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TBR News December 16, 2017

Dec 16 2017

The Voice of the White House

Washington, D.C., December 16, 2017: “With growing poverty in the United States (almost 96,000,000 unemployed!) and a callous right-wing new government deliberately cancelling support programs, the groundwork is in place for violent civil rebellions, akin to the Vietnam war protests but far more widespread and far more serious.

Taxation income is not spent on the welfare of the citizens but is considered income for a legion of business interests and their co-conspirators in the government. If this situation is not addressed, and rapidly, the results will be something that will make Vladimir Putin laugh. But it will also lead to a second American Revolution with a certainty.”

 

Table of Contents

  • The Next Crisis for Puerto Rico: A Crush of Foreclosures
  • Fake Silver Dollars From China
  • Country without a Government: Merkel’s Difficult Road to a Coalition
  • The FBI Is Not Your Friend
  • Far-right Freedom Party enters Austrian govt as anti-migrant sentiment creeps across Europe
  • Austria far right: ‘Nobody has anything to fear’ says new minister
  • Poverty in America is a moral outrage. The soul of our nation is at stake
  • A Year in the Ohio River Valley

 

 

The Next Crisis for Puerto Rico: A Crush of Foreclosures

December 16, 2017

by Matthew Goldstein

The New York Times

Puerto Rico has had an awful decade — and it’s about to get worse.

First came a brutal 10-year recession and financial crisis that drove businesses from this island and left 44 percent of the population impoverished. Then, in September, Hurricane Maria, a powerful Category 4 storm, shredded buildings, wrecked the electrical power grid and possibly led to more than 1,000 deaths.

Now Puerto Rico is bracing for another blow: a housing meltdown that could far surpass the worst of the foreclosure crisis that devastated Phoenix, Las Vegas, Southern California and South Florida in the past decade. If the current numbers hold, Puerto Rico is headed for a foreclosure epidemic that could rival what happened in Detroit, where abandoned homes became almost as plentiful as occupied ones.

About one-third of the island’s 425,000 homeowners are behind on their mortgage payments to banks and Wall Street firms that previously bought up distressed mortgages. Tens of thousands have not made payments for months. Some 90,000 borrowers became delinquent as a consequence of Hurricane Maria, according to Black Knight Inc., a data firm formerly known as Black Knight Financial Services.

Puerto Rico’s 35 percent foreclosure and delinquency rate is more than double the 14.4 percent national rate during the depths of the housing implosion in January 2010. And there is no prospect of the problem’s solving itself or quickly.

“If there is no income, the people cannot make payments,” said Ricardo Ramos-González, coordinator of a consumer legal aid clinic at the University of Puerto Rico School of Law. “Thousands have lost their jobs, thousands of small business have closed, and thousands more have left the country.”

At the moment, dealing with a mortgage lender about a missed payment may be a distant concern for many of the 3.4 million people in Puerto Rico. They are literally still picking up the pieces, struggling to live without electricity or trying to get insurance companies to pay claims to repair their homes. More than 100,000 people are believed to have left to go live with friends and family on the mainland.

Residents won a reprieve when the federal government imposed a temporary moratorium on foreclosures, which stops banks and investors that bought mortgages at cut-rate prices from evicting delinquent borrowers or starting new foreclosures. Many lenders also have agreed to waive missed payments during the moratorium.

But that moratorium is scheduled to expire in early 2018, and lawyers and housing counselors expect that to trigger a surge in foreclosures.

“We will see an avalanche of cases,” said Josue Castellanos-Otero, a lawyer, who said many of his housing clients were focused on getting insurance companies to pay to fix their damaged homes.

Repairing the housing market in Puerto Rico will take more than rebuilding storm-damaged homes and the electrical grid. It will involve banks and investors reworking tens of thousands of troubled mortgages and waiving missed payments.

The looming housing crisis threatens to upend the social structure on the island and means the aftereffects of the storm will be felt for years to come. It could be particularly painful for the elderly, who often have limited incomes and whose homes tend to be their most valuable assets.

Even before the storm, Puerto Rico was mired in a severe housing slump. Home prices over the past decade have fallen by 25 percent, and lenders have foreclosed or filed to foreclose on 60,000 home loans, according to the Puerto Rico state court system. Last year, there were 7,682 court-ordered foreclosures — a roughly 33 percent increase from 2007. Some 13,000 foreclosure cases are pending, Black Knight estimates.

And that is how Wall Street got into the mix.

Bargain Hunters

In the past several years, a slew of bargain-hunting banks, hedge funds and other financial institutions descended on Puerto Rico to scoop up distressed residential mortgages and foreclosed homes. The list includes big investment banks like Credit Suisse and Goldman Sachs and smaller boutiques including Perella Weinberg and an affiliate of the private-equity firm TPG Capital, which is an investor in a Cayman Islands mortgage investment company.

The recent devastation is likely to further depress housing prices. That’s partly because the “mass exodus” of Puerto Ricans going to the continental United States means the demand for housing “has gone down substantially,” said Laurie Goodman, director of the Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center.

If normal patterns held, that would be bad news for the investment firms that gambled on Puerto Rico’s housing market. But normal patterns don’t necessarily apply here, given that some mortgages are guaranteed by a federal insurance fund.

Consider Blackstone Group, the big private equity firm. Blackstone owns a company, Finance of America Reverse, that specializes in a type of home loan called a reverse mortgage, which is guaranteed by the federal government.

The loans are a way for people 62 or older to tap the equity they have built up in their homes; the principal and interest are payable when the borrower dies. The loans require borrowers to keep paying taxes and homeowner’s insurance on a property. Reverse mortgages have a history of abuse. Lenders often don’t fully explain the loans’ terms.

There are 10,000 reverse mortgages in Puerto Rico, and Finance of America controls about 40 percent of the market, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the government insurance fund that guarantees a lender will be repaid on a reverse mortgage.

If Finance of America sells a foreclosed home for less than the value of the mortgage, the firm can make a claim to the insurance fund to make up the difference. In that case, taxpayers would be on the hook

Court records show that the Blackstone-controlled company is aggressive in its pursuit of — and foreclosures on — borrowers.

Since 2015, Finance of America and a predecessor firm have filed 500 foreclosures in federal court.

José Gonzalez-Lopez “feels harassed” after Finance of America initiated a foreclosure case against him for the third time in two years, according to his lawyer, Juan Carlos Cancio-Reichard. He said the first two cases had been dismissed after the lender incorrectly claimed Mr. Gonzalez-Lopez, 73, had not paid for homeowner’s insurance on the property.

Now Finance of America has claimed Mr. Gonzalez-Lopez did not pay property taxes on the house — something the borrower disputes. Mr. Cancio-Reichard said his client had recently gotten the Puerto Rico Treasury Department to certify there were no unpaid taxes on his account. The lawyer is asking Finance of America’s lawyer to voluntarily dismiss the case.

“José thinks they want to get him out of the house,” Mr. Cancio-Reichard said.

Sara Sefcovic, a Finance of America spokeswoman, said the firm could not speak about specific cases, but “foreclosure is a last resort for our company.”

She added that the firm is “required to follow federal guidelines for this program and have virtually no discretion over whether or not to initiate a foreclosure proceeding.”

To file a foreclosure for any reason other than the death of the borrower, a reverse mortgage lender must get approval from an outside mortgage-servicing firm working for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Over the past three years, the department has given more than 1,500 such approvals to reverse mortgage lenders in Puerto Rico.

English Only

Many offshore lenders like Finance of America file foreclosure lawsuits in federal court in San Juan, where proceedings move much faster than in the island’s territorial courts.

It’s not just speed. In federal court, all legal filings are in English. In local court, they are in Spanish. Not being able to read legal filings puts defendants at a disadvantage.

“Sometimes people don’t show up in federal court because they don’t even know they have been sued,” said Carmen Cosme, a housing counselor.

Ms. Sefcovic said Finance of America “will provide documents for borrowers in Spanish to the extent allowed by H.U.D. and the law.”

