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A jury just awarded Hulk Hogan $115 million for Gawker publishing his sex tape.

The pro wrestling and reality television star sued the website after it published a leaked tape of him having sex with the wife of a former friend in 2012. Hogan—whose real name is Terry Bollea—had originally sought $100 million in damages, but the jury awarded him even more than he was asking for.

Gawker founder Nick Denton issued a statement promising to appeal the ruling. Unless the decision is overturned by a higher court, the financial sum could be enough to completely sink the media company.

An unnamed Gawker source told CNN’s Brian Stelter that “this is much worse than anyone ever expected.” In the months leading up to the trial, Gawker’s legal and editorial team have said publicly that they were preparing for an unfavorable verdict, but Denton admitted last summer that a $100 million award could jeopardize the very existence of Gawker Media. (In January, Gawker secured outside investment in a bid to strengthen its financial position in anticipation of an unfavorable verdict.)

Reactions after the verdict were mixed, but media analysts expressed concern that a ruling against Gawker could set a dangerous precedent for editorial independence.

September 26, 2018

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Kavanaugh’s college acquaintances dispute his “choir boy” image.

The embattled Supreme Court nominee is getting blowback from the Fox News interview he conducted on Monday, where he presented an image of himself as having been a wholesome teen and young man who was mostly focused on his studies and only on occasion drank. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post have published extensive reports from nearly a dozen friends and acquaintances who knew the young Kavanaugh. Taken together, these reports paint a very different picture of the young nominee, who is best characterized as a hard drinker.

In the Fox interview, Kavanaugh said of his younger self: “I was focused on academics and athletics, going to church every Sunday at Little Flower, working on my service projects, and friendship, friendship with my fellow classmates and friendship with girls from the local all girls Catholic schools.” He did acknowledge some drinking, but framed it as typical teenage hijinks: “And yes, there were parties. And the drinking age was 18, and yes, the seniors were legal and had beer there. And yes, people might have had too many beers on occasion and people generally in high school—I think all of us have probably done things we look back on in high school and regret or cringe a bit, but that’s not what we’re talking about.”

Contrasting with that account, The New York Times claims that “nearly a dozen people who knew him well or socialized with him said Judge Kavanaugh was a heavy drinker in college.”

As The Washington Post reports, Kavanaugh’s subdued account of being a virtuous youth doesn’t jibe with the memories of some of those who knew jurist in high school and at Yale:

Liz Swisher, who described herself as a friend of Kavanaugh in college, said she was shocked that — in an interview focused largely on his high school years and allegations of sexual misconduct — he strongly denied drinking to the point of blacking out.

“Brett was a sloppy drunk, and I know because I drank with him. I watched him drink more than a lot of people. He’d end up slurring his words, stumbling,” said Swisher, a Democrat and chief of the gynecologic oncology division at the University of Washington School of Medicine. “There’s no medical way I can say that he was blacked out. . . . But it’s not credible for him to say that he has had no memory lapses in the nights that he drank to excess.”

Another Yale friend is similar skeptical of the Fox interview:

Lynne Brookes, who like Swisher was a college roommate of one of the two women now accusing Kavanaugh of misconduct, said the nominee’s comments on Fox did not match the classmate she remembered.

“He’s trying to paint himself as some kind of choir boy,” said Brookes, a Republican and former pharmaceutical executive who recalled an encounter with a drunken Kavanaugh at a fraternity event. “You can’t lie your way onto the Supreme Court, and with that statement out, he’s gone too far. It’s about the integrity of that institution.”

Brookes hits the key question: can you lie your way to the Supreme Court? With his shameless revisionist account of his past, Kavanaugh is putting this question to the test.

September 25, 2018

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Homeland Security did, in fact, sign off on family separation policy.

Open the Government, an independent watchdog group, has obtained a memo that contradicts a major claim made by Department of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen. Nielsen has repeatedly affirmed there is no policy of family separation, as in these tweets of June 17, 2018:

Using a Freedom of Information Act request filed in conjunction with the Project On Government Oversight, Open the Government has discovered that a memo dated April 23 outlining a family separation was addressed to Nielsen, and signed as approved. Because the signature is redacted, it’s not clear who signed the memo—whether it was Nielsen or some other official.

