Pipeline developer charged over systematic contamination

Associated Press

Pipeline developer charged over systematic contamination

Michael Rubinkam October 5, 2021

Gas Pipeline Investigation 1-9
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, at podium, speaks during a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Shapiro filed criminal charges Tuesday against the developer of a problem-plagued pipeline that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks with members of the media after a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Shapiro filed criminal charges Tuesday against the developer of a problem-plagued pipeline that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, center left, meets with members of the public and the press after a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Shapiro filed criminal charges Tuesday against the developer of a problem-plagued pipeline that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Libby Madarasz displays a placard before Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro's news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Shapiro filed criminal charges Tuesday against the developer of a problem-plagued pipeline that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Shapiro filed criminal charges Tuesday against the developer of a problem-plagued pipeline that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks with members of the media after a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Shapiro filed criminal charges Tuesday against the developer of a problem-plagued pipeline that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Shapiro filed criminal charges Tuesday against the developer of a problem-plagued pipeline that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Libby Madarasz displays a placard as Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Shapiro filed criminal charges Tuesday against the developer of a problem-plagued pipeline that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Shapiro filed criminal charges Tuesday against the developer of a problem-plagued pipeline that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, at podium, speaks during a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Shapiro filed criminal charges Tuesday against the developer of a problem-plagued pipeline that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)More

The corporate developer of a multi-billion-dollar pipeline system that takes natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field to an export terminal near Philadelphia was charged criminally on Tuesday after a grand jury concluded that it flouted Pennsylvania environmental laws and fouled waterways and residential water supplies across hundreds of miles.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced the sprawling case at a news conference at Marsh Creek State Park in Downingtown, where Sunoco Pipeline LP spilled thousands of gallons of drilling fluid last year. The spill, during construction of the troubled Mariner East 2 pipeline, contaminated wetlands, a stream and part of a 535-acre lake.

Energy Transfer, Sunoco’s owner, faces 48 criminal charges, most of them for illegally releasing industrial waste at 22 sites in 11 counties across the state. A felony count accuses the operator of willfully failing to report spills to state environmental regulators.

Shapiro said Energy Transfer ruined the drinking water of at least 150 families statewide. He released a grand jury report that includes testimony from numerous residents who accused Energy Transfer of denying responsibility for the contamination and then refusing to help.

The Texas-based pipeline giant was charged for “illegal behavior that related to the construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline that polluted our lakes, our rivers and our water wells and put Pennsylvania’s safety at risk,” said Shapiro, speaking with Marsh Creek Lake behind him.

Messages were sent to Energy Transfer seeking comment. The company has previously said it intends to defend itself.

The company faces a fine if convicted, which Shapiro said was not a sufficient punishment. He called on state lawmakers to toughen penalties on corporate violators, and said the state Department of Environmental Protection — which spent freely on outside lawyers for its own employees during the attorney general’s investigation — had failed to conduct appropriate oversight.

In a statement, DEP said it has been “consistent in enforcing the permit conditions and regulations and has held Sunoco LP accountable.” The agency said it would review the charges “and determine if any additional actions are appropriate at this time.”

Residents who live near the pipeline and some state lawmakers said Mariner East should be shut down entirely in light of the criminal charges, but the administration of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has long ignored such calls to pull the plug.

The August 2020 spill at Marsh Creek was among a series of mishaps that has plagued Mariner East since construction began in 2017. Early reports put the spill at 8,100 gallons, but the grand jury heard evidence the actual loss was up to 28,000 gallons. Parts of the lake are still off-limits.

“This was a major incident, but understand, it wasn’t an isolated one. This happened all across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” said Shapiro, a Democrat who plans to run for governor next year. He said that spills of drilling fluid were “frequent and damaging and largely unreported.”

The pipeline developer continued to rack up civil violations even after Mariner East became one of the most penalized projects in state history. To date, DEP said Energy Transfer has paid more than $20 million in fines for polluting waterways and drinking water wells, including a $12.6 million fine in 2018 that was one of the largest ever imposed by the agency. State regulators have periodically shut down construction.

But environmental activists and homeowners who assert their water has been fouled say that fines and shutdown orders have not forced Sunoco to clean up its act. They have been demanding revocation of Mariner East’s permits.

Carrie Gross, who has been living with the roar of Mariner East construction in her densely packed Exton neighborhood all day, six days a week, for much of the last four years, fears that criminal charges will be just as ineffectual as DEP’s civil penalties.

“I would say this is just another example of Energy Transfer paying to pollute, and that’s part of their cost of doing business. Until somebody permanently halts this project, our environment and our lives continue to be in danger,” Gross said.

The dental hygienist lives about 100 feet from the pipelines and works about 50 feet from them. She said she worries about the persistent threat of sinkholes, a catastrophic rupture or an explosion even after construction is over.

Shapiro’s news conference was originally rescheduled for Monday, but was abruptly postponed after the state environmental agency provided last-minute information to the attorney general’s office. The new information led to the filing of two additional charges, Shapiro said.

Energy Transfer acknowledged in a recent earnings report that the attorney general has been looking at “alleged criminal misconduct” involving Mariner East. The company said in the document it was cooperating but that “it intends to vigorously defend itself.”

The various criminal probes into Mariner East have also consumed DEP, which has spent about $1.57 million on outside criminal defense lawyers for its employees between 2019 and 2021, according to invoices obtained by The Associated Press.

The money was paid to five separate law firms representing dozens of DEP employees who dealt with Mariner East. Together, the firms submitted more than 130 invoices related to Mariner East investigations, performing legal work such as reviewing subpoenas and preparing clients to testify, the documents show.

When Mariner East construction permits were approved in 2017, environmental advocacy groups accused the Wolf administration of violating the law and warned pipeline construction would unleash massive and irreparable damage to Pennsylvania’s environment and residents.

“If we have a system where … the punishment, the fines, are basically seen as just a price of doing business, then we’ll continue to have violations in the commonwealth,” said David Masur, executive director of Philadelphia-based PennEnvironment.

