Dec. 2022 News Pt. 2

 

 JIPLogo

Editor’s Choice: Scroll below for our monthly blend of mainstream and alternative news and views in December 2022, Part 2, Dec. 27 to Dec. 31. For earlier December news, see Part 1. 

 Note: Excerpts are from the authors’ words except for subheads and occasional “Editor’s notes” such as this. 

 

Dec. 28

Top Headlines

 

Covid, Disinformation, Disasters

 

U.S. Politics, Elections, Economy, Governance

ronna mcdaniel djt Custom

 

Musk, Twitter, Tesla, SpaceX

 

Ukraine War

 

Global News, Migration, Human Rights Issues

 

More On Trump, Finances, Insurrectionists, Allies, Disputes

djt looking up

 

U.S. Snow, Airline Disasters

 

U.S. Courts, Crime, Regulation

Pandemics, Public Health, Privacy

 

Energy, Climate, Weather, Disasters

 

U.S. Media, Religion, High Tech, Education

 

Top Stories

 

 

The government contended that Adam Fox was the “driving force urging their recruits to take up arms, kidnap the governor and kill those who stood in their way.” (Associated Press photo by Carlos Osorio).

The government contended that Barry Croft was the “spiritual leader” in a plot to urge recruits to take up arms, kidnap the governor, above, and kill those who stood in their way.” (Associated Press photo by Carlos Osorio).

washington post logoWashington Post, Architect of Mich. governor kidnap plot sentenced to more than 19 years in prison, Kim Bellware, Dec. 28, 2022. A man who was convicted as one of the key orchestrators in the 2020 scheme to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and blow up a bridge in hopes of inciting a civil war was sentenced Wednesday to 19½ years in prison, the longest sentence of the four men convicted on federal charges in the most closely watched domestic terrorism case in recent years.

Barry Croft Jr., 47, of Delaware was described by prosecutors in a federal courtroom in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Wednesday as the “spiritual leader” and “the ideas guy” of the plot, which was ultimately undone after a sting that involved informants and undercover FBI agents who embedded with the group of men drawn together by their association with the armed right-wing “Wolverine Watchmen” group.

barry croft adam foxCroft, at far left, and his co-conspirator, 39-year-old Adam Fox of Michigan, also shown at left, were convicted by a federal jury after a second trial in August on two counts of conspiracy, while Croft also was found guilty of an additional weapons charge. Prosecutors depicted the two men as furious over covid-19 lockdowns and supposed “tyranny” by elected officials, and said they poured their anger into a violent plot they were eager to see grow into a bloody “revolution.”

The case has underscored the escalating threat of extremist violence, particularly from the far right, at a point of deep political division in the country. Federal prosecutors said the seriousness of the plot made a life sentence for the defendants appropriate. Croft’s defense argued that he was michigan mapless involved than Fox and not viewed as a real leader among the group’s members.

Fox was sentenced Tuesday to 16 years in prison, while two other defendants pleaded guilty in 2021 and early 2022 and agreed to testify against Croft and Fox. Another two defendants were acquitted at their federal trial in April.

Fourteen people were eventually arrested by state and federal authorities in an October 2020 sting after investigators found the men had gathered weapons, trained and planned to kidnap Whitmer from her vacation home in northern Michigan and detonate a bridge to disrupt her security detail and the law enforcement response ahead of the 2020 election.

washington post logoWashington Post, U.S. watchdogs guarding $5 trillion in covid aid say they need more money, Tony Romm and Yeganeh Torbati, Dec. 28, 2022. The Biden administration is ramping up efforts to target waste, fraud and abuse of pandemic relief funds, but inspectors general continue to receive fewer dollars as cases pile up.

Michael Horowitz came to Congress with a plea: If the U.S. government truly hoped to keep track of roughly $5 trillion in coronavirus aid, then federal watchdog agencies would need some new money of their own.

It was June 2022, more than two years after the pandemic first arrived in the United States — and Horowitz, right, the leader of the country’s chief pandemic michael horowitz Customoversight body, said some of the government’s top officials could use the help. Criminals already had bilked billions of dollars from generous programs meant to help jobless Americans and small businesses in need, and Washington faced long, costly work to try to get it all back.

“I can tell you the fraud numbers, and the investigative work, is growing,” Horowitz told lawmakers at a congressional oversight hearing, acknowledging at one point it had been “frustrating, frankly” that lawmakers had not provided the funds.

Six months later, the government remains overwhelmed in its task to find and retrieve incalculable sums of stolen federal coronavirus aid. Even as the Biden administration has intensified Washington’s focus on oversight, Congress has continued to underfund and understaff some of the very offices whose chief responsibility is to monitor stimulus cash.

The persistent neglect has hamstrung the country’s last defense against waste, fraud and abuse — and raised the potential that Washington might not learn from its mistakes before the next crisis.

 

 United Nations

washington post logoWashington Post, Editorial: Russia’s abductions of Ukrainian children are a genocidal crime, Editorial Board, Dec. 28, 2022. War is chaotic, inexplicable and devastating to children caught up in it. But war is not an excuse to abduct children from parents and their nation, as Russia is now doing in Ukraine. This is specifically prohibited by the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

The transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia — and attempts to brainwash them, removing their language and culture — is a genocidal crime that calls for prosecution.

Russian FlagThe Post’s Robyn Dixon and Natalia Abbakumova reported Dec. 24 on the details of an abhorrent Russian campaign to ship Ukrainian children to faraway cities inside Russia.

President Vladimir Putin issued a decree in May making it easy for Russians to adopt Ukrainian children, and the policy is being “vigorously pursued” by the Russian children’s rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, who “openly advocates stripping children of their Ukrainian identities and teaching them to love Russia,” they reported.

Ukrainian children taken to Russia would, at first, insult the Russian leader by singing the Ukrainian national anthem, Ms. Lvova-Belova told journalists, “but then it transforms into love for Russia.” The Kremlin has boasted of the removals, evidenced by the number of photos and videos appearing on its website and on state television.

While the number of children taken is not clear, Daria Herasymchuk, Ukraine’s top children’s rights official, has estimated that nearly 11,000 Ukrainian children have been taken by Russia without their parents.

ny times logoNew York Times, U.S. Scrambles to Stop Iran From Providing Drones for Russia, David E. Sanger, Julian E. Barnes and Eric Schmitt, Dec. 28, 2022. As the war in Ukraine grinds on, some officials have become convinced that Iran and Russia are building a new alliance of convenience.

The Biden administration has launched a broad effort to halt Iran’s ability to produce and deliver drones to Russia for use in the war in Ukraine, an endeavor that has echoes of its yearslong program to cut off Tehran’s access to nuclear technology.

In interviews in the United States, Europe and the Middle East, a range of intelligence, military and national security officials have described an expanding U.S. program that aims to choke off Iran’s ability to manufacture the drones, make it harder for the Russians to launch the unmanned “kamikaze” aircraft and — if all else fails — to provide the Ukrainians with the defenses necessary to shoot them out of the sky.

The breadth of the effort has become clearer in recent weeks. The administration has accelerated its moves to deprive Iran of the Western-made components needed to manufacture the drones being sold to Russia after it became apparent from examining the wreckage of intercepted drones that they are stuffed with made-in-America technology.

U.S. forces are helping Ukraine’s military to target the sites where the drones are being prepared for launch — a difficult task because the Russians are moving the launch sites around, from soccer fields to parking lots. And the Americans are rushing in new technologies designed to give early warning of approaching drone swarms, to improve Ukraine’s chances of bringing them down, with everything from gunfire to missiles.

But all three approaches have run into deep challenges, and the drive to cut off critical parts for the drones is already proving as difficult as the decades-old drive to deprive Iran of the components needed to build the delicate centrifuges it uses to enrich near-bomb-grade uranium. The Iranians, American intelligence officials have said in recent weeks, are applying to the drone program their expertise about how to spread nuclear centrifuge manufacturing around the country and to find “dual use” technologies on the black market to sidestep export controls.

The administration’s scramble to deal with the Iranian-supplied drones comes at a significant moment in the war, just as Ukraine is using its own drones to strike deep into Russia, including an attack this week on a base housing some of the country’s strategic bombers. And it comes as officials in Washington and London warn that Iran may be about to provide Russia with missiles, helping alleviate Moscow’s acute shortage.

 

supreme court headshots 2019

washington post logoWashington Post, Supreme Court leaves in place pandemic-era Title 42 border policy for now, Robert Barnes and Ann E. Marimow, Dec. 28, 2022 (print ed.). The Trump-era policy allows quick expulsion of migrants from U.S. borders without the chance to seek asylum. The court’s action was temporary, and it will consider in February whether states had the legal standing to intervene in the dispute.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday blocked the Biden administration’s plans to end a pandemic-era policy allowing the quick expulsion of migrants from U.S. borders without the opportunity to seek asylum.

The Trump-era policy, known as Title 42, had been set to expire last week, but Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. paused that plan to give the high court time to weigh the issue.

In Tuesday’s order, five conservative justices sided with Republican officials in 19 states, including Texas and Arizona, who sought to maintain Title 42, which has been used to expel migrants more than 2 million times since it was implemented in March 2020.

But the court’s action was temporary, and it will consider in February whether the states had the legal standing to intervene in the dispute.

The court’s order was unsigned, but the court’s three liberal justices, along with conservative Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, objected.

Gorsuch wrote that the court’s action was designed to help avert a crisis at the border, but that was not the role of judges.

“The current border crisis is not a COVID crisis,” Gorsuch wrote. “And courts should not be in the business of perpetuating administrative edicts designed for one emergency only because elected officials have failed to address a different emergency. We are a court of law, not policymakers of last resort.”

Gorsuch’s statement was joined by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan would have turned down the request from the states but did not give their reasoning.

The Biden administration has said that ending the policy will restore existing federal laws designed to punish and quickly deport migrants who cross the border illegally and to protect those with legitimate asylum cases. That system is more effective, officials have said, particularly for adults traveling without children, since Title 42 merely pushes people to the other side of the border to try again.

Official border crossings remain essentially closed to asylum seekers while Title 42 remains in effect. That has helped fuel an influx of thousands of migrants crossing the border outside of the legal entry points, hoping to turn themselves in to border police and request asylum proceedings that would allow them to stay — at least temporarily — in the United States.

The Biden administration agreed that the policy should end even as it struggled to deal with the influx of migrants. U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth B. Prelogar told the justices the federal government recognizes that lifting Title 42 “will likely lead to disruption and a temporary increase in unlawful border crossings.” But she wrote that the solution to that immigration problem “cannot be to extend indefinitely a public-health measure that all now acknowledge has outlived its public-health justification.”

 

Covid, Disinformation, Disasters 

ny times logoNew York Times, ‘Tragic Battle’: On the Front Lines of China’s Covid Crisis, Isabelle Qian and David Pierson, Dec. 28, 2022 (print ed.). Medical staff members are outnumbered and many are working while sick as the nation’s health care system buckles under the strain of a spiraling crisis.

Slumped in wheelchairs and lying on gurneys, the sickened patients crowd every nook and cranny of the emergency department at the hospital in northern China. They cram into the narrow spaces between elevator doors. They surround an idle walk-through metal detector. And they line the walls of a corridor ringing with the sounds of coughing.

China’s hospitals were already overcrowded, underfunded and inadequately staffed in the best of times. But now with Covid spreading freely for the first time in China, the medical system is being pushed to its limits.

The scenes of desperation and misery at the Tianjin Medical University General Hospital, captured on one of several videos examined by The New York Times, reflects the growing crisis. Even as Covid cases rise, health workers on the front lines are also battling rampant infections within their own ranks. So many have tested positive for the virus in some hospitals that the remaining few say they are forced to do the job of five or more co-workers.

ny times logoNew York Times, As Covid-19 Continues to Spread, So Does Misinformation About It, Tiffany Hsu, Dec. 28, 2022. Doctors are exasperated by the persistence of false and misleading claims about the virus.

Nearly three years into the pandemic, Covid-19 remains stubbornly persistent. So, too, does misinformation about the virus.

As Covid cases, hospitalizations and deaths rise in parts of the country, myths and misleading narratives continue to evolve and spread, exasperating overburdened doctors and evading content moderators.

What began in 2020 as rumors that cast doubt on the existence or seriousness of Covid quickly evolved into often outlandish claims about dangerous technology lurking in masks and the supposed miracle cures from unproven drugs, like ivermectin. Last year’s vaccine rollout fueled another wave of unfounded alarm. Now, in addition to all the claims still being bandied about, there are conspiracy theories about the long-term effects of the treatments, researchers say.

The ideas still thrive on social media platforms, and the constant barrage, now a yearslong accumulation, has made it increasingly difficult for accurate advice to break through, misinformation researchers say. That leaves people already suffering from pandemic fatigue to become further inured to Covid’s continuing dangers and susceptible to other harmful medical content.

“It’s easy to forget that health misinformation, including about Covid, can still contribute to people not getting vaccinated or creating stigmas,” said Megan Marrelli, the editorial director of Meedan, a nonprofit focused on digital literacy and information access. “We know for a fact that health misinformation contributes to the spread of real-world disease.”

Twitter is of particular concern for researchers. The company recently gutted the teams responsible for keeping dangerous or inaccurate material in check on the platform, stopped enforcing its Covid misinformation policy and began basing some content moderation decisions on public polls posted by its new owner and chief executive, the billionaire Elon Musk.

From Nov. 1 to Dec. 5, Australian researchers collected more than half a million conspiratorial and misleading English-language tweets about Covid, using terms such as “deep state,” “hoax” and “bioweapon.” The tweets drew more than 1.6 million likes and 580,000 retweets.

The researchers said the volume of toxic material surged late last month with the release of a film that included baseless claims that Covid vaccines set off “the greatest orchestrated die-off in the history of the world.”

Naomi Smith, a sociologist at Federation University Australia who helped conduct the research with Timothy Graham, a digital media expert at Queensland University of Technology, said Twitter’s misinformation policies helped tamp down anti-vaccination content that had been common on the platform in 2015 and 2016. From January 2020 to September 2022, Twitter suspended more than 11,000 accounts over violations of its Covid misinformation policy.

Now, Dr. Smith said, the protective barriers are “falling over in real time, which is both interesting as an academic and absolutely terrifying.”

Several prominent Twitter accounts that had been suspended for spreading unfounded claims about Covid have were reinstated in recent weeks, including those of Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican, and Robert Malone, a vaccine skeptic.

Mr. Musk himself has used Twitter to weigh in on the pandemic, predicting in March 2020 that the United States was likely to have “close to zero new cases” by the end of that April. (More than 100,000 positive tests were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the last week of the month.) This month, he took aim at Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, who will soon step down as President Biden’s top medical adviser and the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Mr. Musk said Dr. Fauci should be prosecuted.

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment. Other major social platforms, including TikTok and YouTube, said last week that they remained committed to combating Covid misinformation.

YouTube prohibits content — including videos, comments and links — about vaccines and Covid-19 that contradicts recommendations from the local health authorities or the World Health Organization. Facebook’s policy on Covid-19 content is more than 4,500 words long. TikTok said it had removed more than 250,000 videos for Covid misinformation and worked with partners such as its content advisory council to develop its policies and enforcement strategies. (Mr. Musk disbanded Twitter’s advisory council this month.)

ny times logoNew York Times, China will soon no longer require incoming travelers to quarantine, a significant step toward reopening, Vivian Wang, Dec. 27, 2022 (print ed.). China on Monday announced that travelers from overseas would no longer be required to enter quarantine upon arrival, in one of the country’s most significant steps toward reopening since the coronavirus pandemic began.

From Jan. 8, incoming travelers will be required to show only a negative polymerase chain reaction, or P.C.R., test within 48 hours before departure, China’s National Health Commission said. Limitations on the number of incoming flights will also be eased.

The travel restrictions had isolated the world’s most populous country for nearly three years. Foreigners were essentially barred from entering China in 2020, and even when they were allowed back in months later, it was generally only for business or family reunions.

washington post logoWashington Post, After years with little covid, videos show China is now getting hit hard, Christian Shepherd, Samuel Oakford, Stefanie Le and Vic Chiang, Dec. 28, 2022. Videos of medical facilities offer a glimpse of the toll a coronavirus wave is wreaking — and undercut Beijing’s claim that the government is in control.

ny times logoNew York Times, As Covid-19 Continues to Spread, So Does Misinformation About It, Tiffany Hsu, Dec. 28, 2022. Doctors are exasperated by the persistence of false and misleading claims about the virus.

Nearly three years into the pandemic, Covid-19 remains stubbornly persistent. So, too, does misinformation about the virus.

As Covid cases, hospitalizations and deaths rise in parts of the country, myths and misleading narratives continue to evolve and spread, exasperating overburdened doctors and evading content moderators.

What began in 2020 as rumors that cast doubt on the existence or seriousness of Covid quickly evolved into often outlandish claims about dangerous technology lurking in masks and the supposed miracle cures from unproven drugs, like ivermectin. Last year’s vaccine rollout fueled another wave of unfounded alarm. Now, in addition to all the claims still being bandied about, there are conspiracy theories about the long-term effects of the treatments, researchers say.

The ideas still thrive on social media platforms, and the constant barrage, now a yearslong accumulation, has made it increasingly difficult for accurate advice to break through, misinformation researchers say. That leaves people already suffering from pandemic fatigue to become further inured to Covid’s continuing dangers and susceptible to other harmful medical content.

“It’s easy to forget that health misinformation, including about Covid, can still contribute to people not getting vaccinated or creating stigmas,” said Megan Marrelli, the editorial director of Meedan, a nonprofit focused on digital literacy and information access. “We know for a fact that health misinformation contributes to the spread of real-world disease.”

Twitter is of particular concern for researchers. The company recently gutted the teams responsible for keeping dangerous or inaccurate material in check on the platform, stopped enforcing its Covid misinformation policy and began basing some content moderation decisions on public polls posted by its new owner and chief executive, the billionaire Elon Musk.

From Nov. 1 to Dec. 5, Australian researchers collected more than half a million conspiratorial and misleading English-language tweets about Covid, using terms such as “deep state,” “hoax” and “bioweapon.” The tweets drew more than 1.6 million likes and 580,000 retweets.

The researchers said the volume of toxic material surged late last month with the release of a film that included baseless claims that Covid vaccines set off “the greatest orchestrated die-off in the history of the world.”

Naomi Smith, a sociologist at Federation University Australia who helped conduct the research with Timothy Graham, a digital media expert at Queensland University of Technology, said Twitter’s misinformation policies helped tamp down anti-vaccination content that had been common on the platform in 2015 and 2016. From January 2020 to September 2022, Twitter suspended more than 11,000 accounts over violations of its Covid misinformation policy.

Now, Dr. Smith said, the protective barriers are “falling over in real time, which is both interesting as an academic and absolutely terrifying.”

 

U.S. Politics, Elections, Economy, Governance

 

ronna mcdaniel djt Custom

ny times logoNew York Times, Race for G.O.P. Chair Obscures the Party’s Bigger Problems, Jonathan Weisman and Ken Bensinger, Dec. 28, 2022. Ronna McDaniel’s quest for a fourth term atop the Republican National Committee has triggered an ugly fight between the right and the farther right.

rnc logoSince former President Donald J. Trump’s narrow victory in 2016, the Republican Party has suffered at the ballot box every two years, from the loss of the House in 2018 to the loss of the White House and Senate in 2020 to this year’s history-defying midterm disappointments.

Many in the party have now found a scapegoat for the G.O.P.’s struggles who is not named Trump: the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, shown above at left.

But as Ms. McDaniel struggles for a fourth term at the party’s helm, her re-election fight before the clubby 168 members of the Republican National Committee next month may be diverting G.O.P. leaders from any serious consideration of the thornier problems facing the party heading into the 2024 presidential campaign.

Ms. McDaniel, who was handpicked by Mr. Trump in late 2016 to run the party and whom he enlisted in a scheme to draft fake electors to perpetuate his presidency, could be considered a Trump proxy by Republicans eager to begin to eradicate what many consider to be the party’s pre-eminent problem: the former president’s influence over the G.O.P.

Those Republicans, whose voices have grown louder in the wake of the party’s weak November showing, see any hopes of wooing swing voters and moderates back to the G.O.P. as imperiled by Mr. Trump’s endless harping on his own grievances, the taint surrounding his efforts to remain in power after his 2020 defeat, and the continuing dramas around purloined classified documents, his company’s tax fraud conviction and his insistence on trying to make a political comeback.

But Ms. McDaniels is not facing moderation-minded challengers. Her rivals are from the Trumpist right. They include the pillow salesman Mike Lindell, who continues to spin out fanciful election conspiracies, and — more worrying for Ms. McDaniel — a Trump loyalist from California, Harmeet Dhillon, who is backed by some of Mr. Trump’s fiercest defenders, including the Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA, a youthful group of pro-Trump rightists.

Recent Relevant Headlines

 

Ukraine War

washington post logoWashington Post, Ukraine Live Updates: French defense minister in Kyiv; warnings of power outages throughout winter, Niha Masih and Leo Sands, Dec. 28, 2022. French Defense Minister Sébastien Lecornu arrived in Kyiv Wednesday to discuss further military support for Ukraine, marking his ukraine flagfirst visit to the country in the 10 months since Russia invaded. Lecornu visited a Kyiv war memorial, where he laid a wreath, and is due to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

In Kyiv, officials warned the capital would see emergency power outages all winter, despite workers racing to repair infrastructure damaged by shelling.

Here’s the latest on the war and its ripple effects across the globe.

1. Key developments

  • Lecornu will have a “working meeting” with his counterpart Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s defense minister, as part of his visit, French officials told The Washington Post. The pair will discuss “the support already provided and the support to come,” a French defense ministry spokesperson said. Lecornu will then meet with Zelensky. While France has provided support for Ukraine, many Ukrainians have criticized French President Emmanuel Macron, who continued phone contact with Russian President Vladimir Putin after the invasion.
  • Russian officials are not optimistic about next year’s economic outlook, although believe they have already weathered the most challenging period. Referring to Russia’s economic growth for 2023, First Deputy Minister Andrew Belousov said: “3 percent will not be achieved next year. It will certainly be lower. I think it will hover around zero. Our forecast is approximately minus one percent, maybe slightly less,” according to Tass state news agency.
  • Emergency power outages continue to affect the capital, as Kyiv City Council deputy chairman Petro Panteleev warned: “We will live in such realities all winter.” Teams were working “round-the-clock” to try to restore energy, and “we try our best to make the residents comfortable,” he wrote on Telegram. Russia’s missile campaign has targeted Ukraine’s energy systems and knocked out critical services across the country.
  • Ukraine is seeking a United Nations-backed peace summit to end the war with Russia, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in an interview with the Associated Press.
  • At least 6,884 civilians are confirmed to have been killed in Ukraine since February, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights’ latest tally. The toll represents deaths independently verified by the agency, so the true figure is likely far higher. Most of the killings were recorded in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, with “explosive weapons” blamed for the majority of the casualties.

