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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

A thick fog is rolling in over Sunshine Week (March 12-18), the annual event when government transparency advocates raise awareness about the importance of access to public records.

We are entering an age when officials at the highest levels seek to discredit critical reporting with “alternative facts,” “fake news” slurs and selective access to press conferences—while making their own claims without providing much in the way to substantiate them.

But no matter how much the pundits claim we’re entering a “post-truth” era, it is crucial we defend the idea of proof. Proof is in the bureaucratic paper trails. Proof is in the accounting ledgers, the legal memos, the audits and the police reports. Proof is in the data. When it comes to government actions, that proof is often obtained by leveraging laws like the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and state-level public records laws—except when government officials seek to ignore the rules to suppress evidence.

While the attacks on transparency today may be worse than ever, they are nothing new. As award-winning investigative reporter Shane Bauer recently posted on Twitter: “I’ve been stonewalled by the government throughout my journalistic career. I’m seriously baffled by people acting like this is brand new.”

For the third year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation presents “The Foilies,” our anti-awards identifying the times when access to information has been stymied, or when government agencies have responded in the most absurd ways to records requests. Think of it as the Golden Raspberries, but for government transparency, where the bad actors are actually going off script to deny the public the right to understand what business is being conducted on their behalf.

To compile these awards, EFF solicited nominations from around the country and scoured through news stories and the #FOIAFriday Twitter threads to find the worst, the silliest and the most ridiculous responses to request for public information.

The Make America Opaque Again Award: President Donald Trump

A commitment to public transparency should start at the top.

But from the beginning of his campaign, President Trump has instead committed to opacity by refusing to release his tax returns, citing concerns about an ongoing IRS audit. Now that he’s in office, Trump’s critics, ethics experts and even some allies have called on him to release his tax returns and prove that he has eliminated potential conflicts of interest and sufficiently distanced himself from the businesses in his name that stand to make more money now that he’s in office. But the Trump administration has not changed its stance.

No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, the American public should be outraged that we now have the first sitting president since the 1970s to avoid such a baseline transparency tradition.

The Hypocrisy Award: Former Indiana Governor—and current Vice President—Mike Pence

Vice President Mike Pence cared a lot about transparency and accountability in 2016, especially when it came to email. A campaign appearance couldn’t go by without Pence or his running mate criticizing Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton for using a private email server during her tenure as Secretary of State. In fact, the Foilies honored Clinton last year for her homebrewed email approach.

But Pence seemed much less bothered by those transparency and accountability concerns when he used a private AOL email address to conduct official business as Indiana’s governor. The Indianapolis Star reported in February that Pence used the account to communicate “with top advisors on topics ranging from security gates at the governor’s residence to the state’s response to terror attacks across the globe.” That means that critical homeland security information was kept in an account likely less secure than government accounts (his account was reportedly hacked, too), and Pence’s communications were shielded from government records requirements.

The Frogmarch Award: Town of White Castle, La.

The only thing that could’ve made reporter Chris Nakamoto’s public records request in the small town of White Castle, La., a more absurd misadventure is if he’d brought Harold and Kumar along with him.

As chief investigator for WBRZ in Baton Rouge, Nakamoto filed records requests regarding the White Castle mayor’s salary. But when he turned up with a camera crew at city hall in March 2016 to demand missing documents, he was escorted out in handcuffs, locked in a holding cell for an hour, and charged with a misdemeanor for “remaining after being forbidden.” What’s worse is that Nakamoto was summoned to appear before the “Mayor’s Court,” a judicial proceeding conducted by the very same mayor Nakamoto was investigating. Nakamoto lawyered up, and the charges were dropped two months later.

“If anything, my arrest showed that if they’ll do that to me, and I have the medium to broadcast and let people know what’s happening to me, think about how they’re treating any citizen in that town,” Nakamoto says.

The Arts and Crafts Award: Public Health Agency of Canada

Journalists are used to receiving documents covered with cross-outs and huge black boxes. But in May 2016, Associated Press reporters encountered a unique form of redaction from Public Health Agency of Canada when seeking records related to the Ebola outbreak.

As journalist Raphael Satter wrote in a letter complaining to the agency: “It appears that PHAC staff botched their attempt to redact the documents, using bits of tape and loose pieces of paper to cover information which they tried to withhold. By the time it came into my hands, much of the tape had worn off, and the taped pieces had been torn.”

Even the wryest transparency advocates were amused when Satter wrote about the redaction art project on Twitter, but the incident did have more serious implications. At least three Sierra Leonean medical patients had their personal information exposed. Lifting up the tape also revealed how the agency redacted information that the reporters believed should’ve been public, such as email signatures.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada said it would investigate, but Satter says he hasn’t heard anything back for 10 months.

