with Russian documents. I find that difficult to believe. And certainly, as you said, the US intelligence community is of the view that WikiLeaks was the vehicle through which Russia distributed and disseminated its hacked documents. And I think he's clearly acting on behalf of interests that are Russian interests.

What do you make of Assange and WikiLeaks urging Donald Trump Jr. to suggest to his father that if he loses the election, he should contest the election? What was that about?

Chaos. I think the goal was chaos. That's what takes me back to believing that at some level Russia was behind what WikiLeaks was proposing. Because for Putin there are two ways for him to improve Russia's standing. One is to figure out a way to bring his country up. One easy way would be to get some relief from the sanctions. But an equally powerful way to do it is to bring Western democracies, especially America, down. So what better way to foment chaos than a postelection trauma, if you will, in which Trump is contesting election results in various states and doing all of the things he certainly would have been capable of doing? And of course, WikiLeaks feeds right into Trump's soft spot by suggesting, in that same email that you just mentioned, that this could be good for him too, particularly if what he really wants to do is launch a new media network. So it all fits. 

What do you make of the fact that Donald Trump Jr. did not report to the FBI that WikiLeaks was soliciting him last year? Does that put him legally at risk?

The mere failure to report doesn't, but it certainly adds to the question about what Trump Jr.'s true motives and the motives of the Trump campaign were in pursuing the information WikiLeaks was offering. Now, let me give you something else to think about, and see if your reaction causes you some of the heartburn it causes me.

In June of last year -- quite a month, no? -- there was another "hot date." Jared Kushner -- Trump's son-in-law and close adviser -- assumed control of the digital campaign and hired the firm Cambridge Analytica. We talked about Cambridge Analytica a moment ago. Well, Cambridge Analytica's vice president had been Steve Bannon. And about the same time that Kushner hired Cambridge Analytica, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica is reaching out to WikiLeaks with an offer to help disseminate hacked documents. 

And then you get to July 22 and WikiLeaks is releasing hacked documents. In August, George Papadopoulos is continuing to push Russia on the campaign team, Roger Stone is continuing to talk about his communications with Assange and WikiLeaks (and it certainly looks as if Stone is predicting more WikiLeaks releases of documents) and the daughter of the part-owner of Cambridge Analytica, Rebekah Mercer -- who is also a Trump donor -- tells its CEO to reach out to WikiLeaks too. And then Donald Jr.'s email exchange with WikiLeaks comes in September. See what I mean? There's a ramping up of the process that culminates in those email exchanges that Don Jr. had with WikiLeaks and that becomes, I think, an important narrative to understanding the story.

I need some Tums. [laughter]

It's good and bad, I guess -- getting mired in all these details. The good news is we learn more facts. The bad news is we learn more facts -- and it may not be possible for Americans to put it all together and conclude that anything significant happened, when actually there's a grave threat to democracy.

Let me pause right there. As Josh Marshall points out at Talking Points Memo, the Justice Department is directly overseeing Mueller's investigation. It has absolute power over the inquiry. Meaning that Mueller is now investigating his overseers. Isn't that certain to have some impact on the process?

I don't think so. Let me tell you why. I think the only thing that will affect the process, and this is the thing frankly that I fear more than anything else, will be if Trump fires Mueller. We know Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself. If he should resign, that would be a great victory for Trump, who could then appoint someone else as an acting attorney general who could then fire Mueller. Otherwise, the ball bounces to Rod Rosenstein. Rosenstein's been on record a couple of times saying that he hasn't seen any basis for firing Mueller. And at this point, I have competing views of Rosenstein in general, but I think on this issue, he realizes that his personal interest and his professional interest and even the country's interest requires that if Trump were to issue an order to fire Mueller or even if he were to try to interfere with Mueller's investigation in some way, allowing him to do so will be a very bad thing for Rosenstein personally. I don't think he'll do it.

There's a precedent for this, of course. Nixon went ahead and fired the special prosecutor investigating Watergate.

