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President Obama just delivered the most convincing argument for why Donald Trump can’t be president.

It’s hard to think of a more perfect opener for Obama’s speech than Sharon Belkofer, the self-described “little old lady” from Ohio, who got up and did something no one did for Donald Trump at last week’s RNC: She testified to Obama’s character based on personal experience.

And then, the video. The video, without ever acknowledging Trump, made the most convincing case we have seen this convention for why Donald Trump cannot become president. It argued that the presidency is the most difficult and serious and crushingly lonely position in the world, and that it takes someone of exceptional moral character to occupy it.

Obama’s speech built on this foundation. It sounded, in some ways, like he was running for a third term. He opened by reminding the country of the job that he was given—specifically resuscitating the economy, which was in the toilet—and how far we’ve come since then. It was a greatest hits of the Obama era: economic recovery, the killing of Osama bin Laden, marriage equality, health care.

Obama walked a line between recounting all that he’s achieved in the last eight years and reminding the country of the work that still has to be done. It was a speech in which the baton was passed. The only way to continue—not just preserve or maintain, but continue—the progressive agenda he set out to accomplish is to elect Hillary Clinton president.

It was no accident that he called back to Bill Clinton’s famous line from his first inaugural address: “There is nothing wrong in America that can’t be fixed with what is right in America.” Obama continually leaned on this refrain, subtly contrasting his optimism in the country’s future with the millenarian fever dreams presented in Cleveland last week.

But mostly this was a speech about how being president is a job, and a really hard job at that. It’s a job that requires a sturdy character, a willingness to take on thankless tasks and unthinkable challenges, and a well of empathy. Obama did a decent job of arguing that Clinton was this person, but he was best when arguing that Donald Trump absolutely isn’t that person.

He dragged Trump. “Don’t boo, vote,” will almost certainly be the line most remembered from this speech, but he demolished Trump directly and indirectly by returning again and again to the fact that being president is work. This was a speech about the responsibility of being president, and he made it abundantly clear that it’s a responsibility that Donald Trump cannot handle.

July 16, 2018

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Is anyone not investigating Uber?

On Monday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the ride-hailing giant has been under investigation by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission since August 2017, after complaints were made about gender discrimination. According to the WSJ, The EEOC seeks information relating to pay disparity, hiring practices and other matters related to gender. 

Sadly, this comes as no surprise from a company riddled with a plethora of scandals including racial discrimination and sexual harassment, bribery, price fixing, and underpaying its drivers. Just last year, a Bloomberg report revealed the company faced five separate Justice Department investigations; former employee Susan Fowler published a meticulously detailed, and now viral, personal essay: “Reflecting on One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber,” which chronicled what the New York Times says is a “brozilla culture of kegs, sexual coarseness and snaky competition”; and Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick resigned after his flippant responses to harassment.  

These scandals at the company, The Information claims, might have sent the company’s value down by as much as $10 billion. 

But, with a new Chief Executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, things were starting to look up. Uber hired former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate Uber’s workplace practices and in a 13-page document he recommended the company’s total transformation, accountability and a new tone from the top down. While, in May, Uber launched its “Moving Forward” apology campaign that ran on billboards, emails, online posts and TV advertisements (unfortunately 71 percent of respondents to one survey hadn’t seen the company’s ads). 

Unfortunately, while the company publicly claims to have made “a lot of changes” to workplace culture and discrimination, figures show that women in leadership roles at the company have fallen from 22 percent to 21 percent this year: hardly the optics a company might want when trying to recover from gender-related scandals.

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A gun rights advocate was just arrested and charged with acting as a Russian agent.

On Monday afternoon, hours after President Trump sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin over U.S. intelligence agencies at a Helisnki press conference, the Department of Justice announced that Maria Butina, a 29-year-old Russian woman had been arrested and charged with “conspiracy to act as an agent of the Russian Federation.” Her arrest comes days after special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers, though it is not yet clear whether the special counsel’s office played a role. 

