mixed messages
April 29, 2020

In President Trump's first mention of his new executive order designating meat processing facilities "critical infrastructure," he said Tuesday morning it was prompted by "a very unique circumstance because of liability." Trump hasn't explained which part of the Defense Production Act could allow him to compel meat plants to reopen or remain open amid COVID-19 outbreaks, and it's not clear he can exempt the companies from federal or state safety regulations. But the executive order states that as its goals.

"If these meat plants can't be held liable, there is no reason for them to take measures to ensure workers are safe," Kim Cordova, president for union workers at JBS beef plant in Greeley, Colorado, tells The Washington Post. "This is insane. If these workers are essential, protect them."

Any workable legal liability shield for companies who stay open or reopen without adequate measures to protect workers and customers would have to come from Congress. That is a key ask of business lobbyists, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has named it as a priority in the next round of coronavirus relief legislation. "Before we start sending additional money down to states and localities, I want to make sure that we protect the people we've already sent assistance to, who are going to be set up for an avalanche of lawsuits if we don't act," he said Monday.

Business groups say the protections would be temporary, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Tuesday she doesn't think "there's any interest in having any less protection for our workers."

While Trump and congressional Republicans are looking to protect businesses from lawsuits, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin threatened companies with "criminal liability" Tuesday if they applied for Paycheck Protection Program loans under false pretenses. The PPP, which has run through about $660 billion, was designed for small businesses with fewer than 500 workers, but loopholes allowed larger companies to get multi-million-dollar grants.

Munchin, put in charge of implementing the law, told banks to decide where the loan money went and had companies "self certify" they met the Treasury's vague guidelines. Mnuchin said the Small Business Administration will audit all loans of $2 million or more. More than 100 companies have said they got loans of at least $2 million, and some have opted to return it due to bad publicity, but most of the recipients of the loans aren't publicly known. Peter Weber

February 19, 2020

The Utah Senate voted unanimously on Tuesday to downshift polygamy among consenting adults from a third-degree felony to an infraction punishable with a fine of up to $750 and community service, similar to a parking ticket. Stiff penalties would remain for fraudulent bigamy, where a spouse obtains marriage licenses for more than one spouse unaware of the polygamy, and marrying an underage bride without her consent.

The goal, according to lead sponsor state Sen. Deirdre Henderson (R), is to allow women and children in polygamous families to report abuse and other crimes and obtain government services without fear of being arrested. A federal court struck down Utah's strict anti-polygamy law when Sister Wives star Kody Brown sued, but an appellate court overturned the decision and the Supreme Court decided not to hear an appeal. It's not clear the bill will pass in the Utah House.

If easing polygamy laws sounds like conservative Utah embracing behind-closed-doors libertarianism, the state House also voted Tuesday to require printed and online pornography to carry labels warning that the obscene material is harmful to children. "The new measure is narrowly aimed at hardcore obscene material, but the way the law is written could still allow for thousands of lawsuits," The Associated Press reports, citing Mike Stabile of the pornography trade group the Free Speech Coalition. Each violation would incur a fine of up to $2,500.

Both laws are rooted in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormon church, which counts a majority of Utahans as members. Utah declared porn a public health crisis in 2016, and polygamy was brought to Utah by Mormon settlers in 1847. "The church disavowed polygamy in 1890 as a condition of Utah statehood, and today members of the faith found to be practicing plural marriage are excommunicated," Reuters reports. At the same time, some 30,000 "fundamentalist" Mormons practice polygamy on the fringes. Peter Weber

February 14, 2020

Attorney General William Barr took the unusual step Thursday of going on President Trump's favorite medium, TV, to complain that Trump's tweeting about Roger Stone's sentence and other Justice Department matters makes it "impossible for me to do my job." Barr's criticism wouldn't have come as a surprise to Trump, a person familiar with the situation tells Politico. "The attorney general had talked to the president a number of times and told him he was getting frustrated with these statements."