State officials “have a huge stick they could wield,” he added. “Maybe they just have to stop hesitating and use it.”

The Mariner East pipeline system transports propane, ethane and butane from the enormous Marcellus Shale and Utica Shale gas fields in western Pennsylvania to a refinery processing center and export terminal in Marcus Hook, outside Philadelphia.

Energy Transfer also operates the Dakota Access oil pipeline, which went into service in 2017 after months of protests by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and others during its construction.

Pandora papers: biggest ever leak of offshore data exposes financial secrets of rich and powerful

Pandora papers: biggest ever leak of offshore data exposes financial secrets of rich and powerful

Guardian investigations team October 3, 2021

Pandora Papers illustraion
The Pandora papers reveal the inner workings of what is a shadow financial world, providing a rare window into the hidden operations of a global offshore economy. Illustration: Guardian Design

Millions of documents reveal offshore deals and assets of more than 100 billionaires, 30 world leaders and 300 public officials

The secret deals and hidden assets of some of the world’s richest and most powerful people have been revealed in the biggest trove of leaked offshore data in history.

Branded the Pandora papers, the cache includes 11.9m files from companies hired by wealthy clients to create offshore structures and trusts in tax havens such as Panama, Dubai, Monaco, Switzerland and the Cayman Islands.

They expose the secret offshore affairs of 35 world leaders, including current and former presidents, prime ministers and heads of state. They also shine a light on the secret finances of more than 300 other public officials such as government ministers, judges, mayors and military generals in more than 90 countries.

The files include disclosures about major donors to the Conservative party, raising difficult questions for Boris Johnson as his party meets for its annual conference.

More than 100 billionaires feature in the leaked data, as well as celebrities, rock stars and business leaders. Many use shell companies to hold luxury items such as property and yachts, as well as incognito bank accounts. There is even art ranging from looted Cambodian antiquities to paintings by Picasso and murals by Banksy.

The Pandora papers reveal the inner workings of what is a shadow financial world, providing a rare window into the hidden operations of a global offshore economy that enables some of the world’s richest people to hide their wealth and in some cases pay little or no tax.Quick Guide

What are the Pandora Papers

There are emails, memos, incorporation records, share certificates, compliance reports and complex diagrams showing labyrinthine corporate structures. Often, they allow the true owners of opaque shell companies to be identified for the first time.

The files were leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in Washington. It shared access to the leaked data with select media partners including the Guardian, BBC Panorama, Le Monde and the Washington Post. More than 600 journalists have sifted through the files as part of a massive global investigation.

The Pandora papers represent the latest – and largest in terms of data volume – in a series of major leaks of financial data that have convulsed the offshore world since 2013.

Setting up or benefiting from offshore entities is not itself illegal, and in some cases people may have legitimate reasons, such as security, for doing so. But the secrecy offered by tax havens has at times proven attractive to tax evaders, fraudsters and money launderers, some of whom are exposed in the files.I AM TOOLTIP 3

Perhaps the most significant offshore leak to date was the 2016 Panama papers, which consisted of 2.6 terabytes of data leaked from the law firm Mossack Fonseca.

The following year saw the release of the Paradise papers, most of which were from the offshore provider Appleby, which was founded in Bermuda. In total, that cache consisted of 1.4 terabytes of data.

Containing 2.94 terabytes, the Pandora papers is the largest of the three leaks. The files also come from a much wider array of offshore providers than previous leaks: 14 in total. Locations range from Vietnam to Belize and Singapore, and to far-flung archipelagos such as the Bahamas and the Seychelles.Advertisement

Other wealthy individuals and companies stash their assets offshore to avoid paying tax elsewhere, a legal activity estimated to cost governments billions in lost revenues.

After more than 18 months analysing the data in the public interest, the Guardian and other media outlets will publish their findings over the coming days, beginning with revelations about the offshore financial affairs of some of the most powerful political leaders in the world.

They include the ruler of Jordan, King Abdullah II, who, leaked documents reveal, has amassed a secret $100m property empire spanning Malibu, Washington and London. The king declined to answer specific questions but said there would be nothing improper about him owning properties via offshore companies. Jordan appeared to have blocked the ICIJ website on Sunday, hours before the Pandora papers launched.

The Azerbaijan president, Ilham Aliyev, and his wife Mehriban Aliyeva.
The Azerbaijan president, Ilham Aliyev, and his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva. The Aliyev family has traded close to £400m of UK property in recent years. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The files also show that Azerbaijan’s ruling Aliyev family has traded close to £400m of UK property in recent years. One of their properties was sold to the Queen’s crown estate, which is now looking into how it came to pay £67m to a company that operated as a front for the family that runs a country routinely accused of corruption. The Aliyevs declined to comment.

The Pandora papers also threaten to cause political upsets for two European Union leaders. The prime minister of the Czech republic, Andrej Babis, who is up for election this week, is facing questions over why he used an offshore investment company to acquire a $22m chateau in the south of France. He too declined to comment.

The Czech prime minister, Andrej Babiš
The Czech prime minister, Andrej Babiš, is facing questions over why he used an offshore investment company to acquire a $22m chateau in the south of France. Photograph: Milan Kammermayer/EPA

And in Cyprus, itself a controversial offshore centre, the president, Nicos Anastasiades, may be asked to explain why a law firm he founded was accused of hiding the assets of a controversial Russian billionaire behind fake company owners. The firm denies any wrongdoing, while the Cypriot president says he ceased having an active role in its affairs after becoming leader of the opposition in 1997.

Not everyone named in the Pandora papers is accused of wrongdoing. The leaked files reveals that Tony and Cherie Blair saved £312,000 in property taxes when they purchased a London building partially owned by the family of a prominent Bahraini minister.

