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Is this why Donald Trump won’t release his tax returns?

They have been one of the most persistent mysteries of the 2016 election cycle. Refusing to release his returns has undoubtedly created political fallout, the thinking goes, therefore Trump must be hiding something substantial. But what? 

The conventional wisdom for much of the year has been that Trump is hiding the fact that he is not as wealthy as he claims (Tim O’Brien’s Trump Nation makes a very compelling case that he is not), or that he pays no or almost no income tax, or both. (It should be noted that Trump’s tax returns almost certainly would not reveal his net worth.) But recent investigations by The Washington Post suggest another possible answer to the riddle: Trump has a charitable giving problem. 

Back in May, the Post found that Trump had not given the $1 million he had promised to veterans charities at a January fundraiser—he eventually began cutting checks, but only after the Post published its story. Now, the Post has turned its attention to Trump’s charitable giving over the past decade and a half, a period in which Trump promised $8.5 million in donations, but gave only $3.8 million (including the $1 million to veterans’ groups). He’s given less than $10,000, moreover, since 2008.  

Trump’s charitable giving is out of step with his supposed peers but the most notable aspect is how often he makes promises and how rarely he delivers—a practice the Post traces back to the 1980s. But Trump’s team denies that he hasn’t followed through. They claim, preposterously, that “he has given away millions privately, off the foundation’s books.” Of course, the only way to confirm this would be if Trump releases his tax returns—statements like that all but guarantee he won’t. 

March 22, 2018

Sacramento Police

Body-cam footage shows Sacramento police killing an unarmed black man.

In an article I wrote about the harms of jaywalking laws last week, I highlighted the case of Nandi Cain Jr., a black man beaten last year by a Sacramento police officer who had stopped him for crossing a street outside of a crosswalk. An investigation by The Sacramento Bee later found that the city’s black residents are five times more likely to be cited for jaywalking than other members of the community.

Cain ultimately survived his encounter with the police. Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old black man also from Sacramento, did not. Two police officers fatally shot him in his backyard on Sunday night while investigating reports of a man breaking car windows. Police initially told the Bee that Clark approached the officers while holding an “object,” which at first they said was a “tool bar” they had mistaken for a gun. Police later said that Clark was carrying a cell phone.

Body-cam footage released on Wednesday night shows only a brief encounter between Clark and the officers before they opened fire on him. The two officers yelled “Gun! Gun! Gun!” and “Show me your hands!” before firing 20 shots. (There was no gun.) The nighttime footage doesn’t show what Clark was doing when police opened fire. Helicopter footage, which only captured part of the encounter, shows Clark staggering forward while the officers shoot at him before he collapses to the ground.

There’s a connection between overpolicing—excessive low-level enforcement—and the rates of police shootings. Research shows that police officers are disproportionately likely to use force against black Americans. Communities of color are also more likely to be overpoliced, raising the overall number of encounters between black Americans and police officers. The confluence of those two forces can have tragic results. For Nandi Cain Jr., it was a beating. For Stephon Clark, it was his life.

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The 71-year-old president is tweeting about fighting 75-year-old Joe Biden.

It’s been a typically chaotic week at the White House, as Donald Trump and Congress have struggled to finalize an omnibus spending bill and aides have dealt with the fallout from the president’s decision to congratulate Vladimir Putin for winning a rigged election. Facing these issues and a budding trade war with China, the president spent the early morning tweeting about how he would beat Biden in a fight.

Trump appears to be responding to a remark from Biden, who told a crowd in Miami this week: “When a guy who ended up becoming our national leader said, ‘I can grab a woman anywhere and she likes it’ and then said, ‘I made a mistake. ... They asked me would I like to debate this gentleman, and I said no. I said, ‘If we were in high school, I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him.’”

As far as trash talk goes, it’s pretty convoluted: Biden says he would have beaten up Trump if the two were in high school together and Trump made the kinds of comments that he made in the Access Hollywood tape. In the same speech, Biden also took aim at Trump’s “locker room talk” defense, saying, “I’ve been in a lot of locker rooms my whole life. I’m a pretty damn good athlete. Any guy who talked that way was usually the fattest, ugliest S.O.B. in the room.”

Biden, who may be preparing to run for president in 2020, has a certain knack, I guess, for sinking to Trump’s level. But setting aside the very sad thought of two septuagenarians trading blows behind a high school gym, Trump’s tweets are revealing. He will respond to every challenge, no matter how dumb.

March 21, 2018

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The Austin bombing suspect was a homeschooled Christian conservative.

Mark Anthony Conditt, a 23-year-old white male from Pflugerville, Texas, blew himself up early Wednesday morning after a confrontation with police. Authorities have since confirmed that Conditt is responsible for the serial bombings that have plagued Austin since March 2, though they have not ruled out the possibility that he had help. Police haven’t released his motive, but we do know more about his background.

BuzzFeed reports that Conditt grew up in an evangelical homeschooling family in Pflugerville, and that the family was reportedly active in their local homeschooling community:

An acquaintance of Conditt’s, who did not wish to be identified, told BuzzFeed News that she and Conditt were in the same homeschool community in Pflugerville between the ages of 8 and 13. She said that she had playdates with Conditt, who “seemed like a regular boy who liked to have fun and play games.”

“His family seemed very nice,” she said. “I was completely shocked when I heard—I had no idea it would be someone I knew.”

Cassia Schultz, 21, told BuzzFeed News that she ran in the same conservative survivalist circles in high school as Conditt.

Schultz said they were both involved in a group called Righteous Invasion of Truth (RIOT), a Bible study and outdoors group for homeschooled kids that included monthly activities such as archery, gun skills, and water balloon fights. Conditt and his younger sister would usually attend the activities along with 15 to 20 other kids, according to Schultz.

RIOT appears to take its name from “Righteous Invasion of Truth,” a 1995 album by Carman, a Christian rock artist. It’s not unusual for homeschooling families to create organizations like RIOT that provide socialization and skills-building opportunities for their children. A blog confirmed to belong to Conditt indicates that he held socially conservative views as of 2012. But without more information about his motive for the bombings, it’s impossible to know how Conditt’s background influenced his violence, if it was an influence at all.

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The EPA’s Scott Pruitt spends $2,261 per week on travel.

Or, if you prefer, $323 per day. That’s the rough average based on The Washington Post’s Tuesday report detailing seven months of travel costs for the Environmental Protection Agency administrator. Based on documents requested by House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, the Post revealed that Pruitt spent nearly $68,000 in taxpayer dollars on first-class flights and hotels from August to February. The figure “includes stays at high-priced hotels in New York City and Paris,” and “does not include the travel expenditures of the personal security detail and aides who typically accompany him.”

This report adds to Pruitt’s first-class travel scandal. He and his entourage racked up at least $120,000 in travel bills in two weeks last summer. Pruitt has been taking these trips to meet with the polluting industries he’s in charge of regulating, the Post reports:

The records also underscore how often and to what lengths Pruitt traveled to speak to industry groups. He addressed the Texas Oil & Gas Association in October before heading to Nebraska for media stops. First-class flights: $3,610. He headed to New Orleans to speak to the Louisiana Chemical Association. First-class flight: $2,265. In November, he flew to Chicago to address the Society of Industrial Gasoline Marketers annual conference, at a cost of $1,172. The next day, he headed to Charleston, S.C., for the American Chemistry Council. That brief trip cost $3,155.

Federal regulations dictate that government employees be “prudent” about travel and book “the least expensive class of travel that meets their needs.” The EPA is one of the smallest federal agencies in terms of budget, and Pruitt has defended slashing it even further. It should follow that his travel costs would reflect that, but the EPA has insisted that Pruitt needs to fly first class because of security threats. In the face of criticism, Pruitt has said he’ll now fly coach whenever possible. “There’s a change coming,” he told CBS News earlier this month. But the damage to his credibility has already been done.

Donald Trump congratulated Vladimir Putin because of course he did.

On Tuesday, Trump called Putin to discuss the Russian leader’s victory in a highly suspect election that has been criticized for a number of irregularities, including ballot stuffing and coercion. Because of international criticism of the election, Trump’s national security advisers apparently wrote “DO NOT CONGRATULATE”—in all-caps—in Trump’s briefing materials. And what did Trump do? Congratulate Putin, naturally. In the call, Trump also deviated from his briefing book by failing to address the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain.

Trump’s decision to congratulate Putin against the advice of, well, pretty much everyone, captures many of the pathologies of this administration. The fact that the details of their conversation leaked almost immediately suggests that the White House is just as porous as it was last January, when Trump’s phone calls with world leaders landed in the press within minutes of the president hanging up the phone.

Then, there’s Trump’s clear disregard for his aides, many of whom are expending an enormous amount of energy just trying to get him to follow rudimentary norms. “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” shows that advising the president is a hopeless task.

But the biggest problem is that Trump has a penchant for legitimizing dictators and strongmen. His affection for Putin is obvious. Given the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, you’d think that, for political reasons, Trump would try to score some easy points by distancing himself from Putin. But that hasn’t happened. Instead, Trump has dragged his feet on imposing congressionally mandated sanctions and taken nearly every opportunity to cozy up to Putin.

March 20, 2018

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Stormy Daniels’s polygraph test doesn’t reveal anything.

The porn actress, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, reportedly took a videotaped polygraph test in 2011 for Life & Style magazine when it investigated her allegations that she and Donald Trump had an affair early in his current marriage to Melania Trump, according to The Wall Street Journal. That tape is now part of her lawsuit against Trump over a $130,000 nondisclosure agreement she signed before th 2016 election.

According to the polygraph, Daniels was “truthful” in responding “yes” two questions: “Around July 2006, did you have vaginal intercourse with Donald Trump?” Around July 2006, did you have unprotected sex with Donald Trump?” The New York Daily News claimed this “shows Stormy Daniels was truthful about having ‘unprotected’ sex with Donald Trump.” NBC News reported, without skepticism, that the “Lie Detector Test Shows Stormy Daniels Truthful About Trump Affair.

But polygraph tests don’t really detect lies. As Vox’s Joseph Stromberg noted in 2014, “lie-detector” tests actually measure anxiety in the test-taker, which may (or may not) be related to whether that person is telling the truth. Accordingly, polygraph tests are inadmissible in American criminal trials and the Supreme Court determined in 1998 that there “is simply no consensus that polygraph evidence is reliable.” Both the National Academy of Sciences and the American Psychological Association have concluded that there is little scientific research supporting the tests’ accuracy.

Thanks to its frequent appearances in popular culture, however, the device’s mystique endures. It’s certainly possible that Daniels had an extramarital affair with Trump in 2006. (If nothing else, the videotaped test from 2011 proves her version of events predates Trump’s political career.) Giving credibility to a device that hasn’t earned it isn’t the way to prove her story, though.


Trump can be personally sued in state court while he’s president.

A New York Supreme Court judge has denied President Donald Trump’s request to dismiss or delay a defamation lawsuit brought by one of the multiple women who have accused him of sexual misconduct.

Summer Zervos, a former Apprentice contestant, sued Trump in January 2017 for repeatedly describing her as a liar on the campaign trail. She told the court that she suffered emotional damage and financial losses as a result of his attacks on her reputation. Trump and his lawyers argued in December that allowing the case to proceed in New York’s courts would violate the Constitution’s supremacy clause. Placing a sitting president at the mercy of a state court would raise serious federalism concerns, they warned.

Judge Jennifer Schecter rejected that argument on Tuesday. “No one is above the law,” she wrote in an 18-page opinion. The U.S. Supreme Court previously held in the 1997 case Clinton v. Jones that a sitting president isn’t immune from civil lawsuits in federal courts pertaining to his non-official conduct; Schecter ruled that the high court’s logic applied to cases in state courts as well.

Zervos, who came forward in October 2016, alleged that in 2007 Trump “grabbed my shoulder and began kissing me again very aggressively and placed his hand on my breast” without her consent. In stump speeches, Trump described the allegations made by Zervos and others as “100 percent fabricated and made up charges” and accused the women of seeking fame or acting at the behest of the Clinton campaign.

YouTube/Katrina Flemming

Jordan Peterson joins the club of macho writers who have thrown a fit over a bad review.

The New York Review of Books, which is famous for drubbing high-profile authors, was particularly harsh on Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson in a review published online on Monday. Surveying 12 Rules For Life, Peterson’s new book, critic Pankaj Mishra warned that the self-help guru “may seem the latest in a long line of eggheads pretentiously but harmlessly romancing the noble savage,” but that he draws on a tradition of writers like Carl Jung who were prone to—as the headline put it—“fascist mysticism.” Peterson, who claims to offer an example of mature masculinity that can help troubled young men, responded to the review with a fantasy of violence:

Since Peterson loves to categorize the world into Jungian archetypes (the devouring mother, the dragon-slaying hero), it’s worth noting that this tweet fits an age-old pattern: the hyper-masculine writer who is unhinged by critical words.

In 1933, Max Eastman wrote a scathing review in The New Republic of Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, accusing the bullfight-loving author of “wearing false hair on his chest.” Four years later, the two met in the New York offices of their shared publisher, Scribner. “What do you mean accusing me of impotence?” Hemingway asked, before trying to beat up Eastman. The two men had to be separated by editorial staff. The same year, Hemingway assaulted the poet Wallace Stevens, twenty years his senior, for saying that Hemingway was “not a man.”

In 1971, Gore Vidal wrote a scathing essay on Norman Mailer for The New York Review of Books. “The Patriarchalists have been conditioned to think of women as, at best, breeders of sons, at worst, objects to be poked, humiliated and killed,” Vidal wrote. “There has been from Henry Miller to Norman Mailer to Charles Manson a logical progression.” Enraged, Mailer slammed his head into Vidal’s face in the dressing room of The Dick Cavett Show. Five years later, Mailer was still looking for revenge. At a dinner party, he threw a drink at Vidal before tackling him to the ground. “Once again, words fail Norman Mailer,” Vidal quipped, while still on the floor.

In 2000, the critic Dale Peck went after Stanley Crouch in The New Republic, writing that Crouch’s novel Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome “is a terrible novel, badly conceived, badly executed, and put forward in bad faith; reviewing it is like shooting fish in a barrel.” In 2004, still stinging from the review, Crouch confronted Peck at Tartine, a Manhattan restaurant, and slapped him.

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The Supreme Court will decide if crisis pregnancy centers can be deceptive about their services.

The Court will hear arguments today in National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Beccera, which concerns the constitutionality of California’s FACT Act. That law requires crisis pregnancy centers—faith-based entities that dissuade women from obtaining abortions—to advertise the fact that they do not provide certain reproductive services. As NPR explains

The FACT Act requires unlicensed crisis pregnancy centers to post a sign or otherwise disclose to their clients in writing that the center is not a licensed medical facility and has no licensed medical provider who supervises the provision of services. The disclosure requirement extends to advertising, which anti-abortion pregnancy centers object to as an attempt to “drown out” their message.

CPCs have argued that the law violates their freedom of speech, though they have yet to persuade a court of their claim. However, CPCs frequently practice false advertising: They adopt names that resemble the names of nearby abortion providers and they generally don’t advertise the fact that they do not provide abortion services. Most don’t even provide comprehensive prenatal care. 

But Google “abortion,” and you’ll likely get a list of CPCs. A 2o14 NARAL investigation found that in 25 major cities, searching “abortion” routinely resulted in at least one ad for a crisis pregnancy center. The ads were so egregious that Google removed a number of them, as The Washington Post reported at the time.

Turn up at a CPC, and you’ll typically hear more misinformation. An NPR investigation confirmed: 

Annie Filkowski went to a clinic because it advertised free pregnancy tests. She spent hours there before learning she was not pregnant, and when she then asked a counselor to write her a birth control prescription or give her advice on which method to use, she said the counselor told her, “Birth control causes infertility and can give you cancer” and other “crazy” things.

This isn’t uncommon. CPC staffers have been caught on tape lying to clients about the medical risks of contraception and abortion. In states that enforce strict restrictions on abortion, CPCs can stall a woman until she’s out of time to legally terminate her pregnancy. Regulating their commercial speech doesn’t violate their First Amendment rights; it simply ensures truth in advertising, and in turn ensures that women can actually exercise their legal right to abortion.  

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Cambridge Analytica’s woes now extend far beyond Facebook.

The British data firm that some credit for swinging the 2016 election to Donald Trump has been under fire for the last several days, after The New York Times and the Observer revealed that it improperly used Facebook data to build extensive profiles of voters. But another front was opened up on Monday evening, when the British television station Channel 4 posted an undercover exposé of the company’s sketchy—and possibly illegal—methods.

In the 20-minute documentary, a Channel 4 fixer posing as a Sri Lankan businessman catches Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix, Chief Data Officer Alex Taylor, and Managing Director Mark Turnbul boasting about the company’s influence campaign in countries around the world. They open up about their work in America, Europe, and Africa, and hint at a (non-political) campaign underway in China. They claim that they sometimes send sex workers to candidates’ houses or send operatives offering bribes to attempt to catch rivals in compromising positions. And they brag again and again about their ability to act undetected.

In one revealing moment, Turnbull explains the company’s methods to the fixer, saying, “We just put information into the bloodstream of the internet, and then, and then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again ... like a remote control. It has to happen without anyone thinking, ‘That’s propaganda,’ because the moment you think, ‘That’s propaganda,’ the next question is, ‘Who’s put that out?’” Nix ends another conversation by saying, “We’re used to operating through different vehicles, in the shadows, and I look forward to building a very long-term and secretive relationship with you.”

Cambridge Analytica has strenuously—and not very convincingly—denied any wrongdoing. In a statement to Channel 4, they insisted that they were only appearing to be shady in an attempt to suss out whether or not the potential client was above board or not: “We entirely refute any allegation that Cambridge Analytica or any of its affiliates use entrapment, bribes, or so-called ‘honey-traps’ for any purpose whatsoever. ... We routinely undertake conversations with prospective clients to try to tease out any unethical or illegal intentions.”