Congressional Republicans agreed with Barr that Trump should curb his tweeting. Democrats suggested Barr was really complaining that Trump is making it "impossible" to quietly do his bidding.

White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said Trump "wasn't bothered by the comments." This "benign response from the White House prompted speculation from some quarters that Barr‘s message was aimed more at calming the furor at the Justice Department over the episode than actually scolding Trump," Politico reports. Not all of Trump's allies responded so benignly, though. "I am so disappointed in Bill Barr," Fox Business host Lou Dobbs exclaimed Thursday night. Barr's job is to stomp out "the deep state," not join it, he said. "I don't want to hear any crap about an independent Justice Department. This Justice Department, as does every one, works for the president."

Dobbs was giving public voice to months of Trump's behind-the-scenes raging "toward the Justice Department — more about whom the department has not charged with crimes than about whom it has charged," like Stone, The Washington Post reports. After Barr's Justice Department declined to charge former FBI Director James Comey, for example, Trump "complained so loudly and swore so frequently in the Oval Office that some of his aides discussed it for days."

Slate's Dahlia Lithwick noted the disconnect between congressional Republicans always waving off Trump's tweeted attacks on various targets — judges, jurors, New York — and "Bill Barr saying, 'Oh, no, these tweets are ... real and they're consequential, and they're making it hard to do my job.'" It's "just head-snapping," she said on MSNBC, "that we can't pick whether these tweets are a joke or whether they're real." Peter Weber

October 30, 2019

Former Rep. Sean Duffy's (R-Wis.) short tenure at CNN has been pretty rocky. It reached new levels of awkwardness Tuesday when CNN hosts kept showing his comments from Tuesday morning about National Security Council official and Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman — and slamming them in no uncertain terms.

Vindman, who gave pretty damaging testimony about President Trump's interactions with Ukraine at a House impeachment deposition Tuesday, emigrated from Soviet Ukraine to the U.S. at age 3. Duffy questioned Vindman's loyalties on CNN's New Day, and New Day host John Berman started criticizing his comments almost immediately.

CNN anchor Brianna Keilar played Duffy's comments again Tuesday afternoon. "That is some anti-immigrant bigotry," she said, "and it's an odd questioning of patriotism coming from Sean Duffy, the guy who spent part of his 20s on MTV's The Real World and Real World/Road Rules Challenge while Alexander Vindman spent his on foreign deployments, including one to Iraq where he earned a Purple Heart after he was injured by a roadside bomb."

CNN's Chris Cuomo piled on Tuesday night. "Look, I know Duffy, Duffy is better than that, and he should show it — our president is not," he said. Trump "cannot fight the facts in this situation and neither can his friends. What he did asking Ukraine to investigate the Bidens and the DNC was wrong, arguably illegal, obviously abusive of his power."

Duffy tried to walk back his comments, tweeting that Vindman is "an American war hero" but "an unelected adviser" to Trump. CNN Vice President Rebecca Kutler told Politico that "having people who support the president's policies" is part of CNN's goal of representing "all points of view," and Duffy can "share with our audience what's important to the voters he's represented and how that will impact the 2020 election." CNN chief Jeff Zucker was a little more direct. "It is hard to find people who will come on and support the president's point of view," he said at a conference last Thursday. "We need these voices." Peter Weber

June 21, 2019

Iranian officials told Reuters on Friday that President Trump had sent Tehran a message via Oman warning about an imminent strike, which he reportedly called off before any missiles were fired. “In his message, Trump said he was against any war with Iran and wanted to talk to Tehran about various issues," one official said. "He gave a short period of time to get our response, but Iran's immediate response was that it is up to Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Ali) Khamenei to decide about this issue."

"We made it clear that the leader is against any talks, but the message will be conveyed to him to make a decision," a second official told Reuters. "However, we told the Omani official that any attack against Iran will have regional and international consequences."