The Whoa There, Cowboy Award: Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke

Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke rose to prominence in 2016 as one of then-candidate Donald Trump’s top surrogates. He made inflammatory remarks about the Black Lives Matter movement, such as calling them a hate group and linking them to ISIS. But the press has also been a regular target of his.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Political Watchdog Columnist Daniel Bice filed a series of records requests with the sheriff’s office, demanding everything from calendars, to details about an NRA-funded trip to Israel, to records related to a series of jail deaths. So far, Clarke has been extremely slow to release this information, while being extremely quick to smear the reporter on the sheriff’s official Facebook page. Clarke frequently refers to the publication as the “Urinal Sentinel” and has diagnosed Bice with “Sheriff Clarke Derangement Syndrome.”

“I deal with open records requests with local governments and police departments. I do it at the city, county and state level,” Bice says. “He’s by far the worst for responding to public records.”

In May 2016, Clarke published a short essay on Facebook titled, “When Journalism Becomes an Obsession.” Clarke claimed that after he rejected Bice’s request for an interview, Bice retaliated with a series of public records requests, ignoring the fact that these requests are both routine and are often reporter’s only recourse when an official refuses to answer questions.

“This lazy man’s way of putting together newspaper columns uses tax-paid, government employees as pseudo-interns to help him gather information to write stories,” Clarke wrote.

Memo to Clarke: Requesting and reviewing public records is tedious and time-consuming, and certainly not the way to score an easy scoop. If anything, ranting on Facebook, then issuing one-sentence news releases about those Facebook posts, are the lazy man’s way of being accountable to your constituents.

The Longhand Award: Portland Commissioner Amanda Fritz

A local citizen in Portland, Ore., filed a records request to find out everyone that City Commissioner Amanda Fritz had blocked or muted from her Twitter account. This should’ve been easy. However, Fritz decided to go the long way, scribbling down each and every handle on a sheet of paper. She then rescanned that list in, and sent it back to the requester.

The records did show that Fritz had decided to hush accounts that were trying to affect public policy, such as @DoBetterPDX, which focuses on local efforts to help homeless people, and anonymous self-described urban activist @jegjehPDX.

Here’s a tip for officials who receive similar requests: All you need to do is go to your “Settings and Privacy” page, select the “Muted accounts” or “Blocked accounts” tab, and then click “export your list.”

The Wrong Address Award: U.S. Department of Justice

America Rising PAC, a conservative opposition research committee, has been filing FOIA requests on a number of issues, usually targeting Democrats. Following Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s passing, the PAC sent a FOIA to the attorney general seeking emails referencing the death.

But America Rising never received a response acknowledging that the DOJ received the request. That’s because the DOJ sent it to a random federal inmate serving time on child-pornography charges. The offender, however, was nice enough to forward the message to the PAC with a note railing against the “malicious incompetence” of the Obama administration.

The Redaction of Interest Award: General Services Administration

One of the threads that reporters have tried to unravel through the Trump campaign is how the prolific businessman would separate himself from his financial interests, especially regarding his 30-year contract with the federal government to build a Trump International Hotel at the location of the federally owned Old Post Office in Washington, D.C., a paper airplane’s flight from the White House.

BuzzFeed filed a FOIA request with the General Services Administration for a copy of the contract. What they received was a highly redacted document that raised more questions than it answered, including what role Trump’s family plays in the project.

“The American taxpayer would have no clue who was getting the lease to the building,” says reporter Aram Roston, who was investigating how Trump failed to uphold promises made when he put in a proposal for the project. “You wouldn’t know who owned this project.”

After pushing back, BuzzFeed was able to get certain sections unredacted, including evidence that Trump’s three children—Ivanka, Donald Jr. and Eric—all received a 7.425 percent stake through their LLCs, seemingly without injecting any money of their own.

The Fake News Award: Santa Maria Police Department

In 2015, the Santa Maria Police Department in California joined many other agencies in using the online service Nixle to distribute public information in lieu of press releases. The agency told citizens to sign up for “trustworthy information.”

Less than a year later, police broke that trust. The Santa Maria Police posted to its Nixle account a report that two individuals had been arrested and deported, which was promptly picked up the local press. Months later, court documents revealed that it had all been a lie to ostensibly help the individuals—who had been targeted for murder by a rival gang—escape the city.

Police were fiercely unapologetic. The agency has yet to remove the offending alert from Nixle or offer any kind of addendum, a direct violation of Nixle’s terms of service, which prohibits the transmission of “fraudulent, deceptive or misleading communications” through the service.

The Stupid Meter Award: Elster Solutions, Landis+Gyr, Ericsson

In May 2016, several smart meter companies sued transparency website MuckRock and one of its users, Phil Mocek, in a failed attempt to permanently remove documents from the website that they claimed contained trade secrets. Some of the companies initially obtained a court order requiring MuckRock to take down public records posted to the site that the city of Seattle had already released to the requester.

But in their rush to censor MuckRock and its user, the companies overlooked one small detail: the First Amendment. The Constitution plainly protected MuckRock’s ability to publish public records one of its users lawfully obtained from the city of Seattle, regardless of whether they contained trade secrets. A judge quickly agreed, ruling that the initial order was unconstitutional and allowing the documents to be reposted on MuckRock. The case and several others filed against MuckRock and its user later settled or were dismissed outright. The documents continue to be hosted on MuckRock for all to see.