The former prime minister and his wife bought the £6.5m office in Marylebone by acquiring a British Virgin Islands (BVI) offshore company. While the move was not illegal, and there is no evidence the Blairs proactively sought to avoid property taxes, the deal highlights a loophole that has enabled wealthy property owners not to pay a tax that is commonplace for ordinary Britons.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie Blair
Tony and Cherie Blair bought a £6.5m office in Marylebone by acquiring a British Virgin Islands offshore company. Photograph: WPA Pool/Getty Images

The leaked records vividly illustrate the central coordinating role London plays in the murky offshore world. The UK capital is home to wealth managers, law firms, company formation agents and accountants. All exist to serve their ultra-rich clients. Many are foreign-born tycoons who enjoy “non-domicile” status, which means they pay no tax on their overseas assets.

The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy
The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is also named in the leak. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who was elected in 2019 on a pledge to clean up his country’s notoriously corrupt and oligarch-influenced economy, is also named in the leak. During the campaign, Zelenskiy transferred his 25% stake in an offshore company to a close friend who now works as the president’s top adviser, the files suggest. Zelenskiy declined to comment and it is unclear if he remains a beneficiary.

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, whom the US suspects of having a secret fortune, does not appear in the files by name. But numerous close associates do, including his best friend from childhood – the late Petr Kolbin – whom critics have called a “wallet” for Putin’s own wealth, and a woman the Russian leader was allegedly once romantically involved with. None responded to invitations to comment.

The Pandora papers also place a revealing spotlight on the offshore system itself. In a development likely to prove embarrassing for the US president, Joe Biden, who has pledged to lead efforts internationally to bring transparency to the global financial system, the US emerges from the leak as a leading tax haven. The files suggest the state of South Dakota, in particular, is sheltering billions of dollars in wealth linked to individuals previously accused of serious financial crimes.

The offshore trail also stretches from Africa to Latin America to Asia, and is likely to pose difficult questions for politicians across the world. In Pakistan, Moonis Elahi, a prominent minister in prime minister Imran Khan’s government, contacted an offshore provider in Singapore about investing $33.7m.

Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta
Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, will come under pressure to explain why he and his close relatives amassed more than $30m of offshore wealth. Photograph: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

In Kenya, the president, Uhuru Kenyatta, has portrayed himself as an enemy of corruption. In 2018, Kenyatta told the BBC: “Every public servant’s assets must be declared publicly so that people can question and ask: what is legitimate?”

He will come under pressure to explain why he and his close relatives amassed more than $30m of offshore wealth, including property in London. Kenyatta did not respond to enquiries about whether his family wealth was declared to relevant authorities in Kenya.

The Pandora papers also reveal some of the unseen repercussions of previous offshore leaks, which spurred modest reforms in some parts of the world, such as the BVI, which now keeps a record of the real owners of companies registered there. However, the newly leaked data shows money shifting around offshore destinations, as wealthy clients and their advisers adjust to new realities.

Some clients of Mossack Fonseca, the now defunct law firm at the heart of the 2016 Panama papers disclosures, simply transferred their companies to rival providers such as another global trust and corporate administrator with a major office in London, whose data is in the new trove of leaked files.

Asked why he was migrating the new company, one customer wrote bluntly: “Business decision to exit following the Panama papers.” Another agent said the industry had always “adapted” to external pressure.

Some leaked files appear to show some in the industry seeking to circumvent new privacy regulations. One Swiss lawyer refused to email the names of his high-value customers to a service provider in the BVI, following new legislation. Instead, he sent them by airmail, with strict instructions they should not be processed in any “electronic way”. The identity of another beneficial owner was shared via WhatsApp.Advertisement

“The purpose of this way to proceed is to enable you to comply with BVI rules,” the lawyer wrote. Referring to Mossack Fonseca, the lawyer added: “You are obliged to keep secrecy for our clients and to not make feasible at all a second ‘Panama papers’ story that happened to one of your competitors.”

Gerard Ryle, the director of the ICIJ, said leading politicians who organized their finances in tax havens had a stake in the status quo, and were likely to be an obstacle to reform of the offshore economy. “When you have world leaders, when you have politicians, when you have public officials, all using the secrecy and all using this world, then I don’t think we’re going to see an end to it.

He expected the Pandora papers to have a greater impact than previous leaks, not least because they were arriving in the middle of a pandemic that had exacerbated inequalities and forced governments to borrow unprecedented amounts to be shouldered by ordinary taxpayers. “This is the Panama papers on steroids,” Ryle said. “It’s broader, richer and has more detail.”

At least $11.3tn in wealth is held offshore, according to a 2020 study by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). “This is money that is being lost to treasuries around the world and money that could be used to recover from Covid,” Ryle said. “We’re losing out because some people are gaining. It’s as simple as that. It’s a very simple transaction that’s going on here.”

Pandora papers reporting team: Simon Goodley, Harry Davies, Luke Harding, Juliette Garside, David Conn, David Pegg, Paul Lewis, Caelainn Barr, Rowena Mason and Pamela Duncan in London; Ben Butler and Anne Davies in Sydney; Dominic Rushe in New York; Andrew Roth in Moscow; Helena Smith in Athens; Michael Safi in Lebanon; Robert Tait in Prague.

Op-Ed: Are Supreme Court justices ‘partisan hacks’? All the evidence says yes

Op-Ed: Are Supreme Court justices ‘partisan hacks’? All the evidence says yes

President Donald Trump and Amy Coney Barrett stand on the Blue Room Balcony after Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas administered the Constitutional Oath to her on the South Lawn of the White House White House in Washington, Monday, Oct. 26, 2020. Barrett was confirmed to be a Supreme Court justice by the Senate earlier in the evening. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
President Trump and Amy Coney Barrett at the White House after she took the constitutional oath on Oct. 26, 2020, to become a Supreme Court justice. (Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

 

If Supreme Court justices don’t want to be seen as “partisan hacks,” they should not act like them.

In a speech last week at the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville Law School, Justice Amy Coney Barrett said, “This court is not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks.” She added, “Judicial philosophies are not the same as political parties.”

Setting aside the irony of uttering these statements at an event honoring Sen. Mitch McConnell, who blocked the confirmation of Merrick Garland to the court and rushed through the confirmation of Barrett precisely because of their ideologies, the reality is that time and again the court’s Republican majority has handed down decisions strongly favoring Republicans in the political process.

