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Andrew Cuomo thinks homelessness is neither “an economic problem” nor “a complicated problem.”

During a Tuesday appearance on Long Island, the New York governor took aim at Mayor Bill de Blasio’s September comments about homelessness’ being (in part) an economic problem, saying “the homeless problem is not an economic problem. It’s not a complicated problem. It’s a human problem.”

Without delving into what political problems might not qualify as human, Cuomo went on to argue:

The homeless problem says to each of us, how do you believe we should treat one another? It says to society, what do you do for people who are down on their luck and need help? You let them sleep on the streets? Do you put them in disgusting shelters where they would rather stay on the street than go into the shelter? Do you ignore them? What do you do?

Greater empathy toward homeless people is necessary and appropriate, especially since homeless people are often victims of violence. But all of the solutions Cuomo implies, from creating living-wage jobs to providing affordable and decent shelter, are by nature economic. How resources are distributed throughout society is, after all, one of the primary question of economics, and also deeply human. 

August 21, 2018

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Trump tells Reuters he could “run” Mueller investigation if he wanted to.

Reuters is releasing excerpts from an interview with the president. One notable statement is Trump’s claim that he has the power to supervise the Mueller investigation. “I’ve decided to stay out,” Trump said. “Now, I don’t have to stay out, as you know. I can go in and I could... do whatever, I could run it if I want.”

It’s not clear what the president means by this, since the special counsel is supposed to be, by definition, independent of the president. It’s true that Trump could order Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to end the investigation. But so far, Trump has hesitated to take this radical step, which could spark a constitutional crisis.

The president also indicated he was afraid that special counsel Robert Mueller is preparing a “perjury trap” for him.

August 20, 2018

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Scott Pruitt enjoyed perhaps the most expensive phone calls in history.

The scandal-ridden cabinet member is gone from his post as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, but the costs of his tenure are still being tabulated. One of his most notorious expenditures was the $43,000 for a highly protected phone booth where he could enjoy secure telephone conversations. The Washington Post reports that Pruitt only made one outgoing call with the book, on June 20th, to discuss a lawsuit launched by the Sierra Club. It’s not clear how many incoming calls he took, but Pruitt himself says he used the booth “sparingly.”

Assuming only a handful of other calls, each one cost tax payers many thousands of dollars. The construction of the cone of silence was bedeviled with cost overruns. “While the original contract for the phone booth was slated to cost roughly $25,000, the agency ended up paying contractors an additional $18,000 to convert a closet space that could house it,” The Washington Post notes. “That work included removing closed-circuit television equipment, pouring 55 square feet of concrete, installing a drop ceiling and patching and painting the room.”

Andrew Wheeler, acting head of the EPA, doesn’t plan on using the phone booth but won’t dismantle it either. For now, the phone booth will continue in weird limbo between disuse and destruction, like the statue of deposed king, a monument to the folly of an earlier era. “It’s there,” Wheeler acknowledged. “It would be expensive to tear it apart. I don’t see any sense in tearing it apart. And in this day and age, I don’t know what the assessment was for the need of it.”

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Trump and Giuliani taunt John Brennan with bizarre tweets.

On Sunday, Brennan, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, indicated that he was considering taking legal action against the Trump administration to prevent other government officials from being stripped of their security clearance. On Monday both the president and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, responded with tweets:

Giuliani’s tweet is strangely worded and hard to decipher. But what he is basically saying is that Brennan’s threatened lawsuit is hot air (like Obama’s threat to punish Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons). Giuliani is taunting Brennan, daring him to launch the lawsuit.

But even on those terms, Giuliani’s tweet is odd because if Brennan did sue, the case would not be taken up by Trump’s private lawyers (Giuliani and Jay Sekulow) but rather by the Justice Department. Also, mocking Brennan for threatening a lawsuit is an odd look for someone representing Donald Trump, who has on more than 40 occasions made legal threats that were not carried out.

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Measles cases surge in Europe.

The BBC reports that the number of people suffering from measles is hitting record highs in Europe. There have been 41,000 cases for the first six months of this year, as against 5,273 cases for all of 2016 and  23,927 cases for all of 2017.  Measles can lead to vulnerability to other ailments and is sometimes lethal. 37 people have died from measles in Europe this year. 

