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Don Blankenship, political prisoner?

The former CEO of Massey Energy is serving a year in prison for conspiring to violate federal mining safety regulations. According to a Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) investigation, Blankenship’s negligence directly contributed to the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, which killed 29 West Virginia miners in 2010.

But in a 67-page booklet released from California’s Taft Correctional Facility today, Blankenship maintains his innocence—and claims he’s a victim of government persecution:

Essentially I am in federal prison because [Assistant United States Attorney Steve] Ruby believes that the UBB mine should have had a few more miners, and that not having those miners caused safety violations to occur. ... Politicians put me in prison for political and self-serving reasons. I am an American Political Prisoner.

It is not clear why Blankenship thinks that admitting he overworked his miners will vindicate his reputation, but vindication is clearly what this is all about. He even has a shiny new website. All of it may be summarized as follows: Don Blankenship is the real victim here, and never forget it if you love freedom. As for that pesky explosion, shit happens. Why blame him?

But MSHA answered this question a long time ago. We should blame him because it is his fault. People are dead because of the way he ran his mines.

It is possible he never really thought about this before because his management practices sit well within a tradition established by previous coal bosses. It is common for coal companies to disregard existing safety practices: A 2014 NPR-Mine Safety and Health News investigation found that 2,700 mine company owners collectively owed about $70 million in fines for various safety violations. Delinquent companies also had injury rates approximately 50 percent higher than companies that complied with federal standards. Behind the numbers, there are ruined lives.

May 23, 2018

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The NFL will now punish teams if players protest racism and police brutality.

That’s the practical impact of the league’s new national anthem policy unveiled on Wednesday—a surrender to President Donald Trump and other conservatives who spent last season falsely accusing NFL players of disrespecting the military by kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The NFL’s rules had been ambiguously worded on whether players could be fined or disciplined for protesting during the anthem. The league’s new policy resolves that ambiguity in Trump’s favor: Players are now explicitly required to “stand and show respect” during the anthem, or else stay in the locker room during the pre-game ceremony. Fines for violating the new rules would be levied against the team itself, not individual players.

In a statement, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell offered bromides that failed to address the implications of the new policy. “The efforts by many of our players sparked awareness and action around issues of social justice that must be addressed,” he said. “The platform that we have created together is certainly unique in professional sports and quite likely in American business. We are honored to work with our players to drive progress.” That’s an audacious claim to make while instituting punishments for players who silently protest.

The new policy will likely thrill Trump, who spent last fall denouncing the protests and demanding that league owners fire anyone who took part. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’” the president told supporters at an Alabama rally last September.

No one has been fired for kneeling, but teams have used more subtle means to retaliate against protesting athletes: Former NFL players Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid have accused owners of blackballing them for their political advocacy. The NFL players’ union, which is representing both men in their arbitration cases, issued a statement today saying it wasn’t consulted about the new policy before it was announced.

May 22, 2018

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Scott Pruitt encounters his biggest security threat yet: reporters.

A female Associated Press journalist was allegedly manhandled by the Environmental Protection Agency’s chief’s security force on Tuesday while attempting to cover a national summit on drinking water contamination. According to the AP, guards stopped the journalist at a security checkpoint inside the EPA’s headquarters, and told her she wasn’t allowed at the two-day event, where Pruitt was delivering opening remarks. When the reporter asked to speak to an EPA public-affairs person, the security guards grabbed the reporter by the shoulders and shoved her forcibly out of the EPA building,” the AP reported.

The female journalist—yet to be identified—was one of several reporters the EPA barred from attending the the National Leadership Summit on Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS), which are hazardous chemicals linked to cancer. CNN and environmental news outlet E&E News were among the banned, while The Hill, Politico, The Wall Street Journal and CBS were allowed to attend. EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox told The Hill this was because there was limited space for press. However, The Hill reported there were several “vacant” seats in the media pen during Pruitt’s remarks. Pruitt did not take questions after his speech.

Tuesday’s altercation may be the most high-profile security incident Pruitt has faced in his 15 months as EPA administrator. That’s saying something, considering that Pruitt insists on having a 24-hour security detail composed of 19 agents and at least 19 vehicles, costing taxpayers at least $3 million. Pruitt has repeatedly said this expense—as well as his frequent first-class travel—are necessary because he faces unprecedented security threats. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy mocked Pruitt last week over that justification, saying, “Nobody even knows who you are.” Pruitt’s treatment of the press suggests he wants to keep it that way.