Does Barrett really expect people to believe that is a coincidence?

In the same speech, Barrett reiterated that she is an originalist, one who believes that the Constitution must be interpreted to mean what it might have meant at the time it was adopted. Yet not one of the court’s decisions about the election process favoring Republicans can possibly be defended on originalist grounds, which shows how wrong her claims really are.

In a series of rulings, with all of the Republican-appointed justices in the majority and the Democratic-appointed justices dissenting, the court has strongly tilted the scales in elections in favor of Republicans. In 2010, in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, the court ruled 5 to 4 that corporations can spend unlimited amounts to get candidates elected or defeated.

Business interests, which overwhelmingly favor Republican candidates in their campaign expenditures, outspend unions by more than 15 to 1. There is no plausible argument that the original meaning of the 1st Amendment included a right of corporations to spend unlimited amounts in election campaigns. Neither political expenditures nor corporations, as we know them today, even existed at the founding of this country.

In decisions in 2013 and this year, the court’s conservative majority eviscerated the protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in a manner that helps Republicans and hurts voters of color and Democrats. In 2013, in Shelby County vs. Holder, the court, 5 to 4, nullified the law’s requirement that states with a history of race discrimination get preclearance before making a significant change in their election systems. Every one of these states where preclearance was required was controlled by Republicans.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority and said that Congress violated the principle of equal state sovereignty by not treating all states the same. Nowhere is that found in the Constitution — and it was certainly not the understanding when the 14th Amendment was adopted by a Congress that imposed Reconstruction, including military rule, on Southern states.

After the Shelby County case, Republican-controlled governments in states like Texas and North Carolina immediately put in place restrictions on voting that had been previously denied preclearance.

In July, the court, now with six Republican appointees, gutted another crucial provision of the Voting Rights Act. Section 2 prohibits state and local governments from having election systems that discriminate against minority voters. Congress amended this provision in 1982 to provide that the law is violated if there is proof of a racially discriminatory impact.

The case, Brnovich vs. Democratic National Committee, involved two provisions of Arizona law that the United States Court of Appeals found had a discriminatory effect against voters of color. But Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the Republican-appointed justices, imposed many requirements that will make it very difficult, if not impossible, to prove a violation of the Voting Rights Act.

He said, for example, that courts must consider whether the new restrictions are worse than what existed in 1982 when the law was amended, all other ways for people to vote, and the state’s interest in preventing fraud. For any restriction on voting, a court can now say it isn’t as bad as some that existed earlier, or that there are enough other ways to vote, or that the state’s interests are enough to justify the law. In her dissent in Brnovich, Justice Elena Kagan noted there’s new evidence that “the Shelby ruling may jeopardize decades of voting rights progress.”

Conservative justices, who say they focus on the text of the law in interpreting statutes, created limits on the reach of the Voting Rights Act that are nowhere mentioned in it. The result is that the laws adopted by Republican legislatures in Georgia, Florida, Texas and other states are now far more likely to be upheld.

In these and other cases, the Republican justices changed the law to dramatically favor Republicans in the political process. Barrett’s protest against the justices being seen as “partisan hacks” rings hollow when that is what they have become. And it is risible to say that “judicial philosophies are not the same as political parties.” I would challenge her to give a single instance where the conservative justices on the court took positions that were at odds with the views of the Republican Party.

The most obvious example, of course, is abortion. The GOP vehemently opposes abortion rights and Republican presidents have appointed justices with that view. No one should have been surprised when the five conservative justices refused to enjoin the Texas law banning abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy even though it blatantly violates the constitutional right to abortion.

Supreme Court decisions always have been and always will be a product of the ideology of the justices. No one — least of all a Supreme Court justice — should pretend otherwise.

Erwin Chemerinsky is dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law and a contributing writer to Opinion. He is the author most recently of “Presumed Guilty: How the Supreme Court Empowered the Police and Subverted Civil Rights.”

The 3 U.S. negotiating errors that paved the way for the Taliban’s return to power

The 3 U.S. negotiating errors that paved the way for the Taliban’s return to power

Taliban flags.
Taliban flags. KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images

 

The Taliban didn’t regain control of Afghanistan overnight, and while their return to power was years in the making, the Trump administration’s agreement with the group last year helped speed up the process, Lisa Curtis, the director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, writes for Foreign Affairs.

Curtis zeroed in on three errors the negotiation team, led by Zalmay Khalilzad, made out of “desperation to conclude a deal” and put an end to the decades-long U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. The first, she writes, was believing the Taliban would eventually sit down with the Afghan government to hash out a long-term political settlement. This led Washington to exclude Kabul from their talks with the Taliban in Qatar, which Curtis argues “prematurely conferred legitimacy on the” insurgents.

The next mistake, in Curtis’ opinion, was that the U.S. didn’t “condition the pace of talks on Taliban violence levels.” Negotiations continued even amid escalating violence on the ground in Afghanistan, and ultimately the Taliban only had to “reduce violence for six days before signing the agreement.” Finally, Curtis believes the Trump administration was operating under “wishful thinking” that the Taliban was seriously interested in political negotiations instead of fighting their way back to power. The U.S., therefore, forced Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners without simultaneously securing a “commensurate concession” from the group.

“The United States would have been far better off negotiating its withdrawal directly with the Afghan government, something that Ghani himself proposed in early 2019,” Curtis writes. “By doing so, the United States would have avoided demoralizing its Afghan partners as Washington pulled back U.S. forces.” Read about how Curtis thinks the Biden administration should deal with the Taliban going forward at Foreign Affairs.

A Texas restaurant owner threw out a family wearing masks who were trying to protect their immuno-compromised son

A Texas restaurant owner threw out a family wearing masks who were trying to protect their immuno-compromised son

Texas governor greg abbott
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott removing his mask before speaking at a news conference about migrant children detentions. L.M. Otero/AP 

  • A Texas restaurant owner kicked a family out of his shop for wearing face masks.
  • The family said they were wearing masks because their son is immuno-compromised.
  • The owner said he didn’t know about the child’s status, but he’d continue to enforce the mask ban.