Yes, but he had to go through [Attorney General] Richardson and [Deputy Attorney General] Ruckelshaus to do it. Trump would have to fire Rosenstein, then he'd have to fire an associate attorney general named Rachel Brand, who -- based on everything everything I've read about her -- would likely balk and not be inclined to follow an order unless she were satisfied that there was in fact good cause to do it.

What might provoke Trump to risk everything -- firestorm, constitutional crisis, even impeachment -- to fire Mueller?

I think he'll do it if he thinks that things are getting too close. I think he's already been close to doing it in the past. And I think at some point, and I think it's probably a question of when [not if], he will fire Mueller. I really fear that's what's going to happen. And of course the irony is that for the amount of time Mueller has spent on the job, he's achieved remarkable results. He's working very quickly, very efficiently. The median life of a special counsel is just under two years. The average is three years. The Iran-Contra investigation went for six and a half years. Whitewater went for more than eight years. The Valerie Plame NSA leak went for two years. We're what? Just five months in? 

And Mueller's already obtained two indictments and one guilty plea.

Precisely. 

The indictments are for Paul Manafort and Rick Gates. But the indictments are not related to the Trump/Russia connection, are they?

I think the answer to that is it remains to be seen. That's clearly the way the Trump people are going to continue to try to spin it. But step back for a minute and think about the fact that a campaign manager [Paul Manafort] for a presidential candidate [Donald Trump] has been indicted for money laundering, tax evasion and all sorts of other wrongdoing arising from his work for Ukraine, where Putin and Russia were fomenting trouble. And shortly after he became the manager of the campaign, as we've learned, he was also offering to provide special briefings to a Ukrainian oligarch with whom he'd had business dealings. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see at some point some of these things merge into one another. 

You mentioned earlier that a new series of Trump advisers are under scrutiny. Hope Hicks is one of them. She's perhaps the closest staffer to Donald Trump. Not even 30 yet, keeps a low profile, been with him a long time, apparently spends more time with the president than anyone else on the White House team. We've learned Mueller wants to talk to her. What have you learned about her and what can she add to this?

She can add a lot, I suspect. And I suspect that Mueller thinks so too, because as you say, she's as close to the inner circle as you can get. She was also present at two really key points in this story -- and many others, I could add. One in connection with what ultimately led to the firing of James Comey in May of 2017 -- she was around for that. And as you may recall, we now have learned that it turns out that Trump had dictated to Stephen Miller, another close aide, what was apparently a four-page rant, or screed, of his real reasons for wanting to fire James Comey. So it's hard to imagine that Hope Hicks wasn't somehow involved in, or at least aware of, what was going on that weekend in Bedminster, New Jersey, when Trump was pouring his rage into that letter. 

She was also aboard Air Force One -- and maybe the lesson is you just never want to be on Air Force One with Donald Trump -- when they were coming back from Europe, and Trump, as we learned much later, had a hand, a very heavy hand, in drafting a very misleading statement about what had transpired at that June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Don Jr., Manafort, Kushner and some Russians with ties to the Kremlin. Hope Hicks reportedly was advocating on behalf of transparency, but it appears that she lost out. And that's just what we know Ms. Hicks was involved in. Who knows what else she was involved in and participated in, but I suspect a lot. 

I also think she's got a bit of problem because Carter Page revealed that she had been copied on those messages about what he had learned in Russia, or what he was planning to learn in Russia, when she had denied adamantly there had been no Trump campaign contacts with Russia. So she's got a bit of a consistency issue there, it would seem.

You mentioned Carter Page. He and George Papadopoulos traveled the world, apparently representing themselves as able to speak for the Trump campaign, even though the Trump campaign later said they weren't. You've tracked down many instances of Papadopoulos in particular speaking to foreign leaders on behalf of Trump. Why is that important?

Well, he's given extraordinary access to some very high-level people. He was giving speeches in which he was representing himself as being able to speak on behalf of Trump at least with respect to certain policies. And you know, it's hard for me to imagine that he gets that kind of access unless there's some credibility to what he's saying about what his actual role in the campaign is. And of course we all know from the infamous photo taken at the Trump International Hotel that Papadopoulos was one of a handful of people seated at the table with Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump as Sessions presided over a meeting about Trump's foreign policy and Trump told the group that he didn't "want to go to 'World War III' over Ukraine." 