Butina worked closely with Russian banker Alexander Torshin—the two co-founded the Russian gun rights organization Right to Bear Arms. According to the indictment released on Monday, Butina also had close ties with Russian officials and she used ties with gun groups in the United States—most notably the National Rifle Association—to advance Russian interests. Between 2015-2017, Butina developed deep ties to the NRA, who not only welcomed her, but appear to have facilitated contact with Republican officials. 

The arrest of Butina also changes the timeline of Russian involvement in the 2016 election. While the Kremlin has been deepening ties with the NRA (in an attempt to influence the GOP)  for decades, Butina’s alleged work as a Russian agent began months before Donald Trump entered the presidential race, while she contacted Republican officials, including Sheriff David Clarke, as far back as 2013. Although Russia clearly favored Trump—something Putin admitted in Monday’s press conference—it now seems they began fishing for contact with Republicans years ago. 

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Kushner’s tenants claim exposure to lead, falling rodents, and a “cloud of toxic smoke and dust.”

A $10 million lawsuit filed Monday by a group of tenants in New York alleges that under the watch of Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Kushner Companies led a harassment campaign to convert rent-stabilized units into luxury condos in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood.

Following Kushner’s $275 million purchase of the waterfront building in 2015, tenants reported rent hikes of over $500 a month or more, periodic flooding, hot water shut-offs, broken windows, falling rodents, exposure to lead, and other illegal conditions. Last February, one tenant posted a YouTube video of a mouse infestation that had spread to a baby’s crib.

As a result, according to an Associated Press investigation, over 75 percent of the building—more than 250 rent-stabilized units—was vacated or sold over the past three years. The sales have averaged $1.2 million per apartment. “You have to be ignorant or dumb to think this wasn’t deliberate,” Barth Bazyluk, a tenant who vacated his apartment with his wife and baby daughter last December, told the AP.

It is not uncommon for New York City landlords, in seeking to convert rent-stabilized units into luxury apartments, to refuse to make repairs and otherwise expose tenants to other unlivable conditions. But Aaron Carr, the director of a tenant-rights non-profit whose investigation sparked the lawsuit, said, “We’ve looked into hundreds of rent-stabilized buildings and this is one of the worst we’ve ever seen.”

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Trump’s fear-mongering about MS-13 is working.

Some members of the gang have been found guilty of disturbing crimes. But the administration has repeatedly exaggerated MS-13’s reach and influence over the past 18 months, drawing false and racialized connections between its crimes and undocumented immigration.

A new poll shows that the administration’s misleading rhetoric is sinking in. The Huffington Post/YouGov survey found that 85 percent of Trump voters and one-third of Clinton voters think the gang is a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” threat to U.S. national security. “A fair share of Trump voters say they are worried about being personally affected by MS-13,” the report found. “About half indicated they are worried a great deal or somewhat that they or a family member will fall victim to MS-13 violence.”

Trump has frequently cast the gang, which originated among Salvadorans in Los Angeles in the 1980s, as a violent threat to American communities writ large. ProPublica immigration reporter Hannah Dreier pointed out that MS-13’s activities are far more limited than the administration’s language suggests. Moreover, the gang largely targets the same people that Trump does with his immigration policies: young Hispanic immigrants, some of whom are undocumented. He has also overstated MS-13’s reach by claiming that ICE has helped liberate entire towns from the gang’s control. (The agency has not done so.)

The poll’s results suggest that fighting MS-13 could continue to be a rallying cry for Trump’s base in the upcoming midterm elections. Whether it will succeed with the electorate as a whole is unclear. Republican candidate Ed Gillespie rolled out a series of attack ads in last year’s Virginia gubernatorial race that accused his Democratic opponent, Ralph Northam, of being soft on MS-13. Polls tightened after the ads went up and Gillespie’s ratings on “law-and-order issues” rose, but Northam ultimately triumphed on Election Day.

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The Trump-Putin press conference: a psychedelic disaster.

Appearing beside Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday after concluding talks about U.S.-Russia relations, President Trump praised the Russian leader repeatedly and effusively, suggested that Putin and Russia had nothing to do with the hacking of the Democratic National Committee (instead airing a number of conspiracy theories about that hacking), attacked American media, politicians, and law enforcement officials, and suggested that the United States and Russia could collaborate in numerous arenas, including cybersecurity.

Even by the standards of past Trump press conferences, it was an astonishing and disturbing performance. Vladimir Putin, for his part, could not seem to believe his luck. Trump not only accepted his denial of involvement in the 2016 election, he expounded on it. He appeared to encourage special counsel Robert Mueller to collaborate with the Russian military and law enforcement personnel. Trump accepted Putin as an equal and suggested that the United States and Russia had equal roles to play in global affairs—Putin’s dream of returning to a global order shaped by great powers and spheres of influence inched closer to reality. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its murder of dissidents and ex-spies on foreign soil, and its invasion of Georgia were ignored.

All of this added a sense that this press conference was taking place in an alternate reality. Trump and Putin pushed two seemingly contradictory narratives. The first was that Russia-United States relations have deteriorated thanks entirely to the fecklessness of the Obama administration (and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) and the actions of Democrats who are unable to accept that they were bested by one of the greatest political campaigns in history in the 2016 election. The second is that Russia-United States relations are worse than they have ever been—never mind the Cuban Missile Crisis or Josef Stalin—and that, by meeting and finding common ground, Trump and Putin were averting armed conflict. The implication in this narrative, of course, is that the Mueller probe is a national security threat, in that it imperils relations between the two countries and, in doing so, risks war.

The reality, of course, is quite different. But Trump graciously refused to let reality into the press conference and instead gleefully embraced Putin’s version of events, which just happened to, with a couple of minor exceptions, line up with his own. There is no reason to believe, at this point in time, that this summit will change much of anything from a geopolitical perspective, although it will undoubtedly make U.S. allies, particularly in Europe, even more distrustful of Trump than they already were. But it’s obvious that Trump handed Putin a public relations victory, four days after the special counsel’s office conclusively proved Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

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Is there room for a left-wing version of the Freedom Caucus?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the democratic socialist who won an upset primary victory over Democrat Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th Congressional District, suggested the creation of a more aggressive left-wing sub-caucus in a recent interview. As reported by The Intercept’s Ryan Grim, Ocasio-Cortez defined herself as a “consensus-builder,” but believes that a more militant bloc could help steer the Congressional Progressive Caucus in a leftward direction:

“The thing that gives the caucus power is that you can operate as a bloc vote in order to get things done,” Ocasio-Cortez told Daniel Denvir, host of Jacobin’s “The Dig.” “Even if you can carve out a sub-portion, a sub-caucus of the progressive caucus, even if you could carve out that, even a smaller bloc, but one that operates as a bloc, then you could generate real power.”

The idea appears divisive. As Grim notes, elected progressives aren’t as likely to favor the Freedom Caucus’s ruthless tactics. But change is in the wind.

House Democrats are set to undergo potentially significant changes: Ocasio-Cortez is almost certain to win her general election. In West Virginia, Berniecrat Richard Ojeda continues to defy expectations in the state’s 3rd Congressional District; a June poll put him within the margin of error, an achievement for any Democrat in such a conservative district. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s retirement could help another Berniecrat, Randy Bryce, close the gap in Wisconsin. In California’s 4th Congressional District, Democrat Jessica Morse—whose website says she supports universal access to free primary care—has outraised Republican incumbent Tom McClintock for four consecutive quarters.

Overall, the party’s potential freshman class hasn’t shown much interest in keeping the party’s elder statesmen in power. According to Cook Political Report, around one-third of candidates interviewed said they wouldn’t support Nancy Pelosi for speaker if Democrats win back the House in the November midterms.

July 13, 2018

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Congressional Republicans are pushing for the impeachment of Rod Rosenstein.