The Least Productive Beta Testing Award: Federal Bureau of Investigation

The FBI spent most of 2016 doing what might be charitably described as beta testing a proprietary online FOIA portal that went live in March. But beta testing is probably a misnomer, because it implies that the site actually improved after its initial rollout.

The FBI’s year of “beta testing” included initially proposing a requirement that requesters submit a copy of their photo ID before submitting a request via the portal, and also imposed “operating hours” and limited the number of requests an individual could file per day.

Yet even after the FBI walked back from those proposals, the site appears designed to frustrate the public’s ability to make the premiere federal law enforcement agency more transparent. The portal limits the types of requests that can be filed digitally to people seeking information about themselves or others. Requesters cannot use the site to request information about FBI operations or activities, otherwise known as the bread and butter of FOIA requests. Oh, and the portal’s webform is capped at 3,000 characters, so brevity is very much appreciated!

Worse, now that the portal is online, the FBI has stopped accepting FOIA requests via email, meaning fax and snail mail are now supposed to be the primary (frustratingly slow) means of sending requests to the FBI. It almost seems like the FBI is affirmatively trying to make it hard to submit FOIA requests.

The Undermining Openness Award: U.S. Department of Justice

Documents released in 2016 in response to a FOIA lawsuit by the Freedom of the Press Foundation show that the U.S. Department of Justice secretly lobbied Congress in 2014 to kill a FOIA reform bill that had unanimously passed the U.S. House of Representatives 410-0.

But the secret axing of an overwhelmingly popular transparency bill wasn’t even the most odious aspect of DOJ’s behavior. In talking points disclosed via the lawsuit, DOJ strongly opposed codifying a “presumption of openness,” a provision that would assume by default that every government record should be disclosed to the public unless an agency could show that its release could result in foreseeable harm.

DOJ’s argument: “The proposed amendment is unacceptably damaging to the proper administration of FOIA and of the government as a whole,” which is bureaucratese for something like: “What unhinged transparency nut came up with this crazy presumption of openness idea, anyway?”

That would be Barack Obama, whose FOIA guidance on his first day in office back in 2009 was the blueprint for the presumption-of-openness language included in the bill. Perhaps DOJ thought it had to save Obama from himself?

DOJ’s fearmongering won out, and the bill died. Two years later, Congress eventually passed a much-weaker FOIA reform bill, but it did include the presumption of openness DOJ had previously fought against.

We’re still waiting for the “government as a whole” to collapse.

The Outrageous Fee Award: Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services

When public agencies get requests for digital data, officials can usually simply submit a query straight to the relevant database. But not in Missouri, apparently, where officials must use handcrafted, shade-grown database queries by public records artisans.

At least that’s the only explanation we can come up with for why the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services estimated that it would take roughly 35,000 hours and $1.5 million to respond to an exceedingly simple request for state birth and death data.

Nonprofit Reclaim the Records, whose name eloquently sums up its mission, believed that a simple database query, combined with copy and paste, was all that was needed to fulfill its request. Missouri officials begged to differ, estimating that it would take them the equivalent of a person working around the clock for more than four years to compile the list by hand.

Although the fee estimate is not the highest the Foilies has ever seen—that honor goes to the Pentagon for its $660 million estimate in response to a MuckRock user’s FOIA request last year—Missouri’s estimate was outrageous. Stranger still, the agency later revised their estimated costs down to $5,000 without any real explanation. Reclaim the Records tried negotiating further with officials, but to no avail, as officials ultimately said they could not fulfill the request.

Reclaim the Records has since filed a lawsuit for the data.

The Dehumanization Award: Lafayette City Marshall

Public officials often dehumanize the news media to score cheap points … but can the same ploy work when fighting public records requests? That’s the issue in a very strange case between the IND, a Lafayette, La., media outlet, and a city marshal. After the marshal lost his bid to keep records secret in the trial court, he appealed on the grounds that IND had no right to bring the lawsuit in the first place.

The marshal, who faced fines, community service and house arrest for failing to turn over records, argues that Louisiana’s public records law requires that a living, breathing human make a request, not a corporate entity such as IND.

Make no mistake: There is no dispute that an actual human filed the request, which sought records relating to a bizarre news conference in which the marshal allegedly used his public office to make baseless allegations against a political opponent. Instead, the dispute centers on a legal formalism of whether IND can sue on its own behalf, rather than suing under the name of the reporter. The marshal’s seemingly ridiculous argument does have some basis in the text of the statute, which defines a requester as a person who is at least 18 years old.

That said, it’s an incredibly cynical argument, putting the letter well over the spirit of the law in what appears to be a well-documented effort by the marshal to violate the law and block public access. We hope the learned Louisiana appellate judges see through this blatant attempt to short-circuit the public records law.