And I believe that's what started the process of making clear to everybody who was on Trump's foreign policy team that easing relations with Russia by easing sanctions, would be something that Trump would be open to. And I think a lot of what happens afterward you can fit into this broader framework of the question: What is Putin's angle in all this? Well, Putin's angle in all this is if he can get the Russian sanctions lifted, he's a winner. And if Trump will help him do that, great. And even if Trump can't help him, even if Trump doesn't win the election, it can't hurt that he's created some chaos in a Western democracy, which clearly is what he intended and what happened. 

You mentioned Jeff Sessions. In his testimony to Congress last week, Sessions said it's hard for him to remember meeting with, and conversations about, the Russians because the Trump campaign was in constant chaos. The fact that the campaign was in chaos certainly seems accurate, but would his excuse play at all in a trial?

No. And remember what Steve Schmidt, who was involved in John McCain's campaign, said? He said he hopes that Jeff Sessions never gets a puppy because he's not going to remember to feed it, he's not going to remember to get it watered, he's not going to remember to let it out. That puppy's just going to be in terrible trouble. 

But what's interesting about Sessions to me is this: What Sessions said in his recent statements was, I haven't remembered that Papadopoulos raised the issue of Trump meeting with Putin or members of the campaign meeting with representatives of Putin until I read about it in the news reports. But now that I've read about it, now I remember, and listen -- I pushed back really hard and I said that it would not be appropriate for anyone to be meeting with a representative of a foreign government. All of the sudden, it's like the light has gone on in Jeff Sessions' head. Now, you have a situation sometimes in trials where a witness in a previous setting had sworn that he couldn't remember something. And then six months or a year later, all of a sudden they have this epiphany and the memories came flooding out. And there's something counterintuitive about somebody who says they remember more now about a specific event than they did a year earlier when asked about that same specific event. That just doesn't play well with most juries. 

And bear in mind, too, something else about Sessions that's worth remembering that I doubt would necessarily be obvious to non-lawyers. Going into those Senate hearings, going into each one of those hearings, Sessions had to know that he was going to be asked about all of this stuff. And he had to know that he needed to be as familiar as he could be with whatever he could learn so that what he gave was truthful, straightforward, candid and ultimately something that the public and Congress would believe. And yet despite that, at each subsequent appearance, somehow there's something new and the attorney general of the United States shrugs his shoulders and says, "Oh, I guess I did know that." 

My problem is, I want Sessions to hang on. I don't want him not to be attorney general yet, because the minute that Sessions resigns or Trump fires him, then you have the door open to an acting attorney general, and I don't want to live to see Scott Pruitt [head of the Environmental Protection Agency] or [former New York mayor and Trump ally] Rudy Giuliani become acting attorney general, which is something that Trump could do without even Senate confirmation. It doesn't even have to be those two guys, because we know Trump has a plethora of cronies who will do whatever he says, because Trump says that's what he wants, and if Trump says he wants Mueller fired, that to me is the disaster scenario for the country.

So, to sum up for now: What's the most innocent explanation for everything we know? What if all of this was simply Trump's inexperienced people trying to establish diplomatic rapport with the Russians and hoping to reset America's connection with Moscow?

Well, the most innocent explanation would be a level of incompetence and ignorance and stupidity that I honestly don't think anyone could credibly believe, because the most innocent explanation is that Russia was launching a very sophisticated, multipronged intelligence operation and succeeded, but they succeeded because of the blind ambition and greed of the Trump organization coupled with a lack of judgment and intelligence and a fundamental failure to take into regard anything that would remotely look like patriotism when it came to the defense of democracy, subjugating all of that to the need to win. That's the most innocent explanation. And I just don't think all of them are that stupid.

So what's the most damning explanation for everything we know?