Trump had reportedly authorized the predawn strike on radar and missile installations in retaliation for Iran downing a U.S. surveillance drone early Thursday. If The New York Times is correct that "Trump ordered — and then aborted — an attack on Iran," or even if it has some details wrong, that "sends a powerful message to Tehran in itself, says BBC News defense correspondent Jonathan Marcus. But as the U.S. and Iran flirt with direct conflict, which message will Iran's leadership receive "in this complex game of signaling"?

"The danger now is that Iran receives mixed messages that convey uncertainty and lack of resolve," leading "some in Tehran to push back at the Americans even harder," Marcus adds. "There appears to be no easy diplomatic 'off-ramp' in this crisis. U.S. economic sanctions are hitting home. Tehran is under pressure. Escalation remains an ever-present danger." Peter Weber

August 6, 2017

The White House is scheduled to undergo renovation while President Trump stays at his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey, for a 17-day visit he denies is a vacation.

"Working in Bedminster, N.J., as long planned construction is being done at the White House," Trump tweeted Saturday evening. "This is not a vacation - meetings and calls!" Two days prior, the White House deputy press secretary described the trip as a "working vacation," and Trump was photographed golfing shortly after his tweet:

However, it's true the White House is getting serious work done in Trump's absence. Planned repairs to the presidential residence include major HVAC work and amelioration of a "foul odor" and fly problem in the West Wing. The air conditioning system dates to the Reagan years, and some of the ceilings drip when it rains. Bonnie Kristian

March 21, 2017

In early February, a few weeks after President Trump's inauguration, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents rounded up hundreds of undocumented immigrants in six cities, including 51 in Austin — 28 of whom had no criminal history, an unusually large percentage. On Monday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Austin said federal agents had warned him and another federal judge in late January to expect a crackdown on immigrants in response to a new "sanctuary" policy adopted by Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez.

Under the policy, announced in late January, the Travis County sheriff's office will not hold suspects for ICE unless ICE gets a warrant or the detainee is suspected of committing serious crimes like murder, aggravated sexual assault, or human trafficking. According to a Homeland Security Department report released Monday, Travis County rejected 142 ICE detention requests from Jan. 28 to Feb. 3 (though many of the so-called detainers had been issued throughout 2016), by far the most in Texas.

"We had a briefing... that we could expect a big operation, agents coming in from out of town, there was going to be a specific operation, and it was at least related to us in that meeting that it was a result of the sheriff's new policy that this was going to happen," Judge Austin said in court on Monday, in a hearing on an undocumented immigrant, Juan Coronilla-Guerrero, taken into custody by ICE in Travis County court, an usual tactic for federal officers. ICE agent Laron Bryant said he was aware of that information. "My understanding is, what was told to us, is one of the reasons that happened is because the meetings that had occurred between the (ICE) field office director and the sheriff didn't go very well," Austin said. Bryant said that part was news to him.

ICE regional field officer Dan Bible told two Travis County officials in late February that ICE was not targeting Austin, those officials said. "He denied that there is a target on Travis County's back," County Judge Sarah Eckhardt told the Austin American-Statesman on Feb. 28. ICE said publicly that the roundup of immigrants was routine, though the tactics ICE used in the six target cities — arresting people at their homes, businesses, and from their cars — were not usual. "As far as I know, this incident was an isolated incident," Bryan told Judge Austin. "This wasn't the norm, this is not something that's going to become pattern or practice." Peter Weber

April 3, 2015

Privacy for thee, but not for me? Just as the FBI pushes Congress to ban smartphone encryption, which protects users' privacy, the Pentagon has begun giving employees phones with airtight encryption technology.

The phones in question — which would also keep out the prying eyes of the NSA — employ an encryption method that prevents even their manufacturer, Silent Circle, from accessing users' data.

In an interview with Vice, Silent Circle cofounder Mike Janke highlighted the hypocrisy of providing government employees with the very technology another part of the government wants to ban for the rest of us, saying, "[Pentagon workers] need it, why can’t the public need it? Why shouldn’t we be allowed to have it?" Bonnie Kristian

See More Speed Reads