A Small Town’s Tragedy, Distorted by Trump’s Megaphone

The New York Times

A Small Town’s Tragedy, Distorted by Trump’s Megaphone

Charles Homans and Ken Bensinger – May 29, 2023

From left, Larry Erickson, Sue Bakko, and Bob Bailey having breakfast at the Hunting Shack Cafe in McHenry, N.D., on May 24, 2023. (Lewis Ableidinger/The New York Times)
From left, Larry Erickson, Sue Bakko, and Bob Bailey having breakfast at the Hunting Shack Cafe in McHenry, N.D., on May 24, 2023. (Lewis Ableidinger/The New York Times)

McHENRY, N.D. — There were no known witnesses when Shannon Brandt and Cayler Ellingson got into an argument in the blurry hours after last call at Buck’s n Doe’s Bar & Grill in September. And no one but Brandt could say with certainty what led him to run over Ellingson with his Ford Explorer, crushing him to death in a gravel alley.

But the people of McHenry, a town of 64 in sparsely populated Foster County, North Dakota, have gotten used to hearing from people who think they know.

They include former President Donald Trump, who denounced the killing of Ellingson, an 18-year-old recent high school graduate, at the hands of a “deranged Democrat maniac who was angry that Cayler was a Republican” in a Truth Social post. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia described Brandt on Twitter as a “Democrat political terrorist” and cited the case as evidence that “Democrats want Republicans dead, and they’ve already started the killings.”

Trump and Greene were among a chorus of Republican politicians — including several members of Congress and the attorney general of North Dakota — who rushed to condemn Brandt. They relied on a handful of early news stories that cited a state highway patrol officer’s report, which suggested Brandt killed Ellingson because he believed he was a “Republican extremist.”

That claim, made weeks before the midterm elections, ignited a brief national political firestorm. Republican politicians and right-wing media figures claimed that Brandt had been inspired by President Joe Biden’s recent warnings about “extremism” in the Republican Party. They complained that news media coverage of political violence willfully ignored instances when the assailants were Democrats.

But the episode quickly became an example of another media phenomenon: the distortion of complex, painful events to fit an opportune political narrative.

Although evidence in the case suggests the two men argued about politics that night, law enforcement officials concluded quickly that the killing was not politically motivated. The prosecutor for Foster County who brought the charges never accused Brandt of running over Ellingson because of political beliefs.

Acquaintances and a family member could not recall Brandt, a 42-year-old welder with no history of party registration, expressing political views.

Late last month, the murder charge against Brandt was downgraded to manslaughter, which carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. He agreed on May 18 to plead guilty.

By averting a courtroom trial, the plea leaves many questions hanging over a still largely unexplained incident — and over a town that found itself swept abruptly into a national political cyclone and just as abruptly cast out.

In conversations this month, residents of McHenry — a conservative, close-knit agricultural community where most families, including the Ellingsons and the Brandts, have known each other for decades, if not generations — said the narrative of the tragedy that Trump and others promoted never made much sense to them. But except for a handful of county officials, they have shied away from speaking on the record about it.

Robyn Sorum, the mayor of McHenry, said she had advised the community against doing so to avoid worsening local tensions around the case. “Anywhere something like this happens, it’s a tragedy, you know?” she said. “But then you get to a small town where everyone knows each other, it makes it even rougher.”

Ellingson’s family did not comment. Brandt, through his attorney, Mark Friese, declined an interview.

Friese, who did not discuss details of the incident, described the aftermath as a cautionary tale. “I think we’re going to see more of this,” he said. “Things end up being tried on social media instead of in the courtroom.”

A Confusing Encounter

The town of McHenry sits on a crosshatch of gravel roads etched into an undulating plain of wheat and soybean farms and Angus cattle ranches. The nearest landmarks of any significance, a 30- and 60-minute drive away, respectively, are a decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missile silo and the world’s largest concrete buffalo.

“It’s a nice little town,” said Sorum, who is also the proprietor of the Hunting Shack cafe, the only business besides Buck’s n Doe’s on the town’s main thoroughfare. “Everybody tries to help everybody else.”

On the night of Sept. 17, 100 or so people from McHenry and surrounding towns gathered outside of Buck’s n Doe’s for McHenry Days, a local festival. After midnight, when a three-piece country band from Fargo packed up and went home, some of the festival goers drifted into the bar.

The crowd included Ellingson, who had come to the festival with his family and stayed behind with his brother after their parents drove back to nearby Grace City. And it included Brandt, who came from a locally prominent family that had lived in McHenry since the early 20th century. His father and uncle had shot the immense trophy elks that looked down upon patrons from the walls of the bar.

Buck’s n Doe’s closed at 2 a.m. Fifty-five minutes later, the county 911 dispatcher received a call from Brandt. “I hit a man with my vehicle,” he said in the recording of the call.

At the time, Ellingson was alive and conscious but badly injured. He died later that morning at a hospital.

The next day, two Fargo television stations reported that a sworn declaration from a highway patrol officer said that Brandt had claimed Ellingson “was part of a Republican extremist group” and admitted to hitting the teen with his car “because he had a political argument” with him. The highway patrolman’s statement was based on a recording of the 911 call and an interview of Brandt by two other law enforcement officers.

But the declaration appears to have mischaracterized the 911 call. And the prosecutor never presented evidence that showed Brandt told officers that he ran into the teen because of the argument or that he believed he was part of an extremist group. Five days after the incident, a captain in the North Dakota State Highway Patrol told reporters that his agency had concluded the killing was “not political in nature at all.”

Subsequent court filings and testimony instead revealed a murkier, more confused encounter.

In phone calls, Brandt and Ellingson both made a reference to some sort of political dispute. Both called family members during the encounter, and each described feeling threatened, according to court records.

Ellingson told his mother “some politics had got brought up” and Brandt “didn’t like what he had to say,” according to a state Bureau of Criminal Investigation agent who interviewed Ellingson’s mother. She recalled her son saying “something to the effect of, ‘They’re on to me. I should round up my cousins or my posse,’” the agent testified.

In his 911 call after he hit Ellingson, Brandt said the teenager had said “something about some Republican extremist group,” but he did not claim Ellingson was a member. Brandt told the dispatcher he believed the teen was “calling other guys to come get me.” There’s no evidence Ellingson did so.

In the 911 call, Brandt described trying to leave in a panic only to be blocked by Ellingson. At one point he said he knew his running over Ellingson had been “more than” an accident. But he otherwise insisted the act had been unintentional. “I never meant to hurt him,” he told the dispatcher.

Both men were intoxicated. Brandt’s family and Friese say Brandt has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, which Friese argued was a relevant factor in the case. An autopsy by the state forensic medical examiner ruled the cause of death as “accidental.”

‘Politically Motivated’

In the days after the episode, several local news outlets published articles. As is typical with early reports, those first stories relied heavily on the sparse details provided by law enforcement records.

“Man admits to killing teen after political dispute in Foster Co., court docs allege,” was the headline published online by Valley News Live, a news outlet based in Fargo, the day after Ellingson’s death.

The next morning, Gateway Pundit, a right-wing site that regularly seeds stories in the conservative media, wrote its own version under the headline “Crazed North Dakota man runs over and kills teen for ‘extremist’ Republican views.”

That evening, the case hit Fox News’s prime-time lineup, where it stayed for days. “This is a guy who intended to kill an 18-year-old Republican because he was a Republican,” Jeanine Pirro said during an on-air debate about the incident, claiming that Brandt chased Ellingson in his vehicle.