May 21, 2018

Courtesy of Muscogee (Creek) Nation

The Supreme Court takes up a case that could turn half of Oklahoma back into tribal lands.

The justices announced on Monday that they will review Royal v. Murphy, an unusual death-penalty case out of Oklahoma. At issue is whether the state had the jurisdiction to prosecute Patrick Murphy, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, for the murder of another Creek man on what was once tribal land. (The federal government normally prosecutes serious crimes between Native Americans on tribal lands.)

Oklahoma argued in the lower courts that Congress extinguished the Creek lands when it dismantled tribal governments in the early twentieth century. But the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Murphy’s favor last summer, concluding that those lands remained legally intact because Congress had not explicitly abolished them. As I noted in March, Oklahoma warned the justices that the decision would have dramatic implications:

If the Tenth Circuit’s ruling stands, the state’s criminal jurisdiction in that territory would be reduced to minor offenses like traffic violations and crimes against non-Indians. Federal and tribal courts would take over all other cases, with serious crimes left to the federal government to investigate and prosecute. State officials cast the loss of jurisdiction in dire terms, especially if the Murphy ruling is applied to other tribes. “Stripping Oklahoma of criminal jurisdiction over all Indians in this densely populated area, or even worse, in the entire eastern half of the state, would render Oklahoma a fractured, second-class state,” Oklahoma officials told the Supreme Court.

Legal experts I spoke with downplayed the state’s grim portrayal, and Murphy’s lawyers told the justices earlier this year that the state’s “claims of mass disruption are overstated and misdirected.” States routinely hammer out agreements with tribal governments to handle criminal-jurisdiction matters, they argued, and the regulatory impact would be minimal under existing legal precedents. Oral arguments will be heard in the case after the Supreme Court reconvenes for its upcoming term this fall, and a ruling could come as soon as this winter.

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Venezuela is on the brink, and the U.S. might push it over.

President Nicolás Maduro has won a second term. The opposition boycotted the election, and turnout even in Maduro-friendly areas was quite low, according to The New York Times. Hunger, hyperinflation, and skyrocketing malaria rates can have that effect. During the campaign, turnout to rallies was reportedly boosted by food being handed out on the buses.

But neither Venezuela’s general slide into the “failed state” category nor the opposition’s accusations of vote-buying stopped Maduro from celebrating his victory Sunday night. “The opposition must leave us alone to govern,” he declared.

The big question is whether the United States—which along with the European Union, Canada, Chile, and Panama has not recognized the legitimacy of these elections—will slap new sanctions on Venezuela’s oil exports. In February, then–Secretary of State Rex Tillerson floated the idea. Current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted his thoughts on the election yesterday, omitting threats of sanctions but calling for Venezuela to free Josh Holt, a 26-year-old American held in Venezuela for two years without trial.

If the U.S. does target Venezuelan crude, the effect would likely mimic that of a sledgehammer on an already teetering three-legged chair, although whether it would actually dislodge Maduro, rather than merely crippling his people, is up for speculation.

May 18, 2018

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Trump is sending abortion rights back to the Reagan era.

The president on Friday is set to propose a new “gag rule” for health care organizations like Planned Parenthood. The return to Reagan-era abortion regulations will cut federal funding to any organization that “promotes abortion or refers patients to a caregiver that will provide one,” The New York Times reports.

Currently, federal funding for abortions is banned in most cases. But anti-abortion advocates have long made it their priority to cut funding from any health care facility that performs or even refers patients for abortions. Under the new proposal they would get their wish, with strict regulations imposed on Title X, the only federal program funding family planning services in America, providing approximately $286 million a year to low-income people.

Planned Parenthood, which receives $50 million to $60 million annually from Title X, risks losing its funding if its employees discuss, perform, or advise on abortions.

Cecile Richards, who recently stepped down as head of Planned Parenthood, told NPR, “This is absolutely extraordinary that we would now be gagging doctors and health care providers from giving women their legal information and even referring them for potentially live-saving health care.”

