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Is Betsy DeVos doomed?

Rex Tillerson was confirmed as secretary of state on Wednesday afternoon with three Democrat votes—Mark Warner, Joe Manchin, and Heidi Heitkamp—and all 52 Republican votes. But Trump’s education nominee, the billionaire anti–public education advocate Betsy DeVos, looks like it’s increasingly in jeopardy. Two Republican senators, Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, have said that they will vote against her confirmation. That means that only one more vote is needed and a number of Republicans—Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, Ohio’s Rob Portman, and Arizona’s Jeff Flake, in particular—could change their mind. Constituent calls have been enormously effective in rallying the Senate against DeVos, who has given money to the campaigns and affiliated super PACs of a number of Republican senators.

DeVos’s performance during hearings was abysmal—she not only cheated on her homework but also did little to assuage doubts that she was a radical intent on undoing the American public school system as we know it. The bare minimum for DeVos was to display a degree of competence and understanding of the education system, but she failed. Still, DeVos’s ideology remains the biggest reason why senators—and thousands of their constituents—oppose her nomination. Collins and Murkowski indicated that they would be voting against DeVos because of her advocacy for “school choice” and vouchers that would have a disastrous effect on rural school districts.

Of course, two Republican senators voting “no” means nothing unless a third joins them. Right now Vice President Mike Pence, who has a close relationship with DeVos, would simply break the 50-50 tie. But DeVos is looking increasingly vulnerable—especially if constituents keep calling Republican fence-sitters.

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.

May 14, 2018

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Michael Avenatti isn’t a liberal hero. He’s a lawyer.

Peter J. Hasson, a reporter for the Daily Caller News Foundation, tweeted a screenshot of an email he received on Monday from Avenatti, Stephanie Clifford’s media-friendly lawyer, threatening to sue the reporter and his publication for defamation for publishing “hit pieces that are full of lies and defamatory statements.”

The email came shortly after Hasson and a colleague published an article stating that “Avenatti’s past is littered with lawsuits, jilted business partners and bankruptcy filings. People who have worked with the lawyer described him to TheDCNF as ruthless, greedy and unbothered by ethical questions.”

Avenatti’s legal threat is in sharp contrast to his interactions with other media outlets: He is a regular guest on both CNN and MSNBC, where he’s become a minor celebrity of sorts among liberals who are eager to see someone, anyone gain the upper hand over President Donald Trump and his personal lawyer Michael Cohen.

Though Avenatti may consider what Hasson wrote to be unfair, that’s still a far cry from “actual malice,” the legal threshold for defamation under U.S. law. Other lawyers, including legal blogger Ken White, saw all smoke and no fire behind Avenatti’s threats.

As a matter of course, I don’t usually report on legal threats. Anybody can threaten to sue someone; it doesn’t actually mean anything until the paperwork is filed. But this is a good opportunity to note that Avenatti, who has built quite a following on the left, is a lawyer whose professional obligations to a client happen to intersect with liberals’ political goals. That happenstance shouldn’t blind Trump’s opponents to Avenatti’s more troubling antics, especially when they mirror those of his chief adversary.

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The Supreme Court’s sports-betting ruling has major implications for states’ rights.

In a 7-2 decision on Monday, the justices struck down a federal law that forbade most states from allowing gambling on sports. The court held that the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) went too far by intruding on state legislative powers.

New Jersey, which challenged PASPA by passing a sports-betting law in 2012, argued that Congress violated the Tenth Amendment’s “anti-commandeering” principle by telling state legislatures which laws they could or could not pass. The Supreme Court agreed. “Congress can regulate sports gambling directly, but if it elects not to do so, each State is free to act on its own,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the court. “Our job is to interpret the law Congress has enacted and decide whether it is consistent with the Constitution. PASPA is not.”

Without PASPA, all 50 states can choose to legalize or ban sports betting in their jurisdictions. (Before Monday’s ruling, fans could only place lawful bets in Nevada, which was grandfathered in by the 1992 law.) But the ruling’s greatest impact could be in other areas of the law where Congress has tried to bind the states’ hands, ranging from gun control to immigration.