Pirro blamed Biden, who she said “is the one who started this extremist hate” when he made a speech about the perils of far-right extremism earlier that month. On Twitter, Greene posted a clip of Biden referencing “extreme MAGA Republicans,” adding that Ellingson was “executed in cold blood by a Democrat political terrorist because of rhetoric like this.”

The case spread across the right-wing ecosystem, from Jack Posobiec, the far-right conspiracy theorist and podcaster, to Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, who appeared on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show, calling Brandt a “terrible guy.” State Attorney General Drew H. Wrigley condemned the episode as “hateful violence.”

In McHenry and the neighboring town of Glenfield, where Brandt lives, acquaintances said they were surprised by the claims of a political motive. There is no evidence in public records or court filings suggesting Brandt is a Democrat.

“I can honestly tell you, I don’t know who Shannon voted for in the last presidential election,” Ashley Brandt-Duda, Brandt’s sister, said in an interview. Although their parents are both registered Republicans, “I would say my family is quite apolitical,” she said.

Brandt’s reference to extremists was similarly met with surprise in McHenry, where both residents and law enforcement officials profess to know little about such groups. The county sheriff’s records do mention one previously unreported incident: In October, a long-shuttered local school was found to have been vandalized, its interior walls spray-painted with the stenciled logo of Patriot Front, a white nationalist group.

The building’s owner, David Ludwig, initially told a sheriff’s deputy that the break-in happened the weekend of Ellingson’s killing. But when reached by The New York Times, he said that timing was just a guess. Justin Johnson, the Foster County sheriff, said he considered the incident to be “totally unrelated.”

Nothing on public record suggests that Ellingson or Brandt had links to extremist groups.

‘Everything Just Exploded’

In the week and a half after Ellingson’s death, the case was discussed on at least seven Fox News shows. The coverage continued well after law enforcement officials had said the killing was not politically motivated, a point that was only occasionally mentioned on-air.

Brandt-Duda said her parents left their home in McHenry out of concern for their safety. When they returned about a week later, they found more than 50 threatening messages on their answering machine.

They received numerous threatening letters, too, Brandt-Duda said. One was written on the margins of an article about the incident from The New York Post, she said. The newspaper covered the case extensively and also published an opinion column arguing that the “president of the United States, supported by a fan-girl media, spouts irresponsible rhetoric that led to Ellingson’s death.”

“Everything just exploded,” Brandt-Duda said.

The county court and sheriff’s offices also received numerous threats, according to multiple local officials. On Sept. 29, 11 days after Ellingson’s death, the county prosecutor, Kara Brinster, dropped the initial charge of vehicular homicide, which is used for fatal drunken driving accidents, for a new one: intentional homicide, which carries a sentence of up to life in prison.

Brinster did not respond to requests for comment on the decision.

Then, as quickly as it swelled, the media frenzy receded. Fox Digital, the TV network’s online arm, continued to publish articles that acknowledged the more complicated story that was emerging from officials. But Fox News’ hosts did not mention the case on-air again after Sept. 30.

Asked for comment, a Fox spokesperson, Jessica Ketner, noted the company’s online articles but did not comment on the network’s television coverage.

Gateway Pundit, too, stopped publishing stories on the case. Politicians who had been quick to speak out appeared to lose interest. Trump, Greene, Jordan and Wrigley did not respond to requests for comment.

This month, after Brinster dismissed the intentional homicide charge, the decision merited little more attention than a front-page story in The Foster County Independent and an article by The Associated Press.

But just as Brandt agreed to plead guilty, Posobiec, the right-wing podcaster, took up the story again. In a segment on his daily show, he singled out the prosecutor, claiming she had gone soft on Brandt. He posted her photograph and phone number online, and told listeners to call her to complain.

“Maybe Kara Brinster should be prosecuted,” he said. “Maybe we should look into her.”

Trump and Putin Are in Deep Trouble and Need Each Other More Than Ever

Daily Beast

Trump and Putin Are in Deep Trouble and Need Each Other More Than Ever

David Rothkopf – May 27, 2023

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Reuters
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Reuters

Times are tough for both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Since they are two of the world’s most repulsive and dangerous people, that might be considered good news.

But, not so fast. Because there is one thing that can save Trump from the dark realities of legal accountability—and it happens to also be the only thing that is likely to turn the tide in Putin’s disastrous war in Ukraine. That is the reelection of Donald Trump.

Once again the interests of Trump and Putin are aligned, but this time the stakes for both are much higher than they were in 2016. That should worry us all. It should worry us a lot.

The GOP Is the Party of ‘Fuck You’

Worse still, there are others for whom the 2024 election is of existential importance. It includes Trump’s close allies—who may face jail unless Trump is reelected and can pardon them. It includes extremists and their allies—who also see a Trump victory as a get out of jail (or avoid jail) free card. It includes advocates of MAGA wingnut policy views, for whom four more years of Joe Biden appointing rational jurists could undo many of their initiatives subjugating women, criminalizing love and identity within the LGBTQ community, and impeding the ability of voters to participate in a democracy they would like to see weakened or done away with altogether.

There are still others for whom the stakes are high, if not quite existential. These include countries that have thrown in their lot with Trump. (The disgraced former president’s business ties to these are now reportedly an investigative target of special counsel Jack Smith.)

It also, of course, includes politicians in the U.S. who have declared their loyalty to His Roiled MAGAsty himself and whose political fates are likely to mirror his.

Taken together they will be an unholy alliance that poses a real threat to next year’s elections being fair, while also increasing the likelihood that the results of next year’s elections will be contested in ways that may make the Jan. 6 insurrection (and Trump’s nationwide false electors campaign) seem mild by comparison.

You can see the situations of both Trump and Putin’s fiasco in Ukraine getting more dire daily.

AG Merrick Garland Needs to Get Out of the Business of Defending Trump

His New York hush money trial now has a start date, March 25, 2024. Smith is reportedly putting the finishing touches on his conclusion regarding the former president’s alleged mishandling of classified documents. He’s also looking into Trump’s involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection and has expanded the ambit of their inquiry to look at possible wrong-doing associated with Trump fund-raising. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has signaled that any charges in the case she might bring regarding election interference by Trump and/or his allies are just around the corner, due in the first three weeks of August. More charges may come from other states on election fraud. And the verdict against Trump in the defamation case brought by E. Jean Carroll may be compounded as she expands her claims in a second, related case.

As for Putin, while he has declared “victory” in the battle for Bakhmut, it has come at an enormous cost to his military. It is unlikely that his forces will be able to hold the smoldering remnants of the devastated city for much longer. What is more, the U.S. and allies have agreed to provide Ukraine with advanced F-16 fighters and the training needed to fly them. Ukrainian “militia” have also launched attacks across Russia’s border.

Russia’s military is depleted. Putin has effectively committed his entire conventional force to Ukraine… where it is getting pummeled. A major Ukrainian offensive is expected to commence soon. Even one of his former buddies, Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin, has said that Putin could face a revolution at home and defeat in Ukraine if Putin doesn’t turn things around—which seems unlikely.

Prigozhin, of course, played a central role in helping Putin in his efforts to compromise U.S. elections in 2016. He even admitted it publicly. Whatever reasons Putin may have had for trying to help get Trump elected in 2016, they are clearly much greater today. And whatever reasons Trump may have had for running, they too are transcended by those he has right now.

Elon Musk, Joe Rogan, and the Apocalyptic ‘Centrists’

With so many trials and such serious crimes being discussed, the odds that Trump faces not only conviction but possible jail time, may make delaying the trials and verdicts until he can win the election his only defense. And it is clear he will try anything in that regard, from whining on social media that the New York case has been brought to interfere with his campaigning, to revealing himself to be MAGA’s true Karen-in-chief with a letter whining about his mistreatment and asking for an audience with U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland so he could make his feelings known to “the manager.”