The most damning explanation is that the Russians launched a sophisticated intelligence operation. They found willing partners up and down the line throughout the Trump organization. And up and down throughout the Trump organization, as the details of that intelligence operation became known, the participants lied about it, lied about its existence, lied about their personal involvement in it and now they are all facing serious criminal jeopardy as a result.

 

One more: I assume most people believe Russia's interference in the election last year is a bad thing, a serious offense, but is it possible that by treating Vladimir Putin and his cronies as an existential threat, we're playing directly into Putin's hands and making him appear a more significant figure in the world than he really is?

Well, he's already achieved that, but the problem is, what's the alternative? Back in January, John McCain and Lindsey Graham were on national television acknowledging the seriousness of the Russian interference. McCain called it the cyber equivalent of "an act of war." And if you acknowledge and recognize the existential threat, do you sit back and let the let the next thing happen in 2018 that Vladimir Putin wants to do? Remember, we have elections coming up next year. The uniform view of US intelligence is unambiguous, and if you don't view it as an existential threat then you're willing, I think, to sacrifice democracy. 

We keep hearing, "Yeah, but Trump was still legitimately elected, he won the election fair and square." Now we're realizing that that may not even be true. I don't personally believe that to be true anymore. I rankle every time somebody says he won fair and square, because that's become less obvious every day. So the last line of defense would be, "Well, even if he didn't win fair and square, he's our president, so we've got to sit back and let whatever Putin's going to do to us continue to happen because we don't want our response to raise his standing in the world." Well, I would submit it raises Putin's standing in the world even more to have an accomplice in the White House.

Thank you, Steve Harper.

Categories: Newswire

How to Defeat the GOP Tax Bill: Applying Lessons From the Trumpcare Fight

November 28, 2017 - 5:00am

With the GOP tax bill, the billionaire class has declared war on everyone but the superrich, making it easy for different people to come together to fight back, says Michael Kink, executive director of Strong Economy for All Coalition. The fact that the tax fight includes a health care fight makes it that much easier; and there are lessons we can use from the fight against Trumpcare.

Protesters walk together to the office of Sen. Marco Rubio to urge him and others in the US Senate to vote against the $1.5 trillion tax cut on November 27, 2017, in Doral, Florida. (Photo: Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We're now several months into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world. Today's interview is the 94th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation with Michael Kink, the executive director of the Strong Economy for All Coalition. Kink discusses how the GOP tax bill benefits only the rich at the expense of everyone else, and how to fight it.

Sarah Jaffe: The last time we did one of these interviews, we were talking hypothetically about a tax bill. Now there is a tax bill that has passed one house of Congress. What are some of the highlights and/or lowlights of this thing?

Michael Kink: I would say that it is almost all lowlights. It is a cartoon parody of the most ridiculously unfair tax plan that anyone could come up with. It literally adds new subsidies for private jets while taking away tax deductions for the parents of disabled kids. It is utterly, utterly ridiculous.

Families making between $10,000 a year and $75,000 a year are going to see tax increases.

The only highlight is that it is tremendously unpopular. The vast majority of Americans don't like it, don't want it, understand that it benefits the wealthy over regular people, understand that it doesn't close any loopholes and opens up some new ones....

I would argue ... that the tax bill puts lives at stake in many of the same ways that the health care bills did. It basically includes a $1.5 trillion cut to Medicaid and Medicare. But it's a tax bill, and so there is certainly a presumption in the media that most people don't particularly care about tax bills, or most people figure, "They will give a bunch of money to the rich and maybe they will give a little bit of money to me or someone like me and I will be okay."

The fact is, unless you are incredibly, ridiculously, preposterously rich, you are not going to get much of a benefit at all out of this. And most regular working-class/middle-class people are going to see tax increases. The Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation's official report on the Senate bill said families making between $10,000 a year -- which is fairly poor -- and $75,000 a year -- which is kind of middle class -- most of those families are going to see tax increases.

The tax bill itself sets off $28 billion a year in automatic cuts to Medicare.

