Democrats to face off against a reluctant Mueller

House Democrats are facing a daunting challenge this week — goading Robert Mueller into offering testimony that could irreparably damage Donald Trump’s presidency.

In the three months since the conclusion of the former special counsel’s investigation, Democrats have struggled to use Mueller’s 448-page report to stoke a public outcry against the president's conduct, despite evidence that Trump sought to thwart the probe.

And on Wednesday, they’ll be up against a witness who didn’t want to testify in the first place — he had to be subpoenaed — and one who, over more than a decade of regular Capitol Hill testimony, has mastered the art of the dodge. For those reasons, Democrats are already downplaying expectations for the blockbuster hearings.

Still, when Mueller testifies for three hours before the House Judiciary Committee and two hours before the House Intelligence Committee, Democrats are expected to press Mueller to state that he might have charged Trump with obstruction of justice were he not the occupant of the Oval Office.

For the Democrats who want to see Trump impeached, that's the whole ballgame — and a moment that could see Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) re-think her opposition to launching a formal impeachment inquiry.

To achieve that, Democrats are aiming to bring the Mueller report off of the pages and onto Americans’ TV screens in an easily digestible format. It’s been their goal all along — but Wednesday will be their best chance to put it into practice.

“Many Americans, in their busy lives, have not had the opportunity to read the report. It’s a pretty dry, prosecutorial product,” Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said Sunday on CBS’ Face the Nation. “We want Bob Mueller to bring it to life.”

Democrats have said for months that even if Mueller simply reads aloud the words he wrote in his report, he'll debunk Trump's “no collusion, no obstruction” mantra and help Americans begin to process a report most haven’t.

Republicans, meanwhile, intend to use their time to discredit Mueller's work, arguing that he relied on a biased team of investigators who took over an active FBI investigation of Russian interference that was tainted by anti-Trump officials. Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said GOP members of the panel essentially plan to cross-examine Mueller to question his findings.

He called Mueller’s work a “one-sided report that has not been questioned by the other side,” adding: “This is our chance to do that.”

The Judiciary Committee will zero in on volume two of Mueller’s report, which lays out evidence that, in some instances, Trump’s actions may have met all of the elements necessary to charge an obstruction of justice offense.

According to aides, Democrats will focus on five of the roughly dozen episodes of potential obstruction — most notably, Trump’s direction to former White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller, and his subsequent order that McGahn deny that Trump ever sought to remove the special counsel. They’ll also highlight Trump’s alleged witness-tampering efforts for his former confidants Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen.

“If anyone else had been accused of what the report finds the president had done, they would’ve been indicted,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said on Fox News Sunday, adding, “The report presents very substantial evidence that the president is guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Many House Democrats — and, indeed, the progressive base that has been pushing for Trump’s impeachment — are convinced that Mueller vocalizing his lengthy, dense findings will jolt complacent Americans and remake the calculus on seeking the president's ouster. And in public remarks when he formally concluded his probe, Mueller said a sitting president can only be held accountable through “a process other than the criminal justice system” due to Justice Department guidelines prohibiting the indictment of a sitting president. Many Democrats viewed that statement alone as an impeachment referral.

But the nearly 100 House Democrats advocating for impeachment proceedings know that if they slink into their six-week summer next week recess without any explosive developments from Mueller, their last best chance at gathering momentum may have slipped away.

But many Democrats, including Pelosi and her top lieutenants, oppose impeachment and aren't looking to Mueller to be the linchpin in Trump's demise. Rather, they want to see Mueller fill in part a larger mosaic of corruption, misdeeds and lies they say Trump and his allies have committed since he took office and might become the millstone that sinks his 2020 reelection bid.

Mueller, in the few words he's spoken since he launched his 22-month investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, has indicated he doesn't intend to satisfy either side of the aisle. Rather, he has pointed to his detailed report — which chronicled more than 100 contacts between Trump associates and Russian agents — and declared that the document itself is his testimony. Asking him to go beyond it, he emphasized, would be fruitless.

But the Intelligence Committee doesn’t intend to honor Mueller’s wish, according to aides. In fact, they note, his report didn't contain any of the evidence he gathered as part of a parallel counterintelligence investigation into whether Trump or his allies were compromised by Russia. And they say Mueller's insistence on discussing only his report is not a legal requirement.

“He has made it clear that he doesn’t want to go beyond the report. And I want to make it clear that that is a choice Bob Mueller is making. That is not required by law. It is not required by regulation,” Schiff said this weekend at the Aspen Security Forum, adding: “That is a choice.”

Schiff also indicated that Democrats could press Mueller to answer certain questions he might not want to engage on, but said “we will have to decide how much of our time we want to spend fighting with him to discuss things outside the report.” It’s unclear if Schiff would move to hold Mueller in contempt or seek other punitive measures.

For example, Schiff said he wants Mueller to weigh in on whether Trump should be indicted after leaving office. But he also acknowledged that Mueller would never answer that question.

“We have a far better chance of the love affair in North Korea working out, than we do of getting him to answer that question,” Schiff quipped. “But nonetheless, there are other ways of asking that question.”

On the substance, the Intelligence Committee plans to examine volume one of Mueller’s report, with a keen focus on the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia and WikiLeaks. Democrats also plan to highlight Trump’s posture toward WikiLeaks during the campaign, and whether he knew in advance about the group’s disclosures of Democratic National Committee emails.

“That ought to be damning enough. And that doesn’t require us even to go beyond the report,” Schiff said.

Democrats believe volume one of the report hasn’t received enough attention, and unlike members of the Judiciary Committee, they don't plan to spend their time questioning Mueller’s legal conclusions and prosecutorial decisions.

Though lawmakers anticipate that Mueller will testify as scheduled, the White House is closely watching the preparations, and it’s unclear if Trump himself will seek to intervene somehow.

Though Mueller, who no longer works for the Justice Department, has no obligation to obey commands from the president, the White House has repeatedly directed former employees to refuse to cooperate with congressional subpoenas — and most have honored the White House’s demands. Trump in May made a broad claim of executive privilege over Mueller's underlying evidence, which may presage an attempt to prevent Mueller from disclosing information outside the four corners of his report.

Democrats insist that they’re ready to counter any attempts by the White House to interfere with Mueller’s testimony.

“I’ve been involved in hundreds of hearings. And we have never prepared for one the way we have prepared for this one,” said a Judiciary Committee aide.

Natasha Bertrand and Bryan Bender contributed to this report.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Pence 'not pleased' with 'send-her-back' chant, but declines to urge an end

Vice President Mike Pence said both he and President Donald Trump are "not pleased" with the "send her back" chant that broke out at Trump's recent reelection rally.

Still, Pence declined to condemn any attempts to repeat such cheers, saying "If it happened again, [Trump] ... might make an effort to speak out against it."

"The president wasn't pleased about it. Neither was I," Pence said in an interview aired Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation." "The president's been very clear about that. But what we're also not pleased about is the fact that there are four members of Congress who are engaging in the most outrageous statements."

Asked several times by host Major Garrett if he "wanted to see them repeated," Pence said: "The president was very clear that he wasn't happy about it. And that if it happened again he — he might — he might make an effort to speak out about it."

