When NBC first announced that the billionaire car-tech-space mogul Elon Musk would serve as guest host for this week’s “Saturday Night Live,” the backlash was swift. Musk has graced the covers of Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and Time; he’s voiced himself on several episodes of “South Park,” the long-running animated series that shares his irascible, libertarian-minded sensibilities; he’s inspired one of the most ubiquitous icons of our young century’s popular culture. But hosting “SNL”? Simply unacceptable.
Through his companies Tesla and SpaceX, Musk has lived out a little boy’s dream of building fast cars and rocket ships, displaying, at least publicly, the ebullient goofiness to match. In the sunny, hope-and-change early Obama era, he became a cultish nerd icon who embodied the belief that dynamic American capitalism can still accomplish great and novel things. Musk’s projects, which eventually also came to include the hyper-futuristic neurotech startup Neurolink and the tunneling and infrastructure-oriented Boring Company, were a refreshing rejoinder to the criticism that today’s supposed “innovators” don’t actually, you know, make anything.
But to a certain class of progressive over-represented in media and comedy, the mere existence of someone with Musk’s vast wealth (in the $160 billion range, as of this week) is inherently offensive. SNL stars Aidy Bryant and Bowen Yang criticized the decision on social media, the former by way of posting a tweet from Sen. Bernie Sanders describing how the “50 wealthiest people in America today own more wealth than the bottom half of our people.” In that light, Musk isn’t just an eccentric, flawed multi-billionaire, but a walking representation of global income inequality.
Whatever else, the man is certainly eccentric. He appeared on “The Joe Rogan Podcast” and took a vexed-looking hit from a pot-laced cigar, launching a thousand memes. (The SEC slapped him with a $20 million fine for joking in a tweet the month before that he would take Tesla private once its share price reached, wait for it… $420.) He engaged in a jealous vendetta against a diving expert who’d advised the 2018 Thai cave rescue operation. He began dating the influential cool-girl synth-pop star Grimes, infuriating her Bernie-loving young fanbase. They had a child and named him “X Æ A-12.” (It’s pronounced like it’s spelled.)
Along with his unapologetic dedication to the free market and association with right-leaning figures like Kanye West and Joe Rogan, such incidents have made him a reliable culture-war punching bag. But Musk isn’t the first controversial SNL host, nor the most politically fraught — Donald Trump himself has hosted twice, once while a presidential candidate. In the early 1990s, a stint from misogynist shock comedian Andrew Dice Clay led to a boycott from (and the eventual departure of) cast member Nora Dunn. But Clay and Trump, provocative entertainers above all else, have far more in common with each other than they do with Musk, an honest-to-God engineer, aspiring space colonist, and the second-wealthiest man on the planet. It’s far weirder that Musk is joining the show, as if Carl Icahn or Steve Jobs were suddenly tapped to host “American Idol.” Perplexity would seem a more appropriate response than outrage.
And yet: the biggest institutions in both comedy and media are disproportionately young, urbane, and progressive. Since 2016, SNL has affixed itself solidly in the firmament of liberal-leaning late-night television through its relentless tweaking of Trump, as well as a series of occasionally bizarre and earnest political statements. Despite SNL’s eternal thirst for buzz, turning to an Ozymandias-esque capitalist like Musk would have been an awkward fit even in the cooler atmosphere of the pre-Trump era. (It didn’t help, of course, that he piped up on Twitter immediately after his hosting gig was anounced, floating the idea of a presumably derisive sketch about “Woke James Bond.”)
Even as mainstream comedy is increasingly wracked by concerns about equity, representation, and “punching up” or down, SNL occasionally betrays its genesis in the more anarchic world of post-Watergate 1970s showbiz. With that legacy in mind, bringing on Musk is simply the price of doing business — that is to say, staying in headlines like the one affixed to this story.
The loathing Musk inspires from the left is uniquely intense and personal, not unlike that directed toward his fellow techno-optimists in the Democratic Party like Andrew Yang and Pete Buttigieg. Musk shares their cardinal sin: that of cringe, an obliviousness toward, or unwillingness to acknowledge, the tastemakers who define pop culture at its highest level — which increasingly includes policy positions, like police abolition or massive wealth redistribution. Musk has remained stubbornly committed to a brash and vague tech-bro libertarianism that was already wearing out its welcome among cultural elites in 2011, and seems fully retrograde in the world of 2021.
Musk’s arc as a public figure serves as a neat lesson in how and where the battle lines of our current culture wars came to be drawn.
Before evaluating his cultural impact or status, it’s worth asking: What does Elon Musk actually do?
Arriving in the United States from his native South Africa (by way of Canada) in the early 1990s, Musk was at first like any number of other young techies striving to make it in Silicon Valley during the early days of the World Wide Web. An early success with an internet city guide startup led to co-founding “X.com,” one of the first federally-insured online banks, which eventually led to a merger with the competitor Confinity — itself co-founded by Peter Thiel, who would later become a far more direct liberal antagonist than Musk himself.
Confinity boasted a money-transfer service of which you might have heard: PayPal. Both Musk and Thiel are members of a cohort known as the “PayPal Mafia,” men who used their money and connections from the service to launch companies like YouTube, Yelp, and LinkedIn. After a bout of corporate musical chairs Musk departed the company in 2000, eventually receiving a payout of more than $100 million. That helped him seed in the early-to-mid-2000s the two companies he’s still best for in the pioneering electric car company Tesla, and SpaceX, the rocket, satellite, and aeronautics manufacturer.
But Musk cut a significantly different cultural figure than other 21st century tech tycoons like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos. Where Bezos brought us same-day delivery of cat food and laundry detergent, and Zuck developed a forum for meeting other Ravenclaw Clinton Supporters In Peoria, Illinois (CLOSED GROUP NO LURKERS), Musk’s investments are capital in the truest sense of the term — requiring construction and manufacturing at a mass scale, while looking forward, not backward like so many of those who hope to re-industrialize our increasingly service-oriented economy.
Some of the ire Musk has earned is serious. Black workers at Tesla accused the company of a culture of racism. Various investigations revealed unsafe conditions at the company’s futuristic, highly-automated factories, and Teslas have experienced a series of high-profile safety incidents that have deepened the perception of Musk as a corner-cutting flim-flam artist. Critics have also accused him of hypocrisy for his relentless cheerleading of cryptocurrency, the energy-intensive production of which could undermine Tesla’s ostensibly eco-friendly mission. (Studies find cryptocurrency mining responsible for a miniscule fraction of annual CO2 emissions.)
There’s also the matter of his rabid online fanbase, which treats any affront to their chosen ubermensch as personal and responds in trolling kind. His brand of celebrity is tailor-made to scramble the brains of his detractors: a futurist whose cultural attitudes are stuck in the past; a tech genius who tweets (frequently, nonsense) in the erratic style of a non-digital native; a guy who hangs out with Joe Rogan but is “super fired up” about the Biden climate agenda. As Insider columnist Josh Barro pointed out amid the initial outcry over his SNL appearance, Musk’s uncouth attitude and gauche bear-hug of market capitalism frequently blind his liberal critics to how his fundamental mission of scientific and environmental progress is perfectly aligned with theirs.
These contradictions, along with his cultural transgressions and alleged ethical shortcomings as a capitalist, make him a perfect target for the hyper-progressive, image-conscious social media mavens that shape our media landscape.
It’s a position shared by a sizable number of Americans, but a decided minority of them. According to a recent Vox/Data for Progress poll, “68 percent [of Americans] say they disagree that it’s immoral for a society to allow people to become billionaires.” They’re especially warm and fuzzy, as it turns out, when it comes to Musk himself: his net approval rating among the general public is +27 points — behind Bill Gates, but ahead of Bezos and Zuckerberg — and 52 percent of Democrats see him favorably.
The extent to which SNL’s decision to invite him was baffling depends on one’s perspective. Inside the bubble the show inhabits and largely embodies, it was a betrayal of core principles. Outside, it was just another celebrity news item about the raffish eccentric who builds rockets and tweets all day about Dogecoin.