A Texas restaurant owner booted a family wearing masks to protect their immuno-compromised son, saying it was “political,” CBS DFW reported.

Natalie Wester and her husband brought their 4-month-old son to Hang Time, a restaurant and bar in Rowlett, Texas, just northeast of Dallas. Wester told CBS DFW that her son is immuno-compromised, leading the couple to don masks inside the venue out of precaution.

Hang Time’s owner didn’t approve.

Wester said their waitress approached the family at the behest of the restaurant owner and said, “This is political, and I need you to take your mask off.”

“I feel the overall reaction with masks is ridiculous in the United States right now,” Hang Time’s owner said.

The owner told CBS DFW that going maskless was part of the restaurant’s dress code, and that he had the right to refuse to serve customers breaking his rules.

But Hang Times’ anti-masking dress code wasn’t posted outside of the restaurant, CBS DFW reported.

The restaurant owner told CBS DFW that he didn’t know the Westers’ son was immuno-compromised but said he’d continue to enforce Hang Time’s no-masking policy.

We’re watching the implosion of the Supreme Court in real time

We’re watching the implosion of the Supreme Court in real time

Supreme Court
  • The reputation of the Supreme Court is sinking.
  • After decisions like the Texas abortion case, the impartiality of the Court is in doubt.
  • The hyper-partisanship both at and around the Court is to blame.
  • Michael Gordon is a longtime Democratic strategist, a former spokesman for the Justice Department, and the principal for the strategic-communications firm Group Gordon.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett admitted that the Supreme Court is crumbling as an institution.

Earlier this month, the newest justice gave a speech lamenting how the Court is viewed as partisan and warning that her fellow justices must be “hyper vigilant to make sure they’re not letting personal biases creep into their decisions.” She must know something we don’t.

These remarks may seem like a surprise. After all, Barrett was confirmed to the Court in a hyper-partisan process and gave the aforementioned speech at an event celebrating Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the architect of the judicial system’s rightward turn. Despite the hypocrisy, or perhaps because of it, the comments struck a chord.

In an age of Republicans challenging legitimate election results because they lose or might lose, the credibility of the Court is the next hammer to fall in our democracy, the last bastion of hope for nonpartisan decision making.

But now the Court is rightfully losing public support as the veneer of impartiality slips, and the hyper-partisanship both at and around the Court is to blame.

Partisan justice

Even as recently as a few years ago, the Supreme Court wasn’t as partisan as it is now. Support certainly started eroding when McConnell and Senate Republicans refused to seat President Obama’s final nominee, current Attorney General Merrick Garland.

But there have been recent decisions that were, for lack of a better term, bipartisan. Justice Gorsuch joined four liberal justices to support Native American land claims in Oklahoma. In a 7-2 opinion, the Supreme Court kept the Affordable Care Act intact.

As recently as a few months ago, Justices Kavanaugh and Roberts helped keep the eviction moratorium in place in a 5-4 ruling (though this was overturned a few months later in a separate case). Roberts, the Chief Justice who many believe is trying to keep the court as nonpartisan as possible, has often found himself siding with the liberal justices.

But, on issues important to many Americans, this facade of bipartisanship seems to be disappearing. First, the Supreme Court threw out the eviction moratorium they had so recently upheld, throwing millions of struggling Americans into uncertainty.

Then the death knell came a few weeks ago, when the Supreme Court blatantly signaled a willingness to overturn Roe vs. Wade by allowing a strict Texas anti-abortion law to go into effect. Though Roberts voted with the liberals in this decision, the other Republican-appointed justices essentially overturned nearly 50 years of legal precedent.

Given the 6-3 Republican majority, it’s safe to assume we will see more decisions like this in the coming years. Though Roberts can play nonpartisan as much as he wants, the conservatives have a five-justice majority even without him and can rule on cases as they wish.

Votes, not words

The Republican strategy over many decades to focus on the court has paid off. They have turned to the court to legitimize gerrymandering and gut the Voting Rights Act, and justices like Barrett and Roberts have supported them.

Both of those justices are right to worry about the legitimacy of the Supreme Court. They just need to realize they’re part of the problem of the legitimacy crisis.

Democrats have proposed many solutions to this problem, from expanding the court to adding term limits. But with those ideas stalled, once unthinkable national changes emanating from the Court are very much in play.

The Texas abortion decision is just the beginning. Roe could be overturned in full later this year. Even if Democrats passed many of the landmark bills they are currently debating, there is nothing stopping the conservative court from simply striking them down, declaring them “unconstitutional” under the pretenses of their choice.

Maybe Barrett will join Roberts in making a real effort to strike a more bipartisan tone. If she’s truly worried about the perception of the Court and how some of her colleagues consider matters, she has the opportunity to do something about it. But she needs to follow Roberts with her actions and join him in crossing party lines.

It’s her votes, not her words, that count. I’m not holding my breath.

California firefighters scramble to protect sequoia groves

California firefighters scramble to protect sequoia groves

 

THREE RIVERS, Calif. (AP) — Flames on Sunday reached a grove of sequoia trees in California as firefighters battled to keep fire from driving further into another grove, where the base of the world’s largest tree has been wrapped in protective foil.

Fire officials warned that hot, dry weather and stronger winds were contributing to “critical fire conditions” in the area of the KNP Complex, two lightning-sparked blazes that merged on the western side of Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada.

The fire reached Long Meadow Grove, where the Trail of 100 Giant Sequoias is a national monument. Fire officials haven’t yet been able to determine how much damage was done to the groves, which are in remote and hard-to-reach areas. However, an Associated Press photographer saw active flames burning up a trunk, with the forest floor ablaze below.

The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning through Sunday, saying gusts and lower humidity could create conditions for rapid wildfire spread.