The Lethal Redaction Award: States of Texas and Arizona

BuzzFeed reporters Chris McDaniel and Tasneem Nashrulla have been on a quest to find out where states like Texas and Arizona are obtaining drugs used for lethal injection, as some pharmaceutical suppliers have decided not to participate in the capital punishment machine. But these states are fighting to keep the names of their new suppliers secret, refusing to release anything identifying the companies in response to BuzzFeed’s FOIA requests.

At the crux of the investigation is whether the states attempted to obtain the drugs illegally from India. At least one shipment is currently being detained by the FDA. The reason for transparency is obvious if one looks only at one previously botched purchase the reporters uncovered: Texas had tried to source pentobarbital from an Indian company called Provizer Pharma, run by five 20-year-olds. Indian authorities raided their offices for allegedly selling psychotropic drugs and opioids before the order could be fulfilled.

The Poor Note-taker Award: Secretary of the Massachusetts Commonwealth

Updates to Massachusetts’ public records laws were set to take effect in January 2016, with Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin tasked with promulgating new regulations to clear up the vague language of the law. But Galvin didn’t exactly take his duty seriously. Instead, he crafted a regulation allowing his office to dodge requirements that public records appeals be handled in a timely fashion.

However, no regulation could take affect without public hearing. So he went through the motions and dispatched an underling to sit at a table and wait out the public comment—but didn’t keep any kind of record of what was said. A close-up captured by a Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism reporter showed a pen lying on a blank pad of paper. Asked by a reporter about the lack of notes, the underling said, “I was just here to conduct this hearing. That’s all I can say.”

The Foilies were compiled by EFF Investigative researcher Dave Maass, Frank Stanton legal fellow Aaron Mackey, and policy analyst Kate Tummarello. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is a San Francisco-based nonprofit that defends civil liberties at the crossroads of technology and the law. Read more about EFF and how to support our work at eff.org.

Published in Features

On this week's heavily wiretapped weekly Independent comics page: This Modern World brings us more adventures of the Unbelievable Baby-Man; Jen Sorenson shows how taking away health-care funding can improve poor people's health; The K Chronicles tells a tale about the wife; and Red Meat eavesdrops on Papa Moai's visit to the Tobacco Shack.

Published in Comics

“When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”

This was Donald Trump talking to Billy Bush about assaulting women more than a decade ago, but it has proven to be the ultimate expression of Trumpism.

When Matt Lauer, a rich celebrity, asked Trump, another rich celebrity, about North Carolina’s discriminatory “bathroom bill,” it became a question of whether Trump “would be fine with (Caitlyn Jenner) using any bathroom she chooses” in Trump Tower.

Jenner, like Trump, is a reality TV star with complicated lines between business and family. Of course, she can pee wherever she wants. But trans people who aren’t stars and who have to go to the bathroom in less-glamorous places than Trump Tower are shit out of luck after the administration declared in late February it would not protect the rights of trans students.

Jenner spoke out against Trump’s reversal on trans issues, telling him to call her. But because she is also a star, her plea misses the point: Trump attacks the most vulnerable.

If Trump wanted to understand how it feels to be denied access to basic services, he could talk to Gavin Grimm, a trans high school student whose lawsuit against his Virginia school district—for forcing him to use a refashioned janitor’s closet instead of the men’s room—was scheduled to reach the Supreme Court later this month. However, on Monday, March 6, the case was sent back to a lower court because of the new guidelines set by Trump’s justice department.

Or when Trump spoke at the ultra-right Conservative Political Action Conference in late February, he could have talked to Jennifer Williams and Jordan Evans, two trans women who stood out in the hallway holding a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag and a sign that said, “Proud to be Conservative, Proud to Be Transgender, Proud to be American #sameteam.”

“We spent the last year fighting for transgender rights and being part of a presidential campaign, (and) we didn’t know what we were walking into,” Williams said of the anti-trans fervor once again spiking in the ruling party.

Williams has attended the conference since 2006, when she was working on a film called Fear of a Black Republican. She felt that the conference and the conservative movement was moving toward the libertarianism of Ron Paul and away from the “traditional values” of Mike Huckabee.

Until 2016, she attended the conference presenting as a man, rather than as Jennifer, her authentic self. She says she was received warmly when she reintroduced herself last year; her friends asked if she was still a conservative and when she said she was, they were cool.

But after a brief moment of high hopes, the mood shifted.

First, former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos got a keynote spot on CPAC’s program. Yiannopoulos regularly called trans people “mentally ill” and used a December speech in Milwaukee to mock a trans student.

Like Yiannopoulos, some other openly gay people at CPAC seemed eager to put down trans people in order to cement their own endangered status among the bigots. One conservative lesbian blogger sitting in the press section “explained” to a Breitbart editor how trans women were really just men who like to dress in women’s clothes and masturbate. “Autogynephiles,” she said, talking high and punching down.

“It’s going to be hard for the administration to go after lesbian, gay and bi people, because they have numbers; they have resources; they have money. We don’t necessarily have that,” Williams said. “You’re going after transgender people ... We’re only 0.6 percent of the population.”