Musk’s actual appearance on SNL, however potentially awkward, will likely result in much less heat and light than the controversy surrounding it. In their definitive oral history of the show, “Live From New York,” Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller quote the series’ creator Lorne Michaels on the Dice Clay controversy. “You don’t invite somebody to your house to piss on him,” Michaels said. “[T]his person has put themselves in your hands, they’re completely vulnerable, the show only works if they look good, so why would you have anybody over that you don’t like? What — because you need the ratings? It doesn’t make any sense.”
And so will Musk be treated, even by the cast members who couldn’t conceal their disdain for his presence — none of whom, it should be noted, chose to follow in Nora Dunn’s footsteps and exclude themselves out of principle. The controversy around his appearance reveals the extent of the non-representative filter bubbles that social media has allowed Americans to place themselves in, not least those at SNL who are among Musk’s critics. They, to echo the apocryphal Pauline Kael comment about Nixon voters, likely don’t have a representative number of people in their lives who see him not as a uniquely malevolent entity, but as an entertaining futurist with admitted personal flaws.
In that light, Musk might find himself in an unusual role when he takes the stage at 30 Rock to deliver the show’s opening monologue: That of an emissary from reality.
Democrats will almost certainly blow past President Joe Biden's May target to reach consensus on a major overhaul of American policing — and progressive activists, as well as the GOP, are compounding their obstacles.
That's because, as a bipartisan group of lawmakers makes headway in their talks on a policing deal, some liberal-leaning groups say Democrats’ reforms don't go far enough. While Democrats maintain that the House-passed bill named for George Floyd is a “first step” in holding law enforcement accountable following last summer’s national outcry over police killings of Black Americans, some influential activists want to see a much bigger stride.
Legacy civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Al Sharpton are supporting the current talks as a path to an agreement with "real teeth" to hold officers accountable. But newer progressive groups that led the public protests, which pushed lawmakers to the negotiating table, want to do more than a House-passed bill they lambaste as continuing a failed strategy. But the political reality of Democrats' narrow majorities means that they'll have to water down even the House-passed policing bill in order to get the necessary Senate Republican buy-in.
It all adds up to a punishing test for congressional Democrats, who are looking for concrete legislative wins but also can't alienate progressive groups if they want to hold on to the House and the Senate in 2022. And they're trying to stay hopeful.
“We are close,” Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), the lead sponsor of House Democrats’ policing bill, said this week at a panel hosted by Brave New Films. Yet Bass noted in the next breath that the urgency of last year's massive protests against Floyd's murder has faded somewhat: "There are not hundreds of thousands of people out on the streets right now. So we need the pressure.”
House Democrats and activists can find common ground on eliminating the legal doctrine known as qualified immunity, which currently shields officers from civil liability for misdeeds, but Republicans have no interest in outright abolishing it. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), his party's lead negotiator on the issue, called qualified immunity's axing a “poison pill” for the GOP.
On other issues, however, the two parties are getting closer to an accord. As of late Friday, staff were nearing compromise on provisions limiting chokeholds, no-knock warrants, and the transfer of military equipment to police. That progress, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, was confirmed by a source familiar with the negotiations.
But even if lawmakers reach a compromise, it's unclear that it would pass muster with activists and progressive Democrats who want outright bans on all three of those elements. The parties are also still far apart on police misconduct prosecutions, an issue as thorny as qualified immunity; both issues are among reform advocates' top priorities in the talks.
Two weeks after the House passed its policing bill in March, the first sign of activist resistance came when leaders with the Movement for Black Lives sent a nine-page letter to the House Appropriations Committee saying the legislation “doubles down on failed approaches to police reform.”
That group has floated another proposal that redirects funding from police to community services, known as the BREATHE Act. It counts support from a handful of progressives in the House, including Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Cori Bush (D-Mo.), but has never been formally introduced in either chamber.
Nonetheless, activists are frustrated that Democrats haven't even given the measure a hearing.
"We're always open to debate and to talk through the legislation," said Amara Enyia, policy and research coordinator with the Movement for Black Lives. "We're open to feedback. But at a minimum, that should be heard."
Leaders of long-established civil rights groups have taken a different approach. While most have not been directly involved in this round of policy discussions, they won't publicly criticize Democratic lawmakers' efforts as insufficient. Rather than setting firm conditions for the talks, they're putting more subtle pressure on negotiators over portions of the House-passed bill that they see as important — particularly qualified immunity.
Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, said he was “anxiously awaiting” an outcome from negotiations but emphasized reforming qualified immunity; changing a federal criminal statute prohibiting officers from depriving people of their constitutional rights; instituting a federal registry of police misconduct; and the military equipment transfer prohibition as his goals for a final deal.
However, Johnson — echoed by National Urban League President Marc Morial — described changing qualified immunity as a top priority.
“If officers cause harm, there must be accountability,” Johnson said.
Advocates in touch with negotiators say they see progress compared to last year. Holly Harris, president and executive director of the Justice Action Network, implored "both sides to redouble their efforts" to reach a deal.
As a way to bridge the partisan gap on qualified immunity, Scott has suggested allowing individuals to bring civil suits against police departments rather than individual officers and requiring cities to pay the associated costs. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) has proposed a similar change, though neither proposal has been publicly released.
When it comes to police misconduct prosecutions, civil rights leaders of all backgrounds want current law changed to make the process easier. They say the federal prohibition on officers from “willfully” depriving people of rights sets too high a bar. Scott and other Republicans, however, describe lowering that threshold as a redline.
Even as they face competing pressures from activists outside the Capitol and Republicans inside, Democrats are still optimistic they'll be able to deliver. But they haven't yet committed to the quick timetable Biden set in his first address to Congress last month.
The president urged Congress to find a “consensus” by May 25 to coincide with the anniversary of Floyd’s killing. Congressional Democrats, however, viewed Biden's words as an opportunity to speed the pace of negotiations rather than a firm deadline.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s recent announcement of the chamber's May agenda did not mention police reform. The House-passed bill remains stalled in the 50-50 Senate, where it lacks the votes to clear a filibuster.
And even if they can translate this week's success into a comprehensive bipartisan agreement, Democrats may ultimately find long-established civil rights leaders as hard to win over as younger Movement for Black Lives activists.
“Our hope is that we get something concrete done. A real law with teeth in it,” said Sharpton, president of the National Action Network. He added that he expects to be briefed alongside other activist groups and Floyd's family on any deal once discussions conclude. “If it is not a bill with teeth, then they're going to have big problems with me, and everybody else.”
In November 2009, with President Obama only weeks away from announcing a surge of about 30,000 troops in Afghanistan and a drawdown of U.S. forces starting in July 2014, a team of concerned diplomats in Kabul cabled Washington with a classified warning.
I was one of those concerned diplomats, as the Counselor for Political Affairs at the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan. Both the surge and the deadline announcement worried us. We told the President and his top advisors that our local partners weren’t yet strong or reliable enough for a surge to work, and that announcing a clear withdrawal date would be a major incentive to the Taliban not to cooperate or back down. We recommended a different course: Apply steady pressure with a smaller troop footprint, and give the Afghan state and society more time to protect itself.
The cable was leaked to the media, and I’m sorry to say that the warning it carried was all too predictive. Back home in the U.S., the surge strategy created false expectations of a military “win,” and impatience with the slow transition to stability that we foresaw. In Afghanistan, the withdrawal deadline gave the Taliban more confidence in their ability to return to power. It confirmed an obvious lesson: Don’t surrender your leverage.
When I returned to Kabul in 2017 as Deputy Chief of Mission, things had changed, in part because American policy had shifted. U.S. forces were no longer in a combat leadership role, and had begun handing responsibilities to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). The Obama Administration’s planned pullout had indeed emboldened the Taliban, as had the withdrawal rhetoric of President Trump on the campaign trail. However, the Trump Administration’s review resulted in the more nuanced August 2017 “South Asia Strategy,” which called for a negotiated settlement to the conflict—but an endgame based on meeting certain conditions, rather than a date.