The memo calls for the criminal prosecution of parents who cross the border and states that Homeland Security can “permissibly direct the separation of parents or legal guardians and minors held in immigration detention so that the parent or legal guardian can be prosecuted.” Equally important, the memo makes no provisions for family reunification. As Open the Government observes, “the memo does not discuss any plan for reuniting separated families, or the harmful effects of separation on children, nor does it reflect any input from the government agencies who would be responsible for caring for the separated children.”

To date, 182 children remain separated from their parents, despite a court order demanding reunification. As Esquire’s Jack Holmes notes, the new document shows that Nielsen likely lied, and also suggests that reunification or mitigating the effects of the separation policy were not high on the administration’s agenda.

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Bill Cosby is going to prison for at least three years for sexual assault.

On Thursday afternoon, Judge Steven O’Neill sentenced the disgraced entertainer to three to ten years in prison for sexually assaulting Andrea Constand in 2004. State attorneys had requested the maximum sentence for Cosby, which would have sent him to prison for at least 5 years. “I’m not permitted to treat him any differently based on who he is or who he was,” O’Neill reportedly said.

Earlier on Tuesday, O’Neill also classified Cosby as a “sexually violent predator.” Being an SVP “requires lifetime registration, lifetime mandatory sex offender counseling with a treatment provider and notification of the community that a ‘sexually violent predator’ lives in the area,” CNN reported. 

Constand is one of 60 women who have accused Cosby of sexual misconduct. “When the sexual assault happened, I was a young woman brimming with confidence and looking forward to a future bright with possibilities. Now, almost 15 years later, I’m a middle-aged woman who’s been stuck in a holding pattern for most of her adult life, unable to heal fully or to move forward,” Constand wrote in a victim impact statement.  

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Donald Trump and Lisa Murkowski disagree on how to handle Brett Kavanaugh’s accusers.

After addressing the United Nations assembly, the president strongly defended his Supreme Court nominee as “high quality” and claimed the accusations against Kavanaugh of sexual assault are part of a “con game” played by Democrats. He also specifically went after the second accuser, Deborah Ramirez, who alleges misconduct on Kavanaugh’s part when they were both undergraduates at Yale.

“The second accuser has nothing,” Trump said, visibly agitated. “She admits she was drunk. She admits time lapses.” Then he added sarcastically, “Oh, gee, let’s not make him a Supreme Court judge because of that.”

Trump’s remarks show how these accusations can be a Rorschach test. After all, the fact that Ramirez frankly acknowledges the fragility of her memory can be taken as a sign of her honesty. She is presenting her story as best as she can recall but also being frank about the limits of her memory in a way that makes her vulnerable to attack.

Kavanaugh has taken the opposite tack of downplaying his drinking and any other evidence that might complicate his portrayal of himself as a wholesome teenager and young man. The self-portrait of the nominee as a squeaky-clean youth who, at worst, enjoyed the occasional beer is one that Trump himself seems to accept. “You know, when he said that really, what he was focused on was trying to be number one in his class at Yale, to me, that was so believable,” Trump said. “I understand college very well.”

In fact, there’s ample reason to believe that Kavanaugh was a heavy drinker in high school and in college. In contrast to Ramirez, Kavanaugh is not willing to be upfront about facts make him vulnerable. This might be persuasive to those who admire Trumpian aggressive masculinity, but can also plausibly be seen as undercutting Kavanaugh’s credibility.

As against Trump’s stark claims of a “con game,” Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican who is seen as a swing vote in the confirmation, has warned against prejudging accusers. “We are now in a place where it’s not about whether or not Judge Kavanaugh is qualified,” Murkowski said on Monday. “It is about whether or not a woman who has been a victim at some point in her life is to be believed.” About the allegation made by Christine Blasey Ford, Murkowski said, “We need to be able to listen.”