The moratorium imposed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development on the more than 117,000 mortgages it insures in Puerto Rico, such as the reverse mortgage on Mr. Gonzalez-Lopez’s home, will expire on March 18. A moratorium on mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is due to expire on Dec. 31, although it is likely to be extended for a few months.

Mr. Ramos and other housing counselors said they would like the moratorium extended for a full year, although others argue that would only postpone an inevitable wave of foreclosures.

The moratorium doesn’t appear to be airtight. Finance of America Reverse, for instance, filed three foreclosure cases after the moratorium began on Sept. 17.

Ms. Sefcovic, the company spokeswoman, said the three cases “were referred to foreclosure” before the hurricane hit and the moratorium took effect.

Others continue to battle Finance of America in court despite the moratorium.

Leila Hernandez Umpierre said her parents, both in their 80s, were being sued for a second time by Finance of America. Ms. Hernandez Umpierre, a lawyer, said that her parents, who bought their house in Bayamón, P.R., in 1958, had been living without electrical power since the storm hit and that the stress of the looming foreclosure was adding to their anxiety.

“My father and mother don’t have much money, as do many older people in Puerto Rico,” said Ms. Hernandez Umpierre, who spoke on behalf of her parents, Minerva Umpierre Vazquez and Jorge Hernandez Rodriguez. “My father doesn’t want to talk to about it. It is very stressful for him.”

Finance of America, in court papers, said the foreclosure was warranted because the couple had failed to pay for homeowner’s insurance.

But the couple’s lawyer, Jorge A. Fernández-Reboredo, said there was proof the insurance was paid. When the lender raised a similar claim in a 2015 foreclosure lawsuit, a federal judge dismissed the case, noting that Finance of America’s “complaint fails to sufficiently specify grounds on which plaintiff seeks to initiate foreclosure.”

“They are being pretty aggressive,” Mr. Fernández-Reboredo said.

 

Fake Silver Dollars From China

China is a great nation with a rich heritage, yet China has a major problem with fakery, a problem for the rest of the world as well as itself. China is the world’s capital of counterfeiting, with coins, antiquities, fossils, computer software, music CDs, movie DVDs, books, paintings, clothes, sneakers, jewelry, watches, handbags, toys, sporting goods, film, batteries, food, baby formula, pet food, medicine, cars, car parts, trucks, and much else.

The Chinese make these goods, copying a major brand. But instead of putting their own label or logo on any given product, they put the brand’s logo on the product to try to fool consumers into thinking that the company behind the brand, and not the Chinese copyist, made it. They often succeed. China is the worst country in the world in terms of counterfeiting, according to the International Intellectual Property Alliance, with Russia, Italy, Mexico, Brazil, South Korea, Canada, India, Taiwan, and Portugal following in order. China not only is the worst country in the world, it appears to make far more counterfeits than all the other countries in the world combined. China is the source of about 80 percent of all counterfeit goods seized at U.S. ports by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency. Entire factories, even entire towns in China, have been built specifically to produce counterfeit goods.

According to Dan Chow, a law professor at Ohio State University who specializes in Chinese counterfeiting and who was quoted in a CBS News story, “We have never seen a problem of this size and magnitude in world history. There’s more counterfeiting going on in China now than we’ve ever seen anywhere. We know that 15 to 20 percent of all goods in China are counterfeit.” According to attorney Harley Lewin, who has been going after counterfeiters from China for more than 20 years and who was quoted in the same CBS News story, “[Chinese counterfeiting] is the most profitable criminal venture, as far as I know, on Earth.”

China has a big problem with counterfeiting of its own currency, paper money as well as coins, according to counterfeit expert Robert Matthews. The Chinese police periodically seize fake large quantities of Chinese notes and coins.

China also has a big problem with the faking of its own past. Chinese antiquities shops and markets consist almost entirely of fakes, as reported in an article at the China Daily Web site. Professor Yang Jingrong stated that 95 percent of all antiquities sold in China are modern forgeries. Chinese antiquities shopkeepers for the most part appear to knowingly sell fakes as authentic under the subterfuge that it’s the buyer’s responsibility to determine authenticity.

Many Chinese counterfeit goods are shoddy or dangerous, using low-grade components or ingredients. Chinese imports into the U.S. in general account for more than 60 percent of product recalls by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Chinese consumers also suffer from shoddy counterfeits. Horrible incidents have been reported multiple times in the news of dozens to hundreds of Chinese babies dying or getting sick after being fed counterfeit baby formula, laced with a deadly chemical to make a diluted product appear to have a higher protein content.

The 2008 Olympics demonstrated to the world just how ingrained fakery is in Chinese society today. China faked the opening ceremony, using digital effects for the televised proceedings instead of real fireworks, as later revealed by a Chinese newspaper; it faked its “national unity” parade by contending that children wearing costumes of different ethnic groups consisted of ethnic minorities when in fact they were all of the Han majority; and it even faked the age of its female gymnasts, breaking the Olympic rules, to let underage children compete.

The problem of Chinese counterfeiting has gone on for years and appears to just worsen over time. Fakery in China seems to be official government policy or at least officially tolerated. Whenever major news of Chinese counterfeiting surfaces in the West, the Chinese government takes highly publicized and sometimes dramatic but ultimately superficial steps to try to stop it. The true nature of official Chinese attitudes is more likely along the lines of statements from Chinese officials saying that counterfeiting is the cost that foreign companies must pay to be able to do business in China.

Chinese officials have also been quoted as saying the international press exaggerates the issue, and they have accused Chinese journalists of faking news reports of fake Chinese goods. Chinese journalists have in fact been caught faking. But much bigger than the problem of faking by Chinese journalists is the problem of faking in Chinese society as a whole.

China is a developing country and doesn’t appear to recognize international law regarding intellectual property. To the Chinese, copying is entrepreneurship, with copyrights, trademarks, and patents being foreign concepts and largely ignored. Chinese society as a whole in its energetic drive toward economic prosperity seems to have chosen fakery as a shortcut, ignoring conventions in the rest of the civilized world.

When Japan was transforming itself into an industrial power in the years following World War Two, it also competed by making low-cost goods. But for the most part it didn’t try to deceive by putting fake labels of companies from other countries on these products and trying to create the impression that these goods are of the same quality as those put out by these companies and are warranted by them. Japan proudly labeled its low-cost goods as “Made in Japan” rather than using fake labels as China does.

On the other hand, China has a rich cultural, scientific, and intellectual heritage. From the time of Confucius and Lao-Tzu, China has contributed to the betterment of civilization. Today, China also makes many authentic, original goods.

Coinage has a long history in China, with the first Chinese coins thought to have been minted at about the same time as the first coins in Asia Minor.

Many Chinese counterfeits of U.S. dollars and other coins are out there as well, put out by other Chinese forgery factories. Some coin dealers in California report receiving about one phone call a day asking whether the old U.S. coins the person just bought on the street are real. One person emailed me about a dozen U.S. silver dollars he bought “cheap” in California that turned out to be magnetic, indicating an iron content, which no authentic U.S. dollar coins have.

Some Chinese forgery criminals sell marked replicas on eBay in large quantities. According to several people, all you have to do is ask and the Chinese seller will sell the same pieces to you not marked as replicas. Legitimate replica makers refuse to do this. The quality reportedly ranges from very obvious to very deceptive. Chinese forgery factories appear to be using eBay in this way to find wholesale buyers of their work. This has the potential of flooding the world’s collectibles markets with ever more Chinese fakes.

 

Country without a Government: Merkel’s Difficult Road to a Coalition

December 15, 2017

by Melanie Amann, Veit Medick, Peter Müller, Ralf Neukirch, Michael Sauga, Christoph Schult and Gerald Traufetter

Spiegel

Three months after the election, Germany is as far away from a governing coalition as ever and Social Democrats don’t expect an agreement before Easter. Meanwhile, Germany’s influence in the EU is on the wane. By DER SPIEGEL Staff

Germany’s acting finance minister, Peter Altmaier, is fond of playing the cosmopolitan European diplomat on visits to Brussels. Articulate and multilingual, Altmaier doesn’t shy away from speaking a bit of Dutch into the microphone and is perfectly at home chatting with outgoing Eurogroup head Jeroen Dijsselbloem or delivering a withering critique of U.S. President Donald Trump’s tax plan.