One doctor describes the situation as “large outbreaks in Europe.” These outbreaks are fuelled by the anti-vaccination movement, which took off in the late 1990s after a now discredited 1998 study linking vaccination to autism. Most of those catching measles now are teens and young adults, in other words those who weren’t vaccinated in the wake of the 1998 report. 

Despite the outbreak, anti-vaccination forces continue to gain a foothold in politics. In early August, the Italian Senate overturned the policy of mandatory vaccination for school children. Italy already has a much higher rate of measles than countries such as the United Kingdom or Russia. 

“With a vaccine preventable disease, one case is one too many, and the numbers of measles cases so far this year is astounding.”  Dr. Pauline Paterson of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told the BBC.

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Brett Kavanaugh said Bill Clinton’s behavior ‘would make Nixon blush.’

The Washington Post today published an August 1998 memo the Supreme Court nominee wrote to independent counsel Ken Starr when he worked in Starr’s office, urging him to adopt a more hardline approach to questioning the president. Among Kavanaugh’s proposed slate of questions for Clinton: “If Monica Lewinsky says that you inserted a cigar into her vagina while you were in the Oval Office area, would she be lying?”

But the graphic descriptions of Clinton’s relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky won’t come as a surprise to anyone who read the Starr Report in 1998, which lays out the president’s actions in equally explicit detail. What’s more interesting is how Kavanaugh describes Clinton’s misdeeds and efforts to thwart investigations into them.

The president has disgraced his office, the legal system, and the American people by having sex with a 22-year-old intern and turning her life into a shambles—callous and disgusting behavior that has somehow gotten lost in the shuffle. He has committed perjury (at least) in the Jones case. He has turned the Secret Service upside down. He has required the urgent attention of the courts and the Supreme Court for frivolous privilege claims—all to cover up his oral sex from an intern. He has lied to his aides. He has lied to the American people. He has tried to disgrace you and this office with a sustained propaganda campaign that would make Nixon blush.

“He should be forced to account for that and to defend his actions,” Kavanaugh concluded, in bold text. It’s hard to read the exchange without thinking about President Donald Trump’s scorched-earth campaign against the Russia investigation. While the precise circumstances differ between the two inquiries, the pattern of attacks, denials, and fabrications is consistent. If Kavanaugh’s hostility toward presidential malfeasance also remains constant, he could yet surprise his critics if confirmed.

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Trump laments the “killing field” of birds created by windmills.

At a fundraiser in Utica last Monday, the president went on a bizarre rant about the superiority of coal over windmills. “Coal is indestructible,” Trump claimed. “You can blow up a pipeline, you can blow up the windmills. You know, the windmills. Boom, boom, boom. Bing. That’s the end of that one. If the birds don’t kill it first. The birds could kill it first. They kill so many birds. You look under those windmills, it’s a killing field, the birds.”

Although unusually incoherent even for Trump, this speech was a return to a favorite theme: the dangers windmills pose for birds. As Emily Atkin pointed out in The New Republic last October, Trump has been obsessed with windmills since at least 2012. That was the year Trump got into a feud with the Scottish government over offshore wind turbines which he complained spoiled the view of one of the golf course he owned in Scotland.

As this history indicates, Trump’s concern for the wellbeing of birds rings hollow. “The reality is that the Trump administration’s fossil fuel policies are a far bigger threat to avian species,” Atkin noted. “These threats are less obvious, because unlike wind and solar, expanding fossil fuel development does not result in birds being suddenly zapped or shredded. It results in slower deaths, resulting from the gradual loss of habitat.”

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Pope Francis: Catholic Church “abandoned” child sex abuse victims.

“With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives,” Pope Francis said in a statement released on Monday morning. “We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.” It’s the Vatican’s most detailed response to a Pennsylvania grand jury report that named over 300 predatory priests and over 1000 victims of child sex abuse. But while Francis’s statement expresses remorse, it does not explain what the Catholic Church intends to do in response to the crisis, nor does it apologize for Francis’s previous stumbles on the sex abuse issue. As the Associated Press reports:

Francis several years ago scrapped a proposed Vatican tribunal to prosecute negligent bishops, and he has refused to act on credible reports from around the world of bishops who have failed to report abusers to police or otherwise botched handling cases, and yet remain in office.

Francis also has kept on his nine-member kitchen cabinet a Chilean cardinal long accused of covering up for pedophiles, an Australian cardinal currently on trial for historic sex abuse charges and a Honduran cardinal recently implicated in a gay priest sex scandal involving his trusted deputy.