As for Putin, his last chance to turn his epic blunder in Ukraine into something he can claim is a success is also a Trump victory. Trump, during his CNN pep rally, made it clear he does not see Ukraine as a special ally of the U.S. and he won’t condemn Putin war crimes.

Putin critics have already demonstrated they view Trump as Putin’s “best hope.” (During the CNN event, Trump also refused to say he would accept 2024 election results.)

So here we are again, only more so. Trump needs Putin. Putin needs Trump. They have plenty of cronies and bad actors and fellow travelers who need them both. Which is why this is a moment to prepare for the shape their collaboration might take.

Unfortunately, dangerously, this is also the moment that Trump’s GOP is once again promoting the lie that Trump never colluded with Russia. This time, they are seizing upon the recent report by Special Counsel John Durham to say that it “proves” that the whole Trump-Russia affair was, as Trump so often asserted, “a hoax.”

Of course, it said nothing of the sort. In fact, it was a big nothing burger that offered a mild critique of the FBI… without actually even saying the FBI shouldn’t have investigated Trump and Russia.

And we know that every investigation conducted in the past—including those by the intelligence community, the U.S. Senate, and special counsel Robert Mueller—indicated that Russia actively intervened in 2016 to help Trump. In fact, the intelligence community also concluded Russia tried to help Trump in 2020.

Putin has proven he will stop at nothing to achieve his goals. Trump has done the same.

Kevin McCarthy’s Support for Ukraine Is Meaningless If He Lets the U.S. Default on Debt

Given the intersection of their interests in 2024, and the profound urgency with which both see a Trump election as essential, now is the time to mobilize to anticipate, identify, and stop both foreign and domestic interference in our upcoming election—and potential initiatives to undo the results of those elections.

That is why it is so essential not to shrug off the misinformation about the Durham report as just more spin. It is precisely the kind of effort to convince us to drop our guard that serves the interests of the enemies of our democracy. It is also why efforts to hold Trump accountable must proceed unimpeded by the elections that Trump sees as his best legal strategy.

Finally, it is why the administration needs to make it clear that it is preparing for whatever may come and that whenever threats are seen, they are stopped as early as possible.

No election in our history has been either more important or more imperiled. We have plenty of evidence to support that view. Now, we must act on that evidence with unwavering resolve.

Scammers using text messages to drain bank accounts in new ploy

CBS News

Scammers using text messages to drain bank accounts in new ploy

 Anna Werner Wernera@cbsnews.com – May 26, 2023

In a stark reminder of the growing threat of financial scams, Deborah Moss, owner of a small catering business, found herself ensnared in a sophisticated bank scam that started with a seemingly harmless text message.

Moss, who had dedicated over a decade to building her business, says she had finally accumulated enough savings to pursue a peaceful life in rural Guerneville, California. But her dreams began to shatter after she received a text message purporting to be from her bank, Chase, inquiring about an unauthorized $35 debit card charge from another state. Initially dismissing it as a minor inconvenience, Moss promptly replied.

Shortly after replying to the text, Moss received a call from someone claiming to be a representative from Chase Bank, with the caller ID displaying the bank’s name. On the other end of the line was an individual identifying herself as “Miss Barbara” from “Chase ATM.” She requested permission from Moss to issue a new debit card to resolve the alleged fraudulent charge.

Moss says Miss Barbara told her she needed to verify Moss’s identity and to do so, instructed Moss to read the numbers from a subsequent text message back to her over the phone.

“And I would just repeat those numbers to her, and she’d say, ‘That’s great. Thank you so much, Ms. Moss,'” said Moss.

Over the next week, Miss Barbara called Moss several times, each time saying there was a problem with delivery of the card and each time asking Moss to verify her identity by reading back the numbers from subsequent text messages.

It wasn’t until Moss visited her nearest bank branch that the devastating truth emerged. A supervisor informed her that her account had been drained, leaving her life savings of nearly $160,000 completely depleted.

“That was all my money. It took me 12 years to get that money, and that was my life savings,” Moss said.

Moss’ ordeal sheds light on the escalating trend of fraud and the alarming financial losses suffered by Americans, with reported losses reaching a staggering $8.8 billion last year, marking a 30% surge from the previous year, according to government data.

The text messages asking Moss to authenticate her account were authentic: they were sent by Chase Bank as part of its two-factor authentication system, designed to enhance customer security. But the scammers deceived Moss into revealing the numbers to them over the phone, enabling them to bypass security measures and transfer large sums of money from Moss’s account. In just one week, they conducted six wire transfers, some as high as nearly $48,000.

Moss filed a police report and submitted a claim to Chase Bank, hoping to recover her stolen funds. However, her hopes were dashed when, after a five-week wait, the bank denied her claim.

Chase Bank appeared to fault Moss, writing her in a letter, “During our review we found you did not take the appropriate steps to protect your account from theft or unauthorized use.” Bank officials said they would not reimburse her account, leaving Moss devastated and feeling betrayed.

“My world fell apart. My whole world fell apart,” Moss said. “You think of your bank as being some place that you put your money so that it’s safe but it’s not safe. It needs to change.”

JPMorgan Chase provided a statement to CBS News in response, stating, “Regrettably, Ms. Moss’s account was compromised as a result of scammers deceiving her and obtaining her personal confidential information.”

Chase Bank told CBS News that bank officials had attempted to contact Moss via phone and email regarding the wire transfers at the time. Moss says she did not receive any of these messages. Chase offered the following tips for consumers to remember: Do not share personal account information such as ATM PINs or passcodes. Keep in mind that the bank typically does not initiate phone calls, but if you want to ensure you are speaking with the bank, call the number on the back of your card. Lastly, avoid clicking on suspicious links in texts or emails.

JPMorgan Chase defended its commitment to combating fraud, saying in a statement: “Each year we invest hundreds of millions of dollars in authentication, risk models, technology and associate, client education to make it harder for scammers to trick customers.”

David Weber, a certified fraud examiner and forensic accounting professor, believes that Chase Bank bears responsibility for, in his opinion, failing Moss and neglecting to implement stronger security measures.

“Anyway you look at it, they failed. They failed her,” Weber said. “The bank could have required her to come in and sign the wire form in person. They left everything for her to be at risk, and now they’re saying they bear no responsibility.”

He also said that the current two-factor authentication systems, including text messages, are insufficient in combating the increasingly sophisticated tactics employed by scammers.

“This is happening hundreds and thousands of times a day in the United States using the exact same methods here. The two-factor authentication is not strong enough to protect this customer,” Weber said.


Threats are changing every day as scams become more sophisticated. As threats evolve, so do our methods to prevent both fraud and scams.We know we cannot thwart these scams alone. It takes an all-hands-on deck approach in partnership with law enforcement, the private sector, and government to help prevent, avoid and prosecute these crimes.  Consumers play a critical role too, which is why we continue to educate them about the latest scams so that they can spot and avoid them.


Protect your personal account information, ATM pins, passwords and one-time passcodes. If someone contacts you and asks for this information, especially if it’s someone claiming to be from your bank, do not share it with them.If you want to be sure you’re talking to a legitimate representative of the company that contacted you, call the number on their official website. If you want to be sure you are talking to a legitimate representative of your bank, call the number at the back of your card or visit a branch. Never click on suspicious links in a text or email or grant anyone remote access to your phone or computer. Do not respond to phone, text or internet requests for money or access to your computer or bank accounts. Banks will never call, text or email asking for you to send money to yourself or anyone else to prevent fraud. To learn more about common scams and ways to protect yourself visit: www.chase.com/security-tips.