But once the doors close and his counterparts begin asking him the question that is foremost on their minds — when is Europe’s most important country going to finally assemble a new government? — Altmaier has no choice but to tell them the sobering truth. The constitutional situation in Germany, he notes, is complicated. Furthermore, if a renewed coalition between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) — a pairing known as a “grand coalition” — does, in fact, take shape, the SPD has said it plans to have the grassroots vote on it. That will take time, Altmaier says, looking into the shocked faces surrounding him.

With its current provisional government, Germany is in the process of gambling away its excellent political reputation in Europe. The country used to be considered a paragon of democracy with a parliamentary system that worked just as reliably as its cars and industrial machinery.

Yet with the German general election, held on Sept. 24, rapidly fading into the rearview mirror and parties like the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) and the SPD — both of which with plenty of experience as members of governing coalitions in Germany — shying away from joining Merkel’s conservatives in a political alliance, many abroad have begun seeing the country in a new light. The growing skepticism started, of course, with Berlin’s misadventures in its attempt to build a simple airport and the doubts have gained credence with a series of other mishaps, most recently German rail’s inability to get its much-ballyhooed new high-speed line between Munich and Berlin working properly. And now the country can’t even seem to assemble a governing coalition. Can’t the Germans do anything anymore?

For the time being, the damage done isn’t overwhelming. The acting cabinet, in office since October, has been leading the republic with the listless efficiency one might expect. And there are plenty of people out there who approve of a government that focuses exclusively on the day-to-day and is limited in the amount of money it can spend.

But the longer the vacuum continues, the more obvious the disadvantages will become. Important decisions are being delayed, Germany’s heft in Europe and the world is eroding and — perhaps most importantly — the standstill in Berlin is bolstering populist critiques of the parliamentary system and their claims that the political elite only care about their own parties and not the good of the country as a whole.

‘Embarrassing Display’

With the first round of coalition negotiations — which sought to assemble a government comprised of the conservatives, the FDP and the Greens — having failed, a clear majority of Germans believe the country to be “in a difficult situation” according to surveys. A poll taken by the Allensbach Institute resulted in replies like: “It is embarrassing to put such disunity on display to the world.”

It could get even more embarrassing shortly. With the conservatives and the SPD soon to begin preliminary coalition discussions, doubts about a successful conclusion to those talks are greater than ever. The idea of joining Merkel in another governing coalition is anathema to many in the SPD while some conservatives have been vocal about their preference for a minority government, a position they share with a number of SPD members.

That means that Merkel is faced with fighting a battle on two fronts: One pitting her against the critics in her own camp; and one aimed at convincing the Social Democrats to join her.

Merkel herself hasn’t been shy about her affinity for governing together with the SPD. In mid-October, at a time when the first round of coalition talks with the FDP and Greens seemed to be going well, the cabinet of the chancellor’s outgoing coalition with the SPD met on the seventh floor of the Chancellery.

Nobody there seriously thought there was a chance that their alliance might continue for another four years. And wine-fueled amicability was in generous supply that evening, with senior politicians from both parties dropping the formality that had characterized their working relationships. Merkel held a brief farewell address in which she sang the praises of the grand coalition. She said that cooperation with the SPD had been outstanding and expressed her doubts that a different coalition could ever work together so harmoniously and smoothly.

Preferences for a Minority Government

The problem, though, is that among her conservatives, enthusiasm for the alliance with the SPD isn’t nearly as profound. Indeed, the intransigence has become so unabashed that Horst Seehofer, head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), saw fit to complain.

Last Sunday, he joined Merkel in the Chancellery to bemoan the numerous statements of grand-coalition skepticism coming out of the CDU. He said that he had counted 14 such statements coming from the CDU in recent days. “You have to put a stop to it,” Seehofer told Merkel.

Both Seehofer and Merkel would like the talks with the SPD to go as quickly as possible. “The world is waiting for us to be able to engage again,” the chancellor said on Monday. Others, though, don’t see it that way. The party’s economically liberal wing prefers a minority government while Jens Spahn, perhaps Merkel’s most dangerous adversary within the CDU, has demanded that the conservatives not abandon a single core position in their talks with the SPD. If they do, he said, he would also be in favor of a minority government.

Some suspect that Spahn may not be primarily concerned with the party’s positions on the issues. Indeed, conservative floor leader Volker Kauder sharply upbraided Spahn and his allies during a recent meeting of CDU leaders: “You are only interested in getting a cabinet seat,” he said. And indeed, were the CDU to opt for a minority government, Spahn’s chances of receiving a cabinet portfolio would be much greater.

Spahn, of course, has made no secret of his ambitions. Thus far, though, he doesn’t have the necessary governing experience to perhaps succeed Merkel one day. He does, however, have plenty of backers within the CDU, which helps explain why many in the party aren’t rallying behind Merkel’s calls for quick coalition talks with the SPD.

Concerns about a repeat of the grand coalition, though, are much greater within the Social Democrats. After the party’s catastrophic results in the Sept. 24 election, the SPD had seemed relieved that it could flee into the opposition. Indeed, even after Merkel proved unable to assemble a coalition with the FDP and the Greens, the SPD continued to play hard-to-get — until German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who has suspended his SPD membership while he is the country’s head of state, made it clear he wasn’t in favor of holding new elections. But the party clearly isn’t eager to join another government. The word coming out of the SPD is that a government before Easter will only be possible if talks go completely smoothly.

What is a KoKo?

Following the preliminary talks, the SPD plans to hold a party congress to decide on whether to enter formal coalition talks. Should those talks then produce an agreement, the final deal would then be voted on by the SPD grassroots.

But there is a fair amount of confusion within the Social Democrats at the moment and it remains completely unclear what exactly party leaders want. Whereas party head Martin Schulz and floor leader Andrea Nahles recently indicated that they are leaning in favor of a grand coalition, senior party member Malu Dreyer, the SPD governor of Rhineland-Palatinate, is more in favor of a minority government.

How exactly a minority government might be beneficial to the SPD isn’t entirely clear. Furthermore, Dreyer herself decided against a minority government in her own state in 2016, preferring to cobble together a three-party coalition. Still, her voice is a weighty one in the party.

Then there is a third group, including the party’s left wing, that has thrown its support behind an experimental form of government participation. One idea circulating is that of a “Cooperation Coalition,” quaintly abbreviated to “KoKo” in German. The idea is that the coalition agreement would only formalize the alliance on a handful of core political projects while the parties would be allowed to work against each other on other issues. KoKo fans within the SPD believe the arrangement would give the party a bit more distance from Merkel and her conservatives. But the concept seems to ignore the fact that the SPD would find it virtually impossible to push proposals through parliament in opposition to the CDU and CSU. Even if the SPD were to have the support of the Greens and the Left Party, they still wouldn’t have a majority.

Everybody in SPD leadership is clear that the party must present a more united front at its January congress than it did during its congress from last week. In order to avoid a rupture, leaders must arrive at a clear position supported by all of the top brass: Either in favor of forming a government or opposed. And it seems clear that Schulz will only be given a green light to proceed if he can credibly claim that a renewed alliance with Merkel will lead to far-reaching health care reform, billions of investments in education and progress on other key Social Democrat demands.

Much will depend on the state SPD chapter in North Rhine-Westphalia, which has traditionally been extremely skeptical of an alliance with the Christian Democrats. With the state being Germany’s most populous, the SPD chapter there will send 150 delegates to the party congress, roughly a quarter of the total. And it won’t be easy to control them. Everybody at SPD headquarters in Berlin knows that if the North Rhine-Westphalia SPD doesn’t support a grand coalition, it won’t happen.