2. Battleground updates

  • Civilian infrastructure was struck during attacks on the Kherson area Tuesday, according to Ukrainian officials. The General Staff of the Armed Forces reported casualties, without saying how many were injured or killed, and said Russian forces were continuing to shell settlements along the right bank of the Dnieper River. Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the office of the president of Ukraine, said on Telegram that a hospital maternity ward was shelled but no one there was hurt.
  • Russian forces continued their assault on the Bakhmut area Tuesday, though the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War think tank reported that their rate of advance in the area has slowed recently amid personnel and munitions challenges. That pace “will likely decrease if Russian forces continue advancing at all unless significant new reinforcements and supplies of artillery rounds arrive soon,” the ISW said in its Tuesday update.
  • Russia has constructed “extensive new defenses” in the Kreminna section of its front line in the Luhansk area and will probably prioritize standing its ground there, the British Defense Ministry reported Wednesday, as Ukrainian forces continue to exert pressure on forces there.
  • Ukraine has bought 1,400 drones and is now “more or less equipped” with ones intended for reconnaissance, Kyiv’s Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov told the Associated Press. He said Ukraine’s army intends next to ramp up its deployment of strike drones that either explode into targets, including enemy Russian attack drones, or target them from high above.

3. Global impact

  • Putin met Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko at a St. Petersburg summit amid rising fears about Moscow using Belarus to launch fresh attacks on Ukraine. In an excerpt of the meeting, Putin did not mention the war but said the summit was “a good environment to talk about serious matters, including our bilateral relations.”
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov lashed out at the United States and its allies, as he issued a fresh warning that the war in Ukraine will continue until Kyiv agrees to Moscow’s demands of demilitarization. “The enemy is well aware of our proposals,” Lavrov told the Russian news agency Tass. “There is a little left to do — to accept these proposals in an amicable way. Otherwise, the Russian Army will deal with this issue,” he said. He also blamed Western countries for aiding Ukraine with money and weapons, saying that was prolonging the conflict.
  • Russian troops deployed to Ukraine are to be allowed to have their sperm frozen and stored for free, according to a report by Tass news agency. Officials at Moscow’s Health Ministry, which is reportedly funding the proposal, have not confirmed the plan. Local outlets have previously reported a surge in demand for sperm storage at cryobanks among both Russian men who had been mobilized to fight and those who intended to flee the country.
  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed the United States’ support for Ukraine’s depleted energy infrastructure, promising in a tweet to “repair, replace, and defend” the infrastructure amid a Russian onslaught that has left millions without heat and water in a biting winter.
  • Another nine ships left the Greater Odessa port over the weekend with agricultural produce for Africa, Asia and Europe, the Ukrainian infrastructure ministry reported, as part of a humanitarian sea corridor established to allow the export of food from Ukraine. The ships were loaded with 390,000 tons of products including wheat, a staple crop in Ukraine.

washington post logoWashington Post, ‘Nothing left to destroy:’ Russia is fighting for land already in ruins, Jeff Stein and Ievgeniia Sivorka, Dec. 28, 2022. Lyman and cities across Donbas have been invaded and liberated multiple times since 2014. The few residents left fear Russia will invade again, continuing the cycle.

Tamara Klimashenko stood in what was once her cherished flower garden and pulled out her phone to show photos of the peonies, petunias and chamomiles that once covered this patch of dirt now littered with shrapnel.

Her husband, Anatoly Klimashenko, pointed to where the shells exploded: one near the cabbage patch; another where the strawberries grew; yet another on the garage he built.

Lyman was the site of fierce fighting in May, when Russian forces seized the city, and in the summer. The Russians occupied Lyman until Oct. 1, when they fled a fast-advancing Ukrainian counteroffensive.

But even amid the wreckage of their home — with the walls blown out and wood planks hanging from the ceiling — the Klimashenkos said they feared an even worse fate: another Russian invasion, potentially their third in eight years, as President Vladimir Putin’s self-assigned “main goal” of “liberating all of Donbas” yet again puts their city in the Kremlin’s crosshairs.

washington post logoWashington Post, Russian sausage tycoon dies after falling from hotel in India, Claire Parker and Francesca Ebel, Dec. 28, 2022 (print ed.).  Pavel Antov, a Russian lawmaker and businessman who made his fortune in the sausage industry, died after falling from the third floor of his hotel room while on vacation in India — the latest Russian businessman to die under mysterious circumstances this year.

Antov was found dead outside a hotel in the Rayagada district of India’s eastern Odisha region over the weekend, police told local media, two days after one of his travel companions, Vladimir Bidenov, was found dead at the same hotel. Bidenov was found unconscious in his hotel room, surrounded by empty wine bottles, according to local media reports. He was brought to the district hospital, where doctors declared him dead.

The Odisha police department ordered its crime branch to take over the investigation into the “unnatural death of two Russian nationals” in Rayagada, the department tweeted Tuesday.

Police Superintendent Vivekananda Sharma said Bidenov had suffered a stroke, while Antov “was depressed after [Bidenov’s] death and he too died,” the BBC reported. Police told Indian media that Antov’s death appeared to be a suicide.

The Russian Embassy in Delhi confirmed the deaths to Russian media. “The Consulate General of Russia in Kolkata is following the case in touch with local authorities,” Russian news outlet RT India quoted the embassy as saying. “According to information available to the police, no criminal aspect is seen.”

Antov established the Vladimir Standard meat processing plant and amassed a fortune — estimated at about $140 million in 2019 — that landed him on Forbes’s list of Russia’s richest lawmakers and civil servants.

He also served in the legislative assembly of the Vladimir region, neighboring Moscow, where he was a member of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party and chaired the committee on agrarian policy, nature management and ecology.

In June, Antov appeared to criticize a Russian missile attack on a residential block of Kyiv, Ukraine, that killed a man and injured his 7-year-old daughter and her mother, according to the BBC. A WhatsApp message on Antov’s account said of the incident: “It’s extremely difficult to call all this anything but terror.”

The message was later deleted and Antov posted on social media that he supported Putin and his invasion. He chalked up the earlier post to “an extremely unfortunate misunderstanding” in which he had accidentally posted a message from a person with whom he disagreed.

ny times logoNew York Times, Ukraine Pushes to Recapture City in Hotly Contested Province of Luhansk, Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Dec. 28, 2022 (print ed.). The campaign to take back Kreminna began in the fall. Russia controls most of the Luhansk region, one of four it illegally annexed in October.

Ukrainian forces are edging closer to Kreminna, a fiercely defended city in the east of the country, officials say, in a further sign that the northern part of the Luhansk region remains one of the most hotly contested parts of the battlefield. The region is currently almost entirely occupied by Russia.

“The situation there is difficult, acute,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said of Kreminna and other areas in Donbas, which is made up of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, in his nightly address late Monday. “The occupiers are using all the resources available to them — and these are significant resources — to squeeze out at least some advance.”

On Tuesday, the regional governor of Luhansk, Serhiy Haidai, said in a post on the Telegram messaging app: “The Russians understand that if they lose Kreminna, their entire line of defense will ‘fall.’”

A day earlier, Mr. Haidai said that, in response to military pressure, part of the Russian command in the city had withdrawn to the town of Rubizhne, a few miles to the southeast, although it was not possible to verify the claim.

Ukraine’s campaign to recapture Kreminna began in the fall, around the time that its forces reclaimed the city of Lyman, in Donetsk, at the end of a sweep through the country’s northeastern region of Kharkiv that drove Russian forces back toward their country’s border.

Since then, the sides have fought a series of battles and artillery duels over highways and small settlements around Kreminna and farther northwest, in the city of Svatove. Russian forces took over both places early in their 10-month invasion of Ukraine.

Recapturing the two cities, and a third one, Starobilsk, could enable Ukrainian forces to continue their advance toward the Russian border and take back more territory seized by Moscow. It would also give Ukraine control of a triangle of roads that provide access to two larger cities farther south, Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, that fell to Russia during the summer.

Regional officials have said that the campaign is focused on larger cities, though Mr. Zelensky has repeatedly said that Ukraine wants to retake all of the territory Russia has seized since 2014, including the Crimean Peninsula.

There was no independent confirmation of the battlefield developments, but Vitaly Kiselyov, a senior official in the self-proclaimed Russian-backed separatist republic in Luhansk, said on Russian state television on Monday that the situation around Kreminna and Svatove remained “very tense.” Luhansk is one of four Ukrainian regions that Moscow illegally annexed in September.

Fighting continued in parts of those regions on Tuesday. In the southern region of Kherson, a Russian artillery strike damaged a critical infrastructure facility, a kindergarten and an emergency medical aid station, although no casualties were reported, the regional governor, Yaroslav Yanushevych, wrote on Telegram.

In recent weeks, Russian forces have built a series of defensive barriers near Kreminna and other parts of Ukraine’s jagged front line. They have also severed the pontoon bridges over the Seversky Donets River that runs through northern Luhansk, the province’s military administration said on Telegram on Monday.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said that after losing the city of Kherson and suffering other territorial setbacks, Russia was rallying its forces in northern Luhansk for an offensive that would aim to extend its control in the region and then potentially push into Kharkiv Province.

To that end, the institute said, Russia is prioritizing mobilizing troops to defend Kreminna and Svatove over operations in other parts of the wider Donbas region. The institute cited Ukrainian military reports of increased Russian movements of troops, military equipment and ammunition in the area.

It said, however, that Russian success in the short term appeared unlikely given the difficult terrain and the “very limited” offensive capabilities of Moscow’s forces.

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Global News, Human Rights, Disasters

ny times logoNew York Times, Lee Myung-bak, South Korean Ex-President, Receives Pardon, John Yoon, Dec. 28, 2022 (print ed.). The action by the current president will release Mr. Lee from a 17-year sentence for bribery and embezzlement and nullify enormous fines he owed.

President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea has issued a pardon to Lee Myung-bak, the former president who was sentenced to a 17-year term in 2020 on bribery and embezzlement charges, Mr. Yoon’s office announced on Tuesday. The pardon will go into effect on Wednesday.

South Korea FlagThe presidential pardon would allow Mr. Lee, 81, to be released from a hospital in Seoul, where he has been receiving treatment for chronic illnesses, without returning to prison. It would also cancel the remaining 15 years on his sentence and nullify the unpaid 8.2 billion South Korean won, or $6.4 million, of the fine of 13 billion won that the courts imposed on him. The charges against Mr. Lee included collecting bribes and embezzling more than 30 billion won.

The pardon of Mr. Lee, who was president from 2008 to 2013, is intended “to restore the potential of a South Korea united through pan-national integration,” the Justice Ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.

In addition to Mr. Lee, the pardon was applied to more than 1,300 other civilians, high-profile politicians and former officials convicted of corruption, bribery, election interference and other white-collar crimes, including people who served during the administration of another former president, Park Geun-hye.

ny times logoNew York Times, With Record Military Incursions, China Warns Taiwan and U.S., Amy Chang Chien and Chang Che, Dec. 27, 2022 (print ed.). Taiwan said China sent 71 military aircraft near the island days after President Biden bolstered U.S. support for Taiwan.

China sent a record number of military aircraft to menace self-ruled Taiwan in a large show of force to the Biden administration, signaling that Beijing wants to maintain pressure on Taiwan even as some tensions between the superpowers are easing.

taiwan flagThe swarm of Chinese fighter jets, maritime patrol planes and drones that buzzed the airspace near Taiwan in the 24-hour period leading to Monday morning demonstrated Beijing’s appetite for confrontation with the United States over Taiwan, the island democracy China claims as its territory.

The military activity — which, according to Taiwan, included at least 71 Chinese aircraft — came days after President Biden’s latest move to expand American support for the island. Beijing has denounced the United States’ effort as an attempt to contain China and interfere in its domestic affairs.

Tensions over Taiwan have been rising in the months since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the island in August, prompting Beijing to step up its activity in the area with several days of live-fire drills. China said that the exercise was aimed at honing its ability to conduct joint patrols and military strikes, but also made clear what the target was.

Wayne Madsen Report, Investigative Commentary: The diplomatic storm clouds forming for 2023, Wayne Madsen, Dec. 27-28, 2022. Although President Biden’s domestic successes are being likened to wayne madsen may 29 2015 cropped Smallthose of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, diplomatic storm clouds on the horizon for 2023 may place Biden in the same position of FDR as a war brewed in Europe in 1939. For Biden, a crisis is set to emerge in the Middle East. Binyamin wayne madesen report logoNetanyahu’s coalition government will be the most right-wing in Israeli history.

With promises to allow Jewish prayer at the Dome of the Rock, the third-most holiest Islamic religious site, and annexation of the West Bank, what the incoming Israeli government refers to as “Judea and Samaria,” the stage is set for a major outbreak of violence in the Middle East.

Netanyahu’s Minister of National Security is Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben-Gvir. He once advocated for the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who fell victim in 1995 to an assassin sharing the extremist views of Ben-Gvir. Otzma Yehudit is a spin-off of the Kach Party, a terrorist organization led by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. In addition to calling for the expulsion of Arab citizens of Israel, Ben-Gvir, who resides in the West Bank, has memorialized Israeli-American terrorist Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Palestinians in Hebron in 1994.

If the religious extremists have their way, Israel will join Iran, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia among the ranks of the world’s most dogmatic theocracies.

 Recent Relevant Headlines

 

Musk, Twitter, Tesla, SpaceX

ny times logoNew York Times, Opinion, Did the Tesla Story Ever Make Sense? Paul Krugman, right, Dec. 28, 2022 (print ed.). If you’re one of those people who bought Bitcoin or paul krugmananother cryptocurrency near its peak last fall, you’ve lost a lot of money. Is it any consolation to know that you would have lost a similar amount if you had bought Tesla stock instead?

OK, probably not. Still, Tesla stock’s plunge is an opportunity to talk about what makes businesses successful in the information age. And in the end, Tesla and Bitcoin may have more in common than you think.

It’s natural to attribute Tesla’s recent decline — which is, to be sure, part of a general fall in tech stocks, but an exceptionally steep example — to Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter and the reputational self-immolation that followed. Indeed, given what we’ve seen of Musk’s behavior, I wouldn’t trust him to feed my cat, let alone run a major corporation. Furthermore, Tesla sales have surely depended at least in part on the perception that Musk himself is a cool guy. Who, aside from MAGA types who probably wouldn’t have bought Teslas anyway, sees him that way now?

On the other hand, as someone who has spent much of his professional life in academia, I’m familiar with the phenomenon of people who are genuinely brilliant in some areas but utter fools in other domains. For all I know, Musk is or was a highly effective leader at Tesla and SpaceX.

Even if that’s the case, though, it’s hard to explain the huge valuation the market put on Tesla before the drop, or even its current value. After all, to be that valuable Tesla would have to generate huge profits, not just for a few years but in a way that could be expected to continue for many years to come.

Now, some technology companies have indeed been long-term moneymaking machines. Apple and Microsoft still top the list of the most profitable U.S. corporations some four decades after the rise of personal computers.

But we more or less understand the durability of the dominance of Apple and Microsoft, and it’s hard to see how Tesla could ever achieve something similar, no matter how brilliant its leadership. Both Apple and Microsoft benefit from strong network externalities — loosely speaking, everyone uses their products because everyone else uses their products.

In the case of Microsoft, the traditional story has been that businesses continued to buy the company’s software, even when it was panned by many people in the tech world, because it was what they were already set up to use: Products like Word and Excel may not have been great, but everyone within a given company and in others it did business with was set up to use them, had I.T. departments that knew how to deal with them, and so on. These days Microsoft has a better reputation than it used to, but as far as I can tell its market strength still reflects comfort and corporate habit rather than a perception of excellence.

Apple’s story is different in the details — more about individual users than institutions, more about physical products than about software alone. And Apple was widely considered cool, which I don’t think Microsoft ever was. But at an economic level it’s similar. I can attest from personal experience that once you’re in the iPhone/iPad/MacBook ecosystem, you won’t give up on its convenience unless offered something a lot better.
Similar stories can be told about a few other companies, such as Amazon, with its distribution infrastructure.

The question is: Where are the powerful network externalities in the electric vehicle business?

Electric cars may well be the future of personal transportation. In fact, they had better be, since electrification of everything, powered by renewable energy, is the only plausible way to avoid climate catastrophe. But it’s hard to see what would give Tesla a long-term lock on the electric vehicle business.

I’m not talking about how great Teslas are or aren’t right now; I’m not a car enthusiast (I should have one of those bumper stickers that say, “My other car is also junk”), so I can’t judge. But the lesson from Apple and Microsoft is that to be extremely profitable in the long run a tech company needs to establish a market position that holds up even when the time comes, as it always does, that people aren’t all that excited about its products.

So what would make that happen for Tesla? You could imagine a world in which dedicated Tesla hookups were the only widely available charging stations, or in which Teslas were the only electric cars mechanics knew how to fix. But with major auto manufacturers moving into the electric vehicle business, the possibility of such a world has already vanished. In fact, I’d argue that the Inflation Reduction Act, with its strong incentives for electrification, will actually hurt Tesla. Why? Because it will quickly make electric cars so common that Teslas no longer seem special.

In short, electric vehicle production just doesn’t look like a network externality business. Actually, you know what does? Twitter, a platform many of us still use because so many other people use it. But Twitter usage is apparently hard to monetize, not to mention the fact that Musk appears set on finding out just how much degradation of the user experience it will take to break its network externalities and drive away the clientele.

Which brings us back to the question of why Tesla was ever worth so much. The answer, as best as I can tell, is that investors fell in love with a story line about a brilliant, cool innovator, despite the absence of a good argument about how this guy, even if he really was who he appeared to be, could found a long-lived money machine.

And as I said, there’s a parallel here with Bitcoin. Despite years of effort, nobody has yet managed to find any serious use for cryptocurrency other than money laundering. But prices nonetheless soared on the hype, and are still being sustained by a hard-core group of true believers. Something similar surely happened with Tesla, even though the company does actually make useful things.

I guess we’ll eventually see what happens. But I definitely won’t trust Elon Musk with my cat.

washington post logoWashington Post, Perspective: Some final advice: Beware of cryptocurrencies and ratty CEOs like Musk, Allan Sloan, Dec. 26, 2022. There’s little to like about two personalities dominating business headlines these days.

This is the time of year that you see lots of long, ambitious articles in newspapers, magazines and websites. That’s because editors and writers are eager to get their projects published by year-end so that they can submit them for this year’s journalism prizes.

It’s also the time of year that you see lots of journalists leaving their jobs and moving on to something new. This year, that includes me. This is my final regular Washington Post column. The Post has run my more-or-less weekly columns for about 30 years, the last seven of which — since I retired from Fortune — I’ve been a Post contractor. My current contract expires at year-end.

So before I go, I’d like to offer you some final words of advice and possibly give you a smile or two in the process.

Let’s start with Sam Bankman-Fried and cryptocurrency, which I called craptocurrency in a recent column.

Musk, FTX founder Bankman-Fried lead 2022 flock of business turkeys

I use that term because cryptocurrency is a bunch of crap. And it’s not a currency, which by definition is something that you can use to buy goods or services, and something that you get when you sell goods and services.
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Retail investors who didn’t understand what they bought through Bankman-Fried’s FTX have learned the hard way that you can lose your shirt overnight with crypto, which is a speculative bet rather than a regulated currency like the U.S. dollar, the euro, the Japanese yen or the Chinese renminbi.

Sure, central banks like the Federal Reserve haven’t exactly done a bang-up job the past couple of years, letting inflation and speculation get out of hand before tightening things this year, possibly excessively. But I’d rather rely on Fed Chair Jay Powell to serve my interests than to depend on the likes of Bankman-Fried — I can’t help but smile at the “bank” part of his name — to treat people honestly.

I’m a recovering English major who’s learned about business on the job and never studied finance. (I was a straight-A student in economics — but I took only one course.) Possibly because I lack academic training, I try to see — and explain to you — how the financial world actually works, as opposed to the way financial theory says the financial world should work. That’s why it took me about 12 seconds to see that cryptocurrency is a crapshoot, not a currency.

I wish that I’d paid attention to Bankman-Fried and his fellow travelers before FTX failed and cost retail investors who’d fallen for his nonsense a lot of money.

I don’t know how many of you would have taken my advice if I’d warned you before the FTX flopperoo. But just as I like to think that I may have encouraged some people to get lifesaving cardiac surgery by writing earlier this year about my new aortic valve, I might have helped some of you avoid being snookered by the crypto crowd.

I was home a day after a heart procedure. Less-invasive TAVR made it possible.

Speaking of advice, I’d sure stay away from anything run by Elon Musk or associated with him. Yes, early Tesla investors who bought Tesla when its stock was in double digits before its big run-up two years ago are way ahead and Musk deserves credit for building Tesla into a credible company. But that was then, and this is now. When last I looked, Tesla had tanked by more than two-thirds from its Jan. 3 high of $399.93 a share. One reason, of course, is that Musk has sold tons of Tesla shares to raise money to deal with his personal financial situation.

It’s clear from watching Musk’s antics at Twitter that he seems to have an endless need for self-promotion and publicity. There may be a method to Musk’s seeming madness. But I don’t have the patience — or a strong enough stomach — to wait Musk out.

I get a kick out of imagining that one of these days, Musk will buy the company that owns the Truth Social network used by Donald Trump. That way, Musk can shovel some money to Trump and perhaps lure Trump and his followers back into Twitter, either directly or indirectly. Maybe that would help shore up Twitter’s finances, such as they are.

Now, I’ll do what I should do, and stop while I’m ahead. Or maybe only a little behind.

I’d like to thank The Post for buying my column when I self-syndicated it — revenue from The Post and various other outlets is how my wife and I paid for our kids’ college educations without them or us having to take on debt. And I’m glad to have kept up my relationship with The Post for so long.

I’d like to thank those of you who’ve read my Post columns over the years. I’d especially like to thank those of you who’ve told me that my columns helped you understand the financial world. That’s what I try to do — and it’s why I’m pleased and flattered when people tell me that I’ve been successful.