The crowd at a North Carolina Trump rally Wednesday night began shouting "send her back" after the president spent several minutes attacking Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who immigrated to the U.S. as a child refugee from Somalia.

At the time, Trump didn't speak for 13 seconds as the chant continued. Later, he disavowed the behavior, claiming he "started speaking very quickly" to end it.

In his CBS interview, Pence asserted that "millions of Americans share the president's frustration about sitting members of Congress engaging in that kind of reckless rhetoric — whether it be anti-Semitic rhetoric, whether it be referring to Border Patrol agents as running concentration camps — and the president thought it was important to stand up to them.

"And I'm glad he did it," Pence concluded.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Adam Schiff wants Mueller to bring his report ‘to life’

House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff said on Sunday he hopes Robert Mueller's testimony before the House will bring the former special counsel's report "to life."

"Since most of our constituents in their busy lives haven't had the opportunity to read that report — and it's a pretty dry prosecutorial work product — we want Bob Mueller to bring it to life, to talk about what's in that report," the California Democrat told Margaret Brennan on CBS' "Face the Nation."

"It's a pretty damning set of facts," he said, "that involve a presidential campaign in a close race welcoming help from a hostile foreign power, not reporting it but eagerly embracing it, building it into their campaign strategy, lying about it to cover up, then obstructing an investigation into foreign interference again to try to cover up.

"That's a pretty damning set of facts that most American people are not familiar with," Schiff said. "And, of course, the president keeps on trying to deceive them about those facts. But who better to bring them to life than the man who did the investigation himself?"

Mueller is slated to testify before the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees for a combined five hours on Wednesday. And Democratic congressional leaders hope the public hearings can reinvigorate public interest in the report.

"We want the people to hear it directly from him, not [Attorney General] Bill Barr who had his own misleading characterization of it," Schiff said.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Cory Booker charges Trump is ‘worse than a racist’

President Donald Trump is "worse than a racist," Sen. Cory Booker charged on Sunday.

"The reality is, this is a guy who is worse than a racist," the Democratic presidential contender from New Jersey told Dana Bash on CNN's "State of the Union." "He is actually using racist tropes and racial language for political gains, trying to use this as a weapon to divide our nation against itself.:

Trump has come under fire in recent days for increasingly incendiary remarks targeting four Democratic House freshmen of color: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.

The women should "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came," the president tweeted. He also has continually questioned their allegiance to the U.S. Three of the four women were born in the U.S. and all are American citizens.

"This is somebody who is very similar to George Wallace, to racists who use — he's using the exact same language," Booker pointed out. Wallace, who ran for president from Alabama, was known for using racist language throughout his campaigns and time as governor.

"As somebody texted me during [Trump's] rallies, I have seen this before — in black and white," Booker said. "And now I'm seeing it again decades later, where I thought our country was beyond this. I'm seeing this in full color."

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Japan’s ruling coalition scores election triumph

TOKYO — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition secured a majority in Japan’s upper house of parliament in elections Sunday, according to vote counts by public television and other media. Exit polls indicated Abe could even close in on the super-majority needed to propose constitutional revisions.

NHK public television said Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and its junior partner Komeito had won 64 seats in the upper house after two hours of vote counting. The two-thirds majority needed for constitutional revision could be within reach if the ruling bloc can gain support from members of another conservative party and independents.

Up for grabs were 124 seats in the less powerful of Japan’s two parliamentary chambers. There are 245 seats in the upper house — which does not choose the prime minister — about half of which are elected every three years.

The results appeared to match or even exceed pre-election polls that indicated Abe’s ruling bloc was to keep ground in the upper house, with most voters considering it a safer choice over an opposition with an uncertain track record. To reach the two-thirds majority, or 164 seats, Abe needs 85 more seats by his ruling bloc and supporters of a charter change.

Opposition parties have focused on concerns over household finances, such as the impact from an upcoming 10% sales tax increase and strains on the public pension system amid Japan’s aging population.

Abe has led his Liberal Democratic Party to five consecutive parliamentary election victories since 2012.

He has prioritized revitalizing Japan’s economy and has steadily bolstered the country’s defenses in the backdrop of North Korea’s missile and nuclear threats and China’s growing military presence. He also has showcased his diplomatic skills by cultivating warm ties with President Donald Trump.

Abe was hoping to gain enough upper house seats to boost his chances for constitutional revision, his long-cherished goal before his term ends in 2021. Abe needs approval by a two-thirds majority in both houses to propose a revision and seek a national referendum. His ruling bloc already has a two-thirds majority in the more powerful lower house.

But Abe and his conservative backers face challenges because voters seem more concerned about their jobs, the economy and social security.

The main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and three other liberal-leaning parties teamed up in some districts. They stressed support for gender equality and LGBT issues — areas Abe’s ultra-conservative lawmakers are reluctant to back.

At a polling station in Tokyo’s Chuo district on Sunday, voters were divided over Abe’s 6 1/2-year rule.

A voter who identified himself only as a company worker in his 40s said he chose a candidate and a party that have demonstrated an ability to get things done, suggesting he voted for Abe’s ruling party and its candidate, as “there is no point in casting my vote for a party or a politician who has no such abilities.”

Another voter, Katsunori Takeuchi, a 57-year-old fish market worker, said it was time to change the dominance of Abe and his ultra-conservative policies.

“I think the ruling party has been dominating politics for far too long and it is causing damage,” he said.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Nadler hopes Mueller hearings won't be 'a dud'

House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler said on Sunday he hopes former special counsel Robert Mueller's testimony before the House won't be "a dud."

"What if the whole thing ends up being a dud?" Chris Wallace asked the New York Democrat on "Fox News Sunday."

"Well," Nadler responded, "we hope it won't end up being a dud. We're going to ask specific questions — 'look at page 344, paragraph 2, please read it. Does that describe an obstruction of justice? Did you find that the president did that?'

"The president and the attorney general have lied to the American people about what was in the Mueller report," Nadler continued. "About the fact that you just heard the president saying that it found no collusion — that was not true. That it found no obstruction — that is not true.

"They've had months of lying to the American people."

Mueller is slated to answer questions Wednesday on his probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether Trump obstructed that investigation for three hours before the House Judiciary Committee and for two hours before the House Intelligence Committee.

His appearances, originally scheduled for last week, come as the House prepares to leave on its long summer recess.

Asked by Wallace whether Americans had moved on from the Mueller investigation, Nadler pointed to the importance of transparency.

"The country has not moved on," Nadler said. "People don't read a 448-page report. I believe that once people hear what was in the Mueller report, then we'll be in a position to begin holding the president accountable and to make this less of a lawless administration."

The Mueller hearings are the latest in a string of efforts by House Democratic leadership to conduct oversight of the Trump administration — efforts that have been largely circumvented by the refusal of the White House to allow its officials to testify before the Democratic-led chamber.

"The president has also been lawless in telling all witnesses not to obey congressional subpoenas, not to testify at all," Nadler said. "That is beyond the pale of the Constitution."