Signs of Torpor in Berlin

And state SPD leader Michael Groschek is extremely skeptical. “There is much currently being said about the SPD’s shared sovereign responsibility,” he says. But the SPD’s primary responsibility is to “once again become large and strong enough that the people of our country see it as a real alternative when it comes to choosing our country’s chancellor,” he continues. “If we get used to being the junior partner, we’ll end up as lackeys.”

Groschek warns the SPD and conservatives against making any quick assumptions about the potential success of renewed grand coalition talks. “Nobody should fall prey to illusions that the grand coalition will become an inevitability just because of a few nice headlines coming out of the preliminary talks,” he says. “We’re not drawing any red lines, but without concrete improvements in the areas of labor market policy, pensions and health care, it is unthinkable that the party congress will give a green light to further talks.”

The consequences aren’t difficult to predict. If SPD negotiators want to be able to present concrete agreements to party congress delegates and, later, to grassroots Social Democrats, they will have to wrestle with conservatives over every single detail. And that will make coalition negotiations even more drawn-out.

Meanwhile, the world is not standing still. German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks was confronted with that fact at COP23, the recent global climate change conference in Bonn. Under the leadership of Canada and Britain, an international alliance was formed for the phase-out of coal — and Hendricks had to stand by and watch. Until a new government is formed, after all, she is only leading the portfolio in a caretaker capacity.

But it is in Brussels where Germany’s absence has been particularly noticeable. Diplomats there emphasize with barely concealed delight that work is continuing on virtually all issues despite the lack of a government in Berlin.

French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, for example, recently presented an ambitious plan for electromobility. “France plans to end the sale of automobiles with internal combustion engines in the year 2040,” Philippe wrote, adding that he hopes other EU countries will emulate the pledge. The letter hasn’t yet been published, but it is nothing short of an open challenge to Berlin. And Germany’s caretaker government isn’t in a position to defend itself. Indeed, the outgoing grand coalition had failed in recent months to agree on a clear policy on electromobility.

Protracted Even Further

Berlin also remains on the sidelines in terms of reforming the EU, likely to be the most important political issue facing Europe in the coming months. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker presented his vision for the EU’s future a few days ago, an answer to the laundry list of proposals French President Emmanuel Macron delivered two days after the German general election. But it remains unclear what Germany wants. The last meaningful proposal coming from Berlin originated with then-Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who has been president of the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, since late October.

When Merkel flew to Brussels on Thursday for a meeting of the European Council, she brought along a dossier regarding Juncker’s proposals. But the paper ended with the conclusion that little could be done until Germany formed a new government.

Given Germany’s traditional role as the most powerful voice when it comes to the direction taken by the EU, the delay is becoming a problem. European Council President Donald Tusk had hoped to come up with an agreement on the way forward by the middle of next year. But thanks to the slow process of assembling a government in Berlin, that timeline is beginning to look unrealistic. And with European elections looming in 2019, the delay could be protracted even further.

Even those who aren’t generally known for showing nerves are becoming nervous, people like Gunther Krichbaum, a CDU parliamentarian who is the long-serving chair of the European Affairs Committee in the German parliament. He generally doesn’t demand the floor during meetings of the conservative caucus, but when Merkel on Monday evening only briefly mentioned the upcoming European Council meeting (“… and then there’s the summit”), he’d had enough. Germany, he called out, has to be careful that it doesn’t completely lose its influence in Europe. German interests, he said, are in danger of disappearing under the radar. Günther Oettinger, Germany’s representative on the European Commission, likewise complained recently in an interview with DER SPIEGEL that Germany’s influence on important issues in Brussels had gone missing.

Like the issue of money, for example. Oettinger, the commissioner for budget and human resources, is currently compiling a draft budget for EU spending from 2021 to 2027. For Germany, billions in agricultural subsidies and regional assistance programs are at stake while Merkel would like to shift large chunks of EU spending to education, refugee policy and technology.

Delayed Decisions

Another controversial issue is how to compensate for the 10 billion euros per year that will be lost once Britain leaves the EU. Many EU member states have a clear idea of who should jump into that gap: namely, Germany.

Berlin’s ongoing inability to assemble a stable government is far from being a crisis of state. At first glance, political administration is continuing as it should while in the Bundestag, committees have been formed and debates are being held. But at second glance, things are in fact stalled throughout the political machinery.

It begins with minor formalities: The personnel department in the Justice Ministry, for example, isn’t sure what to do because some employee contracts there contain a provision saying that the contractual relationship comes to an end two months after the minister’s departure. Now, lawyers are trying to figure out whether a caretaker minister has actually “departed” in a legal sense.

Every office head at the moment must decide for him- or herself how to proceed on important issues and personnel questions: Either delay vital decisions or just charge ahead. Delay is possible, if difficult, in some cases — such as two senior vacancies in the Justice Ministry caused by retirements. Because acting minister Heiko Maas doesn’t know who might be taking over the ministry, or whether he might actually remain in his current position, he doesn’t feel able to hire replacements.

But there are certain issues on which decisions must be made immediately. One of those is the diesel problem. In late February, the Federal Administrative Court will render a judgment on whether diesel-fueled vehicles can be banned from the centers of some cities. In an effort to satisfy the court’s concerns, Merkel had pledged 1 billion euros in immediate aid for programs aimed at, for example, modifying aging diesel buses. But funding cannot be made available without a budget and a budget cannot be passed without a government.

A Boon for the Populists

Because the clock is ticking ahead of the verdict, the government is trying to divert money to the programs from other existing projects within the Environment Ministry and Transport Ministry that are somehow related to clean air. But it’s far from sufficient, leading officials to nab a half-billion euros from the country’s climate fund, which is supposed to provide resources to projects combatting climate change.

The winner of the ongoing governmental stalemate in Berlin is likely to be the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party. Should negotiations for a renewed grand coalition succeed, the AfD would become the largest opposition party. If they don’t succeed, the AfD could continue to decry the failures of Germany’s big-tent parties. And continue to pose as the true representatives of “the people.”

During the first round of coalition negotiations between the conservatives, the FDP and the Greens, the AfD had a “dispatch” delivered to Angela Merkel at the site of the talks. “We are following the exploratory talks with great concern,” the missive read. “We have gained the impression that these negotiations are not adequately addressing the problems facing our country.”

It seems likely that once preliminary talks begin for a re-run of the grand coalition, leaders from the SPD and CDU can expect to receive a similar message.

 

The FBI Is Not Your Friend

December 16, 2017

by Sheldon Richman

AntiWar

One of the unfortunate ironies of the manufactured “Russiagate” controversy is the perception of the FBI as a friend of liberty and justice. But the FBI has never been a friend of liberty and justice. Rather, as James Bovard writes, it “has a long record of both deceit and incompetence. Five years ago, Americans learned that the FBI was teaching its agents that ‘the FBI has the ability to bend or suspend the law to impinge on the freedom of others.’ This has practically been the Bureau’s motif since its creation in 1908…. The FBI has always used its ‘good guy’ image to keep a lid on its crimes.”

Bovard has made a vocation of cataloging the FBI’s many offenses against liberty and justice, for which we are forever in his debt.

Things are certainly not different today. Take the case of Michael Flynn, the retired lieutenant general who spent less than a month as Donald Trump’s national-security adviser. Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in connection with conversations he had with Russia’s then-ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, between Trump’s election and inauguration. One need not be an admirer of Flynn – and for many reasons I certainly am not – to be disturbed by how the FBI has handled this case.

One ought to be immediately suspicious whenever someone is charged with or pleads guilty to lying to the FBI without any underlying crime being charged. Former assistant U.S. attorney Andrew C. McCarthy points out:

When a prosecutor has a cooperator who was an accomplice in a major criminal scheme, the cooperator is made to plead guilty to the scheme. This is critical because it proves the existence of the scheme. In his guilty-plea allocution (the part of a plea proceeding in which the defendant admits what he did that makes him guilty), the accomplice explains the scheme and the actions taken by himself and his co-conspirators to carry it out. This goes a long way toward proving the case against all of the subjects of the investigation.