Trump Rolled Back Decades Of Clean Water Protections. The Supreme Court Just Went Even Further.


Trump Rolled Back Decades Of Clean Water Protections. The Supreme Court Just Went Even Further.

Alexander C. Kaufman, Chris D’Angelo – May 26, 2023

More than three decades ago, a Michigan man named John Rapanos tried to fill in three wetlands on his property to make way for a shopping center. State regulators warned him that doing so was illegal without federal Clean Water Act permits. Rapanos argued that you couldn’t navigate a boat from his wetlands to a federal waterway, so the Environmental Protection Agency had no jurisdiction on his land. When Rapanos ignored the EPA’s cease-and-desist letters, the government successfully brought a civil lawsuit against him, which he then vowed to “fight to the death.” 

Instead, he made it all the way to the nation’s highest court. In a split decision in 2006, the Supreme Court overturned the judgment against Rapanos, but did not reach a majority ruling on whether wetlands that flowed into federally regulated “waters of the United States” qualified for the same protections. 

In 2016, President Barack Obama sought to answer that question with a new EPA rule extending the Clean Water Act of 1972 to include millions of acres of marshes, bogs and lagoons whose water — and any pollution added to it — channel into already federally regulated waterways. 

Republicans chided the move as a federal land grab, while environmentalists cheered what they saw as a reasonable interpretation of the decadesold law through the lens of the latest science shows about hydrology and the increasing threat of extreme droughts and toxic algae blooms. 

In 2020, President Donald Trump rolled back much of the rule’s protections, slashing the total protected area of wetlands roughly in half. In 2022, President Joe Biden moved to restore the Obama-era rule. 

On Thursday, the Supreme Court’s new right-wing supermajority revisited the 2006 decision to strike down federal protections for virtually all the wetlands Trump deregulated — and then some, eliminating even the few safeguards the Republican administration tried to preserve.

An environmental advocate holds up a sign during a rally outside the Supreme Court in October. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Protect our Waters)
An environmental advocate holds up a sign during a rally outside the Supreme Court in October. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Protect our Waters)

An environmental advocate holds up a sign during a rally outside the Supreme Court in October. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Protect our Waters)

The 5-4 decision — written by Justice Samuel Alito, and joined by Justices John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett — revoked the Clean Water Act’s authority over at least 59 million acres of wetlands across the U.S., according to an estimate by the environmental group Earthjustice. 

“You’re going to see the Clean Water Act significantly scaled back in terms of coverage,” said Duke McCall, a partner who specializes in federal water rules at the law firm Morgan Lewis. “The impacted waters are going to be significantly narrowed.” 

The Obama administration included any wetlands linked to existing federal waterways via underground aquifers or streams. The Trump EPA narrowed the scope to only include wetlands with visible surface connections to rivers, lakes and other long-standing “waters of the United States.” But the Republican administration made an exception for wetlands cut off from federal waterways via a berm, bridge or other artificial barrier. 

The court granted no such leeway, instead dismantling nearly half a century of established federal jurisdiction over wetlands — a fact that conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted in his dissenting opinion. 

At the very least, the ruling takes the U.S. back to the mid-1970s, to the early days of the Clean Water Act, said Emily Hammond, an energy and environmental law professor at George Washington University. But Hammond stressed it could be worse than that, noting that the majority’s opinion repeatedly cites the Supreme Court’s 1870 decision in The Daniel Ball case, which found that waterways are “navigable” only if they are “navigable in fact” and used for interstate or foreign commerce. 

“It’s always been understood, I think, by courts and by Congress and by agencies that when Congress used the term ‘waters of the United States’ it meant to go further than that ‘navigable in fact’ standard that Daniel Ball stood for,” Hammond said. “To see the majority now citing that old decision suggests their eye is to shrink the scope of the Clean Water Act down back to where it would have been before we had a Clean Water Act.” 

“In some ways, this takes us back that far,” Hammond said, referring to the 1870 case.

Kavanaugh wrote that while the last eight previous administrations dating back to 1977 “maintained dramatically different views of how to regulate the environment, including under the Clean Water Act,” all of them “recognized as a matter of law that the Clean Water Act’s coverage of adjacent wetlands means more than adjoining wetlands and also includes wetlands separated from covered waters by man-made dikes or barriers, natural river berms, beach dunes, or the like.”

Thursday’s ruling, he argued, will have “negative consequences for waters” across the country. 

“By narrowing the Act’s coverage of wetlands to only adjoining wetlands, the Court’s new test will leave some long-regulated adjacent wetlands no longer covered by the Clean Water Act, with significant repercussions for water quality and flood control throughout the United States,” Kavanaugh wrote.

Michael and Chantell Sackett of Priest Lake, Idaho, pose for a photo in front of the Supreme Court in Washington on Oct. 14, 2011. The Supreme Court on Thursday, May 25, 2023, made it harder for the federal government to police water pollution in a decision that strips protections from wetlands that are isolated from larger bodies of water. The justices boosted property rights over concerns about clean water in a ruling in favor of an Idaho couple who sought to build a house near Priest Lake in the state’s panhandle.
Michael and Chantell Sackett of Priest Lake, Idaho, pose for a photo in front of the Supreme Court in Washington on Oct. 14, 2011. The Supreme Court on Thursday, May 25, 2023, made it harder for the federal government to police water pollution in a decision that strips protections from wetlands that are isolated from larger bodies of water. The justices boosted property rights over concerns about clean water in a ruling in favor of an Idaho couple who sought to build a house near Priest Lake in the state’s panhandle.More

Michael and Chantell Sackett of Priest Lake, Idaho, pose for a photo in front of the Supreme Court in Washington on Oct. 14, 2011. The Supreme Court on Thursday, May 25, 2023, made it harder for the federal government to police water pollution in a decision that strips protections from wetlands that are isolated from larger bodies of water. The justices boosted property rights over concerns about clean water in a ruling in favor of an Idaho couple who sought to build a house near Priest Lake in the state’s panhandle.

The ruling is part of what liberal Justice Elena Kagan views as a clear trend by the court to curb the federal government’s legal authority to regulate pollution in an era of dramatic ecological upheaval — when other countries are taking drastic steps to preserve some semblance of nature’s current biodiversity and order. Last year, the Supreme Court drastically limited EPA’s authority to curb power plant emissions under the Clean Air Act.

“The vice in both instances is the same: the Court’s appointment of itself as the national decision-maker on environmental policy,” Kagan wrote. “So I’ll conclude, sadly, by repeating what I wrote last year, with the replacement of only a single word. ‘[T]he Court substitutes its own ideas about policymaking for Congress’s. The Court will not allow the Clean [Water] Act to work as Congress instructed. The Court, rather than Congress, will decide how much regulation is too much.’” 

Last year, the Supreme Court took the unusual step of hearing a case on a defunct power plant regulation — the high court typically rejects suits with no active legal bearing — in what was widely seen as an attempt to preemptively stop the Biden administration from reviving a controversial Obama-era rule. The court’s six conservative justices, including Kavanaugh, ruled in favor of permanently sealing off the legal avenue the Obama administration took to justify parts of its Clean Power Plan regulation. 

The conservative justices’ apparent partisan agenda is hardly the only perceived conflict of interest sowing mistrust in the nation’s highest court. The Trump-appointed Barrett, whose father spent much of his career working for Royal Dutch Shell, declined to recuse herself from key cases involving the oil giant, even as Justice Samuel Alito stepped aside over his disclosed investments in oil and companies. 