Meanwhile, if you’ve got an hour or so, you can look at this video of my recent conversation with my friend Andy Serwer when I was named a Business News Legend last month by SABEW, the nation’s biggest trade association of business journalists.

Thanks to Andy’s skillful questioning, that video shows how I think about things and what I’ve done over my 50-plus-year business-writing career. You may find it helpful. Or even interesting.

I wish you well. I also wish The Washington Post well as it navigates a tough climate. And who knows? One of these days, when I’ve finished sorting through the options for the next stage of my career, you may occasionally see my byline in The Post business or opinion section.

Be well, stay safe. And thanks for reading me.

washington post logoWashington Post, From Elon Musk to Bill Gates, see how much tech’s richest billionaires lost in 2022, Hamza Shaban and Rachel Lerman, Dec. 28, 2022 (print ed.). It’s been a dreary year for tech stocks — and for entrepreneurs’ wealth.

 

elon musk thumbs up

washington post logoWashington Post, Twitter brings Elon Musk’s genius reputation crashing down to earth, Faiz Siddiqui, Dec. 25, 2022 (print ed.). Musk, shown above in a file photo, went down conspiracy rabbit holes and sank Tesla’s stock with his behavior. And he was confronted with a chorus of boos in the cradle of the tech industry.

twitter bird CustomMusk has built his reputation on having a Midas touch with the companies he runs — something many investors and experts thought he would bring to Twitter when he purchased it for $44 billion in October, paying nearly twice as much as it was worth by some analyst estimates. He is known for sleeping on the factory floor at Tesla, demanding long hours and quick turnarounds from his workers. He is seen as an engineering genius, propelling promises of cars that can drive themselves and rockets that can take humans to Mars.

But that image is unraveling. Some Twitter employees who worked with Musk are doubtful his management style will allow him to turn the company around. And some investors in Tesla, by far the biggest source of his wealth, have begun to see him as a liability. Musk’s distraction has prompted questions about leadership of SpaceX as well, though it is much less reliant on his active involvement. Meanwhile, Neuralink and Boring Co., two companies he founded, continue to lag on promises.

Musk’s net worth — largely fueled by his stake in Tesla, which has fallen by more than half this year — has plunged this year from roughly $270 billion to below $140 billion on Friday, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. That fall has relieved him of the title of the world’s richest man and called into question his ability to keep up with his billions of dollars in loans.

Musk is repeatedly described as a man obsessed with Twitter in all the wrong ways, who is failing both at protecting his new investment and his previous ones, according to interviews with a half-dozen former Twitter employees and people close to him, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution or because they were not authorized to speak publicly about company matters.

Musk this week said Twitter is in a financial hole and facing a cash crunch — even as it slashed more than half of the workforce and closed offices.

washington post logoWashington Post, Journalists who won’t delete Musk tweets remain locked out of Twitter, Paul Farhi, Dec. 24, 2022 (print ed.). Elon Musk suspended reporters from Twitter and later reinstated them, but with a catch: They must nix their tweets related to the account @ElonJet, which has tracked Musk’s private plane using public data.

Recent Relevant Headlines

 

More On Trump, Insurrectionists, Allies

 

 nicholas luna portraitFormer Donald Trump “body man” (personal assistant) Nicholas Luna, shown above

Proof, Source: Nick Luna Not Involved with Trump NFT Company CIC Digital or Trump NFT Scam, Seth Abramson, left, Dec. 27-28, 2022. Journalists at both the New seth abramson graphicYork Times and Washington Post linked CIC Digital and a similarly named company, CIC Ventures—but that presumption appears to have been wrong, per a Proof source.

Proof readers will be well aware that Proof has reported both here and elsewhere—for instance, in the New York Times-bestselling Proof Trilogy—that former president Donald Trump has a history of directly or indirectly promising money, jobs, and/or favors to those federal witnesses who testify before Congress or speak to the DOJ or FBI in a fashion consistent with his own interests, leading to some understandable concern that if any such individual were to have been seth abramson proof logoinvolved in Trump’s get-richer-quick NFT scam it could position that scam as part of a larger January 6 cover-up.

As the subhed of this new Proof report indicates, and as the last Proof report on Mr. Trump’s NFT venture disclosed, both the Washington Post and New York Times saw leading journalists on their payrolls draw conclusions about two Trump-launched companies—CIC Ventures and CIC Digital—that treated the two as one and the same, and therefore possibly at the head of a January 6 Witness Tampering scheme.

But Proof can now report, on the basis of contact with a person confirmed to have knowledge of the situation—and to whom Proof has granted anonymity to allow them to speak freely—that while former Trump “body man” Nicholas Luna was indeed involved with CIC Ventures for the purposes of signing contracts for Mr. Trump’s post-presidential speaking engagements, he had no involvement, formal or otherwise, with CIC Digital, a distinct venture that ultimately contracted with a dodgy entity named NFT INT LLC to mint Trump’s chintzy, much-mocked NFTs. Indeed, per this Proof source, CIC Digital was founded after Luna left Trump’s employ in October 2021.

This source believes CIC Digital to have been run, instead, by individuals associated with (or even formally part of) the Trump Organization. This source further states that there were no contacts between Luna and the listed co-director for CIC Ventures, Trump lawyer John Marion.

These revelations keep active the following key questions: (1) why a Trump lawyer (Marion) was made the co-director of an entity exclusively associated with Trump’s speaking engagements; (2) whether Marion was also involved with CIC Digital; and (3) whether Marion was given his business role(s) in the labyrinthine world of Trump single-purpose (sometimes shell) corporations as a means to avoid paying him for legal services rendered—whether through corporate perks or write-offs or by allowing Marion to do side business under Trump’s aegis and/or brand, as appears to have been the case in Ukraine with fellow Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani—or to generate a zone of attorney-client privilege in the context of a Witness Tampering (or other criminal) scheme.

Hopefully the Times and Post will update their coverage of Donald Trump’s NFT scam consistent with this new reporting by Proof.

Seth Abramson, shown above and at right, is founder of Proof and is a former criminal defense attorney and criminal investigator who later taught digital journalism, seth abramson resized4 proof of collusionlegal advocacy, and cultural theory at the University of New Hampshire. A regular political and legal analyst on CNN and the BBC during the Trump presidency, he is a best-selling author who has published eight books and edited five anthologies.

Abramson is a graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the Ph.D. program in English at University of Wisconsin-Madison. His books include a Trump trilogy: Proof of Corruption: Bribery, Impeachment, and Pandemic in the Age of Trump (2020); Proof of Conspiracy: How Trump’s International Collusion Is Threatening American Democracy (2019); and Proof of Collusion: How Trump Betrayed America (2018).

 

The government contended that Adam Fox was the “driving force urging their recruits to take up arms, kidnap the governor and kill those who stood in their way.” (Associated Press photo by Carlos Osorio).

The government contended that Adam Fox was the “driving force urging their recruits to take up arms, kidnap the governor, above, and kill those who stood in their way.” (Associated Press photo by Carlos Osorio).

ap logoAssociated Press via Politico, Co-leader of Whitmer kidnapping plot gets 16 years in prison, Staff Report, Dec. 27, 2022. The government had pushed for a life sentence.

The co-leader of a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was sentenced Wednesday to 16 years in prison for conspiring to abduct the Democrat and blow up a bridge to ease an escape.

politico CustomAdam Fox, below right, returned to federal court Tuesday, four months after he and Barry Croft Jr. were convicted of conspiracy charges at a second trial in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

They were accused of being at the helm of a wild plot to whip up anti-government extremists just before the 2020 presidential election. Their arrest, as well as the capture of 12 others, was a stunning coda to a tumultuous year of racial strife and political turmoil in the U.S.

adam fox resized mugThe government had pushed for a life sentence, saying Croft offered bomb-making skills and ideology while Fox was the “driving force urging their recruits to take up arms, kidnap the governor and kill those who stood in their way.”

But Judge Robert J. Jonker said that while Fox’s sentence was needed as a punishment and deterrent to future similar acts, the government’s request for life in prison is “not necessary to achieve those purposes.”

“It’s too much. Something less than life gets the job done in this case,” Jonker said, later adding that 16 years in prison “is still in my mind a very long time.”

In addition to the 16-year prison sentence, Fox will have to serve five years of supervised release.

Fox and Croft were convicted at a second trial in August, months after a different jury in Grand Rapids, Michigan, couldn’t reach a verdict but acquitted two other men. Croft, a trucker from Bear, Delaware, will be sentenced Wednesday.

Fox and Croft in 2020 met with like-minded provocateurs at a summit in Ohio, trained with weapons in Michigan and Wisconsin and took a ride to “put eyes” on Whitmer’s vacation home with night-vision goggles, according to evidence.

“They had no real plan for what to do with the governor if they actually seized her. Paradoxically, this made them more dangerous, not less,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler said in a court filing ahead of the hearing.

In 2020, Fox, 39, was living in the basement of a Grand Rapids-area vacuum shop, the site of clandestine meetings with members of a paramilitary group and an undercover FBI agent. His lawyer said he was depressed, anxious and smoking marijuana daily.

Fox was regularly exposed to “inflammatory rhetoric” by FBI informants, especially Army veteran Dan Chappel, who “manipulated not only Fox’s sense of ‘patriotism’ but also his need for friendship, acceptance and male approval,” Gibbons said in a court filing.

He said prosecutors had exaggerated Fox’s capabilities, saying he was poor and lacked the capability to obtain a bomb and carry out the plan.

Two men who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and testified against Fox and Croft received substantial breaks: Ty Garbin already is free after a 2 1/2-year prison term, while Kaleb Franks was given a four-year sentence.

In state court, three men recently were given lengthy sentences for assisting Fox earlier in the summer of 2020. Five more are awaiting trial in Antrim County, where Whitmer’s vacation home is located.

When the plot was extinguished, Whitmer, a Democrat, blamed then-President Donald Trump, saying he had given “comfort to those who spread fear and hatred and division.” In August, 19 months after leaving office, Trump said the kidnapping plan was a “fake deal.”

 

 Former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, a leading proponent of the Jan. 6 pro-Trump

 Former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, a leading proponent of the Jan. 6 pro-Trump “Stop the Steal” that led to the Capitol insurrection, is shown in a collage with then-President Donald Trump (File photos).

Wayne Madsen Report, Investigative Commentary: The missing piece in the January 6th Committee Report, Wayne Madsen, left, author of 22 books (including wayne madsen may 29 2015 cropped SmallThe Rise of The Fourth Reich, below,  and former synidcated columnist, Navy intellitence officer and NSA analyst, Dec. 25-27, 2022.

The House Select Committee on the January 6 attack on the Congress did an admirable job of cutting through the obstruction of justice, obfuscation, and plain old lying from Donald Trump and his administration’s and presidential campaign’s hopeless sycophants.

wayne madesen report logoHowever, the committee failed to answer the mail on the military’s involvement in pre- and post-coup plans for a Trump military-civilian junta to rule the United States. Far too many Department of Defense political appointees were not criticized in the committee’s report, particularly those who failed to order the early deployment of National Guard troops to safeguard the Capitol complex for the ceremonial counting of the electoral votes to proclaim Joe Biden and Kamala Harris the president- and vice president-wayne madsen fourth reich coverelect of the United States.

It is quite clear that Trump had installed a coterie of military and civilian officials at the Pentagon whose main task it was to fail to respond to pleas for assistance from congressional and Washington, DC authorities as insurrectionists stormed the Capitol.

The presence of then-Major General Charles Flynn, right, within the U.S. Army’s Pentagon staff should have raised the suspicions of the committee. Flynn’s brother, charles flynn oTrump’s former national security adviser Mike Flynn, had been one of the chief proponents of advancing Trump’s “Stop the Steal” campaign to the point where he called for the military to not only seize voting machines but Trump to declare martial law and hold an unconstitutional “do-over” of the November 3rd election.

Other active duty officers who stymied the dispatch of National Guard troops to the Capitol included Lieutenant General Walter Piatt, Charles Flynn’s immediate superior, who remains the Director of the Army Staff at the Pentagon, and then-Brigadier General Christopher LaNeve, the Director of Operations and Mobilization, who worked under Piatt and Flynn, and has since been promoted to Major General and is currently the Commander of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

It is very clear that a group of far-right retired flag rank military officers stood ready to fill important government positions in a Trump junta after a successful January 6 coup. During the 2020 campaign 317 of these officers, representing “Flag Officers 4 America,” signed an open letter full of vitriolic pro-Trump rhetoric, including the charge that the “Democrat Party” was “welcoming Socialists and Marxists” and that “our historic way of life is at stake.”

WMR has compiled a spreadsheet listing the names of the “Flag Officers 4 America” and other lower-ranked military retirees and active members of the military and reserves who provided aid and comfort to Trump and his coup plotters. While this is not a complete list of officer-level traitors in the U.S. military community, it can be appended with additional names.

just security logo

Just Security, January 6 Clearinghouse Congressional Hearings, Government Documents, Court Cases, Academic Research, Ryan Goodman and Justin Hendrix, Dec. 26-27, 2022. Deposition Transcripts of House Select Committee (sorted by affiliation, alphabetical, date of deposition). Welcome to this all-source repository of information for analysts, researchers, investigators, journalists, educators, and the public at large. 

Check out our new addition below: A curated repository of deposition transcripts from the House Select Committee. Readers may also be interested in Major Highlights of the January 6th Report.

If you think the January 6 Clearinghouse is missing something, please send recommendations for additional content by email to [email protected] 

The authors are grateful for the assistance of Joshua Asabor, Matthew Bailey, Sarah Butterfield, Brianne Cuffe, and Nicholas Tonckens in the creation of the Clearinghouse.

 

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), left to right, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS), Vice Chair Liz Cheney (R-WY), Thursday, June 9, 2022

ny times logoNew York Times, The Jan. 6 Report Is Out. Now the Real Work Begins, Julian E. Zelizer, Dec. 26, 2022 (print ed.). Mr. Zelizer is an editor of the forthcoming book “Myth America: Historians Take On the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past.”

Much attention this week has focused on the Jan. 6 committee’s criminal referrals. But in its report, released on Thursday, the committee also has pointed to broad and long-lasting legislative and policy reforms that will be essential if Congress is to prevent further instability of American democracy.

The report comes almost a half-century after another famous report of sorts was completed: the Watergate “road map,” which was passed to the House Judiciary Committee by Leon Jaworski, the special prosecutor.

As the Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein has said, “the American system worked.” But the system didn’t just correct itself after Watergate — that is a myth that has taken root over the past several decades. And it’s a dangerous myth, in that it creates an illusory sense of confidence whenever America goes through major political and constitutional crises.

As with the Watergate road map, the Jan. 6 report doesn’t put an end to the crisis of American democracy. The report reveals that the attempted coup almost worked. If there had been a handful of different people in key positions of power — from Justice Department lawyers to secretaries of state — the overturning might have been successful. It is all too easy to imagine that next time, things might go differently.

If there is any criticism to be made of the committee’s report, it is that it focuses so much on former President Donald Trump and his accomplices and doesn’t do enough to emphasize the urgent imperative to move forward with institutional reforms to protect America’s election system.

When I look back at Watergate, what I see is not a self-correcting constitutional system. Rather, I see an era when a reform coalition of legislators, organizations and journalists took it upon themselves to try to fix the institutional problems that had enabled President Richard Nixon to do the bad things that he did — not just his campaign’s involvement in the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, but also the broader abuses of executive power that were part of what the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called the “imperial presidency.” The reforms that followed required sustained effort, and they didn’t happen quickly: It took almost a decade to set in place a suite of laws to deal with the toxic foundation of Nixon’s presidency.

This response to Watergate was not inevitable. Reform depended on the establishment or expansion of a robust network of organizations, including Common Cause and Congress Watch. Those organizations insisted that legislation creating stronger checks on the executive branch, strengthening Congress and imposing laws to make it easier to hold officials accountable were the only ways to check bad behavior.

The “Watergate Babies” elected in the 1974 midterm elections devoted political capital toward reform. A young generation of investigative journalists were inspired by The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who doggedly exposed corruption. This coalition lobbied legislators, kept media attention focused on these issues and nurtured electoral pressure.

As a result of their efforts, there was a burst of legislation that attempted to constrain the executive branch. Some bills aiming to restore the balance of power, such as the War Powers Resolution of 1973 and the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, passed as Nixon’s scandals were still unfolding.

washington post logoWashington Post, As Republicans inch away from election denialism, one activist digs in, Patrick Marley, Dec. 26, 2022 (print ed.). Harry Wait ordered ballots in the names of others to show voter fraud is possible. Now facing up to 13 years in prison, he is undaunted in his crusade to change Wisconsin’s voting laws. Harry Wait marched into the courthouse, walked through a metal detector and planted himself on a bench in the ornate lobby. His supporters, some wearing bright yellow “Free Harry” T-shirts, chatted amiably as they followed him inside.

Emboldened by former president Donald Trump’s false election claims, Wait in July had ordered absentee ballots in the names of others for the purpose, he said, of exposing what he considers flaws in Wisconsin’s voting systems. Now, on a warm September afternoon, he was using the resulting voter-fraud charges against him — which could land him in prison for up to 13 years — to amplify his argument that absentee balloting should be severely restricted.

“I’d do it again in a heartbeat because to save the republic, soldiers have to draw blood and blood be drawn,” Wait said as he sat on the courthouse bench.

For two years, a large segment of Trump supporters has embraced discredited claims that the 2020 election was stolen. The strategy of cultivating anger over supposed voter fraud proved politically disastrous this fall, when election deniers lost high-profile races from Arizona to Pennsylvania.

Now some Republican leaders are urging their party to downplay election denialism and shift its focus to other issues to improve its chances of winning the presidency in 2024.

But activists such as Wait are making that difficult, showing how hard it will be to extinguish the grievance and distrust whipped up by Trump and his allies. Undeterred by the November results, Wait in recent weeks has rallied for overhauling election rules, planned a January protest at the state Capitol and pledged to use the charges against him to trumpet his call for new voting laws. For him, the fight over elections continues.

Recent Revelant Headlines

 

Global Immigration, Migration, Asylum Issues

ny times logoNew York Times, In Record Numbers, an Unexpected Migrant Group Is Fleeing to the U.S., Alfonso Flores Bermúdez and Frances Robles, Dec. 28, 2022 (print ed.). Hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans have fled their country in recent years, escaping poverty and repression under an increasingly authoritarian government.

Twice a week at a gas station on the western edge of Nicaragua’s capital, local residents gather, carrying the telltale signs of people on the move: loaded backpacks, clothes and toiletries stuffed in plastic bags and heavy jackets in preparation for a chilly journey far from the stifling heat.

Nurses, doctors, students, children, farmers and many other Nicaraguans say teary goodbyes as they await private charter buses for the first leg of an 1,800-mile journey. Final destination: the United States.

For generations, Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti, saw only a trickle of its people migrate northward. But soaring inflation, declining wages and the erosion of democracy under an increasingly authoritarian government have drastically shifted the calculus.

Now, for the first time in Nicaragua’s history, the small nation of 6.5 million is a major contributor to the mass of people trekking to the U.S. southern border, having been displaced by violence, repression and poverty.

washington post logoWashington Post, Europe Migrants bused from Texas arrive at VP’s house on frigid Christmas Eve, Meryl Kornfield, Kyle Rempfer and Lizzie Johnson, Dec. 26, 2022 (print ed.). About 110 to 130 men, women and children got off the buses outside the Naval Observatory on Saturday night in 18-degree weather after a two-day journey from South Texas, according to the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network. On the coldest Christmas Eve day on record in the District, some migrants were bundled up in blankets as they were greeted by volunteers who had received word that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) had sent the caravan.

Volunteers scrambled to meet the asylum seekers after the buses, which were scheduled to arrive in New York on Christmas Day, were rerouted due to the winter weather. In a hastily arranged welcoming, a church on Capitol Hill agreed to temporarily shelter the group while one of the mutual aid groups, SAMU First Response, arranged 150 breakfasts, lunches and dinners by the restaurant chain Sardis.

Recent Revelant Headlines

 

U.S. Snow, Airline Disasters

washington post logoWashington Post, Bad timing, a lack of planning led to devastating fallout in Buffalo storm, Brianna Sacks and Emily Wax-Thibodeaux, Dec. 28, 2022. buffalo-storm-blizzard-warnings/ The historic devastation is, in large part, due to a collision of a historic blizzard, timing, a dearth of emergency management resources, and the difficulty of trying to force residents to abandon much-needed jobs.

For 14 hours in Buffalo, emergency services technician Felicia Williams sat inside her snow-covered ambulance without food or water, helplessly listening to her dispatchers answer calls about people freezing, mothers and babies stranded in cars, oxygen tanks running out, and other first responders trapped trying to get to them. In front of her, four cars were askew in snow drifts, blocking the road.

And, as the 26-year-old began to fear that even she may die there, Williams grew furious that Buffalo hadn’t acted sooner to prevent people from going out on the roads in the worst storm since 1977.

“I think a travel ban should have been put in place a lot earlier,” said Williams, an EMT with American Medical Response in Buffalo.

Erie County, which contains Buffalo, issued a travel ban shortly before 9 a.m. Friday, giving motorists only a 41-minute head’s up as many of them were driving to work. But the timing of the ban has become one of the flash points as western New York grapples with the aftermath of a storm that already taken the lives of 28 people in Erie County. Buffalo city spokesman Mike DeGeorge said more than half of the deaths occurred outside, a number involving people in their cars.

The devastating impact is, in large part, due to a collision of a historic blizzard, bad timing, a dearth of emergency management resources, and the immense difficulty of trying to force residents who are largely desensitized to severe weather to abandon much-needed jobs, as well as their holiday plans, according to interviews with lawmakers, community organizers and disaster experts

washington post logoWashington Post, At least 25 dead in Buffalo’s worst blizzard in 50 years, Sarah Kaplan, Dec. 27, 2022 (print ed.). Meanwhile, Weather conditions that snarled traffic and holiday travel in much of the United States began to ease across the nation on Sunday.

At least 25 people have died in this weekend’s catastrophic snowstorm, officials announced Monday, marking this blizzard as Western New York’s deadliest in at least 50 years.

Roads remain impassable and more than 12,000 people are still without power as the unrelenting storm is forecast to drop as much as a foot of additional snow, Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said during a Monday morning news conference. First responders are still struggling to reach people trapped in their cars, while people stuck in shelters and nursing homes are running out of food.
Fast, informative and written just for locals. Get The 7 DMV newsletter in your inbox every weekday morning.

“This is the worst storm probably in our lifetime and maybe in the history of the city,” Poloncarz said. “And this is not the end yet.”

The dead have been found in their cars, homes and in snowbanks. Some have had cardiac arrests while shoveling.

ny times logoNew York Times, Thousands of Canceled Flights Cap Holiday Weekend of Travel Nightmares, Amy Qin, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs and Steve Lohr, Dec. 27, 2022 (print ed.). Southwest Airlines, which canceled about 70 percent of its flights, was the airline most affected on Monday. Thousands of travelers were stranded at U.S. airports on Monday as a wave of canceled flights — many of them operated by Southwest Airlines — spoiled holiday plans and kept families from returning home during one of the busiest and most stressful travel stretches of the year.

The cancellations and delays one day after Christmas left people sleeping on airport floors, standing in hourslong customer service lines and waiting on tarmacs for hours on end.

The problems are likely to continue into Tuesday and later this week. As of Monday night, about 2,600 U.S. flights scheduled for Tuesday were already canceled, including 60 percent of all Southwest flights.

“The only thing we want is to get home,” said Francis Uba, who was among the frustrated passengers at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Monday, where over 130 flights were canceled as of that evening.

ny times logoNew York Times, Another Day of Airline Chaos: Thousands of Travelers Are Still Stranded, Derrick Bryson Taylor and Daniel Victor, Dec. 28, 2022 (print ed.).  Most of the disruption was on Southwest Airlines, which had called off more than 60 percent of its flights by Tuesday morning.

Thousands of stranded holiday travelers were no closer to home on Tuesday, as the aftermath of a deadly winter storm that grounded flights and throttled plans over the holiday weekend continued to play out at airline counters across the country.

Disruptions were likely to continue throughout the week at airports, where canceled flights caused weary homebound travelers to sleep on floors and wait hours in line for customer service.

  • New York Times, At least 28 people have died in a blizzard that has crippled the Buffalo area, with more snow expected, Dec. 27, 2022.

 

U.S. Courts, Crime, Regulation

washington post logoWashington Post, Moorish Americans take over a rural gun range, sparking a strange showdown, Peter Jamison, Dec. 28, 2022 (print ed.). Moorish Americans, part of the extremist “sovereign citizen” movement, claim the Southern Maryland gun range belongs to them, defying efforts by local officials to shut it down.

The complaints about the property on Fire Tower Road were urgent but not too far out of the ordinary in a rural stretch of Southern Maryland: Earsplitting gunfire, endangered cows, a stray bullet that pierced a neighbor’s equipment shed.

But that was before the would-be heirs to a mythical North African empire moved in, claiming their dominion extends not only over the lost island of Atlantis but also over five acres in Charles County.

The episode began when gun enthusiasts started getting together on Sundays for target practice at the wooded property of 64-year-old Byron Bell.

As the gatherings grew bigger, along with the caliber of weapons and the number of rounds discharged, they drew the ire of neighbors even in this sparsely populated and gun-friendly area.

Yet it was after county officials took action, deeming the site an unlawful firing range and filing an injunction to stop it from operating in September, that events took several unexpected turns. That was when a group calling itself Moorish Americans — an offshoot of the extremist “sovereign citizen” movement whose members believe they are immune from dealings with U.S. legal and financial systems — essentially took over the range, declaring it “protected under the consular jurisdiction of Morocco.”

There followed arrests, flurries of spurious legal documents and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, all to the accompaniment of what neighbors describe as an ongoing din of gunfire on weekends. Things escalated last week when sheriff’s deputies raided the property, seizing what Bell said were about a dozen firearms.

Moorish Americans, also known as Moorish sovereign citizens, believe themselves to be the inheritors of a fictitious empire that they say stretched from the present-day kingdom of Morocco to North America, with Mexico and Atlantis thrown in for good measure. They claim the same protections from U.S. legal proceedings that are granted to foreign citizens, while simultaneously asserting their rights to take over properties — often well-appointed homes owned by other people — that they say are still part of the “Moroccan Empire.”

Bell declared his Moorish American citizenship in September, according to court documents. He told The Post that he was still struggling to understand much of the group’s doctrine but that he found it “very educational.”

washington post logoWashington Post, Investigation: Social Security denies disability benefits based on list with jobs from 1977, Lisa Rein, Dec. 28, 2022 (print ed.). Despite spending at least $250 million to modernize its system, Social Security still relies on 45-year-old job titles to deny thousands of disability claims.

He had made it through four years of denials and appeals, and Robert Heard was finally before a Social Security judge who would decide whether he qualified for disability benefits. Two debilitating strokes had left the 47-year-old electrician with halting speech, an enlarged heart and violent tremors.

social security logoThere was just one final step: A vocational expert hired by the Social Security Administration had to tell the judge if there was any work Heard could still do despite his condition. Heard was stunned as the expert canvassed his computer and announced his findings: He could find work as a nut sorter, a dowel inspector or an egg processor — jobs that virtually no longer exist in the United States.
Nut sorter job description from Dictionary of Occupational Titles (TWP)

“Whatever it is that does those things, machines do it now,” said Heard, who lives on food stamps and a small stipend from his parents in a subsidized apartment in Tullahoma, Tenn. “Honestly, if they could see my shaking, they would see I couldn’t sort any nuts. I’d spill them all over the floor.”

He was still hopeful the administrative law judge hearing his claim for $1,300 to $1,700 per month in benefits had understood his limitations.

But while the judge agreed that Heard had multiple, severe impairments, he denied him benefits, writing that he had “job opportunities” in three occupations that are nearly obsolete and agreeing with the expert’s dubious claim that 130,000 positions were still available sorting nuts, inspecting dowels and processing eggs.

Every year, thousands of claimants like Heard find themselves blocked at this crucial last step in the arduous process of applying for disability benefits, thanks to labor market data that was last updated 45 years ago.

 Other Court and Crime News Head

 

Public Health, Pandemics, Abortion

ny times logoNew York Times, Americans Still Masking Against Covid Find Themselves Isolated, Amy Harmon, Dec. 27, 2022 (print ed.). It can be tough being a committed mask wearer when others have long since moved on from the pandemic.

Bitsy Cherry had been bracing for the question ever since most of the members of a board game group that had started meeting online during the pandemic began attending in-person meetings a few months ago.

Like many of the dwindling group of Americans still taking precautions like masking indoors and limiting face-to-face interactions, Mx. Cherry, who uses gender-neutral courtesy titles and pronouns, had been fielding nudges to return to pre-Covid routines from all corners. Doctors’ offices that have dropped mask protocols encouraged Mx. Cherry to come in for a physical exam. Friends suggested repeatedly that gathering on the porch might be safe enough. And there was President Biden, who in remarks on CBS’s “60 Minutes” had declared the pandemic “over.”

But when the board-game organizer finally asked this month if Mx. Cherry was ready to go back to gathering on the Cornell University campus, Mx. Cherry fumbled for an answer. The online gaming group on Saturday afternoons had become a key social outlet for Mx. Cherry, who has remained largely confined at home with Nathanael Nerode, Mx. Cherry’s partner, since March 2020 because of an autoimmune disorder that raises the risk of a severe outcome from Covid.

“I found that one upsetting,’’ Mx. Cherry said in an interview. “I’ve been worried in the back of my mind the whole time: When are they going to decide they don’t want to do this anymore?’’

For many Americans still at pains to avoid infection with the coronavirus, this has become the loneliest moment since the pandemic began.

Exercise classes have largely suspended remote workouts. Families and employers have expected attendance at holiday events. The vulnerable and the risk-averse are finding themselves the rare mask-wearers on public transportation, in places of worship, and at offices and stores.

Even as Covid cases and hospitalizations have climbed across the nation over the last month, public officials are avoiding mask mandates — though officials in some cities, including New York and Los Angeles, have recently recommended wearing masks in public places, citing a “tripledemic” that includes influenza and R.S.V., or respiratory syncytial virus.

It is hard to avoid the feeling of being judged as histrionic, some say, even when evidence suggests they are right to be cautious. And many say they face pressure, internal and external, to adjust to changing social norms around a virus that others are treating as a thing of the past.

“I feel now that I’m getting stares wearing the mask, and I’m not a paranoid person,’’ said Andrew Gold, 66, who was recently the only guest masking at a small housewarming party in his Upper West Side neighborhood in Manhattan. “The vibe I’m getting is: ‘Is this really necessary?’’’

ny times logoNew York Times, Covid Is Spreading Rapidly in China, New Signs Suggest, Chang Che, Dec. 26, 2022 (print ed.). Even as official figures from the central government remain low, regional numbers point to explosive outbreaks and overstretched health care systems.

Since China abandoned its restrictive “zero Covid” policy about two weeks ago, the intensity and magnitude of the country’s first nationwide outbreak has remained largely a mystery. With the country ending mass testing, case counts are less useful. The government has a narrow definition of which deaths should count as caused by Covid. Anecdotal evidence, like social media postings of hospital morgues overcrowded with body bags, is quickly taken down by censors.

Now, a picture is emerging of the virus spreading like wildfire.

One province and three cities have reported Covid estimates far exceeding official tallies in recent days. At a news conference on Sunday, an official in Zhejiang Province, home to 65 million people, estimated that daily Covid cases there had exceeded one million.

In the eastern city of Qingdao, population 10 million, a health minister said on Friday that there were roughly half a million new cases each day, a number he expected would rise sharply in the coming days, local news sites reported.

 

U.S. Privacy, Health Rights

fda logo

ny times logoNew York Times, The F.D.A. Now Says It Plainly: Morning-After Pills Are Not Abortion Pills, Pam Belluck, Dec. 24, 2022 (print ed.). Labels of Plan B One-Step had previously said, without scientific evidence, that the pill might block fertilized eggs from implanting in the womb.

The information will be in every box of the most widely used emergency contraceptive pills to make clear that they do not prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb. The agency explained in an accompanying document that the products cannot be described as abortion pills.

Up to now, packages of the brand-name pill, Plan B One-Step, as well as generic versions of it have said that the pill might work by preventing a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb — language that scientific evidence did not support. That wording led some abortion opponents and politicians who equate a fertilized egg with a person to say that taking the morning-after pill could be the equivalent of having an abortion or even committing murder.

The F.D.A. revised the leaflets inserted in packages of pills to say that the medication “works before release of an egg from the ovary,” meaning that it acts before fertilization, not after. The package insert also says the pill “will not work if you’re already pregnant, and will not affect an existing pregnancy.”

In a question-and-answer document posted on the F.D.A.’s website, the agency explicitly addressed the abortion issue. In answer to the question, “Is Plan B One-Step able to cause an abortion?” the agency writes: “No.” It added: “Plan B One-Step prevents pregnancy by acting on ovulation, which occurs well before implantation. Evidence does not support that the drug affects implantation or maintenance of pregnancy after implantation, therefore, it does not terminate a pregnancy.”

ny times logoNew York Times, ‘I’m Not Ready’: A Mother Denied an Abortion in Texas Faces an Uncertain Future, Dec. 19, 2022 (print ed.). Blue Haven Ranch, a faith-based, anti-abortion nonprofit, provides temporary aid for poor Texas women with newborns. But how will they survive when the support ends?

ny times logocovad 19 photo.jpg Custom 2New York Times, ‘Tripledemic’ Rages On: Fever-Filled Weeks Lie Ahead, Emily Anthes, Dec. 23, 2022 (print ed.). R.S.V. has probably peaked, but flu is still surging and Covid-19 cases are rising. Scientists are hopeful next winter will be better.

New, immune evasive versions of the Omicron variant are spreading, and Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are once again rising, although the figures remain far below last winter’s peak. But this year the coronavirus has company: Common seasonal viruses, which lay low for the last two winters, have come roaring back.

Recent Related Headlines

 

Weather, Climate, Disasters, Energy 

climate change photo

Legal Schnauzer, Matrix LLC paid ABC News “producer” to pepper pro-environment political candidates with deceptive questions in an effort to boost its clients who pollute roger shuler and murphy(Part 1), Roger Shuler, right, Dec. 22, 2022. A journalist who identifies herself as working for ABC News has been paid by an Alabama-based political-consulting firm to sideswipe pro-environment politicians with deceptive questions, according to a report at NPR/Floodlight.

The journalist was Kristen Hentschel, the consulting firm was Montgomery-based Matrix LLC. The beneficiaries of the scheme were alabama power logodesigned to be Matrix clients — such as Alabama Power, Southern Company, and Florida Power & Light — all with ties to projects known to produce pollution.

How did the “reporting” scheme with an ABC News journalist work? Exhibit A involves a Florida political candidate named Toby Overdorf, who had pledged to kristen hentschel ny posttake a serious approach to environmental protection. That’s where Hentschel, right, enters the picture.

Under the headline “She was an ABC News producer. She also was a corporate operative, NPR/Floodlight reporters Miranda Green, Mario Ariza, and David Folkenflik write:

Microphone and ABC News business card in hand, Hentschel rushed up to a candidate for the Florida House of Representatives before a debate, the candidate recalls, and asked him about 20 dead gopher tortoises that were reportedly found at a nearby construction site [in Stuart, FL]. Florida designates the species as threatened.

Overdorf, an environmental engineer, served as a consultant on the construction project — and he knew of no such tortoises. A city investigation found there were no dead tortoises, and no evidence that any ever had been present during the construction project. The oddities about the story do not end there, as NPR/Floodlight report:

That wasn’t the only surprise. Though Hentschel has done freelance work for ABC, she was not there for the network.

matrix logoAt the time, a political consulting firm called Matrix LLC had paid Hentschel at least $7,000, the firm’s internal ledgers show. And Matrix billed two major companies for Hentschel’s work, labeling the payments “for Florida Crystals, FPL.” (Florida Crystals is a huge sugar conglomerate. FPL is shorthand for the giant utility Florida Power & Light.)

Both companies could have benefited from Hentschels efforts to undermine Overdorf and his promises to resolve environmental issues in the district he was vying to represent. Florida Power & Light has pushed back against efforts to bring solar panels to the Sunshine State, while runoff from the sugar industry is a major source of water pollution in Florida.

florida light and power logoOverdorf won his election, but he remains distressed that he was subjected to such journalistic skulduggery:

“It was an attack ad against my livelihood, my family,” Overdorf says. “And it was something that potentially could last far beyond my time running for office.”

Overdorf was not the only victim of the Hentschel/Matrix operation. Once Hentschel’s ties to Matrix became public, ABC cut ties with her earlier this week:

abc news logo colorInterviews for this story and Matrix ledgers show Hentschel traded on her work for ABC News at least three times to trip up Florida politicians whose stances on environmental regulations cut against the interests of major Matrix clients. Internal Matrix financial records originally sent anonymously to the Orlando Sentinel and shared with Floodlight show that since 2016, the firm has paid Hentschel at least $14,350.

According to two people at ABC News with knowledge, Hentschel was not, in fact, reporting for ABC on any of those subjects. “If she was working on these stories, she was not authorized to cover them for ABC News,” one of them said. They requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about sensitive network matters. . . . 

“Kristen Hentschel was a freelance daily hire who never worked for ABC News on the political stories referenced in the NPR article,” the network said in a statement. “She does not currently work for ABC NEWS.”

How unusual is the Hentschel story.? One news veteran cannot remember another one like it:

David Westin, president of ABC News from 1997 to 2010, says he never came across an instance in which a journalist for the network was simultaneously doing advocacy.

“It just goes to the very heart of why people no longer have the same confidence and trust in the news media as they once did,” says Westin, now an anchor for Bloomberg TV. “They suspect this is going on anyway, and for it to actually go on confirms their worst suspicions.”

Hentschel, it turns out, appeared in all kinds of places — almost like a female Forrest Gump:

In another instance, the former girlfriend of Southern Company’s CEO, Tom Fanning, says Hentschel cozied up to her over the past year. Southern Company is a rival to Florida Power & Light. This August, Alabama news site AL.com reported that Matrix had previously paid a private investigator to spy on Fanning in the summer of 2017.

Hentschel did not return multiple detailed requests for comment.

jeff pittsMatrix’s former CEO, Jeff Pitts, left, who hired Hentschel for the firm, declined comment.

That leads us back — as Matrix-related stories often do — to the legal feud between Pitts and Joe Perkins:

Matrix’s founder, Joe Perkins, disavows any knowledge of Hentschel’s work for Matrix and says Pitts was acting as a “rogue”employee in Florida.

Pitts left Matrix to found a rival firm in late 2020, alleging in court papers that he quit Matrix over Perkins’ “unethical business practices,” including “ordering and directing the clandestine surveillance , including that of top executives of his largest client, the Southern Company.” Perkins blames Pitts for the surveillance.

All of this leads to questions about the possible roles of Southern Company, Alabama Power, and Matrix in other unsavory Alabama events. These include the head-on vehicle crash that nearly killed Birmingham-area attorney Burt Newsome, someone shooting into the car of former Drummond Company executive David Roberson as he drove on U.S. 280 near Mountain Brook, and an apparent fake deposition of a Verizon Wireless records custodian in the Newsome Conspiracy Case. 

Documents — and investigative reporting — shine considerable light on Hentschel’s ties to Matrix:

After Pitts left Matrix, reporters from Floodlight and NPR obtained company records documenting Hentschel’s work. This story also draws on other materials, including court records, and 14 interviews with people with direct knowledge of her activities.

In recent months, Matrix has also been accused of interfering in the workings of democracy in Alabama and Florida by seeking to influence ballot initiatives, running ghost candidates and offering a lucrative job to a public official if he resigned. As Floodlight and NPR have revealed, Matrix secretly maintained financial ties to a half-dozen political news sites and tried to ensure favorable coverage for clients.

Legal Schnauzer, Journalistic chicanery, sexual entanglements, and curious cash flow form a strange brew for big-polluting clients represented by Alabama-based Matrix LLC (Part 2), Roger Shuler, right, roger shuler and murphyDec. 27, 2022. The story of former ABC News producer Kristen Hentschel and the Matrix LLC political-consulting firm seems, at first glance, to be a tale of what might be called “journalistic fraud.”

After all, Hentschel would use her ABC News credentials to gain access to pro-environment political candidates, only to pepper them with bogus, accusatory questions designed to benefit Matrix’s big-polluting clients — Alabama Power, Southern Company, and Florida Power & Light. Alabama-based Matrix, it turns out, was paying Hentschel to pull off the deceptive scheme.

Upon further inspection, however, the story includes enough romantic entanglements to fill several scripts for an afternoon soap opera. Perhaps that is fitting kristen hentschelbecause Hentschel, left, before she was outed and fired by ABC News last week, was best known for having an affair with ABC journalist Chris Hansen, of To Catch a Predator fame.  

A joint investigation by NPR and Florida-based Floodlight led to a story that broke the Hentschel-Matrix scam on a national stage. It was as if the Hentschel-Hansen affair served as an appetizer for the bigger scandal to come – – and, as it turned out, that story had plenty of npr logosex angles, too.

Hentschel worked on the periphery of TV news, but struggled to gain a firm foothold on the big time. Write NPR/Floodlight reporters Miranda Green, Mario Ariza, and David Folkenflik:

Hentschel began her journalism career with short stints at local TV newsrooms in Chico, Calif., Waco, Texas, and Knoxville, Tennessee.

“A lot of people think that the television business … looks Hollywood-esque,” Hentschel once told Baldwin Park Living, a Florida lifestyle magazine. “I made $8 an hour [at] my first job, laid on couches and had to move around literally every one to two years.”

At those jobs, she covered crime, storms, traffic — mainstays of local news.

Her career foundered in 2011 when the National Enquirer disclosed a romantic relationship between her and a married man: Chris Hansen, the former host of NBC’s To Catch a Predator.

Hentschel learned that TV news presents a double standard for women in a highly competitive business:

Subsequent stints in Las Vegas, Seattle and Orlando, Fla., proved brief. “A double standard is an understatement as to what happens in this industry,” Hentschel told RadarOnline.com in an interview about her relationship with Hansen. “The women get fired and the men keep going.” Professionally, she had been using the name Kristyn Caddell, which endures on her Twitter account, but shifted to her family name, Kristen Hentschel, by late 2015.

Soon, Hentschel was out of work, and perhaps from desperation, turned to Matrix. Her resume found its way to the firm’s CEO, Jeff Pitts — and he hired her in early 2016. But that was not to be Hentschel’s only job:

Hentschel soon secured a second gig. In February 2016, she started as a freelance news producer for ABC News.

Hentschel primarily did work for Good Morning America. Among her assignments: helping with segments on NFL star Tom Brady and the disappearance and death of Gabby Petito, the young Florida woman who documented her cross-country trip on social media.

“Our setup for today… #lighting is everything,” Hentschel once tweeted with a photograph of a TV reporting shoot. “Who’s in the hot seat?”

The answer often proved to be people Pitts wanted her to confront.

Perhaps the strangest episode came when Matrix decided to spy on Southern Company chief Tom Fanning:

In another instance, the former girlfriend of Southern Company’s CEO, Tom Fanning, says Hentschel cozied up to her over the past year. Southern Company is a rival to Florida Power & Light. This August, Alabama news site AL.com reported that Matrix had previously paid a private investigator to spy on Fanning in the summer of 2017. . . . 

joe perkinsMatrix’s founder, Joe Perkins, right, disavows any knowledge of Hentschel’s work for Matrix and says Pitts was acting as a “rogue” employee in Florida.

Pitts left Matrix to found a rival firm in late 2020, alleging in court papers that he quit Matrix over Perkins’ “unethical business practices,” including “ordering and directing the clandestine surveillance including that of top executives of his largest client, the Southern Company.” Perkins blames Pitts for the surveillance.

According to NPR/Floodlight, Pitts had a tendency to mix business with pleasure:

Pitts could be a charmer. He was known to cultivate a personal rapport with his corporate clients over sushi and steak dinners, favoring long meals with freely flowing red wine. In an email exchange with a vice president of the energy company NextEra, Pitts wrote, “Talk tomorrow but miss you.” She wrote back that his note was a nice surprise. “You said [to] be more open,” Pitts replied.

Pitts mixed business with romance, Matrix financial records show. Over the course of the last decade, Pitts paid his then-wife more than $10,000 for work for Matrix, according to copies of the firm’s invoices reflecting payments to her personal company. She had previously been employed at Alabama Power, one of Matrix’s oldest clients, according to press clippings and two associates.

matrix logoMatrix also paid Pitts’ ongoing romantic partner, Apryl Marie Fogel, a conservative radio-show host, nearly $150,000 over several years. Fogel runs the conservative news site Alabama Today, which published articles showcasing Matrix clients in a favorable light.

On a recent episode of her radio show, Fogel compared her relationship with Pitts to that of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife, the pro-Trump activist Ginni Thomas.

“You check it at the door,” Fogel says. “You may be somewhat, in a fuzzy way, aware of what the other person is doing. And you want them to be successful, but it doesn’t mean that you two—that everything is running in lockstep.”

It did not take long for Hentschel to become part of the romantic scene:

Shortly after Hentschel started working for Pitts at Matrix, the two began an affair, associates say, though it is not clear how long it lasted. Hentschel bought a home close to Pitts’ apartment in West Palm Beach, Florida, public records show.

Meanwhile, Hentschel targeted political figures who could pose a problem for Matrix clients. One target proved to be the mayor of South Miami, who had promoted residential solar panels in the Sunshine State:

Hentschel called Phil Stoddard, then the mayor of South Miami, in August 2018. He says she identified herself as an ABC reporter and asked him about an upcoming press conference likely to bring unflattering publicity. A lawsuit had been filed by parents of a teenager who was hospitalized years earlier after attending a party thrown by Stoddard’s teenage daughter. (The suit was ultimately settled.)

npr logoThe press conference turned out to be a sham. It had been orchestrated by Joe Carrillo, a private detective, and Dan Newman, a political operative with financial links to Matrix, according to Matrix documents and a copy of the press release obtained by Floodlight and NPR.

Matrix paid Hentschel $2,000 a few weeks later for what was itemized as a “Miami shoot,” a Matrix ledger shows.

The interest in Stoddard, a biologist, seems easy to discern. Stoddard had clashed with Florida Power & Light over transmission lines, a nuclear power florida light and power logoplant, and policies on residential solar panels. . . . 

Internal Matrix emails between Newman, the political operative, and Pitts, the firm’s then-CEO, show it hired a private detective to investigate Stoddard’s personal life. The Orlando Sentinel reported that Matrix-linked nonprofits spent six figures trying to knock him out of office. . . . 

On Sept. 26, Hentschel showed up with a videographer to a city council meeting.

“I thought, ‘No good’s gonna come of this,'” Stoddard recalls. He shut down her requests for comment at the council meeting. He continued battling Florida Power & Light even after he left office in 2020.

NPR/Floodlight found that ABC News probably should not have been caught off guard by Hentschel’s activities:

There is evidence that ABC News was first told two years ago that Hentschel inappropriately invoked her network ties in conducting work that had nothing to do with ABC News.

abc news logo colorU.S. Rep. Brian Mast of Florida, a conservative Republican, has established a record as an advocate of strengthening water quality in Lake Okeechobee, the state’s largest freshwater lake. He has introduced four pieces of legislation to address toxic algal blooms there.

His work puts him at odds with Florida’s powerful sugar interest, Florida Crystals. Okeechobee is kept artificially full for that industry and other corporate use. Mast’s bills could ultimately cut into their profits.

“They’ll do anything that they can to hold onto that grip of controlling water in the state of Florida,” Mast says. “And I’m probably the number one person that goes against them.”

In the heat of the 2020 election season, Hentschel chased down Mast at a fundraiser featuring then-President Donald Trump. She told Mast’s aides she wanted to ask him about messages he wrote nearly a decade earlier, before entering politics. He had joked about rape and sex with teenagers in Facebook posts to a friend. They had just surfaced publicly, and he had apologized. The aides didn’t bite.

The conservative Florida news site The Capitolist called Mast’s proposals extreme and urged readers to vote for his Democratic opponent. Matrix had previously funneled The Capitolist nearly $200,000 from Florida Power & Light, the firm’s invoices show. Perkins denied Matrix paid The Capitolist and said the company “was unaware of any financial relationships between The Capitolist and any Matrix client.”

That September, Hentschel rang the doorbell at Mast’s home in a gated community and told Mast’s wife she was reporting for ABC, even handing over a business card citing the network, according to Mast’s accounts in an interview for this story and in a trespassing complaint he filed with police.

A senior aide to Mast shot off an email to ABC. Its political director, Rick Klein, replied that Hentschel was not there for the network.

Election Day was two months away. In a video he posted on Facebook, Mast denounced his Democratic opponent for sending Hentschel to his door. “I want to talk about something that frankly is just BS,” Mast said.

Mast now says he believes Hentschel sought to intimidate him on behalf of the sugar company and Matrix client Florida Crystals — an allegation the company rejected.

washington post logoWashington Post, Scientists say Arctic warming could be to blame for blasts of extreme cold, Scott Dance, Dec. 26, 2022 (print ed.). Research suggests that climate change is altering the jet stream, pushing frigid air down to southern climes more frequently. But the scientific jury is still out.

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U.S. High Tech, Education, Media, Culture

 

washington post logoWashington Post, Opinion: Newspapers are disappearing where democracy needs them most, Nancy Gibbs, Dec. 28, 2022. Nancy Gibbs is the director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

Every couple of weeks you can read about another newspaper shutting its doors, or moving from daily to weekly, or hollowing out its newsroom until it’s little more than a skeleton staff bulked up with j-school students. Study the maps made by Penny Abernathy, visiting professor at Northwestern University and an expert on dwindling sources of news, and you can see the dead zones — the 200 or so counties with no local paper. About 1,600 other counties have only one.

Local news is the oxygen of democracy, the most trusted source for the most essential information, and we’ve long known why dying newsrooms damage communities. But look at the maps again, and another alarming picture comes into focus: The very places where local news is disappearing are often the same places that wield disproportionate political power.

This phenomenon affects Americans living far away from the news deserts. Demographers predict that by 2040, one-third of Americans will pick 70 percent of the Senate.

Think of a typical voter in South Dakota, with its single congressional district and, of course, two senators for a population of about 895,000. Thanks to the Senate’s structural bias toward less-populated states, that gives each of the nearly 600,000 registered voters in South Dakota about 28 times more power in that body than each of the 17 million voters in Texas. When it comes to electing presidents, that South Dakota voter carries twice the weight in the electoral college as their Texas counterpart.

But with all that added clout for shaping the composition of Congress and, less directly, the Supreme Court and the White House, the voters in about half of South Dakota’s 66 counties have only a single weekly newspaper. Seven counties have no newspaper at all.

washington post logoWashington Post, Retired Pope Benedict XVI, 95, is ‘very sick’; Francis asks for prayers, Chico Harlan and Stefano Pitrelli, Dec. 28, 2022. Pope Francis appealed for prayers for retired Pope Benedict XVI and for God to sustain him “until the end.”

Pope Francis said his predecessor Benedict XVI was “very sick,” and the Vatican said the 95-year-old’s health had “worsened,” putting the Catholic Church on watch about one of its most towering conservative figures.
“I ask to all of you for a special prayer for Pope Emeritus Benedict,” Francis told pilgrims at his general audience Wednesday, asking God to console and sustain Benedict “until the end.”

The Vatican, in its statement, said the situation “at the moment remains under control, and is constantly followed by the doctors.”

The comments appeared to mark a worrying turning point for Benedict, who has been frail but sharp-minded for years and who has now been ex-pope for a longer period than he served as pope.

Pope Benedict, in retired seclusion, looms in the opposition to Pope Francis

One close friend to Benedict, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about a delicate subject, said the retired pontiff had become weaker since before Christmas but did not have information about his health in the most recent hours.

“Of course time is not on his side,” the friend said. “Some concerns are surely there.”

After Francis’s general audience, he visited Benedict at a convent inside the Vatican’s ancient walls. The Vatican statement said, “We join [Francis] in prayer for the Pope Emeritus.”

In photos the Vatican has published of Benedict — including on Aug. 27, after a ceremony to name new cardinals — he appeared gaunt and hunched. But friends have said he remained clear-minded.

The Hill, Opinion: The latest JFK document release: A smoking gun, or did Oswald act alone? Paul Roderick Gregory, Dec. 27, 2022 (print ed.). The reticence of successive presidents to release classified JFK-assassination documents has fed conspiracy theories characterizing Lee Harvey Oswald as part of a conspiracy thehill logoor the “patsy” he declared himself to be upon his arrest.

The latest document dump by the National Archives raised hopes among conspiracy buffs of information that might implicate Cuba, the former Soviet Union, the Mafia, Big Oil, or some other sinister cabal in President Kennedy’s murder.

But conspiracy theorists are in for another disappointment. There is no smoking gun, not even a toy pistol, and most of the data we already knew. The documents show that Lee Harvey Oswald traveled to Mexico City not to receive instructions to kill JFK but to prepare for a new life in a Cuba. The documents capture Oswald as a master manipulator, planner and schemer, important qualifications for an assassin working alone.

Some 95 percent of the documents released on Dec. 15 are trivia, boilerplate or bureaucratese — a classic case of over-classification by the intelligence community. Did we really need to hide a 60-year-old secret deal with Mexico’s then-president to surveil the Soviet embassy? Or to redact names and sources of officials long dead? (On a personal note, why did the routine decision not to further interview my father, Pete Gregory, who knew and introduced me to Oswald, need to wait a half-century to be released?)

Paul Roderick Gregory is a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Houston, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a research fellow at the German Institute for Economic Research. He is author of the book, “The Oswalds: An Untold Account of Marina and Lee.”

JIP Editor’s Note: This column was published almost concurrently by the Wall Street Journal as part of a massive publicity campaign to promote Gregory’s book and its pro-Warren Report claims disregarding the compelling scientific evidence that Oswald could not possibly have fired fatal shots at JFK.

ny times logoNew York Times, Pandemic Woes Lead Met Opera to Tap Endowment and Embrace New Works, Javier C. Hernández, Dec. 27, 2022 (print ed.). Facing tepid ticket sales, the company will withdraw up to $30 million and stage more operas by living composers, which have been outselling the classics.

Hit hard by a cash shortfall and lackluster ticket sales as it tries to lure audiences back amid the pandemic, the Metropolitan Opera said Monday that it would withdraw up to $30 million from its endowment, give fewer performances next season and accelerate its embrace of contemporary works, which, in a shift, have been outselling the classics.

The dramatic financial and artistic moves show the extent to which the pandemic and its aftermath continue to roil the Met, the premier opera company in the United States, and come as many other performing arts institutions face similar pressures.

“The challenges are greater than ever,” said Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager. “The only path forward is reinvention.”

Nonprofit organizations try to dip into their endowments only as a last resort, since the funds are meant to grow over time while producing a steady source of investment income. The Met’s endowment, which was valued at $306 million, was already considered small for an institution of its size. This season it is turning to the endowment to cover operating expenses, to help offset weak ticket sales and a cash shortfall that emerged as some donors were reluctant to accelerate pledged gifts amid the stock market downturn. As more cash gifts materialize, the company hopes to replenish the endowment.

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washington post logoWashington Post, Supreme Court leaves in place pandemic-era Title 42 border policy for now, Robert Barnes and Ann E. Marimow, Dec. 27, 2022. The Trump-era policy allows quick expulsion of migrants from U.S. borders without the chance to seek asylum. The court’s action was temporary, and it will consider in February whether states had the legal standing to intervene in the dispute.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday blocked the Biden administration’s plans to end a pandemic-era policy allowing the quick expulsion of migrants from U.S. borders without the opportunity to seek asylum.

The Trump-era policy, known as Title 42, had been set to expire last week, but Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. paused that plan to give the high court time to weigh the issue.

In Tuesday’s order, five conservative justices sided with Republican officials in 19 states, including Texas and Arizona, who sought to maintain Title 42, which has been used to expel migrants more than 2 million times since it was implemented in March 2020.

But the court’s action was temporary, and it will consider in February whether the states had the legal standing to intervene in the dispute.

The court’s order was unsigned, but the court’s three liberal justices, along with conservative Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, objected.

Gorsuch wrote that the court’s action was designed to help avert a crisis at the border, but that was not the role of judges.

“The current border crisis is not a COVID crisis,” Gorsuch wrote. “And courts should not be in the business of perpetuating administrative edicts designed for one emergency only because elected officials have failed to address a different emergency. We are a court of law, not policymakers of last resort.”

Gorsuch’s statement was joined by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan would have turned down the request from the states but did not give their reasoning.

The Biden administration has said that ending the policy will restore existing federal laws designed to punish and quickly deport migrants who cross the border illegally and to protect those with legitimate asylum cases. That system is more effective, officials have said, particularly for adults traveling without children, since Title 42 merely pushes people to the other side of the border to try again.

Official border crossings remain essentially closed to asylum seekers while Title 42 remains in effect. That has helped fuel an influx of thousands of migrants crossing the border outside of the legal entry points, hoping to turn themselves in to border police and request asylum proceedings that would allow them to stay — at least temporarily — in the United States.

The Biden administration agreed that the policy should end even as it struggled to deal with the influx of migrants. U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth B. Prelogar told the justices the federal government recognizes that lifting Title 42 “will likely lead to disruption and a temporary increase in unlawful border crossings.” But she wrote that the solution to that immigration problem “cannot be to extend indefinitely a public-health measure that all now acknowledge has outlived its public-health justification.”

The government contended that Adam Fox was the “driving force urging their recruits to take up arms, kidnap the governor and kill those who stood in their way.” (Associated Press photo by Carlos Osorio).

The government contended that Adam Fox was the “driving force urging their recruits to take up arms, kidnap the governor, above, and kill those who stood in their way.” (Associated Press photo by Carlos Osorio).

ap logoAssociated Press via Politico, Co-leader of Whitmer kidnapping plot gets 16 years in prison, Staff Report, Dec. 27, 2022. The government had pushed for a life sentence.

The co-leader of a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was sentenced Wednesday to 16 years in prison for conspiring to abduct the Democrat and blow up a bridge to ease an escape.

politico CustomAdam Fox, below right, returned to federal court Tuesday, four months after he and Barry Croft Jr. were convicted of conspiracy charges at a second trial in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

They were accused of being at the helm of a wild plot to whip up anti-government extremists just before the 2020 presidential election. Their arrest, as well as the capture of 12 others, was a stunning coda to a tumultuous year of racial strife and political turmoil in the U.S.

adam fox resized mugThe government had pushed for a life sentence, saying Croft offered bomb-making skills and ideology while Fox was the “driving force urging their recruits to take up arms, kidnap the governor and kill those who stood in their way.”

But Judge Robert J. Jonker said that while Fox’s sentence was needed as a punishment and deterrent to future similar acts, the government’s request for life in prison is “not necessary to achieve those purposes.”

“It’s too much. Something less than life gets the job done in this case,” Jonker said, later adding that 16 years in prison “is still in my mind a very long time.”

In addition to the 16-year prison sentence, Fox will have to serve five years of supervised release.

Fox and Croft were convicted at a second trial in August, months after a different jury in Grand Rapids, Michigan, couldn’t reach a verdict but acquitted two other men. Croft, a trucker from Bear, Delaware, will be sentenced Wednesday.

Fox and Croft in 2020 met with like-minded provocateurs at a summit in Ohio, trained with weapons in Michigan and Wisconsin and took a ride to “put eyes” on Whitmer’s vacation home with night-vision goggles, according to evidence.

“They had no real plan for what to do with the governor if they actually seized her. Paradoxically, this made them more dangerous, not less,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler said in a court filing ahead of the hearing.

In 2020, Fox, 39, was living in the basement of a Grand Rapids-area vacuum shop, the site of clandestine meetings with members of a paramilitary group and an undercover FBI agent. His lawyer said he was depressed, anxious and smoking marijuana daily.

Fox was regularly exposed to “inflammatory rhetoric” by FBI informants, especially Army veteran Dan Chappel, who “manipulated not only Fox’s sense of ‘patriotism’ but also his need for friendship, acceptance and male approval,” Gibbons said in a court filing.

He said prosecutors had exaggerated Fox’s capabilities, saying he was poor and lacked the capability to obtain a bomb and carry out the plan.

Two men who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and testified against Fox and Croft received substantial breaks: Ty Garbin already is free after a 2 1/2-year prison term, while Kaleb Franks was given a four-year sentence.

In state court, three men recently were given lengthy sentences for assisting Fox earlier in the summer of 2020. Five more are awaiting trial in Antrim County, where Whitmer’s vacation home is located.

When the plot was extinguished, Whitmer, a Democrat, blamed then-President Donald Trump, saying he had given “comfort to those who spread fear and hatred and division.” In August, 19 months after leaving office, Trump said the kidnapping plan was a “fake deal.”

 

 Former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, a leading proponent of the Jan. 6 pro-Trump

 Former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, a leading proponent of the Jan. 6 pro-Trump “Stop the Steal” that led to the Capitol insurrection, is shown in a collage with then-President Donald Trump (File photos).

Wayne Madsen Report, Investigative Commentary: The missing piece in the January 6th Committee Report, Wayne Madsen, left, author of 22 books (including wayne madsen may 29 2015 cropped SmallThe Rise of The Fourth Reich, below,  and former synidcated columnist, Navy intellitence officer and NSA analyst, Dec. 25-27, 2022.

The House Select Committee on the January 6 attack on the Congress did an admirable job of cutting through the obstruction of justice, obfuscation, and plain old lying from Donald Trump and his administration’s and presidential campaign’s hopeless sycophants.

wayne madesen report logoHowever, the committee failed to answer the mail on the military’s involvement in pre- and post-coup plans for a Trump military-civilian junta to rule the United States. Far too many Department of Defense political appointees were not criticized in the committee’s report, particularly those who failed to order the early deployment of National Guard troops to safeguard the Capitol complex for the ceremonial counting of the electoral votes to proclaim Joe Biden and Kamala Harris the president- and vice president-wayne madsen fourth reich coverelect of the United States.

It is quite clear that Trump had installed a coterie of military and civilian officials at the Pentagon whose main task it was to fail to respond to pleas for assistance from congressional and Washington, DC authorities as insurrectionists stormed the Capitol.

The presence of then-Major General Charles Flynn, right, within the U.S. Army’s Pentagon staff should have raised the suspicions of the committee. Flynn’s brother, charles flynn oTrump’s former national security adviser Mike Flynn, had been one of the chief proponents of advancing Trump’s “Stop the Steal” campaign to the point where he called for the military to not only seize voting machines but Trump to declare martial law and hold an unconstitutional “do-over” of the November 3rd election.

Other active duty officers who stymied the dispatch of National Guard troops to the Capitol included Lieutenant General Walter Piatt, Charles Flynn’s immediate superior, who remains the Director of the Army Staff at the Pentagon, and then-Brigadier General Christopher LaNeve, the Director of Operations and Mobilization, who worked under Piatt and Flynn, and has since been promoted to Major General and is currently the Commander of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

It is very clear that a group of far-right retired flag rank military officers stood ready to fill important government positions in a Trump junta after a successful January 6 coup. During the 2020 campaign 317 of these officers, representing “Flag Officers 4 America,” signed an open letter full of vitriolic pro-Trump rhetoric, including the charge that the “Democrat Party” was “welcoming Socialists and Marxists” and that “our historic way of life is at stake.”

WMR has compiled a spreadsheet listing the names of the “Flag Officers 4 America” and other lower-ranked military retirees and active members of the military and reserves who provided aid and comfort to Trump and his coup plotters. While this is not a complete list of officer-level traitors in the U.S. military community, it can be appended with additional names.

just security logo

Just Security, January 6 Clearinghouse Congressional Hearings, Government Documents, Court Cases, Academic Research, Ryan Goodman and Justin Hendrix, Dec. 26-27, 2022. Deposition Transcripts of House Select Committee (sorted by affiliation, alphabetical, date of deposition). Welcome to this all-source repository of information for analysts, researchers, investigators, journalists, educators, and the public at large. 

Check out our new addition below: A curated repository of deposition transcripts from the House Select Committee. Readers may also be interested in Major Highlights of the January 6th Report.

If you think the January 6 Clearinghouse is missing something, please send recommendations for additional content by email to [email protected] 

The authors are grateful for the assistance of Joshua Asabor, Matthew Bailey, Sarah Butterfield, Brianne Cuffe, and Nicholas Tonckens in the creation of the Clearinghouse.

washington post logoWashington Post, At least 25 dead in Buffalo’s worst blizzard in 50 years, Sarah Kaplan, Dec. 27, 2022 (print ed.). Meanwhile, Weather conditions that snarled traffic and holiday travel in much of the United States began to ease across the nation on Sunday.

At least 25 people have died in this weekend’s catastrophic snowstorm, officials announced Monday, marking this blizzard as Western New York’s deadliest in at least 50 years.

Roads remain impassable and more than 12,000 people are still without power as the unrelenting storm is forecast to drop as much as a foot of additional snow, Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said during a Monday morning news conference. First responders are still struggling to reach people trapped in their cars, while people stuck in shelters and nursing homes are running out of food.
Fast, informative and written just for locals. Get The 7 DMV newsletter in your inbox every weekday morning.

“This is the worst storm probably in our lifetime and maybe in the history of the city,” Poloncarz said. “And this is not the end yet.”

The dead have been found in their cars, homes and in snowbanks. Some have had cardiac arrests while shoveling.

ny times logoNew York Times, ‘Tragic Battle’: On the Front Lines of China’s Covid Crisis, Isabelle Qian and David Pierson, Dec. 27, 2022. Medical staff members are outnumbered and many are working while sick as the nation’s health care system buckles under the strain of a spiraling crisis.

Slumped in wheelchairs and lying on gurneys, the sickened patients crowd every nook and cranny of the emergency department at the hospital in northern China. They cram into the narrow spaces between elevator doors. They surround an idle walk-through metal detector. And they line the walls of a corridor ringing with the sounds of coughing.

China’s hospitals were already overcrowded, underfunded and inadequately staffed in the best of times. But now with Covid spreading freely for the first time in China, the medical system is being pushed to its limits.

The scenes of desperation and misery at the Tianjin Medical University General Hospital, captured on one of several videos examined by The New York Times, reflects the growing crisis. Even as Covid cases rise, health workers on the front lines are also battling rampant infections within their own ranks. So many have tested positive for the virus in some hospitals that the remaining few say they are forced to do the job of five or more co-workers.

ny times logoNew York Times, China will soon no longer require incoming travelers to quarantine, a significant step toward reopening, Vivian Wang, Dec. 27, 2022 (print ed.). China on Monday announced that travelers from overseas would no longer be required to enter quarantine upon arrival, in one of the country’s most significant steps toward reopening since the coronavirus pandemic began.

From Jan. 8, incoming travelers will be required to show only a negative polymerase chain reaction, or P.C.R., test within 48 hours before departure, China’s National Health Commission said. Limitations on the number of incoming flights will also be eased.

The travel restrictions had isolated the world’s most populous country for nearly three years. Foreigners were essentially barred from entering China in 2020, and even when they were allowed back in months later, it was generally only for business or family reunions.

 

U.S. Politics, Elections, Economy, Governance

 

U.S. Rep.-elect George Santos, R-NY (AFP Photo by Wade Vandervort via Getty Images).

U.S. Rep.-elect George Santos, R-NY (AFP Photo by Wade Vandervort via Getty Images).

ny times logoNew York Times, George Santos Admits to Lying About College and Work History, Michael Gold and Grace Ashford, Dec. 27, 2022 (print ed.). The congressman-elect confirmed The Times’s findings that he had not graduated from college or worked at two major Wall Street firms, as he had claimed.

Ending a weeklong silence, Representative-elect George Santos admitted on Monday to a sizable list of falsehoods about his professional background, educational history and property ownership. But he said he was determined to take the oath of office on Jan. 3 and join the House majority.

Mr. Santos, a New York Republican who was elected in November to represent parts of northern Long Island and northeast Queens, confirmed some of the key findings of a New York Times investigation into his background, but sought to minimize the misrepresentations.

“My sins here are embellishing my résumé,” Mr. Santos told The New York Post in one of several interviews he gave on Monday.

Mr. Santos admitted to lying about graduating from college and making misleading claims that he worked for Citigroup or Goldman Sachs. He once said he had a family-owned real estate portfolio of 13 properties; on Monday, he admitted he was not a landlord.

Mr. Santos, the first openly gay Republican to win a House seat as a non-incumbent, also acknowledged owing thousands in unpaid rent and a yearslong marriage he had never disclosed.

“I dated women in the past. I married a woman. It’s personal stuff,” he said to The Post, adding that he was “OK with my sexuality. People change.”

The admissions by Mr. Santos added a new wrinkle to one of the more astonishing examples of an incoming congressman falsifying key biographical elements of his background — with Mr. Santos maintaining the falsehoods through two consecutive bids for Congress, the first of which he lost.

Mr. Santos acknowledged that a string of financial difficulties had left him owing thousands to landlords and creditors. But he failed to fully explain in the interviews how his fortunes reversed so significantly that, by 2022, he was able to lend $700,000 to his congressional campaign.

Yet even as Mr. Santos, whose victory helped Republicans secure a narrow majority in the next House of Representatives, admitted to some fabrication, his actions will still not prevent him, in all likelihood, from being seated in Congress.

Democrats — including the outgoing House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and the next House Democratic leader, Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York — have accused Mr. Santos of being unfit to serve in Congress. Top House Republican leaders, including Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, have largely remained silent.

 The House can only prevent candidates from taking office if they violate the Constitution’s age, citizenship and state residency requirements. Once he has been seated, however, Mr. Santos could face ethics investigations, legal experts have said.

Daily Beast, Investigation: Russian Oligarch’s Cousin Funneled Cash to N.Y. Politician, William Bredderman, Nov. 30, 2022. FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE. Andrew Intrater, money manager to Russian Viktor Vekselberg, gave $56,100 to committees tied to Rep.-elect George Devolder-Santos, who called Ukraine “totalitarian.”

daily beast logoThe cousin and cash handler for one of Russia’s most notorious oligarchs poured tens of thousands of dollars into electing a newly minted congressman-elect who called Ukraine’s government “a totalitarian regime.”

george santos headshotRepublican George Devolder-Santos, right, vanquished Democrat Robert Zimmerman this month in the race for a House seat covering parts of Long Island and the New York City borough of Queens—riding a red wave that swept the Empire State this cycle, and washing away two decades of Democratic dominance in the district.

Devolder-Santos had long courted conservative media attention by presenting himself as a “walking, living, breathing contradiction”—a gay Latino millennial born in New York City, who is also a fervent devotee of ex-President Donald Trump.

For much of his professional career, which included a stint as regional director at an alleged Ponzi scheme, the Republican used the name George Devolder. However, as he ventured further into the world of politics, he began to increasingly use the name George Devolder-Santos or simply George Santos.

He stood out to the Washington Post earlier this year for his remarks in the aftermath of Russia’s bloody, unprovoked assault on Ukraine.

“It’s not like Ukraine is a great democracy. It’s a totalitarian regime. They’re not a great bastion of freedom,” the congressman-to-be told the paper.

He has insisted that Ukraine “welcomed the Russians into their provinces”—an apparent reference to President Vladimir Putin’s 2014 invasion to prop up rogue separatist parties—and that Ukrainians in the east “feel more Russian than Ukrainian,” even though every single Ukrainian province overwhelmingly voted for independence in 1991.

It was not the first time Devolder-Santos had parroted Kremlin talking points. In the weeks before Putin’s brutal, blundering attack upon his western neighbor, the candidate repeatedly took to Twitter to accuse President Joe Biden of plotting to “start a war” with Russia and deploy American troops to Ukraine.

washington post logoWashington Post, As Trump suggests Constitution edits, dines with antisemites, Biden condemnation grows more forceful, Toluse Olorunnipa, Dec. 27, 2022 (print ed.). As President Biden prepares his reelection bid, some Democrats see an advantage in highlighting volatile remarks by Republicans.

President Biden and his team have begun responding faster and more sharply to provocative comments and actions by former president Donald Trump and his allies, potentially preparing the ground for Biden’s expected reelection announcement early next year.

joe biden black background resized serious fileThe rapid responses, coming in the weeks since Democrats outperformed expectations in the November midterms, come as some Democratic strategists see a political advantage in pointedly — and frequently — drawing a contrast with Trump, the Republican Party, and the Republican lawmakers poised to take over the House of Representatives.

After Trump hosted two outspoken antisemites for dinner last month, Biden tweeted a blunt condemnation of bigotry, second gentleman Doug Emhoff hosted a summit for Jewish leaders, and the White House launched a new task force to combat antisemitism.

Minutes after Trump suggested terminating parts of the Constitution to overturn his 2020 election loss, the White House issued a statement chastising the former president and defending the “sacrosanct document.”

When Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) said the Jan. 6 rioters would have been armed and successful if she had been leading the 2021 insurrection, Biden’s press secretary did not wait for reporters to ask about it before rebuking the comments as “dangerous” and “vile.”

The moves come in the wake of Trump’s announcement of a third presidential bid and a midterm election that will give Republicans a modest edge in the House. With their thin majority, House Republican leaders will have little room to distance themselves from any of their members, giving lawmakers with incendiary views outsize influence, said Russell Riley, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia Miller Center.

ny times logoNew York Times, Thousands of Canceled Flights Cap Holiday Weekend of Travel Nightmares, Amy Qin, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs and Steve Lohr, Dec. 27, 2022 (print ed.). Southwest Airlines, which canceled about 70 percent of its flights, was the airline most affected on Monday. Thousands of travelers were stranded at U.S. airports on Monday as a wave of canceled flights — many of them operated by Southwest Airlines — spoiled holiday plans and kept families from returning home during one of the busiest and most stressful travel stretches of the year.

The cancellations and delays one day after Christmas left people sleeping on airport floors, standing in hourslong customer service lines and waiting on tarmacs for hours on end.

The problems are likely to continue into Tuesday and later this week. As of Monday night, about 2,600 U.S. flights scheduled for Tuesday were already canceled, including 60 percent of all Southwest flights.

“The only thing we want is to get home,” said Francis Uba, who was among the frustrated passengers at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Monday, where over 130 flights were canceled as of that evening.

Politico, Diamond-studded thorns: 2 House Dem centrists speak up on their way out, Sarah Ferris, Dec. 27, 2022 (print ed.). An exit interview with Reps. Stephanie stephanie murphy oMurphy and Kathleen Rice that ran the gamut, from entrenched sexism to their pal Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.

politico CustomAnd they’ve both felt the sting of ostracism for crossing their party, getting static from outside groups and protestors that Murphy, right, said exists largely “to punish its own party members for stepping out of bounds.”

But when the duo sat down for an exit interview with POLITICO, it was clear they have few regrets about their reputations as thorns in the side of leadership. In fact, they take the label literally: Murphy, Rice and their close friend, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), bought matching diamond-adorned thorn-shaped necklaces to celebrate their roles, along with a handful of other moderates, in delivering President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill last fall.

“A diamond-studded thorn. There’s an analogy there,” Murphy said. “But we got the bill done. Sinema got it done on the Senate side, and we broke it free on the House side. … We believe in celebrating victories sometimes, just with jewelry.”

In a Capitol and a nation where bitter partisan division has made centrists like Murphy and Rice ever more rare and oft-targeted, their candor about their rebelliousness stands out — perhaps more so in contrast to the reticence of their friend Sinema. (Especially since the trio has a habit of shared mementos, buying what they call “class rings” or “we survived the insurrection” rings after a narrow escape from Sinema’s hideaway on Jan. 6, 2021.)

Stephanie Murphy and Kathleen Rice are leaving Congress earlier than most — with plenty of bones to pick.

Murphy (D-Fla.) and Rice (D-N.Y.), two best friends and roommates during their years in Washington, will depart this month after a combined 12 years on the Hill and a shared conviction for causing intra-party headaches. Rice, 57, famously led the revolt against Nancy Pelosi’s second speaker bid, while Murphy, 44, emerged as a vocal critic of Democrats’ handling of their agenda last year.

 

pennsylvania map major cities

Politico, Pennsylvania politics are heated. It soon could be utter chaos, Holly Otterbein, Dec. 27, 2022 (print ed.). The state House is a mess, with each side claiming they are in the majority and Republicans potentially passing amendments after Democrats won more seats.

politico CustomDemocrats in Pennsylvania won the majority of seats in the state House this fall, powered by voter backlash to the fall of Roe v. Wade.

But come next year, it’s anybody’s guess which party will actually hold the speaker’s gavel.

A razor-thin victory by Democrats, combined with a handful of vacancies and the hardball political culture in the state capitol, has kicked off a high-stakes battle for control of the House.

At the heart of the matter is a disagreement over which party has the right to set the special elections to fill seats that became empty because two Democratic state House members resigned for higher office and another died. Democrats want to hold the contests — which they are expected to win — right away, allowing them to claim their majority next year. GOP legislators, meanwhile, hope to push back the date for three more months, in the process keeping their majority intact. One Republican has even announced a bid for Speaker herself, hoping to take advantage of the likely small window in which the partisan balance of power is tilted her party’s way.

Democratic-Republican Campaign logosBoth parties see the ensuing fight as not just as a matter of political power, but democratic governance and the rule of law itself. Privately, they fear the next few weeks could plunge the state into an unprecedented level of chaos.

If GOP lawmakers succeed, they could use their window of control to pass amendments to the constitution requiring voter ID, easing the rollback of regulations, and potentially even limiting abortion rights. Attempts to amend the state constitution were passed last session and if they pass in two consecutive sessions, they will be put on the ballot for voters to consider without the need of the signature of Democratic Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro.

After anti-abortion, Trump-allied Republicans were soundly rejected at the ballot box in this year’s midterm elections, Democrats argue that such a move would amount to a flouting of November’s vote.

ny times logoNew York Times, ‘Most Pro-Union President’ Runs Into Doubts in Labor Ranks, Noam Scheiber, Dec. 27, 2022. Many union leaders say the Biden White House has delivered on its promises. But its handling of a freight rail dispute has given rise to detractors.

Joseph R. Biden Jr. vowed to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.” And for the last two years, labor leaders have often lauded him for delivering on that promise.

They cite appointees who are sympathetic to unions and a variety of pro-labor measures, like a pandemic relief bill that included tens of billions to shore up union pension funds.

But in recent weeks, after Mr. Biden helped impose a contract on railroad workers that four unions had rejected, partly over its lack of paid sick days, many labor activists and scholars have begun to ask: How supportive is the president, really?

To those reassessing Mr. Biden, the concern is that the president, by asking Congress to intervene and avert a strike, missed a rare opportunity to improve workers’ bargaining power in ways that could extend beyond the rail sector. They worry that the move essentially validated an employer strategy of waiting out workers in hopes that the pressure would fizzle.

ny times logoNew York Times, Retirees Are One Reason the Fed Has Given Up on a Big Worker Rebound, Jeanna Smialek and Ben Casselman, Dec. 27, 2022. Workers are in short supply three years into the pandemic job market rebound, and officials increasingly think they aren’t coming back.

Alice Lieberman had planned to work for a few more years as a schoolteacher before the pandemic hit, but the transition to hybrid instruction did not come easily for her. She retired in summer 2021.

Her husband, Howard Lieberman, started to wind down his consulting business around the same time. If Mrs. Lieberman was done working, Mr. Lieberman wanted to be free, too, so that the pair could take camping trips and volunteer.

The Liebermans, both 69, are one example of a trend that is quietly reworking the fabric of the American labor force. A wave of baby boomers has recently aged past 65. Unlike older Americans who, in the decade after the Great Recession, delayed their retirements to earn a little bit of extra money and patch up tenuous finances, many today are leaving the job market and staying out.

That has big implications for the economy, because it is contributing to a labor shortage that policymakers worry is keeping wages and inflation stubbornly elevated. That could force the Federal Reserve to raise rates more than it otherwise would, risking a recession.

ny times logoNew York Times, Another Day of Airline Chaos: Thousands of Travelers Are Still Stranded, Derrick Bryson Taylor and Daniel Victor, Dec. 27, 2022. Most of the disruption was on Southwest Airlines, which had called off more than 60 percent of its flights by Tuesday morning.

Thousands of stranded holiday travelers were no closer to home on Tuesday, as the aftermath of a deadly winter storm that grounded flights and throttled plans over the holiday weekend continued to play out at airline counters across the country.

Disruptions were likely to continue throughout the week at airports, where canceled flights caused weary homebound travelers to sleep on floors and wait hours in line for customer service.

  • New York Times, At least 28 people have died in a blizzard that has crippled the Buffalo area, with more snow expected, Dec. 27, 2022.

Recent Relevant Headlines

 

Ukraine War

ny times logoNew York Times, Ukraine Live Updates: Ukraine Pushes to Recapture City in Hotly Contested Province of Luhansk, Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Dec. 27, 2022. The campaign to take back Kreminna began in the fall. Russia controls most of the Luhansk region, one of four it illegally annexed in October.

Ukrainian forces are edging closer to Kreminna, a fiercely defended city in the east of the country, officials say, in a further sign that the northern part of the Luhansk region remains one of the most hotly contested parts of the battlefield. The region is currently almost entirely occupied by Russia.

“The situation there is difficult, acute,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said of Kreminna and other areas in Donbas, which is made up of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, in his nightly address late Monday. “The occupiers are using all the resources available to them — and these are significant resources — to squeeze out at least some advance.”

On Tuesday, the regional governor of Luhansk, Serhiy Haidai, said in a post on the Telegram messaging app: “The Russians understand that if they lose Kreminna, their entire line of defense will ‘fall.’”

A day earlier, Mr. Haidai said that, in response to military pressure, part of the Russian command in the city had withdrawn to the town of Rubizhne, a few miles to the southeast, although it was not possible to verify the claim.

Ukraine’s campaign to recapture Kreminna began in the fall, around the time that its forces reclaimed the city of Lyman, in Donetsk, at the end of a sweep through the country’s northeastern region of Kharkiv that drove Russian forces back toward their country’s border.

Since then, the sides have fought a series of battles and artillery duels over highways and small settlements around Kreminna and farther northwest, in the city of Svatove. Russian forces took over both places early in their 10-month invasion of Ukraine.

Recapturing the two cities, and a third one, Starobilsk, could enable Ukrainian forces to continue their advance toward the Russian border and take back more territory seized by Moscow. It would also give Ukraine control of a triangle of roads that provide access to two larger cities farther south, Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, that fell to Russia during the summer.

Regional officials have said that the campaign is focused on larger cities, though Mr. Zelensky has repeatedly said that Ukraine wants to retake all of the territory Russia has seized since 2014, including the Crimean Peninsula.

There was no independent confirmation of the battlefield developments, but Vitaly Kiselyov, a senior official in the self-proclaimed Russian-backed separatist republic in Luhansk, said on Russian state television on Monday that the situation around Kreminna and Svatove remained “very tense.” Luhansk is one of four Ukrainian regions that Moscow illegally annexed in September.

Fighting continued in parts of those regions on Tuesday. In the southern region of Kherson, a Russian artillery strike damaged a critical infrastructure facility, a kindergarten and an emergency medical aid station, although no casualties were reported, the regional governor, Yaroslav Yanushevych, wrote on Telegram.

In recent weeks, Russian forces have built a series of defensive barriers near Kreminna and other parts of Ukraine’s jagged front line. They have also severed the pontoon bridges over the Seversky Donets River that runs through northern Luhansk, the province’s military administration said on Telegram on Monday.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said that after losing the city of Kherson and suffering other territorial setbacks, Russia was rallying its forces in northern Luhansk for an offensive that would aim to extend its control in the region and then potentially push into Kharkiv Province.

To that end, the institute said, Russia is prioritizing mobilizing troops to defend Kreminna and Svatove over operations in other parts of the wider Donbas region. The institute cited Ukrainian military reports of increased Russian movements of troops, military equipment and ammunition in the area.

It said, however, that Russian success in the short term appeared unlikely given the difficult terrain and the “very limited” offensive capabilities of Moscow’s forces.

Here’s what we know:

  • Kyiv’s campaign to take back Kreminna began in the autumn. Russia controls most of the Luhansk region, one of four it illegally annexed in October.
  • Ukrainian forces edge closer to a heavily guarded city in the east.
  • Ukraine’s difficulties on the bond markets leave it more reliant on foreign aid.
  • Lukashenko and Putin affirm their close ties but say nothing publicly about Ukraine.
  • Navalny accuses the prison authorities of using his health as a tool to put pressure on him.
  • Attacks inside Russia potentially complicate Moscow’s campaign of striking Ukraine’s energy grid.
  • A timeline of attacks on Russian territory or assets during the war in Ukraine.

ny times logoNew York Times, Ukraine’s foreign minister proposed a peace summit by the end of February, Carly Olson, Dec. 27, 2022 (print ed.). Ukraine’s foreign minister said on Monday that his government hopes to have a peace summit by the end of February, about one year after Russia invaded Ukraine.

In an interview with The Associated Press, the minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said that the United Nations could host the summit, with Secretary General António Guterres acting as the possible mediator.

“Every war ends in a diplomatic way,” Mr. Kuleba said in the interview. “Every war ends as a result of the actions taken on the battlefield and at the negotiating table.”

Mr. Kuleba said that Russia would need to face prosecution for war crimes at an international court to attend the summit.

Mr. Kuleba added that he was “absolutely satisfied” with President Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to the United States last week and that the Patriot missile battery would be operational in Ukraine within six months.

Although Ukrainian officials have proposed a peace deal for months, and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said Monday that he was willing to negotiate, American and European officials have said that it is difficult to envision terms of a settlement that both Ukraine and Russia would accept.

Earlier this month, Mr. Zelensky discussed his vision for a global peace summit in a call with President Biden. And in November, at the annual Group of 20 summit in Bali, Mr. Zelensky spoke about his “path to peace” to end the war, noting that Ukraine would not compromise on its stance until its territory was reinstated.

Also on Monday, Ukraine’s foreign ministry demanded that Russia be removed as one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and called for the country’s expulsion from the United Nations, a move considered unlikely.

The foreign ministry said that Russia illegally took over the Soviet Union’s seat without going through necessary procedures outlined in the U.N. charter when the union broke up in 1991. It also argued that Russia has abused its veto powers on the Security Council.

Russia should be readmitted only once it “fulfills the conditions for membership in the Organization,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

ny times logoNew York Times, Moscow Says Base Deep Inside Russia Is Attacked by Ukrainian Drone, Ivan Nechepurenko and Andrew E. Kramer, Dec. 27, 2022 (print ed.). Russian media reported that three troops were killed when a drone was shot down over the Engels air base, which came under a similar attack this month.

Three servicemen died after a Ukrainian drone was shot down on its approach toward a Russian air base, Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Monday, highlighting Russian vulnerability as Ukraine appears increasingly willing and able to reach targets deep within the country.

The week after President Volodymyr Zelensky received a hero’s welcome in Washington, where he appealed for even more powerful weapons aid, Kyiv showed it is also capable of defending against Russia with its own arsenal of long-range weaponry.

It was the second attack this month on the Engels military facility, which is about 300 miles from the Ukrainian border and hosts Russia’s strategic bombers, part of the country’s nuclear triad. The drones in the first attack were launched from Ukrainian territory, according to a senior Ukrainian official, speaking on the condition of anonymity at the time.

The Ukrainian government publicly follows a policy of deliberate ambiguity about strikes on Russian territory, which began within the first month of the war with a Ukrainian helicopter assault near Belgorod, close to the Ukrainian border. But Ukraine has been open about developing long-range drones.

Although Ukrainian officials do not publicly confirm Ukraine’s military attacks on targets in Russia, which have had only military targets, they openly praise successful hits and discuss how they benefit Ukraine militarily. In that vein, Col. Yuriy Ihnat, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force, said Monday on Ukrainian television that the latest explosion at Engels air base was “a consequence of what Russia is doing” in Ukraine.

“If the Russians thought that no one at home would be affected by the war, then they were deeply mistaken,” he said. The first explosion at the air base this month forced Russia’s Air Force to move planes from the site, he said.

The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement cited by TASS, a state news agency, that a Ukrainian drone was shot down early on Monday morning “at low altitude” and that three servicemen were killed by its wreckage.

The aircraft at the base were not damaged as a result of the attack, the ministry said. Russia’s account could not be independently confirmed.

Both the State Department and Defense Department declined to comment on the reported drone strikes on Monday. A State Department official referred to comments from spokesman Ned Price after the first strike on Engels and another airfield in Russia’s Ryazan region on Dec. 6, in which he noted that the United States had not provided Ukraine with weapons for use inside Russia.

“We have been very clear that these are defensive supplies,” he said at the time. “We are not encouraging Ukraine to strike beyond its borders.”

Shortly after the Dec. 6 attacks on the bases, Russia sent a barrage of missiles streaking toward Ukrainian cities.

The Engels airfield, on the Volga River in southern Russia, is a base for some of Russia’s long-range, nuclear-capable bombers, including the Tupolev-160 and Tupolev-95. Ukrainian officials say it is also a staging ground for Russia’s unrelenting campaign of missile attacks on infrastructure, which have left millions of Ukrainians with intermittent light, heat or water — or none at all — at the onset of winter.

Monday’s attack against Russia’s strategic facility has raised further questions among pro-invasion activists and commentators over the state of Russia’s military and air defense.

“The war, as it should have, opened our eyes on many things,” Aleksandr Khodakovsky, a pro-Russian military commander of a separatist formation in Ukraine, wrote in his channel on Telegram, a popular messaging app.

“We understand now that we are vulnerable,” he said. “Otherwise, it would be possible to stay in our illusions indefinitely until something more serious fell on our heads.”

washington post logoWashington Post, Captured Russian tanks and equipment are coveted trophies — and a headache, Samantha Schmidt, Isabelle Khurshudyan and Serhii Korolchuk, Dec. 27, 2022. Ukrainian forces have seized hundreds of tanks and other military vehicles, but many are languishing, waiting for repairs and spare parts.

Recent Related Headlines

 

Global News, Human Rights, Disasters

ny times logoNew York Times, Lee Myung-bak, South Korean Ex-President, Receives Pardon, John Yoon, Dec. 27, 2022. The action by the current president will release Mr. Lee from a 17-year sentence for bribery and embezzlement and nullify enormous fines he owed.

President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea has issued a pardon to Lee Myung-bak, the former president who was sentenced to a 17-year term in 2020 on bribery and embezzlement charges, Mr. Yoon’s office announced on Tuesday. The pardon will go into effect on Wednesday.

The presidential pardon would allow Mr. Lee, 81, to be released from a hospital in Seoul, where he has been receiving treatment for chronic illnesses, without returning to prison. It would also cancel the remaining 15 years on his sentence and nullify the unpaid 8.2 billion South Korean won, or $6.4 million, of the fine of 13 billion won that the courts imposed on him. The charges against Mr. Lee included collecting bribes and embezzling more than 30 billion won.

The pardon of Mr. Lee, who was president from 2008 to 2013, is intended “to restore the potential of a South Korea united through pan-national integration,” the Justice Ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.

In addition to Mr. Lee, the pardon was applied to more than 1,300 other civilians, high-profile politicians and former officials convicted of corruption, bribery, election interference and other white-collar crimes, including people who served during the administration of another former president, Park Geun-hye.

ny times logoNew York Times, With Record Military Incursions, China Warns Taiwan and U.S., Amy Chang Chien and Chang Che, Dec. 27, 2022 (print ed.). Taiwan said China sent 71 military aircraft near the island days after President Biden bolstered U.S. support for Taiwan.

China sent a record number of military aircraft to menace self-ruled Taiwan in a large show of force to the Biden administration, signaling that Beijing wants to maintain pressure on Taiwan even as some tensions between the superpowers are easing.

taiwan flagThe swarm of Chinese fighter jets, maritime patrol planes and drones that buzzed the airspace near Taiwan in the 24-hour period leading to Monday morning demonstrated Beijing’s appetite for confrontation with the United States over Taiwan, the island democracy China claims as its territory.

The military activity — which, according to Taiwan, included at least 71 Chinese aircraft — came days after President Biden’s latest move to expand American support for the island. Beijing has denounced the United States’ effort as an attempt to contain China and interfere in its domestic affairs.

Tensions over Taiwan have been rising in the months since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the island in August, prompting Beijing to step up its activity in the area with several days of live-fire drills. China said that the exercise was aimed at honing its ability to conduct joint patrols and military strikes, but also made clear what the target was.

Wayne Madsen Report, Investigative Commentary: The diplomatic storm clouds forming for 2023, Wayne Madsen, Dec. 27, 2022. Although President Biden’s domestic successes are being likened to wayne madsen may 29 2015 cropped Smallthose of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, diplomatic storm clouds on the horizon for 2023 may place Biden in the same position of FDR as a war brewed in Europe in 1939. For Biden, a crisis is set to emerge in the Middle East. Binyamin wayne madesen report logoNetanyahu’s coalition government will be the most right-wing in Israeli history.

With promises to allow Jewish prayer at the Dome of the Rock, the third-most holiest Islamic religious site, and annexation of the West Bank, what the incoming Israeli government refers to as “Judea and Samaria,” the stage is set for a major outbreak of violence in the Middle East.

Netanyahu’s Minister of National Security is Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben-Gvir. He once advocated for the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who fell victim in 1995 to an assassin sharing the extremist views of Ben-Gvir. Otzma Yehudit is a spin-off of the Kach Party, a terrorist organization led by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. In addition to calling for the expulsion of Arab citizens of Israel, Ben-Gvir, who resides in the West Bank, has memorialized Israeli-American terrorist Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Palestinians in Hebron in 1994.

If the religious extremists have their way, Israel will join Iran, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia among the ranks of the world’s most dogmatic theocracies.

 Recent Relevant Headlines

 

More On Trump, Insurrectionists, Allies

 

 nicholas luna portraitFormer Donald Trump “body man” (personal assistant) Nicholas Luna, shown above

Proof, Source: Nick Luna Not Involved with Trump NFT Company CIC Digital or Trump NFT Scam, Seth Abramson, left, Dec. 27, 2022. Journalists at both the New seth abramson graphicYork Times and Washington Post linked CIC Digital and a similarly named company, CIC Ventures—but that presumption appears to have been wrong, per a Proof source.

Proof readers will be well aware that Proof has reported both here and elsewhere—for instance, in the New York Times-bestselling Proof Trilogy—that former president Donald Trump has a history of directly or indirectly promising money, jobs, and/or favors to those federal witnesses who testify before Congress or speak to the DOJ or FBI in a fashion consistent with his own interests, leading to some understandable concern that if any such individual were to have been seth abramson proof logoinvolved in Trump’s get-richer-quick NFT scam it could position that scam as part of a larger January 6 cover-up.

As the subhed of this new Proof report indicates, and as the last Proof report on Mr. Trump’s NFT venture disclosed, both the Washington Post and New York Times saw leading journalists on their payrolls draw conclusions about two Trump-launched companies—CIC Ventures and CIC Digital—that treated the two as one and the same, and therefore possibly at the head of a January 6 Witness Tampering scheme.

But Proof can now report, on the basis of contact with a person confirmed to have knowledge of the situation—and to whom Proof has granted anonymity to allow them to speak freely—that while former Trump “body man” Nicholas Luna was indeed involved with CIC Ventures for the purposes of signing contracts for Mr. Trump’s post-presidential speaking engagements, he had no involvement, formal or otherwise, with CIC Digital, a distinct venture that ultimately contracted with a dodgy entity named NFT INT LLC to mint Trump’s chintzy, much-mocked NFTs. Indeed, per this Proof source, CIC Digital was founded after Luna left Trump’s employ in October 2021.

This source believes CIC Digital to have been run, instead, by individuals associated with (or even formally part of) the Trump Organization. This source further states that there were no contacts between Luna and the listed co-director for CIC Ventures, Trump lawyer John Marion.

These revelations keep active the following key questions: (1) why a Trump lawyer (Marion) was made the co-director of an entity exclusively associated with Trump’s speaking engagements; (2) whether Marion was also involved with CIC Digital; and (3) whether Marion was given his business role(s) in the labyrinthine world of Trump single-purpose (sometimes shell) corporations as a means to avoid paying him for legal services rendered—whether through corporate perks or write-offs or by allowing Marion to do side business under Trump’s aegis and/or brand, as appears to have been the case in Ukraine with fellow Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani—or to generate a zone of attorney-client privilege in the context of a Witness Tampering (or other criminal) scheme.

Hopefully the Times and Post will update their coverage of Donald Trump’s NFT scam consistent with this new reporting by Proof.

Seth Abramson, shown above and at right, is founder of Proof and is a former criminal defense attorney and criminal investigator who later taught digital journalism, seth abramson resized4 proof of collusionlegal advocacy, and cultural theory at the University of New Hampshire. A regular political and legal analyst on CNN and the BBC during the Trump presidency, he is a best-selling author who has published eight books and edited five anthologies.

Abramson is a graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the Ph.D. program in English at University of Wisconsin-Madison. His books include a Trump trilogy: Proof of Corruption: Bribery, Impeachment, and Pandemic in the Age of Trump (2020); Proof of Conspiracy: How Trump’s International Collusion Is Threatening American Democracy (2019); and Proof of Collusion: How Trump Betrayed America (2018).

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), left to right, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS), Vice Chair Liz Cheney (R-WY), Thursday, June 9, 2022

ny times logoNew York Times, The Jan. 6 Report Is Out. Now the Real Work Begins, Julian E. Zelizer, Dec. 26, 2022 (print ed.). Mr. Zelizer is an editor of the forthcoming book “Myth America: Historians Take On the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past.”

Much attention this week has focused on the Jan. 6 committee’s criminal referrals. But in its report, released on Thursday, the committee also has pointed to broad and long-lasting legislative and policy reforms that will be essential if Congress is to prevent further instability of American democracy.

The report comes almost a half-century after another famous report of sorts was completed: the Watergate “road map,” which was passed to the House Judiciary Committee by Leon Jaworski, the special prosecutor.

As the Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein has said, “the American system worked.” But the system didn’t just correct itself after Watergate — that is a myth that has taken root over the past several decades. And it’s a dangerous myth, in that it creates an illusory sense of confidence whenever America goes through major political and constitutional crises.

As with the Watergate road map, the Jan. 6 report doesn’t put an end to the crisis of American democracy. The report reveals that the attempted coup almost worked. If there had been a handful of different people in key positions of power — from Justice Department lawyers to secretaries of state — the overturning might have been successful. It is all too easy to imagine that next time, things might go differently.

If there is any criticism to be made of the committee’s report, it is that it focuses so much on former President Donald Trump and his accomplices and doesn’t do enough to emphasize the urgent imperative to move forward with institutional reforms to protect America’s election system.

When I look back at Watergate, what I see is not a self-correcting constitutional system. Rather, I see an era when a reform coalition of legislators, organizations and journalists took it upon themselves to try to fix the institutional problems that had enabled President Richard Nixon to do the bad things that he did — not just his campaign’s involvement in the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, but also the broader abuses of executive power that were part of what the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called the “imperial presidency.” The reforms that followed required sustained effort, and they didn’t happen quickly: It took almost a decade to set in place a suite of laws to deal with the toxic foundation of Nixon’s presidency.

This response to Watergate was not inevitable. Reform depended on the establishment or expansion of a robust network of organizations, including Common Cause and Congress Watch. Those organizations insisted that legislation creating stronger checks on the executive branch, strengthening Congress and imposing laws to make it easier to hold officials accountable were the only ways to check bad behavior.

The “Watergate Babies” elected in the 1974 midterm elections devoted political capital toward reform. A young generation of investigative journalists were inspired by The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who doggedly exposed corruption. This coalition lobbied legislators, kept media attention focused on these issues and nurtured electoral pressure.

As a result of their efforts, there was a burst of legislation that attempted to constrain the executive branch. Some bills aiming to restore the balance of power, such as the War Powers Resolution of 1973 and the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, passed as Nixon’s scandals were still unfolding.

washington post logoWashington Post, As Republicans inch away from election denialism, one activist digs in, Patrick Marley, Dec. 26, 2022 (print ed.). Harry Wait ordered ballots in the names of others to show voter fraud is possible. Now facing up to 13 years in prison, he is undaunted in his crusade to change Wisconsin’s voting laws. Harry Wait marched into the courthouse, walked through a metal detector and planted himself on a bench in the ornate lobby. His supporters, some wearing bright yellow “Free Harry” T-shirts, chatted amiably as they followed him inside.

Emboldened by former president Donald Trump’s false election claims, Wait in July had ordered absentee ballots in the names of others for the purpose, he said, of exposing what he considers flaws in Wisconsin’s voting systems. Now, on a warm September afternoon, he was using the resulting voter-fraud charges against him — which could land him in prison for up to 13 years — to amplify his argument that absentee balloting should be severely restricted.

“I’d do it again in a heartbeat because to save the republic, soldiers have to draw blood and blood be drawn,” Wait said as he sat on the courthouse bench.

For two years, a large segment of Trump supporters has embraced discredited claims that the 2020 election was stolen. The strategy of cultivating anger over supposed voter fraud proved politically disastrous this fall, when election deniers lost high-profile races from Arizona to Pennsylvania.

Now some Republican leaders are urging their party to downplay election denialism and shift its focus to other issues to improve its chances of winning the presidency in 2024.

But activists such as Wait are making that difficult, showing how hard it will be to extinguish the grievance and distrust whipped up by Trump and his allies. Undeterred by the November results, Wait in recent weeks has rallied for overhauling election rules, planned a January protest at the state Capitol and pledged to use the charges against him to trumpet his call for new voting laws. For him, the fight over elections continues.

Recent Revelant Headlines

 

Global Immigration, Migration, Asylum Issues

ny times logoNew York Times, In Record Numbers, an Unexpected Migrant Group Is Fleeing to the U.S., Alfonso Flores Bermúdez and Frances Robles, Dec. 27, 2022. Hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans have fled their country in recent years, escaping poverty and repression under an increasingly authoritarian government.

Twice a week at a gas station on the western edge of Nicaragua’s capital, local residents gather, carrying the telltale signs of people on the move: loaded backpacks, clothes and toiletries stuffed in plastic bags and heavy jackets in preparation for a chilly journey far from the stifling heat.

Nurses, doctors, students, children, farmers and many other Nicaraguans say teary goodbyes as they await private charter buses for the first leg of an 1,800-mile journey. Final destination: the United States.

For generations, Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti, saw only a trickle of its people migrate northward. But soaring inflation, declining wages and the erosion of democracy under an increasingly authoritarian government have drastically shifted the calculus.

Now, for the first time in Nicaragua’s history, the small nation of 6.5 million is a major contributor to the mass of people trekking to the U.S. southern border, having been displaced by violence, repression and poverty.

washington post logoWashington Post, Europe Migrants bused from Texas arrive at VP’s house on frigid Christmas Eve, Meryl Kornfield, Kyle Rempfer and Lizzie Johnson, Dec. 26, 2022 (print ed.). About 110 to 130 men, women and children got off the buses outside the Naval Observatory on Saturday night in 18-degree weather after a two-day journey from South Texas, according to the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network. On the coldest Christmas Eve day on record in the District, some migrants were bundled up in blankets as they were greeted by volunteers who had received word that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) had sent the caravan.

Volunteers scrambled to meet the asylum seekers after the buses, which were scheduled to arrive in New York on Christmas Day, were rerouted due to the winter weather. In a hastily arranged welcoming, a church on Capitol Hill agreed to temporarily shelter the group while one of the mutual aid groups, SAMU First Response, arranged 150 breakfasts, lunches and dinners by the restaurant chain Sardis.

Recent Revelant Headlines

 

U.S. Courts, Crime, Regulation

washington post logoWashington Post, Moorish Americans take over a rural gun range, sparking a strange showdown, Peter Jamison, Dec. 27, 2022. Moorish Americans, part of the extremist “sovereign citizen” movement, claim the Southern Maryland gun range belongs to them, defying efforts by local officials to shut it down.

The complaints about the property on Fire Tower Road were urgent but not too far out of the ordinary in a rural stretch of Southern Maryland: Earsplitting gunfire, endangered cows, a stray bullet that pierced a neighbor’s equipment shed.

But that was before the would-be heirs to a mythical North African empire moved in, claiming their dominion extends not only over the lost island of Atlantis but also over five acres in Charles County.

The episode began when gun enthusiasts started getting together on Sundays for target practice at the wooded property of 64-year-old Byron Bell.

As the gatherings grew bigger, along with the caliber of weapons and the number of rounds discharged, they drew the ire of neighbors even in this sparsely populated and gun-friendly area.

Yet it was after county officials took action, deeming the site an unlawful firing range and filing an injunction to stop it from operating in September, that events took several unexpected turns. That was when a group calling itself Moorish Americans — an offshoot of the extremist “sovereign citizen” movement whose members believe they are immune from dealings with U.S. legal and financial systems — essentially took over the range, declaring it “protected under the consular jurisdiction of Morocco.”

There followed arrests, flurries of spurious legal documents and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, all to the accompaniment of what neighbors describe as an ongoing din of gunfire on weekends. Things escalated last week when sheriff’s deputies raided the property, seizing what Bell said were about a dozen firearms.

Moorish Americans, also known as Moorish sovereign citizens, believe themselves to be the inheritors of a fictitious empire that they say stretched from the present-day kingdom of Morocco to North America, with Mexico and Atlantis thrown in for good measure. They claim the same protections from U.S. legal proceedings that are granted to foreign citizens, while simultaneously asserting their rights to take over properties — often well-appointed homes owned by other people — that they say are still part of the “Moroccan Empire.”

Bell declared his Moorish American citizenship in September, according to court documents. He told The Post that he was still struggling to understand much of the group’s doctrine but that he found it “very educational.”

washington post logoWashington Post, Investigation: Social Security denies disability benefits based on list with jobs from 1977, Lisa Rein, Dec. 27, 2022. Despite spending at least $250 million to modernize its system, Social Security still relies on 45-year-old job titles to deny thousands of disability claims.

He had made it through four years of denials and appeals, and Robert Heard was finally before a Social Security judge who would decide whether he qualified for disability benefits. Two debilitating strokes had left the 47-year-old electrician with halting speech, an enlarged heart and violent tremors.

social security logoThere was just one final step: A vocational expert hired by the Social Security Administration had to tell the judge if there was any work Heard could still do despite his condition. Heard was stunned as the expert canvassed his computer and announced his findings: He could find work as a nut sorter, a dowel inspector or an egg processor — jobs that virtually no longer exist in the United States.
Nut sorter job description from Dictionary of Occupational Titles (TWP)

“Whatever it is that does those things, machines do it now,” said Heard, who lives on food stamps and a small stipend from his parents in a subsidized apartment in Tullahoma, Tenn. “Honestly, if they could see my shaking, they would see I couldn’t sort any nuts. I’d spill them all over the floor.”

He was still hopeful the administrative law judge hearing his claim for $1,300 to $1,700 per month in benefits had understood his limitations.

But while the judge agreed that Heard had multiple, severe impairments, he denied him benefits, writing that he had “job opportunities” in three occupations that are nearly obsolete and agreeing with the expert’s dubious claim that 130,000 positions were still available sorting nuts, inspecting dowels and processing eggs.

Every year, thousands of claimants like Heard find themselves blocked at this crucial last step in the arduous process of applying for disability benefits, thanks to labor market data that was last updated 45 years ago.

 Other Court and Crime News Head

 

Musk, Twitter, Tesla, SpaceX

 

elon musk thumbs up

washington post logoWashington Post, Twitter brings Elon Musk’s genius reputation crashing down to earth, Faiz Siddiqui, Dec. 25, 2022 (print ed.). Musk, shown above in a file photo, went down conspiracy rabbit holes and sank Tesla’s stock with his behavior. And he was confronted with a chorus of boos in the cradle of the tech industry.

twitter bird CustomMusk has built his reputation on having a Midas touch with the companies he runs — something many investors and experts thought he would bring to Twitter when he purchased it for $44 billion in October, paying nearly twice as much as it was worth by some analyst estimates. He is known for sleeping on the factory floor at Tesla, demanding long hours and quick turnarounds from his workers. He is seen as an engineering genius, propelling promises of cars that can drive themselves and rockets that can take humans to Mars.

But that image is unraveling. Some Twitter employees who worked with Musk are doubtful his management style will allow him to turn the company around. And some investors in Tesla, by far the biggest source of his wealth, have begun to see him as a liability. Musk’s distraction has prompted questions about leadership of SpaceX as well, though it is much less reliant on his active involvement. Meanwhile, Neuralink and Boring Co., two companies he founded, continue to lag on promises.

Musk’s net worth — largely fueled by his stake in Tesla, which has fallen by more than half this year — has plunged this year from roughly $270 billion to below $140 billion on Friday, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. That fall has relieved him of the title of the world’s richest man and called into question his ability to keep up with his billions of dollars in loans.

Musk is repeatedly described as a man obsessed with Twitter in all the wrong ways, who is failing both at protecting his new investment and his previous ones, according to interviews with a half-dozen former Twitter employees and people close to him, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution or because they were not authorized to speak publicly about company matters.

Musk this week said Twitter is in a financial hole and facing a cash crunch — even as it slashed more than half of the workforce and closed offices.

washington post logoWashington Post, Journalists who won’t delete Musk tweets remain locked out of Twitter, Paul Farhi, Dec. 24, 2022 (print ed.). Elon Musk suspended reporters from Twitter and later reinstated them, but with a catch: They must nix their tweets related to the account @ElonJet, which has tracked Musk’s private plane using public data.

Recent Relevant Headlines

 

Public Health, Pandemics, Abortion

ny times logoNew York Times, Americans Still Masking Against Covid Find Themselves Isolated, Amy Harmon, Dec. 27, 2022 (print ed.). It can be tough being a committed mask wearer when others have long since moved on from the pandemic.

Bitsy Cherry had been bracing for the question ever since most of the members of a board game group that had started meeting online during the pandemic began attending in-person meetings a few months ago.

Like many of the dwindling group of Americans still taking precautions like masking indoors and limiting face-to-face interactions, Mx. Cherry, who uses gender-neutral courtesy titles and pronouns, had been fielding nudges to return to pre-Covid routines from all corners. Doctors’ offices that have dropped mask protocols encouraged Mx. Cherry to come in for a physical exam. Friends suggested repeatedly that gathering on the porch might be safe enough. And there was President Biden, who in remarks on CBS’s “60 Minutes” had declared the pandemic “over.”

But when the board-game organizer finally asked this month if Mx. Cherry was ready to go back to gathering on the Cornell University campus, Mx. Cherry fumbled for an answer. The online gaming group on Saturday afternoons had become a key social outlet for Mx. Cherry, who has remained largely confined at home with Nathanael Nerode, Mx. Cherry’s partner, since March 2020 because of an autoimmune disorder that raises the risk of a severe outcome from Covid.

“I found that one upsetting,’’ Mx. Cherry said in an interview. “I’ve been worried in the back of my mind the whole time: When are they going to decide they don’t want to do this anymore?’’

For many Americans still at pains to avoid infection with the coronavirus, this has become the loneliest moment since the pandemic began.

Exercise classes have largely suspended remote workouts. Families and employers have expected attendance at holiday events. The vulnerable and the risk-averse are finding themselves the rare mask-wearers on public transportation, in places of worship, and at offices and stores.

Even as Covid cases and hospitalizations have climbed across the nation over the last month, public officials are avoiding mask mandates — though officials in some cities, including New York and Los Angeles, have recently recommended wearing masks in public places, citing a “tripledemic” that includes influenza and R.S.V., or respiratory syncytial virus.

It is hard to avoid the feeling of being judged as histrionic, some say, even when evidence suggests they are right to be cautious. And many say they face pressure, internal and external, to adjust to changing social norms around a virus that others are treating as a thing of the past.

“I feel now that I’m getting stares wearing the mask, and I’m not a paranoid person,’’ said Andrew Gold, 66, who was recently the only guest masking at a small housewarming party in his Upper West Side neighborhood in Manhattan. “The vibe I’m getting is: ‘Is this really necessary?’’’

ny times logoNew York Times, Covid Is Spreading Rapidly in China, New Signs Suggest, Chang Che, Dec. 26, 2022 (print ed.). Even as official figures from the central government remain low, regional numbers point to explosive outbreaks and overstretched health care systems.

Since China abandoned its restrictive “zero Covid” policy about two weeks ago, the intensity and magnitude of the country’s first nationwide outbreak has remained largely a mystery. With the country ending mass testing, case counts are less useful. The government has a narrow definition of which deaths should count as caused by Covid. Anecdotal evidence, like social media postings of hospital morgues overcrowded with body bags, is quickly taken down by censors.

Now, a picture is emerging of the virus spreading like wildfire.

One province and three cities have reported Covid estimates far exceeding official tallies in recent days. At a news conference on Sunday, an official in Zhejiang Province, home to 65 million people, estimated that daily Covid cases there had exceeded one million.

In the eastern city of Qingdao, population 10 million, a health minister said on Friday that there were roughly half a million new cases each day, a number he expected would rise sharply in the coming days, local news sites reported.

 

U.S. Privacy, Health Rights

fda logo

ny times logoNew York Times, The F.D.A. Now Says It Plainly: Morning-After Pills Are Not Abortion Pills, Pam Belluck, Dec. 24, 2022 (print ed.). Labels of Plan B One-Step had previously said, without scientific evidence, that the pill might block fertilized eggs from implanting in the womb.

The information will be in every box of the most widely used emergency contraceptive pills to make clear that they do not prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb. The agency explained in an accompanying document that the products cannot be described as abortion pills.

Up to now, packages of the brand-name pill, Plan B One-Step, as well as generic versions of it have said that the pill might work by preventing a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb — language that scientific evidence did not support. That wording led some abortion opponents and politicians who equate a fertilized egg with a person to say that taking the morning-after pill could be the equivalent of having an abortion or even committing murder.

The F.D.A. revised the leaflets inserted in packages of pills to say that the medication “works before release of an egg from the ovary,” meaning that it acts before fertilization, not after. The package insert also says the pill “will not work if you’re already pregnant, and will not affect an existing pregnancy.”

In a question-and-answer document posted on the F.D.A.’s website, the agency explicitly addressed the abortion issue. In answer to the question, “Is Plan B One-Step able to cause an abortion?” the agency writes: “No.” It added: “Plan B One-Step prevents pregnancy by acting on ovulation, which occurs well before implantation. Evidence does not support that the drug affects implantation or maintenance of pregnancy after implantation, therefore, it does not terminate a pregnancy.”

ny times logoNew York Times, ‘I’m Not Ready’: A Mother Denied an Abortion in Texas Faces an Uncertain Future, Dec. 19, 2022 (print ed.). Blue Haven Ranch, a faith-based, anti-abortion nonprofit, provides temporary aid for poor Texas women with newborns. But how will they survive when the support ends?

ny times logocovad 19 photo.jpg Custom 2New York Times, ‘Tripledemic’ Rages On: Fever-Filled Weeks Lie Ahead, Emily Anthes, Dec. 23, 2022 (print ed.). R.S.V. has probably peaked, but flu is still surging and Covid-19 cases are rising. Scientists are hopeful next winter will be better.

New, immune evasive versions of the Omicron variant are spreading, and Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are once again rising, although the figures remain far below last winter’s peak. But this year the coronavirus has company: Common seasonal viruses, which lay low for the last two winters, have come roaring back.

Recent Related Headlines

 

Weather, Climate, Disasters, Energy 

climate change photo

Legal Schnauzer, Matrix LLC paid ABC News “producer” to pepper pro-environment political candidates with deceptive questions in an effort to boost its clients who pollute roger shuler and murphy(Part 1), Roger Shuler, right, Dec. 22, 2022. A journalist who identifies herself as working for ABC News has been paid by an Alabama-based political-consulting firm to sideswipe pro-environment politicians with deceptive questions, according to a report at NPR/Floodlight.

The journalist was Kristen Hentschel, the consulting firm was Montgomery-based Matrix LLC. The beneficiaries of the scheme were alabama power logodesigned to be Matrix clients — such as Alabama Power, Southern Company, and Florida Power & Light — all with ties to projects known to produce pollution.

How did the “reporting” scheme with an ABC News journalist work? Exhibit A involves a Florida political candidate named Toby Overdorf, who had pledged to kristen hentschel ny posttake a serious approach to environmental protection. That’s where Hentschel, right, enters the picture.

Under the headline “She was an ABC News producer. She also was a corporate operative, NPR/Floodlight reporters Miranda Green, Mario Ariza, and David Folkenflik write:

Microphone and ABC News business card in hand, Hentschel rushed up to a candidate for the Florida House of Representatives before a debate, the candidate recalls, and asked him about 20 dead gopher tortoises that were reportedly found at a nearby construction site [in Stuart, FL]. Florida designates the species as threatened.

Overdorf, an environmental engineer, served as a consultant on the construction project — and he knew of no such tortoises. A city investigation found there were no dead tortoises, and no evidence that any ever had been present during the construction project. The oddities about the story do not end there, as NPR/Floodlight report:

That wasn’t the only surprise. Though Hentschel has done freelance work for ABC, she was not there for the network.

matrix logoAt the time, a political consulting firm called Matrix LLC had paid Hentschel at least $7,000, the firm’s internal ledgers show. And Matrix billed two major companies for Hentschel’s work, labeling the payments “for Florida Crystals, FPL.” (Florida Crystals is a huge sugar conglomerate. FPL is shorthand for the giant utility Florida Power & Light.)

Both companies could have benefited from Hentschels efforts to undermine Overdorf and his promises to resolve environmental issues in the district he was vying to represent. Florida Power & Light has pushed back against efforts to bring solar panels to the Sunshine State, while runoff from the sugar industry is a major source of water pollution in Florida.

florida light and power logoOverdorf won his election, but he remains distressed that he was subjected to such journalistic skulduggery:

“It was an attack ad against my livelihood, my family,” Overdorf says. “And it was something that potentially could last far beyond my time running for office.”

Overdorf was not the only victim of the Hentschel/Matrix operation. Once Hentschel’s ties to Matrix became public, ABC cut ties with her earlier this week:

abc news logo colorInterviews for this story and Matrix ledgers show Hentschel traded on her work for ABC News at least three times to trip up Florida politicians whose stances on environmental regulations cut against the interests of major Matrix clients. Internal Matrix financial records originally sent anonymously to the Orlando Sentinel and shared with Floodlight show that since 2016, the firm has paid Hentschel at least $14,350.

According to two people at ABC News with knowledge, Hentschel was not, in fact, reporting for ABC on any of those subjects. “If she was working on these stories, she was not authorized to cover them for ABC News,” one of them said. They requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about sensitive network matters. . . . 

“Kristen Hentschel was a freelance daily hire who never worked for ABC News on the political stories referenced in the NPR article,” the network said in a statement. “She does not currently work for ABC NEWS.”

How unusual is the Hentschel story.? One news veteran cannot remember another one like it:

David Westin, president of ABC News from 1997 to 2010, says he never came across an instance in which a journalist for the network was simultaneously doing advocacy.

“It just goes to the very heart of why people no longer have the same confidence and trust in the news media as they once did,” says Westin, now an anchor for Bloomberg TV. “They suspect this is going on anyway, and for it to actually go on confirms their worst suspicions.”

Hentschel, it turns out, appeared in all kinds of places — almost like a female Forrest Gump:

In another instance, the former girlfriend of Southern Company’s CEO, Tom Fanning, says Hentschel cozied up to her over the past year. Southern Company is a rival to Florida Power & Light. This August, Alabama news site AL.com reported that Matrix had previously paid a private investigator to spy on Fanning in the summer of 2017.

Hentschel did not return multiple detailed requests for comment.

jeff pittsMatrix’s former CEO, Jeff Pitts, left, who hired Hentschel for the firm, declined comment.

That leads us back — as Matrix-related stories often do — to the legal feud between Pitts and Joe Perkins:

Matrix’s founder, Joe Perkins, disavows any knowledge of Hentschel’s work for Matrix and says Pitts was acting as a “rogue”employee in Florida.

Pitts left Matrix to found a rival firm in late 2020, alleging in court papers that he quit Matrix over Perkins’ “unethical business practices,” including “ordering and directing the clandestine surveillance , including that of top executives of his largest client, the Southern Company.” Perkins blames Pitts for the surveillance.

All of this leads to questions about the possible roles of Southern Company, Alabama Power, and Matrix in other unsavory Alabama events. These include the head-on vehicle crash that nearly killed Birmingham-area attorney Burt Newsome, someone shooting into the car of former Drummond Company executive David Roberson as he drove on U.S. 280 near Mountain Brook, and an apparent fake deposition of a Verizon Wireless records custodian in the Newsome Conspiracy Case. 

Documents — and investigative reporting — shine considerable light on Hentschel’s ties to Matrix:

After Pitts left Matrix, reporters from Floodlight and NPR obtained company records documenting Hentschel’s work. This story also draws on other materials, including court records, and 14 interviews with people with direct knowledge of her activities.

In recent months, Matrix has also been accused of interfering in the workings of democracy in Alabama and Florida by seeking to influence ballot initiatives, running ghost candidates and offering a lucrative job to a public official if he resigned. As Floodlight and NPR have revealed, Matrix secretly maintained financial ties to a half-dozen political news sites and tried to ensure favorable coverage for clients.

Legal Schnauzer, Journalistic chicanery, sexual entanglements, and curious cash flow form a strange brew for big-polluting clients represented by Alabama-based Matrix LLC (Part 2), Roger Shuler, right, roger shuler and murphyDec. 27, 2022. The story of former ABC News producer Kristen Hentschel and the Matrix LLC political-consulting firm seems, at first glance, to be a tale of what might be called “journalistic fraud.”

After all, Hentschel would use her ABC News credentials to gain access to pro-environment political candidates, only to pepper them with bogus, accusatory questions designed to benefit Matrix’s big-polluting clients — Alabama Power, Southern Company, and Florida Power & Light. Alabama-based Matrix, it turns out, was paying Hentschel to pull off the deceptive scheme.

Upon further inspection, however, the story includes enough romantic entanglements to fill several scripts for an afternoon soap opera. Perhaps that is fitting kristen hentschelbecause Hentschel, left, before she was outed and fired by ABC News last week, was best known for having an affair with ABC journalist Chris Hansen, of To Catch a Predator fame.  

A joint investigation by NPR and Florida-based Floodlight led to a story that broke the Hentschel-Matrix scam on a national stage. It was as if the Hentschel-Hansen affair served as an appetizer for the bigger scandal to come – – and, as it turned out, that story had plenty of npr logosex angles, too.

Hentschel worked on the periphery of TV news, but struggled to gain a firm foothold on the big time. Write NPR/Floodlight reporters Miranda Green, Mario Ariza, and David Folkenflik:

Hentschel began her journalism career with short stints at local TV newsrooms in Chico, Calif., Waco, Texas, and Knoxville, Tennessee.

“A lot of people think that the television business … looks Hollywood-esque,” Hentschel once told Baldwin Park Living, a Florida lifestyle magazine. “I made $8 an hour [at] my first job, laid on couches and had to move around literally every one to two years.”

At those jobs, she covered crime, storms, traffic — mainstays of local news.

Her career foundered in 2011 when the National Enquirer disclosed a romantic relationship between her and a married man: Chris Hansen, the former host of NBC’s To Catch a Predator.

Hentschel learned that TV news presents a double standard for women in a highly competitive business:

Subsequent stints in Las Vegas, Seattle and Orlando, Fla., proved brief. “A double standard is an understatement as to what happens in this industry,” Hentschel told RadarOnline.com in an interview about her relationship with Hansen. “The women get fired and the men keep going.” Professionally, she had been using the name Kristyn Caddell, which endures on her Twitter account, but shifted to her family name, Kristen Hentschel, by late 2015.

Soon, Hentschel was out of work, and perhaps from desperation, turned to Matrix. Her resume found its way to the firm’s CEO, Jeff Pitts — and he hired her in early 2016. But that was not to be Hentschel’s only job:

Hentschel soon secured a second gig. In February 2016, she started as a freelance news producer for ABC News.

Hentschel primarily did work for Good Morning America. Among her assignments: helping with segments on NFL star Tom Brady and the disappearance and death of Gabby Petito, the young Florida woman who documented her cross-country trip on social media.

“Our setup for today… #lighting is everything,” Hentschel once tweeted with a photograph of a TV reporting shoot. “Who’s in the hot seat?”

The answer often proved to be people Pitts wanted her to confront.

Perhaps the strangest episode came when Matrix decided to spy on Southern Company chief Tom Fanning:

In another instance, the former girlfriend of Southern Company’s CEO, Tom Fanning, says Hentschel cozied up to her over the past year. Southern Company is a rival to Florida Power & Light. This August, Alabama news site AL.com reported that Matrix had previously paid a private investigator to spy on Fanning in the summer of 2017. . . . 

joe perkinsMatrix’s founder, Joe Perkins, right, disavows any knowledge of Hentschel’s work for Matrix and says Pitts was acting as a “rogue” employee in Florida.

Pitts left Matrix to found a rival firm in late 2020, alleging in court papers that he quit Matrix over Perkins’ “unethical business practices,” including “ordering and directing the clandestine surveillance including that of top executives of his largest client, the Southern Company.” Perkins blames Pitts for the surveillance.

According to NPR/Floodlight, Pitts had a tendency to mix business with pleasure:

Pitts could be a charmer. He was known to cultivate a personal rapport with his corporate clients over sushi and steak dinners, favoring long meals with freely flowing red wine. In an email exchange with a vice president of the energy company NextEra, Pitts wrote, “Talk tomorrow but miss you.” She wrote back that his note was a nice surprise. “You said [to] be more open,” Pitts replied.

Pitts mixed business with romance, Matrix financial records show. Over the course of the last decade, Pitts paid his then-wife more than $10,000 for work for Matrix, according to copies of the firm’s invoices reflecting payments to her personal company. She had previously been employed at Alabama Power, one of Matrix’s oldest clients, according to press clippings and two associates.

matrix logoMatrix also paid Pitts’ ongoing romantic partner, Apryl Marie Fogel, a conservative radio-show host, nearly $150,000 over several years. Fogel runs the conservative news site Alabama Today, which published articles showcasing Matrix clients in a favorable light.

On a recent episode of her radio show, Fogel compared her relationship with Pitts to that of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife, the pro-Trump activist Ginni Thomas.

“You check it at the door,” Fogel says. “You may be somewhat, in a fuzzy way, aware of what the other person is doing. And you want them to be successful, but it doesn’t mean that you two—that everything is running in lockstep.”

It did not take long for Hentschel to become part of the romantic scene:

Shortly after Hentschel started working for Pitts at Matrix, the two began an affair, associates say, though it is not clear how long it lasted. Hentschel bought a home close to Pitts’ apartment in West Palm Beach, Florida, public records show.

Meanwhile, Hentschel targeted political figures who could pose a problem for Matrix clients. One target proved to be the mayor of South Miami, who had promoted residential solar panels in the Sunshine State:

Hentschel called Phil Stoddard, then the mayor of South Miami, in August 2018. He says she identified herself as an ABC reporter and asked him about an upcoming press conference likely to bring unflattering publicity. A lawsuit had been filed by parents of a teenager who was hospitalized years earlier after attending a party thrown by Stoddard’s teenage daughter. (The suit was ultimately settled.)

npr logoThe press conference turned out to be a sham. It had been orchestrated by Joe Carrillo, a private detective, and Dan Newman, a political operative with financial links to Matrix, according to Matrix documents and a copy of the press release obtained by Floodlight and NPR.

Matrix paid Hentschel $2,000 a few weeks later for what was itemized as a “Miami shoot,” a Matrix ledger shows.

The interest in Stoddard, a biologist, seems easy to discern. Stoddard had clashed with Florida Power & Light over transmission lines, a nuclear power florida light and power logoplant, and policies on residential solar panels. . . . 

Internal Matrix emails between Newman, the political operative, and Pitts, the firm’s then-CEO, show it hired a private detective to investigate Stoddard’s personal life. The Orlando Sentinel reported that Matrix-linked nonprofits spent six figures trying to knock him out of office. . . . 

On Sept. 26, Hentschel showed up with a videographer to a city council meeting.

“I thought, ‘No good’s gonna come of this,'” Stoddard recalls. He shut down her requests for comment at the council meeting. He continued battling Florida Power & Light even after he left office in 2020.

NPR/Floodlight found that ABC News probably should not have been caught off guard by Hentschel’s activities:

There is evidence that ABC News was first told two years ago that Hentschel inappropriately invoked her network ties in conducting work that had nothing to do with ABC News.

abc news logo colorU.S. Rep. Brian Mast of Florida, a conservative Republican, has established a record as an advocate of strengthening water quality in Lake Okeechobee, the state’s largest freshwater lake. He has introduced four pieces of legislation to address toxic algal blooms there.

His work puts him at odds with Florida’s powerful sugar interest, Florida Crystals. Okeechobee is kept artificially full for that industry and other corporate use. Mast’s bills could ultimately cut into their profits.

“They’ll do anything that they can to hold onto that grip of controlling water in the state of Florida,” Mast says. “And I’m probably the number one person that goes against them.”

In the heat of the 2020 election season, Hentschel chased down Mast at a fundraiser featuring then-President Donald Trump. She told Mast’s aides she wanted to ask him about messages he wrote nearly a decade earlier, before entering politics. He had joked about rape and sex with teenagers in Facebook posts to a friend. They had just surfaced publicly, and he had apologized. The aides didn’t bite.

The conservative Florida news site The Capitolist called Mast’s proposals extreme and urged readers to vote for his Democratic opponent. Matrix had previously funneled The Capitolist nearly $200,000 from Florida Power & Light, the firm’s invoices show. Perkins denied Matrix paid The Capitolist and said the company “was unaware of any financial relationships between The Capitolist and any Matrix client.”

That September, Hentschel rang the doorbell at Mast’s home in a gated community and told Mast’s wife she was reporting for ABC, even handing over a business card citing the network, according to Mast’s accounts in an interview for this story and in a trespassing complaint he filed with police.

A senior aide to Mast shot off an email to ABC. Its political director, Rick Klein, replied that Hentschel was not there for the network.

Election Day was two months away. In a video he posted on Facebook, Mast denounced his Democratic opponent for sending Hentschel to his door. “I want to talk about something that frankly is just BS,” Mast said.

Mast now says he believes Hentschel sought to intimidate him on behalf of the sugar company and Matrix client Florida Crystals — an allegation the company rejected.

washington post logoWashington Post, Scientists say Arctic warming could be to blame for blasts of extreme cold, Scott Dance, Dec. 26, 2022 (print ed.). Research suggests that climate change is altering the jet stream, pushing frigid air down to southern climes more frequently. But the scientific jury is still out.

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The Hill, Opinion: The latest JFK document release: A smoking gun, or did Oswald act alone? Paul Roderick Gregory, Dec. 27, 2022 (print ed.). The reticence of successive presidents to release classified JFK-assassination documents has fed conspiracy theories characterizing Lee Harvey Oswald as part of a conspiracy thehill logoor the “patsy” he declared himself to be upon his arrest.

The latest document dump by the National Archives raised hopes among conspiracy buffs of information that might implicate Cuba, the former Soviet Union, the Mafia, Big Oil, or some other sinister cabal in President Kennedy’s murder.

But conspiracy theorists are in for another disappointment. There is no smoking gun, not even a toy pistol, and most of the data we already knew. The documents show that Lee Harvey Oswald traveled to Mexico City not to receive instructions to kill JFK but to prepare for a new life in a Cuba. The documents capture Oswald as a master manipulator, planner and schemer, important qualifications for an assassin working alone.

Some 95 percent of the documents released on Dec. 15 are trivia, boilerplate or bureaucratese — a classic case of over-classification by the intelligence community. Did we really need to hide a 60-year-old secret deal with Mexico’s then-president to surveil the Soviet embassy? Or to redact names and sources of officials long dead? (On a personal note, why did the routine decision not to further interview my father, Pete Gregory, who knew and introduced me to Oswald, need to wait a half-century to be released?)

Paul Roderick Gregory is a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Houston, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a research fellow at the German Institute for Economic Research. He is author of the book, “The Oswalds: An Untold Account of Marina and Lee.”

JIP Editor’s Note: This column was published almost concurrently by the Wall Street Journal as part of a massive publicity campaign to promote Gregory’s book and its pro-Warren Report claims disregarding the compelling scientific evidence that Oswald could not possibly have fired fatal shots at JFK.

ny times logoNew York Times, Pandemic Woes Lead Met Opera to Tap Endowment and Embrace New Works, Javier C. Hernández, Dec. 27, 2022 (print ed.). Facing tepid ticket sales, the company will withdraw up to $30 million and stage more operas by living composers, which have been outselling the classics.

Hit hard by a cash shortfall and lackluster ticket sales as it tries to lure audiences back amid the pandemic, the Metropolitan Opera said Monday that it would withdraw up to $30 million from its endowment, give fewer performances next season and accelerate its embrace of contemporary works, which, in a shift, have been outselling the classics.

The dramatic financial and artistic moves show the extent to which the pandemic and its aftermath continue to roil the Met, the premier opera company in the United States, and come as many other performing arts institutions face similar pressures.

“The challenges are greater than ever,” said Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager. “The only path forward is reinvention.”

Nonprofit organizations try to dip into their endowments only as a last resort, since the funds are meant to grow over time while producing a steady source of investment income. The Met’s endowment, which was valued at $306 million, was already considered small for an institution of its size. This season it is turning to the endowment to cover operating expenses, to help offset weak ticket sales and a cash shortfall that emerged as some donors were reluctant to accelerate pledged gifts amid the stock market downturn. As more cash gifts materialize, the company hopes to replenish the endowment.

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