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Trump adviser Stephen Miller says outrage over 'racist' remarks meant to 'silence and punish'

Pushback against President Donald Trump's recent racially charged comments about four minority women in Congress is merely an effort by Democrats to "try to silence and punish and suppress" views opposite their own, White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller said Sunday.

"I think the term 'racist' has become a label too often deployed by the left [and] Democrats in this country simply to try to silence and punish and suppress people they disagree with — speech they don’t want to hear," Miller told host Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday." "This president has been a president for all Americans."

Over the course of the last week, Trump has lobbed increasingly inflammatory remarks at Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — declaring the women of color should “go back” to their countries of origin and questioning their patriotism.

Miller countered that the remarks reflected not discrimination, but rather dissent with their political views.

"I fundamentally disagree with the view that if you criticize somebody and they happen to be a different color of skin, that happens to be a racial criticism," Miller said.

The issue lies, Miller said, with Democratic lawmakers' attitude towards Trump's White House and its supporters.

"With the 'send-her-back' chant, the president was clear he disagreed with it," Miller said, referencing a tweet from the president and a resulting cheer that broke out at a reelection campaign rally Wednesday in North Carolina.

"The core issue," he added, "is that all the people in that audience and millions of patriotic Americans all across this country are tired of being beat up, condescended to, looked down upon, talked down to by members of Congress on the left in Washington, D.C., and their allies in many corners of the media."

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Elijah Cummings: Trump’s words brings back bad memories of racism

Rep. Elijah Cummings on Sunday said the events of the week since President Donald Trump’s “go back” tweet aimed at four progressive congresswomen of color reminded him of being a 12-year-old growing up in 1962 Baltimore.

“We were trying to integrate an Olympic-size pool near my house and we had been constrained to a wading pool in the black community,” the Maryland Democrat told George Stephanopoulos, host of ABC’s “This Week.” “As we tried to March to that pool over six days, I was beaten, all kinds of rocks and bottles thrown at me. And the interesting thing is that I heard the same chants. ‘Go home, you don't belong here.’ And they called us the ‘N‘ word over and over again.”

Cummings’ anecdote came days after a Trump rally in North Carolina during which some of the crowd chanted “send her back” in reference to Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), an American citizen who was born in Somalia. Trump on Friday said that crowd was filled with “incredible patriots.”

“What it does, when Trump does these things it brings up the same feelings that I had over 50-some years ago and it's very, very painful,” the House oversight chairman said. “It's extremely divisive and I don't think this is becoming of the president of the United States of America.”

Cummings said though he has been trying to give him the benefit of the doubt, he believes Trump is a racist, “no doubt about it.”

He also said he took issue with Trump’s tweet Sunday morning, which was along the same lines of the rhetoric the president has been doubling down on since last Sunday.

“I don’t believe the four Congresswomen are capable of loving our Country,” Trump tweeted. “They should apologize to America (and Israel) for the horrible (hateful) things they have said. They are destroying the Democrat Party, but are weak & insecure people who can never destroy our great Nation!”

Cummings rebuked Trump’s tweet and called the four progressive congresswomen — Omar, Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) — “some of the most brilliant young people” he’s met.

“When you disagree with the president, suddenly you're a bad person,” Cummings said. “Our allegiance is not to the president, our allegiance is to the constitution of the United States of America and the American people."

Mercedes Schlapp, the former White House director of strategic communications who left her post earlier this month to join Trump’s 2020 campaign, denounced Cummings‘ comments by saying the president disavowed the "send her back" chant.

"The president made it clear that he wasn't happy with the chant. And he disagreed with it," Schlapp told Stephanopoulos.

When pressed for a specific instance where Trump disagreed with the chant, Schlapp said he did not address it in the moment at his rally: "There's a lot of emotion. There's a lot going on. He continued with his speech."

Before taking aim at the Squad, Schlapp said Trump said he "made it very clear that he disagreed with the chant" at a press conference the next day.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

How Legal Marijuana Is Helping the Black Market

When the new marijuana shop opened up just down the street from his own marijuana shop, Greg Meguerian, owner of The Reefinery in Los Angeles, kept an eye on it. When that shop stayed open past the legal closing time of 10 p.m. and sold customers over a quarter-pound of cannabis at once, four times more than the legal limit, Meguerian knew he wasn’t competing with a licensed dispensary.

“It’s so shady, if you look at it,” Meguerian said. “It looks like a shady crack house.”

The 15 Spot – as the tarp sign hung in front reads – doesn’t appear on Los Angeles’ list of authorized retail businesses. Meguerian and his lawyer reported the illegal dispensary, but it’s still open—and Meguerian is paying a price. He said his sales are down noticeably since his illicit competitor moved in. (Calls to the 15 Spot went unanswered because its phone is disconnected.)

“I told the state, ‘If I lose 20 percent, you just lost 20 percent in taxes.’” He told POLITICO Magazine. “You feel like your words are falling on deaf ears.”

What’s happening to Meguerian is a window into one widespread side effect of marijuana legalization in the U.S.: In many cases it has fueled, rather than eliminated, the black market. In Los Angeles, unlicensed businesses greatly outnumber legal ones; in Oregon, a glut of low-priced legal cannabis has pushed illegal growers to export their goods across borders into other states where it’s still against the law, leaving law enforcement overwhelmed. Three years after Massachusetts voters approved fully legal marijuana, most of the cannabis economy now consists of unlicensed “private clubs,” home growing operations and clearly illicit sellers.

Though each state has its own issues, the problems have similar outlines: underfunded law enforcement officers and slow-moving regulators are having trouble building a legal regime fast enough to contain a high-demand product that already has a large existing criminal network to supply it. And at the national level, advocates also point to another, even bigger structural issue: problems are inevitable in a nation where legalization is so piecemeal.

“You’re never going to eliminate [the illicit market] until most of the states are legal,” says Adam Smith of the Craft Cannabis Alliance, a group in Oregon advocating for small cannabis farmers. “As long as half the country still can’t get it legally, there’s a market for it illegally.”


State troopers in Idaho don’t know why they are seizing so much marijuana crossing their border, but the numbers offer a pretty strong clue.

With Oregon growers producing three times more marijuana than consumers inside the state could handle, neighboring Idaho has reported a 665 percent increase in the amount of illicit marijuana officers have seized. In 2016, the year before Oregon’s adult use laws took effect, troopers confiscated 508 pounds of marijuana. Oregon’s new recreational market went into full effect on January 1, 2017, and the number of licensed dispensaries jumped from 99 to 260. That same year, the amount of cannabis confiscated by Idaho State Troopers skyrocketed to 1,376 pounds and kept climbing. Last year, seizures totaled nearly a ton.

Law enforcement officers in Oregon, though, are under no illusion that their state’s growers are not feeding that supply.

“If anything, it’s gotten worse [since legalization],” Sgt. Brandon Boice of the Oregon State Patrol says. “There’s still high demand for southern Oregon marijuana throughout the country, that has not changed.”

When Oregon legalized marijuana in 2014, the state tried very hard to stifle its black market by ensuring the path into the legal market was as easy as possible. It did not limit licenses and it simplified regulations, creating a program with one of the lowest barriers to entry in the United States.