The folks who get big tax cuts are the heirs and heiresses of billionaires. They are going to inherit their massive fortunes tax-free. Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. and the kids of all the hedge fund moguls and private equity titans are going to do really well. Multinational corporations are going to get a massive cut in their tax rate. There are going to be new corporate loopholes, including actual new subsidies for outsourcing jobs.... They are opening up new subsidies for corporations to move profits and jobs overseas.

The carried interest loophole is still wide open and hedge fund managers and private equity managers will benefit from a new pass-through tax scam that will cut their taxes even more. All of these folks are big campaign donors and they use their political contributions to really rig the system. They have got a tax bill that is a dream for them.

Young people with student debt are going to lose their interest deduction for that debt. School teachers are going to lose their deductions for teaching supplies. Families struggling with medical expenses are going to see deductions eliminated. In terms of health care, the Republican budget and the Republican tax bill work together to set up $1.5 trillion in cuts to Medicaid and Medicare. And the tax bill itself sets off $28 billion a year in automatic cuts to Medicare.... They are still trying to pass it even though it is incredibly unpopular. Chris Collins, the congressman from Buffalo, admitted to ... The Hill ... that "My donors are calling me and they are telling me that they will never return any of my calls again if we don't pass this bill." So, they are even admitting that the main pressure for this bill is coming from their biggest campaign contributors.

We are working around the country to fight this. A lot of the health care activists and grassroots activists that fought and beat the health care bill are engaged in this and are fighting back against it. The teachers' union -- the American Federation of Teachers, the Communication Workers of America, the National Nurses United, and a bunch of community groups have come together for a national day of action Wednesday, November 29. There is a website with some details of the actions at www.stopGOPtaxscam.com.... We are aiming for a kind of grassroots march on Wall Street on Saturday, December 2.... If the bill keeps going, as we expect it will, into December, we are going to aim for a second wave of direct action/protests on Capitol Hill on December 5.

The ... last time we had a Republican president selling us a big package of tax cuts for rich people, it was George W. Bush, and the argument was that it was tax cuts for everybody, and it just so happens that rich people make more money and so they got bigger tax cuts.... They would have passed something by now with much less opposition if they were not being so grotesquely class war about it....

I think that the ownership of the Republican Party by the most aggressive and most entitled and system-rigging rungs of capital is entirely complete. The Bush tax cuts for the rich included a refundable tax credit where families got checks. Working people got an actual check. Now, you can say, "I got a $400 check and some billionaire a dozen zip codes away got a $4 million check," but regular people who might be Republican or Democratic voters got something.

Nobody gets anything out of this bill. It goes to private equity titans, hedge fund managers, international banks, multinational corporations. I do think that the policy apparatus in Washington in the Republican Party is so completely and utterly broken, so distant from the reality of the vast majority of people who provide the votes to keep these people in power, that they just don't talk to those people, they don't listen to those people, they don't care about those people. They figure, if they feed them racial hatred and division on immigration policy, and they yell at football players, then those people will get their "two-minutes hate" to scream and yell and that will be enough for them.

What is the single-payer of economic policy or fiscal policy? Policies that actually redistribute income and invest in the future.

It shows such utter contempt for their voters that I don't know how long they can exist as a political party. I don't think most people that are getting nothing and are getting hurt from public policies are going to put up with it. There is a larger question of whether there is an actual, forceful, populist progressive option that anybody in mainstream politics is going to put out there, but the Republicans are working to pass bills that benefit billionaires and their lobbyists. I don't think that the Paul Ryans and Mitch McConnells of the world really care about anybody else right now. That is very clear from the legislation that they are presenting to the public.

That is an interesting point that you bring up: What would we like to see as the alternative? What should Bernie Sanders and Keith Ellison and anybody else who wants to be the leadership of a progressive/left alternative to this be pushing forward right now? Single-payer health care was the obvious thing in the wake of the repeated health care disasters, but what should we be demanding in response to this?

I think there are two angles to look at. One, at even the most moderate level, if you look at public opinion polls ... most Americans want the wealthy to pay their fair share. Most Americans want to see higher taxes on rich people, not lower taxes on rich people. Most Americans would like to see a lot of loopholes eliminated, particularly the loopholes for outsourcing jobs. Most Americans would like to see a tax system that doesn't overly reward people that are already wealthy, that doesn't over-reward people that just invest for a living, that does something to help families that are struggling. We don't have any legislation that does that.