Williams was briefly relieved when Yiannopoulos was disinvited from CPAC, but the night before the conference began, the regime rescinded the Obama-era directive offering federal protection for students to use the facilities that correspond with their gender identities rather than their birth certificates. So when Williams and her friend walked in with their signs and their flag, they didn’t know what to expect.

“I was really worried because people were hyped up. We didn’t expect it to be the issue du jour by 8 in the morning, walking into CPAC with 11,000 or 12,000 conservatives of all different stripes from all over the country.”

Although Williams’ access to public facilities is legally protected in Maryland, where the conference took place, she and her friend located single-occupancy restrooms where they knew they would be safe.

“Hopefully nothing bad will happen. I don’t expect it to. This is my tribe, just as LGBTQ is my tribe. People at CPAC don’t start fights,” she said. “But there’s always that one person you have to be careful about.”

She is especially worried for young trans kids. “When I grew up, we had no hope, and you knew that if you were going to be out and proud and live your life authentically, it was just going to be tough,” she said. “These kids have had a great run for several years, making life better and easier so they can live openly. But now if I’m them, everybody knows who I am. What’s going to happen to me now?”

The fear, she says “has to be overwhelming, because at least the federal government had your back. Now they don’t.”

At its best, the federal government protects the minority from the tyranny of the majority. But Trump’s populism says, in essence, “Fuck that shit.”

On the same day Trump press secretary Sean Spicer said that trans protections are “states’ rights issues,” he also said that recreational cannabis would become a federal issue. In this regime, there are no real principles—only power and the repression of anyone vulnerable enough to repress.

Williams has placed whatever hope she has left in the U.S. Supreme Court. “If we lose the Gavin Grimm case, it could be pretty dismal for a long time. I don’t want to say ‘until a Democrat gets elected,’ because I’m a Republican committee person,” she said. “Hopefully our party will be the ones to make freedom happen for everyone.”

That’s the thing about freedom: If it doesn’t happen for everyone, it doesn’t happen for anyone.

Column updated Monday, March 6. Democracy in Crisis is a joint project of alternative newspapers around the country, including the Coachella Valley Independent. Baynard Woods is editor at large at the Baltimore City Paper. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, the Washington PostVox, Salon, McSweeney's, Virginia Quarterly Review and many other publications.

Published in National/International

On this week's pleasantly filling weekly Independent comics page: This Modern World introduces us to TrumpCare; Jen Sorenson offers tips for getting along with Trump voters; The K Chronicles celebrates more of life's little victories; and Red Meat gets an early start on Halloween planning.

Published in Comics

We put the finishing touches on the March print issue on Thursday, Feb. 16. (Yeah, it was a little earlier than normal, because February is a short month, and we have a narrow window with our printer.)

That particular day was, to say the least, a completely bonkers news day. On a local level, Riverside County District Attorney Michael Hestrin announced he was filing corruption charges against former Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet and developers John Wessman and Richard Meaney. According to Hestrin, Pougnet took in $375,000 in bribes. All of a sudden, the status of Palm Springs’ big downtown redevelopment project is very much up in the air.

Meanwhile, on the national level, the president held a press conference during which he sounded completely unhinged—a term I do not use lightly.

He claimed he inherited a mess from the previous administration. He said his administration was a “fine-tuned machine.” He viciously attacked the press for reporting on various leaks from his administration. He called reports that his campaign advisers were in contact with Russia “fake news.”

The New York Times, which is generally rather restrained, put it this way: “The session was marked by an extraordinarily raw and angry defense the likes of which has never been seen in a modern White House. At times abrupt, often rambling, characteristically boastful yet seemingly pained at the portrayals of him, Mr. Trump seemed intent on reproducing the energy and excitement of his campaign after a month of grinding governance. He returned repeatedly to his contest with Hillary Clinton and at one point plaintively pleaded for understanding.”

Holy shit.

This brings us to this March 2017 print edition of the Coachella Valley Independent, which is hitting streets now. While the news on the Palm Springs corruption charges broke too close to deadline for us to cover them in any meaningful way—watch for that later—we did include two features in our expanded news section about the mess that is the 45th president’s administration, which you can read online here and here.

Meanwhile, for the second straight month, we’re featuring art—in a big way—on our cover. Why would we do this two months in a row? Well, this month’s subjects—the La Quinta Arts Festival, and the brand-new Desert X—are fantastic. Just for starters, did you know the La Quinta Arts Foundation has given out $1.23 million in scholarships to local young artists over the years? Wow.

Thanks, as always, for reading the Independent, and be sure to pick up March 2017 print edition at one of 380-plus valley locations.

Published in Editor's Note

On this week's only-sort-of-fake weekly Independent comics page: Jen Sorenson examines recent Orwellian reversals; The K Chronicles gets frightened on an airplane flight; This Modern World ponders how it always starts with a tweet; and Red Meat makes a deal with the kids.