That is not happening in Flynn’s situation. Instead, like [former Trump foreign-policy “adviser” George] Papadopoulos, he is being permitted to plead guilty to a mere process crime.

When the FBI questioned Flynn about his conversations with Kislyak, it already had the transcripts of those conversations – the government eavesdrops on the representatives of foreign governments, among others, and Flynn had been identified, or “unmasked,” as the ambassador’s conversation partner. The FBI could have simply told Flynn the transcripts contained evidence of a crime (assuming for the sake of argument they did) and charged him with violating the Logan Act or whatever else the FBI had in mind.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, the FBI asked Flynn about his conversations with Kislyak, apparently to test him. If he lied (which would mean he’s pretty stupid since he once ran the Defense Intelligence Agency and must have known about the transcripts!) or had a bad memory, he could have been charged with lying to the FBI.

As investigative reporter Robert Parry explains:

What is arguably most disturbing about this case is that then-National Security Adviser Flynn was pushed into a perjury trap by Obama administration holdovers at the Justice Department who concocted an unorthodox legal rationale for subjecting Flynn to an FBI interrogation four days after he took office, testing Flynn’s recollection of the conversations while the FBI agents had transcripts of the calls intercepted by the National Security Agency.

In other words, the Justice Department wasn’t seeking information about what Flynn said to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak – the intelligence agencies already had that information. Instead, Flynn was being quizzed on his precise recollection of the conversations and nailed for lying when his recollections deviated from the transcripts.

For Americans who worry about how the pervasive surveillance powers of the US government could be put to use criminalizing otherwise constitutionally protected speech and political associations, Flynn’s prosecution represents a troubling precedent.

Why didn’t the FBI charge Flynn with an underlying crime? It might be because his conversations with Kislyak were not criminal. McCarthy writes:

A breaking report from ABC News indicates that Flynn is prepared to testify that Trump directed him to make contact with the Russians – initially to lay the groundwork for mutual efforts against ISIS in Syria. That, however, is exactly the sort of thing the incoming national-security adviser is supposed to do in a transition phase between administrations. If it were part of the basis for a “collusion” case arising out of Russia’s election meddling, then Flynn would not be pleading guilty to a process crime – he’d be pleading guilty to an espionage conspiracy.

David Stockman shows that the FBI and Special Counsel Robert Mueller themselves indicate the Flynn-Kislyak conversations contained no evidence of criminal behavior.

Flynn spoke to Kislyak to ask that Russia not escalate tensions after President Obama imposed sanctions last December for the alleged election meddling and to ask that Russia not vote to condemn Israel, via a UN Security Council resolution, for its illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land. In other words, not only were Flynn’s discussions with Kislyak unexceptional – presidential transition-team foreign-policy officials have spoken with representatives of other governments in the past – but the content of those discussions should have raised no suspicions. Would non-escalation of the sanctions controversy or a UN veto have undermined Obama’s foreign policy? I don’t see how. (True, the Obama administration abstained on the resolution, but would Obama have objected had Russia vetoed it? By the way, Russia voted for it, and the resolution passed, as it should have.)

The Flynn plea certainly does nothing to indicate “collusion” with the Russians. For one thing, the conversations were after the election. And perhaps more important, Kislyak was not looking for favors from Flynn; on the contrary, Flynn was lobbying the Russians (successfully on the sanctions – Vladimir Putin did not retaliate – and unsuccessfully on the UN resolution.) Where’s the evidence of Russian influence on the Trump team? There was foreign influence, but it was from Israel, a regular meddler in the American political process. All indications are that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Trump son-in-law and special envoy to everywhere Jared Kushner to lobby the world to defeat the UN resolution. Kushner, who has helped finance illegal Israeli settlements, then directed Flynn to call every Security Council member, not just Russia.

What about the Logan Act? The Act, enacted in 1799, around the time of the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts, prohibits private citizens from unauthorized “correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.”

Right off the bat, the Act appears to violate freedom of speech. And as Parry writes, “That law … was never intended to apply to incoming officials in the transition period between elected presidential administrations.”

Note also that only two indictments have been brought in 218 years: in 1803 and 1852. Both cases were dropped. Far more serious contacts with foreign governments have occurred. In 1968 Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon (with help from Henry Kissinger who was working in the Johnson administration) had a representative persuade the president of South Vietnam to boycott the peace talks President Lyndon Johnson had been arranging with North Vietnam. That decision most likely prolonged the Vietnam war and resulted in combat deaths that would not have occurred. Unlike the Flynn case, Nixon’s action undercut the sitting president’s policy and, more important, the interests of the American people.

I hold no brief for Flynn, whose conduct while working for Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan, his dubious efforts on behalf of Turkey’s strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his apparent financial conflicts of interest are enough to make anyone cringe. But that cannot justify what the FBI did in this plea case.

Government law-enforcement agencies should not be allowed to administer credibility tests to Americans or others. If they have evidence of real offenses against persons and property, bring charges. Otherwise, leave us all alone.

 

Far-right Freedom Party enters Austrian govt as anti-migrant sentiment creeps across Europe

December 16, 2017

RT

After celebrating a resounding success in the recent parliamentary elections, the anti-immigrant Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) has joined a coalition government with Sebastian Kurz’s conservative Austrian People’s Party (OVP).

The agreement between the People’s Party and the Freedom Party, which is returning to government after more than a decade’s absence, was struck on Friday, the two parties’ leaders, Sebastian Kurz and Heinz-Christian Strache, announced in a joint news conference.

Strache, who once advocated a law similar to the ban on Nazi practices to be introduced against “political Islam,” spoke about “mutual appreciation” with Kurz, adding that they share “the responsibility for our homeland Austria and for the people in this country.”

The details of the coalition agreement will not be revealed before centrist Austrian President Alexander van der Bellen is briefed on the outcome of the talks, although Kurz has already outlined some points vital to both parties that would shape future government’s agenda. Among them is a further tightening of screws over migration.

“We want to reduce the burden on taxpayers … and above all we want to ensure greater security in our country, including through the fight against illegal immigration,” Kurz said.

A source with knowledge of the negotiations told Reuters that the Freedom Party is seeking at least three key ministerial jobs: Interior, Foreign and Defense.

While the Austrian far-right party under its current chairman has never called for leaving the EU, Kurz reportedly worked to ensure that his coalition partner would never seek an Austrian version of Brexit.

The Freedom Party finished third in October’s parliamentary elections, receiving 26 percent of the vote, less than one percentage point behind the second placed Social Democrats. Kurz’s People’s Party comfortably finished first in the elections with 31.5 percent.

The success of the far-right Freedom Party, which gained 7 percentage points on the previous elections, come as it emphasizes a hardline anti-immigrant stance after Austria was overwhelmed by a wave of refugees fleeing war and persecution. Since 2015, the Alpine country took in some 150,000 asylum seekers, which accounts for over 1 percent of its population, one of the largest shares per capita alongside Sweden.

The signs of the growing popularity of the far-right was evident in December last year, when Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer’s bid to become modern Austria’s first far-right president was only narrowly defeated in a neck-and-neck contest with centrist Van der Bellen.

With Austria set to form a right-wing government, institutionalized opposition to “open door” policies on migrants is no longer restricted to the EU’s eastern reaches. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, with their right-wing conservative governments, remain staunchly opposed to the EU relocation scheme and refuse to take in a single refugee.

 

Austria far right: ‘Nobody has anything to fear’ says new minister

December 16, 2017

BBC News

Austria’s next interior minister has said “nobody has anything to fear” from the new coalition government.

Far-right politician Herbert Kickl, a senior figure in the Freedom Party, said he had “a very, very good feeling” about the new coalition with the conservative People’s Party.

Austria’s president approved the new coalition on Saturday, two months after inconclusive elections.

