Et tu, Lindsey Graham?

Even one of Trump’s most ardent Republican critics is softening his opposition. While he still hasn’t endorsed Trump, it looks like they have reached a detente, following a 15-minute conversation yesterday on issues of national security.

Graham in the past has called Trump a “race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot,” among many, many other insults. If you have ever wondered how such a bigot takes over a major Western political party, we are watching it happen in real time.

September 25, 2018

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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 levelled 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 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 as 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 New York 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.

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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.

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Trump stands by Brett Kavanaugh and says accusations are “totally political.”

Speaking to reporters this morning, the president strongly affirmed his support of his beleaguered Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

“There’s a chance that this could be one of the single most unfair, unjust things to happen to a candidate for anything,” Trump said. He added that, “And for people to come out of the woodwork from 36 years ago and 30 years ago and never mentioned it and all of a sudden it happens, in my opinion it’s totally political.”

In a recorded radio interview with Geraldo Rivera that aired this morning, Trump made the same point but without the implicit dismissal and disparagement of Kavanaugh’s accusers.

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Kavanaugh nomination rocked by more allegations of sexual assault.

The embattled nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court suffered another blow Sunday night with The New Yorker publishing a detailed account of an alleged sexual assault that occurred when Kavanaugh was an undergraduate at Yale. Deborah Ramirez, who had been a classmate of Kavanaugh, recounted to The New Yorker an incident where Kavanaugh allegedly “exposed himself at a drunken dormitory party, thrust his penis in her face, and caused her to touch it without her consent as she pushed him away.” There are aspects of Ramirez’s story that are murky or uncertain. Because she had been drinking that night, she acknowledges gaps in her memory. Still, it’s a credible allegation backed up by the fact that at least one fellow student heard a version of the story soon after it took place. Students Ramirez recalls as participating in the event dispute her account. Ramirez has called for an FBI investigation into her allegations.

Kavanaugh denies Ramirez’s account in the strongest terms and both the White House and Senate Republicans are sticking with the nominee.

While The New Yorker story was cautious, containing many provisos about the limits and uncertainty of the evidence, swashbuckling Michael Avenatti intervened in the controversy with typical gusto by tweeting he has evidence that Kavanaugh and and his high school friend Mark Judge “would participate in the targeting of women with alcohol/drugs in order to allow a ‘train’ of men to subsequently gang rape them.” Judge is also named as a participant and witness of the alleged sexual assault on Christine Blasey Ford by Kavanaugh. Judge denies this accusation.

Avenatti’s claim was presented without evidence, although the lawyer, best known for representing adult entertainer Stephanie Clifford, better known as Stormy Daniels, in her legal battles with the president, said he would provide proof soon.

September 21, 2018

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Science is helping identify soldiers lost in the Korean war.

The renewed negotiations with North Korea, as well as advances in forensic technology, mean that American soldiers who were killed in the Korean War in the early 1950s are finally being identified. On August 1st, North Korea returned what were believed to be the remains of 55 American soldiers. The military has announced that from those remains they’ve been able to confidently ascertain the relics of Army Master Sgt Charles H. McDaniel of Indiana and Army Pfc William H. Jones of North Carolina.

The task of identifying long-degraded bone and dental fragments with the names of soldiers unseen for more than half a century would be impossible without advances in technology. In a recent feature article, The Washington Post surveyed the work of the 92-member Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) team in Honolulu that is tasked with the job. One key recent development is the ability of isotope analysis to match bones with the geographical childhood homes of missing soldiers:

Bones take on the isotopic signature of the place where a person was raised. On digital maps of the United States, staff members plot the hometowns of missing service members based on the isotopic signatures shared by their early-childhood geography and their bones.

Ten years ago, this technology could differentiate the bones of a native-born soldier from those of an immigrant. Nowadays it can pinpoint a service member’s origin down to a specific area — a particular Hawaiian island, perhaps, or a corner of the Plains.

The military has files on roughly 81,000 missing soldiers going back to World War II. Astonishingly, DPAA estimates that 41 percent of these cases are solvable.