Published in Comics

The Blacklist: Redemption (Thursday, Feb. 23, NBC), series debut: While hardcore Blacklist fans are asking, “How’s this spin-off going to work?” casual viewers are curious to know: “How many encoded tattoos can she fit on her body?” For the latter: That’s Blindspot, dumbasses. For the former: Undercover op and ex-Blacklist bad hombre Tom Keen (Ryan Eggold) has a wife and a baby at home, but now he’s going to be traipsing around the world with mom “Scottie” Hargrave (Famke Janssen) on missions the U.S. government won’t avow, because, karma. It’s best to forget the parenting logistics of The Blacklist: Redemption and just go with the action (which will only span eight episodes, so Tom will be back with Liz and Agnes on The Blacklist proper soon enough). But if Redemption is a hit—which it could be; Blacklist faithful won’t be disappointed—they’re going to have to work out a nanny schedule for future missions.

Sun Records (Thursday, Feb. 23, CMT), series debut: Many a dramatized biopic and miniseries have tackled the rock ’n’ roll legend of Elvis Presley—but none have brought together the “Million Dollar Quartet” that also includes Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Sun Records attempts to contain all of these personalities and chronicle the civil rights movement of late-’50s Memphis, and fares mostly better than expected for reality-damaged CMT (which, as a reminder, still stands for Country Music Television, not Cheerleaders, Mullets and Trucks). The Quartet members are portrayed well-if-not-vacantly-pretty enough, but it’s the turn by Billy Gardell (Mike and Molly) as Elvis manager Colonel Tom Parker that provides Sun Records’ real spark.

The 89th Annual Academy Awards (Sunday, Feb. 26, ABC), special: More than just another overlong awards show wherein rich celebrities exchange trophies for being rich celebrities who put out semi-commercially viable content last year, The 89th Annual Academy Awards will also be an overlong soapbox for rich celebrities to rail against the rich celebrity currently residing in the White House (or Mar-a-Lago, or wherever). As boring as that sounds, it’s nothing compared to the snooze-inducing qualities of several of this year’s Best Picture nominees: The most—really, only—exciting part of Arrival was Amy Adams’ CGI floaty-gravity hair; La La Land somehow made jazz, and musicals, even more unpalatable; and Manchester by the Sea … WTF was that mumble-y tone poem of tragedy? Have fun watching the dresses and No Orange Order rants.

Taken (Monday, Feb. 27, NBC), series debut: Bryan Mills, the man with a very particular and dangerous set of skills who still couldn’t protect his daughter and wife from being kidnapped and/or killed over the course of three movies, is back! More accurately … was back? Doomed TV knockoff Taken is a prequel, set 30 years before the films, starring Clive Standen (Vikings) as a younger, fashionably bearded Mills, who’s recruited into the CIA after his sister is gunned down by terrorist goons on his watch. (It does not pay to be related to this guy.) Soon, his covert-agency boss (Jennifer Beals) is putting him through the usual crime-drama-case-of-the-week grind, leaving fans of far-more-ambitious timeslot occupant Timeless to wonder, “NBC cut the season short for this?”

President’s Address to Congress (Tuesday, Feb. 28, many channels), news special: What’s President … yep, still funny … Donald Trump going to pull out of the pocket of his ill-fitting big-boy suit this time? Another attack on real information leaks that somehow led to fake news? More victory laps for winning so hard/narrowly months ago? A eulogy for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Celebrity Apprentice? A declaration of war on New Mexico? (“So much more advanced and dangerous than old Mexico, believe me.”) As thrillpressing (thrilling + depressing, new term) as the many, many, many possibilities are, The Only TV Column That Matters™ suggests watching the new Roger Corman cinematic masterpiece Death Race 2050 on Netflix instead. It’s the best indicator of where ’Merica is headed since Idiocracy, believe me.

Published in TV

The far, far right started freaking out when “lock her up”-chanting former Gen. Michael Flynn resigned as national security adviser in the wake of revelations that he discussed loosening sanctions with a Russian ambassador while Obama was still president.

Mike Cernovich, one of those DeploraBallers whom others on the far right sometimes like to call a cuck, started the hysteria almost immediately after the announcement, tweeting: “The coup is on, Flynn resigned. Bannon, Kellyanne, and Miller next on the chopping block.”

A few minutes later, far, far right cop-worshipper John Cardillo also used the C word: “Flynn was the first casualty in Reince and the establishment’s palace coup.” He followed with a direct appeal to Trump: “You have traitors within. Do not let them conspire with the MSM to remove your circle of loyalists.”

Cernovich agreed that Flynn’s resignation was a “HUGE win for fake news.”

These guys are extremists, but they are smart enough to know the only strategy for Trump is to deny reality and all other sources of truth. The corruption, impropriety and legally dubious dealings of the regime seem so widespread that the admission that one thing is wrong could lead quickly to the revelation that everything is wrong.

Breitbart, meanwhile, was doing its best to ignore Flynn’s resignation, proving, perhaps, the old conservative point about the inefficiency of government workers, not tweeting about it at all until 9:30 a.m. the next morning. State news moves slow.

It is premature to rejoice about any of this, because the Trump propaganda machine has been wildly effective at erasing reality so far—and when Trump dumped Paul Manafort because of his Russian ties, the dirt just seemed to disappear. But the questions of, “What did the president know, and when?” may still prove powerful in Washington, D.C.