More aggressively, what is the single-payer of economic policy or fiscal policy? I would argue that if most people want to see the wealthy pay their fair share and most people want to see government budgets that actually invest in and create jobs by hiring people and giving them pay checks -- as opposed to just sprinkling helicopter-loads full of cash on rich zip codes -- we could talk about fiscal policies that actually redistribute income and invest in the future. We can talk about public goods. We can talk about the opportunity to close loopholes, make the wealthy ... invest in an economy that would actually employ a lot more people than we have now. We could make the transition into a clean energy infrastructure. We can move forward with single-payer health care ... in a way that responds to our opioid addiction crisis, that responds to the aging [in the US], that provides more independent living options for seniors and for people with disabilities.

There are a lot of things we could do that would create a lot of good, meaningful jobs for Americans with decent pay checks and we have the money to do it. The Republicans are saying they would be willing to spend $1.5 trillion on something. If we were going to spend $1.5 trillion on clean energy and public health and education ... a lot of people would be in favor of that. The tax system is a way that can provide the resources to do it... When we have young people supporting socialism over capitalism by significant margins because they have been screwed so badly by the economy, then I think it is incumbent on politicians to provide more effective public policies that were previously extended.

There aren't too many people that are doing that right now, but there are starting to be some, and I think we are starting to see that the public is rewarding politicians that come out with more forceful and positive solutions. Single-payer health care is very popular. We are seeing the weakness of the center-right system of moderate Democrats that relies on tax incentives. The Republicans get rid of all these tax deductions that Bush and Obama and many that Clinton put in place to try to help working people. It is all done through the tax system. They kept all the deductions for the wealthy and they are eliminating all the deductions for working and poor people. They are basically saying, "Screw all you people. We are not giving you anything."

The alternative is: Let's have something big and powerful and forceful like single-payer health care. Let's have free, affordable, universal childcare for all kids that includes a strong early education program that gets every single kid in [the US] ready to go to school and be a great learner. If other countries do it, we could do it, too. Let's have a distributed, networked clean-energy system that reduces people's electric bills, that reduces climate-destroying greenhouse gases, and that creates millions of American jobs for people of every race everywhere in the country. The ability to do big powerful things that people want is there.

The Republicans are so utterly beholden to the donor class that they're putting forth stuff that's unpopular. There is a hole wide open... I would argue it is up the middle.... People are going to support something that is clear and effective and powerful.

We talked a lot about the health care fight and how that worked and how at the end of it, we come out with more support than ever for a single-payer health care bill. This could, indeed, work the same way if the pushback to this is actually paired with a positive demand....

One and a half trillion dollars. In terms of public policy, it suggests new areas to go forward. Everyone understands that if you get rid of the estate tax, it is only benefiting these heirs and heiresses of the billionaires.... You could have a 100 percent inheritance tax on fortunes over $1 billion or over $5 billion. You could say, "We do not want dynastic wealth in this country. You can get your first billion and keep it, but we are not going to let you keep this 2nd, 3rd, ... 14th and 30th. We are going to take that and put it back into public goods. Because you created Facebook or that hedge fund or whatever with huge amounts of public resources. You use mathematicians trained at land grant universities. You use the advanced research facilities at colleges and universities. You took patents that were in the public realm and you made private profits off of them...." At a high enough level, we have got to do something to protect our democracy.

When the heirs and heiresses of billionaire fortunes can take over an entire political party and force them to pass public policies that the vast majority of even their own voters don't want, there is a problem with democracy.

The billionaires declared class warfare on everyone.

I don't know if we will get to 100 percent inheritance tax.... But I do think the same way we saw a lot of the support for single-payer health care, after the GOP tax bill, you are going to see a lot of proposals for higher inheritance taxes. You are going to see tax bills that close loopholes on outsourcing jobs that are going to be taken more seriously. You are going to see continued progress for our state-level bills to close the carried interest loophole. If Congress is so bought and paid for that they won't do it in Washington, then state lawmakers ... can take steps to bring the money back for state governments, until and unless Congress does it. There is going to be more support for fair taxes at the state level...