People’s Party leader Sebastian Kurz, 31, will be Austria’s new chancellor.

He will become the world’s youngest head of government.

President Alexander Van der Bellen said the new government had assured him of both a pro-EU stance and a continued commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights.

As well as the interior ministry, the anti-immigrant Freedom Party has secured several other key posts.

Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache will be vice-chancellor. His party colleagues will run the defence and health and social security ministries.

The new foreign minister will be Middle East expert and writer Karin Kneissl, who is not a Freedom Party member but was nominated by the party.

Analysis: A rare far-right success

Bethany Bell, Vienna

Unlike most of Europe’s populist parties, the Freedom Party has managed to translate its success at the ballot box into real political power.

It has been a major player in Austrian politics for decades. In recent years, the party has toned down some of its more extreme rhetoric.

But many analysts believe that, in or out of government, it has helped set a right-wing agenda, not just in Austria – but in other countries across Europe as well.

Its stance against immigration is becoming more mainstream, along with its populist tone.

Presentational grey line

During the election campaign, the Freedom Party accused Mr Kurz of stealing their policies. Heinz-Christian Strach, his new vice-chancellor, branded him an “imposter”.

When the far-right Freedom Party last entered a coalition in Austria in 2000, its fellow EU member states froze bilateral diplomatic relations in response.

Those diplomatic sanctions were lifted months later, after the move failed to force the Freedom Party out of government and amid fears that continued sanctions could further increase nationalist tensions.

That is unlikely to happen again, as resurgent right-wing populist groups have been promoting anti-immigration and Eurosceptic agendas across much of the EU.

But unlike the Freedom Party, those other parties have struggled to convert electoral success into real power.

Earlier this year, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front party lost the French presidential election comprehensively. Ms Le Pen was defeated by Emmanuel Macron, a liberal centrist and strong supporter of the European Union.

Elsewhere, the Dutch anti-immigration Freedom Party of Geert Wilders was defeated by liberal leader Mark Rutte.

In Germany, the nationalist and populist right of Alternative for Germany (AfD) gained seats in the national parliament, where it is now the third biggest party, but it is not in the frame for coalition talks.

 

Poverty in America is a moral outrage. The soul of our nation is at stake

If we are to save the soul of this country from the poverty that is killing us, we must act, we must agitate, we must cause some righteous trouble

December 16 2017

by Dr William Barber and Dr Liz Theoharis

The Guardian

In March of 1968, as part of a tour of US cities to shine a light on poverty and drum up support for the recently-launched Poor People’s Campaign, the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr visited the northwest Mississippi town of Marks. He saw a teacher feeding schoolchildren a meager lunch of a slice of apple and crackers, and started crying.

Earlier this month, officials from the United Nations embarked on a similar trip across the US, and what they observed was a crisis of systemic poverty that Dr King would have recognized 50 years ago: diseases like hookworm, caused by open sewage, in Butler County, Alabama, and breathtaking levels of homelessness in Los Angeles’ Skid Row, home to 55,000 people.

“I think it’s very uncommon in the first world,” UN special rapporteur Philip Alston said. “This is not a sight that one normally sees. I’d have to say that I haven’t seen this.”

The morally troubling conditions Dr King witnessed across the country cemented his call, along with leaders in the labor movement, tenant unions, farm workers, Native American elders and grassroots organizers, for a campaign to foster a revolution of values in America.

Half a century later, the conditions that motivated the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign have only worsened, making the need for a new moral movement more urgent than ever. Compared to 1968, 60% more Americans are living below the official poverty line today – a total of 41 million people. The gap between our government’s discretionary spending on the military versus anti-poverty programs has grown from two-to-one at the height of the Vietnam war to four-to-one today.

That’s why, this month, poor and disenfranchised people along with clergy and moral leaders nationwide launched the Poor People’s Campaign: a National Call for Moral Revival, to challenge the enmeshed evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation, and our distorted national morality.

The observations by the United Nations published this week are an urgent alarm bell for the moral emergency facing the country. As King did 50 years ago and Alston did earlier this month, we will travel the country to make sure the poor are not ignored. But it is not enough to bear witness. If we are to save the soul of this country from the poverty that is killing us, we must act, we must agitate, we must cause some righteous trouble.

The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, which will be highlighted by 40 days of direct action and nonviolent civil disobedience this spring, is not a commemoration. It’s an acknowledgment that, 50 years later, there is still so much work to do to foster a revolution of values in America.

There’s a strange irony in America when it comes to poverty. The states with the highest poverty rates are in the south. And those same states have the highest rates of voter suppression of black people. Through this racialized voter suppression, politicians who support policies that hurt the poor get elected. While a larger percentage of black people are living in poverty, in raw numbers, there are actually more white than black people below the poverty line.

So-called white evangelicals are omnipresent in the poorest areas of our country, and they say the least about systemic poverty, which is the foremost issue in authentic Christian religious theology. After our denominations splintered over the moral question of slavery and the nation stood on the brink of civil war, Frederick Douglas said, “Between the christianity of this land and the christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.”

Sadly, his observations ring true today.

These so-called evangelicals should listen to Pope Francis, who called poverty a “scandal.” He said, “In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it is unfathomable that there are so many hungry children, that there are so many children without an education, so many poor persons. Poverty today is a cry. We all have to think if we can become a little poorer, all of us have to do this. How can I become a little poorer in order to be more like Jesus, who was the poor Teacher?”

The most radical, progressive shifts in our country’s history occurred when concerned citizens across racial lines come together. This was the case after the civil war, during the civil rights movement and today, in the Moral Mondays Movement and the Fight for $15.

The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival will unite Americans across all races, creeds, religions, classes and other divides – because it’s going to take all of us to revive the soul of our nation.

 

A Year in the Ohio River Valley

Hard Times in Trump Country

December 16 2017,

by Stacy Kranitz, Alice Speri

The Intercept

Jamie Stewart voted for Donald Trump, but she thinks the president is a “jackass.” She doesn’t really love to talk about what he’s doing or why she voted for him.

“They should take his phone away from him,” she says. “He posts stupid shit all the time.”

In a series of interviews that stretched over a year, Stewart was ambivalent when pressed about the president’s accomplishments or any promises he might have kept. “I don’t really pay attention,” she says. “I don’t have time to give a shit.”

Since Trump astonished himself and the world on election night last year, observers have scrambled to figure out people like Stewart, Middle America’s “white working class.” Why did they vote as they did? And were they going to do it again?

“Economic anxiety” quickly became the default explanation — which, as some have since pointed out, doesn’t account for the economic anxiety of nonwhites who didn’t vote for Trump or consistent support for the president among whites across class and income. “This is not a working-class coalition,” The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer wrote in a detailed analysis of the vote. “It is a nationalist one.” Those who argued that the anxiety was more racial than economic called Trump’s election a “whitelash” and a “temper tantrum.” Others saw it as “political nihilism,” “the revenge of the forgotten class.”

A year into his dysfunctional presidency, Trump hasn’t delivered much — certainly not in the corner of West Virginia where Stewart lives. Her relatives and neighbors worked in the state’s coal mines for generations and are struggling to find work.

Stewart works as a customer service manager at Walmart — though not enough hours to receive benefits or health insurance from her employer. She is raising her 10-year-old autistic son, Wyatt, mostly alone.

Poor and working-class voters are facing only growing uncertainty as their access to health care and public services comes under attack. Their taxes are about to get higher. Black and brown working-class and poor voters face those same threats, plus emboldened racism that has been enabled from the very top, while immigrant communities are being torn apart at even greater rates than before.

Kentucky-born photographer Stacy Kranitz, who has a long history documenting life in Appalachia, visited Jamie Stewart five times over the course of a year, conducting interviews and photographing Stewart as she intersected with relatives, friends, and neighbors. As women descended on Washington to protest Trump’s inauguration and white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, Viriginia, and as the president threatened to wage nuclear war on North Korea, and Republicans tried time and again to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Stewart’s views offer a glimpse into a community that might think of itself as being far removed from the country’s politics, but in fact, lies at their very core.