Murkowski’s words are proof that the partisan spin Trump has chosen isn’t the only path open to the GOP.

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At the United Nations, Trump proves the world is indeed laughing at America.

On Tuesday, the president addressed the UN and made a familiar boast that his administration “has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.” Trump has self-praised in this way on many occasions, at rallies, when speaking to fellow Republicans, and even in talks with world leaders. But in all those circumstances, the auditors were either inclined to agree with Trump or had a motive to flatter him by pretending agreement. At the UN, Trump got a very different reaction: a low murmur of laughter.

Taken aback by the chuckling, Trump did a double take and said, “didn’t expect that reaction, but that’s okay.” This amused the audience even more.

Although Trump took the unexpected mockery calmly and moved on, the incident hits the president at a vulnerable spot. As Paul Waldman noted in The Week in May of 2017, Trump has an almost pathological horror at being laughed at:

If you’ve been paying any attention at all over the last couple of years, you know this is a topic he returns to again and again. Search Trump’s Twitter feed and you’ll find that who’s laughing at whom is an obsession for him, with the United States usually the target of the laughter. “The world is laughing at us.” China is “laughing at USA!” Iran is “laughing at Kerry & Obama!” “ISIS & all others laughing!” “Mexican leadership has been laughing at us for many years.” “Everybody is laughing at Jeb Bush.” “Putin is laughing at Obama.” “OPEC is laughing at how stupid we are.” “Dopey, nobody is laughing at me!

On August 9, 2014 Trump tweeted:

These words now ring with truth.

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Is the White House trying to fix its Kavanaugh and Rosenstein problems at the same time?

President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee will return to Capitol Hill on Thursday to testify about multiple allegations of sexual assault that emerged over the past two weeks. At the same time, Trump will meet with the deputy attorney general in the White House to discuss his future with the administration.

Predicting the president’s actions is always a fraught endeavor, but Rosenstein reportedly anticipated he would be fired on Monday. Axios published the draft text of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s statement that would have announced Rosenstein’s departure:

Rod Rosenstein has served the Department of Justice with dedication and skill for 28 years. His contributions are many and significant. We all appreciate his service and sincerely wish him well.

Matt Whitaker, my Chief of Staff for the last year, will instill confidence and uphold the integrity of the Department as the second highest law enforcement officer in the Nation.

Finally, I am confident that Noel Francisco will oversee the special counsel with a commitment to justice as Acting Attorney General for this matter. As I have said before, the American people deserve an expeditious resolution of this investigation consistent with the rule of law.

The Thursday timing is quite a coincidence, one that the White House attributes to the president’s busy week of meetings with world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. But there may also be an ulterior motive. Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman reported that Monday’s drama surrounding Rosenstein’s potential ouster may have been an attempt to shield Kavanaugh from another bruising news cycle after The New Yorker published Deborah Ramirez’s account of her encounter with the nominee at Yale.

The calendar-based chicanery may seem clever, but it’s unlikely to work. The key audience for Thursday’s hearing is wavering Republican senators, whose concerns won’t be assuaged by a switch-up in the news cycle, and not the news media or even the American people as a whole. And the Kavanaugh hearings are unlikely to minimize any blowback Trump would face for removing Rosenstein. Ousting the deputy attorney general on dubious grounds will rightly be seen as a deliberate attempt to hinder the Russia investigation, no matter when or how Trump does it.

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Brett Kavanaugh has created a media persona that fails to convince.

On Monday, Brett Kavanaugh and his wife, Ashley, appeared on Fox News to deny the accusations of sexual assault leveled against the jurist during his Supreme Court nomination. “It is unheard of for a Supreme Court nominee to give interviews during the confirmation process,” Robert Barnes of The Washington Post observed. Even more groundbreaking was the seeming frankness of Kavanaugh’s comments about his personal life, such as his comments that he had been a virgin in high school, college, and “many years later.” It’s perhaps fitting that a reality-show president has nominated to the Supreme Court someone willing to do a television tell-all. The entire Kavanaugh nomination process, including large protests at Yale (his former college), has become an enormous media extravaganza, a polarizing culture-war spectacle of the type that has become the dominant political style of the Trump era.