The church has made some reforms to address the issue of child sex abuse, as I reported on Friday. Review boards and human formation courses at seminary are intended to provide oversight and to properly prepare priests for lifetime celibacy. But many victims believe those efforts are inadequate. Victims of clergy abuse in Ireland, where Pope Francis travels on Saturday, have already condemned Monday’s statement. “Mere words at this point deepen the insult and the pain,” Anne Barrett Doyle, a victim advocate, told the AP.

August 19, 2018

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Rudy Giuliani asserts “truth isn’t truth.”

The former mayor of New York, who is now the most public face of the President’s legal team, was interviewed by NBC’s Chuck Todd on Meet the Press on Sunday. It did not go well, especially when Giuliani spoke about the notorious Trump Tower meeting of June 9th, 2016 between a group of Russians, led by Natalia Veselnitskaya, and top members of the Trump campaign, including Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort. Giuliani flatly asserted, Veselnitskaya “didn’t represent the Russian government. She’s a private citizen. I don’t even know if they knew she was Russian at the time. All they had was her name.”

In point of fact, in a June 3, 2016 email that helped set up the meeting, the pop music promoter Rob Goldstone informed Donald Trump Jr. that the document that were going to be discussed at the meeting were “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

Blatantly telling demonstrable untruths might not seem like a good legal strategy. But as it turns out, Giuliani is committed to a radical epistemological assault on the very possibility of shared agreement about reality.

“Truth isn’t truth,” Giuliani said later in the interview. Chuck Todd correctly predicted that this statement would become a “bad meme.”

Earlier this week, while speaking on CNN, Giuliani claimed that facts are “in the eye of the beholder.”

August 17, 2018

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Alex Jones accused of destroying evidence in the Sandy Hook lawsuits against him.

The New York Times reports that Texas lawyers representing two families of Sandy Hook shooting victims have filed a motion “accusing the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his Infowars media business of intentionally destroying evidence relevant to the defamation cases against him.”

The 2012 Sandy Hook massacre in Newton, Connecticut was the most lethal school shooting in American history, with 20 children and six adults killed by gunman Adam Lanza. On his program Infowars, Jones has repeatedly maintained that the killing was a false flag operation. This has led to the harassment of families of the victims by Jones fans.

In recent weeks, Jones has become a social media pariah, losing platforms on Facebook, Apple, and Youtube. Last week, after being temporarily suspended from Twitter, Jones “said on his broadcast ... that he had told his staff to delete material after CNN cited Infowars content that violated Twitter’s policies.”

This deletion of material is the basis of the new motion, which argues the material destroyed is salient to ongoing defamation suits against Jones.

One of the individuals bringing the motion is Neil Heslin, father of a six-year-old killed at the school. The new motion will make it harder for Jones to win the defamation suits brought by Heslin and others, as The New York Times explained: “Should the court find that Mr. Jones and Infowars willfully destroyed evidence, he, and possibly his lawyer, could be assessed thousands of dollars in fines and be subject to punitive action. Most important, the material that was destroyed could be presumed by the court as supporting Mr. Heslin’s claims against Mr. Jones, bolstering his case.”

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People really are plotting to kill Nicolas Maduro.

An unnamed Venezuelan military dissident told Bloomberg that he had met with a group planning to assassinate the Venezuelan president months before an attempt was made on his life on August 4, using drones armed with plastic explosives. The assassination attempt took place during a military parade and was caught on live television.

The former dissident was part of a separate scheme called Operation Constitution, which sought to capture Maduro and put him on trial before the country’s presidential elections this past May. Operation Constitution was broken up after many of its members were arrested and jailed. But before that, the dissident said he was shown “videos of armed drones shipped from Miami and being tested on a Colombian farm,” according to Bloomberg. The group plotting the assassination had reportedly proposed joining forces with Operation Constitution.

Venezuela’s government has denounced plots to overthrow Maduro for months, and now apparently has legitimate reason to do so, despite earlier claims that the assassination attempt had actually been a gas tank explosion. Venezuelan authorities later said that backers in Florida and Bogota had promised Maduro’s would-be assassins $50 million and a stay in the U.S. if they succeeded in killing Maduro.

Since the attack, officials have arrested 14 people, including a lawmaker and two high-ranking military officials, while another 20 suspects remain at large.