The Trump administration, for example, has spent the last year waging legal battles against state and local “sanctuary jurisdictions” that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration policy. Most of those battles involve Section 1373, a provision in federal law that forbids state and local governments from barring their employees from providing immigration status information to the feds. There’s an ongoing debate over whether that provision runs afoul of the anti-commandeering principle. Monday’s ruling makes it more likely that state and local governments will challenge Section 1373’s constitutionality, setting up another potential Supreme Court clash.

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It’s anything but a “glorious” day in Israel.

The opening of the United States’ embassy in Jerusalem was never going to be uncontroversial. Since President Donald Trump announced the plan in December, Palestinians, Europeans, and American leftists have criticized the move as endorsing Israeli ownership over the disputed holy city, even as Palestinians hold out hope that half the city could one day become the capital of their own state.

But the backdrop to Monday’s ceremony could not have been uglier: By the start of the event, Israeli soldiers had reportedly killed dozens of Palestinian protestors, allegedly in response to their attempts to breach the Gaza-Israel border.

U.S. pastor Robert Jeffress, whom Mitt Romney denounced on Sunday as a “bigot,” delivered an opening prayer. “Four thousands years ago,” he intoned, addressing God, “you said to your servant Abraham that you would make him the father of a great nation, a nation through whom the whole world would be blessed. And now, as we look back, we see how Israel has been that blessing to the entire world....” Thanking God for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s “determination to do whatever it takes to protect his people at all costs,” he closed by praising the alignment of Donald Trump’s policies with God’s will:

And now, Father, as we come to dedicate this embassy in the city of Jerusalem, the city that you named as the capital of Israel three thousand years ago, we want to thank you for the tremendous leadership of our great president Donald J. Trump. Without President Trump’s determination, resolve, courage we would not be here today. And I believe, Father, I speak for every one of us when we say we thank you every day that you have given us a president who boldly stands on the right side of history, but more importantly stands on the right side of you, O God, when it comes to Israel...

“What a glorious day,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later said from the podium. “Remember this moment.” As of 11 a.m. EST, The New York Times put the body count from Gaza’s protests at 41.

May 10, 2018

Andrew Reagan/Environmental Defense Fund

Two grieving mothers convinced Scott Pruitt to do the right thing.

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency met Tuesday with Cindy Wynne and Wendy Hartley, whose young sons recently died from inhaling methylene chloride, a chemical commonly found in paint strippers sold across the country. They wanted to know why Pruitt delayed an Obama-era rule banning that chemical, which has killed dozens of people who inhaled it over the last decade.

The women and their families reportedly came out of the meeting disappointed. But on Thursday, the EPA released a statement saying it “intends to finalize” the rule prohibiting methylene chloride from being used in paint and coating removal products. That doesn’t mean the rule is final yet; that will happen “shortly,” according to the EPA’s release. “EPA is working diligently to implement the new law get the most modern and safe chemicals to market, and to ensure the safety of existing chemicals,” it read.

While Pruitt has faced a great deal of criticism over his policy agenda—killing environmental regulations for the benefit of industry—his decision to delay a methylene chloride ban was highlighted in a congressional hearing two weeks ago. “Mr. Pruitt, your deregulatory agenda cost lives,” Congressman Frank Pallone told him. “You have the power to finalize the ban on methylene chloride now and prevent more deaths, but you haven’t done it.”

Drew Wynne, who died last year after accidentally inhaling paint stripper containing methylene chloride.Environmental Defense Fund

Now that Pruitt has said he will do it, the families of Drew Wynne and Kevin Hartley are cautiously optimistic. “We will delay any celebration until paint strippers containing this deadly chemical are actually off the market,” said Sarah Vogel, the vice president of health for the Environmental Defense Fund, which has been working with the families. “There are a number of steps that now must be taken in order to effectively finalize and implement this ban. But if methylene chloride in paint strippers is effectively removed from the marketplace, it will be a good day for American families.”