There have been controversial Supreme Court nominations before, notably the failed bid of Robert Bork in 1987 and Clarence Thomas’s successful bid in 1991. The Thomas hearings had the added incendiary element of alleged racism, with the jurist claiming he was the victim of a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks” when he was accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill, a former co-worker. Still, the Thomas hearings took place before social media made rumors and leaks so easy to spread and before the #MeToo movement made allegations of sexual harassment a central part of political debate. By every measure, the Kavanaugh hearings are much more contentious and disruptive of settled norms.

Trump has praised Kavanaugh for looking like he came from “central casting” (a common criteria the president uses in evaluating nominees). This phrase suggests that Kavanaugh is playing a role, a suspicion the Fox News interview did little to allay.

For the hard-to-deny truth is that Kavanaugh was creating a character when he described his younger self, that of a studious young Catholic who enjoyed the occasional drink.

“I was focused on academics and athletics, going to church every Sunday at Little Flower, working on my service projects, and friendship, friendship with my fellow classmates and friendship with girls from the local all girls Catholic schools,” Kavanaugh says of his teenage self. “And yes, there were parties. And the drinking age was 18, and yes, the seniors were legal and had beer there. And yes, people might have had too many beers on occasion and people generally in high school—I think all of us have probably done things we look back on in high school and regret or cringe a bit, but that’s not what we’re talking about.”

This self-portrait is at odds with the testimony of two women who have accused him of serious sexual misconduct in high school and as an undergraduate. It also doesn’t fit figure that emerges from other testimony and from contemporaneous documents like his high school yearbook.

A former roommate at Yale describes the undergraduate Kavanaugh as a “notably heavy drinker.” According to The New York Times, Kavanaugh’s yearbook provides a “glimpse of the elite Catholic school’s hard-drinking atmosphere—Judge Kavanaugh’s personal page boasts, ‘100 kegs or bust’—and a culture that some describe as disrespectful to women.”

In the yearbook, Kavanaugh describes himself as a “Renate Alumnius.” The Times explicates this odd phrase:

It is a reference to Renate Schroeder, then a student at a nearby Catholic girls’ school.

Two of Judge Kavanaugh’s classmates say the mentions of Renate were part of the football players’ unsubstantiated boasting about their conquests.

“They were very disrespectful, at least verbally, with Renate,” said Sean Hagan, a Georgetown Prep student at the time, referring to Judge Kavanaugh and his teammates. “I can’t express how disgusted I am with them, then and now.”

Kavanaugh denies any derogatory intent in those words and expressed regard for Renate Dolphin (as she is now known). According to Kavanaugh’s lawyer, “Judge Kavanaugh and Ms. Dolphin attended one high school event together and shared a brief kiss good night following that event.” Dolphin denies ever kissing Kavanaugh.

Ultimately, the persona that Kavanaugh created on Fox News is no more convincing than this attempt to explain away a crude and hurtful joke.

Youtube

Brett Kavanaugh’s broken-record plea: I want “a fair process.”

In an interview on Monday with Fox News’ Martha MacCallum—his first since being accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women—the embattled Supreme Court nominee largely stuck to a handful of stock phrases, none more frequent than: “All I’m asking for is a fair process where I can be heard.”

MacCallum, who was one of the first Fox personalities to defend Roger Ailes in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations, admitted that Ford’s claims are “very specific.” But for the most part, she let Kavanaugh skate, never pressing him beyond the rote claims he’d likely been instructed to recite. As The Washington Post reported on Saturday, White House aides have been quizzing Kavanaugh “about his sex life and other personal matters in an attempt to prepare him” for his scheduled hearing on Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Kavanaugh, who appeared with his wife, Ashley, did manage a moment of surprise, describing himself as a virgin throughout high school and for several years afterward. He was focused on other matters, he said, like being first in his class and becoming captain of the varsity basketball team.