As a country, Afghanistan was showing signs of new growth. There were new universities and younger Afghans in key ministry roles, slowly replacing a generation of war leaders who had brutally fought both the Soviets and each other in the 1980s and 1990s. There were growing energy linkages to Central Asia and new business opportunities.
The conditions-based formula for settlement undermined the Taliban’s narrative of imminent victory, making it harder for them to retain weary fighters. It also gave heart to the ANDSF, which continued to take heavy losses. With a robust Afghan offensive during the winter of 2017, and despite horrific Taliban terror attacks in Kabul in January 2018, the stage was set for an offer to the Taliban for a mutual ceasefire. This occurred in June 2018, when for the first and sadly last time, Afghanistan had a peaceful three-day Eid holiday. For many of us, the air of hope at this time gave a preview of Afghanistan’s potential as a country known for its trade, crafts, food, and family celebrations, and not for bombs and casualties.
Now, with President Biden’s decision to enact a conditions-free withdrawal by September 11, there seems to be little hope for that normal future, or indeed any pretense that we want to achieve the only war goal that has made sense from the start: advance U.S. global security interests in South Asia by giving the ANDSF enough training and footing to control its territory against terrorists and predatory neighbors. We’re just getting out, come what may.
Already, our loss of leverage is boosting the Taliban’s confidence, in a sad replay of the post-2009 dynamic. Not long after President Biden announced the withdrawal, the Taliban declared they would not attend a peace conference in Istanbul that the U.S. and other countries had hoped would succeed where earlier talks in Doha had not. I remember once attending a ceremony in Kabul, held every February 15, to commemorate the withdrawal of the last Soviet tanks. It’s easy now to imagine the Taliban, always eager to portray themselves as giant killers, creating another anniversary on September 11 to trumpet the date U.S. and NATO troops officially leave for good.
President Biden has already made his decision to withdraw, and we should not expect him to change his mind. But despite the leverage that new policy has lost, there’s still some left to help prevent disaster.
From a moral and strategic perspective, it makes no sense to politically abandon Afghanistan. Without any U.S. presence, and with no conditions or promise of a return, we can already predict that the Taliban will try to increase their territorial control and dictatorial rule, and other Afghans will arm and resist. There will also be ripple effects from the conflict: Al Qaeda, ISIS, and regional terror groups will have ample opportunity to regroup; it could also very well trigger a humanitarian crisis that drives masses of people across Afghan borders into UN-funded refugee camps. Instead of mustering the strategic patience to get the end game right and to ensure our reputation as an ally in an unfriendly part of the world, the U.S. is inviting regional chaos we’ll have to deal with (and pay for) anyway.
After our troops and many other American support personnel leave by September 11, the U.S. must not declare itself done with Afghanistan. Our leaving will have enormous consequences for the Afghan people whom we have condemned to a frightening future. Walking away doesn't give us the license to ignore what happens next. There are a range of ways to stay engaged after the troops withdraw.
First and foremost, continued U.S. assistance to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces is essential. Our public commitment to this force, made most recently at the NATO Defense Ministerial, should remain solidly in place. This is the best way to counteract the psychological advantage we’ve handed the Taliban, to help protect the rights of women and other vulnerable minorities, and to prevent atrocities that will emerge in a lawless environment.
Second, United Nations, U.S. and European sanctions against Taliban leadership must remain in place until the Taliban and other bad actors change their behavior—specifically, until they are no longer a “threat to the security and stability of Afghanistan.” In fact, we should consider imposing new, carefully targeted sanctions against those who are refusing to support peace talks.
Third, we also should employ vigorous diplomatic leverage over Afghanistan’s neighbors, particularly Pakistan and Central Asia, to prioritize their existing trade and energy linkages and press for a peace process that will contribute to regional prosperity. The Gulf States and other former and current Taliban patrons should understand that a peaceful outcome is a top U.S. government goal.
Fourth, and Congress should hold the Administration to this, we can also make it clear that, as in the 1990s, there will again be no diplomatic recognition of a Taliban government if it denies basic human rights to its citizens. Finally, some development assistance could be conditioned or withheld for the same reason, although vulnerable populations should not suffer for the misdeeds of their unelected leaders.
Pulling out troops without conditions or remaining “at war” indefinitely are not the only two options; they never were. In our 2009 cable we pointed out that anti-corruption and long-term development efforts were better investments than more troops. Rather than compound our past errors, the United States must now commit to the goal of stability by preserving our remaining leverage—and using it well.
Much of President Joe Biden’s ambitions to save the planet comes down to a delicate dance: Can he cut a deal with the Brazilian leader whose allies are slashing and burning the Amazon?
Biden may have little choice but to try — despite warnings from U.S. allies and activists inside and outside of Brazil that he cannot trust the “Trump of the tropics.”
So Biden and his climate envoy, John Kerry, have dived headlong into talks with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a populist who has scoffed at the dangers of climate change even as vast swaths of the Amazon rainforest disappear on his watch.
Bolsonaro, who has often drawn comparisons to the former U.S. president, has even asked the U.S. for a $1 billion-a-year pay-off in return for pledges to stop the deforestation, while refusing demands for accountability. That proposal has fallen flat with the United States.
Cutting a climate bargain with Bolsonaro is a politically and ethically fraught bargain for any American president to contemplate. Still, Bolsonaro holds the keys to 60 percent of the Amazon, a crucial resource that absorbs 5 percent of the world’s annual carbon dioxide emissions. Unless Kerry can find a way to save the Amazon, whose forests shrank 4,000 square miles between August 2019 and July 2020 in Brazil alone, there may be little chance that the world will reach the targets set out in the Paris Climate Agreement and avoid disaster.
In an interview with POLITICO, Brazilian Environment Minister Ricardo Salles rebuked the skeptics he accused of trying to derail the U.S.-Brazil talks.
“The narrative has been absolutely wrong. People said we wouldn't have a dialogue, but all the conditions are in place for achieving something positive," he said. "They said this dialogue would never occur, and now that they realized it’s going well, they say: Don’t trust him! Don’t talk to him! But who are they supposed to talk to? We’re the government!"
People in Kerry’s orbit say the urgency of the climate crisis calls for engaging with the leaders who are running Brazil today, not just hoping for a more congenial government to win the 2022 elections.
“The risk of talking to him and exploring with him is outweighed by the risk of doing nothing and just letting the forest disappear,” said a person directly familiar with Kerry’s team’s thinking. “In other words, saying we really can't afford to just wait for the next guy.”
Money may be the only way to persuade Bolsonaro. Since taking office in January 2019, his nationalist government’s policies have backed farmers and ranchers who are chopping down the rain forest, ignoring the rising global pleas to protect the Amazon. And like Trump, he's mocked concerns about climate change, once suggesting to a journalist that people could eat less and "poop every other day" to save the planet.
But the importance of the Amazon has made the talks with Bolsonaro, along with the equally controversial Salles, a focal point of the former U.S. secretary of State’s diplomacy. Members of Kerry's and Salles' teams speak weekly — including a scheduled conversation Friday — and Kerry has praised Salles on Twitter, while Salles has posted his photos with American diplomats on his Instagram account.
Both sides stress that their discussions are serious. Besides the $1 billion a year to combat deforestation, which is unlikely to happen under the terms Bolsonaro has floated, people familiar with the talks say the two sides are also discussing pilot projects to promote sustainable economic development in the Amazon, as well as a side deal the U.S. could make with the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, which has already substantially reduced deforestation. The talks have also envisioned a multilateral carbon market that would allow Brazil and other Amazon nations to sell carbon credits to oil companies and other corporations to offset their greenhouse gas emissions.
But it's a ticklish exercise for Kerry and his deputies, chiefly Jonathan Pershing, the point person for the talks. Many of the critics of the government in Brazil, from indigenous groups and former environment ministers to even current officials within the government, say Bolsonaro cannot be trusted.