The fires forced the evacuation of the park last week, along with parts of Three Rivers, a foothill town of about 2,500 people. Firefighters using bulldozers expanded a line between the fire and the community, fire spokesperson Rebecca Paterson said Sunday.

More than 34 square miles (88 square kilometers) of forest land have been blackened.

The National Park Service said Friday that fire had reached the westernmost tip of the Giant Forest, where it scorched a grouping of sequoias known as the “Four Guardsmen” that mark the entrance to the grove of 2,000 sequoias.

Since then crews have managed to keep the flames from encroaching further into the area.

“The fire perimeter kind of wraps around the Giant Forest at this point,” Paterson said.

Firefighters swaddled the base of the General Sherman Tree, along with other trees in the Giant Forest, in a type of aluminum that can withstand high heat.

The General Sherman Tree is the largest in the world by volume, at 52,508 cubic feet (1,487 cubic meters), according to the National Park Service. It towers 275 feet (84 meters) high and has a circumference of 103 feet (31 meters) at ground level.

Firefighters who were wrapping the base of the sequoias in foil and sweeping leaves and needles from the forest floor around the trees had to flee from the danger, fire spokesperson Katy Hooper said Saturday. They returned when conditions improved to continue the work and start a strategic fire along Generals Highway to protect the Giant Forest grove, she said.

Giant sequoias are adapted to fire, which can help them thrive by releasing seeds from their cones and creating clearings that allow young sequoias to grow. But the extraordinary intensity of fires — fueled by climate change — can overwhelm the trees.

“Once you get fire burning inside the tree, that will result in mortality,” said Jon Wallace, the operations section chief for the KNP Complex.

The fires already have burned into several groves containing trees as tall as 200 feet (61 meters) feet tall and 2,000 years old.

To the south, the Windy Fire grew to 28 square miles (72 square kilometers) on the Tule River Indian Reservation and in Giant Sequoia National Monument, where it has burned into the Peyrone grove of sequoias and threatens others.

Historic drought tied to climate change is making wildfires harder to fight. It has killed millions of trees in California alone. Scientists say climate change has made the West much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.

More than 7,000 wildfires in California this year have damaged or destroyed more than 3,000 homes and other buildings and torched well over 3,000 square miles (7,770 square kilometers) of land, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

This story has corrected a reference to the General Sherman tree, which is the world’s largest by volume, not tallest.

‘They screwed up our lake’: tar sands pipeline is sucking water from Minnesota watersheds

‘They screwed up our lake’: tar sands pipeline is sucking water from Minnesota watersheds

Low water levels mean rice harvesters can’t paddle their canoes to their traditional harvesting areas.
Photograph: Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images

 

Along the eastern boundary of the White Earth Indian Reservation in north-western Minnesota, Indigenous Anishinaabe wild rice harvesters Jerry and Jim Libby set down a row of wooden pallets into the mud just beyond the dock of Upper Wild Rice Lake. It was a clear day, and tight, lush clumps of green rice heads were visible across the lake’s horizon.

In a typical year, the entrance to this – one of a long necklace of wild rice lakes in northern Minnesota to which the region’s Indigenous people flock every year in the late summer – would be covered in at least two feet of water. But now it is composed of suspended sediment as solid as chocolate pudding, through which the Libbys need to create a makeshift ramp simply to carry their canoe out to the waterline.

Minnesota is weathering an historic drought, but there is another problem beyond the weather: Enbridge’s Line 3 tar sands pipeline has taken a substantial toll on watersheds in the region, including through a permit to pump five billion gallons of water for construction. In the case of Upper Wild Rice Lake, a road construction contractor named Knife River Construction stuck a pump directly in the lake this past June, sucking out an unknown quantity of water, which locals suspect was related to the use of heavy trucks for the pipeline.

“As far as I’m concerned, Enbridge screwed up our lake, and they’re taking money directly away from our families,” Jerry Libby says. “It makes us feel anguished – this is our staple food, you know.”

The Indigenous-led struggle against Line 3, which seeks to move 930,000 barrels of tar sands bitumen daily from Alberta to a shipping and refinery hub in Superior, Wisconsin, has been the biggest environmental and Indigenous land protection campaign in the US this summer. More than 900 people have been arrested opposing the pipeline, including nearly 70 who were kettled in late August during protests outside Minnesota governor Tim Walz’s residence in Minneapolis.

Branded as a “replacement” project, the new pipeline would double the old Line 3’s capacity to carry tar sands bitumen. Enbridge, a Canada-based energy company, has announced it will begin sending oil through the pipeline next month.

The processing and combustion of bitumen for the pipeline would release greenhouse gases equivalent to 50 coal plants, according to analysis by the nonprofit Oil Change International, thereby significantly contributing to the global climate crisis. But one of the pipeline’s most immediate impacts is on wild rice harvesters such as the Libbys, for whom the annual harvesting season began in late August and runs through much of September.

Wild rice – known to many Anishinaabe people as “manoomin,” or “the food that grows on water” – is a dense, nutritional grain that grows naturally in the abundant lakes and rivers in Minnesota, Wisconsin and parts of Canada. Thousands of Anishinaabe people continue to harvest it with the same traditional methods used for generations, by propelling a canoe or small boat through the rice beds with a long pole.

Indigenous people of the region believe they have a sacred covenant to protect manoomin and numerous other nonhuman beings, without which they would cease to exist as distinct peoples, notes longtime Anishinaabe rice harvester Bob Shimek. “During any kind of ceremony we do here, wild rice is involved,” Shimek says. “It’s kind of like the Anishinaabe soul food.”

Line 3 runs across more than 200 bodies of water, including the headwaters of the Mississippi River and some of the region’s most important wild rice waters, streams, rivers, lakes and aquifers. The state Department of Natural Resources permitted Enbridge to draw nearly five billion gallons from these water bodies absent public notice or consultation with the White Earth Indian Reservation.

Christy Dolph, a University of Minnesota research scientist focused on the state’s water resources, notes that the pipeline’s impacts on water and the species that depend on it are numerous. In the course of excavating trenches to lay pipe, Enbridge pumps out any groundwater that still seeps into the trench, inevitably leading water to evaporate.