It worked.

Now, Oregon is an easy place to find high-quality, cheap, legal marijuana. There are over 650 licensed marijuana dispensaries in the state, or three times the number of McDonalds’ restaurants (205). If you’re an Oregonian living in a legal town or county and you want to buy marijuana, there is no reason to shop illegally.

John Hudak, a cannabis expert at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C., says he is skeptical that Oregon’s legalization correlates to an increase in black market cannabis exports. But the Oregon state legislature has taken steps specifically to curb the siphoning of its oversupply out of the legal market. This past April, Oregon state senator Floyd Prozanski cited the illicit market in his support for a bill that would cut down on the number of licenses available in Oregon.

But there are 39 states where marijuana remains illegal for recreational use and that has proven to be an attractive market for Oregon growers. Boice estimates there may actually be more illicit marijuana growing in Southern Oregon than before legalization, almost all of it heading out of the state.

“Law enforcement is just inundated with illegal marijuana and exportation,” says Boice. “There aren’t enough resources in place for us to do anything about it.”


If Oregon’s surplus of legal marijuana has become a massive headache for its neighbors like Idaho, the illicit markets thriving in parts of California and Massachusetts are self-inflicted wounds. High state taxes and fees are driving up the price of legal cannabis, and mild repercussions for remaining unlicensed discourage existing business owners from navigating the complex licensing process in both Los Angeles and Boston.

Massachusetts legalized the sale of marijuana in 2017. Since then, close to 200 business licenses have been approved across the state. Boston approved its first one just this week.

As they wait for approvals that don’t come, marijuana businesses continue to operate in a legal gray zone. Sieh Samura, 40, opened his private cannabis club in Boston in 2014, when only medical marijuana was legal. In 2018, Samura was given priority status under the state’s community empowerment program. Almost a year and a half later, Samura still doesn’t have an open dispensary. He needs something called a community agreement from Boston before he can apply for his state license, and he doesn’t have that yet.

So in the interim, Samura continued running his private club, one of a handful in Boston and Worcester, where customers could bring their own product – much of it home grown or purchased on the illicit market – and share and smoke communally. They are unlicensed and supposedly legal, but when asked by POLITICO, state and local officials disagreed on whose job it is to regulate them.

When she heard this, Massachusetts-based cannabis advocate Maggie Kinsella laughed. “So basically nobody knows what’s going on.”

Kinsella says that this runaround between state and local governments has essentially left New Englanders in the cannabis industry to fend for themselves. She says that the lack of legal, open dispensaries with good product means 80 percent of the market is still underground. And a lot of the customers at the legal dispensaries, she adds, are primarily from out of state.

“It’s probably premature to say that we’ve had a big dent in the illicit market” says Steve Hoffman of the Massachusetts Cannabis Commission, the state’s independent commission created to monitor the licensed cannabis market. And, he adds, “I don’t think we’re ever completely going to eliminate the illicit market, I think that’s probably unrealistic.”

Like many cannabis advocates, Hoffman says the illicit market in Massachusetts likely won’t die completely until cannabis is fully legalized federally, and access to things like bankingfor basic needs such as loans and deposits—is easier for startup businesses. The barriers to entry, he says, are still high and discourage even those who have had approved licenses from opening up shop.

In California, where the statewide regulatory apparatus is legendarily hard to navigate, those barriers to entry are only magnified.

California is so big, the problem is the opportunity,” says Kyle Kazan, CEO of California Cannabis Enterprises, which operates dispensaries in Los Angeles, Santa Ana and will soon open a third in Santa Barbara.

“You better have a lot of money and a whole lot of patience,” he says. “Because California is so not for everybody.”

High startup costs, licensing fees, and taxes make it hard for cannabis businesses to compete with unlicensed dispensaries that get equal billing on Weedmaps, a website that is essentially the Yelp of cannabis. Los Angeles, for instance, is estimated to have over 1,000 dispensaries, according to some advocates, but only 200 of them are licensed. This means the vast majority are illegal businesses.

This problem has existed ever since the early 2000s when law enforcement failed to address the explosion of medical dispensaries. The result was the growth of a vigorous unlicensed businesses – operating in the open, but with no permits to sell cannabis. The problem metastasized when the state legalized adult-use marijuana in 2016. Los Angeles was slower to issue licenses than some other Californian cities like San Francisco or neighboring West Hollywood, leaving a market gap for unlicensed players to fill. Customers in Los Angeles can’t easily distinguish a licensed dispensary from an unlicensed one.

The city has dedicated close to $14 million to the problem. And it has conducted raids, most notably a city-wide crackdown in 2018 that resulted in the closure of 108 unlicensed businesses – but often the dispensaries just pop up again somewhere else. The city shuts off power and then the dispensaries buy generators. The LA city attorney has begun to go after landlords, levying $20,000 fines for every day the illicit dispensaries remain open.

Alex Traverso with the California Bureau of Cannabis Commission says that not all unlicensed dispensaries in Los Angeles are bad actors, though. Some, he says, want to enter the legal market but the barriers to entry are too high.

“[They] are paying their taxes and are trying to do things right, they just don’t have the ability to get a license.”

Traverso’s solution is much like the approach favored by advocates in Massachusetts and Oregon: Make the market legal across both the state and the nation.

“Of all the 542 cities and counties we have in the state, collectively, only a quarter of those allow retail locations,” explained Traverso. “But to say there are no retail locations operating in those... just because you ban [marijuana] doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

It’s not just the legal business owners who are taking the hit. Meguerian, the Los Angeles dispensary owner, is right that his losses are also the state’s. Before California voted to fully legalize cannabis in 2016, officials estimated the state would pull in $1 billion in tax revenue in 2018. In the end, it has collected slightly more than a third of that, putting a painful financial point on an unfulfilled promise of the national legalization movement.


In the end, many advocates say, states can do much more to fight the black market, but it will never be fully gone until the federal government gets involved. As long as marijuana is treated the same as heroin under federal law, the regulatory map across the country will remain open to exploitation by those on the illicit side of the industry.

“Cannabis consumers are rational economic actors,” explains Hudak, at the Brookings Institute. “They’re probably going to pick the cheaper option. In a lot of states, that would mean black market cannabis.”

Adam Smith in Oregon says the ability for legal farmers to access markets like New York would solve Oregon’s problem. Give cannabis farmers legal interstate commerce, and you incentivize them to get into the legal market.

Alex Traverso in California says federal access to banking would lower startup costs and provide a financial buffer for new small businesses, encouraging more to switch to the legal market.

In Massachusetts, Steve Hoffman says the illicit market isn’t going anywhere completely until federal authorities treat cannabis the same as alcohol. “I don’t think you can, at this point, regulate cannabis the same way you regulate alcohol because of the federal prohibition,” he says.

As governments increase funding into law enforcement efforts and more counties, cities and even states come online, the market for illicit cannabis will decrease. Some point to Illinois, previously a destination for Oregon weed, which just legalized cannabis for adult use.

Kyle Kazan, a former police officer, agrees that the fight against the illicit market isn’t over yet.