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Trump might go berserk over The New York Times’ Rod Rosenstein story.

The newspaper reported on Friday that the deputy attorney general discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove the president from power and talked about wearing a wire during meetings with him in conversations last spring. A Justice Department spokesperson told the Times that Rosenstein was only joking about secretly recording Trump, while Rosenstein himself said that “inaccurate and factually incorrect” and that “there is no basis to invoke the 25th Amendment.”

It’s hard to imagine a news story that could more effectively arouse Trump’s ire than this one. He frequently lashes out against the Russia investigation as a “witch hunt” created by his political enemies to overturn the 2016 election. The Times’ account likely will heighten Trump’s hostility and paranoia, especially after an anonymous “senior administration official” raised similar concerns in a Times op-ed earlier this month.

The story comes at a conspicuous time for the administration. Brett Kavanaugh, the president’s Supreme Court nominee, is facing an allegation of sexual assault that may imperil his confirmation by the Senate. Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman, is now cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller in the Russia investigation despite Trump’s implicit offer of a pardon if he kept quiet. Michael Cohen, the president’s former lawyer, is also reportedly telling Mueller’s investigators what he knows about Russia-related matters. Democrats are increasingly set to retake the House of Representatives and perhaps even the Senate in the November midterm elections.

That raises questions about why Rosenstein’s comments are coming to light now. The Times attributes its account to contemporaneous memos written by Andrew McCabe, the former FBI deputy director fired in January, as well as people briefed on either Rosenstein’s conversations and the memos’ contents. It’s impossible to know whether those sources meant to give Trump a justification to oust the man who oversees the Russia investigation. But they may have done just that.

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Trump forced to do an about-face on declassifying Russia investigation documents.

On Friday morning, the president tweeted out that his request to declassify documents related to the Russia probe was being handled by the office of the Inspector General, which would review them before release. This marks a shift from the announcement earlier in the week on Monday calling for the quick release of documents that including FISA warrant surveillance applications for former aide Carter Page and text messages from former FBI officials and employees such as James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, and Lisa Page. There was widespread concern that this use of declassification as a political weapon would also compromise intelligence sources.

To judge by the president’s tweets, this concern was shared by “key allies” including Britain:

In an interview with The Hill earlier this week, the president claimed that his push for declassify Carter Page’s FISA application resulted from him being “asked by so many people that I respect” including “the great Lou Dobbs, the great Sean Hannity, the wonderful great Jeanie Pirro.”

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Coal ash may have poisoned a source of drinking water for thousands of North Carolinians.

When Hurricane Florence was approaching the state, experts feared that excessive flooding could cause widespread spills of hog feces and coal ash into surrounding bodies of water. Those fears have now materialized.

On Friday, the Associated Press reported that a dam holding back coal ash—the heavy metal-laden byproduct from burning coal—had breached at a North Carolina plant due to flooding. Duke Energy, which owns the dam, said that the product might be flowing into the Cape Fear River, which provides drinking water to approximately 60,000 residents of Wilmington, North Carolina.

This is the third coal ash spill that’s been reported since Florence’s historic rainfall caused catastrophic flooding throughout the state. Duke Energy, the country’s largest electric company, has been fighting attempts to force clean-up of these ponds for years. President Donald Trump’s administration has also loosened several regulations on coal ash storage.

In addition to coal ash spills, at least 110 ponds of pig feces have either released their contents into the environment or are at “imminent risk of doing so,” The New York Times reported on Wednesday. Those spills are presenting health concerns, too. “You basically have a toxic soup for people who live in close proximity to those lagoons,” Sacoby Wilson, a professor of public health at the University of Maryland, told Vice News. “All of these contaminants that are in the hog lagoons, like salmonella, giardia, and E-coli, can get into the waterways and infect people trying to get out.”

Coal ash often contains high levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, and chromium, which can cause myriad health problems. North Carolinians risk coming into contact with these metals and pathogens through drinking water, but also through open wounds and mucous membranes if they wade through the ongoing floods.