Stewart is not your MAGA hat-wearing Trump voter. She put no signs in her yard. Her family, she says, are “union members” and “diehard Democrats.” She prefers the “Today” show to Fox News — “They do a lot of nice things for people and stuff. I like to see the good in the world not the bad.” She thinks the border wall is stupid and marijuana should be legalized.

Stewart voted for Obama in 2008 and thinks he “wasn’t a horrible president.” She didn’t like Obamacare, but she loved Obama’s relationship with first lady Michelle. “They love each other and you don’t see that much.” She doesn’t remember whether she voted in 2012.

Stewart said she had no illusions, when she voted for Trump, that things would get better. “Trump came in, promised West Virginia bigger and better things,” she said. “Something so bad, you can’t make great overnight.”

Today, she doesn’t regret her decision, nor does she try to justify it or apologize for it. “It just seemed like the best choice,” she says. “Better than Hillary, that’s what everybody was saying, so that’s what we went with. A lot of my family was just like, put anybody in that office other than that bitch.”

“We have the right to vote either way,” she added. “I think that’s what people forget, to respect other people and their decisions, whether they’re right or wrong, whether they work out or not.”

“I don’t want a bunch of backlash online of people calling me just an ignorant, racist, redneck. I’m a quiet, small-town girl.”

Stewart feels much more strongly about the media than she does about the president. “Every little decision, every little thing that’s done in politics that’s released to the public — it’s made a big deal of,” she says. “Even if he does something good, they portray it in a way to make it seem negative against him. Everybody’s against Trump, it seems like.”

Overall, Stewart says she doesn’t have time to keep up with politics. “I just work so much. That’s all I do.”

She doesn’t like watching the news, and when she does, she prefers to follow local crime alerts. “I don’t see ISIS being as a big threat. Heroin’s killing more people than ISIS is.”

“I don’t like the war in Syria. I hated seeing all those kids get killed,” she added. “I really don’t agree just going over to different places and dropping bombs and killing innocent people. I think that’s terrible. And then they put it all over the news for everybody to see. I don’t think they should do that, because people know what’s going on in this world, but people don’t want to see it every day and be scared.”

“I’ve really been trying to just not watch any of that or read any of that, because I’ve had my own stresses and stuff in my own life, and watching all that really adds to it.”

But for someone as disconnected as she believes herself to be, Stewart has heard a whole lot about North Korea, which dominated her preoccupations over the summer as Trump escalated his rhetoric against Kim Jong-un.

“I think it’s the unknown in North Korea is what’s sketchy about it,” she said. “Because you just don’t know. They’re like, ‘Oh, we’ll wipe cities out.’ Whether they really can or not, I don’t know.”

“War on this land scares me, mostly because of my son. Him having autism, the age he has, that would be really scary if a war would break out over here. … That’s just something about little North Korea men running around chopping people’s heads off that freaks me out. But I try to keep that in the back of my mind and hopefully our government and our politics, they’re smart enough and able to not let that happen.”

What about the president’s threat to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen”?

“My honest opinion about that is probably really horrible, but I think take them out before they kill all of us.”

There are few immigrants in Mason County, which is 97 percent white, and Stewart doesn’t know any. She doesn’t care much for Trump’s immigration crackdown. The wall, she says, “reminds me of something I’d do in kindergarten with my blocks. … I’ll just build a wall and you can’t come over here.”

“I can’t say that I’m against it, but I’m not really for it. Don’t take a bunch of money from your own country to do it, and of course another country’s not going to pay for it, you dumbass.”

Stewart’s boyfriend, Dozer Hayes, who worked with some immigrants at a FedEx center in Columbus once, thinks the border wall, though still unapproved, is evidence that Trump is getting the job done.

“I feel like he’s fulfilling what he said he was going to do,” Hayes said. “He’s getting ready to build a wall, he’s getting ready to shut Congress down if they don’t want to build a wall, which he said Mexico would pay for it, but in the end, if we get all of the illegals out, and we don’t got to supply their welfare and shit, in the end, it’s paying for it.”

“I see a lot of it on the media … people that are illegal coming into the country, getting government benefits,” Stewart adds. “I don’t like that. That’s bullshit.”

“I know a lot of them are murderers, rapists, carrying in hard drugs, stuff like that. If they’re doing that, ship them back. If you’ve got a family … trying to make a new life, leave them the hell alone.”

Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, and most other public benefits. Trump has regularly misrepresented this, including when announcing the RAISE Act in August, a bill aiming to curtail legal immigration. “They’re not going to come in and just immediately go and collect welfare,” Trump said. Undocumented immigrants do pay taxes — to the tune of more than $10 billion per year — sometimes paying directly for benefits they will not actually receive.

Trump is “not racist,” Stewart says — just a typical “dirtbag dude.” There are few racists in Stewart’s world, but plenty of assholes — and definitely too many “butthurt” politically correct people who whine too much. She wishes the media would stop making everything about race. “They’re what’s dividing people.”

Nearly everyone in Stewart’s life is white. There was a black cashier at Walmart once, and when she was growing up, an elderly black man lived in the same hollow as her family. He kept to himself and no one bothered him.

“We were raised as you don’t mix races. You know what I mean?” said Stewart. “White people’s with white people. Black people’s with black people. That’s how I was raised. And still to this day, if me and Dozer weren’t together and I’d date a black guy, my family would disown me.”

Does she think Trump’s election was a backlash against the first black president?

“You might have a few people like, ‘We can’t have a black man in there.’ But, like I said, you’re always going to have the assholes. And they’re always going to stand out. But, as long as the media is glorifying these racist idiots, and showing them like, ‘Look how racist this person is,’ it just keeps cropping up, over and over and over again.”

Does she think black and brown people have a reason to feel that their lives are threatened because of their race? “If they feel threatened, they feel threatened. But if someone is just black, they shouldn’t feel threatened just because they’re black. They bleed the same way everybody else does.”

This summer, after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville turned deadly, and as the nation was once again ablaze with reckoning over its racist past and present, Stewart talked about the Confederate statues being removed across the country with her neighbor Roger Chadwell. “What are we gonna do, tear down Mount Rushmore?” said Chadwell, in a rant filled with racial slurs. “They gonna start putting up black statues? We ain’t got no black fucking heroes.”

The way Stewart sees it, Chadwell isn’t racist. “He’s a lot like Trump,” she says. “Just talks shit.”

In Mason, the county along the Ohio River where Stewart and her family live, nearly 20 percent of the less than 30,000 residents live in poverty. The mining industry that was once Appalachia’s lifeline has been on a long decline, and for the past 10 years, employment rates have dropped. In nearby New Haven, the Philip Sporn Power Plant closed in 2015. Two other coal plants in West Virginia have since closed.

During the primaries, at a campaign rally in Charleston, West Virginia, Trump put on a miner’s hard hat, pretended to shovel coal, and told a jubilant crowd he was “going to get those mines open.” “Oh, coal country,” he said. “What they have done.” Trump won both West Virginia and Mason County by wide margins.

Trump was hardly the first politician to capitalize on the loss of jobs, racial resentment, and the fear of being at the bottom — and he likely won’t be the last to leave his promises to this region unfulfilled. In the 1960s, Appalachia became the poster child for the government’s war on poverty — not because the region was singular in its struggle, but because a federal anti-poverty program was easier to sell to voters when its recipients were white. By then, the radical, multiracial labor movement born out of the mines had been brutally crushed, Steven Stoll, who wrote a book on the economic history of the region, told The Intercept.

What followed, according to Stoll, was a concerted effort to confuse white working-class voters about their own interests. “There’s a muddled confusion about what government is for, what it should be doing, who benefits, and we’re still in that crazy muddle,” said Stoll. “They just hate business as usual — and they’re not clear who’s responsible for it.”