The investigative news outlet ProPublica published a series of exposés over the past month revealing that Thomas, who was appointed by President George H. W. Bush, failed to disclose private jet trips and land deals he received from billionaire real-estate developer Harlan Crow. The National Multifamily Housing Council, which has close ties to Crow — the CEO of Crow Holdings Inc. is also the chair of that group, and three of Crow’s companies are dues-paying members — filed an amicus brief on an earlier iteration of this case, as HuffPost’s Paul Blumenthal reported

Republican lawmakers celebrated Thursday’s decision as a win for family farmers crushed under the boot of regulators seeking to make living off the land ever harder and more complicated. 

“In a huge win for farmers, ranchers, small business owners, and families — the Supreme Court has ditched the Obama/Biden WOTUS rule overreach once and for all,” Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) wrote in a statement

But while “farmers and small business owners have been held up” as the most sympathetic victims of purported government overreach, McCall said “developers are a huge affected group who have been strong opponents” of expanded wetland protections. 

Another way that Thursday’s ruling turns the clock back to before the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 is by effectively restoring a variable patchwork of state water rules, Hammond said. 

“The Clean Water Act was designed of course to create some floor among the states so that we wouldn’t have the race to the bottom, polluters moving to states where they could pollute more because the policies were more lenient,” they said. “This decision so dramatically undermines the Clean Water Act that we do in a sense go back to the times of significant disparities among the states in terms of protections for our waters.” 

“These kinds of decisions are starting to add up,” Hammond added. “There’s no doubt there will be cumulative impacts and we’ll see shifts as a result.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story suggested the facts of the Rapanos case occurred in the 2000s. They occurred in the 1980s.

‘It’s not their money’: Older Americans worried debt default means no Social Security

ABC News

‘It’s not their money’: Older Americans worried debt default means no Social Security

Peter Charalamboust – May 23, 2023

‘It’s not their money’: Older Americans worried debt default means no Social Security

If the United States defaults on its financial obligations, millions of Americans might not be able to pay their bills as well.

With Social Security and other government benefits at risk amid a political stalemate over the government’s debt ceiling, experts and older Americans told ABC News that the consequences of the impasse in Washington could be dire, including for older Americans who need the money to pay for basic needs such as food, housing or health care costs.

A quarter of Americans over age 65 rely on Social Security to provide at least 90% of their family income, according to the Social Security Administration.

PHOTO: President Joe Biden walks to the White House after landing on the South Lawn aboard Marine One, May 21, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)
PHOTO: President Joe Biden walks to the White House after landing on the South Lawn aboard Marine One, May 21, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

Fred Gurner, 86, of New York, told ABC News that he uses his Social Security payment for his $800 rent. But now there is real risk that his payment might not come in time in June — when the Treasury Department says the government might not be able to send him the money he counts on.

“It’s very stressful, gives me a heart attack,” Gurner said about how the issue has become politicized.

How are Social Security payments affected by the debt ceiling?

Since 2001, the United States has spent more money than revenue it has taken in overall.

To cover the difference, the United States Treasury issues debt through securities, according to University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business professor Olivia Mitchell. Backed by the United States, those securities are happily bought by investors who see it as a safe guarantee they’ll get paid back with interest.

However, the United States and Denmark are the only two countries to limit the amount of debt the government can issue, known as a debt ceiling, Mitchell noted.

MORE: Ahead of meeting with Biden, McCarthy says debt, spending deal needed ‘this week’

Lawmakers can pass new laws that require government spending, but the debt ceiling will remain in place until lawmakers vote to increase it. That has happened 78 separate times in the United States since 1960.

If that debt ceiling does not increase by June 1, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned House Speaker Kevin McCarthy that the country will not be able to satisfy all of its financial obligations.

Beyond not being able to pay interest and principal on government securities — which economists broadly agree would rattle the stock market and possibly damage the U.S. credit rating — the Treasury would be unable to issue new debt to cover expenses like Social Security, according to Mitchell.

The government projects to spend roughly $100 billion on Social Security in the month of June, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.

“It’s going to be pretty tight for people for a while, unless Congress and the president can get together on this problem,” Mitchell said.

When would Social Security payments become delayed?

The Social Security Administration plans to send contributions to beneficiaries on four dates next month — June 2, 14, 21, and 28. Those checks would be the first ones at risk of being delayed, according to Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

“Millions and millions of Social Security beneficiaries are worried about having the income to pay their basic bills,” he noted.

Lynda Fisher, 80, told ABC News that her budget relies on her monthly Social Security check and that a delay would complicate her essential spending, frustrating the 80-year-old who has spent her life contributing to the system.

PHOTO: FILE - House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, speaks with reporters in the US Capitol in Washington, DC, May 17, 2023. (Andrew Caballero-reynolds/AFP via Getty Images, FILE)
PHOTO: FILE – House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, speaks with reporters in the US Capitol in Washington, DC, May 17, 2023. (Andrew Caballero-reynolds/AFP via Getty Images, FILE)

“I paid into Social Security, and I paid into Medicare,” she said. “And now they’re trying to take it away. It’s not their money, it’s my money that I paid into.”

Richtman is now actively encouraging older residents to save money in anticipation of a delayed Social Security payment, fearing negotiations will not yield a compromise in time to avoid default.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Yellen indicated that certain bills might be prioritized, including interest payments, Social Security and military contractor payments. However, Richtman expressed doubt that such a prioritization would be legally possible.

What does this mean for the future of Social Security?

Some Republican lawmakers have framed the debt ceiling fight as necessary to slow government spending; however, some economists, including Mitchell, see this as a “manufactured crisis” that threatens essential services, retirement savings and the overall economy.

“Every time one of these crises occurs, it’s signaling to the rest of the world, and to American investors that U.S. Treasuries are not as safe as we thought,” Boston University economics professor Laurence Kotlikoff said.

MORE: Debt ceiling breach could cut millions of jobs. Here’s who would lose employment first

Kotlikoff expressed further concern that the Social Security system will have over $65.9 trillion in unfunded financial obligations over the indefinite horizon, based on the entity’s own report.

However, the debate over the debt ceiling appears unlikely to produce a meaningful solution to the broader Social Security shortfall, though, according to Kotlikoff, Mitchell and Richtman.

When will retirees receive their payments?

Mitchell and Richtman remained optimistic that Social Security recipients would eventually receive their checks once a deal is made, albeit with some delay.

“I’m pretty confident that payments would be fulfilled,” Richtman said. “That’s not much comfort to those people who will not be able to pay for their groceries, their utilities or their rent while they’re waiting to receive a back payment.”

Florida flood insurance costs are about to explode. ZIP codes closest to the coast will pay the most

South Florida Sun Sentinel

Florida flood insurance costs are about to explode. ZIP codes closest to the coast will pay the most

Ron Hurtibise, South Florida Sun Sentinel – May 22, 2023

Events of the past year have convinced more Florida homeowners of the need to carry flood insurance.

Flooding caused by hurricanes Ian and Nicole caught hundreds, if not thousands, of homeowners across the state by surprise, and without flood insurance.

Similarly, many homeowners affected by last month’s historic rainfall in eastern Broward County had no flood insurance and learned tragically that damage caused by water rising from the ground was not covered by their normal homeowner insurance.

It’s not just flood victims who are experiencing hard lessons about flood insurance.

Just as homeowners are realizing the increased risks of going without flood coverage, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has released data showing that coverage costs are exploding for properties in coastal areas most vulnerable to flooding.

The cost hikes stem from mandates by Congress to require rates charged by the National Flood Insurance Program, which is run by FEMA, to reflect the cost of flood risk to individual covered properties, and to pay down the program’s deficit, which was $20.5 million as of last November, according to FEMA.

