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Breaking news: Unions are still very important.

Labor Day is coming, and the Economic Policy Institute released a timely report on the status of the American labor movement Thursday morning. Among its findings: Two-thirds of workers ages 18-64 are women and people of color, and black workers are more likely to belong to a union:

The typical union member is often thought to be a worker on a manufacturing line in the Midwest. Manufacturing does have a strong union tradition but people join unions in many industries and occupations. Union members include dental hygienists in Wisconsin, graduate students in Massachusetts, firefighters in Illinois, television writers and scientists in California, security guards in Washington, D.C., digital journalists in New York, and major league baseball players in Georgia and other states.

It is also true that, in the past, union workers were predominantly white men. But as of 2016, roughly 10.6 million of the 16.3 million workers covered by a union contract are women and/or people of color.

The report also says union membership correlates to higher incomes for members of a bargaining unit—and for everyone else. “When the share of workers who are union members is relatively high, as it was in 1979, wages of nonunion workers are higher,” it notes. “Compensation of typical (median) workers grows far faster—four times faster—in states with the smallest declines in unionization than it does in states with the largest declines in unionization.”

But these gains are in danger. In July, the Senate confirmed Trump appointee Marvin Kaplan to a position on the National Labor Relations Board. “Kaplan has never practiced labor law—his sole experience with labor law is on a policy level, drafting legislation to weaken worker protections under the NLRA and holding hearings to criticize the NLRB during the Obama administration,” the AFL-CIO announced in an open letter opposing his nomination. Another Trump appointee, William Emanuel, built a career as a union-busting attorney. Emanuel has not yet been confirmed, but it seems likely that he will be, and that will tip the balance of power on the NLRB to Republicans.

The EPI report makes clear that these confirmations would disproportionately affect people of color and other marginalized communities who now represent the labor rank-and-file. If Democrats really want to resist Donald Trump, they’ll remember this: Fighting Trumpism means fighting unfair labor practices.

September 21, 2018

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Trump forced to do an about-face on declassifying Russia investigation documents.

On Friday morning, the president tweeted out that his request to declassify documents related to the Russia probe was being handled by the office of the Inspector General, which would review them before release. This marks a shift from the announcement earlier in the week on Monday calling for the quick release of documents that including FISA warrant surveillance applications for former aide Carter Page and text messages from former FBI officials and employees such as James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, and Lisa Page. There was widespread concern that this use of declassification as a political weapon would also compromise intelligence sources.

To judge by the president’s tweets, this concern was shared by “key allies” including Britain:

In an interview with The Hill earlier this week, the president claimed that his push for declassify Carter Page’s FISA application resulted from him being “asked by so many people that I respect” including “the great Lou Dobbs, the great Sean Hannity, the wonderful great Jeanie Pirro.”

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Coal ash may have poisoned a source of drinking water for thousands of North Carolinians.

When Hurricane Florence was approaching the state, experts feared that excessive flooding could cause widespread spills of hog feces and coal ash into surrounding bodies of water. Those fears have now materialized.

On Friday, the Associated Press reported that a dam holding back coal ash—the heavy metal-laden byproduct from burning coal—had breached at a North Carolina plant due to flooding. Duke Energy, which owns the dam, said that the product might be flowing into the Cape Fear River, which provides drinking water to approximately 60,000 residents of Wilmington, North Carolina.

This is the third coal ash spill that’s been reported since Florence’s historic rainfall caused catastrophic flooding throughout the state. Duke Energy, the country’s largest electric company, has been fighting attempts to force clean-up of these ponds for years. President Donald Trump’s administration has also loosened several regulations on coal ash storage.

In addition to coal ash spills, at least 110 ponds of pig feces have either released their contents into the environment or are at “imminent risk of doing so,” The New York Times reported on Wednesday. Those spills are presenting health concerns, too. “You basically have a toxic soup for people who live in close proximity to those lagoons,” Sacoby Wilson, a professor of public health at the University of Maryland, told Vice News. “All of these contaminants that are in the hog lagoons, like salmonella, giardia, and E-coli, can get into the waterways and infect people trying to get out.”

Coal ash often contains high levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, and chromium, which can cause myriad health problems. North Carolinians risk coming into contact with these metals and pathogens through drinking water, but also through open wounds and mucous membranes if they wade through the ongoing floods.

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The GOP has chosen a villain more popular than Trump.

In 2018, as in every midterm since Nancy Pelosi became House Minority Leader in 2003, the Republicans plan to use the San Francisco congresswoman as their prime nemesis—a noxious public avatar of the Democratic Party that they can parade around to rally their base. Unfortunately for the GOP, Pelosi may not be as effective a bogeywoman this year: Internal Republican polls show that she’s more popular than President Donald Trump.