THE INTELLECTUAL GODFATHER

Senators shuffle by the desk to cast their votes on the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, chattering like kids returning from summer break to find that everything has changed. Somehow, even the victors seem confused. None of them really expected the world to look like this.

Except, maybe, Sen. Jeff Sessions. He is standing toward the front of the Senate chambers, his hands behind his back, at ease. There is a grin on his face. He has just cast what will be his final vote as senator—to confirm DeVos.

Though he is not attorney general yet, he was instrumental in planning the flurry of authoritarian executive orders marking Trump’s first weeks in office, including the now-contested Muslim ban. Sessions wanted to go even harder, hoping for a “shock and awe” approach, overwhelming the opposition with the dramatic pace of change.

In a Washington Post story that called Sessions the “intellectual godfather” of “Trump’s hard-line actions,” the director of a conservative immigration think tank compared the Republican senator to a “guerrilla in the hinterlands preparing for the next hopeless assault on the government” who suddenly learns that “the capital has fallen.”

With his dark suit, white hair and wrinkled white peach of a face, Sessions does not look like he’s spent much time training in the jungle.

He walks slowly to his seat. Sitting down, he bows his head. His eyes seem to be closed, as if praying. He brings the tips of his fingers together, facing upward, on his lap.

A few moments later, he takes out a silver object and holds it gingerly between the first two fingers and thumbs of each hand, almost as if unwrapping foil on a stick of gum. But it doesn’t seem to be gum—it’s impossible to tell what it is from the press gallery above the Senate floor—and he does not unwrap it, he just fingers it, his head bowed.

Then the vote is called. He puts away the silver object. It is 50-50.

As expected, Vice President Mike Pence confirms DeVos with a historic tie-breaking vote. It is a huge blow to anyone who cares about competency, public education or ethics in government. The Democrats spent the last 24 hours complaining about all of these issues, but that doesn’t matter now. They have no control. The whole process demonstrated that the new regime can do as it wishes on the Hill.

Across the room, Sen. Al Franken acts like he is charging someone with a podium, making a clear reference to Melissa McCarthy’s Saturday Night Live skit satirizing Sean Spicer, the president’s press secretary.

Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham sit beside each other talking quietly, as if conspiring or gossiping. McCain says something and sucks his bottom lip. Graham scans the room from left to right.

Sessions gets up and looks around the room again before he heads toward the door.

When he returns to the Senate later that day, Sessions is the nominee under consideration. He sits behind Majority Leader Mitch McConnell while Sen. Elizabeth Warren quotes the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, who called Sessions a “disgrace to the Justice Department” during a 1986 confirmation hearing, when Sessions was denied a federal judgeship because of allegations of racism. Now Warren reads from a letter that Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King, Jr., sent to the Senate during that same failed confirmation.

“Mr. President, Mr. President,” McConnell interrupts, defending Sessions. “The senator has impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama, as warned by the chair. Senator Warren said, ‘Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge.’

“I call the senator to order under the provisions of Rule 19,” McConnell says.

The crazy thing about Rule 19, in this context, is that it was created in 1902, after Sen. “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, a notorious white terrorist, beat up a colleague who had defected to the other side of a debate. Tillman founded a group called the Red Shirts, which terrorized African Americans as Reconstruction bled into Jim Crow. He was an early mentor of white supremacist Strom Thurmond, who, as the chair of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, was the guy who both smashed Sessions’ hopes of becoming a federal judge and the guy who kept King’s 1986 letter out of the Senate record. When Warren read the letter, she was correcting Thurmond’s 30-year-old error.

So it is grimly fitting that McConnell, who has learned to manipulate the Senate in order to grab control of the judiciary for his party, cites Rule 19 to defend Jeff Sessions, the old-school law-and-order white supremacist who stuck around long enough to make it mainstream again.

During the exchange (in which McConnell now famously uttered the iconic sentences: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted”), Sessions picks his nose, rubbing it with a handkerchief, making sure he gets it all, blowing again.

Nearly 24 hours later, McConnell uses the last few minutes of debate to offer a cornpone encomium to his departing colleague, calling Sessions a “true Southern gentleman,” like that’s an unquestionably good thing, eliding the difficult history connecting Sessions’ home state and the fight for civil rights.

Later, Pence swears in Sessions, who cites a “dangerous permanent trend” of increasing crime and pledges to end “lawlessness.”

Like Sessions, Trump regularly exaggerates the increase in violent crime. He uses the occasion of Sessions’ swearing in to sign three executive orders that further empower the already vast police state, now overseen by Sessions.

Neither man mentions the epidemic of African Americans shot and killed by police.

“A new era of justice begins, and it begins right now,” Trump says.

Democracy in Crisis is a joint project of alternative newspapers around the country, including the Coachella Valley Independent. Baynard Woods is editor at large at the Baltimore City Paper. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, the Washington Post, Vox, Salon, McSweeney's, Virginia Quarterly Review and many other publications.