The policy is based on Ronald Reagan’s 1988 regulation that made it compulsory for abortion services to employ separate staff and have physical separation from their family planning services. Both Trump and Reagan switched between pro-choice and pro-life stances, but found their feet firmly in favor of their evangelical and socially conservative supporters. In January, Trump even became the first president to join anti-abortion activists at the March for Life, which he claimed was a “movement born out of love.”

Santa Fe High School was already on edge before today’s mass shooting.

A gunman reportedly opened fire in the southeastern Texas school on Friday morning, killing at least eight people. A suspect has been taken into custody. In a scene now familiar to all Americans, the students were corralled by armed officers outside the building as local TV news helicopters hovered overhead.

But this scene is especially familiar to Santa Fe, because it also happened less than three months ago. On February 28, the school went on lockdown for more than an hour after students and teachers reported hearing “popping sounds” outside.

A sweep of the area found no threat, but it unnerved the school.

“We got behind the teachers desk,” student Jessie Auzton told NBC affiliate KPRC. “I wasn’t scared. Everyone was crying, then I started getting upset.”

Daniel Williams described texting with his daughter Madilyn during the lockdown. “It was nerve-wracking trying to talk to her via text,” he said. “Florida was on my mind. On social media, people were talking about popping sounds, active shooter, you hope your child is OK.”

Williams was referring to the shooting two weeks earlier at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, after which the superintendent of Santa Fe schools had written a letter to reassure parents and staff.

“Safety and security has long been and continues to be a priority in our district,” Leigh Wall wrote, noting that the district had seven full-time police officers and five part-timers, “all trained in current nationally standardized protocols to respond to emergency and active shooter situations. All district employees receive annual training and participate in drills routinely throughout the year. The district also actively participates in regular safety, security and intruder assessment audits to ensure safety and preparedness in crisis situations.”

Today showed the limits of such preparedness.

May 17, 2018

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A defamation lawsuit against Trump moves one step closer to the dreaded discovery phase.

The New York Supreme Court, the state’s second-highest appeals court, rejected President Donald Trump’s bid to block a lawsuit by Summer Zervos, a former Apprentice contestant who claims he sexually assaulted her and then defamed her.

Trump can still appeal to the New York Court of Appeals. But failing another court’s intervention, the ruling opens the door for Zervos to begin gathering evidence as part of her lawsuit. Those efforts would likely include subpoenas for Trump Organization documents about Trump’s alleged misconduct with women as well as a potential sworn deposition in the matter. Both circumstances could expose Trump to new angles of legal scrutiny beyond what he’s already facing in the Russia investigation.

Zervos is one of 19 women who have accused President Donald Trump of sexual misconduct, telling reporters in October 2016 that Trump aggressively kissed and groped her during a 2007 encounter. Trump dismissed Zervos and the other women as liars during his presidential campaign. Shortly before Trump’s inauguration, Zervos sued him for defamation of character, claiming that his repeated denunciations had damaged her reputation and professional prospects.

May 16, 2018

The Senate gave Scott Pruitt third-degree burns.

The Environmental Protection Agency administrator has shown a knack for verbal gymnastics, particularly in his handling of myriad ethics scandals. But he flopped on Wednesday while being grilled by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Democratic Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico asked Pruitt about reports that he ordered his motorcade to deploy lights and sirens to cut through D.C. traffic. “There are policies in place that govern the use of lights” that were followed to the best of my knowledge,” Pruitt replied. Asked again whether he ordered sirens, Pruitt said he did “not recall that happening.” Udall then revealed an internal EPA email in which Pruitt’s former head of security said Pruitt “personally encouraged” the use of sirens.

At the beginning of Wednesday’s hearing, Pruitt admitted that some of the many reports of his excessive spending were true and regrettable. “There have been decisions over the last 16 months or so that, as I look back on those decisions, I would not make the same decisions again,” he said. Pruitt cited the $43,000 soundproof phone booth he had installed in his office as an example.

He made other damaging admissions. When Udall asked Pruitt if one of his aides, Milan Hupp, worked without pay to find housing for the administrator, Pruitt said she did. “[That’s] a violation of federal law,” Udall replied.

In response to questioning from Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen, Pruitt confirmed a New York Times report that he’s been setting up a legal defense fund, where outside sources can donate money to defend the EPA chief from investigations into his conduct. As Mother Jones reported last week, that could create yet “another ethical mess.”