“I’m not really that shocked by anything that’s going on,” he says. “I think we’re in like inning two of a nine-inning game.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Meet the woman who ties Jeffrey Epstein to Trump and the Clintons

How did wealthy sex offender Jeffrey Epstein come to be palling around with Bill Clinton and Donald Trump?

People who know those involved say Epstein’s connections to two U.S. presidents ran through one bubbly British heiress: Ghislaine Maxwell.

Maxwell, who has denied accusations made in civil suits of aiding and participating in Epstein’s sexual abuse of minors, has been among the financier’s closest associates. Unlike Epstein, she comes from a rarefied background that gave her entrée to the rich and powerful.

For years, beginning in the early ’90s, she and Epstein cut glittering figures on the Manhattan and Palm Beach social circuits, with Maxwell taking the lead. While people who knew Epstein in Palm Beach described him as “very odd” and said “he didn’t go out much,” those who know Maxwell described her as “vivacious,” “warm” and “effusive.”

Her family knew Trump before Epstein arrived on the scene, and she continued to socialize with Chelsea Clinton after Epstein was jailed on sex offenses.

Maxwell first grew close with the Clintons after Bill Clinton left office, vacationing on a yacht with Chelsea Clinton in 2009, attending her wedding in 2010, and participating in the Clinton Global Initiative as recently as 2013, years after her name first emerged in accounts of Epstein’s alleged sexual abuse.

“Ghislaine was the contact between Epstein and Clinton,” said a person familiar with the relationship. “She ended up being close to the family because she and Chelsea ended up becoming close.” (Lawyers for Maxwell did not respond to requests for comment, and a spokesperson for Clinton disputed the idea that the two women were ever close.)

Trump’s ties to Maxwell and her late father, the publishing tycoon Robert Maxwell, meanwhile, go back even further, to at least the late 1980s.

"He really likes her,” said Steven Hoffenberg, a former mentor to Epstein who pleaded guilty in 1995 to running a massive Ponzi scheme, of Trump and Maxwell. “He was friendly with her father.”

In the 1980s, Trump and Robert Maxwell, the Czech-born owner of London’s Daily Mirror tabloid, rubbed shoulders on the high-flying Manhattan party circuit.

An item from a May 1989 gossip column placed Trump and both Maxwells together at a party aboard the elder Maxwell’s yacht, named the Lady Ghislaine, that featured caviar flown in from Paris and former Republican senator John Tower of Texas. The item notes that Trump compared his own larger yacht with Maxwell’s.

As it happened, Trump’s yacht, the Trump Princess, had originally belonged to the Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi (uncle of the slain Washington Post contributor Jamal), and Maxwell’s yacht had originally belonged to one of Adnan’s brothers.

Two years later, Maxwell fell off his yacht in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and drowned, a sensational death that was ruled accidental.

“He was a character and a colorful guy, and I think we were lucky to have seen even a short time of him in New York,” Trump told Larry King during an appearance on CNN two weeks later. “He was my kind of a guy.”

Robert Maxwell’s biographer later related an incident from around the same period when Ghislaine was working for one of her father’s business enterprises selling corporate gifts.

While planning a trip to New York, she asked her father to use his friendship with Trump to get her a meeting with the mogul.

“Have you got your bum in your head?” the elder Maxwell responded, according to an account by the late Nicholas Davies, a former Mirror editor who wrote Maxwell’s biography. “Why the f*** would Donald Trump want to waste his time seeing you with your crappy gifts when he has a multi-million-dollar business to run?”

It appears Robert Maxwell sold his daughter short. A 1997 New Yorker profile of Trump notes that the article’s author shared a ride to Palm Beach on Trump’s private jet with Ghislaine Maxwell, as well as a teenage Eric Trump and Matthew Calamari, a longtime member of Trump’s private security team.

It is not clear whether Maxwell first introduced Trump and Epstein, who socialized together at least as early as 1992, but Maxwell was crucial in ensuring Epstein’s access to Trump’s world. Archival video unearthed on Wednesday by NBC from that year shows Trump and Epstein surrounded by dancing women at Mar-a-Lago, with Maxwell smiling in the background.

"Ghislaine was his path to social acceptance,” said Thomas Volscho, a professor at the City University of New York who has been researching Epstein. “They don’t always accept you. Ghislaine was really a conduit for him to start to socialize with people who are way beyond his level."

According to “Filthy Rich,” a 2016 book about Epstein by best-selling author and Mar-a-Lago member James Patterson, “Although Epstein had never properly joined the club, Trump’s friendship with Ghislaine Maxwell gave Epstein unlimited use of the facilities.”

Virginia Roberts Giuffre, a former changing room attendant at Mar-a-Lago who has accused Epstein of sexually abusing her as a minor, alleges in a lawsuit that she was first approached at the club in 1998 by Ghislaine Maxwell, who convinced her to meet Epstein and joined him in the abuse. Maxwell has denied wrongdoing.

It is not clear whether Maxwell ever officially joined the club. A directory of Mar-a-Lago members obtained by POLITICO in 2016 does not contain her name. Private clubs generally do not disclose information about members. In several calls to Mar-a-Lago’s main line, staffers said no one was on hand to field press inquiries and suggested calling back at other times. The White House did not respond to an email requesting comment.

But her visits to Mar-a-Lago spanned at least the better part of a decade.

Trump, his future wife Melania, Epstein and Maxwell were all photographed together at the club in 2000. That year, Epstein and Maxwell were also spotted at the club with Prince Andrew, according to the Daily Mail. According to the Daily Telegraph, it was Maxwell who introduced Epstein to the British royal, whose association with the sex offender has been a long-running scandal in the United Kingdom. Epstein also attended a birthday party for Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle in 2000. That same year, Maxwell and Prince Andrew attended what The Daily Mail described as a “hookers and pimps”-themed Halloween party hosted by Heidi Klum.

A month later, in early December 2000, Trump, his future wife Melania, Epstein and Maxwell all attended a surprise 60th birthday for Barbara Amiel, a British socialite, that was also attended by the likes of Anna Wintour, Charlie Rose and William F. Buckley.

Tina Brown, the magazine editor, recalled that around this period Maxwell would reach out to her to socialize when Prince Andrew came to New York. “She was a bit mysterious,” Brown recalled.

One regular on the social scene in Palm Beach and other exclusive locales recalled attending an event at Ascot, the English horse racing course, around the late 1990s, where, upon entering the course’s “royal enclosure,” the person saw Epstein sitting with the royal family.

Much of Epstein’s access to Clinton’s world also flowed through Maxwell. “The Clintons were relatively intimate with her,” said a Maxwell friend.

In 2002 and 2003, flight logs reportedly show that Bill Clinton flew on 26 flight legs on Epstein’s private jet.

“President Clinton knows nothing about the terrible crimes Jeffrey Epstein pleaded guilty to in Florida some years ago, or those with which he has been recently charged in New York,” said a spokesman for Bill Clinton, Angel Urena, in a statement. Urena said the flight legs comprised four trips total in 2002 and 2003, and that staff and Secret Service were present on all flights. Urena said that Epstein visited Bill Clinton at his Harlem office once in 2002, and that he briefly visited Epstein’s apartment one time.