Published in National/International

On this week's extra-presidential (for better or for worse) weekly Independent comics page: The K Chronicles pays tribute to wifey; This Modern World shares some Trump valentines; Jen Sorenson ponders our democratic crisis; and Red Meat enjoys some special effects.

Published in Comics

With the stroke of his pen, President Donald Trump on Jan. 30 unleashed the biggest assault ever made by a president on the government regulations that protect Americans and nature.

In an executive order, he mandated that two existing regulations be eliminated for every new regulation issued—and he dictated that the costs of any new rule be offset by savings from the regulations that are repealed.

Sitting in the Oval Office, surrounded by people he described as small business owners, Trump boasted: “This will be the largest ever cut by far in terms of regulation.”

The president’s actions coincide with a legislative blitz by congressional Republicans to remake the basic system under which government regulates a whole slew of industries, from banks to auto manufacturing to mining and drilling companies. Environmental regulations and rules limiting pollution on public lands are among their prime targets. These rules, mostly mandated by Congress, are intended to safeguard people and natural resources like air, water and land. But many Republicans argue that regulations have gone too far, and prevent businesses from starting up and thriving.

The president’s action, while monumental in scope, presents practical challenges.

“This is overthrowing the history of regulatory procedures that were initiated by Ronald Reagan,” says Robert Stavins, professor of environmental economics at Harvard University.

What makes the order potentially unachievable is that most rules aren’t written at agencies’ discretion, but are mandated by Congress or courts. Statutes drafted by Congress and signed by presidents often direct agencies to write regulations and set deadlines. If agencies fail to do so, courts often step in and order them to meet certain deadlines. Once implemented, a rule is quite durable.

“An agency could not undo it unless a statute allowed that,” says William Buzbee, professor at Georgetown University Law Center. “Often, it will not allow it.”

Even if a regulation is not protected by legislation, an agency cannot just simply strike it from its books. It must go through a lengthy new rulemaking process required by the Administrative Procedure Act to undo it, including seeking public comment. The agencies also must find justifications for undoing regulations that agencies already have analyzed thoroughly and justified as beneficial to the public. Buzbee says court challenges are likely.

“They will probably meet with a lot of rejections,” Buzbee adds.

The idea of streamlining regulations is not new. Since the 1970s, presidents, including Barack Obama, have directed agencies to review their rules and simplify or strike cumbersome or outdated ones.

But Trump’s executive order goes further, reframing the way government looks at regulations. Presidents since Ronald Reagan have required that government weigh the cost and benefits of major rules. Reagan, for instance, decided to take lead out of gasoline because a rigorous analysis found that although it was costly for some refineries, the health benefits—such as reduction of blood lead levels in children—were far greater.

Trump’s executive order, however, looks only at costs. It requires that in 2017, the total cost of regulations be “no greater than zero.” It responds to Republican objections that rules are expensive for business and overburden them with delays and red tape. Environmental regulations carry an especially heavy price tag. A 2011 study by Obama’s White House Office of Management and Budget found that major rules issued over 10 years by the Environmental Protection Agency cost $23 billion to $28 billion. At the time, that was more than the combined costs of regulations from the Departments of Agriculture, Energy, Labor, Justice, Transportation, Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development. But those same EPA rules had benefits to society that outweighed the costs by at least three times. For instance, President Obama’s 2011 rule to slash mercury and other toxic air pollution from power plants was estimated to cost the electric power industry $9.6 billion—but the agency calculated that Americans would receive health benefits from the rule valued at three to nine times as much.

Longtime regulators predict that the executive order will create chaos in agencies and stymie the important work agencies do. Margo Oge headed the Environmental Protection Agency’s office of transportation and air quality from 1994 to 2012. Under both Republican and Democratic presidents, her office issued scores of rules that cleaned up the exhaust from cars, trucks, trains, ships and other vehicles, significantly improving Americans’ health. She predicts the order, which she called “ridiculous,” will shut down that work.

“It will be legally impossible to remove an existing regulation, because all the existing actions have been based on protecting public health and environment,” Oge says. And if they can’t get rid of old rules, they can’t write new ones. “No new action will take place to protect public health, environment or safety.”

Courts won’t let agencies just sit on their hands, some experts say, creating a huge mess for the new cabinet. Trump’s own appointees may find it difficult to write new regulations. For example, Trump’s EPA head nominee Scott Pruitt says he’s “concerned about high blood (lead) levels in children.” He told a Senate committee in answers to written comments: “I will make issuing revisions to the Safe Drinking Water Act Lead and Copper Rule a priority.” The EPA has been reviewing the science and planning to revise its lead and copper in drinking water rule. But under Trump’s two-for-one order, Pruitt may have to identify two existing rules to eliminate before he could move forward.

“(Republicans’) only thought is: ‘We need less government, and this is how we’ll get it,’” says Holly Doremus, a professor at the UC Berkeley Law School. “They’ll find the job of governance requires regulations.”

Elizabeth Shogren is a correspondent for High Country News, where this piece first appeared.

Published in National/International