As Bloomberg News reports:

President Trump likes to mock Nancy Pelosi, but a private survey conducted for the Republican National Committee finds that she’s actually more popular—and beats the president when the midterm election is framed as a contest between the two.

The internal poll, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and obtained by Bloomberg Businessweek, asks registered voters who they support “when the November election is framed by Trump and Pelosi.” Overall, respondents prefer Pelosi-aligned candidates over Trump-aligned candidates by 5 points, 50 percent to 45 percent. Among independents only, Pelosi still prevails by a 4-point margin.

The stereotype of Pelosi was set by the GOP as long ago as 2003, when The Los Angeles Times observed Republicans were “eager to attack Pelosi as a loopy San Francisco liberal and exploit her city’s reputation as the odd-sock drawer of America. Within days, her face—garish and twisted—showed up in an attack ad slamming the Democrat in a Louisiana House race. (He won anyway.) She surfaced as Miss America, complete with tiara, in a spoof on Rush Limbaugh’s Web site.”

The new polling shows that this image of Pelosi as an out-of-touch left-wing elitist only has traction among already committed Republicans. But for that reason, the GOP might still return to it, despite her relative popularity compared to Donald Trump. Republicans need to get their base out. Also, Pelosi still does worse than generic Democrats in polls (who lead over Republicans by 9 per cent, as against Pelosi’s lead of 5 per cent over Trump).

Nancy Pelosi isn’t really a convincing foil anymore, but she might be the best the GOP has.

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A bizarre doppelgänger theory testifies to the desperation of some Brett Kavanaugh supporters.

Amid negotiations on the rules for Senate hearings into the allegations of sexual assault leveled against the Supreme Court nominee by Christine Blasey Ford, some of his backers are starting to promote a truly strange scenario: Yes, Ford might have been the victim of an attempted rape when she was 15, but Kavanaugh wasn’t the guilty party. Rather, it was another teenage boy who looked like Kavanaugh, and, thanks to the haze of memory, has become conflated with the judge in her mind.

“Could there be a Kavanaugh doppelgänger?” Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker asked on Tuesday, noting that the possibility of a mix up or case of mistaken identity had been raised by both Utah Senator Orrin Hatch and The Wall Street Journal.

Doppelgänger theory reached its most elaborate flight in a Twitter thread posted Thursday night by Ed Whelan, a longtime Kavanaugh ally who is also president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. As summed up by Vox, Whelan’s Twitter essay “argued that based on Christine Blasey Ford’s statements of what happened that night back in 1982, the perpetrator was likely not Kavanaugh, but a classmate of Kavanaugh’s at Georgetown Prep who, in Whelan’s view, looked a lot like Kavanaugh.” The main basis of Whelan’s argument, such as it is, was maps taken from the real estate website Zillow and high school yearbook photos.

Near the end of his thread, Whelan writes, “It is regrettable that private citizens are being drawn into this.” That’s a audacious statement to make given that is exactly what he himself is doing. Whelan’s attempt to play internet Sherlock Holmes and use circumstantial evidence to smear a private citizen was, in the words of CNN’s Jake Tapper, “wildly irresponsible.”

Beyond irresponsible, doppelgänger theory is also hugely implausible in any form. As The Washington Post reports:

Ford dismissed Whelan’s theory in a statement late Thursday: “I knew them both, and socialized with” them, Ford said, adding that she had once visited the other classmate in the hospital. “There is zero chance that I would confuse them.”

Yet as unlikely as it is, doppelgänger theory makes sense when you realize it satisfies a particular political need: Ford’s accusation creates a hurdle to Kavanaugh’s confirmation, but Republicans are reluctant to attack her in the manner that they (and some Democrats) went after Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas nomination in 1991. Smearing a woman who makes a serious sexual assault allegation looks bad, politically, in the era of #MeToo.

According to Post, “Kavanaugh and his allies have been privately discussing a defense that would not question whether an incident involving Ford happened, but instead would raise doubts that the attacker was Kavanaugh, according to a person familiar with the discussions.” Doppelganger theory provides exactly the defense needed: Kavanaugh’s defenders don’t have to call Ford a liar, just a confused victim. They can acknowledge that she suffered sexual assault, but also that Kavanaugh himself was not responsible for it.

Update: On Friday morning, Whelan apologized for naming the Kavanaugh classmate whom he believes, without evidence, was Blasey’s actual attacker. But he did not recant his doppelgänger theory.

September 20, 2018

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Trump is going easy on Kavanaugh’s accuser, but the GOP is not.