“Bolsonaro is a bulldozer, and Salles is a chainsaw. You won’t stop them by treating them with money,” said Carlos Rittl, a senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany, who until February 2020 led a Sao Paulo-based environmental coalition, the Climate Observatory.
Brazilian officials say criticism of the bilateral talks are simply aimed at undermining what they contend are honest efforts by Bolsonaro's government to fight climate change.
“There are people in Brazil and the U.S. who are doing everything they can do to destroy this ongoing cooperation, telling Biden 'don't trust those guys, they won't keep their promises.' But that's ridiculous,” an official in the Bolsonaro administration told POLITICO. “How else can you improve the situation? The radical approach won't work, and we're glad the Biden administration is being pragmatic.”
People close to the Kerry team say the U.S. officials leading negotiations with Bolsonaro have never viewed him as a reliable partner, but protecting the Amazon is simply too important to climate change to ignore. Their effort amounts to keeping Bolsonaro in their diplomatic orbit, providing him domestic public cover on the Amazon and hoping his regime won't let the forest burn to the ground.
The U.S. strategy could be summarized as engagement and containment, a term those familiar with the talks used to describe Kerry’s attempts to temper a Bolsonaro economic agenda that depends significantly on expanding forest-clearing for agricultural allies.
Both Bolsonaro and Salles are reeling from domestic criticism amid the nation's runaway coronavirus infections, and Salles is facing a federal investigation for allegedly aiding illegal loggers. And both face tough reelection odds in 2022.
The scrutiny of the talks between the U.S. and Brazil has led to an uproar from activists in both countries, with 200 non-governmental organizations and 15 Democratic senators cautioning President Joe Biden on making pacts with Bolsonaro. The risk, they say, is that a politically weakened Bolsonaro might promise anything to the U.S. to try bolster his domestic appeal — and Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate last month presented just such an opportunity.
At that virtual event, Bolsonaro vowed that Brazil would be carbon-neutral by 2050, recommitted to "net-zero" deforestation by 2030 and pledged to double the country's environmental enforcement budget. But his critics said those promises are distant and carry no accountability mechanisms. That Bolsonaro’s domestic budget the next day called for slashing funding for IBAMA, the government arm that combats deforestation, underscored those complaints — though a source in the Brazilian government said that funding is being restored.
“The government will just try to postpone the problem. And that’s it,” a person in the Brazilian government who is aware of the conversations with the U.S. told POLITICO, and who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with the media. “We may at some point be unable to keep procrastinating forever, and then we may clash with the Americans. I can’t imagine any serious agreement, unless the Americans want to pretend they're naive and accept some false promises.
“The best we can do is try to contain Bolsonaro to some extent,” the person added.
Bolsanaro’s request for the $1 billion-a-year payment comes down to this: Rain forest covers nearly 60 percent of Brazil’s land mass, but the industrialized nations that long ago bowled over their own forests to develop their economies expect Brazil to make a disproportionate economic sacrifice in the name of climate change.
“You’re asking us to solve a problem that you created and are continuing to aggravate. We want you to help solve our problems with lack of prosperity and economic opportunity in the Amazon region," Salles said, noting the U.S. is responsible for nearly three times more global greenhouse gas emissions than Brazil.
Some countries have recognized those arguments and previously tried to compensate Brazil, but Bolsonaro has largely rejected the terms. Germany and Norway protested his handling of the $1.2 billion Amazon Fund that pays for forest protection projects, with both nations in 2019 suspending additional funding and Norway freezing the nearly $600 million it contributed to the program. Salles, meanwhile, called for rich nations to pay for Amazon maintenance before 2019 climate talks in Madrid, Spain, a request that was undermined by a sharp spike in wildfires linked to Bolsonaro's agricultural allies who use fire to clear forest land.
That history is why environmentalists were aghast when Kerry seemed willing to entertain Bolsonaro’s pitch last month for the U.S. to pay Brazil an annual $1 billion for Amazon protection. To them, it was akin to ransom, and the notion that the Biden administration might cut a deal without conditions or consulting indigenous communities that have fought Bolsonaro’s policies brought a furious response.
“At first we had real concerns: Do they know who they're dealing with? But they are eyes wide open,” said Nat Keohane, senior vice president for climate at the Environmental Defense Fund.
The Biden administration sending Bolsonaro money without proving he can first rein in deforestation is a non-starter, said Jake Schmidt, senior strategic director of international climate for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“We don’t write checks for people who don’t do stuff,” he said.
Financial aid has in the past helped curb deforestation. Rittl noted that other nations raised billions for Brazilian Amazon protection between 2004 to 2012, which coincided with a steep decline in deforestation. Forest destruction has since ticked upward.
“Many details are yet to be resolved, and it is fair to ask all countries — the United States, Brazil and others — how we are going to reach our ambitious goals,” a State Department spokesperson said in an email.
“Achieving ambitious goals requires resources, and we are committed to partnering with Brazilians in that effort,” the spokesperson added, noting that Bolsonaro “struck a positive and constructive tone” at Biden’s summit.
The talks between the two nations began in February, when Kerry reached out to Salles and Brazil’s foreign minister to establish regular communication about deforestation issues in the country.
The conversations have continued apace as Kerry races to line up sizable new pledges from other countries ahead of November’s international climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland. On the table are measures to increase enforcement to slow deforestation, improving monitoring of the rain forest and creating new incentives to finance forest protection. Schmidt said some ideas discussed include enhanced collaboration with NASA or the Justice Department to crack down on illegal deforestation.
One new wrinkle is an emerging $1 billion public-private partnership endeavor called the Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest finance, or LEAF, Coalition. The effort announced at Biden’s climate summit would have major companies, like Amazon, Salesforce and GlaxoSmithKline, purchase emissions reductions credits from forestry projects in countries around the world.
The Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, which is home to both major agricultural operations and vast areas of rain forest, is interested in participating, according to people familiar with the government’s plan. Five Brazilian states already have programs that meet the emissions monitoring and verification standard the LEAF Coalition is using, said Eron Bloomgarden, executive director with environmental group Emergent, which administers the program.
But it is unclear whether Bolsonaro would allow states to act without federal approval, former Brazilian Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira said in an email. And Bolsonaro has put Salles in charge of Brazil's environmental agenda, so Kerry could risk a diplomatic breach if he cuts deals with the states.
“They're very sensitive about that not being a diplomatic thing to do right now,” said the person aware of Kerry’s team’s thinking.
Yet the Bolsonaro administration official said it is aware of those discussions between the U.S. and Mato Grosso adding, “I don't think the federal government would oppose anything that brings resources into the country.”
Some leverage may exist with Salles' domestic political need to generate some positive press to help alleviate legal and political turmoil, Teixeira said. Salles has expressed interest in establishing a voluntary carbon market, though she added that issues like protecting the Amazon carry little importance for Bolsonaro’s political base.
This week it’s all about Republicans: The ongoing feud between Reps. Liz Cheney and Kevin McCarthy worsened, Caitlyn Jenner did her first sit-down interview since announcing her run for California governor and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis faced a backlash for signing a new voter ID law live on Fox News.
Playbook co-author Tara Palmeri watched this week's top news videos with White House reporter Meridith McGraw, tapping into her inside knowledge of what’s going on with the GOP.1. Caitlyn Jenner makes her candidate debut on Fox News
Just days after making headlines for her stance backing a transgender athlete ban for girls sports in schools, the former Olympic athlete sat down with Sean Hannity for a Fox News exclusive.
2. McCarthy reignites war against Liz Cheney
The two most powerful House Republicans still have it out for Rep. Liz Cheney. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy questioned her ability to deliver a unified message in an interview on Fox News, in his most candid statement about their ongoing feud to date. Things got even worse for Cheney after reports came out that Rep. Steve Scalise also wants her gone.
3. DeSantis doubles down on voter fraud claims with new bill
The Florida governor dominated headlines after signing a new voter ID law live on Thursday morning's "Fox and Friends." DeSantis has since been criticized for giving Fox News exclusive access after denying local media outlets access to the event.