The result is a new risk pricing model called Risk Rating 2.0, which took effect on Oct. 1, 2021, for new NFIP policies and on April 1, 2022, for renewing policies. Rather than set rates solely based on a property’s elevation within a zone on a Flood Insurance Rate Map, the new approach considers more risk variables such as flood frequency, types of flooding, and distance to a water source, along with individual property characteristics like elevation and the cost to rebuild, FEMA’s website states.

Improved modeling, however, is of little comfort to homeowners who will have to pay more for flood insurance at the same time costs of regular multiperil property insurance are skyrocketing.

Recently, FEMA released a spreadsheet that compared average premiums currently and how high they’ll climb under the new pricing model.

For example, homeowners in Boca Raton’s 33432 ZIP code can look forward to a whopping 229% flood insurance premium increase, from an average $950 per policy to $3,128.

In Broward County, the 33305 ZIP code that includes Wilton Manors and Fort Lauderdale neighborhoods near the Middle River will pay 209% more, from $1,099 to $3,400.

In the 33315 zip code, which includes Fort Lauderdale’s Edgewood neighborhood that was among the hardest-hit by last month’s flooding, average rates will increase by 64% — from $863 currently to $1,420.

These numbers are averages. Within each ZIP code are less expensive homes with cheaper coverage costs and pricier homes that will cost even more to insure.

Unsurprisingly, homes nearest the coast, particularly in low-lying areas, cost far more to insure than homes on higher ground in western suburban cities.

For example, homeowners in Coral Springs’ 33071 ZIP code are looking at a total premium increase of just 17.6% — from $669 to $787.

FEMA says the new pricing model will also drive down the cost of flood insurance for customers with low-risk characteristics. Yet, none of South Florida’s ZIP codes will see average rates decrease, FEMA’s data shows.

Not everyone facing rate increases will have to pay the higher premiums immediately. While homeowners who previously did not carry NFIP flood insurance will have to pay the new higher prices if they want a new policy, price hikes for existing policyholders are capped at 18% a year for homesteaded properties and 25% annually for second homes or investment properties, until they reach the new rates.

If the total increase is 18% or less, affected homeowners will pay it just once — presumably until FEMA raises rates again, whenever that happens.

Few homes have flood insurance, even in Florida

Although Florida has the largest number of NFIP flood insurance policies of any U.S. state — 597,967 of 2.2 million in the U.S., FEMA data shows, the percentage of covered homes remains low.

Florida has 3.8 million detached single-family homes, according to 2020 census figures. The number of FEMA flood insurance policies are just 15.7% of that total. In South Florida’s tricounty region, the percentage is 20.8%.

The actual percentages of homes with flood insurance are likely to be a little different. The above estimates don’t take into account private flood insurance policies, which are increasing but still a fraction of the number of federally-backed policies. And the estimates exclude attached single-family homes, such as townhomes. The percentage also does not include condominiums, which are typically covered by blanket commercial policies.

Experts advise every Florida homeowner to buy flood insurance because flooding can happen throughout the state, as during last fall’s hurricanes.

But many buy flood insurance only when required, such as home loan borrowers with federally backed mortgages who live in high-risk flood zones.

Flood insurance required for some with Citizens insurance

This year, a new set of homeowners are required to buy flood insurance. Customers of state-owned Citizens Property Insurance Corp. who live in high-risk flood zones are required to also carry flood insurance.

That mandate, enacted by the state Legislature and governor last year, took effect on April 1 for new Citizens policyholders and on July 1 for renewing policyholders.

Under the new law, all Citizens policyholders will have to buy flood insurance by 2027.

According to Citizens data, 228,203 of the company’s 1.2 million customers are now required to buy flood insurance. Of them, 105,763 are in Broward, Palm Beach or Miami-Dade counties.

When enacted last year, the law also required condo owners covered by Citizens to buy flood insurance. They were exempted, however, by a new law that was passed during the just-completed spring Legislative session and now awaits the governor’s signature. The change followed complaints that flood insurance is unnecessary for residents on upper floors of multistory buildings and for those covered by commercial policies that cover all units.

Although the mandate remains in place legally, Citizens has stopped sending notices to condo owners telling them they must buy flood insurance at renewal time, Citizens spokesman Michael Peltier said. Once it is signed, condo owners who bought coverage will be able to drop it.

If they bought FEMA coverage, they can request refunds if their policies have not yet taken effect, the NFIP’s website states.

Because the flood insurance requirement for renewing Citizens customers won’t take effect until July 1, Ryan Papy, president of Palmetto Bay-based Keyes Insurance, says it’s still a bit early to gauge the impact.

“There hasn’t been that much sticker shock,” Papy said in an email. “Many (premiums) in Miami-Dade County have gone down.”

But he added, “We do see issues when some clients are purchasing new property.” The difference between a new owner’s premiums and the capped rates paid by the previous owner can sometimes “be extreme,” he said.

Save money on the private market?

Florida homeowners hit hardest by rising NFIP rate hikes might ask their agents to see if they can save money by checking out the private flood insurance market.

Neptune Flood, the nation’s largest private flood insurer with more than 150,000 clients, can save policyholders up to 25% off the cost of comparable NFIP coverage, Neptune spokeswoman Loren Pomerantz said by email.

Private flood insurance satisfies requirements of both federal mortgage guarantors and Citizens, according to Pomerantz and Peltier.

Pomerantz said Neptune’s sales in Florida have increased in recent months. Sales climbed 20% in areas hard hit by Hurricane Ian prior to the new Citizens mandate taking effect. In high-risk flood zones, sales have increased 25% since April 1 compared to the same period last year, she said.

Private flood insurance also offers coverage that far exceeds the NFIP’s $250,000 cap for structural damage and $100,000 limit for personal property damage. “We can cover homes for up to $4 million in building coverage and $500,000 of personal property,” she said. “Additional coverage options not available through the NFIP include pool repair and refill, replacement cost on contents, temporary living expenses and more. This allows a homeowner to adequately cover their property and protect their families in the event of a flood-related loss.”

Country-western music star Brad Paisley steps out of the ranks to support Ukraine | Opinion

Idaho Statesman

Country-western music star Brad Paisley steps out of the ranks to support Ukraine | Opinion

Bob Kustra – May 21, 2023

Brad Paisley has always been one of my favorite country-western music stars. His songs have a way of grabbing your attention and holding on long after the song is over. He is not afraid to address social issues in his body of work as he did with songs like “Karate,” about a woman learning martial arts to fight back against a domestic abuser.

Bob Kustra
Bob Kustra

He sings one of his hits with Alison Kraus, the American bluegrass-country singer and fiddler, called “The Whiskey Lullaby.” It’s a song about the ravages of addiction and how it destroys relationships. It has one of the most haunting and evocative lines ever written for country music. “He put the bottle to his head and pulled the trigger.”

Then there’s “We Danced,” which features a woman returning to a bar that just closed to retrieve the purse she left behind. There’s a guy sweeping the dance floor, cleaning things up and as he holds the purse out for her, he says she must dance with him to get it back. They danced and if there is such a thing as love at first sight, chalk this song up to dance at first sight. They fall in love and live happily ever after, as the saying goes.

Country music fans can have a field day running through Paisley’s songs over his career that seem to set him apart from the guys and gals singing about how to sober up and get their lover back.

Paisley’s politics, like many country-western stars, is tough to nail down. With so much of their music purchased and enjoyed by that red belt of southern states who signed up with Trump, it was no surprise to find Paisley, who has performed at the Biden White House, along with other country western stars supporting Trump in 2016.

One tweet about a Paisley performance reported that he was playing at Jones Beach in New York with tailgaters sporting Trump and Confederate flags everywhere. No shock there. Given the caricature of the Southern Bubba as the archetypal country-western fan, don’t expect Paisley and others in his line of work to be out there challenging the politics of the paying customers of country-western music.