Kavanaugh’s virginity tangent can be interpreted either as a signal to Trump’s evangelical base that he practiced sexual purity, or as an argument that he was too hopelessly nerdy to have tried anything sexual with a female peer. Kavanaugh is not accused of rape, however, but of attempting to rape high school classmate Christine Blasey Ford and of exposing his genitals to Yale classmate Deborah Ramirez. His sexual experience is not in question, only his treatment of women. On that subject, too, Kavanaugh never deviated from a few select phrases. “I’ve always treated women with dignity and respect,” he repeatedly said. His wife repeatedly nodded.

September 24, 2018

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Brett Kavanaugh denounces accusations against him as “smears.”

In a letter to Senators Chuck Grassley and Dianne Feinstein of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the embattled Supreme Court nominee took a stronger stance against the sexual assault allegations against him. As of last week, when the sole accuser was Christine Blasey Ford with an allegation that occurred when he was a high school student, Kavanaugh denied the claim but cast no aspersions on Ford. Indeed, Kavanaugh reportedly suggested that this was a case of mistaken identity, with Ford misremembering who molested her. On Sunday a second credible accuser emerged, Deborah Ramirez, who alleges an incident of sexual assault at a party when she was an undergraduate at Yale.

In response, Kavanaugh has taken a much more strident line against his accusers. “These are smears, pure and simple,” Kavanaugh wrote. “And they debase our public discourse.” He also added: “I will not be intimidated into withdrawing from this process. The coordinated effort to destroy my good name will not drive me out. The vile threats of violence against my family will not drive me out. The last-minute character assassination will not succeed.”

In speaking of a “coordinated effort” and “last-minute character assassination,” Kavanaugh is entering into the territory of conspiracy theories. There is absolutely no evidence that the two credible accusations are being coordinated. Indeed, New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer, who broke the Ramirez story along with her colleague Ronan Farrow, told CBS News, “We found classmates had been talking about this for weeks ... There’d been an email chain of Yale classmates of Kavanaugh talking about ‘will this thing come out’ long before Christine Blasey Ford came forward.” In other words, these stories are not emerging out of any coordinated effort but rather spontaneously coming from women who knew Kavanaugh.

Further, the charge that these are “last minute” is questionable. As David Graham of The Atlantic points out: Although Kavanaugh’s defenders have complained that these allegations are unfair because they emerged at the last minute, that’s in part because the process has been so fast. The White House has consistently failed to find weaknesses in candidates’ resumes, and a more deliberate vetting process might have allowed them to be prepared for allegations against Kavanaugh.”

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Contrary to reports, Rod Rosenstein is still the deputy attorney general.

Monday morning was a rollercoaster ride of conflicting news coverage about the status of Rosenstein within the Trump administration. Early in the day, there were reports that Rosenstein was heading to the White House with the expectation of being fired. Axios broke the story that Rosenstein had resigned as deputy attorney general. Soon thereafter, CNN offered another version, that Rosenstein had quit because he was expecting to be fired.

Rosenstein’s status is important because his position makes him one of the bulwarks protecting the Mueller investigation from presidential interference. It’s widely expected that were Rosenstein to be fired, President Donald Trump would have a path to end the special counsel’s inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The contradictory reporting caused much head scratching among those following the news:

Ultimately, it turned out that Rosenstein had neither been fired nor quit but still has job. He is reportedly going to talk to President Trump on Thursday.

All in all, it was a sorry day for the press:

The confusion of the morning appeared a byproduct of two interrelated factors: factionalism within the Trump White House (where different parties selectively leak to influence outcomes) and a scoop-hungry press that relies heavily on these leaks to understand White House court intrigue. One major problem with breathless coverage that is quickly retracted is that it feeds into Trump’s favorite argument that the media is serving up “fake news.”

By early afternoon, Vanity Fair was reporting that the entire affair might have been a “smoke bomb” to distract from Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation troubles: “According to a source briefed on Trump’s thinking, Trump decided that firing Rosenstein would knock Kavanaugh out of the news, potentially saving his nomination and Republicans’ chances for keeping the Senate.” Readers might be forgiven for distrusting anonymous sources at this point.