The Biden administration announced Friday it will be joining an international call to tackle terrorist and extremist content on the web after the Trump administration opted not to do so.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced Friday that the United States would be joining the so-called Christchurch call, which came after a white supremacist killed 51 people in 2019 at two New Zealand mosques. The U.S. joins dozens of nations supporting the effort, which was led by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron.
“Countering the use of the internet by terrorists and violent extremists to radicalize and recruit is a significant priority for the United States,” Psaki said in a statement Friday.
The Trump administration had declined to join the call, which pushes social media companies to put forward community standards on terrorist and extremist content and enforce the standards, as well as look into how algorithms can drive users to extremist content. The Trump White House didn't say specifically why it wasn't signing on but that it thought "the best tool to defeat terrorist speech is productive speech."
The Washington Post reported at the time that the Trump administration balked due to "free-speech concerns."
Signing onto the call also commits the U.S. to pushing news outlets to implement ethical standards that "avoid amplifying" extremist content as well as boosting media literacy to push back against extremist narratives and tackling inequality. The call also commits governments to look into potential regulations to stop the spread of extremist content.
The call won’t violate freedom of speech, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement Friday. Price also advocated “more speech” as a way to fight extremism.
“Put simply, we remain of the view that the preferred way to defeat terrorist and violent extremist speech is more speech: to counter it with credible, alternative narratives that promote rather than restrict free expression,” Price said.
In 2019, five major tech companies, including Twitter, Google and Facebook, all committed to a plan that included banning sharing terrorist content and making reporting mechanisms easier.
Embattled Rep. Matt Gaetz had a clear message to a friendly crowd Friday night at The Villages: He’s not going away.
“I’m a marked man in Congress. I’m a canceled man in some corners of the Internet. I might be a wanted man by the deep state. But I am a Florida man, and it is good to be home,” Gaetz proclaimed. “Today, we send a strong message to the weak establishment in both parties: America First isn’t going away. We’re going on tour.”
At the hyper-conservative, Trump-favorite retirement home community north of Orlando, the Florida Republican and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) kicked off their “America First Tour,” which the pair of controversial Republican lawmakers plan on using to lay into so-called RINOs, or “Republicans In Name Only.”
The tour comes as the Republican Party is attempting to define its future post-Donald Trump, and so far, those aligning themselves with the former president are winning out. Republicans like Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who have been critical of Trump, have faced significant consequences. Gaetz on Friday continued to make the case for aligning with Trump, hinting the former president might join the tour, or that the two firebrands might join Trump at a rally. However, further details of the tour were not disclosed.
The tour also comes amid reports of a federal investigation into Gaetz over alleged sex crimes, which Gaetz has repeatedly denied. He hasn’t been charged but has faced claims he had sex with a 17-year-old and paid for prostitutes.
Gaetz has had a lower profile since the accusations emerged, notably absent from his consistent pro-Trump cable TV presence, but Fox News' Tucker Carlson has recently questioned whether he has been unfairly targeted. A Gaetz adviser previously told POLITICO he’s likely to appear on Carlson’s show again.
Gaetz claimed Friday that there is no real due process for conservatives, saying that he won’t back down and that “the truth will prevail.” He also acknowledged he may lose committee assignments.
Greene lost her House committee assignments in February after her racist and anti-Semitic statements and posts before she took office came under heightened scrutiny. The first-term lawmaker has also backed Trump’s false election fraud claims and previously aligned with the QAnon conspiracy theory.
After entering to "Thunderstruck" by AC/DC, Greene stoked baseless election fraud fears in her wide-ranging speech, asking the crowd if they thought Biden actually won the 2020 election. The crowd answered with a resounding no. She denounced RINOs for what she saw as failing to keep promises and touted her quixotic bid to impeach President Joe Biden.
In his fiery speech, Gaetz laid into favorite MAGA targets, including big tech, the so-called “deep state” and the establishment. He laid into Cheney, cheering the movement to push her out of leadership, while pushing GOP leadership to be more populist.
“If Liz Cheney could even find Wyoming on a map and went there, she would find a lot of very angry cowboys," he said.
With Trump still enjoying broad support among GOP voters, Cheney has come under fire from Republicans for keeping up her criticism of Trump's baseless claims of election fraud and defending her move to certify the 2020 election results. She is expected to lose her leadership role in a vote as early as next week.
Gaetz traveled to Cheney’s home state of Wyoming in late January as part of an ultimately unsuccessful bid for some House Republicans to boot Cheney from leadership. In February, Cheney held onto her spot with a 145-61 secret ballot vote.
Back then, she pushed to keep her job but hasn’t this time around. She doubled down in a Washington Post op-ed Wednesday, saying she will continue to do so “no matter what the short-term political consequences might be.”
The Justice Department obtained call records for the phones of three Washington Post reporters last year in an apparent bid to discover the sources for a 2017 story detailing a sensitive aspect of the federal investigation into alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, the newspaper said Friday.
Federal investigators used court orders to obtain so-called toll records on phones used by a trio of Post reporters who worked on a July 2017 story about intelligence intercepts indicating that Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak told superiors he discussed issues related to Russia with then-Trump campaign adviser Jeff Sessions during the 2016 presidential race, according to the Post.
Such intercepts are considered signals intelligence and are typically treated as highly classified. At his confirmation hearing for attorney general, Sessions denied ever meeting the ambassador during the campaign, but later acknowledged the encounters while denying Kislyak's reported accounts of the meetings.
The toll records typically indicate what numbers a reporter called or received calls from and for how long the call was connected, but do not include information on the content of the conversations.
The Post said the journalists — Ellen Nakashima, Greg Miller and former Post reporter Adam Entous — received letters on May 3 notifying them that the government obtained their calling records from April 15, 2017 through July 31, 2017.
A top Post editor, Cameron Barr, said in a statement that the newspaper is disturbed by the tactics.
“We are deeply troubled by this use of government power to seek access to the communications of journalists,” Barr said. “The Department of Justice should immediately make clear its reasons for this intrusion into the activities of reporters doing their jobs, an activity protected under the First Amendment.”
The Post story was one of a series of leaks that infuriated President Donald Trump during his first months in office. Just two weeks after the report about Kislyak and Sessions, Sessions announced a major crackdown on what he called a "culture of leaks." The attorney general also announced he was creating an FBI unit devoted solely to unlawful disclosures of classified information in the media and he said the department was reviewing its policy on subpoenas seeking information from or about journalists. No changes to the policy were subsequently announced.
Justice Department spokesperson Marc Raimondi declined to discuss specifics about the steps taken toward the Post or to say precisely who was under investigation, but he emphasized that the goal was not to prosecute the journalists.
“While rare, the Department follows the established procedures within its media guidelines policy when seeking legal process to obtain telephone toll records and non-content email records from media members as part of a criminal investigation into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information,” Raimondi said. “The targets of these investigations are not the news media recipients but rather those with access to the national defense information who provided it to the media and thus failed to protect it as lawfully required.”
The Post said the notices it received indicated that investigators obtained permission to access information on what accounts the reporters were emailing to or receiving emails from but that no such data was received by the government. A Post spokesperson declined to comment on why or to say if the newspaper knew of the government’s investigation before this week.
However, an official confirmed that the orders were not obtained until last year. That raises the likelihood that the yearsold emails may have been automatically or manually deleted by the time investigators got permission to seek the data.
It seems unlikely the Post would have agreed to turn over the email data without a legal fight. It is unclear whether one of the paper’s service providers would have had access to the information.
Under guidelines revamped by Attorney General Eric Holder in 2013 following controversies over the department's use of legal tools to snoop on reporters, the department is required to notify journalists about such searches within 45 days after obtaining the records.
The attorney general can extend that period to 90 days under exigent circumstances but additional delays are not permitted.
The issuance of the notices earlier this week suggests the department did not receive the data until February of this year or later, after the Biden administration came into office.
A deputy campaign manager to former Sen. Martha McSally pleaded guilty Friday to stealing more than six figures from her campaign, the Justice Department announced.