Maxwell’s ties to Clinton world, meanwhile, would last another decade.

One friend of Maxwell’s, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, described their surprise upon showing up at a dinner party at her Upper East Side apartment around 2005 to find Doug Band, then a top advisor to Bill Clinton and the Clinton Foundation, among the 8 to 10 guests. In 2006, a charity run by Epstein, C.O.U.Q. Foundation, gave $25,000 to the Clinton Foundation, the Daily Beast reported.

But allegations of misconduct by Epstein, and then Maxwell, began to pile up, making associations with them increasingly fraught. In 2006, it emerged that police in Palm Beach were investigating Epstein for allegedly soliciting underage girls for sex, and he would eventually plead guilty to sex offenses, serving jail time in Florida. For several years afterward, allegations about Maxwell’s involvement in Epstein’s misconduct escalated in severity.

In 2007, The Daily Mail reported allegations by a woman named Johanna Sjoberg that Maxwell recruited her to work for Epstein, who then induced her “to perform demeaning sexual services.” The paper reported, “There is no suggestion that Ghislaine was aware that some of the girls were underage, or aware of Jeffrey’s sexual requests.” In 2009, Giuffre filed a lawsuit in which she alleged she was recruited by Maxwell as a 15-year-old to work for Epstein, who proceeded to sexually abuse her. That year, the New York Post reported that Maxwell was served with a subpoena by a lawyer representing some of Epstein’s accusers as she left a Clinton Global Initiative conference.

In March 2011, Giuffre elaborated on her claims, telling the Daily Mail that Maxwell instructed her to take off her clothes as she was massaging Epstein, who proceeded to have sex with her. Maxwell issued a statement denying the claim. In 2015, Giuffre accused Maxwell in a court filing of engaging in sex with underage girls.

“It wasn’t until 2015 that Chelsea and Marc became aware of the horrific allegations against Ghislaine Maxwell and hope that all the victims find justice,” said Chelsea Clinton’s chief of staff, Bari Lurie. “Chelsea and Marc were friendly with her because of her relationship with a dear friend of theirs. When that relationship ended, Chelsea and Marc’s friendship with her ended as well.”

For several years, Maxwell was romantically linked with Ted Waitt, the billionaire founder of Gateway computers.

A person close to Chelsea Clinton described Waitt as a “very close family friend” of Chelsea and Mezvinsky, and said the couple met Maxwell through him in 2011. The person said Chelsea Clinton and her husband ended their friendship with Maxwell when she and Waitt broke up in early 2011, and disputed that Maxwell and Chelsea Clinton were ever “close.”

Two people familiar with the relationship between Maxwell and the Clintons said Maxwell, Chelsea Clinton and Mezvinsky flew together on a private plane to rendezvous with Waitt for a trip on Waitt’s yacht. One of those people said the trip took place in 2009.

Waitt, whose philanthropic endeavors focus on the world’s oceans, has given somewhere between $10 million and $25 million to the Clinton Foundation. Waitt’s philanthropic foundation did not respond to a request for comment.

One person familiar with the Maxwell-Clinton relationship said that while Maxwell “was incredibly close” to Chelsea, “She had her own relationship with Bill Clinton and was very close to him.”

In 2010, Maxwell attended Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, apparently as Waitt’s date. In 2012, Maxwell launched her own Ocean-focused charity, the TerraMar Project. A year later, the Clinton Global Initiative trumpeted a TerraMar initiative among the “commitments to action” announced at its annual meeting. No money changed hands.

The initiative was the Sustainable Oceans Alliance, which sought to ensure the United Nations included oceans in its Sustainable Development Goals.

A 2013 press release on the website for TerraMar —which announced it was shuttering in the days after Epstein’s arrest — describes the alliance as a four-way partnership between TerraMar; another nonprofit called the Global Partnerships Forum; the late Stuart Beck, who served as “ambassador on oceans and seas” from the Pacific island nation of Palau; and a Trump friend, Paolo Zampolli, an Italian-born businessman who has served in diplomatic posts for Caribbean nations.

Before his diplomatic career, Zampolli co-founded a model management company and served as the Trump Organization’s director of international development. He has long been credited with introducing Trump to his third wife, Melania, though the New York Times reported this month that Epstein has also claimed credit for the introduction.

Zampolli said he was unaware of Maxwell’s connection to the Sustainable Oceans Initiative but that he does recall that Beck — who served on TerraMarr’s board in 2013 — brought Maxwell to the United Nations twice to discuss her oceans advocacy.

TerraMar sought to build social networks around ocean protection, issuing free “Ocean Passports” to anyone who pledged to support its goals, making them an “ocean citizen.”

“This lady,” Zampolli recalled, “had some very interesting ideas.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Who should keep an eye on Silicon Valley?

The federal government's struggles to rein in Facebook are driving some Democrats and consumer advocates to a stark conclusion: The agency charged with regulating Silicon Valley is not up to the task.

The 105-year-old Federal Trade Commission is a main enforcer of Americans' consumer protections but it has only a small fraction of the money and workforce of the nation's largest tech companies — and a privacy staff less than half that of the Irish agency that regulates Facebook's European operations. And its 15-month investigation of Facebook's handling of consumer data has some lawmakers and activists calling for an entirely new agency to oversee the online industry.

Those calls have only grown during a week of bipartisan derision for the FTC's proposed $5 billion privacy fine for Facebook — a historically large penalty by U.S. standards, but one that many lawmakers have called laughably small given the social networking giant's resources. The markets also shrugged at the proposed punishment, which comes after months of settlement talks with the company: Facebook's stock price hit its highest point in almost a year after news of the fine broke.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) condemned the "seemingly inadequate, unconscionably delayed, and historically hollow result," while Sen. Josh Hawley tweeted, "To say this was a slap on the wrist for Facebook is too generous," adding, "Really does make you wonder if FTC jurisdiction should be reassigned."

Congressional Democrats and some privacy groups are offering proposals to do just that — either by creating a special agency charged with protecting Americans’ online privacy or something akin to a Department of Facebook, focused specifically on the business models of major digital platforms.

At least one leading GOP tech critic may be open to those kinds of ideas. "Senator Hawley thinks all options should be on the table,” the Missouri Republican's office told POLITICO on Friday.

The FTC has a broad consumer protection mandate with oversight of everything from "hockey puck labeling to privacy," said Tom Wheeler, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission during the Obama administration. "It raises the question, can a single agency do all that? I think we're in the process of seeing the FTC answer that for us."

The FTC, established in 1914 under President Woodrow Wilson, is made up of five commissioners — split between the political parties — appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Under authority granted by Congress, the agency has a mandate to combat "unfair or deceptive acts or practices," spanning everything from livestock pricing manipulations to misleading pharmaceutical advertising.

Because the U.S. lacks a sweeping privacy law, the FTC is the last line of defense on consumer data violations but has only limited authority to police corporate behavior. If the FTC had been unable to reach an agreement with Facebook, the commission would have headed to court, with no guarantee it would win.