“These activities have a major impact, especially because these wetlands are already under severe stress from the drought,” she says.

Opponents also fear leaks and spills from the tar sands pipeline, particularly since the thick substance is nearly impossible to clean up.

As with other wetland plant species, wild rice is highly sensitive to fluctuations in water levels, which damage its ability both to grow and reseed. For rice harvesters, low water levels mean they are unable to paddle their canoes out to their usual rice grounds, depriving them of a major source of physical and spiritual sustenance, as well as a significant source of income.

During a typical year, the Libby brothers say, they make up to $9,000 from rice harvesting, which they use for basic necessities like home repairs, school supplies for their grandchildren and vehicle maintenance. But since this year’s harvesting season began in late August, many harvesters have had to resort to unorthodox methods such as trekking through the muddy, dried-out lakes in snow shoes with burlap sacks slung around their shoulders, a technique that yields one-third to one-fourth the amount they could harvest with canoes.

Enbridge disputes the notion that they bear any responsibility for the dry conditions in rice beds near the pipeline route or that the pipeline has a detrimental impact on watersheds. “Line 3’s permit conditions protect the environment during construction, and specifically wild rice,” Enbridge spokersperson Juli Kelner wrote via email. “Enbridge pipelines have coexisted with Minnesota’s most sacred and productive wild rice stands for seven decades.”

In response to a request for comment, a Department of Natural Resources spokesperson wrote that “Minnesota DNR has worked consistently to minimize the impacts of the Line 3 replacement project on wild rice and other Minnesota resources. These efforts date back to our original comments to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) regarding project routing, where we strongly advocated for route alternatives that would minimize crossings in or near wild rice waters.”

The effects of Line 3 construction on wild rice are at the center of a first of its kind lawsuit brought by the White Earth Band of Ojibwe in which wild rice is itself the plaintiff. Under a series of treaties that Chippewa Anishinaabe people signed with the US government during the mid-19th century, the lawsuit asserts, wild rice “possesses inherent rights to exist, flourish, regenerate, and evolve, as well as inherent rights to restoration, recovery, and preservation.” The suit seeks an injunction against the Department of Natural Resources to void Enbridge’s water permit, though the case may not be decided until after construction is completed.

Beyond the direct effects of the Line 3 pipeline, wild rice faces numerous other threats – including from the climate crisis. According to a 2018 report by the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), an intertribal agency that seeks to protect Anishinaabe treaty rights, climate change will wreak devastation on virtually all the plant and animal species on which they rely. Wild rice is the most endangered of these species because of its sensitivity to flooding, drought, and disease outbreaks, the report says.

Stopping Line 3 is imperative to fighting the climate crisis, opponents note, because tar sands are one of the most intensive fossil fuels in terms of carbon dioxide emissions and because the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure locks in emissions for decades to come. For the past several months, activists have called on the Biden administration to stop the pipeline by directing the Army Corps of Engineers to revoke the permit it granted the project under the Trump administration.

According to Anishinaabe wild rice harvester Angel Stevens, a member of the anti-pipeline Manoomin Camp, the struggle against Line 3 is still going strong despite the project’s imminent completion. “We’re continuing to do everything we can to stop this pipeline,” she says.

Guess what the three Democrats blocking lower medication prices have in common?

Guess what the three Democrats blocking lower medication prices have in common?

Photograph: Daniel Knighton/Getty Images

 

The three conservative Democratic lawmakers threatening to kill their party’s drug pricing legislation have raked in roughly $1.6m of campaign cash from donors in the pharmaceutical and health products industries. One of the lawmakers is the House’s single largest recipient of pharmaceutical industry campaign cash this election cycle, and another lawmaker’s immediate past chief of staff is now lobbying for drugmakers.

The threat from Democratic representatives Kurt Schrader (Oregon), Scott Peters (California) and Kathleen Rice (New York) comes just as the pharmaceutical industry’s top lobbying group announced a seven-figure ad campaign to vilify the Democratic legislation, which aims to lower the cost of medicines for Americans now facing the world’s highest prescription drug prices.

Schrader and Peters are among the two biggest recent Democratic recipients of pharmaceutical industry donations

At issue is House Democrats’ initiative to let Medicare use its bulk purchasing power to negotiate lower prescription drug prices. That power – which is used by other industrialized countries to protect their citizens from exorbitant prices – has been promised by Democrats for years, and party leaders have been planning to include it as part of their sprawling $3.5tn infrastructure reconciliation effort.

On Wednesday, Schrader, Peters and Rice helped vote the measure down in the powerful energy and commerce committee, blocking the legislation before it could come to the House floor for a vote. Even if the bill were to ultimately make it to the floor through another committee – which remains a possibility – Democrats have only a four-seat majority that allows them to pass legislation, so they can’t afford to lose any more votes.

“I understand that the pharmaceutical industry owns the Republican party and that no Republican voted for this bill, but there is no excuse for every Democrat not supporting it,” said the Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders after the vote.

The trio of Big Pharma Democrats are jeopardizing a plan based on HR 3, the Elijah E Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act. The Congressional Budget Office has said the drug pricing legislation, named for the late Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, would save the government $456bn and “reduce prices by 57% to 75%, relative to current prices” for various medicines.

The measure would direct federal health regulators to negotiate prices of 25 high-priced drugs in the first year of implementation and 50 drugs in subsequent years, and the new negotiated prices would be available to both Medicare and private insurers.

Polls show that the idea of allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices is wildly popular – to the point where swing-state Republicans and swing-district Democrats, and even former President Donald Trump, have expressed support for it.

Schrader and Peters are among the two biggest recent Democratic recipients of pharmaceutical industry donations, according to OpenSecrets. The pharmaceutical and health products industries are collectively the second biggest donor to both lawmakers over the course of their careers, giving them almost $1.5m in total. Peters is the House’s top recipient of pharmaceutical industry donations in the 2022 election cycle.