The president is getting credit in some circles, especially among his own staff, for the supposed restraint he’s shown toward Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her in the early 1980s. As CNN reports, “White House aides who steeled themselves for what President Donald Trump would say when he finally addressed the sexual assault allegation against his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh were quietly stunned when Trump said the process should be followed and the accuser should be heard.”

Trump has cleared a very low bar by not insulting Dr. Blasey, but the fact is, he has repeatedly expressed sympathy for Kavanaugh and not even pro forma concern for Dr. Blasey. Further, Republicans have more than filled the void. On Thursday, Republican Congressman Ralph Norman joked in poor taste by asking, “Did y’all hear the latest late-breaking news on the Kavanaugh hearings? Ruth Bader Ginsburg came out that she was groped by Abraham Lincoln.”

“This has been a drive-by shooting when it comes to Kavanaugh,” South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham complained. “I’ll listen to the lady, but we’re going to bring this to a close.” Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, who will be questioning Dr. Blasey if she testifies, has clearly already made up his mind, saying that he believes Kavanaugh and suggesting that Dr. Blasey is “mistaken.” Hatch added that “clearly somebody’s mixed up.” Senate Republicans also have worked diligently to block Ford’s request for the FBI to investigate her allegations.

As The Nation notes, there has been a broader push on the right to impugn Dr. Blasey: “The White House has dismissed her as a liar; conservative commentator Tomi Lahren implied that she was an opportunist; and a Wall Street Journal editorial not only impugns her but suggests that going to therapy can result in invented memories.” It’s yet another reminder that Trump is not an anomaly within the Republican Party; he has plenty of allies to do his dirty work for him.

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Mike Pompeo ignores his own staff and doubles down on supporting Saudi Arabia’s Yemen war.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the secretary of state has sidelined humanitarian objections to America’s backing of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in their proxy war in Yemen against Iranian-supported Houthi fighters. The war has been going on for three years, creating millions of refugees and arguably the world’s worst current humanitarian crisis. Saudi Arabia’s conduct of the war has come under increasing criticism in the United States, particularly after an August airstrike hit a bus, killing dozens of civilians, most of whom were children. A majority of the more than 16,700 civilians killed or injured in the war have been victims of the Saudi campaign. A bipartisan group of lawmakers has pushed for the Trump administration to cut support for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in this war.

Documents how that State Department officials agree with this congressional push but have been vetoed by Pompeo. As the Journal notes, “Pompeo overruled concerns from most of the State Department specialists involved in the debate who were worried about the rising civilian death toll in Yemen. Those who objected included specialists in the region and in military affairs. He sided with his legislative affairs team after they argued that suspending support could undercut plans to sell more than 120,000 precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, according to a classified State Department memo and people familiar with the debate.”

Aside from valuing Gulf allies as markets for weapons, the Trump administration is likely motivated by more general strategic concerns. Supporting Saudi Arabia in its regional conflict with Iran has become a pillar of Trump’s foreign policy. The administration is also eager to get Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries to increase their oil production, which might be easier to achieve if the United States continues to support its regional allies in Yemen.

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Ben Carson’s HUD is a quiet scandal.

The Washington Post reported on Thursday that the Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded large salaries to staffers with little experience and few academic credentials:

The raises, documented in a Washington Post analysis of HUD political hires, resulted in annual salaries between $98,000 and $155,000 for the five appointees, all of whom had worked on Donald Trump’s or Ben Carson’s presidential campaigns. Three of them did not list bachelor’s degrees on their résumés.

As the Post notes, HUD Secretary Ben Carson has no relevant experience himself. He’s a retired neurosurgeon, with no specialized skill or expertise in housing or welfare policy. In a statement, HUD assured the Post that it does have an experienced senior team, adding, “HUD employees represent a broad array of backgrounds and experiences, as different roles have unique responsibilities and require diverse skill sets.”

But under Carson’s tenure, HUD has steadily devolved into a do-nothing department. As Alec MacGillis reported for ProPublica in August, HUD is directly responsible for the housing needs of millions of low-income America. Its mission is welfare, and that makes it a target for small-government conservatives. With Carson at the helm, HUD gradually slowed or ceased many existing initiatives, especially if those initiatives pertained to protecting the rights of LGBT people. “Virtually all the top political jobs below Carson remained vacant. Carson himself was barely to be seen—he never made the walk-through of the building customary of past new secretaries,” MacGillis wrote.

HUD has also rolled back efforts to enforce fair housing policy, and in May, Carson put forward a housing proposal that would triple rents for the poorest residents in public housing.

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The NRA could be facing a financial crisis as membership plunges.

