The rollout of Trump’s new travel ban is probably going to be a disaster.

Beginning at 8 PM EST, citizens of six predominantly Muslim nations—Libya, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia—will be barred entry to the United States unless they can provide evidence of what the Supreme Court deemed “bona fide relationships” to the United States. While the White House appears to be optimistic about the revised ban’s rollout, it carries many of the same issues that stalled Trump’s initial order months earlier.

For one, the order sets harsh criteria for what relationships are protected as “family ties.” While children-in-law and stepsiblings of American citizens are free to enter, the State Department explicitly refuses to cover cousins, fiancés, and even grandparents. Setting aside the ethical problems of such a delineation, the State Department’s definition of “close family” raises significant legal concerns. Because the Supreme Court was murky on what exactly constitutes a “bona fide relationship” to the United States, American citizens will have grounds to file lawsuits against the administration’s exclusion of certain family members and loved ones.

The State Department has also confusingly assured that all visa applicants from banned nations will be reviewed “case-by-case.” A visa can theoretically be given to someone who cannot prove that they have “bona fide relationships”—a grandparent or uncle, for instance—if it is determined that denying them entry would cause “undue hardship.” At the same time, a visa can be denied to an individual who can prove legitimate business ties to an American entity if officials determine that the relationship was forged simply to side-step the ban.

This reveals the most troubling element of the upcoming travel ban: It leaves a massive discretionary vacuum that will be filled by consular officers and CBP agents. The window for inconsistent enforcement and bureaucratic bungling by officials appears to be substantial. When Trump rolled out his initial attempt at a travel ban months earlier, it failed precisely because it gave undue influence to the whims of individual officials. There’s no reason to believe that won’t happen again.

March 19, 2018

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There’s coal waste in Puerto Rico’s groundwater.

Six months after Hurricane Maria slammed into the U.S. island territory, 11 percent of residents still don’t have power; the poverty rate has increased from 44.3 percent to 52.3 percent; and 40 to 60 percent of small businesses have permanently closed. Now, a joint report from La Perla del Sur and the Center for Investigative Journalism has found “signs of radioactivity, in addition to traces of arsenic, chromium, selenium and molybdenum” in the groundwater surrounding a coal-fired power plant in Guayama, a southern city of 42,000 people.

We’ve called attention to this plant before. It’s owned by AES Puerto Rico and contains a five-story-tall pile of toxic coal ash, which sat uncovered during Maria’s 140-mph winds and intense rainfall. Environmental advocates worried that the storm caused ash—which contains high levels of arsenic, mercury, and chromium—to blow off the pile or seep into groundwater.

The joint report confirms those fears, revealing that a study of AES’s groundwater conducted by federal Environmental Protection Agency “shows that the ash mountain is releasing large amounts of chemicals into the groundwater,” and that the groundwater is flowing away from the power plant and toward the sea.

Since the story was published, Puerto Rico’s environmental quality board has given AES ten days to hand over all the data behind the groundwater study, threatening to fine the company $25,000 each day until it does. If AES refuses, the board said it may order the company tocease and desist” operations. But AES provides 17 percent of the island’s electricity. Does the government stop a coal company from polluting the water, or cut off power to thousands of homes? The people of Puerto Rico lose either way.


Is there a serial bomber in Austin, Texas?

The city experienced its fourth bombing in 17 days on Sunday evening. The bomb injured two men in their twenties, and city police have asked the bomber to reach out and reveal his demands. Last night’s victims are expected to live, but the bombings have claimed two lives already: Draylen Mason, 17, and Anthony Stephan House, 39, died after package bombs were delivered to their homes. Mason’s grandmother was also injured, and a fourth person, Esperanza Herrara, was injured in a separate blast.

Mason and House are black, fueling speculation that the bombings could be the work of white supremacists. The Washington Post reports:

The first two bombs killed black people—a 39-year-old construction worker and a 17-year-old high school student—related to prominent members of Austin’s African American community who were also close personal friends. The third bomb seriously injured a 75-year-old Hispanic woman, but it was addressed to a different home and apparently exploded when she was carrying it, according to two people familiar with the case.

Last night’s victims, however, are white. Police say the bomb that injured them had been placed by the side of the road, then triggered by a tripwire. It’s not certain, then, that Sunday’s bomb is linked to previous bombings, or that the injured men were even the bomb’s intended targets, but police are operating under the assumptions that all four bombs are linked until new information demonstrates otherwise.

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Congressional Republicans are failing the Mueller test.

Over the weekend, President Trump unleashed his most direct assault yet against special counsel Robert Mueller. On Saturday, one of Trump’s lawyers, John Dowd, called for an end to the Mueller probe—breaking with earlier statements, in which Trump’s legal team had affirmed their full cooperation with Mueller. “I pray that Acting Attorney General Rosenstein will follow the brilliant and courageous example of the FBI Office of Professional Responsibility and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and bring an end to alleged Russia Collusion investigation manufactured by McCabe’s boss James Comey based upon a fraudulent and corrupt Dossier,” Dowd said.