Or did Paisley step out of the red state ranks recently when he penned a song about Ukraine, “Same Here,” about how we share a set of common values with the people of Ukraine? Paisley sings about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, “I’ve got a friend across the ocean …A wife he loves and a bunch of dreams…for his country he holds so dear…he prays for peace and freedom.” The song also features Zelensky talking about how he appreciates “the same things — children, freedom, our flag, our soldiers, our people” as Americans.

That was just the first step in Paisley’s support of the war in Ukraine. He watched heart-breaking reports of a war that destroyed lives, demolished homes and sent remaining families into exile or temporary housing. Declaring that he would feel like a coward if he sang about it, but refused to visit the war-torn country, he joined a bipartisan delegation of Congress in Kyiv where he sang his song for the president and sat down for a chat with him.

Paisley also serves as an ambassador for United24, a program to Rebuild Ukraine, the largest rebuilding program in Ukraine since the Second World War. To date, it has raised $337.5 million to help the people of Ukraine rebuild their homes.

Brad Paisley sure seems to be pushing the envelope as he travels to a space in our politics that many of his country-western fans who listen to Trump have not visited. In his recent appearance on CNN’s disastrous town hall meeting, the former president was not exactly on the same page as Paisley when he told the audience that he would end the Ukraine war within 24 hours of taking office yet he would not say who should win the war. He cleared that up on Fox News when he predicted that Putin would eventually take all of Ukraine.

Trump’s Republican critics Sen. Mitt Romney and former Govs. Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson immediately challenged Trump’s confusing and pro-Putin comments. Hutchinson tweeted that Trump reminded everyone tonight of his support of Russia and his willingness to sell out Ukraine, and Romney said Vladimir Putin would be the only person celebrating Trump’s remarks. Given how Trump cozied up to Putin during his presidency, can there be any doubt that he would hand off Ukraine to the Russians overnight?

Paisley is not the first country music star to ride into the political arena. With his visit to Ukraine, his celebrity draws attention to the people of Ukraine fighting for their very existence at a moment when some Americans seem to have lost interest in supporting Ukrainians fighting for their freedom from the Russian autocracy of Putin.

poll earlier this year by the Pew Research Center showed that the percentage of Republicans claiming we are giving too much to Ukraine increased from 9% in March 2022 to 40% in January 2023. The news last week that Patriot missiles provided by the U.S. knocked out supersonic Russian missiles headed for Kyiv demonstrates the importance of American support for the Ukrainian military.

Kudos to Paisley for his public display of support for Ukraine and Zelenskyy. When it comes to Ukraine’s future, the rise of autocratic governments and the despot Putin, we cannot afford to sit on the fence. Let’s hope Paisley’s message about the values Americans and Ukrainians share will register with the country western crowd, especially those who have been listening to Trump.

As Ukraine begins a counteroffensive against the Russians, this is no time for Americas to falter in support of the Ukrainian people. Perhaps Paisley can make some headway opening the minds and hearts of fans who have taken their cues from a fallen and disgraced leader.

Bob Kustra served as president of Boise State University from 2003 to 2018. He is host of Readers Corner on Boise State Public Radio and he writes a biweekly column for the Idaho Statesman. He served two terms as Illinois lieutenant governor and 10 years as a state legislator.

David Axelrod: After Barack Obama, America will never be the same

CNN – Opinion

David Axelrod: After Barack Obama, America will never be the same

David Axelrod – May 20, 2023

In all the years I worked for Barack Obama, I didn’t think enough about the burdens of being America’s first Black president – in part because he bore them so gracefully.

There were bracing moments, of course, like the day, relatively early in his campaign for the White House, when Secret Service agents became a constant presence in his life, given the inordinate number of death threats against him.

There were the overtly racist memes about his citizenship and faith and worthiness, fueled by demagogues and social media, that continued throughout his presidency.

There was the startling outburst from a Southern congressman, who shouted “You lie!” during a presidential address to Congress – an intrusion that has since become more common but back then was a stunning departure from civic norms.

Among Obama’s staff, we dealt with these moments mostly as political challenges to navigate. And while he addressed issues of race, Obama rarely spoke, publicly or privately, about the unique pressures he faced personally.

It took someone else to open my eyes and cause me to think more deeply about the extraordinary burden – and responsibility – of being a trailblazer at the highest of heights in a nation where the struggle against racism is ongoing.

In 2009, Obama was considering nominating Sonia Sotomayor, a highly regarded federal appellate judge from New York, for a seat on the US Supreme Court.

If appointed, Sotomayor would become the first Latina on the nation’s highest court. The president asked me to chat with her and assess how she would hold up under the pressures of the confirmation process and that weighty history.

I met with Sotomayor in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex, where she had been spirited for a final round of clandestine interviews. I asked her what, if anything, worried her about the process.

“I worry about not measuring up,” she said, bluntly.

It was instantly clear to me that this brilliant, accomplished judge, who fought her way from poverty in the South Bronx to Princeton and Yale Law School, was talking about more than her own ambitions. As The First, she knew she also would be carrying with her the hopes and aspirations of young Latinas everywhere. Her success would be their inspiration. Her failure would be their setback.

That conversation prompted me to reconsider the unspoken burden the president himself had navigated so well for so long under the most intense spotlight on the planet. The burden was not just racism but the responsibility to measure up, to excel, to shatter stereotypes and to be an impeccable role model in one of the world’s toughest and most consequential jobs.

Watching the episode of CNN’s documentary series “The 2010s” about Obama, I was reminded again of how well he weathered those burdens.

It isn’t that he got everything right. No president does. And there always will be a debate about how much the election of the first Black president contributed to the reactionary backlash that yielded Donald Trump, a divisive and toxic figure who would lead the country in an entirely different direction.

But the history is clear: Obama led the nation through an epic economic crisis and war, passed landmark legislation on health care and strengthened the social safety net, bolstered America’s standing in the world and, in our most painful moments, comforted the nation by speaking eloquently to what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature.”

Against the relentless pressure of being First and all the anger and resentment that it may have stirred among some fearful of change, Obama was consistently thoughtful, honorable and poised. He carried himself with the comforting authenticity of a man who knows who he is – and never flinched.

When Obama was considering a campaign for president in the fall of 2006, a small group of friends and advisers gathered with him in my office in Chicago to assess a possible race.

Michelle Obama – perhaps the greatest skeptic in the room at that moment about the advisability of such an audacious journey – asked a fundamental question: “Barack, it kind of comes down to this. There are a lot of good, capable people running for president. What do you think you could contribute that the others couldn’t?”

“There are a lot of ways to answer that but one thing I know for sure: The day I raise my hand to take that oath of office as president of the United States,” he said, lifting his right hand, “the world will look at us differently and millions of kids – Black kids, Hispanic kids – will look at themselves differently.”

Two years later, in Chicago’s Grant Park, where Obama claimed victory, I watched a sea of humanity, including Black parents, with tears rolling down their cheeks, as they held their kids aloft to witness the scene.

Jacob Philadelphia, the son of a White House staff member, touches then- President Barack Obama’s hair in the Oval Office of the White House. – Pete Souza/The White House/The New York Times/Redux

And then there was the iconic photo in the Oval Office of five-year-old Jacob Philadelphia, the son of a White House staffer who was leaving the administration. The little boy, who is Black, stood dressed in a shirt and a tie. He had looked up at the president and asked, “Is your hair like mine?” Obama bowed his head toward the boy and told him, “Go ahead, touch it,” which he did.