Since the election, the president pushed a budget that would slash funds from mine safety enforcement and a host of federal programs that support laid-off coal miners, among others, including the Appalachian Regional Commission, which is credited with helping cut the region’s poverty rates in half. In August, Trump returned to West Virginia and held another campaign-style rally and falsely claimed that his administration was bringing back manufacturing jobs by the “hundreds of thousands.” He told West Virginians that he was “putting our coal miners back to work” – an inflated claim at best.

Despite Trump’s pledge to revive America’s coal industry, American energy corporations are increasingly shifting to natural gas and renewable options. In the last couple years, fluctuations in the global coal market have led to a slight uptick for the industry in the U.S., and a handful of mines have opened — something Trump has attempted to take credit for. But the overall trend continues to point downward.

Today, the best jobs available around Stewart are at a women’s prison and a government-run nursing home. She never went to college — “probably should have, but I didn’t,” she said. A friend of hers started college but dropped out and has been getting her wages garnished to pay off the loan. “They’re taking out of her paycheck and all of her taxes from where she had a student loan. I know you owe someone money, you owe them money, but man, to take it like that from a struggling person, that’s shitty,” she says.

In 2014, in response to the Affordable Care Act, Walmart announced it would stop offering insurance to 30,000 part-time employees. According to an estimate the same year by Americans for Tax Fairness, Walmart and its founder, the Walton family, received $62.1 million in subsidies and tax breaks in West Virginia, including $52.8 million in public assistance for its employees.

Stewart says she is happy with her reduced hours because that allows her more time with her son, even if that means she no longer gets benefits. Her paycheck from Walmart varies as her hours do, but she takes home about $600 every two weeks. Wyatt gets a $500 disability check every month.

Stewart’s boyfriend, Hayes, has been on disability after nearly losing his left foot last year, when a 3,000-pound machine rolled backward onto him at his construction job. He is awaiting a settlement, and he wants to get back to work, but he’ll never be able to stand all day, which limits his already narrow options around here. Stewart’s parents live off disability checks, too, after her father suffered a series of workplace injuries.

Stewart doesn’t shop for herself much — she buys her clothes at Walmart. She has no savings, but for the most part is able to make it to her next paycheck. She’s almost finished paying off her trailer home — which costs her about $400 a month. The plot of land where the trailer is parked is $80 a month. She pays for bills and car insurance and can stretch $20 of gas for two weeks. What’s left goes for food and things for Wyatt. He loves pizza and Mario video games.

Stewart dreams of moving to Ohio, buying some farmland, and starting a pet rescue. She would like Wyatt to see the country — the furthest from home he’s ever been is Columbus.

“I would like to be able to live comfortably and not have to live paycheck to paycheck,” she says. “But other than that, I’m content with my life, I’m happy, I have a roof over my head, I have a little bit of food, my child’s happy, he’s healthy, he does well in school. I really can’t ask for more, you know what I mean?”

Stewart has little patience for those she sees as “mooching off the government,” even though she used to get food stamps. “If you’re getting $500, $600 in food stamps, and you’re just lying around lazy, soaking up the food stamps, not doing a damn thing for ’em, I don’t think that’s right,” she says.

Stewart mostly blames the poverty rampant around her on people’s “laziness,” even as she’s keenly aware that the odds are stacked against her neighbors. “I think there’s just a lot of lazy ass kids in this generation that they don’t want to work,” she said. “I think they should be made to get a job. If you don’t get a job, you’ll be fined. If there is nothing wrong with you physically from getting a job, I think that there should be some kind of consequences to it.” She seems more willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt.

“He promised West Virginia to keep the coal in the state, keep the coal mines open,” Stewart says. How he’s going to do that is on him, she says. “That’s why he’s president. He’s supposed to come up with those ideas.”

Stewart says she doesn’t know anyone with health insurance. She used to get hers through Walmart, before her hours were cut. Now she is covered under her son’s disability — “I guess it’s pretty much through welfare is what it is,” she says.

Her boyfriend had money docked off his tax returns — the Affordable Care Act’s penalty. He never tried to sign up. Stewart said she did try when enrollment first opened. “I looked at the packages and I remember I was like, How in the hell is anybody supposed to pay for this? There ain’t no one I know ’round here that can afford that shit monthly.”

She knows people are angry at Trump because of the “Obamacare shutdown,” which has not yet happened, despite the GOP’s best efforts. After the effort repeatedly failed in Congress, Trump signed an executive order to begin “saving the American people from the nightmare of Obamacare.” The tax bill passed by the Senate also aims to gut the ACA. It is estimated to increase insurance premiums and cause 13 million more people to become uninsured by 2027.

In West Virginia, Stewart says, some people self-medicate with weed. Many others go down the opioid hole. Opioid addiction, Stewart says, is “everywhere through here.” “I’ve seen people die.”

West Virginia has become the poster child of the opioid crisis, with a record 880 deaths by overdose last year, the highest rate in the country. On April 21, Mason County EMS got 17 heroin overdose calls in 11 hours. None were fatal, but news spread quickly on Facebook. “There was a big alert that bad heroin was goin’ around,” Stewart said. “Bad heroin, good heroin. You know, shit’s killin’ people whether it’s good, bad. It’s all bad. It’s terrible.”

Deaths by overdose are so common here that the state spent nearly $1 million to transport corpses last year —and one embalmer came out of retirement to help with the load. “In 2017 it’s a fair, albeit morbid, assumption that most West Virginians have attended the funeral of someone lost to addiction,” the West Virginia-based journalist Danielle Costello wrote.

Trump promised he would “liberate” Americans from the “scourge of drug addiction,” though he has put forth few resources to do so. In March, he signed an executive order establishing the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. In October, the acting secretary of Health and Human Services declared a nationwide public health emergency regarding the crisis. While the declaration added to the sense of urgency, Trump’s order only tapped into emergency cash available through the Public Health Services Act, which would allocate roughly 2 cents for every American addicted to opioids.

Meanwhile, West Virginia voted to legalize medical marijuana earlier this year, following a trend of states that are easing their laws on medical marijuana as a way of combating the opioid crisis — despite an aggressive federal crackdown on legalization efforts led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Recreational marijuana remains illegal.

“I really think legalizing marijuana would bring a lot of jobs into this state,” says Stewart. “There’d be new shops opening up. There would have to be farms where they grow it.”

“I think that’d be a big boom for West Virginia.”

“You’re still gonna have your people that use drugs, but I really think it’s going to drop,” she adds. “A lot of people use marijuana to get over an opiate addiction.”

For a time, Stewart herself “started to fall into the opiate crisis,” she says. She bought suboxone off the streets. “I was not abusing it,” she says. “Well, they would say it’s abuse because I didn’t have a prescription wrote for it.”

“Now I take no pills. No pills. I don’t even take a Motrin if I’ve got a headache,” she says. “There’s something about the government, I don’t trust a bunch of weird chemicals packed into pills, it weirds me out.”

“I quit all of my habits because I couldn’t pay for them,” she adds. “You can’t work and get your fix all day. You know what I mean? So they have to steal to get the drugs. … I’m not friends with a lot of people I was friends with in school because that’s what they went to. They went to the heroin and the needle and the stealing and lying.”

Costello identifies the vacillation between caring for people who are struggling and insisting on their personal responsibility as emblematic of West Virginian attitudes at large. “The opioid crisis has proven deleterious for Appalachia’s hardest-hit state, not only destroying families but also upending compassion,” she wrote. “As an overwhelmingly conservative state, West Virginia’s ‘pick yourself up by the bootstraps’ values are proving as self-destructive as drug abuse itself.”

People Stewart knows have been “Narcan’d” four, five, six times, she says, referring to the use of the lifesaving anti-overdose drug. Some around here are opposed to its wide availability. “A part of me, I agree with that,” Stewart said. “If you’re a repeat offender, you’re playing Russian roulette with your life. How many get out-of-death-free cards do you need? You know what I mean? You think you’d learn your lesson by one.”

“But in one sense I’m like, yeah,” she adds, “everybody’s life’s worth saving.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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