Related: Big Pharma doesn’t want us to expand Medicare. We have to fight them | Bernie Sanders

Peters and his family were worth an estimated $60m in 2018, making him one of the wealthiest lawmakers in Congress, according to OpenSecrets. His wife is the president and CEO of Cameron Holdings, an investment firm whose portfolio company provides manufacturing and packaging for pharmaceutical companies.

Schrader’s net worth, meanwhile, was pegged at nearly $8m. The Oregonian reported in 2008 that he received “a quite large inheritance” from his grandfather, who was “vice president and director of biochemical research and development at Pfizer” – the drugmaker whose political action committee is now Schrader’s third largest career donor.

The congressmen on Tuesday offered their own drug pricing proposal, which would allow Medicare to negotiate prices only under limited conditions, such as when a company no longer has exclusive marketing rights on an older drug but there are no competitors. That proposal was also backed by the Democratic representative Stephanie Murphy (Florida), the co-chair of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition, who is the House’s fifth largest recipient of donations from the pharmaceutical and health products industries.

Earlier this year, Peters’ campaign saw a surge in donations from pharmaceutical company executives after he organized a letter with nine other Democratic lawmakers informing the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, that they opposed HR 3. Schrader and Rice co-signed the letter.

It’s worth noting that Peters, Schrader and Rice all voted in favor of HR 3 in the previous Congress. Politico wrote in May that Peters “said he cast that vote knowing it had no chance of becoming law at the time. He said he supported it only to ‘start a conversation about lowering the cost of prescription drugs’.”

Rice, Schrader and Peters have seats on the House energy and commerce committee, which is writing the party’s prescription drug plan, and they used those positions to help block the measure there on Wednesday, preventing it from moving to the floor.

Last December, House Democrats’ steering committee voted to put Rice on the energy and commerce panel instead of the progressive New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

On Tuesday, Rice explained that she opposes the drug pricing measure because “I do not support advancing policies that are not fiscally responsible and jeopardize the bill’s final passage.”

Schrader’s longtime top aide, Paul Gage, left the congressman’s office earlier this year, according to Legistorm, and quickly started lobbying for Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the powerful Washington drug lobby.

Gage has been lobbying Congress on drug pricing issues and HR 3, according to ethics records. PhRMA raised more than $500m in 2019, and the organization is one of the top lobbying spenders in DC.

On Wednesday, PhRMA announced it is launching an ad campaign against House Democrats’ drug pricing efforts. “Politicians say they want to negotiate medicine prices in Medicare,” one ad warns. “But make no mistake: What politicians mean is they’ll decide which medicines you can and can’t get.”

The Blue Dog Coalition’s political action committee has been making monthly payments to a consulting firm led by the coalition’s former communications director, Kristen Hawn.

Hawn is also a partner at the bipartisan public affairs firm ROKK Solutions, which has worked for PhRMA.

  • David Sirota is a Guardian US columnist and an award-winning investigative journalist. He is an editor-at-large at Jacobin, and the founder of the Daily Poster. He served as Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign speechwriter
  • Andrew Perez is a senior editor at the Daily Poster and a cofounder of the Democratic Policy Center
  • This article was originally published in the Daily Poster, a grassroots-funded investigative news outlet

Milley took action because gutless GOP wouldn’t stand up to mentally unbalanced Trump | Opinion

Milley took action because gutless GOP wouldn’t stand up to mentally unbalanced Trump | Opinion

What do you do when a president is crazy?

That’s essentially the question Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, faced in the twilight days of the Trump administration. His answer, as reported by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa in their forthcoming book, “Peril,” has some people up in arms.

It seems that Milley, according to published accounts from those who have read the book, became convinced his tantrum-throwing, spittle-spewing, reality-denying commander-in-chief was in a state of mental collapse and, as such, was an immediate threat to world peace. So the general went around him, twice reaching out via back channels to his Chinese counterpart, General Li Zuocheng.

The first call was last October. Milley had reportedly seen intelligence suggesting that China, rattled by U.S. military exercises in the South China Sea and by President Trump’s bellicose rhetoric, believed an American attack was imminent. He assured Zuocheng that this was not the case and went so far as to issue an extraordinary promise: “If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time.”

Milley’s second call is said to have come in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. He reportedly felt it necessary to assure China the U.S. government was stable, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. Milley also warned military officers against obeying any presidential orders to launch nuclear weapons unless he, Milley, was involved.

The propriety of Milley’s actions has come under heavy scrutiny. Trump-era National Security Adviser John Bolton defended him and vouched for his patriotism. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that reassuring a nervous adversary is “not only common, it’s expected.”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, on the other hand, expressed “grave concern” and demanded that President Biden fire Milley “immediately.” Nor was the condemnation limited to morally limber political actors. Former Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who famously testified against Trump in his first impeachment and paid for his temerity with his career, said Milley must resign, having “violated the sacrosanct principle of civilian control over the military,” which he saw as “an extremely dangerous precedent.”

But the Trump years set extremely dangerous precedents on a daily basis. It is at least conceivable that this one averted war. And none of this Sturm und Drang addresses what would seem to be the obvious issue. Namely, that the question of how to manage a mentally unbalanced president should never have devolved to Milley to begin with, should never have become his responsibility.

That it did speaks to the unadulterated cowardice of the political party that protected Trump, made excuses for him, lied for him, at every step of the way. As his precarious mental state became ever more obvious, the GOP’s pusillanimous refusal to do its patriotic duty became ever more glaring.

Impeach him? Invoke the 25th Amendment? Simply stand up on hind legs and object?

Nope, nope and nope. Instead, the Gutless Old Party behaved like Mikey’s brothers in the old Life cereal commercial: “I’m not gonna try it. You try it.”

Now we’re supposed to dump opprobrium upon a soldier who was required to answer a question that never should’ve come to his desk and never would’ve, had these people exhibited a molecule of courage? No. The most troubling thing here is not what Milley chose to do.

It’s that he had to make a choice at all.