Critics of the FTC also say the agency lacks the financial resources, technology expertise and political will to act as an aggressive regulator of Silicon Valley, home to the world's wealthiest and most technologically advanced companies. It's a complaint heard inside the agency as well. FTC Chairman Joe Simons, a Trump nominee, has urged Congress to give his commission expanded powers, such as the ability to fine companies for first offenses and craft targeted rules for how internet companies handle consumer data, to better protect Americans' privacy.

And Simons says the FTC needs more money and people. The agency has a budget of $300 million a year and around 1,100 full-time staffers, 40 of whom are dedicated to privacy enforcement. That’s dwarfed by Facebook’s resources: The company is worth a half-trillion dollars and has nearly 30 employees for every one of the FTC’s. Simons has noted to lawmakers that Ireland’s data protection commission, which oversees the U.S. tech companies who base their European operations in that country, has more than 100 privacy enforcers.

Now exasperation over what many see as the inadequacy of the FTC’s proposed Facebook fine is fueling talk among Democrats of standing up a new institution that’s up to the task of policing the nation’s tech giants.

One proposal: to create a new agency focused specifically on privacy protection. California Democratic Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Anna Eshoo — a key ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi — are circulating a proposal that would create a 1,600-employee U.S. Digital Privacy Agency with an annual budget of $200 million. It's modeled on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that was created in 2011 at the urging of now-Sen. Elizabeth Warren in the wake of the global financial crisis. Like the CFPB, the new privacy agency would be headed by a director appointed to a five-year term.

“There are clearly gaps in the U.S. regulatory regime,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center. “The most obvious is that the U.S. lacks a privacy agency. That should be the top priority.”

Some consumer advocates, meanwhile, are calling for a new agency that would focus solely on online platforms like Facebook. Such companies, they say, are unique enough to justify a dedicated regulator — one positioned to drill down into issues around tech privacy, competition and even allegations of political bias made by Republicans including President Donald Trump. The United Kingdom is pursuing a similar concept — a “digital markets unit.”

"How many regulators does banking have? How many does transportation have?" said former FCC official Gigi Sohn. "So why, when you’re talking about the most lucrative and one of the most important sectors of the economy, why don’t you want to have a sector specific regulator?"

The FTC declined to comment on the proposals.

Not all of Facebook's critics are pushing for creating a new agency, a remedy that would have to overcome the GOP's traditional dislike for expanding federal bureaucracy. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who said last week that Facebook's fine "should have been $50 billion," told POLITICO she's not entertaining the idea of creating a new regulator.

"We don't need to build a new federal agency," said Blackburn, who is leading a Senate Judiciary Committee tech task force scrutinizing the tech industry.

Even Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat running for president, hasn't explicitly called for replacing the FTC on the beat.

Warren said in March that, as president, she would “appoint regulators committed to reversing illegal and anti-competitive tech mergers.” And she has been critical of the FTC's work on the Facebook case.

"The problem is the agency," Warren said in remarks provided by her campaign. "The problem is not having the courage to stand up to a giant corporation like Facebook." Her campaign did not have immediate comment on where Warren stands on the idea of a new regulator.

Backers of a new agency model still harbor hope for bipartisan buy-in, noting that the George W. Bush administration and congressional Republicans supported creation of the Department of Homeland Security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. And some of the most intense anger at Silicon Valley and the FTC's perceived weakness is coming from Republicans.

Still, some veterans of the agency believe the answer is reinvigorating the FTC, not casting it aside.

“The answer is to give the FTC the power and resources it needs, not to start over from scratch,” said Jessica Rich, a former director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

In the meantime, some in Washington are resorting to public shaming of the FTC to try to get it to do more about Facebook and other tech companies.

In a letter sent to the agency last week, long-time consumer advocate Ralph Nader noted the spike in Facebook’s stock price when word of the $5 billion settlement leaked, writing, “The stock market and Facebook are laughing at you.”

Cristiano Lima contributed to this report.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Migrant mental health crisis spirals in ICE detention facilities

Federal inspectors visiting a California migrant detention center made a shocking discovery last year: Detainees had made nooses from bedsheets in 15 of 20 cells in the facility they visited.

The inspection revealed the extent of a largely unseen mental health crisis within the growing population of migrants who are being held in detention centers in border states. President Donald Trump’s 2017 decision to reverse a policy that encouraged releasing vulnerable individuals while they await deportation hearings has left U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement unequipped to deal with conditions ranging from anxiety to schizophrenia.

One estimate puts the number of detainees with mental illnesses between 3,000 and 6,000. Some advocates and lawyers who work with migrants in the facilities say it’s probably more. Many of the migrants with mental illness are not stable enough to participate in their own legal proceedings, so they languish in detention.

While treatment of immigrants has become an explosive national issue, the plight of mentally ill migrants has scarcely registered.

“This is a system that, for a long time, has failed to understand, neglected, and even ignored the mental health needs of folks caught up in it,” said Elizabeth Jordan, director of the Immigration Detention Accountability Project at the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center. “But under this administration ... it has gotten so much worse.”

Only 21 of the 230 ICE detention facilities offering any kind of in-person mental health services from the agency's medical staff, according to a 2016 agency oversight report. ICE is ill-equipped to screen and treat a detainee population that’s grown more than 50 percent since 2016, to nearly 53,000.

ICE did not respond to several requests for comment over the past two weeks about the mental health issues at detention centers.

The agency's inspector general and immigrant advocacy groups that work in the detention centers have chronicled how ICE has handled mentally ill migrants. Some have been placed in solitary confinement. Others have reported waiting weeks and months to see a doctor, according to a September 2018 report from the inspector general, the same one that found the nooses made from bedsheets at the ICE Processing Center in Adelanto, California.

The report said that local ICE management hasn’t taken the issue seriously and doesn’t believe it’s necessary to address the issue of detainees making nooses out of bedsheets.

One detainee told the agency interviewers, “I’ve seen a few attempted suicides using the braided sheets by the vents and then the guards laugh at them and call them ‘suicide failures’ once they are back from medical.”

ICE in January opened a 30-bed unit in a Miami detention facility where migrants with mental illnesses are treated by a team that includes a psychiatrist, psychologists, licensed social workers and resource coordinators.

Thirty beds isn’t enough. The care reaches only a minuscule subset of patients — and advocates say it’s not clear who gets access, or why the unit isn’t always at capacity.

The treatment of mentally ill migrants — whose conditions can worsen during detention, which can be prolonged if they can‘t take part in their deportation hearings — has been overlooked in the larger focus on immigrant detention.

Migrants enter detention centers after they are stopped at the border, apprehended within the United States or released from prison. Under the Trump administration, more are staying custody until a deportation hearing is scheduled. One advocacy group’s review of detainee death records found at least seven of 45 migrants that died in ICE custody from 2011 to 2018 were suicides.

Andrew Lorenzen-Strait, who helped develop the 30-bed pilot program at the Krome detention center in South Florida before he left ICE in May, said between 3,000 and 6,000 people in ICE custody are thought to have mental illnesses. Other immigration advocates say the number is far higher — possibly 20 or 30 percent of the total detainee population.