Anthony Barry, who was a consultant and a deputy campaign manager for the Arizona Republican, is facing up to five years in prison after pleading guilty to taking more than $115,000 from her campaign in 2018 and 2019, according to a release from the Justice Department. His sentencing is slated for July 6.
Barry, 33, "fraudulently" had McSally's campaign pay him more than his salary, according to the release.
McSally ran for Senate in 2018, but lost to now-Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) in a close race. Gov. Doug Ducey then appointed McSally, who was then in the House, to fill the late Sen. John McCain’s seat in December 2018 after then-Sen. Jon Kyl vacated the seat.
McSally ran for reelection in 2020 but ultimately lost in another tight race to now-Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), giving the state two Democrats in the chamber.
Detroit Police Chief James Craig, a Republican and a veteran of police departments around the country, is preparing to challenge Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, potentially giving the GOP a formidable candidate in one of the midterm election’s highest profile gubernatorial contests.
Craig has spent recent days meeting with GOP leaders, including Ron Weiser, the chair of the Michigan Republican Party, according to a person familiar with the deliberations. Craig has also spoken with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, the chair of the Republican Governors Association, according to a second person familiar with that discussion.
Word of Craig’s interest comes as the country grapples issues of race and policing following a year that saw high-profile killings of Black people at the hands of law enforcement. The May 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis resulted in a national wave of protests and a renewed focus on police conduct.
Craig, who is Black, recently praised the outcome of the Derek Chauvin trial in that case, saying, "the justice system worked." But he said the case "was a stain on our profession" and said it was not "reflective" of law enforcement as a whole.
While Craig, a Detroit native who has been police chief since 2013, has said that police officers should be held “accountable for violating their oath and breaking the law,” he has also been an outspoken defender of law enforcement. He sharply criticized Detroit-area Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib after she tweeted in April that “policing in our country is inherently & intentionally racist,” and there should be “no more policing.”
Craig called for Tlaib’s resignation in response, saying during an appearance on CNN that her comments were “reckless and disgusting.”
Fox 2 in Detroit reported Friday evening that Craig is preparing to retire from the department and is considering a political campaign.
The police chief has long cut a conservative profile. Craig has said that more Detroiters should be armed in order to drive down crime, and he has said that terrorists are less likely to attack Detroit because a substantial number of its residents have concealed carry permits.
Whitmer has emerged as a top Republican target in 2022, drawing fierce criticism from conservatives over her coronavirus lockdown policies. She has also faced blowback for not adhering to the stringent restrictions she’s put in place, including the revelation of her recent travel to Florida to visit her elderly father.
A February EPIC-MRA poll found Whitmer’s approval rating at 52 percent, down from 56 percent in September.
Republicans have been seeking out a viable challenger to Whitmer. Tudor Dixon, a conservative TV news anchor, is prepping a campaign, and Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel floated a possible run at a recent meeting with party officials.
Senior Republicans contend that Craig would make a strong candidate because he could potentially win support in vote-rich Wayne County, which includes Detroit and which regularly gives Democratic candidates large margins of victory. Whitmer received more than 70 percent of the vote in 2018 in Wayne County, which is 39 percent Black.
John James, a Black veteran, was the Michigan GOP’s Senate nominee in each of the past two elections but fell short both times, running about the same as Republican ticket-mates in Wayne County in 2018 and 2020.
But Craig will start his first campaign with a higher public profile in Detroit. Before he was named police chief there in 2013, he had served as chief of the Cincinnati and Portland, Maine police departments, according to his official biography. He also served decades as a police officer in Los Angeles.
The Justice Department on Friday released a proposed rule that would broaden the definition of a firearm, requiring some gun-making kits to include a serial number as the Biden administration moves forward to combat so-called “ghost guns.”
It comes several weeks after President Joe Biden promised a crackdown on “ghost guns,” homemade firearms that lack serial numbers used to trace them and are often purchased without a background check.
For years, federal and local law enforcement officials have been sounding the alarm about what they say is a loophole in federal firearms law, allowing people who are generally prohibited from owning guns to obtain them by making the weapons themselves. Ghost guns have increasingly been turning up at crime scenes and being purchased from gang members and other criminals by undercover federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents.
The Justice Department estimates that more than 23,000 weapons without serial numbers were seized by law enforcement from 2016 to 2020 and were identified in connection with 325 homicides or attempted homicides.
It’s legal to build a gun in a home or a workshop, and advances in 3-D printing and milling have made it easier to do so. Ready-made kits can be purchased for a few hundred dollars online without the kind of background check required for traditional gun purchases.
But under the proposed rule, retailers would be required to run background checks before selling some of those kits that contain the parts necessary for someone to readily make a gun at home.
The rule sets forth several factors to determine whether the unfinished receivers could be easily convertible into a finished firearm, a senior Justice Department official said. If they meet that criteria, manufacturers would also be required to include a serial number, the official said. The rule also would require serial numbers to be added to homemade, un-serialized weapons that are traded in or turned into a federal firearms dealer.
The official could not discuss the matter ahead of a public announcement and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity. Once the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register, the public will have 90 days to submit comments.
The critical component in building an untraceable gun is what is known as the lower receiver, a part typically made of metal or polymer. An unfinished receiver — sometimes referred to as an “80% receiver” — can be legally bought online with no serial numbers or other markings on it, no license required.
Converting the piece of metal into a firearm is relatively simple and takes only a few hours. A drill press or a metal cutting machine known as a Computer Numeric Control, or CNC, is used to create a few holes in the receiver and well out a cavity. The receiver is then combined with a few other parts to create a fully functioning semi-automatic rifle or handgun.
“Criminals and others barred from owning a gun should not be able to exploit a loophole to evade background checks and to escape detection by law enforcement,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement. “This proposed rule would help keep guns out of the wrong hands and make it easier for law enforcement to trace guns used to commit violent crimes, while protecting the rights of law-abiding Americans.”
Rep. Elise Stefanik is only looking to serve one term in GOP leadership.
The New York Republican is telling her GOP colleagues that she intends to finish out the rest of this current cycle as conference chair if she is ultimately elevated to the No. 3 leadership position, according to multiple Republican lawmakers familiar with the conversations.
Then, in the new Congress, she intends to seek the top job on the House Education and Labor Committee, those sources said, a longtime priority for her.
Stefaik’s pledge to limit her time in GOP leadership is just one of several assurances she is making to other House Republicans as she works quickly to lock down support for her leadership bid. While she is widely expected to clinch the post after embattled Conference Chair Liz Cheney likely gets the boot next week, some lawmakers on the far-right have grumbled about her voting scorecard. Other members of the conference have complained they feel boxed in by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is whipping members hard to support Stefanik.
While other GOP members expressed interest in the position, so far none have formally stepped into the race to challenge Stefanik.
Stefanik, a moderate turned Trump ally, is also vowing to toe the party line and not buck leadership whenever they are whipping for or against something — a promise intended to assuage colleagues that she will not rock the boat like Cheney. The current No. 3 not only voted to impeach Donald Trump but also bucked the party a handful of other times on certain votes.
Her pledge of a limited time in leadership comes as some conservative House members have voiced concern about her more moderate record. On Wednesday, members of the House Freedom Caucus aired their grievances on a phone call. Those gripes include that she has a conservative scorecard of less than 50 percent and that McCarthy and others have quickly moved to install her into the position, giving the ultra-conservative caucus no room to express their preferences of who should lead GOP messaging ahead of 2022, POLITICO first reported.
Stefanik is also expected to speak before the Freedom Caucus on Monday as part of her effort to reach out to members who are hesitant -- if not outright opposed -- to her rise to the leadership post, according to sources.
But with Stefanik only vowing to fill out the rest of this term in leadership, it could assuage not only the conservative hard-liners, but other members who have complained about how speedy the Cheney replacement process has been. Several other Republicans have been floated for the conference chair position at some point, including Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, and Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.), the vice conference chair.
Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), who is currently expected to introduce the resolution to oust Cheney from leadership, is term-limited out as the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, clearing the way for Stefanik to run for the top panel post next Congress. Stefanik is also a member of the high-profile House Intelligence Committee, where she propelled herself to GOP stardom during Trump’s first impeachment.
House Republicans will gather next Wednesday at 9 a.m. for their weekly conference meeting, where the vote on Cheney is expected to come up. A separate vote on her replacement would then need to take place, though the timing on that vote is still to be determined.
Stefanik’s meteoric rise goes hand in hand with the conference moving to oust Cheney as she doubled and tripled down on her views about the deadly Jan. 6 attack, arguing as her colleagues moved to shore up support for her replacement that the “2020 presidential election was not stolen.”
“Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system,” Cheney tweeted on Monday.
While Cheney is fighting to project her message of how the GOP needs to change course, she is not fighting to remain in leadership, aiding efforts by Republican leaders to put Stefanik in this position.
The Biden White House released its first batch of visitor logs Friday, bringing back the practice that began under former President Barack Obama but stopped under former President Donald Trump.
The batch released included 400 records from Jan. 20 to the end of January, according to a release from the White House. The White House pledged to release the logs monthly.
“These logs give the public a look into the visitors entering and exiting the White House campus for appointments, tours, and official business — making good on President Biden’s commitment to restore integrity, transparency, and trust in government,” the release said.
The White House did not include records “related to purely personal guests of the First and Second Families” nor did it release “records related to a small group of particularly sensitive meetings.” They described visits of potential Supreme Court nominees as such sensitive meetings.
For that reason, perhaps, there were only a handful of individuals listed as having come to the White House to directly meet with the president himself. That list included Charlene Austin, Bryan Fenton, Christopher Hill, Reginald Hill, Caleb Hyatt, Charles Luftig, and Kelly Magsamen, all of whom met with Biden on the same day, Jan. 25, the date of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s swearing in.
Luftig serves as chief of staff at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Fenton is the lieutenant general in the United States Army. Magsamen is Austin’s chief of staff. Charlene Austin is Austin’s wife. Hyatt is Austin's junior military assistant. And Christopher and Reginald Hill are Austin’s step sons.
The White House records also indicate that two people met in the situation room (listed only as “Situation” on the records sheets). They were Lefteris Kafatos, an interpreter at the U.S. State Department Office of Language Services and David Cohen — likely the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
One person visited the residency during this time period: Raven Turner. The White House did not say who Turner was.
Amid the pandemic, most White House meetings have been virtual. But the White House has declined to release the names of people attending virtual meetings. Biden has faced criticism for that decision, though good government groups still applaud him for going further than his immediate predecessor.
Trump’s administration declined to release visitor logs to core White House offices, which prompted legal challenges. The administration settled a lawsuit in 2018, in which it agreed to post logs from some offices.
The Biden administration has said it can't release the full visitor logs from the Trump White House because they are now the property of the National Archives which must get the former president's permission to make them public. Questions had been raised about whether anyone who had taken part in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol had visited Trump in the days before it.
The Biden administration expects more visitors as more people are vaccinated for Covid-19, according to the release.
Over the past several years, America’s special operations forces have been rocked by a string of scandals — drug trafficking, murder and multiple investigations involving war crimes. As the cultural chaos unfolded, top civilian Pentagon officials moved to exert more control over America’s most elite military units.
But now, the academic arm of the military command that directly oversees those troops is quietly conducting a study that critics say is designed to help fend off additional efforts to increase civilian oversight of the community.
The study, which has not been previously reported, is being conducted by Joint Special Operations University, the academic arm of U.S. Special Operations Command. The plan is to review arguments for and against establishing a separate military branch for the special operations community, according to a slide deck dated March 21 and reviewed by POLITICO. It also asks what SOCOM may be able to learn from former President Donald Trump’s surprise campaign to establish a separate service for the military’s space professionals — an effort some in the Pentagon initially opposed.
The study poses a series of questions, including why SOCOM wasn’t originally set up as its own service and what “recurring justifications” have been made for its status. The self-imposed deadline for the JSOU team to finish the effort is June 30.
Former and current officials see the study as an elaborate straw-man argument meant to keep civilian oversight at a minimum. Mark Mitchell, formerly the top acting civilian overseeing special operations forces in the Pentagon during the last administration, told POLITICO that in his view, the study is designed to conclude that SOCOM should not be its own service, and therefore civilian decision-makers shouldn’t have more power over the command.
The command’s leaders have long resisted efforts by civilians to assert control over its budget and to provide more aggressive oversight, said Mitchell, who received the Army’s second-highest award for combat valor in Afghanistan and also worked on the National Security Council staff during the Obama administration.
Increasing that civilian control is vital, he continued, particularly as special operations has ballooned in size and scope since the 9/11 attacks. The discipline problems at SOCOM got so bad that the commander in 2019 directed a comprehensive review of the community’s culture and ethics. The review ultimately found no “systematic” failures of ethics but pointed to the need to strengthen leadership at all levels.
“There are problems in the culture, and the top civilian position needs to be empowered on a whole variety of fronts,” Mitchell said.
The Joint Special Operations University study arose after the previous Pentagon leadership moved to empower civilian leadership of the community late last year, and after “cyclically recurring” discussions that arise about creating a separate service for the special operations community, said Col. Curtis Kellogg, a spokesperson for the command.
Former acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller in November elevated the civilian official overseeing special operations matters, taking the job out of the Pentagon’s policy shop and making it a direct report to the secretary of defense. This put the position on par with the military service secretaries for the first time.
Former officials said Miller made the change, which finally carried out a congressional mandate to increase civilian control over special operations forces in the 2017 defense policy bill, primarily to stem the community’s disciplinary and cultural problems.Widespread problems
The discussions about strengthening civilian control come after a series of scandals in the community. In 2019, Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher was convicted of posing for a photo with the body of a dead fighter. Trump intervened to block him from being demoted for the offense. During the trial, a different SEAL team medic took responsibility for killing the teenager. Gallagher recently appeared on a podcast where he said Navy SEALs practiced medical procedures on a dying detainee.
"The grain of truth in the whole thing is that that ISIS fighter was killed by us and that nobody at that time had a problem with it," he said on Apple’s The Line podcast.
Early this year, another Navy SEAL pleaded guilty to killing an Army staff sergeant during what he described as hazing gone wrong. And a recent CBS investigation pointed to rampant cultural problems — including drug abuse — in the community.
Meanwhile, a detailed Rolling Stone report from April found that at least 44 active-duty troops died while stationed at Fort Bragg — which includes SOCOM’s headquarters — last year. It isn’t clear how many of the 44 were special operators. A spokesperson for the base told Rolling Stone that illegal drug use was connected to all the murders involving troops stationed there. A former Green Beret wrote a letter to the piece’s author from prison — where he is serving time for drug trafficking on military aircraft — that described a culture of impunity.
“Elite soldiers have access to whatever they want to get into: whores, guns, drugs, you name it,” he wrote.
In January, the Defense Department Inspector General’s office said it is evaluating whether SOCOM and U.S. Central Command followed Pentagon policy when reporting potential violations of the laws of war.
A separate service?
On Wednesday, new Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced that after reviewing Miller's decision to elevate the civilian special operations position, he decided to partially reverse the change, moving the position back into the policy shop for most matters. The role will still retain a direct reporting line to Austin on administrative issues such as manning, training and equipping the force.
Miller’s initial move to empower the civilian position was an unwelcome surprise to the military leadership, jolting SOCOM chief Gen. Richard Clarke and his team into action, former officials said. In March, retired Lt. Gen. John Mulholland, former head of Army Special Operations Command, wrote an op-ed warning that the move could lead to a call for a separate service.
Despite Austin’s reversal, Clarke is likely still on the defensive on the issue of civilian control, former officials said.
DoD officials and experts see little-to-no support within the military and on the Hill for creating a separate service for special operations forces, which they say would add unnecessary logistical and bureaucratic hurdles to a community that prides itself on stealth and agility.
