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Al Franken still needs to resign.

A former Democratic aide has accused Franken of trying to forcibly kiss her. The allegations, reported in Politico on Wednesday morning, are the latest additions to a mounting pile of evidence that the senator has a disturbing history with women:

“He was between me and the door and he was coming at me to kiss me. It was very quick and I think my brain had to work really hard to be like ‘Wait, what is happening?’ But I knew whatever was happening was not right and I ducked,” the aide said in an interview. “I was really startled by it and I just sort of booked it towards the door and he said, ‘It’s my right as an entertainer.’”

All of this sounds very familiar, based on past reporting of Franken groping and forcibly kissing women. The latest alleged incident occurred before Franken entered the Senate, and in a statement he said the story is “categorically not true.” But two sources independently confirmed to Politico that the woman told them about her experience at the time.

As I wrote weeks ago, Franken should resign. It will only get worse the longer he stays. His ongoing refusal to relinquish a safe Democratic seat to someone who has not repeatedly harassed women should disturb everyone in his party.

Update: Six female Democratic senators—Patty Murray, Kirsten Gillibrand, Claire McCaskill, Mazie Hirono, Maggie Hassan, and Kamala Harris—have called on Franken to resign, opening the floodgates for other Democratic officials to call for the same.

July 17, 2018

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Obama: “rabid nationalism” and racist ideology lead to civil war.

In delivering the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture today in Johannesburg, South Africa, former President Barack Obama warned about the rise of right-wing nationalism around the world. “Strongman politics are ascendant, suddenly,” he said. “Those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning.”

“Look at history. Looks at the facts,” he said. “The fact that countries which rely on rabid nationalism and xenophobia and doctrines of tribal, racial, or religious superiority as their main organizing principle—the thing that holds people together—eventually those countries find themselves consumed by civil war or external war. Check the history books.”

Obama also criticized “unbridled, unregulated capitalism,” adding that we must “recognize all the ways that the international order has fallen short of its promise.” And he closed his speech with a reminder of the anti-apartheid leader’s legacy: “Madiba reminds us that people must learn to hate. And if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.”

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Donald Trump thanks his lone defender, Rand Paul.

After his bizarre press conference with Vladimir Putin on Monday, Trump has been abandoned—at least for now—by nearly all of his typical allies. While the harshest reviews came from Republicans who have squabbled with him in the past, like Arizona senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, Trump was also criticized by House Speaker Paul Ryan, Newt Gingrich, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. Even Fox News—with the exceptions of stalwarts Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity—turned on the president, while his own advisers spun the situation by claiming Trump was “delusional.”

Trump’s only notable defender on Capitol Hill has been Senator Rand Paul. Appearing on CNN yesterday, Paul dismissed the conventional wisdom that Trump had kowtowed to Putin, sold out U.S. interests, and dismissed U.S. intelligence. “Any country that can spy does, and any country that can meddle in foreign elections does,” he told Wolf Blitzer. “All countries are doing this, but we’ve elevated this to a higher degree, and we’ve made this all about the sour grapes of Hillary Clinton losing the election, and it’s all about partisan politics now. This is truly the Trump derangement syndrome that motivates all of this.”

On Tuesday morning, Trump embraced Paul, quoting his endorsement of the president’s “witch hunt” claim in a tweet.

This tells us two things. The first is that Paul is once again inching closer to the president, with whom he’s had a mercurial relationship. Paul had been labeled the new “Trump whisperer” in the fall, though the two quickly drifted apart again. Most recently, Paul had threatened to oppose the nomination of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. As with his (likely overblown) concerns about Kavanaugh, Paul is most likely using this situation to add to his libertarian credentials.

The second is that, despite near universal condemnation, Trump is not backing down. Trump has publicly praised Carlson, Hannity, and Paul, his only defenders. And, despite all of the concern tweeted out by congressional Republicans, he won’t face any consequences, aside from a sternly worded resolution that may pass the Senate.

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.