It was a moving, spontaneous scene captured by the splendid White House photographer Pete Souza. The moment spoke volumes about Obama, his meaning in our history and the unique responsibly he bore.

As the president bowed his head to this little boy, his unspoken message was clear: “Yes, you are like me. Yes, you can dream big dreams.”

Under extraordinary pressures, Obama more than “measured up,” not just as a president but as a role model. As a First.

And for that alone, America will never be the same.

Texas has the anti-climate Governor: Greg Abbott signs Law Making EV Owners Pay for Their Gas-Free Cars


Greg Abbott Signs Law Making EV Owners Pay for Their Gas-Free Cars

Lauren Leffer – May 19, 2023

Photo of electric vehicles charging
Photo of electric vehicles charging

EV drivers in Texas don’t pay at the pump, but will have to start paying a significant annual fee that critics are calling “punitive.”

Driving an electric vehicle in Texas is soon to become more expensive. Governor Greg Abbott signed a law (SB 505) on May 13 instituting new fees for registering and owning EVs in the state. Under the bill, electric car owners will have to pay $400 upon registering their vehicle. Then, every subsequent year, EV drivers will have to shell out an additional $200. Both of those fees are on top of the cost of the standard annual registration renewal fees, which are $50.75 each year for most passenger cars and trucks.

The law exempts mopeds, motorcycles, and other non-car EVs, and goes into effect starting on September 1, 2023.

At least 32 states currently have special electric vehicle registration fees, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. These range from $50 in places like Colorado, Hawaii, and South Dakota to $274 (starting in 2028) in a recently passed piece of Tennessee legislation. Note: Tennessee lawmakers had originally proposed a $300 fee, but lowered it in response to pushback.

Like many other states that have instituted EV fees, the reasoning behind the Lone Star State’s new law is that electric car drivers don’t buy gas. Taxes at the fuel pump are the primary way that most states, Texas included, amass funds for road construction, maintenance, and other driving-related infrastructure.

“Currently, Texas uses the gasoline/diesel fuel tax to fund transportation projects; however, with the growing use of EVs, the revenue from the fuel tax is decreasing, which diminishes our ability to fund road improvements for all drivers,” said the bill’s author, Republican State Senator Robert Nichols, in comments about the legislation, per local NBC News affiliate KXAN.

But, compared with what gas drivers contribute, Texas’s EV fees seem a little out of whack. Charging $200 per year and $400 at the outset of EV ownership places Texas’s fee schedule at the higher price end of the policies out there. In comparison, Texas’s gas tax is among the lowest in the country, at just $0.20 per gallon. Just seven states impose a lower duty on gasoline than TX. Among the 10 most populous states in the country, additional fees levied elsewhere make Texas’s gas the cheapest.

The average Texas driver burned through ~55 million BTUs of motor gasoline in 2018, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That’s equal to about 440 gallons of gas. At $0.20 per gallon, the standard car owner in Texas is paying just $88 per year in gas taxes—far less than the hundreds more EV drivers will now be throwing into the pot. A 2022 Consumer Reports analysis determined that a Texas driver’s gas tax contribution is even lower, at just $71.

The new law says loud and clear that Texas is “fully behind oil and gas,” Kara Kockleman, a transportation engineering professor at the University of Texas, Austin, told local ABC News affiliate KVUE. “Electric vehicles should pay a gas tax – I just think the tax on the conventional cars should be much, much higher than it is. We pay less for gas in this state than almost anyone in the world… Texas is really behind the curve on trying to do the right thing by the environment. And so, that’s embarrassing, I think, for all of us.”

There’s no doubt that roads and other car infrastructure are expensive. Though it can be easy to forget that—every time a driver cruises down the asphalt, complies with a traffic signal, or reads a highway sign—they’re benefiting from a costly system constructed for their particular use and benefit. But compared with other forms of transportation in the U.S., car ownership is already heavily subsidized. So is burning fossil fuels.

According to a 2015 analysis from the nonprofit Canadian media outlet The Discourse, society pays more than $9 for every $1 a driver pays in commuting: Through infrastructure, accident liability, noise and air pollution, and congestion. Buses, biking, and walking all eat up much less public funds for the same amount of miles traveled. EVs presumably also have a slightly lower public cost, as they’re quieter and don’t directly emit air pollution.

Yet in Texas, the tax load for driving an electric car will far exceed that of a gas-powered vehicle. The new law is “punitive” according to Consumer Reports. “Consumers should not be punished for choosing a cleaner, greener car that saves them money on fuel and maintenance,” Dylan Jaff, a policy analyst at CR, wrote in an April statement. “The fees proposed in this bill will establish an inequitable fee scale for EV owners, and will not provide a viable solution to the long-standing issue of road funding revenue.”

Luke Metzger, director of the non-profit advocacy group, Environment Texas, echoed Consumer Reports’ findings in a statement from last month. “The Texas Legislature is pouring sugar in the tank of the electric vehicle revolution. This punitive fee will make it harder for Texans to afford these clean vehicles which are so critical to reducing air pollution in Texas.”

Electric personal vehicles are not a perfect solution to the ongoing problem of petroleum-powered cars. Swapping every gas-guzzler for an EV still would use up an extraordinary amount of resources, that are likely to be ill-gotten. Public investment in mass transit would inarguably be a better environmental strategy. But, as long as the U.S. remains overwhelmingly car dominant and as long as most Americans lack access to adequate public transit, EV uptake remains important for lowering the nation’s carbon emissions.

Already, the upfront costs of purchasing an electric car are significantly higher than buying a gas vehicle. A disproportionate tax system adds to that burden, and it could dissuade people from transitioning to EVs.

Psaki on debt ceiling talks: China probably ‘rooting for default’

The Hill

Psaki on debt ceiling talks: China probably ‘rooting for default’

Alex Gangitano – May 19, 2023

Former Biden White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that China is probably “rooting for default” while talks in Washington over a debt ceiling compromise have been cut short.

“All of these world leaders and their teams are watching what’s happening in the United States. Is democracy going to last? Are they going to default? All of that makes the United States look weak on the world stage,” Psaki said on MSNBC.

“If you’re China, you’re probably — you’re rooting for default,” she added.

President Biden has also warned it could be a concern internationally if the U.S. were to default on its debt, arguing recently that world leaders have been wondering about the looming risk.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said earlier this month Beijing and Moscow would use a potential default for propaganda purposes through “information operations” as evidence the U.S. political system is chaotic.

Psaki outlined the situation with the president in Japan for the Group of Seven (G-7) summit, relying on Republican negotiators and White House officials to keep working to avoid a default until he returns to Washington on Sunday.

“So for the president, this is about — he’s there to project strength; the United States is back at the table,” she said. “But these negotiations, this being tricky and unresolved at home, is not great. And that’s important for people, Republicans, Democrats to really understand.”

She also warned against being overly concerned by the top Republican lawmakers negotiating a debt ceiling compromise with the White House cutting the talks short. The Republicans left a meeting with White House officials Friday in the Capitol, saying the two sides were too far apart and that the White House is being unreasonable.

“Sometimes, there are pauses where it looks like everything is going to explode and not come back together, and it does,” she said.

The White House had expressed optimism as recently as late Thursday, saying there had been “steady progress” in debt limit talks, and officials said Friday the president’s team is “working hard towards a reasonable bipartisan solution.”

Additionally, Psaki said there “will be no doubt legal challenges if the president were to invoke the 14th Amendment” in response to a letter sent earlier this week from 11 senators to Biden suggesting he prepare to invoke the amendment.

The president said last week there have been discussions about whether the 14th Amendment can be invoked, but he acknowledged it would have to go to the courts.