And on Sunday morning, aided by the firing of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, Trump attacked the Mueller probe.

In these tweets, Trump is doing three things. First, he’s using McCabe’s firing to discredit both McCabe and former FBI Director James Comey, whose firing is presumably being looked into by Mueller—obstruction of justice is one of the most likely charges Trump could face. Second, he’s tying McCabe and Comey—dismissed as partisan and corrupt—to the Mueller probe, whose findings he is prematurely trying to discredit.

But the third thing is the most important. Trump is launching a trial balloon to congressional Republicans to see what he can get away with. Trump’s previous moves against the Russia investigation have been met with an insistence from a variety of Republicans on the Hill that any move against Mueller would be an enormously costly one for the president. But thus far, Republicans—who have increasingly made their peace with Trump since the passage of the $1.5 trillion tax bill in December—have largely been silent, suggesting that they might rally to the president if he decides to move against the special counsel.

March 16, 2018

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Can drug dealers really be executed?

The White House’s plan for fighting the opioid epidemic will propose giving the death penalty to “some drug dealers,” Politico reported Thursday. President Donald Trump is an enthusiastic proponent of the idea, and of capital punishment in general. A survey of key House Republicans by the Weekly Standard found that many of them would be receptive to Trump’s proposal, at least in theory.

It’s hard to assess whether Trump’s plan is constitutional without knowing the precise legislative text. In the 2008 case Kennedy v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court effectively abolished capital punishment for crimes that don’t result in the victim’s death. However, the justices explicitly said the ruling didn’t address whether the death penalty for “crimes against the state,” which they defined as “treason, espionage, terrorism, and drug kingpin activity,” are permissible. Depending on the proposal’s scope, that last category could provide federal prosecutors with legal cover.

What’s easier to assess is the pointlessness of the endeavor. Without a dramatic change in national temperament or constitutional law, American capital punishment appears to be in terminal decline. Death sentences are now handed out mostly in a handful of counties in a handful of states. (Federal death sentences are even sparser, and the government hasn’t executed anyone since 2003.) Most of those sentences are eventually overturned on appeal. A growing share of death-row inmates whose sentences are upheld instead die of natural causes while waiting to be executed.

Trump’s proposal would be constrained by the same trends. The lengthy appeals process alone guarantees that no defendants sentenced under it would be executed during his term, or probably even under his successor. Instead, its greatest impact would be to show the system for what it is: a creaky, glacial enterprise that imposes tremendous costs, moral and otherwise, on American society and delivers virtually nothing in return.

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FEMA is not preparing for “climate change.”

Last year was among the most expensive years in the history of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief program, due to record-breaking hurricanes and wildfires that scientists say were made worse by climate change. But the agency has removed that very term from its strategic plan for the next four years.

It’s long been the unspoken policy of the Trump administration to erase references to climate change from government documents. Vox reported in December that the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Interior, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Transportation “have all had websites or press releases scrubbed of references to humanity’s role in rising average temperatures.” Now, it appears, this policy applies to the agency in charge of protecting Americans from climate disasters.

FEMA insists it is still preparing for such disasters, and implies that the causes don’t matter. “It is evident that this strategic plan fully incorporates future risks from all hazards regardless of cause,” FEMA Public Affairs Director William Booher said in an email. “Building upon the foundation established by FEMA’s previous two Strategic Plans, this plan commits the agency, and the nation, to taking proactive steps to increasing pre-disaster investments in preparedness and mitigation.”

But preparedness and mitigation are not enough to keep Americans safe as the atmosphere and ocean gradually warm. If government agencies don’t tackle the cause—carbon emissions from fossil fuels—the impacts, in many places, will become too extreme to adapt to. FEMA will bleed money preparing for, and responding to, more hurricanes like Harvey and Maria. And much of the blame will lie with conservatives who are triggered by two little, truthful words.


Trump is systematically removing the guardrails in his cabinet.

Over the past ten days, President Trump’s economic adviser, Gary Cohn, has resigned; his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was fired over Twitter; and his national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, is expected to be moved out of the White House and into a four-star military role. McMaster—whose ouster has been rumored for months—would be gone already, except the White House is concerned about the optics of losing another cabinet member. 

Cohn has been replaced by Larry Kudlow, a cable news pundit; Tillerson by Mike Pompeo, the hawkish CIA director. The leading candidates to replace McMaster are John Bolton, who has publicly pushed the United States to make a preemptive strike against North Korea, and Fox & Friends co-host Pete Hegseth. 

These changes suggest a president who is convinced that he has grown into the job and, more troublingly, has come to resent the numerous guardrails that were erected around him to protect the country (and the world) from his erratic instincts. Trump is remaking his cabinet—filling it with hawks and cable news pundits—into his own image. The triumvirate of “adults in the room”—Tillerson, McMaster, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis—has been neutralized. Trump may finally have the cabinet that he wants: One that won’t stand in his way.  

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Stormy Daniels says she’s been threatened with physical violence.

Daniels’s attorney, Mike Avenatti, told Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski on Friday that his client’s silence has been at least partly purchased with physical threats. Mediaite reports:

And at the end of the interview, Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski asked—almost off-the-cuff—what ended up being a very revealing question about Daniels: “Was she threatened in any way?”

“Yes,” Avenatti replied.

“Was she threatened physical harm?” Brzezinski followed up.

“Yes,” the lawyer replied.

“Oh, wow,” co-host Joe Scarborough reacted, while MSNBC’s John Heilemann asked her to continue the questioning.

Daniels is suing Trump to free herself from a non-disclosure agreement that she says he never signed, and 60 Minutes is slated to run a tell-all interview with Daniels on March 25. Her attorney recently said that six other women have come to him with stories of affairs with Donald Trump. Avenatti’s claims aren’t outlandish: Trump’s attorney, Michael Cohen, has a history of threatening Trump’s enemies, as NBC News’s Brandy Zadrozny reported on Twitter:

Cohen says he paid Daniels to keep quiet about the affair with his own money.

March 15, 2018

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Why Mueller is subpoenaing the Trump Organization (because of course he is).

The New York Times reported on Thursday that the special counsel in the Russia investigation is seeking records from President Donald Trump’s company. While the subpoena’s scope “was not clear,” the requested documents include “some related to Russia.” I would hope so.

It’s certainly newsworthy that Mueller is taking this step. But it tells us little about the investigation, its progress, or its potential outcome. The first rule of Mueller’s inquiry is that we know less than we think we know about it. His apparently airtight operation—an impressive feat in leaky Washington—is keeping the president, the press, and the American people largely in the dark for now.

Not all of the Russia investigation’s roads run through Trump’s business empire, but many do. Questions remain on the breadth and depth of the president’s business relationships with Russian oligarchs and his three-decade-long interest in Russian real-estate projects. Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, for example, claimed that the Trump Organization was “actively negotiating” with a Russian bank under U.S. sanctions for a potential business venture there. Trump excommunicated Steve Bannon from his inner circle after the former White House chief strategist raised the specter of money-laundering charges to journalist Michael Wolff.

A potential hazard in this information-starved atmosphere is reading too much into certain events and not paying enough attention to others—especially where Mueller is concerned. Here’s a good rule of thumb whenever there’s a new report about the special counsel’s latest move: Based on what we already know about the investigation, would it be more surprising if Mueller wasn’t doing it?

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What do Susan B. Anthony’s List and Nancy Pelosi have in common?

Dan Lipinski, it turns out. The anti-choice Democrat is running for re-election in Illinois’ 3rd District; he faces a primary challenge from a pro-choice woman, Marie Newman. Pelosi endorsed Lipinksi over Newman, and so has Susan B. Anthony’s List, an anti-choice group. McClatchy reports:

SBA List has dispatched 70 canvassers to the Illinois 3rd Congressional District and made a “six-figure investment” in digital ads and a mail campaign ahead of the Tuesday primary, according to an official with the group. Lipinski faces a fierce challenge from Marie Newman, a progressive advocate who has made the incumbent’s opposition to abortion rights central to her campaign.

Lipinski also voted against the Affordable Care Act and opposes marriage equality. Pelosi, who has previously decried “purity tests” applied to Democratic candidates, endorsed Lipinski on March 1. That pits her against EMILY’s List, the Human Rights Campaign, NARAL, SEIU and other members of her own party.

Polling shows Newman in a dead heat with Lipinski—meaning that Pelosi passed up a chance to support a viable, pro-choice candidate over an anti-gay, anti-choice incumbent in trouble.

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Did Scott Pruitt start the rumor that Scott Pruitt might become attorney general?

After firing his secretary of state via Twitter this week, President Donald Trump is reportedly interested in shaking up his Cabinet even further. Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman reported on Wednesday that Trump is considering firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions and replacing him EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

Trump’s frustration with Sessions isn’t a new development, nor is the rumor that Pruitt could be his replacement. In January, Politico reported that Pruitt “told friends and associates that he’s interested in becoming attorney general,” a report the EPA swiftly denied. For nearly a year, speculation has swirled that Pruitt has political ambitions beyond the EPA.

What’s new is the belief that Pruitt himself started the rumor about replacing Sessions. On Thursday, The Atlantic’s Elaina Plott tweeted that she heard as much from “EPA sources.” Axios’ Jonathan Swan followed up, saying the “conventional wisdom” at the White House is that Pruitt is spreading the rumor about himself.

The EPA hasn’t responded to these claims, and will likely deny their validity. But if they’re true, Pruitt’s $43,000 personal soundproof phone booth would make a lot more sense.