“My only regret is that this important work wasn’t started sooner as the need is so great and the population is so desperate for care,” said Lorenzen-Strait, now director of children and family services at the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

Lorenzen-Strait said he was influenced in part by migrants with mental health conditions he saw languish in detention because they weren't of sound mind and couldn't move through immigration courts. His group studied how prisons treat mentally ill inmates before coming up with a concept for ICE.

ICE was actively looking at expanding the Krome project before he left, but the idea faces internal resistance, Lorenzen-Strait said. ICE did confirm that the pilot exists, but wouldn’t comment on its plans.

Advocates say that migrants with mental health conditions should get priority and be released while they await immigration proceedings.

“Often detention can be a triggering place for people with mental health conditions,” said Royce Murray, managing director of programs at the American Immigration Council, which filed a complaint in June about medical and mental health care at ICE’s Aurora, Colorado, detention center, which expanded capacity this year to 1,532 beds.

Two immigration lawyers who have visited the Miami pilot project say that it is an improvement over existing mental health care in ICE. Detainees have access to daily counseling in an environment that resembles a residential treatment center.

Still the lawyers are skeptical of the agency’s commitment to the 30-bed facility, saying it’s never been at full capacity.

“Who qualifies for the program is shrouded in a bit of mystery,” said Jessica Schneider, director of the detention program at the Americans for Immigrant Justice. Schneider, who has received a tour of the project, said at one point she spoke with a migrant in the program who said that people who had been in solitary confinement weren’t admitted in the facility, a point she said that she couldn't confirm independently.

ICE didn’t respond to questions about its selection process. An ICE spokesperson said the unit is intended to help stabilize detainees before immigration proceedings. But lawyers say that they have seen people sent there after proceedings were underway or even completed, including some who had been ordered deported.

“There are glitches in the system,” said Randolph McGrorty, executive director of Catholic Legal Services in Miami, which provides Know Your Rights presentations to detainees. “We’re seeing people in the program after they have been through the court system.”

Migrants with serious mental disorders are entitled to lawyers in immigration proceedings as the result of a 2015 class action lawsuit settlement. But an immigration judge must first decide whether they are competent to have their cases heard, and the settlement does not apply across the country.

Meanwhile they languish in a system unprepared to handle them.

Disability Rights California published a report in March that details “punitive, prison-like” conditions at the Adelanto facility, “inadequate” mental health care and underreporting of suicide attempts by GEO Group, the private company that runs the facility. The group documented a case where guards pepper sprayed a detainee attempting suicide.

“The response to people who have a mental health crisis is to punish them,” said Pilar Gonzalez, an attorney with Disability Rights California. “This system is not made to deal with people with intense trauma.”

The GEO Group disputed the claim that it underreports suicide attempts and said in an emailed statement to POLITICO that the facility presents a “humane alternative” to housing immigrants in prisons.

“Investing in mental health services to provide high quality care is one of our top priorities,” said Pablo Paez, the company’s executive vice president of corporate relations.

ICE operates some acute mental health inpatient facilities, including a facility in Columbia, S.C., for detainees who can’t go through immigration proceedings. But once they are stabilized, migrants end up back in a detention center.

Advocates say that the process ends up prolonging overall detention stays and argue that while the Miami pilot program could be an improvement, migrants with mental health conditions shouldn’t be locked up at all.

“Should ICE be in the business of rehabilitating people?” said Hannah Cartwright, supervising attorney at the National Immigrant Justice Center. “At the end of the day, the best way to get their treatment is not to be detained.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

O'Rourke and de Blasio spar over 'Medicare for All'

Bill de Blasio blasted Beto O'Rourke on Saturday over the former Texas lawmaker’s opposition to “Medicare for All,” accusing his fellow Democratic presidential candidate of engaging in "lazy fear mongering tactics" as the health-care policy debate ratchets up.

"If someone proposed a “radical” idea called public education today, Beto would try to warn us that 180 million Americans would be kicked out of their schools. Let’s leave the lazy fear mongering tactics to Trump," the mayor of New York City wrote on Twitter after O’Rourke said getting rid of private health care would force a majority of Americans off their existing insurance.

O'Rourke opposes the single-payer health care plan — which would eliminate private insurance — and instead advocates for a plan that preserves employment-based insurance while giving individuals the option to switch to a new Medicare-based program.

O'Rourke earlier tweeted that individuals "don’t have to make the false choice between a status quo where millions of Americans are uninsured and millions more can't afford their prescriptions—and a plan that would force 180 million Americans off their insurance. That's why I support Medicare for America."

O'Rourke took to Twitter to respond to de Blasio an hour later.

"Thanks for reaching out, Bill. Just like every parent can send their kid to a public school, under our plan, every American who wants to enroll in Medicare can do so. It’s the best way to guarantee high-quality health care for every single American," O’Rourke wrote.

De Blasio replied: "An important debate, my friend. But the best way to guarantee high-quality care is to make sure wealthy and poor people, healthy and sick people all get the same care. To allow corporate interests to stay at the table will do the opposite."

Health-care policy has become a primary focus among the Democratic candidates ahead of the second set of debates July 30-31.

Among Democratic candidates, almost half including de Blasio support Sen. Bernie Sanders' single-payer plan, with others like Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris supporting more moderate buy-in plans. Nine candidates — including O'Rourke and former vice president Joe Biden — oppose Medicare for All.

Last week, Sanders took a swipe at Biden for spreading "misinformation" after he said the single-payer plan was "risky" and would destroy the current Medicare program.

"Despite what you hear about Medicare for seniors being weakened, it will actually be strengthened," Sanders said.

Biden's spokesperson Bill Russo later called out the Vermont senator on Twitter, saying that the Sanders plan clearly showed "that existing federal health programs go away."

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Trump personally vouches for A$AP Rocky in call with Swedish leader

President Donald Trump on Saturday advocated for A$AP Rocky's release from Swedish custody in a call with Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, saying he "personally" vouched for the New York rapper.

"Just had a very good call with @SwedishPM Stefan Löfven who assured me that American citizen A$AP Rocky will be treated fairly. Likewise, I assured him that A$AP was not a flight risk and offered to personally vouch for his bail, or an alternative," Trump wrote.

"Our teams will be talking further, and we agreed to speak again in the next 48 hours!" Trump continued.

A$AP Rocky, whose real name is Rakim Mayers, was arrested after voluntarily going to the police in Stockholm for questioning following an altercation three weeks ago during a music festival.

The State Department is aware of the arrest. A spokesperson told POLITICO they "hope to see ASAP Rocky and his colleagues back on tour and reunited with friends and family soon.”

Trump first said he plans on negotiating for Rocky's release on Friday after Swedish prosecutors said they plan to keep the rapper in custody for another week due to him being a flight risk.

“[Sweden is] a great country. They’re friends of mine,” Trump said. “We’re going to be calling them. We’ll talk to them. We already started.”

"Just spoke to @KanyeWest about his friend A$AP Rocky’s incarceration," Trump tweeted Friday. "I will be calling the very talented Prime Minister of Sweden to see what we can do about helping A$AP Rocky. So many people would like to see this quickly resolved!"

First Lady Melania Trump reportedly first brought the matter to her husband's attention. Kim Kardashian West also lobbied the president for Rocky's release.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine