Welcome to What Fresh Hell?, Raw Story’s new roundup of stories that might have become controversies under another regime, but got buried – or were at least under-reported – due to the daily firehose of political prank falls, unhinged tweet storms and threats of nuclear annihilation coming out of the current White House.
One would think that evidence suggesting that Russian spies may be using some kind of mysterious sonic weapon to scramble the brains of our foreign service officers would make front page news, but a report to that effect by CBS News this largely flew under the radar this week.
According to the report, a USAID official working out of our embassy in Uzbekistan, along with his wife, say they suffered the effects of some sort of acoustic attack similar to a series of mysterious aural assaults on US consular personnel in Cuba earlier this year, which left victims suffering from “hearing loss, brain injuries, cognitive issues and other conditions.”
A State Department spokesperson told CBS that nothing had happened to the couple, but “two US security sources say the September incident in Tashkent raises concerns Russia may be involved, and could have had a hand in the attacks targeting US government personnel in Cuba.”
That report came out on Tuesday, when we were all focused on Donald Trump calling Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) “Pocahontas” during a ceremony honoring Native-American military veterans, and on right-wing ratf**ker James O’Keefe’s spectacular self-own when his Project Veritas (which has received support from Trump’s charitable foundation) clumsily tried to set up a couple of real journalists from The Washington Post.
It’s quite likely that Donald Trump will go down in history as the least competent president in the history of the Republic, and also as the guy who managed to fundamentally transform the federal judiciary. And he’s not only shoving it to the right, but in typical Trump style, he’s also adding to it a heavy dollop of bigotry and derp.
This is not a testament to his strategic brilliance, or focus on the long game. He’s achieving this transformation with a huge assist from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who not only engineered an unprecedented theft of a Supreme Court seat from Trump’s predecessor, but also shut down the confirmation process for judges to the lower courts entirely for well over a year under Barack Obama.
The result: Trump entered into office with 105 vacancies – almost twice as many as Obama inherited -- and another 33 opened up in his first six months as President of the United States Electoral College. He has nominated 27 federal judges in his first six months in office, triple the number that Obama put up over the same period and more than twice as many as Reagan, Bush the elder or Obama. And he’s nominated another 33 since then.
Under a typical Republican president, his nominees would be superficially qualified, doctrinaire conservatives grown in a test-tube in the basement of the Federalist Society. But Trump is no ordinarily bad president. Four of his judicial picks have been rated “not qualified” by the American Bar Association. That may not sound like many, but consider this: Over the course of last four presidencies, spanning 28 years, only two nominees had been similarly rated. If your name isn’t Lionel Hutz, and you can fill out the forms correctly, they rate you as qualified.
The latest entry in this pathetic group was confirmed this week. Thirty-six year-old Brett Talley, who has never tried a case in his young career, will now enjoy a lifetime appointment to a federal judgeship in Alabama.
During his confirmation process, Talley didn’t disclose that he’s married to a senior White House lawyer, a potential conflict of interest. Nor did he mention, as he was required to do on Senate disclosure forms, that he had authored a number of “provocative and disturbing” online posts, according to The Washington Times. They included fantasizing “about shooting death row inmates,” a defense of the Ku Klux Klan and a post making light of statutory rape (which might make him fit right in in Alabama). After 20 children were mowed down at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, Talley felt the need to pledge his fealty to the NRA, and wrote, “my solution [to mass shootings] would be to stop being a society of pansies and man up." He should be a thoughtful jurist.
A number of Republican Senators said they had real problems with Talley’s lack of experience and failure to disclose all that important stuff, but of course they confirmed him anyway. So Talley will join a bunch of similarly extreme judges who will decide future issues of profound importance. And Trump’s nominees tend to skew young, so we’ll be living with their wingnutty brand of jurisprudence many years from now, when Republicans are calling the disgraced former president a liberal Democrat.
The GOP tends to be not good at legislating, a fact that was brought into sharp relief this week when a dreadfully regressive tax bill that was supposed to fly through the Senate required two days of last-minute tinkering on the Senate floor before being passed in the dead of night.
Lost in the coverage of the anti-democratic process they used to get it through and frightening analyses of the bill’s impacts is the fact that Republicans didn’t just push through massively consequential legislation without hearings or markups, but they also did it without a long-promised economic analysis from the Treasury Department. That analysis was supposed to support their claims that cutting trillions in taxes for wealthy people and corporations was sure to unleash so much magical growth dust that it wouldn’t lead to ballooning deficits and deep cuts in public services.
Now, we know that big deficits are only an act of generational warfare that will leave our children hopelessly impoverished when Democrats are in power, but they nonetheless wanted some cover for betraying their fiscally conservative “principles.” And Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, a Goldman Sachs alum, swore up and down that it was in the works. He said he had 100 people working on it. But no analysis was forthcoming, and Bloomberg reported that “the Treasury Department’s inspector general is examining whether political considerations interfered with… Mnuchin’s promised analysis.”
In a letter to the Inspector General, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) drew the obvious conclusion: “Either the Treasury Department has used extensive taxpayer funds to conduct economic analyses that it refuses to release because those analyses would contradict the Treasury Secretary’s claims, or Secretary Mnuchin has grossly misled the public about the extent of the Treasury Department’s analysis.”
This week, Minnesota became the first state to run out of federal funds for its Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) since Congress missed a September deadline to renew it. The blue state will make up the loss out of state revenues, for now, but others will not. Colorado’s Department of Health Care Policy and Financing sent letters to the Centennial State’s CHIP recipients warning that it will run out of funds by the end of January, and advising them to look into private insurance.
Renewing funding for the once-bipartisan program may become part of negotiations to keep the government running through the new year, but Politico reports that Republican leaders are considering a hardline approach to those talks, and according to The Washington Post, “President Trump has told confidants that a government shutdown could be good for him politically.” So it doesn’t look like anyone’s thinking of the children at the moment.
Finally, Tina Vasquez reports for Rewire News that the Trump regime put an anti-choice zealot in charge of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), and the guy’s “obsession” with underage pregnant immigrants is “shaping federal policy” and making life miserable for some very vulnerable young women.
Scott Lloyd, who “has a history with so-called crisis pregnancy centers, or fake clinics, which provide people with false information to dissuade them from seeking abortion care,” made news in recent months when a minor identified in court documents as “Jane Doe” was “held hostage” by his agency because she wanted to terminate her pregnancy. A court sided with Doe, but the story didn’t end there.
Doe has remained in custody for months longer that most unaccompanied minors take to be released because the agency has refused to approve multiple families that were willing to sponsor her in their homes.
Meanwhile, the Department of Justice is waging a parallel court battle to share information about the young woman’s abortion with potential sponsors. Susan Hays, legal director for Jane’s Due Process, an organization providing legal representation to pregnant minors in Texas, told Rewire that she suspects Jane Doe’s sponsorship opportunities have been “sabotaged.”
“They want to tell any potential sponsor she’s had an abortion, that is what the federal government is fighting for… It is absolutely retaliation.”
Meanwhile, Lloyd, who Vasquez says doesn’t appear to be qualified to lead the agency, is an “ideological pick by the Trump administration as it ushers ‘anti-choice fanaticism’ into the immigration system.” He’s admitted to “counseling” young women in the agency’s custody against seeking an abortion – something else he’s not qualified to do. And under his watch, the agency has also notified shelters that minors must receive anti-abortion counseling as a condition of their release.