Further, they say, the status quo benefits the SOCOM commander, Clarke, who in the absence of a fully empowered civilian leader has been the decision-maker on budget priorities, strategy and force structure. Establishing a new service would require an act of Congress.
Clarke does not support making SOCOM a separate service, said Kellogg, the SOCOM spokesperson.
“Congress intended USSOCOM to be an organization that brings together the best capabilities of the services to meet the needs of the nation,” Kellogg said. “USSOCOM is inherently better suited to fulfill that role as a joint combatant command that works with and relies on the services to help accomplish its mission.”
So why study the question at all? The university began the effort after discussions arose late last year following Miller’s change. It will analyze the history of the creation of SOCOM “as a functional combatant command with limited service-like authorities and not a separate service,” Kellogg said.
News of the study has not been publicly reported, but it’s made the rounds in defense circles. Some find it troubling and view it as part of an elaborate lobbying effort to reduce oversight of SOCOM.
“It is a total abuse of JSOU, which is supposed to do graduate continuing education for special operators and other DoD employees, to use them in a SOCOM lobbying campaign,” said a former senior Pentagon official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “It’s ridiculous.”
Kellogg defended the university, saying the organization embarked on the “purely academic” study because it determined “it would be of value for an academic institution to conduct an independent, thorough study” of the issue.
Former officials and sources close to the discussions also noted SOCOM’s unusual pull with Congress. SOCOM has a massive legislative affairs outfit compared to the other combatant commands, with more than a dozen people who frequently lobby Congress on funding and other issues, they said.
While lawmakers supported the move to empower the top civilian overseeing special operations forces, there appears to be little congressional appetite for creating a separate service.
“Based on my experience in the field and Pentagon, I don’t see the need for special operations forces to be a separate branch,” said Rep. Michael Waltz, a Florida Republican who serves on the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee. He said the command already has “unique service-like authorities and funding.”
Defense officials say creating a separate service for special operations forces would create unnecessary bureaucracy and logistical hurdles. In particular, the move would pose a challenge for SOF’s recruitment process, as the community draws from all the military services as well as the civilian population, one of the officials said. For example, while most Navy SEALs are recruited “off the street” rather than from the Navy, Army Green Berets typically come to SOCOM from the Army, the official said.
In addition, establishing a new service would require more funding and personnel. During the debate over whether to create a separate service for space, one of the main arguments against the move was the cost — $13 billion at least, by some initial estimates.
Why is Caitlyn Jenner running for governor of California? Judging from her Wednesday evening interview with Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity, she doesn’t have a whole lot of political insight into the state she wants to lead. So instead of the conventional political questions — like what she wants to do or how California might benefit from a Jenner governorship — it might be smarter to ponder what she stands to gain from her candidacy.
In the modern era, running for office has become a job in itself, one that can pay off in ways that have nothing to do with politics. Mike Huckabee, who ran for president twice, used the increased name recognition to earn a handsome living as a Fox News TV host, a successful book author and a public speaker. Jesse Ventura crossed over from wrestling to political office (governor of Minnesota) and onto a career in TV. Presently, Matthew McConaughey is, his critics say, juicing the sales of his new memoir with strong hints that he’ll run for Texas governor.
Jenner has a long career in the public eye checkered with some financial issues but her most recent occupation, reality-show entertainer, has been a winner. She appeared in "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" from 2007 to 2016. It was a popular, lucrative show. According to TMZ, Jenner and family split a $40 million payout when they re-signed their deal for the "Kardashians" show in 2012 for three seasons (she’s returning for the show’s last season) and also had her own two-season program, "I Am Cait" (2015-16).
Like many celebrities, Jenner makes appearance money; again according to TMZ, her speaking fee rose from $25,000 to a rumored $100,000 after she came out as Caitlyn in 2015. But then the Covid-19 pandemic poured molasses into the engine of that gravy train.
Jenner needed a new thing to stay in the public eye, and working the celebrity angle is something she’s excelled at for the past 45 years, ever since winning the decathlon at the 1976 Olympics and was paid by Wheaties to appear on its boxes. She parlayed that name recognition into gigs as a sports commentator, an actor, a talk-show host, various reality roles, and most recently, as a performer, albeit briefly, on "The Masked Singer."
As for a politician? Although a lifelong Republican and a Trump supporter, the 71-year-old performer possesses a flimsy resume; she’s not a natural candidate any more than she is a crooner. The smart money in California says she doesn’t have a chance to unseat Gov. Gavin Newsom, who enjoys the support of 56 percent of the California electorate. (Though the examples of Donald Trump, Al Franken, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sonny Bono suggest you can’t be too sure.) Assuming a Jenner loss, though, let’s contemplate the ways she might profit from this new exposure.
One is literal profit. California candidates can’t spend money on themselves, but the state of California allows candidates huge leeway on how they can spend their political donations, so a candidate can live off it and reward her friends with contracts and jobs. With former Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale advising Jenner in the race, it’s easy to imagine a well-financed political campaign, and candidates can throw campaign money at election-night celebrations and other events; attorney fees; cars, computers, meals and gifts. They can buy gratitude by donating to other candidates and charities; they can cover employee salaries, health care and meals and travel for the candidate and staff, as long it conforms to IRS regulations. It’s a real money-go-round. The law even allows candidates to expense a babysitter! Enforcement of California’s campaign finance rules is so lax that if you’re found violating the law you might escape without paying a fine.
But the real long game in American politics now isn’t cash — it’s fame. Think of Jenner’s run as a reality show by other means, a thought we can assume has also occurred to her. Instead of a show on one national channel, her campaign is news, which means she’ll be running on multiple national and local channels. Social media will feast on her. She’s already peppering her 3.5 million Twitter followers with campaign messages and her 1.4 million Facebook friends with the same. Even her campaign controversies — opposing transgender youth sports in an ambush interview — can redound in her favor by boosting her profile higher still.
As a career strategy, this isn’t a cinch. Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, warns that running for office can be a high-risk investment for somebody like Jenner, as it can polarize a celebrity’s base against her. That’s especially true in the liberal environment of California. Kanye West’s presidential run certainly didn’t help his career. But purely as an attention-getting strategy, it may work. “That calculus changes if we think of someone wanting to build their brand,” Kousser says. “The coin of the realm in social media is engagement, and if your business is social media, then doing something that’s going to drive engagement will build your brand and build your fortune.”
The Jenner run could easily spawn a reality documentary if the cameras roll with her on the hustings. It will almost certainly provide her with a topic for another book contract. And it could restart the side-hustle of her speaking tours. So what if the majority of the California electorate votes her down for her Republican views? It’s a big country with a lot of Republicans, a lot of curious people and millions of viewers who have been trained to wonder and care about what the Kardashians and Jenners are up to now. The publicity she creates out West will spread across the nation. Jenner publicity might be like Trump publicity — impervious in the long run to what we once called “bad publicity.” She has little to lose in a gubernatorial campaign and plenty to gain.
And if she really does develop a taste for politics, a November loss for Jenner could set her up for a 2022 run for a congressional seat, where the openings are numerous and the money flows a little quicker. California law prohibits a campaign from paying a candidate for state office a salary, but federal law permits candidates for federal office to draw pay from campaign coffers. The main limit is that the pay not exceed the lesser of the minimum annual salary of the office sought or the candidate’s earned income the previous year. The Center for Public Integrity found that at least 22 candidates paid themselves salaries in the 2017-2018 cycle.
When Jenner informed her daughters Kendall and Kylie that she was appearing on "The Masked Singer," they were appalled. “They gave me this strange look and said ‘Dad, why are you doing this?’,” she told Us Weekly. Jenner ventured something about needing a challenge, but we know better. Performances on the show don’t appear to pay much. The actual reward is publicity, with the contestant figuring out how to convert that into cash — a strategy Jenner has mastered and will continue to perfect.
Announce your candidacy via email to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts hope to run for dog catcher. My Twitter account wants Mike Rowe to run for something. My RSS feed says m-o-n-e-y is just another way to spell p-o-l-i-t-i-c-s.