In announcing charges against 12 Russian officials today, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein tried to frame the ongoing investigation into 2016 election meddling as a non-partisan issue that all Americans should care about. “When we confront foreign interference in American elections, it is important for us to avoid thinking politically as Republicans or Democrats and instead to think patriotically as Americans,” Rosenstein said. “Our response must not depend on which side was victimized.”

If Rosenstein was hoping to get bipartisan buy-in for the Mueller investigation, he isn’t having much luck. Even as Rosenstein made his statement, House Republicans were ramping up efforts to impeach him.

“House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, in fact, had the impeachment document on the floor of the House at the very moment that Rosenstein spoke to reporters and TV cameras Friday,” Politico reports. “Conservative GOP lawmakers have been plotting to remove Rosenstein for weeks, accusing him of slow-walking their probe of FBI agents they’ve accused of bias against President Donald Trump.”

The fact that congressional Republicans are willing to go after Rosenstein after the new indictments might be an indication that they fear the outcome of the Mueller investigation.

Yet Rosenstein’s efforts to win over Republicans wasn’t a complete failure, especially if we look outside Congress. National Review writer David French used the indictments to make a strong argument in support of the investigation. “As Mueller reveals more facts about Russian interference and indicts more individuals for troubling crimes uncovered as part of his entirely legitimate investigation, it’s time for the GOP to tell the president that the hunt needs to continue, because the witches are very real,” French wrote.

Given these disparate responses, it’s likely that as the Mueller investigation proceeds there will be a widening rift on the political right between die-hard Trump loyalists and those willing to follow the evidence where it leads.

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Scarlett Johansson won’t play a trans man after all.

After a week of recriminations and one over-hasty public response, Scarlett Johansson has withdrawn from the role of Dante “Tex” Gill in Rupert Sanders’ movie project Rub & Tug. The film was to have been a biopic of Gill, the late proprietor of a massage parlor and prostitution business in Pittsburgh. Gill’s cousin, Barry Paris, has confirmed that Gill “definitely” identified as a man, although many news stories over the years have used female pronouns for him.

Trans people and allies condemned the casting announcement across social media. Not only would Johansson be playing the kind of role that ought to be given to a trans actor, many felt, her public identification as a woman would inevitably undercut the movie’s characterisation of Gill as a man. Filmmaker Jen Richards has become a prominent voice against casting cis actors in trans roles. In an oft-cited 2016 tweet, she clearly laid out the problem with “disguising” cis people as trans: such decisions “exacerbate the cultural belief that trans women are really men, which is the root of violence against us,” with the point standing for cis women playing trans men.

The business of acting is about pretending to be somebody whom you are not. But the odds are so heavily stacked against trans actors that casting across gender-identification lines becomes a real-world political problem, not a silver screen challenge.

Johansson’s messaging around this media crisis has been an interesting story itself. An unidentified representative told Bustle that Johansson would like to direct her critics “to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.” This was no doubt the product of frustrations accreted throughout the backlash over her character’s whitewashing in Ghost in the Shell. Why did Jared Leto earn so much praise for his turn in Dallas Buyers’ Club, only for this news to cause a media storm?

There’s no doubt that the Rub & Tug casting news compounded doubts about Johansson’s ability to make wise decisions about the roles she takes. And the same director lying behind both movies makes it all seem like a bit too much to be a coincidence.

Johansson today issued a wide-ranging, fulsome apology to OUT: “While I would have loved the opportunity to bring Dante’s story and transition to life, I understand why many feel he should be portrayed by a transgender person, and I am thankful that this casting debate, albeit controversial, has sparked a larger conversation about diversity and representation in film.”

Response to the news has been positive, not least as it has left Johansson’s social media critics feeling as though their voice is heard, or at least their movie-going dollars valued, by the Hollywood studios. The question remains of why Tambor and Leto—not to mention Eddie Redmayne, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his 2016 performance in The Danish Girl—have remained so garlanded in praise, despite doing precisely the same thing that Johansson would have done. It may be that cis men inhabiting femininity is still perceived as such a radical, brave choice that any man who “acts” trans has accomplished a rare feat.