OpenSecrets, a non-profit research organization, has conducted an audit of the  National Rifle Association and found that the powerful lobbying group might be facing a budgetary squeeze as higher outlays are coming in conflict with shrinking revenue. Ironically, the organization’s problems are an byproduct of its most successful year ever, 2016. During that presidential election year, the NRA functioned as a key dark money group, funneling more than $30 million to Donald Trump’s successful bid for the presidency. 

As OpenSecrets notes, “The NRA’s massive 2016 push was part of what ultimately became a $100 million spike in the group’s outlays between 2015 and 2016. But that spending wasn’t matched with similar growth in revenue, leaving the NRA with a deficit of more than $14.8 million.”

After Trump’s election, the NRA found itself in a budgetary trap because membership started to go down, a natural result of the fact that gun owners have less to worry about with Republicans controlling all three branches of government. Revenue from members shrank to $128 million in 2017, a plunge from around $163 million in 2016. There are signs the NRA is scaling back its spending in the 2018 midterms. They’ve only spent $2.7 million this year, a sharp reduction from the $10.7 million they spent at the same point in the last midterms in 2014.

“Their current business model cannot be sustained the way it is going,” Ohio State University accounting professor Brian Mittendorf told OpenSecrets.

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The Trump administration is diverting funds from medical programs to jail more migrant children.

The burgeoning population of detained migrant children in America is causing a shift in funding away from medical programs, Yahoo News reports. There are currently 13,312 children, a record number already substantially higher than the 12,800 reported last week. Most of these detained children crossed the border without their family. Normally, these children would be reunited with American relatives as quickly as possible. But stricter rules for allowing this reunification imposed by the Trump administration and a more pervasive atmosphere of fear have created a bottleneck that is slowing down family reconnection.

These ballooning numbers are straining the shelter system to capacity and leading the administration to construct tent cities in Texas. A letter from Health and Human Services Alex Azar to Washington State Senator Patty Murray, explains that a significant chunk of funds will come from slashing other services, including treatment for AIDS patients and cancer research. Other funds will be taken from the Office of Refugee Resettlement or ORR (in keeping with the administration’s policy of radically reducing the number of refugees America accepts).

As Yahoo News recounts:

Nearly $80 million of that money will come from other refugee support programs within ORR, which have seen their needs significantly diminished as the Trump administration makes drastic cuts to the annual refugee numbers. The rest is being taken from other programs, including $16.7 million from Head Start, $5.7 million from the Ryan White HIV/AIDS program and $13.3 million from the National Cancer Institute. Money is also being diverted from programs dedicated to mental and maternal health, women’s shelters and substance abuse.

Aside from the costs, the underlying policy shift is keeping children detained longer and also, when they are released, putting them in the care of distant American relatives who are documented as against closer relatives who might be undocumented. Abigail Trillin of Legal Services for Children notes, “We’re starting to see undocumented folks not going to come forward, therefore children either stay in detention or go to more distant people who might happen to be documented.” She adds that this “situation that is at best challenging and at worst dangerous for children.”

September 19, 2018

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Putin encouraged Trump to distrust his own government.

The Washington Post has published an excerpt of a forthcoming book written by their reporter Greg Miller titled, The Apprentice: Trump, Russia and the Subversion of American Democracy.

The excerpt is filled with remarkable new reporting, including this story that Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin tried to bond with President Donald Trump by telling the American leader that his own government was working against him:

A trained intelligence operative, Putin understood the power of playing to someone’s insecurities and ego. On cue, he reciprocated with frequent praise for the president he had sought to install in the White House.

In phone conversations with Trump, Putin would whisper conspiratorially, telling the U.S. president that it wasn’t their fault that they could not consummate the relationship that each had sought. Instead, Putin sought to reinforce Trump’s belief that he was being undermined by a secret government cabal, a bureaucratic “deep state.”

“It’s not us. We get it,” Putin would tell Trump, according to White House aides. “It’s the subordinates fighting against our friendship.”

The book also reveals that Trump was not satisfied with British Prime Minister Theresa May’s claim of 95 percent certainty of Russian involvement in the nerve agent attack on Sergei and Iulia Skripal that took place on English soil. “Maybe we should get to 98 percent,” the president said.

Finally, after Trump spoke at Memorial Wall in CIA headquarters in January 2017, shortly after his inauguration, some agency employees initiated a mourning ritual:

That week, something occurred that officials had seen only in the aftermath of a CIA tragedy. Flowers began to accumulate at the foot of the Memorial Wall on Monday, as the agency returned to work. By week’s end there was a small mound of bouquets placed by employees who passed by the stars in silence.