In lashing Pruitt, Democratic senators used words like “embarrassment” and “shame.” Some called on him to resign. But by far the most scorching burn came from Vermont’s Patrick Leahy, who questioned Pruitt’s claim that security threats require him to fly in first class at taxpayers’ expense. “What a silly reason to fly first class,” Leahy said. “Nobody even knows who you are.”

A mural by graffiti artists @welinoo, @balstroem and @sorenarildsen (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Kim Jong Un’s canny strategy to confound Trump.

Three and a half weeks ago, after North Korea announced it would be shutting down its nuclear tests, New Republic contributor Jon Wolfsthal cautioned not to celebrate President Donald Trump’s diplomatic victory just yet. Now, that analysis is looking remarkably prescient.

After multiple goodwill signals, including North Korea’s release of three American hostages last week, Kim on Wednesday reportedly startled Trump administration officials by threatening to call off the planned talks if the U.S. insisted that North Korea unilaterally abandon its nuclear program.

Last month, Wolfsthal considered the potential logic to Kim’s actions: While it’s possible the North Korean dictator suddenly decided to pursue peace, more likely he was taking advantage of South Korea’s alarm at President Trump’s bellicose language throughout the winter.

South Korean officials and public began to worry more about the United States launching an attack than about Pyongyang, a remarkable sea change in opinion. Thus began Kim’s seduction of the South. Kim agreed to a joint Democratic People’s Republic of Korea-Republic of Korea team for the Pyeongchang Olympics, and then sent his sister and the DPRK Cheer Team to attend the opening ceremonies. Since then, Kim has played the more reasonable negotiating partner ...

The reality, Wolfsthal wrote, was that any kind of lasting agreement with North Korea would take months to negotiate and years to implement. If America, led by an impatient president, walks away in frustration, then North Korea can “paint the United States as the unreasonable party.” By raising American expectations and then engaging in periodic obstructionism, Kim could be setting the talks up to fail. If the administration takes the bait, Wolfsthal argued, that would suit Kim just fine.

May 15, 2018

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Tom Wolfe reunited journalism with literature.

Wolfe, who died Monday at age 88, was known as a dandified doyen of the New Journalism, a reporter who embedded with hippies and race car drivers and astronauts, and later as a grandiose novelist. But Wolfe began his career as a scholar. In 1956, he completed a doctorate in American studies at Yale, writing a thesis titled The League of American Writers: Communist Organizational Activity Among American Writers, 1929–1942. The most obscure of Wolfe’s many works, it is also the key to his entire oeuvre.

Although he was politically conservative, Wolfe wrote in his these with great sympathy about proletarian novelists of the 1930s such as James T. Farrell and John Steinbeck, whose work brought the grit of reality to fiction writing. Wolfe came to see these writers as part of a larger tradition of journalistic literature stretching from Daniel Defoe to Charles Dickens to Emile Zola. But something had gone wrong, Wolfe felt, in the twentieth century, when literature and journalism diverged. Literary fiction, under the sign of modernism, became too obsessed with experimentation and wordplay, while journalism, under the imperative of objectivity, adopted an arid view from nowhere.

Wolfe’s great mission in life was to remarry literature with journalism. He first did so as a pioneering journalist, writing about the cultural chaos of the 1960s with immersive, bracing prose. In 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, he described a busload of hippies reacting to a forest fire: “By this time, everybody is off the bus rolling in the brown grass by the shoulder, laughing, giggling, yahooing, zonked to the skies on acid, because, mon, the woods are burning, the whole world is on fire.” Wolfe was no hippy but lived among them, absorbed their language, and told their story in their voice. He did that with all his subjects, whether it was Marshall McLuhan or jet pilots.

Later, with less success, Wolfe tried to flip the equation by writing novels based on extensive research. The first of those books, 1987’s Bonfire of the Vanities, a memorable portrait of Manhattan decadence, was a great success. But subsequent novels tended to be bloated and revealed the limitations of his empathy. His best work remains the journalism he did in the 1960s and 1970s, such The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, The Pump House Gang, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, and The Right Stuff. They are not just classics of journalism, but included in the canon of American literature.