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New indictments complicate the Trump-Russia relationship.

On the cusp of President Donald Trump’s planned meeting with Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin, Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, released indictments with profound implications for relations between the two countries. As The New York Times reports, Rosenstein “announced new charges against 12 Russian intelligence officers accused of hacking the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton presidential campaign.”

The indictments go counter to alternative narratives put forward by both Trump and his supporters that the hacking could have been done by parties other than the Russian state.

“I don’t believe [Russia] interfered,” Trump told Time in December of 2016. “It could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey.”

The indictments name the hacker Guccifer 2.0 as a Russian agent. Roger Stone, a longtime informal advisor to Trump who had contact with Guccifer 2.0 in 2016, has repeatedly argued against this view.

“I have some news for Hillary and Democrats—I think I’ve got the real culprit,” Stone wrote in Breitbart in August 2016. “It doesn’t seem to be the Russians that hacked the DNC, but instead a hacker who goes by the name of Guccifer 2.0.”

If the indictments hold up, then the attempts by Trump and Stone to suggest non-Russian sources for the hacking can be dismissed.

Although the indictments do not charge any Americans, they do describe several Americans as interacting with the Russian government hackers.

One of those Americans is a congressional candidate:

On or about August 15, 2016, the Conspirators, posing as Guccifer 2.0, received a request for stolen documents from a candidate for the US. Congress. The Conspirators responded using the Guccifer 2.0 persona and sent the candidate stolen documents related to the candidate’s opponent.

Another person who interacted with Guccifer 2.0 was someone who had contact with the Trump administration:

The Conspirators, posing as Guccifer 2.0, also communicated with US. persons about the release of stolen documents. On or about August 15, 2016, the Conspirators, posing as Guccifer 2.0, wrote to a person who was in regular contactwith senior members ofthe presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump, “thank u for writing back . . . do u find anyt[h]ing interesting in the docs i posted?” On or about August 17, 2016, the Conspirators added, “please tell me if i can help u anyhow . . . itwould be a great pleasure to me.” On or about September 9, 2016, the Conspirators, again posing as Guccifer 2.0, referred to a stolen DCCC document posted online and asked the person, “what do u think of the info on the turnout model for the democrats entire presidential campaign.” The person responded, “[p]retty standard.”

These individuals are unnamed and not charged with any crime. But they have every reason to be nervous.

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The Washington Post worries Strzok hearings were bad for democracy.

The editorial board of The Washington Post is unhappy with Thursday’s joint meeting of two House oversight committees, where FBI official Peter Strzok was grilled about whether his political bias shaped the investigation into possible Russian interference in the 2016 election. “With all its yelling and interruptions, the hearing was a fitting coda to the hyperpartisan farce of an investigation that House Republicans have conducted into the FBI and Mr. Mueller’s Russia probe,” The Post complained. The headline ran, “The Strzok hearing damaged our democracy.”

This is a dubious argument to make about the hearings—one that necessarily involves a very limited view of democracy.

True, there were moments of embarrassment in the hearing, as when Congressman Louie Gohmert tried to smear Strzok’s private life. But even those moments of silliness and bad faith arguments served a higher purpose. They showed how bad the case was that the Republicans were trying to make.

The hearings were an inquiry and they helped settle the question of whether the GOP narrative of bias was valid or not. Peter Strzok more than held his own under tough interrogation. Moreover, the Democrats were able to effectively rebut many Republican talking points, notably by calling attention to the fact that Strzok’s dim view of the GOP was shared by many Republicans in the past.

Implicit in The Washington Post editorial is a view that democracy functions best when you have lawmakers working together in a bipartisan and civil spirit. But that’s an idealized view of democracy. You can’t have politics without dispute. Democracy functions when competing partisan factions are allowed to make their best case, and the public can decide the results. The Strzok hearings were democracy in action.