What lessons did you and the other folks who are planning all these actions learn from the health care bill that is being applied to fighting the tax bill?

From a movement perspective, it was really interesting seeing a lot of different people from different backgrounds realizing how much they have in common.... There was a kind of commonality of purpose and experience with the health care fight that I think is really an antidote to the division, the politics of hate that Trump and Breitbart and the Mercers and Bannon have thrown at us. They really want to keep people divided....

On health care, you saw a lot of people in the same boat and they came from a lot of different places. There were folks from Arkansas and Alaska and New York and California and Connecticut and Vermont and Alabama all working together, all doing teach-ins in church basements, all sleeping in sleeping bags together. That was a very powerful thing to see. I think in tax policy you have seen something of the same thing happening with the Indivisible groups, with the labor unions, with the students, and the Bernie folks and more conventional big national unions jumping into this fight.... Whether or not you agree with fighting class warfare on behalf of people who are workers, the billionaires declared class warfare on everyone. So that kind of puts people in the same boat.... And the fact that the tax fight includes a health care fight made it a lot easier to make that leap.

How can people get involved in some of these various actions that are going to be coming up?

StopGOPtaxscam.com. There are some simple bullets on the plan and there is a whole set of days of actions where folks can click through. That hashtag, #GOPtaxscam, is also going to be in place where you can look on Twitter and Facebook. There will be a lot of local events. I think the face to face is really important; going to events, joining with other people.

There [is] certainly a plethora of online calling tools. You should call your member of Congress, your House member and your Senator.... If you go to www.stoptrumptaxcuts.org ... or ... www.taxpolicycenter.org ... or ... www.notonepenny.org, there are a lot of places you are going to get a "Click here, put in your zip code, and we will call your Senator and your House member for you."

I do think that they need to be getting calls every day next week.... There are a lot of Republican Senators that have expressed concerns. Senator McCain on process; Collins on the health care angles, still has some significant opposition. Senators Corker and Flake and Moran and Langford have all talked about the problems with the bill in increasing the deficit.... They are going to have problems within their own conference passing this bill quickly.

We need every Democratic Senator to oppose it and we need those couple dozen House Republican members ... I think the bill that comes back to the House to consider is probably going to be worse than the bill they got before. It is going to hurt more people, it is going to be more destructive to working-class and middle-class voters that will either re-elect these people or kick them out of office.

So, I do think that there are going to be several opportunities over the next couple of weeks for people power to try to work its magic one more time. That is something that has worked over and over and over again this year in stopping the worst of the public policy proposals that Trump is trying to jam through Congress. There is one more thing we have got to stop this year before we can take a break....

How can people keep up with you?

My Twitter is @MKink. Strong Economy for All is at www.strongforall.org. The Hedge Clippers project has tagged a lot of the biggest funds around these campaign contributions -- system rigging and billionaire audacity and mendacity is at www.hedgeclippers.org.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

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Countering the Right-Wing Takeover of the US: An Interview With Henry A. Giroux

November 28, 2017 - 5:00am

President Trump walks with House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving as he arrives at the US Capitol for a meeting with the House Republican Conference on November 16, 2017, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

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We speak with Henry Giroux, a world-renowned educator, author and public intellectual whose latest book is The Public in Peril: Trump and the Menace of American Authoritarianism. He joins us to discuss his latest article at Truthout "Disposability in the Age of Disasters: From Dreamers and Puerto Rico to Violence in Las Vegas." We assess how the Republican Party has been captured by the far right and will be a continuing problem for US democracy and society going forward unless a citizen's movement can be built to counter a right-wing kleptocratic takeover of the US, as growing plutocratic power and the drift towards authoritarianism threatens our economic viability and democratic future.

To read more articles by Henry A. Giroux and other authors in the Public Intellectual Project, click here.

Categories: Newswire